The Need for Atheism in Action: Reading “An Atheist with Gandhi”
A Fistful of Myths
Called “Gora” by all those who knew him, Goparaju Ramchandra Rao (1902 – 1975) was one of the pioneering leaders of the Indian atheist movement. He was a freedom fighter and social reformer who fought against evils such as “untouchability,” poverty and superstition. I came across his An Atheist with Gandhi recently. It is a swift read, yet deeply insightful of a person who is as widely misunderstood as he is called a Mahatma. With a “great soul,” there is usually a lot to misunderstand. Most significantly, it is also revealing of the role and need for atheism in action, working for the uplifting of humanity not only intellectually, but with spade and shovel, the need of which has never been greater.
Initially denied, Gora’s persistence pays off as the exchange of letters is succeeded by an invitation to visit Gandhi’s “ashram.” The accounts of what follows are precious records so far ignored by mainstream “hagiographers” of Gandhi’s life.
Before I describe Gora’s findings, there are a fistful of myths to dispel. The term Mahatma is not an actual religious title. A 19th century Indian rationalist leader, Jyotirao Phule, who was a pioneer in the Indian uprisings against the atrocities of the prevailing caste system and scriptural dogma, was also bestowed the title of “Mahatma” by his admirers. It would not be possible to do so for a fierce critic of Hindu scripture if the title were a religious one. Mohandas Gandhi never claimed himself to be a saint. Even before this book entered consideration, it would have been a mistake to think that Gandhi was a religious leader, much less a “Hindu fundamentalist,” as described by some critics such as the esteemed Christopher Hitchens. He was a radical reformer who was reviled by the clergy of almost every religion in India. In his lifetime, many Muslim clerics and politicians attacked him as an “enemy of Islam,” while orthodox Hindu leaders despised him for leading the tearing down of the caste system, ending “untouchability” and taking away their position of authority amongst India’s masses. On his part, Gandhi made in-depth studies of various religions and criticized them over social injustices and fallacies in teachings. His desperate efforts to preserve India’s secular ethic cost him his life at the hands of a Hindu fascist. However, he did not make a conscious leap towards atheism.
What is “Atheism in Action”?
Gora finds Gandhi initially dismissive of atheism as a “denial of self,” an absence of morality and a spiritual vacuum inconceivable. After several attempts at correspondence, Gora finds himself invited to stay at Gandhi’s ashram, but does not receive an appointment to meet with him until much later. When he finally meets Gandhi, he realizes that Gandhi had spent the preceding days inquiring with Gora’s colleagues about his work in fighting “untouchability” and the positive results he produced. “Untouchability,” an abominable mixture of socio-religious slavery and segregation based on the insidious “caste system,” affected hundreds of millions of people then and no small numbers even today. Gandhi felt Indians were unworthy of independence until these evil practices were ended. It was Gandhi’s ascertaining that Gora was not merely an intellectual desiring idle talk that finally sparked his interest. First questioned on his work, Gora spoke of his organizing inter-community dining and adult education classes. When challenged by Gandhi that such work was not unique to atheism, Gora replies:
“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… 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.” (pg. 25)
When Gandhi says he not find the spread of atheism to be healthy, and muses a “fast” against it, he is struck with Gora’s two-fold response – (1) that he would fast against Gandhi’s fast, and (2) his conviction in atheism was steadfast but if Gandhi could point out where atheism was wrong, he would happily change his view.
