By Clare Sheridan
[Miss Clare Sheridan, a traveler and author of many travel books, was also known for her sculptures of eminent men, including Mahatma Gandhi. She met Gandhi in London in 1931, and devoted a chapter to him in her book, To the Four Winds (1954)]
At intervals in the world's history—sometimes long-spaced intervals—a great personality stands forth. A great soul is perhaps a better definition for I am not referring to dictators, generals or scientists. I mean the great spiritual personalities, for these only have any permanent and evolutionary value.
People often query today whether we are sinking into one of those periodical Dark Ages which sometimes last for centuries. Indeed, Winston Churchill in his History of the English Speaking Peoples makes the surprising statement that for Britain the dark ages lasted from Roman times until Queen Victoria! We would seem at the moment not to be making much moral headway, either in Europe, in Asia or in Africa. When one looks back upon the civilisation of Egypt which built the Pyramids and the glory that was Greece, it does indeed seem as though civilisations ebb and flow like the eternal tides. I liken the Earth Plane to a kind of Cosmic School where outstanding individuals or an elite push forward, leaving the stragglers to struggle slowly on. The world is a kind of Public School, and a Third Form unendingly follows up the progressing Fourth. At wide-spaced intervals some genius thrusts forward. Thus the human race laboriously wends its way, with an occasional heartening acceleration as some radiant soul appears who helps to accelerate our forward movement.
When I look up at the sky at night there seem to be smaller, lesser lights grouped close to a brilliant star; and there is a mass of small ones, a kind of stardust, and of such are we! But among those lesser lights one can pick out one or two that scintillate. And so with humans; nor need we go so far back in history but pin-point our attention for instance on Gautama, the Buddha, whose light still shines forth and affects millions.
Jesus inaugurated an era which illumines a considerable part of the world. Mohammed's light radiates no less today, and Krishna is still a shining light. Then there are lesser stars, but closer to us, such Saints as Francis of Assisi. I cannot resist mentioning St. Francis in particular, for not only is he my favourite Saint, but his mantle (torn and tattered in its material sense) would seem to have devolved upon another great soul of our epoch. I am writing of course as a Christian, but my Christianity was to undergo a new impetus the day I met the Hindu St. Francis; for as such I regard Mahatma Gandhi.
Looking back upon that 'Round Table Conference' epoch, it is as though something very big, very important had happened in my life, a turning point in fact, for knowing 'the Great Little Mahatma' wrought a change in me. It was as though my whole nature underwent a metamorphosis. Some such alteration in the ego must have happened to many who in those far back days in Palestine came in contact with our Lord. Those early Christians could not know or guess the great effect of His mission, but they sensed the beauty of His soul. I am not trying to suggest a similarity or that Gandhi had the mission of a God, and yet, God-like he was in his love of truth, his passion for justice, and his pursuit of peace. Gandhi had bigger crowds to sway than ever had Jesus. It was like unto a miracle when those millions accepted the doctrine of Resistant Non-violence.
Is Gandhi less a saint because he drove the British out of India? But Jesus whipped the merchants out of the Temple with knotted cords.
Having given a whole chapter to Gandhi in my last book To the Four Winds, I will not repeat the details of our meeting except to say that while he allowed me to model his portrait as he sat spinning on the floor, it was with reverence that I approached him. I had read about him so much and talked of him with so many Hindus even before his landing in England. Lest I be mistaken for a sentimental woman, I will quote the opinion of a fellow sculptor, the American Jo Davidson. Like myself, Jo too was a collector of celebrities. He had modelled the heads of nearly every President, General, Prime Minister, poet and author, but "the higher they are the less they impress me" he said to a gathering of friends, "of them all, only Gandhi has seemed to me truly great."
Gandhi was an enemy of the British Empire, he had spent much time in British prisons in India; he was anathema to Winston Churchill who refused to meet him, and yet, when he came to London for the Round Table Conference he was received with respect and cordiality by many important English people.
While I was modelling him, his secretary slithered down next to him on the floor and interrupted his spinning to discuss details of a journey. He was invited to Oxford by Dr. Gilbert Murray. At the same time he was being reminded "Tomorrow Bapu, don't forget you are invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to his Palace at Lambeth ..."
