Many years ago, I had an argument with the philosopher Ramchandra (Ramu) Gandhi about his grandfather’s faith. I had always admired the Mahatma, but my secular-socialist self sought to rid him of the spiritual baggage which seemed unnecessary to his broader message. Could we not follow Gandhi in his empathy for the poor and his insistence on non-violence while rejecting the religious idiom in which these ideas were cloaked? Ramu Gandhi argued that the attempt to secularise Gandhi was both mistaken and misleading. If you take the Mahatma’s faith out of him, he told me, then Gandhi would not be the Mahatma. His religious beliefs were central to his political and social philosophy — in this respect, the man was the message.
Gandhi was born a decade after the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. This was a time of widespread scepticism among the educated classes in England and Europe, a sentiment captured in the title of Thomas Hardy’s poem, God’s Funeral. But outside the continent, this was also a time of heightened missionary activity. In their new colonies in Africa and Asia, European priests sought to claim the heathen and the pagan for Christianity. In reaction, Hindus started missionary societies of their own, as in the Arya Samaj, which sought to make Hindus more militant to face the challenge of the Church.
The distinctiveness of Gandhi’s faith was that it simultaneously rejected the atheism of the intellectuals as well as the proselytising of the missionaries. The Vaishnavism of his family was oriented towards mystical devotion rather than sectarian militancy. From his Jain preceptor Raychandbhai he learned the virtues of austerity and non-violence. His upbringing was ecumenical; so, too, was his personal orientation. He had close Muslim friends in school, and even closer Jewish and Parsi friends while working in South Africa. For most of his adult life his best friend was a practising Christian priest, Charles Freer Andrews. If you admired Gandhi — as many Indians did — you called him ‘Bapu’ or ‘Gandhiji’. If you disliked Gandhi — as many other Indians did — you referred to him as ‘Mr Gandhi’ or ‘M.K. Gandhi’. It is a remarkable (if still little-known) fact that it was only Andrews who called Gandhi by his first name, ‘Mohan’.
Despite his lifelong interest in religious pluralism, Gandhi had not the leisure to work out a systematic treatise on the subject. There is no one text we can go to; rather, we have to deduce his theology from things he said or did at different times. From these scattered clues, it appears that Gandhi’s faith had five core components.
First, Gandhi rejected the idea that there was one privileged path to God. Second, he believed that all religious traditions were an unstable mixture of truth and error. From these two beliefs followed the third, which was that Gandhi rejected conversion and missionary work. Fourth, Gandhi advocated that a human being should stick to the religion he or she was born into, and seek to improve its ‘truth content’. Fifth, Gandhi encouraged inter-religious dialogue, so that individuals could see their faith in the critical reflections of another.
Gandhi once said of his own faith that he had “broaden[ed] my Hinduism by loving other religions as my own”. One of his notable innovations was the inter-faith prayer meeting, where texts of different religions were read and sung to a mixed audience. At an International Fellowship of Religions, held at Sabarmati in January 1928, he said, “We can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu, or if we are Mussalmans, not that a Hindu or a Christian should become a Mussalman, nor should we even secretly pray that anyone should be converted [to our faith], but our inmost prayer should be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim and a Christian a better Christian. That is the fundamental truth of fellowship.”
What does it mean to be a better Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian? The sacred texts of all religions have contradictory trends and impulses; sanctioning one thing, but also its opposite. Gandhi urged that we recover and reaffirm those trends that oppose violence and discrimination while promoting justice and non-violence. The Shankaracharyas claimed that untouchability was sanctioned by the Shastras; Gandhi answered that in that case the Shastras did not represent the true traditions of Hinduism. Islamic texts might speak of women in condescending or disparaging terms in one place and in terms of reverence and respect in another; surely a Muslim committed to justice would value the second above the first? Likewise, a Christian must privilege the pacifism of Jesus’s life above the passages in the Bible calling for revenge and retribution against people of other faiths.
For most human beings, their views on religion are relevant only to themselves, or at best to their friends and family. But Gandhi was a man in public life, a major political player in a very large and diverse country. How did his faith resonate with other individuals and groups in the India of his day?
There were three groups of Indians that most vocally opposed Gandhi’s religious views. First, there were the secular socialists, who saw Gandhi’s faith as superstition, as a throwback to a backward mediaeval age. Second, there were the Muslim politicians, who saw his talk of inter-faith dialogue as a cloak and cover for his essentially Hindu interest. Third, there were the radicals of his own religion, who saw Gandhi’s talk of inter-faith dialogue as a denial of the Hindu essence of the Indian nation.
It was a member of this third tendency, Nathuram Godse, who murdered the Mahatma 60 years ago today.
Like the late 19th century, the early 21st century has also seen a renewal of an arrogant atheism on the one side and of religious bigotry on the other. Bookshops are awash with titles proclaiming that God does not exist; the streets are muddied and bloodied by battles and wars between competing fundamentalisms. Twenty-five years after I argued with him, I can see that Ramu Gandhi was even more right than he knew. One cannot, as the philosopher cautioned me, understand the Mahatma without paying proper attention to his religious beliefs and practices. But Gandhi’s faith was and is relevant not merely to himself. It may be of vital assistance in promoting peace and harmony between people who worship different Gods or no God at all. Back in 1919, while seeking to forge an entente cordiale between India’s two major religious groupings, Gandhi asked them to collectively take this vow:
“With God as witness we Hindus and Mahomedans declare that we shall behave towards one another as children of the same parents, that we shall have no differences, that the sorrows of each will be the sorrows of the other and that each shall help the other in removing them. We shall respect each other’s religion and religious feelings and shall not stand in the way of our respective religious practices. We shall always refrain from violence to each other in the name of religion.”
It only remains for me to add: what Gandhi asked of Hindus and Muslims in India in 1919 should be asked again of them today; asked also of Jews and Arabs in Palestine, of Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and of Christians and Muslims in Europe, North America, West Asia and Africa.
Ramachandra Guha Historian and author of India After Gandhi.