In 1947 Phillips Talbot, an American journalist and future diplomat, traveled with Gandhi as he met with residents of villages that had suffered from communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, and in a letter Talbot gave this description of one of Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings. These were a regular feature of ashram life with Gandhi, and he held them on when he traveled; in fact, he was on his way to one when he was assassinated in New Delhi in January of the next year.
In his daily prayer meeting Gandhi meets the world; this is his best platform. Welcoming all who will come to his open-air meeting, he proceeds through a ritual that reveals his eclectic faith. One by one, the audience hears an extract from Buddhist scriptures (suggested by a Japanese monk who stayed at Gandhi’s ashram until he was interned at Pearl Harbor); several recitations from revered Hindu writings; ashramite vows (truth, nonviolence, nonstealing, celibacy, nonpossession, removal of untouchability, etc.); readings from the Quran; a Zend Avesta (Zoroastrian) quotation; a hymn which may be Hindi, Bengali, or some Christian song in translation; and a joyous tuneful recital of the name of Ram, to the accompaniment in-cadence of hand-clapping. This devotional exercise is followed each day by a talk in which Gandhi gives expression to almost any thought exercising his mind. Listeners may hear of village sanitation, women, in purdah, Hindu-Muslim relations, reactions to the latest Muslim League resolution, a hint as to what new course the Congress will adopt, and observations on London’s policy. Taken together, reports of these after-prayer talks furnish perhaps the best guide to the trend of Gandhian thought. These reports, I might add, are authentic. While his Bengali interpreter translates his remarks to the village crowd, Gandhi sits crosslegged on his small platform, penning out the authorized English version of what he has said in Hindi. He writes in third person and refers to himself by his initial. “Addressing the prayer gathering at Bansa this evening, G. said . . .”
Phillips Talbot, “With Gandhi in Noakhali, February 16, 1947,” in An American Witness to India’s Partition (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007), 205–6.
Used with permission