On February 3, 1934, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) wrote in the journal Harijan [“God’s People,” referring to the lower caste people or the so-called untouchables]: “My politics and all other activities of mine are derived from my religion.” However, though he was born and brought up in a Hindu household, his knowledge of Hindu religion was extremely limited till his late twenties. He did not study Sanskrit, the revered classical language of Hinduism in which most of the original Hindu scriptures and literatures were written. His knowledge of Hindu philosophy and metaphysics was superficial at best. He did not even bother to read the Bhagavatgita until the late 1880s when he was persuaded by two English Theosophists—Bertram Keightley (1860-1945) and his nephew of almost the same age Archibald (1859-1930). As Mohandas himself admitted: “I am a Hindu by birth and yet I do not have much knowledge of where I stand and what I do or should believe, and intend to make a careful study of my own religion.”
Meanwhile, Gandhi had read the Koran because his employers in Durban, South Africa (where he had gone in 1893), Abdulla Seth of Dada Abdulla & Company, had thrust it on him. He was led to the Christian scriptures by his Christian friends. It was not until he read Leo Tolstoy’s (1828-1910) The Kingdom of God is within You (1894) that he discovered the true meaning of a religion. Nevertheless, he remained skeptical of the effectiveness of Christianity which he actually admired in many ways. Specifically, he “could not swallow the belief that Jesus Christ alone was the son of God and that only those believing in him could attain salvation.” For him, “if God could have Sons, then we are all His sons. If Jesus was like God or indeed God Himself, every man is like God and can become God.” Hence he did not see “anything extraordinary in the Christian principles.” The upshot was that he “could not accept Christianity as a perfect or the greatest religion [and at the same time] could not consider Hinduism as “the perfect or the greatest religion.” He could not reconcile himself to the practice of untouchability and the prevalence of sects and castes obtaining under Hindu religion. His concept of religion had little in common with what ordinarily passes for organized religion: dogmas, rituals, superstition, and bigotry. Gandhi’s religion was simply an ethical framework for the conduct of daily life. Religion to him was thus a matter of conduct rather than of conviction.
During his first year in South Africa in 1893, Gandhi attracted the evangelical attention of some ardent Quakers who gave him books on Christian theology and history to read and preached at him and prayed with and for him. The impact of Quaker proselytizing in a strange country was doubtless strong on him, especially when his knowledge of Hinduism was frankly elementary. He was advised by a Jain scholar from Bombay named Raychandbhai (Brother Raychand), whom he considered his mentor, to read about Hinduism. Over time he read and reflected on all the major religions, especially Hinduism and Christianity, the two religions to which he was most attracted, and developed his philosophy of religion.
Sir Edwin Arnold’s (1832-1904) The Song Celestial (1900), translation of the Bhagavatgita (to which Gandhi had been introduced by the London theosophists), and The Light of Asia (1891), biography of Gautama Buddha (566-486 BCE), fascinated him. Buddha’s renunciation deeply stirred him. Gandhi’s philosophy of religion owed also to his reading of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. The verses “But I say unto you that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” reminded Gandhi of the eighteenth century Gujarati poet Shamal Bhatt (1718-65), who wrote: “For a bowl of water give a goodly meal/For a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal/…the truly noble know all men as one/And return with gladness good for evil done.”
Although the Bible, Buddha, and Bhatt appealed to Gandhi, he developed a sentimental and scholarly bond with Hinduism, the religion of his birth. Years later, Gandhi was to declare to a group of Christian missionaries: “Hinduism as I know it entirely satisfies my soul, fills my whole being and I find a solace in the Bhagavatgita which I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount.” Admittedly, in his lifetime Gandhi was variously labeled as an orthodox Hindu, a renegade Hindu, a Buddhist, a Theosophist, a Christian, a Christian-Mohammedan, even, as Romain Rolland (1866-1944) imagined, Christ himself. Yet, as Gandhi’s first biographer, Rev. Joseph Doke, wrote in 1909, his views were too deeply saturated with Hinduism to be called Christian, while his sympathies were so wide and catholic that one would imagine he has reached a point where the formulae of sects were meaningless.
Gandhi’s concept of Hinduism was ultimately reduced to a few fundamental beliefs: the supreme reality of God, the unity of all life and the value of love or non-violence [ahimsa] as a means of realizing God. His study of comparative religion and his interaction with scholars and theologians brought home the conclusion that true religion was more a matter of heart than of intellect, and that genuine beliefs were those that dictated action. Gandhi was none other than a man of praxis (practitioner of abstract principles or ideologies). To him, God appeared in action, not as a person. His traumatic experience in 1893 at Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, where he was pushed out of the train at night in the severe cold of South African winter, brought him face to face with God. Throughout his life he was to look upon South Africa as “that God-forsaken Continent where I found my God.”
