Mahatma Gandhi is the most famous person of this century -- and he may also be the most misunderstood person of modern history. To a large extent we Indians, and we Gandhians, are responsible for this situation; Gandhi's own personality has also contributed to it.
Gandhiji had so many facets: the traditionalist, the religious innovator, the leader of Indian national liberation, the social reformer, the visionary, the revolutionary, the international human being and then, toward the end of his life, the secularist. Many Indians have recognised and understood only a few of these aspects: the traditional religious Gandhi and Gandhi as leader of the freedom movement. Once freedom was achieved, however, his leadership of the freedom movement was a thing of the past and therefore his role as social reformer would surely have become ever more important, had he not been assassinated.
Indians have the habit of looking at great people as divine incarnations and worshiping them, and this habit has prevented us from understanding Gandhi's value in the post-Gandhi period. Now we have to rediscover him and understand his relevance to our present-day social needs. India is still today a country with vast social problems. Even our political and economic problems need a social approach for their solutions, and it has been tragic that we have addressed those problems with merely political and economic remedies.
From the outset of his public life in South Africa, Gandhi relied to a great extent on a religious approach to provide social remedies. He not only used religious language but also felt that without religion and belief in god there could be no solution to any problem, social or personal. But then in later years, as he saw more and more the consequences of religious sectarianism and superstitious inertia acting like poison in the veins of Indian society, he slowly changed and tried to explore new avenues.
He started attributing new meanings to old words. For instance, he would use the word "Rama" to mean "Purushothama," the personification of all good human qualities; so when he talked about Rama Rajya ("The Reign of Rama"), he did not mean anything like the mythological Rama, but the rule of good human beings. How many of his followers understood this?
While Gandhi was filling old containers with new contents, many people would see only the container and neglect the contents. The religious Gandhi was adored; the revolutionary Gandhi was conveniently set aside.
Today we need the real Gandhi, the courageous and ever-growing seeker after truth.
In the 1920s he described himself as a fundamentalist Hindu. But then for the sake of unity with other religionists, he declared that he was also in some sense a Moslem, a Jew, a Christian, a Sikh, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, and so on; and to demonstrate this feeling of unity he evolved sarva dharma prarthana ("all-religious prayer"), taking passages from all religious scriptures. Finally, in 1946, he went further, as he came to appreciate Gora's moral stature and began to understand his atheism. When Gora said to him: "If truth is god, then why don't you say 'satyam' [truth] instead of 'Raghupati Raghava' [almighty Lord]? 'Raghupati Raghava' conveys to others a meaning very different from what it conveys to you," Gandhi replied, "Do you think I am superstitious? I am super-atheist!" [return to "Gandhi's Last Words"]
It is well known that after saying for years that "God is Truth," Gandhi became dissatisfied with this motto and changed it to "Truth is God." It is less well known that the communal riots and religiously inspired mass killings which took place toward the end of his life drove him to remark (to Pandit Sundarlal) that he wished the communities would turn atheist if that would serve to stop communal hatred and riots, and that he embarked on his last fast "in the name of Truth whose familiar name is God," and at the end of it remarked that:
In the name of God we have indulged in lies, massacres of people, without caring whether they were innocent or guilty, men or women, children or infants… [but] I am not aware if anybody has done these things in the name of Truth. With the same name on my lips I have broken the fast.
Thus he began, though only tentatively, to separate truth from god. When the question of the marriage of my elder sister Manorama (Gora's eldest daughter) came up, Gandhi was ready, since it was for the sake of abolishing untouchability and since my father, my sister and her betrothed were all atheists, to omit any mention of god altogether and celebrate the marriage in the name of truth alone. (But alas! he was prevented by an assassin from celebrating the marriage and from carrying on his other good work.)
Now as long as Gandhi had associated himself only with religions, a broadly religious approach was natural; but once he associated himself with atheism too, he had to modify his approach to suit all people regardless of their religious or post-religious convictions, though for his own part he would never renounce the love of religion which he had imbibed from his mother and which he shared with so many millions of Indian villagers. He met the challenge by becoming a secularist. He said that because religion was a personal matter, it should be confined to the personal plane, and that if officers of the Government as well as members of the public undertook this responsibility and worked whole-heartedly for the creation of a secular state, then only could we build a new India that would be the glory of the world.
