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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 51 New Delhi December 7, 2019

Mahatma Gandhi’s Ram-Rahim Approach for Inter-religious Harmony

Sunday 8 December 2019

by Jayanta Kumar Dab

Mahatma Gandhi, during his public career, advanced inter-religious cooperation. He found that necessary because the core of religious teaching is love and kindness. According to Gandhi, “All religions teach that we should all live together in love and mutual kindness.”1 Inter-religious collaboration can be instilled by promoting the observance of religious injunctions and by celebrating the festivals of different religions and through inter-religious prayer.

Thus, while living in Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi encouraged the Muslim youngsters to observe the Ramzan fast. He himself decided to observe pradosha (a fast undertaken by the Hindus on the third day of every moonlit fortnight and dark fortnight starting with the beginning of the night of worship of God Shiva) and asked the Hindu, Parsi and Christian youngsters to join him. In fact, many of the inmates of the Farm welcomed his proposal and began to fast. The result of these experiments was that all were convinced of the value of fasting, and a splendid esprit de corps grew up among them. To avoid offending the religious susceptibilities, all the inmates of the Farm took to vegetarianism, irrespective of their religious affiliations. They relished the vegetarian diet.2

The celebration of festivals of different religions also facilitated people to recognise their essential oneness. On Christmas day, in a short message to members of the Ashram, Gandhi said: “We, who have equal regard for all religions, should make it a point to celebrate all occasions.... Let us turn the searchlight inward...purge ourselves of all dross (and) realise the oneness of God and the essential sameness of his word. We should... bear witness to our faith by being ready to lay down our life for what we hold to be true or right.... Let us on this occasion remember and mediate on the fact that Christ mounted the cross for what he held to be the Truth.”3

For Gandhi, inter-religious prayer became an instrument of inter-religious living and an antidote to bigotry. Thus, during the communal disturbances in Noakhali, Gandhi introduced congregational public prayer of a cosmopolitan character, in which all could join. He used it to inculcate bravery, which comes from a living faith in God, upon the victims of violence and to teach the lessons of tolerance, just dealing and brotherhood among the victims. “Congregational prayer,” said Gandhi, “is a means for establishing the essential human unity through common worship.”4

It must be kept in mind that inter-religious prayer must give equal reverence to all religions. To this end, Gandhi incorporated prayers and verses from various religions in his Ashram worship. “Such additions enriched the prayers and helped in reaching the hearts of a larger audience than before.”5 During congregational prayers, it is not necessary to sort out the intricate stories and meanings attached to different divinities. Instead, what is more important is to realise the presence of God. For, going deep into such matters is not part of one’s quest for truth.6

The use of various names of God in inter-religious worship caused some problems to Gandhi. Thus, some Muslims accused him for coupling the names of Rama and Krishna with Rahim and Karim. It was blasphemous and offended Muslim ears. This was a painful surprise for Gandhi. It betrayed intolerance and narrowness of mind. It was untrue that he was trying to corrupt Islam by coupling the Hindu incarnations of Rama and Krishna with the one God of Islam. He claimed to be a humble man of God. He had never invited, on principle, anybody to change his religion. His object was ever to make Muslims better Muslims, Hindus better Hindus, and Christians better Christians. His religion was not exclusive but expensive and all-inclusive. Rama,Allah and God were to him convertible terms.7

Gandhi thus writes in Harijan of February 23, 1947, “I ask you to accept the slavery of the one Omnipotent God, no matter by what name you address him. Then you will bend the knee to no man or men.”8 He also makes candid remarks about Rama which is quite relevant to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy. He says, “it is ignorance to say that I coupled Rama, a mere man, with God. I have repeatedly made it clear that my Rama is the same of God. My Rama was before, is present now and will be for all time. He is unborn and uncreated. Therefore, you should tolerate and respect the different faiths. I am myself an iconoclast, but I have equal regard for the so-called idolaters. Those who worship idols also worship the same God who is everywhere, even in a clod of earth, even in a naid that is pared off.”9

Thus, it will be seen that Gandhiji did not consider Ram as a man who was created or born at a particular place. Mahatma Gandhi, if he had been alive today, would not have approved of the entire Ramjanmabhoomi controversy, much less of the demolition of the Babri Masjid which was an act of vandalism.10

Mahatma Gandhi was totally opposed to breaking places of worships, temples or mosques, as retaliation. He was firmly opposed to any such idea. Thus, he writes in Young India dated August 28, 1924 :

“The law of retaliation, we have been trying since the day of Adam and we know from experience that it has hopelessly failed. We are groaning under its poisonous effect. Above all, the Hindus may not break mosques against temples. That way lies slavery and worse. Even today a thousand temples may be reduced to bits, I would not touch a single mosque and expect thus to prove the superiority of my faith to the so-called faith of fanatics....Hindus will not defend their religion or their temples by seeking to destroy mosques, and thus proving themselves as fanatical as the fanatics who have been desecrating temples.”11

In fact, if Mahatma Gandhi’s version of extremely tolerant Hinduism had prevailed, it would not have resulted in the communal disaster the country faced after demolition of the Babri Masjid at the instance of the VHP-BJP. In fact, what the VHP is propagating is what Gandhiji denounces as fanaticism. In matters of fanaticism, Gandhi spares neither Hindus nor Muslims.12

Thus, it will be seen that Mahatma Gandhi’s way of promoting communal harmony was to emphasise tolerance of the other’s ways of believing and worshipping. It is true that communalists preach intolerance and hatred against people of other faiths and communities but there is more to communalism than mere hatred and intolerance. Above all, there is struggle for power and religion is used as a mobilising force by the communalists. In order to create communal harmony this factor has to be taken into account.13 Many people today, specially those who have no faith in religion, severely criticise Gandhi for his “Ram-Rahim” approach. Their secularism is quite indifferent, if not hostile, to religion. They consider Gandhi’s approach as facile and non-effective. They feel his approach has totally failed. Others feel that as long as we talk of Hindu-Muslim, we are not going to succeed. Separate identities should go and only one’s Indianness or Bharatiyata should be emphasised to forge true unity, and religion should be replaced by dharma as religion is divisive.14

While some people were trying to divide Hindus and Muslims to achieve their political goal, Gandhiji wanted to unite them for his political goal of realising Indian freedom from British imperialism. Moreover, tolerance is a fundamental value which is desirable at any time and is the very basis of democratic functioning.15 Thus, it will be seen that Gandhi’s “Ram-Rahim” approach was rooted in his socio-religious and socio-political context. Gandhi tried his best to achieve political unity between people of different faiths but he failed, not necessarily because of the failure of his method, but more so on account of the political ambitions of the Hindu and Muslim elite.16 It is a strange irony of the Indian scenario that when Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and others were trying their best to forge a political unity between Hindus and Muslims through tolerance, essential unity of religions etc. the secular elite in both the communities, while showing indifference to religion in personal life, used it most cynically to realise their political ambitions. Thus, Mahatma Gandhi’s failure was more on account of this so-called secular elite than because of his religious approach.17

However, it is true that the “Ram-Rahim” approach may not work. We cannot create communal harmony by talking of unity and national integration. Slogans, though necessary, can never be sufficient, unless backed by concrete action.

Notes and References

1. Pyarelal (1986), Mahatma Gandhi: The Birth of Satyagraha: From Petitioning to Passive Resistance, vol. 3, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, p. 356.

2. M.K. Gandhi (1996), An Autobiography (The Story of My Experiments with Truth), Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, p. 277.

3. Pyarelal (1997), Mahatma Gandhi : The Last phase, vol.9, Book 1, part-II, 2nd reprint, Navajivan Publishing, Ahmedabad, p.101.

4. Harijan, March 3, 1946, p. 26.

5. Ibid., August 17, 1947, p. 241.

6. M.K. Gandhi (1961), In Search of the Supreme, vol. 1, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, p. 193.

7. Pyarelal (1997), Mahatma Gandhi : The Last Phase, vol. 9, Book 2, Part-I, 2nd reprint, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, p. 164.

8. Harijan, February 23, 1947, p. 142.

9. Ibid., November 28, 1936, pp. 330-31.

10. The Hindu, September 22, 1997, p. 11.

11. Young India, August 28, 1924, pp .26-27.

12. K.S.Bharati (2000), Mahatma Gandhi: Man of the Millennium, S.Chand and Co. Ltd, New Delhi, p. 152.

13. Ibid., pp. 155-56.

14. Joy Kachappilly (2011), Gandhi And Truth : A Journey with The Mahatma for an Authentic Living, Bhabani Print and Publication, Guwahati, pp. 290-91.

15. K.S. Bharati (2000), op. cit, p. 157.

16. Joy Kachappilly (2011), op.cit, p. 296.

17. K.S.Bharati (2000), op. cit, pp. 157-58.

Dr Jayanta Kumar Dab is an Assistant Professor of Political Science Tamralipta Mahavidyalaya, Purba Medinipur, West Bengal.

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