My life is an open book!

M.K. Gandhi


Gandhi was an obscurant. He would have been a misfit in modern India. He detested science and abhorred modernity. He hated industry. He would have made India a nation of 900 million khadi-weavers. His faith in non-violence would have persuaded him to disband the armed forces. Gandhi’s India would not have tested the nuclear device in Pokharan or the ballistic missile. Gandhi is no longer relevant. He had no idea of the compulsions of statecraft and diplomacy.

These are some of the carping criticisms of Gandhi that one often hears these days. But on the emergence of a new millennium, a close look at his last days, shows that the Mahatma was as much a realist as he was rooted in his ideals of truth and non-violence - a perfect blending of realism and idealism that occurs in man only once in many centuries. Gandhi needs no praise; he needs to be demythologized.

This paper is an incomplete attempt to come to terms with the religious philosophy of Gandhi and to see further how this philosophy continues to serve as a symbol of peace. As is well known, Gandhi aimed at much more than winning political independence: he fought for the betterment of the people in every respect B ethically, economically and spiritually. Hence, one of our main concerns in this discussion is to view the relevance of the Gandhian concept of God for modern society. In this attempt we shall adopt a critical and "somewhat irreverent" attitude to Gandhi, in order to demystify him.




Gandhi took an integrated view of life, and tried to weave insights, derived from different disciplines, into a single unified approach. The kind of questions Gandhi asked nearly eight decades ago are the ones which now face both the under-developed and post-modern societies caught in a deep upsurge of confusion and disillusionment. Since Gandhi was not a futurologist, there must be some explanation as to how he anticipated the threats to humanity that emanate from technological determinism, the plundering of nature to assuage the greed created by consumerism and vulgar hedonism, structural violence and alienation. Gandhi’s anticipation of the coming problems of humanity was not based on empiricism or deviations from either prefixed ideal positions or prejudices. He was able to ask, it seems, these questions, because he tested and judged every aspect of human activity on a scale of certain values and ethical norms.

The central Gandhian values were not derived from any metaphysical system, despite numerous interpretations to the contrary. They were derived from his own philosophical ideas which he arrived at as a result of his historical, spiritual and material knowledge and experience. Gandhi’s values thus reflect his understanding of human nature, of social and production relations, of man’s constant struggle against forces which tried to push him down into one kind of oppression or another, and of his attempts to rise above his existential situation. Gandhi was not a system-builder. On the other hand, he wanted to form a framework for arriving at concepts and values, so that many a system could be built upon them for the immediate present and for the many future stages of development in the unfolding or fulfilling of human destiny. This is the central fact about Gandhi, and any system or model based on the Gandhian approach, by definition, is based on his framework of concepts and values.

One of the crises facing the world today is the crisis of values, and no prevailing social order is free from it. In some countries the crisis is reaching a breaking point; in others it may seem less serious because it is kept suppressed by force. One indication of this crisis is the sudden, massive and rather dangerous return to organized and codified religions, even though history tells us that organized religion has not provided solutions to human crises. Science, which tried to replace religion, opened new vistas for humanity but is now faced with its own crisis, because of its one-sided understanding of reality and its appropriation by a few. Both organized science and organized religions are failing the world, and this provides an occasion for us to view Gandhi afresh since he developed his own scientific practice and also distilled an ethical religion or value system from all major religions, rendering their canonical and dogmatic theologies and customary injunctions utterly superfluous. Thus by his new moral dimension to science and religion he has provided us with answers for the multiple crises of the day.




God and Truth


Gandhi went through an evolutionary process of change in his own life. His ontology, epistemology and method merged into a single, unified process. This process can be identified with his search for truth. Gandhi did believe in God, but he introduced a remarkable innovation by reducing God to a tentatively definable concept, something which all earlier metaphysical systems had failed to do. Indeed, he made God into an imprecise but relevant instrument. Ontologically, he reduced God to Truth, a fundamental shift from his earlier position in which he tried to approximate Truth to God. The search for both relative and absolute truth was now his epistemology. Satyagraha and non-violent practice became the linking method and technique.

