It is important today to understand multiculturalism in the context of changing character of nation states which is marked by the absence of any single national identity. While some view it as a panacea for the growing menace of divisiveness in the world, while others take it as a challenge for their dominant culture and nationhood. More than any other country, India needs to grasp its full implications in view of its multicultural and multireligious character. This paper primarily attempts to place Gandhi in the ongoing multicultural discourse by analysing his concept of religion and its significance in the present day context of growing religious divide in India as well as in the world. It argues that Gandhi's concept of Sarva Dharma Samabhava (equal respect for all religions) goes far beyond the concept of multiculturalism. In fact, it could very well be taken as a positive and constructive multicultural approach which offers a way out of the present cultural, religious and ethnic conflicts and cleavages. This paper also analyses the Gandhian praxis of multiculturalism during India's struggle for independence.
A growing tendency to identify and segregate people along religious, ethnic and linguistic lines raises a real threat to the peaceful coexistence of divergent human civilizations. However, among these challenges, it is the religious divide which adversely affects the normal and tranquil life of people of many countries. This line of thinking has been given further momentum by the fundamentalists' attempt to use religious identity to spread the venom of hatred and conflict among various communities. They even go to the extent of waging war against many nations which do not go along their way. The attack on WTC on 9/11/2001 and subsequent attacks in different parts of the globe have brought the issue of religious fundamentalism to the centre stage of international affairs. All attempts to overcome this precarious situation by the western countries in the leadership of USA with the avowed purpose of eliminating religious fundamentalism and and its concomitant cross national terrorism, have failed. In fact, it has further exaceberated the situation leading to mushrooming of such elements.
A number of thinkers are seriously considered about finding ways and means to tackle this growing peril confronting mankind. Samuel P. Huntington looks at the whole problem in terms of clash of civilizations1: those of western and Islamic. He further avers that an idea like multiculturalism could hardly meet the challenge. In fact he argues that multiculturalism is essemtially an anti-western, particularly anti-American ideology. According to him, it denies the existence of a common American culture and it promotes racial, ethnic and other subnational cultural identities and groupings, a challenge to American identity2. However, this has been widely contested by a number of scholars who look at multiculturalism as the only real antidote to religious fundamentalism and cross national terrorism. Multiculturalism is being looked upon as the only practical option before humanity for responding to the challenge of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious identities. It is much more than mere toleration of group diversity. In essence, it stands for treating, accommodating and recognising all members as equal citizens whether they belong to minority or majority groups. A brief and succint discussion on multiculturalism is a necessary prerequisite for its proper evaluation and understanding.
The concept of multiculturalism emerged in the western society in the 1970s especially in the context of Canadian attempt to tackle the problem of immigrants. It soom became a part of Canadian official policy and even spread to Australia, USA, UK and some countries of EU. Subsequently it has become dominant political ideology in the west. There have been some other important factors contributing to its emergence as a dominant policy of various governments. The failed attempts at assimilation and homogenisation of various nation states created a situation conducive to a search for a new policy which could preserve and promote the diverse identities without adversely affecting the overall unity of the social fabric. In addition, there was also a new awakening among different groups towards their primordial consciousness and relative deprivation. What gave a new impetus to this trend was the predominance of human rights approach in the arena of public policy. Perhaps the bitter memories of ethnic cleansing during holocaust, collapse of colonialism and totalitairian regimes also contributed to the development of multiculturalism. It is also relevant to mention that in a number of western countires ethnic studies were introduced primarily with a view to underline the significant contributions made by the minority groups. As a result, there was growing self confidence and consciousness among the minorities among their distinct identities. All these factors made multiculturalism a dominant theme of political discourse towards the end of the 20th century.
The term multiculturalism has been used in different contexts with varying connotations. Will Kymlicka in his work Multicultural Citizenship uses this term in a restricted sense focussing on ethnic groups and national minorities and not marginal or disadvantaged groups like gays, the poor, women et al. According to him, “a state is multicultural if its members either belong to different nations (a multination state) or have emigrated from different nations (a polyethnic state), and if this fact is an important aspect of personal identity and political life."3 In this context, Charles Taylor emphasises the necessity of developing a “politics of recognition” in favour of minority cultures, by the supposed links between recognition and identity. “The thesis is that our identity is partly shaped by recognition and its absence, often by the misrecognition of others..non-recognition and misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.”4 Amartya Sen, while discussing this term, makes a subtle distinction between multiculturalism and “plural monoculturalism”. According to him, genuine multiculturalism is marked by the existence of a diversity of cultures, which tend to interact and even intermingle among themselves. On the other hand, existence of various cultural traditions co-existing side by side, without the twain meeting, could be nothing more than plural monoculturalism.5 Andrew Heywood underscores two forms of multiculturalism- descriptive and normative. According to him, the former refers to cultural diversity whereas the latter implies a positive endorsement of such a diversity.6 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes multiculturalism as an umbrella term to characterise the moral and political claims of a wide range of disadvantaged groups, including African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and the disabled. Most of the theorists of multiculturalism tend to focus their arguments on immigrants who constitute ethnic and religious minorities (e.g. Latinos in US, Muslims in Western Europe), minority nations (e.g. Catalans, Basque, Welsh, Quebecois), and indigeneous peoples (e.g. Native peoples in North America, Maori in New Zealand).7
Bhikhu Parekh, a prominent political theorist and am extensive researcher on multiculturalism, defines it as follows: “multiculturalism is not about difference or identity per se but those that are embedded in and sustained by that culture; that is, a body of beliefs and pracitices in terms of which a group of people understand themselves and the world and organise their individual and collective life.”8 According to him, it could be virutally taken as synonym for cultural diversity. It is entirely of a different genre from other kinds of differences. He underlines three different types of cultural diversity: subcultural diversity, perspectival diversity and communal diversity. In his view, groups like lesbians, gays and the like could be put under subcultural diversity as they seek nothing more than to pluralise the existing dominant culture. Some other groups, like the feminists seek to to reconstitute the dominant culture in their own perspective. Hence, Parekh puts them under the category of perspectival diversity. But it is the communal diversity, Parekh emphasises, which constitutes the core of multiculturalism. He illustrates it by referring to well established cultural groups like Jews, Gypsies and recent immigrant groups.9 While his views have been widely accepted as a major contribution towards political discourse, he has been contested by critics like Joshua Broady. Another line of attack on the concept of multiculturalism has been that in its attempt to replace the similies of “melting pot” by “flower pot” it creates a very congenial groung for all kinds of conflict situations. This is so because multiculturalism goes against the nation state's attempt to cultivate ultimately a disctinctive national identity.
Multiculturalism in the Indian context
The Indian society has been multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic from time immemorial. However, India has also encounted various kinds of divisiveness. Therefore the biggest challenge before countries like India is to preserve the pluralistic tradition and to bring the various communities into the mainstream society by promoting the spirit of multiculturalism. Concerned citizens in India are worried over the alarming situation of current communal disharmony and there is fear that it might ultimately result in the disintegration of the nation. It is unfortunate that unscrupulous politicians with an eye on vote banks are indirectly supporting the force promoting narrow religious sentiments, and linguistic and regional identity. Building bridges of solidarity among different religious communities in India is essential to preserve the pluralistic and multicultural credentials of the country. In the context of such a challenge, the initiative and concerted effort made by Gandhi may provide a framework for thought and action.
Gandhi's Concept of Religion
Gandhi was born in an intensely devout Hindu Vaishanava family, closely associated with the Pranami faith of Shri Pran Nath which stood for amity among different religions. He got an early grounding in religious tolerance from his family's acaquaintance with different sects of Hinduism, Jain monks, Muslims and Parsis, inculcating in his young mind seeds of religious tolerance and multicultural appraoch. The sojourn in England was a turning point in Gandhi's life as it provided him an opportunity to get acquainted with different religions. Association with theosophists prompted him to study scriptures of different faiths, which left with an impression that much was common among them. In the words of Joseph Doke, the first biographer of Gandhi, “These different influences helped to quicken and mature his thought, and at any rate, to sweep away the fragments of boyish atheism. God had become a reality.”10 The religious spirit awakened in him in his London days was further enriched by discourses with Rajchandra, a profound Jain philospher.11 In South Africa, his syncretic faith partook many elements from various religious traditions. He made several spiritual experiments in Ashram living (Phoenix Ashram and Tolstoy farm) and the vow of Brahmacharya. All this contributed towards his living faith, which remained a driving force throughout his life.
