Mahatma Gandhi vehemently opposed religious conversion, negation of religion, and secularism. Gandhi was a hardcore religious man who declared that, he could not live a moment without religion. But Gandhi considered religious conversion as a sin against god and a crime against humanity. The prophetic religions were engaged in massive and forceful conversions at that time. Religious conversion was one of the declared missions of colonialism as the colonial masters obtained authority to establish colonies from the emperor and the right to evangelize people from the Pope. They had equipped with sword in one hand and The Bible in the other. The emperors authorized them to exploit the wealth of the colonies and the pope empowered them to evangelize the people of the colonies. It was the turn of the Islamic preachers to convert the Hindus to Islam, under the command and support of the Islamic rulers, before the entry of the colonial masters. The Islamic rulers in India imposed religious tax on the Hindus for the practice of their traditional religion as one of the steps to promote conversion. As, evangelization was one of the prominent motives of the colonial masters, they encouraged conversion.
Catholic priests and Islamic preachers, some of them were his close friends, approached and persuaded Gandhi to convert into Christianity and Islam respectively. The priests and preachers thought that it was their legitimate religious duty to convert Hindus to their respective religions and Gandhi was a big catch for them. His friends, among the Christian priests, earnestly thought that if, he failed to get converted to Christianity then, he would not be able to attain heaven. As, heaven is the place exclusively reserved for those who accept Christianity as the only true religion, in accordance with their belief, Gandhi had no other go but to convert himself to Christianity for salvation. If they miss a just and noble man like Gandhi in heaven then, it would have been a painful experience for them. So, they persuaded him to leave the pagan Hindu religion for Christianity. The term Pagan is only another word for barbarity in Eurocentric religious thought. The Eurocentric Christianity commonly shared the view that pagans are uncivilized groups and Christianity was the only one civilized and progressive religion. Their magnanimity to accept a pagan like Gandhi, as a just and noble man, was of course, commendable in the context.
They firmly believed that, they would attain heaven as, they belonged to a religion which guarantees heavenly abode to their followers. Christianity taught that, only those who laid their faith in the trinity-the father, son, and the holy ghost- alone be saved from the original sin which is a necessary condition for redemption. He who refuses to accept Christ as the only son of god and the only redeemer, would not be able to attain heaven as, Christ is the only mediator between god and man in the path of man to heaven. Man can establish communication with god only through Jesus, the son of god. One must give up the religion in which he is borne and brought up before converting to Christianity. The Christianity firmly believes that, Christianity is the only one true religion and Jesus is the only one redeemer. It believes that nobody can enter the heaven without the help of Jesus and the priests who are the representatives of Jesus on earth. All religions, other than Christianity, are pagan beliefs. Pagan is a term that, denotes different sets of spiritual and religious beliefs shared by different groups of people all over the world. Pagans believe in polytheism, idol worship, and ritualism. According to Christian priests Gandhi was a pagan and he could not enter the heaven if he failed to give up Hindu religion. So, they pestered him to embrace Christianity. But Gandhi could not digest the logic of the arguments of his friends and foes among the Christian priests for religious conversion.
The preachers of Islam believe that, Mohammed is the last prophet and the last messenger of god. Though, the most merciful god created the world, the creatures are different from the creator. Creatures are finite and the creator is infinite. There is only one god who is absolute, infinite, and devoid of form and content hence, the sensory organs cannot know him. The god selected Mohammed, the faithful, as a messenger and revealed his words and commands to mankind through him. Koran is the compilation of utterances of the only one god revealed to prophet Mohammed. So, the Muslims consider it as a holy text. The unconditional faith in only one god, only one text, only one prophet, the life hereafter and the last judgement by god makes a person fit to be a Muslim. It is the duty of the Muslims to accept the text as it is and there is no room for partial acceptance as the text revealed by god should not be altered by man. Nobody can question the authority of Koran, because, the Muslims believe that, Koran is the only holy text revealed by god. They believe that there is only one true religion that is, Islam, and those who refuse to accept Islam would not be blessed with the grace of the almighty god and would not be eligible for the attainment of heaven. They consider all religions, except Islam, as incorrect religions. They think that, it is the duty of the Muslims to replace the incorrect religions by the Islam. So, a true Muslim must convert the followers of the other religions to the true religion as part of his religious duty. The Koran dictates that a Muslim who converts the followers of the untrue religions to the Islam would be rewarded by god providing a vibrant and colourful life in heaven. Therefore, they persuaded Gandhi to embrace Islam.
