Updated: October 2, 2012 00:43 IST

Religion reinterpreted

B. Surendra Rao
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GANDHI’S RELIGION — A Homespun Shawl: J.T.F. Jordens; Oxford
University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 795.
GANDHI’S RELIGION — A Homespun Shawl: J.T.F. Jordens; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 795.

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.

Inner voice

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.

Rs. 795.

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Gandhiji's contribution was his ability to see the unity in diversity
among all religions. He is greater than all prophets who could only
say that only their religion is correct and that they alone are sent
by god to redeem the world. If not for his peaceful demonstration for
independence, india will be in more chaos - a look at our neighbours
confirms this. His ability to put every word thru the lens and not
merely accept something because its written long time back is the
cornerstone of sanathana dharma which emphasises on experiencing
rather than merely learning. Indeed a maha yogi.

from:  Ramu
Posted on: Oct 3, 2012 at 20:53 IST

Clearly, Gandhiji's religion seems to have been based on 'experiments with truth'...

Wish we followed his rational approach to religion and philosophies of life...

from:  netinaut
Posted on: Oct 3, 2012 at 20:22 IST

I would say that the growth phase of most of the world's religions got
over many centuries or millennia ago. That is why most people see the
scriptures (of whichever religion) as "frozen in time". With regard to
Gandhiji and the Vedas, I would say that he has made an original
contribution to the Vedic / Upanishadic ideas by his idea and practice
of Ahimsa - in addition to touching the lives of so many people. I
consider that a rare and remarkable thing.

from:  Madhusudan
Posted on: Oct 2, 2012 at 23:36 IST

We do not need a foreginer to intrepret Gandhi thinkings after decades of his death. Sanatana Dharma stand on the bedrock of Vedas. By saying Gandhi was a Sanatan dharman, there end the matter. Out of lakhs of temples, only in a few teles that too on few specific oocasions, animal sacrifice is done. Kanchi Maha Periava has explained the specific sacrifice in Yahams as sacrificing a house is ok to save a village, sacrifycing a village is ok to save a town etc. For the larger benefit of the society, smaller sacrifices are allowed. it has to be viewed in the context. During war, to protect a nation, thousands of Javans are sacrificed to save a country.

from:  Bala
Posted on: Oct 2, 2012 at 18:22 IST

It is a misplaced belief that sanatani Hindu has to be the dogmatic believer of Vedas. Gandhi himself had declared; he won't take each and every word of any scripture as divine manifestation and will discard any scriptural teaching which is repugnant to his moral sense or reason. His conscience was basically framed by Gita and Yoga traditions. He however, was not a reformer - he believed in castes and related restrictions, varnas, cow protection, rebirth and karma, Atman, Brahman etc and to that extent and can call himself as sanatani Hindu (and even as believer of Vedas or Vedanta).

from:  ananta
Posted on: Oct 2, 2012 at 13:15 IST

The readers would be interested to note as to what ls life and what is
religion for him as evidenced in a letter written by him from sabarmati in july 1931 to Will Durant A US based philosopher of that period.
The letter thus runs,".......Life for me is real as i believe it to be a spark divine.Religion is not in the conventional sense but in the broadest sense helps me to have a glimpse of the Divine sense..this glimpse is impossible without full development of the moral sense,Hence
religion and morality are for me Synonymous terms...."(quote unquote)
Ref book "on the meaning of life" By will Durant

from:  seshachalam gopalakrishnan
Posted on: Oct 2, 2012 at 12:39 IST

In Mahatma Gandhi we find pluralism of religion which includes ISLAM.
Writer seems to be ignored this fact which he should bound to explain.

from:  Mohamed Shafee
Posted on: Oct 2, 2012 at 12:30 IST

In tamil we can say that " Gandhi ji udaya eerangi kku British
kararudaya peerangi payanthathu" i.e. The British military regiment had
scared in front of Gandhi ji's two pieces of shawl.

The two pieces of shawl is the whole time dress for the hajj pilgrims

now we could understand the holiness of the shawl.

from:  shahul hameed
Posted on: Oct 2, 2012 at 12:04 IST

I wish the reviewer had also given us a bit of the background of the author, Jordens. what
drove him to write this book? Since the book is not new but has been out for a while, what
have other scholars said about Jordens' analysis?

from:  I.C.Nito
Posted on: Oct 2, 2012 at 06:59 IST

whole western very happy to do postmortem anything but unable to put forward the idea of unity in diversity,purity above worldly sin and spiritism instead of meterialism,indian yogi,sadhu with intellect of merging with infinity always attracts me,in western nation whole public aims is live in today and forget about tomarrow,that is whole ,india need to discover its lost heritage of peaceful coexistance with nature,with ego and supreme truth,

from:  bhupinder
Posted on: Oct 2, 2012 at 02:25 IST
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