Gandhi and inter-religious harmony

Gandhi and inter-religious harmony

Anthony Raj

Monday, October 05, 2020

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The novum of our times seems to be the increasing meeting of world religious traditions. A fresh conviction is emerging that, in our contemporary cross-cultural human situation, no religion is sufficient even to face, let alone solve, any of our human predicaments single-handedly.

If, in our times, to be religious is to be inter-religious, then an interfaith approach is becoming a contemporary imperative. The phrase 'inter-religious cooperation' does not any more strike an esoteric note.

Mohandas K Gandhi, who is revered in India as the Father of the Nation, and whose birth anniversary is celebrated on October 2, seems to have endeared himself across cultures, also the Jamaican hearts.

His non-violent activism for freedom and equality is well known. He has indeed captured the imagination, appreciation, and active solidarity of Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and countless other leaders. What perhaps needs a better highlight is his pioneering role in interfaith harmony and the imperatives that it offers to our present times.

A word first on his creative understanding of religion that indeed bears fruit on his interfaith attitude and approach.

Gandhi declared himself a “Sanatani Hindu”. Him being a Hindu, he felt is a question of heredity. But it is also based on his conviction that nothing in Hinduism is inconsistent with his moral sense and spiritual growth. In fact, Hinduism, with its open, tolerant, and non-violent attitude was best suited for him.

His acceptance of Hinduism was not, however, uncritical. He remained critical of abuse, like untouchability, which have crept in the system of Hinduism. He applied to Hindu scriptures the same critical norms that he applied to any scripture as an infallible authority.

At the core of Gandhi's religious experience was his faith that “there is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything”. The power is felt by humans, but it escapes 'proofs' and literal intellectual formulation, though one might define it as 'truth'.

Truth is God and truth is the ultimate goal of religions. Religion is a quest for truth. This makes of religion an all-comprehensive quest which is finally identical with the human quest. This quest demands total self-denial since no one can reach this truth without being free from every form of self-interest.

This truth is revealed in all the great religions of humanity. Therefore, these religions are true, although they all embody this truth in imperfect human moulds.

One need not only tolerate these religions but must have an attitude of positive love and respect towards them. Since all religions are equally valid paths to truth (sarvadharma samabhava), one should not try to convert people from one religion to another. Perhaps, religions themselves need conversion.

In this regard, his inimitable words: “I do not want my house to be walled in all sides, and my windows to be closed. Instead, I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

Inspired as he was by many exemplary religious figures, including Jesus, Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavir, Guru Nanak and Prophet Muhammad, he could personally confess his multi-religious belonging: “I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Jew, I am a Christian.” He derived the power of love from The Sermon on the Mount, non-violence from Jainism and yogic texts, and equality from Islam, and so on.

But he was deeply aware of the historical and social reality of violence, hatred, and violence caused in the name of religions. He was also firmly convinced that unless there is communal harmony and peace in the society, the exercise of nation-building cannot be grounded on secular foundation. He had indeed witnessed the large-scale communal violence at the time of partition.

Given the multi-religious context of India that includes people of such faiths as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and many subsects of different religions, he made “communal harmony” an essential part of his constructive programme.

His practical tools of this programme included the inter-religious public prayer meetings, the study of religious texts, promotion of religious literacy, the great use of the metaphor “children of God”, and numerous other methods.

These concrete ways were ultimately based on his spirit of openness, rootedness, and inclusiveness, progressive way of thinking, moral courage to face the communal situation head-on in a non-violent manner, and a wide-ranging empathy that extended even to his opponents.

Given our present moment and challenges, Gandhi's lasting legacy of interfaith approach may amount to the following contemporary imperatives:

First, harmony between religious traditions should come about not in spite of differences, but because of differences. His inspiring proposal to create strong interfaith relations underscores the unity of hearts. It would not mean diluting one's own views about religion but safeguarding the uniqueness of one's own faith while sharing value of differences.

Second, the commonality of problems should become the starting point of dialogue between world religious traditions.

Gandhi's liberating vision indeed inspires a dialogue of common action, rallying all the potential forces of institutionalised religions to struggle for a common cause: The elimination of racism, casteism, and the unjust situation of the world, including man-manipulated hunger, human exploitation, wars, crushing of minorities, abuse of the poor, and so on. Thus, dialogue between religions assumes a living and secular character. In our times, we indeed have shining examples in Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela for this dialogue of life and action.

And finally, tapas, that is self-suffering, should become the ultimate pathway of interfaith harmony.

It ultimately boils down to a hard and a painful realisation of contingency. No religion is self-sufficient in constructing the entire picture of reality. Religions need a mutual learning, a mutual conversion, and even a mutual fecundation. After all, it is only in receiving, conceiving can take place.

Dr Anthony Savari Raj is the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) chair of Indian Studies at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

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