When Gandhi directly asks “why do you want atheism,” Gora does not flinch from the challenge and does all atheists proud:
“I want ethics to rule and idealism to grow. That can be achieved only when belief in god and fate is done away with and consequently the theistic philosophy of life is changed. In positive terms, I want atheism, so that man shall cease to depend on god and stand firmly on his own legs. In such a man a healthy social outlook will grow, because atheism finds no justification for the economic and social inequalities between man and man. The inequalities have been kept so far by the acquiescence of the mass of theists rather than by any force of arms. When the belief in god goes and when man begins to stand on his own legs, all humanity becomes one and equal, because not only do men resemble much more than they differ but fellow-feeling smoothens the differences. I cannot remove god, if god were the truth. But it is not so. God is a falsehood conceived by man. Like many falsehoods, it was, in the past, useful to some extent. But like all falsehoods, it polluted life in the long run. So belief in god can go and it must go now in order to wash off corruption and to increase morality in mankind. I want atheism to make man self-confident and to establish social and economic equalities non-violently. Tell me, Bapu (Father), where am I wrong?” (pgs. 33-34)
Knowing Gandhi’s own religiosity and perhaps expecting a severe reaction, Gora felt “overwhelmed” when he found Gandhi encouraging him:
“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.” (pg. 34)
“Fundamentalists,” by definition, do not even consider such possibilities. Never has a Pat Robertson or an Imam Khomeini been prepared to concede to an atheist that “I can neither say that my theism is right nor your atheism is wrong.” Gandhi was himself on the lookout for fanaticism, and pleased to find none in the Indian atheist. Gora is perhaps testing Gandhi’s sincerity when he asks for guidance to “minimize my mistakes,” to which Gandhi replies:
“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.” (pg. 34)
Of course, it is the trademark practice of the religious to continue with their mistakes even after they are made plain, but for the context of this conversation in 1945, I am prepared to accept that Gandhi and Gora had now established a sincere connection. Upon finding an atheist he could communicate with, admittedly on his terms, the 76-year old “Mahatma” was nevertheless more than willing to change his preconceived notions about atheism.
“Truth” is “God”?
A working relationship has also been formed, and Gora takes away from Gandhi a sense to intensify his anti-casteism campaign by facilitating inter-caste marriage. Gandhi later agrees to host the marriage of Gora’s daughter, who is marrying a man of the “untouchable” class. When informed that Gora’s prospective son-in-law is also an atheist and the family is concerned about the “divine blessing” bestowed on other couples who marry at the ashram, Gandhi promises to replace “in the name of God” with “in the name of Truth,” for “atheists also respect truth.” (pg. 37) The conversation then takes an interesting twist:
Gandhi: The concepts of truth may differ. But all admit and respect truth. That truth I call God. For some time, I was saying, ‘God is Truth,’ but that did not satisfy me. So now I say, ‘Truth is God.’
Gora: If truth is god, then why don’t you say ‘Satyam … ‘ (Truth) instead of ‘Raghupati Raghava’? ‘Raghupati Raghava’ conveys to others a meaning very different from what it conveys to you.
We could further argue that the worth of “Truth” does not need enhancement, and especially not through being related with a deity of any kind, but one can still appreciate the direction of Gandhi’s thinking, for he is putting reality before the theological conception. Upon the question of his prospective son-in-law, Arjun Rao, joining Gandhi’s ashram, Gora expresses a concern that he may be coerced into participating in religious activities. Gandhi says that the young man should attend prayers to instill discipline, but does not have to recite the verses if he does not believe in them.
I initially pictured a slight grin on Gandhi’s face when he asks Gora, “Suppose in the two years that Arjun Rao sits regularly at the prayers, he turns towards theism?” However, I realized this leg of the conversation was only half-humorous. Gora replied that he would welcome it, as he did not want anyone to be “an atheist with a closed mind.” In turn, Gandhi says, “Oh, yes. I know you are not a fanatic. Instead of Arjun Rao taking to theism, it looks as if both of you will carry this old man into your camp!” (pg. 38)
Gora’s debate with Gandhi carries into the political arena, with some very relevant results. When drafting the pledge of the Indian National Congress’s commitment to the independence of India in 1946, Gora objected to a reference to God. Gandhi offered in compromise a reference to a force that “we may or may not call divine but we all feel within us.” Although Gora notes that the very hypothesis of a non-human power of any kind subordinates the free will of humans to it and therefore is inherently theistic, he notes Gandhi’s willingness to incorporate different points of view. In 1925, at a point when Gandhi perhaps carried prejudices against atheism, had nevertheless written that he was willing to agree to the removal of the “mention of God” from the pledge of the Congress party if there had been a “conscientious objection” at the time. (pg. 46) A similar debate has been recently carried out between the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and various anchors at FOX News – with considerable rancor and animosity.
