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Mahatma Gandhi: A Memorial Service

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Mahatma Gandhi: A Memorial Service
February 1, 1948

by John Haynes Holmes

Printed in The Enduring Greatness of Gandhi: An American Estimate Being: The Sermons of Dr. John Haynes Holmes and Donald S. Harrington, Community Church of New York. Edited by Haridas T. Muzumdar, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, India, 1982, p 268-291, abridged.

Memorial at the Birla House, at the site of Gandhi’s Murder

Memorial at the Birla House, at the site of Gandhi’s Murder.


I saw the sensational headlines in last Friday’s newspapers announcing the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. When something of the initial shock and horror of this assassination had passed away, there remained, at least in my mind, a burning sense of the supreme irony of it all, an irony as tragic as any that I have ever found in the pages of Greek drama. That Mahatma Gandhi, of all men living in the world, should have to die this way!

The irony, for example, that Gandhi, who never cherished an unkind thought, and never did an unkind deed, who fought England for forty years with never a feeling of bitterness toward any Englishman anywhere, who forgave Muslims and Hindus alike for the injury they were doing to one another, and asked them only to love one another as he loved them both—that this man should die beneath the stroke of hate and vengeance! The irony that Mahatma Gandhi, the supreme preacher and practitioner, not only in our time but in all the ages gone by, of the great principle of non-violence, should himself be called upon to fall as the victim of outrageous violence. The irony again, that with his life purpose accomplished, with India free and India’s people, after an initial ordeal of wild bloodshed, entering under his guidance upon the sure pathways of reconciliation and peace, he should be struck down on the very threshold of his sublime triumph.

History, as you know, seems to delight in ironies of this kind. Socrates, the servant of truth, made to drink the hemlock; Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet of God’s kingdom upon the earth, the victim of crucifixion; Abraham Lincoln, the sweetest and gentlest of men, struck down by a murderer’s bullet. And now, as the crown and climax of all this historic irony, Mahatma Gandhi is dead at the hand of a wild assassin. I wonder, O, I wonder, have we always needed the purging of these woes, and do we need it still, to teach us of our own sins of violence and hate, and show us, however bitterly, the better way of life!

Reflections on meeting with Gandhi

How clearly do I remember the first time I ever heard of Gandhi. How in 1921 1 came across his name, up to that moment unknown to me, in the pages of a magazine, and in the space of a few paragraphs of the article, read the epic story of Gandhi’s experience in South Africa. That was in many ways the turning point of my life.

How clearly do I remember the first time I saw Gandhi, in 1931, at Folkestone, on a cold, foggy and rainy day, when I waited with a few others on the pier to greet him, when, crossing the English Channel, he landed upon English shores to take his seat at the famous Round Table Conference of that day…

What a strange, and I say again, grotesque panorama it was! But I saw Gandhi on that happy and ever memorable day, as I did not really know at that time, the conqueror not only of the British Empire, but also of the world.

Think of what happened yesterday in Delhi! I can see it for I have looked upon that city, and seen the place of this immortal and indescribable spectacle. A procession miles long, made up of men and women of every religion, race, nationality and creed. More than a million of them gathered upon the banks of the Jamna River, to see Gandhi’s body burned in blazing light and lifted up to heaven.

And these people, even though they were more than a million in number, merely a token of those who spiritually were gathered in that procession of mourning and sorrow. For all India, from north to south and east to west, was marching yesterday in that great procession. And not only all India but all the world, for the world was standing still and silent, in reverence of this one man, as his frail body was burned, and his mighty soul liberated into eternity.

I say to you, and I say it advisedly, measuring my words, that the greatest statesman who ever lived, and the mightiest soldier, never received such a tribute as this, and I venture to prophesy never will. Gandhi had captured the heart of mankind. There wasn’t any man anywhere who did not love him—such is the power of the spirit.

Onlookers at Gandhi's funeral.

Onlookers at Gandhi’s funeral.

And Gandhi had conquered as well not only the affections of our hearts, but the convictions of our minds. As the world bowed in homage before this man, what was it but a confession of sin that he was right, and we knew it; and that all the dreadful ways of force and violence, which we have followed through the centuries, were not only wrong but criminal and wicked.

When yesterday we thought of nothing but New Delhi and the dead Gandhi, it was with penitence within our souls that he should have walked the way of life alone, or a few of us, perhaps, following afar and wishing unto God that we had the strength and courage and patience and long-suffering to be even as he.

Yes, Gandhi is the immortal and omnipotent conqueror, for he possesses the hearts of men forever, and as long as there is a human race upon this planet, will be remembered and revered. When all the kings and princes and great captains of our time, who make so much noise and occupy so central a place upon the stage, when these have long since been forgotten, every one of them, the Mahatma will still be known and revered as the greatest Indian since Gautama the Buddha, and as the greatest man since Jesus Christ.

