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Kabir and Gandhi as Apostles of Human Unity Transcending Religion and Caste-based Distinctions
By Saral Jhingran*
Kabir asserted the basic unity of all human beings not on the basis of some spiritual hypothesis of God's immanence in every heart, but on a very rational and scientific basis. Shorn of conventional man-made distinctions, basically, all human beings are the same, according to him. He derives a morality of compassion and non-violence from his basic thesis of unity of all living beings. The paper argues that Kabir's vision of the essential unity of all human beings can provide an idealistic foundation to all our efforts at both the resolution of mutual conflicts and restoring dignity to the downtrodden. The Mahatma's interpretation of the same vision gives us two messages which can contribute to realizing the above goals. They are: sincere religious toleration of and respect for other faiths on the basis of a frank acknowledgement of the possible faults of our own religion; and the need to see the 'Divine' in the hearts of the 'dumb millions', which must in turn lead us to the service of those millions as the only way to realize the 'Divine' in our hearts.

HlNDUISM HAS AN unfortunate unique distinction of being a 'religio-culture' with a vast gap between its high philosophy and practical customs.
It goes to the credit of the Upanishadic risis that having pronounced their grand vision of the divinity and unity of all human beings, they never suggested any discrimination between man and man, this cannot be said of all other Hindu texts. The Bhagavadgita, having declared the essential unity of all selves, goes on to propound compulsory duties according to one's varna which it calls swadharma, and declares that in all circumstances the fulfilment of one's own duty is better than pursuing another's duty or dharma, even if the latter is better. The Gita goes on to define the duties of the four varnas , and declares that their distinction is based upon the inherent qualities (gunas) and capacities of various people, thus taking the social distinctions to a deeper level.1
Later Dharmashastras, as those of Manu, Gautam and Yajnavalkya, only hardened these distinctions and arranged them in a hierarchy from which there was no escape for any one, especially the shudras. Manu arrogantly declares that even if the master of a shudra dasa frees him from bondage, there is no freedom for him as the natural dharma of a shudra is serving others.2
Hindu philosophers and acharyas failed to realize the implications of the grand Vedantic vision of one Self in all.
It was only in the Bhakti movement that the full implications of the grand Vedantic vision were fully articulated. The main thrust of this vast mass movement was twofold: First, it was asserted that caste (and community) considerations are irrelevant; whosoever is aevoted to God is God's own. And second, it was unanimously declared that neither rituals, nor knowledge (jnana), but sincere selfless devotion (bhakti) is the true religion or way to God.

In this context, Kabir (fifteenth century) is the greatest saint who rejected all distinctions, not only those of caste but also those of religion, not only between human beings but also between humans and animals. Kabir observes how Hindus and Muslims kill each other in the name of their respective gods, and repeatedly declares all of them mad.3 He laments that no one listens to him, but still persists in telling them the truth which is:
Brother where did your two gods come from?
Tell me who made you mad ?
Ram, Allah, Keshav, Karim, Hari, Hazarat-
So many names...
For conversation we make two-
This namaz, this puja...
This Mahadev, that Mohammad.
This Hindu that a Turk.4
Kabir had the same vision of unity of all creation, especially of all humans, based on the vision of one Divine Being within all souls and within the entire creation, as held by the Upanishadic seers, or as propounded by Shankara on a theoretical level. His vision rejects the assertion of separate gods, and even separate religions for different peoples. His idea was that if the same God creates everything and is within all beings, then just using different names for the self-same Absolute does not make people different. Different ways of worshipping the Divine Being, or different places of worship do not make any difference in that all humans are basically the same; and all are worshipping in their own ways the same God.
While the Vedantins asserted the basic unity of all creation and human beings on either a theoretical level, or based on their inner mystical experience, Kabir asserted the same truth on two levels— spiritual and rational.
Kabir asserts the unity of all humans irrespective of whether he/she was a devotee of God or not. He declares that 'All beings are created out of one Glorv (Nur). It is difficult to decide who is a Hindu, who a Turk (Muslim).'
Even more interesting and significant is the fact that Kabir presents his argument in a very rational manner. He is continuously berating the false pride of brahmanas and mullas. To the brahmanas he says that if you think of yourself as very special, how is it that you were not born in some special, opposite manner? To the Qazi he says that if your God favoured circumcision, why didn't you come out cut?
Moreover, if circumcision makes you a Muslim, what would you call your women?5 The idea here is that basically all human beings are the same, all those distinctions between man and man as Hindus or Muslims, brahmanas or sudras are therefore false. To quote him again:
No one reads Vedas in the womb.
No Turk was bom circumcised.
Dropped from the belly at birth,
a man puts on his costumes,
and goes through his acts.6
Here Kabir is not asserting the basic unity of all human beings on the basis of some spiritual hypothesis of God's immanence in every heart but on a very rational and scientific basis. His assertion is very simple and straightforward that shorn of conventional man-made distinctions, basically all human beings are the same. Kabir denied all such distinctions in the fifteenth century, and that too on a practical or scientific basis.
Numskull, you have missed the point.
It is all one skin and bone, one piss and shit,
One blood, one meat...
Who is a brahmana, who is a shudra?...
Kabir says plunge into Ram,
There no Hindu, no Turk.7
Such a categorical assertion of the unconditional equality and unity of the entire human race was unheard of in the middle ages. Kabir was disturbed by the Hindu practice of untouchability. He repeatedly rebuffed the brahmanas for their obsession with ritual purity. He told them that there is no escape from touch and we eat, drink and live by touching.8 Millions are buried under the hut a brahmana lives in; and the blood of innumerable living beings is mixed in the water a pundit drinks.9 Why did Kabir say all these rational things? Kabir was genuinely irritated by the pretensions of the priests and mullas, and that irritation was the result of his rational mind.
Kabir asserts not only the equality of all human beings but of all living beings.  Kabir emphatically asserted the continuity or sameness of humans and animals in the middle ages. And it was not a matter of faith alone but of practical scientific reasoning with him:
Beast meat and man meat are the same,
Both have blood that is red sir!10
Kabir does not stop here but derives a morality of compassion and non-violence from his basic thesis of unity of all living beings. It was also an unconditional condemnation of the rituals of animal sacrifices, as he could not understand how God could be satisfied by the killings of animals that are created by Him. So he says:
For gods and goddesses of clay
You slaughter living beast, sir!
If your God is real, why can't he go
To the field and have his feast, sir!11
There cannot be a more rational and scientific approach to condemning crude religious practices!
While some bhakta saints acknowledged but did not emphasize the irrelevance of caste and community distinctions, others like Kabir, Nanak and Raidas emphatically rejected them. Above all most of the bhakta saints hailed from the so-called lower classes, and it goes to the credit of Hindu society that they were accepted and venerated by all alike, the elite brahmanas and the lowly shudras. The very popularity of the Bhakti movement must have undermined the stringency of caste and community distinctions. It could well be asked why the rejection of these distinctions by the bhakta saints did not erode the power of these distinctions in Indian society on a permanent basis. These bhakta saints were no social reformers, their main concern being devotion to God in whose love they sang songs. They sincerely believed that every human being has an equal right to be devoted to God, and that in the assembly of the lovers of God there were no distinctions of high or low. But other than expressing this belief they generally did not disturb the social set-up. The Bhakti movement, with its humanitarian message of basic equality of all living beings, gradually became weaker, and Indian society remained mired in class, caste and community distinctions.


Mahatma Gandhi must have found the Indian society in early twentieth century perhaps in a worse stage than it was during late middle ages when there worked some spiritualizing influence of the bhakta and sufi saints. The mistrust and ill will between Hindus and Muslims had reached new levels; and within the Hindu society the scourge of untouchability had become all pervasive and even inhuman. Therefore, the Mahatma declared that the two most important missions of his life were Hindu- Muslim unity and removal of untouchability and the upliftment of those who were treated so inhumanely until then?
