Recently I read an article which compares the spirituality of Mahatma Gandhiji and of Pope Francis by Dr. A. Pushparajan. (1) The article inspired me to write this article on Gandhi’s Spirituality. My article is based on a favourite book, An Autobiography by Gandhi. (2)
Well known English Historian Arnold Toynbee has described Gandhi as the “Saint in Politics”. We call him various endearing names like ‘Bapuji’, ‘Mahatma’, ‘Father of the Nation’, etc. He was born on 2nd October 1869 at Porbandar and christened Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Karamchand and Putlibai had one daughter and three sons. Mohandas was the youngest.
Gandhi writes in his Autobiography about his father, a successful political administrator: “My father was a lover of his clan, truthful, brave and generous, but short-tempered. … But he was incorruptible and had earned a name for strict impartiality in his family as well as outside. His loyalty to the state was well known.” (3)
About his mother Putlibai Gandhi writes: “She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meals without daily prayers. Going to Haveli – the Vaishnava temple – was one of her daily duties. As far as my memory can go back, I do not remember her having ever missed the Chaturmas (a vow of fasting and semi-fasting during the four months of the rain). She would take the hardest vows and keep them without flinching. Illness was no excuse for relaxing them.” (4)
Mohandas was shy and timid. He feared ghosts and spirits. But Rambha, a family servant, suggested to him to repeat Ramanama to overcome his fear of darkness and spirits. Gandhi writes: “I had more faith in her than in her remedy, and so at a tender age I began to repeat Ramanama to cure my fear of ghosts and spirits. This was of course short lived, but the seed sown by that good woman Rambha that today Ramanama is an infallible remedy for me” (5).
Gandhi in his autobiography has acknowledged that during his teenage years he was fond of smoking together with a relative. Then, to buy Indian cigarettes they began to steel coppers from servant’s pocket-money. They could not smoke or do anything without the elder’s permission. Wanting to be independence they were frustrated. Gandhi and his relative in sheer disgust even decided to commit suicide. But after a feeble attempt to kill themselves their courage failed and gave up the thought of suicide. Gandhiji writes: “I realize that it was not as easy to commit suicide as to contemplate it.” (6)
Later after smoking, steeling and then eating meat with teenage friends Mohandas felt guilty. So he resolved not to repeat the sins but to confess them to his father and seek his forgiveness and punishment. But Gandhi did not have the courage to speak. So he wrote out his confession. In the note he confessed his sins and asked punishment for them. He also pledged not to steal in future. (7)
Gandhi gave the letter with trembling hands to his sick father. His father sat up on bed and read it. Sitting by the side Mohandas observed his father reading, crying and then tearing his note. Feeling his father’s agony Mohandas too cried. He writes: “Those pearl-drops of love cleansed my heart, and washed my sin away. … This was, for me, an objective-lesson in Ahimsa. Then I could read in it nothing more than a father’s love, but today I know that it was pure Ahimsa. When such Ahimsa becomes all embracing it transforms everything it touches.” (8)
Before finishing his studies 13 year-old Mohandas got married to 14-year old Kasthurbai Makhanji Kapadia. He was a father at the age of 16. Irrespective of his childhood marriage Monhan pursued his studies. In 1888 he went to London and enrolled for a law degree.
Gandhi’s knowledge of religion during the teenage years was very limited. When his father was sick at home a Pandit (Teacher) used to come home and read the Gita for him. When Mohandas went to London, some of his Theosophist friends used to call him to explain Gita to them. They were familiar with the English translation of Gita. But the Mohandas used to read to them the Gita in its original Sanskrit and explain well the text. Thus the Theosophist friends understood the Gita well and Gandhi’s knowledge of Gita improved. Besides Gandhi understood the spiritual power of Gita and began to study Gita in depth. In no time Bhagavad Gita became an invaluable book and part and parcel of Gandhi’s life.
We see that the foundation Gandhi’s spirituality was laid in his experiences of childhood and teenage years. Gandhi became a Mahatma not by his confession to his father with a request for forgiveness and punishment. But whenever Gandhi recognized his sins and moral weaknesses then with repentance he publicly acknowledged his failures and asked forgiveness and did penance. Not only that but during his regular prayer meetings with the inmates of Sabarmati Ashram Gandhi publically confessed his failures and asked forgiveness!
