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Impact of M.K. Gandhi on Hindu Psyche: Pre Colonial Era and Post Colonial Era

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By: Vinayak Tiwari

Abstract.

Gandhi’s relationship with Hinduism has been a very debatable topic, for some Gandhi should be a role model for Hindu practices, and for others Gandhi’s approach to Hinduism is considered flawed. Today, it is not discussed in public fora and not much illuminated in academic curriculum, and hence, people often make un-learned opinions upon the said topic. My article covers some major issues including the Khilafat movement and the Moplah massacre which proved to be decisive for Gandhi’s support concerning Hindus. In this essay, I have tried to present a clearer picture, based on various journals, books, articles, speeches and thoughts by eminent personalities of the colonial and contemporary era. Rather than focusing only on critical analysis of Gandhi’s views, I have tried to present a broader picture by taking into consideration all the aspects of issue, including his personal insights.

  1. Gandhi’s Place Among Hindu Circles.

“If I were asked to define the Hindu creed I should simply say: search after truth through non-violent means. A man may or may not believe in God and still he may call himself a Hindu.[1]

These are the words of Gandhi, defining his version of Hinduism. Gandhi’s faith in Hinduism was very popular during his life-time, and unlike some other leaders, he was never shy or ashamed of his Hindu credentials. During his life-span, he expressed his views on Hinduism on many occasions including public meetings, morning prayers, interviews; he regularly wrote about his point of view, in his journals, letters etc. Gandhi remained very vocal about his belief and preached his his methods of Ahimsa and Satyagraha.

Today as we know, Gandhi, even after being a vocal Sanatani Hindu, is not remembered for his ‘Hinduness’. Hindu leaders seem to have created a blind spot for him and his teachings on Hinduism, and many times Gandhi is represented in a negative light, when it comes to the position of post-independence Hinduism.

Gandhi’s vision of Hinduism, more or less, revolved around the practice of the twin doctrine of Satya and Ahimsa, of which he is considered to be an apostle. Gandhi writes:

I am not a literalist. Therefore I try to understand the spirit of the various scriptures of the world. I apply the test of Truth and Ahimsa laid down by these very scriptures for interpretation. I reject what is inconsistent with that test, and I appropriate all that is consistent with it.”[2]

This gives a sense of inward looking and narrow-minded thinking, hidden behind Gandhi’s words. As a result of seeing everything with the lens of Satya and Ahimsa, many times Gandhi jeopardized himself as going against the majority view, thus his interpretation never gained much importance among the Hindu political leaders. Lala Lajpat Rai, who was close to Gandhi, held him responsible for increasing bigotry among Hindu sectarians, for the reasons, he wrote:

 Mahatma Gandhi’s personality is to a certain extent, a puzzle. In theory, he sometimes seems to be supporting narrow-mindedness, even superstitious sectarianism in some of its aspects. This has brought about a reaction, and has given a new life to those Pandits and Maulvis who, before his advent, were fast losing influence among their respective communities.[3]

Similarly, his ideas and expositions on Hinduism were not considered of much importance, rather labeled as vague, by spiritual leaders too. Aurobindo Ghosh, a well known prominent spiritual guru and nationalist figure and a man who positively impacted Hindu psyche, has written at length about where Gandhi got it wrong. Ghosh was critical of Gandhi’s use and propagation of non-violence. He wrote:

I believe Gandhi does not know what actually happens to the man’s nature when he takes to Satyagraha or non-violence. He thinks that men get purified by it. But when men suffer, or subject themselves to voluntary suffering, what happens is that their vital being gets strengthened. These movements affect the vital being only and not any other part. Now when you cannot oppose the force that oppresses, you say that you will suffer. That suffering is vital and it gives strength. When the man who has thus suffered gets power he becomes a worse oppressor….

What one can do is to transform the spirit of violence. But in this practice of Satyagraha it is not transformed. When you insist on such a one-sided principle, what happens is that cant, hypocrisy and dishonesty get in and there is no purification at all.[4]

  • Gandhi’s Hinduism and Spirituality.

Now, before continuing any further on a critical analysis on Gandhi’s impact on Hindu psyche, I shall throw more light on what type of Hinduism Gandhi preached and practised.

