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Mahatma Gandhi's Discovery of Religion

By A. Jayabalan CMF

MAHATMA GANDHI AS a great leader has recognized the major religions of the world as historical and cultural phenomena. Beyond these particular forms there is the religion of humanity which is reflected as faith in the moral order. This religious belief, Gandhi held, is common to all particular religions. He said: "The soul of religions is one, but it is encased in a multitude of forms.''  For him, the moral order which governs the universe is Satya and the process by which life is continued is ahimsa. All religions are nothing but appropriations of Satya under the condition of cultural limitation and human finitude. Thus religions as cultural and historical phenomena are more or less true. They are equal in the sense that no single religion has the absolute or exclusive truth. He said: "Religions are different roads converging on the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads as long as we reach the same goal? In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals.''

According to Gandhi, true religion is not narrow dogma. It is not external observance. It is faith in God and living in the presence of God, it means faith in a future life, in truth and ahimsa. He understood the fact that religion is a binding force which ultimately calls "to accelerate the process of realization of fundamental unity. He gives a simile of a faithful husband who would love no other woman. Even her faithlessness would not wean him from his faith. The bond is more than blood relationship, so is the religious bond if it is worth anything. It is a matter of the heart.


(i) Traditional Understanding

In those days, people had a conservative outlook towards religion. There were people who believed in primitive religion which was ruled by nature. Primitive man worshipped the natural forces believing that there was something supernatural in them, of course it was not devoid of superstitions. Man is seen accepting his condition passively and adapting himself to them without much criticism. Gandhi went against the current and engaged in vigorous dialogue with the traditionalists and upheld a dynamic view of Indian institutions and values. He sought to awaken in the millions of Indians an elementary minimum of self-respect and feeling of dignity which he regarded as an absolutely necessary pre-condition for his nonviolent struggle. He reinterpreted the traditional religion which often proved to give a greater impetus to economic and social development.

In the past the attitude of Christian missionaries towards non-Christian religions was a narrow and hostile one. They regarded Hinduism as an evil and idolatrous religion. It is relevant to see how the traditional virtues of a personal ethic, viz., Satya, ahimsa, brahmacharya, asteya, and aparigraha were applied and what empirical content they acquired from Gandhi's own life. Gandhi added abhaya (fearlessness) to the list and did not agree to include humility. Thus he brought a radical change in the traditional understanding of religion. Until the advent of Western civilization in its glaringly urban and industrial form, these features of ancient outlook persisted in India without serious interruption. In this sense, Indian aesthetics represents interruption, represents a continuous tradition from Bharatha's Natyasastra to Tagore's "Religion of an artist." Gandhi is the spokesman of the sociological aspect of this tradition.


(ii) New Understanding of Religion and its Praxis

Gandhi's perspective of religion was entirely different from that of others. In the past, Dharma was considered as one of the societal values. In the words of J.B. Kripalani, "It is indeed Gandhi's creative and constructive genius which inextricably blended the two traditions, namely the Truth of Sanatana Dharma and Ahimsa of Jaina Dharma.''  He insisted on the praxis of religion to the extent of saying: "I have come to this fundamental conclusion that if you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man." For him, religion and morality are inseparable. Politics bereft of religion is absolute dirt, even to be shunned.

According to Gandhi, the whole gamut of man's activities constitutes an indivisible whole; it must be inspired by one's religious faith, a faith in God, and living in the presence of God, it means faith in a future life in Truth and Ahimsa. After a long study and experience he discovers and concludes that all religions are true. All religions have some error in them. All religions are almost as dear to me as one's own close relatives. He too believed that all religions are God-given, and therefore stressed the necessity of religion. He compares the atheist and agnostic to 'a man saying that he breathes but that he has no nose.'  Vows and observances taken in his religion not only facilitate the spiritual progress of the individual but also harmonious community living on the basis of spirituality, mutual help, and collective salvation. Hence removal of the evils, inequalities, and injustices become part of one's own religious duties. Thus his entire view of religion is an integrated one.


(iii) A Critical Reflection on Praxis of Faith

Faith is the foundation of every religion. "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." A man with a grain of faith in God never loses hope because he ever believes in the Ultimate triumph of Truth. A man of God never moves after untruth. Hence he can never lose hope. Such were the convictions of Gandhi. He says: "Faith is nothing but a living, wide, awake consciousness of God within.'' In his view true religion consists in having faith in God and living in the presence of God; it means faith in a future life, in Truth and Ahimsa. There prevails today a sort of apathy towards these things of spirit. For him living faith in God means acceptance of brotherhood of mankind. There exists an indissoluble bond between the individuals faith and his religion. Just as St. Paul, he gives the analogy of marriage by saying that "just as a husband, because either is conscious of some exclusive superiority of the other over the rest of his or her sex, but because of some indefinable but irresistible attraction, so does one remain irresistibly faithful to one's own religion and find full satisfaction in such adhesion.''