With the contacts of his English friends Gandhi’s prejudice and ignorance about Christianity disappeared. With his friends’ recommendation Gandhi began to read the Bible. In some of his articles published in the publication like ‘Young India’, ‘Harijan Bandhu’ and ‘Navjivan’ and in his Autobiography one thing is very clear that Gandhi’s spirituality is deeply influenced by Jesus Christ, the Bible and the Christian Religion.
The literature of some Christian writers and his contacts with Christians has awakened in Gandhi the curiosity and a thirst for religious knowledge as acknowledged in his Autobiography. For instance, Gandhi has written about the influence of Tolstoy’s book ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ and of Ruskin’s book ‘Unto This Last’. He writes: “Tolstoy’s ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ overwhelmed me. It left an abiding impression on me.” (9)
In his Autobiography Gandhi has publicly acknowledged the influences of Jesus and the Bible in his life. Gandhi writes: “But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. The verses, ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat let him have thy cloak too,’ delight me beyond measure.” (10)
I have written a Gujarati booklet on Jesus entitled ‘What Does Jesus Mean to You & Me?’ As a popular booklet it has been translated into English, Hindi, Malayalam and Bengali. In my booklet I have quoted Gandhi from his booklet ‘Isu Mari Najare’ meaning ‘What Jesus Means to Me’.
“I shall tell you how, to an outsider like me, the story of Christ, as told in the New Testament, has struck. My acquaintance with the Bible began nearly forty-five years ago, and that was through the New Testament. I could not then take much interest in the Old Testament, which I had certainly read, if only to fulfill a promise I had made to a friend whom I happened to meet in a hotel. But when I came to the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, I began to understand the Christian teaching, and the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount echoed something I had learnt in childhood and something which seemed to be part of my being and which I felt was being practiced in the daily life around me.
“I say ‘it seemed to be practiced’ meaning that it was not necessary for my purpose that they were actually living the life. This teaching was not-retaliation, or non-resistance to evil. Of all the things I read, what remained with me forever was that Jesus came almost to give a new law – though he of course had said he had not come to give a new law, but tack something on to the old Mosaic law. Well, he changed it so that it became a new law – not an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but to be ready to receive two blows when only one was given, and to go two miles when you were asked to go one.
“I said to myself, this is what one learns in one’s childhood. Surely this is not Christianity. For all I had then been given to understand was that to be a Christian was to have a brandy bottle in one hand and beef in the other. The Sermon on the Mount, however, falsified the impression. As my contact with real Christians i.e., men living in fear of God, increased, I saw that the Sermon on the Mount was the whole of Christianity for him who wanted to live a Christian life. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me”. (11)
Gandhi has acknowledged in his Autobiography that there were Christian and Muslim friends who tried to attract him to their religion. Gandhi did sincerely read Christian and Muslim religious Scriptures. He had also long discussions with his Christian and Muslim friends on religious matters. He experienced inner turmoil and shared it with his friends. But Gandhi was not happy with their responses.
Gandhi then shared his inner turmoil and perplexity about religions with his friend and poet Raychandbhai, a jewelry merchant from Surat. “I must say that no one else has ever made on me the impression that Raychandbhai did. His words went straight home to me” (12).
Gandhi writes about his religion ferment: “I expressed my difficulties in a letter to Raychandbhai… Raychandbhai’s letter somewhat pacified me. He asked me to be patient and to study Hinduism more deeply. One of his sentences was to this effect. ‘On a dispassionate view of the question I am convinced that no other religion has the subtle and profound thought of Hinduism, its vision of soul, or its charity’.” (13)
About his contact with Christians Gandhi writes: “I have remained forever indebted to them for the religious quest that they awakened in me. I shall always cherish the memory of the contact. The years that followed had more, not less, of such sweet and sacred contact in store for me.” (14)
On returning to India Gandhi practiced as a barrister in Bombay High Court and then came to Rajkot. But he did not enjoy much success as a lawyer. At that time Gandhi received an invitation to from a Muslim business man Abdullah Sheth in South Africa to work as an Attorney for his firm on one year contract. So Gandhi went to South Africa.
