This day marks 74 years since Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, revered as father of the nation, was assassinated. Savita Patel reports from a spiritual retreat in California that claims to be holding his ashes, perhaps the only ones outside India.
Inside Lake Shrine, a spiritual retreat on the famous Sunset Boulevard, just minutes away from Hollywood, is the Gandhi World Peace Memorial. Built in 1950 by the retreat’s founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, it lies amid lush gardens and waterfalls with a view of the ocean. And it contains an ancient stone sarcophagus from China which reportedly holds a brass and silver coffer containing Gandhi’s ashes.
After Gandhi’s funeral in 1948, his ashes were divided into more than 20 portions and dispatched across India so people around the country could mourn his death by holding memorials. Some portions even ended up outside the country.
“There was a lot of demand for Bapu’s ashes,” says his great-grandson Tushar Gandhi. Bapu, as Gandhi was fondly known by those close to him, was assassinated just months after India won independence from Britain in August 1947.
He says he had heard some 20 years ago that some of Gandhi’s ashes were being stored at Lake Shrine and had contacted them, but never received a response.
“Holding them goes against Bapu’s wishes as he had said that once he was no more, his ashes should not be kept, but disposed of,” he adds.
But Brother Ritananda, one of the monks who now runs the shrine, says: “We will not overturn what our guru established.” He adds that the ashes were a gift to Yogananda and people upset about their existence must make peace with it.
The monk said that it is aware that Gandhi’s descendants have in the past requested for the ashes to be returned or disposed.
He says he has never seen the box containing the ashes but recalls watching a video of Yogananda placing it in the sarcophagus before it was encased.
There is no other evidence to support the claim that there is a box containing ashes at the shrine, far less that those ashes belong to Gandhi.
The ashes are believed to have come from VM Nawle, a publisher and journalist based in the Indian city of Pune, who was a friend of Yogananda.
Parmahansa Yogananda was born as Mukunda Lal Ghosh in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and later moved to the US, where he started Lake Shrine.
His autobiography describes a short 1935 visit to Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha in western Maharashtra state. It says he met the leader, and even showed him and others at the ashram some yoga poses. He described Gandhi as a “tiny 100-pound saint who radiated physical, mental, and spiritual health… this statesman has matched wits and emerged the victor in a thousand legal, social, and political battles”. He also vowed to set up a memorial for him.
But the biography doesn’t explain how Mr Nawle ended up in possession of what he claimed were Gandhi’s ashes – Yogananda’s biography quotes lines from the publisher’s letter to him: “Regarding Gandhi’s ashes, I may say that [they] are scattered and thrown in almost all important rivers and seas, and nothing is given outside India except the remains which I have sent to you after a great ordeal.”
“That could not be true,” says Tushar Gandhi, who is also the author of Let’s Kill Gandhi, a book that delves into the leader’s assassination and its aftermath.
“Some of Bapu’s ashes were immersed in South Africa in 1948 itself. Whether they were sent out officially or someone just carried it with them, we don’t know,” he adds.
“I don’t know who collected and sent the ashes to Paramahansa Yogananda. A committee of cabinet members and eminent Gandhians of that time was in charge [of distributing the ashes].”
After the funeral, most of Gandhi’s ashes were immersed in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. The city lies on the banks of the holy Ganges river and close to the Triveni Sangam, the point where the Ganges meets the Yamuna river and the mythical Saraswati river, a confluence Hindus consider sacred. Many of them disperse the ashes of family members here as the holy water is believed to offer salvation to the soul.
Gandhi, a devout Hindu, wished for his ashes to be dispersed in a similar manner.
But not all of them were immersed. Over the years they have turned up in various places.
In 2019, some of Gandhi’s ashes were stolen from a memorial in central India. Some turned up as recently as a decade ago in South Africa. “My aunts and cousins immersed them in Durban Bay,” Tushar Gandhi says.
Before that, he adds, the Gandhi family received another portion of ashes from a museum – they had been bequeathed to them by an Indian businessman whose father had known Gandhi. Those ashes were immersed in Mumbai city in 2008.
He also found out, through press reports, about an urn containing Gandhi’s ashes in a bank locker in Orissa (also known as Odisha) state in the name of a former bureaucrat. These were immersed at Triveni Sangam in 1997.
The last of Gandhi’s ashes – that we know of – in India lie at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune city. They are encased in a marble structure, next to a tomb of his wife, Kasturba (She was cremated on the palace premises).
Tushar Gandhi says he understands the reasons someone might be inclined to hold on to them.
“When I immersed the ashes in Triveni Sangam [in 1997], there was a temptation to keep the brass urn in which they were stored for years. But then I thought – I will surely keep it carefully, but what if later, at some time, it can’t be maintained in a proper condition? So I donated it to The National Gandhi Museum in Delhi.”
While he respects everybody’s right to revere Gandhi and believes Lake Shrine maintains its ashes with care, he adds that the family would be hurt if they were ever desecrated.
“Hence, my request is for the ashes to be disposed of properly.”