An Atheist With Gandhi
by Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao) 

Gandhi with Gora 
oil painting by V. Veerabrahmam 

Table of Contents  (File 3; modified for HTML format)

  • An Explanation
  • II  Contact Through Correspondence 
  • III  I Go To Sevagram 
  • IV  My First Interview With Gandhiji 
  • My Second Interview 
  • VI  I Go To Sevagram Again 
  • VII  A Long Interview 
  • VIII  My Daughter's Marriage 
  • IX  The Difference 
  • Gandhi's God 

  • Chapter VII  A Long Interview 

    Soon after 4 a.m. on the 30th of March, 1945, Shri Prabhakar, an ashramite, woke me up from bed and informed me that Bapuji would talk to me at 5 a.m. after the morning prayers. A feeling of joy rushed on me as the long awaited hour had come. I got ready with feelings of great hope and anxious expectation. I was to talk to a great theist on a subject buried deep in gross misconceptions and vile slander. What would he ask me? How should I present the case for atheism? How to remove the prejudice against atheism? These were my anxious thoughts. But I felt atheism was right. I had long looked forward for an opportunity to vindicate the cause of atheism. Now that I got the opportunity, I was happy. With such mixed feelings I went to Bapu's cottage at that early morning hour. 

    Bapuji lay stretched full length on his low bed in the open air beside his cottage. I greeted him. He beckoned me to sit by his bed. I did. The situation was encouraging. I felt like sitting by the side of my father to consult him closely on a domestic affair. 

    "Now, you tell me, why do you want atheism?" Bapuji asked me in a calm and affectionate voice. 

    I was struck by the tone as well as by the nature of the question. It was not the usual question: What is atheism? or what is the use of atheism? Such questions call forth only academic answers. 'Why do you want atheism?' had something remarkably human and practical about it. It was Bapu-like. To my recollection, in all my numerous discussions on atheism, no one had put the question to me in that form. But, instead of taking me by surprise on account of its singularity, the question touched my heart and I poured out my heart. 

    I began: "I was in Calcutta last year. I saw the famine-stricken destitutes walking heavily on the pavements. Here and there some of them dropped dead in the streets. They died beside the marts and stalls which exhibited their sweets and fruits for sale. Suppose there was a hungry dog or a bull in the same situation. Would he die of hunger? No. Beat him, scold him, he would persist in his attempts to pounce upon the shop, somehow eat the sweets and fruits and satisfy his hunger. Why did not the destitute do the same? I do not think they were afraid of the policeman. The destitutes were there in hundreds and thousands. No concerted action was required of them. If a fraction of their number had fallen upon the shops, all the policemen in Calcutta put together could not have stopped them. Even confinement in a gaol with its poor diet would have been preferable to death due to starvation. Why, then, the destitutes did not feel desperate and loot the shops? Were all the destitutes abject cowards without exception? Or had all of them such a high sense of civic responsibility as to be unwilling to disturb law and order? No. They were all simple, normal folk with no knowledge of civic rights and duties. Had they known their civic rights and duties in the least, there would have been no Bengal famine at all. 

    "Looking at the other side, were all the shop-keepers so cruel as to allow their fellow-men to die of dire hunger before their own eyes? No. On the other hand they shed tears of pity and contributed liberally and ran the gruel kitchens for the destitutes. They recited hymns of ethics every day. 

    "If the destitute is not cowardly and if the shopman is not cruel, why did so many people die of hunger? I think the reason is their philosophy of life. 

    "Both the destitute and the shop-keeper are votaries of the same philosophy of life. Each one said to himself: 'It is my fate, that is his fate; God made me like this, God made him like that.' On account of the commonness of their philosophy, there was no change in their relationship, though some ate their fill and many starved to death. The destitute's faith in that philosophy made his behaviour different from the animals. 

    "What I have said with regard to the Bengal famine applies also to the relationship between the untouchables and the caste Hindus, between the dark-skinned and the white-skinned. The same philosophy rules all these relationships. 

    "What is the result of following that philosophy of life? Man has become worse than the animal. Instead of living well, he is dying ill. His strength to resist evil is very much weakened. The pleasures of the few are built upon the bones of the many. This is really the unhappy fact in spite of our moral professions and pious wishes for the happiness of all humanity. This philosophy of life based upon belief in God and fate -- this theistic philosophy -- I hold responsible for defeating our efforts at ethical life and idealism. It cannot securely preserve the balance of unequal social relations any longer, because the pains of the flesh have begun to revolt against that philosophy. Hate and war are already replacing love and peace. 

    "I want ethics to rule and idealism to grow. That can be achieved only when belief in god and fate is done away with and consequently the theistic philosophy of life is changed. In positive terms, I want atheism, so that man shall cease to depend on god and stand firmly on his own legs. In such a man a healthy social outlook will grow, because atheism finds no justification for the economic and social inequalities between man and man. The inequalities have been kept so far by the acquiescence of the mass of theists rather than by any force of arms. When the belief in god goes and when man begins to stand on his own legs, all humanity becomes one and equal, because not only do men resemble much more than they differ but fellow-feeling smoothens the differences. 

    "I cannot remove god, if god were the truth. But it is not so. God is a falsehood conceived by man. Like many falsehoods, it was, in the past, useful to some extent. But like all falsehoods, it polluted life in the long run. So belief in god can go and it must go now in order to wash off corruption and to increase morality in mankind. 

    "I want atheism to make man self-confident and to establish social and economic equalities non-violently. Tell me, Bapu, where am I wrong?" 

    Bapuji listened to my long explanation patiently. Then he sat up in the bed and said slowly, "Yes, I see an ideal in your talk. I can neither say that my theism is right nor your atheism is wrong. We are seekers after truth. We change whenever we find ourselves in the wrong. I changed like that many times in my life. I see you are a worker. You are not a fanatic. You will change whenever you find yourself in the wrong. There is no harm as long as you are not fanatical. Whether you are in the right or I am in the right, results will prove. Then I may go your way or you may come my way; or both of us may go a third way. So go ahead with your work. I will help you, though your method is against mine." 

    I felt overwhelmed by his magnanimity. I requested, "You are encouraging me, Bapu. I want to be warned of the possible pitfalls in my way, so that I may benefit by your wisdom and experience and minimize my mistakes." 

    Bapuji replied, "It is not a mistake to commit a mistake, for no one commits a mistake knowing it to be one. But it is a mistake not to correct the mistake after knowing it to be one. If you are afraid of committing a mistake, you are afraid of doing anything at all. You will correct your mistakes whenever you find them." 

    He told me he was pleased with the conduct of my co-workers. He had called them to the Ashram to see how I influenced my associates. That revealed to me why he was giving special attention to the batches of my co-workers while he seemed indifferent to me for the past three months. 

    Then he inquired into my conception of morality. I replied, "I do what I say and I say what I do -- that is my definition of moral behaviour. There is no room for secrecy. All behaviour is moral that is open." 

    "Exactly," said Bapuji, "I would put it, 'secrecy is sin'. You are an atheist. You fight shy of the term sin." He described to me some of his hard experiences in trying to live openly. 

    He asked me whether I use a latrine in my village centre. Speaking on the problem of sanitation he said, "At Haradwar I wanted to sit on the banks of the Ganga. But I found no clean spot there. Untouchability and soil-pollution are the two shameless sins of us in India." 

    In another part of the conversation he said, "I wonder why workers are anxious to get a name. In South Africa I drudged for five years in kitchens and latrines." 

    I asked him, what time I should approach him for consultation. He readily replied, "You are a member of my family. Come to me any time you find me not engaged with others." 

    We conversed together on the whole for seventy minutes. There was no time limit imposed. It was a heart-to-heart talk. The topics were varied and often related to personal opinions and experiences. Throughout the conversation I was feeling that I was getting closer and closer to Bapu. 

    Some of his words rang in my ears ever afterwards. "I can neither say that my theism is right not your atheism is wrong.... I will help you though your method is against mine," showed me the length Bapuji went in courtesy and toleration. Again, "If you are afraid to commit a mistake, you are afraid to do anything at all," struck as a remarkably practical suggestion and a call to bold action. Recollection of the conversation enabled me to improve my behaviour in several respects. 

    I think, Bapuji also reflected deeply on some points in our conversation. His gestures and pauses during the conversation gave me that impression. Perhaps, in the atheism that I was presenting, he recognized positive aspects different from the mere negations contained in the common conception of godlessness. Whatever it may be, one thing is certain. His later conversations and correspondence with me show that he began to understand me and my atheism. 

    Bapuji left for Bombay the next day. I returned to my village. 

    Chapter VIII  My Daughter's Marriage 

    My contact and conversation with Gandhiji not only confirmed me in atheism but turned my thoughts more towards practical programmes. Hitherto, for the removal of untouchability, my programme had consisted of only cosmopolitan dinners. I thought I should go a step further. There should be inter-marriages. Only inter-marriages will efface the differences of caste, creed, and colour. 

    My atheistic outlook does not recognize differences of caste or creed. But that is not enough. Those labels are extant in society at large. I should take them as they are and mix them up in marriage alliances. So I discussed my idea with my wife and with my eldest daughter (Manorama). They accepted my programme. My daughter agreed to marry an 'untouchable'. 

    I informed Bapuji of the decision of my family and of the atheistic way of thinking that led to the decision. The following is a translation into English of his reply in Hindustani: 

    Sodepur, 16-1-'46 

    The next month Bapuji came to Madras to preside over the Jubilee Celebrations of the Hindustani Prechar Sabha. I met him at Madras for elucidation of the points raised in his letter. 

    I expressed my thankfulness to Bapuji for agreeing to celebrate my daughter's marriage in the Ashram. I also saw the desirability of postponing, according to his suggestion, of the solemnization for two years and of training up my son-in-law (Arjun Rao) during those two years in the Ashram. Regarding the details, I said, "Perhaps, in the course of the marriage ceremony, you will invoke divine blessings for the couple, or say the words: 'in the name of God'. My daughter and my son-in-law are atheistically minded. They will not be parties to such implied belief in god. 

    Gandhiji: In the case of your daughter's marriage, I will say 'in the name of Truth' instead of 'in the name of God'. Atheists also respect truth. 

    I: Yes. Atheists regard truthfulness as a social necessity. Truth binds man to man in association. Without truth there can be no social organization. 

    G: Not only that. Truth means existence; the existence of that we know and of that we do not know. The sum total of all existence is absolute truth or the Truth. (Gandhiji spoke at length on the subject of the absolute truth.) 

    I: I think, truth is only relative to human experience. The concept of the absolute truth which is beyond human experience is but a hypothesis formulated by man for the convenience of his thought process. Any absolute, like the infinite, is only an imaginary something. 

    G: The concepts of truth may differ. But all admit and respect truth. That truth I call God. For sometime I was saying, 'God is Truth,' but that did not satisfy me. So now I say, 'Truth is God.' 

    I: If truth is god, then why don't you say 'Satyam ... ' instead of 'Raghupati Raghava'? 'Raghupati Raghava' conveys to others a meaning very different from what it conveys to you. 

    G: Do you think I am superstitious? I am a super-atheist. 

    There was visible emphasis in these words. 

    I felt that this matter must be thrashed out fully some time. But that was not the proper occasion for it. The topic before us was the form of my daughter's marriage and I thought I had better confine myself to it just then. 

    As it was agreed that in the form of the ceremony there would be mention of 'truth' instead of 'god', I passed on to the next point. 

    I: While I was in the Ashram, I was not attending the prayers. But my stay in the Ashram has been hitherto short and broken. Now Arjun Rao will be in the Ashram for two years. There must be a clear understanding about the discipline. What shall be his position in relation to attendance at the prayers, Bapu? 

    G: Let him attend the prayers as a matter of discipline of the Ashram. But let him not recite the verses if he does not believe in them. 

    I was very much impressed by his spirit of accomodation. He showed me by example how to give practical shape to principles. 

    He continued, "Suppose in the two years that Arjun Rao sits regularly at the prayers, he turns towards theism?" 

    I: I will be very happy, Bapu. I do not want any one to be an atheist with closed mind. He should be an atheist out of conviction. If he takes to theism out of conviction, I welcome such a change in him. 

    G: Oh, yes. I know you are not a fanatic. Instead of Arjun Rao taking to theism, it looks as if both of you will carry this old man into your camp! (He returned the complement and laughed heartily. His large-heartedness was evident at every turn.) 