In arriving at his ontology, Gandhi made a major departure from the past. He ignored the whole debate of the past and looked instead for a common denominator for which he found support, on the one hand, in other religions, particularly Islam and Christianity and on the other in life’s experience and practice. About the latter he said: "Truth and Life in a sense are one and the same. I should give the same definition for Truth as I have given for Life." This was to be the basis not only of his ontology but also of his ethics. What Gandhi accepted was that mind and matter have their own dialectics, and can, without contradiction, absorb the theory of evolution or matter progressing into mind. For example, Chitta Vritti ordinarily means modification of mind. But, as defined by Patanjali, it means that human experience in which consciousness is modified by matter. Gandhi short-circuited the conflicting philosophies by adopting an entirely novel approach. His approach was to merge ontology, epistemology and method into a single set of concepts which, in their dynamics, could be transformed into values. Concepts and values in Gandhi became coterminous through a dialectical process. Briefly, Gandhian concepts may be said to have the following characteristics: they are normative, they are dialectical, they are dynamic and evolutionary, they are relative as well as correlative, and they are scientific.

According to Gandhi, "Truth means existence of what we know and what we do not know. The sum total of all existence is absolute Truth or the Truth. The concepts of Truth may differ. But all admit and respect Truth. That truth I call God." Secondly, he said: "Even the atheists who have pretended to disbelieve in God have believed in Truth. The trick they have performed is that of giving God another, not a new, name. His names are Legion, Truth is the crown of them all."

In discussing Truth as a method, Gandhi had to go to great length in putting forward various ways to realize Truth, the most important of which was satyagraha or Truth force. However, he introduced what may be called a method within a method, namely, non-violence, which to Gandhi was the method of discovering and legitimizing the practice of satyagraha (holding to truth). He also held that non-violence was one constructive process in the midst of incessant destruction.2 It was the true method by which physical reality revealed itself, whether it is in harmony or in conflict with non-physical reality. Ontologically, for Gandhi, the highest aim of every Hindu, or for that matter every human being, is Moksha, namely, final deliverance or liberation from this world and assimilation with the final Truth. This is a beaten track of every version of Hindu philosophy. Gandhi, however, gave the very path to Moksha, that is, Dharma (righteousness), an even higher place than to Moksha itself. He said: "I cannot consider anything dearer to me than Moksha. Yet, even that Moksha I would renounce if it were to conflict with truth and non-violence. In all these three things I only followed truth."3 This is an extremely significant turn that Gandhi gave to Hinduism.


"Truth" and Society


Gandhi’s principal aim was to place man at the center of all schemes of things, all values, all actions, and all philosophies. For Gandhi the centrality of man permeated the entire canvas, leading from ontology to human concern with the most ordinary needs or of the deepest intellectual and spiritual striving. It is man’s total experience, his awareness of moral responsibility and service of others that have produced values. Man’s will is a guarantee as well as the power through which these values can be made manifest in his behavior. It is, therefore, the incarnation of human freedom and autonomy as Gandhi understood it. He goes on to articulate this philosophy in a sociological set up:

It is a tragedy that religion for us means today nothing more than restrictions on food and drink, nothing more than adherence to a sense of superiority and inferiority. Let me tell you that there cannot be any grosser ignorance than this. Birth and observance of forms cannot determine one’s superiority and inferiority. Character is the only determining factor. God did not create men with the badge of superiority or inferiority; no scripture which labels a human being as inferior or untouchable because of his or her birth can command our allegiance; it is a denial of God and Truth which is God.


In this context, we can see that Gandhi was more worried about the growth of the whole person and the society than of a particular sect or religion.

We read further:


India cannot cease to be one nation because people belonging to different religions live in it. The introduction of foreigners does not necessarily destroy the nation; they merge in it. A country is one nation only when such a condition obtains in it. That country must have a faculty for assimilation. India has ever been such a country. In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals; but those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion. If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland. The Hindus, the Mohammedans, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen, and they will have to live in unity, if only for their own interest. In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India.


Thus, Gandhi gave the Hindu system and society some characteristic jolts and thereby imparted to it powerful social dimensions, which brought him into conflict with Hindu fundamentalists. Gandhi’s assassination was the climactic act of this fundamentalism. In his appeal before the Punjab High Court at Shimla in May 1949, Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, argued, "When the top rank leaders of the Congress with the consent of Gandhi divided and tore the country B which we consider as a deity of worship B my mind became full with the thoughts of direful anger. I do say that my shots were fired at the person whose policy, view of religion and action have brought rack and ruin and destruction to thousands of Hindus."

No other leader has devoted so much time and attention to the problem of Hindu-Muslim unity as Gandhi who held communal unity as almost an article of faith, and he always maintained that "Swaraj (self-rule) was impossible without Hindu-Muslim unity."7 However, but for a brief period of Hindu-Muslim unity during the Khilafat-cum-Non-Cooperation Movement, the communal harmony that Gandhi so assiduously labored for, eluded him. Despite all his efforts, the canker of communalism grew more vigorous and resulted in the partition of the country.

However, it is indeed a travesty of the very word ‘Hindu’ to describe Gandhi as anti-Hindu. As Jawaharlal Nehru was to remind his countrymen, Gandhi was "the greatest living Hindu." He pointed out the supreme irony that "it was one of the votaries of this demand for a Hindu state who killed the greatest living Hindu."8 Though Gandhi described himself as a Sanatani (eternal) Hindu, his sources of inspiration extended beyond Hinduism to other faiths and non-religious philosophical influences like Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy. His original interpretation of God helped him to reach out to ordinary people. Since Muslims shared many elements of a common culture with Hindus, the Hindu idiom did not constitute a drawback.

Those who pillory Gandhi as anti-Hindu,9 forget that, in the winter of 1946-47, the site he chose for his prayog in fashioning ahimsa as a weapon to fight communalism, was not Bihar, where the victims of the carnage were Muslims, but Noakhali, where Hindus faced a dreadful assault on their faith. Gandhi’s choice of Noakhali invited criticism from Muslim propagandists, who alleged that he had ears only for the suffering of Hindus. During his padayatra (pilgrimage by foot) in Noakhali Gandhi was confronted with hostile posters demanding that he go to Bihar. Gandhi countered that there was no need to prove his secular bonafides by going to Bihar. He went to Bihar when the need arose. What had taken place in Noakhali was not merely a communal riot; it was an assault on the religious freedom and cultural identity of Hindus. Gandhi’s answer to the assault was to uphold the right to practice one’s religion, including adherence to visible symbols of faith.


Vision of a New Society


Any researcher will be amazed by Gandhi’s acute sensitivity to religious identity, and yet his remarkable freedom from bias and bitterness. He invited the Hindus to recite Ramanama (Lord Ram’s name), and sing Ramdhun together as a way of banishing fear. Pyarelal, Gandhi’s secretary, encouraged the fear-stricken residents of Karatkhil to recite Ramanama. Women who were afraid to wear sindhur or bangles in public welcomed Gandhi with aarti (the Indian style of welcoming a guest). Slowly, the Hindus of Srirampur began to show signs of life, temple bells were heard and a group from the neighboring villages came to visit Gandhi, singing namasankirtan (singing of God’s name). Gandhi’s healing touch extended to Muslims. In Muraim, the local religious leader, in whose house Gandhi lived, told local Muslims that Gandhi had come to free them of the stain of having shed Hindu blood. Gandhi’s way was different from and went beyond the efforts of the secularists who invoke the universality of religion, composite culture and syncretic religious traditions such as bhakti and sufi. Gandhi and other national leaders were responsive to the religious susceptibilities of the Muslims. In March 1947, Gandhi toured the devastated villages of Bihar. He was shown the well into which priceless religious manuscripts and rare Oriental texts had been thrown by rioters. He stood in silence, with his head bowed. When someone offered him a drink of water, he said, "I cannot even breathe this air, which is so full of sin, let alone drink anything."10 

At one stage, Jawaharlal Nehru suggested to Patel that the government should rebuild the mosques in old Delhi which were converted into temples. Gandhi opposed the purification campaign undertaken by Hindu organizations among the Meos in the wake of the communal carnage that followed partition. Gandhi’s way to communal harmony could be described as being in the religious mode. His secularism was nourished by his faith B its roots went deep, to its universalistic and humanist well. When Gandhi said that religion and politics were indivisible B and that if politics were divorced from religion, he, for one, would have nothing to do with it - he meant that his dharma was not an organized religion but morality, which informed all human actions, including those in the political sphere.




Gandhi’s actual significance for the political independence of India is ambiguous,11 but he certainly became a national symbol. A portrait is often drawn of him with hagiographic features,12 but very critical assessments have also been put forward13 and it would be unwise to neglect them. Ahimsa was an age-old and generally accepted principle in India. It meant both physical abstention from doing harm and spiritual non-violence in thoughts and words. Gandhi widened the concept by applying it also to politics, economic life and social institutions. In the following analysis we look for the extent to which this spirituality of Gandhi was successful.

