ARTICLES > GANDHI AND SOUTH AFRICA > Evolution of Gandhi's Faith : South African Contributions
Evolution of Gandhi's Faith : South African Contributions
branch of social science has tried to appropriate Gandhi within the narrow
confines of its own discipline. As a result, the symbiotic relationship between
his life, thought and work has been undermined, creating the problem of ‘broken
totality’. The present paper has emerged out of my larger study to restore such
symbiosis. It traces the process of the evolution of Gandhi's faith during his
South African days. Working through an integral and dialectical process of
'inner illumination' and outer challenges, he developed his basic ideas like
swaraj and swadeshi, and also his major instrumentalities like ashram living,
prayer and abiding faith in God. The basic contours of his faith emerged out of
fiery ordeals he went through during his South African sojourn. This explains
the centrality of South African contributions in turning his personality from
Mohan to Mahatma.
It is the faith that steers us through stormy seas, faith that moves mountains
and faith that jumps across the ocean. That faith is nothing but a living,
wide-awake consciousness of God within. He who has achieved that faith wants
nothing. Bodily diseased, he is spiritually healthy; physically poor, he rolls
in spiritual riches.
without saying that Gandhi was essentially a man of faith. For it was his
undying faith that turned out to be the mainspring and substratum of his actions
all through his life including those related to the secular field. It was again
his fathomless faith which gave him a rare sense of fearlessness which inspired
the life and thinking of his countless followers. It was once again his faith
as a loom on which he tried to weave out a social fabric of secular, united and
independent India free from the narrow gaze of region, religion, caste and
creed. It was his abiding faith in truth, non-violence and purity of means Which
endowed him with a rare knack to take momentous decisions based on his 'inner
voice'. Gandhi found his 'inner voice' as the most effective medium for
comprehension of truth. He strongly believed that the 'inner voice' of a
purified soul was as much based on human rationality as on inner 'revelation’.
It was the highest meeting point of 'Reason' and 'Revelation'. He regarded the
'inner voice' as nothing less than the 'voice of God' and in his schemes of
things, the 'inner voice' played as much a role as reasoning, if not more. The
role of faith in Gandhi's life could hardly be overemphasized.
many Sidha-Purusas (one who is a self-realized soul from birth) such as
Ramkrishna Paramahansa, Raman Maharishi and others, Gandhi was a spiritual
commoner. And that is why he always claimed and remained as an ardent Sadhaka
(spiritual seeker). He was never a social and religious recluse. He was very
much of the world and remained in the thick of the earthly battle till the end
of his life. For him both sacred and secular were to form a continuum rather
than being in any kind of dichotomous relationship. It is through innumerable
spiritual and secular struggles that he built up his faith, virtually brick by
rather strange that most of the social scientists have concentrated their
attention on his secular ideas like Satyagraha, Swaraj, his theory of state, his
vision of the ideal society etc., or on his role in South African struggle and
Indian national movement. But the entire process, methods and evolution of his
faith have not been given the importance they deserve in any serious discussion
of his life, thought and work. I seek to go into the process of the evolution of
his faith. So far as the evolution of his faith is concerned, it is his South
African sojourn, which played the most crucial role in the entire process. When
Gandhi sailed for South Africa in 1893, he had nothing in his mind other than a
better career prospect. But by the time he returned to India in early part of
1915, there was a total metamorphosis in his persona, thought processes and his
secular and spiritual aspirations.
went to South Africa, he did have a cultural baggage with him derived from his
family, the cultural environment of Saurashtra, and his short sojourn in England
(1888-91). All this also had its own contribution in the making of his faith.
