Gandhi’s Religion

Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 2019

(First of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The subject of Gandhi’s “religion” has never been more important than at present when Hindu nationalism is sharply ascendant and Hindu pride is being championed as a necessary form of the reawakening of a long subjugated people.  The contemporary Hindu nationalist narrative also feeds on other propositions, among them the conceit that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, the view that Hinduism is uniquely tolerant, the apprehension that Hinduism’s tolerance has historically rendered it vulnerable to more aggressive faiths, and the twin conviction that Indian civilization is fundamentally Hindu in its roots and that secularism is alien to India.

Gandhi would not have abided by much of this worldview.  Indeed, he would have been sharply critical of what is represented by Hindu nationalism, and therefore it becomes imperative to assess what he understood by Hinduism, what it meant for him to be a Hindu, the relationships that he forged with Muslims and Christians, and the centrality of Hindu-Muslim unity in his thinking. It is well to remember that Gandhi’s assassin felt justified in killing him partly on the grounds that Gandhi had betrayed the Hindu community.


The more secular-minded have thought it fit, with some justification, to characterize his religion as manavta (humanity), manav seva (the service of humankind), or sarvodaya (the welfare of all).  But the fact remains that Gandhi often declared his belief in varnasrama dharma and he remained a devout Hindu.  The roots of Gandhi’s religious worldview and conduct must be located in the religious milieu from which he emerged and in which he was raised.  Gandhi’s predilection for the Vaishnavism of his household and the region was reflected later in his life, one might say, by his fondness for Narsi Mehta’s bhajans, most famously “Vaishnava Janato”, and Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas. His mother belonged to the Pranami sect which, if centered on Krishna worship, showed a remarkable ecumenism in also drawing upon the Quran and the Bible and multiple linguistic traditions.  But Jainism also left a deep impress upon Gandhi from the outset, and Gandhi drew upon all three traditions in his thinking about ahimsa and what Jains call anekanantavada, “the many-sidedness of perspective”.

Gandhi has himself said that he first acquired an understanding of textbook Hinduism in England. He first became familiar with the Gita, a work which would in time become his life-companion, in the English rendering of it by Edwin Arnold called “The Song Celestial”. The world of Christianity really opened itself up to him in South Africa: the Old Testament put him to sleep, but portions of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, moved him deeply.  And it is in South Africa that he encountered a great many missionaries, who all came to the conclusion that it was impossible to convert Gandhi to Christianity since he was a much better Christian than any they had ever encountered.


Gandhi had known Indian Muslims in South Africa and he addressed the question of Hindu-Muslim unity in Hind Swaraj (1909). Nevertheless, it was upon his return to India in 1915 and his immersion into Indian public life that made him gravitate to the view that the question of Hindu-Muslim unity was pivotal.  Indians, and most historians, have gravely misunderstood his advocacy of the Khilafat as an attempt by him to extract from Muslims in exchange their support for a ban on cow-slaughter. Rather, he had by this time, around 1920, come around to the position, radical then and now, that both the Hindu and the Muslim are incomplete without each other. This would remain one of the cornerstones of his religious belief.

In reflecting upon what endures from Gandhi’s lifelong and extremely rich understanding of the religious life, some principles stand out. First, in moving from the proposition that ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’, Gandhi sought to signal a certain inclusiveness and suggest that the core of ethical life is the quest for Truth.  A confirmed non-believer such as the social reformer Gora, who wrote a fascinating little book called An Atheist with Gandhi, could partake of Gandhi’s religious universe.  Secondly, he stood by the idea that no religious outlook was acceptable, no matter how venerable a text, until it passed the litmus test of one’s individual conscience.  He unequivocally rejected passages from the Ramacaritmanas and the Quran that he found unacceptable.

Thirdly, Gandhi firmly rejected the idea that there is any kind of hierarchy to religions.  This is one among several reasons why he was not sympathetic to the idea of conversion, even as he recognized the absolute right of an individual to her religion.  The individual who seeks to convert has an inadequate comprehension of his faith, and there is practically nothing that one religion has to offer which is not to be found in other religions. Fourthly, Gandhi believed strongly that the practitioner of a religion has a moral obligation to understand other faiths.  He was a strong advocate of the fellowship of religions, and he pioneered the prayer-meeting as a new form of intercommunal and intercultural samvad.  The Hindu should pray, Gandhi was to write, that he should become a better Hindu, that the Muslim and Christian should become a better Muslim and Christian, respectively; similarly, a Muslim should pray not that the Hindu should convert, but that the Hindu should be a better Hindu, the Muslim a better Muslim; and so on.

Finally, and most critically, Hinduism to Gandhi was a religion of mythos not of history.  He couldn’t care an iota whether Krishna had been a historical person and arguments about the historicity of Krishna or Ram not only left him wholly unimpressed, but he found them singularly unproductive and antithetical to everything that he understood by Hinduism. When we consider that the entire Ramjanmabhoomi movement has been predicated on demonstrating the historicity of Ram, we can see how far modern-day Hindu nationalists have drifted from the spirit of Hinduism.  They claim to be freeing the Anglicized and deracinated Hindus from the stranglehold of Western interpretations but nowhere is the colonized Hindu to be seen more clearly than in the figure of the Hindu nationalist.  Their Hinduism and Gandhi’s Hinduism have almost nothing in common.

(First published on 2 October 2019 in the Daily Mail newspaper in a slightly shorter version under the title, “Gandhi preached a unity of religions“.)

Readers can access at least fifteen other essays on Gandhi on this blog using the search function.  Some of those essays include the following:

The Imprint of a Man’s Life:  Visualizing Gandhi’s Biography” (27 Oct 2018)

Footloose and Fancy Free:  The Killers of Gandhi in Modern India” (2 Oct 2018)

“The Homeless Gandhi” (30 January 2018)

Vaishnava Janato:  Gandhi and Narsi Mehta’s Ideal of the ‘Perfect Person'” (25 February 2015)





*The Moral Ambiguities of Sabarimala

First published under the same title on ABP Live on 18 November 2018 (IST).

Nearly two months after the Supreme Court on September 28 ruled by a majority of 4-1 to allow women of menstruating age to enter the temple at Sabarimala, the battle-lines appear to have been firmly drawn.  The dispute has been represented largely as one which pits tradition against modernity, religious conservatism against liberalism, patriarchy against women’s equality, and faith against science.   A former Justice of the Supreme Court, Markandey Katju, has stated quite unequivocally that “regarding the Sabarimala verdict, either one can agree with it or disagree with it – there is no middle ground.”


A protest on the re-opening of the Sabarimala Temple on 17 October 2018, around 20 days after the Supreme Court’s verdict of September 28.

But is that really so?  That someone of Katju’s standing thinks so illustrates the predictably circumscribed nature of public discourse, and is also a stark reminder of the fact that we have become increasingly incapable of recognizing the imperative of moral ambiguity.  A court is obviously burdened with the necessity of delivering a judgment that has the force of law, but it is open to every individual to consider an issue from every perspective.  The Jaina doctrine of anekantavada, or many-sidedness, suggests that, in nearly every case of this kind, every position is partially right and partially wrong.

Let us consider first the perspective of those who are convinced that matters of faith and religious tradition cannot be legislated.   This view is not without merit, and indeed one might reasonably argue that even social equality cannot be achieved primarily through legislation.  If there is no widespread social acceptance of a proposed or legislated reform, the law will not only be ineffective and resented, but it may also have the effect of aggravating social tensions and, oddly enough, obfuscating the problem.  Legislation against the giving and taking of dowry was passed in India over four decades ago, but such legislation never had widespread acceptance; moreover, once the legislation was passed, some people supposed that the problem had been ‘resolved’.  The Indian Constitution states that discrimination against Dalits is a punishable offence, but atrocities against Dalits have scarcely diminished—and, if they did, it would surely not be on account of any new-found respect that the upper castes have developed for the lower castes.  As Gandhi famously declared at his trial in 1922 on charges of sedition, “Affection cannot be manufactured by the law.”

There are yet other arguments that have been advanced against the Supreme Court’s decision, some by liberals and centrists who have declared their opposition on the grounds that the Court’s decision furnishes the RSS with the opening that it had been looking for in Kerala.  This objection is only of marginal interest and is in fact quite erroneous in some respects:  not only has the RSS been making inroads into Kerala for some time, but what Sabarimala brings to the fore is the problem not of religious mobilization but rather the consolidation of social conservatism.  It has also been argued that Kerala is a matrilineal society, with an extraordinarily high female literacy rate, and that many women, perhaps a majority, are themselves opposed to opening the doors of Sabarimala to females between the ages of 10-50.  Some elements of this view, however, cannot be sustained.  The anthropological and empirical fact of matriliny in Kerala notwithstanding, the indubitable fact is that Kerala records one of the highest rates of violence against women in India, and the percentage of women in the workforce is an abysmal 25%.

The arguments in support of the Supreme Court’s decision are, as I have already hinted, many.  To suggest that progressive legislation is often ineffective is not to say that legislation cannot be a tool for social reform.  Those who advocate for change are under no illusion that, under a regime of liberalism and social equality, we will all start loving each other.  But there is a much stronger argument.  It is claimed that by “tradition” women of menstrual age have never been permitted in the temple and that the prohibition on their entry is “centuries-old”.  Quite to the contrary, the restriction on their entry was first enacted into law by the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, and the Kerala High Court in its decision of 1991 unfortunately, and quite erroneously, argued that the restriction “is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial.”  This is what historians have described as “the invention of tradition”.  The Supreme Court’s decision takes note, quite explicitly, of the presence of women worshippers between the ages of 10-50 in the temple on many previous occasions.

There is, finally, the most pertinent set of considerations. The devotees and protestors who have been gathered to obstruct the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision argue that the reigning deity, Lord Ayappa, is celibate and the presence of females of menstruating age is an affront to his dignity and violates his asceticism. The trope of the male ascetic and saint being tempted by women is, shall we say, as old as Indian civilization. There is, further, the supposition that menstruating women are polluting.  These twin arguments have long offered a pretext both for the suppression of women and even for suggesting that women do not have the same reservoirs of spirituality as men. We may ask why there is no comparable narrative tradition of holy women being tempted by men, and equally whether it might not be the case that contemporary Indian society has not come to terms with the fact of women’s sexuality.  What can we say about a society that has little faith in its women, and, ironically, in its gods?