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Gandhi And Comparative Religions

   By: Sunny Sambhara

The comparative study of religions has never been merely an academic concern for Mahatma Gandhi, the great Hindu spiritualist and leader. Since the days of his youth he has been existentially in the search of such studies as has been evident from his famous book "The story of my experiments with truth."

India is a country where people are predominantly religious. Religion and spirituality are firmly rooted in the minds of the Indian people. Some countries are well known for their political institutions, others for their economic prosperity while some others for their social advancement. India is well known for her philosophy and religion. According to Max Muller the study of religion is incomplete unless it is studied with reference to India. To quote him, "Take religion and where can you study its true origin, its natural growth, and its inevitable decay better than in India, the home of Brahmanism, the birth place of Buddhism and the refuge of zoroastrianism even now the matter of new superstitions - and why not, in the future the regenerate child of the purest faith, if only purified from the dust of nineteen centuries?" (1) . To others, Religion is one condition among so many other countries, but to the Indian people it is one great sustaining force, pertaining to all the spheres of their lives. Mahatma Gandhi who was born and brought up in India could not escape this strong influence of religion in all his activities.

In ancient times it was a common belief that religion is a matter of individual experience. But modern psychology has shown that there is no such thing as a merely individual experience, which is absolutely cut off from the society. There is an important element of truth in the views of Durkheim and other members of the French Sociological school, who maintain that religion, is essentially a social phenomenon. The views of Jesus: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" did not find much favour in Gandhi. Rather his view was more in accordance with the writings of H.G. Wells, according to whom "the doctrine of the kingdom of heaven as Jesus preached it, it was no less than a bold and uncompromising demand for a complete change and cleansing of the life of our struggling races an utter cleansing without and within." (2) . Gandhi's religion was spiritual humanism because he declared that the service of the poor whom he called "Daridranarayana" is a true service of God. In other words, Gandhi found God amidst his creation; this creation is confined not only to India, his own land and not Hinduism alone, the religion to which he belonged. It consisted of men belonging to different land and different religions. Therefore the study of comparative religion was important to Gandhi. The best principle of different religions, he felt, should be assimilated for the advancement of our society.

In India the word 'Dharma' is used to mean 'religion'. But it should be noted, that the word 'Dharma' in Hinduism has a much wider connotation that what we ordinarily mean by the word religion. The word 'Dharma' comes from the root 'Dhre' which means to 'sustain'. 'Dharma' is thus the greatest sustaining force or the binding force of the society. The goal of 'Dharma' is to create mental and spiritual fellowship among all men and to regulate its relation with all living entities. It thus tries to keep the world in perfect equilibrium. It is thus clear that the word 'Dharma' was not used in connection with any particular religion. Any religion, any custom, any creed could be brought under its fold and was thus out out secular. Gandhi's concept of religion, therefore, brought under its fold people belonging to different religions.

The broad outlook of Mahatma Gandhi, the progressive interpretations of the various ideas and concepts in the domain of religion, made it possible to facilitate the study of comparative religion. Gandhi refers to 'God' as 'Truth' and this has very important bearings. The word 'Truth' has a much wider connotation than the term 'God'. There may be non-believers in God. But no one can deny 'truth' for even the atheist must accept the power of 'Truth'. Gandhi's description about 'God', again, points out that it is something, which can be accepted by all men in the way he likes. The following statement of Gandhi regarding God would make it clear. "To me God is Truth and Love. God is Ethics and Morality. God is Fearlessness. God is essence of life and light and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist. For in his boundlessness, God permits the atheist to live. He is the searcher of hearts. He is a personal God to those who need his personal presence. He is embodied to those who need his touch. He is the purest essence.... He is all things to all men. He is in us and yet above and beyond us." (3)

Mahatma Gandhi's mission was not only to humanise religion but also to moralise it. He would reject any religious doctrine, which was in conflict with morality.

According to Gandhi religion and morality are inseparably bound up with each other. To Gandhi, "There is no religion higher than truth and Righteouness." Morality is prized by almost all the great religions of the world. The emphasis on morality, by Gandhi helped his ideas to acquire a universalistic outlook.

