Religion in Mahatma’s India


There was no one more acquainted with the pulse of India than Mahatma Gandhi. He knew why secularism was the only option for the diversity that was, and is, India. Tushar A. Gandhi probes the Mahatma’s prolific words on this subject.

“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.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Young India: May 8, 1920.

“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.”

– M. K. Gandhi. Thus Spake Mahatma Gandhi : P. 137

Ihere is much talk about religion and its practice. But these days we seem to be drawn more and more towards the ritualistic religion than towards the spiritual, philosophical aspect of it. Present day India seems to be gravitating towards a religion of rituals and indulging in a race of religious dominance, both which threaten the idea of India. Today, the practice of religion has become mechanical, code bound, ritualistic. This is the easy way of practising religion, just like the easiest manifestation of being recognised as a Gandhian is wearing Khadi. Similarly, with religion, the symbols like the tilak symbolise Hinduism, castes Jainism, the beard Islam and the crucifix Christianity.

The practice of the philosophy of those religions has become secondary. There is a race for superiority amongst religions. Hinduism, which is considered to be an ideal manner of living life, is increasingly becoming intolerant, Islam which by name means Peace, is torn asunder by strife, Christianity which embodied mercy and charity today, is shutting its doors to refugees, homeless and hopeless.

India’s secular roots
India was born with the secular ideal, later it was enshrined in the preamble of its Constitution. But today secularism is the most hated and abused term in our public and political life. Those who swear by it, practice it insincerely, and those who abhor it, do their best to subvert its spirit, its essence. Like everything else, we have politicised religion too. The cancer of fanaticism and intolerance is corroding the spirit of our nationhood. Is this religion? Is this religiosity? The time has come to question our conscience.

“Indeed there are many religions, as there are men. But when one goes to the root of one’s religion, one finds that in reality, religion is one.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Bapu Ke Ashirvad: December 27, 1945.

This is the ideal of secularism, the oneness of religion. When we accept that although there are different labels under these labels we are all the same, that is when we will establish true secular credentials. Secularism isn’t just keeping equidistant from every religion, but it means equally respecting every religion and its practice. Officially, secularism means equal distance from all religions, but personally secularism means equal respect for all religions.

“Religious neutrality means that the state will have no state religion, nor a system of favouritism.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Young India: June 11, 1931.

Today, when one sees a chief minister or a senior official sitting in his office wearing religion and caste specific clothes or symbols, it is bound to create a suspicion in the mind of a petitioner of a different faith or caste, of the likelihood of receiving justice or succour. France prohibits the wearing of any religion identifying clothing or symbols in public, it does not prohibit religious practices in private life, but in India, which is officially secular, public offices are overwhelmingly adorned with religious symbols and there is an overt exhibition of the faith of the incumbent. This again is a convenient exhibitionism of religion, rather than the practice of its spirit.

There is an anxiety in certain quarters as more and more Hindu rituals are being incorporated into formal education curriculum, on the other hand, there are government aided Madrassas which are akin to Christian Bible Schools.

Bapu has said: “I do not believe that the state can concern itself or cope with religious education. I believe that religious education must be the sole concern of religious associations. Do not mix up religion and ethics. I believe that fundamental ethics are common to all religions. Teaching of fundamental ethics is undoubtedly a function of the state. By religion I have not in mind fundamental ethics, but what goes by name of denominationalism.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Harijan: March 23, 1947.

Once education is tainted by a bias towards a religion, and it is an official act, then we instil religious bigotry in the impressionable minds, there have been several cases of this being implemented in state education curriculum. This is dangerous, it breeds ignorance and contempt for other religions, leading to prejudice and hate. Intolerance is born of this.

Growing intolerance?
”Why should we blaspheme God by fighting one another, because we see him through a different media – The Quran, The Bible, The Talmud, The Avesta or The Gita. The same Sun beats on the Himalayas as on the plains. Should the men of the plains quarrel with men of the snows because of the different feel of the Sun?”
– M. K. Gandhi. Young India: September 18, 1924.

In the past few years, there has been a great concern expressed about growing intolerance in our society. It is a matter of grave concern. The fanatics have hijacked our society, honour killings, caste violence, gender discrimination, violent and brutal road rage, sectarian violence, lynchings, mob violence, subjugation by violence, terror of the Khaps, fatwas and their brutal implementation, all these are symptoms of moral and ethical corruption, a society in decay, and they all stem from the propagation of a false religion, worship of a false God.

Talking about the India of his dreams Bapu said: “I do not expect India of my dream to develop one religion. i.e., to be wholly Hindu, or wholly Christian, or wholly Mussalman; but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Young India: December 22, 1927.

The promise of rewards
Every religion preaches salvation and promises rewards for leading an ideal, pious and codified life. Every religion, like the corporate world, lures by a system of rewards. While in the corporate world, the rewards accrue periodically and are of the material kind, in religion the rewards are promised in the afterlife. Every practitioner’s goal is to pack their credit side, they believe in it without any confirmation that these rewards exist. For the Hindus Swarg and Moksha, Christians Heaven and Salvation, and Muslims Jannat, as if even in the afterlife where we leave all the physical manifestations behind, our souls will carry our religious identity and the balance sheet of life along, to a heaven segregated by religion.

“I do believe that in the other world there are neither Hindus, nor Christians, nor Mussalmans. There all are judged, not according to labels or professions, but according to their actions, irrespective of their professions.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Thus Spake Mahatma Gandhi: I:P. 129.

Criticising the emphasis on the afterlife in denominational religion and the other world, Bapu said: “A religion that takes no note of this world and only harps on the one beyond, does not deserve the name.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Bapu Ke Ashirvad: December 15, 1945. A belief that forces one to live one’s entire life earning the rewards promised in the afterlife. This is actually immoral, a corruption of the spiritual spirit of religion. It negates the essence of religion, which is the process of self actualisation of every individual. Our lives are a sum total of our deeds on earth, that is our only legacy, our true bequest. As there isn’t a millionaire’s heaven nor a paupper’s heaven, neither an intellectual’s heaven nor one for idiots. There is no religion after death, no life after death. Relationships, material trappings and intellect are all earthly trappings for the betterment of this life and do nothing, make no deference in the afterlife, all these are with us ‘till death do us apart’, so is religion.

Summing up his understanding of religion and what man has made of it Bapu says: “After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion that: (1) All religions are true (2) All religions have some errors in them, and (3) All religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism, in as much as all human beings should be as dear to as my own close relatives. My own veneration for other faiths is the same as that for my own faith.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Satyagraha in South Africa: P. 17.

The cow slaughter debate
The question of cow slaughter has been raised ever since Independence, it has caused strife too. Cows enjoy a divine status amongst Hindus, but for non-Hindus a cow is just an animal and to many it is merely food, even amongst Hindus. In many states cow slaughter has been banned, but the slaughter of fallow cows and bulls is allowed. We are an agrarian society and in organic, sustainable, traditional agriculture, a living cow is a boon, it provides milk and fuel for the family, fertiliser for the farm, but for the small farmer it is also a source of income when it turns fallow, non- productive or in times of scarcity, a source of income. This system also ensures the disposal of fallow livestock and the regeneration of the breed. But now a total ban on cow slaughter has been promulgated in many states, and the existence of the subsistence farmer is in peril. Cows have become a symbol of religious extremism. People have been murdered, lynched, on the mere suspicion of eating or possessing beef. People have been brutalised and murdered for transporting cows on the suspicion of them being taken for slaughter, if the transporter is a Muslim, then it is a definite death sentence.

Bapu was an ardent bhakt of cows, and had this to say: “Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomenon of human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man, through the cow, is enjoined to realise his identity with all that lives.”
– M. K. Gandhi Young India: October 6, 1921.

Thus Bapu equated the cow with all living beings and the environment at large. He averred that, “I will not kill a human being to save a cow, as I will not kill a cow to save a human life, be it ever so precious.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Thus Spake Mahatma Gandhi: P. 94.

A Hindu Rashtra?
There has been a lot of talk about the process of converting India into a Hindu Rashtra having began, initially there were whispers, now the voices are louder, the concerns are justified. The move reflects in official policy, especially on the question of cow slaughter. Bapu warned thus: “The Hindus want Swaraj in India and not a Hindu Raj. Even if there was a Hindu Raj and tolerance as one of its features, there would be place in it for Mussalmans as well as Christians… I would therefore deem it unpatriotic even to pursue a dream of Hindu Raj.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Young India: September 18, 1924.

One must also realise that the question of beef isn’t just a Hindu, Muslim, Christian question, there are beef eaters even amongst the Hindus, there was never any taboo against eating beef amongst many of the tribes who are vaguely included in the Hindu fold. The Dalits, whom Hindus have always denied even a human existence, eat beef.

Immediately after Independence, Bapu pointed out the dangers and immorality of making India a theocratic Hindu Rashtra. He warned, “India is the land of the Hindus, but also of the Mussalmans, the Sikhs, the Parsis, the Christians, the Jews and all who claim to be of India and are loyal to the Union. If we can prohibit cow-slaughter in India on religious grounds, why cannot the Pakistani government prohibit, say idol-worship in Pakistan on similar grounds? I am not a temple goer, but if I am prohibited from going to a temple in Pakistan, I would make it a point to go there even at the risk of losing my head. Just as Shariat cannot be imposed on non-Muslims, Hindu law cannot be imposed on non-Hindus.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Harijan: August 10, 1947.

Bapu understood India as few have in the modern times. He understood the realities of sustaining the national identity of India given the diversities and contradictions that exist cheek by jowl within it. He understood the threat of religious dominance and exclusivity. And he was very clear in his understanding that if India was to survive, religion would have to be as he said, ‘Between man and his maker, a private matter.’

I feel that today the idea of India is under threat because religious fanaticism and intolerance are rearing their head in our society and polity. The day India abandons its belief in secularism, will be the end of the idea of India. Seven decades is not a big period in the life of a nation. We pride ourselves in our thousands of years old heritage and civilisation that is under threat today, because we are abandoning the quality that sustained our civilisation even during adverse times, tolerance, respect and acceptance of the other. Hindu traditions fought the evil within itself more than it ever fought threats from outside. For centuries we have peacefully coexisted, that is the reason of our longevity. Vasudaiva Kutumbakam does not mean subjugation of others, but an acceptance of all as our own along with the differences and respect and trust of their different practices and way of life, that is true Hinduism.

I conclude with what Bapu wrote, just 15 days after the birth of the nation: “Hinduism will be wrongly served if, compelling legislation is resorted to in such matters. Hinduism can only be served by doing unadulterated justice to man, to whatever religion he may belong.”
– M. K. Gandhi. Harijan August 30, 1947.

Today, merely seven decades later, we have forgotten it.n

Tushar A. Gandhi

Tushar A. Gandhi a social activist, is the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the Managing Trustee of Mahatma Gandhi Foundation, Mumbai.