The Danish Peace Academy
GANDHI AND NORDIC COUNTRIES
Collected by E. S. Reddy - EReddy@aol.com and Holger Terp
[Caroline (Bokken) Lasson, Norwegian singer and writer, and Ellen Horup, Danish journalist, visited India in 1930-31 and met Gandhi at Anand Bhavan, Allahabad, in February 1931. Gandhiji had gone to Allahabad when Motilal Nehru was ill and stayed for a few days after his death. The following is an account of the meeting by Ms. Lasson.]
We were taken up the wide colonnade which goes round the whole house on the second floor, and suddenly we stood before the man towards whom the eyes of all India - nay, of all the world - are turned right now. He was sitting in the position we knew so well from photos, from calendars. from postcards and badges, with his right shoulder slightly upwards and his head down. He greeted us with his warm and sincere smile and asked us to sit down by his side on the carpet. My travel companion spoke about the time she had spent in his ashram two years ago.11 He remembered everything, even little things that she had forgotten, and joked and laughed with a pleasant chuckle.
"What do you think of the result of the Round Table Conference,12 Mahatmaji?", we asked.
Gandhi shook his head: "As long as I do not hear any echo out here of what they say in London, I am unable to believe that they take the question of India's freedom seriously. The ill-treatment of the people continues - there is no echo here of the words spoken at the Round Table."
We did not want to keep Gandhi for too long. Before we left, we asked for permission to come to the prayer meeting, which Gandhi usually keeps open for all who want to come.
"You are most welcome! It is seven o'clock." Then he laughed jestingly: "I also invite you to come to morning prayer at 4.15 - but I know that you won`t come then!"…
Five minutes to seven we stood on the large, open terrace above the entrance drive to Anand Bhavan, and a few minutes later came Mahatma Gandhi followed by members of the household and five to six ladies and gentlemen of the white race. From the other side came a large number of native women and men. They all took off their shoes and sandals, and we were about to do the same when Gandhi said: "You can keep your shoes on." But we took them off, the place of a prayer meeting is holy ground.
Gandhi went forward to the balustrade where a seat had been made for him of a folded rug covered with a piece of white khaddar. All over the balcony rugs and mats had been spread for people to sit on. We all went forward somewhat haltingly, nobody wanted to be obtrusive. "Come closer, come up here and sit down as closely as possible, there are many people here tonight - come all the way up here so that there will be room for everybody." We followed Gandhi's friendly request and came to sit close to him on the same side as the other whites.
It was now seven o`clock. Gandhi had asked us to be punctual - what were we waiting for? Some of his followers looked at their watches. Gandhi said a few words quietly to one of Nehru`s beautiful daughters - it was Pandit Motilal`s elderly wife who had not yet arrived. Gandhi quietly took a watch out from under the shawl in which he was wrapped, then sat back calmly and looked ahead.
Then came the poor, old, mournful widow, half-carried by her strong son, Jawaharlal. Gandhi made room for her on his own rug, then he said a word in his quiet voice and all light was turned off - only the stars shone palely through a veil of thin clouds above us. A male voice began to sing very quietly, more and more joined in…
For a while everybody was silent, deep in his own thoughts or contemplating the stars, until Gandhi said a quiet word and the light was turned on. He bent over towards the old, grey, careworn woman by his side and said a few good and mild words to her. In reply she only uttered a syllable now and then, but we felt that the Mahatma had been able to comfort her a little for the loss of her husband, a great son of India.
Then Gandhi raises his voice and invites all the friends who had come from America, and others who felt so inclined, to follow him inside for "a little chat". We followed him into a room with no other furniture than a large rug on the floor and a spinning wheel in one corner. All over the rug there were letters and other papers. Mahatma Gandhi is a busy man. Again we took off our shoes outside, for also a home is holy ground. We sat down on the rug, behind us sat women in saris, directly opposite the men and the American party had grouped themselves. For a while not a word was said.
Then a lady takes courage and asks: "Would you advise us, Mr. Gandhi? How can we who strive for it, be able to follow the high ideals which you have yourself realised in such a wonderful way? We seek, and strive for what I understand is your teaching: to do good in all conditions of life. Advise us, please, how should we be able to do this?" Gandhi waits a little before he answers, then he says slowly and quietly: "Well - aren`t there sufficient occasions in life to do good? - I know of no other advice than to do good whenever possible." "Yes, the occasion arises often enough, but how can we acquire the constant strength to be good, how have you acquired it?" "The only way I know is to have a living faith in a God who is absolutely just, a living faith in the justice of everything which comes to you in life. I don`t believe in punishment and forgiveness in the normal meaning of these words. I don`t believe God punishes in the same way as men or the law. And for me there is no such thing as forgiveness in the ordinary meaning of this word, forgiveness each time one happens to commit a sin. When I first read these words in the Bible, they didn't appeal to me at all, quite the opposite, I was repelled by them. But I have thought about all this and have come to the conclusion that if you understand the words in their true meaning, then they are true. Everybody has deserved what comes to him. But God`s prisons - if he has that sort of institution - are without question educational, reforming, and they are not like human prisons. I have never met anybody who has been reformed by punishment. But if you have this living faith in the absolute justice of God, then you may be able to love even those who ill-treat you. This is now my firm opinion. And then you must practise, of course, practice makes perfect."
One of the Americans said they had been entrusted with creating a new system of education and asked Gandhi what he thought about the system in use now. Gandhi: "In my opinion the present educational system is absolutely bad! At any rate it is no good for us here in India. All these exams which you have to take are of no use whatever except for a few people who want to make their way in the world. The students are filled with a whole lot of knowledge which they had better forget again. I personally have had to unlearn a good deal of my English education, and our great friend Vallabhai Patel has also declared that he has thrown overboard a lot, first and foremost his English. Vallabhai only very rarely expresses himself in English nowadays." Gandhi looked at his English-speaking guests and laughed this hearty, internal chuckle of his.
"But all you Americans - and also Englishmen and other nations - are mostly born and brought up in towns and cities. Here in India the overwhelming part of the population live in the country. They need a completely different kind of education from those who live in the cities. "
The American now asks how Gandhi thinks that education should be organised in India. "I think we should educate young men who could go out into the villages and teach the peasants. They should teach them to cultivate their land, to grow rice and cotton, teach them to do what is right and good, and to shun what is evil. And also teach them to spin. Our villagers could be quite happy leading their simple lives. I see no reason that the 700,000 villages of India should be turned into as many cities. It won`t happen in the foreseeable future, and it isn`t necessary that it should happen at all. Our peasants were happy before they became oppressed by land tax and all sorts of indirect taxes. British history teaches us that they were happy, but British civil servants say something quite different. They can survive in their simple circumstances if they are allowed to cultivate their land in peace and earn a little extra by extra work, that is, by spinning. I don`t make a fetish of the spinning wheel - if someone can come up with something better, I`ll burn my charkha the same day."
A bold and outspoken lady, a genuine representative of "young America", asks him the frank question what he thinks of the people of the West. Gandhi, his head down, is silent for a while. Then he bursts into a loud, infectious laughter: "This really is a very difficult question. I have met many fine people from Western nations; they have many qualities which we don`t have and which we should learn: their accuracy, their punctuality - we, for instance, don't have the same sense of time. I became friendly with a fellow prisoner once. He was English. I had to admire his deftness and inventiveness, and he made a good many practical improvements of my spinning wheel. Whether he had committed the crime he was sentenced for, I don`t know - he himself thought he had been harshly treated - but even if he had done it, I wouldn`t have thought twice of admitting him into my ashram. And a German I know13 - he was an engineer - him I also had to admire for his thoroughness and diligence. Undoubtedly there is much for us to learn from the people of the West, but the unhappy thing is that those who come out to India usually come as agents for either religion or automobiles."
He laughed, and everybody laughed heartily with him - it was, unfortunately, all too true, of course.
"The missionaries do much good in many ways, of course, but consciously or unconsciously, behind all this they always think of proselytising, of converting people. And now Mr. Ford, who is an excellent man, he would of course consider it his highest ambition to plant at least one motor car in each of India`s 700,000 villages. That would ruin them completely."
The conversation is cheerful and lively, every word Mahatma Gandhi says comes with the power of deep conviction, but without a trace of vehemence; his way of speaking is quiet, genuine, serene.
An American suggests that we leave in order not to take more of Gandhi`s time, and he answers with his lovable smile: "I was just about to make the same suggestion."
A Danish friend sends me translation of extracts from an article printed in Gads Danske Magasin. The heading he has given to the extracts is "European Civilisation and Gandhi". In adopting his heading for Young India I have omitted my name as I have omitted references to my views in the extracts. My views are nothing new to the readers of Young India. Here is the translation received:2
These extracts present a very lurid picture but probably they are true in substance. That the sum total of the activities of the European nations is a denial of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount will not, I think, be gainsaid. I have reproduced the extracts merely to emphasise the necessary caution against our being lifted off our feet by the dazzle and glitter of European arms. If the foregoing picture were the whole of Europe it would be sad for Europe as for the world. Fortunately there is a considerable body of men and women of Europe who are devoting the whole of their energy to combat the war-fever and the breathless pursuit after material wealth and enjoyment. There are reasons for hoping that this body is daily gaining in numbers and in influence. May it be the privilege of India to take part in the new awakening and to advance it, instead of retarding it by succumbing to the European excesses which the best mind of Europe condemns in unmeasured terms and is manfully struggling to bring under effective control.
From: Young India, October 15, 1925; Collected Works, Volume 28, page 335
From: Caroline Lasson, ostens smil og tårer (pages 111-18), translated by Frede Hojgaard in Frede Hojgaard (ed.) Friends of Gandhi: Inter-war Scandinavian Responses to the Mahatma (NIAS Report No. 7), 1991.
11 Miss Ellen Horup had visited India earlier and had stayed in Gandhiji's ashram for some time.
12 The first Round Table Conference at which the Indian National Congress was not represented.
13 And a German I know, might be Hermann Kallenbach (1871-1945). Gandhi's friend in South Africa.
2 Not reproduced here. For text, see Collected Works, Volume 28, Appendix III.