Special Content

volume-26, 28 September-04 October 2019

Gandhiji’s inclusive approach to religion & society


Prof. N. Radhakrishnan         

The last words of the Mahatma were "Hey Ram"( Oh,God ).  Read this together with the bhajan he loved to hear often (and is heard today at Gandhi-related functions) Eashwar, Allah, tere naam,sabko sanamati de bhagwan reflects Gandhi's approach to religion. The ancient vedic philosophy of Sarva Dharma Samabhav or respect for all religions also formed the basis of Mahatma Gandhi's religious humanism.

Mahatma Gandhi wanted a welfare society which he described Ram Rajya. His faith in God was unshakable. His God was not a personal God. He repeatedly chanted Ram nama. His God guides him to noble action and whose presence can be felt everywhere.

The Ram Rajya he was advocating was an ideal social order where an ideal King rules over his subjects without any distinction whatsoever. Truth, equal opportunity for all, dharma and justice will be the dominant characteristics of such a society. The poorest of the poor will have equal say in the governance. Nobody will be discriminated against anybody.

While what Mahatma Gandhi was trying to achieve could be described to be unorthodox, it had far-reaching effects in the sense that he was able to create the impression that his view of religion constituted both a vision of the absolute that guides everyone in his daily life and practical guide in our daily life.

The scientific basis of Sarvadharma Samabhav

Mahatma Gandhi believed that an emerging and progressive nation should have a progressive outlook on its religions and what else could it be other than the creation of a conducive atmosphere that ensures the development of the society which could be possible if only peace and harmony exists.

His vision of religious amity through 'Sarva Dharma Samabhav' should also be viewed along with the holistic vision of Mahatma Gandhi. Viewed separately or in isolation, his views on religion would sound a bit mystic and confusing.  Blind faith or fundamentalist, revivalist version of religion was totally unacceptable to him. He would instantly question it to ascertain whether it was meaningful and reasonable in terms of basic human values: 'enjoy the things of the earth by renouncing them' was his view.

Satya and Ahimsa as the Twin Pillars of Human Life

The core of all what Mahatma Gandhi did convincingly shows that the Gandhian vision of a society which is free of conflicts and tensions of various kinds would be possible if only society willingly accepts Satya and Ahimsa as the means of transformation of both the individual and society. And this would become practically impossible if attention is diverted to other issues. The running passion of many of his speeches in the last decades of his life was the strong reminder to his countrymen that "To revile another's religion, to make reckless statements, utter untruths, to break the heads of innocent men, to desecrate temples or mosque is denial of God".

Ignorance of Other Religions

Let it be remembered that very few religious or social leaders in contemporary times or before or after Mahatma Gandhi stressed the importance of people developing such a healthy view of religions as Gandhi and to him goes the credit of convincing his countrymen to adopt such a vision as a 'mantra' or a societal virtue.

Mahatma Gandhi realized that the root cause of religious fanaticism and misunder-standing between the different religious groups is one's ignorance of other religions. Very few, including the heads of religious groups were found to have even basic awareness of other religions. Hence one of the areas Gandhi concentrated was the removal of the age-old feeling he himself knew was prevalent among many, that the study of other religions was not approved by their religions and it was blasphemous.

Mahatma Gandhi advised people to study other religions sympathetically through the writings of such persons who were ardent votaries of those religions. He emphasized that such a study "of other religions besides one's own will give one a grasp of the rock-bottom unity of all religions and afford a glimpse also of the universal and absolute truth which lies beyond the dust of creeds and faiths". The general situation was definitely complex and people had the mistaken notion that the study of other religions would weaken their faith and such attitude was against the tenets of their religious precepts.

It has to be admitted that the venom of caste and communal feelings has spread to almost all layers of our social and political life and several long-term and short-term policies are to be evolved and implemented both at the national and local levels in order to stem the rising tide of communal frenzy. The problem should not be looked at from the angle of majority or minority rights and privileges but one of national importance. First and foremost an awareness has to be created that communalism, fundamentalism and casteism are cancerous growth, a devil who might be friendly today but who will definitely ask for our soul tomorrow.

