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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 79-88
Gandhi on religion, faith and conversion-secular blueprint relevant today

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Ajai R Singh
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Gandhi believed in judging people of other faiths from their stand point rather than his own. He welcomed contact of Hinduism with other religions, especially the Christian doctrines, for he did not want to be debarred from assimilating good anywhere else. He believed a respectful study of other's religion was a sacred duty and it did not reduce reverence for one's own. He was looking out for those universal principles which transcended religion as a dogma. He expected religion to take account of practical life, he wanted it to appeal to reason and not be in conflict with morality. He believed it was his right and duty to point out the defects of his own religion, but to desist from doing so with other's faith. He refused to abuse a man for his fanatical deeds for he tried to see them from the other person's point of view. He believed Jesus expressed the will and spirit of God but could not accept Jesus as the only incarnate son of God. If Jesus was like God or God himself, then all men were like God or God Himself. But neither could he accept the Vedas as the inspired word of God, for if they were inspired why not also the Bible and the Koran? He believed all great religions were fundamentally equal and that there should be innate respect for them, not just mutual tolerance. He felt a person wanting to convert should try to be a good follower of his own faith rather than seek goodness in change of faith. His early impressions of Christianity were unfortunate which underwent a change when he discovered the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, whose ideal of renunciation appealed to him greatly. He thought Parliament of Religions or International Fellowship of Religions could be based only on equality of status, a common platform. An attitude of patronising tolerance was false to the spirit of international fellowship. He believed that all religions were more or less true, but had errors because they came to us though imperfect human instrumentality. Religious symbols could not be made into a fetish to prove the superiority of one religion over another. In a multi-religious secular polity like that of India, Gandhi's ideas on religion and attitude toward other religions could serve as a secular blueprint to ponder over and implement.

Keywords: Religion, Reason, Proselytization, Hinduism, Christianity, Conversion, Secularism

   Introduction Top

It has been my experience that I am always true from my point of view, but am often wrong from the point of view of my honest critics. I know that we are both right from our respective points of view. And this knowledge saves me from attributing motives to my opponents or critics. The seven blind men who gave seven different descriptions of the elephant were all right from their respective points of view, and wrong from the point of view of one another, and right and wrong from the point of view of the man who knew the elephant. I very much like this doctrine of the manyness of reality. It is this doctrine that has taught me to judge a Mussalman from his own standpoint and a Christian from his. Formerly I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see them and vice-versa.


Religion of course is a matter of faith and we often tend to believe it is independent of reason or rational enquiry. Emotional defence and biased probing both reflect the lack of honesty in motives when religion becomes an object of study. We have ample display of both in most debates on religious issues when people of different faiths interact. For, when such debaters discuss, or even attempt to study each other, they are easily piqued or irked by the other's viewpoint. Then there cannot possibly be a reasoned debate. This is understandable because although religion can be debated, the hallmark of a genuine debate is objectivity and mutual respect, and religion (as faith in general) finds itself unable to encourage this in its debaters. But it is doubly unfortunate as well, for we must believe, firstly, in the worth of a reasoned enquiry in all aspects of human endeavour; and secondly, such an enquiry need not reduce the realistic vigour of faith. In fact, it must underscore our belief that no reasoned debate can hurt the legitimate interests of any worthwhile enterprise. Such an enquiry must only strengthen our worthwhile beliefs, help weed out the decrepit, and help us identify them inothers as well. Therefore, then, there is reason to believe that even on religious matters, a reasoned debate is possible.

Although no last word can be said on this matter, it may help to recapitulate Gandhi's views on one's own religion as well as religion in general, on the proper attitude when one studies another's religion, his opinion on missionary work, proselytization, and Christianity.

   On Religion Top

Gandhi of course was born a Hindu but his interpretation of Hinduism was his own. While keeping firm roots in ancient Hinduism, he welcomed contact with other religions, especially the Christian doctrines. In this he had no doubt that he would not do any injustice to Hinduism or depart from its essential teachings, for his belief remained that Hinduism could assimilate and synthesize whatever new elements it came up against. "I prefer to retain the label of my forefathers so long as it does not cramp my growth and does not debar me from assimilating all that is good anywhere else". (2) Further, "If we are to respect other's religion as we would have them to respect our own, a friendly study of the world's religions is a sacred duty. My respectful study of other's religion has not abated my reverence for, or my faith in, the Hindu scriptures. They have indeed left their deep mark upon my understanding of the Hindu scriptures. They have broadened my view of life".(3) And his search for, "that religion which underlines all religions", made him look for that which transcends "Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It does not supercede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality." (4) In Young India (5) he had already declared, "Let me explain what I mean by religion. It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all other 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".