Gandhi’s program for Indian regeneration involved a cluster of strategies— svadesi and satyagraha—both derived from his religious orientation. Svadesi, a complex Hindu concept, was redefined by him as an Indian alternative to the European doctrine of nationalism. His use of the term svades connoted a human community’s culture that constituted its soul or spirit as well as its natural habitat. The swadeshi spirit, which Gandhi translated as a communitarian, national or patriotic spirit, referred to the way an individual related and responded to the need of his des, that literally stands for “country,” but in Gandhian terms means an individual’s “total cultural and natural environment,” reminiscent of the concept of his august contemporary, the poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in this regards. The svadesi spirit extended to all the elements comprising the des, including a love of not only the indigenous way of life but also of the natural environment and especially the people sharing it.
The satyagraha was the second important constituent of Gandhi’s program of national self-purification. It was during his struggle against the Black Ordinance in Transvaal, South Africa that Gandhi discovered how the Indians there lacked personal and communal self-respect, courage, and the willingness to organize themselves. On September 11, 1906 (I call this date Gandhi’s 911 against racism), at the Empire Theater of Natal, he spoke against this racially discriminatory law: “I, for one, would refuse to obey the Black Ordinance, and take the consequences—go to jail, if need be, or die.” He then assured his audience: “Everyone must only search his own heart, and if the inner voice assures him that he has the requisite strength to carry him through, then only should he pledge himself and then only would his pledge bear fruit.” Thus was born satyagraha or, to borrow the term by which the suffragists of Great Britain described their strategy, “passive resistance.”
The term satyagraha comprises two words satya [truth] and agraha [insistence]. Thus satyagraha stands for insistence on truth. Gandhi saw truth and God as interchangeable entities and claimed in 1908 that “Truth is God.” He recognized that rational discussion was the only truthful way to deal with untruth. But he was also aware that reason was not always effective in reality. The rationalists made a fetish of reason by insisting that all disputes were amenable to rational resolution, and that people could always be convinced by arguments through debates. If they were not, the fault lay with the quality of the arguments. The limitations of rationality had led many to advocate violence as the only effective method of fighting untruth or injustice. But Gandhi was totally opposed to violence as a method of fighting untruth or injustice. While it is a fundamental fact of human nature that men perceive truth differently, the use of violence denies this basic epistemological (relating to origin, nature, methods and limits of human knowledge) fact. In order to justify the use of violence one must assume that one (the user of violence) is absolutely right, the opponent totally wrong, and that violence would definitely achieve the desired result.
Gandhi rejected violence on moral ground. Morality consisted in doing what was right, and required unity of belief and behavior. The use of violence never changed the opponent’s perception of truth but compelled him to behave in a manner contrary to his sincerely held beliefs. This disjunction of conviction and conduct created an untruth, violated his integrity, and diminished his status as a moral being. Above all, violence could never achieve lasting results. Every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired end and developed the habit of using it to respond to resistance. Hence, according to Gandhi, rational discussion was the only meaningful and truthful way to deal with untruth.
It is to be noted here that Gandhi’s Gandhi’s strategy of satyagraha combined the persuasive power of reason with the energy of violence. This energy represented a fascinating amalgam of rationalized masochism (or, if you will, self-imposed suffering) as well as political pressure. Gandhi’s principle of satyagraha had roots in his Hindu heritage. The ancient Vedas had a philosophy of suffering that brought divine as well as worldly results. Suffering, self-imposed and undergone in the spirit of grace, was an instrument of self-purification. Satyagraha thus was a “surgery of the soul.” He also derived inspiration for his satyagraha from the examples of grand self-abnegation (self-denial and self-imposed suffering) by such Hindu folk heroes as the Prince Rama or the King Harishchandra. In the Western world, too, Gandhi’s idea of suffering had a firm foundation. The motif (idea or theme) of suffering is central to Christianity. The “Cross” on which Jesus died symbolizes the most magnificent suffering in human history. For Gandhi, “Jesus was preeminently a man of unshakable resolution, that is, vows.” As Gandhi saw it, Christ was “the prince of satyaghrahas.”
Three men from the West deeply influenced Gandhi intellectually: John Ruskin (1819-1900) of England, who expounded upon truths associated with simple living and manual labor, Leo Tolstoy of Russia, who articulated the nexus between nonviolence (ahimsa) and truth, and Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) of America, who propounded a unique political strategy in his Essay on Civil Disobedience (1854). The last but not the least, Brother Raychand, the Jain savant (distinguished scholar) of Gandhi’s native Gujarat, who exemplified the truth and glory of non-attachment to material things, profoundly inspired him much the same way as Prince William of Anhalt had inspired young Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) mendicancy at Magdeburg, Saxony.