Gandhi's formative years (1869-1888):
He himself has adequately "described the major influences of his early life,
which impacted his personality and his faith1. He was born in a Moth
Bania family with a Jain sensibility towards non-violence. Both his parents were
deeply religious and endowed with spiritual bent of mind.
senior Gandhi had also imbibed religious liberalism. He had friends from Islamic
and Zoroastrian faith. Jain monks were no stranger to his household and they
left their own spiritual impact. Putalibai also visited temples and observed
many religious rituals. The overall environment of Gandhi's household was
liberal and was not marked by any kind of orthodoxy and ritualism. Therefore,
the junior Gandhi imbibed cultural liberalism and religious pluralism. Rambhabai
- a childhood nurse of the younger Gandhi, impressed upon Gandhi to resort to
Ramnam, whenever and wherever he was gripped by fear-which he was
temperamentally prone to in his early life. This left a life-long impact on his
personality and psyche. Ramnam turned out to be the greatest source of
his strength till the end of his life. His family and social surroundings went a
long way to build up the religious and spiritual psyche of the younger Gandhi.
But the message he received from them was more ethical and mystical rather than
ritualistic and dogmatic.
has told us that two dramas, viz., Shravan Kumar and Satyavadi
Harischandra, which were being staged in Porbandar, had great influence on
him. While the former inculcated in him a deep sense of service, the latter
inspired him to lead a life of truthfulness. They had left an everlasting impact
on his personality, as he retained these two values of service-spirit and
truthfulness all through his life. Jainism, with its natural emphasis on ahimsa
must have also had an abiding impact on his personality and his firm commitment
to the cult of ahimsa. He was more interested in the spirit, rather than the
form of non-violence. He was never fascinated by the formal bhakti. And a
rigid social system always repelled him. In his later life, he waged a
relentless battle against untouchability and even gave a new interpretation of
bhakti based on his study of the Bhagavad Gita. In his new
interpretation of bhakti he underlined the spirit of surrender of one's
own will and merging it with that of God.
incident which left an everlasting mark on his personality was his inappropriate
behaviour when he had left his father to his uncle's care and went to his wife's
chamber gripped by an uncontrollable sexual desire. His father died, while the
younger Gandhi was indulging in the act of sexual gratification. That incident
recoiled on his psyche creating a deep scar, a sense of shame and remorse.
Perhaps, that also had its impact when he took to brahmacharya in 1906 in
the wake of the Zulu rebellion. In his later life, bhahmacharya
became one of the major components of his faith. He developed another trait: an
immense amount of sanctity attached to vows and persistence to adhere to them.
He would not swerve under pressure or even persuasion, once he had taken a vow.
The same trait of persistence and tenacity was demonstrated by him in the course
of his several fasts, when he completed the ordeal at the great risk of his
life. In his very early life he developed an uncanny knack of mobilizing all his
inner resource to face difficult situations, as he was never prone to passing
the buck of his moral responsibility to anyone else. He had a deep sense of
moral commitment that he alone should bear the consequences of his action. His
truthfulness, tenacity of purpose, courage of conviction, indomitable will and
service-spirit -all these virtuous traits were present even in the formative
phase of his life.
in London and Back to India (1888-1893)
Depth and Dimensions to his Faith:
Gandhi had sailed for London on 4 September 1888 and stayed there till
mid-1891. For a while he was fascinated by the British way of life, but true to
his nature, he stuck to the vows he had taken in the presence of his mother, in
respect of wine, women and meat. His contact with the vegetarian society
influenced him not only in terms of his diet but also in respect of moral and
ethical side of his life. He also came into contact with some theosophists, who
successfully persuaded him to read the Bhagavad Gita and the Light of
Asia. It was through these contacts that he was able to meet Annie Besant
and Madama Blavatsky - the two leading lights of theosophy. He was greatly
impressed by their deep and abiding interest in Indian culture, their tolerant
and syncretic approach to religion and their assertion that truthfulness and
ethical living was the essence of religion.
during the same period that he came in contact with the churchmen, who got him
interested in Christianity and its main scripture, Holy Bible. His reading of
the New Testament particularly of the Sermon on the Mount made tremendous impact
on his thought process and personality. He himself recorded its impact: "The
verse 'I say unto you that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on
thy right cheek, turn to him the other. And if any man takes away thy coat, let
him have thy cloak too' greatly gripped me". And there was no doubt that the
life of Jesus Christ remained a model for him and the Sermon on the Mount
continued to inspire him throughout his life.
