R. C. Zaehner’s Hinduism starts with detailed descriptions of the Hindu scriptures, emphasizing the development of the concept of dharma over the centuries. (See Abraham’s Dharma below.) It ends with heartfelt tributes to Gandhi and Tagore.
Mohandas K. Gandhi was not a Sanskrit scholar or well read in the Vedas. Although he came to love the Bhagavad-Gita, he didn’t read it until he was a law student in London. At home his family observed the conventional Hindu rites, and Gandhi admired his mother’s self-denying spirit. His innate understanding of Hindu beliefs and the place of its rituals in daily life was his bond with the Indian masses during the decades-long struggle for independence.
Zaehner views Gandhi as a great reformer, comparable to Luther. Gandhi himself saw all religions as imperfect, including his own:
My belief in the Hindu Scriptures does not require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely inspired. Nor do I claim to have any first-hand knowledge of these wonderful books. But I do claim to know and feel the truths of the essential teaching of the Scriptures. I decline to be bound by any interpretation, however learned it may be, if it is repugnant to reason and moral sense.
Individual conscience decides, but the central drama of each person’s life is the need to reconcile this individual conscience with universal truth. Thus Gandhi titled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth and often conflated “Truth” with “God.” Zaehner thinks Gandhi’s role as a religious reformer was more important than his role as a political activist.
For Gandhi the struggle against British imperialism and the struggle against untouchability went hand in hand, for both kept India enslaved, the British politically, untouchability morally, for by treating the untouchables as unclean the caste Hindus made themselves doubly unclean.
Many economists have pointed out that Gandhi’s advocacy of the spinning wheel was a poor basis for future mass production. Gandhi’s purpose, however, was not just a rejection of British economic dominance, but also the creation of a path to Indian self respect through individual action. It was a moral stand. In modern, industrialized India the spinning wheel keeps its position as a symbol on the flag.