An Atheist With Gandhi
by Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao)
Gandhi with Gora
oil painting by V. Veerabrahmam
Table of Contents (File 2; modified for HTML format)
Gandhiji lived a full life. So he spoke with knowledge and experience on subjects as varied as life itself. But his views on atheism are little known, perhaps, because no avowed atheist went sufficiently close to him.
I am an atheist and I had the privilege of close association with him for four years. We talked together about atheism several times during this period and I know his views on atheism to the extent to which they were revealed in our talks.
We discussed atheism on such occasions mainly to understand each other in relation to it and with no intention to publish the conversations. So there is no written record of our talks. However, he fixed February, 1948, for us to meet in Sevagram Ashram for almost ten days, for half-an-hour every day, to give clear shape to our thoughts and views on atheism. Had we met accordingly, much of what I am writing now, and perhaps more, might have appeared over our joint signatures. But that was not to be.
Since his assassination, I hesitated all these days to publish Gandhiji's views on atheism, as I understood them, lest I should be taken to put into his mouth statements which he did not make. I have no testimony for the truth of what I write here now except my good faith and the corroboration of my friends with whom I was discussing my talks with Gandhiji from time to time as they were taking place. I now venture to publish them, for what they are worth, so that they may not be lost altogether.
Except for the three letters from Gandhiji, the book consists of gists of my conversations with him which I reproduce from memory. All these conversations were carried on in English and I have a sufficiently vivid recollection of the talks because I received them as lessons and imprinted them on my heart.
My first contact with Gandhiji was through correspondence, some time early in the year 1930. I addressed a very short letter to him at Sabarmati Ashram. It consisted of only two sentences:
"You use the word god. May I know its meaning and how far the meaning is consistent with the practice of life?"
"God is beyond human comprehension."
Of course the reply did not satisfy me. How can anything that one talks of be beyond his comprehension? As the Salt Satyagraha Movement started just then, I could not carry on further correspondence with him on the subject.
I was a college lecturer till 1940 when I had to give up that profession because a ban was imposed on me for expressing my views on atheism. Soon after I went to the villages and engaged myself in adult education and the removal of untouchability. Atheism provided the background for my work.
After one year of village work, that is in September, 1941, I wrote a letter to Gandhiji to Sevagram narrating my antecedents and said:
For one year I have tackled the problem of untouchability with the atheistic outlook. I have a few co-workers who agree with me in the atheistic approach. The atheistic approach mainly consists in the non-recognition of sectarian labels like Hindus, Muslims and Christians.. We take man as man. Thus by discarding the labels and mixing up people in the general stream of humanity, we hope to remove untouchability also.
Our programme of work so far has been confined to systematic and periodical cosmopolitan dinners in which the guests pay for their fare which is always simple and cheap. The dinner is open to all and about forty to fifty guests, drawn from all castes including 'untouchables', take part in the dinner. The persons vary from time to time.
In the village atmosphere where caste restrictions continue to be rigid, open cosmopolitan dinners are not easy to accomplish. Yet we succeed, because we find that the atheistic attitude brings definite cosmopolitan outlook in its wake. The positive cosmopolitan outlook pushes out all sectarianism including ununtouchability.
The results of one year's work encourage us to proceed along the same lines. Before we do so, we desire to seek your advice. All of us have great regard for your wisdom and experience. We want to be told and warned of the possible pitfalls, if any, that lie in the way of our atheistic approach. In the light of your advice, we are prepared to revise our outlook and programme. If you like, I will go to Sevagram for a personal talk with you.
Gandhiji replied from Sevagram:
Via Wardha, C.P.
Atheism is a denial of self. No one has succeeded in its propagation. Such success as you have attained is due to your sincere work among the people round you. I am sorry I cannot invite you to come here. I have no time to spare for talks.
Yours sincerely, M. K. GANDHI
My co-workers and I yearned for close contact with Gandhiji, as we considered him the touchstone of public life. But the reply denied to us the opportunity.
Further the reply showed how much misunderstand- ing surrounded atheism. To us atheism is not a denial of the self; on the other hand, it is the fullest assertion of the self. Yet, instead of complaining that the meaning of atheism has not been properly understood, it is the duty of those who have taken up the cause of atheism, to clear the misunderstanding and to show what actually atheism is. So we decided to carry on the work in our own way. Nevertheless we hoped that, if we went earnestly about our work, some day we should attract the attention of Gandhiji, for he always valued earnest work.
And that day was not far off.
