Mahatma Gandhi and Jainism

Posted: 19.10.2012
Updated on: 30.11.2012

Mohandas K. Gandhi, whom many revere as the Father of India, was not a Jain by birth. His parents were Vaishnavas and he was born into that Hindu sect in the city of Porbandar, Gujarat on October 2nd, 1869. Jainism has a strong influence in Gujarat because many Jains live there. Growing up in that province with a pious mother, Gandhi was constantly exposed to the Jain doctrines. Although he was not Jain by letter, he was Jain in spirit because of his ideals and philosophy. Therefore, Gandhi was and was not a Jain.

How can this be said? The principle of relativism, Syadvada, allows us to make this seemingly contradictory statement. Gandhi was not a Jain from the viewpoint of his birth and what he considered himself to be. On the other hand, he could be called a Jain if one considers his actions and beliefs. An example from Gandhi's life illustrates this wonderful, conflict-resolving principle of relativism.

At the age of 18, Gandhi traveled to England to study law. Gandhi's mother was hesitant to let him leave because she had heard that young, married men became corrupted when they went to England. She consulted Becharji Swami, a Jain monk, who said that Gandhi should take a solemn vow in front of his mother and then he can be allowed to go. "He administered the oath and I [Gandhi] vowed not to touch wine, woman and meat. This done, my mother gave her permission."(p. 33) In England, Gandhi's adherence to the vow was tested many times. Once, someone recommended that he eat eggs because eggs were not meat. After taking them for some time, he realized that in his mother's interpretation of the vow, meat included eggs so he quit eating them. This taught the young Gandhi the importance of interpreting a vow in the spirit of the person who administers it; in this case his mother. "One golden rule is to accept the interpretation honestly put on the pledge by the party administering it."(p. 50)

Gandhi had the choice of following the spirit of the vow or interpreting it explicitly. Both courses of action can be taken but for a pledge, it is necessary to follow the essence of the vow and not the letter to preserve fairness. Fairness and honesty prevent disputes and conflicts. Gandhi strove for this attitude of equality and that is how he was a Jain in spirit.

The central tenet of Jainism is Ahimsa (Non-violence) and Gandhi's philosophy rested upon it. He developed a method of political activism called Satyagraha which was wholly based upon truth and non-violence (Sat: truth, Agraha: firmness)(p. 266). It has been translated as 'non-cooperation' and 'passive resistance.' Gandhi said, "Satyagraha is essentially a weapon of the truthful. A Satyagrahi is pledged to non-violence... "(p. 389). He used this principle in the Kheda district when there was a crop failure. The officials wanted to collect taxes from the farmers even though they knew the crop was bad and the poor farmers couldn't pay the tax. After trying to petition the officials, the farmers and volunteer political activists signed a pledge saying that they would not pay the taxes because the crops had legitimately failed. They would also suffer any imprisonment or other legal action the government may impose on them. Instead of rioting and demonstrating, the farmers were for the most part civilized and non-violent so the government had no choice but to give in. The officials could not arrest everyone of course! This victory demonstrated the power of truth and non-violence which Gandhi had instilled in the people.

Like a Jain, Gandhi was also a vegetarian. In fact, he became a complete fruitarian and lived on a purely fruit diet. "[His] diet consisted, among other things, of groundnuts, ripe and unripe bananas, lemon, olive oil, tomatoes and grapes. [He] completely eschewed milk, cereals, pulses and other things."(p. 297) This was how strongly he believed in Ahimsa. His entire autobiography was devoted to it. "The exercise [of writing my autobiography] has given me ineffable mental peace, because, it has been my fond hope that it might bring faith in Truth and Ahimsa to waverers."(p. 419) Gandhi believed in the Jain doctrines and without a doubt, this helped him to achieve greatness.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. An Autobiography. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad: 1990.
This essay was written on January 19, 1997 for the Jain Center of Greater Detroit.

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