Maganlal Gandhi

Articles on Gandhiji's Associates & Disciples

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

Hriday Kunj was the heart of Satyagraha Ashram, but its soul was Maganlal Gandhi. He was known to be the first disciple of Gandhi, yet when Maganlal died Gandhi acknowledged him as his Guru. For conducting or developing his activities, Gandhi did not generally ask for any person, but in South Africa he asked his brother Khushaldas to give him both his sons, Maganlal and Chhaganlal, to assist him and to work for him.
In the Phoenix Ashram, the arrangement of the press, development of farming, running of the community kitchen and such other duties were entrusted to these two brothers and they in their turn did their work conscientiously. Perhaps working for Gandhi was not as difficult as was the shaping of Ashram life in tune with the ideals and rules initiated by Gandhi. Yet Maganlal Gandhi moulded his own life much in the same pattern as Gandhi would have liked him to do.
He had to strive hard to maintain the discipline of celibacy but he also believed that Gandhi should never be deceived. Therefore, he created an atmosphere of hermitage in the Ashram. The man who was brought up in the English tradition of South Africa had turned an ascetic in this experiment of Gandhi. Even when there was a heavy down pour, even when the winter cold was biting, Maganlal Gandhi would never fail to attend the morning prayer of the Ashram, which was held at 4 o’clock in the early morning. When eight hours of physical labour became a compulsory routine at the Ashram, Maganal Gandhi attended to his daily chore of sweeping, fanning, spinning and carding as punctually as the sun that performs its daily work. Once when he realized the need of helping the womenfolk in their domestic work, Maganlal started to help in cleaning utensils and washing clothes in his homestead.
Prabhudas Gandhi, while narrating the life at the Phoe­nix Ashram, described the devotion and the work culture of Maganlal Gandhi thus:

Sometimes at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, he would leave his desk and the go to green lawns away from the Press to wallow in the green grass.
If we went there he would ask 'What do you want?', and then he would give the explanation himself:
'Look! I began dozing in the midst of my writing, so I came here and started wallowing in the grass. It is better to lie down on open land. The earth sucks your fatigue. In fact, we should be immensely grateful to mother earth. In ten minutes it refreshes us more than a three-hour sleep could do.'

He took keen interest in the development of his eldest son Keshubhai. He wanted him to learn spinning, weaving and carding because Gandhi wanted to see Keshu as an expert in these crafts. In those days, at the time of the Congress session, an exhibition of Khadi was arranged at its venue and experts from different provinces would vie with one another to show their craftsmanship. Leaving spectators in amazement, Keshubhai could spin 500 threads on the Bardoli spinning wheel. All experiments, small or big, were done under the guidance of MaganIal Gandhi and the person who carried out these experiments was none else but his son Keshubhai.
There were three noteworthy features of the community life in the Ashram: collective prayer, collective spinning and collective dining in the community kitchen. If prayer is to be conducted properly, one should know how best to recite and that too directly from memory. Maganlal learnt his prayers by heart and also learnt to recite them. Those who heard him sing these devotional songs hardly forgot the atmosphere and the creator of that solemn atmosphere.
Maganlal was known to be a man of quick temper but frank and humane at heart. He would see his point carried through either by command or by persuasion.
Being a great organizer, people outside the Ashram would requisition the services of Maganlal Gandhi for hard and difficult tasks. In 1927 when the Kheda district was inundated and many villages were washed away, it was decided to build a new village named after Vithalbhai Patel, the speaker of the Central Assembly. This work was en­trusted to Maganlal Gandhi by the Gujarat Provincial Con­gress Committee. Maganlal did this with utmost care in such a manner that the GPCC and its leader Vallabhbhai Patel were pleased at the creation of Vithalpur village in Mehemdabad tehsil of Kheda. In building up this village, Maganal had chosen his own team of colleagues. Among them was one Jagannath Joshi. from Rajkot who, leaving his fat income in South Africa, came to work with Maganlal Gandhi on a meagre stipend of twelve rupees a month for his livelihood. Jagannath Joshi spent, the rest of his life in Rajkot. He resembled Maganlal Gandhi in much of his work.
Maganlal was a hard taskmaster and as such earned resentment from many of his co-dwellers. Gradually a feel­ing of unrest was born in the inmates of the Ashram. Gandhi sensed the feeling of discontent and called a meeting on 17 February 1919 and said:

The inmates are satisfied with nothing in the Ashram. The reason? Dissatisfaction over Maganlal's ideas and conduct, over his manner of speaking and over a certain partiality in his actions. Lack of faith in the Ashram on the part of others, those in the school. What is my position in these circumstances?
I must place before you some strict principles. I have not invited the ladies, but they, too feel disgusted, and are thinking of leaving. I have told them that they will not get anywhere else what they have gained here. You may remain in the Ashram only if you think you can put up with all that life here means. So think well before you decide to remain or leave. Why do you stick on here despite. your dissatisfaction? Surely, none of you is too weak to leave. It is, then, out of your love for me and blind attachment to me.
The first principle, then, which emerges is that to be attached to a person apart from his work is blind attachment. I knew persons in South Africa who were blindly attached to me. I made it clear to them that, if they found Phoenix, which was my creation, of no worth, then I too, had none. If they lacked faith in my creation, then, naturally, they were bound to lose faith in me as well. I am a good judge of men but I cannot prove this to you just now. Nevertheless, if you have no faith in the Ashram, if you are dissatisfied with it, you had better leave it. Only those of you may remain who have joined it to give something or to point out to Gandhi his follies and errors. But I find none such. All of you have come here to give and to receive. I t is from the whole lot of us that the worth of the Ashram will be judged. We cannot measure a man's worth indepen­dently of his work.
In South Africa, my best creation was Phoenix. Without it, there would have been no Satyagraha in that country. Without the Ashram here, Satyagraha will be impossible in India. I may be making a mistake in this, if so, I ought to be deserted. I am going to ask the country not to judge me by either Champaran or Kheda but only by the Ashram. If you find lack of order in this place, and blindness of ignorance, then you will find the same in all my work. I am faithful to its ideals. If I find that I cannot hold anyone here, I will undertake a searching examina­tion of myself and will try to make a sacrifice which will be of the purest. Do not attribute greatness to me for other works of mine; judge me only by the Ashram. One of my creations here in the Ashram is Maganlal. If I have found from experience five million shortcomings in Maganlal, I have found ten million virtues in him. Beside him, Polak is a mere child; the blows that Maganlal has endured, Polak has not.
Maganlal has offered all his work as sacrifice, not for my sake but for the sake of an ideal. It is not for me he is slaving; he is wedded to an ideal. Once he was ready to bid good-bye, and leave me. It boils down to this, that I cannot run the Ashram after sending away Maganlal. If I sent him away, I would be the only one left in the Ashram. For the tasks we have undertaken Maganlal, too, is fully needed. I have yet to see a better man than he. To be sure, he is short ­tempered, has his imperfections, but on the whole he is a fine man. As for his honesty, I have no doubt. You must take it as proved that I am bad to the extent that Maganlal is bad.
Just as if I quarrelled with my brother or parents, I would not go out to complain about it to others, so also, we should not take to outsiders our complaints against anyone in the institution where we are members. The moment one begins to suspect or dislike another, one should leave him. When, following this course, he has left the entire world, he will find himself all alone; and will then commit suicide, or, realising his own imperfec­tions, get rid of his dislikes. One should not only not speak ill, before others, of the institution in which one stays, but one should not think ill of it even in one's mind. The moment such a thought occurs, one should banish it. There should be joy in the Ashram, especially when I am out. If you think of me as an elder, you should conduct yourselves worthily, mindful of my instructions. Now that I am here, you may take some freedom and do as you please, but once I am out you should allow yourselves no freedom.
If there is no harmony here in my absence, something is lacking in me and, therefore, you should leave me.
If I removed the cause of discontent in the Ashram, it would be to bring peace to Maganlal; or rather, not for his peace but for the sake of the country, because I have offered Maganlal as a sacrifice to the country.
You may persuade me to give up either the Ashram or Maganlal. I shall not send him away so long as I have not come to feel that he goes about setting one against another. To measure a man's worth, the world has no other yardstick than his work. As the work, so the man. This very charge was levelled by an intimate friend of mine, Mr. Kitchin. However, the fine, systematic work which Maganlal has done, none else has.

[Mahadevbhaini Diary (Gujarati), Vol. V]

How the Mahatma cared for Maganlal Gandhi is seen in his speech quoted above and also in a letter which he wrote to Kasturba Gandhi. The letter was written on his way to Bombay on 23 April 1918, In the letter Gandhi wrote:

You have to be a mother to Maganlal He has parted from his parents and made my work his own. At present it is Maganlal, if anyone, who has so trained himself that he can carry on my work after me. Who will give him the needed strength? It is for you to show concern for his suffering, to be solicitous of his meals, to save him from all manner of worries.

[Collected Works, Vol. 14 p 367, (1965)]

Maganlal Gandhi died of typhoid at Patna on 23 April 1928. Gandhi had sent Maganlal's daughter, Radha, to Bihar, to educate women and to get them rid of hiding their faces behind the veil. Prabhavati, the daughter of Brijkishore Babu, was also working with Radha. Maganlal Gandhi had gone to Champaran to see and feel their work. He did not come back. In a telegram to Khushalchand Gandhi, his father, Gandhi said:

Maganlal died morning at Patna. You know he was more to me than to you. You must not give way to grief. His is a noble death. Narandas leaving tonight.

[Collected Works, Vol 36, p 255 (1970)]

In an article entitled, 'My Best Comrade Gone' Gandhi wrote in Young India on 26 Apri11928:

'He whom I had singled out as heir to my all is no more. MaganJal K Gandhi, a grandson of an uncle of mine, had, been with me in my work since 1904. Maganlal's father has given all his boys to the cause. The deceased went early this month to Bengal with Seth Jamnalalji and others, contracted a high fever whilst he was on duty in Bihar and died under the protecting care of Brijkishore Prasad in Patna after an illness of nine days and after receiving all the devoted nursing that love and skill could give.
Maganlal Gandhi went with me to South Africa in 1903 in the hope of making a bit of fortune. But hardly had he been store-keeping for one year, when he re­sponded to my sudden call to self-imposed poverty, joined the Phoenix settlement and never once faltered or failed after so joining me. If he had not dedicated himself to the country's service, his undoubted abilities and indefatigable industry would have made him a mer­chant prince. Put in a printing press he easily and quickly mastered the secrets of the art of printing. Though he had never before handled a tool or a machine, he found himself at home in the engine room, the machine room and at the compositor's desk. He was, equally at ease with the Gujarati editing of the Indian Opinion. Since the Phoenix scheme included domestic fanning, he became a good fanner. His was I think the best garden at the settlement. It may be of interest to note that the very first issue of Young India published in Ahmedabad bears the marks of his labours when they were much needed.
He had a sturdy constitution which he wore away in advancing the cause to which he had dedicated himself. He closely studied and followed my spiritual career and when I presented to my coworkers brahmacharya as a rule of life even for married men in search of Truth, he was the first to perceive the beauty and the necessity of the practice and, though it cost him to my knowledge a terrific struggle, he carried it through to success, taking his wife along with him by patient argument instead of imposing his views on her.
When satyagraha was born, he was in the fore­front. He gave me the expression which I was striving to find to give its full meaning to what the South African struggle stood for, and which for want of a better term, I allowed to be recognized by the very insufficient and even misleading term" passive resistance". I wish I had the very beautiful letter he then wrote to me giving his reasons for suggesting the name (Sadagrah) which I changed to (Satyagrah) He argued out the whole philosophy of the struggle step by step and brought the reader irresistibly to his chosen name. The letter, I re­member was incredibly short and to the point as all his communications always were.
During the struggle he was never weary of work, shirked no task and by his intrepidity he infected every­one around him with courage and hope. When everyone went to jail, when at Phoenix courting imprisonment was like a prize to be won at my instance, he stayed back in order to shoulder a much heavier task. He sent his wife to join the women's party.
On our return to India, it was he again who made it possible to found the Ashram in the austere manner in which it was founded. Here he was called to a newer and more difficult task. He proved equal to it. Untouchability was a very severe trial for him. Just for one brief moment his heart seemed to give way. But it was only for a second. He saw that love had no bounds and that it was necessary to live down the ways of 'untouch­ables', if only because the so-called higher castes were responsible for them.
The mechanical department of the Ashram was not a continuation of the Phoenix activity. Here we had to learn weaving, spinning, carding, and ginning. Again I turned to Maganlal. Though the conception was mine, his were the hands to reduce it to execution. He learnt weaving and all the other processes that cotton had to go through before it became Khadi. He was a born mechanic.
When dairying was introduced in the Ashram he threw himself with zeal in the work, studied dairy literature, named every cow and became friends with every animal on the settlement.
And when tannery was added, he was undaunted and had proposed to learn the principles of tanning as soon as he got a little breathing time. Apart from his scholastic training in the High School at Rajkot, he learnt the many things he knew so well in the school of hard experience. He gathered knowledge from village car­penters, village weavers, farmers, shepherds and such ordinary folk. He was the Director of the Technical Department of the Spinners Association, and during the recent floods in Gujarat, Vallabhbhai put him in charge of building the new township Vithalpur.
He was an exemplary father. He trained his chil­dren, one boy and two girls, all unmarried still-so as to make them fit for dedication to the country. His son Keshu is showing very great ability in mechanical engi­neering, all of which he had picked up like his father from seeing ordinary carpenters and smiths at work. His eldest daughter Radha, eighteen years old, recently shouldered a difficult and delicate mission to Bihar in the interest of women's freedom. Indeed he had a good grasp of what national education should be and often engaged the teachers in earnest and critical discussion over it.
Let not the reader imagine that he knew nothing of politics. He did, but he chose the path of silent, selfless constructive service.
He was my hands, my feet and my eyes. The world knows so little of how much my so-called greatness depends upon the incessant toil and drudgery of silent, devoted, able and pure workers, men as well as women. And among them all Maganalal was to me the greatest, the best and the purest.
As I am penning these lines, I hear the sobs of the widow bewailing the death of her dear husband. Little does she realize that I am more widowed than she. And but for a living faith in God, I should become a raving maniac for the loss of one who was dearer to me than my own sons, who never once deceived me or failed me, who was a personification of industry, who was the watchdog of the Ashram in all its aspects-material, moral and spiritual. His life is an inspiration for me, a standing demonstration of the efficiency and the supremacy of the moral law. In his own life he proved visibly for me not for a few days, not for a few months, but for twenty four long years-now alas too short-that service of the country, service of humanity and self-­realization or knowledge of God are synonymous terms.
Maganlal is dead, but he lives in his works whose imprints he who runs may read on every particle of dust in the Ashram.