Then came the 1942 'Quit India' movement. My co-workers and I were frequently in gaol till 1944. Among us was a young man, Shri D. Ramaswamy, who had been in Sevagram Ashram before he joined us in 1942. Soon after Gandhiji's release in 1944, Shri Ramaswamy again went to Sevagram Ashram. In rendering an account of his work to Gandhiji, he had occasion to describe the atheistic approach to the problem of untouchability -- a work with which he was intimately associated during the two years he was with us in the village of Mudunur.
The following is the authorized gist of Shri Ramaswamy's conversation with Gandhiji as noted down by Shri Pyarelal, Gandhiji's secretary:
Faith in God and Constructive Work
The programme laid before the country by Gandhiji, i.e. the constructive programme, is not a new thing. He has always held that countrywide execution of the fifteen-fold programme in its entirety means independence for the people of India. He has often said that he is not a politician. He is essentially a man of religion and a social reformer, and to the extent political factors have come in his way he has been unwillingly drawn into the political sphere. Politics divorced from religion or social reform have no use for him.
Execution of the fifteen-fold programme means re-organization of the village life and evolution of non-violent society. Purged of communal disharmony and washed of the sin of untouchability, the 7,00,000 [sic] villages in India, healthy, self-sufficient and literate, cannot be kept in subjection. the task is tremendous. the majority of our people are attracted by political meetings, processions and the like; but quiet labour in the villages is too insipid for them. The following discourse that Gandhiji had with a young graduate will be of some use to workers faced with such a predicament.
This young fellow saw Gandhiji at Sevagram the other day in order to present him with a report of his work and seek his help and guidance. He told Gandhiji that he had a cosmopolitan outlook and did not believe in God. Gandhiji was pleased with his report. "Re-organization of the villages is a very intricate problem," he said, "but if we can find even half a dozen workers of the right type, we can solve it in due time. The time factor is important, but given the right start the thing will grow like a snow ball. You have heard of Booker T. Washington. We have to product better workers even than im in order to achieve our object."
"As for you," he continued, "your ambition will be fulfilled if, beside your ability and enthusiasm, you introduce something else in your life, i.e., a living faith in God. Then all insipidity will vanish. A cosmopolitan outlook is a necessity but it can never be a substitute for God. God is there, but our conception of God is limited by our mental horizon and by our physical environment. For instance when you read the Bible, you find that the God of the Hebrews was quite different from the God of Jesus Christ. You are dissatisfied with the prevalent idea about God, for the simple reason that those who profess belief in God do not present a living God in their own lives.
"Unless you have a living faith in God to sustain you, when failure stares you in the face there is disappointment for you. You may develop a revulsion for the work that you have taken up. You may begin to feel that after all what Dr. Ambedkar said was the right thing and you made a mistake in rejecting the high posts which you had been offered. My advice to you is that you should not leave this Ashram till you have found God. In spite of my limitless failings I am a seeker after Truth and so are my companions in this place. The Ashram, apart from its inhabitants, the sum total of energy that it represents, the principles for which it stands, may enable you to know God to the extent that you may be able to say 'God is', just as you can say 'Truth is'."
"I can say that in the sense that Truth is the antithesis of false-hood," replied the young friend.
"That is good enough," said Gandhiji. "The seers have described God as
(Not this, Not this). Truth will elude you. The sum total of all that is true is Truth. But you can't sum up all that is true. Like most of those who have had Western education, you have got an analytical mind. But there are things that can't be analysed. God who can be analysed by my poor intellect won't satisfy me. Therefore I do not try to analyse Him. I go behind the relative to the absolute and I get my peace of mind."
Friend: "I have carefully gone through your writings in the Harijan and Young India. Your way of life appeals to me very much. It offers scope for the exercise of individual will. The idea of God introduces a determinism and that limits man. It interferes with his free will."
Gandhiji: "Is there such a thing as free will? Where is it? We are mere playthings in the hands of Providence."
Friend: "What is the relationship between God and man, between Truth and God?"
Gandhiji: "I used to say 'God is Truth.' That did not completely satisfy me. So I said 'Truth is God.' He and His law are not different. God's law is God Himself. To interpret it man has to resort to intense prayer and merge himself in God. Each one will interpret the same in his or her won way. As for the relationship between man and God, man does not become man by virtue of having two hands. He becomes man by becoming a tabernacle of God."
Friend: When my idea if God itself is not clear, your talk of man becoming a tabernacle of God makes things still more confusing...."
Gandhiji: "Yet it is the true conception. Unless we have the realization that the body is the house of God, we are less than men. And where is the difficulty or confusion in conceiving Truth as God? You will concede that we are not tabernacles of Untruth: we are of Truth."
After a moment of silence, Gandhiji continued, "Every one who wants to live a true life has to fact difficulties I life, some which appear insurmountable. At that time it is faith in God that is Truth along, that will sustain you. The fellow-feeling which makes you feel miserable because of your brother's misery is godliness. You may call yourself an atheist, but so long as you feel akin with mankind you accept God in practice. I remember of clergymen who came to the funeral of the great atheist Bradlaugh. they said they had come to pay their homage because he was a godly man.
"If you go back with a living faith in God, in Truth, I have no doubt that your work will flourish. You should feel dissatisfied with everything until you have found Him and you will find Him," he concluded.
The friend has decided to stay at the Ashram for some time at least and he is trying to find God through labour for the service of his fellow beings.
From the above conversation it is clear that Shri Ramaswamy just presented the atheistic outlook to Gandhiji. Gandhiji's reaction conformed to the common meaning of atheism, namely that atheism is something incapable of and even contrary to goodness and goodwill. This is evident in his remark, 'The fellow-feeling which makes you feel miserable because of your brother's misery is godliness.' the remark suggested that fellow-feeling was the outcome of godliness, and conversely that those who had no belief in god could have no fellow-feeling either. This is the way in which atheism is now understood and the first reaction of Gandhiji to Shri Ramaswamy's presentation of atheism conformed to this kind of understanding of atheism.
During the conversation Shri Ramaswamy had occasions to refer to his
association with me. Then Gandhiji wanted to know me. I was invited to
Sevagram Ashram. I went there in the last week of November, 1944.
Shri Ramaswamy who was continuing his stay in the Ashram, was the first to receive me at Sevagram. He introduced me to Shri Pyarelal, Gandhiji's secretary, and to the other ashramites. He acquainted me with the details of his conversation with Gandhiji on atheism, reported in the last chapter. He told me that Gandhiji desired to know me.
Gandhiji was particularly busy those days with the many deputations that waited upon him. So it was two days before an interview with Gandhiji could be fixed for me. The time for the interview was Gandhiji's evening walk.
On the appointed evening I waited outside Gandhiji's hut. Just at 5-30 p.m. Gandhiji came out of his hut for the usual walk. I was introduced to him. He greeted me with a broad smile and the first question, "What shall I talk to a godless man?"
We both laughed heartily and I replied, "Bapuji, I am not a godless man, I am an atheist." Then the conversation continued as we walked together.
Gandhiji: How do you differentiate between godlessness and atheism?
I: Godlessness is negative. It merely denies the existence of god. Atheism is positive. It asserts the condition that results from the denial of god.
G: You say that atheism is positive?
I: Yes. In positive terms atheism means self-confidence and free will. Atheism is not negative in meaning though it is negative in form. Look at the words: non-co-operation, non-violence, ahimsa. They have positive connotations, though they are negative in form. To express an idea that is unfamiliar, we often use the negative of a negative. For instance 'fearlessness' for 'courage'.
G: You are talking of words.
I: Atheism bears a positive significance in the practice of life. Belief in god implies subordination of man to the divine will. In Hindu thought man's life is subordinated to karma or fate. In general, theism is the manifestation of the feeling of slavishness in man. Conversely, atheism is the manifestation of the feeling of freedom in man. Thus theism and atheism are opposite and they represent the opposite feelings, namely, dependence and independence respectively.
G: You are too theoretical. I am not so intellectual. Go to professors and discuss.
The remark pulled me up. I realized that Gandhiji's bent of mind was primarily practical. So I adjusted myself and said:
I: If atheism were only theoretical, I would not have cared for it, nor wasted your time. We have practical programmes based upon the atheistic outlook.
G: Ah, ah, I know that, so I am talking to you. Tell me what you are doing among the villagers.
I: We conduct cosmopolitan dinners regularly on every full-moon night. We have selected the full-moon day for the dinner because we get moonlight and there is no need of lamplights. For the dinner the invitation is open to all who pay one anna towards the cost of their fare. One anna per head is sufficient in a village, because, the menu is very simple, we get fuel and vegetables free and we collect buttermilk from the villagers. At the cosmopolitan dinners we care more for eating together than for eating full or well. The venue of the dinner is changed every time, a common place in the Harijanwada or a friend's house in the village. Normally forty to fifty guests drawn from different castes partake in the dinner. A host is selected every time and the guests pay him their annas at least a day in advance of the full-moon. The host holds himself responsible for the arrangements in connection with that dinner. The balance of money, if any, is credited to the next month.
