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Gandhi and Spiritualism

By K D Gangrade

What is it that entitles a person to be described as spiritual?

Anyone who believes that there is something that survives death, and therefore precedes birth, that this something is higher than the body, and the pleasure of the body, that this something has to be identified through the use of all the unique powers of the human being and who therefore believes that the true purpose of or use of life is to identify this principle and engage in achieving the fullest development of its powers, can be described as a spiritual person. If this distinction can be accepted, Gandhi can certainly be described as a spiritual person.

It is true that Gandhi was actively engaged in dealing with problems that related to the material conditions of life. But he has spared no effort to explain that his activities in the mundane or material fields of life were only meant to serve his spiritual goals, and to prove that even problems that one faced in one's day to day life could be solved only with means that were consistent with the principles and methods that ruled in the realm of spiritual endeavour. In fact, he claimed that whatever competence or power he had acquired to deal with material conditions and problems had come to him from spiritual practices.


Gandhi spoke of God, religion and the spiritual path. But since these terms have different flavours, he did not want to leave anyone in doubt about his understanding of these words. Gandhi's faith in God was total and unshakable. But to him, God was not a person. Truth and Truth alone was his God. He believed in religion, but to him true religion was not exclusive. It was not catechism and rituals. It was not a hermitically sealed house. He believed that true religion transcended denominations. Thus, there was something unique about Gandhi's perception of God, religion and spiritual faith.


The uniqueness of the faith that he chose for his spiritual evolution or self - realisation (Sadhna) was to attain spiritualism by remaining in the world. Gandhi did not believe in withdrawing from the world of everyday life to devote himself in spiritual practices. In every field he had to look for, and apply the spiritual law. He could not do this if he withdrew from everyday life or the problems or activities of everyday life.

Another unique element in the Gandhi's spiritual effort (Sadhna) was transparency. Most of his acts were performed under the watchful eye of the public, with newspapers reporting every move and every reaction. There was nothing hidden from the public, nothing that pubic did not know.

He wrote of his dreams, and examined how far they showed that he had not yet reached where he wanted to reach. These public confessions ensured complete transparency. On the one hand, they ensured that he was not sailing under false colours, dissembling, or benefiting from an untruthful image of himself. On the other, they made common people realize that they could overcome their weaknesses as Gandhi was doing. Gandhi's spiritual effort (Sadhna) was therefore unique in that it enabled others to follow every step by which he was struggling to accomplish the ascent. He chose to do his penance in a 'glass-house' watched by others. It could not be otherwise because the God that he was seeking was Truth. Truth did not need secrecy to survive. It was untruth that needed secrecy. Truth and secrecy were therefore antithetical. One could not be truthful without being transparent. Since transparency was characteristic of the resultant state that he was seeking, the causal method that one adopted had also to be consistent with the character of the resultant state.


Even in early years of his spiritual life in South Africa, he distinguished between formal, denominational or customary religion and basic or true religion. Explaining his perception, he said: "Let me explain what I mean by religion. It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all religions, but the religion that transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and others, which changes one's very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the Truth within, and which ever purifies. It is the permanent element in human nature which counts no cost too great in order to find full expression and which leaves the soul utterly restless until it has found itself, known to its maker, and appreciated the correspondence between the maker and itself."

To be true to such a religion, one has to lose oneself in the continuing service of all life. Religion or Truth (he equates religion with Truth) is impossible without a complete "merging of oneself in or identification with the limitless ocean of life."

If religion is the science of the soul, the quest for Truth and the pursuit of life leads one to Truth. What was Gandhi's perception of God? Gandhi said: "I am sure of His existence than of the fact that you and I are sitting in this room. Then only I can testify that I may live without air and water, but not without Him... Blast my belief in God, and I am dead."

He came to the conclusion that it would be more correct to say, "Truth is God" than say "God is Truth". Truth is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient.

Gandhi said, "There was a time when I had doubt about existence of God, but I never doubted the existence of Truth. This Truth is not something material, but pure intelligence. This is for one almost a matter of experience. I have had only a glimpse of it. But my faith is indomitable."

Gandhi believed that the power or potential of some mantras like Ramanama had been identified by spiritual practitioners on the basis of their vision and experience. They were therefore like algebraic formula arrived at through research and experimentation, and verification of effect. Explaining the effect of namajapa (repetition of the name) Gandhi says: "Namajapa cleanses the heart thus; a person who repeats the name with a pure heart does so with faith. He begins with the resolve that Namajapa will purify his heart... What is on his lips will ultimately possess his heart and purify him. Such experience is universal, and knows no exception. Psychologists are also of opinion that as a man thinks so he becomes. Ramanama conforms to this rule. I have firm faith in Namajapa. Discovery of Namajapa was born out of experience and understanding and is of utmost importance. The doors of purity should be open even to unlettered, and namajapa will unlock them."

