The State would look after secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency, and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern.

M.K. Gandhi


Does religion have a role to play in public life, say, politics, social organization and public conduct? There are two different answers given to this question. "No! Religion must be kept out of the public sphere," so goes the secular view. The public sphere, according to them, must be governed on secular lines and not by religion. "Yes! Religion must play an active role in public life," goes the other view, which may be termed as the religious view of public life. Both views are supported by pragmatic as well as theoretical reasons, though with differing emphasis.

The pragmatic justification offered by the secularists goes like this: for pluri-religious countries like India, bringing religion into the public realm, especially politics, will be suicidal since it would divide the society along religious lines. This seems a compelling reason. The theoretical justifications vary depending on their understanding and evaluation of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism.’ But the basic contention is that religion is a strictly personal affair which has nothing to do with such public realms like politics and economics; these are governed by autonomous principles.

The rationality of the religious view is based on an existential understanding of religion as a total outlook on human life in the world. As such, they argue, religion cannot be excluded from any area of human activity including politics. On the contrary, one’s religion must guide all of one’s activities. The advocates of this view also might give a pragmatic justification to the effect that religion, being the most potent force in our society, must be utilized for social change and the building of the new, egalitarian India envisaged in its constitution.

The secular view has prevailed in India till recently, and remains the official line till now. But times have changed. India has witnessed separatist movements mobilized on religious lines. The Hindutva forces, with their view that matters of faith are non-negotiable irrespective of their consequences to the public at large, are on the rise and even running the government. At the global level too, the once dominant secular view has taken a severe beating at the hands of Islamic revolutionaries, Bible-belt politicians and fundamentalists of different hues. The secular view, however, continues to have a dominant say both in India and elsewhere; it may have taken a beating but it is still alive and active. Both views seem to have an uneasy co-existence at the moment. Moreover, the dangers pointed out by the secularists remain as strong as ever.

It is in this context that we ask: Which view shall we take of this relationship in the coming millennium? Is there some way of reconciling the two views, such that religion can make a positive contribution to public life without bringing about the dangers of which the secularists warn us? Obviously the answer will depend on our understanding of religion. And here lies the importance of Mahatma Gandhi. Here is a person who lived these issues and, hence, might be able to help us find an appropriate answer. Deeply interested in maintaining inter-religious harmony, Gandhi wanted independent India to be secular; and yet he did not hesitate to use religion for political mobilization. Rather than confining his religiosity to the private realm, he gave it a prominent place in all his political, social, economic and inter-religious activities. Indeed, he seems to be an unique figure who achieved the impossible. How did he manage this feat of hunting with the hound and running with the hare? Was he merely a bundle of contradictions, or does he have something to say to the present situation? What was his understanding of religion which enabled him to do this? This is what I propose to study in this paper.

The focus of the paper will be on Gandhi’s understanding of religion and its relation to social and political issues. The paper is divided into three parts. In the first part of the paper we shall focus on his understanding of religion and secularism which enabled him to hold on to both at the same time. Some of the contemporary relevance of Gandhi’s approach to religion is brought out in the second part. Then, in the third part we examine his theory in practice so as to draw the relevant conclusions. If the second part can be considered as positive lessons to be learned from Gandhi, the third part focuses on the dangers to be avoided in the light of Gandhian practice.





Religion, for Gandhi, is so absolute that he would go to the extent of saying that he "could not live for a single second without religion."It is an indissoluble whole which cannot be separated from other spheres of life. On the contrary, one’s religion commands one’s absolute allegiance in every sphere of one’s activity. "I do not conceive religion as one of the many activities of mankind. . . . For me every, [even] the tiniest, activity is governed by what I consider to be my religion."It follows that his politics is an extension of his religion; and he goes on to say that it must be so:


Many of my political friends despair of me because they say even my politics are derived from religion. And they are right. My politics and all other activities of mine are derived from my religion. I go further and say that every activity of a man of religion must be derived from his religion, because religion means being bound to God, that is to say God rules your every breath.


With such views one would expect him to advocate a theocratic state. On the contrary, he wanted the state to be secular. "If officers of the Government as well as members of the public undertook the responsibility and worked wholeheartedly for the creation of a secular state, we could build a new India that would be the glory of the world."Gandhi goes to the extent of saying, "If I were a dictator, religion and State would be separate." He continues: "The State would look after secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency, and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern."

How does Gandhi reconcile such a separation between religion and state with the all embracing character of religion? How could there be such a separation if all of one’s activities are guided by one’s religion? Is there a contradiction? The answer lies in Gandhi’s understanding of secularism and religion.




Gandhi’s advocacy of secularism needs to be seen in the context of religious pluralism. ‘Religion’ in this context is a socio-cultural entity: a community with its distinct set of doctrines, code of conduct, and manner of worship. Understood in this sense, religion is invariably pluralistic: there are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, etc. When Gandhi talks about secularism in this context, his concern is with the relationship between members of different religions and the political status of minorities in Independent India. For him secularism meant:


All subjects would thus be equal in the eyes of the law. But every single individual would be free to pursue his own religion without let or hindrance so long as it did not transgress the common law. . . . What [Gandhi] wished India to do, was to assure liberty of religious profession to every single individual.


It also means political equality. Once addressing Christians, he said:


Whatever their religion, all born in India and proud of their birth were equal in the eye of the law. On the strength of merit, i.e., intellectual capacity, self-sacrifice, courage and incorruptibility, a Christian could be the Chief Minister without exhibiting greater merit than a Hindu or Muslim.


It is abundantly clear that secularism for him is a matter of equality before the law, such that the adherents of all religions are free to pursue their own religion and it would pose no hindrance to their political life. In the context of the communal tensions between religious communities, his concern for secularism is meant to ensure that followers of all religions or of no religion are given equal treatment before the law of the state. In 1947, responding to complaints about a police official being partial to the Hindus, he tells all officers to be impartial. "[In] their work they were neither Muslims, nor Hindus, nor Sikhs. They were Indians bound by oath to give full protection to the afflicted without regard to their religion. Thereby they did not cease to be Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs, but became better."