On August 1, 1921 B the day Tillamook died B the Central Khilafat Committee had, under Gandhi’s presidentship, organized an all-India strike. With that, the non-cooperation movement was launched. The main issue before it was the redress of the Khilafat wrong B the dethronement of the Challis in Turkey to be reversed B whereas the Punjab atrocities and winning of swaraj were subordinate issues. The Ali brothers were primarily concerned with Khilafat, not so much with the other two. Nevertheless, Gandhi seemed to have achieved a miracle in the union of hearts. The Hindu’s wholehearted, unquestioning plunge into the Khilafat struggle moved the hearts of many Muslims. It was reinforced by Haiku Ajmal Khan’s appeal to them to "refrain from acts calculated to wound the susceptibilities of their compatriots. We are, and should be, fully cognizant of the fact that cow-killing seriously annoys our fellow countrymen." By accepting to be the president of the All-India Khilafat Conference, Gandhi was trying to bring back the Muslims into the national mainstream. In this process, he also persuaded the Congressmen to support the Khilafat Movement because it was not just internal to the Muslims, but it was a movement of all the people of India. He was quite successful in that.14 

Hindu-Muslim unity was, however, short-lived.15 The Khilafatists were rabid and unprincipled communalists. About mid-1921, there was the Moplah rebellion in Kerala and serious communal riots at Kohat. About the latter, Gandhi confessed: "I am carrying a snake in my pocket." As an apostle of ahimsa, he could not have killed it, but could have removed its fangs. By not doing that, he allowed the communal virus to spread in the body politic in the years that followed. Ambedkar regretted that, "certain Khilafat leaders were so misguided as to pass resolutions of congratulations to the Moplahs on the brave fight they were conducting for the sake of religion." Annie Besant was so appalled as to have written: ". . . we do not want to see another specimen of the Khilafat raj in India."16 

Gandhi did feel sad, but did not act insofar as Moplah atrocities were concerned. But he abruptly suspended his Non-Cooperation in February 1922 when, in violation of ahimsa 21 policemen were done to death at Chauri Chaura, a village in Uttar Pradesh. Gandhi’s decision to suspend the satyagraha shocked Lala Lajpatraj and Motilal Nehru, who were in jail. They thought it would mean a setback to the freedom movement, which it did. The Government, on the other hand, felt much relieved. The Viceroy, Lord Reading, publicly confessed that the government had been "baffled and confused," while the Governor of Bombay (Mumbai), Leslie Wilson, admitted:


Just a thin spindly shrimp of a fellow he was, but he swayed 320 million people and held them at his beck and call. . . . He was their god. . . . First it was Tilak, then Gandhi. . . . He gave us a scare. His program filled our goals. You can’t go on arresting people forever, you know B not when there are 320 million of them, and if they had taken his next step and refused to pay taxes, God knows where we should have been! Gandhi’s was the most colossal experiment in the world’s history, and it came within an inch of succeeding.17 


Gandhi allowed such an hour of victory to slip from his hands. He suffered his defeat in two ways; first, his giving up of the earlier boycott of legislatures. He yielded to C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru to fight assembly elections in 1926 and conduct parliamentary work on behalf of the Congress. Second, an estranged Mohammed Ali used ungentlemanly language when he said, "However pure Gandhi’s character may be, he must appear to me, from the point of view of religion, inferior to any character . . . according to my religion and creed, I hold an adulterous and a fallen Muslim to be better than Mr. Gandhi."18 

The tide of Pan-Islamism, set in motion by the Khilafat, showed its face in poet Iqbal’s demand at the Allahabad session of the Muslim League in 1930, when he said: "I would like to see Punjab, the North Western Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single State. Self-government within the British Empire or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India." He further stated: "I confess to be Pan-Islamist. The mission for which Islam came into this world will ultimately be fulfilled: the world will be purged of infidelity and worship of false gods, and the true soul of Islam will be triumphant."19 

The Round Table Conference of 1929 was Gandhi’s Waterloo. He erred in going to London as the sole spokesperson of the Congress, pinning hopes on the appeals from British statesmen. There he was cornered by the chosen few from among the Muslims who asked him to justify how he could speak on behalf of their community, while Mauna Shasta Ali, former Khilafat leader, warned the Hindus: "If the Hindus don’t meet our demands this time, we’re going to make war on them. We ruled the Hindus once. We at least don’t intend to be ruled by them now."20 The British Government planned to announce the Communal Award B this time the Scheduled Castes were to be favored, as were the Muslims in 1909. In disgust, Gandhi returned home empty-handed, while the government armed itself for letting loose repression.

