Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Five: Gandhi and Militant Atheism

by Arne Naess

Gandhi’s attitude toward atheists and atheism has seemed to many people both paradoxical and incon­sistent. What are we to say of his oft-repeated assertion that atheism could be part of the truth, so long as the atheist was as committed to his atheism as the theist to his theism? This from a man who not only regarded himself as an orthodox Hindu but also professed Godlessness to be nothing less than an abomination? It is of vital importance to be clear on this matter, since Gan­dhi’s attitude toward atheism can provide a key to our understanding of his position on theoretical issues in general.

We can gain a sense of this position partly in his tran­sition from one to the other of the affirmations, “God is Truth” and “Truth is God,” partly in his attitude to other religions, and partly in the great weight he put on individual religiosity. His own statements indicate just how embracing his views of religion were, and these views enable us also to understand how it was that he could work together with atheists; for he conceived the aggressive morality of atheism as a genuinely religious attitude. Gandhi wrote in one of his more obscure sources, Yeravada Mandir, in a passage, which goes far to explain as well as demonstrate Gandhi’s tolerance for other religions: “As a tree has a single trunk, but many branches and leaves, so there is one true and perfect Religion, but it becomes many, as it passes through the human medium. The one Religion is beyond all speech. Imperfect men put it into such language as they command, and their words are interpreted by other men equally imperfect.”

An atheistic social worker, G. Ramachandra Rao, who was commonly called Gora, has written a little book, An Atheist with Gandhi, which tells of his attempt to secure Gandhi’s active help and support for humanitarian work based on atheistic principles. Apparently Rao specialized in arranging cheap “cosmopolitan” dinners to which people of all castes and religions were invited. To these gath­erings he also invited the caste-less, thus breaking with all custom and convention. Rao’s idea was that the as­sembled company should feel as one family. The same intention to foster brotherhood in place of identification with specific caste and religion informed his encourage­ment of marriages between caste and non-caste people. Atheism, so Rao thought, could be of the greatest help in dissolving those forces that divided society against itself. But he not only believed atheism to be an effective and constructive tool, he preached this belief and urged men first to accept all human ends as earthly, and secondly to reject such theories as the transmigration of souls and fatalism.

What was Gandhi’s reaction, then, when Rao appealed to him for advice on how best to accomplish his work? At first Gandhi was negative.  As Rao reports in his book, Gandhi wrote in 1941: “Dear Friend, atheism is a denial of self. No one has succeeded in its propagation. Such success as you have attained is due to your sincere work among the people round you. I am sorry I cannot invite you to come here. I have no time to spare for talks.”(Rao: p. 27)

Three years later, however, one of Rao’s fellow work­ers had a chance to meet Gandhi at Sevagram Ashram. Pyarelal, Gandhi’s faithful secretary, recorded a con­versation about atheism between the two men, which he told to Rao and which Rao also gives in his book. On being asked about the relationship between God and man, Gandhi began his reply by saying, “I used to say ‘God is Truth.’ That did not completely satisfy me. 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.” Gandhi went on, “You may call yourself an atheist, but so long as you feel akin with mankind you accept God in prac­tice.” (Rao: p. 30-31)

Rao reports how his own first meeting with Gandhi opened with characteristic good humor. He says, “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.’” (Rao: p. 32)

The distinction between godlessness and atheism was one that Gandhi accepted completely. His teaching was directed against godlessness, and only indirectly aimed at atheism. That he did, even indirectly, attack atheism was due to what he considered its false assumptions and evil consequences. Gandhi thought that even if there were in­dividual atheists who were not godless, the doctrine of atheism was likely to help the spread of godlessness.

In Rao’s view, atheism allowed those who have re­signed themselves to fatalism or to the divine will to re­generate themselves to believe once more in themselves, in their power to decide and act, and in the possibility of social reforms. Gandhi, however, appears to have been unconvinced about these effects and said that he might fast against the spread of atheism, to which Rao immedi­ately replied, “I will fast against your fast.”(Rao: p. 35) This seems to have convinced Gandhi that Rao’s atheism was a deep, personal conviction. The ice, in any case, had been broken; Gandhi asked Rao to stay in his ashram, and later, in fact by 1945, Rao had become almost a regular member. Neither he nor his atheistic friends attended the daily prayer meetings and “none seemed to mind my ab­sence.” (Rao: p. 38) In addition to manual labor, Rao was entrusted with the teaching of science to the nurses of the Ashram Hospital. And I mention this to show how dubious is that opinion, coming from such important critics as Otto Wolff and others, that Gandhi’s regime did not allow the individual to develop his personal abilities.

When Rao, himself a Brahmin, was going to give his daughter in marriage to an “untouchable” (a caste-less man), Gandhi agreed to act in the ceremony, in which the words “in the name of Truth” were to be substituted for “in the name of God.” And why should the change not be made? “Do you think I am superstitious?” asked Gandhi. “I am a super-atheist . . . The concepts of truth may differ. But all admit and respect truth. That truth I call God.” (Rao: p. 48) The wedding ceremony was to take place in April 1948, but Gandhi died in January. That March Gandhi’s deputies performed an atheistic marriage ceremony. Naturally enough, Rao felt Gandhi was the atheists’ friend and protector; he says: “The assassination of Gandhiji meant a terrible loss to civilization; it is as much a loss to atheism.” (Rao: p. 56)

How was Gandhi able, as an orthodox Hindu, to ex­tend himself so far toward atheism? The question is badly put; Gandhi distinguished between atheists and atheism. The latter interested him very little in his deal­ings with Rao. Generally it appears he was unwilling to get involved in such theoretical distinctions. The interesting thing to Gandhi was: What is Rao doing? What leads him to act thus? In exactly the same way, the sig­nificance of his own actions lay in the answers he himself gave to these questions; theoretical discussion could not provide the answer. Adopting what might seem to us an unequivocally pragmatic criterion of truth, Gandhi found his answers in the actions of men. In order to judge Rao’s position, he had to become acquainted with Rao, his family, and his work. The impression these gave him provided Gandhi with a positive answer. Rao writes in a letter: “Though there is a resemblance between your thought and practice and mine superficially, I must own that yours is far superior to mine.” (Rao: p. 51) In this light we can understand more easily his attitude toward atheism, that is toward Rao and other personally convinced, militant atheists.

In his book Rao puts great stress on Gandhi as a hu­manitarian reformer, and thinks he would have gone over to atheism had he thought atheism could end men’s suffering. (Rao: p. 59) Now Gandhi felt that he and Rao were both seeking the truth, though neither had found it. And surely it is this which explains Gandhi’s attitude to him; this to­gether with his belief that morally satisfactory results in an “experiment with truth” are a sufficient indication that one is moving in the right direction, and that it is only the direction, not the goal, that one can know with certainty. To Rao, he says, in a concluding remark, “I see an ideal in your talk. I can neither say my theism is right nor your atheism wrong. We are seekers after truth. We change whenever we find ourselves in the wrong. I changed like that many times in my life. . . .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.” (Rao: p. 44)

The high value Gandhi placed on the individual’s will to seek what is true, and his recognition of every man’s duty to help another to follow his chosen path even when he feels that that path might lead nowhere, or perhaps even to danger for us all, inevitably invites misunder­standing. If we ask what Gandhi’s position is on this or that question, or what actions and political programs he supports, we will get no one answer. The questions have to be rephrased. We have to ask not only what Gandhi’s position is with respect to this or that, but what is his attitude to this or that adherent of this or that. Abstracted from those specific procedures, those particular attributes which characterize it, a program of action was for him little more than a mode of belief, something that might only, if strong and popular, affect people in this way or that. As the creed of a dedicated man, however, a pro­gram of action was to be judged principally by that man’s will and capacity to seek out the truth.

In this light we may more readily understand why Gandhi’s theism stood not at all in the way of supporting an atheist, or of recognizing the possibility that an atheist might come nearer to the truth than Gandhi himself.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: This essay by Arne Naess is from the long out of print, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Totowa (New Jersey): Bedminster Press, 1965; Part Two, Chapter 6, pp. 51-57. We are grateful to Mrs. Arne Naess for permission. Copyright © 2013 Mrs. Arne Naess/Estate of Arne Naess. We are also grateful to Alan Drengson for his assistance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An extensive editor’s note is appended to our earlier Naess postings, as at the end of the “Gandhi and Group Conflict” articles. For an example click here.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi