Although Gandhi called himself a sanatani Hindu, he did not believe in the exclusive divinity of the Vedas
Mahatma Gandhi has remained an ever-beckoning and an ever-elusive subject of study. People have marvelled at this phenomenon; some were mystified by it, some surrendered to it, some were exasperated by it, but none could get away from it. Sometimes one wonders if Gandhi is irretrievably lost in his Mahatmahood. The solemn and affectionate aura that the prefix to the name carried was also often a burden that he had to carry. Since Gandhi kept on conducting experiments with Truth and kept talking about them, people mistook him for an oracle and sought solutions to every problem they faced or created. Yet, although Gandhi spoke or scribbled his thoughts extensively (or perhaps, because of it) people have formed opinions about him without taking the trouble of reading him comprehensively. Gandhi’s religion is one such theme. Here, for a change, J.T.F. Jordens, dissects the problem with clinical care and superb sympathy. A book published in 1998 in Great Britain and the U.S.A., but hard to buy for those who could pay only in Indian rupee, it is now happily brought out for the benefit of those who need to study it the most.
Gandhi’s Religion is a product of a close study of the Mahatma’s Collected Works and the author follows the developments and shifts in Gandhi’s religious thoughts and practices without quite surrendering to their linearity. Many factors influenced the making of Gandhi’s religion: his family, people he acknowledged as his guides or friends, the books he read, and more than anything, his own restless, intense, idiosyncratic evaluations of himself and the world he wished to understand and change. But it was in South Africa that Gandhi’s ideas about religion developed. Gandhi had to respond to the intrusive presence of Christian missionaries there; he also drew assurance from heterodox Christians who rejected the idea of Christ the Saviour and stressed self-purification and service as the true ways of finding God. Gandhi read William Salter’s Ethical Religion, Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You and Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland’s The Perfect Way or The Finding of Christ; he was influenced by the writings of Theosophists and Swami Vivekananda; his views on civilisation were moulded by Edward Carpenter’s Civilization, its Cause and Cure. But Jordens shows that the Gandhi’s religious views were more decisively formulated by Raychand, who, in his letters, expounded the nuances of Jainism. He sent Gandhi the Saddarshana Samucchaya, of Haribhadra, and reading it, Gandhi found Jainism “The most logical of all faiths”. He was most impressed with the doctrine of anekantavada, the many-sidedness of reality which leads to the epistemology of syadvada, the doctrine that every statement only represents a partial view of reality, which became the basis of Gandhi’s conception of religious pluralism. Gandhi also read some books on Advaita sent by Raychand, particularly the Yoga-Vasishta, the Panchikarana and the Maniratnamala. Besides, Gandhi created himself on the anvil of South Africa, which also gave him lessons in community living and service, passive resistance and reputation of saintliness.
Although Gandhi called himself a ‘sanatani Hindu’, he did not believe in the “exclusive divinity of the Vedas;” nor did he attach much importance to rituals and temples. He disapproved of dedication of devadasis, and called such temples “no better than brothels”; he was repelled by animal sacrifices in temples, and said “The mere thought of the Kali temple [of Calcutta] fills me with horror.” Although he did not have much to say in favour of temples as centres or symbols of Hinduism, he strongly supported the temple-entry movement in Kerala, because it was about conferring dignity to fellowmen. He was a supporter of varanashrama dharma; but he fiercely excoriated the theory and practice of untouchability. He said that his belief in Advaita implied that “all men are born equal”. His views which privileged humane, truthful and non-violent practices over scriptural prescriptions obviously did not find approval of the orthodoxies who had patented the title of sanatani Hindus, while his acceptance of varnashrama and caste framework drew derision from some of those socially under-privileged whose cause he championed.
Jordens has shown that Gandhi recognised the pluralism of Hinduism; he saw it as a commonwealth of faiths and practices. He saw Jainism as part of the Hindu religious universe, and Sikhism as a reform movement within Hinduism. He was disappointed with the Satyarth Prakash for its iconoclasm and project to discover the true Hinduism in the Vedas. However, notwithstanding his scepticism about scriptures as divine ordinances and lack of enthusiasm over the puranas, he increasingly began to look upon Bhagavad Gita as his mother. But he insisted on interpreting it as an unfailing guide to truth and non-violence. He was more disposed to look for jnana and karma than bhakti in it. But Gandhi’s religion as service needed the cleansing of the self, which he did through his vow of Brahmacharya, and periodic fasting, but Jordens sees in them some incongruities and negativities. His attitude to sex as sin was obsessive, but late in his life he was willing to see it in more kindly terms. Gandhi’s ‘inner voice’ was part of his dialogue with his soul or his God, but it could, at times, confound people. Gandhi’s religion was an intensely personal search and experiment; but since he was a Mahatma, it could no longer remain personal. It became a beacon, compelling, idiosyncratic, and superbly paradoxical.
The image of Gandhi’s religion as a “bulky homespun shawl” is poetic. “At first it looks very plain to the eye, but we can detect the beauty of the strong patterns and the contrasting shades of folk art. With its knots and unevenness, it feels at first rough to touch; but soon we can experience how effective it is in warming cold and hungry limbs.” We feel that warmth by reading Jordens too.
GANDHI’S RELIGION — A Homespun Shawl: J.T.F. Jordens;
Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.