This year marks the 159th year of Gandhi’s birth. Let us remember the Father of the Nation, along with his values of ahimsa and satyagraha that made him a Mahatma.
In his book, The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of His Life and Writings, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “Politics, divorced of religion, has absolutely no meaning”. A commitment to religion was fundamental to the Mahatma’s life, ideology and work. Time and again he asserted his identity primarily as a Hindu. However, he had a pluralist conception of religion, which for him, was a matter of spirituality and social responsibility; rather than institutional observance and dogmatic behaviour.
In 1927, he wrote in the Young India that “In spite of my being a staunch Hindu, I find room in my faith for Christian and Islamic and Zoroastrian teaching and, therefore, my Hinduism seems to some to be a conglomeration…It is a faith-based on the broadest possible toleration”. He defined Hinduism as a search after truth through non-violent means. His faith in Hinduism did not hinder him from condemning several Hindu customs and practices, such as untouchability, child marriage and prohibition of widow remarriage.
In his formative years, the Mahatma read widely and took inspiration from diverse sources. It is well-known that the Gita and the Bible influenced Gandhi profoundly, but he also learned from Western writers, like John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau. Gandhiji was influenced by British writer Ruskin’s critique of distancing morality and ethics from economics and politics in his book Unto This Last (1862). He later translated the book into Gujarati as ‘Sarvodaya’ (well-being of all) in 1908. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s advocacy of non-violence in his theory of ‘non-resistance to evil’ also left a lasting impression on Gandhiji. He also learnt from Tolstoy the ‘law of bread labour’ ie, everyone must do physical labour.
Tolstoy used to work on his farm for eight hours a day, in spite of being a nobleman, a practice that the Mahatma imbibed from him and practiced throughout his life. He put their ideas into practice by establishing the Phoenix Ashram (1904) in South Africa where all the residents were to get the same remuneration and lived as an integrated community, irrespective of their race, religion and nationality.
Although religion was very important to Gandhiji, he believed it to be a personal matter. Religious conversion was a futile activity as one didn’t need to renounce his/her religion to incorporate the teachings of other great religions in his life. As a law student in England, the Mahatma read the Bible and the life of Jesus inspired him immensely. MN Srinivas, in his article, ‘Gandhi’s Religion’, notes that the notion of returning love for hatred and good for evil enthralled him (Economic and Political Weekly, June 24, 1995). The suffering of Jesus for others had the greatest impact on Gandhiji and he later incorporated this self-sacrifice (tapasya) in his philosophy of nonviolence. He lectured on the Bible and the life of Christ in Gujarat Vidyapith in 1926.
The Mahatma also appreciated the Quran for its evolutionary view of religion. He included verses from the book in his prayer meetings. In his book, Communal Unity (1949), he stated his appreciation for Prophet Muhammad’s fasting and austere living. He also found justification of non-violence in the Quran. According to him, although the Quran allowed violence, it prescribed non-violence as a duty. He believed in the unity of all religions. He not only helped in the establishment of Jamia Millia Islamia University for the education of muslims, but also sent one of his sons to study there.
While it is universally known that the Bhagavad Gita had a great impact on his mind, he had a very different interpretation of the religious book than most others. According to him, it evinced the futility of violence and material desires. The ideal of acting without any desire for result (nishkama karma) influenced him profoundly and led him towards a life of philanthropy. Gandhiji focussed primarily on ethical instead of the metaphysical aspect of religion. According to him, “every formula of every religion has in this age of reason to submit to the acid test of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for universal assent” (Young India, 1925).
Many great leaders around the world, like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr, have read and practised Gandhi’s teachings successfully in their struggle against inequality and injustice. Unlike the Western thought (grâce à Machiavelli) where ends are considered to justify the means, in Gandhi’s view, ahimsa becomes both the means as well as the end. At its core, his thought espouses a democratic philosophy of action which involves a consistent re-examining and introspection of one’s thought to ensure one’s pursuit of truth. Even the desired end does not carry the connotation of winning but of persuasion which involves as much a questioning of the self as the other.
Gandhiji’s ideas are more than relevant in today’s time. In a society still struggling with communal tension and caste-based violence, we need to hark back to his ideas of ahimsa and satyagraha. On the issue of cow protection which has resurfaced as a severe communal issue, he had written in the Young India in 1921 that to “attempt cow-protection by violence is to reduce Hinduism to Satanism”. As we enter the 150th year of the Gandhian era, let us not just remember the father of our nation but also the values that made him a ‘mahatma’ (great soul).
(The writer is as an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College, University of Delhi)
Writer: Nitin Luthra
Courtesy: The Pioneer