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
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
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.