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150 years of Bapu: Truth and love

The stake was one man’s life, the prize was a nation’s freedom. If Indians are united as brothers, no outsider could be their master

150 years of Bapu:  Truth and love

The 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi is the best time to reflect on his broad outlook, the progressive interpretations of his ideas, and concepts in the domain of religion. And when we look at Gandhi's perspective on religion and its plurality we must acknowledge that Gandhi presented to the world his understanding of comparative religion and the subtext of Truth and Ahimsa.

Truth and God

Gandhi referred to 'God' as 'Truth' and this is the vital core of the comparative philosophy. The word 'Truth' has a much wider connotation in the context of the world today. It also has a wider web of meanings than the term 'God'. We may or not believe in God. But we cannot deny the power of the 'truth' in a world where black and white has slowly turned to grey and societies are happier to don the veil of indifference rather than stand up for basic human rights.

Gandhi's description of 'God', was born of a universal symbolism, a form that anyone could adhere to and follow in his or her own realm of understanding. His writings clarify his viewpoint. "To me, God is Truth and Love. God is Ethics and Morality. God is fearlessness. God is the 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 in 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."

Wide web of friends

Born in 1869 in Porbandar on the Western coast of India and raised by Hindu parents, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi found many opportunities in his youth to meet people of all faiths and religions. He had many Christian and Muslim friends and was heavily influenced by Jainism in his youth. Gandhi probably took the religious principle of 'Ahimsa' (doing no harm) from his Jain neighbours, and from that developed his own famous principle of Satyagraha (insistence for the truth) later on in his life.

At 19 years old, after passing his matriculation exam, he eagerly took the opportunity to travel to Britain to become a barrister. In Britain, he met with Theosophical Society members, who encouraged him to look more closely at Hindu texts and especially Bhagavad Gita, which he later described as a comfort to him. In doing so, he developed a greater appreciation for Hinduism, and also began to look more closely at other religions, being particularly influenced by Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, and later on by Leo Tolstoy. His idea of religion and humanity evolved as a result of these early influences.

Love for hymns

Gandhi's best biography to date has been written by the brilliant Louis Fischer. On September 18, 1924, Gandhiji started a 21-day fast to foster amity between the Hindus and the Muslims. It was dictated by duty to the highest cause - universal brotherhood. "The fast was an adventure in goodness. The stake was one man's life. The prize was a nation's freedom. If Indians were united as brothers, no outsider could long to be their master," said Gandhi ji.

And Fischer tells us in his famous book, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, that at about 10 a.m. on October 6, Gandhi ji called for C.F. Andrews, the Christian Missionary who served him as his nurse, and said: "Can you remember the words of my favourite Christian hymn?" C.F. Andrews replied: "Yes, shall I sing it to you now?" Mahatma answered: "Not now, but I have in mind that when I break my fast, we might have a little ceremony expressing religious unity. I would like the Imam Sahib to recite the opening verses of Koran. Then I would like you to sing the Christian hymn, you know the one I mean, and it begins, `When I survey the wondrous Cross' and ends with the words `Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all'. And then, last, of all, I should like Vinoba to recite from the Upanishads and Balakrishna to sing the Vaishnav hymn... " Before the actual breaking of the fast at the mid-day hour, Gandhiji spoke to those who were present - the Ali brothers, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Motilal Nehru, and C R Das among others. He was so weak that his voice could hardly be heard. He asked them to lay down their lives, if need be, for the cause of brotherhood. The hymns were sung and the Mahatma broke his fast with some orange juice brought by Dr Ansari.

Spiritual humanism

Gandhi's religion was spiritual humanism because he declared that the service of the poor, whom he called "Daridranarayana", is a true service of God. In other words, Gandhi found God amidst his creation; this creation is confined not only to India, his own land and not Hinduism alone, the religion to which he belonged. It consisted of men belonging to different lands and different religions. Therefore, the study of comparative religion was important to Gandhi.

Dharma

The best principle of different religions, he felt, should be assimilated for the advancement of society. In India, the word 'Dharma' is often used to mean 'religion'. But the word 'Dharma' in Hinduism has a much wider connotation. The word 'Dharma' comes from the root 'Dhre' which means to 'sustain'. 'Dharma' is thus the greatest sustaining force or the binding force of the society. The goal of 'Dharma' is to create mental and spiritual fellowship among all men and to regulate its relationship with all living entities. Dharma advocates perfect equilibrium in the world. The word 'Dharma' was not used in connection with any particular religion but it related to humanity at large. Dharma was the fabric of universal brotherhood.

Gandhi's concept of religion, therefore, brought people belonging to different religions, caste, and creed under its fold. Gandhi's mission was not merely to humanise religion but moralise it and shed hypocrisy and rigid orthodoxy of rituals. For him, the religious doctrine could not exist in conflict with morality. Teachers all over India must bring Gandhi back into the classroom in different ways.

According to Gandhi, religion and morality were inseparably bound and had to co-exist. "There is no religion higher than truth and Righteousness." was his belief. Morality is prized all over the world. The emphasis on morality, by Gandhi, helped his ideas to acquire a universalistic outlook and that is what we have to uphold as we celebrate 150 years of the birth of The Father of the Nation.

(The author is a retired high school English teacher who writes as an art critic for Millennium Post.The views expressed are personal)

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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