It may be noted that this understanding of secularism is quite different from the Western understanding. Secularism as it developed in the West is not primarily equality before the law; such equality can be considered merely as a by-product of secularism. Secularism, as it developed in the West, especially in France, is primarily an affirmation of the autonomy of the moral and the political from the religious, which meant primarily the Christian church. Similarly, the Western view is based on a distinction between faith, and reason. Religion is the realm of faith and the secular is the realm of science and reason. Thus, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary can define secularism as ‘indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.’ Gandhi’s secularism, in contrast, involves neither indifference nor rejection of religion, nor the autonomy of reason or morality. While Gandhi agrees that religion is in the realm of faith, it is not a faith that is opposed to reason, but a faith that is supra-rational. He talks about faith not to give autonomy to reason, but for showing the limits of reason. Since Gandhi was keenly aware of the limits of reason, he does not seek to base morality on it. Morality, rather than being an autonomous realm, is based on religion. He goes even to the extent of identifying the two. Morality is, for him, the very core of religion, as we shall see.




Gandhi’s understanding of religion too has its own flavor. Although he is faced with a plurality of religions, most of his views on religion are not concerned primarily with such socio-cultural entities. For him, religion is a personal affair, entirely "a matter of the heart. It is between a man and his God."10 "I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair."11 He would even go to the extent of saying that religions would be "as many as there are individuals."12 Since religion is a personal matter, "If we succeeded in confining it to the personal plane, all would be well in our political life."13 

Individual persons are free to profess any religion, but the state and the government are to be guided by their own laws and norms that treat all equally without any consideration of the religion of its citizens. But it raises the question: what about the men in the government? In as much as all of one’s activities are governed by what one considers to be one’s religion, how can this privilege be denied to those in the government?

This problem can be resolved either by acknowledging that morality and the public realm are autonomous from religion or by holding that all religions are on par as far as morality and the public realm are concerned. Either way, we would have a common law that is applicable to the adherents of different religions. Thus, if we assume that morality is the basis of law, we can have two types of secularism: one that makes the moral and the religious realms autonomous and the other that denies such autonomy, but holds that the differences between religions are irrelevant to morality. Gandhi would not countenance the first. For him, "No work done by man, however great, will really prosper unless it has a distinct religious backing."14 His solution is clearly the second. He says, "The same activity may be governed by the spirit either of religion or of irreligion. There is no such thing for me, therefore, as leaving politics for religion."15 From this it is clear that for him the opposition is entirely between religion and irreligion and not between religions. Since all religions are on a par, he can proceed to say that all of one’s activities are to be guided by one’s religion. Since this is crucial in his philosophy, let us examine his views on religious pluralism in more detail.




After contending that religion should pervade every one of our actions, Gandhi goes on to say: "Here religion does not mean sectarianism. . . . This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It does not supersede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality."16 Clearly, he is not speaking of religions as distinct socio-cultural entities, but of religion in the singular, which is contrasted with irreligion.


Let me explain what I mean by religion. It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all other religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which enlarges one’s very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within and which ever purifies.17 


He does not deny that there are different religions to be found in the world, with their different scriptures and symbols, but believed that "they were at the bottom all one and were all helpful to one another."18 "Religions are different roads converging upon one point. What does it matter that we take different roads, so long as reach the same goal? In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals."19 Another favorite imagery of his is that of the tree and its branches. He believed that "if a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of others, too."20 

A number of questions arise here: what is the status of this claim itself? How does he arrive at it? And what is the goal or the trunk of religions? What is the place of the different religions as socio-cultural entities, the different branches or roads? Although the first two questions may be the most important from a philosophical perspective, an examination of the last two will suffice for our present purpose.


The Essence of Religions


What is this heart of religions which he has found? This question finds a twofold answer in Gandhi: interiority and morality. First of all, religion is an instinct within the human heart:


Religion is a thing not alien to us. It has to be developed out of us. It is always within us; with some, consciously so; with others, quite unconsciously. But it is always there. And whether we wake up this religious instinct in us through assistance or by inward growth, no matter how it is done, it has got to be there.21 


He describes this instinct thus: "All religions teach us that two opposite forces act upon us and that the human endeavor consists in a series of eternal rejections and acceptances."22 So he would say:


I am but a poor struggling soul yearning to be wholly good B wholly truthful and non-violent in thought, word and deed; but ever failing to reach the ideal which I know to be true. It is a painful climb, but the pain of it is a positive pleasure to me. Each step upward makes me feel stronger and fit for the next.23 


Clearly, religion for him is a solitary spiritual journey of "self-realization or knowledge of self."24 Obviously, such a journey cannot be a parttime occupation restricted to some activities; it demands the whole of one’s attention, the total allegiance of one’s heart, and at all times; there can be no walk of life, including politics, that is exempt from it. Kierkegaard, I think, would have understood this well.

In this journey it is the ‘still small voice’ from within that acts as the guide. "My firm belief is that He reveals Himself daily to every human being, but we shut our ears to the ‘still small voice’."25 In order to be able to listen to this voice, strict discipline is necessary.26 He speaks of the several vows that one must keep in the process. The core of different religions is to provide this discipline. "All the great religions of the world, however much they may differ, are absolutely one on this fundamental thing, that no man or woman with impure heart can possibly appear before the Great White Throne."27 Such purity of heart involves the whole person B one’s thoughts, words and deeds.28 Since for Gandhi, means and ends are interchangeable terms, attaining such wholeness is the goal of religions. Other times he would speak of humility and making oneself absolutely zero, or losing the self as the goal of religions.

Having found that the essence of religions consists in this journey, it becomes possible for him to deal with the relationship between Religion and religions, between truth and Truth, between Religion and public life. Different religions offer external assistance in awakening the inner religious instinct within us and help us to listen constantly to the inner voice as we journey along. Of all the numerous names given to God, Gandhi’s own favorite is Truth. Truth, for him, is one, but seen differently by different people, just as in the story of the blind men and the elephant. These differently grasped truths form truths for the moment. By clinging to it, one can reach Absolute Truth, provided one is serious about the grasped truth, i.e., one tries to live accordingly.29 Therefore, "There is nothing wrong in every man following Truth according to his lights. Indeed, it is his duty to do so. Then, if there is a mistake on the part of anyone so following Truth, it will be automatically set right. . . . In such selfless search for Truth, nobody can lose his bearings for long. Directly he takes to the wrong path, he stumbles, and is thus redirected to the right path."30 This makes Gandhi’s religion one lifelong satyagraha, a continual search for Truth. The focus is on the process and not on attainment.

This has a distinct advantage: he can bypass the creeds and dogmas which give differing accounts of the goal, and concentrate on the one thing necessary, the interior journey. In other words, religions as socio-cultural formations become secondary, and one’s intense commitment to the interior journey is made primary. Both these aspects are clearly brought out in the following incident. It is narrated by Nirmal Kumar Bose who did not care much for belief in God, but had a vague commitment to truth. It is vague in the sense that although he was not sure if he was prepared to suffer for truth, he did realize that one should be prepared to suffer for what one holds to be true. On this basis he began to live together with Gandhi. Then he narrates:


I attended all his prayer meetings except one or two missed, and quite apart from that after two or three months’ time, one day I asked him: "Bapu, why don’t you talk to me about God? You ought to try and convince me that God exists." And he smiled and said: "Do you know, I think I have a firm faith in God, I am not quite sure about it but I try to live accordingly and if my life doesn’t carry that message to you, the word of my mouth will never succeed, so I don’t try.31 


Clearly, for Gandhi, it was not important that Bose did not have any explicit belief in God; he was committed to living what he believed. And that sufficed. Almost like the Buddha, Gandhi attached little importance to metaphysical issues. He "has no use for definitions and concepts, but wants to live out, or try out, certain tentatively held beliefs or instinctively felt urges."32 This is what makes Experiments with Truth the most appropriate title for his autobiography. Here, then, is the basis of Gandhi’s respect for all religions: relegating the differences, including belief in God, to a secondary position and making personal integrity the only primary matter in religion. For Gandhi, it is living that has primacy in religion, not believing. With such an ordering, it is easy to tolerate and even respect differences as long as the religious pursuit is taken seriously. Since his secularism is not opposed to religion, we can also appreciate how this understanding of religion becomes also the core of his secularism.

Secularism, however, requires more than personal integrity; even the Gandhian concept of secularism, we have seen, requires a common morality and law if the different truths are not to lead to conflicts. And there comes his second characterization of the essence of religion: morality. In as much as Gandhi insists on personal integrity, living one’s beliefs, his religion is also morality. "True religion and true morality are inseparably bound up with each other. Religion is to morality what water is to the seed that is sown in the soil."33 However, morality in this personal sense would fall far short of the common laws and norms which the officials of a secular government are expected to follow. How does Gandhi bridge this gap? It is here that Gandhi’s concept of religion as moral law which is binding on everyone comes to the fore.

In spite of his distaste for theorizing about religion, he cannot escape it since he wants to relate it to public life. Therefore, religion is not just an individual’s striving after good, but a striving that is based on an Eternal Law.


There can be no manner of doubt that this Universe of sentient beings is governed by a Law. If you cannot think of Law without its Giver, I would say that the Law is the Law-giver, that is God. When we pray to the Law, we simply yearn after knowing the Law and obeying it. We become what we yearn after.34 


Indeed it may even be said that the Law which holds together the Universe is indistinguishable from the Law Maker. Speaking in human language, one might even go so far as to say that God Himself is subject to the Wheel of the Law. . . . There is no scope for even the least little blade of grass to be free from the operation of God’s laws.35 


This Law or God is the underlying unity of everything; it is dharma. "I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever-changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates. That informing Power or Spirit is God. And since nothing I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is."36 This links up Gandhian religion with Advaita Vedanta:


The forms are many, but the informing spirit is one. How can there be room for distinctions of high and low where there is this all-embracing unity underlying the outward diversity? For that is a fact meeting you at every step in daily life. The final goal of all religions is to realize this essential oneness.37 


I believe in the absolute oneness of God and, therefore, of humanity. What, though we are many bodies, we have but one soul. The rays of the sun are many through refraction, but they have the same source.38 


But Gandhiji does not think that any of these can be found by reason. Like Kierkegaard, he distrusted reason. For him, men are ultimately guided not by the intellect, but by the heart.39 Our belief in God has to be based on faith which transcends reason.40 


He is no God who merely satisfies the intellect, if He ever does. God to be God must rule the heart and transform it. He must express himself in every smallest act of His votary. ... It is proved not by extraneous evidence but in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within. Such testimony is to be found in the experiences of an unbroken line of prophets and sages in all countries and climes. To reject this evidence is to deny oneself.41 


Having established his link with an advaitic metaphysics, Gandhi can proceed to morality. Gandhi’s religion becomes "a belief in ordered moral government of the universe."42 This religion or morality transcends and harmonizes different religions. Such Religion involves an "identification with everything that lives."43 Hence his insistence on ahimsa, the cardinal principle of his moral theory and practice. This ahimsa is not merely a matter of forgoing manifest violence, but perfect non-injury to all living beings, in thought, word and deed. Even impatience would be characterized by him as violence.44 

At the heart of Gandhi’s metaphysics lies the human community. It becomes so important to him that he can say: "If we are all sons of the same God and partake of the same divine essence, we must partake of the sin of every person."45 Therefore, he would undertake fasts to atone for sins, not only his own, but also of others. In keeping with his emphasis on process we can see his treatment of morality at two levels, both of which are fused into his concept of satyagraha. At one level satyagraha involves the traditional notion of tapasya and self-suffering. A satyagrahi is one who has "tried to vindicate his particular view of truth by self-suffering instead of inflicting suffering upon others."46 Everyone has a right to hold firmly onto what she or he believes to be true, but has no right to impose it on others. It is not a passivity where everything is allowed; one must insist upon one’s view of truth. The manner of this insistence is through self-suffering and the willingness to pay the price. Traditional tapasya is meant for attaining personal spiritual powers and has nothing to do with secular goals.

At a second, and more positive level, satyagraha is suffering love. It is an experiment in making tapasya into an instrument of moral force in society. Service of fellow humans lies at its core.


The immediate service of all human beings becomes a necessary part of the endeavor [of God-realization] simply because the only way to find God is to see Him in His creation and be one with it. And this can only be done by service of all. . . . I am part and parcel of the whole, and I cannot find Him apart from the rest of humanity. . . . If I could persuade myself that I should find Him in a Himalayan cave I would proceed there immediately. But I know that I cannot find Him apart from humanity.47 


At this point he can truly say that "the essence of religion is morality."48 And a follower of such religion "cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means."49 Further, "I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind, and that I could not do unless I took part in politics."50 "The whole gamut of man’s activities today constitutes an indivisible whole. You cannot divide social, economic, political and purely religious work into watertight compartments. I do not know any religion apart from human activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities which they would otherwise lack, reducing life to a maze of `sound and fury signifying nothing’."51 However, this understanding of religion and its relation to public life provides only half of the picture, as we shall see in the third part. Before moving into that, let us consider some of the specific ways in which Gandhi’s life and teachings on religion can contribute to the present-day world.





The Personal Nature of Religion. When we think of the relevance of Gandhi’s views on religion for the third millennium, the first thing that comes to mind is his insistence on the personal nature of religion. Although he called himself a sanatani Hindu, his religion is not just what he got from tradition, but a very personal one arrived at through a life-time of searching, experimenting and praying. Thus he would not hold on to anything that he had not found true in his life. This explains his intense aversion to religious dogmas and ultimate truths in religious matters. A religion is only as true as it is lived in the lives of its followers. In Kierkegaard’s terminology, religious truth is an appropriation process and not an approximation process. Put in terms of the Gandhian distinction between truth and Truth, we might say that a small fraction of true religion (a relative truth that is practiced in one’s life) is of greater worth than the whole of True religion that is believed but does not affect one’s life. Although Gandhi put it in terms of the Jain philosophy of syadavada, this insight B like that of Kierkegaard B seems more the result of the intensity of his personal life than that of any philosophy.

This makes Gandhi capable of criticizing tradition without ceasing to be intensely religious. Even while being a great devotee of Rama, it matters little to him if Rama is a historical person. He can reinterpret traditional stories like that of Draupadi in keeping with his personal religion. For him, even scriptures are no exception. He says, "My belief in Hindu scriptures does not require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely inspired. . . . I decline to be bound by any interpretation, however learned it may be, if it is repugnant to reason or moral sense."52 Needless to say that his criticisms and re-interpretations are more intuitive than scholarly. Similarly, no creed or doctrine is supreme. "I reject any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality. I tolerate unreasonable religious sentiment when it is not immoral."53 

This approach contrasts greatly with many Christian exegetes, who, having undertaken various types of scholarly criticisms of the Bible, find nothing more to believe in, and with Islam, which is yet to make a critical study of The Koran. These revealed religions have objectified religious truth to an extent that orthodoxy B right belief B becomes the criterion of true faith. What is forgotten is that orthodoxy devoid of orthopraxies may be an excellent philosophical system, but it would not be religion. No truth that is not personally appropriated can have any religious significance. The Mahatma will ever remain a constant reminder of this perennial truth.


Religion and the Indian Ethos. Gandhi’s approach to religion is also an immense contribution to the Indian ethos. In order to understand this we must have some understanding of the place occupied by religion in the Indian tradition. The role of religion in the traditional Indian society is paradoxical to say the least. On the one hand, religion has been elevated as the most characteristic mark of Indian culture. On the other hand, religion so elevated is either an extremely privatized affair that drives one to the Himalayas in search of liberation from samsara, or mostly a ritualistic affair, which again has little to do with behavior in public life. The prophetic dimension of religion which links the other-world to this-world is practically non-existent in this country (with very rare exceptions like Kabir). Gandhi’s greatest contribution is, perhaps, that of giving this prophetic dimension to the Indian understanding of religion. Whether it is derived from Hinduism and/or from Christianity and the Indian Renaissance is a debatable issue. The important point is that Gandhi’s religion did have a strong social component which enabled him to fight evil practices in society, no matter how ancient.


I do not advocate surrender of God-given reasoning faculty in the face of ancient tradition. Any tradition, however, ancient, if inconsistent with morality, is fit to be banished from the land. Untouchability may be considered to be an ancient tradition, the institution of child widowhood and child marriage may be considered ancient tradition, and even so many an ancient horrible belief and superstitious practice. I would sweep them out of existence if I had the power.54 

He would not spare even the ancient law-giver Manu in this matter. Accordingly, he spent a great deal of his energy fighting such evils and trying to bring about a regeneration of society. That makes him the prophet par excellence of Indian culture, the only possible comparison being Gautama Buddha. Thus, the Gandhian approach to religion B that of personal appropriation B enables one to be deeply religious without falling prey to fundamentalist forces. Having said that, however, we must return to our basic question and ask whether this approach is adequate to deal with public issues in a pluri-religious situation. The best way to answer this question is by examining the Gandhian praxis since he was operating in a pluri-religious situation. How did his idea of secularism and relationship between religions work out during his lifetime? What are its implications for our understanding of the relationship between religion and public life? We shall examine these questions in the next section.