Gandhi’s life

When I lectured on Gandhi in India—and it lifts up my heart to remember this day that I had the blessed opportunity of going to India and talking to great Indian audiences in love and homage of their great prophet—I used to think at the time of how impudent it was, that I, a man from the militant West, should come to India to talk to Indians about Gandhi. In every address that I made on Gandhi, I always started out with a fervent word of apology. But at this moment it rings like bells of joy within my heart that I had the chance to speak, and to say how I loved this man.

Always in my lectures I used to say that Gandhi’s life, as I understood it and could analyze it, was divided into three great periods, and every period was an epic in itself, an incomparable chapter of history which mankind will never forget. Think of it in passing, my dear friends, that you and I should be privileged to live in an age which has seen these chapters of history written, and to hear the words and feel the presence of this consummate spirit.

Gandhi as a young man

Gandhi as a young man.

The first period of Gandhi’s life is a period of twenty years, from 1894 to 1914, and the scene of the great drama is South Africa. Gandhi as a young man and a young barrister went to South Africa on a piece of legal business. He was absolutely unconscious of the way in which he was setting his feet. He saw not the slightest vestige of the destiny that was awaiting him. But, when he came to South Africa, he felt within his own life what it was to be a colored man in a world dominated and ruled by white men. For the first time in his experience he was made to face and suffer prejudice, discrimination and insult. He was thrown off a train, for example, because in South Africa at that time colored people were not supposed to ride on trains with white people. On one notable occasion he was refused admission to a Christian church, because he was dark-skinned, and only people who were fair-skinned went to that church of Jesus Christ.

But Gandhi was not so much overwhelmed and humiliated by what happened to him as by what he saw happening to his fellowmen and fellow-countrymen—the tens of thousands of coolies in South Africa, the poorest of the poor and the meanest of the mean, who were treated in that part of the world as Negroes are treated in the United States of America. And his heart went out to these people. And deliberately he stepped out of his place in life, left behind his appointed caste, gave up the practice of the law, sacrificed his property and his repute, and associated himself with these wretched coolies, and undertook single-handed the great task of their legal and social emancipation.

It was in this endeavor that he worked out his program of non-violent non-cooperation, which means on the one hand, negatively speaking, non-cooperation with evil and evil doers, and on the other hand, positively speaking, willingness to suffer but never to wreak suffering upon other men, and to love without stint and without discrimination enemies as well as friends.

I have no time this morning to tell the story of that twenty years’ struggle in South Africa, which ended, of course, in victory, for non-violence is irresistible, unconquerable, when it is implemented by a soul that really believes it and is not afraid to practice it. South Africa was a training ground where he learned how to organize thousands of his fellowmen to strict obedience to the principles which he would lay upon their souls. Gandhi in these twenty years suffered everything. He met humiliation and insult; of course he went to prison, more times than at this moment I can seem to remember; and it was here that for the first time he was felled to the ground by a would-be assassin.

For a wild man in South Africa, like a wild man in New Delhi yesterday, sought to take his life, and Gandhi was left in the gutter by the side of the road as one who was dead. Fortunately he was picked up in time and taken to the hospital, and the first thing he did when he awakened to consciousness, was to ask that the young assassin be brought to him. And when the frightened young man, now brought to his senses, was led to Gandhi’s bedside, the dear man opened wide his arms, as though to clasp him to his bosom, and he said, “Oh my dear young man, my son, what have I done that you were moved to do this thing?” And the young man fell in penitence and tears upon the ground before the Mahatma, and for years lived as one of the most devoted of his followers.


Gandhi on the Salt March

Gandhi on the Salt March.

The second period of Gandhi’s life is the period from 1914 to 1947, the years when Gandhi was the leader of the Indian people in the stupendous struggle for national independence. It is interesting and rather ironical to recall that when at the close of the Great War, Gandhi and his associates submitted their terms to the British Empire, Gandhi was at that time not seeking the full freedom of his country. All that he asked for and all that he expected in 1919 was a grant of dominion status to India. And how ironical it is to remember that had Great Britain been wise enough in 1919 to grant this dominion status, there probably never would have been any struggle for national independence. But it was a case at that time, as so often, of too little and too late. When Great Britain reached the time when she was ready to grant dominion status, Gandhi and the great army of Indian liberators had moved beyond that point. It was now full liberty or nothing.

Gandhi’s contributions

Gandhi taught his people for the first time the secret of personal dignity and self-respect. For nearly two hundred years the Indian people had lived subject to the alien rule of the British Empire. They had become as slavish and subservient in spirit as they were subject under the operation of British law. They bowed obsequiously before the westerner, daring not even to say or to show that perhaps their souls might still remain their own. And then Gandhi came along . . . with his own supreme sense of dignity and his belief in the integrity of his people, and conveyed to the unlettered and illiterate millions of his fellow-countrymen, that same sense of dignity and honor, of power and right, that lived within himself.