If you want to be able to listen to the voice within, you have to be able to silence the deafening and colourous voices of the senses and the ego, and the temptations they offer. There is indissoluble marriage between matter and spirit.

The Gita talks of the calamity that overtakes humanity and creation when adharma (unrighteousness or centrifugal forces) becomes ascendant over dharma (righteousness or the centripetal forces).

This perception of the relation between spirit and matter- or the oneness of spirit and matter may have also contributed to Gandhi's belief that material or physical force could be made to bend before the spiritual force that lay inherent in Truth.

The power of material force may be conditioned by heart which is the seat of comprehension or feeling. True compassion dissolves the ego, and the dissolution of the ego takes one to a state of consciousness which can be identified only with the realm of the spirit.

Love, to Gandhi, is more than desisting from violence. It is a positive attitude of the mind and heart, and action flowing from the attitude. This attitude does not arise from the moral code laid down by a prophet, or a code that bases itself on the promise of rewards and threats of retribution. It arises from understanding of the true and unalterable paradigms of human existence. At the basic level, it can be seen that one of the paradigms of Human existence is interdependence. When one's existence and achievements are conditioned by inter-dependence, one has to have positive concern for all other human beings, other forms of life and the environment- on whom or on which one depends- with whom one's life is interwoven. This concern is love. It can neither be expressed through hatred nor indifference. Love is therefore, the sine qua non of human existence. It is therefore, according to Gandhi, the force that holds human society together, and in that sense, it is Dharma.

Gandhi believed that love is the obverse side of the coin of Truth. Love therefore, cannot acquiesce in the violation of Truth. Love needs to defend Truth and it may therefore confront situations in which it is forced to fight for Truth or serve the cause of Truth through non- cooperation and even disobedience (Gandhi cites the instance of Prahalad).

Spiritual force has no obstructions of the kind that material force has to confront. It can therefore expect its power and achieve results even from a distance, and even without dependence on physical proximity or a material medium. Spiritual force communicates and operates at the spiritual level. It communicates on a trans-physical, trans-verbal, trans-intellectual level with another human being. The experience of such communication becomes possible only when egocentrism declines and fades.


Universal love cannot be possessive and suppressive of individuality. It has to be based on human dignity and needs of existence, growth and fulfilment.

Since the fall of Adam and Eve, the devil's strategy is to tempt their descendants thereby destroying their relationship with God (Truth). This is why our attention is diverted from what is permissible to what is forbidden. Anticipating the pleasure we would receive from forbidden activity, we give in to temptation. The good news is that the devil, our enemy can be disarmed if we concentrate on the things that are permissible. However, this is impossible unless we seek God's strength to fight the devices of the devil.

The world is full of tragedies, events and experiences which are meaningless and cruel. We do not need to bow to fatalism. We need not accept the premise that commercial pressures and scientific necessity have the last word. Time and chance may provide the matrix out of which our life flows, but the one who governs all is God. We are here to build a kingdom of love with the raw material we have before us. Sometimes the raw material we have just decays or cracks or gives way in our hands. But in the seeds of that disintegration, are the beginnings of a new life.

Gandhi would not take "philosophy only as... the thinking consideration of things" as Hegel opines. To him philosophy that is not useful in life was not acceptable. He courageously stated that he would not accept anything that conflicts with reason and conscience.


Today, it has to be said that if the consumerist culture has given us certain things with one hand, it has also made us restless, encouraged haste, ambition, stress and greed; it has promoted dissatisfaction with what exists, and the desire for more is endless. One might also remember that an estimated 330 million people world-wide suffer from depression. There is increasing incidence of cancer, respiratory illness, stress disorders, birth defects and rising infertility.

Some of the main causes of stress are conflict in human relationships, deadlines, unfulfilled expectations and aspirations. Stress releases negative hormones in the blood stream and causes anxiety and muscular tension. It is therefore necessary for stress management to be our new mantra. Regular exercise, a good and balanced diet, meditation and a regular massage will help in managing stress effectively. The natural healing power that flow from being in the company of children have very often been compared to the healing powers of spiritual masters (leaders).

