Articles on Gandhiji's Associates & Disciples

Mahatma Gandhi attracted to himself, men and women from diverse fields and region committed to social action

Her name was Madeleine. She was born in 1892. She has not given the date of her birth in her autobiography. Her father, a naval officer, was often away in distant waters for two years or more at a stretch, so her mother used to go with the children to Milton Heath, the country home of her father. This house stood in some twenty acres of land on high ground, beautifully laid out with gardens, paddocks for the cows, and a rich collection of shrubs and trees. Motorcars did not exist in those days, so there were stables full of fine horses, some for the carriages and some for riding and hunting. At the bottom of the sloping paddocks was a cowshed with four or five Jersey cows, chicken house and pigsties.
The house had a beautiful view up the Dorking Valley with the North Downs to the right and the Leith Hill Range to the left. The day nursery was on the top floor, so she got the best view of all, and the night nursery was on the middle floor, looking out over the stable yard, which pleased her very much.
Though her life was carefully regulated she never felt it was monotonous. As she grew older, she learned all about the correct use of saws, hammer, screwdrivers, planes and chisels. But the place she loved most was the stable. She watched the horses being groomed-the brushing and rub­bing down, the picking out and washing of their hoofs, were all a fascination to a child's eye. The head coachman taught her the how and why of everything, including saddling, bridling, riding horses and harnessing of carriage horses.
When Madeleine was still very small, her mind began to search in the region of the 'Unknowable.' There was something which, every now and then, wafted her far away. It would come at quiet moments, and always through the voice of nature-the singing of a bird, the sound of the wind in the trees. Though this was the voice of unknown, she felt no fear. If at all she felt anything, it, was only an infinite joy.
In the course of her father's posting at the Naval Train­ing College at Portsmouth, the family settled for some time in a country house at Fareham. It was a quiet country life. But from those peaceful surroundings, something came as to awaken her from a slumber. Her father had bought an Angelus Pianola. Once she happened to hear a piece of Beethoven's Sonata Opus 31, No.2. She was so enthralled by it that she played it over and over again. The playing of it stirred her heart and awoke it to something which lingered with her, and created a feeling of deep anguish. She, in these moments of anguish, threw herself down on her knees in the seclusion of her room and prayed to God: 'Why have I been born over a century too late? Why hast thou given me realization of him and yet put all these years in between?'
This craving for Beethoven, after some years, led her to Romain Rolland, in order to get more knowledge, about Beethoven. She met Rolland in Villeneuve, where he lived with his sister. In this meeting Romain Rolland mentioned India in context of a small book he had just written, called Mahatma Gandhi, and asked if she had ever heard of him. Madeleine replied in the negative. He told her that Gandhi was another Christ. These words went deep, but she stored them away and went on her voyage to Alexandria.
Back from Alexandria, she came to Paris, bought the book of Rolland from a bookshop, and finished reading it on the same day. Then she realized what that 'something' was. It was a call to go to Mahatma Gandhi. This call was so powerful and absolute that on reaching London, she re­served a berth in a P & O Liner. She told her parents the decision she had made. They were so sensible as not to dissuade her. But on second thoughts, Madeleine herself felt that it was rather too hasty. She thought that she needed to put herself through severe training in order to be acceptable. After having come to that decision, she went through all the chores of spinning, became a vegetarian and a teetotaler, started learning the language, taught herself squatting and sleeping on the floor. As for reading, she immediately sub­scribed to Young India. She spent a part of her training programme in Paris, where she read Bhagvad Gita, and some of the Rigveda, both in French.
When she came back to London from Paris, she heard the news of Mahatma Gandhi's fast for Hindu-Muslim unity. Day by day his condition was growing more alarming. Those twenty-one days seemed never-ending to Madeleine, but at last the fast was successfully over. She felt that she should write and send a thanks giving offering. But she had run out of money earned through orchestral concerts and had even sold her piano. The only thing she had was a small diamond brooch, a gift given by her grandfather on her twenty-first birthday. She sold it and the proceeds of 20 pounds were sent to Gandhi. This was the beginning of their acquaintance. Gandhi was touched by this gesture and acknowledged the receipt with thanks. Emboldened by this experience, Madeleine wrote another letter, asking for his consent to be with him in Sabarmati Ashram. In August 1925 came his reply from Calcutta.