There is a marked similarity between the goals and approaches o Kabir and the Mahatma to the two issues. Both derived their inspiration from their religious faith. Like Kabir, Gandhi also believed in the presence of God in every soul; and both called their God Ram, meaning a formless Absolute (Nirguna Brahman). The second common source of inspiration for both the saints was their natural humaneness. The third similarity between the two was their rational approach to these social and moral issues. We have seen how Kabir argued rationally for the equality of all living beings on biological grounds. Similarly, Gandhi declared that for him reason is the ultimate test for accepting or rejecting any scripture.12 Fourth, both lamented that no one listens to them. The refrain of many a song of Kabir is that 'I am shouting but no one listens to me. They have all gone mad.’ The talks of Gandhi after the prayer meetings (prarthana pravachana), especially during the terrible Hindu - Muslim riots accompanying independence and partition, mainly consist of this lament: 'I am repeatedly telling them (not to kill their brothers), but no one listens to me.’ The pathos in his simple Hindi language, the piognancy of his pain are to be felt, and not written down. Kabir did not feel this pain when he talked of Hindus and Muslims taking the name of their respective gods and then killing each other because he could be angry at those fools. But anger was not in the nature of Gandhi. Above all, he was facing a situation of mutual massacre by Hindus and Muslims which was unprecedented in the history of India. Gandhi could only appeal and cry.
Both Kabir and Mahatma Gandhi ultimately failed in their respective missions— Kabir in making men realize that the external forms of religion are futile, the real religion consists in trying to find the God in your own heart and in all living beings around you; and Gandhi in bringing about harmony between various, mainly two, warring communities, and driving home his message of ahimsa and compassion for all.
However, there are basic differences also between the approaches of the two towards the same issues. Gandhi, as against Kabir, was first and foremost a social reformer who was faced with the task of nation building, and wanted to bring about inter-community unity because he wanted India's freedom, and he rightly believed that neither India's freedom, nor her survival as a nation would be possible if she remained divided among various religious groups. Unlike Kabir, the Mahatma did not assert the fundamental political unity of all human beings but merely said that religious, cultural or linguistic plurality, or any other differences do not destroy the claim of a society to be a nation.13 Gandhi, in spite of his sobriquet of Mahatma, was a social reformer who could not carry out his mission without acknowledging the practical reality. And that, as perceived by him, was the acute consciousness of separate identity of the two major religious communities- Hindus and Muslims.
Mahatma, being committed to social reform, or rather social transformation, accepted the facts as they are; that is why, while for Kabir, there was no basic difference between Hindus and Muslims, Gandhi always talked as if they form two basic communities, each having a separate, independent existence of its own, and the goal of communal harmony means a prior acceptance of this fact, and working from there. He mostly talked in terms of 'we' Hindus and 'they' Mussalmans. His personal pronoun was reserved for Hinduism/ Hindus. 'My Hinduism tells me;' or 'We Hindus must treat our Muslim brothers in a loving forgiving manner.' He called Muslims 'our brothers', called upon Hindus to make all sacrifices to meet the demands of their 'younger brothers'. But they were different from Hindus with whom Hindus had occasional quarrels, but towards whom they should be tolerant and forgiving.14
In real life we simply cannot deny the existence of vast differences Between human beings on the basis of religion, caste and a few other factors. Perhaps Gandhi's desire to bring about the Hindu-Muslim unity was so strong that he felt that undermining their mutual basic differences would antagonize them, and that would make his mission all the more difficult to achieve. While Gandhi accepted the principle of separate electorates for different religious communities, though unwillingly, he revolted against the allocation of separate seats to the depressed classes. This goes to prove that somehow for Gandhi religious differences were paramount, determining the identity of a person or a group permanently. Of course, he also affirmed that all Hindus, Muslims and others were equally Indian, and there is no basic difference between them.15
It is true that the way of Kabir, sweepingly rejecting all these differences is not either true to ground realities or conducive to a permanent state of social harmony. Human beings would never accept to be submerged in some vague unity based on some mystical unitive experience. Individuality and separate identities are craved not only by groups but also by individuals. The Mahatma was right when he boldly accepted the; differences between Hindus and Muslims. He was also wrong. The made these differences as almost basic, often speaking as if Hindu and Muslim communities were separate units existing independently of each other in one geographical unit, that is India and he submerged the individuals into his communal units, that is, he took it for granted that all Muslims and all Hindus are alike and think and act in the same way.
Perhaps Kabir was wrong in sweepingly rejecting all differences, and Gandhi was right in frankly recognizing them. But if differences between man and man are a fact, so is the basic affinity between all human beings. As Kabir said, we are all made up of the same stuff; and we are born and die in a similar way. When confronted by some tragedy, or some ailment we suffer and react to it in the same way. Within a society or nation, even our reactions to external events, or our socio-moral norms are very similar, if not identical.