Talking next of the atheist, of reason and practical application, he said,"There are some who in the egotism of their reason declare that they have nothing to do with religion. But it is like a man saying that he breathes but that he has no nose ... even a man who disowns religion cannot and does not live without religion".(6) At the same time he also said, "I reject any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality".(7) "Man for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel and incontinent and claim to have God on his side".(8) And of course, "Religion which takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them, is no religion". (9)

As regards study of the scriptures of other religions, he stated, "It is no business of mine to criticize the scriptures of other faiths, or to point out their defects ... It is only through a reverential approach to faiths other than mine that I can realize the principle of equality of all religions. But it is both my right and duty to point out the defects in Hinduism in order to purify it and keep it pure. But when non-Hindu critics set about criticising Hinduism and cataloguing its faults they only blazon their own ignorance of Hinduism and their incapacity to regard it from the Hindu viewpoint. It distorts their vision and vitiates their viewpoint. Thus my own experience brings home to me my limitations and teaches me to be wary of launching on a criticism of Islam or Christianity and their founders".(10)

And the defender of reason as much as of faith that he was, he said, "I exercise my judgement about every scripture, including the Gita. I cannot let a scriptural text supercede my reason. Whilst I believe that the principal booksare inspired, they suffer from a process of double distillation ... Mathew may give one version of one text, and John may give another. I cannot surrender my reason .... I believe in faith also, in things where reason has no place".(11) As a further prolongation of this reasoning, he lands up with the argument, "If I would call myself, say, a Christian, or a Mussalman, with my own interpretation of the Bible or the Koran, I should not hesitate to call myself either. For then, Hindu, Christian and Mussalman would be synonymous terms". (12) To clinch the importance of reason he said, "... even as faithfulness to one's wife does not presuppose blindness to her shortcomings, so does not faithfulness to one's religion presuppose blindness to the shortcomings of that religion. Indeed, faithfulness, not blind adherence, demands a keener perception of shortcomings and therefore a livelier sense of the proper remedy for their removal".(13)

Talking of tolerance and respect for other's faiths, he said, "... mine is a broad faith which does not oppose Christians ... not even the most fanatical Mussalman ... I refuse to abuse a man for his fanatical deeds, because I try to see them from his point of view. It is that broad faith that sustains me. It is a somewhat embarrassing position I know - but to others, not to me."(14)

   On Christianity Top

Talking of Jesus he said, "Jesus expressed, as no other could, the spirit and will of God ... I believe that he belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world''. (15) On seeing a painting of the crucified Christ in Rome, he said, "What would not I have given to be able to bow my head before the living image at the Vatican of Christ crucified? ... I saw there at once that nations like individuals could only be made through the agony of the Cross and in no other way. Joy comes not out of infliction of pain on others but out of pain voluntarily borne by oneself."(16) But at the same time he wrote in his Autobiography, (17) "It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate son of God, and that only he who believed in him could have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then all men were like God and could be God Himself. My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the World. Metaphorically there might be some truth in it".

While attending the Wellington Convention of devout Christians who prayed for him and wanted him to change his religion, he said, "I was delighted at their faith. I saw that they were praying for me ... I could understand and appreciate the devoutness of those who attended it. But I saw no reason for changing my belief - my religion ... It was impossible for me to regard Christianity as a perfect religion or the greatest of all religions".(18)

He however complemented his Christian friends for their zeal in trying to change his faith because, "Though I took a path my Christian friends had not intended for me, I have remained for ever indebted to them for the religious quest that they had awakened in me".(19). In fact it made him come face to face with the deficits in Hinduism itself. "... if I could not accept Christianity either as a perfect, or the greatest religion, neither was I then convinced of Hinduism being such. Hindu defects were pressingly visible to me. If untouchability could be a part of Hinduism, it could but be a rotten part or an excrescence ... What was the meaning of saying that the Vedas were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the Koran?"(20)

   On Conversion Top

Talking of the New Testament, he wrote, "The New Testament gave me comfort and boundless joy ... Today supposing I was deprived of the Gita and forgot all its contents but had a copy of the Sermon (on the Mount), I should derive the same joy from it as I do from the Gita".(21) But at the same time he said, in a conversation with C.F. Andrews, (22) "If a person wants to believe in the Bible let him say so, but why should he discard his own religion? This proselytization will mean no peace in the world ... My position is that all the great religions are fundamentally equal. We must have innate respect for other religions as we have for our own. Mind you, not mutual tolerance, but equal respect".

When C.F. Andrews asked him what would he say to a man who after considerable thought and prayer felt that he could attain peace and salvation only by becoming a Christian he said, "I would say that if a non-Christian (say a Hindu) came to a Christian and made that statement, he should ask him to become a good Hindu rather than find goodness in change of faith".(23) Further, to a statement that one should not stand in a person's way if he really needed a change of faith he said, "Supposing a Christian came to me and said he was captivated by a reading of the Bhagwat and so wanted to declare himself a Hindu, I should say to him, 'No. What the Bhagwat offers the Bible also offers. You have not yet made the attempt to find it out. Make the attempt and be a good Christian' ". (24)

   Missionary Work Top

Talking of his early impression of missionary work, he wrote, "In those days Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near a high school and so forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this ... I heard of a well known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European clothing including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one's own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity."(25) He then narrated meeting a Manchester Christian who told him, "Many Christians are meat-eaters and drink, no doubt; but neither meat-eating nor drinking is enjoined by Scripture. Do please read the Bible". He did, when he discovered the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to his heart. "My young mind tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, the Lights of Asia and the Sermon on the Mount. That renunciation was the highest form of religion appealed to me greatly". (26)

About missionary work he wrote a response to the Church Missionary Society of England's appeal thus, "My fear is that though Christian friends nowadays do not say or admit that Hindu religion is untrue, they must harbour in their breasts the belief that Hinduism is an error and that Christianity as they believe it is the only true religion ... One would understand the attack on untouchability and many other errors that have crept into Hindu life. And if they would help us to get rid of the admitted abuses and purify our religion, they would do helpful constructive work which would be gratefully accepted. But so far as one can understand the present effort, it is to uproot Hinduism from the very foundation and replace it by another faith. It is like an attempt to destroy a house which though badly in want of repair appears to the dweller quite decent and habitable ... he would most decidedly resist those who sought to destroy that house ... If the Christian world entertains that opinion of the Hindu House, 'Parliament of Religions' and 'International Fellowships' are empty phrases. For both the terms presuppose equality of status, a common platform. There cannot be a common platform as between superiors and inferiors". (27) The aim of a Fellowship of Faiths, he felt, "should be to help a Hindu to become a better Hindu, a Mussalman to become a better Mussalman, and a Christian a better Christian. The attitude of patronizing tolerance is false to the spirit of International Fellowship ... Our prayer for others must be NOT 'God, give him the light that thou has given me' BUT 'give him all the light and truth he needs for his highest development.' Pray merely that your friends become better men, whatever their form of religion".(28)

   Crystallization of views Top

Finally he crystallized his views on religion by saying, "all religions are more or less true. All proceed from the same God, but all are imperfect because they have come down to us through imperfect human instrumentality".(29) "In reality there are as many religions as there are individuals".(30) "I do not share the belief that there can or will be on earth one religion".(31) "So long as there are different religions, everyone of them may need some outward distinctive symbol. But when the symbol is made into a fetish and an instrument of proving the superiority of one's religion over other, it is fit only to be discarded". (32)

Also about proselytization he said, "(they) may change the lives of as many as they like but not their religion. They can draw their attention to the best in their respective religions and change their lives by asking them to live according to them".(33)

The essence of his ideas on religion was expressed thus: "After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion that (1) all religions are true; (2)all religions have some errors 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 me as one's own close relatives. My own veneration for other faiths is the same as that for my own faith".(34)

The thought in its purity is before you. To ponder over, to imbibe. Comment is superfluous.

   A story Top

Even if comment be superfluous, lets end this communication with a story.

Once a man and the devil were walking down a lonely street on a moonless night. As they went along, they saw another figure in front of them.
"Who is that?" asked the man.
"Well, he is a man, like you," answered the devil.

They then saw him pick up something from the ground.
"What has he picked up?" asked the man.
"He has picked up the Truth," was the answer.
"What will he do with it?"
"Oh, he will share it with his friends."
"Will they understand it?"
"Well ..." smiled the devil, and paused. " They will build temples out of it

and throw the Truth out!"

The devil paused again and smiled to let the point sink into the man's

" And then my role begins," continued the devil.

The man was stupefied.
"So", said the devil, "I am happy man

has picked up the Truth!"

The Truth picked up my man, institutionalized and often fossilised by him into religious dogma and creed, is subtly worked over by the devilish intentions of bigotry and obscurantism.

Let man pick up the Truth again.

Let the Truth reside in temples once again.

And let the Truth be perceived there by men all around.