hardly any stomach for a sectarian and dogmatic doctrine. He always wanted the
window of his spiritual faith to be kept open but simultaneously he tried to
keep his cultural roots intact. As soon as he got his degree in June 1891, he
immediately sailed for India and made no attempt to find any excuse for his
overstay as many other Indians did.
process of the enrichment of his spiritual life and embellishment of his
syncretic faith gathered momentum during his stay in Bombay. It was there that
he came into contact with Raichand Bhai, a Jain jeweller, and a man of deep
religious and spiritual sensibility. Though he was a practising Jain, he was
well- versed in Hindu religious scriptures. And it was he who inspired the young
Gandhi to pursue moksha, as the ultimate purpose of human life. In his later
life Gandhi acknowledged the contributions of Raichand Bhai in igniting in him
the fire of spiritual inquisitiveness. He even went to the extent of equating
him to Ruskin and Tolstoy- two other thinkers who had impacted his life deeply.
Gandhi's South Africa Sojourn: The Birth of a New Mahatma
Undoubtedly, it was Gandhi's twenty years long stay in South Africa which
transformed his personality, his thought process, his life-style and, finally,
made him a man of deep faith and firm action.
intellectual and spiritual influence
Spirituality had taken hold of his inner life and it was with such a mindset
that he opened a new correspondence in 1894, listing and raising twenty-seven
questions covering the entire realm of religion and spirituality2. In
that letter he not only put questions regarding Hinduism and Christianity, but
also raised a moral question of how to make a choice between one's life and
non-violence. Gandhi was working as a spiritual seeker, rather than a moral
giver. Raichand Bhai did not disappoint him. He wrote back three letters to
Gandhi between October 1894 and the early part of 1896. Raichand's answers to
Gandhi's questions was as follows:
spirit and the matter are entirely two different things - the former being the
eternal and the latter being the transient.
transmigration of human beings is primarily because of their being imprisoned in
body, which is always in the grip of passions on account of its material and
the spirit does have the innate potentiality to liberate itself from bondage of
body and attain moksha.
the royal road to moksha is knowledge and action and, thus, always within
the purview of human purusartha)
looked at all the scriptures as man-made and as such being imperfect and
refused to entertain the idea of superiority of one religion over the other.
Instead, he suggested a practical test: that religion is the best, which helps
the spirit to attain its natural state of divinity.
his last letter written in the early part of 1896, Raichand underlined the
significance of the Aryan aachar (practice) which primarily comprises the
practice of virtues like 'mercy, truthfulness and forgiveness')
real significance of Gandhi-Raichand correspondence is that it brought out
Gandhi's inquisitiveness regarding some of the most fundamental questions of
human existence. Though Gandhi might not have taken every word of Raichand as
gospel truth, it did leave a lasting impression on the nature and structure of
his faith, which he was trying to build up almost brick by brick.
with such liberal inquisitive mindset that Gandhi was soon attracted towards a
new movement inside Christianity, which sought to give equal respect to all
religions. The Perfect Way' penned by; Maitland, revalidated some of the basic
formulations of Raichand Bhiai as conveyed to Gandhi. Maitland too maintained
that every individual is a potential Christ and he could take himself to the
highest point of purification by freeing his spirit from the contaminating
Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You also underlined the inner
perfection of man and he averred that man's salvation was in his own hands. He
asserted that human redemption was impossible without self- renunciation,
self-suffering and in exceptional cases even without supreme sacrifice. Gandhi
had been impressed by Ruskin’s book Unto to the Last which he
subsequently translated as Sarvodaya. Thoreau's theory and practice of
'Civil Disobedience' had a similar impact on Gandhi's emotional and intellectual
life3. All these influences made their contributions to reinforce
Gandhi's faith. But he refused to go whole hog with any of these groups. By
temperament he was both syncretic in his religious sensibility and eclectic in
his methods. He was working as a seeker of truth and was always more than
willing to pick up spiritual gems from different sources. Besides, he was too
deep-rooted in Hindu-traditions to be swept off his feet by any strong
sectarian currents. He was continuously enriching himself by his deeper probe
into the Hindu tradition. In March 1905, he delivered four lectures on Hinduism
in Johannesburg in which he summed up the four of its basic tenets.
reposes its faith in the existence of all powerful, all pervading Nirgun
Brahman in whom the entire cosmos in grounded.
soul (Atma) is also of the same genre as that of the Brahman and, thus,
as pure and eternal as the latter.
ultimate goal of human existence.
means to achieve moksha primarily comprises (a) performance of good deeds; (b)
practice of compassion and (c) cultivation of truthfulness.
Religion and spirituality had taken deep and firm roots in his personality, but
for him moral and ethical
constituted the core of religion. It was clear that in respect of
moral action there was no watertight compartment between secular and spiritual
action - packed life in South Africa
most important background for understanding some of the basic elements of his
faith could be located in Gandhi's struggle in South Africa. This was the most
momentous phase of his life. He formulated new ideas; experimented with them;
had founded Phoenix settlement, taken the vow of Brahmacharya (1906) and
formulated and experimented with his new found theory of satyagraha (1907).
When he had sailed for South Africa in April 1893, he had no idea of the storms
ahead. But once he reached there he could see for himself the pitiable condition
of the Indian community. They were being treated as less than human beings. He
had a series of bitter experiences of a personal kind. He was asked to take off
his turban while appearing in a magistrate's court, which he refused and walked
out of the court. But the worst was yet to come. At Petermaritzburg Station on
his way to Pretoria, he was asked to shift to the van-compartment as a white
passenger was not willing to travel with a coloured man in the same compartment.
He faced such a fate despite having a first class ticket. Ultimately, he was
pushed out and had to spend the entire night in the waiting room debating about
his future course of action. According to his own admission, it was this
experience which went a long way to change the course of his life, as he decided
to stay back and face the situation. But that was not to be the end of the road.
On his onward journey, he received blows at the hands of the train conductor who
wanted him to vacate his seat to be used by a white passenger for smoking.
Ultimately, he was allowed to retain his seat. In a way, this was the beginning
of a journey on the long road of non-violent resistance. This marked his freedom
from fear which held him in good stead all through his life. Another concrete
result of this bitter experience was that on reaching Pretoria, he called a
meeting of the Indian community and delivered a stirring speech. He called the
Indian community to organize themselves and offered his services to that end.
His faith in non-violent resistance was soon tested when he refused to take
legal a ''on after being kicked by a guard near President Krugger's house.5
August 1906, an ordinance was promulgated to restrict the entry of Indians in
Transvaal. It made registration compulsory by giving thumb impression and even
fingerprints. On September 11, 1906 in a mass meeting held at Johannesburg,
Transvaal, Indian immigrants under Gandhi's leadership took a collective vow to
oppose the proposed law irrespective of the costs and consequences6.
That was the beginning of Satyagraha in South Africa, though during those days
it was described as 'passive resistance'.
Gandhi's Ways and Means to Deepen his Faith : South African experiments
in South African that he evolved and experimented some of the ways and means to
strengthen and sustain his faith. Some of them were:
Phoenix settlement (1904) and Tolstoy Farm were early experiments in ashram
living. Phoenix settlement was earlier raised to accommodate the families of
satyagrahis and it is there that Gandhi also lived with his family. Tolstoy Farm
(1910) was raised on an entirely different footing: it was entirely based on the
principle of self-reliance. Penance, flesh-mortification as an effective means
to spiritually influence others was being tested here. He undertook his first
fast when there was an act of sexual aberration on the part of some young
During his South Africa days he took two vows of Brahmcharya (celibacy) and
Aparigraha (non-possession). The basic idea behind it was to strengthen his
will to stick to a position once it is taken after diligent deliberation. It was
a strategy of gradual climb on the ladder of sanyas step by step, instead of
taking a plunge for sanyas in one go.