I was present at a reception at the Carlton Hotel in honour of the Round Table delegates. There were innumerable politicians, several ex-Viceroys and a galaxy of Maharajahs. Gandhi did not want to seem unfriendly by abstaining, but worldly parties were not in his line. As a friendly gesture however, he put in an appearance, that is to say he ventured as far as the doorway, and there he stood enframed and hesitating. Almost immediately there was a general movement of the crowd towards him. The Maharajah of Bikaner, magnificently tall and imposing, was one of the first who went forward to greet him. Lady Minto, widow of a Viceroy and an old friend of my family's, said to me: "I must know him—you must introduce me—" and the two remained for some time absorbed in conversation.
His great friends in England were, as we all know, the two Miss Lesters who ran a hostel in the East End of London. Gandhi slept at the hostel during the whole of his sojourn in London, for, as he explained, he cared to be with the simple and the poor—which also reminds one of St. Francis.
At the Mahatma's suggestion I spent a night at the hostel in order to be present at the night prayers. It was a raw foggy November night, and our bedrooms, more like monks' cells, were on the top of the building with access from the roof terrace. Mirabehn it was who came and woke me up at the hour of two (if I remember right!). Mirabehn reminded me of the picture by Puvis de Chavannes of St. Genevieve, with her white linen veil and simple draped dress. Vividly I retain the picture of that night: the Mahatma so frail and wrapped in his white khaddar, sitting cross-legged on the thin mattress which was his bed on the floor. His Hindu secretary completed the little gathering, and with the door wide open letting in the cold night, they chanted their beautiful Hindu hymns. I was numbed by sleep and cold, but the occasion remains vivid and colourful, deeply impressive, never to be forgotten.
At five, I accompanied him on his early morning walk. We were followed by two detectives whose duty was to accompany him wherever he went. "Good morning, gentlemen!" he said half laughingly, "I'm sorry for you this morning." Indeed one could hardly see further ahead than arm's length. Gandhi being the same colour as the night, one seemed to be accompanying a bit of white drapery floating as it were at very high speed along the borders of a canal. One could hear the water although one could not see it. He walked so fast that I had difficulty in keeping up with him, but Mirabehn urged me forward: "This is your best chance of talking with him..."
It was not politics that I wanted to discuss. There had been endless political conversations with a number of visitors while I was modeling him. I wanted to draw him out on the subject of religion and ethics, and glean from him some precious advice. I imagined myself back in the Middle Ages, walking the rough road by the side of St. Francis, and it needs little imagination to conjure up the sort of conversation that there would have been. I remembered reading in a life of the Buddha, fragments recorded by his disciples of his conversation with people he met on the road. There must also have been many who waylaid Jesus, or accompanied him on his walks, demanding his opinion and begging for his advice...
Conversations with Mahatma Gandhi will seem as legendary and as precious in the remote future as any recorded conversations with Jesus or with the Buddha. "Now's your chance…" urged Mirabehn, and as there was only room for two abreast on that narrow tow-path, she tactfully dropped behind.
Jesus would, one feels, have held forth on the subject of Divine Love. Gandhi held forth on the necessity of eliminating hate. He affirmed that he did not hate the English, although he was obliged to fight them, for the Indian masses must be liberated. But the unwavering relentless fight would be non-violent.
This semi-political, semi-religious conversation became purely religious: "Whoever has a love of truth and sincerity of heart is a religious person—it matters not whether God is worshipped according to Christian rites, Jewish, Mohammedan, Buddhist or Hindu—what counts is not the form, what matters is the truth. We approach God in the way which is most familiar to us. Mine is the Hindu way, but every religious form is a road leading to the eventual goal. Each of us in our varied ways is reaching towards God...."
To have been privileged to know Gandhi, to be called his friend, is something I feel which touches one's aura with a tinge of gold. At parting he said to me: "I have grown to love you, I shall never forget you..." and I know that his love had the quality associated with the words of Christ.... "Love ye one another"—the love that is Divine. To have known Gandhi, to have been privileged to be close to him, to be called his friend, is something which marks one for all time—one will be different in a next incarnation because one has met him in this. May be those of us who have known him are destined in a next life to work with him for some great cause. I like to think this is 50, I cherish the dream that he will again be a great man, an even greater Leader, and that I shall be privileged to be near him.
Source: Gandhi Marg, New Delhi, Vol. 1, No. 2, Pages 136-140, April 1957