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Mahatma Gandhi: A battle with religion & the power of the Hindu epic, Ramayana

Gandhi himself wrote about his life, penning his autobiography Mahatma Gandhi Autobiography: The Story Of My Experiments With Truth. 

He chronicled his childhood and threw light on several unknown incidents of his life in the book. He also wrote about his struggle with religion and the conclusion he drew.

ela gandhi
Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi, is a peace activist and was a Member of Parliament in South Africa from 1994 to 2004, where she aligned with the African National Congress party representing the Phoenix area of Inanda in the KwaZulu-Natal province.

Published by Penguin Random House, here is an extract from the book.

From my sixth or seventh year up to my sixteenth I was at school, being taught all sorts of things except religion. I may say that I failed to get from the teachers what they could have given me without any effort on their part. And yet I kept on picking up things here and there from my surroundings. The term ‘religion’ I am using in its broadest sense, meaning thereby self-realization or knowledge of self. Being born in the Vaishnava faith, I had often to go to the Haveli. But it never appealed to me. I did not like its glitter and pomp. Also I heard rumours of immorality being practised there, and lost all interest in it. Hence I could gain nothing from the Haveli.

But what I failed to get there I obtained from my nurse, an old servant of the family, whose affection for me I still recall. I have said before that there was in me a fear of ghosts and spirits. Rambha, for that was her name, suggested, as a remedy for this fear, the repetition of Ramanama. I had more faith in her than in her remedy and so at a tender age I began repeating Ramanama to cure my fear of ghosts and spirits. this was of course short-lived, but the good seed sown in childhood was not sown in vain. I think it is due to the seed sown by that good woman Rambha that today, Ramanama is an infallible remedy for me. Just about this time, a cousin of mine who was a devotee of the Ramayana arranged for my second brother and me to learn Rama Raksha. We got it by heart, and made it a rule to recite it every morning after the bath. the practice was kept up as long as we were in Porbandar. As soon as we reached Rajkot, it was forgotten. For I had not much belief in it. I recited it partly because of my pride in being able to recite Rama Raksha with correct pronunciation.

What, however, left a deep impression on me was the reading of the Ramayana before my father. During part of his illness my father was in Porbandar. There every evening he used to listen to the Ramayana. The reader was a great devotee of Rama-Ladha Maharaj of Bileshwar. It was said of him that he cured himself of his leprosy not by any medicine, but by applying to the affected parts bilva leaves which had been cast away after being offered to the image of Mahadeva in Bileshwar temple, and by the regular repetition of Ramanama. His faith, it was said, had made him whole.

This may or may not be true. We at any rate believed the story. And it is a fact that when Ladha Maharaj began his reading of the Ramayana his body was entirely free from leprosy. He had a melodious voice. He would sing the dohas (couplets) and chopais (quatrains), and explain them, losing himself in the discourse and carrying his listeners along with him. I must have been thirteen at that time, but I quite remember being enraptured by his reading. that laid the foundation of my deep devotion to the Ramayana. Today I regard the Ramayana of Tulasidas as the greatest book in all devotional literature.

ALSO READ: The South African train incident that gave birth to the father of the Indian nation

A few months after this we came to Rajkot. There was no Ramayana reading there. The Bhagavata, however, used to be read on every Ekadashi day. Sometimes I attended the reading, but the reciter was uninspiring. Today I see that the Bhagavata is a book which can evoke religious fervour. I have read it in Gujarati with intense interest. But when I heard portions of the original read by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya during my twenty-one days’ fast, I wished I had heard it in my childhood from such a devotee as he is, so that I could have formed a liking for it at an early age.

Impressions formed at that age strike roots deep down into one’s nature, and it is my perpetual regret that I was not fortunate enough to hear more good books of this kind read during that period. In Rajkot, however, I got an early grounding in toleration for all branches of Hinduism and sister religions. For my father and mother would visit the Haveli as also Shiva’s and Rama’s temples, and would take or send us youngsters there. Jain monks also would pay frequent visits to my father, and would even go out of their way to accept food from us—non-Jains.

They would have talks with my father on subjects religious and mundane. He had, besides, Mussalman and Parsi friends, who would talk to him about their own faiths, and he would listen to them always with respect, and often with interest. Being his nurse, I often had a chance to be present at these talks. these many things combined to inculcate in me a toleration for all faiths.

Gandhi Jayanti south africa

Gandhi shed light on his struggle with religion.

Only Christianity was at the time an exception. I developed a sort of dislike for it. And for a reason. In those days Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this. I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment. About the same time, I heard of a well-known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thence-forth he began to go about in European costume including a hat.

These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and chang one’s own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing th religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity But the fact that I had learnt to be tolerant to other religions did not mean that I had any living faith in God.

I happened, about this time, to come across Manusmriti, which was amongst my father’s collection. The story of the creation and similar things in it did not impress me very much, but on the contrary made me incline somewhat towards atheism. There was a cousin of mine, still alive, for whose intellect I had great regard. To him I turned with my doubts. But he could not resolve them. He sent me away with this answer: ‘When you grow up, you will be able to solve these doubts yourself. These questions ought not to be raised at your age.’ I was silenced, but was not comforted.

Chapters about diet and the like in Manusmriti seemed to me to run contrary to daily practice. To my doubts as to this also, I got the same answer. ‘With intellect more developed and with more reading I shall understand it better,’ said to myself. Manusmriti at any rate did not then teach me ahimsa. I have told the story of my meat-eating. Manusmriti seemed to support it. I also felt that it was quite moral to kill serpents, bugs and the like. I remember to have killed at that age bugs and such other insects, regarding it as a duty. But one thing took deep root in me—th conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.

Truth became my sole objective. It began to grow in magnitude every day, and my definition of it also has been eve widening. A Gujarati didactic stanza likewise gripped my mind and heart. Its precept—return good for evil—became my guiding principle. It became such a passion with me that I began numerous experiments in it.

Here are those (for me) wonderful lines:

For a bowl of water give a goodly meal;
For a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal;
For a simple penny pay thou back with gold;
If thy life be rescued, life do not withhold.
thus the words and actions of the wise regard;
every little service tenfold they reward.
But the truly noble know all men as one,
And return with gladness good for evil done.

Gandhi also pointed out that his experience had convinced him that there is “no other God than Truth”.

“And if every page of these chapters does not proclaim to the reader that the only means for the realisation of Truth is Ahimsa, I shall deem all my labour in writing these chapters to have been in vain,” he left a cautious note to the readers, as also warned them that even if his effort was to go in vain, the principle of penning it was not at fault. It was his experiment of coming to terms with truths of his own life and mustering the courage to make it public.

While there is no dearth of khadi-wearing politicians imitating Bapu in attire and etiquette for obvious want of admiration (read votes), claiming to be holier-than-thou and truther-than-truth, Gandhi found himself and his strivings “imperfect and inadequate”.

He wrote that the “little fleeting glimpses” that he was able to have of Truth could “hardly convey an idea of the indescribable lustre of Truth, a million times more intense than that of the sun we daily see with our eyes”. Gandhi argued that “a perfect vision of Truth can only follow a complete realisation of Ahmisa”.

But politics is a dirty game and it is not always practical to follow “satya” and “ahimsa”. Or so have we been told and made accustomed to? Even on this front, Gandhi noted that it was in the quest of truth, which cannot be attained without adhering to ahimsa, that drew him into the field of politics.

“… and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means”. He further added that “God can never be realised by one who is not pure of heart”.

And Gandhi knew, as he wrote, that the path of self-purification is hard and steep. “I know that I have still before me a difficult path to traverse. I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility,” he contended.

Contrary to Gandhi’s personal experiences, or experiments as he called them, those who miss no opportunity to use him and his legacy for political gains even while contradicting him in their actions, proclaim to have overcome all their follies, as they themselves and their psychopaths make hysteric statements of a leader’s supremacy over others, of a religion’s supremacy over others and so on and so forth.

Gandhi’s autobiography is available in multiple formats, nearly all Indian and dozens of foreign languages, starting at prices as low as Rs 20. For anybody even minutely inspired by the Mahatma, and more so for those using him as a political tool, it should be the starting point to understand the man that Mahatma Gandhi was, and the values he stood for.


About Indianspice Staff Reporter

Report and write stories for Indianspice.co.za. It is our ambitious goal to cover issues/events/news concerning South Africa and the diaspora.

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