Gokhale: The Less Known Aspects




Among us biography is serious, almost solemn. The hero’s opinions, quarrels, triumphs, go on the record. Nothing about his food, mannerisms, amusements. The lighter side is kept out. Yet no account of a man can be complete without it. We cannot form a mental picture of the man unless we know how he dressed, walked and ate. Gokhale’s figure is familiar–his handsome face, his fair colour, his long coat of gray, his red puggree, his scarf of white with thin lace border. Still when I tell you he wore a cap sometimes, and often tied a long narrow strip of coloured cloth round his head as a loose turban, and that for many years, like any domesticated Deccani, he changed into holy time-honoured silk at meals, and that till he made his first voyage he grew a long tuft at the back of his head and tied it into a knot–don’t you feel he comes nearer to you and, if you met him, you could address him familiarly and ask, “Well, Gopal Rao, how are you today?” When I first knew him he had become heavy and disinclined to exercise. At one time he used to play tennis with the vigour and zest characteristic of youth. Middle age overtook him prematurely, and caused him to fall back on walking. Even in that easy region, don’t we know of virtuous resolutions to be regular, the conspiracy of envious circumstances that overpowers us on the third or fourth day, and our dutiful submission to the decree of inexorable fate? It was one of these fateful mornings when he paused to watch Principal Paranjpye and me pitted against each other on a tennis court. The game was strenuous but didn’t declare itself easily. He didn’t like his pet pupil extended by an obscure stranger and cried out: “It is a misery to me to see you dragged about by Sastri.” Always keen on the proprieties, I thought the word ‘misery’ erred on the side of excess. But when I went back, I reflected that, if I had a scholar like Paranjpye and seen him seize the Senior Wranglership and made him Principal straightaway of a great college and served under him with pride as professor, I should have thought he was invincible at tennis, or, at any rate, that he should be invincible by rights. “So anyhow Gokhale has flesh and blood,” I concluded. Talking of flesh and blood, I am reminded of a humorous remark of Mr. H. W. Nevinson, the journalist who came to India in 1907-08 and wrote The New Spirit in India. Gokhale told him he hated the word ‘moderate’ as applied to his school of politics; Nevinson put it down in his book adding “as all beings of flesh and blood must”.


Would you know something of his food? Being diabetic, he was placed under strict diet but didn’t always observe it. He must have his brinjals daily, seasoned with chilies in as angry a style as would have pleased any Andhra of the Krishna District. When he ate by himself, he gulped the meal in mouthfuls as though he had been famished and bolted it in three or four minutes. Ghee, prized above everything else by the true Brahmana, he avoided like poison; he could not endure it even on his neighbour’s plate. Someone told to me this was because, for a long time, he had had to swallow quantities of it along with medicines. Curds were a favourite dish, and he grew lyrical when he expatiated on the unequalled merits of a preparation of curds called srikhand. In all India there was no sweet to compare with it, and he found it in his heart to forgive the Peshwa who lost an empire eating it. So he told Lord Kitchner at a banquet. I would like to believe his admiration was only academic, for he was not blest with the marvelous eupepsia of the ordinary Maharashtrian, who could account at one sitting for as much of it as an unhusked coconut, while the most I could boast of was two finger tips applied gingerly to the tongue. To those among you or who may still lie frog like in sequestered wells, let me give the latest dictionary definition of srikhand: a viscous cloying viand, much valued in the Deccan, of which the main ingredient is curds thoroughly dehydrated, heavily saccharified and besaffroned to saturation point.” To take pride in the delicacies of one’s province, is, I suppose, an amiable variety of patriotism. All over India the native of Madras is most willing to despise himself and exalt others. Even he, I am sure, feels bucked up when he hears his unpretentious iddili praised beyond Raichur or Vizianagaram.


Though polite and tender-hearted to a degree, Gokhale was deficient by Indian standards in the virtue of accessibility. He preferred to see people by previous appointment. He was annoyed when anybody dropped in casually just for a chat, with no plan to discus or suggestion to make. I fancy he would have collapsed if admirers crowded round him for mere darsan. Careful not to offend in any way, he was observant of forms. Usually he sat in the front verandah of his modest residence with just a shirt on, and screened from public view by the thick curtain of plants. Here his familiar associates and friends had open access and enjoyed his talks,–instructive, varied, anecdotal an enlivened by loud laughter and childlike clapping of hands. Occasionally, however, he would espy a stranger, and it was then amusing to see how he would part the leaves in front of him and look through the hole for a reconnaissance. If the visitor was only slightly known or wholly unknown, he would hasten to don a coat and repair to the receiving room for the interview. Sir Raghunath Paranjpye says he inspired awe in the casual visitor. I would not put it so sharply. But it must be admitted he did not thaw easily, and men have complained of a certain brusqueness or impatience of manner which did not encourage a free flow of talk. Students had to be on their guard how they approached him. He had no patience with the breezy, free and easy style that the modern student sometimes showed towards seniors. His own behaviour to Dadabhai, Ranade, Mehta, Bhandarkar, Joshi and others of their age was strongly marked by old world ceremonial reverence, and he naturally feared that, when a young man dropped the outward signs of respect, he dropped the homage of the heart as well.


