What religion meant to the Mahatma
Though raised in a devout Vaishnava home, Mohandas was an atheist in his final years at Rajkot’s Alfred High School. In the words of his autobiography, he ‘crossed the Sahara of atheism’ during three subsequent years (1888-91) in London where, in addition to studying law, he read, for the first time, the Gita, the New Testament and texts about the Buddha and Islam.
For the rest of his life, including as the leader of India’s national movement, Gandhi remained a believing, questioning and tolerant Hindu. In due course he was blessed with a team of brilliant colleagues of varying religious hues. These included the visionary agnostic Jawaharlal Nehru, Vinoba Bhave the scholar-ascetic, and Vallabhbhai Patel, the realist who prayed silently but stayed clear of godmen.
Plus the scholar, Koran translator and fighter for Hindu-Muslim partnership, Abul Kalam Azad. Plus C Rajagopalachari, who retold the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories and simplified the Upanishads.
And Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the devout Muslim with loyal Hindu and Sikh comrades, Charlie Andrews, the Christian who put the deprived first, Gora the staunch Andhra atheist, the poet Sarojini Naidu, the young United States-educated revolutionary Jayaprakash Narayan, and many more.
Some of Gandhi’s core views were shared by his colleagues and by many Indians. One was that a person of any religious belief – a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh, a Jew, a Zoroastrian, a Jain, a Buddhist, an atheist, an agnostic, whatever – had an equal right to India. Religion was one thing, nationality another.
To this, Jinnah said, “No”, in 1940, although earlier he had agreed with Gandhi. “Muslims and Hindus are two nations,” Jinnah now insisted.
Hindus like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar agreed with Jinnah. Three years before Jinnah’s Pakistan call, Savarkar had declared in Ahmedabad that Hindus and Muslims were two nations.
Another core Gandhian view was about the Almighty. While human beings called God by different names, all, claimed Gandhi, were addressing the same Supreme Being. As the line sung by him and millions of Indians put it, Ishwar Allah tere naam.
Composed before his time, the line became synonymous with Gandhi. In April 2000, when I asked Bangladeshi villagers in Noakhali what they knew about Gandhi, they responded by singing Ishwar Allah tere naam to me. This was more than half a century after Gandhi’s peace trek in Noakhali.
Gandhi turned to religion to cope with life’s sorrows and shocks, not to find a political rallying cry.
“In the midst of death,” he wrote in 1928, “life persists. In the midst of untruth, truth persists. In the midst of darkness, light persists. Hence I gather that God is Life, Truth, Light. He is Love. He is the Supreme Good.” (Young India, 11 October 1928)
Gandhi did not fret over why “a God of mercy and justice allows all the miseries and sorrows we see around us”. Not being “co-equals with God”, we cannot “solve such mysteries”, he concluded. (Harijan 13 Jun 1936)
In any case, each day seemed to bring its mercies. “God is with us and looks after us as if He had no other care besides. How this happens I do not know. That it does happen, I do know.” So Gandhi wrote for a young associate, Anand Hingorani. (Hingorani, God is Truth, p. 80)
For an American journalist, Vincent Sheean, who called in January 1948, Gandhi translated one of his favourite Upanishad verses: “Renounce the world and receive it back as God’s gift. And then covet not.” Gandhi explained that the last four words were crucial, for a renouncer was often tempted, after surrender and acceptance, to covet again. (Sheean, Lead Kindly Light, 1949, pp. 190-3)
The notion that nationality was independent of religion had, we saw, its foes. The same was true for the idea that the variously named God was one. Even today, “your God”, “my God”, “the Hindu God (or Gods)”, “the Muslim God”, and “the Christian God” are common phrases.
But Hind Swaraj contained these lines: Is the God of the Muslim different from the God of the Hindu?... There are deadly proverbs as between the followers of Siva and those of Vishnu, yet nobody suggests that these two do not belong to the same nation… [T]he Vedic religion is different from Jainism, but the followers of the respective faiths are not different nations.
In 1947, against his advice, Gandhi’s colleagues, led by Patel and Nehru, opted for Partition, which seemed to them the only route to independence. The people too seemed resigned to Partition, and Gandhi acquiesced. Yet neither Gandhi nor Nehru nor Patel nor the bulk of the Indian people conceded that Hindus and Muslims were two nations.
Partition having been accepted, Gandhi challenged Jinnah (June 7, 1947) “to build a Pakistan where the Gita could be recited side by side with the Qur’an, and the temple and the gurdwara would be given the same respect as the mosque, so that those who had been opposing Pakistan till now would be sorry for their mistake and would only sing praises of Pakistan”. (Collected Works 88: 99-100).
Six days later, he said: ‘I [ask] whether those calling God Rahim would have to leave [India] and whether in the part described as Pakistan Rama as the name of God would be forbidden. Would someone who called God Krishna be turned out of Pakistan? Whatever be the case there, we shall worship God both as Krishna and Karim and show the world that we refuse to go mad’ (CW 88: 144).
Asking himself and everyone else to learn from disappointments, he said on June 24, 1947: Had Rama been crowned a king, he would have spent his days in luxury and comfort and the world would hardly have heard of him. But the day he was to be crowned, he had to put on bark clothing and go into exile. Isn’t it the limit of unhappiness? But Rama and Sita turned that sorrow into joy. (CW 88: 203)
To give minorities in India and Pakistan a sense of security, Gandhi spent much of August 1947, including Independence Day, in a dilapidated Muslim home in a Hindu-majority locality in Kolkata. When, three days later, Eid fell, half a million Hindus and Muslims attended Gandhi’s prayer-meeting.
But both halves of divided Punjab were in flames and Delhi itself was vulnerable. Stopping in Delhi on the way, so he imagined, to Punjab, Gandhi was asked by critics to retire to Kashi or go to the Himalayas. He replied: I laugh and tell them that the Himalayas of my penance are where there is misery to be alleviated, oppression to be relieved. There can be no rest for me so long as there is a single person in India whether man or woman, young or old, lacking the necessaries of life, by which I mean a sense of security, a life style worthy of human beings, i.e., clothing, education, food and shelter of a decent standard. (CW 88: 51)
Gandhi thought his “India for all” to be crucial to humanity as a whole. On January 12, 1948, wounded by malice in the subcontinent, he fasted and prayed for “the regaining of India’s dwindling prestige”, saying: I flatter myself with the belief that the loss of her soul by India will mean the loss of the hope of the aching, storm-tossed and hungry world. (CW 90: 409)
When he was killed, Sarojini Naidu pleaded in a radio broadcast, “My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest.”
Even if, 150 years after his birth, Gandhi’s spirit is entitled to peace and quiet, the rest of us might ask if there is no misery to be alleviated, no oppression to be relieved.
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