However, the Mahatma's conviction of the basic unity of all religions is the same as that of Kabir.
"Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal? Wherein is the cause for quarreling?"16
Herein also, there is a subtle difference between the approaches of the two saints. Kabir seems to be rejecting all formal religions as useless in realizing God who can be found only by selfless devotion and looking inwards for His presence. Gandhi, instead, is accepting all religions per se. While Kabir condemned all and everybody like a Biblical prophet, condemnation was not the way of the Mahatma.
Gandhi was truer to his ideal of non-violence than Kabir. Mahatma's conviction, regarding the basic unity of all religions, in as much as they are all human efforts to realize the self-same Reality was both intensely sincere and foundational to all his views and actions.
Gandhi presented this ideal in a very rational manner:
If we are imperfect ourselves, religions as conceived by us must also be imperfect. We have not realized religion in its perfection, even as we have not realized God. Religion of our conception, being thus imperfect, is always subject to a process of evolution and interpretation....And if all faiths outlined by men are imperfect, the question of comparative merit does not arise. The one religion is beyond speech. Imperfect men put it into such language as they can command, and their words are interpreted by other men equally imperfect. Whose interpretation is to be held to be true?17
The Mahatma's assertion of the possible imperfections in all religions because of the mediation of human mind and language is not only true but is also the, best way to ensure communal harmony. Kabir saw the imperfections of religions as understood and practised by men and condemned those (concrete) religions loudly. The Mahatma saw those imperfections and rationally and quietly pointed out the possibility of imperfections. He went beyond both Kabir and the modern secularists/ modernists by insisting that if every one of us realizes the possibility of imperfections in his/her own religion, it stands to reason that we should feel not only tolerant towards other religions but also respect them as human efforts like our own, to understand the mystery of the 'Divine' and the creation. According to him, tolerance implies "a gratuitous assumption of the inferiority of other faiths to one's own," whereas his way of ahimsa "teaches us to entertain the same respect to the religious faiths of others as we accord to our own, thus admitting the imperfection of the latter."18
He concluded that —all religions are true; all religions have some error in them; and all religions are almost as dear to him as his Hinduism.19 Kabir was convinced of the truth of one Ram or the Absolute residing in every heart, and that seeking him anywhere else is futile. And from the height of his mystical vision he condemned all who sought him in Kaba or Kailash. Gandhi started with the ideal that he or his religion is not the sole possessor of truth; so he sought to condemn no one. In fact, his message of religious toleration as admitting the imperfections of one's own faith and then respecting other faiths as similar efforts by humankind to penetrate the ultimate mystery provides the panacea for the ills of religious or cultural domination of others by those who are convinced of the finality of the version of the ultimate truth affirmed in their religion or culture. It also leaves no scope for mutual ill will and violence in the name of religion.
The need of the moment is not one religion, but mutual respect and tolerance of devotees of the different religions. We want to reach not the dead end but unity in diversity… The soul of religion is one, but it is encased in a multitude of forms. The latter will persist to the end of time.20
He asserted that, Truth is the exclusive property of no single scripture.21 The Mahatma's acceptance of the uniqueness of and differences between religions, combined with his message of religious toleration as respect and charity, aim at eradicating the very roots of inter-community frictions, and creating an atmosphere of total harmony between different religious communities. His approach has the double merit of creating harmony without undermining the differences or what is called uniqueness of various religions. According to him, ‘There will be no unity unless each party is prepared to understand, appreciate and make allowances for the other's viewpoint and even weakness. This requires a large heart, otherwise called charity. Let us do unto others as we would that they should do unto us.22
The second dearest cause to the Mahatma was the eradication of the practice of untouchability from the Hindu society. All his life he fought for the removal of untouchability from the Hindu society and a better treatment of the so-called untouchables Antyajs/ Harijans. He repeatedly declared the practice of untouchability a scourge of Hindu society:
This practice of regarding the antyajs as untouchables is intolerable to me. Hindus owe it as a duty to make a determined effort to purify Hinduism and eradicate this practice of untouchability. I have said to the Hindus and say it again today Jhat till Hindu society is purged of this sin swaraj is an impossibility.23
The Mahatma's treatment of varna / caste distinctions and hierarchy in Hindu society is rather unsatisfactory. Even though he uses the full term varnasrama dharma he is meaning only the varna system that decides the profession of a person exclusively based on one's birth in a particular family.24 Gandhi insisted that a person must follow the profession that is alloted to him by his birth, a brahmana should do teaching of scriptures, and a shudra should do menial work.25 Mostly he makes a distinction between varna and caste and says that only varna division of Hindu society should be maintained, and that castes keep changing and are unnecessary.26
He opined that the fault does not lie in the varnashrama dharma, or in recognizing the law of heredity and transmission of qualities from generation to generation, but with the faulty conception of inequality. Unfortunately the Mahatma failed to understand that the practice of untouchability is an integral part of varnashrama dharma. Suppose a man/woman does not do the inhuman work of cleaning latrines, as is mostly the case now, even then he/she would be understood as an untouchable by caste Hindus, simply because he/ she is born in a family or community of untouchables.
