Service as religion

“Service to mankind is the best form of worship” was the motto of Mahatma Gandhi. This is the road to self-realisation, the understanding that it is the same spirit that enlivens all beings.

This desire for self-realisation was an inborn trait in Gandhi, in which pursuit the atmosphere in which he grew up at home played no small part. His mother especially, was a deeply devout woman. Gandhi says that the outstanding impression that his mother left on his psyche was one of saintliness. Deeply religious, daily prayers and rituals were a part of her routine, including visits to places of worship. This left an indelible impression on the young Gandhi’s mind which was the precursor to his abiding faith in the power of prayers and uprightness in life later on.

This sense of discipline, honesty and straightforwardness manifested itself as a strong conviction that God could be realized only through service. And this meant service to his motherland. As he says, this desire came to him without his seeking it, because he had an aptitude for it. One of the ways in which Gandhi rendered service to society was in fighting the injustice being meted out to Indians in South Africa, where he gone to pursue a career in law.

Gandhi’s description of the humiliations heaped upon Indians in South Africa makes for heartrending reading. Deprived of all their rights by a special law enacted for the purpose, Indians could only work as waiters in hotels or pursue other menial callings. Entry into certain areas was either prohibited or could be had only on payment of a hefty entry fee.
They could not own lands except in ghettos earmarked for the purpose, were denied voting rights, could not walk on public footpaths and could not move about after 9 pm without a permit.

Gandhi himself was physically assaulted for daring to be out after the prescribed hours. As he says, he came to realize that South Africa was not a place for a self respecting Indian to live, but his sense of righteousness spurred him on to fight for the rights of
Indians.

Alongside this activity of protest against injustice, Gandhi found himself “in search of God through the striving for self-realisation.” Max Muller’s “India-What can it teach us?” and the translation of the Upanishads by the Theosophical Society helped him a great deal here.

As he frankly admits, his knowledge of Indian philosophy and spirituality was meagre. His engagement with these hallowed Indian ideals greatly enhanced his regard for Indian spiritual thought, as its profound thoughts began to exert their influence on him slowly but surely. He also delved into the works of scholars of the Muslim, Christian and Parsi faiths as also the works of Tolstoy.

As his knowledge of world religions increased, he began to self-introspect and put into practice the ideals propounded therein. One of the results of this was his decision to engage in service to humanity.

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