Gandhi refused to give up his spiritual beliefs. He declared it many times that, he was a Sanatana Hindu and all his efforts were to realise the essence of his faith in the context of his life. A sanatana Hindu is a person who practices Truth and non-violence in words, deeds, and mind. Gandhi believed that truth and non-violence are the essence of his religion. By spirituality, Gandhi meant the practice of the truth and non-violence in the context of one’s life and Gandhi narrated many times that, the truth and non-violence are the essence of every religion. Hence, he claimed that his religion provides enough space to every other religion and it includes the essence of Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism etc. He illustrated his religious experience many times that, it is all-inclusive and it excludes nothing. He said that, in essence, every religion is identical with the other. Gandhi never identified the religion with rituals and customs though, rituals and customs are the part of religion. He argued that, religion or spiritual experience is more than rituals and customs. He said that, a true religious man finds his realization in the service rendered to the last in the row. So, he belAieved that whatever is done for the poorest of the poor is done for the god.
By the practice of truth and non-violence, Gandhi means that, one has to regulate oneself to the use of the required minimum of the worldly pleasures such as, power, wealth, position, and fame etc. Therefore, the experience of god, for Gandhi, is an act of self-regulation which is essential for rendering services to the weakest of the weaker sections of the universe. He firmly believed that, the nature provides everything to meet the need of all but there is nothing to meet the greed of one. So, his religious activity was oriented in providing the basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and education, to all. He said it many times that god appears in the form of food before a hungry man. His religious experience was not confined to the services rendered to the society of human beings alone. He considered human beings as one among the infinite number of creations of god. So, he believed that one must render service to all the silent creations of nature to sub serve the purposes of god. Hence, he extended the services to animate and inanimate objects of the universe as part of his religious duty. If we believe that god created the universe, then, it would be our duty to respect the right of a piece of dust because the piece of dust also is the creation of god.
Gandhi was not ready to accept anything from any text if, the utterances did not agree with the sense of justice and logic. Gandhi visited Vaikam, the place where a satyagraha was held for the temple entry right of the untouchables. He had an opportunity to engage in an argument with a brahmin, named Indumthuruthy Namabyathiri, who was the custodian of the temple rituals, in connection with the customs regarding the temple entry of the lower caste people. Nambyathiri vehemently argued that untouchables should not be permitted to enter the temple because the texts of Hinduism had prohibited it. Further he argued that, practice of untouchability is the essential part of Hindu religion. Then Gandhi countered him, without any hesitation that, if untouchability is the part of the Hindu religion then, he would like that religion to get drowned in the Arabian Sea than it is being survived. Further, he argued that, his faith in the Hindu religion did not permit him to exclude a section of the creation of god from man and the place of worship. So, he said that his experience of the Hinduism did not permit him to accept untouchability as part of any religion.
Gandhi said that, religious conversion was illogical because conversion was based on the theory that, there were good and bad forms of religion. The people who believe in a religion can make a claim that their religion is good. But they did not have the right to allege that the other religion is bad. Christians have been making the claim that their religion is good and all other religions are bad. Muslims also subscribes the same view. If, everyone who believes in a religion makes the claim that his religion is good and the religion of the other is bad then, the result would be conflict, chaos, and disaster. Thanks to the inborne tolerance practiced by the people of India, there have been only very few conflicts occurred based on religion. The judgement on the quality of religion is based on the comparison of rituals and customs practiced by the believers of one religion and the other. As, there is no logical basis for the practice of rituals and customs of the religions, it is an absurd belief that, the rituals and customs related to one religion is better than the other.
The rituals and customs, related to religions, are evolved on the basis of the context of the people who practice the religions. The context would be changing from place to place and time to time. It is very difficult to find rational basis for religious beliefs. It is not logically possible to establish the immaculate birth of Jesus and his resurrection in flesh and blood. There is no rational basis for the belief that Jesus is the only son of god. The reason cannot justify the belief that Mohammed is the last prophet. There is no reason to justify the belief that Koran is the only text revealed by god. These religions depend on an epistemological position that, wherever there is a conflict between reason and faith, a true believer has stick to faith rather than reason. Irrational beliefs can never be the subject matter in a logical discussion and it is absurd to debate on illogical premise. Therefore, it is meaningless to argue that one religion is better than the other. Hence, Gandhi rejected the very idea of comparison of one religion with the other and pronounce a judgement that one religion is better than the other.
Gandhi, on the contrary, believed that the customs and rituals are the external outfits of religion. The external outfits vary from religion to religion in tune with the context in which a religion originates. But the spirituality of all religions is identical. Though, the practices of customs and rituals have been the part of religion, the practices of rituals and customs are not enough to experience spirituality. He narrated that, in essence, every religion aims at the services to be rendered to the poorest of the poor. He illustrated the meaning of the aphorisms from all major religions to establish his views on religion. Hence, he assessed that, spirituality must guide every action of a religious man. Man should not be guided by selfishness because, selfishness negates spirituality. It is in this sense that, he said: politics without religion is disastrous. Politics must be for the benefit of the downtrodden people in any society. Since, spirituality is the essence of all religions and since, every religion aims at the realistion of spirituality then, there is no meaning in religious conversion. One is free to practice spirituality whatever be the mode of his religious faith. Hence, he concluded that, a person who insists the other to give up his religion and embrace another religion for the attainment of heaven/ salvation, is either an idiot who does not know the essence of his own religion or a rude, cruel, and selfish person who wants to increase the number of the followers of his religion as a step to accumulate power, wealth, etc. Gandhi even blamed the persons, who exploit the poverty of the poor as means for conversion, as sinners who act against god and man. So, Gandhi suggested to ban religious conversion by law.
Gandhi never subscribed the theory that, the civilized society must be free from the practice of religion because religion has no role to play in modern society. He opposed the idea that, the art, science, and philosophy of statecraft must be free from religion. The theory that, statecraft must be free from religion is part of the theory propagated by euro-centric activists and philosophers, after the French revolution, as a reaction against cruelties of clergy. Roman Catholicism was the state religion in most of the European countries and the pope and his representatives played crucial roles in the administration of the states. The monolithic religious authority, empowered with political power which ruled the European countries, landed up in absolute corruption exploitation and nepotism. A large number of catholic priests had been guillotined by the French revolutionaries as part of people’s revenge against the exploitation, nepotism, and corruption practiced by the clergy and church. Hence the revolutionaries, activists, and the philosophers in France took a decision to keep the clergy and church away from statecraft. The so called progressive minded people of Europe accepted this theory as a tool to remove polluted religion from society.
This theory was not acceptable to Gandhi because what the Roman catholic church did in the name of religion was really the negation of spirituality, the essence of religion. Exploitation, corruption, and nepotism have nothing to do with the practice of religion. What they did in the name of Christianity was really against the teachings of Jesus as he taught them to forgive the sinner and love the enemy. Loving the enemy is an act of love without expecting love in return. So, the sub-human actions done by the clergy should not be the criterion to evaluate a religion. Hence, Gandhi argued that, what is to be opposed is not the religion but the wrong practices in the name of religion. A wrong use of something is not the sufficient reason to ban its use. The spirituality of the religion should be kept as the indivisible part of human action to make it more and more justifiable. So, what is to be avoided is not the religion, but its wrong use. Therefore, Gandhi argued that spirituality should be the part and parcel of all human actions including political activity. Gandhi was one of the very few leaders of the world who could make use of spirituality as guiding force in the struggle for the freedom of his native land and it was, of course, a political activity. By citing the practical success of spirituality in political activity, Gandhi could silence his opponents in debates on religion and politics.
Gandhi could not accept the meaning of the term secularism. The term secularism means a state of experience devoid of god, spirituality, and religion. The term secularism has been coined by the progressive intellectuals, as part of the sharp intellectual reaction against the autocracy of institutionalized religion in the west. The institutionalized religion chained the freedom of man everywhere in society. The clergy interpreted the Biblical statement “gods to god and Caesars to Caesar” in the sense that Caesar is the authority of the physical body and god is the ruler of the spirit of man. As god is the supreme power of the world, the clergy could easily make the argument that, the spiritual empowerment is supreme. Since, the spirit of man is under the direct control of god and since, the clergy is the direct representative of god on earth then, the decision of the clergy shall be final on everything related to man. The clergy, being the representative of god on earth, claimed that they have the unquestionable authority to rule man and his context because man has no right to alter the decisions of god. But this interpretation was unacceptable to the rational minds in general.
