When Gandhi was accused of being a secret Christian
As Gandhi dwelled in the Ashram and reflected on this journey in pursuit of truth and brahmacharya, he was increasingly drawn to the Gita as a philosophical text. He decided to give a daily discourse on the Gita, hoping to elaborate on the incessant striving to lead his life by its ideals, the morning prayer provided the occasion. On 24 February 1926 Gandhi gave the first discourse; by the time he concluded the lecture series on 23 November 1926 he had given 218 discourses on the Gita. Gandhi had been commenting on stray verses and deducing his own meaning from them, often leaving his co-workers confounded by his interpretation. Not satisfied with his discourses they demanded that Gandhi also translate the Gita into Gujarati with notes. The year-long in-dwelling at the Ashram afforded the opportunity. Thus, along with his autobiographical narrative and daily discourses, Gandhi began the translation of the Gita so that the meaning he derived from it could be fully comprehended. Gandhi’s Gujarati translation of the Gita was published on the day that Gandhi, along with chosen satyagrahis, began his march to Dandi on 12 March 1930.
Gandhi rarely made a claim to originality and even rarer it was for him to claim literary merit for his writings. But while presenting his translation he made a claim that no translation had made thus far. “This desire does not mean much disrespect to other renderings. They have their own place. But I am not aware of the claim made by the translators of enforcing their meaning of the Gita in their own lives. At the back of my reading there is the claim of an endeavour to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of 40 years. For this reason I do indeed harbour the wish that all Gujarati men or women wishing to shape their conduct according to their faith should digest and derive strength from the translations here presented.” The path of the Gita, Gandhi said, was neither contemplation nor devotion; the ideal was sthitaprajna. Gandhi adopted, and wanted the Ashram community to adopt, a mode of conduct, a self-practice to attain a state where one acts and yet does not act. This mode, this disposition was yajna, sacrifice. The Gita declared that “together with the sacrifice did the Lord of beings create” and the world would sustain so long as there was sacrifice, as “sacrifice produced rain”. Gandhi found the word yajna full of beauty and power. He saw this ideal of sacrifice as the basis of all religions. Gandhi emphasised the aspect of cultivating the disposition of a yogi, and his exemplar was Jesus Christ. It was he who had shown the path. Gandhi said that the term yajna had to be understood in the way “Jesus put on a crown of thorns to win salvation for his people, allowed his hands and feet to be nailed and suffered agonies before he gave up the ghost. This has been the law of yajna.
From immemorial times without yajna the earth cannot exist even for a moment.”
For Gandhi, an act of service was sacrifice, or yajna. But how does one perform sacrifice in daily life? His response was two-fold; for one, he turned to the Bible and other was uniquely his own.
“Earn thy bread by the sweat of thy brow”, says the Bible. Gandhi made this central to the life of the Ashram and borrowed the term “bread labour” from Tolstoy to describe the nature of work. This was an eternal principal; it was dharma, duty, to perform bread labour, and those who did not perform this yajna, ate, according to the Gita, “stolen” food. The other form of yajna was that which is peculiar to one’s times, as every age may and should have its own yajna, known as Yug-dharma, duty entailed upon one by the particular age. For Gandhi, the yajna of his times was spinning, his Yug-dharma. Spinning was an obligatory Ashram observance; each member was required to spin 140 threads daily, each thread measuring four feet. This spinning was called sutra-yajna, sacrificial spinning. One of the reasons for his decision to spend the year at the Ashram was to devote more attention to spinning and to resolving the organisational issues of the body that he had created, the All-India Spinners’ Association.
During the same year, students of the Gujarat Vidyapith that he had founded in 1920, and whose chancellor he was, invited him to give lectures. They wanted him to reflect on the life of Christ. The lectures on the Bible, specifically the sermon on the Mount, began on July 24, 1926. The plan was to conduct these classes on each Saturday thereafter. But as soon as Gandhi began teaching the New Testament, he was “taken to task” for reading it to the students. One correspondent asked, “Will you please say why you are reading the Bible to the students of the Gujarat National College? Is there nothing useful in our literature? Is the Gita less to you than the Bible? You are never tired of saying that you are a staunch Sanatani. Have you not now been found as a Christian in secret? You may say that a man does not become a Christian by reading the Bible. But is not reading the Bible to the boys a way of converting them to Christianity? Can the boys remain uninfluenced by the Bible reading? Are they not likely to become Christians by reading the Bible? What is there specifically in the Bible that is not to be found in our sacred books? I do hope you will give an adequate reply and give preference to the Vedas over the Bible.”
Gandhi saw this hyper sensitivity as an indication of the intensity of “the wave of intoleration that is sweeping through this unhappy land” and refused the correspondent’s request to give preference to the Vedas over the Bible. To him, his study and reverence for the Bible and other scriptures was wholly consistent with his claim to be a Hindu. “He is no Sanatani Hindu who is narrow, bigoted and considers evil to be good if it has the sanction of antiquity and is to be found supported in any Sanskrit book.”
The charge of being a Christian in secret was not new. He found it both a libel and a compliment. It was a libel because there were still people in the world, especially at a time when he was writing and publishing the Autobiography, who believed that he was capable of being anything in secret, for the fear of being that openly. He declared, “There is nothing in the world that would keep me from professing Christianity or any other faith the moment I felt the truth of and the need for it.” This was a compliment, because therein Gandhi felt an acknowledgement, however reluctant, of his capacity for appreciating the beauties of Christianity. He wished to own up to that charge and the compliment.