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Thursday, August 11, 2022

In Good Faith: Gandhi’s radical Hinduism

His endeavour was to encourage a creative ‘misreading’ of these texts that would help situate Hinduism on the bedrock of ahimsa and satya.

Written by K.P. Shankaran |
Updated: December 4, 2017 12:30:14 am
Gandhi’s translation of the Gita started appearing in the columns of Young India, 1931. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Most admirers of M.K. Gandhi, because of his appearance and his constant use of the Vaishnava vocabulary, would believe him to be a deeply religious person. However, Gandhi’s claim of being a sanatan Hindu was rejected by Nathuram Godse and his associates. During his trial, Godse claimed that “Gandhiji’s views” had always been “detrimental to the Hindu community and its interests”.

Godse’s political comment that Gandhi had “proved to be the Father of Pakistan” need not surprise us, since we have often heard similar jibes, especially after the resounding victory of Hindutva politics in the last general election. But what I want to look at is Godse’s claim that, in spite of Gandhi’s declaration that he was a sanatan Hindu, he, in fact, worked against the interest of the Hindu community. Godse did indeed refer to “Gandhiji’s betrayal of Hinduism” during the trial. One would have expected historians of modern India to investigate this claim. Unfortunately, there appears to be very little research done on this aspect of Gandhi.

Although Gandhi described himself as a Hindu, a look into his writings reveals that his Hinduism was neither religious nor cultic in the everyday sense. He did not believe in a personal God. He also rejected vigrahaworship and rituals of all kind, including Vedic ones. While Gandhi did claim he believed in “all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures” he immediately qualified it by saying that he also believed in all other religious texts in a similar way. Moreover, his acceptance of these texts was not unconditional. Like the Buddha, he did not hesitate to say that he would retain the right to reject anything in them that, according to him, went against reason and morality.

What Gandhi sought in man was the ethics of satya and ahimsa: “I tolerate unreasonable religious sentiment when it is not immoral,” he said. It is a fact that he also tolerated admirers of his, like Gora. Why did Gandhi then always use the Hindu vocabulary and idiom, even though he himself only entertained a belief in an impersonal power as the sustainer of all beings (“There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything”, “I don’t regard God as a person”. “Truth for me is God” etc)?

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I believe Gandhi did so for two reasons. First, he wanted to reject the vocabulary of the European enlightenment and modernity for the reasons he eloquently articulated in Hind Swaraj. This rejection, I must admit, was not total — he retained, surprisingly, the Lockean idea of secularism, not the Indian version of “equal treatment of all religions by the state”. Thus, in the non-hierarchical stateless socialist society (swaraj) that Gandhi envisaged in his constructive programme, religion and caste did not have any role to play. Religion was, in fact, completely eliminated from the public space. Nevertheless, his rejection of the rest of the enlightenment vocabulary forced him to fall back on a vocabulary that he was familiar with and that, indeed, was the vocabulary of the Vaishnava tradition of his parents.

Second, Gandhi, the social reformer, wished to transform Hinduism from an unethical state (the state of himsa and untruth, which he graphically portrayed in The Story of My Experiments with Truth, the letter he wrote to C.F. Andrews), to an ethical state that is founded on ahimsa and satya, and for this, he needed to use his parental Hindu vocabulary and the idiom of the Vaishnava tradition. The technique Gandhi adopted for this purpose was the same as the one the Buddha used 2,500 years before him — to transform the Brahminism of his time into an ethically better practice. Both these thinkers attempted to redefine the vocabulary of the target group. The Buddha set an example by redefining words like “out-caste” and “Brahmin”, saying “by one’s action one would become either a Brahmin or an out-caste, not by birth”. This is equivalent to Gandhi’s “We are all Shudras and if we can bring ourselves to believe this, the merger of the Harijans in Savarana Hindus becomes incredibly simple and in course of time, we might be able to reconstruct the old varnas”. Such natural reconstruction, according to Gandhi, would be totally egalitarian. Gandhi’s refusal to get rid of the expression “varnashrama dharma” was part of his programme of redefining the traditional Hindu vocabulary without seeking the support of a modernist ideology. He tried to change and critique Hinduism from within, without going for an external critique in the way that Ambedkar did.

Gandhi thought the Buddha had failed in his endeavour to ethically improve Hinduism/Brahminism. In a letter written to C.F. Andrews, Gandhi vehemently argued: “Buddhism, conceived as a doctrine of universal forbearance… failed and if the legends are true, the great Shankaracharya did not hesitate to use unspeakable cruelty in banishing Buddhism out of India.” We know that Gandhi, too, failed. We also know that with the use of the same “unspeakable cruelty”, Gandhi himself was eliminated.


Gandhi attempted to alter the vision of the ordinary Hindu by reinterpreting the Bhagwad Gita in a manner that led Godse and his friends to condemn it as a work that dubbed “Rama, Krishna and Arjuna as guilty of violence.”

By the middle of the 1920s, Gandhi had already acquired pan-Indian acceptability. His translation of the Gita started appearing in the columns of Young India, 1931.The translation and its introduction, called “Anasaktiyoga”, was written for the ordinary people of India who, according to Gandhi “stand in need of its support”. Gandhi introduces the Gita to them as an allegorical text and says that all the personalities that appear in it are products of the imagination of the author. The radical nature of the presentation is mostly overlooked and Gandhi is often presented, for some unknown reasons, as a conventionally religious person by most of his admirers. This is largely because, I presume, in the Indian intellectual discourse, ethics is often confused with religion.

In his interpretation of the Gita as a literary text, Gandhi criticises the author for the thoughtless use of war imagery when, according to Gandhi, the central message of the text is anasakti. Anasakti, Gandhi says, cannot be practised without turning oneself first into a votary and practitioner of ahimsa. Bhakti is reinterpreted in such a way so as to make it synonymous with ahimsa and satya. To remove the divine garb of Krishna, Gandhi treats him simply as a product of the author’s imagination and cautions the reader against the folk tendency to take Krishna as a historical being. Gandhi helps the ordinary reader to treat avatar as a title given to a person who has done exemplary work for the community. Then comes a brilliant ethical principle: That which cannot be done without selfishness ought to be rejected as an evil.


Through his interpretation, Gandhi was attempting to give the ordinary Hindu reader the courage to treat these texts, hitherto considered sacred, not as something that was to be blindly worshipped/followed but as the embodiments of the sanatan of satya and ahimsa. By divesting these sacred texts of their “halo”, Gandhi was trying to do what modernity had done, but acting from within the confines of the traditional vocabulary of a Hindu.

Gandhi believed that sacred texts like the Gita, when interpreted literally, depicted himsa and asatya. His endeavour was to encourage a creative “misreading” of these texts that would help situate Hinduism on the bedrock of ahimsa and satya.He thought it was imperative to transport the reader of these texts to an ethical/spiritual plane. Only this could make Hinduism an ethical religion. Godse and his ilk, by reading these texts literally, could only see justification for himsa and other immoralities.

The writer taught philosophy at Delhi University.

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First published on: 04-12-2017 at 12:30:13 am
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