Gandhi’s attestation of his unquestioned fidelity to Hinduism is often expressed in the form of a series of incisive affirmations. These are usually in the form of a list, beginning with a formal allegiance to the Vedas and the shastras and often concluding with the addition of a contemporary theme like cow-protection as part of Hinduism. There are times, though, when this declaration of affiliation is emotive, almost lyrical. And yet, it never obscures the defining framework of his understanding of Hinduism.

“But Hinduism is a living organism liable to growth and decay, and subject to the laws of Nature. One and indivisible at the root, it has grown into a vast tree with innumerable branches. The changes in the seasons affect it. It has its autumn and summer, its winter and spring. The rains nourish and fructify it too. It is and is not based on scriptures. It does not derive its authority from one book. The Gita is universally accepted, but even then it only shows the way. It has hardly any effect on custom. Hinduism is like the Ganges, pure and unsullied at its source, but taking in its course the impurities in the way. Even like the Ganges it is beneficent in its total effect. It takes a provincial form in every province, but the inner substance is retained everywhere. Custom is not religion. Custom may change, but religion will remain unaltered.

Is this undivided, pure and fundamentally unchangeable Hinduism ever threatened?

Gandhi sees Hindus invariably finding a way out by undergoing rigorous penance and imposing self-restraint in order to avert any danger or impurity. But this attachment to Hinduism is also regularly conveyed in an intensely personal idiom.

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. I claim to be a staunch sanatani Hindu because, though I reject all that offends my moral sense, I find the Hindu scriptures to satisfy the needs of the soul. My respectful study of other religions has not abated my reverence for or my faith in the Hindu scriptures. They have indeed left their deep mark upon my understanding of the Hindu scriptures. They have broadened my view of life. They have enabled me to understand more clearly many an obscure passage in the Hindu scriptures.

In passages like the one above, it remains unclear if his moral sense precedes the commitment to Hinduism or whether it derives from it. If the process of selection and rejection of texts and passages within texts contributes to Gandhi’s conception of Hinduism, it still remains an open question as to how he arrived at the moral sense that impelled him to edit and choose these.

A clue may be found if the manner in which Gandhi frequently conflates Hinduism and Vaishnavism is closely examined. In his autobiography, he calls his parents staunch Vaishnavas. His mother’s devotion and saintliness – Gandhi insisted on the use of the word “saintliness” – derived from the Vaishnava faith.

His faith in Ramanama was instilled by an old nurse and he also counts the Rama Raksha chant, the verses of the Ramacharitmanas and the Bhagavata Purana, all Vaishnava influences, as his formative religious influences. Even in later life, he owned Vaishnavism as the religion into which he was born and affirmed his continued faith in it.

For him, Vaishnavism had both a personal and an impersonal dimension.

Addressing Vaishnavas in 1920, he reproduces Narasinh Mehta’s “Vaishnavajana” poem and proceeds to explain its meaning by breaking it into its component parts. Narasinh Mehta was a true Vaishnava because he had put non-violence, love for others and control of the senses as the defining features of being a true Vaishnava.

Reading the Vedas and even following the varnashrama does not always characterise a Vaishnava because the source of such acts could be sin and hypocrisy. Only helping people in distress and controlling one’s speech, thought and actions mark the features of an authentic Vaishnava. He swears that, as a Vaishnava, he would reject any version of swaraj that leaves out the untouchables as adharmic.

As an expression of personal devotion as a Vaishnava, nothing compares in emotional force and devotional intimacy to a piece Gandhi writes in Navajivan in June 1924. A Vaishnava friend affectionately remonstrates with Gandhi for referring to Shri Ramachandra Prabhu as Rama. The friend’s contention is that addressing the lord as just Rama is not respectful. At the outset, Gandhi complies in order to pacify his friend, adding in good measure that as a Vaishnava, Rama is the ishtadevata of his family, and so, to him, “the name Rama is dearer”. But calling his preferred divinity “Shri Ramachandra Prabhu” is not acceptable to him.

