By Ira Srivastav
M.K. Gandhi was an influential Indian leader and thinker of the 20th Century. He was a leader of the masses and carried a unique charisma. He was personally a follower of Hinduism but accepted all faiths and had a comprehensive approach to religion. His writings on Hinduism in particular made a profound impact on the average Indian and his thoughts continue to impact Hindu psyche to date. Chapter one talks about his background, the atmosphere in which he grew up and other details which are important to understand the thought process he developed over time. Chapter two will outline Gandhi’s growing days and elaborate on his understanding of religion itself. It is well-known that Gandhi was a firm believer in an academic outlook towards religion. In this respect, he believed in a comparative analysis of various religions. Chapter three talks about this comparative study. While all of these chapters cover India before independence, chapter four deals with post-colonial India. The events of newly independent India inspired Gandhi to write on the topic. Finally, chapter five gives a concluding statement on the topic.
CHAPTER 1 – M.K. GANDHI’S GROWING DAYS
Since his childhood, religion and its multiple facets attracted Gandhiji. The rich culture of India played an important role in his approach towards religion. His diverse family background was another major factor in the same. Gandhiji’s father was Hindu, and his mother was from a Pranami Vaishnava Hindu family. His father was of Modh Baniya caste in the Vaishya varna. Putlibai, on the other hand, came from the medieval Krishna bhakti-based Pranami tradition. The religious texts of these included Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavata Purana and a collection of texts with teachings that is believed to encompass the essence of the Vedas, Quran and the Bible. An extremely pious lady, Gandhiji’s mother and her rituals and practices had a deep impact on the little boy.
In 1874, at the tender age of 5, Gandhiji’s family shifted from Porbandar to Rajkot. Gandhiji’s father was posted here as a counsellor to the ruler of Rajkot. At age 9, he began his schooling in the local school of Gujarat. He learnt the fundamentals of subjects like arithmetic, history, Gujarati grammar and geography. It seems he was a studious child, keeping in close touch with his academic commitments.
Gandhiji was a vocal advocate for the study of comparative religion. The main reason behind this was the fact that he was surrounded by people using progressive interpretations of various principles in the domain of religion.
CHAPTER 2 – GANDHI’S CONCEPTION OF RELIGION
Gandhi had a universal, all-encompassing, comprehensive outlook and definition of religion. He wrote, “By religion, I do not mean formal religion or customary religion, but that religion which underlies all religions, which brings us face to face with our Maker.” He further went on to explain this as, “Let me explain what I mean by religion. It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all other religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within and whichever 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 its Maker and appreciated the true correspondence between the Maker and itself.” The deviation from conventional practices and ideas made sure that he had a wide follower base.
The entire basis of Gandhiji’s understanding of religion is the fact that he interpreted “God” as “Truth”. On this, he had written, “To me God is Truth and Love. God is Ethics and Morality. God is Fearlessness. God is essence of life and light and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist. For in his boundlessness, God permits the atheist to live. He is the searcher of hearts. He is a personal God to those who need his personal presence. He is embodied to those who need his touch. He is the purest essence…. He is all things to all men. He is in us and yet above and beyond us.” To Gandhiji, there was very little difference between basic morals and religion. This interpretation made things universal and appealing to all. Even the non-Hindu Indian or an atheist could associate with these basic ideas and have an acceptance of such concepts.
He had a personal mission to not only “humanize” but also “moralize” religion. According to Gandhiji, religion and moral are fundamentally intertwined concepts which cannot be seen in isolation. The stress on morality is what helped him connect with a wide audience in the country. The focus on morality had a widespread appeal and cut across religions, gender and other instruments of social stratification.
“His” religion was a coalition of diverse faiths, beliefs, theological schools and sects that are a culmination of India’s past. People belonging to different religions would go to him for his advice and blessings on different matters. Gandhiji devoted much of his time and efforts to the cause of Hindu Muslim unity, including fasting for the propagation of the same. At the time of the Partition of India, when thousands of Hindus and Muslims were massacred in Punjab, Bengal and Bihar, Gandhiji grew even more committed to the goal of unity between the two communities. He desired communal accord and goodwill between people of all faiths and beliefs. Two of his closest associates were C.F. Andres and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. His daily prayers and the prayers at Sabarmati Ashram included parts from the Gita, Bible as well as Quran.