Kabir did not concern himself with the specific social issues; yet his assertion of the fundamental equality and unity of all human beings by declaring the illegitimacy of caste and creed differences, was both rational and gave a firm foundation to a humanistic morality. The Mahatma had the same vision of the Divine in the hearts of all living beings as Kabir; there is a difference though in the understanding of the same vision by the two saints. While for Kabir the vision was the outpouring of his unitive vision, for the Mahatma it was the expression of his intense concern for the 'dumb millions.

Kabir's vision of the essential unity of all human beings can provide an idealistic foundation to all our efforts at both the resolution of mutual conflicts and providing dignity to the downtrodden. But the Mahatma's interpretation of the same vision gives us two messages which can prove to be direct means of realizing the above goals. They are: sincere religious toleration of and respect for other faiths on the basis of a frank acknowledgement of the possible faults of our own religion; and the need to see the 'Divine' in the hearts of the 'dumb millions' which must lead us to the service of those millions as the only way to realize the 'Divine' in our hearts. The two messages together give us the universal values of nonviolence and charity or love as the laws of interpersonal relations, and are the only way to establish a more harmonious and humane society and world order.

4. Capital Saving
One of the pillars of Gandhian economic thinking was capital saving. Tragically, Schumacher pointed out, the world was moving at ever-increasing speed into large-scale, immense complexity, high capital intensity, and elimination of the human factor: which was leading mankind into a crisis of survival. One of the reasons for Gandhi’s opposition to capital intensive and complex machinery was the fact that it turned a large number of people into ‘machine minders.’ This did nothing to develop their personalities and merely robbed them of their creative power. Schumacher supporting Gandhi said that, in addition, highly capitalised modern, complex and gigantic technology had proved monstrously inefficient in solving the problems of the world. He added:
‘If an ancestor of long ago visited us today, what would he be more astonished at? The skill of our dentists or the rotteness of our teeth? The speed of our transport or the length of time and the discomfort incurred in our travelling to and from work? The progress of our medicine or the overcrowding of our hospitals’! Our ability to land man on the Moon or our inability to find employment for people wanting work! The efficiency of our machines or the inefficiency of our system as a whole?’
Admiring Gandhi’s sureness of touch, Schumacher said: ‘Gandhi knew that a capital intensive economy could never solve India’s unemployment problem, and went on to explain by giving an example. He said that in order to establish one work place it cost 100,000 Rupees and if you had 100 Crores (1 Crore = Rs. 10,000,000) you could establish only 10,000 work places. If one had to tackle an unemployment problem which ran into hundreds of millions, one could see the problem facing a poor country like India.’
Quoting another example, Schumacher said that he went to see a village potter, who was a marvellously skilled man but who had very primitive technical equipment worth Rs. 50. He then went to a city and met another potter minding a machine tool imported from Belgium, the price of which was in the region of Rs 500,000. Evidently the worker could never afford that kind of money to set himself up in business and as a consequence would be forced to go to a big city like Bombay, where there were already hundreds of thousands of unemployed people. It therefore followed that constructive job provision was only possible if one followed the Gandhian prescription, namely to design work to develop modes of production which fitted into the actually existing conditions in terms of capital availability relative to labour availability. In other words: systematic development of technologies cheap enough in terms of capital to give the chance of work to everybody.