Let the devil not feel happy that man has picked up the Truth.

Let the temple feel happy that Truth has indeed been reinstated there.

Let the devil look for other avenues to exercise his powers. Man being

what he is, and his predilections being what they are, he will give the devil

plenty of other places to work very hard over, for sure.

Let religion not be one of them.

Gandhi's thought may provide man the necessary strength to pick up the

Truth once again.

And this time the devil may not be happy.

Is man ready?

Otherwise, the devil sure is. [34]

   Questions that the Fifth Monograph raises Top

  1. Gandhi would want us to be critical of our own religion but reverential towards others' religion. Most often the attitude is the exact opposite. How do we change our attitude in the manner Gandhi suggests?
  2. What is that religion which transcends all religions?
  3. What is the correct attitude to have about religion in general and one's own religion is particular?
  4. How does one handle the critics of one's religion, especially if they belong to another religion?
  5. How does one handle an atheist ? What is the justification in the viewpoint that the atheist presents?
  6. Gandhi said, "proselytization will mean no peace is the world". Will proselytizing religious leaders pay any heed to such pleas? What is their argument?
  7. If all religions are equal can conversion as an organised activity ever be justified?
  8. A friendly study of the world's religions is a sacred duty, according to Gandhi. And one's religion should not debar one from assimilating all that is good anywhere else. What is the foundation one should lay so that it does not shake one's conviction in one's own religion?
  9. "It was impossible for me to regard Christianity as a perfect religion or the greatest of all religions", he said. But that is equally applicable to Hinduism, Islam or any other. Is this an acceptable proposition to the committed believers of a particular faith, especially of the Semitic religions?
  10. Religion should appeal to reason and not be in conflict with morality, and religion should take account of practical affairs and help solve them as well. If temporal matters get regulated by religion, should politics also be so regulated? Then do we not run the risk of unscrupulous elements using religion as a handle to manipulate politics, garner votes and grab power?
  11. Was Gandhi an appeaser of minorities in the garb of being understanding and reverential to other religions?
  12. Are Gandhi's thoughts relevant for a multi - religious society like India? And for the world, torn as it is by conflicts wherever ethnic and religious sentiments run riot?

   References Top

1.Young India, 21.01.26.  Back to cited text no. 1    
2.Young India,2.09.26.  Back to cited text no. 2    
3.Ibid.  Back to cited text no. 3    
4.Harijan, 10.02.40.  Back to cited text no. 4    
5.Young India, 12.05.20.  Back to cited text no. 5    
6.Young India, 23.01.30.  Back to cited text no. 6    
7.Young India, 21.07.20.  Back to cited text no. 7    
8.Young India, 24.11.21.  Back to cited text no. 8    
9.Young India, 07.05.25.  Back to cited text no. 9    
10.Harijan, 13.03.37.  Back to cited text no. 10    
11.Harijan, 05.12.36.  Back to cited text no. 11    
12.Young India, 02.09.26.  Back to cited text no. 12    
13.Harijan, 12.08.33.  Back to cited text no. 13    
14.Young India, 21.12.27.  Back to cited text no. 14    
15.The Modern Review, Oct. 1941.  Back to cited text no. 15    
16.This was Bapu, by R.K. Prabhu, 1954.  Back to cited text no. 16    
17.Autobiography (1948).  Back to cited text no. 17    
18.Ibid.  Back to cited text no. 18    
19.Ibid.  Back to cited text no. 19    
20.Ibid.  Back to cited text no. 20    
21.Young India, 22.12.27.  Back to cited text no. 21    
22.Harijan, 28.11.36.  Back to cited text no. 22    
23.Ibid.  Back to cited text no. 23    
24.Ibid.  Back to cited text no. 24    
25.Autobiography, 1948.  Back to cited text no. 25    
26.Ibid.  Back to cited text no. 26    
27.Harijan, 13.03.37.  Back to cited text no. 27    
28.Sabarmati, 1928.  Back to cited text no. 28    
29.Young India, 29.05.24.  Back to cited text no. 29    
30.Hind Swaraj, 1939.  Back to cited text no. 30    
31.Young India, 31.07.24.  Back to cited text no. 31    
32.Autobiography, 1948.  Back to cited text no. 32    
33.Young India, 23.09.26.  Back to cited text no. 33    
34.Sabarmati, 1928.  Back to cited text no. 34    

This article has been cited by
1 Gandhi on religion, faith and conversion-secular blueprint relevant today
Ajai R Singh, Shakuntala A Singh
Mens Sana Monographs. 2004; 2(1): 79-88


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