This year, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, it is sad to see that the forces he fought against continue to dominate headlines and influence people. Where Gandhi fought for truth and non-violence, today we are confronted with an epidemic of fake news and lynching. Where he sought to unite people across faiths, we see religion continuing to divide us. Indeed, 2018 saw a decade-high number of hate crimes driven by religious bias. Thus, today, on the anniversary of Gandhi-ji's assassination, it is worth reflecting on his views on religion, especially on Hinduism.
Mahatma Gandhi was a vocal and devout Hindu. He often remarked that he considered himself 'a Hindu of Hindus' to the extent that he thought his life would become a burden to himself if he were to ever leave Hinduism. But his Hinduism stood on completely different grounds than what right-wing nationalists are advocating today.
Gandhi-ji often repeated, "My Hinduism is not sectarian. It includes all that I know to be best in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism". In his understanding, Hinduism was an inclusive religion that gave space to all. He wrote in "Harijan", "For me, the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden or they are branches of the same majestic tree. Each distinct from the other though having the same source. Therefore, they are equally true".
Such a pluralistic view of religion is something the right-wing is trying to eliminate with its narrow definition of Hinduism. Ironically, Gandhi-ji attributed his ability to assimilate the best of all other religions to none other than Hinduism itself. He wrote, "The faith that I profess not only permits me but renders it obligatory for me to take the best from whatsoever source it may come from."
Gandhi-ji wrote about the origin of his philosophy of sarva-dharmasamabhava as the result of a long and deep study of various faiths, "I believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe that they are all God given, and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that, if only we could all of us read the scriptures of different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of those faiths, we should find that they were in the inside all one and were helpful to one another".
He also acknowledged the existence of flaws in all religions despite his respect for all religions alike. Nevertheless, they were all dear to him, in his words, "as my own Hinduism". But he was not one to shy away from calling out the wrongs in the Hindu religion. He fearlessly advocated the abolition of untouchability because all of God's children were equals.
Hindutva, as preached by the right-wing, stands in complete contradiction to Gandhi-ji's interpretation of the real essence of Hinduism. It politicises a tolerant religion into one that divides Indians on the false dichotomy of janma bhoomi (mother land) versus punya bhoomi (holy land). The regular venom and violence inflicted upon people belonging to non-Hindu faiths, especially Muslims, have become the new normal. Mobs now kill others because of what they are allegedly eating.
According to the Hate Crime Watch report by India Spend, 90% of religious hate crimes in the last decade happened after 2014. They continue to grow every passing year. This can be directly linked to an atmosphere of permissiveness for hate crimes that has been created with the frequent hate speeches by senior leaders, honoring of lynching convicts by ministers, and stony silence from the Prime Minister. Unsurprisingly, in 83% of the hate crimes, the attackers allegedly had links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or associated outfits.
Communal and vigilante formations have been emboldened and are attacking minority communities with impunity. The government itself has passed a Citizenship Bill that discriminates against Muslim refugees. Further, it is backing the Triple Talaq Bill, when that utterance has been declared invalid by the Supreme Court. This bill introduces criminality into a civil contract in the name of protecting women. But these women and families will be rendered helpless if their husbands are jailed. These are just some of the perverse measures that emanate from a communal mindset.
Decades ago, Gandhi had already defined the threat posed by one single religion in a diverse country like India. In "Young India", he wrote: "The need of the moment is not one religion, but mutual respect and tolerance of the devotees of the different religions. We want to reach not the dead level, but unity in diversity. Any attempt to root out traditions, effects of heredity, climate and other surroundings is not only bound to fail, but is a sacrilege. The soul of religions is one, but it is encased in a multitude of forms. The latter will persist till the end of time." His thoughts are as applicable today as they were then.
No civilized nation can thrive if it continues on the path of religious discrimination and division. The only way forward for our great nation lies in defeating the divisive agenda and embracing each other wholeheartedly. The answer, yet again, can once again be found in Gandhi's words, "India, with its ancient religions, has much to give, and the bond of unity between us can best be fostered by a wholehearted sympathy and appreciation of each other's form of religion. A greater tolerance would mean a wider charity in our everyday relations, and any existing misunderstandings would be swept away".
(Prof. M.V. Rajeev Gowda is a Congress MP and Chairman, AICC Research Department.)
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