The Danish Peace Academy

GANDHI AND NORDIC COUNTRIES

Edited by E. S. Reddy - ereddy@aol.com and Holger Terp

CORRESPONDANCE BETWEEN EMILIE BJERRUM AND MAHATMA GANDHI

Letter from Mrs. E. Bjerrum, March 19, 1928

Bangalore, 19.3.28

Dear Mahatmaji & Bapuji,

In spite of your making it a condition that I should be good, I venture address you, “Bapuji”, it is such a beautiful name and just suits you. We all come to you for advice, even the wicked ones amongst us, and we do try to be good!

It is more than three years since I returned, and this letter to you has been on my mind ever since. I have written to all the other places I visited, but the letter to you is difficult. You are the Mahatma whom we should not worry with everyday matters, devoid of any kind of originality, and I am only able to write ordinary letters. However, my husband is telling me every day that I am behaving rudely in not writing to thank you. In fact the envelope with your address has been lying on my table for 14 days waiting for the letter. I do want to write and there are many questions which I should like to know your opinions about, but my English is poor and I have not the gift of putting my thoughts into words and I am naturally shy of writing to a person whom I look to and for whom I have the greatest admiration. Still, I will try to ignore my self-consciousness and I will attempt to make use of your kindness, when you so generously allowed me to write to you.

First of all, I wish to thank you and Mrs. Gandhi and the ashram friends, especially your sons, Miss Slade(?) and Mrs. Desai, for the hospitality and kindness shown to me when I visited the ashram. It was exceedingly good of you to spare me so much of your time and I do thank you with all my heart. I am glad that I went to the ashram, and am glad that you made me stay more than one day (as I first intended to do). I should not have been able to enter into the spirit of the life in a few hours. The few days I stayed on were not even enough and I feel that I have not fully understood it yet. But I was much impressed by the life there and I feel that I had much to learn, it seems almost overwhelming beyond one’s reach. I feel the richer for my visit at the ashram and I long to go back some time.

But I cannot exactly say that I was attracted by the scenes of Ahmedabad and its surroundings. It was so dry and dusty everywhere, few trees and very little grass. The ashram looked better than Ahmedabad town (Mrs. Ambalal Sarabhai’s gardens exempted), the river running close by – but behind the river the factory chimneys were dominant, and the only green in the ashram was the cabbage garden, which could have been laid out a little more artistically.

To be just, I must admit that it is the hot weather now, but I am afraid that even in the rains the dust will turn into mud, and I can hardly imagine what the poor people in the city will do when the monsoon sets in.

Bangalore is an awfully dusty place, but Ahmedabad is worse. If I had not met good people in Ahmedabad and at the ashram, my first inclination should have been to return by the next train! – Good people I found and I feel indebted to you, Mahatmaji, and to Mrs. Gandhi and to several other friends who took me in as one of yourselves.

I loved being with you all, the spirit of the friendliness and helpfulness that met me everywhere, the simplicity and the feeling of content (?) was inspiring -

I am afraid I cannot put the question I have on my mind in few words. May I just try to explain my thoughts and I think you will understand what I mean.

Many in the west have not realised the greatness of prayer. We have tried to shut God in between four walls and we have imagined that the more we spoke to God, the closer we came into communion with Him, forgetting the greater importance of listening to what God would speak to us. Our prayer meetings became “visiting rooms” where everybody rejoiced in expressing one’s own thoughts, forgetting to open the hearts and minds for God’s inspiration. Real prayer is to get into tune with the infinite as you said at the ashram but in order to get into tune with the infinite – must we not also try to listen to the unspoken voice of man? (We can live together for years, even pray together and yet be strangers to one another). Should there not in our every day life be time for “the communion of souls”. I know you understand the secret of listening perhaps better than anybody else, but you are also a man of action and to you religion is service – to work for the poor.