He had a “sympathetic” approach towards studying religion. In order to understand a point of view different from one’s own, it was imperative to study other scriptures and to view them in an objective manner, with tolerance, broad mindedness and humility. It is only when we see other religions through this objective lens that we can appreciate a way of life different from our own. The religious heads of various faiths have awakened a sense of brotherhood in all of mankind. Thus, Gandhiji felt there was an inherent need for a comparative study of religions to cement unity between the followers of various religion.
Gandhiji was personally a Sanatani Hindu, but his following of and devotion to Hinduism was not blind faith. He truly believed that Hinduism is the most tolerant and liberal of religions. He was fascinated by the all-encompassing nature of the religion, on which he wrote, “The chief value of Hinduism lies in holding the actual belief that all life is one i.e. all life coming from one universal source, call it Allah, God or Parameshwara.” The teachings in the Holy Bhagavat Gita also made a profound impact on him. One saying in particular from the Gita which struck a chord with Gandhiji and influenced him is, “when one sees Me everywhere and everything in Me, I am never lost to him and he is never lost to Me.” At the same time, he held a practical outlook and detested ideas which were illogical or unscientific or insensitive. One prime example of this was his sworn opposition to the caste system prevalent in Hinduism. In his own words, “My religion is Hinduism … I can no more describe my feelings for Hinduism than for my wife … Even so I feel about Hinduism with all its fault and limitations … I know that the vice that is going on today in all the Hindu shrines… My zeal never takes me to the rejection of any of the essential things in Hinduism.”
Moreover, Hinduism had a very wide scope of interpretation. According to Gandhi, there was no one central book for reference, no particular God of worship nor one particular way of God realization. Whether he is a theist or an atheist, he is a Hindu. Whether there is a faith in one or multiple forms of Gods, belief in the Vedas or not, a person is a Hindu. Gandhiji chalked idol worship to human nature although he did not believe in it. Simultaneously he was a vocal opponent of social evils like untouchability, which he believed was something every true Hindu would oppose and rise against. Going by what was laid down in the Vedas, animal sacrifice was contradictory to non-violence. Rather, he believed in the sacrifice of the beastly nature within humans in the form of lust, greed, anger, hatred and ill-will to name a few. It is to be noted that these are some of the sins laid down in the Bible as well, thus highlighting an intertwined take on religion. His take on the Hindu God, Krishna was, “My Krsna is not the historical Krsna. I believe in the Krsna of my imagination as a perfect incarnation, spotless in every sense of the word, the inspirer of the Gita, and the inspirer of the lives of millions of human beings. But if it is proved to me … that the Krsna of the Mahabharata actually did some of the acts attributed to Him, even at the risk of being banished from the Hindu fold, I should not hesitate to reject that Krsna as God incarnate.”
Like some of the great thinkers including Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhiji did not believe in dogma or rituals and his religion was not confined to places of worship or superficial practices.
Further, on the concept of God, he wrote, “Is there one God for the Mussalmans and another for the Hindus, Parsis, and Christians? No, there is only one omnipresent God. He is named variously, and we remember him by the name which is most familiar to us.”
CHAPTER 3 – COMPARATIVE STUDY OF RELIGIONS
Islam is a religion of strict monotheism. Gandhiji held Islam in high regard and termed it a religion “of peace, love, kindness and brotherhood of all men.” While in the past rulers resorted to violence for materialistic gains, that is against the fundamental principles laid down in the Quran. Apprehension against Islam as a whole was intolerable since there are several instances within the Holy Quran condemning violence and advocating religious tolerance.
He was also deeply impressed by Christianity, whose simplicity greatly appealed to him. He was, however, opposed to some activities of the missionaries and disagreed with forced or propagated conversions.
The comparative study of religions showed Gandhiji that only a doctrinal research or attitude towards religion will not promote or realize the vision he saw for communal unity and harmony. He realized that rigid adherence to religious rituals is likely to trigger feelings of hatred towards other religions. True religion refreshes the inner conscience of human life. The true test of a religion depends on the behavior of its followers and how much of it they implement in their real lives. Symbols, totems, rituals are not bad or wrong as long as they may facilitate towards an inner, spiritual growth of a person. In their true spirit, all religions preach a common message of love, peace, harmony and humanity. Swami Vivekananda had said, “If anyone hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one religion and the destruction of the others, to him I say, ‘Brother, yours is an impossible hope.’ Do I wish that a Christian would become a Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that a Hindu or Buddhist would become a Christian? God forbid … The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.”
There are already too many religions in the world, and we don’t need another new one. Instead, what the world needs is people following their own religions, confident enough in themselves to live with an eternal truth which they each discover for themselves. When this revolution takes place, the divisive role played by religions will automatically disintegrate and submit to the altruistic human spirit. A human soul is a constant traveler while religion is a mere vehicle, which helps in the transformation of human society in its journey towards the Divine Being.
CHAPTER 4 – POST-COLONIAL INDIA
The Hindu-Muslim riots of 1947 at the time of partition deeply disturbed Gandhi. He had dedicated much of his life to Hindu-Muslim unity, preached the message of love and mutual respect and gone on multiple fasts for the cause. The riots were a complete breakdown of the values he stood so strongly for and advocated. Upon allegations of Congressmen’s involvement in the riots, he immediately called upon them and interrogated their role in the same. He expressed his immense faith in the humanity of both Hindus and Muslims. He also shared his experience of interactions with the Muslims, who were ever ready to protect him and make sure he had a comfortable stay when delivering his sermons. He made many reconciliation efforts on his own because of his devotion to the cause of unity and harmony between the two communities. He tried to convince and did indeed persuade many Hindus to make amends with their Muslim brethren. He urged the Hindus to reach out to the Muslims and tell them that what happened in the past is history and will never be repeated. He further said on this, “Tell them that their misery is your misery, that you are their brothers, that both Hindus and Muslims are sons of the same soil, both eat and drink from the same source and breathe the same air, hence there should be no ill will between them. Tell them that you will not get any peace of mind until they return to their homes. It is possible that the Muslims may turn round and ask how they can go back and live in the houses where their kith and kin have been done to death. They will be justified in saying so. But if the guilty persons go to the Muslims with truly penitent hearts, I am sure, they will be persuaded. Human hearts melt before love. When the murderers themselves go to them in sackcloth and ashes and promise them never to repeat such deeds, even a stony heart will melt.
You should not depend on the Government to do this work. The Government will of course lend a hand. But it is mainly your task. The Government can give you tools and materials; but the cleaning has to be done by you.
Amidst this mad upheaval there were some Hindus, like oases in a desert, who risked the wrath of the violent mobs and saved the lives of many Muslims and gave them shelter. They deserve congratulations though they do not need any…Since we have become strangers to human sentiments these days, we are impelled to congratulate any evidence of human love. Those who gave shelter to Muslims did not do so from any selfish motives.”
This was a continuation of his stand to maintain peace and harmony among all communities and have an inclusive outlook towards religion.
CHAPTER 5 – CONCLUSION
In conclusion, it is to be noted that M.K. Gandhi had a huge following in the country and thus his words and actions were valued by the masses. His approach towards Hinduism and religion played a vital role in the mindset of the people of the time. He realized and acknowledged that religion is an important part of any Indian’s life. moreover, he correlated happening in the political arena to those of the religious aspects of life. This all-inclusive approach made it possible for every Indian to associate with these thoughts and ideas. Gandhi always took a yin-yang balanced approach in his ideas. He addressed the believers as well as the non-believers, the theists and the atheists, the moral and the amoral. This further consolidated his position as a leader of the masses.
His connection with the Western culture from time spent abroad as well as his Indian roots culminated into him being what we can term today an “intercultural Indian”. His idea of non-violence was not merely an unrealistic dream but a realistic goal, which eventually played an instrumental role in the freedom struggle of the country.
Gandhiji’s thoughts and ideas continue to affect and influence us and Hindu Pysche today.
 Joseph J. Doke, M.K. Gandhi 7 (1909)
 M.K. Gandhi, Young India 21 (1920)
 M.K. Gandhi, Essence Of Hinduism, 51 (2nd ed., 1996)
 Manisha Barua, Gandhi and Comparative Religion, 20th WCP: Gandhi and Comparative Religion (bu.edu) (Last visited on September 30, 2021)
 M.K. Gandhi, Harijan 363 (1936)
 M.K. Gandhi, Harijan 37 (1937)
 Swami Vivekananda, Speech at World Religion Conference in Chicago, (September 9, 1893)
 M.K. Gandhi Gandhijike Dukhe Dilki Pukar 147-150 (1994)
 M.K. Gandhi, Speech at a Prayer Meeting in Chorhuan, (March 21, 1947)
 M.K. Gandhi, Speech at a Prayer Meeting in Chorhuan, (March 21, 1947)