The Lonely Pilgrimage

During his lifetime he wrote more than 170,000 letters. His grandson, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, has written: If Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an addiction, it was to the same universe of written communication. There were days when Gandhi did not eat, when he did not speak. Scarce was the day when he did not write a letter.

The Lonely Pilgrimage

Mahatma Gandhi (Photo: iStock)

A man is known by his actions. An evil man lives an evil life; a good man lives a godly life ~ Proverb 21:8 Living Bible

During his ‘lonely pilgrimage’ in riot-hit Bengal in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a British reporter while the train was pulling out of the railway station, ‘Do you have a message I can take back to my people?’ It just happened on a day of silence for Gandhi. In spite of his heavy speaking schedule, he was very religious about a day of silence.

He wrote a few words on a scrap of paper and gave it to the reporter. It read: “My life is my message.” The Mahatma was the most normal of men. He was universal; such a man cannot be measured, weighed, or estimated. Not his phenomenal performance but the most common actions performed by him tell his real character. Swami Vivekananda wrote in his Karma Yoga: “If you really want to judge the character of a man, look at not at his great performance. Every fool may become a hero at one time or another, watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man.’


He wrote his deeply moving autobiography entitled, The Story of My Experiments with Truth ~ an authentic account of his self-introspection and his ethical and spiritual experiences with courage, simplicity, and candour. Indeed, the book is mankind’s treasure. Dishonesty was alien to Gandhi’s nature. In his first year at the Alfred High School at Rajkot, when he was twelve, a British educational inspector named Mr Giles came to examine the students. They were asked to spell five words.

One of those words was ‘kettle’. Gandhi misspelt the word. Walking up and down the aisle, the regular teacher noticed the mistake and tried to prompt Gandhi with the point of his boot to copy from his neighbour’s slate. It never occurred to him that the teacher, who was there to supervise the students against copying, could want him to copy. Gandhi refused. Later the teacher chided him for his ‘stupidity’, which spoiled the record of the class. But the incident did not diminish his respect for his teacher.

In his words, ‘I was, by nature, blind to the faults of elders.’ In later life, he realised that what is gained through falsehood, through dishonest and crooked means is but short lived and harmful in the end. Mahatma Gandhi said: “There is no shorter way than the straightest way. Has not Euclid taught us that the straight line is the shortest distance between two points ?” Mahatma Gandhi was a practical idealist. He never did or said anything that he had not practised, and he never expected another person to do anything which the man did not believe in.

His personal life was a perfect example of ‘simple living and high thinking’. A simple life is one which requires the bare necessities of life. He used to exercise the utmost economy in the use of food, cloth, housing and stationery and did not allow even a pencil to be misplaced or lost without being utilised to the fullest extent. He once lost a little pencil stump he had cherished. Someone brought him a new pencil.

No, he insisted that they continue the search for the stump until they recovered it. Ultimately it was traced out. He received the stump with a smile. On an average around 30 letters reached Gandhi’s office each day. Mahatma Gandhi responded to each and every letter. Moreover, he regularly wrote letters to sustain his contacts with individuals, including the most ordinary workers, whom he had met earlier, or even to establish contact with strangers whom he had never met. During his lifetime he wrote more than 170,000 letters.

His grandson, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, has written: “If Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an addiction, it was to the same universe of written communication… There were days when Gandhi did not eat, when he did not speak. Scarce was the day when he did not write a letter.” Gandhi wrote in his own hand. When he got tired of writing with his right hand, he used his left hand. Once in Sevagram he was requested to dictate letters to Kanu Gandhi or some other inmate of the Ashram in order to save his precious time.

He initially hesitated, but ultimately he agreed to the suggestion. For a few weeks, Gandhi dictated some letters to Kanu who wrote them and the Mahatma signed at the end. But after some time, it was found that Gandhi had reverted to the practice of writing letters himself. On query, he replied: “I don’t feel like signing letters written by somebody else. My personal touch is lost, and a worker will not feel satisfied unless he receives the letter in my own handwriting!’ Through such correspondence, Mahatma could win the hearts of a large number of workers who regarded him as their own father, in the real sense of the word.

Gandhi set an example as to how to use natural resources rationally. He was quite vigilant about the importance and value of natural wealth and made very economic use of the same. Envelopes were slit open and converted to slip pads of different sizes for writing purposes. In November 1909, he wrote his seminal book Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule in Gujarati, using both right and left hands, on board the ship during his return from England to South Africa.

When he stayed in his Sabarmati ashram he himself consciously used only one loti (metal vessel) water of the free flowing Sabarmati river to bathe and his advice for all inmates of the ashram was to use that minimum quantity of water to bathe. Once his colleague Mohan Pandya asked him as to why he insisted on using only one loti of water when the Sabarmati river was flowing right next to his ashram? Gandhi explained to him that the river was not just for him but it was for all animals, birds, insects and man.

As it was collective property, he had no right to use more than he needed. Mahatma Gandhi was an exceptional environmentalist and he taught us by doing that we will either reduce, reuse, recycle and restore or we will finish. Gandhi’s desire to identify himself with the poor masses by donning the common man’s clothes was not a momentary decision. He had been reflecting on it for a long time. It was ultimately in Madurai that he decided to adopt the attire of a poor peasant. He was then on a tour of the south India and travelled by train.

On the way from Madras to Madurai by train ~ he saw people in the crowded train who, without exception, were wearing clothes made of foreign cloth. Gandhi entered into conversation with some of them and pleaded for khadi. They shook their heads and said: ‘We are too poor to buy khadi, and it is so dear.’ Gandhi realised that the only way he could show understanding of their conditions was to make his own dress absolutely simple. Next morning he called in a barber and had his head shaved and wore a piece khaddar around his loins.

That was his famous loin-cloth, and he wore it till his final days. This drastic change in attire fetched him both bouquets and brickbats and even raised eyebrows. An interesting anecdote is the tea invitation to Gandhi at Buckingham Palace by King Gorge V Gandhi was reluctant as his poor man’s dress was simply against the court etiquette. Later, in London when asked if he was not wearing enough clothes to meet the King, Gandhi immediately remarked, “The King had enough on for both of us.”

There could not have been better riposte. Mahatma could not bear our domination over certain animals. He had stopped drinking cow’s milk because, in the process of milking it to the last drop, much physical cruelty was often caused to it. He was also against cow and buffalo slaughter. As his protest against such ill treatment to cows and buffalo, Gandhi had taken a vow not to consume cow and buffalo milk. Nobody was able to break his vow.

However, his tactful and earthy wife Kasturba and his doctor finally persuaded him to consume goat milk. Gandhi started to consume goat’s milk Indeed, ave been cited here. There are many other stories in the life of Mahatma Gandhi. We learn a lot from those stories and get inspired. Indeed, he was a great teacher. In the words of William Arthur Ward: ‘The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.’

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)