Prayers both private and public were very central to Gandhi's faith. For him,
prayer was the 'essence of religion' and 'the core of human life'. He favoured
prayers both in the morning as well as in the evening, before going to bed. But
he never favoured prayer to any personal God for any material and worldly
things. In fact, he believed that a prayer is actually offered to one's own
higher self as every human being is a spark of the divine. He was firmly of the
opinion that prayers along with other spiritual sadhana could enable one to
'listen to his' inner voice which was no other than God's voice. Community
prayer was another method to strengthen the faith of his own as well as that of
his followers. It was started in South Africa during Phoenix and Tolstoy Farm
Gandhi, Ramnam was another royal help which he found handy to strengthen and
deepen his faith. It also became a source of solace in the moments of despair
and that of fighting zeal in those of high action. He took the name of Ram as
the name of God from among His myriad names all of which, according to him, were
equally valid. His Ram was of Nirakar nature and not a Dasarathi Ram.
It was in 1906 during the days of Zulu rebellion in South Africa that the idea
of brahmcicharyci gripped him. Soon he took a vow of celibacy as he came
to believe that it meant great 'physical, mental and moral power'. And he was
ever convinced that every passive resister must be empowered by it. He himself
stuck to it all through his life.
was another method which Gandhi used to deepen his faith as well as to test its
veracity. In the course of his life he undertook 18 fasts for various purposes
and believed in their purifying power.
up, in building up his abiding faith, he liberally drew from myriad sources: his
family, his social environment, his social and religious contacts, and his
book-reading both of secular and scriptural nature, intellectual and social
movement. In the entire process, his South African sojourn played the most
crucial role. It was in South Africa that Gandhi's personality went through a
real metamorphosis. From an ordinary person looking for better prospects, he
turned into a renunciator with all the trappings of a Mahatma. Phoenix
settlement and Tolstoy Farm became the training ground for some of his basic
ideas including Brahmacharya, Satyagraha, ahimsa, truth etc. He learnt the art
of being an exemplar, developed the capacity to influence other people, and
enunciated the principle of inclusive secular civic nationalism. Some of his
other ideas like abhorrence for untouchability, his undying faith in
Hindu-Muslim unity, the principle of equal respect for all religions (sarvadharma
sambhava) and his experiment in taking women as equal partners in the struggle
against oppression were all evolved and were experimented there. In a word,
South Africa turned to be the real prayogabhumi (land of experiments) of
Gandhi's basic ideas and ideals.
not believe in the exclusive divinity of the Vedas. I believe the Bible, the
Koran and the Zend Avesta, to be as much divinely inspired as the Vedas ...I
decline to be bound by any interpretation, however learned it may be, if it is
repugnant to reason or moral sense.
M.K. Satyagraha in South Africa (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House,
1975), also see his My experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad: Navajivan,
the Text of Gandhi's letter of June 1894 to Rajchand Bhai see collected works
of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG) Volume I, ( New Delhi: Publications Division), pp
J. Parel, Hind Swaraj and other Writings , pp xxxii-livii.
the summarized version of those letters see CWMG volume 4 pp. 368-70,
375-377 and 405-409.
Mohan Gandhi, op. cit., pp. 66; see also Gandhi's Autobiography.
the summary of Gandhi's speech see CWMG. Volume 5, p. 419, and for the texts of
the resolutions passed at the meeting see ibid, pp. 422-23.
Thompson, Gandhi and his Ashrams (Bombay: Sangam Books, 1993); see also,
Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi's Religious Thought (London: Macmillan, 1983)
and also her Gandhi and his Jewish Friends (London: Macmillan, 1992).
*RAM CHANDRA PRADHAN taught
at Ramjas College, Delhi University for several decades. Widely travelled and a
well known social scientist, he has authored a number of books including 'Raj to
Swaraj' published by Macmillan, India. Recently he has completed a full-length
study on Mahatma Gandhi soon to be published by Macmillan India. He has been a
recipient of Senior Fulbright Fellowship and Indo-Canadian Fellowship. Email:
Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 31, No. 4, Jan-March, 2010