Mahatma Gandhi Views on Secularism
Mahatma Gandhi is known as a noble soul who never ever compromised his principles of truth, non-violence, and religion. During his almost 54 years of political activism – 21 years in South Africa and then 33 years in India, he had always religiously stayed by the principles he believed in, for the betterment of the humanity and for fighting for the rights of the oppressed and deprived.
Gandhiji’s religious ethos made him consider all human beings as equal, making him a secularist at the core. He didn’t believe in manmade divisions of caste and religion and believed that the core aspiration of all the religion should be to bind people together, rather than dividing them.
True to his words, as long as he lived, he never differentiated between people based on their faith or caste.
In fact, he was the greatest political leader and independence crusader who also tirelessly fought against casteism and religious hatred. I have discussed Gandhiji’s views on secularism below and also on how people were inculcated in his thoughts.
Views of Gandhiji on Caste Based Practices
The secularist philosophy that Gandhiji professed had been originated from his life experiences and understanding and the religious values that were instilled in him at a very young age.
His mother Putlibai Gandhi was a very religious woman, who would never begin her daily work without prayer. She was in fact so much devoted to her religion that she even fasted for a couple of days in a row. Her religious passion had a great influence on young Gandhi, who started enduring the religious values he inherited from his mother. It was also the time when he was introduced to the holy epic of Hindus – Bhagavad Gita.
Putlibai also practiced untouchability as good as she followed the religion. She is also known to have Gandhi take a bath if he touched an untouchable. Gandhiji, however, was different in a way, that he somehow looked rationally into the matter and understood the wrong in it.
It must be known that in Gita, Lord Krishna has stated that “Dharma is a guiding principle, through which a society is to be governed.” Apparently there is no distinction of humans based on other aspects other than moral ethics. It is possible that Gandhi, at an early age, might have understood the teachings of Bhagavad Gita.
There is a known incident related to the childhood of Gandhiji, indicating his unbiased nature for people of lower caste or untouchables. As a child Gandhi used to play with a boy belonging to an untouchable community and as a social activist in South Africa used to wash the pots used by his so-called untouchable friends.
Development of Inter-Religious Secularism
The secular values that Gandhiji had developed in his childhood were further magnified by the experiences he gained in South Africa, as an anti-discrimination activist.
Gandhi went to South Africa to work as legal help for one of a wealthy Gujarati merchant who was Muslim by faith. The social conditions there in South Africa were completely different from what Gandhi had witnessed in India.
Religion and caste which acted as a dividing factor in India hardly mattered in South Africa. There were people from all the states of India, belonging to different castes, working in different capacities, united against one cause – ‘the discrimination they faced in South Africa for being Indians.’
Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Brahmins, upper caste or lower caste, wealthy or poor, from down south or up north, couldn’t afford to fight among themselves if they had to fight for their rights and privileges. Nobody could have understood and acknowledged this fact better than their leader – Mahatma Gandhi.
I personally believe that the 21 years that Gandhi spent in South Africa, marked the foundation of his belief in secular unity, reinstating his faith in secularism.
Gandhiji’s Views on Religion, God, Poor, and Deprived
Gandhiji viewed God and religion as two completely different aspects. He believed that God is an ultimate truth and also that there is only one God; on the other hand, religion is a misconception created by humans, which has its own flaws.
Gandhiji believed that the true essence of God is nothing other than love and truth. For him, believing in God only means living a highly principled life that reflects truth and love in words and in conduct.
His idea of religion was very straight forward, something that has been at the core of all the religions of the world. He believed that the primary aim of a religion is to help the poor and deprived. A single act of help and consideration towards them could easily equate a thousand rituals performed.
Gandhiji had read almost all the religious scriptures of main world religions and arrived at the conclusion that more or less they all preach the same and God is one. However, he also acknowledged the fact that people throughout the world can’t believe in one God, as the God they revere is a manifestation of their social, geographical and other conditions and they are bound to differ from place to place.
Gandhi has expressed his thoughts on religion, in a book named, Hind Swaraj, written by him in 1909. In the book, Gandhi stated that all the religions of the world are like several roads converging at the same point; hence, it doesn’t matter which road we take, as long as we reach the same goal.
Gandhiji’s Views on Untouchability
Gandhiji believed that God doesn’t differentiate between humans based on their looks, appearance, skin color or the jobs they carry out for a living. He believed that religion too doesn’t permit the demographic divisions based on caste or faith and any such practice is destructive for the society and the nation as well. Gandhiji even considered untouchable the true children of God, that’s why he named them “Harijans” meaning the children of God, in Hindi.
Throughout his life, he worked for the elimination of caste system and especially condemned untouchability. He believed that the caste system is nothing but only an evil construction of the human mind, simply based on the ‘varna’ or the job one does for a living. He also considered untouchability more severe a crime than practicing casteism and is a sin.
Gandhiji did everything he could for the upliftment of the untouchables. He even patronized “Bhangis” for doing a true service to God by cleaning the society. He worked tirelessly for their social upliftment.
He appealed to the people to repent for the inhuman and sinful practice of untouchability, by giving the untouchables a respectable and equal status in the society. He was aware of the fact that complete eradication of casteism won’t be possible; nevertheless, he strongly condemned the practice of untouchability and saw it as the greatest hindrance to secularism.
Secularism in Indian National Movement
Gandhiji’s idea of secular unity was tremendously useful in shaping the course of the Indian Independence Movement. Before the introduction of Gandhi into the Indian political scenario; India was mired with untouchability and other caste-based evil practices, apart from the unruly and unjust laws of the British Empire.
The self discriminatory practices that were followed by Indians, worked only in favor of the British Government which relied heavily on the policy of divide and rule. The British rulers and administrators took advantage of inter-religion and inter-caste rifts. Gandhiji, from his past experiences in Africa, knew that independence would still be a distant dream if these divisive social practices are continued. He, therefore, insisted on secular unity whether it is among the people belonging to different religions or among the people of the same religion but different caste.
Gandhi saw secularism as mandatory for bringing about a national movement; therefore, he toured throughout the length and breadth of the nation, preaching people about secularism. He also supported the Khilafat Movement, perpetrated by the Indian Muslim League, basically to express his solidarity towards the Muslim community and also to narrow the religious divide.
Gandhiji wrote extensively on secularism and gave several speeches, requesting people to maintain communal harmony. However, his efforts and Indian freedom struggle were always plagued by communal riots even after the declaration of Independence.
When most of the nation’s political fraternity was celebrating independence, Gandhiji was touring in Bengal and other post-partition riot-affected parts of India, to pacify the rioters and help those affected. The man has again proved how firmly he believed in secularism and that he valued it above anything else, even more than the independence.