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Gandhi and Secularism

Mahatma Gandhi was a keen student of all religions. Apart from his study of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, he was an avid reader of Christian and Islamic scriptures as well. All forms of religion attracted Gandhi immensely, and through his thorough understanding of all, he successfully arrived at a composite understanding of religion and God as a whole.
This holistic understanding of man's spiritual quest led Gandhi to adopt and preach a theory of tolerance and mutual respect founded on truth and maintenance of non-violence. Gandhi was also pained by the caste-based social structure that India has religiously followed from time immemorial, and particularly the curse of untouchability, which to Gandhi was the greatest sin of all because it not only spelt discrimination but debased a particular section of mankind on an occupational basis. He felt Indian society to be weakened at its very core and embarked in a fight against it with his heart and soul.

Gandhi's Views of God and Religion

Gandhi made a clear distinction between god and religion. For him, they were fundamentally different entities and could at best address each other and could never come on a common platform. The reason for this, he stated was that god was perfect and religion, being man's humble attempt at understanding this divine perfection, was necessarily imperfect.

Gandhi believed God is one and he variously equated him to love and truth. However, for him leading a godly life was more important than debating about the true nature of God. The poor and the downtrodden were for Gandhi the living representatives of God on earth, and even a little work for the amelioration of their troubles was a more pious act than performing a thousand rituals by spending millions. The influence of a number of religions can be seen in Gandhi's understanding of God.

Gandhi read the scriptures and doctrines of all major world religions with great interest and finally arrived at a conclusion that they are all 'more or less' the same. The phrase 'more or less' was a term he systematically used because he thought that no religion could grasp God in its entirety. They were all equal in their imperfection, which is why Gandhi never foresaw a future where there will be a single religion preaching a single God. He knew that geographic, climatic and demographic conditions influenced the way the inhabitants of a region envisions god, and there can never be a single way in which god will be understood, because these conditions will never be the same across the world. For Gandhi that was not even that important. In Hind Swaraj (1946), Gandhi expressed his view eloquently when he said:

Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads, so long as we reach the same goal? In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals.

Despite his belief in one God; Gandhi never entertained any hope of a single world religion, as that would be a fantasy. Gandhi believed this fantasy to be not only simplistic, but potentially dangerous as well, as it could lead to various coercive measures to succumbed people to it. His pointed criticism triggered against the missionary practices introduced by the British has its origin to the same belief. Gandhi upheld tolerance and had a lasting faith in non-violent co-existence of all religious schools. Gandhi was critical of the term 'tolerance' as he though it was patronizing, as if the one who uses it has a firm belief in the superiority of his own faith and was magnanimous enough to allow other faiths to exist under his confirmed superiority. This to Gandhi was an error. His particular brand of secularism was based on mutual respect. He believed they were 'branches of the same majestic tree'. Gandhi believed all religions ultimately described only attributes of God but never his being. It was the fault of the limitation of human understanding and imagination, and not of any particular faith.

Religious practices for Gandhi were equally vacuous if not meant for the general good and betterment of society. Leading a humble life with a strong belief in God was more of a religious duty for Gandhi than to undertake elaborate rituals. He put great stress on prayer, non-violence and celibacy as ways of spiritual enlightenment and believed that salvation was the ultimate goal of life.

Gandhi's Secularism and India

Gandhi's secular theories took on a special significance in the particular context of the Indian national movement. Indian society has been traditionally plagued by the evils of caste and creed based discrimination. The caste oriented stratification of the Indian society has hindered all chances of national unification from the early days of Indian society. The situation was complicated by the presence of various religious groups within the country, who were not ready to compromise any ground to reach a platform of commonality. The traditional rhetoric of the religious and the self-styled spiritual preachers fuelled these divisions more often than not. It was a great pain for Gandhi that India's age old tradition of religious tolerance was not being maintained when it was more needed. What particularly disturbed him was the realization that it would be impossible to organize any nation wide movement against the common opposition of the British oppressors, if society continues to remain divided on religious grounds. Secularism for Gandhi was an absolute necessity to bring about any form of constructive and all-encompassing political movement.

Gandhi preached his ideals of secularism and religious tolerance across the length and breadth of the country. He showed his consolidation to the Muslim leaders through the support that Congress extended to the Khilafat movement. Gandhi wrote extensively on the need of secularism in India, and made speeches to the same effect all over the country. It was not the easiest of tasks for Gandhi. The British were bent upon implementing the policy of divide and rule, and it took its worst form after the declaration of separate elections for the different communities in the declaration of the Government of India Act in 1935. Indian National movement has always been plagued by communal tensions, and haunted it till the very end. Gandhi's monumental efforts at bringing together the various communities in India were not fully realized. The British policy of 'divide and rule' had its effects, and the demand for a separate Muslim nation was fast gaining currency. Gandhi was hurt, but he realized his helplessness. Even at the intense riots on the eve of Indian independence, Gandhi was on the roads trying to unite the warring communal factions. Even his death can in many ways be related to his life-long commitment to secular principles.

Gandhi and Untouchability

Mahatma Gandhi was highly grieved about the caste system that characterised Indian society. But it was untouchability that particularly pained him. All his life, he worked hard at eradicating this heinous practice from its very roots. He drew sharp distinction between caste and varna. Varna was based on profession. And in present day India, wrote Gandhi, there is no other trace of varnashram, as they are easily interchangeable, and were are actually interchanged at times, except for the varna of the Shudra. Their plight continued uninterrupted from the ancient times. Gandhi thought caste system to be a social evil, but untouchability was a sin. All his life, Gandhi worked for the untouchables. In fact, in one of his letters, Gandhi elevated the bhangis, or the night-soil cleaners as the very epitome of service for god, as they do their unclean work and cleanse society of its perils, and receive nothing but shame and admonition for it. Every man, thought Gandhi, should find a lesson in it. They should dispense their services to society and expect no reward in return. That would be the greatest service to God.

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