At this point I shall do well to narrate Gokhale’s own account of his first interview with Mrs. Besant During one of her early visits to Poona he attended a meeting at which she answered questions from candidates for admission to the Theosophical Society. When his turn came he plied her hard and his manner perhaps appeared controversial. In her impatience she burst out: “Young man, when you come to be my age, these things will appear in a clearer light.” That decided Gokhale against the Society. But ‘thereby hangs a tail’, as a wag has said. Long afterwards Mrs. Besant and leading Theosophists continued to claim him as a member. Questioned by me once, he became vehement and said, “When next anybody calls me a Theosophist, deny it in my name; I authorise you.” The time soon came when I had to convey this unpleasing news to Mrs. Besant. For a fraction of a moment she appeared nettled but she at once recovered composure and changed the topic. Inquiry showed that an intimate friend of Gokhale had paid the prescribed fee of admission and maintained his name on the register for two or three years. I guess Gokhale was aware of this fact, but he was not a consenting party, and the dubious status came to an end soon. In Theosophical circles one may occasionally find the belief still in his continued membership, but the emphatic disclaimer that I have recorded should give a quietus to the story. But I must guard against a possible misapprehension. Gokhale to the last minute of his life gave testimony without stint to her unparalleled services to the country of her adoption, and, in personal behaviour, showed every mark of respect for her eminence in the world. She, for her part, never missed an opportunity of praising the pure gold of his patriotism, declared more than once that the columns of New India were always at his disposal and that he might treat the paper as if it were his own.


How earnest natures are drawn irresistibly to each other comes out vividly from an incident mentioned by Justice Sadasiva Iyer, when he took part in the 1926 celebration of this anniversary. In 1908, the year of the first Convention Congress at Madras, Gokhale made one of his stirring speeches on the platform of the Social Conference on the elevation of the Depressed Classes, as they were still called then. As he went back to his seat, Sadasiva Iyer caught the hem of his garment and kissed it in an ecstasy of reverence. Strange that the native fire of enthusiasm should have survived many years of refrigerative judicial work.


Gokhale had a whim once and yielded to it. He filled a shaving soap tube with sovereigns and kept it by his side. I was stolen. He took a similar tube at once and refilled it with the glittering metal.


Gokhale loved his daughters but never demonstrated it as other fathers usually do. They lived apart from him under his sister’s care, and visited him at stated intervals. Sir Lallubhai Samaldas once told how his daughter remonstrated with Gokhale against an exacting time-table of work that he framed for his elder daughter, now Mrs. Dhavle, who had fallen back a little in her studies. Miss Samaldas used some expression like this: “You must be not only a strict schoolmaster but a loving father as well.” To this let me add another observation that he made to me when he was my guest in Sydogy Lane, Triplicane. News came from Poona that his second daughter was taken ill suddenly and his presence was necessary. For a few brief moments he seemed to hesitate about his movements. Was he to cancel his Elementary Education Bill tour and return home? I pressed for this decision and while yielding he used words, words which after 34 years I cannot recall without emotion. He seemed, he said, to hear her ask half reproachfully, “What have I known of a father’s love and care?” Poor thing, she did not survive that illness long.


I have more than once contradicted the common belief that he nominated me as his successor in the headship of the Servants of India Society. Even when asked about it in his last moments, he would say nothing. This account remains substantially true. But a passage in the autobiography of Sir P. C. Ray, published in 1932, seems to call for a slight qualification. Gokhale and I visited him once in 1911 in connection with the Elementary Education Bill. Of this interview he records in this book: 1


“Once Gokhale brought Mr., now the Rt. Hon’ble, Srinivasa Sastri to me and introduced him to me as a poor schoolmaster like himself and whispered into my ear that he looked upon him as his future successor. His penetration and insight, I need scarcely add, have been more than justified. It is curious to note that the two great statesmen of India, who have commanded not only the applause but also the admiration and respect for listening senates at home and abroad have been, like my humble self, schoolmasters.”


Gokhale had a playful habit of betting on all occasions and sundry. 1 “Come, let’s put five rupees on it.” That sum was his unit. Once he challenged me. I protested. Imagining I shrank from so large a figure he cried impatiently, “Come, bet one rupee”. I said I was a conscientious objector to all betting and got off. Else there was risk of a court martial.


Though he never had much money, his mode of life, ever since I knew him, was high, higher than would have been expected of him. He tipped servants like a prince. He subscribed generously for causes. He helped friends open-handedly.


Of his religious views I have spoken previously. In a fit of excessive candour he called himself an agnostic, and the name stuck to him. Not, it would appear, quite justifiably. As early as 1898, we find him, under the sting of the apology episode, invoking the grace of Guru Dattatreya and making large resolutions among which were one to practice Yoga and one to learn the best philosophical religion and teach it to the whole world. There was no room in his tenuous belief for high-pitched asceticism, taboos or ceremonies. I distinctly recall the eve of my admission in Calcutta when he prescribed a purificatory bath and apprised me of a slight ritual to be gone through, not, he explained half apologetically, for any spiritual merit but to invest the occasion with solemnity. I was never to publish it or discuss it with outsiders. The prohibition is enjoined, I presume, on every new entrant, for it is not generally known to the public. He once inquired whether I had faith in astrology and, when I answered in the negative, said some predictions came astoundingly true and wondered how I would explain them. I rejoined that science had many puzzles to solve but that fact need not compel us to put any credence in the calculations or revelations of astrologers. He did not thereafter resume the topic with me; but I discovered that he paid a horoscope and obtained reports of what was going to happen to him every fortnight. After his death I received periodical forecasts of my fortune, but I took no notice and they ceased in time.


Let me at this point recount an interesting experience. In the early part of 1915, when Gokhale was in the grip of his fatal malady, we had a good friend staying with us and sharing our anxiety. He had the biographer’s curiosity bump developed to abnormal size. Members had to answer searching interrogatories. Did he say his prayers regularly? Visit shrines? Observe the customary fasts and feasts? Perform his parents’ sraddha? Study the Gita or other scriptural books? We did what we could to slake his thirst for information. But one item floored us: Did he wear his yajnopavita? None of us knew. He thought the answer vital. Why not hazard a direct question? Why not set a trusted menial on the scent? We neither assisted diligently in this research nor encouraged intrigues with the establishment for the purpose. The gentleman had, therefore, to return home with this mystery vexing his soul. Poor man, he is gone where I cannot communicate with him; or I could now supply the gap in Gokhale record. From an unexpected quarter trustworthy information has come that, during the last dozen years or so of his life, he wore no sacred thread athwart the chest or round the neck halterwise, as I have seen some educated men do as a sort of half-way house between conformity and open rebellion. In Calcutta, where he was a regular visitor for meetings of the old Imperial Legislative Council, he had a highly cultured Brahmo lady-friend. Mrs. Ray entertained in style, and at her table the conversation was both high-souled and animated. She admired Gokhale’s character and public spirit and took special interest in his work. People called her his Egeria. I shall now let her tell the story herself. The occasion is this very day in 1943, and she is talking to the girls of a high school which he has founded in his name and to the promotion of which she has dedicated herself:


“One incident during these discussions I will relate to you, and it will prove to you Gokhale’s intrinsic love of truth and his great virtue of owning his own errors. One evening after dinner we were both trying to convince each other of our respective theories (he gave precedence to political reform, she to social reform) when I got rather angry and said, “Now, Mr. Gokhale, with all your ideals of unity of India and political freedom, tell me which of your men are sincere and truthful. You can’t even give up your caste system; you don’t believe in idolatry, and still your biggest political leaders go to Benares and do their Pinda etc. according to the old rites; none of you political men can live up to your own convictions; yet, you want to unite India and govern. I am sure with all your liberal views, you have a sacred thread under your shirt to denote that you are a Brahmin born. Even you have not got the strength of your convictions.” I saw him grow rather grave, and I thought probably I had overstepped my familiarity by personal attack, so I turned the conversation to other higher matters. Would you believe the next morning comes to me a sealed envelope enclosing his sacred thread, cut into two pieces with the following words in a slip of paper.”


“Many thanks for rousing me to order. I own that I had no business to wear my sacred thread when I did not believe in it. Henceforth I shalt try to act according to my convictions. Forgive.”


“I have kept that sacred thread in a little box with the slip of paper attached to it. It is very seldom in life you have the opportunity of meeting a man who loves truth and is strong enough to own an error.”


