Gandhi and Gora


Goparaju Ramchandra Rao 91902-1975) was no ordinary doctrinaire atheist bent on converting the faithful to a vision of godlessness. His atheism was based on an idea of what he called “one-humanity” and he with his wife spent his ife in active public service , participating in the freedom movement, promoting inter-caste marriages, indeed marrying his children to spouses from among dalit community to that end. He had his theatrical side that bordered on the dangerously dramatic, as when he held pork-and-beef dinners, watched solar eclipses stayed in haunted houses. But his greatest achievement, as an atheist no less, was to actively engage Gandhi in dialogues on the subject of God, humanity its alleviation from suffering, the caste system for which he sought out the Mahatma at his ashram in Sewagram, in the Harijan colony in Delhi.

The time he spent with Gandhi would profoundly affect him and, as the correspondence and conversations below show, Gandhi no less. It was an exchange, in fact a confluence that was historic for the reflexivity of its discourse, its terms of engagement defined by a growing empathy, humility, mutual curiosity and respect for world views that appear, at a surface view and at first glance, inflexible.

In the conversations below you can hear inflexibility tempered by tolerance, a willingness to learn, indeed an eagerness to understand the ‘other.’ Gora’s adoration is matched by Gandhi’s gradual affection (but never condescension) after some awkwardness; initial curiosity gives way to an eagerness to learn from, of the other’s point of view. Gora the atheist acknowledges a humility that expresses the same desire: to learn about the need for faith. Theos and A-Theos are not metaphysical or hermeneutic terms for engagement; the conversations on matters of faith or no-faith, theos or a-theos never stray far from the terrain of practicality or rather praxis;  to that extent, the reader ‘listening’ in is also grounded in the world and its iniquities. Both Gandhi and Gora agree, over the course of their dialogues that paths may diverge but the goal is one. The resolution is tentative but resonates. The deeply spiritual “prophet” (Gora’s term) believer in the multiplicity of faiths and the atheist, believer in none but a ‘creedless’ humanity  represent an Indic  tradition of argument and conversation grounded in what Tagroe called a universal humanism.

It could not have been otherwise; Gora’s authenticity reaches the ‘reader’ through Gandhi who feels the atheist radiates a conviction that K.G. Mashruwala, the Gandhian who wrote an Introduction to Gora’s memoir, found to be no less a faith itself. Mashruwala signed off his own “conversation” (that is what the Introduction can be ‘read’ as) with the following: “Of great and practical importance is his living faith in living and dying for what he believes to be right, good and just, and in accordance with the highest principles of social and personal morality.” And with a deep bow to this atheist, Mashruwala, then the editor of the Harijan pays a rich tribute that also interstitially sums up his own ‘Gandhian’ vision of the place of God in our world, in humanity itself: “…as long as he retains a loving heart, exemplary moral character and courage, both in personal and public life, and a life of service and sacrifice, his name will be found in the list of God’s own devotees. For his sake, deva will assume the name adeva.”

Gora titles his chapters “interviews”. We have retained the original chapter headings. But for us, these are not “interviews.” The word connotes a hierarchy of power; perhaps Gora meant it that way. But for us the interactions do not exhibit the performativity of hierarchy; indeed the interactions are dialogues, conversations between equals and that is the stunning sound you can hear in the exchanges between Gandhi and Gora—the inflections of empathy and tolerance for positions that may never find resolution in the realm of belief though they coalesce in the troubled territory of praxis. The Beacon


Excerpts from “An Atheist with Gandhi” by Gora

Chapter III: I Go to Sewagram

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 produce better workers even than him 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 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:

नेति नेति .

{“Not. 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 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.


Chapter IV: My First Interview with Gandhi

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: nonco-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). I bowed.

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 He judged theories and ideologies by the results they yielded in practice. Indeed that is a safe method to settle differences. Second, 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.


Chapter V: My Second 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.


Chapter VI: I Go to Sewagram Again.

In January 1945, the Talimi Sangh convened a Basic Education Conference at Sevagram. I was invited to it. I wanted  to take advantage of my journey to the conference by staying at Sevagram in continuation and fulfilling my promise  to go to the Ashram again. I wrote to Gandhiji and he approved of my idea. So in January, 1945, I was in the Ashram again.
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, earthwork, 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 results.

