Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Death before prayers

  • Last minutes in Mahatma’s life

How did Mahatma Gandhi spend his last hour on this earth before being assassinated by a ‘mad man’ as Nehru described the assassin. What was the response of the people across the globe?  Here is the narrative published in the book on Gandhi by Louis Fischer:

AT 4.30 p.m., Abha brought in the last meal he was ever to eat; it consisted of goat’s milk, cooked and raw vegetables, oranges and a concoction of ginger, sour lemons and strained butter with juice of aloe. Sitting on the floor of his room in the rear of Birla House in New Delhi, Gandhi ate and talked with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Deputy Prime Minister of the new government of independent India. Maniben, Patel’s daughter and secretary, was also present. The conversation was important. There had been rumours of differences between Patel and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. This problem, like so many others, had been dropped into the Mahatma’s lap. Abha, alone with Gandhi and the Patels, hesitated to interrupt. But she knew Gandhi’s attachment to punctuality. Finally, therefore, she picked up the Mahatma’s nickel-plated watch and showed it to him. ‘I must tear myself away,’ Gandhi remarked, and so saying he rose, went to the adjoining bathroom and then started towards the prayer ground in the large park to the left of the house. Abha, the young wife of Kanu Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma’s cousin, and Manu, the granddaughter of another cousin, accompanied him; he leaned his forearms on their shoulders. ‘My walking sticks’, he called them. During the daily two-minute promenade through the long, red-sandstone colonnade that led to the prayer ground, Gandhi relaxed and joked.

Mahatma Gandhi and Nathuram Godse (the assassin)

Serving me cattle fare?

Now, he mentioned the carrot juice Abha had given him that morning. ‘So you are serving me cattle fare,’ he said, and laughed. ‘Ba used to call it horse fare’, Abha replied. Ba was Gandhi’s deceased wife. ‘Isn’t it grand of me,’ Gandhi bantered, ‘to relish what no one else wants?’ ‘Bapu (father),’ said Abha, ‘your watch must be feeling very neglected. You would not look at it today.’ ‘Why should I, since you are my timekeepers?’ Gandhi retorted. Mahatma Gandhi. ‘But you don’t look at the timekeepers,’ Manu noted. Gandhi laughed again.

By this time he was walking on the grass near the prayer ground. A congregation of about five hundred had assembled for the regular evening devotions. ‘I am late by ten minutes,’ Gandhi mused aloud. ‘I hate being late. I should be here at the stroke of five.’ He quickly cleared the five low steps up to the level of the prayer ground. It was only a few yards now to the wooden platform on which he sat during services. Most of the people rose; many edged forward; some helped to clear a lane for him; those who were nearest bowed low to his feet. Gandhi removed his arms from the shoulders of Abha and Manu and touched his palms together in the traditional Hindu greeting. Just then, a man elbowed his way out of the congregation into the lane. He looked as if he wished to prostrate himself in the customary obeisance of the devout. But since they were late, Manu tried to stop him and caught hold of his hand. He pushed her away so that she fell and, planting  himself about two feet in front of Gandhi, fired three shots from a small automatic pistol.

A sea of humanity, the funeal procession of Mahatma Gandhi

Hey Rama!

As the first bullet struck, Gandhi’s foot, which was in motion, descended to the ground, but he remained standing. The second bullet struck; blood began to stain Gandhi’s white clothes. His face turned ashen pale. His hands, which had been in the touch-palm position, descended slowly and one arm remained momentarily on Abha’s neck. Gandhi murmured, ‘Hey Rama (Oh, God)’-A third shot rang out. The limp body settled to the ground. His spectacles dropped to the earth. The leather sandals slipped from his feet. Abha and Manu lifted Gandhi’s head, and tender hands raised him from the ground and carried him into his room in Birla House. The eyes were half closed and he seemed to show signs of life. Sardar Patel, who had just left the Mahatma, was back at Gandhi’s side; he felt the pulse and thought he detected a faint beat. Someone searched frantically in a medicine chest for adrenalin but found none.