Gandhi's religion was a federation of different religious creeds, theological schools and sectarian faiths that have survived in India from ancient times. People belonging to different religions would go to him for his advice and blessings on different matters. All through his life Gandhi devoted much time and energy for the promotion of Hindu Muslim unity and also fasted for his cause on many occasions. In the wake of the partition of the country, hundreds and thousands of Hindus and Muslims were killed in Punjab, Bengal and Bihar. Gandhi threw himself into a struggle to heal the breach between the two communities. Gandhi wanted communal harmony and peace not only between the Hindus and the Muslims but between all sections of the people who believe India to be their home, no matter to what faith they may belong. Gandhi had the good fortune to have as his colleague's people belonging to different religions. Two important examples are those C.F. Andrews and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. The Ashram prayers of Gandhi had passages from holy books like the Gita, the Bible and the Koran. This tradition still continues in India in most of the public meetings and prayers. Gandhi also maintained that a reverential study of the different religious tradition is necessary. He felt that it is the duty of every cultured man and woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. To respect other religion, a study of their scriptures, is a sacred duty according to Gandhi. To understand the point of view of another faith requires tolerance, sympathy, broad mindedness, humility and willingness to recognize Truth wherever it is to be found. If we posses these qualities we can appreciate other's faith, traditions, customs, culture and way of life. The prophets and seers of different religions have brought to mankind the consciousness of the unity underlying the whole universe and a deep sense of brotherhood of man. Gandhi therefore felt a need of the comparative study of religions to pave the way for unity and brotherhood amongst the followers of different religions.

Mahatma Gandhi was a Sanatani Hindu. His love for Hinduism was not blind love. Gandhi spoke about the lofty ideals preached by Hinduism. Hinduism, according to him is the most tolerant and liberal religion. He was deeply impressed by the ethical and spiritual outlook of Hinduism. Gandhi said, "The chief value of Hinduism lies in holding the actual belief that all life is one i.e. all life coming from one universal source, call it Allah, God or Parameshwara." (4) Gandhi was also very much impressed by the teachings of the Gita saying, "when one sees Me everywhere and everything in Me, I am never lost to him and he is never lost to Me." (5) But Gandhi at the same time was very radical in his approach and he did not hesitate in criticizing those aspects of Hinduism which did not appeal to his reason. For example he was very much against the caste system that was prevalent in Hinduism. To quote Gandhi, "My religion is Hinduism ... I can no more describe my feelings for Hinduism than for my wife ... Even so I feel about Hinduism with all its fault and limitations ... I know that the vice that is going on today in all the Hindu shrines ... My zeal never takes me to the rejection of any of the essential things in Hinduism." (6) Hinduism according to Gandhi, did not have one central book for reference, no particular God of worship nor one particular way of God realization. Whether he is a theist or an atheist, he is a Hindu.

Whether he believes in one absolute or many Gods, he is a Hindu. Whether he believes in Vedas or not, he remains a Hindu. Gandhi was therefore liberal enough to take idol worship as a part of human nature, though he did not believe in idol worship as such. Gandhi, was, however, deadly against untouchability, the greatest plague of the Hindu society according to Gandhi, which is the duty of every true Hindu or combat. Gandhi was also against animal sacrifice though prescribed in the Vedas as it went against his concept of non-violence. Instead he advocated the sacrifice of animality in us in the form of lust, greed, anger, hatred, ill-will etc. Referring to Rama and Krishna, the most popular Gods of Hinduism, Gandhi said, "My Krishna is not the historical Krishna. I believe in the Krishna of my imagination as a perfect incarnation, spotless in every sense of the word, the inspirer of the Gita, and the inspirer of the lives of millions of human beings. But if it is proved to me ... that the Krishna of the Mahabharata actually did some of the acts attributed to Him, even at the risk of being banished from the Hindu fold, I should not hesitate to reject that Krishna as God incarnate." (7) Though deeply religious by nature, Gandhi did not believe in rituals, customs, traditions, dogmas and other formalities observed for the sake of religion. Like Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi's religion was not confined to Temples, Churches, books, rituals and other outer forms. Thus Gandhi's concept of religion was not bound by any formalities. His God may be a personal God to those who needs his personal presence. He may be a law to those who concentrate their minds on the orderliness of the universe. He may be an embodied being to those who need his touch. According to Gandhi God may have a thousand names as Ishwara, Siva, Vishnu, Rama, Krsna, Jehovah, Christ, Allah etc. according to the traditions in which a man is brought up. In the words of Gandhi, "Is there one God for the Mussalmans and another for the Hindus, Parsis, and Christians? No, there is only one omnipresent God. He is named variously, and we remember him by the name which is most familiar to us."