We should begin with the preliminary observation that, although all his political activities were grounded in his religion, his engagement in politics was limited to the task of gaining freedom for his beloved motherland. He had no interest in the actual governance of the country, which he left to others. Although he had quite a detailed plan for the economic and social regeneration of the country, and even when his vision of economics, political organization, defence, etc. of the country did not find a place in Independent India, he made no attempts to get his vision implemented by the government. He even chided those who questioned him on this score. The reason for this remains a mystery. Did he lack confidence in the workability of the plan? Or, it may be that he felt other issues like the then communal situation required his total attention. The most likely reason is that he was fully aware that his long term vision called for a total revolution in the way people think and act, which is best accomplished in other ways than by being in the government. In any case, the fact remains that while advocating religion in politics, he had no inclination to join the government and use that power to create an India of his dreams. We must also keep in mind that Gandhi did not live long enough to see through the fruitification of his vision. It is within these limits that we enquire into the relationship between his theory and praxis.

Gandhi’s Religious Theory


In discussing this issue we need to distinguish Gandhi’s personal life B his spiritual search and moral integrity B from the larger issue of the socio-political implications of his theory and practice in a pluralistic context. At the personal level, there can be little doubt about his intense religiosity and moral integrity. But it is the larger socio-political issue that we need to focus upon. Perhaps this distinction between personal integrity and the socio-political integrity of a theory in practice is something which Gandhi himself would not have approved of. But then, our inquiry into the relationship between Gandhian theory and practice is not an academic question raised in a vacuum; it is a question raised in the light of Independent India’s experience of the role religion has played in public life. Just consider a few instances. Take the experience of 1947 first. Gandhi, the apostle of ahimsa, the one who managed to throw off the mighty foreign yoke through non-violent means, found to his great mortification that his doctrine had no takers in his own country. He who sought no conflict between religions and advocated a secularism based on respect for all religions, had to witness not only the partition of the country along religious lines, but also the biggest blood bath in Indian history in the name of religion. These events pierced his heart to an extent that he who had desired to live a 125 years had to say, "I would prefer to die rather than live in an India where such brutalities are practiced."55 Gandhi’s theory of secularism had clearly failed to cope with the communal problem.

He attributed his failure primarily to the imperfect grasp of ahimsa by the masses and the Congress and the pent-up fury manifesting itself after the British left.56 Gandhi finds it an "all-sufficing and convincing" explanation. While there can be no doubt about the imperfect following of ahimsa by the masses, can it all be put on the pent-up fury against the British? How to explain the fact that the communal conflict that was restricted to Hindu-Muslim clashes in Gandhi’s time has grown over the years, enveloping Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians? Is it a creation of later day politicians? Take two such instances: the Shah Bano case of the 80s and the Temple movement of the 90s. In the former case, the very same Prime Minister who defended the supreme court judgement as a matter of principle, makes a U-turn a few days later for political reasons. In the latter case, it was obvious from the beginning that the leaders of the movement were making use of an emotive religious symbol for gaining political power. The important question is whether these are aberrations from the Gandhian path or have their roots there. And this question cannot even be raised unless we make a distinction between the unquestionable personal integrity of Gandhi and the larger public issue. The former is a matter of Gandhi’s self-understanding of his theory and practice, the latter is a subsequent scrutiny of it to see whether there is a lacuna there which set the trend for the subsequent communal events.

Let us consider two cases of Gandhi’s praxis, the Khilafat and the Civil Disobedience Movements, two of his most successful attempts to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity. The Khilafat movement was already on when Gandhi entered the scene. Gandhi sensed the intense Muslim feelings on the issue and used the opportunity to win their good will and thus strengthen Hindu-Muslim unity. Espousing their cause made him popular with the Muslims and by the end of 1918 he had become their spokesman and hero.57 He attended the meetings of the All India Muslim Conference and the All India Khilafat Conference, declared his support for the movement and appealed to the Hindus to join him. He persuaded an unwilling Congress to do it on the grounds that it would lead the Indian Muslims to withhold "all cooperation from the British Government."58 Hindu-Muslim unity touched a new high in the wake of this Khilafat-cum-Non-Cooperation Movement. But this unity was very short-lived.

It must be noted that there was no common purpose that united the Hindus and Muslims in this movement, but rather different interests. The Civil Disobedience Movement launched after the Lahore Congress offers a contrast. By then the communal problem had become very acute on issues like cow slaughter and music before the mosques. But Gandhi did not attempt to deal directly with these divisive issues. He had come to realize, it would seem, that unity B like happiness B is not something that can be directly attained; rather it is a by-product of shared struggles. Therefore, Gandhi launched the campaign against the British to "take the attention of the nation off the communal problem and to rivet it on the things that are common to all Indians, no matter to what creed or sect they may belong."59 Unlike the Khilafat, the appeal to participate in the movement was not on the basis of religion; the attempt was to unite the people on the basis of a common concern, the salt tax. Many Muslims participated in it and to that extent some sense of unity was achieved.

A Theory Short on Pluralism; A Praxis Short on Unity


Now let us examine these actions of Gandhi in the light of his theory. Gandhi was criticized for bringing the Muslims into the anti-imperialist struggle on a religious issue.60 The liberal and Leftist view of the movement continued to consider this recognition of Hindus and Muslims as separate entities a mistake. For our purpose, the important question is whether the unity achieved in the course of the Khilafat movement can be considered an instance of the Gandhian theory in practice. And the answer seems to be clearly in the negative. This movement had little basis in the essential inner unity of religions which Gandhi propounded, except as an expression of solidarity with the Muslim brothers in need. Even then it involved a recognition of Islam and Hinduism as different social entities and not merely the recognition of one essential religion.

