The Politics of Gandhi’s Last Words

Vinay Lal

[Published in Humanscape 8, no. 1 (January 2001):34-38.]

On the evening of 30 January 1948, around ten minutes past five o’clock, Gandhi emerged from the interior of Birla House, where he had been immersed in a meeting with Sardar Patel, and began to walk towards the garden where for some days he had been holding an ecumenical prayer meeting every evening. The details of that last two-minute walk are not unimportant, but have been often glossed over: in a life deliberately and insistently given to walking, Gandhi’s last walk appears to be of no paramount or unusual significance, except insofar as it terminated in the immediate extinction of his life. Perhaps a narrative of the circumstances under which Gandhi walked to his destination that evening may help illuminate the importance of the details. Gandhi was sworn to punctuality, and his life was governed by the watch to an unusual degree; though it should at once be added that despite keeping to a meticulous schedule for much of his life, Gandhi’s conception of time was never such that it did not allow him to make time for anyone, howsoever high or lowly, who should choose to enter into his life or make demands upon him. That pernicious word ‘busy’, with which we all excuse ourselves from the common obligations of humanity, and the onerous company of unwanted relatives, acquaintances, and others who seek to intrude upon our time, was surely no part of Gandhi’s lexicon. Yet on this, what would transpire to be the last day of his life, Gandhi would be late to his 5:00 PM appointment with friends, devotees, and those who came to seek his darsan. It is said of the philosopher Kant that he was so punctual in taking his daily walk that the housewives of Konigsberg set their clocks by his walk; well might one have said the same of Gandhi.

If the slightest slackening of the disciplined life was calculated to agitate him, it is a reasonable inference that Gandhi was in a disturbed or uneasy frame of mind as he quickly walked towards the garden of Birla House on the evening of January 30. Indeed, his grand-niece, Manu, later related that in the minutes before his assassination, he scolded her and Abha, who together with Manu tended to his needs, for failing to keep a watch on the time. He said, “I do not like being late for the prayer meeting. Today’s delay is due to your negligence . . . Even a minute’s delay for the prayer causes me great discomfort.” (1) The onerous responsibility he had taken upon himself to heal the rift between Nehru and Patel, his two closest associates, and now the two most powerful in the government of independent India, could only have aggravated the distress that Gandhi might have been expected to feel that evening. We can never know how his mood affected his reception of the assassin’s bullets.

Among the very few possessions of his life, now preserved in the Gandhi Museum at Rajghat in New Delhi, is the time-piece that Gandhi attached to his dhoti or loin-cloth, and which had served him well for several decades. The iconic representation, in sculpture, painting, and photography, of the full-length Gandhi gives pride of place to his watch. As Gandhi approached the elevated platform from where he conducted the prayer meeting, Nathuram Godse brushed aside Manu, who was walking by Gandhi’s side, perhaps a pace or two in front of him, and fired three shots at him in rapid succession with a revolver at point-blank range. Gandhi fell to the ground, and the time-piece broke: it had lost its raison d’être, and would henceforth serve no master. It did its duty to the very end; the minute hand stood at 13, and the time-piece remains, perhaps, the most reliable witness to the assassination. Months ago, a nation had been vivisected; now a man was severed from his watch, and the man who had stood watch on the unfolding of the nation had descended into the bowels of the past. As for the assassin, it is reliably reported that Nathuram folded his hands in the posture of reverence, or at least in the traditional manner of conveying the Indian greeting of namaskar, before firing the shots that would put an end to the life of the man to whom he had just paid his profound respects. Engaged in an act of parricide, Nathuram had perforce to render solitary obeisance to the man who shaped the contours of his own identity, whatever his contributions to the nation.

Nathuram would live to have his day in court, and Gandhi would at once be revered and trivialized as the ‘Father of the Nation’. Some of his more unforgiving critics and detractors, his assassin included, would describe him as the ‘Father of Pakistan’. The hagiographers and admirers insisted that, as the bullets struck Gandhi and he fell to the ground, he uttered the phrase, “He Ram”; his foes state that Gandhi did no such thing, and that he merely gasped. When some three decades ago Nathuram Godse’s speech at his trial was finally published, his brother, Gopal Godse, averred in his introduction to the volume that Gandhi merely uttered a “feeble or faint ‘ah’” as breath left his body. (2) The now octogenarian Gopal has conducted a relentless assault on Gandhi since his release from prison in 1964, and in a recent interview that the Government of India has sought to proscribe, he claims that “the government knew that he [Gandhi] was an enemy of the Hindus, but they wanted to show that he was a staunch Hindu. So the first act they did was to put ‘Hey Ram’ into Gandhi’s dead mouth.” (3) Gopal Godse was not present at the assassination, but it is apparently on Nathuram’s own authority that he describes Gandhi as having uttered “the faintest Ah!” (4)

Gandhi’s ‘final words’ have been a matter of some controversy, though the commentary has been surprisingly slim on the philosophical and political import of Gandhi’s last words, whatever they may have been. On the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 1998, the last day of his life became the focus of resolute attention in the print media. In “The Mahatma’s Final Hours”, Vijay Rana stated, without describing his source, that “The apostle of non-violence could only utter ‘Hey Ram!’ before slumping on the ground” (5). The Hindu, in an unusual tribute entitled “Mahatma Gandhi: The Last 200 days”, which consisted in describing the last 200 days of his life in 200 consecutive issues of the newspaper, concluded its final segment thus: “As the second and the third [bullets] hit, he sinks gently to the floor, breathing out his last two words, holy in thankfulness or supplication, ‘Hey Ram!’” (6) Yet Gandhi’s former “aide”, V. Kalyanam, who claims to have been by his side when the assassination took place, recalled recently that “Mahatma Gandhi never said ‘He Ram’ when he died. It was a fiction of the imagination, of those who came later.” Kalyanam admits that Gandhi often said, “I wish I could die with the name of Ram on my lips”, but he denies that these words were uttered by Gandhi as the bullets struck him. (7) Kalyanam could not have been very close to Gandhi, however, since Manu and Abha were on either side of him; in the days following his last fast, moreover, Gandhi’s voice was very faint, and he was certainly further away from Gandhi than the two young women who became known as his walking sticks. Kalyanam’s testimony also stands contradicted by Manu and Abha, as one might expect. It is not unimportant that, though describing himself as an “aide” to Gandhi, Kalyanam is not mentioned in any of the noted, or even minor, biographies of Gandhi; indeed every modern-day politician has an aide, but Gandhi cannot be assimilated to the creatures who inhabit the world of modern politics. Neither is there any independent verification of Kalyanam’s whereabouts on that fateful evening.

In the midst of all this, it is important to reflect on why the last words of Gandhi have elicited some controversy, and what bearing the resurgence of Hindu militancy may have upon the attempt by his most determined foes to put into question the received view about Gandhi’s last utterance. There is also the larger philosophical consideration that a person’s entire life is presumed to be captured by the last words or moments: the very word ‘last’ betokens a finality. The ‘last words’, or the final gestures, of ‘great men’ have often been the subject of much inquiry and speculation, though seldom have these words become the pivot for oppositional world views. Beethoven’s biographers, for instance, are agreed that that when he died on the evening of 26 March 1827, thunder and lightning struck; the composer is said to have raised a clenched fist, and looked upwards “with a grave and threatening expression, as though to say, ‘I defy you, hostile powers! Away, for God is with me!’” (8) Another biographer has argued that the clenched fist appeared to convey these words, “I was ever a fighter, so — one fight more, / The best and the last!” (9) The physician who attended upon him wrote, “Toward six in the afternoon came a flurry of snow, with thunder and lightning. Beethoven died. Would not a Roman augur, in view of the accidental commotion of the elements, have taken his apotheosis for granted?” (10) Beethoven’s contemporary, Goethe, is reported to have said, famously, “more light” as he lay dying: these words created a lasting impression, to the extent that Rabindranath Tagore wrote to his niece Indira, “How I cherish light and space! Goethe on his death-bed wanted ‘more light’. If I am capable of expressing my desire then, it will be for ‘more light and more space’.” (11) Indeed, it is Tagore’s “space” that, in his final moments, was being violated by his admirers: as they tugged at the poet’s beard, so that each might get a specimen of the great man’s hair, Tagore is described as imploring and admonishing them with the words, “Chede dao, Chede dao“, “Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”

Most strikingly, perhaps, one can understand the importance historically ascribed to the ‘last words’ by considering the manner in which the gospels attempted to imprint a portrait of Jesus as the Savior by imputing to him a final utterance that would been characteristic of his teaching. Jesus was nailed to the cross, and some women offered him drugged wine, which he refused to take — most likely because he wanted to die fully conscious. According to Matthew, “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit” (27.45); and Mark similarly agrees that “Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last” (16.37). Both agree that sometime before he cried out loudly, Jesus said with evident anguish, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27.46; Mark 15.34) This may well have been imagined by Jesus’s disciples, since none of them were present at the crucifixion, or if they were, which is exceedingly unlikely, they could not have been close enough to Jesus to discern his last words. Indeed, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”, is a quotation from the Old Testament (Psalms 22.1), and was almost certainly inserted to make the prophecy of the appearance of the Messiah seem to come true. However, in the public imagination, it is the words which Luke ascribes to Jesus, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (23.34), which are most often viewed as Jesus’ last utterance, though the evidence for supposing that these words were inserted into the gospels much later, perhaps several decades after the death of Jesus, is compelling. (12) If the messianic view of Jesus had to prevail, doubtless something more than a “loud cry” had to be attributed to him as he was about to breathe his last. (13)

Gandhi’s reputed last words, “He Ram!”, I wish to suggest, take on an exceedingly complex politics. Writing in December 1947, as if in anticipation of his death, he wrote: “In the end it will be as Rama commands me. Thus I dance as He pulls the strings. I am in His hands and so I am experiencing ineffable peace.” (14) Gandhi had often expressed a desire to die with the words “He Ram!” on his lips (CWMG 90:489), and in his last prayer meetings he often described “Ramanama”, or the constant invocation of the name of Ram, as the “best medicine”. In his childhood, Gandhi had been taught to repeat Ramanama, but his enthusiasm then was short-lived; and it is not until he began to engage in various social and spiritual experiments, such as fasting, and returned to a close perusal of Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas, that he began to view it as an “infallible remedy.” (15) Since at least 1924 (CWMG 23:302-3), Gandhi had been recommending the practice of Ramanama to his friends and acquaintances, but for nearly two years before his death, he had taken to advocating it enthusiastically to a wider public as an “unfailing remedy.” (16) When he turned to a village-based natural health-care system in March 1946, after having realized that a nature-care clinic in an urban setting could not meet the needs of the villagers, he prescribed a regimen of mud packs, massage, sun baths, and the recitation of Ramanama for the patients; and yet, aware how the recitation could be debased to a mere mechanical exercise, Gandhi always cautioned against uttering the name of Rama except as part of a process of self-realization or as an effort to call forth the divinity within oneself (CWMG 83:107-8, 184-86, 336-7). Recognizing, as well, the weaknesses to which human beings are liable, Gandhi conceded that communion with God could in the beginning be “just lip repetition of his name even disturbed by impure thoughts. But ultimately what is on the lips will possess the heart. . . . We are monarchs in the Domain of Effort. God is the sole Monarch in the Domain of Results.” (17) He even likened Ramanama to a “mathematical formula”, thereby suggesting that its efficacy extended from well beyond the individual to society as a whole, transcending the barriers of space and time alike.

With belief in the efficacy of Rama, and with the desire to have the name of Rama on his lips when he should die, Gandhi commenced the walk from the interior to the garden of Birla House. If indeed he uttered the words, “He Ram!”, as he slumped to the ground, he would appear, from the standpoint of Gopal Godse and his other detractors, to have outfoxed them — yet again. On 20 January 1948, Nathuram, Gopal, and a handful of others had engineered a bomb explosion at Birla House with the hope of killing Gandhi, but the attempt was a resounding failure; two days later, Gandhi took Manu aside and told her: “I wish I might face the assassin’s bullets while lying on your lap and repeating the name of Rama with a smile on my face. But whether the world says it or not — for the world has a double face — I tell you that you should regard me as your true mother.” On the evening before his death, Manu has written, Gandhi suggested that the moment, and manner, of his death would reveal to the world whether he was a real Mahatma or not: if he were to die of a “lingering disease, or even from a pimple”, she was to shout from the rooftops to the whole world that he was a “false or hypocritical Mahatma.” Yet if an explosion took place, as it had last week, “or if someone shot at me”, Gandhi told Manu, “and I received his bullet in my bare chest without a sigh and with Rama’s name on my lips, only then should you say that I was a true Mahatma.” (18) That is precisely the manner in which Gandhi appears to have died, judging from the overwhelming consensus among his biographers. Thus, to enumerate two instances, B. R. Nanda relates that “Gandhi fell instantly with the words ‘He Rama’ (Oh, God)”, while in her critical biography Judith Brown captures the last moment in Gandhi’s life in similar language: “The frail old body slumped to the ground; but his last words were, as he had wished, to call on the name of Ram, the God whose presence had sustained him and made him a prisoner of hope.” (19)

It is understandable that Gandhi’s detractors should think of his last words as a fabrication: a hagiography was in the making, and nothing is likely to make a hagiographic representation more influential than have the subject of that portrait die what is at once a pious, dramatic, and heroic death, one in conformity with the subject’s own idea of a desirable death. Nathuram Godse’s speech in his own defence at his trial would stress what the assassin alleged to be Gandhi’s appeasement of the Muslims, and his unforgivable betrayal of the Hindus; and it could scarcely serve the assassin’s purpose if Gandhi had died in the manner of a Hindu bhakta, with the name of Ram on his lips. On the other hand, among his critics on the left, Gandhi’s practice of Ramanama, his invocation of the name of Ram and similarly of the concept of “Ram Rajya”, was construed as a sign, if not of his partiality towards the Hindu faith, at least of political naivete. Gandhi was sometimes said to have alienated the Muslims by the evident display of his adherence to Hinduism and particularly Hindu symbols, though his critics were willing to concede that Gandhi had a rather expansive conception of his faith. That Gandhi’s “Ram Rajya” had no necessary reference to any historical Ram, or to the kingdom over which the Ram of the Ramayana is said to have presided, is a point that his secular critics appear not to have fully understood. As he was to write shortly before his death, “Sometimes we tread a dangerous path in believing that Rama and Krishna were historical entities and we are compelled to take recourse to all manner of arguments to prove that” (CWMG 88:148). To the advocates of secularism, Gandhi would have insisted that, whatever the course adopted in the modern West, the separation of religion and politics could not be countenanced in India; in the words of the concluding chapter of his autobiography, the “devotion to Truth” was bound to draw a person into the “field of politics”, and yet “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means” (20). When Gandhi uttered the words “He Ram”, he was doubtless true to himself; but, politically speaking, he managed to confound, as he does so down to the present day, both the Hindu militants who falsely declared him a traitor to his faith and so showed only their own miserable conception of Hinduism, as well as the secularists whose conception of both religion and politics is much too narrow to accommodate the creative ecumenism of true dissenters like Gandhi.


(1) Manubehn Gandhi, The End of an Epoch, trans. Gopalkrishna Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1962), p. 41. The American journalist Vincent Sheehan, who was present at Birla House on the evening of Gandhi’s assassination, relates that he and Bob Stimson, the Delhi Correspondent of the BBC, had been there since a little before 5:00 PM. Stimson looked at his watch at one point, and it showed the time of 5:10 PM, whereupon Stimson said, “Well, this is strange. Gandhi’s late. He’s practically never late.” See Lead, Kindly Light (New York: Random house, 1949), p. 202.

(2) Gopal Godse, “Events and Accused”, introduction to Nathuram Godse, May It Please Your Honor (Delhi: Surya Prakashan, 1987), p. 11.

(3) See interview with Gopal Godse, “His Principle of Peace Was Bogus”, Time (Asia Edition) 14 February 2000, and Krittiwas Mukherjee, “Calcutta Customs seizes Time copies”, India Abroad (New York), 25 February 2000, p. 10; the interview is also available on-line.

(4) See Gopal Godse, Gandhiji’s Murder and After, trans. S. T. Godbole (Delhi: Surya Prakashan, 1989), p. 64.

(5) Indian Express Magazine, Spectator Section (25 January 1998), p. 2.

(6) Anon., “In Lord Rama merges the Mahatma: Day 200”, The Hindu (30 January 1998). The author of this series of articles is, in fact, Shri V. Ramamurthy; the entire series has now been published as a book entitled Mahatma Gandhi: The Last 200 Days (The Hindu Publications, Chennai, 2003).

(7) “Gandhi did not say ‘He Ram’ when he died”, Indian Express (Chennai), 19 Feb. 1998.

(8) Walter Riezler, Beethoven, trans. G. D. H. Pidcock (New York: Vienna House, 1972 [1938], p. 61.

(9) Robert Haven Schauffler, Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1929), p. 486.

(10) See O. G. Sonneck, ed., Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries (New York: Dover Publications, 1967 [1926], p. 226.

(11) See Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 368.

(12) The most commonly agreed dates of the composition of the gospels — Mark, 65-70 CE; Matthew, 80-85 CE; Luke, 85-90 CE; and John, c. 100 CE — suggest that the sayings, parables, and actions attributed to Jesus should be taken as just that, attributions, with varying degrees of credibility.

(13) An interesting discussion of the Crucifixion, with particular reference to Jesus’ last words, is to be found in Stephen Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), pp. 268-270.

(14) Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi [hereafter CWMG], 90:273.

(15) M. K. Gandhi, Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1940 [1927], p. 23, 253.

(16) A discussion of this is to be found in J. T. F Jordens, Gandhi’s Religion: A Homespun Shawl (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), pp. 179-83.

(17) M. K. Gandhi, In Search of the Supreme, ed. and comp. V. B. Kher, 3 vols. (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1961), 2:17.

(18) See Manubehn Gandhi, Last Glimpses of Bapu (Delhi: Shiva Lal Agarwala, 1962), pp. 234, 297-98.

(19) B. R. Nanda, Mahatma Gandhi: A Biography (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997 [1958]), p. 512; Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 382.

(20) Gandhi, Autobiography, p. 371.

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