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.

Gandhi_prayer_meeting_1946

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.

GandhiPrayerMeetingBirlaHouse.jpg

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)

 

 

 

 

*Vaishnava Janato: Gandhi and Narsi Mehta’s Conception of the Ideal Person

 

Vaishnava janato

A recent trip to Porbandar and Rajkot, where Gandhi spent his adolescent years, set me thinking yet once again about his religiosity.  Much like nearly everything else in his life, Gandhi’s religion defies easy description. Though Gandhi viewed himself as a Hindu, he also maintained that a man could describe himself as a Hindu and yet not believe in God. Many of his most determined foes harbored no doubts about Gandhi’s betrayal of the Hindus, but others were equally certain that he contaminated public life in India by his insistent resort to the paraphernalia of Hinduism—its stories, myths, symbols, and much else.  He almost never visited temples and everything in his conduct suggests that he remained indifferent to the temple-going experience; yet no one made as concerted an attempt as he did to open up Hindu temples to Dalits (or, as they were then known, the Untouchables).  Indeed, it is Gandhi’s attempts to open up the temples to Dalits that earned him the wrath of Ambedkar.  But the conundrums do not end here:  Gandhi venerated the Ramacaritmanas, the immensely popular version of the Ramayana penned by the poet-saint Tulsidas in the late fifteenth century, but he also insisted that passages in Tulsidas which were anathema to one’s conscience and reason—such as the one which characterizes drums, the illiterate, animals, the lower castes, and (disobedient) women as fit to be beaten—ought to be summarily rejected. To the end of his life Gandhi persisted in describing himself as a believer in the idea that Hinduism rightly prescribed duties for each of the castes (varnashrama dharma), but he made it known that he would only bless intercaste weddings. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.”  (As an aside, it is unthinkable that the Aam Aadmi Party could have embraced the broom as its symbol had Gandhi not set the precedent.)  He went so far as to declare that he would only want to be reborn as a scavenger (bhangi) whose very presence would be polluting to an upper-caste Hindu. Perhaps nothing underscores his anomalous standing as a Hindu more than two facts: while M.A. Jinnah—his staunchest political foe and eventually the chief instigator of the idea of Pakistan—persisted in viewing Gandhi as the supreme representative of the Hindu community, Gandhi’s assassin—a Brahmin from Pune by the name of Nathuram Godse—partly justified his act with the observation that Gandhi was not Hindu enough.

 

Unraveling the religious life of Gandhi is thus no trifling matter. Nevertheless, his life—extraordinarily complex in some respects, and equally straightforward from another vantage point—furnishes various windows into his religious thought and practice. The Bhagavad Gita was, to Gandhi, a manual for daily living; and it is in the Gita that we first encounter a description of bhakti yoga, the way to God through devotion. What is often referred to as the ‘bhakti movement’ had swept India from around the ninth to the sixteenth centuries, and in Gandhi’s native Gujarat the most famous exponent of bhakti was doubtless Narasinha Mehta, born into the orthodox caste of Nagar Brahmins around 1414. Much like other bhakta-poets, Narsi (as he is commonly known) was oblivious to caste differences and scarcely moved by bookish learning; and his biographers are agreed that he deeply offended his own community of Brahmins as he would often consort with the lower castes, even singing in the houses of the Untouchables and spending his nights in their homes. Narsi’s fellow Brahmins eventually excommunicated him, but Narsi was no more perturbed on that account: “They say I am impure, and they are right. / I love only those who love Hari [Krishna]. / I see no difference between one Harijana and another.” It is Narsi’s term Harijans, meaning “children of God,” that Gandhi would controversially adopt in the 1920s to designate the Untouchables.

 

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh:  The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh: The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro:  The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and   his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro: The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

 

Gandhi’s unbound affection for Narsi’s composition Vaishnava janato is as good a way as any to gauge the Mahatma’s religious sensibility. Vaishnavism—which takes its name from the god Vishnu—was an important part of the religious milieu in which Gandhi grew into adolescence, and in the opening chapter of his autobiography Gandhi describes his mother as a saintly woman for whom a visit to the “Vaishnava temple” was “one of her daily routines.” Gandhi was not particularly interested in the sectarian divide between Vaishnavas and Saivites (the followers of Shiva), and he sought to endow the term “Vaishnava” with a more capacious meaning. Narsi’s bhajan, or devotional song, permitted him to enter into the state of being of a true Vaishnava. Narsi sings: Vaishnavajana to tene kahiye, je pira parayi jaane re / par dukha upkaar kare, to ye man abhiman na aane re. Call only him a Vaishnava, says Narsi, who feels another’s pain as his own, who helps others in their sorrow but takes no pride in his good deeds. The rest of the bhajan further adumbrates the qualities of a Vaishnava, who is pure in thought, action, and speech; despising no one, and treating the low and the high alike, the Vaishnava adopts the entire human family as his own and so works for the liberation of everyone. It is from Narsi, and not from the Gita alone, that Gandhi imbibed the values of nonattachment, humility, and the renunciation of avarice. When, as Narsi says, “all pilgrimages sites are embodied within the body of the Vaishnava” (sakal tirtha tena tanma re), we are better positioned to understand why Gandhi did not share the Hindus’ propensity towards pilgrimage sites.

 

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Vaishnava janato was sung at Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings. As Gandhi commenced his almost 250-mile march to the sea in 1930, writes his biographer Narayan Desai, he was handed his walking stick by his close associate Kaka Kalelkar, and Narayan Khare sang Vaishnava janato. The bhajan remained on the lips of Gandhi and his companions throughout the Dandi March. Widely known as Narsi’s Vaishnavajana to may have been to Gujaratis, it was Gandhi who popularized it through the length and breadth of India. It has been set to music by some of India’s famous instrumentalists, among them Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. M.S. Subbalakshmi’s rendition has done much to give it an iconic status in the country’s staggering musical pharmacopeia, and more recent performances by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar have ensured its popularity. One of the more intriguing testimonies to the afterlife of Narsi’s bhajan is the fact that Sahmat, an activist cultural organization with a distinctly left-secular outlook founded in the 1990s, thought it fit to print a large poster of the bhajan in attractive calligraphy and circulate it widely. We may say that Gandhi attempted to live by the ideals described in Narsi’s devotional song, and he would have seen in the song’s popularity at least some faint signs of what he took to be India’s enduring interest in the spiritual life.

 

NOTE:  This piece will also appear in a new blog tentatively called “Gandhi Scrapbook” and to be launched shortly.  See

Gandhiscrapbook.blogspot.com.  Pieces on Gandhi will be posted on both this blog and the new blog until such time as the new blog is well established.