In contrast to the Khilafat movement, there was no recognition of religions as distinct entities at all in the second movement. This, on the one hand, increased the affinity of a large number of individual Muslims to the Congress, and, on the other hand, Muslims as a group became more alienated from it. According to Indira Rothermund "Gandhi’s second civil disobedience campaign, which begins in 1930, widens the [Hindu-Muslim] rift, and while Gandhi breaks the Salt Law, Jinnah participates in the Round Table Conference in London. In the same year the poet Iqbal announces for the first time a Pakistan plan." It is to be kept in mind that Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League who kept away from the Movement, was no fanatic Muslim. At first, Jinnah himself spurned the Pakistan plan.61

What was wrong then? I suggest that the problem lay in Gandhi’s theoretical unification of religions. It achieves too little and too much at the same time. It achieved too little because, by paying exclusive attention to the common feature of religions, he was not able to give due place to the differences between religions as socio-culturally existing realities. There is a gap between Religion and religions. The result is that in practice at the empirical level, he had to fall back on religions as they existed, i.e., distinct social entities, as he did during the Khilafat movement. When it was not done, as during civil disobedience, large sections of a community were left out of the movement. Jinnah wanted some recognition for the Muslim identity within India. Moreover, this identity was not limited to Muslims, but extended to categories like the Dravidians.62 He visualized a federal India of which Gandhi and the Congress were deeply suspicious. This explanation, no doubt, is rather simplistic since it neglects the complex social, cultural, psychological and political factors at work during the period. While admitting the complexity of the situation, the basic point remains that the Gandhian theory does not seem to have had enough room for pluralism.

On the other hand, his theory of religions achieves too much, to the extent that all religions are said to be equal. Being equal, there is no basis for criticizing religions across the board; any criticism is to come from within religions. The result, again, is that in practice different religions are accepted as they exist, i.e., as distinct entities, and thus the status quo is maintained. Even in tackling issues like untouchability, although Gandhi had an intuitive realization that the problem of caste iniquities is more a cultural phenomenon common to the subcontinent than a religious phenomenon of Hinduism,63 in practice he saw it as a Hindu problem. During the Vaikom satyagraha, replying to a query whether the non-Hindu sympathizers could join the movement, Gandhi replied:


Untouchability is the sin of Hinduism. They must suffer for it, they must purify themselves, they must pay the debt they owe to suppressed brothers and sisters. Theirs is the shame and theirs must be the glory when they have purified themselves of the black sin.64 


This is inexplicable when we consider that the movement was not only for gaining entry into the temple, but even for the use of public roads! If the essence of religion is a morality that cuts across the boundaries of different religions, as Gandhi teaches, then it is on such issues that one would expect such inter-religious religiosity to be fully operational. But his practice was just the contrary. In other words, in spite of Gandhi’s personalized and universal religion, when it came to public action he put the tag of traditional religion even on such human issues as untouchability. The problem of the Gandhian approach then lies in this: while his theory does not have enough place for pluralism, his praxis does not have enough place for unity. The result is that Gandhian secularism, in practice, is a ‘confluence of several religiosities,’ or better, a ‘federation of religions’65 where only criticism from within a religion is permitted. If there are common moral principles across religions, it is hard to see why this should be so. In the process, it is his teaching on religion as morality that becomes the casualty in the Gandhian praxis.


Secularism and Unity beyond Pluralism


If we are to learn the implications of these experiences for secularism, I think it would be helpful to begin at the other end, i.e., the secularism that Gandhi envisaged. It is the concept of equality before the law, irrespective of the different religions involved. Rather than repudiate the differences between religions, it begins with the acknowledgement of different religions. It is such an acknowledgement that was involved in the Khilafat movement, and Gandhi was right in his insight that he must win the trust of the Muslim community. But to stop at plurality would be to give way to unbridled pluralism and repudiate the idea of any law that is applicable to all. Therefore, secularism demands that, along with the recognition of plurality, there be a recognition of unity, a unity that is expressed in the form of a common law and constitution which are indifferent to the religious affiliation of its subjects.

The point, however, is not the common law in the literal sense. Any law is as good as the backing it enjoys from the people. The history of independent India is a history of well meant laws, being hijacked by vested interests for lack of popular pressure to enforce them. What is important, then, is not the law itself, but the unity that the people experience and from which common law gets legitimacy in a democracy. But this is not a given unity, but something that needs to be achieved. We could also put it this way: A person in society has multiple belongings, one of which is to a religious community and another to a larger community of state; and, at a third level, there is the still larger unity of human concerns where the common moral law which Gandhi discerns at the heart of different religions comes into play. The second level of community is brought about through common struggles that address common concerns of the different smaller communities. This insight is operative in both the movements, though with differing emphasis.

In the Khilafat case, two different communities with different goals were brought together into a Khilafat-cum-Non-Cooperation Movement only on the basis that both were directed against the British. Seen thus, the basis of this unity would seem to be a policy of "my enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend," which has nothing to do with the morality common to religions. Such an interpretation would be contrary to the Gandhian ideals, but it remains the case that there was no common purpose motivating this movement, other than that it was directed against the alien rulers.

The second movement was an improvement on this, but even there it was meant to "take the attention of the nation off the communal problem" by focusing on the alien power. Such negative unity is easily achieved, since Indians seem to find it easier to unite against somebody than for something.66 In playing upon this cultural trait Gandhi succeeded in forging a unity in plurality and bringing the alien British to their knees. Such unity, obviously, does not have any intrinsic connection to the positive long-term common concerns of the communities concerned B concerns that could become the basis of a future common law and give it legitimacy. Lacking in this long-term perspective, the temporary unity built on the extrinsic factor of a common enemy vanishes the moment that factor is out of the picture; divisive plurality re-enters the scene with a vengeance.

It is not so much this particular instance, but the Gandhian principle in action that we are concerned with. Without being judgmental on history, let us visualize an alternative scenario. Imagine that instead of uniting the people on the issue of immediate freedom from the British, Gandhi had left that matter to the Congress and focused his immense energies on a long-term goal, like the abolition of landlordism. This is not an imaginary scenario. Even before Gandhi entered the scene there were movements against the landlords by the aggrieved peasantry. As a matter of fact, Gandhi began his public life in India with a similar orientation as manifested in Champaran and Kaira. If he had remained on this course that he had begun, it would have given a completely different turn to the communal problem, because in many places the land problem had a communal dimension: the landlords were Hindus and the oppressed were Muslims.67 In that context, Gandhi’s identification with the peasants would have won for him the allegiance of the Muslim masses, which he had tried to achieve through Khilafat. Unlike Khilafat, this would have been a non-sectarian issue like that of the Civil Disobedience Movement. But unlike the Civil Disobedience Movement, which could not carry the Muslim community along, here he would have gotten the Muslim masses on his side.

Such a struggle would have brought into full play those moral principles which Gandhi saw to be common to all religions. In the process, the masses B both Muslims and Hindus B would have had a chance to recognize the common concerns that united them beyond their plurality. This would have given a chance for the Gandhian principles to become a part of the consciousness of the people and thereby to build a new national consciousness. It would have created a unity that recognized legitimate pluralism without giving way to sectarianism. It would have saved India from sectarianism, because it would have been capable of putting brakes on pluralism when it infringed upon common moral principles. This, in turn, would have paved the way for the genuine secular state of Gandhi’s dreams.

Could Jinnah and the Muslim League have been brought around on such a platform? Given Jinnah’s suspicion of the masses, it is hard to say. It is more likely that such a struggle would have thrown up a different Muslim leadership. The League came into being for claiming parity with the Hindus in sharing the crumbs that fell from the British table, which was the orientation of large sections in the Congress. Though founded in 1907, the League had remained a marginal player until the prospect of the transfer of power became imminent. It was then that the Muslim fear of being dominated by the Hindus became overwhelming. Such fear would not have arisen in the first place if the focus had not been so much on immediate political power as on the long-term purpose of power to which Gandhi’s religious convictions oriented him.

But this is not the path that Gandhi chose. Here we see the conflict between Gandhi-the-politician and Gandhi-the-prophet. To sustain his political fight against the British, he enlisted the support of those very powers B the landlords and the industrialists B whose goal in attaining power was at variance with those of Gandhi, the prophet, who wanted the empowerment of the masses. Gandhi with his uncanny intuition had observed as early as 1918 B before he began to dominate national politics B that people were not ready to follow his advice, but were ready to accept his services in a cause which suited them.68 This seems to be exactly what happened. We are still living out its consequences. Not having engaged in a prolonged struggle for the positive ideals that he envisaged for the nation, political independence became a matter of white sahibs, giving way to the brown sahibs who got more busy with dividing the spoils of office than in committing themselves to long-term goals or moral principles.

Thus, the Gandhian approach to religion and its role in public life is characterized by an inner contradiction: highest ideals at the individual level and an unashamed compromise of those principles in the public sphere.69 The objective moral law, through which he sought to relate the interior journey of the person with the public realm, was something that could be compromised at the altar of political expediency. In this sense Hiren Mukerjee is right when he says that "we purchased our political freedom with a coin that was ethically counterfeit."70 

An alternative course of action would naturally have involved a hard and prolonged struggle.71 However, with the considerable charisma, immense moral strength and mass appeal that Gandhi possessed, it is likely that his satyagraha would have produced lasting results that would have changed the face of the communal question forever. This route may not have made Gandhi the Father of the Nation so soon, but when India became free B as it was bound to B Gandhi would have sired a progeny that was truly Gandhian.

To point out this drawback in Gandhi’s philosophy is in no way to belittle his personal integrity. At the personal level he remains a religious, moral and a political giant, seldom seen in history. Political power, for Gandhi, was never an end in itself. But once the political process was set in motion, with the hartal on the Rowalt Bill, it gained its own momentum, and he did not even have a chance to look back to see if that process accorded with his vision for the country. In the process India achieved her freedom, but not the freedom he wanted, nor a nation that had internalized his ideals. We are able to learn even from his failures because of his courage to experiment with what he considered to be the truth of the moment. His experiments teach us that genuine secularism requires a lived experience of unity beyond pluralism, a unity which results from the common struggles of an otherwise diverse people. His experiments also teach us that not any common struggle can bring about the desired unity: these must be struggles that maintain an uncompromising stand on certain moral principles that cut across religious boundaries. Here one cannot have a ‘confederation of religions’ that compromises with these basic principles to please different constituencies.

To conclude, if religion is to play a creative role in public life it requires not only the interiorized religiosity of a saint, but also a public commitment to certain shared values, such that these values can grow into the common consciousness of the people beyond religious boundaries. Contemporary India B and any pluralistic society for that matter B can neglect this lesson of history only at its own peril.72 




1. See, F. Wilfred, "Dialogue Gasping for Breath? Towards New Frontiers in Interreligious Dialogue" in Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflections (October, 1987), p. 453.

2. Harijan, March 21, 1934, Mahatma Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections, compiled and ed. by Krishna Kripalani (New York: Continuum, 1980; first published 1958), p. 62. Hereafter, abbreviated as AMB.

3. The Diary of Mahadeva Desai (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Karyalaya), AMB, p. 58.

4. Harijan, March 21, 1934, AMB, p. 62.

5. Harijan, Aug. 31, 1947, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereafter CW) (New Delhi: The Publications Division, Ministry of I & B, Govt. of India), vol. 89, p. 79.

6. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Vol. 7 October, 1946 (Bombay: Vithalbhai K. Jhaveri and D.G. Tendulkar, 1953), p. 264.

7. Speech at Narkeldanga, August 17, 1947, CW, 89, pp. 56-7.

8. Speech at Prayer Meeting, August 29, 1947, CW, 89, p. 112.

9. Harijan, Aug. 31, 1947, CW, 89, p. 79.

10. Speech at Prayer Meeting, October 11, 1947, CW, 89, p. 322.

11. Tendulkar, Mahatma, vol. 7, October 1946, p. 264.

12. Speech at Narkeldanga, August 17, 1947, CW, 89, p. 57.

13. Speech at Prayer Meeting, Calcutta, August 22, 1947, CW, 89, p. 79.

14. C.F. Andrews, Mahatma Gandhi’s Ideas (London: Allen and Unwin, 1929), p. 101.

15. The Diary of Mahadeva Desai, AMB, p. 58.

16. Harijan, February 10, 1940, AMB, p. 54.

17. Young India, May 12, 1920, AMB, p. 51.

18. J.B. Kripalani, Gandhi: His Life and Thought (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1970), p. 339.

19. Ibid.

20. Indian Home Rule, 1909, AMB, p. 54.

21. C.F. Andrews, Mahatma Gandhi’s Ideas, p.101.

22. Tendulkar, Mahatma, vol.2, 1951, p. 61.

23. Young India, April 19, AMB, p. 54.

24. Autobiography, AMB, p. 9.

25. Young India, May 25, 1921, AMB, p. 61.

26. "Just as for conducting scientific experiments there is an indispensable scientific course of instruction, in the same way strict preliminary discipline is necessary to qualify a person to make experiments in the spiritual realm. Everyone should, therefore, realize his limitations before he speaks of his Inner Voice." Young India, Dec. 31, 1931. Anand T. Hingorani (ed.), The Supreme Power (Bombay: Pearl Publications, 1963), p. 61. (Hereafter, SP.)