24 July, 1925
Dear Friend,
I was pleased to receive your letter which has touched me deeply. The samples of wool you have sent are excellent.
You are welcome whenever you choose to come. If I have advice of the steamer. . . there will be someone receiving you. . . and guiding you to the train. . . to Sabarmati. Only please remember that the life of the Ashram is not at all rosy. It is strenuous. Bodily labour is given by every inmate. The climate of this country is also not a small consideration. I mention these things not to frighten you but merely to warn you.
Yours Sincerely
M. K. Gandhi

After receiving this letter the day of departure for India was fixed. Her mother and her elder sister saw her off at the London Station. Her father was to bid her adieu from Paris, which he did with the words, "Be careful". From Paris Madeleine went to say good-bye to Romain Rolland and his sister. As she left them, there was a look of pleasant wonder in Rolland's eyes, and a ring in his voice as he said, "How lucky you are!"
On 6 November the ship docked at Bombay. Friends were there to meet her. They took Madeleine to Naoroji's house on Malabar Hill. Brothers, sisters and grandchildren of Dadabhai Naoroji pressed her to stay and rest for at least twenty-four hours but she had no thought for anything but to reach Sabarmati without delay. In the afternoon, Devdas, Gandhi's fourth and youngest son, came and pressed her to stay. But seeing her determination, he finally arranged for her departure by train the same night. As the train steamed into the Ahmedabad Station on the morning of 7 November 1925, three persons were waiting on the platform to receive her. They were Mahadev Desai, Vallabhbhai Patel and Swami Anand.
Vallabhbhai brought her to the Ashram and ushered her into a room. As she entered, a brown figure rose up and came forward. Madeleine was conscious of nothing else but a sense of light. She fell on her knees. Two hands gently raised her up, and a voice said, "You shall be my daughter." On hearing these words her consciousness of the physical world began to return, and she saw a face smiling, with eyes full of love and a gentle twinkle of amusement. He was Bapu. In all their mutual relationship he was to remain Bapu and she his daughter, Mira.
Soon she arrived, right into the heart of Bapu's daily life. The impact of this on her emotions was tremendous. From morning to night she lived for the moment when she could set her eyes on Bapu. To be in his presence was to be lifted out of oneself. Not that there was anything imposing about his physical appearance, or striking about his manner of speech; indeed it was the perfect simplicity of both which held one. Here, one was face to face with a soul which in its very greatness made the body and speech, through which it manifested itself, glow with grace and natural humility. At the same time there was a sense of spiritual strength, quietly confident and all-pervading, while the whole presence was made intensely human and appealing by the pure-hearted and irresistible humour which kept peeping like golden sunshine through the leaves of a deep forest.
Here, in presence of Bapu, a strict regimen began for her which lasted for almost thirty-four years of her stay in India. It included carding and spinning, cooking, cleaning, learning Hindi, at times traveling with Bapu or otherwise living in the Ashram and doing her work. Her first journey along with the retinue of Gandhi led her to Wardha, where the learned ascetic Acharya Vinoba Bhave was running a Brahmacharya Ashram. Gandhi used to go there for about ten days rest, each year, before attending the open session of the Indian National Congress. Mirabehn found Wardha Ashram quite different from Sabarmati. She saw here a small, compact group of men all earnestly believing in the principles of the institution. Bapu's ideals and experiments were being carried out with great thoroughness. Quietness of atmosphere, unity of endeavour, hard work and spiritual purposefulness were the distinct qualities of this Ashram. After a few days of quiet sojourn they went straight to the session of Congress, where Gandhi handed over the charge of its presidentship to Sarojini Naidu. Mirabehn could see that Gandhi's activities had two main streams. One was the Ashram life, by which he endeavoured to create persons who would fit in with his search for truth and non-violence. Second was the Indian National Congress where he would strive for independence of India with a band of workers following the line that Gandhi enunciated in the public field in India. Living with Gandhi, Mirabehn had to be well versed in both. Living the community life of the Ashram was a tough job for her and so was the climate of India. But her devotion to Bapu kept her steadfast in the midst of her aversion. Not very long after her stay in the Ashram she started wearing saree, all white, without a coloured border. Next, she got her haircut and took a vow of celibacy. Just about a year after coming to Bapu, Mirabehn received a cable from her mother saying that her father had passed away. Bapu suggested that she go to England if she wished to. But Mirabehn politely declined to go there. Her learning of Hindustani was not going very well. So she sought Gandhi's consent to go to the northern part of India and live among Hindi-speaking people. For this purpose she was sent to Kanya Gurukul, Delhi, and thereafter to Kangri Gurukul.
