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What Hinduism meant to Gandhi

The Mahatma would have been sharply critical of what is represented by Hindu nationalism.

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.

Hindu nationalism is sharply ascendant in India. (Photo: Reuters)

This contemporary narrative also feeds on the conceit that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, the view that it is uniquely tolerant, the apprehension that this tolerance has historically rendered it vulnerable to more aggressive faiths, and the twin conviction that Indian civilisation is fundamentally Hindu in its roots and that secularism is alien to India.

Hindu Gandhi

Gandhi would not have abided by this worldview. Indeed, he would have been sharply critical of what is represented by Hindu nationalism.

So, it becomes imperative to assess what he understood by Hinduism 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 to characterise Gandhi’s 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 remained a devout Hindu. The roots of his religious worldview and conduct must be located in the religious milieu from which he emerged. His predilection for the Vaishnavism of his household is reflected later in his life by his fondness for Narsi Mehta’s bhajans, most famously ‘Vaishnava Jana To...’, and Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas.

Gandhi often declared his belief in varnasrama dharma and remained a devout Hindu. (Photo: Reuters)

Gandhi’s mother belonged to the Pranami sect which — if centered on Krishna worship — showed a remarkable ecumenism in drawing upon the Quran and the Bible and multiple linguistic traditions. Jainism also left a deep impress upon Gandhi, who drew upon all three traditions in his thinking about ahimsa and what Jains call anekanantavada, “the many-sidedness of perspective”.

On communal unity

Gandhi first became familiar with the Bhagavad Gita in the English rendering of it by Edwin Arnold called The Song Celestial. 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. In South Africa, Gandhi encountered many missionaries, who concluded that it was impossible to convert him 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 his return to India in 1915 and his immersion in Indian public life that made Gandhi 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 Movement (1919-1924) as an attempt to extract from Muslims their support for a ban on cow slaughter. Rather, by around 1920, he had come to the position, radical then and now, that Hindus and Muslims are incomplete without each other. This remained one of the cornerstones of his religious belief.

Some principles stand out when we reflect upon what endures from Gandhi’s lifelong and extremely rich understanding of the religious life.

First, in moving from the proposition that ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’, Gandhi tried to signal inclusiveness and suggest that the core of ethical life is the quest for ‘Truth’. Even a confirmed atheist like the social reformer Goparaju Ramachandra Rao ‘Gora’, who wrote An Atheist with Gandhi, could partake of Gandhi’s religious universe.

Second, Gandhi was steadfast that no religious outlook was acceptable, no matter how venerable, until it passed the litmus test of individual conscience. He unequivocally rejected passages from the Ramcharitmanas and the Quran that he found unacceptable.

Third, Gandhi firmly rejected the idea of any kind of hierarchy of religions. This is one of the reasons why he was not sympathetic to the idea of conversion, even as he recognised 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.

Samvad philosophy

Fourth, 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 inter-communal and inter-cultural 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 this left him wholly unimpressed. He found them singularly unproductive and antithetical to everything that he understood by Hinduism.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: 150 years on, why Mahatma Gandhi still matters

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