27. Young India, Sept.8, 1927. SP, p. 51.

28. "But the path of self purification is hard and steep. To attain perfect purity one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion." An Autobiography, AMB, p. 53.

29. "What is perceived by a pure heart and intellect is truth for the moment. Cling to it, and it enables one to reach pure Truth. There is no question of any divided duty." Harijan, Feb. 22, 1942. SP, p. 55.

30. Conversations of Gandhiji, p. 35. in SP, p. 57.

31. B.D. Bedekar, Towards Understanding Gandhi, R. Gawande, ed. (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1975), p. 126.

32. Bedekar, p. 119.

33. Ethical Religion, 1930, AMB, p. 69.

34. The Diary of Mahadeva Desai, p. 227. SP, p. 14

35. Harijan, March 30, 1947. SP, p. 14. This does not mean there is no free will. "Man has got a choice, but much of it is like a passenger on board a ship. It is just enough for him. If we don’t use it, then we are practically dead." He has just enough freedom to make his own destiny. Conversations of Gandhiji, p. 28. See, also Harijan, March 23, 1940, SP, p. 15.

36. Young India, October 11, 1925, AMB, p. 52.

37. Harijan, December 15, 1933, AMB, p. 63.

38. Young India, Sept. 25, 1924. AMB, p. 72.

39. "The heart accepts a conclusion for which the intellect subsequently finds the reasoning. Argument follows conviction. Man often finds reasons in support of whatever he does or wants to do."Young India, November, 1925, cited in Raghvan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 18.

40. Harijan, June 13, 1936, AMB, p. 52.

41. Young India, October 11, 1928, AMB, pp. 52-53.

42. Harijan, Feb.10, 1940, AMB, p. 54.

43. An Autobiography, AMB, p. 53.

44. Gita Bodh and Mangal Prabhat (Varanasi: Sarva Seva Sangh, 1969), p. 75. cited in S.K. Saxena, Ever Unto God: Essays on Gandhi and Religion (New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1988), p. 3.

45. Young India, Oct. 29, 1931, AMB, p. 76.

46. N.K. Bose, Studies in Gandhism (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1972), p. 84.

47. Mahatma, Vol. 6, AMB, p. 57.

48. An Autobiography, Introduction, p. xiv.

49. An Autobiography, AMB, p. 53.

50. Politics for him "concerns nations, and that which concerns the welfare of nations must be one of the concerns of a man who is religiously inclined." Young India, June 18, 1925.

51. Harijan, Dec. 24, 1935, AMB, p. 63.

52. Young India, October 6, 1921. AMB, p. 56. See also, Young India, Jan. 19, 1921.

53. Young India, July 12, 1920, AMB, p. 69. The Christian belief in Jesus as the only son of God, if taken literally, is one such belief he found unreasonable, but perhaps not immoral.

54. Young India, Sept. 22 1927, AMB, p. 69.

55. A. Mellor, India Since Partition (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1951), p. 153, cited in G. Sharp, Gandhi Faces the Storm (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1961), p. 11.

56. "The peace the masses maintained during that struggle of a generation with exemplary patience, had not come from within. The pent-up fury found an outlet when the British Raj was gone. It naturally vented itself in communal violence which was never fully absent and which was kept under suppression by the British bayonet ." Cited in Sharp, p. 39.

57. A. Thomas, Mahatma Gandhi and the Communal Problem (New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1983), p. 5.

58. Resolutions of the All-India Khilafat Conference, Nov. 24, 1919. cited in A. Thomas, p. 5.

59. Cited in A. Thomas, p. 19.

60. A. Thomas, p. 7.

61. I. Rothermund, The Philosophy of Restraint (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1963), p. 100.

62. In India’s Problem of Her Future Constitution, which Jinnah edited in 1940, "he gives ample space to such articles as "Dravidian Region should form a separate state," etc." (p. 94ff.). See, I. Rothermund, p. 106.

63. See, CW, vol. 58, p. 177.

64. Young India, 1 May 1924. N.K. Bose, p. 88.

65. Bipan Chandra, Communalism in Modern India (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1984), p. 146-7.

66. See, Tara Ali Baig, "Can Indians Only Protest?," Sunday, 9 August, 1981.

67. This was the case in East Bengal and the Northwest. This is also one of the factors that made the partition of Bengal possible. See, B.R. Nanda, pp. 20, 66.

68. B.R. Nanda, p. 170.

69. See, Hiren Mukerjee, Gandhi: A Study (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1979), p. 198.

70. Mukerjee is referring to Gandhi’s penchant for compromise. See, Mukerjee, p. 196.

71. If politics is the art of the possible in achieving one’s immediate goals, this makes Gandhi a great politician -perhaps the greatest in modern times. But if we are looking for a model that relates religion to public life he does not seem to offer any help. Gandhi’s penchant for compromise can perhaps be traced to his radical privatization of religion where each individual has his own religion.

72. Independent India has largely followed the Gandhian path of compromise even on basic principles when it concerns members of different religions, as pointed out in the Shah Bano case earlier. The Hindutva forces follow the same policy of short-term political expediency, except that they have turned the tables around in catering to majority sectarianism and show a more pronounced ethical duplicity in achieving their goal.