It was under the influence of the Mahatma that the Indians raised themselves from out the dust, dared for the first time to stand erect and look an Englishman straight in the face. When, after years of teaching and of discipline, he thus lifted up the people from debasement and subjection, and had taught to them the dignity and honor of their own manhood, he knew that his fight was won. For once self-respect was achieved within the masses, their power was of course supreme.

In the third place, Gandhi organized the Indian people unashamedly around his own personality. For years Gandhi spent most of his time just traveling from village to village throughout all the vast area of continental India. When he had lived in a village for a few days and then had gone upon his way as a pilgrim to the next village, he left behind what we have learned to call in this day a kind of a cell, an organized group of men and women, just a few of them in each village, who understood and were ready to act. They knew what Gandhi meant by non-violent non-co-operation. They had been taught the discipline of that kind of a life, and there they were as his representatives and his followers to obey his word and do his work. It can be said that, after a period of years, Gandhi had organized the whole Indian people around himself in the great undertaking of national independence, and the power of such organization, led by such a personality, was indeed, as it proved to be, irresistible.

Another thing that Gandhi did was a supreme evidence of his imagination and creative genius! Gandhi was able to give to the masses of’ the Indian people something to do in their great struggle for liberty. You know how often the question is asked in matters of reform—What can I do?. He gave the Indians something to do, and millions of spinning-wheels have turned and turned for years, in obedience to the example of the Mahatma.

Then there was the famous march to Dandi, when Gandhi and his followers walked dramatically across the Indian countryside to the seashore, and Gandhi, in almost melodramatic fashion, waded into the sea, lifted up a pail of the sea-water, and brought it to the shore that it might be distilled into salt, and therewith delivered the people from the tyranny of the iniquitous salt tax imposed upon them by the Empire. Gandhi was not only himself resisting the rule of Britain by this act, but he was teaching the millions of his fellow countrymen that here was something that each one of them could do. They could wade into the sea, distill the salt, and thereby prove themselves rebels against the British crown and the British law.

Lastly, Gandhi gave to the Indian people the weapons with which to carry on their fight, weapons of unimaginable power, weapons that guaranteed eventual victory, and in Gandhi’s own time, praise be to God, won the victory that he could see.

Gandhi’s place in history

Gandhi’s program of non-violent resistance is unprecedented in the history of mankind. The principle itself, resist not evil and love your enemies, is nothing new. It is at least as ancient as the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount. But Gandhi did what had never been done before. Up to his time the practice of these non-resistant principles had been limited to single individuals, or to little groups of individuals. Gandhi worked out the discipline and the program for the practicing of this particular kind of principle by unnumbered masses of human beings. He worked out a program, in other words, not merely for an individual, or a small group of individuals, but for a whole nation, and that, I say to you, is something new in the experience of man.

The third period of Gandhi’s life began on the 15th day of August, 1947, and ended only at the moment when he died on Friday last… As violence and massacre swept provinces, it seemed for a moment as though all Gandhi’s teaching were in vain. I have heard people say that Gandhi in the end failed in his great mission. Gandhi himself encouraged that idea, for in the supreme humility of his spirit, he was moved to talk about his failure as well as about his sorrow. But I have insisted from the beginning, as I would insist today, that this last period in Gandhi’s life was the greatest period of all.

In my last letter to the Mahatma, written just as I was leaving India, I put it this way. “I count these last months to be the crown and climax of your unparalleled career. You were never so great as in these last dark hours.” I wrote those words, and I have read them to you now, in token, first, of my conviction that it was the influence of Gandhi through the discipline of thirty years gone by that prevented the spread of the conflagration, so that less than five per cent of the Indian people were involved in the riots and, less than ten per cent of India’s territory, and through those dreadful days, through the vast range of Indian life, Moslems and Hindus lived peacefully side by side.

And secondly, my belief that it was by Gandhi’s own personal presence and influence at those places where the fire was burning the fiercest, that it was straightway extinguished! When I was in Delhi, tension was everywhere in the air, but everybody agreed, Moslem and Hindu alike, men great and men humble, that it was the presence of Gandhi that had brought peace to that great city which a few days before had witnessed the massacre of thousands of people in the public streets. Gandhi came to Delhi, thus stricken, bleeding and frightened, and as Jesus calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee, so Gandhi calmed and ended this storm of hate and madness.

And now he is dead.

On Friday when the news suddenly and terribly came to me, I was seized by such an unexpected convulsion of emotion that I was frightened. Instinctively this morning I went to the shelves of my library, and there I found what I was seeking, a little sonnet written years ago by George Santayana, the great poet and philosopher:

“With you a part of me hath passed away
For in the peopled forest of my mind
A tree made leafless by this wintry wind,
Shall never don again its green array.
Chapel and fireside, country road and bay
Have something of their friendliness resigned.
Another, if I would, I could not find,
And I am grown much older in a day.
But yet I treasure in my memory
Your gift of charity, and young heart’s ease,
And the dear honor of your amity.
For these once mine, my life is rich with these,
And I scarce know which part may greater be,
What I keep of you, or you rob of me.”