I thought India had something special to teach us with regard to common prayer and I went to your meetings here in Bangalore with great expectation – I came to receive something and not in order to criticise. – I enjoyed the fellowship there but it did not give me enough. I am under the impression (I may be wrong. Forgive me for being so straightforward) that your meetings have run into the same routine as the western prayer meetings. There is not much time for quiet – we have the fixed songs, prayers and recitations and hardly any time left for what I call “the communion of souls”. The fellowship where soul meet soul and we become one in Him, - when prayer has become a habit or a routine – will you call it prayer then? When worship has become traditional has it not ceased to be devotional? – I see the value of a good habit, but is there not the danger that it turns into conventionality? Should we do anything in our own religious life that is not absolutely true and spontaneous? I know I am contradicting myself and that my own words are a judgement on myself. I have had too much conventionality in my own life and I have sometimes found it necessary to stop certain habits for a certain time.

(… the saying “grace” before meals etc.) When the mind is not in the prayers, is it not better not to pray? When the going to church becomes just a duty or a habit, is it not better to stop going to church for a while until one feels the need of it again? I am not sure myself about these questions, but it is something that I have thought much about - and I wonder if you could help me to understand it better. I do understand it is necessary to have a set time for common prayer in a household with many members, but is there not the danger of not being absolutely true? Should we not be careful lest we turn into machines which are wound up to work just for a period of some few minutes?

I wished we had had longer time at the ashram prayer meetings and I wished they had not stopped so abruptly with the bringing in of business. – You may say “duty and work is religion”. Yes, but are we not all one before God? Or are we measured according to what we do? Is it not according to how we do the work? (I mean in what spirit we do it.

This is perhaps a minor thing and an unfair criticism. It may be very practical to have the roll called out when everybody is together – but in such a case could you not begin with it and leave more time for quiet after the meeting? The prayers of the meeting has just helped me to get into the spirit of fellowship – but we need more time to get into communion with God and with our fellow men. I feel the same in our churches when announcements and applications are brought in just at the close of the service. I loved your prayer meetings, but I missed something – as I miss something in most of the Christian prayer meetings as well.

I do not like to designate prayer meeting as “Christian, Hindu and Mohammedan”. Prayer is prayer – which means: man’s feeble attempt to get into communion with God – and God is not limited to a special outer form of expression.

A friend wrote to me about a question which I too have been thinking of for many years, and especially now during the last few years. “What is the message which Christ specially has to bring in comparison with the other prophets?” As a religion Christianity is just one amongst the other religions. Ethically it stands high, but other religions possess equally high ethical teaching and many non-Christians have reached further on the ethical and religious path than have Christians. It is of no use to go on saying that it can only be attained through Christianity – and yet I could not be satisfied if God had not revealed himself in Christ, the forgiving, the suffering God, who took upon himself our life, and who does not judge us according to our deeds.

You who have reached so far in your spiritual life further than anybody else I know of – you may perhaps not feel the need of such a message to the same extent as we do and yet don’t you understand that it means practically all to us, it gives us courage and it gives us a purpose in life which we should otherwise be looking for. I never believed that God was an angry God who wished the sacrifice of “his son”. But I do believe that God is so great that we do not understand this and that we cannot reach to where He is except see himself come to meet us, and that is what I believe He did in Christ.

Now you perhaps think me to be a “bigotted Christian” who imagines that Christians alone are right. I confess I was brought up in a Christian home, with strong religious convictions. – Religion did not mean conventionality, it was a reality in the everyday life and everybody that came to my home could not but feel it. Still growing up and seeing the disharmony around, even amongst some of those I loved the most, I was led off into doubts and sometimes I felt like throwing off belief in God and in religion altogether. Yet in the midst of all my doubts and disbelief I could not shake off my belief that God was there – it was so deeply rooted in me from my childhood. Still it has taken years for me to understand that it was the message of Christ I needed. I feel as if it is just dawning on me. I do not yet realise the fullness thereof.

What do you say to the belief which many people possess – Buddha, Krishna and other great teachers are in their teaching leading up to a certain point where Christ(?) comes in and gives a fuller revelation of God or do you find this message also in the other teachers?