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 heartbeat 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…


Chapter VII: A Long Interview
Soon after 4 a.m. on the 30th of March, 1945, Shri Prabhakar, an ashramite, woke me up from bed and informed me that Bapuji would talk to me at 5 a.m. after the morning prayers. A feeling of joy rushed on me as the long awaited hour had come. I got ready with feelings of great hope and anxious expectation. I was to talk to a great theist on a subject buried deep in gross misconceptions and vile slander. What would he ask me? How should I present the case for atheism? How to remove the prejudice against atheism? These were my anxious thoughts. But I felt atheism was  right. I had long looked forward for an opportunity to vindicate the cause of atheism. Now that I got the opportunity, I was happy. With such mixed feelings I went to Bapu’s cottage at that early morning hour.
Bapuji lay stretched full length on his low bed in the open air beside his cottage. I greeted him. He beckoned me to sit by his bed. I did. The situation was encouraging. I felt like sitting by the side of my father to consult him closely on a domestic affair.
“Now, you tell me, why do you want atheism?” Bapuji asked me in a calm and affectionate voice.
I was struck by the tone as well as by the nature of the question. It was not the usual question: What is atheism? or  what is the use of atheism? Such questions call forth only academic answers. ‘Why do you want atheism?’ had  something remarkably human and practical about it. It was Bapu-like. To my recollection, in all my numerous discussions on atheism, no one had put the question to me in that form. But, instead of taking me by surprise on account of its singularity, the question touched my heart and I poured out my heart.

I began: “I was in Calcutta last year. I saw the famine-stricken destitutes  walking heavily on the pavements. Here and there some of them dropped dead in the streets. They died beside the marts and stalls which exhibited their sweets and fruits for sale. Suppose there was a hungry dog or a bull in the same situation. Would he die of hunger? No. Beat him, scold him, he would persist in his attempts to pounce upon the shop, somehow eat the sweets and fruits and satisfy his hunger. Why did not the destitute do the same? I do not think they were afraid of the policeman. The destitutes were there in hundreds and thousands. No concerted action was required of them. If a fraction of their number had fallen upon the shops, all the policemen in Calcutta put together could not have stopped them. Even confinement in a gaol with its poor diet would have been preferable to death due to starvation. Why, then, the destitutes did not feel desperate and loot the shops? Were all the destitutes abject cowards without exception? Or had all of them such a high sense of civic responsibility as to be unwilling to disturb law and order? No. They were all simple, normal folk with no knowledge of civic rights and duties. Had they known their civic rights and duties in the least, there would have been no Bengal famine at all.

“Looking at the other side, were all the shop-keepers so cruel as to allow their fellow-men to die of dire hunger before their own eyes? No. On the other hand they shed tears of pity and contributed liberally and ran the gruel kitchens for the destitutes. They recited hymns of ethics every day.
“If the destitute is not cowardly and if the shopman is not cruel, why did so many people die of hunger? I think the reason is their philosophy of life. “Both the destitute and the shop-keeper are votaries of the same philosophy of life. Each one said to himself: ‘It is my fate, that is his fate; God made me like this, God made him like that.’ On account of the commonness of their philosophy, there was no change in their relationship, though some ate their fill and many starved to death. The destitute’s faith in that philosophy made his behaviour different from the animals.
“What I have said with regard to the Bengal famine applies also to the relationship between the untouchables and the caste Hindus, between the dark-skinned and the white-skinned. The same philosophy rules all these relationships.

“What is the result of following that philosophy of life? Man has become worse than the animal. Instead of living well, he is dying ill. His strength to resist evil is very much weakened. The pleasures of the few are built upon the bones of the many. This is really the unhappy fact in spite of our moral professions and pious wishes for the happiness of all humanity. This philosophy of life based upon belief in God and fate — this theistic philosophy — I hold responsible for defeating our efforts at ethical life and idealism   It cannot securely preserve the balance of unequal social relations any longer, because the pains of the flesh have begun to revolt against that philosophy. Hate and war are already replacing love and peace.

“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, where am I wrong?”
Bapuji listened to my long explanation patiently. Then he sat up in the bed and said slowly: “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.”

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.”
Bapuji replied, “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.”

He told me he was pleased with the conduct of my co-workers. He had called them to the Ashram to see how I  influenced my associates. That revealed to me why he was giving special attention to the batches of my co-workers while he seemed indifferent to me for the past three months.  Then he inquired into my conception of morality. I replied, “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.”

