From my sixth or seventh year up to my sixteenth I was at school, being taught all sorts of things except religion. I may say that I failed to get from the teachers what they could have given me without any effort on their part. And yet I kept on picking up things here and there from my surroundings. The term 'religion' I am using in its broadest sense, meaning thereby self-realization or knowledge of self.
Being born in the Vaishnava faith, I had often to go to the Haveli
But it never appealed to me. I did not like its glitter and pomp. Also I
heard rumours of immorality being practised there, and lost all interest
in it. Hence I could gain nothing from the Haveli.
But what I failed to get there I obtained from my nurse, an old servant of the
family, whose affection for me I still recall. I have said before that
there was in me a fear of ghosts and spirits. Rambha, for that was her
name, suggested, as a remedy for this fear, the repetition of
Ramanama.< I had more faith in her than in her remedy, and so at a tender age I
began repeating Ramanama to cure my fear of ghosts and spirits. This was of course short-lived, but the good
seed sown in childhood was not sown in vain. I think it is due to the
seed sown by that good woman Rambha that today Ramanama is an infallible remedy for me.
Just about this time, a cousin of mine who was a devotee of the Ramayana arranged for
my second brother and me to learn Ram Raksha.
We got it by heart, and made it a rule to recite it every morning after
the bath. The practice was kept up as long as we were in Porbandar. As
soon as we reached Rajkot, it was forgotten. For I had not much belief
in it. I recited it partly because of my pride in being able to recite
Ram Raksha with correct pronunciation.
What, however, left a deep impression on me was the reading of the
Ramayana before my father. During part of his illness my father was in Porbandar. There
every evening he used to listen to the Ramayana.
The reader was a great devotee of Rama – Ladha Maharaj of
Bileshvar. It was said of him that he cured himself of his leprosy not
by any medicine, but by applying to the affected parts bilva leaves which
had been cast away after being offered to the image of Mahadeva in
Bileshvar temple, and by the regular repetition of Ramanama.
His faith it, it was said, had made him whole. This may or may not be
true. We at any rate believed the story. And it is a fact that when
Ladha Maharaj began his reading of the Ramayana his body was
entirely free from leprosy. He had a melodious voice. He would sing the
Dohas (couplets) and Chopais (quatrains),
and explain them, losing himself in the discourse and carrying his
listeners along with him. I must have been thirteen at that time, but I
quite remember being enraptured by his reading. That laid the foundation
of my deep devotion to the Ramayana. Today I regard the Ramayana of Tulasidas
as the greatest book in all devotional literature.
A few months after this we came to Rajkot. There was no Ramayana reading
there. The Bhagavat, however, used to be read on every
Ekadashi1 day. Sometimes I attended the reading, but the reciter was uninspiring. Today
I see that the Bhagavat is a book
which can evoke religious fervour. I have read it in Gujarati with
intense interest. But when I heard portions of the original read by
Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya during my twenty-one day's fast, I wished I
had heard it in my childhood from such a devotee as he is, so that I
could have formed a liking for it at an early age. Impressions formed at
that age strike roots deep down into one's nature, and it is my
perpetual regret that I was not fortunate enough to hear more good books
of this kind read during that period.
In Rajkot, however, I got an early grounding in toleration for all branches of
Hinduism and sister religions. For my father and mother would visit the
Haveli as also Shiva's and Rama's temples, and would take or send us youngsters there.
Jain monks also would pay frequent visits to my father, and would even
go out of their way to accept food from us – non-Jains. They would have
talks with my father on subjects religious and mundane.
He had, besides, Musalman and Parsi friends, who would talk to him about their
own faiths, and he would listen to them always with respect, and often
with interest. Being his nurse, I often had a chance to be present at
these talks. These many things combined to inculcate in me a toleration
for all faiths.
Only Christianity was at that time an exception. I developed a sort of
dislike for it. And for a reason. In those days Christian missionaries
used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring
abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this. I must have
stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me
from repeating the experiment. About the same time, I heard of a well
known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of
the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink
liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he
began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got
on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat
beef, drink liquor, and change one's own clothes did not deserve the
name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the
religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these
things created in me a dislike for Christianity.
But the fact that I had learnt to be tolerant to other religions did not mean that I
had any living faith in God. I happened, about this time, to come across
Manusmriti2 which was amongst my father's collection. The story of the creation and similar
things in it did not impress me very much, but on the contrary made me
incline somewhat towards atheism.
There was a cousin of mine, still alive, for whose intellect I had great regard. To
him I turned with my doubts. But he could not resolve them. He sent me
away with this answer: 'When you grow up, you will be able to solve
these doubts yourself. These questions ought not to be raised at your
age.' I was silenced, but was not comforted. Chapters about diet and the
like in Manusmriti seemed to me
to run contrary to daily practice. To my doubts as to this also, I got
the same answer. 'With intellect more developed and with more reading I
shall understand it better', I said to myself.
Manusmriti at any rate did not then teach me ahimsa.
I have told the story of my meat-eating. Manusmriti seemed to
support it. I also felt that it was quite moral to kill serpents, bugs
and the like. I remember to have killed at that age bugs and such other
insects, regarding it as a duty.
But one thing took deep root in me – the conviction that morality is the
basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality. Truth
became my sole objective. It began to grow in magnitude every day, and
my definition of it also has been ever widening.
A Gujarati didactic stanza likewise gripped my mind and heart. Its precept – return
good for evil – became my guiding principle. It became such a passion
with me that I began numerous experiments in it. Here are those (for me)