By Paul McKenna
April 1996

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Mohandas K. Gandhi embraced, with every ounce of his being, the ethical teachings of Christ. He was particularly touched by the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' teaching on forgiveness, and the figure of the suffering Christ. He also maintained a devotion to Jesus throughout his life. But more than this, his struggle to live out the gospel values has enabled many 20th century Christians to rediscover the nonviolent face of Christ.

However, this great Indian sage drew a clear distinction between the gospel teachings of Jesus and Western Christian culture. He found himself scandalized by the behaviour of most Christians and particularly by the European colonial powers and the .Christian empires. they had spawned. His general claim was that Christians, for the most part, had ignored the moral substance of Jesus' message, and on this subject he did not mince words: "In my humble opinion, much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount". Christianity, he stated, "has yet to be lived".

Most Christians who knew Gandhi recognized that he was living out the moral ideals of Christ in a fashion that was nothing short of exceptional. And in the words of Christian thinker Vincent Sheehan: "The most Christ-like man in history was not a Christian at all".

An understanding of Gandhi's religion, Hinduism, is helpful in comprehending Gandhi's difficulties with institutional Christianity and particularly his difficulties with dogma and missionary activity. On the theological level, Hinduism is a more pluralistic faith than Christianity. The Christian faith places much emphasis on orthodoxy, that is to say, on conformity to established dogmas and religious authority – what one believes is of utmost importance. Hinduism, on the other hand, has no accepted body of beliefs, nor any central hierarchy or authority. Hindus, then, are not all that concerned about orthodoxy. They are, however, very concerned about orthopraxy, that is to say, how one lives one's life.


Gandhi was a man preoccupied with Truth and the pursuit of Truth. "Truth is God" is the religious principle that ruled his life. The central concept of Gandhi's philosophy is satyagraha. This Sanskrit word translates to mean "the adherence to Truth in all matters".

Gandhi was intent on avoiding a dogmatic or rigid view of Truth because he believed that Truth and the pursuit of Truth must remain open and fluid. Truth, he argued, cannot be dogmatically fixed. It cannot be etched in stone. Truth is a gift and a goal which must be stubbornly and continually sought after.

In Gandhi's world, like the world of the 1990s, there were numerous religions competing with one another, each claiming to have a monopoly on Truth. But for Gandhi a sure sign that one has lost touch with Truth is the claim that one's own group has an exclusive claim on it.

According to the ancient religious wisdom of India, Truth is a many-sided and multi-dimensional affair. It deserves to be viewed from many different perspectives; any one perception of Truth is limited and partial. Gandhi believed that no group or person or religion can claim to have a full or total knowledge of Truth (or God).

Gandhi thus believed that each religion is divinely inspired because each represents one manifestation of Truth. All religions are therefore equal, but equal here does not mean "the same" – religions are equal in that each provides a unique path to Truth.

Religions themselves are not Truth. They are not ends in themselves. They direct us toward Truth. Truth is ultimate and it is a reality larger than any religion.

Gandhi's very practical approach to Truth was evidenced in the manner in which he tackled interfaith dialogue. He did not dialogue with religions or with religious systems; he dialogued rather, with people who were struggling to live out their religious values. He, therefore, as a Hindu, did not dialogue with Islam and Christianity. He dialogued with Muslims and Christians.

As a serious Hindu, Gandhi possessed a natural openness to other religions. The Hindu religion emphasizes tolerance and particularly religious tolerance. Hindus, generally speaking, are not threatened by other religions because they experience each religion as a gift.

A devout Hindu, for example, considers Jesus to be an incarnation of God. But other great religious figures such as the Buddha, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster and Muhammad are also regarded as divine incarnations.

The Mahatma exemplified the best in Hinduism and felt at home with all religions. Following the ethical teachings of Christ, he maintained a lifelong devotion to Jesus. He did not merely respect the Muslim religion, he included readings from the Koran (Muslim Scripture) in his daily prayer sessions.

Gandhi's roots in Hinduism help to explain why he would be more concerned about the ethical teachings of Jesus and the moral life of the believer than about established dogmas to which the adherent is required to give assent. Truth, for Gandhi, is not something to which one gives assent. Truth is to be pursued and experimented with. Truth is to be tried and tested in every time and every culture.

For Hindus, each religion is but one expression of Truth, an effort by one portion of humanity to express a particular dimension of God. Therefore no one religion contains the fullness of God's revelation; God has many faces.

Christianity and India

From the perspective of Gandhi and many other observers, Christian missionary activity in India went hand in hand with the exploitative behaviour of the Europeans of the colonial era. Indians who converted to Christianity had to renounce their cultural heritage. Often this involved a disruption of the tightly-knit Indian family unit. Indian converts adopted European customs, were forced to discard their mother tongue and raise their children to speak only English. They were also made to feel ashamed of their ancestry and Hindu heritage. One of Gandhi's strong childhood memories was that of local missionaries slandering Hinduism and its gods and goddesses.

Indeed, Christian missionary efforts seemed to amount to a Europeanization and a denationalization of India. Gandhi saw little in the Christian missionary project that impressed him. And when he spoke to missionary groups (as he often did) he did not hesitate to tell them so. .Unfortunately, for the last 150 years, Christianity in India has been inextricably mixed up with British rule. It appears to us as synonymous with materialistic civilization and imperialist exploitation... Its contribution, therefore, has been largely of a negative character.. And in another address to missionaries: "I speak to you what I feel from the bottom of my heart. I miss receptiveness, humility and willingness on your part to identify yourself with the masses of India".

