I was struck by the tone as well as by the nature of the question. It was not the
usual question: What is atheism? or what is the use of atheism? Such questions
call forth only academic answers. 'Why do you want atheism?' had something
remarkably human and practical about it. It was Bapu-like. To my recollection,
in all my numerous discussions on atheism, no one had put the question to me
in that form. But, instead of taking me by surprise on account of its singularity,
the question touched my heart and I poured out my heart.
I began: "I was in Calcutta last year. I saw the famine-stricken destitutes
walking heavily on the pavements. Here and there some of them dropped dead
in the streets. They died beside the marts and stalls which exhibited their
sweets and fruits for sale. Suppose there was a hungry dog or a bull in the same
situation. Would he die of hunger? No. Beat him, scold him, he would persist in
his attempts to pounce upon the shop, somehow eat the sweets and fruits and
satisfy his hunger. Why did not the destitute do the same? I do not think they
were afraid of the policeman. The destitutes were there in hundreds and
thousands. No concerted action was required of them. If a fraction of their
number had fallen upon the shops, all the policemen in Calcutta put together
could not have stopped them. Even confinement in a gaol with its poor diet
would have been preferable to death due to starvation. Why, then, the destitutes did not feel desperate and loot the shops? Were all the destitutes abject cowards without exception? Or had all of them such a high sense of civic responsibility as to be unwilling to disturb law and order? No. They were all simple, normal folk with no knowledge of civic rights and duties. Had they known their civic rights and duties in the least, there would have been no
Bengal famine at all.
"Looking at the other side, were all the shop-keepers so cruel as to allow their
fellow-men to die of dire hunger before their own eyes? No. On the other hand
they shed tears of pity and contributed liberally and ran the gruel kitchens for
the destitutes. They recited hymns of ethics every day.
"If the destitute is not cowardly and if the shopman is not cruel, why did so
many people die of hunger? I think the reason is their philosophy of life.
"Both the destitute and the shop-keeper are votaries of the same philosophy of
life. Each one said to himself: 'It is my fate, that is his fate; God made me like
this, God made him like that.' On account of the commonness of their
philosophy, there was no change in their relationship, though some ate their fill
and many starved to death. The destitute's faith in that philosophy made his
behaviour different from the animals.
"What I have said with regard to the Bengal famine applies also to the
relationship between the untouchables and the caste Hindus, between the
dark-skinned and the white-skinned. The same philosophy rules all these
"What is the result of following that philosophy of life? Man has become worse
than the animal. Instead of living well, he is dying ill. His strength to resist evil
is very much weakened. The pleasures of the few are built upon the bones of
the many. This is really the unhappy fact in spite of our moral professions and
pious wishes for the happiness of all humanity. This philosophy of life based
upon belief in God and fate -- this theistic philosophy -- I hold responsible for
defeating our efforts at ethical life and idealism. It cannot securely preserve
the balance of unequal social relations any longer, because the pains of the
flesh have begun to revolt against that philosophy. Hate and war are already
replacing love and peace.
"I want ethics to rule and idealism to grow. That can be achieved only when
belief in god and fate is done away with and consequently the theistic
philosophy of life is changed. In positive terms, I want atheism, so that man
shall cease to depend on god and stand firmly on his own legs. In such a man a
healthy social outlook will grow, because atheism finds no justification for the economic and social inequalities between man and man. The inequalities have
been kept so far by the acquiescence of the mass of theists rather than by any
force of arms. When the belief in god goes and when man begins to stand on his
own legs, all humanity becomes one and equal, because not only do men
resemble much more than they differ but fellow-feeling smoothens the
"I cannot remove god, if god were the truth. But it is not so. God is a falsehood
conceived by man. Like many falsehoods, it was, in the past, useful to some
extent. But like all falsehoods, it polluted life in the long run. So belief in god
can go and it must go now in order to wash off corruption and to increase
morality in mankind.
"I want atheism to make man self-confident and to establish social and
economic equalities non-violently. Tell me, Bapu, where am I wrong?"
Bapuji listened to my long explanation patiently. Then he sat up in the bed and
said slowly, "Yes, I see an ideal in your talk. I can neither say that my theism is
right nor your atheism is wrong. We are seekers after truth. We change
whenever we find ourselves in the wrong. I changed like that many times in my
life. I see you are a worker. You are not a fanatic. You will change whenever
you find yourself in the wrong. There is no harm as long as you are not
fanatical. Whether you are in the right or I am in the right, results will prove.
Then I may go your way or you may come my way; or both of us may go a third
way. So go ahead with your work. I will help you, though your method is against
I felt overwhelmed by his magnanimity. I requested, "You are encouraging me,
Bapu. I want to be warned of the possible pitfalls in my way, so that I may
benefit by your wisdom and experience and minimize my mistakes."
Bapuji replied, "It is not a mistake to commit a mistake, for no one commits a
mistake knowing it to be one. But it is a mistake not to correct the mistake
after knowing it to be one. If you are afraid of committing a mistake, you are
afraid of doing anything at all. You will correct your mistakes whenever you
He told me he was pleased with the conduct of my co-workers. He had called
them to the Ashram to see how I influenced my associates. That revealed to me
why he was giving special attention to the batches of my co-workers while he
seemed indifferent to me for the past three months.
I say what I do -- that is my definition of moral behaviour. There is no room for
secrecy. All behaviour is moral that is open."
"Exactly," said Bapuji, "I would put it, 'secrecy is sin'. You are an atheist. You
fight shy of the term sin." He described to me some of his hard experiences in
trying to live openly.
He asked me whether I use a latrine in my village centre. Speaking on the
problem of sanitation he said, "At Haradwar I wanted to sit on the banks of the
Ganga. But I found no clean spot there. Untouchability and soil-pollution are
the two shameless sins of us in India."
In another part of the conversation he said, "I wonder why workers are anxious
to get a name. In South Africa I drudged for five years in kitchens and latrines."
I asked him, what time I should approach him for consultation. He readily
replied, "You are a member of my family. Come to me any time you find me not
engaged with others."
We conversed together on the whole for seventy minutes. There was no time
limit imposed. It was a heart-to-heart talk. The topics were varied and often
related to personal opinions and experiences. Throughout the conversation I
was feeling that I was getting closer and closer to Bapu.
Some of his words rang in my ears ever afterwards. "I can neither say that my
theism is right not your atheism is wrong.... I will help you though your method
is against mine," showed me the length Bapuji went in courtesy and toleration.
Again, "If you are afraid to commit a mistake, you are afraid to do anything at
all," struck as a remarkably practical suggestion and a call to bold action.
Recollection of the conversation enabled me to improve my behaviour in
I think, Bapuji also reflected deeply on some points in our conversation. His
gestures and pauses during the conversation gave me that impression. Perhaps,
in the atheism that I was presenting, he recognized positive aspects different
from the mere negations contained in the common conception of godlessness.
Whatever it may be, one thing is certain. His later conversations and
correspondence with me show that he began to understand me and my
Bapuji left for Bombay the next day. I returned to my village.