Mohandas K. Gandhi’s famous quip “I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Jew, I am a Christian…” mystifies those who perceive each religious tradition as confined within its exclusive dogmatic walls.
However, Gandhi’s amity toward other religions did not arise from a lack of rootedness in a specific religion, as some may assume, but was deeply embedded in his spiritual life as a Hindu. He defined Hinduism in open and inclusive terms and embraced truths found in other religions.
Gandhi personally experienced the positive power of religion, and he drew inspiration from many exemplary religious figures, including Jesus, Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavira, Guru Nanak and Prophet Muhammad.
But he also encountered how religions have historically caused divisions, hatred and violence.
Because of his conviction in the universal truths and concern for the consequential effects of religious divisions on the multireligious Indian landscape – including people of such faiths as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and many subsects of different religions – he made “communal harmony” an essential part of his constructive program.
His dedication to building strong interreligious relations, which he termed “heart unity,” was not a passing fad, but rather an essential step toward developing personal character and social harmony.
In 1921, Gandhi wrote in a weekly publication, “Young India”: “I do not want my house to be walled in all sides, and my windows to be closed. Instead I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
This quote crystallizes his dynamic and inclusive approach to religion with the goal of mutual respect and understanding of other religions, not simply tolerance.
At a time when the contemporary terminology of interreligious dialogue or multiculturalism had not surfaced yet, Gandhi offered specific tools for building strong interreligious relations.
- Recognize that diverse religions share common moral principles.
Gandhi was aware that religions are repositories of moral truths which become obfuscated by dogmatic “superstitions and evil customs.”
While religious and political leaders looked to theological, legal and ritualistic differences among religions, Gandhi defined religion in mostly inclusive terms. He focused on the moral virtues of love, compassion, justice, tolerance and human goodwill to fill the chasm among religions.
Thus, he made morality and reason the yardstick with which to assess religious doctrines and practices. Gandhi’s move to define religion in terms of “morality,” focused on nonviolence toward all beings.
It is consistent with the contemporary interfaith movements that identify such mandates as the “Golden Rule,” found variously in religions, to negotiate their dogmatic differences.
- Work for religious equality, not tolerance.
For Gandhi, religions represented knowledge systems encompassing unique ways to approach the truths of life.
He was concerned that “tolerance” may imply “a gratuitous assumption of the inferiority of other faiths.” Therefore, he championed the same respect for other religions that we accord to our own.
He advised his followers and critics alike to look at “all religions with equal eye,” and not to hesitate to adopt philosophies and practices that can enhance our own understanding of reality.
Gandhi himself incorporated teachings from many texts and traditions, such as the power of love from the Sermon on the Mount, nonviolence from Jainism and yogic texts, and equality from Islam.
- Use practical tools for building “heart unity.”
Gandhi was a man of action; he freely engaged with the people of different traditions and throughout his life sought to find ways to create harmony and good will. He physically transgressed the boundaries that divided religions and provided guidelines to build “heart unity” through various actions.
The following practical steps he initiated in his life continue to hold promise for building strong interfaith relations:
First, Gandhi initiated the platform of public prayer meetings.
His prayer meetings included readings from the scriptures of different traditions and hymns praising God through various names. These first-of-their-kind meetings presented a model for interfaith interaction and a venue for transmission of Gandhi’s thought on the shared truths of religions.
Second, Gandhi emphasized the study of religious texts other than one’s own to disrupt misunderstanding among religions, which often was the cause of communal riots among religious groups.
Gandhi responded to those who were reluctant to studying scriptures of other religions because of fear of unfaithfulness to one’s own faith: “Let no one even for a moment entertain the fear that a reverent study of other religions is likely to weaken or shake one’s faith in one’s own.”
He also argued for religious literacy, including a study of different faiths’ tenets in the curriculum of religious instruction. Cognizant of people’s desire to find faults in other religions, he emphasized that the study of religions must be done in the spirit of reverence, not for finding faults.
Finally, Gandhi used the metaphor of being the children of the same parents in order to invoke the common humanity of all people, irrespective of their faith, class and gender.
He also encouraged cultural mingling, including attending festivals of other religions, as well as respecting unique mandates regarding food, attire and prayer customs for the purpose of creating close bonds among people.
Gandhi’s guidelines to create strong interfaith relations underscore heart unity not by diluting one’s own views about religion but safeguarding the uniqueness of one’s own faith while accepting the religions of others on their own terms. His approach aims to unite hearts, despite differences.
Gandhi himself had confronted xenophobia, religious mistrust, extremism and violence.
His approach to religion as morality and his guidelines offer a way to build heart unity and navigate dogmatic differences and work together to address our current existential health crisis as well as economic and social challenges.
This article is part of a series focused on interfaith engagement. The previous articles in the series are:
How Interfaith Partnerships Can Enrich Your Own Life | Rabbi Jack Moline
Amid Global Pandemic, Religious Pluralism Flourishes | Amanda Tyler
A Kind Nun’s Compassion Led to Imam’s Interfaith Journey | Imam Imad Enchassi
Being a Good Interfaith Neighbor During the Age of COVID-19 | Trisha Miller Manarin
Interreligious Relations Must Become Imperative, Not a Sidebar | John T. Pawlikowski
Veena Howard, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Asian Religious Traditions in the Department of Philosophy and Coordinator of Peace and Conflict Studies, California State University at Fresno. In addition to Gandhi’s philosophy and Dharma traditions, her interests include environmental ethics, interfaith interactions among Hindus and Muslims, gender issues in Indian philosophy and the Sant spiritual tradition of northern India, to which she belongs.