How many people influenced Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma, leaving aside his parents and an old family retainer, Rambha? To what extent were they responsible for turning him into one? When did this transformation start?and how?
If Gandhi had never gone to Britain to study law, would he have had a chance to go to South African? If he had not gone to South Africa, again, would he have become a Mahatma? If, not long after he went to South Africa, and he was thrown out of a train unceremoniously by a White man, he had returned to India in sheer disgust, would he have become Mahatma? What went into the making of his mind? Who or what influenced Gandhi during what one might term as his ?mahatmic internship?? Books? People? Close friends? Just events? The fates? Having in due course, become a mahatma, whom did he influence in his later years? A couple of dozen close associates? Hundreds if not thousands of Congressmen who blindly followed his instructions?
One should remember that in the freedom struggle that he initiated and pursued, literally thousands went to jail, underwent all sorts of suffering, many even sacrificing their lives and remaining true Gandhians to the end. Thousands? Really? One assessment is that one could count true Gandhians on one's finger tips.
This book, by a distinguished Gandhian scholar, Thomas Weber, talks about Gandhi the disciple and Gandhi the mentor. Gandhi had at different times friends, mentors, fellow travellers, close followers, ?soul mates? and disciples. This book takes a close look at many of them. The usual theory is that among those who influenced him greatly, certainly in the beginning, were Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau, not to speak of Christian missionaries. In his school days and for many years after, he had his childhood friend Sheikh Mehtab with him, who was to turn out to be an evil influence on Gandhi. That relationship was to break up in South Africa. There were Christian missionaries who tried desperately to convert him into Christianity like the Rev Joseph Doke, an English Baptist minister.
Weber says there was a time when ?Gandhi was close to converting to Christianity? and one of his Quaker friends, Michael Coates apparently made Herculean efforts to help in the process by providing Gandhi with Christian literature. But by then he had begun to receive solace from a Gujarati philosopher saint, Raychandji of whom he was to write: ?No one else has ever made on me the impression that Raychandji did. His words went straight home to me?. Indeed, when Gandhi started the Phoenix Settlement, he recommended to everyone that they should read Raychandbhai because, as he put it, ?the more I consider his life and his writing, the more I consider him to have been the best Indian of his times?.
Gandhi even went so far as to say that ?indeed, I put him higher than Tolstoy in religious perception? In my moments of spiritual crisis, he was my refuge?.? Of course, he enjoyed Tolstoy'sThe kingdom of God is within You, which made a great impact on him. So did John Ruskin'sbook Unto This Last which, when he started reading, he found he could not put it down. Later he was to say that the book caused him sleepless nights and he went to the extent of making a resolution to change his life ?in accordance with the ideals of the book?.
The man who introduced Ruskin and later Thoreau to Gandhi was Henry Polak with whom Gandhi started off well, but was later to keep a certain distance from him. Of course, by the time Gandhi got acquainted with Thoreau'swork, he was already well-advanced in his theory and practice of satyagraha but a Gandhian scholar was later to say that, ?Thoreau helped Gandhiji gain greater insights into the tremendous potential of non-cooperation?. Then, of course, there was Gopalakrishna Gokhale who was to Gandhiji a father figure and political mentor and was once to say that ?only those who have come in personal touch with Gandhiji as he is now, can realise the wonderful personality of the man?. And mention must be made of Hermann Kallenbach, Maganlal Gandhi and Jamnalal Bajaj. Kallenbach was especially close to Gandhi and when they parted?Gandhi to return to India?the Mahatma felt ?a great wrench?.
Maganlal was Gandhi'snephew who helped run the Sabarmati Ashram and was ?the embodiment of Gandhi'sspiritual and moral quest? but who did not influence the Mahatma the way Raychandji, Tolstoy or Ruskin did. Maganlal'searly death was a shock to Gandhi as was the early death of Jamnalal who claimed that he should be called Gandhi'sfifth son. Other names mentioned include Gandhi'ssecretary Mahadev Desai, Miraben, Sarladevi Chaudhurani (whom once he considered as his ?spiritual wife?) and Vinobha Bhave, but they all belonged to another category. They did not influence him; he influenced them.
Gandhiji influenced Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, but not the least in a spiritual sense. Jayaprakash Narayan, says the author, was more truly Gandhian and political heir than Nehru but this, one suspects, became evident long after the Mahatma'sassassination. There were major non-Indian figures who were influenced by Gandhiji like Kenneth Kaunda, Martin Luther King, Arne Naess, a Norwegian, Johan Galtung, another Norwegian and one of the great figures in peace research, E.F. Schmacher, Gene Sharp, an American born in Ohio, US, who was sentenced to two year'simprisonment as a conscientious objector during the Korean War. It is surprising that the author dismisses C.F. Andrews who was quite close to Gandhi, in just one line, almost as an afterthought. Gandhiji, it is true, named Nehru as his political heir but the author notes, quite rightly that Nehru ?did not share Gandhi'spacifism or economic principles and his policies were not founded on any particular Gandhian vision?.
In fact, though the author does not say it, Nehru went against everything Gandhiji stood for in pursuit of a socialistic pattern of society which was to turn into a colossal failure. The author gives more credit to Sunderlal Bahuguna as a true Gandhian. What one should appreciate this work for is the trouble the author has taken to identify the four classes of people who either contributed to the making of Gandhiji or whose lives Gandhiji helped directly to mould. There were foreigners as well as Indians who were greatly influenced by Gandhiji and it is in identifying them and in analysing their relationship with the Mahatma that the author'scontribution calls for admiration. Admittedly it is not a complete work?no book on Gandhi can be one?but it is a study in human relations and the interaction of ideas and challenges that makes it relevant to our times. And that is its unique selling point.
(Cambridge University Press, 8 Cambridge House, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110 002.)