“‘Shri Ramachandra Prabhu’ seems so distant from me, whereas Ram enjoys ruling over my heart. Places where I have used the sacred names of Rama and Bharat are expressions of my overflowing devotion. If the Vaishnava friend claims that his love of Rama is greater than mine, I challenge him to contest this in Rama’s durbar and I am sure I will get justice in Ramarajya.”

One always addresses those closest to one’s heart with the more familiar તું (tu) rather than the formal તમે (tamey). He speaks to his mother in the more affectionate, familiar mode; if he were to be formal, she would probably burst into tears. But his cherishing of Rama goes beyond modes of address. It defines and circumscribes his distinctive outlook on religion.

“There was a time in my life when I knew Rama as Shri Ramachandra. But that stage has now passed. Rama now has come to my home and lives there. I know that he will look at me with loving mock anger if I were to address him તમે. I have no mother, no father, no brother to watch over me, and so Rama is everything to me. He is my mother, my father, my brother – he is for me all these and more. He is my life and I live because of him. I see him in all women and that is why I consider all women to be my sisters and mothers. I also see him in all men, and, depending on their age, consider them as my father, brother or son. I see the same Rama in a Bhangi and a Brahmin and I regard them as equals.”

Despite the familiarity, a barrier still has to be crossed. Total detachment from the world has not been achieved yet.

“Even now, although Rama is near, He is not near enough to me; hence the need to address him at all. When he is with me all the twenty-four hours, there will be no need to address him even in the singular. No one else addressed my mother as ‘thou’. Others spoke to her in the most respectful terms of address. So, too, if Rama were not my own, I would have maintained a respectful distance from him. But, then, he is mine now and I his slave. Hence, I beg Vaishnavas not to force me to stay at some distance from him. The love that must be supported by formal courtesy, does it deserve the name of love? In all languages, in all religions, man speaks to god as ‘thou’.”

When the need even to address Rama by name vanishes, it will be a sign of having attained moksha.

But until that happens, Rama has to be welcomed into one’s home. Also, until moksha becomes a reality, religion has to guide his moral sense and personal quest. Such an overwhelming sense of piety often solicited questions about the rationale of considering himself a sanatani Hindu and a Vaishnava. In one such case, Gandhi responds and promises that the answer will cover both aspects.

To be a Hindu, he says, one has to be born into a Hindu family in India. Accepting the Vedas, the Upanishads and the puranas as holy books, a Hindu swears to follow the five yamas and practise them to the fullest. Believing in the existence of the atman and the paramatman, a Hindu believes in the atman’s immortality, its taking on bodily form through various incarnations, and its capacity to strive for moksha. This also entails accepting moksha to be the ultimate end of all human effort.

Hindus are required to embrace varnashrama and cow-protection. As already noted, Gandhi perceives cow-protection as the most significant outer manifestation of Hinduism. He attributes the impotence of the Hindu world to its failure to protect cows.

In introducing cow-protection as integral to Hinduism and championing the cause, he identifies himself as among the least impotent of Hindus: as a vaishya, he is fulfilling the duty of the brahmins and the kshatriyas. For him, the inability of Hindus to protect cows from slaughter by Muslims and the English is a sign of the brahmin and kshatriya spirit having vanished from Hinduism.

A Vaishnava, then, conforms to everything that connotes Hinduism, apart from being born as one and continuing to live a Vaishnava life and its ways. This path is shown in Narasinh Mehta’s “Vaishnavajana”, where a Vaishnava tries to emulate to perfection the qualities mentioned in the poem.

Despite this initial religious patrimony, Gandhi confesses to developing at a particular juncture misgivings about Hinduism as a religion. It was Rajchandra Raojibhai Mehta, Raychandbhai to Gandhi, who helped resolve these doubts.

Excerpted with permission from Elusive Non-Violence: The Making and Unmaking of Gandhi’s Religion of Ahimsa, Jyotirmaya Sharma, Context.