Some of us do not attend public functions and wedding celebrations unless they include cosmopolitan dinners. Besides cosmopolitan dinners, we hold night literacy classes in Harijanwadas and adult education classes for the general public of the village. The adult education mainly consists of newspaper reading, map pointing and explanation. Everywhere we encourage cosmopolitan habits. Social mixing is not an easy affair especially in the villages now. It becomes more difficult when Harijans are brought into the picture.
G: Yes, I know that. But you could carry on this programme without atheism.
I: My method is atheism. I find that the atheistic outlook provides a favourable background for cosmopolitan practices. Acceptance of atheism at once pulls down caste and religious barriers between man and man. There is no longer a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian. All are human beings. Further, the atheistic outlook puts man on his legs. There is neither divine will nor fate to control his actions. The release of free will awakens Harijans and the depressed classes from the stupor of inferiority into which they were pressed all these ages when they were made to believe that they were fated to be untouchables. So I find the atheistic outlook helpful for my work. After all it is man that created god to make society moral and to silence restless inquisitiveness about the how and the why of natural phenomena. Of course god was useful though a falsehood. But like all falsehoods, belief in god also gave rise to many evils in course of time and today it is not only useless but harmful to human progress. So I take to the propagation of atheism as an aid to my work. The results justify my choice.
Bapuji listened to me patiently and in the end said stiffly, "I should fast even because atheism is spreading."
I: I will fast against your fast. (I answered at once.)
G: You will fast? (Gandhiji said looking straight into my face.)
I: Yes, Bapuji; but why should you fast? Tell me how atheism is wrong and I will change.
G: I see, your conviction in atheism is deep. (Gandhiji said slowly.)
G: The present conduct of people is giving room for the spread of atheism. (Gandhiji said reflectively.)
By then we had walked and conversed together for about twenty minutes. Gandhiji looked at me thoughtfully. There was a pause.
Shri Pyarelal who was all the while walking behind us and talking with others, joined Gandhiji and said that he wanted to tell Gandhiji something in private. Immediately those who were walking with us stepped aside a few paces. I too said Namaste to Gandhiji and was leaving him when he told me amidst laughter, "You can remain; privacy will not be disturbed as you do not understand Hindustani." All of us enjoyed the joke. Thereby Gandhiji perhaps suggested that I should pick up Hindustani.
With folded hands I took leave of Bapuji. He smiled and said that he would fix up for me another interview with him very soon. I retired to my room in the Ashram and thought over the talk with Gandhiji. Two things became apparent to me.
First, Gandhiji was pre-eminently a practical man. He judged theories and ideologies by the results they yielded in practice. Indeed that is a safe method to settle differences.
Secondly, Gandhiji had the same views and prejudices against atheism as the common man. But in his characteristic way he clothed them with courtesy, when he remarked that the present conduct of people gave room for the spread of atheism. Evidently he thought that atheism had developed in reaction to the misbehaviour of god-believers and that better conduct on their part would render atheism unnecessary. But I felt differently. The theistic outlook is fundamentally defective and it is bound to corrupt social behaviour. The misdeeds of the theists are neither whims nor forced by circumstances but the direct consequences of their theistic outlook. So the call for atheism is not out of disgust for the present conduct of people who profess the theistic faith, but out of a desire for a better way of life. The conduct of people cannot be improved unless the atheistic outlook is adopted. Atheism and theism represent opposite forms of behaviour and each is positive in its own way.
All this I wanted to make plain to Bapuji at the next interview.
After three days, Shri Pyarelal informed me that I could meet Bapuji that evening for half an hour at 4 o'clock.
I knew that Bapuji was very particular about punctuality. So I stepped into his apartment exactly at 4 o'clock by my watch. Bapuji who had just finished talking to an interviewer, looked at me and then at his watch and said to me smilingly, "You are half a minute too soon!"
"I am sorry, it is 4 o'clock by my watch," I replied stepping back.
"No, no, come in," Bapuji said, "watches may disagree, but let us not." It was a good joke.
He pointed out a seat to me and before I said anything to him, he started with a volley of questions. Each question required not more than a few words in answer from me. Within that half an hour he put me somewhere about what seemed to me a hundred questions. They related to minute details of my daily life, habits and the reactions of the villagers to my programmes. He inquired closely into my needs and difficulties and the help I had to meet them. He wanted to know the varied aspects of my relations -- with my parents, sisters and brothers and cousins and relatives far and near. He was particular on questions that referred to my wife and to my children and their education and their health. Now and then he would say, "I wanted to know....", wait for a moment or two and then he would put the question to me.