Gandhi believed that the missionaries – indeed all of Western Christianity – were suffering from a distorted interpretation of conversion. Because the missionaries had confused the gospel of Jesus with Western civilization and because their understanding of Christian dogma resulted in a contempt for the traditions and culture of India, their pursuit of converts amounted to a form of spiritual imperialism. The Indian converts, wrote Gandhi, "imbibed the superficialities of European civilization and missed the teaching of Jesus".

The Mahatma defined conversion as a movement toward "a life of greater surrender to one's country, greater surrender to God, greater self-purification". And here there is no room for proselytizing. Gandhi did not oppose missionary endeavours in the fields of health and education unless these projects were harboring a hidden agenda, that is to say, proselytizing under the cloak of humanitarianism. His experience made him suspicious about conversions from one religion to another. Such a change, he argued, often involved a denial of the individual's roots. Search out your own traditions and your own cultural heritage. This was his message.

Gandhi, then, saw no place for proselytizing. Faith, when it is truly lived, is self-generating: "a life of service and uttermost simplicity is the best preaching". In one speech to a group of missionaries, the Mahatma argued that the missionary ideals can best be achieved through a process of attraction rather than promotion: "If you want us to feel the aroma of Christianity, you must copy the rose. The rose irresistibly draws people to itself, and the scent remains with them".

Equal Regard for All Religions

Respect for another religion and a willingness to struggle with other perspectives on Truth involves more than simply acknowledging the presence of Truth or God in another religion. Gandhi steadfastly maintained that by entering into sincere relationships with members of other faiths, one could actually arrive at a deeper appreciation and knowledge of one's own religion: "The cultivation of tolerance for other religious faiths will impart to us a truer understanding of our own".

The Mahatma revered the Scriptures of all religions: "I hold that it is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the Scriptures of the world... I shall say to the Hindus that your lives will be incomplete unless you reverently study the teachings of Jesus. I have come to the conclusion, in my own experience, that those who, no matter to what faith they belong, reverently study the teachings of other faiths, broaden their own instead of narrowing their hearts".

But for Gandhi "equal regard for all religions" and the equality of religions does not amount to a fusion or a melting pot of religions. Interfaith dialogue involves an appreciation of the differences between faiths and of how these differences complement one another. Not only do religions need to understand one another, they need one another in order to understand themselves. The pluralism of religions, Gandhi believed, reflects God's will to redeem all.

"I do not expect the India of my dreams to develop one religion, that is, to be wholly Hindu or wholly Muslim or wholly Christian, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another".

Religious tolerance was a central commitment of his life. He believed that intolerance was a form of violence. Therefore, central to Gandhi's efforts to heal interreligious rivalry and promote religious tolerance was his total commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence.

Ahimsa, the Sanskrit word for nonviolence, can be translated as "the refusal to do harm or injury". On a more general level, this word can be translated as "love". Gandhi was convinced that .ahimsa is inevitably bound to Truth.... The supreme and final test of Truth is always nonviolence. Nonviolence is the spiritual and moral core of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion which possesses a radical belief in the sanctity of all living beings be they trees, elephants, humans or insects. The Jain belief in unconditional reverence for all living things translates into a number of admirable values including Truthfulness, non-acquisitiveness and a commitment not to harm any creature, no matter how small.

The influence of Jainism upon Gandhi is unmistakable. He grew up in a part of India (Gujarat) permeated with Jain thought. In this region, Hinduism and Jainism co-existed peacefully and shared many religious concepts. As the Mahatma grew older, he adopted more and more lifestyle practices that reflect those of a Jain monk. For their part, Jains of today regard Gandhi as the greatest modern interpreter of nonviolence.

Interfaith Dialogue

Gandhi has emerged as one of the 20th century's most significant practitioners of interfaith dialogue. His ideas were developed in India's painful crucible of interreligious rivalry. In this environment, both his adversaries and his allies were members of many religions.

The Mahatma's commitment to interfaith dialogue and his belief in the equality of religions were very much related to his convictions about nonviolence. Accordingly, the nonviolent approach to Truth and to religious Truth leads to tolerance and opens the door to dialogue. But dialogue, argues Diane Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, "must begin with some measure of humility, in the face of the mystery of the Transcendent, however we understand it, ...and with some acknowledgement that others have glimpsed a part of it as well".

Gandhi believed that each religion, then, provides Truth to its members. However, each religion is imperfect and in need of purification, and one way in which religions can purify themselves is through the exercise of interfaith dialogue.

Deeply pained by the religious violence and conflict he witnessed in the land of his birth, Gandhi managed to present his fellow Indians with radical alternatives to the status quo. On more than one occasion, he entered into life-threatening fasts to protest religious violence. Interfaith rivalry violated everything he held true. In the end, Gandhi gave his life in an effort to make peace among warring creeds. In January of 1948, he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist who was part of a movement protesting the Mahatma's continued outreach to India's Muslim minority.

Diane Eck maintains that, for Gandhi, "...the critical question today is whether we human beings will finally choose the chauvinism of a narrow regional, ethnic, national or religious group, or the open household, ready to include, in relationship and connection, an ever larger family of humankind. Paul McKenna is a freelance writer specializing in world religions and interfaith dialogue. He lives in Tottenham, On.

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