Mahamati, Mahatma and the Syncretism of the Pranamis, an Unknown Chapter in the Life of Gandhi

We all know about Gandhi's favourite bhajan, ‘Vaishnava Jan To’, written by Gujarati poet Narsinh Mehta. But hardly anything has been written about the influence of the Pranami sect on Gandhi during his childhood.

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“As you can see, my city is a sea city. Always full of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Persians. My family’s sect was the Pranami. Hindu, of course. But in our temple, the priest used to read from the Muslim Koran and the Hindu Gita, moving from one to the other as if it mattered not which book was read as long as God was worshipped,” said Gandhi, superbly portrayed by Ben Kingsley, in the 1982 film Gandhi by Richard Attenborough.

Much has been written about Gandhi’s childhood and we all know about his favourite bhajan, ‘Vaishnava Jan To’, written by Gujarati poet Narsinh Mehta. But very less is written about the influence of the Pranami sect and its philosophy of syncretism on Gandhi during his childhood.

Gandhi was born in a Bania caste, which traditionally follows the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism. Gandhi’s mother Putlibai was from Dantrana village. She was a follower of the Pranami sect. Gandhi in his childhood, accompanying his mother, had often visited the Pranami temple near his home in Porbandar. “The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness. She was deeply religious,” Gandhi wrote in the first chapter of his autobiography.

Pranami Temple, Porbandar. Photo: Mehul Devkala

Contrary to this, Gandhi was not particularly inclined towards the Vaishnava faith. In the tenth chapter – ‘Glimpses of Religion’ – of his autobiography, he wrote,

“Being born in the Vaishnava faith, I had to often go to the Haveli (place of Vaishnava worship). 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.”

Ramachandra Guha, in his book Gandhi before India, wrote, “Mohandas’s mother introduced him to the mysteries – and beauties – of faith. Putlibai was devout, but not dogmatic. Born and raised Vaishnavite, she became attracted to a sect called the Pranamis, who incorporated elements of Islam into their worship.” He adds:

“The sect’s founder was a Kshatriya named Prannath who lived in Kathiawar in the 18th century. He was widely travelled, and may even have visited Mecca. The Pranami temple in Porbandar that Putlibai patronised had no icons, no images: only writing on the wall, deriving from the Hindu scriptures and from the Koran. Putlibai’s ecumenism extended even further, for among the regular visitors to her home were Jain monks.”

I visited the same Pranami temple in Porbandar in 2019. It was difficult to locate, despite its proximity to Gandhi’s home – Kirti Mandir. A local resident and a historian, Narottam Palan, helped me find the place.

The temple is located in a very narrow lane where only a single motorcycle can pass at a time. It is on the first floor of the building. I immediately realised that the temple has been renovated and it has no sign of its past.

As Guha mentioned, the temple has no idols. In the Pranami sect, idol worship is not practised; instead, a holy book of the sect, Kuljam Swaroop, is kept at the place of worship.

Prannath aka Mahamati (1618-94), the central figure of the Pranami sect, was born in Navanagar (now Jamnagar) in an affluent Thakur family. His original name was Mehraj Thakur. Like Nanak, he travelled for a long period of time in Arabia, Persia, and what is currently Iraq, studying the Quran and other Islamic scriptures.

Also read: What Freedom Meant for Gandhi

Kuljam Swaroop was dictated by Prannath Swami; words kept flowing for years, the devotees standing by used to write them down exactly the way they heard them. The first compilation of its total 18,758 verses was prepared in three years from 1692-1694 AD. It is mainly in Hindustani, which was the prevalent language, in addition to Gujarati, Sindhi, Persian, and Arabic.

However, the entire scripture was transcribed, and is presently available in Devanagari script. In addition to the use of Hindu scriptural terminology, it also contains numerous references and the use of non-Hindu scriptural terminology of various other faiths, including Islam. No change was made by the compilers or is permitted by anyone either in its material content or in its original verse style. It was then consecrated after Swami left this world in 1694.

Mahatma Gandhi was born precisely 175 years after the passing away of Mahamati. The two men have many similarities. For instance, both were born in wealthy Kathiawari families, and Mahamati’s father, Keshavrai Thakur, was Diwan of Navanagar state, while the Mahatma’s father, Karamchand Gandhi, was Diwan of Porbandar. Both of them were jailed during their lifetime and wrote extensively during their time in prison, and also attracted followers from all strata of society, young and old, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Mahatma Gandhi’s home. Photo: Mehul Devkala

Mahamati had even sent 12 of his devotees – both Hindu and Muslim – to the Red Fort to meet Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and had explained to him the real interpretation of the Quran and its message of religious tolerance.

Maharaja Chhatrasal of Bundelkhand, his Muslim wife Ruhaani Begum and their daughter Mastani (wife of the Maratha Peshwa Baji Rao) were staunch followers of Mahamati.

Mahamati was the guru of Chhatrasal in the same way as Samarth Ramdas was the guru of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Chhatrasal and Chhatrapati crossed paths at Sinhagad fort near Pune. Kavi Bhushan was a famous poet in their courts at different times and wrote biographies of them.

In his paper ‘Brotherhood and Divine Bonding in the Krishna Pranami Sect’, Gerard Toffin provides a detailed account of the beginning of the Pranami. He writes, “It was with Prannath’s blessing that his devotee, the Bundela king Chhatrasal, fought against Aurangzeb’s Islamic rule. Chhatrasal raised a powerful army with wealth accumulated from a diamond mine revealed to him by his guru. In 1671, he occupied a large province, south of the Yamuna River. Assisted by the Marathas, this Hindu king conquered the whole of Bundelkhand, where he supposedly established an ideal kingdom in which Hindus and Muslims lived like brothers.”

Chhatrasal built a marvellous temple at Panna in the memory of his guru Mahamati. It is a very important place of worship for followers of the Pranami sect.

The Mahamati temple at Panna. Photo: pannalive.com

Mahamati and Gandhi were, undoubtedly, champions of secular values. They left no stone unturned for awakening people against religious and caste fanaticism in their lifetime. It is unfortunate that the teachings of Mahamati are little known and have received insufficient attention outside of the Pranami sect. Mahamati’s historical connection with Gandhi is largely forgotten in the pages of history.

Mehul Devkala is a poet and an award-winning filmmaker. His short film Kaun Se Bapu is based on Mahatma Gandhi.