“Exactly,” said Bapuji, “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.

He asked me whether I use a latrine in my village centre. Speaking on the problem of sanitation he said, “At  Haradwar I wanted to sit on the banks of the Ganga. But I found no clean spot there. Untouchability and soil-pollution are the two shameless sins of us in India.”

In another part of the conversation he said, “I wonder why workers are anxious to get a name. In South Africa I drudged for five years in kitchens and latrines.” I asked him, what time I should approach him for consultation. He readily replied, “You are a member of my family. Come to me any time you find me not engaged with others.”

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.

I think, Bapuji also reflected deeply on some points in our conversation. His gestures and pauses during the conversation gave me that impression. Perhaps, in the atheism that I was presenting, he recognized positive aspects different from the mere negations contained in the common conception of godlessness. Whatever it may be, one thing is certain. His later conversations and correspondence with me show that he began to understand me and my
atheism. Bapuji left for Bombay the next day. I returned to my village


Chapter VIII: My Daughter’s Marriage

My contact and conversation with Gandhiji not only confirmed me in atheism but turned my thoughts more towards practical programmes. Hitherto, for the removal of untouchability, my programme had consisted of only  cosmopolitan dinners. I thought I should go a step further. There should be inter-marriages. Only inter-marriages will efface the differences of caste, creed, and colour. My atheistic outlook does not recognize differences of caste or creed. But that is not enough. Those labels are extant in society at large. I should take them as they are and mix them up in marriage alliances. So I discussed my idea with my wife and with my eldest daughter (Manorama). They accepted my programme. My daughter agreed to marry an ‘untouchable’.
I informed Bapuji of the decision of my family and of the atheistic way of thinking that led to the decision. The following is a translation into English of his reply in Hindustani:

Sodepur, 16-1-’46

Bhai Ramachandra Rao
I have your letter. I like it. I am also glad that you have resolved to marry Manorama to a Harijan. But your inference in favor of atheism is not correct; or as I believe, your atheism takes the shape of theism. I am prepared to get the marriage performed in the Sevagram Ashram; and I shall keep the same ceremony as I did for Tendulkar and the priest who will perform the ceremony under my supervision will be a Harijan. You are welcome to make any suggestions in this respect. One more thing — Manorama is 17 years old, perhaps I remember her also. I suggest that she should wait for at least two years. If your idea is that the ceremony might be performed now, but the girl should stay with the husband, on attaining the age of 19, my advice is that you should perform the marriage when she becomes fit to stay with her husband. In the meantime they should get themselves trained in such other things as they should know. At least they might learn Hindustani in both the scripts; and the charkha with the ancillary processes

(The body of the letter is in the hand of Shri Kanu Gandhi; the portion in italics is in Bapu’s own handwriting.)

The next month Bapuji came to Madras to preside over the Jubilee Celebrations of the Hindustani Prechar Sabha. I met him at Madras for elucidation of the points raised in his letter.

I expressed my thankfulness to Bapuji for agreeing to celebrate my daughter’s marriage in the Ashram. I also saw the desirability of postponing, according to his suggestion, of the solemnization for two years and of training up my son-inlaw (Arjun Rao) during those two years in the Ashram. Regarding the details, I said, “Perhaps, in the course of the marriage ceremony, you will invoke divine blessings for the couple, or say the words: ‘in the name of God’. My  daughter and my son-in-law are atheistically minded. They will not be parties to such implied belief in god.

Gandhiji: In the case of your daughter’s marriage, I will say ‘in the name of Truth’ instead of ‘in the name of God’. Atheists also respect truth.
I: Yes. Atheists regard truthfulness as a social necessity. Truth binds man to man in association. Without truth there can be no social organization.
G: Not only that. Truth means existence; the existence of that we know and of that we do not know. The sum total of all existence is absolute truth or the Truth. (Gandhiji spoke at length on the subject of the absolute truth.)

I: I think, truth is only relative to human experience. The concept of the absolute truth which is beyond human experience is but a hypothesis formulated by man for the convenience of his thought process. Any absolute, like the infinite, is only an imaginary something.
G: The concepts of truth may differ. But all admit and respect truth. That truth I call God. For sometime I was saying, ‘God is Truth,’ but that did not satisfy me. So now I say, ‘Truth is God.’

I: If truth is god, then why don’t you say ‘Satyam … ‘ instead of ‘Raghupati Raghava’? ‘Raghupati Raghava’ conveys to others a meaning very different from what it conveys to you.
G: Do you think I am superstitious? I am a super-atheist. There was visible emphasis in these words. I felt that this matter must be thrashed out fully some time. But that was not the proper occasion for it. The topic before us was the form of my daughter’s marriage and I thought I had better confine myself to it just then. As it was agreed that in the form of the ceremony there would be mention of ‘truth’ instead of ‘god’, I passed on to the next point.

I: While I was in the Ashram, I was not attending the prayers. But my stay in the Ashram has been hitherto short and broken. Now Arjun Rao will be in the Ashram for two years. There must be a clear understanding about the discipline. What shall be his position in relation to attendance at the prayers,  Bapu?
G: Let him attend the prayers as a matter of discipline of the Ashram. But let him not recite the verses if he does not believe in them.

I was very much impressed by his spirit of accomodation. He showed me by example how to give practical shape to principles.  He continued, “Suppose in the two years that Arjun Rao sits regularly at the prayers, he turns towards theism?”

I: I will be very happy, Bapu. I do not want anyone to be an atheist with closed mind. He should be an atheist out of conviction. If he takes to theism out of conviction, I welcome such a change in him.
G: 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!  (He returned the complement and laughed heartily. His large-heartedness was evident at every turn.}

In February, 1946, Arjun Rao accompanied Gandhiji to Sevagram. There he stayed for two years. He was attending the prayers but he was not reciting the verses.

Towards the end of 1947, Bapuji intimated to me that the marriage would be performed in April 1948. But he was assassinated in January 1948. The ashramites who knew the details of Bapuji’s promise, solemnized the marriage of my daughter, Manorama, with Arjun Rao in the Ashram on 13-3-’48. All references to god were scrupulously avoided in the form of that ceremony.

Thus Bapuji’s promise was fulfilled and my atheistic requirements too were fully respected.  Pandit Sundarlal,  speaking at the marriage function, revealed to the guests a particular remark that Bapuji made to him when they both had met at Delhi at the time of a communal riot. Bapuji wished the communities turned atheists, if that served to stop communal hatred and riots. This remark illustrated again that Bapuji evaluated principles not so much by their intellectual or sentimental content as by their practical results. He was not averse to atheism if it tended to civilize humanity.


Chapter IX: The Difference

[Excerpts only]

Did not Bapuji tell me in his conversation on 30-3’45, ‘I will help you, though your method is against mine’? All the adjustments he made and all the accommodation he showed in order to celebrate my daughter’s marriage in the Ashram were to me proof positive that he helped me. At the same time he pointed out to me equally clearly, that our methods differed. The following correspondence illustrates this fact. 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 co-workers 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 clash again. So a permanent solution of communal differences is the growth of one-humanity outlook rather than communal harmony. The growth of one humanity requires the rejection of communal labels. Perhaps even the rejection of the labels of religion would involve a change of the belief in god, for every denominational label is associated with faith in a particular form of god. But, though every religion talked only of one god, in practice, however, belief in god always is a falsehood. So atheism is the most suitable attitude for the  establishment of one humanity.
In order to set up happy human relations, communal harmony is the utmost limit to which the theistic mind can be  stretched inasmuch as belief in god has to be somehow preserved. But communal harmony is beset with definite drawbacks. So the desirability of atheism as the best means to establish one humanity and thereby to lay strong  foundations for permanent peace in human relations might be considered.

My letter to Bapuji brought the following reply:

Harijan Mandir New Delhi, 9-4-’46

Dear Ramachandra Rao,

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.


I was in Delhi towards the end of 1946, attached to the A. I. C. C. office as a Congress organizer. I had occasions to go to Bhangi Colony (Harijan Mandir) where Gandhiji camped at that time. I had some short talks with him on the atheistic approach.

Once he asked me for my programme to remove untouchability.

I: Regular cosmopolitan dinners on a mass scale like the foreign cloth bonfires of 1920.
Gandhiji: Would cosmopolitan dinners be sufficient to catch the imagination of the people?

