MAHATMA GANDHIJI AMAR RAHE!
VIEWS ON RELIGIOUS CONVERSION
Velandy Manohar, MD
Past President, Indo- American Psychiatric Association
Past President, Asian American Caucus and
Distinguished Life Fellow American Psychiatric Association
I am proud to be able to present Bapu’s perspective on religious conversion and proselytization at this important seminar at the Lord Satyanarayana Temple.
Please review the Bapu’s Slides on Conversion 1-12
EARLY YEARS IN PORBANDAR AND RAJKOT
One day a British cleric, well known for his imperialistic attitudes, found himself face to face with Bapu. Wishing to make a special connection with the Mahatma, the cleric said,"well we are both men of God, aren’t we Mr. Gandhi?” Bapu replied forthrightly “ you are a politician disguised as a man of God, while I am a man of God disguised as a politician.”
Bapu writes about his early religious experiences in his candid and illuminating autobiography “ The Story of my experiments with truth.” With these words he described some of his earliest experiences, “ Being born of the Vaishnava faith, I had often to go to the Haveli. But it never appealed to me. I didn’t like the glitter and the pomp. Also I had heard rumors of immorality practiced at the haveli and lost all interest in it.
But what Bapu failed to get at the haveli, he obtained spirituality from his nurse Rambha. Rambha recommended that the little boy Mohandas, the future Mahatma, repeat the Ramanama to ward away his fear of ghosts and spirits. This Ramanama sowed in childhood in the heart of a little boy took firm root and found expression every day until the last breath left his martyred body. Later Bapu learned the Rama Raksha (a stotram) and Saint Tulasidasji’s Ramachandra manas. He imbibed this nectar of love, devotion, duty, renunciation and faith at a tender age of 13. Bapu writes,” I regard the Ramayana of Tulasidasji as the greatest book in all devotional literature.”
Later when Bapu moved with his family to Rajkot from Porbandar he became intensely interested in the Srimad Bhagavatam. It was also in Rajkot, Bapu says that he came to be grounded in tolerance for all branches of Hinduism and sister religions. His parents visited the haveli, as well as temples of Ram pariwar and Mahadevji. Jaina monks used to visit his family’s residence frequently. His fathers Mussalman and Parsi friends would also be among their guests and discussed their faiths with mutual respect. Bapu listened to them with interest and wonder. The only Christianity that was observable at that time had a negative impact on him.
Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and heap abuse on Hindus and their Gods. Bapu says,” I couldn’t endure this. At that point, I heard a prominent Hindu man had been converted to Christianity. This person was baptized and begun to eat meat and drink liquor. He also took up abuse of the religion of his ancestors.
Through those early years an important development was taking place in his heart.
He came to believe that morality is the basis of all religions and Truth is the
substrate of all religions. Truth (Sat) became his one and only God and therefore his
sole objective. It took root and began to grow in strength every passing day. One of
the Gujarati poems he remembers singing declares” But the truly noble know all
men as one, and return with gladnes for every evil done. In 1939 Bapu said, “
learned to rely consciously on God before I was 15 years old.”
EXPOSURE TO CHRISTIANITY IN ENGLAND
Bapu became involved with a prayer group lead by two gentlemen Messrs. Baker and Coates. A regular feature of the group was this prayer offered to convert Bapu to Christianity.
“Lord show the path to our new brother. Give him Lord, the peace that Thou hast given us. May the Lord Jesus who has saved us save him too”. Bapu was given a number of books to read. He consented to read all these books with faith. He said, “ The arguments advanced in these books regarding the existence of God. Were unnecessary for me. The other set of arguments offered to prove that Jesus was the only incarnation of God and the sole mediator between man and God left me unmoved. At one point to coerce Bapu to break with his past Mr. Coates wanted to break the Tulasi bead necklace his saintly mother (Bapu’s’) had given him. Mr. Coates called it a superstitious trinket. Mr. Coates either didn’t appreciate the significance of the religious power of the Tulasi beads and prayer attached to it when his mother put it around his or knew full well that without breaking that powerful link to his mother, religion and traditions he Mr. Coates couldn’t succeed in converting Bapu to Christianity. Mr. Coates tried to convince him no matter that a modicum of truth may be present in other religions, salvation was not possible for Bapu without first accepting Christ as his savior. Mr. Coates acted if he had a sworn duty to deliver Bapu from the abyss of his ignorance that comes from being a Hindu (non-Christian)
One of the chief problems Bapu had with the preachers was on the matter of redemption.
Mr. Coates said, “ You cannot understand the beauty of our religion. From what you say it appears as though you have to be constantly brooding over your transgression, always mending and atoning for them. How can this ceaseless cycle of action and atonement bring you redemption in your religion? Look at the beauty of our religion. We have but to believe that Lord Jesus died for our sins as an act of atonement in perpetuity. Thus our sins as Christians don’t bind to us. Therefore if you accept Jesus all of your sins you have committed and will commit in the future have been paid for in full by Lord Jesus’ blood.”
Bapu said this argument utterly failed to convince me. “ If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians I cannot accept it. I am not trying to obtain redemption from the consequences of my sinfulness; I seek Gods grace to be redeemed from sin per se or rather from the very thought or temptation of sinful acts.” (To be guided away from sinful thoughts and choices of sinful utterances and actions) he added until attained that end, I shall be content to be restless. Bapu couldn’t accept the argument that we are permitted by God (i.e. that we are given a pass) to blithely commit sins and then detach ourselves from the consequences of our moral transgressions by heaping our sinful deeds on His sinless body.
EXPERIENCES WITH CHRISTIANITY IN SOUTH AFRICA
Bapu states “ If I found myself entirely in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self realization. I had made religion of service of others my path, since I felt that God could be realized only by service of His children. Fifty or 75 years later Mother Theresa of Calcutta showed the world how this done to remove suffering.
Christian friends had whetted my appetite for knowledge of God, which became insatiable. In Durban and later in Pretoria Bapu met worthy Christian mentors. Bapu writes of a Mr. Walton who placed his life as an open book before him. Bapu says even the differences between people proves to be helpful where there is tolerance, charity and Truth also humility, perseverance and devotion to service of ones fellow man. Bapu didn’t have favorable memories of church attendance. To the spiritual man on his way to being a Mahatma the congregation seemed to be composed of worldly minded people who went to church on a weekly basis as some form of recreational activity that conformed to and was required by their customs. He said he gave up going to Church because he would fall asleep just as fast as his neighbors in the pews would. He used to visit Christian families to share religious practices and customs. One such Christian family whom Bapu visited regularly and were attempting to convert him to Christianity one day decided to cut off their relationship with rather abruptly.
The decision to end their previously enjoyable visits stemmed from their discussions about Ahimsa and Vegetarianism. Although the parents and elders were custom bound and not impressed, their children began to listen and changed their food preferences; they abhorred meat and developed a penchant for vegetables and fruits. Thus it appears a mutually respectful and reciprocal relationship as equals between the Hindu Bapu and this Christian family was not acceptable to the latter. However their earlier relationship built on the premise that spiritual Truths were the purview of the host family and should only flow along a gradient from the superior meat eating, liquor drinking people clad in European attire to the subjugated benighted inferior vegetarian people committed to Sanatana Dharma collapsed under the weight of its preposterous premises.
Mr. Arun Gandhi writes, “ When grandfather confessed to his Christian friends how much he was impressed by the incandescent Sermon on the Mount, he was asked why don’t you become a Christian. Bapu responded” when you convince me that all Christians live according to the Sermon on the Mount I will be the first to change my religion.” On another occasion Bapu said,” religion is like a mother however good your friend’s mother may be you cannot forsake your own. In the spirit of loving ones mother Bapu chose to remain a Hindu especially because of the freedom the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma accords to an individual. It is a religion that is a way of life based on faith in one supreme God but allows an individual the liberty to define ones mode of worship.
BAPU’S VIEWS ON GOD, RELIGION AND INTER-FAITH HARMONY
Bapu preferred to work within Hinduism because only Sanatana Dharma allowed the form of universal worship that he chose to practice, incorporating as he did prayers and hymns from all major religions of the world. Most other religions would consider this mode of universal worship to other Gods as serious blasphemy. Mother Theresa was a devoutly catholic person. She had a deep and abiding respect for the adherents of all other religions much like Mahatma Gandhi. She writes, “ I have always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic a better catholic. She once asked a wealthy benefactor to build a mosque in Yemen because she perceived the Muslim brothers and sisters needed a place to worship. In response to a reporter’s question, are you Saint? Mother lovingly replied pointing to the reporter, Yes and so are you! This Saint Theresa of Calcutta was overheard to whisper to one of the terminally ill in Nirmal Hridaya (sanctuary for the daridrya Narayanas)“ you say a prayer in your religion, and I will say a prayer as I know it. Together we will say this prayer and it will be something beautiful for God” Bapu had refused to accept food from a deeply distressed Hindu man who had confessed to killing a Muslim child unless he located and raised a Muslim child and raised him to be a Muslim person. Lord Krishna proclaims in C IV Verse 1I “ in whatsoever way I am approached (Universal God), even so do I bless them, for whatsoever be the paths that men take in worship, they come unto me.”
Bapu sincerely believed in the oneness of God. The Sanskrit saying Ekam sat, Bahuda Vipraha Vadanti meaning the truth is one but the wise proclaim it variously is exemplified in Bapu’s beliefs and actions he said, “ the images of God are different the names of God are different but they refer to one God.” Bapu’s message of respect and tolerance needs to be adequately understood and taken to heart by all of humanity, if we are to learn what binds us together as children of the one God. Bapu wrote in the Harijan a newspaper in march 1936 “ I have nothing new to teach the world truth and non violence are as old as the hills” Bapu said with respect to tolerance “ The key to the solution of the community tangle (over religious beliefs) lies in everyone following the best in his own religion and entertaining with equal regard other religions and their followers.” These beliefs echo the noble words of Sant Kabir and the redeeming message of Mother Theresa.
Sant Kabir has proclaimed his experience of God eloquently. Here are some examples:
1. Jogis call upon Gorakh, Hindus chant the name of Ram, Muslims says One Khuda, but the Lord of Kabir pervades every being.
2. For Turks in mosques and for Hindus in Temples, Both Khuda and Ram are there, Where Mosque and Temple are not, Who rules supreme there.
3. Search thy heart, within the inner core, Ram and Rahman live there. All the men and women of the world, Your form is in all. Kabir the lame is of Allah and Ram, Hari and Pir are my guru.
4. Whilst dwelling in the womb, there is no clan or caste; from the seed of Brahma the whole creation is made. Whose art thou, the Brahmin? Whose am I, the Sudra; whose blood am I? Whose milk art thou? Kabir says, “Who reflects on the Brahman, he by me is called a Brahmin.”
True faith is the appreciation of the reasoned experience of people whom we believe to have lived a life sanctified by prayer and penance. Spirituality is not something that is taught as much as it is caught. Faith, Simone Weil said, is the submission of that part of the mind that has not seen god through the part that has not seen god. Bapu said,” through my reason in my heart I realized long ago the highest attribute and name of God is Sat or truth. I recognized truth by the name of Rama not that this is the only way to identify truth but this is only my way. I will honor your way even though your way is different from mine. All power, Bapu said, comes from the conservation and sublimation of the vitality that is responsible for the creation of life. His fasting and celibacy are the outgrowths of this belief.
Bapu realized as early as 1909 while steaming home to India that the struggle between the British Empire and the subject people of India was not between two nations or two peoples but between two entirely different approaches to god and therefore ways of life. St Augustine in the city of God writes about two cities growing respectively out of two human loves namely the love of self or the love of the larger whole that St Augustine called god. Bapu’s way to god is the way to the city of love and of the larger whole and a way from the culture of self-love and avarice. The path therefore to the larger whole is the practice of Sarvodaya in our thought word and deed.
The pursuit of Sat or truth is true bhakti or devoted worship of God. It is the path that leads to God. Bapu believed and behaved as though there is no place in this pursuit of the truth for cowardice no place for the fear of death since it is the talisman by which death itself becomes a portal to eternal life. Even the pain and grief of good men contribute to their happiness while the wealth and fame of bad men cause misery to themselves and the world. God says,” Seek ye first the kingdom of god and his righteousness and other things shall be added unto thee.” Bapu reminded us of one of Hinduism highest Tenets and challenged us to practice it in our lives when we interact with people of different races, religious affiliation, age and gender: “ Ishwasyam Idam Sarvam…” God resides in the hearts of all beings. This is from the first verse of the Isavasya Upanishad. Bapu often referred to this most revered of Hindu scriptures.
Religions have become too competitive today each religion vies with the other to assert its exclusive God given inherent superiority and proclaims it to be the one and only way to redemption. Yet in reality Bapu says,” no particular religion seems to be perfect in all respects. ” Our perceptions about other religions and attitudes towards believers of other religions is conditioned by whether we believe that we are the sole possessors of the truth. If we accept the premise that we are not the only true seekers of SAT, that there are other paths and other faithful seekers of the truth we will find it much more comfortable in accepting and respecting different forms of worship and philosophies based on the pursuit of the ultimate truth that is God. The alternative path of prejudice and bigotry rivalry and envy is too grim to contemplate because ignorance and intolerance leads to persecution and forced conversion violence and evil.
Michael Angler writes in a book, “ Vows and observances” rather than railing against the awful brokenness of the spirit and intolerance in the world Gandhiji s way was to create a world without brokenness of spirt and intolerance. In the microcosm of Satyagraha Ashram started by Gandhiji human caring was reflected in every arrangement. Despite the mind numbing pace of his activities Gandhiji nourished warm personal relationships with every person who came to him who in turn were encouraged to have such interactions with one another in the Ashram. Ahimsa (non-injury in thought word and deed) was the touchstone of the ashram for Gandhiji Ahimsa went far deeper than near abstention from physically injuring someone. Ahimsa is not merely pulling ones punches when we feel hurt or angry but the conversion of the desire to injure and harm to forbearance and gladness to return good for evil done. This is similar to the Christian doctrine of do unto others ----. He was a Vishwa Manava; a citizen of the world who practiced the Hindu ideal that all humanity is one family referred to as Vasudaiva Kutumbakkam. Mahatma Gandhi worked for and died for the cause of Sarva Dharma Maitri – Inter faith Harmony.
Morning and evening prayers are an important part of the life in the Ashram. All men women and children gather and Mahatma Gandhi leads the worship which included chanting of prayers and hymns of all the religions it is said he was both discipline and devotion personified during these prayer sessions and in his interactions with all the people in the ashram. “ Lead kindly light” was one of his favorite hymns. It was sung on Friday night at 730 PM at all of his Ashrams. He also studied and was deeply influenced by the Sermon on the Mount the only sermon preached by Jesus Christ. And just as this sermon pointed out “ Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of the God” Gandhiji attained the status of a Mahatma. Two Hindu hymns were also very important to the Mahatma. One is Vaishnava Janato and Hari Tuma haro janake pir. Bapu composed a hymn to advance the noble cause of interfaith harmony and communal amity. It is sung all over the world when people who believe that establishing interfaith harmony are their responsibility too. It is titled Raghupathy Raghava Raja Ram. These two stanzas captures his earnest desire to build one nation for Indians of all religions: “ Raghupathy Raghava Raja Ram, Patita pavana Sita Ram, Ishwar Allah tere nam Sabko Sanmati de Bhagwan and Mandir Masjid Ek Saman, Jismen Rahate He Bhagavan. Raghupathy Raghava Raja Ram Patita Pavan Sita Ram.
Bapu was a life long student of the Bhagvad Gita the discourse between Lord Krishna and his favorite disciple Arjuna. For Bapu the last 19 stanzas of chapter 2 contained the essence of dharma. He said these versus embody the highest knowledge and have ever remained engraved in his heart. Two of the key versus of the second chapter are as follows:
Verse 47 Karmany evadhikaraste………… this verse is the foundation of his core belief of Nishkama karma and nishpala karma. A real karma yogi like Bapu is one who understands that he must be concerned only with the action, that he ought not to be concerned with the fruits of particular actions that he should not entertain the motive of gaining any specific reward for a particular deed and finally that he should not sit back and run away or attempt to avoid involvement in actions that require sacrifice of private comfort and security for public well being. The work itself becomes an act of worship. The service of God and service of the country become the only rewards sought by a karma yogi. Such a person is called a karmaphalatyagi
Verse 59 focuses on Gandhiji's practice of fasting and celibacy.” Vishaya vini vartante …………Bapu writes in his book of Bhagvad Gita “ the sastras say that if a man's cravings are not under his control it would be best to take a vrata or vow and fast. During the fast the seeker of truth will sense the ebbing of the binding and blinding power of the sense organs and the objects of the sense organs. When these cravings subside the pleasure experienced in the past by the contact of the sense organs to that which one craves remains in ones heart as a source of temptation. The desire to sacrifice the pleasure obtained by giving into the temptations will not endure unless there is renunciation of the pleasures obtained by physical contact. This sacrifice must be combined with efforts to experience the pleasure of god in ones own heart. This is not possible unless renunciation is not part of ones life as expressed by the terms Nishkama karma and nishpala karma. When one has experienced God by self-discipline and devotion the yearning the taste for the memories of the tempting pleasures will fade away.
In the religious, spiritual milieu of the ashram its members are expected to qualify themselves for and make constant attempts to serve each other and to serve their country in ways that are consistent with the concept o f universal welfare and uplift. Bapu inculcated the ashram community in Yamas and Niyamas these are the dos and don’ts of Sanatana dharma. These were formulated, as the eleven observances, which Bapu believed, are indispensable for achieving the highest state. These are 1. Truth. 2. Non injury or Ahimsa and unconditional love 3. Chastity 4. Control of the palate. 5. Non acquisitiveness ( non-stealing ) 6. Non possessiveness of material objects 7. Honest physical labor 8. Swadeshi. Bapu believed he serves the world best by first serving ones own neighbors. 9. Fearlessness 10. Tolerance 11. Removal and non-acceptance of untouchablility and bigotry. He referred to the untouchables as Harijan-the people of God and had special term for the oppressed downtrodden people he tried to empower by his sacrifice. He called them Daridryanarayanas.
