Mahatma Gandhi was a staunch Hindu and one of the earliest in Indian polity to use religion for political purposes, much ahead of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).
One may blame the lynch mobs running loose in the name of cow protection in India today on the current ruling party, but the first Indian to actively propagate protection of the cow was none other than Gandhi. He used religion to create a nucleus around which the freedom movement could be taken forward.
Gandhi’s last words were “Hey Ram”, calling out to the same deity that is now at the center of a bitterly fought legal dispute in the Supreme Court. But his Hinduism was inclusive and accommodative rather than exclusive and reactionary.
Gandhi had elaborated his take on Hinduism: “Hinduism is not an exclusive religion. In it, there is room for the worship of all prophets of the world. It is not a missionary religion in the ordinary sense of the term. Hinduism tells everyone to worship God according to his own faith or dharma, and so it lives at peace with all religions.”
Gandhi’s Hinduism was an amalgamation of the pragmatic use of religion for the independence movement and to uphold liberty. Though a firm believer in “gau seva” or service of the cow, something he would preach to his followers, he refused to give in to demands for a ban on cow slaughter.
Even when Gandhi was told his preaching had had a deep effect and around 25,000 letters were sent from across the country demanding a national ban on cow slaughter, he didn’t give in. He famously said, “In India no law can be made to ban cow slaughter. I do not doubt that Hindus are forbidden the slaughter of cows. I have been long pledged to serve the cow, but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians?”
Gandhi’s Hinduism was unique. One cannot brand it as black or white; his beliefs lay in the grey zone. In 1928, during the first annual meeting of the Federation of International Fellowship at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gandhi said, “All religions are almost as dear to me as my own… The aim of the fellowship should be to help a Hindu to become a better Hindu, a Mussalman to become a better Mussalman and a Christian to become a better Christian.”
In spite of such a liberal take on Hinduism, when he shared a stage with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in London in the early 1900s at the invitation of the Indian diaspora there, he ended up agreeing with the man who was to become a Hindutva icon when he said that all religions have a right to flourish in India but around the core religion which shall remain Hinduism.
Gandhi believed in the Gita but he had his own interpretation; he followed Hindu scriptures but also other religious scriptures.
Gandhi also saw violence in the Gita. His radical interpretation of the scripture began to appear by 1931 in the columns of his newspaper Young India. Gandhi’s sense of Hinduism made him read and re-read the Gita, but his sense of “ahimsa” or nonviolence made him accuse the author of the verses of using war imagery liberally.
Some of his interpretations and beliefs were so radical that it led to his assassination on Jan 30, 1948. During his trial, the killer, Nathuram Godse, claimed that “Gandhiji’s views” had always been “detrimental to the Hindu community and its interests”.
In spite of that, for Gandhi, politics bereft of religion was “absolute dirt, ever to be shunned”. Yet, he managed the contradictions that came along with it. Neither did he flash his janeu (sacred thread) like Rahul Gandhi nor did he announce himself as a nonbeliever like the Communists. Gandhi’s use of symbolism in politics was unparalleled. Yet he stayed firm to his beliefs.
The word religion comes from the Latin ‘religare’, which means ‘to bind again’. Gandhi’s Hinduism was intended to bind a country together and fight for independence. A different symbolism helped him in this.
“I could not live for a single second without religion”, Gandhi famously said once. But he would also criticize the same religion to reform it. That was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. —IANS