    In February, 1946, Arjun Rao accompanied Gandhiji to Sevagram. There he stayed for two years. He was attending the prayers but he was not reciting the verses. 

    Towards the end of 1947, Bapuji intimated to me that the marriage would be performed in April 1948. But he was assassinated in January 1948. The ashramites who knew the details of Bapuji's promise, solemnized the marriage of my daughter, Manorama, with Arjun Rao in the Ashram on 13-3-'48. All references to god were scrupulously avoided in the form of that ceremony. Thus Bapuji's promise was fulfilled and my atheistic requirements too were fully respected. 

    Pandit Sundarlal, speaking at the marriage function, revealed to the guests a particular remark that Bapuji made to him when they both had met at Delhi at the time of a communal riot. Bapuji wished the communities turned atheists, if that served to stop communal hatred and riots. This remark illustrated again that Bapuji evaluated principles not so much by their intellectual or sentimental content as by their practical results. He was not averse to atheism if it tended to civilize humanity. 

    Chapter IX  The Difference 

    Did not Bapuji tell me in his conversation on 30-3'45, 'I will help you, though your method is against mine'? All the adjustments he made and all the accommodation he showed in order to celebrate my daughter's marriage in the Ashram were to me proof positive that he helped me. At the same time he pointed out to me equally clearly, that our methods differed. The following correspondence illustrates this fact. 

    Sometime in March 1946 or so, I read in the news columns that Bapuji wanted his camp at Bombay to be arranged in the huts of Harijans. He followed up the decision in Delhi also where he stayed in the Harijan Mandir. 

    His decision had considerable significance in view of the inhuman segregation imposed upon the Harijans in India. So I immediately wrote my congratulations to him and said: 

    My letter to Bapuji brought the following reply: 

    Harijan Mandir  New Delhi, 9-4-'46 

    Yours,  BAPU 

    The letter clearly pointed out the differences between Bapuji's approach and mine. But what does the difference matter? Work and results resolve the differences. 

    There was an episode associated with the above letter. It was written in another hand and Bapuji signed the letter. The letter was closed at first with 'Yours sincerely'; but when Bapuji signed it, he scored out 'sincerely' and left 'Yours' to stand. I did not understand why 'sincerely' was scored out and so I wrote to Bapuji: 

    Mudunur, 2-5-'46 

    Yours sincerely,  G. RAMACHANDRA RAO 

    I got the following reply from Bapuji's secretary, Shrimati Amrit Kaur: 

    Bhai Ramachandra Raoji, 

    Pujya Bapuji has received your letter. 'Yours sincerely' is too formal; therefore the word was struck out. What else could there be in it? 

    I am returning Bapuji's letter. 
    Yours,  AMRIT KAUR  Simla, 7-5-'46 

    I felt I was getting closer to Bapuji than I had realized. Experiences at Delhi made it plain to me. 

    I was in Delhi towards the end of 1946, attached to the A. I. C. C. office as a Congress organizer. I had occasions to go to Bhangi Colony (Harijan Mandir) where Gandhiji camped at that time. I had some short talks with him on the atheistic approach. 

    Once he asked me for my programme to remove untouchability. 

    I: Regular cosmopolitan dinners on a mass scale like the foreign cloth bonfires of 1920. 

    Gandhiji: Would cosmopolitan dinners be sufficient to catch the imagination of the people? 

    I: Then, inter-marriages. Now that we have nationalists and Congressmen in the interim Government, arrangements may be made to announce every inter-marriage by a Government notification. Also every inter-marriage should be granted a present of Rs. 500 by the Government. Every child up to the third-born of such wedlock should be paid a quarterly subsidy of Rs. 50 for two years. 

    G: Why do you propose the money-subsidy? Will not the publicity be sufficient? 

    I: At present the ostracism of inter-marriages often takes the shape of economic sanctions by the society. People who appreciated the principle of inter-marriages are often unable to put the principle into practice, because they are afraid to face the economic pressures that follow close on the heels of inter-marriages. As long as the economic system remains what it is today, such pressure is a real hardship. So while the law and the Government notification protect the couple from social harassment, the money subsidy saves the inter-marriages from economic sabotage. This policy of the Government may be necessary only for a term of five or ten years during which period the movement will take root and will grow on popular support later on. 

    G: That is well. But it does not preserve the sanctity of marriage. It reduces marriage to prostitution, and alliance for the consideration of money. 

    I: Today marriages confined to the limits of caste and the practice of dowry are no better. The system of Government subsidy to inter-marriages will at least serve the purpose of removing social isolations, even though it may not be free from the other evils of pecuniary considerations attaching to the existing system. Money considerations cannot be removed until there is a change in the economic order. We may look at the marriage alliance now from the social point of view. Did not the totalitarian States subsidize large families and compel even nuns to get married when those States required increase in population? Those States subsidized marriages as a part of the war effort. We will subsidize inter-marriages for the removal of social isolations. The sanctity of marriage lies in its contribution to social welfare. 

    G: You are an atheist! (Bapuji said significantly.) 

    Another time Bapuji surprised me by telling me, "You have tried atheism sufficiently long. Now, you give up the term atheism. It does not help your work." 

    I: I am very well aware that the term atheism is a condemned word. The oxford dictionary gives 'godlessness' as the meaning of atheism and 'wickedness' as one of the meanings of 'godlessness'. I know, Bapu, what odium is attached to the term atheism. Yet I have taken it up deliberately, because it is the only work that inspires full self-confidence and complete social outlook in man. I regard that atheism represents the progressive tendencies in civilization. So far as I have not laid before you the several aspects of atheism as I see them. I am waiting for you to give me time. I want also to put my thoughts into a book form. 

    G: I will go through the manuscript of your book. Come to me when I go to Sevagram next. We will have sufficient time to talk about your thoughts. (Bapuji replied endearingly.) 

    Another day it was time for Bapuji's evening walk when I went to the Bhangi colony. Visitors lined up his path on either side. I usually avoid the crowd on such occasions. I stood a few yards away from the path. Bapuji came out of his residence and went a few paces along the path. Then he turned his steps towards where I was standing. I wondered why he was coming that way. He came close to me and asked, "Do you want to talk to me?" 

    "No, Bapu." I replied rather astonished. "I have nothing to talk to you now. I will come to you when I want your advice." 

    "Yes," he smiled and said, "I will live longer if people spare my breath like you." 

    He returned to the path and went along. 

    In spite of the difference that he emphasized, Bapuji kept me close to his heart. He told me in his letters and also in his conversations that he would have time to speak with me at leisure whenever he was at Sevagram. He asked me to go and stay there with him for about ten days when he proposed to discuss the several aspects of atheism for half an hour every day. With this prospect before me, I was content to make my conversations with him then short and topical rather than full and deep. 

    Chapter X  Gandhi's God

    The assassination of Gandhiji meant a terrible loss to civilization; it is as much a loss to atheism. I was eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to discuss atheism with him at length. I was already close to him. The discussion would have taken me closer. This I say with confidence because of my experience with him. He had not been averse to my atheism nor did his god scare me away. He appreciated a principle far more for its efficacy than for its mere academic or intellectual considerations. His primary concern was humanity. On account of this deep concern, he could proclaim boldly: "I can neither say my theism is right, nor your atheism is wrong." He was not a fanatic to quarrel about method, nor was he a poet to praise the ideal; but he was a prophet who perceived the direction. He never denounced anything that contributed the commonweal; on the other hand, he helped it, in spite of the wide divergence between its method and his. His conception of god, as well as his estimation of atheism appear to me to be based on this essentially humanitarian consideration. 

    Besides, he was pre-eminently a practical man. As a practical man, he took any situation as it obtained with all its paradoxes. He never sat down to scan and to sift its contradictions intellectually; but he moved the whole situation towards the ideal of happiness for all mankind. He condemned nothing beforehand lest a good cause should be lost by bad judgement. He only let things drop when they could not bear the strain of progress. Practice was his test of fitness. He subordinated intellectual and sentimental considerations to practical purposes. He tested a system of medicine by the cure it effected; he tested the advocate of a cause by the work he turned out; he allowed me to dissect a frog when it served a practical purpose. 

    This attitude and method of Gandhiji can be seen in his answers to questions at the meeting of the Harijan Sevak Sangh held on 14-8-1945. When he first undertook to remove untouchability, the problem of varna-dharma (caste system) was also there. It was easy to see intellectually, even then, that caste ought to go root and branch if untouchability was to be completely eradicated. But as a practical proposition, caste was not the immediate problem then. The problem was only the removal of untouchability. So he allowed caste to continue, though personally he observed no caste even then. Thus the work of the removal of untouchability progressed through the early stage leaving the contradictions of the caste system untouched, and, therefore, without the complication of opposition from those who would resist the abolition of caste. When the stage had come where he found caste was a serious hindrance for further progress, Gandhiji said that caste ought to go root and branch and proposed not only inter-dining but inter-marriages as the means. A mere intellectual might read inconsistence in Gandhiji's tolerance of caste earlier and his denunciation of it later. But to a practical man of non-violent creed these are stages of progress and not principles of contradiction. 

    Likewise, he found belief in god of the 'Raghupati Raghava' type widespread when he took up the cause of Indian Independence. He allowed the belief, which he too shared in his own way, to continue as long as it did not impede the Indian Independence movement. He even invoked the blessings of god in the congress pledge. But when it was objected to, he readily admitted: "So far as the conscientious objection is concerned, the mention of God may be removed if required from the Congress pledge of which I am proud to think I was the author. Had such an objection been raised at the time, I would have yielded at once." (Young India, 5-3-'25). 

    To quote another instance: In 1946, the Indian National Congress was still in the wilderness. Gandhiji suggested a form of the pledge suitable for the Independence Day (January 26) of that year. In this form also there was a reference to god. The form was published. In a conversation I drew the attention of Shri Prabhakar to it and pointed out that though I liked to take that pledge, I could not do it in full on account of the reference to god in it. Shri Prabhakar took the matter to the notice of Bapuji and he wrote to him in reply: "I seek for the fulfilment of my pledge the assistance of that which we may or may not call divine but we all feel within us. He (referring to me) can have the above as an alternative. All true atheists know that there is some power within them." 

    Of course, the outlook of the atheist is quite different from what Gandhiji evidently took it to be when he stated, "all atheists know that there is some power within them." Really, atheism is the manifestation of the free will in man. The hypotheses of "some power which we may or may not call divine", subordinates human life to that power and thereby leads to theism again. So the alternative which Bapuji gave to the Congress pledge, did not satisfy the principles of atheism. 

    Apart from the consideration whether the alternative which was offered by Gandhiji to the congress pledge was theistic or atheistic in nature, it was noteworthy that he moved from 'God' to 'some power which may or may not be divine' in order to accommodate me. So, I think, what was important to him was not so much the concept of god, but how far the belief or non-belief in god contributed to the commonweal. It was, perhaps, with this view that he agreed to drop the mention of god from the form of my daughter's marriage; he allowed my son-in-law to sit at the prayers without reciting the verses; he called himself a super-atheist and he wished the communities took to atheism if that 'served to stop communal hatred and riot'. 

    From 'Raghupati Raghava' to atheism might seem a wide leap. But to Bapuji who was pre-eminently a practical humanitarian, it was simple to negotiate where and when he felt the interests of humanity needed it. Within my knowledge, there was visible change in his attitude towards atheism between 1941 and 1948. In his letter to me dated 11-9-'41, he said, "Atheism is a denial of self. No one has succeeded in its propagation." But by 1946, while stating emphatically the difference between him and me, he was willing to leave to the future to judge whether the theistic or the atheistic thought was better. In 1948, he agreed to perform the marriage of my daughter dropping out the reference to god from the form of the ceremony. 

    Thus Bapuji's mind was "ever growing, ever moving forward". (Harijan, 28-7-'48). He was moving humanity and he was moving with humanity. He started with a humanity that believed in god of the 'Raghupati Raghava' type. As he pushed forward, he passed through the stages of 'God is Truth' and 'Truth is God'. He never allowed old forms to hamper the progress. If he felt that the progress of humanity required leaving god altogether, I am sure, he was not the man to hesitate. 

    He recognized that theism and atheism are two kinds of outlooks on life. He followed the theistic thought, of course, and progressed along. Whether atheistic thought would lead to progress farther than the theistic was what he doubted, and he said so in his letter dated 9-4-'46. It is now left to the atheists to work and to clear in practical life the doubt that Gandhiji expressed. 

    Bapu is no more to help our work, but his way of work is there to guide us.