I: Then, inter-marriages. Now that we have nationalists and Congressmen in the interim Government, arrangements may be made to announce every intermarriage by a Government notification. Also every inter-marriage should be granted a present of Rs. 500 by the Government. Every child up to the third born of such wedlock should be paid a quarterly subsidy of Rs. 50 for two years.
G: Why do you propose the money-subsidy? Will not the publicity be sufficient?

I: At present the ostracism of inter-marriages often takes the shape of economic sanctions by the society. People who appreciated the principle of inter-marriages are often unable to put the principle into practice, because they are afraid to face the economic pressures that follow close on the heels of inter-marriages. As long as the economic system remains what it is today, such pressure is a real hardship. So while the law and the Government notification protect the couple from social harassment, the money subsidy saves the intermarriages from economic sabotage. This policy of the Government may be necessary only for a term of five or ten years during which period the movement will take root and will grow on popular support later on.
G: That is well. But it does not preserve the sanctity of marriage. It reduces marriage to prostitution, and alliance for the consideration of money.

I: Today marriages confined to the limits of caste and the practice of dowry are no better. The system of Government subsidy to inter-marriages will at least serve the purpose of removing social isolations, even though it may not be  free from the other evils of pecuniary considerations attaching to the existing system. Money considerations cannot be removed until there is a change in the economic order. We may look at the marriage alliance now from the social point of view. Did not the totalitarian States subsidize large families and compel even nuns to get married when those States required increase in population? Those States subsidized marriages as a part of the war effort. We will subsidize inter-marriages for the removal of social isolations. The sanctity of marriage lies in its contribution to social welfare.
G: You are an atheist! (Bapuji said significantly.)

Another time Bapuji surprised me by telling me, “You have tried atheism sufficiently long. Now, you give up the term atheism. It does not help your work.”

 I: I am very well aware that the term atheism is a condemned word. The oxford dictionary gives ‘godlessness’ as the meaning of atheism and ‘wickedness’ as one of the meanings of ‘godlessness’. I know, Bapu, what odium is attached to the term atheism. Yet I have taken it up deliberately, because it is the only work that inspires full self-confidence and complete social outlook in man. I regard that atheism represents the progressive tendencies in civilization. So far as I have not laid before you the several aspects of atheism as I see them. I am waiting for you to give me time. I want also to put my thoughts into a book form.
G: I will go through the manuscript of your book. Come to me when I go to Sevagram next. We will have sufficient  time to talk about your thoughts.
(Bapuji replied endearingly.)

Another day it was time for Bapuji’s evening walk when I went to the Bhangi colony. Visitors lined up his path on either side. I usually avoid the crowd on such occasions. I stood a few yards away from the path. Bapuji came out of  his residence and went a few paces along the path. Then he turned his steps towards where I was standing. I  wondered why he was coming that way. He came close to me and asked, “Do you want to talk to me?” “No, Bapu.” I replied rather astonished. “I have nothing to talk to you now. I will come to you when I want your advice.”

“Yes,” he smiled and said, “I will live longer if people spare my breath like you.”  He returned to the path and went along. In spite of the difference that he emphasized, Bapuji kept me close to his heart. He told me in his letters and also in his conversations that he would have time to speak with me at leisure whenever he was at Sevagram. He asked me to go and stay there with him for about ten days when he proposed to discuss the several aspects of atheism for half an hour every day. With this prospect before me, I was content to make my conversations with him then short and topical rather than full and deep.


Chapter X: Gandhi’s God

The assassination of Gandhiji meant a terrible loss to civilization; it is as much a loss to atheism. I was eagerly  looking forward to the opportunity to discuss atheism with him at length. I was already close to him. The discussion  would have taken me closer. This I say with confidence because of my experience with him. He had not been averse to my atheism nor did his god scare me away. He appreciated a principle far more for its efficacy than for its mere academic or intellectual considerations. His primary concern was humanity. On account of this deep concern, he could proclaim boldly:

“I can neither say my theism is right, nor your atheism is wrong.”

He was not a fanatic to quarrel about method, nor was he a poet to praise the ideal; but he was a prophet who perceived the direction. He never denounced anything  that contributed [to] the commonweal; on the other hand, he helped it, in spite of the wide divergence between its method and his. His conception of god, as well as his estimation of atheism appear to me to be based on this essentially humanitarian consideration.

——————————— ——————-


An Atheist Mahatma GandhiThe text in Chapters VI and X above have select excerpts only.The other chapters are in full.
“An Atheist with Gandhi”  Gora. 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.