Notes and References
  1. Bhagavadgita XVII. 41-48. The Bhagvadgita, tr. by S. Radhakrishnan, (Bombay: Blackie and Son (India) 1977.)
  2. Manu Smriti Vm. 413,417.
  3. The Bijak of Kabir tr. by Linda Hess and Sukdeva Singh (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986), p. 42.
  4. Ibid., pp. 51-52.
  5. Kabir Granthavali, ed. by Shyamsundar Das ( Varanasi: Nagri Pracharani Sabha, Samvat 2005), pp. 79; The Bijak of Kabir, p.69,79.
  6. The Bijak of Kabir, p. 79.
  7. Ibid., p. 67.
  8. Ibid., p. 55.
  9. Ibid., p. 57-58.
  10. Ibid., pp. 64, 88.
  11. Ibid.
  12. "I decline to be bound by any interpretation...if it is repugnant to reason or moral sense." M.K. Gandhi, Hindu Dharma, New Delhi : Orient Paperbacks, 2001, p. 10, also pp.20 ff..(This collection of Gandhi's sayings does not give their original sources.) Also see The Essence of Hinduism, ed. by V.B. Kher, (Ahmadabad: Navajivan Press, 1987), pp.12, 31, 104.
  13. "Swaraj for India must be an impossible dream without an indissoluble union between the Hindus and Muslims of India. It must not be a mere truce. It cannot be based upon mutual fear. It must be partnership between equals, each respecting the religion of the other." Young India 6.10.1920, as given in the Gandhi Reader for 1988, ed. by M.V. Desai, New Delhi: Namedia Foundation, p. 19.
  14. See Hindu Dharma, pp. 49 ff. Gandhi therein acknowledges basic temperamental and normative differences between Hindus and Muslims. He goes on to say "If, however, we do not wish to fight it out with the Muslims, if we wish to live with them as with our own brothers, if we would ensure protection of cows, of our temples and our women by winning over their hearts and through a friendly approach, we should welcome the opportunity we have today." Ibid., p. 53. Also, "Lastly, if it be true that the Hindus believe in the doctrine of non-killing and the Mohammadens do not, what, pray, is the duty of the former?" Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Trust, reprint 2001), p. 45. This is, however, too strong a statement projecting a picture of Muslims as aggressors, and is not typical of Gandhi.
  15. Hind Szvaraj, pp. 43-44.
  16. Ibid., p. 44.
  17. As given in Gandhi Reader for 1988, pp. 34-35.
  18. ibid., p. 34.
  19. Ibid., p. 35.
  20. Young India 25.9.1924, in ibid., p. 31.
  21. Ibid. p. 31.
  22. Young India 12.6. 1924, in ibid., p. 23.
  23. M.K. Gandhi, Hindu Dharma, p. 94, also pp.61, 73, etc.
  24. "But I do regard Varnashrama as a healthy division of work based on birth." Ibid., p. 64; also ibid., pp.57, 82, 88, etc.. "The law of Varna teaches us that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling. It defines not our rights but our duties. It also follows that there is no calling too low or too high." The Essence of Hinduism, p. 12.
  25. "The scavangers' children may remain scavengers without feeling degraded and they will be no more considered untouchable than brahmins. The fault does not therefore lie in recognizing the law of heredity and transmission of qualities from generation to generation, but lies in the faulty conception of inequality."Himiw Dharma, p.82, also pp. 99 ff.; The Essence of Hinduism, p.32, etc.
  26. The Essence of Hinduism, p. 12; Hindu Dharma, p.59, etc.
Adapted from 'Gandhi Marg', Vol 32, Number 3, October-December 2010

*SARAL JHINGRAN obtained her Ph.D in 1972 on the theme of Advaita Vedanta and Ethical Action and secured a number of Senior post-doctoral Fellowships in the grade of Lecturer and Reader offered by the University Grants Commission before retiring in 2000. Her publications include The Roots of World Religions, 1982, Aspects of Hindu Morality 1989, reprint 1999, Secularism in India -A Reappraisal, 1989, Ethical Relativism and Universalism, 2001, Madrasa Education in India: A Study (forthcoming) and nearly 40 papers in journals such as the Indian Philosophical Quarterly and edited books. E-mail: