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Mahatma Gandhi & My Grandfather

This article was written for CBSNews.com by Muni S. Jaitly.
Mahatma Gandhi died in my grandfather's arms.

On Jan.30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual leader who directed India's Freedom Movement based on principles of truth and nonviolence, was shot three times by an armed assassin in Delhi.


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The assassination occurred 36 years before my birth.

My grandfather was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and became a spiritual disciple after having met him. He lived his whole life according to Gandhian principles of truth and nonviolence.

This is a personal story I'd like to share about my grandfather and his connection to Gandhi and the lessons I've learned from both men.

The Assassination

My grandfather, Shri Dharam Jit Jigyasu, was 33 years old at the time of the shooting.

The son of a strict disciplinarian, my grandfather was born in 1915 to uneducated parents in Sonai, one of the smallest villages in Northern India.

Sonai had no electricity, water was scarce, and a train, which passed by the village once a day, was the only connection to the rest of the world.

My grandfather, whom we call Pitaji (meaning 'Father' in Hindi), walked 14 miles to school every day. He often crossed graveyards. It was on these long, peaceful walks Pitaji learned from death. He would go on to preach later in life that death is humanity's greatest teacher.

Pitaji's father taught him as a child to live life with set rules and to value one's time.

"Time is the most valuable thing in this universe ... God has given me a lifetime. Therefore I must not waste even a second of it," he told me in April of 2005.

Often topping the list in statewide student examinations, Pitaji was chosen by professors to serve Gandhi food and water whenever he came to the district on freedom movement visits.

It was a life-changing moment for Pitaji, who became fascinated with Gandhian philosophy after meeting the Mahatma (meaning 'Great Soul' in Hindi).

"The principles of truth and nonviolence became stronger in my life after I met him," Pitaji told me in 2000, when I first interviewed him at the age of 16.

Calling British imperialist rule 'a form of slavery', Pitaji involved himself in the Indian Freedom Movement to end British rule of India.

Pitaji attended independence marches and rallies. Chosen as a delegate to a meeting of the Indian National Congress, which the British declared illegal, Pitaji was arrested and sent to jail for four months.

He, like other freedom fighters, would visit Mahatma Gandhi whenever possible. Gandhi and Pitaji even exchanged several hand-written letters.

On that fateful day in January, Pitaji, then the chief operating officer of India's largest coffee exporter, was on a business trip to Lucknow.

As it happened, he was in Delhi during the same time as Gandhi. It was widely known that while in Delhi, Gandhi always stayed at Birla Bhavan, a house belonging to India's biggest industrialist family.

Pitaji decided to spend the night so that he could attend Gandhi's daily Hindu prayer meeting at six o'clock.

After asking for directions, Pitaji went off on foot, in traditional Indian dhoti (homespun loincloth dress), Gandhi hat, and sandals.

Pitaji was standing next to the assassin, Nathuram Godse, when all who were present kneeled before Gandhi to greet him.

Godse shot Gandhi three times. Pitaji heard Gandhi utter the words, "Hai ram [Oh God] ... Hai ram ... Hai Ram" as he hit the ground.

Instead of attacking Godse, Pitaji, along with Gandhi's nieces Manu and Abha, picked up Gandhi's body and rushed him to nearby Birla house. Pitaji carried Gandhi by the head.

It was there that Gandhi was pronounced dead.

Sardar Patel, the Home and Deputy Prime Minster of India, entered the house. With Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on the way, Pitaji then left the scene.

Impact On Younger Generation

I first heard the story in ninth grade.

I was moved. At the time, I was embarrassed of my Indian culture.

Being Indian in a predominantly white, rich suburb of Connecticut was difficult because there were very few of us. I was one of only a handful of Indians in a large public high school and felt left out.

But after hearing my grandfather's story and learning from him, I became determined. Determined to live my life proud of who I was and where I had come from.

I started regularly interviewing Pitaji in 2000, hoping to one day spread his message; just like he spent most of his life as a priest spreading the message of Mahatma Gandhi and the Holy Vedas scriptures.

After selling his businesses, Pitaji moved to the United States with his nine children in the 1970's.

He became a priest and founded the New York chapter of Arya Samaj. Arya Samaj is a Hindu reform movement, founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, promoting the physical, spiritual, and social well-being for all humanity.

Pitaji performed thousands of weddings in the United States as an Arya Samaji. He wrote books, lectured, and preached on the subject of Gandhian philosophy. Many will never forget his thunderous voice; Pitaji would oftentimes refuse microphone.

A true Gandhian by word and deed, Pitaji practiced the discipline he preached up until the day he passed on May 30, 2006.

I visited Pitaji less than one week before his passing. He lay on his deathbed in a peaceful and tranquil state. Four strokes had finally muted voice, but had not dissolved his determination.

Pitaji one by one lifted his left arm and leg. My grandfather, near death, was still performing yoga as best he could.

Now that Pitaji has passed on, I'm beginning to think more and more about his life and the impact, however small, he made on this world. What shall be my impact?

If Pitaji were alive today, I think he would be happy that I shared our story.

By Muni S. Jaitly

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