RELIGIOUS INFLUENCES ON GANDHI. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born into a bania (merchant caste) family in a religiously pluralistic area of western India—the Kathiawar Peninsula in the state of Gujarat. His parents were Vaisnava Hindus who followed the Vallabhācārya tradition of loving devotion to Lord Krnsa.
His father, Karamchand Uttamchand, the chief administrative officer of a princely state, was not a very religious man, but his mother, Putalibai, became a follower of the region’s popular Pranami cult. This group was founded in the eighteenth century by Mehraj Thakore, known as prananath (“master of the life force”), and was influenced by Islam. Prananath rejected all images of God and, like the famous fifteenth-century Hindu saint Narsinh Mehta, who came from the same region, advocated a direct link with the divine, unmediated by priests and ritual.
This Protestant form of Hinduism seems to have been accepted by Gandhi as normative throughout his life.
Other enduring religious influences from Gandhi’s childhood came from the Jains and Muslims who frequented the family household. Gandhi’s closest childhood friend, Mehtab, was a Muslim, and his spiritual mentor, Raychandbhai, was a Jain. Early contacts with Christian street evangelists in his home town of Porbandar, however, left Gandhi unimpressed.
When Gandhi went to London to study law at the age of nineteen he encountered forms of Christianity of quite a different sort. Respecting vows made to his mother, Gandhi sought meatless fare at a vegetarian restaurant, where his fellow diners were a motly mix of Theosophists, Fabian Socialists, and Christian visionaries who were followers of Tolstoi.
These esoteric and socialist forms of Western spirtuality made a deep impression on Gandhi and encouraged him to look for parallels in the Hindu tradition.
When, in 1893, Gandhi settled in South Africa as a lawyer (initially serving in a Muslim firm), he was impressed by a Trappist monastery he visited near Durban. He soon set up a series of ashrams (religious retreat centers) supported by Hermann Kallenbach, a South African architect of Jewish background, whom Gandhi had met through Theosophical circles. Gandhi named one of his communities Tolstoi Farm in honor of the Christian utopian with whom he had developed a lively correspondence. While in South Africa Gandhi first met C. F. Andrews, the Anglican missionary to India who had become an emissary of Indian nationalist leaders and who eventually became Gandhi’s lifelong friend and confidant. It was through Andrews that Gandhi met the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1915, after Gandhi had returned to India to join the growing nationalist movement. Tagore, following the practice of Theosophists in South Africa, designated Gandhi a mahatma, or “great soul.”
GANDHI’S RELIGIOUS THOUGHT. Although the influences on Gandhi’s religious thought are varied—from the Sermon on the Mount to the Bhagavad Gita his ideas are surprisingly consistent. Gandhi considered them to be Hindu, and in fact, they are all firmly rooted in the Indian religious tradition.
His main ideas include the following.
1. Satya (“truth”).
2. Ahimsa (“nonviolence”).
3. Tapasya (“renunciation”).
4. Swaraj (“self-rule”).
In addition to these concepts, Gandhi affirmed the traditional Hindu notions of karman and dharma. Even though Gandhi never systematized these ideas, when taken together they form a coherent theological position. Gandhi’s copious writings are almost entirely in the form of letters and short essays in the newspapers and journals he published. These writings and the accounts of Gandhi’s life show that he had very Little interest in what is sometimes regarded as emblematic of Hinduism: its colorful anthropomorphic deities and its reliance upon the rituals performed by Brahmanic priests.
It is not his rejection of these elements of Hindu cultura that makes Gandhi innovative, however, for they are also omitted by the leaders of many other sects and movements in modern India. What is distinctive about Gandhi’s Hinduism is his emphasis on social ethics as an integral part of the faith, a shift of emphasis that carries with it many conceptual changes as well. Gandhi’s innovations include the use of the concept of truth as a basis for moral and political action, the equation of nonviolence with the Christian notion of selfless love, the broadening of the concept of karmayoga to include social service and political action, the redefinition of untouchability and the elevation of untouchables’ tasks, and the hope for a more perfect world even in this present age of darkness (kaliyuga).
Gandhi’s religious practices, like his ideas, combined both social and spiritual elements. In addition to his daily prayers, consisting of a simple service of readings and silent contemplation, he regarded his daily practice of spinning cotton as a form of mediation and his campaigns for social reform as sacrifices more efficacious than those made by priests at the altar. After Gandhi retired from politics in 1933, he took as his central theme the campaign for the uplift of untouchables, whom he called harijans (“people of God”). Other concerns included the protection of cows, moral education, and the reconciliation of Hindus and Muslims.
The latter was especially important to Gandhi during the turmoil precipitated by India’s independence, when the subcontinent was divided along religious lines. It was opposition to Gandhi’s cries for religious tolerance that led to his assassination, on January 30, 1948, by a fanatical member of the Hindu right wing.
See also: Darwin, Charles Robert