For Mahatma Gandhi Equal Respect for All Religions Was One of the Most Essential and Non-Negotiable Aspects of the India He Wanted to Create

communal harmony

If the rulers of our troubled country today make a sincere search for solutions in the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, instead of merely garlanding his statue or photo, one of the most important lessons that they will learn is that of according truly equal respect to all religions. In fact this is a very basic lesson to which rulers of several countries have not been giving adequate attention. It is important everywhere but for all of South Asia in particular this is of very crucial importance, as this region in particular has paid perhaps the highest price for ignoring this basic precept, and in large measure continues to do so.

Mahatma Gandhi could see this very clearly at a very early stage of his life, and showed remarkable consistency in never wavering from this basic understanding in all the future eventful decades of his life. Hence the precept of equal faith for all religions is one of the most basic, firm and important contributions of Gandhiji and Gandhism. All those who take his name often, including senior important members of the current ruling regime, should remember that that minus this basic precept there is no Gandhism, as this is important not just in itself but  is also a key component of his other basic precepts like that of  non-violence.

Mahatma Gandhi’s views on religion have absolutely no place for communalism and instead were based on very deeply felt, very sincere respect for all religions. He went beyond tolerance and pleaded for respect for other religions.   It was a matter of faith for Gandhiji that various religions should get equal respect. At the same time, it is important that his views on religion are never of a fundamentalist nature and leave adequate room for social reform and approach based on reason and rationality.

He said, “For me the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree. Therefore they are equally true, though being received and interpreted through human instruments equally imperfect.” (Harijan, 30.1.37, p. 407)

Further he said, “Each religion has its own contribution to make to human evolution. I regard the great faiths of the world as so many branches of a tree, each distinct from the other though having the same source.” (Harijan, 28.1.39 p. 448)

Gandhiji said, and sincerely believed, that all prayer, in whatever language or from whatever religion it was, was prayer addressed to one and the same God and taught humankind that all belonged to one family and should bear love to one another.

Various religions were like the leaves on a tree, he stated. No two leaves were alike, yet there was no antagonism between them or between the branches on which they grew. Even so, there is an underlying unity in the variety which we see in God’s creation. (Harijan, 26.5.46, p. 154).

While Gandhiji was of course looking out for resolving the problems or conflicts of his own country, he also had a wider vision of acceptance of such views contributing to the peace of the entire world. He wrote,”I am a believer in the truth of all the great religions of the world. There will be no lasting peace on earth unless we learn not merely to tolerate but even to respect the other faiths as our own. A reverent study of the sayings of different teachers of mankind is a step in the direction of such mutual respect. (In Search of the Supreme, Vol. III, (1962), p.10)

Elsewhere he wrote, pointing to the lifelong consistency of his views and perspective on this issue, “I believe in the truth of all religions of the world. And since my youth upward, it has been a humble but persistent effort on my part to understand the truth of all the religions of the world, and adopt and assimilate in my own thought, word, and deed all that I have found to be best in those religions. The faith that I profess not only permits me to do so but renders it obligatory for me to take the best from whatsoever source it may come.” (Harijan 16.2.34, p. 7)

While he was concerned about the entire world, he naturally gave more thought to issues nearer home. He wrote,” India, with its ancient religions, has much to give and the bond of unity between us can best be fostered by a wholehearted sympathy and appreciation of each other’s form of religion.” (The Collected  Works of Mahatma Gandhi  Vol.-V, p.50)

A Christian friend asked him. “Would you say then that your religion is a synthesis of all religions?”

Yes, if you will, he replied, but I would call that synthesis Hinduism, and for you the synthesis will be Christianity. (Harijan 6.3.37 Page 27)

In a reference to the various writings which pick selectively from the sayings or scriptures of other religions to oppose or tarnish them, he asked for a sense of perspective and wholeness and asked critics not to read scriptures of others from the point of view of just picking criticisms but to try to understand from the perspective of the devotees of the other religions.

In Mahatma Gandhi’s religion there is enough scope for rational reasoning and social reforms. “I reject any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality. I tolerate unreasonable religious sentiment when it is not immoral. (Young India, 21.7.20, p. 4)

Gandhiji’s emphasis on always keeping the doors open for genuine social reform becomes apparent when we find him saying, “True morality consists, not in following the beaten track, but in finding out the true path for ourselves and in fearlessly following it. (Selections From Gandhi, (1957), p. 254)

This spirit extended not just to religious matters but also to matters relating to different cultures as well –“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. (Young India, 1.6.21, p. 170)

It is important to remember these views always but particularly at a time when powerful forces are trying to usurp the heritage of Gandhiji WITHOUT coming out of their shell of communalism and all the other negative thinking linked to this. The true followers of Gandhiji should resist this and point out the apparent and great contradictions of this approach as well as the serious problems this causes in spreading the true ideas of Gandhiji in the right spirit.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machines ( Gandhian ideas for our times) and When the Two Streams Met ( Freedom Movement of India).



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