Gandhi failed to checkmate Jinnah’s dangerous moves. Jinnah had no influence with the Muslim Premiers of Punjab, Sind and Bengal. Even when Fall Hue from Bengal had proposed the Pakistan resolution, he had later turned anti-Jinnah; while Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullaha, Sind Premier, had opposed the resolution. Gandhi did not capture an opportunity to form an anti-Jinnah front along with them. That was against his spirit of compromise as against confrontation. He ploughed his lonely furrow. The landed Gandhi in a complex situation in 1942, which exerted pressure on him for action. There were the Communists and other Leftists who favored support for the war in view of Russia and Britain having become allies. On the other hand, there were lurking fears that Japan might occupy India. In April 1942, the first Japanese bombing of India took place and there was seizure of the Andaman Islands.21

The Hindu fundamentalists insisted that Gandhi was appeasing the Muslims and was surrendering the Hindu interests to them. But, did not Gandhi know that the movement he was leading and the leaders who were with him believed or followed what he had been saying about the relationship of the Congress with other groups and political parties? He even wrote, referring to the problems of the minorities and particularly of the Muslims, "Hindus who claim that they are the most educated, should understand that since they oppose all the demands of the Muslims, the Muslims consider the former as their enemies and join hands with the British. On the other hand, if the Hindus sympathize with them, the Muslims would believe in the Hindus, brotherhood would also develop. Hindus lose nothing by not opposing the demands of the Muslims. The inner meaning of the concept of ahimsa is to accept when the minorities are really weak."22 

On his release from prison in 1944, Gandhi committed a great blunder in his talks with Jinnah, when all his colleagues were in jail. This boosted Jinnah’s prestige amongst the Muslims in two ways: as a wrecker, and as the Quaid-e Azam, Jinnah came on level with Gandhi, the Mahatma. The Gandhi-Jinnah talks had serious repercussions. Immediately Jinnah acquired the status of sole spokesmanship.

Later, the repercussions were to be seen at the Simla Conference called by the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, in June-July 1945. Jinnah gained in three ways. First, he secured parity between the Muslims and caste Hindus. Gandhi had first "threatened to ban the conference unless the stipulation of parity between the Hindus and Muslims was removed."23 At the conference, when Azad stated that "the Congress did not object to the parity proposal,"24 Gandhi compromised by remaining silent. Second, Wavell’s refusal to concede the Unionist Muslims of Punjab a separate representation on the proposed Executive Council, caused the demise of the Unionist Party and opened the way for the League to step in ultimately to form the government. Third, in calling off the conference, Wavell again played into the hands of Jinnah. According to H.V. Hodson: "Many people, including some of his official advisers, thought he was wrong to accept Mr. Jinnah’s veto without even a struggle. Wavell’s sudden abandonment of his plan was the decisive move that made the Partition of India inevitable."25

From then on India moved towards that inevitable end. The high-powered Cabinet Mission failed to reverse that, though it unsuccessfully tried to preserve India’s territorial integrity under its grouping scheme. Jinnah was adamant to have his Pakistan, no matter even if it were, "moth-eaten and truncated." Gandhi, on his part, tried to save India’s unity by asking Lord Mountbatten to hand over India to Jinnah and quit; whereas Jinnah’s demand was, "Divide and Quit." Sensing the difficult situation Mountbatten wanted to save the country from being engulfed in a conflagration. He had found India in March 1947 like a "a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammunition in the hold." Before Britain got engulfed in that, Mountbatten transferred power by August 15, 1947, instead of June 1948 as Attlee had announced.

Gandhi was the saddest man in the whole of the sub-continent. He found himself "floundering in darkness." Sadly he remarked: "My life’s work seems to be over." Partition was the hour of his defeat. According to his secretary, Pyarelal, he seemed to be "consumed by the feeling of helplessness in the face of surrounding conflagration."26 He was "literally praying that God should gather him into His bosom and deliver him from the agony that life to him had become." One day Gandhi said: "Don’t you see, I am mounted on my funeral pyre?"

When independence finally came, Gandhi absented himself from the celebrations in Delhi to be in Calcutta fasting and working there to quell the sectarian violence following partition. Lord Mountbatten came to regard Gandhi as the greatest person he had ever met: "His life was one of truth, toleration and love . . . India, indeed the world, will not see the likes of him again perhaps for centuries." Many sympathized, not only because of the evidence of his life, but from what he said and wrote. "To see the all-pervading spirit of truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creatures as oneself."27




Today, through industrialization and urbanization, individuals, families and communities have become fragmented. Displacement, caused by dams, mines and energy plants, has made homelessness a characteristic of this century. The renewal of communal forces and their rapid violent rise in the militant garb of Hindutva strike at the very root of Indian democracy. Caste ideologies and divisions have been sharpened in the last 52 years, resulting in increased violence on Dalits and other religious minority groups. Politics has been polluted with corruption, corroding public life at all levels.

Gandhi came into prominence on the Indian national scene in 1920 and, since then, was in effect the guiding force behind the anti-imperialist struggle. Hence, Gandhi’s understanding of, and approach to, many of the problems were of momentous consequence. In the following analysis a critical attempt is made to show how Gandhi’s understanding of religion enabled him to bring peace and harmony in India.

It is true that the upper caste among Hindus took advantage of the facilities available in the colonial context. After the establishment of the universities in the country in 1857-58, they tried to take advantage of this, too. In the 1870s, it looked as though different spheres of public life in India had been dominated by these so-called forward communities. In fact, those who took advantage of the facilities available within the colonial situation years after 1857 found the presence of these people in the services that were available for the Indians more overwhelming, because when the newly educated people approached the powers-that-be, the attitude of the people who were already holding on to position was not very sympathetic. So they thought they were looked down upon.

In their interpretation of history, a few national writers saw a Golden Age during the so-called Hindu period, and interpreted all that was considered to be very dark and backward during the medieval period as having occurred under the rule of the Muslims. They made use of symbols like Shiva, Ganesha and Shivaji (a local Hindu ruler of Maharashtra) to whip up the national sentiments of the Indians. Of course, these symbols were appealing to the caste middle classes of this country, who were then playing a very important role in Indian affairs. But at the same time, the use of these symbols also sent certain signals which could not be accepted by the others who did not belong to this tradition. Hence they developed a feeling that they could not enthusiastically participate in this kind of a nation-building. Though militancy increased in Indian national politics, the Congress, the base of the nationalist movement, could not expand until Gandhi entered the scene.

Gandhi was deeply sensitive, and his philosophy helped to cement the gap that had occurred by then. When he took over the leadership of the Nationalist movement in India, he thought that these social groups in India, which had been going along different paths, had to be brought together if the movement were to become truly anti-colonial and nationalist. So the three struggles that he launched, namely the Champaran movement, the Ahmedabad mill strike and the Kheda satyagraha, were all calculated to feel the pulse of the Indian society. He was able to understand better than his predecessors, and he was emboldened to launch the Khilafat and the non-cooperation movements.

When Gandhi launched the "Quit India" movement, he did not favor the idea of a separate state for the Muslims. It was only after the negotiations with the British Government for the transfer of power started in 1944 that there were more communal clashes in the country. Nobody, whether it was the leaders of the Muslim League or the leaders of the Hindu Matts, had any quarrel with Gandhi insofar as religion was concerned, because Gandhi’s interpretation of religion and particularly of Hinduism was remarkable. Except for the fundamentalists, nobody could call Gandhi a non-Hindu, though Gandhi proudly called himself a Sanatani Hindu. That was how he was acceptable to all communities and people of all faiths. The Hindu fundamentalists complained that Gandhi was appeasing the Muslims and was surrendering the Hindu interest to them. On this regard he wrote; "Hindus lose nothing by not opposing the demands of the Muslims. The inner meaning of the concept of ahimsa is to accept defeat when the minorities are really weak. Opposition kindles in them a sense of opposition and hatred. I know that the Congressmen are not one with me when I say this."28 

It is a fact that the Congress was not with him, insofar as his views regarding the relations of the Congress and the Hindus with the Muslims were concerned. The attitude of the Congress towards the Dalit organizations in India was similar. Due to this, many of the issues raised by the Dalits and Muslims and other lower castes had been sidelined at that time. But one cannot overlook the fact that it would have been impossible for the Muslims to come into the mainstream of Indian politics without the healing touch of Gandhi.