The Lessons from Noakhali

Mahatma Gandhi was alarmed by the spreading of venom of caste and communal feelings  to almost all layers  of our social and political life and several long-term and short-term policies were initiated by him even in the midst of the national struggle for freedom.'The Pilgrimage for Peace' as his Noakhali experiments were described and the daring and courageous steps he took to douse the fires of hatred, senseless killing and brutality indulged in by mad crowds horrified him.

The lessons from Noakhali were louder and clearer. Lord Moutbatten found in Gandhi's achievement in Noakhali the triumph of human will and brave attempts to defy death to promote peace and harmony.

Be the Change You Want to See in the World

Mahatma Gandhi's assertion 'I will continue to speak from my grave' guiding those who move away from the path of dharma  generate echoes of reminders that  one should not lose sanity under any circumstance and rather should 'be the change you want to see in others'. Gandhi as part of his efforts to offer a healing touch to those victims in the conflict ravaged areas toured Noakhali, moving from village to village and preaching the gospel of peace. At first he thought of making the journey completely alone, depending for food and shelter on the villagers he encountered, but the scheme was obviously impractical. Clasping a long bamboo staff in his right hand, he set out every morning with a small band of companions for the next village.

He walked with his long bamboo staff in one hand, the other resting on Manubehn's shoulder. In this way, every morning at seven thirty, he set out on his pilgrimage, singing the haunting song written by Rabindranath Tagore:

Walk alone

If they answer  not  your call, walk alone;

If they are afraid and coher mutely facing the wall,

O thou of evil luck,

Open thy mind and speak out alone.

The song reflected the mood of the pilgrim, as he travelled from village to village. The journey was an arduous one, and sometimes his feet bled.

When he travelled from village to village, he would sometimes find human excreta left on the narrow pathways. Seeing it, he would pluck a leaf and bend down and scoop it up. He knew why it had been placed there. Once a person spat on his face. For a few moments he stood gazing at the man in shock and horror, remembering that from his earliest childhood he had been a friend to all, and then he slowly brushed the spit away and went on as though nothing had happened. There were moments of pure terror, when it seemed that death hung in the air haunting the forests and the villages.

He half-expected to be assassinated, and said he would welcome such a death. "But I should love, above all, to fade out doing my duty with my last breath", he wrote to a friend during the last stages of the pilgrimage. At night he suffered from shivering fits, and during the day there was a drumming in his ears. Exhaustion had brought on high blood pressure.

After this, by the end of February Gandhi was under strong pressure to visit Bihar. The Biharis, who live in the shadow of the Himalayas, are a notably mild and gentle people, and the sudden upsurge of violence seemed inexplicable. Gandhi went to Patna, the provincial capital. Once more he journeyed from village to village, trying to discover the causes of the riots. In his journey he was sometimes accompanied by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, "the frontier Gandhi". A giant of a man, with the features of a warrior-saint, in love with nonviolence, he added his immense prestige to the pilgrimage of mercy.

What Gandhi saw in Noakhali, Kolkata and Bihar were heart-rending sights. There were villages which had been razed to the ground, corpses lay in the dense thickets of bamboos, the vultures were feeding on them. He asked the people to accept their guilt, to give him letters admitting their crimes, and to pledge themselves to live together in amity and goodwill.

Mahatma Gandhi's achievements in Noakhali brought accolades and appreciation  from all sides and political strategists in different parts of the world looked at Gandhi with disbelief.

The magnitude of Mahatma Gandhi's achievement in Noakhali also generated new interest in the efficacy and tools of Gandhian approach to nonviolent problem-solving.

The author is a veteran and renowned Gandhian. E-mail: drnradhakrishnan@ gmail.com

Views expressed are personal.

(Image Courtesy : Google)