When she went to Kangri Gurukul, she learnt that Gandhi was to come there in March 1927 for its Jubilee celebrations. The thought of seeing Bapu after a long time was inspiring. She also thought that Bapu might take her with him. But it turned out to be a vain hope. On the contrary, Bapu was thinking of sending her to Bhagwadbhakti Ashram, Rewari. Perhaps he was trying and training her. Soon after reaching that Ashram, Mirabehn received a letter from Gandhi in which he wrote:
The parting today was sad because I saw that I pained you. And yet it was inevitable. I want you to be a perfect woman. I want you to shed all angularities. All unnec­essary reserve must go..... Do throw off the nervousness. You must not cling to me as in this body. The spirit without the body is ever with you. And that is more than the feeble embodied imprisoned spirit with all the limitations that flesh is heir to. The spirit without the flesh is perfect; and that is all we need. This can be felt only when we practice detachment. This you must now try to achieve.
This is how I would grow if I were you. But you should grow along your own lines. You will, therefore, reject all I have said in this that does not appeal to your heart or head. You must retain your individuality at all cost. Resist me when you must. For I may judge you wrongly in spite of all my love for you. I do not want you to impute infallibility to me. In these few words Gandhi had expressed the crux of the struggle which was to face her throughout the years to come.
Mirabehn lived in India during a most eventful period in which she saw in 1927 the Simon Commission facing black flags everywhere, the resolve of the people for complete independence in 1929, the Dandi March and the Civil Disobe­dience movement in 1930-31 and the Gandhi-Irwin Pact in 1931; she accompanied Gandhi and others to the Round Table Conference in London in the autumn of 1931; prepared the people of Orissa to resist Japanese invasion non-violently in the beginning of 1942, and was arrested and kept in detention with Gandhi in the Aga Khan Palace, Pune, in 1942 where she saw Mahadev Desai and. Kasturba Gandhi breathing their last. She was a witness to the Simla Confer­ence and the Cabinet Mission, the Interim Government and the Constituent Assembly, the partition of India followed by holocaust and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
Remaining in mid-stream she always had a role to play. As an inmate of Gandhi Ashram she traveled far and wide for the propagation of Khadi. She wrote over a hundred articles in Young India and Harijan, She also wrote articles for The Statesman, Calcutta, The Times of India, Bombay, and The Hindustan Times, Delhi. Without the least intention of taking part in the freedom movement, she courted imprisonment a couple of times in 1932-1933, and was kept first in Arthur Road Jail and later in Sabarmati Jail. Whenever she was with Mahatma Gandhi she looked after him in minutest detail. At times she went to the Viceroy as a personal emissary of Mahatma Gandhi and at other times to the Congress Presi­dent and the members of the Working Committee. To plead the case of India she went abroad-met Lloyd George, Lord Halifax, General Smuts, Sir Samuel Hoare and Winston Churchill, visited United States and went to New York, Philadelphia, West Chester, Boston, Harvard and Washing­ton, delivered a lecture at the Harvard University and met Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House in Washington. Mirabehn took keen interest in the formation of Sevagram Ashram and organised cleanliness campaigns in the surrounding villages. She was always unflinching in her service to Bapu and longed to be with him as long as possible. For such longing she earned reprimands more than once from Gandhi, Gradually she undertook independent activities with the help and blessings of Bapu. For some time her mind was infatuated with a weakness for Sardar Prithvi Singh and her emotions ran riot. When she spoke to Bapu about it, he looked at her with unexpected seriousness and said, "If you feel like that it means to my mind that you should marry", and added, as if thinking aloud, "perhaps marriage has been the unspoken word in your. life." But Prithvi Singh wisely resisted all proposals whether from Bapu or others.
