Mahatma Gandhi and Two Attitudes of Religion

- By Dr Arvind Sharma

It SEEMS THAT, WHEN one comes in contact with a religion other than one's own, one faces a basic choice: whether to accept it in some way or another, or to reject it all together. Mahatma Gandhi's life provides illustrations of both. The following experience he had with Mr. Coates, a Quaker, is representative of the second attitude of rejection.

But Mr. Coates was not the man easily to accept defeat. He had great affection for me. He saw, round my neck, the Vaishnava necklace of Tulasi-beads. He thought it to be superstition and was pained by it. "This superstition does not become you. Come, let me break the necklace."
"No, you will not. It is a sacred gift from my mother."
"But do you believe in it?"
"I do not know its mysterious significance. I do not think I should come to harm if I did not wear it. But I cannot, without sufficient reason, give up a necklace that she put round my neck out of love and in the conviction that it would be conducive to my welfare. When, with the passage of time, it wears away and breaks of its own accord, I shall have no desire to get a new one. But this necklace cannot be broken."
Mr. Coates could not appreciate my argument, as he had no regard for my religion. He was looking forward to delivering me from the abyss of ignorance. He wanted to convince me that, no matter whether there was some truth in other religions, salvation was impossible for me unless I accepted Christianity which represented the truth, and that my sins would not be washed away except by the intercession of Jesus, and that all good works were useless.1

Mahatma Gandhi's own attitude towards other religions, by contrast, seems to imply a kind of acceptance. This may be in part due to his family background for he informs us how, as a child, he was exposed to various religions in a hospitable way:

In Rajkot, however, I got an early grounding in toleration for all branches of Hinduism and sister religions. For my father and mother would visit the Haveli as also Shiva's and Rama's temples, and would take or send us youngsters there. Jain monks also would pay frequent visits to my father, and would even go out of their way to accept food from us—non-Jains. They would have talks with my father on subjects religious and mundane.
He had, besides, Musalman and Parsi friends, who would talk to him about their own faiths, and he would listen to them always with respect, and often with interest. Being his nurse, I often had a chance to be present at these talks. These many things combined to inculcate in me a toleration for all faiths.2

Mahatma Gandhi subsequently refers to reading the Bible at the instance of a Christian friend,'3 of learning about "the prophet's greatness and bravery and austere living,"4 and reading Washington Irving's Life of Mahomet and His Successors,5 and of also reading The Sayings of Zarathustra." Contact with Abdulla Sheth6 also gave Mahatma Gandhi "a fair amount of practical knowledge of Islam."7

However, to describe one's attitudes towards other religions only in terms of rejection and acceptance may be simplistic because both the attitudes are capable of refinement. The attitude of rejection for instance, may (1) extend to an entire religious tradition or (2) may be confined to those parts of it one considers objectionable. Thus a Christian might reject Hinduism in its entirety, or reject those parts of it which as a Christian one finds (a) morally or (b) theologically objectionable.

Similarly, the acceptance of another tradition is not such a straightforward matter as it might appear at first sight. After all, one way of accepting it would be to accept it all together, to the extent of converting to it! Hence acceptance implies two levels: accepting it for oneself or accepting it as a religion of the other on the person's own terms. Here again the latter attitude is capable of being developed in two directions: (1) accepting a religion as a religion of the other without further criticism or (2) even after accepting it as the other's religion, distinguishing between those parts of it which one thinks of as positive aspects of it and others which one thinks of as negative.

This kind of "critical" acceptance, in a curious coincidence of opposite, may not be far removed from "critical" rejection!

Notes and References:

  1. Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) p. 123-124
  2. Ibid., p 33.
  3. ibid., p. 68.
  4. Ibid., p. 69.
  5. Ibid., p. 159.
  6. Ibid,
  7. Ibid., p. 106.

Courtesy: Gandhi Marg, Volume 34, Number 1, April-June 2012

Dr. Arvind Sharma is Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, McGill University, Canada | Email: