The Essence of Hinduism - Mahatma Gandhi

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  • The Essence of Hinduism - Mahatma Gandhi



    M. K. GANDHI

    Complied and edited by

    V. B. KHER


    AHMEDABAD-380 014 Fifty Rupees

    The Navajivan Trust, 1987

    First Edition, 2,000 Copies, August, 1987

    Second Edition, Copies, May, 1996

    Printer and Publisher

    Jitendra T. Desai

    Navajivan Mudranalaya

    Ahmedabad-380 014 TO THE READER

    I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to

    others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with

    appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded

    many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no

    feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will

    stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with  is my

    readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment,

    and therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two

    writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to

    choose the later of the two on the same subject.

    M. K. Gandhi

    Harijan, 29-4-1933, p. 2

    [iii] [iv]


    Hinduism differs from other faiths like Christianity and Islam in

    two ways. First of all, it does not believe in any dogma and rejects the

    exclusive claim of any individual, however highly evolved, to the

    monopoly  of  Truth.  It  believes  that  the  Supreme  Being  may  be

    approached  through  several  paths  such  as  Knowledge  (Dnyana),

    Devotion (Bhakti), Action (Karma), and Yoga (Psychical Control). In

    fact, in actual life, the path trodden by a seeker may be a combination

    of two or more of these disciplines, depending on the choice of the

    individual in consonance with his temperament aptitude and attitude.

    Hinduism is not founded by any individual; it has grown or evolved

    naturally,  and,  therefore,  remains  gloriously  undefined.  In  fact,  it

    cannot be defined precisely as any other religion can be. However, the

    following description thereof by a foreign thinker is nearer the mark

    than any other: HInduism “is hardly a dogma but a working hypothesis

    of human conduct adapted to different stages of spiritual development

    and different conditions of life”. Starting with this working definition,

    let us probe a little more into the subject.

    What is really meant by Dharma or Religion? Broadly speaking,

    the  universal  moral  law  governing  both  the  sacred  and  temporal

    aspects of human life is known as Dharma. Confucius has described in

    very significant and profound words how the universal moral law

    operates. He says:

    “The ordinance of God is what we call the law of our being. To

    fulfil the law of our being is what we call the moral law. The moral

    law when reduced to a system is what we call religion.

    “The moral law is a law from whose operation we cannot for

    one instant in our existence escape. A law from which we escape is

    not  the  moral  law.  Wherefore  it  is  that  the  moral  man  watches

    diligently. . . over his secret thoughts.

    “When the passions such as joy, anger, grief and pleasure have

    not  awakened,  that  is  our  true  self,  or  moral  being.  When  these

    passions awaken and each and all attain due measure and degree, that

    is the moral order. Our true self or moral being is the great reality of

    existence, and moral order is the universal law in the world.

    [iv] [v]

    “When    true  moral  being  and  moral  order  are  realized,  the

    universe then becomes a cosmos and all things attain their full growth

    and development.”1

    The above question succinctly brings out how integration of the

    moral being and moral order alone can usher in the universe the

    Kingdom of Heaven.

    It is undeniable that a Law  of Power higher than human will

    regulates events. We may all have our different definitions of the Law

    or Power. In fact, there would be as many definitions of the Law as

    there are men and women. “But beyond all that variety of definitions

    there would be a certain sameness which would be unmistakable. For

    the root is one.” Gandhiji describes the Law as “that indefinable

    something which we all feel but which we do not know”. If it were

    possible for the human tongue to give the fullest description of that

    Law or Power in one word, Gandhiji would call it TRUTH,  as it

    tends  to  disaram  any  criticism  naturally.  And  a  continuous  and

    relentless search, after Truth would by the  summum bonum of human


    Speaking of this conception of the scientific ideal in his famous

    letter to Charles Kingsley, T. H. Huxley observed, “Sit down before

    fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion,

    follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses Nature  leads or you

    shall  learn  nothing.”  This  pursuit  of  Truth  is  also  the  ideal  of

    Hinduism though the means for discovery of physical and spiritual

    laws  must  naturally  vary  but  the  basic  scientific  attitude  and

    temperament  are  identical  in  both  the  cases.  A  scientist  tries  to

    understand the ultimate Truth through a series of steps, meticulously

    analysing each step. But in ancient India sages  went straight to the

    Reality  with  the  help  of  certain  mental  paradigms  (meditation

    formulae).2  Says  Paul  Deussen,  “That  India  more  than  any  other

    country  is  the  land  of  symbols  is  owing  to  the  nature  of  Indian

    thought, which applied itself to the most abstruse problems before it

    was even remotely in a position to treat them intelligently.”3

    The  advice  of  Buddha,  one  of  the  greatest  of  Hindus,  to

    Kalamas, a Kshatriya tribe of Kosaldesh, was also in keeping with this

    scientific ideal. He said, “Do not accept what I have said to you

    1 Juan Mascaro, Lamps of Fire, Methuen, London, 1961, p. 32.

    2 Prabuddha Bharat, Editorial, May 1981, p. 202 at p. 206

    3 Paul Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanishads, Dover Publication

    Inc., New York, 1950, p. 120 [vi]

    because it has been so said in the past; do not accept it because it has

    been handed down by tradition; do not accept it thinking it may be so;

    do not accept it because it is also in the holy scriptures; do not accept

    it because it can be proved by inference; do not accept it  thinking it is

    wordly wisdom; do not accept it because it seems to be plausible; do

    not accept it because it is said by a famous or holy monk; but if you

    find that it appeals to your sense of discrimination and conscience as

    being conducive to your benefit and happiness, then accept it and live

    up to it.”

    When stoning to death for apostasy was sought to be defended

    by heads of many Islamic bodies as being enjoined in the Koran,

    Gandhiji  questioned  the  morality  of  the  method  under  any

    circumstance whatsoever and wrote in a forthright manner:

    “Every formula of every religion has, in this age of reason, to

    submit to the acid test of reason and universal justice if it is to ask for

    universal assent. Error can claim no exemption even if it can be

    supported by the scriptures of the world.” (Young India, 20-2-1925, p.


    “I would like to say that even the teachings themselves of the

    Koran cannot be exempt from criticism. Every true scripture only

    gains by criticism. After all we have no other guide but our reason to

    tell us what may be regarded as revealed and what may not be. ... I

    fully endorse the Maulana’s statement that error is a relative term. But

    we know as a matter of fact that some things are universally accepted

    as errors. Death by torture is, I expect, such an error.” (Young India, 5-

    3-1925, p. 181)

    “Everything has to submit to the test of reason. . . . There are

    undoubtedly things in the world which transcend reason. We do not

    refuse to bring them on the anvil of reason but they will not come

    themselves. By their very nature they defy reason. Such is the mystery

    of the Deity. It is not inconsistent with reason, it is beyond it.” (Young

    India, 26-3-1925, p. 110)

    The above extracts from Gandhiji’s articles truly sum up the

    attitude of Hinduism to the questions which arise for decision in the

    application of the criterion of Truth to matters pertaining to public

    morality and general humanity.

    The Hindu classical religious thought is classified under two

    groups,  viz.  Shrutis  and  Smritis including  Dharmashastra.  Shrutis

    which include Vedas and Upanishads contain knowledge of ‘Reality

    As It Is’ which can be verified and is universal in its character. As [vii]

    such  it  may  be  characterised  as  PHILOSOPHIA  PERENNIS    or

    Perennial  Philosophy.  “The  Perennial  Philosophy  is  primarily

    concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold

    world of things and lives and minds. But the nature of this one Reality

    is such that it cannot be directly and immediately apprehended except

    by  those  who  have  chosen  to  fulfil  certain  conditions,  making

    themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit. Why should this

    be so? We do not know. It is just one of those facts which we have to

    accept, whether we like them or not and however implausible and

    unlikely they may seem. . . . It is only be making physical experiments

    that we can discover the intimate nature of matter and its potentialities.

    And it is only by making psychological and moral experiments that we

    can discover the intimate nature of mind and its potentialities. In the

    ordinary circumstances of average sensual life these potentialities of

    the mind remain latent and unmanifested. If we would realize them, we

    must fulfil certain conditions and obey certain rules, which experience

    has shown empirically to be valid.”4

    The eternal Truth may also be explained in another way. “This

    great Universe is pervaded by the Spirit. The Spirit (Self) is one

    unmoving; He (It) is swifter than the mind. The senses cannot reach

    Him (It). He (It) is ever beyond them. Unmoving, He (It) outruns the

    pursuit by senses. Out of the Spirit (Self) comes the breath that is the

    life of all things. He (It) moves and He (It) moves not. He (It) is  far,

    and He (It) is near. He  (It)  is within all, and He (It) is outside all.”

    (Ishopanishad, 4 and 5). In other words, the Spirit or the Power that

    sustains the Universe is immanent, universal and transcendental. But

    that Spirit which is consciousness raised to infinity, in order to become

    immanent, must rule and transform the human heart. With Nishkama

    Karma or desireless action and pure and single-minded devotion, the

    seeker  of  Truth  can  overcome  death  and  with  the  transcendental

    knowledge can have direct perception of the Divine Reality and attain

    immortality. (Ishopanishad, 11 and 14)

    Smirits derive  their origin and also authority from a personal

    founder and deal with social and religious rules and regulations. These

    laws can be modified or altered, as a code that sustains the society in

    one  age  may  choke  it  in  another  age.  And  as  socio-economic

    conditions  change  with  the  changing  technology,  which  in  turn

    influence  the  political  structure,  laws  need  to  be  recast  and

    4.  Aldous  Huxley,  The  Perennial  Philosophy,  Chatto  &  Windus,

    London, 1946, Introduction, pp. 2-3 [viii]

    reinterpreted in the light of the milieu and context of the changing

    conditions. If the laws do not keep pace with or are out of step with

    the changing conditions, they can be the cause of strangling the social

    organism or of social upheavals, sometimes violent and bloody. So it

    is prudent and in social interest to leave the formulation, amendment

    and reinterpretation of laws to the political constitutions and social

    conscience. That’s how the Hindu Law has been codified by the Loka

    Sabha after the attainment of independence by India, to bring it in line

    with the modern life, conditions and ideas.

    The division of religious thought into the Knowledge of the

    Spirit or Divine Reality and the Religious and Social Code of Conduct

    is a unique feature of Hinduism and is not to be found in other

    religions said to be ‘revealed’. The wisdom of this course of action

    can be studied from the record of Hinduism. No wars have been

    fought  in  the  name  of  Hinduism  (which  includes  Buddhism  and

    Jainism) unlike the medieval religious crusades between Islamic and

    Christian potentates. Nor have there been any inquisitions in Hinduism

    for questioning any religious belief. Even though, Buddhism was the

    State Religion of the kingdom founded by Ashoka, the wisest and the

    greatest king in human history, it was truly secular in outlook and did

    not discriminate against Hindusim and Jainism. It was again a Hindu

    king in Gujarat who gave shelter to Parsis when they fled from Persia

    to escape religious persecution at the hands of Muslim zealots.

    The flexibility and catholicity of Hindu civilization enables her

    “at once to renew herself in terms of her own essential nature and to

    change herself so as to bring herself in harmony with the form of age

    in which we live. In plain terms, the ancient Indian spirit takes on a

    new form without ceasing to be itself. India’s religions have all been

    natural religions. They have grown and prospered naturally. They were

    not self-aware because they were expressions of the cosmic reality.

    They did not define themselves. But when the Christian challenge

    arose,  they  had  to  define  themselves.  They  did.  Lokamanya’s,

    Gandhiji’s and Aurobindo’s commentaries on the Gita were part of

    that effort at self-definition. . . . The Gita and the two epics, Ramayana

    and Mahabharata, now sell in lakhs of copies year after year. This

    intellectualization of the life of the Spirit, if we may so describe this

    phenomenon, has deprived it of some of its natural flow but it has also

    given a strength which is valuable in our days.”5

    Contrasting the response of the world of Arab-Islam to Western

    culture, Girilal Jain opines that refusing to be similarly creative and [ix]

    flexible in the interpretation of the Koran, the Hadith and the Sunnah,

    it has not only denied itself a similar advantage but as a result, fallen

    into a deep state of shock and despair. It is undeniable that because a

    large  majority  of  Indians  profess  Hinduism  that  democracy  has

    succeeded in India while it has failed to take roots in other countries

    of the third world. Hinduism abhors stagnation. Hinduism is like the

    mighty Ganges which has been joined in its onward flow by other

    streams and tributaries. Unfortunately Islam and Christianity which

    came to India as appendages of foreign conquerors, did not mingle

    with  the  main  stream  though  they  undoubtedly  inter-acted  with

    Hinduism and influenced each other.

    Another distinctive feature of Hinduism is the doctrine of karma

    and rebirth. Transmigration is not a theory but a fact. Gandhiji also

    believed  in  further  life  and  in  the  continuity  of  karma    through

    successive births. What we sow here, we must reap here and elsewhere

    –  there  is  no  escape.  The  law  of  karma  is  relentless.  However,

    repentance even during one’s last moments will wash away sin and

    sterilize it of consequences. Among Hinduism’s contributions to the

    world are the ideas of man’s identity with the dumb creation and four

    ashramas. The reader will find references to these and many other

    ideas in the pages of this Book.

    One of the texts in the Smritis says that whatever is followed by

    the  learned,  the  good  and  those  who  are  free  from  anger  and

    attachment and whatever is experienced in the heart is dharma or

    religion. Gandhiji though not an acharya or an erudite scholar like Adi

    Shankaracharya, is the authentic voice of age-old Hinduism in modern

    times  who  has  given  it  a  new  turn  and  direction.  He  called  his

    autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. He found

    after a long, arduous and relentless search for Truth that Hinduism

    satisfied all his highest moral aspirations and he found solace and a

    friend, guide and philosopher in the Bhagavad Gita. He says, “It (the

    Gita) is accepted by all Hindu  sects as authoritative. It is free from

    any form of dogma. In a short compass it gives a complete reasoned

    moral code. It satisfies both the intellect and the heart. It is thus both

    philosophical and devotional. Its appeal is universal. The language is

    incredibly simple.”

    To all Gandhiji recommends without any hesitation Nama and

    prayer  for  purification  of  their  minds  and    transcending

    5. Girilal Jain, ‘Assessing India’s Progress’, Times of India, Bombay,

    dated 15-8-1986

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