The intellectuals of the west, used secularism as a tool to save human society from the atrocities of clergy. They used it as an opportunity to keep the religious authorities, especially the clergy, away from the spheres of human activity. They bifurcated the society into secular and religious categories and maintained a view that everything religious is against humanity. They presented a view that, the political, social, economic, and cultural space of human life must be free from the presence of god and religion as, god and religion try to keep the freeman in chains everywhere. Man must get the chance to enjoy unfettered freedom as freedom is his birth right. By freedom they meant that man must not be determined by any force including god. They dreamt of a human society untouched by god, religion, and clergy. They placed a theory that man should not be controlled by any force, both seen and unseen, or institutions in society. They argued that, man is the center of the universe and he should be the final authority on everything related to man. They believed that, man is the measure of all things and everything in the world should be interpreted in the interest of man. So, they introduced a theory of statecraft oriented on anthropocentrism.
Gandhi did not accept the theory because of two reasons. Gandhi could not accept anthropocentrism as a valid theory to interpret the man and society. The religion, philosophy, and science of the western tradition justify the theory of anthropocentrism as a valid doctrine to interpret the universe. Since, man is the measure of all things then, the duty of the universe is to sub serve the purposes of man on earth. Anthropocentrism places man at the place of god and permits him to do whatever he likes to do. This theory makes the universe a slave to man. This is nothing but the replacement of god, the supreme master, by another master named man. But that makes no difference in the mode of governance. The replacement of god by man as, the master of the universe, really nullifies the right of the other manifestations of the universe because it gives immense power to man to exploit the universe. It is only the replacement of one mode of slavery by another mode as, there is no difference in mode of governance. If, the God-imposed slavery on man is bad then, man-imposed slavery on the other manifestations is equally bad. Man can be free only in a free universe where every being and non-being must get the chance to act without the interference of any type of regulation other than self-regulation. Anthropocentrism provides anarchy, the freedom without self-regulation, or dictatorship; both are equally unacceptable.
The second reason is that secularism denies spirituality. The theoreticians of secularism identify religion with clergy, customs, and rituals. The clergy, customs and rituals are only the external outfits and spirituality is the inner content of religion. It is the spiritual content that makes a religion vibrant. The exponents of secularism refuse to accept spiritualism as the essence of religion because, they consider the services rendered to the poorest of the poor in society as not the part of religion, but the part of morality of individuals in society. They consider morality as a matter of convenience of individuals rather than the compulsory duty of individuals as religious personalities. Their argument is that, religion has no authority to insist a person to do spiritual duties and it has no machinery to supervise the performance of the inner content of spiritual duties. Religion, according to their belief, is concerned only with the external observances of customs and rituals. So, they allege that, religious morality is customary in nature and it is not concerned with the inner side of moral actions. Therefore, they argued that religion should be kept out of politics.
Gandhi, on the contrary, argued that man cannot live without spirituality. He admits that there are some people among the clergy and laymen violate the spiritual rules of religion and practice untruth and violence in personal and social life. But that does not mean that all persons who practice religion are hypocrites. It would be a hasty generalization that all are not observing spirituality based on the experience of a few who are not observing it. If, all human beings belonging to a religion refuse to practice spirituality then, the religion would not have been existing on earth; he argued. The very existence of religion itself is the proof for the fact that there are religious people who observe spiritualty in their context of life. If, the people of the world would not have been practicing the non-violence then, the world would have been perished; Gandhi added. Gandhi argued that the existence of the world and the peaceful co-existence of human beings in society are better proof for the fact that majority of the people practice truth and non-violence in their personal and social life. Therefore, Gandhi concluded that, secularism is an irrelevant doctrine in social, political, economic, and cultural spheres of human life. As, human life is an integrated whole, it is absurd to argue that, a man can be segregated into a political man, an economic man, a cultural man etc.
As, Gandhi believed in the truth and validity of all religions, he proposed the theory that equal treatment to all religions should be the characteristic feature of a healthy democratic society. So, he accepted SARVAMATASMABHAVANA as the guiding practical principle for democratic governance. He believed that, it is not practically possible to eradicate god and religion from hearts of the Indians as, Indians believe in spirituality. He had no hesitation to include every shade of religious thought in his concept of religion. He never excludes atheism, as, atheism also is a way of life. Though, he was a religious man he never considers blasphemy as a punishable offence. As his religion provided enough space for rational criticism, he was in favour of logical scrutiny of religion and its teachings. He did not consider clergy as an unquestionable authority of religion and he was not ready to accept the religious aphorisms or the words of clergy without logical and moral scrutiny. Truth is his god; service rendered to the poorest of the poor is his mode of worship; the practice of non-violence is his religious rituals and customs. Yes, he was to the core religious and all his activities were the practice of religion; political activity was not an exception to the general principle.
( The author Dr. K.S Radhakrishnan is an academic, orator and writer.)