In the famous statement of aims, which Gokhale prefixed, to the Constitution and Rules of the Servants of India Society, there occurs a striking sentence of which the precise scope and significance have been the subject of some dispute. Let me read it in its context:


“One essential condition of success in the work is that a sufficient number of our countrymen must now come forward to devote themselves to the cause in the spirit in which religious work is undertaken. Public life must be spiritualised. Love of country must so fill the heart that all else shall appear as of little moment by its side. A fervent patriotism which rejoices at every opportunity of sacrifice for the: Motherland, a dauntless heart which refuses to be turned back from its object by difficulty or danger, a deep faith in the purpose of Providence which nothing can shake,–equipped with these the worker must start on his mission and reverently seek the joy of spending oneself in the service of the country.”


That passage was no doubt composed in one of Gokhale’s inspired moments. The ideal is pure, of the other region, unattainable except by persons of saintly elevation and self-conquest. It is meant to be the pole-star by which members have to steer, their crazy barks to the port of duty. The words may, in actual practice, mean much or little. The canon of interpretation in such cases is to study the vows undertaken and the rules laid down for the daily guidance of members. These vows and rules determine the limits within which, roughly speaking, their actions must lie,–an upper limit above which they need not go, a lower limit below which they must not fall. As lawyers will say, the sections of an Act are the law, not the preamble or statement of objects and reasons. Another test, not so final or authoritative, but yet valuable as a rough guide or measure, is the practice and example of the man who framed the rules and himself followed them. Gokhale lived for ten years as First Member. Though few could attain his stature or emulate his achievement, his range and line of work were there for the whole world to see. The vows and rules go to the very root of character and the inner life. ‘I have 37 years’ experience and not even for a brief season have I been free from chagrin that I have not lived up to them. When our Congress friends of Madras became the Government and announced the remuneration and allowances of their office and the regulations for their conduct, I recognised their high quality readily and declared my appreciation by saying in the Legislative Council that, while we of the Servants of India Society had stopped at the matriculation stage in the University of sacrifice, Mr. Rajagopalachari and his compatriots were proceeding to the doctorate. I shall now mention an enterprise of even greater pith and moment, not so generally known. Dr. D. K. Karve, founder of the famous Widows’ Home near Poona and later of the Women’s University, enlisted for the actual work of the home a band of qualified persons whom he organised as an Asrama, the rules and conditions of which were more stringent than those of our Society. After a few years his self-effacing soul did not find full rest and satisfaction in the Asrama. Gokhale’s expression, “Public life must be spiritualised”, gripped his inmost being and demanded far more self-denial and rigour of conduct. So he organised a fresh band of workers, who should reach higher peak of selflessness, and gave them the name and style of Nishkama karma Matha adopting the Gita ideal of work without attachment. These karma yogins and karma-yoginis had to take eight vows before initiation. They are much akin in language and scope to our own, and perhaps you will like to know them.


(a)    From this day forward I shall devote my life to the work of the Matha.

(b)   I shall use my capabilities to their fullest extent and, while engaged in the work connected with the institution, I shall never wish for private gains.

(c)    I shall ungrudgingly submit to the decisions consistent with the rules of the institution.

(d)   I shall cheerfully remain satisfied with the arrangements made by the majority of votes regarding my maintenance and of those dependents on me.

(e)    I shall keep my private life pure.

(f)     My living and dress will be plain and simple.

(g)    I shall be generous in the matter of the religious belief of others and I shall do nothing to shock their susceptibilities.

(h)    I shall hate no one.


The story of this new Matha has a sequel of some significance, for it illustrates the truth that, even of an undoubtedly good thing, there may be too much. The disparity between the Asrama and the Matha was noticeable and engendered jealousy and hostility. The misunderstanding became acute, and Dr. Karve, with the consent of both parties, came to Gokhale for arbitration. On him rested the responsibility in a way, for it was his spiritualisation mantra that had worked on the ascetic spirit of the organizer of the rival orders. Gokhale’s finding was that the asramites had a genuine grievance and were entitled to some relief. He evolved a formula for this purpose. But he told me, for I happened to be there, that Karve had not given full consideration to the human aspects of the problem. The compromise did not work, and in Karve’s own words, the Matha was ultimately merged in the Widows’ Home, the Sevakas and Sevikas of the Matha becoming life members of the Widows’ Home.


* Speech delivered on the 19th February 1945, at the Servants of Indian Society, Royapettah, Madras. The Hon. Rao Bahadur Justice N. Chandrasekhara Iyer, Presided.


1 Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist by P. G. Ray, Vol. I