Gandhi also advocated his views on Islam, another great world religion. Islam is a religion of strict monotheism and rigorous ethical discipline. Gandhi had a very high esteem for this religion and regarded it as a religion of peace, love, kindness and brotherhood of all men. It may be true that sometimes the followers of Islam often took to sword for the spread of their religion, but this was not in accordance with the teachings of Koran. As Gandhi himself said in this connection, "I do regard Islam to be a religion of peace in the same sense as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are." (9) The charges of fanaticism against Islam cannot be justified, according to Gandhi as there are several passages in the Koran which speak of religious toleration. Of course, there is a place for Jihad in Islam and this Jihad is generally interpreted as aholy war against those who are not the followers of Islam. But Gandhi justifies the true meaning of Jihad by saying that the conditions laid down for the Jihad are so strict that they are not capable of being fulfilled by everybody. To quote Gandhi, "where is the unerring general to order Jihad? Where is the suffering and love and purification that much precede the very idea of drawing the sword? We are too imperfect and impure and selfish to resort to an armed conflict in the name of God." (10)

Gandhi was also impressed by the personal and social codes of behavior that Islam prescribes. In the Koran there are rules and regulations for virtues like obedience to parents, avoidance of adultery, cheating and lying, refraining from theft, murder etc. The five pillars of Islam, which prescribes prayer, fasting, alms giving and hospitality are the duties that every Muslim has to perform. All these aspects of Islam influenced Gandhi, a great deal.

Amongst religions, other than Hinduism, no other religion inspired, impressed and influenced Gandhi as Christianity. In the concept of Satyagraha, Gandhi was deeply influenced by the teachings of Jesus particularly the sacrifice Jesus had to undergo during crucification for a noble cause. The teachings of the New Testament specially the Sermon: "You have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil; but if one strikes thee on thy right cheek, turn to him thy other also" impressed Gandhi very much. Satyagraha, in the hands of Gandhi had been a weapon of conquering evil by good. Gandhi said that he had the same liking for the Sermon as he had for the Gita. To use Gandhi's words, "Today supposing I was deprived of the Gita and forgot all its contents but had a copy of the Sermon, I would deprive the same joy from it as I do from the Gita." "Gandhi loved Christianity because of its absolute emphasis on love as the most ethical virtue. But Gandhi disliked the claims of Christianity as superior over all other religions of the world. But though Gandhi had a deep respect for the different religions he was against proselytisation. He was against certain forms of missionary activities specially those relating to conversion. Gandhi was not opposed to conversion if it was based on one's will but he was against any use of force or propaganda in the matter of conversion." As he remarked, "A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon. The fragrance of religion and spiritual life is much finer and much subtler than that of a rose." (12)

From the comparative study of religions, Gandhi was convinced that a mere doctrinaire approach in the field of religion does not help to create inter religious fellowship. Dogmatic religions do not help to promote creative dialogue. The religions dogmas directly or indirectly breed an attitude of dislike towards other religions. Such an attitude does not help to provide any meeting grounds for religions. Gandhi realized that true religion vitalizes and elevates the inner life of human beings. The progress of any religion depends on how effectively one has been able to realise the inner spirituality and convictions in his day to day life. The rituals, the symbols, the churches, the temples or the mosques are aids so long as they help to nourish and fertilize the inner spiritual life of their followers. In their true aspects all religions call for peace and brotherhood amongst man. The great religions of the world should strive, according to Gandhi, in promoting a life of self control, sacrifice, harmony, peace and understanding amongst its followers so as to create a heaven on earth. We may conclude here, in the words of Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest champion of peace and understanding of religions, which Gandhi also supported : "If any one hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one religion and the destruction of the others, to him I say, 'Brother, yours is an impossible hope.' Do I wish that a Christian would become a Hindu ? God forbid. Do I wish that a Hindu or Buddhist would become a Christian ? God forbid ... The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth."(13)

The world does not need a new religion. What it does need are the people who, discovering the eternal and universal truths in their own religion are bold enough to live in accordance with those truths. When it is done, the dry outer forms of religions, which divide the entire human race into several groups, will crumble before the radiance and power of the mighty human spirit. The power of the human soul, knows no bounds, no limits and if religion is its vehicle then that vehicle will surely participate in transforming the human society on its journey towards the Divine Being.

Gandhi has been killed. Physically he is no more with us. But his spirit lives amidst us and within us, with all its glory than ever before.

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