Then began the period of her self-chosen seclusion and penance for her mental aberration. She went to Haryana and then to Sivalik Hills and other places, read Rig Veda and kept silence for a year. She came to live at Chorvad, in Gujarat, near the sea-shore. Here, on 22 May 1941, Bapu wrote to her: An inquiry has come from London whether the report is true that your have severed all connection with me and are living away from me!!! How wish is father to thought!
In 1942, when she was in the Aga Khan Palace she expressed a desire to Gandhi that after her release from detention she would start some activities of her own, at a suitable place in northern India. Bapu agreed and gave money to plan out the whole thing herself. Accordingly, after her release from Aga Khan Palace, she started Kisan Ashram at Muldaspur, situated between Roorkee and Hardwar. Kisan Ashram developed rapidly.
In 1946, Congress ministries were formed in various provinces. The United Provinces had also a strong Congress Government headed by the veteran leader Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant. In the new atmosphere there was a general urge to resuscitate the Province and make an all-out drive to increase food production. Quite a lot of good agricultural land had been requisitioned for military airfields and camps, and the sooner these were put back into cultivation the better. With this idea in her mind she went to Bapu and discussed the matter with him. He, in turn, had a talk with Pandit Pant, and Mirabehn was appointed as an Honorary Special Ad­viser to the U.P. Government in connection with the newly launched 'Grow More Food' campaign.
In 1947 she started Ashram Pashulok near Hrishikesh and a settlement named Bapu Gram. During this period the political scene had started worsening. The declaration, of 'Direct Action' by the Muslim League in October led to a wholesale slaughter of Hindus in the villages of Noakhali district in East Bengal.
On 30 January 1948 came the news of Bapu's assassination. It was simply stunning. Mirabehn stood silent and still. A ­vast emotion held her in a trance. In the early part of the night people came from Hrishikesh to take her to Delhi. At that moment Bapu's words came to her mind: Trust God and be where you are. There is no meaning in having the last look. The spirit which you love is always with you.
She obeyed Bapu's words fully. She stayed where she was and worked until 27 January 1959 before leaving for England. And in the interim period, Mirabehn founded Gopal Ashram in Bhilangana in 1952. From 1954 to 1957 she kept herself busy with experiments in breeding cows. Though she was intensely active during these years, deep down inside­ her it had been a period of suspense, a kind of hibernation. Her inner being had begun to stir. India without Gandhi or Gandhi's ideals was not an enchanting place to live in.
One day the post brought her a parcel from Paris. It was a book of Romain Rolland sent by his widow. She started reading the book. During this time she began writing her reminiscences. She also read the books that Romain Rolland had given her in Villeneuve, when Bapu had stayed there in 1931. As she read them, something again began to stir. It was the spirit of him from whose music she had been separated for over thirty years. She left India in 1959 to be in tune with that music.
Mirabehn's journey of life began from England. She spent the first thirty-three years in the land of her birth. The following thirty-four years she lived in India and until her death on 20 July 1982 the rest of the twenty-three years were spent in Vienna. The mysterious 'something' that lin­gered with her led her to three great men-Beethoven, Romain Rolland and Mahatma Gandhi. The best years of her life were dedicated to Gandhi. She came to India well, equipped, so as to qualify herself to be an inmate of Gandhi Ashram. She loved nature and loved her solitary musings in the company of nature. She loved the sky and the mountains, the forests and the streams, feeling equally at home with the animal world. Without realizing the meaning and the concept of the word Basic Education, she had groomed herself in the work-centered education in her grandfather's house at Milton Heath much before Gandhi envisaged and imple­mented the idea of Basic Education.
