10. GLIMPSES OF RELIGION
From my sixth or seventh year
up to my sixteenth I was at school, being taught all sorts of things except
religion. I may say that I failed to get from the teachers what they could
have given me without any effort on their part. And yet I kept on picking
up things here and there from my surroundings. The term 'religion' I am
using in its broadest sense, meaning thereby self-realization or knowledge
Being born in the Vaishnava
faith, I had often to go to the Haveli. But it never appealed to
me. I did not like its glitter and pomp. Also I heard rumours of immorality
being practised there, and lost all interest in it. Hence I could gain
nothing from the Haveli.
But what I failed to get there
I obtained from my nurse, an old servant of the family, whose affection
for me I still recall. I have said before that there was in me a fear of
ghosts and spirits. Rambha, for that was her name, suggested, as a remedy
for this fear, the repetition of Ramanama. I had more faith in her
than in her remedy, and so at a tender age I began repeating Ramanama
to cure my fear of ghosts and spirits. This was of course short-lived,
but the good seed sown in childhood was not sown in vain. I think it is
due to the seed sown by that good woman Rambha that today Ramanama
is an infallible remedy for me.
Just about this time, a cousin
of mine who was a devotee of the Ramayana arranged for my second
brother and me to learn Ram Raksha. We got it by heart, and made
it a rule to recite it every morning after the bath. The practice was kept
up as long as we were in Porbandar. As soon as we reached Rajkot, it was
forgotten. For I had not much belief in it. I recited it partly because
of my pride in being able to recite Ram Raksha with correct pronunciation.
What, however, left a deep impression
on me was the reading of the Ramayana before my father. During part
of his illness my father was in Porbandar. There every evening he used
to listen to the Ramayana. The reader was a great devotee of Rama--Ladha
Maharaj of Bileshvar. It was said of him that he cured himself of his leprosy
not by any medicine, but by applying to the affected parts bilva
leaves which had been cast away after being offered to the image of Mahadeva
in Bileshvar temple, and by the regular repetition of Ramanama.
His faith, it was said, had made him whole. This may or may not be true.
We at any rate believed the story. And it is a fact that when Ladha Maharaj
began his reading of the Ramayana his body was entirely free from
leprosy. He had a melodious voice. He would sing the Dohas (couplets)
and Chopais (quatrains) and explain them, losing himself in the
discourse and carrying his listeners along with him. I must have been thirteen
at that time, but I quite remember being enraptured by his reading. That
laid the foundation of my deep devotion to the Ramayana. Today I
regard the Ramayana of Tulsidas as the greatest book in all devotional
A few months after this we came
to Rajkot. There was no Ramayana reading there. The Bhagavat,
however, used to be read on every Ekadashi/1/
day. Sometimes I attended the reading, but the reciter was uninspiring.
Today I see that the Bhagavat is a book which can evoke religious
fervour. I have read it in Gujarati with intense interest. But when I heard
portions of the original read by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya during my
twenty-one days' fast, I wished I had heard it in my childhood from such
a devotee as he is, so that I could have formed a liking for it at an early
age. Impressions formed at that age strike roots deep down into one's nature,
and it is my perpetual regret that I was not fortunate enough to hear more
good books of this kind read during that period.
In Rajkot, however, I got an
early grounding in toleration for all branches of Hinduism and sister religions.
For my father and mother would visit the Haveli as also Shiva's
and Rama's temples, and would take or send us youngsters there. Jain monks
also would pay frequent visits to my father, and would even go out of their
way to accept food from us--non-Jains. They would have talks with my father
on subjects religious and mundane.
He had, besides, Musalman and
Parsi friends who would talk to him about their own faiths, and he would
listen to them always with respect, and often with interest. Being his
nurse, I often had a chance to be present at these talks. These many things
combined to inculcate in me a toleration for all faiths.
Only Christianity was at that
time an exception. I developed a sort of dislike for it. And for a reason.
In those days Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the
high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could
not endure this. I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that
was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment. About the same
time, I heard of a well known Hindu having been converted to Christianity.
It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef
and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth
he began to go about in European costume, including a hat. These things
got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat
beef, drink liquor, and change one's own clothes did not deserve the name.
I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion
of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created
in me a dislike for Christianity.
But the fact that I had learnt
to be tolerant to other religions did not mean that I had any living faith
in God. I happened, about this time, to come across Manusmriti,/2/
which was amongst my father's collection. The story of the creation and
similar things in it did not impress me very much, but on the contrary
made me incline somewhat towards atheism.
There was a cousin of mine,
still alive, for whose intellect I had great regard. To him I turned with
my doubts. But he could not resolve them. He sent me away with this answer:
'When you grow up, you will be able to solve these doubts yourself. These
questions ought not to be raised at your age.' I was silenced, but was
not comforted. Chapters about diet and the like in Manusmriti seemed
to me to run contrary to daily practice. To my doubts as to this also,
I got the same answer. 'With intellect more developed and with more reading
I shall understand it better,' I said to myself.
Manusmriti at any rate
did not then teach me ahimsa. I have told the story of my meat-eating.
seemed to support it. I also felt that it was quite moral to kill serpents,
bugs, and the like. I remember to have killed at that age bugs and such
other insects, regarding it as a duty.
But one thing took deep root
in me--the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth
is the substance of all morality. Truth became my sole objective. It began
to grow in magnitude every day, and my definition of it also has been ever
A Gujarati didactic stanza likewise gripped my
mind and heart. Its precept--return good for evil--became my guiding principle.
It became such a passion with me that I began numerous experiments in it.
Here are those (for me) wonderful lines:
For a bowl of water give a goodly meal;
For a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal;
For a simple penny pay thou back with gold;
If thy life be rescued, life do not withhold.
Thus the words and actions of the wise regard;
Every little service tenfold they reward.
But the truly noble know all men as one,
And return with gladness good for evil done.
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day of the bright and the dark half of a lunar month.
of Manu, a Hindu law-giver. They have the sanction of religion.