To me it seems that we cannot divide up in separate religions – such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc. Religion is one – man’s attempt to understand God. But there are many ways to religion and there I feel that all the essential teachings are universal and all the great teachers have a message to me. And in Christ I feel that God has come to me to meet my religious need.

I fully agree with you that nobody has a right to force one’s religious belief on others. I have myself in my youth suffered from well-meaning people who wished to convert me and I see that missions have sinned in their fervour to win proselytes. I am absolutely sure that God has his own ways to reach the hearts of men – if only we do not stand in his way. I remember the beautiful example you told of the rose which spreads its fragrance unconsciously, without effort and without thinking that it must attract others. It grows its own life, deeply rooted in the soil, spreading its petals to the sunshine and to the ?.

The lady I mentioned above is at present working with a book which she has been asked to write about religious, social and political movements in the East during the last few years. She is not another Miss Mayo but is absolutely in sympathy with her subject – but she naturally feels overwhelmed with greatness thereof. By the way, do you know that the general belief in England is that Miss Mayo wrote her book to fulfil a vow she had made some years back when her life was saved by an Indian – as an expression of gratitude!!

I read your articles about art (in Young India) when I was in the ashram. Am I mistaken when I understand that you acknowledge only that to be art which represents truth and you speak about nature, somewhat in contrast to art? Art is creative and only that which reveals the creator can truthfully be named as art. Can art be separated from nature? – As one loves nature, must one not also love art which is the result of man’s creative power? Has not each human being some innate share(?) of art and is it not his duty to develop it in himself and in others? Is it not a sin against nature, which God has created beautiful, harmonious and orderly to allow disorder, ugliness and uncleanliness? Is it not wrong to look upon art as luxury, is it not a necessity? Is it not a token of irreverence toward the Creator where this respect of harmony, beauty, orderliness, cleanliness etc., is lacking though it may not be purposely done? If we ourselves cannot create art, we can at least respect it when we see it – and is nature not the greatest piece of art done by the greatest artist? A lady friend of mine once said, “I believe that the soul of a nation is clearer expressed through its art than through speeches, meetings etc.”

I wonder if you remember that you advised me as a foreigner, not to take any leading part in propaganda work for Hindu social reform. I have thought of what you said and I have tried to keep out of it as much as possible, but I had already promised to help collecting signatures for our Mysore Legislative Council (concerning child marriage –raising the age from 12 to 16 years for girls). I could not quite withdraw but I try to keep in the background. I do try to influence my Hindu friends to create public opinion. There are many Hindu ladies who are willing to help and the Government will not do anything until the ladies themselves do something. It has been put off twice at the Mysore Legislative Council – but many of the wives of the men there are in favour of it. We hope to have it up again sometime this year. But we shall miss Mrs. Chandrasekhara Aiyar then as we already miss her everywhere. If she had lived, I think she would have succeeded in her pleading on the woman’s cause here in Mysore.

I saw in the papers that you had been unwell and also that you felt a little better now. You must get strong, Mahatmaji, we cannot do without you and you must come to Denmark some day and speak to the students there. There is a movement amongst(?) the younger generation (in Denmark) towards a deeper realisation of their duty to their fellow men, and a strong feeling of the necessity of absolute sincerity and honesty in their religious life. They are somewhat criticised by their “older orthodox brethren”.

I am afraid I have written too much – in Danish I should have been able to express myself more briefly – I must make apology for my very broken English. It is hesitatingly I have written this letter and I feel it is not right on my part to worry you with questions which perhaps to you seem small and unimportant although they mean a lot to me. I should never have had the courage of writing if you had not allowed me to do so but I shall quite understand if you think that your time is too precious to pay attention to my letter and I shall wait for your answer till you get stronger and I shall be very grateful if you would lead me to a better understanding of these questions.

Everybody here has been so interested in my visit to the ashram and some have envied me that I was able to go. It was indeed a great privilege; even during the few days I was there I learned something which has made my life richer.

With my sincere thanks and loving and respectful greetings from my husband and

Yours gratefully

Emilie Bjerrum

LETTER TO MRS. E. BJERRUM MAY 11, 1928

The Ashram,

Sabarmati,

May 11, 1928

I must try to answer your questions today.

What you say about prayer at the Ashram is largely true. It is still a formal thing, soulless; but I continue it in the hope of it becoming a soulful thing. Human nature is much the same whether in the East or in the West. It does not therefore surprise me that you have not found anything special about prayers in the East and probably the Ashram prayer is a hotchpot of something Eastern and something Western. As I have no prejudice against taking anything good from the West or against giving up anything bad in the East, there is an unconscious blending of the two. For a congregational life a congregational prayer is a necessity and, therefore, form also is necessary. It need not be considered on that account to be hypocritical or harmful. If the leader at such congregational prayer meetings is a good man the general level of the meeting is also good. The spiritual effect of an honest intelligent attendance at such congregational prayers is undoubtedly great. Congregational prayer is not intended to supplant individual prayer, which, as you well put it, must be heartfelt and never formal. It is there you are in tune with the Infinite. Congregational prayer is an aid to being in tune with the Infinite. For man who is a social being cannot find God unless he discharges social obligations and the obligation of coming to a common prayer meeting is perhaps the supremest. It is a cleansing process for the whole congregation. But, like all human institutions, if one does not take care, such meetings do become formal and even hypocritical. One has to devise methods of avoiding the formality and hypocrisy. In all, especially in spiritual matters, it is the personal equation that counts in the end.

The roll call is not the ordinary roll call. It is a note of the results of the daily yajna, that is, sacrifice. Everyone says what he has spun. Spinning has been conceived in a sacrificial spirit. The idea is to see God through service of the millions. The day must not close without every member of the congregation confessing whether he or she has or has not performed the daily sacrifice to the measure of his or her promise. It is therefore not business at the end of the prayer, but it is the finishing touch to the prayer. It is not done at the beginning of the meeting, because those who are late should have the opportunity of registering their sacrifice. Remember, too, this is a sacrifice not intended to be made in secret. It is designed to be done in the open.

In my opinion, Christianity or the message of Jesus is a response to the human want even as are the messages of Krishna, Buddha, Muhammad and Zoroaster. Though they were designed and delivered at different places and at different times, they have also a universal value. According to the needs of the time one message puts more emphasis on one thing than upon another. A man of religion will not hesitate to profit by all these messages and according to his predilection derive more comfort from one than from another.

I do believe that real art consists in seeing the hidden beauty of moral acts and effects and, therefore, much that passes for art and beauty is, perhaps, neither art nor beauty.

I think I have now answered all your questions. You will please remind me if I have missed any and you will not hesitate to write to me again if I am anywhere obscure or unconsciously evasive.

My love to both of you.

Yours sincerely,

Mrs. E. Bjerrum

United Theological College

Bangalore

From: SN 13221 and 15365; Collected Works, Volume 36, pages 304-06

LETTER FROM HANS BJERRUM, MAY 8, 1928

Kodaikanal
May 8, 1928

Dear Mr. Gandhi,

Though we have not written, it does not mean that our hearts have not been with you in this time of bereavement. We could have written long ago, and I do not think a day passed without our thinking of you.

We never met your nephew personally, but we always understood that he was particularly near to your heart; and therefore we cannot but feel with you in this great sorrow.

I do not think it is possible to detach oneself from the individuals, and I do not even think it is right to do so; but sometimes the passing away of an individual of high order is followed by a fresh inspiration to many others who take up and carry forward the heritage he has left.

My wife wishes me to add that she remembers his wife and family, whom she met in the ashram, and her heart goes out to them with love and sympathy in their great sorrow.

With loving greetings

Yours truly,
H. Bjerrum

Source: SN14642

TELEGRAM FROM HANS BJERRUM, MAY 30,1933

GANDHI POONA
REJOICING TRUSTING VICTORY
BJERRUM

Source: SN21403

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