Gandhi suggested that the unity of three Hs- Head, Heart and Hand are needed at very step to ensure that there is no slide-back. Why should anyone think that the mind is everything and the hands and feet nothing?

Diwali is the festival that encapsulates the diversity of India. The light symbolizes not just the victory of righteousness, but the end of spiritual darkness.

What made Gandhi the Mahatma? He believed that we were put on this earth not to gain pleasure and enjoyment but to improve ourselves and the lot of others. The relief of those living in poverty was a central mission in his life. He believed in education for public service. It is these ideals that he sought to instill in all of us. Salvation of problems of world and peace lies in following Gandhian ideals and spiritual faith shown by him.

The festivals of Deepawali, Eid, Onam, and Durgapuja foster the spirit of love and brotherhood/sisterhood. There is really no substitute for Sadhna or inner work. In conclusion, as Gita says, our objective of life should be: "he who has no ill will to any being, who is friendly and compassionate, free from egoism and self-sense, even minded in pain and pleasure and patient, who is under content, self- controlled, unshakable in determination with mind and understanding given to me is dear to me."(Bhagwad Gita XII-13-14). The same sentiments are echoed in Lotus Sutra in which Buddha says: "The dwelling of the great compassionate heart within all the living. The role of the Tathagata is the gentle and forbearing heart. That seat of Tathagat is the spirituality of all existence".

The Vice-President of International Television Broadcasting (USA) in a recent interview pointed out: "Already America is looking to India for spirituality". Therefore let us draw lessons from our knowledge and wisdom for prosperity and peace. Spirituality makes Adhyatma the focal point. The earlier we cultivate that love and faith in Him the better would be quality of our life.

The mantra to spiritualism is as Adi Sankaracharya said: "I cast aside hatred and passion, I conquered delusion and greed. No touch of pride caresses me, so envy never did breed".

At the same time Gandhi was a pragmatist who regarded himself as a "practical idealist", as one who combined high moral adventure with a series of "experiments with Truth". In 1936 he observed: "the opinions that I have formed and the conclusion I have arrived at are not final, I may change them tomorrow. I have nothing new to teach to the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is experiment in both on as vast a scale as possible." To him, his experiment with Truth was even more important than his experiment with non-violence. Thus he said: "As a Jain muni once rightly said, 'I was not so much a votary of ahimsa as I was of Truth...' I was capable of sacrificing non-violence for the sake of Truth."

In 1947 when Gandhi's feeble voice was in the wilderness, which many people did not wish to hear but which still refused to be silenced, he once spoke with the calm self-reassurance of a person to whom his social philosophy had revealed its unity of design just as a controversial work of art reveals the beauty of the composition to a painter. Let me quote: "Some suggest that I should not speak at all. The multitude of advisers reminds me of a painter who had exposed his painting in a shop window without glass, inviting the critics to mark the parts they did not like. The result was a daub. The painter had simply tried to show that it was impossible to please all parties. He was, therefore, satisfied that he had painted a good picture. His business was to produce a work which satisfied his artistic taste. Mine is a similar case."

An emotional matrix, deeply embedded in Gandhi's personality-structure, seems to integrate his ideas into a system of social philosophy such as he was able to develop, essentially as a man of action. There is always a "meaning-system" corresponding to a personality-structure or character-structure. Words or concepts change their meanings with the change in the character-structure of a society or an individual or even a group. Owen Barfield in his thought- provoking essay, "History in English Words", has shown how words have changed their meanings with the deeper shifts in the "world- view" of individuals and societies. He quotes Sir Walter Raleigh who said, "Morality colours all language and lends to it the most delicate of its powers of distinction", and adds that "when any significant change takes place in the moral standards of a community it is immediately reflected in a general shifting of the meanings of common words". Fromm has analysed how the emotional matrix of meaning- system as a clue to the Nazi character-structure becomes an important frame of reference. Its importance lies in revealing the meaning of Nazi social philosophy as well as the Nazi behaviour-pattern. On the same lines, we have constructed the frame of reference of the opposite character-structure, the Gandhian character-structure with a meaning- system that reveals the core content of Gandhi's social philosophy and brings out its sharp contrast with Nazi social philosophy. Fromm has described the Nazi model as the sado-masochistic character- structure.

Man has not only to satisfy his physiological needs, and as such must have a social system in which he can grow and develop, and realise his potentialities.

Gandhi Marg, Volume 30, Number 4, January-March 2008

K.D. GANGRADE, Formerly Professor of Social Work and Pro-Vice Chancellor, University Of Delhi Email :