An alert spectator fetched Dr. D. P. Bhargava. He arrived ten minutes after the shooting. ‘Nothing on earth could have saved him,’ Dr. Bhargava reports. ‘He had been dead for ten minutes.’ The first bullet entered Gandhi’s abdomen three and a half inches to the right of a line down the middle of the body and two and a half inches above the navel and came out through the back. The second penetrated the seventh inter-costal space one inch to the right of the middle line and likewise came out at the back. The third shot hit one inch above the right nipple and four inches to the right of the middle line and embedded itself in the lung. One bullet, Dr. Bhargava says, probably passed through the heart and another might have cut a big blood vessel. ‘The intestines,’ he adds, ‘were also injured, as next day I found the abdomen distended.’ The young men and women who had been Gandhi’s constant attendants sat near the-body and sobbed. Dr. Jivraj Mehta arrived and confirmed the death. Presently a murmur went through the group: ‘Jawaharlal’ Nehru had rushed from his office. He knelt beside Gandhi, buried his face in the bloody clothes and cried.

We kept vigil whole of the night : Devadas

Then came Devadas, Gandhi’s youngest son, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Minister of Education, followed by many prominent Indians. Devadas touched his father’s skin and gently pressed his arm. The body was still warm. The head still lay in Abha’s lap. Gandhi’s face wore a peaceful smile. He seemed asleep. ‘We kept vigil the whole of that night,’ Devadas wrote later. ‘So serene was the face and so mellow the halo of divine light that surrounded the body that it seemed almost sacrilegious to grieve….’ Diplomats paid formal visits; some wept. Outside, a vast multitude gathered and asked for one last view of the Mahatma. The body was accordingly placed in an inclined position on the roof of Birla House and a searchlight played upon it. Thousands passed in silence, wrung their hands and wept.

Mahatma Gandhi and charkha

Near midnight, the body was lowered into the house. All night mourners sat in the room and, between sobs, recited from the Bhagavad-Gita and other holy Hindu scriptures. With the dawn arrived ‘the most unbearably poignant moment for all of us’, Devadas says. They had to remove the large woollen shawl and the cotton shoulder wrap which the Mahatma was wearing for warmth when he was shot. These pure white clothes showed clots and blotches of blood. As they unfolded the shawl the shell of a cartridge dropped out. Gandhi now lay before them dressed only in the white loincloth as they and the world had always known him. Most of those present broke down and cried without control. The sight inspired the suggestion that the body be embalmed for at least a few days so that friends, co-workers and relatives who lived at a distance from New Delhi might see it before it was cremated.

‘Bapu would never forgive us’

But Devadas, Pyarelal Nayyar, Gandhi’s chief secretary, and others objected. It was against Hindu sentiment, and ‘Bapu would never forgive us.’ Also, they wished to discourage any move to preserve the Mahatma’s earthly remains. It was decided to burn the body the next day. In the early hours of the morning disciples washed the body according to ancient Hindu rites and placed a garland of handspun cotton strands and a chain of beads around its neck. Roses and rose petals were strewn over the blanket that covered all but the head, arms and chest. ‘I asked for the chest to be left bare,’ Devadas explained. ‘No soldier ever had a finer chest than Bapu’s.’ A pot of incense burned near the body. During the morning, the body was again placed on the roof for public view.

Ramdas arrives

Ramdas, third son of Gandhi, arrived by air from Nagpur, in the Central Provinces of India, at 11 a.m. The funeral had waited for him. The body was brought down into the house and then carried out to the terrace. A wreath of cotton yarn encircled Gandhi’s head; the face looked peaceful yet profoundly sad. The saffron-white-green flag of independent India was draped over the bier.

During the night, the chassis of a Dodge 15-hundred-weight army weapon  carrier had been replaced by a new superstructure with a raised floor so that all spectators could see the body in the open coffin. Two hundred men of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force drew the vehicle by four stout ropes. The motor was not used. Non-commissioned officer Naik Ram Chand sat at the steering wheel. Nehru, Patel, several other leaders and several of Gandhi’s young associates rode on the carrier. The cortege, two miles long, left Birla House on Albuquerque Road in New Delhi at 11.45 a.m., and, moving forward inch by inch through dense masses of humanity, reached the Jumna River, five and a half miles away, at 4.20 p.m. A million and a half marched and a further million watched.

Nehru announcing to the nation that Mahatma Gandhi is no more, the light has gone out of our lives.

‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’

Branches of New Delhi’s splendid shade trees bent under the weight of persons who had climbed upon them to get a better view. The base of the big white monument of King George V, which stands in the middle of a broad pond, was covered with hundreds of Indians who had waded through the water. Now and then, the voices of Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Parsis and Anglo-Indians mingled in loud shouts of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai (Long Live Mahatma Gandhi)’. At intervals, the multitude broke into sacred chants. Three Dakota aircraft flew over the procession, dipped in salute and showered countless rose petals. Four thousand soldiers, a thousand airmen, a thousand policemen and a hundred sailors, in varied and vari-coloured uniforms and head-dress, marched before and after the bier. Prominent among them were mounted lancers bearing aloft red and white pennants — the body-guard of Governor-General Lord Mountbatten. Armoured cars, police and soldiers were present to maintain order. In charge of the death parade was Major-General Roy Bucher, an Englishman chosen by the Indian government to be the first commander-in chief of its army. By the holy waters of the Jumna, close to a million people had stood and sat from early morning waiting for the cortege to arrive at the cremation grounds.

Like Buddha, Gandhi met his end

The predominant colour was white, the white of women’s saris and men’s garments, caps and turbans. Several hundred feet from the river, at Rajghat, stood a fresh funeral pyre made of stone, brick and earth; it was about two feet high and eight feet square. Long thin sandalwood logs sprinkled with incense had been stacked on it. Gandhi’s body was laid on the pyre with the head to the north and the feet to the south. In this position Buddha had met his end. At 4.45 p.m. Ramdas set fire to his father’s funeral pyre. The logs burst into flame. A groan went up from the vast assemblage. Women wailed. With elemental force, the crowd surged towards the fire and broke through the military cordon. But in a moment the people seemed to realize what they were doing and dug in their bare toes and prevented an accident. The logs crackled and seethed and the flames united in a single fire. Now there was silence… Gandhi’s body was being reduced to cinders and ashes. The pyre burned for fourteen hours. All the while prayers were sung; the entire text of the Gita was read.

Twenty-seven hours later, when the last embers had grown cold, priests, officials, friends and relatives held a special service in the guarded wire enclosure around the pyre and collected the ashes and the splinters of bone that had defeated the fire. The ashes were tenderly scooped into a homespun cotton bag. A bullet was found in the ashes. The bones were sprinkled with water from the Jumna and deposited in a copper urn. Ramdas placed a garland of fragrant flowers around the neck of the urn, set it in a wicker basket filled with rose petals and, pressing it to his breast, carried it back to Birla House. Several personal friends of Gandhi asked for and received pinches of his ashes. One encased a few grains of ash in a gold signet ring. Family and followers decided against gratifying the requests for ashes which came from all the six continents.

Ashes immersed in rivers of India

Some Gandhi ashes were sent to Burma, Tibet, Ceylon and Malaya. But most of the remains were immersed in the rivers of India exactly fourteen days after death — as prescribed by Hindu ritual. Mahatma Gandhi – His Life & Times Page 11 Ashes were given to provincial prime ministers or other dignitaries. The provincial capitals shared their portion with lesser urban centres. Everywhere the public display of the ashes drew huge pilgrimages and so did the final ceremonies of immersion in the rivers or, as at Bombay, in the sea. The chief immersion ceremony took place at Allahabad, in the United Provinces, at the confluence of the sacred Ganges, the Jumna and the Saraswati.