After leaving India she went to England and lived there for some time, but she felt completely out of tune with an England which was not familiar to her. So, in search of a better and peaceful place, she went to Vienna and settled there. In 1969, on the occasion of the Gandhi Centenary Celebrations, she was invited by Lord Louis Mountbatten to visit England and narrate her experiences and recollections of Mahatma Gandhi. The Albert Hall was full with nearly seven thousand people. The Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister and many other dignitaries were present. The talk that Mirabehn gave to the gathering was almost beyond the highest expectation of Lord Louis Mountbatten. The audience was spell bound.
It 1981 the Government of India honoured Mirabehn with the Padma Vibhushan for her meritorious service to India and mankind.
The life story of Mirabehn is legendary like Mirabai, the devotee of Lord Krishna, who had left Mewar to worship Lord Krishna. Mirabehn, too, had set aside her own Mewar to explore her new abode. She never aspired to be an inter­preter of Gandhi's thought, but she never faltered in her service of attending on him at any time. Although Bapu had made her his daughter, she did not have the good fortune of continuously living with him, as Mahadevbhai had. Many a time, she felt that she was missing him in the stream of her chosen life, but she never grudged this. A word from Bapu was almost a sermon to her and she would literally obey it. She had her vagaries and angularities, but her heart was pure and her dedication absolute. At times she did think that she had never been able to give full satisfaction to Bapu for there had always been something suppressed that caused tension to her mind. Bapu had noticed this and had warned her several times. Nevertheless, Bapu's assessment of Mirabehn was distinct and appreciative. In a letter to a person whose identity is not disclosed, Gandhi had written:
You have done injustice to Mira. My assessment of her is this: She is the most pious amongst us all. If we believe that she is candid, in the sense that she is not a deliberate liar, she has forsaken all beastly passions. This can be said for you and Surendra. Balkrishna and Chhotelal come next to you two. Of course, as far as I know they are trying. The rest do not matter. If I speak of myself I stand behind you in the sequence. Mira's faith is superior to Mahadev. It is definitely superior to you. As far as I have understood you, you have not fully absorbed with... You see his limitations. Mahadev tries to con­vince him that I have none. But Mira doesn't see it at all. To see that there is nothing wrong in a person is a gift from God. This cannot be achieved by intellect. We should not mix up our invaluable achievement with all that is sham around us.
Therefore, my anger against Mira is really against myself. For I know many of my shortcomings which even my staunchest critics do not know. I am full of beastly passions and I have to strive extremely hard to control them. I think I do not deserve the inexhaustible faith Mira puts in me, and yet I have to find out a man who is perfect. I shiver to accept her faith and guide her. That's why I, so often, keep her at a distance and prevent her from advancing any further. The disease that erupts in her is only owing to my limitations. For I do not possess the flawless power of taking decisions that she imagines in me. Making errors, I have to try to come to a correct decision.

[Translated from Gujarati; Mahadevbhai’s Diary, V 01. XI, pp 392-93]

The sacrifice which Mirabehn made was more than any foreigner could think of. Just after a year of her arrival in Sabarmati Ashram, her father passed away. Within another five years she lost her mother. Again after a few years, Rhona her elder sister died. But Mirabehn never turned back to look at the world she had voluntarily renounced. During the hectic days of the Round Table Conference, Gandhi and his aids happened to pass through Milton Heath, the home of her childhood dreams, but Mirabehn, though eager to go and peep inside the surroundings, did not lose her equanimity, while their car simply rushed on to its destination. Any other person would have certainly liked to go inside the gate and re-encounter the fond memories of his or her childhood days. But Mirabehn, like a true Sanyasin, had wiped off her past.
Beaconed by the stirrings of an unknown call, she had come to India. The same stirrings led her back to Vienna, via England, near the remains of Beethoven, but into her own solitary cave. The cycle of her life had taken a full circle.
Mirabehn lived the life of an ascetic, but the life itself was illuminated with what was best in her. The light that ema­nates from it will shine for a long time to come and inspire people to selfless service to humanity. It would be a most fitting monument to Mirabehn.