Since he realized that faith in its praxis passes through a crisis of skepticism and doubt, he had an unflinching faith in Truth and in God. He understood faith as an essential, constitutive element of his religion. Hence he considered a man without faith in God is like a drop thrown out of the ocean and bound to perish. For him the greatest source of his strength was his absolute faith in God. His faith in God increased with every trial he faced. He himself gives the testimony that, "I have never found Him (God) lacking in response. I have found Him nearest at hand when the horizon seemed darkest in my ordeals in goals when it was not all smooth sailing for me, I cannot recall a single moment in my life when I had a sense of desertion by God.''

In his view, faith itself cannot be proved by extraneous evidence, the safest course is to believe in the moral government of the world and therefore in the supremacy of the moral law, the law of Truth and Love. Praxis of faith thus will be the safest where there is a clear determination summarily to reject all that is contrary to Truth and Love. It is faith that transcends reason. He had an unshakable faith in God which made him ask How much more should I be near to Him when my faith is not a mere apology, as it is today, but has become as immovable as the Himalayas and as white as the snows on their peaks. In brief, faith according to him, does not admit of telling. It is to be believed and then it becomes self-propagating.


(iv) Realization of God

Man has an insatiable thirst for God. Consequently he feels the urge to realize God, through the means propagated by his religion. Gandhi too says: "Man's ultimate aim is the realization of God and all his activities, social, political and religious, have been guided by the ultimate aim of the vision of God. To realize God is to see Him in all that lives, that is, to realize our oneness with all creation. 'It is in the critical moments of one's life, we have a glimpse of God, a vision of Him who is guiding everyone of our steps in life. He himself testifies to the fact that as days pass I feel this living presence in every fiber of my veins. Without that feeling I should be demented.., so many events happen that would, without the realization of that presence, shake me to the very foundation.' Thus he felt the indwelling presence of God within himself.

He explicitly states the characteristics of a real seeker of God in the following words: "A real seeker of God should be purified by prayer and always be prepared to share the suffering of man whoever they may be. This noble idea will have no influence unless one is convinced of the existence of the soul distinct from body and permanent. This recognition must not just be intellectual idea, it must be a living faith.'

As St. Augustine said: "My soul does not rest until it rests in Thee," Gandhi also says: "Soul is utterly restless until it has found itself, knows it Maker and appreciates the true correspondence between the Maker and itself.''  While quoting Gandhi, Aloysius Rego says: "As gold is tried in the furnace so is the man who is devoted to God tried in tribulation and suffering. He, however does not forsake us in our miseries, but gives us the strength to prove our mettle in the midst of adversities. In all the vicissitudes of life we must be convinced that God's protecting hand and love shield us. Created to His own image and likeness we can find like Mahatma Gandhi true peace in Him and strive with might and main to reflect His attributes in our lives.''

According to Gandhi, a religionist must be free from all impure and sex thoughts in mind and heart. One can realize God's grace through complete self-surrender and ceaseless communion with Him. A man realizes the supreme by becoming absolutely free from likes and dislikes and never otherwise .... He adds realization is a matter of experience but does not lend itself to description in any language. Gandhi was endeavoring to see God through the service of humanity because he recognizes the presence of God in every man. Man's highest endeavour lies in trying to find God. He cannot be found in temples or idols or places of worship by man's hands nor can He be found in abstinences. God can be found only through love, not earthly but divine. He discovered that if he was to realize God, he has to obey the law of love even at the cost of his life. God is to be realized in one's own heart.

He believed firmly that man realizes God not in abstract things but in the factory, the home, in schools and colleges, in villages and towns as one lives and begins to move towards the realization of the Absolute. He could visualize this truth as the essential insight of his religion. A joy springs out of the communion with the Divine. The realization is proved not by extraneous evidences but in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the presence of God within.


Concept Of God

Gandhi was a firm believer in God. He claims to have a living faith in the abiding presence of God. Since Gandhi was a theist, he could not accept the illogical arguments of an atheist. For him, God is an unseen power. This idea is clear in the following words of Gandhi: "An indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything; a living power that is underlying all change in an ever-changing, ever-dying world, is itself changeless, that holds all together, creates, dissolves, and recreates. That power or spirit is God."  He was a monotheist. He enumerates the attributes of God that He is unfathomable, unknowable, unknown to the vast majority of mankind. He is everywhere. He sees without eyes, hears without ears. He is formless and indivisible. He is uncreated, has no father, mother and child, he allows himself even to be worshipped as stock and stone, although he is in one of these things. He is the most elusive. He is the nearest to us if we could but know the fact. But he is farthest from us when we do not want to realize His omnipresence."

For Gandhi, so great is His infinite love, he is purely a benevolent God. His testimony was that "I can see that in the midst of death life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists; in the midst of darkness, light persists. Hence I gather that God is life, truth, and light. He is love. He is the supreme God." He argued that God revealed Himself daily to every human being in one way or other but we are not receptive to receive His voice. God never appears to you in person but in actions. God for him is not an external entity but an abiding presence in the human heart. His conception of God can be summed up in his own words: "To me God is Truth and love; God is ethics and morality; God is fearlessness. God is the source of light and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist. For, in His boundless love God permits the atheist to live. He is the searcher of hearts. He transcends speech and reason.' 'Through these expressions, we can understand his indomitable faith in the living God who provides everything in the universe.


(i) Religion of Truth

From the time of Socrates, beauty, Truth and goodness were considered as supreme values of the society. Among these three values, it is truth that attracted Gandhi. He could discover beauty in and through Truth. All truths are not merely true ideas nor ethical values but it is primarily and inevitable connected with human existence. Many a time it is a matter of one's own conscience. People, as a rule, fail to see the beauty in Truth. Whenever men begin to see the beauty in truth, the true art begins. Hence, as Gandhi, one must seek truth; beauty and goodness will then be added.

Gandhi had a great faith in Truth, above all, in the exercise of Truth. He never thought of a failure to one who is truthful and believes in Truth. Since Gandhi's very life was an experiment with Truth, we can very well derive the salient features of Truth. He was very much inspired when he read the Mundaka Upanishad (III-I-6) which says:

Satyam eva jayate nantram,
Satyena pantha vitato deve-yanah,
Yenakramanty rsayohy apta-kama,
Yatra tat satyasya parmam nidhanam.

This means Truth alone triumphs, not falsehood. The divine path to liberation has been laid with Truth, which the seers who have overcome desire tread, and wherein also is the supreme treasure to be gained by truth.' 'For him, "truth alone triumphs, not untruth" was not a mere maxim but it was a living faith, an inspiring mantra, and words impregnated with power. He says that "Truth is only one whole and indivisible not composed of parts, and stays as such for all times past, present, and future. Not violence, not untruth but nonviolence. Truth is the law of our being which is the fundamental law for liberation.' 'Thus Truth is stable and unchanging. It is nothing but a living embodiment of God. Gandhi also affirms with Jesus the fact that "you shall know the Truth and the Truth will set you free" (Jn. 8:32). The power of Truth leads us to recognize the human dignity, equality, and fraternal solidarity with all human beings irrespective of caste, colour, or creed.

For Gandhi, God alone is Truth and everything else is transitory and illusory. God is without doubt the supporter of truth. Truth always triumphs. God is, even though the whole world denies him; truth stands even if there is no public support, it is self-sustained. Hence Gandhi says: "To me God is truth and love.' 'Finally, he came to the conclusion that truth is God which seems to have given him much satisfaction. If we want to understand truth as God, the only inevitable means are love and nonviolence. We may say that Gandhi's religion is the "religion of Truth" as revealed by God.

According to Gandhi, this religion of Truth underlies all genuine religions of the world: "All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth.'28 It lends all religions the basic unity they possess. Gandhi has compared this fundamental religion to a tree with many branches you may say religions are many; as tree, religion is one.' 'Now the question may arise: If God is one and truth is one, how can, and why should, there be many religions? The answer is that for Gandhi, this religion of Truth is an abstract reality and it becomes concrete by taking on specifications like Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. according to the circumstances and needs of the various peoples of the world. For, he says: "Truth will appear to most sincere and conscientious Hindus, Mussalmans and Christians as Hinduism, Islam and Christianity respectively as they believe them.''

All of Gandhi's life was, thus, a relentless search after truth. In this he stubbornly refused to be dictated to by any external authority. He realized early in life that truth becomes freedom, power and dynamism only when it is personally discovered and personally assimilated. He would, however, insist on the highest degree of sincerity with oneself in the search after Truth.


(ii) Role of Different Scriptures

Scriptures of various religions had a vital role to play in Gandhi's life. Scriptures were the source for his prayer as well as practice of truth and nonviolence. For him, the function of scriptures in a community is not primarily to be vehicles of its culture. Its role is to make the life of the community meaningful in the context of its fundamental and foundational experience and in reference to its goal, namely self-realization and fulfillment, Moksha. It supports moral values and promotes quality of life. The Scriptures of all religions teach the same fundamental message of Satya and ahimsa. This he calls "religion of humanity." He believed in the equality of scriptures. According to him, all of them occupy a horizontal place. He says: "I believe the Bible, the Koran, and the Zend Avesta to be as much divinely inspired as the Vedas.''Hence he asked: "Why should we blaspheme God by fighting one another because we see him through different media--the Koran, the Bible, the Talmud, the Avesta, or the Gita? The same sun beams on the Himalayas as on the plains.''

Though he was a Hindu, he did not believe in the exclusive divinity of Vedas. From the point of view of Gandhi, revelation is an ongoing process. Though he considered the "holy books" of all religions as generally inspired and yet he was aware of the two dangers in interpreting them. Firstly, they are received through human prophets who are imperfect by their very nature. Secondly, the explanation given by interpreters would also mislead the people who also are sometimes subject to reinterpretation. His attitude towards other scriptures was that of vedic rishis who sang "let noble thoughts come to us from every side." But we should throw open our windows for fresh breezes to blow through our halls, we should refuse to be swept off our feet. He would say that "in reading these texts I can say I was equiminded towards all these faiths, although perhaps, I was not conscious of it.... I ever had the slightest desire to criticize any of those religions merely because they were not my own, but read each sacred book in a spirit of reverence and found the same fundamental morality in each.''

Gandhi was convinced that 'it is impossible to understand the word of God in its fullness and integrity.' Needless to say that he was enriched and enlightened by the reading of other scriptures. It also facilitated him to see unity of all faiths. He tried to apply those principles of Truth and Ahimsa (which he derived from other scriptures) in his own concrete, existential situations. He too accepted that the study of the sacred scriptures had brought a new zeal and enthusiasm to work. He himself affirms: "I derive the greatest consolation from my reading of Tulsidas's Ramayana. I have also derived solace from the New Testament and the Koran. I do not approach them with a critical mind.''


(iii) Outlook on Moksha

According to Gandhi, Moksha consisted in freeing oneself from the shackles of death and rebirth. Moksha is liberation from impure thought, complete extinction of impure thought is impossible without ceaseless penance. There is only one way to achieve this. The moment an impure thought arises confront it with pure one. This is possible only with God's grace and God's grace comes through ceaseless communion with Him and complete self-surrender. Salvation is considered to be coming into the living presence of God. It is nothing but the realization of the unity of spirit transcending the limitations of space and time.

Moksha is conceived as living in communion with God and freedom from reincarnations. In the words of Gandhi, "What I want to achieve-what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years-is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing and all my ventures in the political field are directed to this same end.'' Self-purification, obedience to the law, and mediation are the three basic pre-requisites which an individual must practice throughout his life in order to attain Moksha. For him, the desire for Moksha was indeed there, but it was not meant for anyone other than the individual himself. The world was interested in the fruits not the root. It was in the depth one's own being that the individual had to concentrate. He has to nurse it with the water of his labour and suffering. The root was his chief concern.

Gandhi used the term "Moksha' in the sense of liberation from the bondages. In a broad sense, it implied to encompass concretely historical, political, and incarnate liberation connoted by Swaraj. Real Swarajya consists in self-restraint. If an individual fulfils all the demands of Swarajya, and yet remains a fervent devotee of God, and strives towards God-realization, he is on the process towards attaining Moksha.

To conclude, for Gandhi, religion was a source of guidance all throughout his life. His understanding of religion is interesting, unique and meaningful. Because of his open-mindedness, he could also recognize the uniqueness of each religious tradition as something noble and hence to be lived by the followers of all religions. His attitude towards other scriptures and even people of other religions was remarkable and admirable. He was a man of prayer, who strived his best to attain the realization of God and ultimately Moksha. He believed more in personal religion than in the structured religion. He also invites us to personalise our religion whatever we may belong to. The comprehensive view of religions of Gandhi would of course widen our understanding of religions in its different dimensions. It also helped Gandhi to realize the higher ideals of life. He could accept and assimilate the good elements of all major religions of the world as necessary and basically true.

As we live in an environment of violence-culture, religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, it is quite relevant to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "My religion has no geographical limits. My religion is based on truth and nonviolence. My religion forbids me to hate anybody. Religion is not for separating people but to bind them.' That was Mahatma's religion, true Religion of Love and Tolerance.

[Source: International Seminar on GANDHI AND THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY (January 30 - February 4, 1998), New Delhi - Wardha.]