Gandhi called himself a sanatani Hindu. The ethical and spiritual outlook of Hinduism had deep imprints in his mind. He explains, “The chief value of Hinduism lies in holding the actual belief that all life (not only human beings, but all sentient beings) is one, i.e., all life coming from One universal source, call it Allah, God or Parameshwara.”12 This unity and oneness of all creation constitute the foundation of Gandhi's relational world view. Hinduism, for Gandhi, was not exclusive, but a broad and inclusive faith, a tolerant and open-minded religion, accommodating the best in other religions. He explains the quintessence of a sanatani Hindu in the following words, “..Inspite of being a staunch Hindu, I find room in my faith for Christian, Islamic and Zoroastrian teaching..mine is a broad faith that does not oppose Christians- not even a Plymouth brother- not even the most fanatical Mussalman. It is a faith based on broadest possible toleration. I refuse to abuse a man for his fanatical deeds because I try to see them from his pont of view..It is a somewhat embarrassing position, I know- but to others, not to me!”13 For him, the Varnashrama dharma was a universal law which has nothing to do with superiority and inferiority. As he himself put it, “My Varnashrama enables me to dine with anybody who will give me clean food, be he Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parasi, whatever he is. My Varnashrama accommodates Panchama families with whom I dine with greatest pleasure, to dine with whom is a privilege.”14 Thus his faith in Sanatana Dharma and Varnashram did not come in the way of his respect for diverse religious traditions and equality of all people irrespective of caste and creed.
Gandhi's concept of religion was a unique one. Gandhi looked upon religions as pathways to the same ultimate reality. In his seminal work Hind Swaraj, he says, “Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter if we take different roads as long as we reach the same goal? In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals.”15 It is evident that from the very begining of his public life he looked upon religion from a multicultural perspective. Though he was true to the essential teaching of Hinduism, but for him there was no religion higher than truth and righteousness. He declares his stand on religion in Young India, 1920, “It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism which changes one's very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within and which ever purifies. It is the permanent element in human nature which counts no cost too great in order to find full expression and which leaves the soul utterly restless until it has found itself, known its Maker and appreciated the true correspondence between the Maker and itself.”16 This also reflects his incessant search for the quintessence of all religions. He retained his eclectic view on religion throughout his life.
In January, 1935, Dr. S.Radhakrishnan places three questions before Gandhi: 1. What is you religion? 2. How are you led to it? 3. What is its bearing on social life? The answers to these constitutes the essence of Gandhi's understanding of religion.
“My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is religion of humanity and includes the best of all the religions known to me...I am being led to my religion through Truth and Non-violence, i.e. Love in the broadest sense. I often describe my religion as the religion of Truth, of late, instead of saying God is Truth, I have been saying Truth is God, in order more fully to define my religion.. Nowadays nothing so completely describes my God as Truth..Denial of Truth we have not known. The most ignorant among mankind have some truth in them. We are all sparks of Truth. The sum total of this spark is indescribable, as yet unkown Truth, which is God. I am being daily led nearer to it by constant prayer...To be true to such religion one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service of all life. Realisation of Truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in and identification with this limitless ocean of life. Hence, for me there is no escape from social service; there is no happiness on earth beyond or apart from it..Social service here must be taken to include every department of life. In this scheme, there is nothing low, nothing high. For, all is one, though we seem to be many.”17
It is clear that Gandhi's perception of religion has no trace of dogmatism and fundamentalism, and is not in any way connected with denominational religion.
Sarva Dharma Samabhava- Beyond multiculturalism
Gandhi's syncretic approach to religion, reflected in his idea of Sarva Dharma Sambhava (Equal respect for all religions), one of the elevn vows prescribed for every inmate of his ashrams, goes much beyond secularism and multiculturalism. As pointed out by Mrinal Miri, in his book Identity and the Moral life, the liberal position on the problem of secularism is essentially related to tolerance of different religions which virtually amounts to a kind of indifference. But Gandhi's Sarva Dharma Sambhava is premised on the premise that the truth underlying all religions is one and the same though the pathways may be different. Therefore, Miri asserts, Gandhi's vision could lead to a state of international fellowship of all religions.18
Gandhi's attitude towards religion was not of a patronising toleration, rather it sought to develop the spirit of a fellowship which helps a Hindu to become a better Hindu, a Mussalman to become a better Mussalman, and a Christian to become a better Christian. His respect and veneration for other faiths was the same as that of his own faith. While accepting the fundamental euqality of all religions, he distinguished between religion and irreligion. He refused to tolerate irreligion in the name of reverence for other religions.
On several counts, Gandhi's approach to religion goes far beyond religious pluralism and secularism.
Firstly, by emphasising on the religion of truth he included the secular or even the atheist and the humanist in the realm of religion. Gandhi was familiar with the fact that atheists only disbelieve in God and not in the truth. Therefore there is no wonder why an atheist like Goparaju Ramachandra Rao (Gora) became a close associate of Gandhi. Gora himself said,”I cannot remove god, if god were truth.”19 On another occaision, Goral further stated, “Atheists regard truthfulness as a social necessity. Truth binds man to man in association. WIthout truth there can be no social organisation.”20 Gora knew that Gandhi was not averse to atheism if it tended to civilse humanity. Thus Gandhi's approach moves from religious pluralism to positive or constructive multiculturalism.21
Secondly, religion was basic to Gandhi's life, thought and action. All his activities from spiritual to mundane including politics were governed by the spirit of religion. Gandhi revolutionised the very notion of religion and politics. He underscored the ethical side of religion free from all kinds of creedal rites and rituals. Religion, morality and ethics, for him, are closely interwoven. Similarly, politics was nothing but a major instrument of service to the people totally free from all games of power politics. Gandhi realised that he couldn't do even social work without politics. At the same time he was also aware that he could not pursue politics without a deep religious sensibility. He unequivocally stated, “..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.”22 Gandhi introduces the values of religion and deep religious sensitivity into the political realm.
Thirdly, Gandhi was not in favour of a theocratic state patronising a particular religion or even all religions equally. According to him, the state should look after secular welfare, health, communications, foreign affairs and so on but not one's religion which is purely a personal concern. “If I were a dictator, religon and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it.”23 It is clear that he was contemplating a secular state in free India which would give freedom to its cotizens to express religious, atheist or any other identity.
Fourthly, Gandhi did not favour any particular religion or the need for conversion of people belonging to other faiths to a particular religion. He was aware of the danger of one single religion dominating the country or the world. Gandhi believed that each religion is valuable and one should find spiritual fulfilment in one's own religious traidition. Gandhi drew the following conclusions from a reverential study of all religions. “1. all religions are true. 2. all religions have some error in them. 3. all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism, in as much as all human beings should be as dear to one as one's own close relatives.”24 The religions are conveyed through a human medium and there are imperfections in them and they are liable to error. Therefore, they should subject themselves to “a process of evolution and reinterpretation.” He believed that every formula of religion should be subjected to the acid test of reason and he scrutinised every scripture, incuding Gita, before acceptance.”Scriptures cannot transcend reason and truth. They are intended to purify reason and illuminate truth.”25 He also underscored the value of faith which may not conform to reason. He believed that it is the duty of a person to point out the defects in one's own religion in order to purify and keep it pure. One should try to enrich one's religion by drawing out the best from other religions. However Gandhi was not against true conversion out of one's own inner conviction and he differentiated it from proselytization. “Conversion is a matter between man and his maker who alone knows His creatures' hearts. Any conversion without a clean heart is, in my opinion, a denial of God and religion.”26
Fifthly, he believed that true knowledge of religions will break down the narrow barriers and also help to understand one's own religion better. He encouraged his followers to undertake the study of scriptures of other religions apart from those of one's own. In the prayer meetings of the Ashram, Gandhi made it a practice to read a passage from scriptures from various religions to promote inter-religious understanding. He used to read the New Testament of the Bible with the students of Gujarat Vidyapith. In the face of public protest Gandhi wrote in Young India an article titled “Crime of reading Bible”, which said, “I hold that it is the duty of every cultures man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others' religions as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world's religion is a sacred duty.. I regard my study and reverence for Bible, the Koran and the other scriptures to be wholly consistent with my claim to be a staunch sanatani Hindu.. My respectful study of other religions has not abated my reverence for and my faith in the Hindu scriptures. They have broadened my view of life. They have enabled me to understand more clearly many an obscure passage in the Hindu scriptures.”27
Finally, Gandhi was not advocating the merger of all religions into one. He was trying to find out the commonalities on various religions and promote mututal tolerance. “The need of the moment is not one religion but mutual respect and tolerance of the devotees of differerent religions. We want to reach unity in diversity. Any attempt to root out traidtions, effects of heredity, climate and other surroundingsis not only bound to fail but is a sacrilege. The soul of religion is one but it is encased in a multitude of forms. The latter will persiste to the end of time. Wise men will ignore the outward crest and see the same soul living under a variety of crusts.28
Praxis of multiculturalism in Gandhian movement
Gandhi did not find it difficult even during his South African days to build up a cross-cultural religious support base. It is to be noted that busineesmen mainly of the Muslim community and Tamil indentured labourers constituted the core of his Satyagraha campaigns. This trend continued in India which saw a further expansion of his inclusive support base, significantly the Muslim community. Despite some setbacks with the withdrawal of Non-cooperation and Khilafat movement and communal riots in the country in 1923-24, Gandhi never lost hope of building up an all inclusive national movement. He sat on a 21-days fast at Mohammad Ali's house in Delhi in 1924 and followed it up by persudaing various political groups to set up a committe to formulate a constitution of Ondia by reconciling the interests of different communities. It was this report which subsequently came to be known as Nehru Report. Unfortunately for India, the said report could not be made acceptable to All Parties Conference in Calcutta in 1928. Thus, India missed a great opportunity of communal harmony for Gandhi had worked incessantly.He picked up the tread again during the Civil Disobedience movement. Gandhi was dead against the British policy of dividing the people of India on the basis of religion and the vivisection of the country. He emphasised on the diverse collective identities of Indians instead of their religious identities and promoted the spirit of multiculturalism. This point has been emphasised by scholars of eminence like Amartya Sen in his writings in his writings especially referring to the stand taken by Gandhi in the Second Round Table Conference in 1931,29 in which British govt used various leaders representing different communities to question the credential of Congress of Gandhi to speak on their behalf. Gandhi on behalf of Congress contested the fact of his being described primarily as a spokesman for Hindus, in particular “caste Hindus”. He also controverted the British assertion that the rest of communities were being represnted by delegates chosen by the British prime minister. He asserted the right of the Congress to speak for every section of Indian society in the conference. In his address, Gandhi said, “I am but a poor humble agent acting on behalf of the Indian National Congress.. It represents no particular community, no particular class, no particular interest. It claims to represent all Indian interests and all classes. It is a matter of greatest pleasure to me to state that ot was first conceived in an English brain: Allan Octavius Hume we knew as the father of the Congress. It was nursed by two great Parsis, Pherozeshash Mehta and Dadabhai Naoroji, whom all India delighted to recognize as its Grand Old Man. From the very commencement the Congress had Mussalmans, Christians, Anglo-Indians..above all, the Congress represnts, in its essence, the dumb, semi-starved millions scattered over the length and breadth of the land in its 700,000 villages.”30 This address was nothing but a reassertion of Gandhi's multicultural approach to Indian politics and society. Elaborating on the same theme, in the Plenary session of the conference, he went even further, “..the Congress claimed also by right of service to represent even the Princes, if they would pardon my putting forth that claim, and the landed gentry, the educated class..All the other parties at this meetings represent sectional interests. Congress alone claims to represent the whole of India, all interests. It is no communal organisation; it is a determined enemy of communalism in any shape and form. Congress knows no distinction of race, colour or creed; its platform is universal.”31
Gandhi's multicultural approach was reflected during 1937 elections in which every community was accommodated and also in the formation of several provincial governments. At the time of the 2nd world war, Gandhi tried to align with Jinnah to present a united national front before the government but the govt succeeded in creating a wedge in between prompting Jinnah to side with the govt in opposing the Quit India Movement. But Gandhi was so persistent in his community inlcusive approach that he entered into a long dialogue with Jinnah again in September 1944 but to no avail. In the cabinet mission to lead India to independence without partition, Gandhi was willing initially to support for a proposal for united India with some kind of autonomy to the provinces provided they were not compelled to join any grouping. The period from August 1946 to January 1948 marked most valiant effort on the part of Gandhi to keep India united by accommodating every Indian community in the new scheme of things. In the process, he went around Noakhali, Calcutta, Bihar and Delhi and used every instrument from his spiritual armoury to lead India towards independence by keeping it united. Not only that, in this effort, he even went to the extent of offering the prime-ministership of India to Jinnah. Unfortunately in the prevailing situation of communal frenzy, there were no takers for Gandhi's proposal. Ultimately India became independent but with partition. It is evident from the above survey that Gandhi throughout his political pilgrimage never flinched from his basic approach of positive multiculturalism. He even sacrificed his life while pursuing the goal of interreligious harmony.
Gandhi made a major contribution to multicultural discourse both in terms of thought and action. It hardly matters that Gandhi did not use such terms as multiculturalism . It is also a fact that the theory and praxis of multiculturalism is facing a lot of critical attack in present times. The recent violent incidents in Norway and multicultural policies openly questioned by some of the heads of the governments are illustrative of this trend. Gandhi's understanding of religion and his multicultural approach has a great significance in the context of growing communal divide and religious fundamentalism in different paths of the globe including India. Gandhi's broad vision, his radical interpretations of various concepts in the sphere of religion can go a long way in promoting harmony among various religious faiths and communities across the world. It has a great value especially to preserve the composite culture of many countries.
Adapted from the original article which appeared in Gandhi Marg, Vol.33, Number 4, January-March 2012