[Collected Works, Vol. XXIX, pp. 923-3]

Gandhi paid another tribute to Maganlal in Gujarati, in Navjivan on 29 April 1928 :

When Vallabhbhai received the news of Maganlal Gandhi's death, he wired: “The soul of the Ashram had departed.” There was no exaggeration in this. I cannot imagine the existence of Satyagraha Ashram without Maganlal. Many of my activities were started because I knew that he was there. If ever there was a person with whom I identified myself, it was Maganlal. We often have to consider whether certain matters will hurt another person, even if that person be one's own son or wife. I never had to entertain such fear with regard to Maganlal. I never hesitated to set him the most difficult tasks. I very often put him in embarrassing situations and he silently bore with them. He regarded no work as too mean.
If I were fit to be anyone's guru, I would have proclaimed him my first disciple.
In all my life I gave only one person the freedom to regard me as his guru and I had my fill of it. The fault was not his, as I could see; only I had imperfections. Anyone who becomes guru should possess the power of conferring on the pupil the capacity to carry out whatever task is assigned to him. I had not that power and still do not have it.
But if Maganlal was not a disciple, he was certainly a servant. I am convinced that no master could possibly find a servant better or more loyal than Maganlal. This may be a conjecture, but I can assert from my experience that I have not found another servant like him. It has been my good fortune always to have found co-workers, or servants if you like, who were faithful, virtuous, intelligent and industrious. Still, Maganlal was the best of all these co-workers and servants. The three streams of knowledge, devotion and action continuously flowed within Maganlal and, by offering his knowledge and his devotion in the yajnaof action, he demonstrated before everyone their true form. And because, in this way each action of his was full of awareness, knowledge and faith, his life attained the very summit of sannyasa. Maganlal had renounced his all. I never saw an iota of self-interest in any of his actions. He showed-not once, not for a short time but, time after time for twenty-four years incessantly-that true sannyasa lay in selfless action or action without desire for reward.
Maganlal's father entrusted all his four sons to me one after another for serving the country. Maganlal was en­trusted to me in 1903. He accompanied me to South Africa to earn a living. In 1904, I invited him along with other friends to embrace poverty in order to serve the country. He heard me calmly and embraced poverty. From that time on until his death, his life was an uninterrupted flow. With each day I realize more and more that my mahatmaship, which is a mere adornment, depends on others. I have shone with the glory borrowed from my innumerable co-workers. However, no one has done more to add to this glory than Maganlal. He cooperated with me fully and with intelligence in all my activities-physical or spiritual. I see no better instance than Maganlal of one who made a tremendous effort to act as he believed. Maganlal was awake all the twenty-four hours, establishing unity of thought and action. He used up all his energy in this.
If I have not exaggerated, consciously or unconsciously, in this sketch, one can say that a country in which dharma can be so embodied must triumph and so must its dharma. Hence I wish that every servant of the country should study Maganlal's life and if it commends itself to him imitate it with determination. What was possible for Maganlal is possible for every man who makes the effort. Maganlal could become a true leader because he was a true soldier and I find those who could put up with his fire weeping around me now.
This country, as also the world, is in need of true soldiers. Service of the country, service of the world, self-realization, vision of God-these are not separate things but different aspects of the same thing. Maganlal realized the truth of this in his own life and made others do so. Those who are curious can study his life and find this out.

Source: Collected Works, Vol. 36, pp. 279-281, 1970