M K Gandhi on Religion and Caste: A Reading List

Not viewing religion as distinct from politics, Gandhi referred to the latter as “applied religion.” However, his religious positioning itself changed throughout the course of his life. What, then, can we make of his views on religion, and potentially, his politics?

MK Gandhi’s assassination marked a sombre event in India’s history, and was rooted in his religious positioning. From being referred to as the crusader of Hindu–Muslim unity, to a leader who appeased the Muslim population and was reponsible for the Partition, Gandhi’s religion and his politics has been a matter of much debate and diverse interpretations. This is also partly due to the changing nature of his thoughts and writings throughout the course of his life. It is this debate about where one draws the line between his religion and politics that also fuelled his uneasy relationship with the Hindu right (and continues to do so). 

To give a brief set of examples, in January 2019, the event of Gandhi’s assassination was restaged by members of the Hindu Mahasabha, who regard the day of Gandhi's death as Shaurya Divas (Bravery Day), in honour of Nathuram Godse, one of its early members. Further, in November, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament (MP) Pragya Thakur referred to Godse as a “patriot'' in Parliament. However, in October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi penned a glowing tribute to Gandhi on his birth anniversary, concluding on a venerative note, “The world bows to you, beloved Bapu!” Moreover, in December, the national BJP Twitter handle invoked Gandhi’s name to justify and legitimise the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, amongst the backdrop of nationwide protests. Thus, while Gandhi as a figure is, at times, selectively approporiated to suit nationalistic moods, at other times, his assassination, and assassin, are glorified. 

This constant inclusion of Gandhi on the themes of religion and nationalism raises questions about what his documented thought on the same was. In this reading list, we explore EPW archives to examine his views on religion, in general, and Hinduism, in particular.  

Examining Gandhi’s Idea of Religion

M N Srinivas asserts that religion was central to Gandhi’s life. Regarding politics as “applied religion,” Gandhi’s viewing of religion was not as unilateral as one would think— neither was it static. Srinivas notes that Gandhi warned his critics early on that his thoughts on religion were subject to change.This allowed him the freedom to discard those that he thought were outdated, espouse new ones, which he felt necessary, and to mix and match religious teachings as he felt fit. For him, practice was of utmost importance. Srinivas recounts a conversation between Gandhi and an American missionary in 1937, where Gandhi commented, 

I do not take as literally true the text that Jesus is the only begotten son of God. God cannot be the exclusive father and I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus. He is as divine as Krishna or Rama, Mohammad or Zarathushtra.

This is echoed by Rudolf C Heredia, who comments that Gandhi’s interpretation of religion transcends any particular category. Not only did he not view any one religion as supreme, his idea of religion as a spiritual journey allowed him to integrate the traditional with the modern, and the popular with the philosophical. 

Gandhi attempts to integrate the positive elements of modernity with a liberating re-interpretation of tradition. His purna swaraj (comprehensive self-rule), would harmonise rights and duties, head and heart, individual and community, faith and reason, economic development and spiritual progress, religious commitment and religious pluralism, self realisation and political action, ecological care and human need. He brings together philosophical discourse and popular culture in enlightened renewal and social reform. Not since the time of the Buddha, some have argued, has such a synergy between the philosophic and the popular in our traditions been experienced. Thus, Gandhi integrates the Upanishads and the Tulsi Ramayan in his religious synthesis. When it comes to bridges across traditions, Gandhi brings the Gita together with the Sermon on the Mount and reads one into the other. In fact, if he has Christianised Hinduism, he has certainly also presented us with a Hinduised Christian spirituality.

Thus, Gandhi’s religiosity was also more spiritual in nature. Reading Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Aditya Nigam points out this synthesis that Gandhi maintained while talking about religion, as well as its interaction with the other spheres of life. 

The running theme of HS [Hind Swaraj], widely commented upon by scholars, is its sustained attack on ‘modern civilisation’. ‘It is my deliberate opinion’, says Gandhi in an oft-quoted line, ‘that India is being ground down not under the English heel but under that of modern civilisation’. However, this must not be understood merely as a criticism of modern technology/machinery and industry; or merely as a critique of civil society. It is all this and much more. For Gandhi does not stop simply at making this statement. His point is the larger one about what Max Weber called the “disenchantment” of modern life: ‘Religion is dear to me and my first complaint is that India is becoming irreligious’. He immediately clarifies that he is not thinking here ‘of the Hindu, the Mahomedan or the Zoroastrian religion’ but of the religion that ‘underlies all religions’. ‘We are turning away from god’, he adds. The way this ‘’turning away from god’ manifests itself is through the arrogation by ‘Man’ to himself of the role of a new sovereign who is bent upon upturning the order of god.

Examining Gandhi’s Idea of Hinduism 

Over and above the fluid and dynamic viewing of religion, Gandhi considered himself as, first and foremost, a Hindu and was proud of Hinduism. He considered Hinduism to be the most tolerant of religions, wherein the highest ideals of humanity were expressed. Srinivas notes

In the first place, he [Gandhi] considered himself a Hindu. Writing in 1927 in Young India he said, ‘It [Hinduism] was the most tolerant of all religions. Its freedom from dogma gave the votary the largest scope for self-expression. Not being an exclusive religion it enabled the followers not merely to respect all the other religions, but to admire and assimilate whatever maybe good in the other faiths. Non-violence (‘ahimsa') is common to all religions, but it has found the highest expression and application in Hinduism. Hinduism believes in the oneness not only of merely all human life but in the oneness of all other lives.

Heredia further compares this idea of Hinduism propagated by Gandhi to Savarkar’s Hindutva. He notes Gandhi’s idea of not viewing religion and politics as two distinct entities, allowed him to infuse a “religious ethic”  into politics, rather than “political militancy into religious communities.” In contrast, Savarakar’s Hindutva ideology was narrow and exclusivist as it conflated and defined India as Hindu. This Hindutva, then, was the antithesis of Gandhi’s Hinduism, which was inclusionary and tolerant of all. Heredia notes that this inclusivity demonstrated by Gandhi also made him seem as not Hindu enough from the point of view of the traditional and revivalist Hindus, and too Hindu from the point of view of non-Hindu fundamentalists and nationalists. Commenting on Gandhi’s adoption of Hinduism, Heredia explains, 

Gandhi locates himself as an insider to mainstream Hinduism, the Sanatana Dharma that he claimed to follow. The radicality of his re-interpretation goes unnoticed because of this. Gandhi does not reject, he simply affirms what he considers to be authentic, and allows the inauthentic to be sloughed off. B R Nanda identifies a few fundamental beliefs in Gandhi’s Hinduism: the reality of god, the unity of all life and the value of ahimsa (the desire not to harm) as love. His profound redefinition of Hinduism gave it a radically novel reorientation with his seva marg (the path of service), adding a new dimension to three margs of traditional Hinduism – jnana, karma and bhakti (path of knowledge, path of duties and path of devotion). Yet, Gandhi’s Hinduism has a spiritual meaning beyond service, for Gandhi’s seva marg is inspired by, and is a means to, moksha (world release). This is just one of his radical reinterpretations, as Bhikhu Parekh demonstrates.

Gandhi’s Views on Caste 

However, he was also critical of, and rejected, the institution of casteism prevalent in the Hindu tradition, and worked towards rallying public opinion against the same. Further, though Gandhi distinguished the caste system from the "chaturvarna," that is, the scriptural fourfold varna order of hereditary occupational divisions, his criticism with regards to the latter is scarcely addressed. Anil Nauriya observes that though he initially defended the varna order, he later acknowledged the need to do away with the varna system. However, this itself had a slow trajectory. In 1933, Gandhi thought of untouchability as the bigger evil, and felt it necessary to first abolish the caste system and “cross the other bridge later.” For a long time, then, his fight was restricted to the caste system, though he did not rule out a later time to struggle against the varna order. This later time came in 1947 when Gandhi began to directly speak out against the varna system. 

Gandhi’s penultimate blows to the varna concept were delivered in February 1947. He now turned the category of varna upon itself by removing the foundation of the edifice of varna distinctions. Saying that caste must go if Hinduism is to survive, he went on: ‘There was room for varna, as a duty.’ According to him: ‘This was true of all religions whether the name used was other than varna. What was a Muslim ‘maulvi’ or a Christian priest but a brahmin if he taught his flock its true duty, not for money but because he possessed the gift of interpretation? And this was true of the other divisions.’ Significantly, the position of a maulvi in Islamic society does not indicate any inherent superiority and does not necessarily pass hereditarily.

Overall, the author eloquently notes that though Gandhi’s positions against untouchability and caste were direct assaults, the same cannot be said of his position on the varna system. Here, he “moved more cautiously, somewhat like Erasmus.” Arundhati Roy, however, argues that Gandhi, for all his claims of rejecting the caste system, was not in fact a denouncer of it, as one would think. Responding to Rajmohan Gandhi’s critique of her "The Doctor and the Saint," where she accuses Gandhi of being casteist, Roy defends her assertions by observing that Gandhi (including, later, Rajmohan Gandhi) conflated the fight against untouchability with that against caste. It is exactly this nuance on which several Hindu reformers functioned, where they “cleverly narrowed” the question of caste to that of untouchability. Therefore, on deeper probing, Gandhi’s apparent compassion and persistent campaigning against untouchability may not have been as genuine. Moreover, she underscores Gandhi’s stance on the varna system and how his lack of explicit disavowal of the same proves his rather superficial take on the subject. 

Keep in mind here that Gandhi did not want 'bhangis' (scavengers as he was fond of calling them) to amass wealth even from their supposedly divinely designated professional occupation of cleaning other people’s shit, on the other hand he developed his famous doctrine of trusteeship: ‘The rich man must be left in possession of his wealth…’ The rich man, then as well as now, was and continues to be the Bania. Gandhi was certainly troubled by caste injustices, but not by caste itself. He never once denounced the caste system in clear uncertain terms. On the few occasions in the later years of his life when he did gently criticise it, he suggested it should be replaced by Varna—which Ambedkar described as the ‘parent’ of the caste system. Gandhi constantly reiterated his belief in the tradition of hereditary occupation. And since Rajmohan Gandhi offers us ‘The Ideal Bhangi’ with such approbation, should we assume that he agrees with his grandfather’s views?

Read More: 

Gandhi's Hind Swaraj: Retrieving the Sacred in the Time of Modernity | Mahesh Gavaskar, 2009

Another History Rises to the Surface: ‘Hey Ram’–Melodrama in the Age of Digital Simulation | Ravi Vasudevan, 2002

Autonomy as 'Moksha' | Rudolf C Heredia, 2001

Gandhi on Social Conflict |  A K Das Gupta, 1968

Did Gandhi Want to “Annihilate Caste?” Revisiting the Ambedkar–Gandhi Debate | EPW Engage

Gandhi’s “Hind Swaraj” and Scholarly Engagement: A Look Through Five Articles from EPW Archives | EPW Engage