Finally, we need to deal with a sensitive issue. It has to do with Gandhi’s saintly stature—the most popular stereotype attributed to him. There are three factors that render any objective, and by the same token, true, assessment of this reputation. First and foremost is his popular appellation of Mahatma (the Great Soul) that seeks to make an ultramundane saint out of him. Secondly, and this is the exact polar opposite of hagiographical (sacred biographical) approach, is his historical reductionism that strips him of any uniqueness, his genius, so to speak, and thereby reduces him to a mere automaton of historical process. The third factor is Gandhi’s own anachronistic tendency to admire and emulate the past in defiance of his contemporary social, cultural, and economic life, in other words, Gandhi’s paradox. Although all the three perspectives are valid in some way, none of them singly or simply can explain his relevance to the modern world. To make him a mere mahatma and a saint is to rob the salience of his principles and praxis. To reduce him to history’s automaton is to deny his genius. To emphasize his admiration for the simple life of “noble savage” and his apathy to modern ethos is to debunk him as an obscurantist.
And yet, as we are all aware, there is a great relevance for Gandhi’s ideals today. The unchecked advance of the industrial civilization has seriously retarded the development of the creative self and generated the problems of alienation, anomie, and legitimacy. It has also undermined the search for radical freedom by rendering freedom as something that has to be won by breaking loose from external impediments. To be free is to be unrestrained. And yet, complete untrammeled freedom is a void in which nothing would be worth doing. The self which has arrived at this freedom by overcoming all external fetters is one without a defined purpose.
Gandhi’s panacea for this human predicament is a radical rejection of the Enlightenment model of individuality that asserts itself through an act of separation from his natural environment and through predatory competition. His paradigm of individuality expresses itself in self-realization through knowledge and aligns itself to a larger entity (Visvajivan or World-Life, as his famous friend and friendly critic, Rabindranath Tagore [1861-1941], envisioned). This individuality is not a relationship of domination and exploitation but of interdependence and harmony through ahimsa that recognizes the multiplicity of reality and rejects exclusivity. Self-development, in Gandhi’s view, is co-development. Freedom of the individual does not lie in removing obstacles to untrammeled existence but creating conditions that conduce self-development through co-development. Gandhi thus invests the vacuous post-Enlightenment freedom of the technological society with a content and purpose for the authentic development of humanity.
However, we also need to remember that Gandhi’s vision of an ideal Gemeinschaft [self-contained community] was jettisoned by his followers who took charge of independent India on August 15, 1947. His most famous disciple, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India (1947-64), envisioned an industrialized India that would absorb the best heritage of the metropolitan West, which Gandhi had rejected. Gandhi’s call for non-violence—so much emphasized by politicians in their rhetoric—was ironically answered by a diabolical communal blood-letting that preceded the independence of the country (1946-47). And, the man who is said to have contributed so much to India’s independence, watched the country’s political division helplessly and then died at the hand of an assassin who represented a vocal minority of aggressive Hindus angered by what they considered India irredenta—unredeemed India—as part of it was partitioned off as the newly formed state of Pakistan.
Then we ought to note that Gandhi, a politician and a mass organizer par excellence, was neither a saint nor a great soul, nor even a real sympathizer of the social pariahs whom he labeled Harijan—people of God. In the language of the architect of Indian constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), himself a Maharastrian untouchable, Gandhi was a humbug. Ambedkar compared Gandhi’s attitude toward the untouchables with Abraham Lincoln’s (r. 1861-65) toward the southern Blacks. As Lincoln cared more about the Union than the slaves (his letter of August 22, 1862 to Horace Greely, 1811-72), Gandhi cared about the glorification of India while his protestations for the Harijans were part of his well-calculated propaganda work to arouse the masses. “Is Gandhi a Mahatma?” Ambedkar wrote. “I am sick of this question. There are two reasons why this question annoys me,” Ambedkar continued. “Firstly, I hate all the Mahatmas, and firmly believe that they should be done away with…because they try to perpetuate blind faith in place of intelligence and reason.” In my opinion, Ambedkar is, at least, partially right. We should not care about the Mahatma of political hagiography. But we need to learn from the historical Gandhi who probably has the right answer to the wrongs of our own ultrarational, transactional world.
Earlier versions of this essay formed my public lectures to the Lutheran Church Men’s Group, Salem, Oregon (January 31, 1997) and to the Gandhi Forum at the Salem Public Library organized by INDUS (Indo-US Cultural Association, October 1, 1997). My essay borrows freely from a few select scholarly studies though I do not always quite agree with their authors’ perspectives on Gandhi’s social and political thoughts and practices.