From my sixth or seventh year up to my 16th, 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-realisation or knowledge of self. 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 Rama 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 Rama 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 Bileshwar. 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 Bileshwar 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 13 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 Tulasidas as the greatest book in all devotional literature.
A few months after this, we came to Rajkot. There was no Ramayana reading there. The Bhagavata, however, used to be read on every Ekadashi day. Sometimes I attended the reading, but the reciter was uninspiring. Today I see that the Bhagavata 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 21 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, Mussalman 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 the 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 baptised, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thence-forth 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 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. Manusmriti 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 widening.
Excerpted from An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (critical edition) by MK Gandhi and edited by Tridip Suhrud. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.