Gandhi has written about his (transforming) experiences of being thrown out of train at Maritzburg, the capital of Natal during a journey. In Gandhi’s own words, “The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial – only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice.” (15)
Gandhi himself might never have entered politics. But the circumstances forced him to plunge into political action. He organized the Indians under Natal Indian National Congress to fight against colour prejudices and discrimination. He became its founder-president. Consequently Gandhi who had reached South Africa for one year stayed back there for 21 years fighting against colour prejudices and inequality!
This experience of colour prejudice at Maritzburg is at the foundation of Gandhi’s fight against Casteism, untouchability and all sorts of discrimination against the down-trodden people in India.
Gandhi’s religious and spiritual as well as his socio-political thoughts and beliefs were formed during those years. Gandhi became upholder and promoter of non-violence and truth. After socio-political involvement in South Africa Gandhi returned to India and plunged into politics through the Indian National Congress. Taking leadership in public protests like Champaran Satyagraha (meaning civil disobedience), Kheda Satyagraha, Ahmedabad Satyagraha and Salt Satyagraha Gandhi became a well known charismatic figure in Indian National Congress party and among the people of India.
Gandhi’s leadership is not merely for the independence of India but also for the freedom of the people and the empowerment of the poor and the downtrodden. So Gandhi put forward for all the people of India an 18 point programme and he incessantly worked for it.
“The ‘Constructive Programmes’ are 18: ONE basic programme for India: (1) communal unity, Three Purificatory programmes: (2) Prohibition, (3) Removal of Untouchability and (4) Village Sanitation, Five educational: (5) Basic Education, (6) Adult Education, (7) Health Education, (8) Mother Tongue and (9) National Language, Three economic programmes: (10) Handspun Cloth, (11) Economic Equality, (12) Village Industries, Six social groups: (13) Women, (14) Students, (15) Lepers, (16) Aboriginals, (17) Farmers (18) Labourers (16)
In short everyone’s freedom and everyone’s development were in the heart of Gandhi’s spirituality and vision. His daily living was fully in tune with his spirituality. There was no contradiction between his life and spirituality. His spirituality reflected in his country-wide movement for freedom. So in some occasion Gandhi suspended the national freedom movement when an important aspect of his spirituality namely non-violence was violated! In the diversity of castes and creeds, races and culture Gandhi’s goal was not uniformity but unity in diversity.
Gandhi’s call to the nation was both personal and social revolution. He showed it in his daily living. His life reflected his spirituality. So we see him deep spirituality behind his enormous service to the nation.
Gandhi’s Spirituality is also reflected in the seven social sins which he has articulation in his publication “Young India”. They are: (1) Wealth without work, (2) Pleasure without conscience, (3) Knowledge without character, (4) Commerce without morality, (5) Science without humanity, (6) Religion without sacrifice and (7) Politics without principle.(17)
Gandhi’s Spirituality made him a fearless person. His spirituality led him to seek Truth in everyone and in everything. His search for Truth was his search for God. So he said, “I count no sacrifice too great for the sake of seeing God face to face. The whole of my activity whether it may be called social political, humanitarian or ethical is directed to that end”. (18)
1) A. Pushparajan, Pope Francis, the ‘Mahatma Today’ in Third Millennium, April-June 2018, pp. 58-79
2) M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of my experiments with Truth, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad 380014, Third Reprint 2008
3) Ibid., p. 1
4) Ibid., p. 2
5) Ibid., p. 27
6) Ibid., p. 22
7) Ibid., p. 23
8) Ibid., pp. 23-24
9) Ibid., pp. 114-115
10) Ibid., p. 64
11) Paul, Fr. Varghese, SJ, What Does Jesus Mean to You & Me?, Catholic Information Service Society, Ahmedabad 380 014, Second Edition, pp. 8-9
12) M K Gandhi, Ibid., p.75
13) Ibid., p. 114
14) Ibid., p. 115
15) Ibid., p. 94
16) A. Pushparajan, Pope Francis, the ‘Mahatma Today’ in Third Millennium, April-June 2018, p. 67
17) These seven social sins are attributed to an Anglican priest named Frederick Lewis Donaldson’s sermon delivered in Westminster Abbey on March 20, 1925. (Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Social_Sins, down loaded on 20-10-’18)
18) A. Pushparajan, Pope Francis, the ‘Mahatma Today’ in Third Millennium, April-June 2018, p. 67.
Changed On: 01-06-2019
Next Change: 16-06-2019
Copyright Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ – 2019