Much like nearly everything else in his life, Gandhi’s religion defies easy description. Though Gandhi viewed himself as a Hindu, he also maintained that a man could describe himself as a Hindu and yet not believe in God. He almost never visited temples and everything in his conduct suggests that he remained indifferent to the temple-going experience; yet no one made as concerted an attempt as he did to open up Hindu temples to Dalits (or, as they were then known, the Untouchables). Gandhi venerated the Ramacaritmanas, the immensely popular version of the Ramayana penned by the poet-saint Tulsidas in the late fifteenth century, but he also insisted that passages in Tulsidas which were anathema to one’s conscience and reason—such as the one which characterizes drums, the illiterate, animals, the lower castes, and (disobedient) women as fit to be beaten—ought to be summarily rejected. To the end of his life Gandhi persisted in describing himself as a believer in the idea that Hinduism rightly prescribed duties for each of the castes (varnashrama dharma), but he made it known that he would only bless intercaste weddings. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.” He went so far as to declare that he would only want to be reborn as a scavenger (bhangi) whose very presence would be polluting to an upper-caste Hindu. Perhaps nothing underscores his anomalous standing as a Hindu more than two facts: while M.A. Jinnah—his staunchest political foe and eventually the chief instigator of the idea of Pakistan—persisted in viewing Gandhi as the supreme representative of the Hindu community, Gandhi’s assassin—a Brahmin from Pune by the name of Nathuram Godse—partly justified his act with the observation that Gandhi was not Hindu enough.
Unraveling the religious life of Gandhi is thus no trifling matter. Nevertheless, his life—extraordinarily complex in some respects, and equally straightforward from another vantage point—furnishes various windows into his religious thought and practice. The Bhagavad Gita was, to Gandhi, a manual for daily living; and it is in the Gita that we first encounter a description of bhakti yoga, the way to God through devotion. What is often referred to as the ‘bhakti movement’ had swept India from around the ninth to the sixteenth centuries, and in Gandhi’s native Gujarat the most famous exponent of bhakti was doubtless Narasinha Mehta, born into the orthodox caste of Nagar Brahmins around 1414. Much like other bhakta-poets, Narsi (as he is commonly known) was oblivious to caste differences and scarcely moved by bookish learning; and his biographers are agreed that he deeply offended his own community of Brahmins as he would often consort with the lower castes, even singing in the houses of the Untouchables and spending his nights in their homes. Narsi’s fellow Brahmins eventually excommunicated him, but Narsi was no more perturbed on that account: “They say I am impure, and they are right. / I love only those who love Hari [Krishna]. / I see no difference between one Harijana and another.” It is Narsi’s term Harijans, meaning “children of God,” that Gandhi would controversially adopt in the 1920s to designate the Untouchables.
Gandhi’s unbound affection for Narsi’s composition Vaishnavajana to is as good a way as any to gauge the Mahatma’s religious sensibility. Vaishnavism—which takes its name from the god Vishnu—was an important part of the religious milieu in which Gandhi grew into adolescence, and in the opening chapter of his autobiography Gandhi describes his mother as a saintly woman for whom a visit to the “Vaishnava temple” was “one of her daily routines.” Gandhi was not particularly interested in the sectarian divide between Vaishnavas and Saivites (the followers of Shiva), and he sought to endow the term “Vaishnava” with a more capacious meaning. Narsi’s bhajan, or devotional song, permitted him to enter into the state of being of a true Vaishnava. Narsi sings: Vaishnavajana to tene kahiye, je pira parayi jaane re / par dukha upkaar kare, to ye man abhiman na aane re. Call only him a Vaishnava, says Narsi, who feels another’s pain as his own, who helps others in their sorrow but takes no pride in his good deeds. The rest of the bhajan further adumbrates the qualities of a Vaishnava, who is pure in thought, action, and speech; despising no one, and treating the low and the high alike, the Vaishnava adopts the entire human family as his own and so works for the liberation of everyone. It is from Narsi, and not from the Gita alone, that Gandhi imbibed the values of nonattachment, humility, and the renunciation of avarice. When, as Narsi says, “all pilgrimages sites are embodied within the body of the Vaishnava” (sakal tirtha tena tanma re), we are better positioned to understand why Gandhi did not share the Hindus’ propensity towards pilgrimage sites.
Vaishnavajana to was sung at Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings. As Gandhi commenced his almost 250-mile march to the sea in 1930, writes his biographer Narayan Desai, he was handed his walking stick by his close associate Kaka Kalelkar, and Narayan Khare sang Vaishnavajana to. The bhajan remained on the lips of Gandhi and his companions throughout the Dandi March. Widely known as Narsi’s Vaishnavajana to may have been to Gujaratis, it was Gandhi who popularized it through the length and breadth of India. It has been set to music by some of India’s famous instrumentalists, among them Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. M.S. Subbalakshmi’s rendition has done much to give it an iconic status in the country’s staggering musical pharmacopeia, and more recent performances by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar have ensured its popularity. One of the more intriguing testimonies to the afterlife of Narsi’s bhajan is the fact that Sahmat, an activist cultural organization with a distinctly left-secular outlook founded in the 1990s, thought it fit to print a large poster of the bhajan in attractive calligraphy and circulate it widely. We may say that Gandhi attempted to live by the ideals described in Narsi’s devotional song, and he would have seen in the song’s popularity at least some faint signs of what he took to be India’s enduring interest in the spiritual life.
Vinay Lal is a professor of History at UCLA and author of numerous articles and blog posts on Gandhi and Gandhian subjects. He contributed several essays and images to the Menil’s book Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence.