Every week, we feature excerpts by Gandhi that lend insight into his values and personal practices.
Gandhi had a change in his attitude towards atheism between 1941 and 1948 thanks to his interaction with Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao) and family. Their extraordinary efforts to eradicate untouchability inspired Gandhi. An Atheist With Gandhi is a booklet where Gora describes from the first correspondence they had; to their first personal contact; to how Gandhi invited him to stay as an inmate at the Sevagram ashram and, then, his coworkers, wife (Saraswathi) and his whole family; to the agreement to marry Gora's and Saraswathi's eldest daughter (Manorama) with an "untouchable" and switching "God" for "Truth" during the ceremony. In fact, it was at the Sevagram ashram where his 14 year old son Lavanam
-- which means "Salt" in Sanskrit in honor of the epic Salt March Satyagraha -- met Gandhi and dedicated the rest of his life to the uplifting of all (Sarvodaya).
What follows is a quote of the late Gandhi most likely influenced by this friendship, a couple of letters and a couple of their interactions in Sevagram.
An Atheist's Faith In Humanity And My Religion (Sep 09, 1946)
"You must watch my life, how I live, eat, sit, talk, behave in general. The sum total of all these in me is my religion." ~ M.K. Gandhi (1)
Gora writes: "Sometime in March 1946 or so, I read in the news columns that Bapuji wanted his camp at Bombay to be arranged in the huts of Harijans. He followed up the decision in Delhi also where he stayed in the Harijan Mandir. His decision had considerable significance in view of the inhuman segregation imposed upon the Harijans in India. So I immediately wrote my congratulations to him and said:
"I and my coworkers have been trying this method of residing and eating with the Harijans for the last five or six years. Our experience proves that it is an efficient method to remove the social isolation of the untouchables. But our work is spreading slowly. If a man like Bapuji took it up, as he did at Bombay, it is bound to gain wide publicity and attract more workers to the method.
In this connection, another suggestion might be considered. Side by side with the mixing up, an attempt also might be made to discourage the use of labels of caste and creed which raise imaginary barriers between man and man. Not only should the practice of untouchability go, but the Harijan should not be allowed to continue a Harijan; he should be united with the general stream of humanity. Similarly, the Hindu and Muslim differences might be solved by discarding the labels. Such an attempt will no longer keep the form of communal harmony, but it would lead to the growth of one humanity. Communal harmony presupposes the existence of communities. In one humanity no communities exist. Though a powerful personality like Gandhiji might harmonize communities for a while, when the personal influence weakened, the communities would clash again. So a permanent solution of communal differences is the growth of one-humanity outlook rather than communal harmony." [...]
Gandhi then replies from Harijan Mandir in New Delhi, on April 9th 1946:
Dear Ramachandra Rao (Gora),
I have your letter. Though there is a resemblance between your thought and practice and mine superficially, I must own that yours is far superior to mine. Having made that admission let me emphasize the fact that deep down there is a fundamental difference between you and me and, therefore, your thought and mine. For you consciously ignore God. Equally consciously, probably more progressively, I rely upon God. Therefore your complaint is hasty. You will be better able to judge if you survive me and vice versa.
Do not think of passing any time with me whilst I am wandering. I may be said to be not wandering when I am in Sevagram. Therefore come to me whenever I am there.
The second time they met in person, Shri Pyarelal informed Gora that he could meet Gandhi that evening for half an hour at 4 o'clock. He recalls:
[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]
Gandhi: You are half a minute too soon!
Gora: I am sorry, it is 4 o'clock by my watch [I replied stepping back.]
Gandhi: No, no, come in, watches may disagree, but let us not. :)
Afterwards in a longer interview Gora writes:
Gora: I want atheism to make a human being self-confident and to establish social and economic equalities nonviolently. Tell me, Bapu, where am I wrong?
[Bapuji listened to my long explanation patiently. Then he sat up in the bed and said slowly]
Gandhi: Yes, I see an ideal in your talk. I can neither say that my theism is right nor your atheism is wrong. We are seekers after truth. We change whenever we find ourselves in the wrong. I changed like that many times in my life. I see you are a worker. You are not a fanatic. You will change whenever you find yourself in the wrong. There is no harm as long as you are not fanatical. Whether you are in the right or I am in the right, results will prove. Then I may go your way or you may come my way; or both of us may go a third way. So go ahead with your work. I will help you, though your method is against mine.
Gora: [I felt overwhelmed by his magnanimity, I requested] You are encouraging me, Bapu. I want to be warned of the possible pitfalls in my way, so that I may benefit by your wisdom and experience and minimize my mistakes.
Gandhi: It is not a mistake to commit a mistake, for no one commits a mistake knowing it to be one. But it is a mistake not to correct the mistake after knowing it to be one. If you are afraid of committing a mistake, you are afraid of doing anything at all. You will correct your mistakes whenever you find them.
Gora: [Then he inquired into my conception of morality] I do what I say and I say what I do -- that is my definition of moral behaviour. There is no room for secrecy. All behaviour is moral that is open.
Gandhi: Exactly. I would put it, 'secrecy is sin'. You are an atheist. You fight shy of the term sin.
[He described to me some of his hard experiences in trying to live openly... We conversed together on the whole for seventy minutes. There was no time limit imposed. It was a heart-to-heart talk. The topics were varied and often related to personal opinions and experiences. Throughout the conversation I was feeling that I was getting closer and closer to Bapu.
Some of his words rang in my ears ever afterwards. "I can neither say that my theism is right not your atheism is wrong.... I will help you though your method is against mine," showed me the length Bapuji went in courtesy and toleration. Again, "If you are afraid to commit a mistake, you are afraid to do anything at all," struck as a remarkably practical suggestion and a call to bold action. Recollection of the conversation enabled me to improve my behaviour in several respects.] (2)
(1) “Talk With A Christian Missionary”, Harijan. CWMG, Vol 92, p. 190-191, September 22, 1946.
(2) An Atheist With Gandhi by Gora, 1950
Be the Change: This week, try to remove labels of countries and religions in your conversations and relate at the human-to-human level.