Yet even though Gandhiji rose to the occasion, we have often not risen to the challenge of understanding Gandhi the secularist. this Gandhi is still often sacrificed, alas, at the altar of the religious Gandhi. I say "alas," because if we had heeded his advice to make religion a purely personal matter and to carry on our social life in an explicitly secular way, we could have solved our worst social problems long ago; but instead, some of our politicians, ignoring that great lesson of Gandhi's, began to exploit caste, religion and other social issues for politically selfish purposes, and in the process they corrupted people's hearts and aggravated our social tensions.
With regard to caste, I would like to mention that while the Founding Fathers of our Constitution gave reservations in the name of caste to socially downtrodden people -- with the good intention of providing opportunities for their progress -- politicians have turned them into vested interests and have thereby perpetuted casteism. Had reservations been given also to inter-caste married couples and their children, we could have made a better effort to create a casteless society. Here we should note that Gandhi in 1946 took a vow that he would bless only those Hindu marriages in which one member of the couple, but not the other, had been born an "untouchable," or else inter- religious marriages. With this vow -- which his followers at Sevagram have honored by permitting only such marriages to be celebrated at the Ashram even to this day -- Gandhi wanted to help create a society free of caste and religious divisions. It is not too late for us to take his clue and provide reservations for the inter-married couples and their children. This would help to create a casteless society.
Gandhi's readiness to be secular in order to achieve goals of social equality has not been properly appreciated. Even though Vinoba from 1955 throughout the rest of his life adopted silent contemplation of truth, non-violence and compassion as his only form of public prayer, many Gandhians have preferred to present Bapu more through Ramdhun (singing formulaic prayers) than through his concept of constructive work and satyagraha (non-violent struggle).
Mahatma Gandhi very much wanted to inculcate a sense of self-respect, self-confidence and self-reliance to promote the power of decision-making among the people. He very much wanted that every individual would acquire the capacity to resist the abuse of power. He said that although he did not want to be reborn, yet if he had to be, "I should be born an untouchable so that I may… endeavor to free myself and them from that miserable condition." Removal of untouchability, Khadhi and Hindu-Muslim unity were to form the essential ingredients of Indian swaraj (independence). Already in 1920 Gandhi had categorically rejected "any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality." He abhorred blind following; his morality consisted "not in following the beaten track but in finding the true path for ourselves and in fearlessly following it." He saw exploitation as the essence of violence and so he insisted on the sharing not only of political power and social respect, but also of economic opportunity; in a free India the poor must enjoy the same power as the rich, who must understand that their desires above and beyond the bare necessities were to be accommodated only after the essential needs of the poor were satisfied; a violent and bloody revolution would be a certainty one day unless there was a voluntary abdication -- sharing for the common good -- of riches and the power that riches gave.
To downplay these important ideas of Gandhi's and to project him instead through public prayers and through soft talk will not invite the attention of today's youth. Mahatma Gandhi was socially a universal human and a revolutionary, and today he is beyond freedom of India, beyond religion, beyond the traditions he inherited and the fads he cherished. We, the constructive workers, should take a great lesson from his secular approach to life and promote social reforms to build a better individual and to cultivate an awareness and interaction among individuals that will lead to mutual co-operation for a better society. Gandhi's revolutionary approach has not been given a fair trial. Let us do it.
1. Gora, An Atheist with Gandhi, p. 42
2. Op. Cit., p. 50
3. Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi, the Last Phase, II, p. 733
4. Harijan, 1947, P. 303.
5. Harijan, 1948, P. 48.
6. Young India, 21/vii/1920; 1922 ed., p. 173.
7. Gandhi, Ethical Religion (Madras 1930), p. 36.
8. Gandhi, Constructive Programme (Ahmedabad 1944), p. 18.