Gandhian ideals changed from time to time, and were evolutionary. For instance in 1921, Gandhi did not want to enter into any controversy with regard to the sacredness of untouchability in the Hindu shastras (Hindu customs). But, in 1940, he declared, "If there is any shastra that would sanction untouchability, I would not call it a shastra, nor would I call it `Dharma’, rather I would call it `Adharma’." It may seem that he was an upholder of the caste system and the varna, but there is a lot of evidence to show that he rejected all this. He very clearly said that "there is no varna today, and if I had that power today, I would declare that we are all Hindus and have the same varna."29 

On the level of ethics, Gandhi’s contribution was unique and remarkable. He attempted and achieved what no one could do before. He transformed the so-called eternal values of the religion into relative truths of ethical principles and put them together as an ethical religion. By doing so, he removed the distinction between religions as such and projected ethical laws through morally justifiable social instruments into the realms of social action. When Gandhi found Hindu religion justifying untouchability, he rejected those scriptures which justified it. He said that either such scriptures had to be rejected or it had to be admitted that someone introduced interpolations into the original texts which made them unreliable.

The strongest element in the Gandhian approach was the unity between theory and action. It was held that difference between mental and physical labor should be removed or at least narrowed. So Gandhi took up spinning. If non-violence and truth were fundamental doctrines, he objectified these concepts by launching satyagraha. If brotherhood was an universal principle, he formulated it into action by serving the poorest of the poor. As if equality and simplicity were laudable principles and an answer to poverty, he adopted the loincloth. In this way Gandhi showed that without right action there is no right precept. The cynicism and intellectual pessimism of the present day reveal helplessness in action, even when principles and precepts seem quite clear. Gandhi provided a revolutionary synthesis between the word and the act.

Commenting on the works of Gandhi, E.M.S. Namboodripad, in his The Mahatma and the Ism says: "The magic of this man was to talk in the language of the people, of the suffering masses, in their own way."30 As Gandhi said: "To the hungry man, God comes in the form of bread." He understood the language of the people. And he translated his message into this language in the same simple way, without any loudmouthed proclamation, or written thesis. He told the people, "Don’t fight the British on the battlefield. All you have to do is, don’t sit and count the stars, but use the energy you have in your fingers to ply the charka (spinning-wheel)." So simple a message! There was no distance between thought and action in this person. Besides, he was so open, he could very well say, "My life is an open book!"

Gandhi’s last fast, begun on January 12, 1948, was as much a political action as it was moral. He was profoundly unhappy with the continuing communal atmosphere in Delhi and he suspected that the government was aggravating it by refusing to pay the Pakistan Rs. 55 crore owed from the cash balances of Partition. Moreover, there was drift in the Nehru government with Patel opposing the transaction. Gandhi realized that he alone could bridge the breach. On the 16th Patel gave in and the cabinet decided to transfer the money "as a gesture of goodwill." An inter-communal peace committee was set up under the direction of Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Azad and by the 18th it could convince the Mahatma that the necessary change of heart had taken place in Delhi to enable him to break his fast.

On the 20th evening he was back on the lawns for the prayer meeting. A bomb exploded, shattering a wall and breaking a few windowpanes. Gandhi continued his meeting as if nothing had happened. "Bapuji, a bomb exploded," someone cried. "Really? Perhaps some poor fanatic threw it. Let no one look down on him." Later he told Lady Mountbatten that he thought "military manoeuvres must have been taking place somewhere in the vicinity."

In his assassination on January 30, 1948 God appeared to have answered his prayer and made him a martyr. And a grateful people conferred on him an endearing, lifelong title: Father of the Nation.

With all his blunders and failures, Gandhi was a great man B the greatest this century has produced. The godlike image that the Bombay Governor Wilson had seen in him during the Non-Cooperation movement in the 20s survived till the end of his life. He cast a hypnotic spell and possessed a magnetism. Gandhi taught us that once we embrace the concept of brotherly love B a love that knows not color, nor race, nor nationality, nor gender, nor class B the enemies of peace and justice would automatically eradicate themselves. It is true that the battles of Gandhi were for the heart of the human race, for a new interpretation of religion!

Albert Einstein said of him: "Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."




Some time ago, the challenges of the twentieth century were summed up by George Orwell in his unforgettable bestseller, 1984, and Alvin Toffler in his, Future Shock. The warnings that Orwell and Toffler gave to the world in terms of a grim fantasy have become almost a reality. According to a few scientists, about 80 of those predictions have already been realized. An emergent siege mentality, political hysteria and unbridled terrorism have been seen in places like Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Kashmir and East Timor, thus making the strongest parallels between modern society and the world of 1984 and Future Shock.

