A reconsideration of Mahatma Gandhi has been going on all over the world in recent years. His life and action have been studied by scholars and activists not only in India but also in several European and American countries.
In India he is remembered mainly as the leader of the successful freedom struggle and as a representative of the highest level of thinking in the Hindu religious tradition. There are other valid ways to consider him, however. As a social revolutionary, he helped to instill humanist values in millions of people, and as a visionary with an ideal of humanity's future he provided useful guidelines for some changes which need to be brought about in our behavior throughout the world today and in the next generation.
Western intellectuals have shown a strong interest in these latter perspectives, while to a large extent we Indians have lagged behind by looking at Gandhi as a Hindu reformer and as the father of our nation. When we sing bhajans (devotional songs) of "Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram" in Gandhi's memory, we tend to overlook his very strong concern, in his last years, for secularism in Indian national affairs, his extreme sufferings for the cause of interreligious harmony, and his passionately felt efforts to bring about more economic independence and less inequality all over the world.
It may be symptomatic of our narrow misunderstanding of Gandhi that we have accepted the belief that he died with the word, "He Ram!" on his lips. These words are engraved on his samadhi (tomb) at Rajghat in New Delhi. But according to an eye-witness account by his secretary, Pyarelal, directly after the assassination, Gandhi's last words were not "He Ram!":
"At first shot, the foot that was in motion, when he was hit, came down. He still stood on his legs when the second shot rang out, and then collapsed. The last words he uttered were "Rama, Rama."
Pyarelal was himself a Hindu, and "Rama, Rama" is, no less than "He Ram!", the kind of thing that he might have expected a pious fellow-Hindu to utter at the moment of death. Yet the fact remains that at least one of these two versions of what Gandhi said is incorrect. Under the circumstances, it becomes worthwhile to consider whether Gandhi himself said what his last words would be in the event he were assassinated.
In fact he did, just a few months before:
"Even if I am killed, I will not give up repeating the names of Ram and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully."
And it may be appropriate to ponder this in the light of a remark which he made toward the end of the previous year:
"If Mohammed came to India today, he would disown many of his so-called followers and own me as a true Moslem."
It was in 1946 that Gandhi had begun to invoke "Allah" along with "Eshwara" in his daily prayers. Between that time and his death, everyone saw that the direction of his emotional development was toward considering himself to be a Moslem as well as a Hindu. Indeed, we know from the transcript of his assassin's trial and from later statements of purpose that this is why the fundamentalist Hindu extremists determined that he must be killed.
Pyarelal's perception of the words "Rama Rama" can be reconciled with the likelihood that Gandhi actually said what he intended to say ("Ram Rahim"). We may suppose that between the utterance of the first word and the second, Gandhi lost strength and therefore enunciated the second word less well than the first, while all the bystanders in his immediate vicinity, including Pyarelal, had meanwhile become extremely disturbed by the fact that Gandhi had just been shot.
I outlined this hypothesis in December 1994 at a national workshop in Gandhian studies at his commune in Sevagram, and in a group discussion the next day, everyone who spoke felt that to assume that Gandhi said what he had undertaken to say would be to "give him the benefit of the doubt."
If we too wish to do justice to Gandhi's personality by supposing that his last words were "Ram Rahim," then our historical interpretation of his message to the world will assume a new dimension. The more limited interpretation has been to view him only as a Hindu, but the broader interpretation would drive home the message of his care for Hindu-Moslem unity and for humanist values.
There is a need for further research into this matter. If it leads to changing the inscription on Gandhi's tomb from "He Ram" to "Ram Rahim," Hindus will come to view him -- rightly -- as a person who transcended the traditional boundaries of Hinduism, and Moslems throughout the world may well come to consider him as a man whose concern for them was so deep that he died invoking God with a Moslem name. This could have a positive impact on communal life in India today and to some degree on Islamic politics throughout the world.
Gandhi had slowly evolved from being a traditional Hindu to including in his prayers passages from the scriptures of many religions, including Zorastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism as well as Islam and Hinduism. In this light he can hardly be termed a pure and complete Hindu. And as his personal acquaintance with Gora deepened in his last years, he began to consider himself a representative of atheism too, describing himself as a "super-atheist" in one of their talks.
If we accept that Gandhi was an "impure" Hindu, we have to ask what was added to bring about the "impurity." I believe we can say unequivocally that it was a humanist perspective. It was really because of such a perspective that Gandhi undertook, in the light of the rampant Hindu-Moslem strife all around him, to evoke Rahim as well as Rama. His "pro-Islamic" tendencies had always been conditioned by his humanism. In the 1920s he had declared, with regard to stoning:
"Whatever may have been necessary or permissible during the Prophet's lifetime and in that age, this particular form of penalty cannot be defended on the mere ground of its mention in the Koran.... Reason and heart refuse to reconcile themselves to torture for any crime, no matter how vile the crime may be."
-- and with regard to the imposition of veils upon women:
"Whenever I have gone to Bengal, Bihar or the United Provinces, I have observed the purdah system more strictly followed than in the other provinces.... Why do not our women enjoy the same freedom as men do? Why should they not be able to walk out and have fresh air?... Chastity ... cannot be superimposed.... Let us then tear down this purdah with one mighty effort."
Gandhi had long since cultivated close relations with peace-loving Christians throughout the world, and had for many years venerated Jesus as a great teacher of the non-violent use of suffering to struggle for social justice (while remaining unequivocally clear that he did not regard Jesus as the "only begotten son of God"). Now, as he broadened his humanistic scope in his last years, he sought to imbibe what he saw as the best of Gora's atheist thinking, and thereby demonstrate that he belonged to everyone -- to professed atheists as well as to adherents of all the great religions. In 1945 and '46 he told Gora, during their discussions of social work:
"I can neither say my theism is right nor your atheism is wrong. We are seekers after truth.... Whether you are in the right or I am in the right, results will prove.... So go ahead with your work. I will help you though your method is against mine."
"Though there is a resemblance between your thought and practice and mine superficially, I must own that yours is far superior to mine."
He nonetheless continued to use traditional terminology and traditional modes of communication, such as prayer, to express and propagate humanistic values which some conservative members of various religions might reject. It is because of his characteristic filling of old containers with new contents that the message of his last years is so liable to be misunderstood and misinterpreted, particularly if everything is forced into conformity with his expressions, in the early 1920s, of what he described at that time as his fundamentalist Hinduism. However, the man who vowed in 1946 never to bless a marriage between members of the same caste should be conscientiously distinguished from the man who 25 years earlier had declared that "prohibition against ... intermarriage [between members of different castes] is essential to a rapid evolution of the soul."
Gandhi's use of traditional terminology in his last years should be considered in terms of the new values and new understanding that he himself was evolving at the time. This is why he needs to be reinterpreted.
It happens that even some of his thoughts on economic decentralization and simple living can throw light today on our growing problems of environmental destruction, the world's decreasing reserve of fossil-fuels, and the failure of atomic energy technology to live up to the predictions that were made in its behalf in the 1950s and '60s.
Gandhi clearly tried to grow beyond religion and nationality and move toward a universal humanism. If he is taken simply as the father of a nation, he will have little relevance to the future. We all need to grow, as he did, beyond our sectarian biases.
Perhaps there is no topic on which Gandhi can be interpreted without some controversy. At first he usually gave a traditional perspective, but then his honesty of purpose would nearly always drive him to question the status-quo and develop a broader, more humanistic interpretation. He often said his pursuit of truth had caused him to change his mind, and that others too should be open to new findings:
"In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learned many new things.... 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."
In 1940 he urged his followers to go beyond him in this spirit:
"Let Gandhism be destroyed if it stands for error. Truth and ahimsa [renunciation of violence] will never be destroyed, but if Gandhism is another name for sectarianism, it deserves to be destroyed.... You are no followers but fellow students, fellow pilgrims, fellow seekers, fellow workers."
It is time for us to make use of Gandhi in this progressive way with understanding and concern for truth.