What Do These Observations Mean For Us?
Beyond gaining a deeper understanding of the life and times of a great human being, analyzing Mohandas Gandhi’s progressive way of thinking is crucial, for Gandhi and Gora showed in the 1940s what we consider impossible today – a partnership between the theists and the atheists for the greater good of humanity. The foremost lesson that most atheists should carry away with them from reading this most excellent and valuable book is that atheism in action and service can win over more of the religious than merely through intellectual discussions. Atheism must challenge religion not only in the mind, but fuel a person’s practical capacity for courageous action and service in challenging times.
This book does not pit an atheist against the leader of a religious establishment but with a singular personality who has a deep connection with an entire nation, which is why the call for “atheism in action” must be seriously considered for that is an essential way to make a connection with the masses. Mohandas Gandhi’s religious views and practices were exhaustive, eccentric and controversial, but also open and evolving. Gandhi never sought to conceal; he wrote extensively about his spiritual experiments, admitted his failings, sought out criticism from colleagues and friends. He repeatedly sought to persuade his audiences that he was simultaneously a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Parsi and a Jew. One could have sarcastically pointed out to Gandhi that the scriptures of various religions did not share his humanity in allowing multiple allegiances, it requires a closer look to realize that there is more than naïve idealism here. In his book Gandhi And His Religion, author Poosapati Appala Raju proposes that Gandhi incorporated secular ideas into a religious nomenclature in order to communicate with India’s deeply religious masses – a feature of Indian life that Gandhi did not think would change anytime soon. For all of Gandhi’s religiosity, he was determined that an independent India would be a secular republic.
Perhaps Gandhi’s final utterance on the subject came amidst his efforts to end the seemingly inexhaustible cycle of bloodbaths between Muslims and Hindus in 1946 and 1947. Having journeyed through parts of India engulfed in an atmosphere of terror fomented by medieval-style barbarism, Gandhi was reported as having “wished the communalists turned atheists if that served to stop communal hatred and riots.” (pg. 39) Whilst the sentiment is more due to anguish than conviction, we are reminded that Gandhi lived for the sake of humanity and not religious loyalties and dogma.
Gora’s testimony of him shows us that he was still prepared at a late age to move from a state of mind where “atheism” meant “immoral,” to understanding that atheism was a path of sincere and genuine humanity, and accepting that he could not say his theism was correct and atheism was not. He supported the work of the atheists to make sure that the goal of uplifting India’s people was being accomplished. This attitude is almost universally absent from religious leaders today. They value their own sense of righteousness and power above the greater good of humanity, which is why they often relish the frequent plunges into senseless barbarism to elevate their faith ever so closer to the imaginary realm of divinity.
India and the world were enriched significantly by the lives and work of Mohandas Gandhi and G. Ramachandra Rao. While the intellectual atheist would have continued to find Gandhi a sparring partner, he would be the kind worth sparring with. When the atheist in question was a worker, a person who wanted to make a real difference for humanity, he found the Mahatma standing by his side, a formidable ally.
“He was moving humanity and he was moving with humanity. He started with a humanity that believed in god of the ‘Raghupati Raghava’ type. As he pushed forward, he passed through the stages of ‘God is Truth’ and ‘Truth is God’. He never allowed old forms to hamper the progress. If he felt that the progress of humanity required leaving god altogether, I am sure, he was not the man to hesitate.”
– G. Ramachandra Rao, “Gora,” on Mahatma Gandhi (pg. 47)
An Atheist with Gandhi is freely available to be read online and to download
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