Gandhi, in his own words, was a proud Sanatani Hindu, and to be very clear to his readers and followers, he described what he meant by being a Sanatani Hindu. He gave four reasons for calling himself the same. He believed in the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads and every Hindu scripture, and hence in the concept of rebirth; he believed in Varnaskrama Dharma (not in a contemporary crude sense); he believed in cow protection, and he did not disbelieve in idol-worship.[5] And by going that way, Gandhi was indeed a true Hindu, he truely, with full devotion, followed everything that he mentioned.

Similarly, being a social reformer, he was very liberal in his approach towards religion. He was absolutely against untouchability, he evaluated the scriptures on the moral basis, before believing in the verses or the interpretations, how learned it may be.[6] He was against animal sacrifice.[7] He said that he did not visit the temple unless it was open to everyone called an untouchable.[8] Gandhi was also an ardent and vocal supporter of cow-protection, while explaining its significance in Hinduism, he wrote: Its worship of the cow is, in my opinion, its unique contribution to the evolution of humanitarianism. It is a practical application of the belief in the oneness and, therefore, sacredness, of all life.[9]

But at the same time he was found to be dogmatic and superstitious, renowned personalities, including Rabindranath Tagore[10] who had earlier bestowed him the title of ‘Mahatma’ , were critical of him on these grounds. He was also rigid and stubborn with his experiments with Ahimsa and Satyagraha in religion, and always used to stick to it, no matter how adverse the situation may be. Hence, he was unable to muster large support for his Hindu philosophy, outside the existing group of followers. The people who aligned themselves with Gandhi were more moved by his political leader personality, rather than a spiritual guru one.[11]

It was also pointed out that Gandhi’s spirituality is not primarily Indian, rather he was more influenced by European and Russian spiritualism. Aurobindo Gosh said that Gandhi is European truly, a Russian Christian in an Indian body.[12] Regarding the same, Mukul Kesavan, a well known journalist and historian, writes: Gandhi, in his dhoti-wearing, ashram-centred avatar had learnt more from Tolstoy’s romantic identification with Russian peasant life and its traditions and Henry Thoreau’s Walden than he had from any specifically ‘Hindu’ tradition.[13]

  1. Khilafat Movement: The Turning Point

Gandhi, due to his arbitrary interpretations of scriptures among other things, was fast losing the credibility of his Hinduness, at least in the eyes of Hindu leaders and spiritual gurus. But Gandhi, a man of tremendous faith, went on to pursue one of the major goals, Hindu-Muslim unity, as a representative of Hindus. This project showcased ambiguity, hypocrisy and double standards on his side, which was pinpointed by many leaders back then, and still by historians and political commentators, and to date, it is counted as one of his biggest failures and a fatal mistake.

The biggest blow to Gandhi’s way of Hinduism came when he joined hands with Ali Brothers and other leaders who came together to form the All India Khilafat Committee, with the aim to protect the Caliphate rule in Turkey, a purely religious issue for Muslims, having nothing to do with Indian independence. Gandhi, under his leadership, always wanted to establish Hindu-Muslim unity. Somehow he saw Khilafat Movement as an opportunity to bring the Muslims under the same umbrella as Hindus, under the banner of the Non-Cooperation Movement, who wanted Swaraj. Gandhi, the idealist, was blinded by his faith in Hindu-Muslim unity; as a fact, in a battle between idealism and pragmatism, pragmatism often wins, it was not a different case at that time. It started a domino effect, for the downfall of Gandhi in the eyes of the Hindu psyche.

B.R. Ambedkar, the brightest legal mind of the time, was extremely disappointed with the way the alliance between Khilafatists and Congress was presented. He, by means of facts, proved the origin of the Non-Cooperation movement was rooted in Khilafat, not in Swaraj of Congress as it was being presented. He said Swaraj was added as a secondary objective on a later stage to induce Hindus to join it.[14] He was surprised at Gandhi’s enthusiasm for such an event, for that he wrote: The movement was started by the Mahomedans. It was taken up by Mr. Gandhi with a tenacity and faith which must have surprised many Mahomedans themselves. There were many people who doubted the ethical basis of the Khilafat movement and tried to dissuade Mr. Gandhi from taking any part in a movement the ethical basis of which was so questionable. But Mr. Gandhi had so completely persuaded himself of the justice of the Khilafat agitation that he refused to yield to their advice. Time and again he argued that the cause was just and it was his duty to join it.[15]

In a conversation, Dr Hedgewar, founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, asked Gandhi the rationale behind his Hindu-Muslim unity, in reference to Khilafat Movement, and cautioned him that the slogan might create a divisive tendency among Muslims. To that Gandhi gave a vague reply, and for Dr Hedgewar’s caution, he said “I don’t have such fears” and abruptly wounded up the meeting.[16] This shows that Gandhi who was usually open to discussions and criticism, was not impervious when it comes to his goal of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Historians, like Dr M.G.S. Narayanan sees the triumphant support to Khilafat, as legitimizing the conservative religious instincts of Muslims, according to him coaxing Muslims for social reforms and education would have been a better idea. He writes, It (Khilafat) strengthened their communalism, which thrived on hatred against the Hindu Kafirs, lying dormant from the days of Alauddin Khilji and Aurangazeb.  [17]

Ambedkar also pointed out that some Hindus were cautious for their support to NonCooperation, as they feared Muslims may invite Afghans to invade India,  but Gandhi didn’t budge. Later it was known that Khilafatists had started proceedings with the Amirs of Afghanistan. Ambedkar writes: Can any sane man go so far, for the sake of Hindu-Moslem unity? But, Mr. Gandhi was so attached to Hindu-Moslem unity that he did not stop to enquire what he was really doing in this mad endeavour. So anxious was Mr. Gandhi in laying the foundation of Hindu-Moslem unity well and truly, that he did not forget to advise his followers regarding the national crisis.[18]

  • Moplah Story: Blood and Silence

Khilafat took the ugliest turn and resulted in the Moplah massacre, dubbed by some as rebellion. Thousands of Hindus were killed, women were raped, forcible conversions took place, in an agitation directly related to Khilafat and its leaders. Well, Gandhi who aligned to Khilafat cause, was of course neither a part of the Moplah issue nor he wanted it, but other leaders, who had cautioned him earlier on his idea for taking up Khilafat cause, looked at him for an answer. Among other things, Gandhi wrote:

“The Hindus must have the courage and the faith to feel that they can protect their religion in spite of such fanatical eruptions. A verbal disapproval by the Mussalmans of Mopla madness is no test of Mussalman friendship. The Mussalmans must naturally feel the shame and humiliation of the Mopla conduct about forcible conversions and looting, and they must work away so silently and effectively that such a thing might become impossible even on the part of the most fanatical among them. My belief is that the Hindus as a body have received the Mopla madness with equanimity and that the cultured Mussalmans are sincerely sorry of the Mopla’s perversion of the teaching of the Prophet.”[19]

Similarly, Resolution No. 3 of the Ahmedabad session of the INC was passed, where Gandhi was appointed as its sole executive authority. In it, Congress tried to distanced the Non-Cooperation or Khilafat movement from the Moplah massacare[20]

Not satisfied by such responses many leaders expressed their views, being critical of Gandhi.

Annie Besant, while putting emphasis on women’s situation during riots, writes: Mr. Gandhi… can he not feel a little sympathy for thousands of women left with only rags, driven from home, for little children born of the flying mothers on roads in refuge camps? The misery is beyond description. [21]

Recollecting some events during a Khilafat meeting, Swami Shraddhanand wrote:  “…While Mahatmaji stood adamant and did not have the least regard for Hindu feelings when a question of principle was involved, for the Moslem dereliction of duty, there was always a soft corner in his heart.” [22]

Ambedkar, who sensed an anomaly in Gandhi’s naturee  writes :   Mr. Gandhi has been very punctilious in the matter of condemning any and every act of violence and has forced the Congress, much against its will to condemn it. But Mr. Gandhi has never protested against such (Moplah riots) murders. Not only have the Musalmans not condemned these outrages but even Mr. Gandhi has never called upon the leading Muslims to condemn them. He has kept silent over them. Such an attitude can be explained only on the ground that Mr. Gandhi was anxious to preserve Hindu-Moslem unity and did not mind the murders of a few Hindus, if it could be achieved by sacrificing their lives.[23]

Gandhi’s silence and appeasing remarks on the matter were not digested by many social leaders, and especially by Hindu leaders. The events that transpired were very crucial for the future of Gandhi, Hindus and ultimately India. Hindu Nationalist leaders went on defining the lines of greater motherland India, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar defined  Hindutva and propagated it into a famous contemporary ideology. RSS was formed, the organisation mainly worked for upholding the Hindu cause. It is still a debatable question that if Gandhi wouldn’t have supported the Khilafat, could it have deferred the formation of Pakistan Or Gandhi’s assassination by the hands of Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist.