Special train with Gandhi’s ashes

A special train of five third-class carriages left New Delhi at 4 a.m. on February 11; Gandhi had always travelled third. The compartment in the middle of the train containing the urn of ashes and bones was piled almost to the ceiling with flowers and guarded by Abha, Manu, Pyarelal Nayyar, Dr. Sushila Nayyar, Prabhavati Narayan and others who had been Gandhi’s daily companions. The train stopped at eleven towns en route; at each, hundreds of thousands bowed reverently, prayed and laid garlands and wreaths on the carriages. In Allahabad, on the 12th, the urn was placed under a miniature wooden palanquin and, mounted on a motor truck, it worked its way through a throng of a million and a half people from the city and the surrounding countryside. Women and men in white preceded the truck singing hymns. One musician played on an ancient instrument. The vehicle looked like a portable rose garden; Mrs. Naidu, Governor of the United Provinces, Azad, Ramdas and Patel were among those who rode on it. Nehru, fists clenched, chin touching his chest, walked. Slowly, the truck moved to the river bank where the urn was transferred to an American military ‘duck’ painted white. Other ‘ducks’ and craft accompanied it downstream. Tens of thousands waded far into the water to be nearer Gandhi’s ashes. Cannon on Allahabad Fort fired a salute as the urn was turned over and its contents fell into the river. The ashes spread. The little bones flowed quickly towards the sea.

Dismay and pain

Gandhi’s assassination caused dismay and pain throughout India. It was as though the three bullets that entered his body had pierced the flesh of tens of millions. The nation was baffled, stunned and hurt by the sudden news that this man of peace, who loved his enemies and would not have killed an insect, had been shot dead by his own countryman and co-religionist. Never in modern history has any man been mourned more deeply and more widely. The news was conveyed to the country by Prime Minister Nehru. He was shaken, shocked and cramped with sorrow. Yet he went to the radio station shortly after the bullets struck and, speaking extemporaneously, driving back tears and choking with emotion, he said: ‘The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere and I do not quite know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu, as we call him, the father of our nation, is no more. Perhaps, I am wrong to say that. Nevertheless, we will not see him again as we have seen him these many years. We will not run to him for advice and seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow not to me only but to millions and millions in this country. And it is difficult to soften the blow by any advice that I or anyone else can give you. ‘The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For, the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illuminate this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For, that light represented the living truth, and the eternal man was with us with his eternal truth reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom. ‘All this has happened. There is so much more to do. There was so much more for him to do. We could never think that he was unnecessary or that he had done his task. But now, particularly, when we are faced with so many difficulties, his not being with us is a blow most terrible to bear. A madman has put an end to his life….’

Spokesman for the conscience

On January 30, 1948, the Friday he died, Mahatma Gandhi was what he had always been: a private citizen without wealth, property, official title, official post, academic distinction, scientific achievement, or artistic gift. Yet men with governments and armies behind them paid homage to the little brown man of seventy-eight in a loin-cloth. The Indian authorities received 3441 messages of sympathy, all unsolicited, from foreign countries. For, Gandhi was a moral man, and a civilization not richly endowed with morality felt still further impoverished when the assassin’s bullets ended his life. ‘Mahatma Gandhi was the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind,’ said General George C. Marshall, United States Secretary of State. Pope Pius, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of London, the King of England, President Truman, Chiang Kai-shek, the President of France, indeed the political heads of all important countries (except Soviet Russia) and most minor ones publicly expressed their grief at Gandhi’s passing. Leon Blum, the French Socialist, put on paper what millions felt. ‘I never saw Gandhi,’ Blum wrote, ‘I do not know his language. I never set foot in his country and yet I feel the same sorrow as if I had lost someone near and dear. The whole world has been plunged into mourning by the death of this extraordinary man.’

