By Nick Gier
“So precious is a person’s faith in God that we should not harm that. Because God gave birth to all religions.”
—St. Francis of Assis
“I’ve broadened my Hinduism by other loving other religions as my own.”
—M. K. Gandhi
Next year on October 2 is the sesquicentennial of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s birth, Celebrated by his fellow Indians as the “Mahatma” (Great Soul), I propose that we get a head start on the anniversary by looking at his view of the world’s religions.
Some Fundamentalists Want Religious War
There are basically two responses one can take to the rich diversity within the world’s great religions. Many religious conservatives maintain that their religion is the only true faith and that the others are false. Some fundamentalists go further to declare spiritual war on all other religions, even saying that physical combat will be necessary.
Muslims jihadists raising AK-47s in the air are dramatic examples of this. Just as alarming, however, is Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who, in full dress uniform in front of evangelical congregations, said this of a Somali war lord: “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”
Equally troubling is Ed Kalnins, Sarah Palin’s former pastor, who, with reference to Iraq, stated that Jesus operates “from that position of war mode.” Washington State Republican Matt Shea has declared that a “holy army should kill people who flout biblical law.”
Religious Liberals Want Peace and Understanding
The second option to religious diversity is the liberal one. (I’m using “liberal” in the original sense of liberalis, “pertaining to the free person.”) Traditionally, religious liberals were instrumental in establishing freedom of religion in the liberal democracies of the world. The religious liberal believes that there is some value in every religion, and that people should find and celebrate any common ground they can find.
Problems arise, however, when we attempt to define that common ground. When the Rev. John Henry Barrows opened the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, he blithely assumed that the delegates shared “the blessed truths of divine Fatherhood.” Although always polite and dignified, Buddhist, Hindu, and Confucian representatives made it clear that they did not embrace this belief.
Is Everyone Really a Hindu?
More often, however, religious liberals have defined the common ground as an impersonal Godhead from which all the various personal gods are but manifestations. The most famous exponent of this view is Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy, although drawing on mystics all over the world, still has a very definite Asian bias.
At one point in his life Gandhi appeared to agree with Huxley: “What of substance is contained in any other religion is to be found in Hinduism.” Far too many Hindus have been guilty of proclaiming that “Everyone is a Hindu,” but Gandhi finally realized that this view was wrong.
Moral Laws and Virtues as Common Ground
Religious morality and laws based on it are one of the greatest contributions of the world’s religions. (Even some critics of religion are willing to concede this.) It seems reasonable then to bring the world’s religions under moral categories such as justice, nonviolence, tolerance, and compassion. Insisting that “there is no such thing as religion overriding morality,” Gandhi states that “true religion and true morality are inseparably bound up with each other.”
While in London Gandhi was very much influenced by theosophical views of religious unity, and also by William Salter’s book Ethical Religion, and he observed that two of the most effective English moral reformers of the day were atheists. This fact convinced him that, no matter how much they resisted, Gandhi would include atheists in his view of true religion. As he once said: “Even the atheists who have pretended to disbelieve in God have believed in truth.”
Gandhi: God is Truth
Gandhi was fond of claiming that the two statements “God is Truth” and “Truth is God” are convertible. He came to prefer the latter over the former because there is far less dispute about the existence of truth than about the existence of God. Proclaiming “Truth is God” also avoids the destructive ways in which personal gods have been used to wage wars and further national goals. Gandhi was convinced that a genuine search for truth would necessitate the development of the virtues of love and nonviolence.
Conscience as the “Still, Small Voice”
Applying the scientific method to his personal life, Gandhi conducted what he called “experiments in truth.” Gandhi believed that truth is a virtue, the virtue of being true to one’s self. One can do this only be constantly testing one’s self in many different situations. To find truth people should rely on their consciences, the “still, small voices” within them. The quest for truth will not succeed if one is not spiritually prepared. In order to prevent the appeal to false conscience, the person must follow the utmost discipline and have a pure heart.
Five Women and the Elephant
While Gandhi believed that truth is absolute, individual views of it will always be “relative, many-sided, and plural.” Gandhi learned this from his Jain friends, followers of an ancient Indian religion that was the first to preach the doctrine of non-violence. Their most famous parable is the story of the five blind women and the elephant. By grabbing on to one part of the elephant, each woman would know something true about the animal but that truth would only be partial.
Gandhi once said that “I very much like this Jain doctrine of the many-sidedness of reality. It is this doctrine that has taught me to judge a Muslim from his own standpoint and a Christian from his. Formerly I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice versa.”
Gandhi did not foresee nor favor a single religion dominating the world, and he did not want people to convert to other faiths. He was once tempted to convert to Islam to heal the Muslim-Hindu divide, but he decided against the idea. He realized that would be politically expedient rather than spiritually motivated.
Just as the Dalai Lama always tells his admirers who want to convert to Buddhism, Gandhi insisted that people find value and spiritual sustenance in their own faith traditions: they “should adhere to their own faiths more strictly and pay greater attention to their moral teaching.”
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read portions of his book on Gandhi at webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/vnv.htm. Email him at [email protected]
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