Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu, had an extraordinary ability to draw from various religious and secular resources in his nonviolent struggle for human dignity and Indian independence. He described his life’s work as “experiments in truth.” His deep respect for the basic humanity of all people allowed him to embrace “truth” wherever he found it and to incorporate it into his life and social strategy.
Gandhi’s respect for the basic humanity of everyone even extended to his adversaries. Jan Smuts, a wily segregationist military general and politician, was his primary adversary when he fought to end segregation in South Africa. He refused to vilify Smuts even after he jailed Gandhi and refused to honor an earlier compromise agreement they had reached. Smuts, in turn, learned to respect Gandhi and, later in life, even esteemed him.
When Gandhi returned to India, his many interfaith friends included Abdul Ghaffar Kahn, the towering Muslim Pashtun pacifist who fought alongside him in the independence movement. Another was Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer who introduced him to the nonviolence of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Yet another Madeleine Slade, who Gandhi affectionately nicknamed Mirabehn, was from an aristocratic British family. She became part of his inner circle and worked with him for many years.
From his Hindu tradition, Gandhi drew on religious holidays and purity rituals to develop nonviolent political actions of general strikes and boycotts. From the Sermon on the Mount, he learned the persuasive power of loving one’s enemies. From secular principles of equality, freedom, and the rule of law, he developed the action of civil disobedience to unjust laws. Going to jail for refusing to obey an unjust law applies moral and social pressure on the government.
I have come to appreciate the genius of Gandhi’s ability to cross religious and social boundaries and to experiment with the “truth” he found in diverse places. People of all faiths can learn from him. For example, a deeply troubling religious phenomenon is an exclusivism that disparages others and easily becomes narrow and violent. We usually associate this with religious fundamentalism but there are forms of liberalism that are equally demeaning. Those of us from monotheistic religious traditions can be especially susceptible to such self-duplicity. It’s so easy to imagine we’re fighting the good fight against our enemies, even going to war, with God on our side.
That way of framing the struggle was foreign to Gandhi, which can most likely be attributed to the fact that he was a devout Hindu. When I lived in India, the sheer number of Hindu gods and the seemingly never-ending seasonal festivals celebrating one or another of those gods astonished me. We Westerners tend to think of this as unbridled polytheism but that’s mistaken. My Hindu friends told me that there is instead one divine Other but in many forms.
What can those of us from monotheistic religions learn from the Hindu understanding of “the one and the many?” It’s certainly a reminder that we dare not succumb to the temptation to think that we have a handle on the divine. God is beyond our understanding or ability to imagine. Humility and respect for all others are therefore always necessary religious virtues.