What Einstein said about Gandhi

 ‘Gandhi had demonstrated,’ Professor Albert Einstein asserted, ‘that a powerful human following can be assembled not only through the cunning game of the usual political manoeuvres and trickeries but through the cogent example of a morally superior conduct of life. In our time of utter moral decadence he was the only statesman to stand for a higher human relationship in the political sphere.’ The Security Council of the United Nations paused for its members to pay tribute to the dead man. Philip Noel-Baker, the British representative, praised Gandhi as ‘the friend of the poorest and the loneliest and the lost’. Gandhi’s ‘greatest achievements’, he predicted, ‘are still to come’. Other members of the Security Council extolled Gandhi’s spiritual qualities and lauded his devotion to peace and non-violence. Mr. Andrei Gromyko of the Soviet Union, called Gandhi ‘one of the outstanding political leaders of India’ whose name ‘will always be linked with the struggle of the Indian people for their national liberation which has lasted over such a long period.’ Soviet Ukraine delegate Tarasenko also stressed Gandhi’s politics. The U.N. lowered its flag to half-mast. Humanity lowered its flag. The worldwide response to Gandhi’s death was in itself an important fact; it revealed a widespread mood and need. ‘There is still some hope for the world which reacted as reverently as it did to the death of Gandhi,’ Albert Deutsch declared in the New York newspaper PM. ‘The shock and sorrow that followed the New Delhi tragedy shows we still respect sainthood even when we cannot fully understand it.’ Gandhi ‘made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires’, U.S. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg said.

Gandhi and two of his disciples Nehru and Patel

Another crucifixion: Pearl S. Buck

 Pearl S. Buck, novelist, described Gandhi’s assassination as ‘another crucifixion’. Justice Felix Frankfurter called it ‘a cruel blow against the forces of good in the world’. General Douglas MacArthur, supreme Allied military commander in Japan, said: ‘In the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt Gandhi’s belief that the process of mass application of force to resolve contentious issues is fundamentally not only wrong but contains within itself the germs of self-destruction.’ Lord (Admiral) Mountbatten, last British Viceroy in India, expressed the hope that Gandhi’s life might ‘inspire our troubled world to save itself by following his noble example’. The spectacle of the general and the admiral pinning their faith on the little ascetic would certainly seem to justify the verdict of Sir Hartley Shawcross, British Attorney General, that Gandhi was ‘the most remarkable man of the century’. To the statesmen and politicians who eulogized him, Gandhi was at least a reminder of their own inadequacies. A California girl of thirteen wrote in a letter: ‘I was really terribly sad to hear about Gandhi’s death. I never knew I was that interested in him but I found myself quite unhappy about the great man’s death.’

Millions mourned

In New York, a twelve-year-old girl had gone into the kitchen for breakfast. The radio was on and it brought the news of the shooting of Gandhi. There, in the kitchen the girl, the maid and the gardener held a prayer meeting and prayed and wept. Just so, millions in all countries mourned Gandhi’s death as a personal loss. They did not quite know why; they did not quite know what he stood for. But he was ‘a good man’ and good men are rare. ‘I know no other man of any time or indeed in recent history’, wrote Sir Stafford Cripps, ‘who so forcefully and convincingly demonstrated the power of spirit over material things. This is what the people sensed when they mourned. All around them, material things had power over spirit. The sudden flash of his death revealed a vast darkness. No one who survived him had tried so hard — and with so much success — to live a life of truth, kindness, self-effacement, humility, service and non-violence throughout a long, difficult struggle against mighty adversaries. He fought passionately and unremittingly against British rule of his country and against the evil in his own countrymen. But he kept his hands clean in the midst of battle. He fought without malice or falsehood or hate.

(The above is the second chapter of Louis Fischer’s book “Mahatma Gandhi – His Life and Times,” first published by Jonathan Cape in London in 1951.)

(With thanks to Prof. Madabhushi Sridharacharyulu, Dean, School of Law, Mahendra University, for providing the copy)

K. Ramachandra Murthy
K. Ramachandra Murthy
Founder & Editor



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