The series of questions revealed not only what intimate knowledge he had of the devious ways and practical difficulties of workers but how well he prepared himself to tackle me during that half an hour.
Toward the end he asked me whether I could stay longer in the Ashram. But on that occasion I had not gone to the Ashram prepared for a longer stay than a week. So I had to take leave of him with the promise of another visit to the Ashram in the near future.
I left the Ashram the next day deeply impressed with the immense interest that Bapuji took in me and my work. I was particularly happy to find that I could make Gandhiji take interest in my atheism, the cause which I represented.
During the week I was in the Ashram I visited frequently the adjoining village of Sevagram where experiments were carried on in village work under the guidance of Gandhiji. I also gained the acquaintance of the ashramites and the sister institutions, namely the Talimi Sangh, the Charkha Sangh, the Goseva Sangh, the Dawakhana, Gopuri and Gram Udyog Sangh.
I was not attending the prayers, of course, and none seemed to mind my absence, though prayers in the early morning hours and towards the evening time formed important items of the Ashram routine. My friend, Shri Ramaswamy, was not attending either. Shri Bhansali, an old inmate of the Ashram, also was not attending the prayers; he was not an atheist, though.
Thus ended the first phase of my personal contact with Gandhiji in the cause of atheism. It opened the way for further attempts at closer understanding.
Now, I was not a guest; I was admitted as an inmate of the Ashram. I was entrusted with the routine duties of the Ashram like latrine-cleaning, earth-work, vegetable-cutting and flour-grinding. Because I had been a teacher for some time, I was also entrusted with the teaching of science to the nurses of the dawakhana (Ashram Hospital).
I was partaking in all the activities of the Ashram, except the prayers, and was trying to understand Gandhiji from the life therein. Out of the several object lessons that the Ashram life provided, three incidents impressed me particularly.
A doctor who had evolved a new system of medicine came to Bapuji for his blessings. The learned doctor's therapy was based upon an elaborate theory and he wanted to explain it to Bapuji. A five-minute interview was granted to the doctor after three days of waiting. But the doctor returned from the interview before the five minutes were over. On inquiry, the doctor told me that Bapuji pleaded lack of time to understand his theory of medicine in detail and so requested the doctor straightway to prove the efficacy of his system by treating a chronic patient who was ailing in the Ashram then.
The incident showed me how Gandhiji judged theories by their practical
* * *
Another time a gentleman was granted a ten-minute interview. It was a silent interview in which Bapuji wrote out his answers on a slate. I too was present at the interview.
The interviewer eloquently explained his problem to Bapuji for seven minutes and sought Bapuji's advice in the end. Bapu wrote the reply: "The fact you talked so long on the problem shows you have not understood the problem."
The gentleman was dumbfounded. Bapuji wrote again: "A worker goes straight to the practical difficulty."
The gentleman felt humble and said meekly, "I have difficulties, Bapuji."
Bapu wrote in reply: "Go and work. Work solves your difficulties."
The ten minutes were over and Bapuji turned away his face.
Bapuji could be stern in his admonitions.
* * *
One day I wanted to dissect a frog to demonstrate the phenomenon of heart-beat to the nurses' class which I was teaching. The nurses objected to the dissection on the ground that it went against the principle of non-violence (ahimsa). The matter was referred to Bapuji and he replied, "Dissect the frog, if that is the only way to explain the heart-beat." And I dissected a frog.
Evidently Bapuji's conception of ahimsa was different from what it was often supposed to be.
Thus I was living and learning in the Ashram. What handicap I had on account of my meagre knowledge of Hindustani was made good by the special attention the ashramites paid to me. I was on the whole happy in the Ashram.
Yet the wonder grew in me why Bapuji had not called me to talk about atheism. It looked as though he avoided any reference to atheism in his dealings with me at that time. But, strangely enough, he asked me to call my wife, my children and my co-workers to the Ashram. It was a privilege for any one to be invited to the Ashram. So some significance was read into this call and it became plain later on.
I intimated Bapuji's desire to my village centre. My wife, children and co-workers came to the Ashram in batches. During the few days they stayed in the Ashram they engaged themselves in all the routine work except the prayers.
In spite of his talking hours being limited, Bapuji talked in the morning for ten minutes with every batch of my co-workers that came to the Ashram. Though my friends were ill-conversant with Hindustani or English, Bapuji enjoyed their broken expressions and tried to know from them about their work in the village and their reactions to Ashram life.
In this way I lived in the Ashram for three months and at last Bapuji called me for a talk.