Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Discussion of Religions in Mahatma Gandhi’s Autobiography

In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi has reflected on his childhood impression of Christianity. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 10, “Glimpses of Religion”: 

“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 thenceforth 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 change one's own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.” 

As an adult, he lived and worked in close association with several Christians, some of whom tried to preach the Christian gospel to him. But Gandhiji remained unimpressed. In several chapters, he has described his disagreements with the basic tenets of Christianity. In Chapter 15, “Religious Ferment,” he writes: 

“It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate son of God, and that only he who believed in Him would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then all men were like God and could be God Himself. My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world. Metaphorically there might be some truth in it. Again, according to Christianity only human beings had souls, and not other living beings, for whom death meant complete extinction; while I held a contrary belief. I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born… From the point of view of sacrifice, it seemed to me that the Hindus greatly surpassed the Christians. It was impossible for me to regard Christianity as a perfect religion or the greatest of all religions.”

Gandhiji published his biography in installments, between 1925 and 1929. At that time the Indian subcontinent was not divided on religious lines; India stretched from the Afghanistan border in the west to the Burma border in the east, and from Kashmir in the north to the tip of the Indian peninsula in the south. The share of muslims in the population of this united India was around 35 percent. Several muslim leaders were part of Gandhiji’s movement. But in his autobiography he has not criticized Islam directly, in the way that he has criticized some of the practices of Christianity and Hinduism. In Chapter 7, “Some Experiences,” he reminisces about his long discussions with Abdulla Sheth on religious topics. Sheth enjoyed talking about the beauty of Islam:

“He [Abdulla Sheth] was proud of Islam and loved to discourse on Islamic philosophy. Though he did not know Arabic, his acquaintance with the Holy Koran and Islamic literature in general was fairly good. Illustrations he had in plenty, always ready at hand. Contact with him gave me a fair amount of practical knowledge of Islam. When we came closer to each other, we had long discussions on religious topics.” But Gandhiji does not tell us about how he used to respond to Sheth’s laudatory view of Islam. On what aspects of Islam did he agree with Sheth—on what aspects did they disagree? On Sheth’s insistence, Ghandhiji decided to study the Koran and other Islamic holy texts. What kind of thoughts did these Islamic texts arouse in his mind? The answer to this question is not available in his book.  

In Chapter 18, “A Month With Gokhale—II,” Gandhiji has criticized the sacrificing of sheep at Bengal’s Kali temple. He talks about the feeling of horror that struck him when, on his way to Justice Mitter’s house, he passed in front of the Kali temple, and saw “a stream of sheep going to be sacrificed to Kali.” He must have known that sacrificing animals was rare in Hinduism—it was prevalent only in some temples dedicated to Goddess Kali. In the vast majority of Hindu temples, there was no animal sacrifice. In Islam, however, animal sacrifice is common. Gandhiji does not question the Islamic practice of sacrificing animals during muslim festivals. But he has devoted a number of pages to describe the initiatives he took to protect the cows. The first cow protection work that he did was in Bihar’s Champaran district. This initiative failed to achieve the objectives that he had in mind. In 1919, when the Khilafat movement began, Gandhiji tried to get the Muslim leaders to speak against cow slaughter. He has described this endeavor in Chapter 36, “The Khilafat Against Cow Protection.”

In the final chapter of his book, Chapter 44, “Farewell,” Gandhiji makes an interesting statement: “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.” His statement can be interpreted as an exhortation to the Hindus that they should start thinking politically (like the moslems and the christians)—this would seem like an argument against the principle of secularism of which he was a lifelong advocate. This statement makes me wonder: which religion is he talking about? Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism? Of the three religions, Islam has been the most successful in developing a union between its religious values and political doctrine. In the Middle Ages there was a union between religion and politics in Christianity—but in the twentieth century, the British Christians were more secular than most Islamic movements.

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