By 1940s, Gandhi’s interpretation of religion changed to include multiple belongings and preempted communal othering

Religious Interactions in Modern India
Book Excerpt 

[From Kumkum Sangari's essay 'The Logics of Multiple Belonging: Gandhi, His Precursors, and Contemporaries']

In the 1940s, many of Gandhi’s earlier emphases and positions changed. There were several strands that developed from his earlier formulations—multiple belonging, syncretism, individuation of the worshipper, separation of religion from politics and from culture—which, in combination, fundamentally challenged Hindu exceptionalism and unpacked his own religious particularism even when he continued to assert it. Carrying the potential of resisting the slide from the Indian to the Hindu, they comprised a pluralism that went beyond the permissions of a plural Hinduism into considerably wider multi-religious interpellations.

Pluralist Hinduism itself morphed and acquired a new injunctive purpose in the 1930s. An eclectic syncretism drawing from all religions became ‘obligatory’. Though Gandhi insisted on naming his own ‘synthesis’ of all religions ‘Hinduism’, he also said that a similar synthesis by a Christian would be called ‘Christianity’. If the same synthesis could have different names, then these names were already on the way to becoming virtually synonymous terms while the singular labels under which individual combinations cohered were becoming superficial. His emphases now also fell on the practical consequences of an absorptive Hinduism: having assimilated the best in other faiths, it had lost its exclusivity and become inherently incapable of quarrelling with ‘Islam and its followers’. His claim for a tolerant Hinduism was centred more on the willed creation of a civic and tolerant Hindu rather than on establishing the uniqueness and catholicity of Hinduism per se thereby setting up a logic in which a Hindu could become increasingly less different from and more like his ‘others’. The notion of simultaneous belonging, stated at least as early as 1924, now pushed the absorptive capacity of Hinduism into a position where coexistence and mutual respect between all religions shaded into a stronger non-hierarchical theory of multiple belonging filtered through an ethical universalism. Here ‘ equal homage ’ could be paid to the ‘best’ in all religions, making it possible to belong, non-conflictually, to all of them.

I consider myself as good a Muslim as I am a Hindu and for that matter I regard myself an equally good Christian or Parsi.

Gandhi claimed that multiple belonging had become personally possible for him through being a sanatani (orthodox). However, it was not restricted to being a sanatani since in every case an ethically universalist Hinduism was ‘true’ while a sectarian one was false. Thus, without disputing the discrete identities of sects or religions, he used universalism to criss-cross their boundaries. Further, his claim to simultaneous belonging denied narrow notions of identity to all religions or the view that religions were the exclusive property of those born into them thereby pushing the primordial into freer forms of association. His claim thus contested the politics of communalism which asserted that individuals were empowered to speak from and politically represent only their own religious ‘communities’. Multiple belonging instead gave the dual entitlement to interpret and to believe in ‘other’ religions. Since multiple belonging rested on an unwavering belief in the common monotheist lineage of all religions, addressed Hindus and Muslims, it definitionally forbade communal ‘othering’ both from a standpoint of discrete religions and, as I will show later, also from a standpoint of soft boundaries and shared practices.

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Gandhi’s notion of universality began to comprehend not only the plurality of religions but also the diversity within them, a diversity that rested on the multiplicity and particularity of individual modes of worship. The individuation of the worshipper had been a central and continuous feature of Gandhi’s thought, and sometimes seemed to echo or paraphrase [the 12th century mystic Ibn] al-ʿArabi: ‘In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals.’ His earlier emphasis was on the multiplicity of religions as an effect of the diversity of individual conceptions of god:

In theory, since there is one God, there can only be one religion. But in practice no two persons I have known have the same or identical conception of God. Therefore, there will, perhaps, always be different religions answering to different temperaments and climatic conditions. But I can clearly see the time coming when people belonging to different faiths will have the same regard for other faiths that they have for their own. I think we have to find unity in diversity.

This shifted to a new emphasis where the differences generated by these religions in fact blocked a recognition of the irrepressible diversity of individual ‘religions’:

Just as a tree has a million leaves, similarly though God is one, there are as many religions as there are men and women, though they are rooted in one God. We do not see this plain truth because we are followers of different prophets and claim as many religions as there are prophets. As a matter of fact, whilst I believe myself to be a Hindu, I know that I do not worship God in the same manner as any or all of them.

Multiplicity could only be played out through a renewed guarantee of individual combinatoires and a refusal of uniformity to all creeds. This pluralism was partly derived from the monism of the Advaita with its logic of a single soul animating many bodies and a single ‘truth’ or inexpressible religion which lay behind its multiple imperfect formulations: god could appear in as many forms as there were possibilities in human thought since the divine atman was in every individual. The monist vein in Gandhi’s thought functions mainly to explain or legitimate the existing plurality of religious practices and to overcome internal divisions. If the principle of religious individuation was the heart, and the heart inhabited a self-implicated in effort, selection, and contexts of lived particularity, then the atman and the self were not complementary or mutually grounding principles but fl owed from diverse sources with distinct historical provenances (see Sangari 2002, 5–6). The principle of individuation and particularity, overdetermined by the Protestant reformation and radical reformist tendencies of Phule and Ambedkar, was also partly supplied by medieval devotion and its concern with the names of god in varied philosophical, theological, and epistemic registers, and these were far less Hindu than Gandhi claimed.

Guru Nanak says that God may be called by the name of Allah, Rahim and so on. The name does not matter if he is enshrined in our hearts. Guru Nanak’s efforts, like those of Kabir had been directed towards synthesizing religions. ... Some go on pilgrimages and bathe in the sacred river, others go to Mecca; some worship him in temples ... some call themselves Hindus, others Muslims. Nanak says that he [who] truly follows God’s law knows his secret. This teaching is universal in Hinduism.

There is a connecting line here to Bulhe Shah’s shape shifting god as well as al-ʿArabi’s formulations on the multiplicity of divine names.

Man is multiple and single of essence, while God is single of Essence, but multiple with respect to the divine Names. (al-ʿArabi 1980, 210)

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