Mahatma Gandhi also identified seven social sins that he urged his followers to root out of our lives. These are 1. Politics without principle. 2. Wealth without work. 3. Commerce without morality. 4. Education without character. 5. Pleasure without conscience.6.Science without humanity. 7. Worship without sacrifice. Are we up to the task? Mahatma Gandhiji described his own religion transcended Hinduism, Islam Christianity and Judaism but did not supersede them. My Hinduism is not sectarian. It includes all that I know to be best in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zorastrianism. Truth is my Religion. Ahimsa is the only way to its realization. Ahimsa is the first and last article of my creed. He said religion must help humanity towards its ethical goals on earth Bapu promised to work for an India “ in which the poorest shall feel it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there is no high class and low class, an India in which all communities Hindus, Mussalmans, Christians and Jews shall live in harmony…Women shall enjoy the same rights as men… This is the India of my dreams. He did his part. He cannot afford not to rededicate our selves to the challenge of the Mahatma. Is Gandhiji to become a lost Mahatma? Is the Prophet of Sarvodaya (peace and love) to be without honor in his own country? (L.Fischer)
Bapu concluded after his many seminal experiments in his Ashram with this hopeful declaration which represented his faith in mankind “ I believe it is possible for every human being to attain that blessed and indescribable state which he feels the presence of god within himself.” He blessed us, his legatees with this benediction or ashirvadam “ I know the path it is straight and narrow it is as sharp as a razor I rejoice to walk on it when I slip I weep But Bapu had placed his trust in Gods word “ he who strives never perishes”. I have implicit faith in his promise. “Though, therefore from my weakness I fall a thousand times I will not lose my faith in Him.”
There is a prayer that calls for religious conversion of an ennobling nature, which we can all believe in and do what we can to serve the Cause that Bapu championed in his life.
May the wicked become virtuous,
May the Virtuous attain tranquility
May the Tranquil be free from bonds
May the freed enable others to attain liberation
Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, who was called the Nightingale of Asia a renowned poet in her eloquent and deeply moving eulogy prayed for all of us with these words” May the soul of my master, my leader, my father, rest not in peace. Not in Peace –my father – do not rest in Peace. Keep us to our pledge. Give us strength to fulfil our promises – your heirs, your descendents, guardians of your dreams, the fulfillers of India’s destiny.” Lao Tze a great Chinese philosopher said “ Those who have virtue attend to their obligations: those who have no virtue attend to their claims. Bhagwan is the sakshi; He is witness to the choices we make in this regard, whether we are Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians or Bahai devotees. An enlightened Sufi poet Jalal-ud -Din Rumi proclaimed these inspiring words of faith and tolerance:
“The Lamps are different, the lights are the same.
It comes from Beyond.
If thou keepest looking at the lamp, thou are lost:
For thence arises the appearance of number and plurality
Fix thy gaze upon the light, and thou art delivered,
From the delusion of dualism inherent in the finite body.
O thou art the kernel of Existence,
The disagreement between Moslem, Zoroastrian and Jew
Depends on this standpoint.”
People of four of the nine faiths mentioned came to India seeking refuge and found this ancient land provided sanctuary and support (Jews from Palestine, Bahais and Zoroastrians from Iran, H H. the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhists). People of all the nine faiths (listed above) used to be able to live together in India as brothers and sisters and children of one God. Bapu has spelled out how and lived his life to prove that inter faith harmony was possible, necessary and served the cause of peace and progress. His life is his message (as he often said) and his challenge to us. How do we meet the challenge of the Mahatma, “ whose light; as Panditji ( Pandit J. Nehru) said in his eulogy, represented the living truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to Freedom” ? It is for each of us to answer this question as best as we can. I leave you with the last words Bapu uttered, that is inscribed on the Samadhi of the Apostle of Peace in Rajghat; as you contemplate your choices:
HE RAM ! HE RAM ! HE RAM !
OM TAT SAT SREE KRISHNA ARPANAM ASTU
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Velandy Manohar, MD
Past President, Indo- American Psychiatric Association
Past President, Asian American Caucus and
Distinguished Life Fellow American Psychiatric Association