restricted access Chapter 5 Meeting Mira Behn
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Chapter 5 Meeting Mira Behn It was in his work as general secretary of the Praja Mandal beginning in 1948 that Sunderlal came to know and to work with one of Gandhi’s famous European disciples known as Mira Behn and to cultivate a strong and meaningful association with her that significantly influenced his life. To fully appreciate the significance of this association, it will be illuminating to understand some of the details of the life of Mira Behn that took her to India and to her work with Gandhi and that motivated her, after her arrest and imprisonment with Gandhi, his wife, Kasturba, and others, to move to the hills of what is now the state of Uttarakhand. It was after her extended association with Gandhi and during her efforts to settle in the hills that she first came to meet Bahuguna. In a sense the story of her life can be seen as the development of an environmentalist inspired and informed by Gandhi’s vision for the establishment of independent and self-reliant village economies. Born in London in 1892, the person known to India as Mira Behn was Madeleine Slade, the daughter of a British naval officer, Sir Edmond Slade, later Admiral Slade the commander in chief of the British naval fleet in the East Indies. Her venture from a privileged life in England, to her discipleship to Gandhi, her love for the Himalayan landscapes, and her commitment to Gandhi’s constructive program seems almost to have been foreshadowed in her early life in England. In her autobiography, written in India in the late 1950s, she states that as early as the age of five or six there was something that every now and then, as she puts it “wafted me far away.” Always provoked by the voice of nature, the song of a bird, or the sound of the wind in the trees, the experience engendered “an infinite joy.” She states that at this stage in her life her mind began to search in what she calls the region of “the unknowable.”1 During her father’s long absences 47 48 Ecology is Permanent Economy from home, she found a feeling of fellowship with the trees, plants, and animals in the twenty acres of her grandfather’s country home. She states that there were some trees for which she had a special affection, but that for her, all of them were personalities. She states, “I can remember throwing my arms around trees and embracing them.” Writing those words in her sixties, she states that “to this day that feeling remains.”2 Sunderlal explains that her response to nature was supported by an intense devotion to music. In fact it was her love of music that led her, through a circuitous route, to Gandhi. She states that at the age of fifteen, when she encountered it for the first time, the music of Beethoven illuminated her spirit. Exploring the life of Beethoven, she found that nature had been the inspiration for much of his music. She also learned that Beethoven had copied long passages from German translations of Sanskrit literature and that those texts had touched him profoundly.3 Sunderlal states that her pursuit of the music of Beethoven led her at the age of thirty to Switzerland and to an interview with his biographer, the Nobel Laureate, Romain Rolland. On meeting him she found that Rolland was also intensely interested in contemporary events in India and in the ideas and activities of Gandhi. He had just then completed the writing of Mahatma Gandhi and indicated to her that the book was in press. He asked her whether she had ever heard of Gandhi. When she replied that she had not, he talked at length about him, comparing his character to that of Christ.4 His words made such an impression that the conversation remained on her mind through her travels to Egypt. On her return to Paris, Madeleine bought the book and read it in a single day. She then immersed herself in the writings of Gandhi, wherein she felt she had found the meaning of her life. Before going home to England, she was convinced that she was called to go to India and to stand with Gandhi in his commitment to truth and nonviolence in the cause of India’s freedom . That cause, in her view, though focused on India, was a cause that pertained to the whole of humanity. After corresponding with Gandhi...