  • Conclusion:

Gandhi was indeed a man of great courage, who in his lifetime fought a good cause. The battle between idealism and pragmatism is still an ongoing one, but when it comes to the Hindu psyche, be it pre colonialism or post-colonialism, the overall stance has not been much altered. Gandhi was a politician, trying to be a saint, the irony took its toll. It was his overtly liberal interpretation of texts, questionable approach to his spirituality, stubbornness to change his beliefs and blind faith in his social experiments that made Hindu political and spiritual leaders part ways with him. And ambiguity, appeasement and soft corner approach with Muslims labelled him as an anti-Hindu amongst the Hindu nationalists.

But even today, no one can plainly deny the relevance of Gandhi and question his personal faith in Hinduism. He came under scrutiny when he took it to the public stage and there he didn’t stand as a man of his words. Hindu psyche doesn’t views Gandhi as a Hindu icon, rather when it comes to Gandhi and Hinduism, it considers Gandhi as a classic example of what not to be. Once Gandhi was asked to give a message to the countrymen, to which he replied, “My life is my message”[24]. Today, people of different backgrounds, political strata and beliefs have their personal interpretation to that, and for the Hindu psyche, broadly, that interpretation is, “Don’t do what I did”.


[1]M.K. Gandhi, What is Hinduism?, Young India, (April 24, 1924)

[2] M K Gandhi, Sanatana Hindu, Young India, (August 27, 1925)

[3] Lala Lajpat Rai, Part-3, Religions must be rationalised as much as possible, paragraph-E, The Hindu Muslim Problem (1924)

[4] Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, Gandhi’s Ahimsa in India’s Rebirth, (July 23, 1923)

[5] M K Gandhi, Hinduism, Young India (October 6, 1921)

[6] M K Gandhi, Why I am a Hindu?, Young India (October 20, 1927)

[7] M K Gandhi, Yajna or Sacrifice, Yerwada Martdir, Chapter XIV-XV

[8] M K Gandhi, Approach Temples in Faith, Harijan (January 23, 1937)

[9] M K Gandhi, Why I am a Hindu?, Young India (October 20, 1927)

[10] Rabindranath Tagore, The Bihar Earthquake, Harijan (February 16, 1934)

[11] Mark Shepherd, Mahatma Gandhi and his Myths (1990),URL: https://www.mkgandhi.org/faq/q11.htm

[12] Aurobindo Ghosh, Gandhi a European! in India’s Rebirth, (June 22, 1926)

[13] Mukul Kesavan, Gandhi’s Bad Faith, Telegraph India, (June 26, 2005) URL- https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/gandhi-s-bad-faith-the-opportunism-of-the-khilafat-movement-alienated-muslims/cid/1023054

[14] B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India,Part III, Chapter VII, Sub Chapter III (11th Paragraph) (1945)

[15] B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India,Part III, Chapter VII, SubChapter III (6th Paragraph) (1945)

[16] Nana Palkar, Dr. Hedhewar, page-99

[17] Dr. M.G.S. Narayanan, Foreword to Gandhi and Anarchy by Chettur Sankaran Nair, page II

[18]  B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India,Part III, Chapter VII, SubChapter III (31st Paragraph) (1945)

[19] M.K. Gandhi, The Meaning of the Moplah Rising, Young India (20th October, 1920)

[20] Gundappa, D.V., (December 1922 – January 1922). INDIAN REVIEW OF REVIEWS. p. 213.

[21] Annie Besant, Malabar’s Agony, New India, (November 29, 1921)

[22] Swami Shraddhanand, The Liberator, (August 31, 1926)

[23]  B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India,Part III, Chapter VII, SubChapter III, (1945)

[24] Gandhi Ashram Sabarmati, URL:https://gandhiashramsabarmati.org

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