Without being judgmental, one can aver that Gandhi’s religion transcended Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. The physical and the metaphysical benignly blended in his erudite expositions. Religion for him was nothing if not self-realization. Truth was his religion and ahimsa the only way of its realization. It is a paradox of our times that the supply of a commodity as scarce as truth always outstrips its demand? He was a practical idealist who deftly demonstrated that the practice of goodness could deliver the goods. He frankly admitted that there could be limitations to the development of the mind, but none to that of the heart. For him peace did not mean the absence of violence, it meant the absence of conditions which lead to violence. The need today is for a positive, creative relationship between religion, politics and secularism - of the kind one associates with Gandhi. Could such a relationship not contribute towards evolving a culture that could challenge the growing communal ethos?




1. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Hereafter CW) (New Delhi: The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, India, 1970), vol.3, pp. 359-60.

2. It must be noted that Gandhi’s final value is not non-violence. Whatever his disclaimer and arguments, he in fact always preferred violence to cowardice B without exception. Cf. Sheila McDonough, Gandhi’s Response to Islam, New Delhi: D. K. Printworld (P) Ltd., 1994, pp. 83-96.

3. CW, 25. p. 27.

4. Mahatma Gandhi, Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, III (Hyderabad: Academy of Gandhian Studies, 1983), p. 343.

5. Mahatma Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Mapusa, Goa: Other India Press, 1991), p. 46.

6. Kathija Shakir, Peace and Politics (Mumbai: Popular Press, 1971), p. 74.

7. CW, 13, p. 306.

8. Nadvi Ahmed, Indian Independence (Lucknow: Sat Press, 1965), p. 57.

9. Cf. Autobiography, Introduction: ‘What I want to achieve B what I have been striving and desiring to achieve these thirty years B 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.’ Edwards, in his The Myth of Mahatma, Gandhi, the British and the Raj (1986), comments that "Gandhi’s life was a Hindu life, and his message was Hindu also. Hindu morality is centered upon the self and self-realization." Perhaps one could speak of an inherent tension between the ideal of self-realization and communal vision, p. 358.

10. D.K. Oza, Voluntary Action and Gandhian Approach (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1991), p. 59.

11. Shakir, Peace and Politics, p. 74.

12. This tendency is visible in Hick’s forward to Chatterjee’s Gandhi’s Religious Thought (1983), but Chatterjee’s fine book, itself, concerned with ‘identifying essential structures’ of Gandhi’s thought, (pp.ix-xii) also lacks any criticisms of Gandhi.

13. Edwards (1986: p. 258-60) speaks about Gandhi’s maimed personality, how he lacked ordinary human love and caused incalculable damage to the cause of the poor.

14. Thomas Antony, Mahatma Gandhi and the Communal Problem (New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1983), p. 5. See also B. Krishna, "Gandhi: Triumphs and Failures" The Hindu (July 26, 1998), p. 4.

15. Antony, p. 9.

16. Oza, 1991, p. 27.

17. Keer Dhanajnay, Mahatma Gandhi: Political Saint and Unarmed Prophet (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1973), p. 415.

18. Hassan Mohibbul, "Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Muslims," Mainstream (15th August,1969), p. 35-42.

19. Ibid. p. 41.

20. A.G. Noorani, "Muslim Grievances," Radiance, 20 (1969), p. 11-15.

21. Noin Shakir, Khilafat to Partition : A Survey of Major Political Trends among Indian Muslims 1919-1947 (New Delhi: Kalamkar, 1970), pp. 87-93.

22. Fathullah Mujitabai brings out these aspects very vividly in his Aspects of Hindu Muslim Cultural Relations (New Delhi: National Book Bureau), pp. 87-98.

23. Robinsaon Das speaks to this effect in his monumental, The Morality of Partition (Calcutta: New Wave Press, 1959), p. 87

24. Ibid. p. 78.

25. As cited in Ram Barua, Peace and Politics in India (Nagpur: Navjeevan, 1967), p. 67.

26. See "Congress Crisis and the Muslims," Radiance, 30 (November, 1969), p. 12.

27. As cited in Ram Barua, Challenges of Poverty and the Gandhian Answer (Bombay: Jeevan Press, 1978), p. 98.

28. Imtiaz Ahmed, Gandhian Perspectives (Madras: Sea Publication, 1972), p. 54.

29. D. Ramachandran, Gandhi and Cultures (Hyderabad: Elements Publications, 1976), p. 10.

30. E.M.S. Namboodripad, The Mahatma and the Ism (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1982), p. 46.