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Religion and Violence: Gandhi's Reflections on Our Angry World

Westminster Matters

Religion and Violence: Gandhi's Reflections on Our Angry World

A Message From President Michael Bassis
Winter 2004

Westminster College is the only private comprehensive liberal arts college in Utah and one of the very few institutions of its kind in the Intermountain West. Our curricula integrate liberal and professional studies and our pedagogies blend theory and practice. At the very heart of the college is a deep concern for students and their learning.

We developed Westminster Matters in an effort to share some of the wonderfully rich conversations that so often occur on our campus. We believe that many of the ideas we discuss are of interest to people far removed from our campus. We do gravitate toward topics that are both important and complex. Thus they are often controversial. We believe, however, that we would be doing our students a great disservice if we were to keep our conversations focused on ideas that are familiar or comfortable. We want to take every opportunity to help our students stretch their thinking and thus enrich and expand their points of view.

The piece printed here is from a recent lecture delivered at Westminster College by Rajmohan Gandhi, an eminent scholar and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

Michael S. Bassis
President, Westminster College



Excerpts from

"Religion and Violence:
Gandhi's Reflections on
Our Angry World"

Rajmohan Gandhi
Director, Global Crossroads Program
University of Illinois

The 2003 Kim T. Adamson Lecture
April 4, 2003, Jewett Auditorium

Rajmohan GandhiMuch water, and some blood, alas, has flowed since February when the title for this talk was formulated. After numerous events and trips to the United States, the first of which took place in 1957, I entertain respect, gratitude, admiration, and love for this wonderful country and its many achievements. But it is not just the achievement that is notable. It's the warmth, good will, and friendship that I myself have received and seen in so many parts of the United States since 1957. That, in a way, is the most important part of my talk here.

Religion and Violence
After the fall of the Soviet empire, it looked as if the world needed a simple good-versus-evil clash. Hearts seemed to need a single unifying enemy. With Communism gone, Islam seemed to fit the bill. It had taken humankind several centuries of struggle to accept that smearing a whole community as inferior or faulty or untrustworthy--to discriminate against a person because he or she belonged to a particular section of humankind--was unacceptable. Great and unforgettable crimes were committed in Europe and elsewhere before that struggle was finally won. Except that struggle has not been won. In different parts of the world, some people seem to think that while most people are innocent unless proved guilty, a Muslim is guilty unless he or she demonstrates innocence. Just what has made this ethical U-turn possible is not easy to say.

That religion is an important element in the complex story of modern violence cannot be denied. But we should be careful before saying with finality that more than injured nationalism, more than despair, more than shattered dignity, more than humiliation, more than fear--it is religion and one religion in particular that fills a heart with hate.

If we see Muslims as particularly flawed or dangerous, we're blaming them for their birth. In India, we have had the horrible notion of untouchability linked to birth. For centuries, many parts of the world harbored the detestable notion, also linked to birth, of anti-Semitism. Are we today to reverse the progress of centuries of human thought and say that being anti-Muslim is legitimate?

Another reason I'm troubled by the concept of a flawed religion and a flawed people is pragmatic. Muslims and non-Muslims live next to each other in scores of countries with varying degrees of trust and tension. If influential voices in the USA are seen to sponsor the idea that Muslims are dangerous, that could produce clashes and killings in several countries. Such voices, and they don't have to be voices in governmental authority, could then prove to be voices of mass destruction.

I was struck to hear President Bush say two things: "God is everybody's God" and "every person in the world is of equal worth." It was almost as if he was conscious of the thought that this flawed-people idea was getting out of hand. He seemed to want to correct it. I respect that and I feel thankful for it. But do all Americans share that vision? Is that vision invited by what Americans hear daily on talk shows, radio, and TV? I urge America to be careful of the notion, ever so subtle, of a super race or a super nation, along with which goes the notion of foreign nations and peoples being graded up or down.

Ideas of Gandhi
Gandhi is known rightly for non-violence. However, it is important to understand that Gandhi's non-violence was not an absolute concept. Of course, he had a tremendous predisposition against violence. He felt that violence brutalizes the user as well as the victim. Violence reproduces itself in the user through familiarity, and in the victim as retaliation. In his view, a killer assumed the status of God rather than man, ascribing to his stand a perfection no human should claim and to his victim an irredeemability no human should pronounce, for no human can see everything about another. To him, non-violence was an extension of love.

Gandhi wanted to convey both good will and struggle. Gandhi was never for hitting back. He was strongly for clinging to the truth pulsating in the human heart. This was also the position of Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi proved that stronger than firepower was truth power, or soul force. To use his word: satyagraha. Like King, Gandhi located the source of power in the individual conscience. He wrote that the only tyrant before whom he would bend his knee was the still, small voice. Historically and politically, to have good will for the enemy was an odd position to adopt. What is remarkable is that many joined Gandhi and King in adopting it.

Gandhi was inspired by his reading of Henry David Thoreau. So, civil disobedience is really an American idea. There is also the inner voice that Thoreau believed in. I like to supplement the references of civil disobedience to Thoreau, King, and Gandhi with this crucial need for reconciliation. It's not enough to have strategies for non-violence. We must have strategies for reconciliation.

Yes, Gandhi did take on an impossible burden. He wanted India liberated from the British; he wanted India's Hindus and Muslims to work together. He wanted Hindus to repent towards their past actions towards India's untouchables. He wanted India's rich people to care for India's poor people. He wanted India to become clean and physically sanitary, which was a huge task. So he definitely had taken on a heavy task, but he knew how to place some of the burden on the Almighty's shoulders. So he felt sad, but knew that other forces were working in addition to him. But there is no doubt that the sadness, the killings, and the violence in India did trouble him. It's also true that he didn't want India to be partitioned. He wanted a united India, and his closest colleagues agreed with him. He was a human being, but an unusual human being.

Developments in India
Over the last 12 years, India has had an impressive economic record, at roughly 6 percent growth a year. India is a democracy and it contains a growing middle class. There is an expanding and influential Indian diaspora in the United States. There is no question that India will be a significant global player. Indian society is deeply religious, but the Indian state has been secular. The Indian constitution assures equality to all irrespective of religion, race, gender, and caste. Eighty-three percent of India's one billion are Hindus, 12 percent are Muslims, 2.5 percent Christians.

The concept of the Hindu State is now bolder, and its new confidence is symbolized by the installation of a portrait of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966) in the central hall of New Delhi's Parliament House in February. At first a practitioner of violent extremism against the British who sent him to prison, Savarkar later mended relations with the British, and identified the Muslims as the primary enemy against Hindus. Unrelentingly hostile to Gandhi, Savarkar was accused in the trial of conspiring to kill Gandhi, but he was acquitted for lack of evidence. Savarkar had many admirers. He articulated the Hindu ideology, equating Indian with Hindu, declaring only those who accepted India as their holy land could qualify as Indians. It was a criterion that made India's Muslims and Christians unpatriotic by definition.

Whether by accident or by design, Savarkar's portrait today directly faces Gandhi's portrait in that central hall of Parliament. Gandhi's face still appears on Indian currency and coins, but that could change. History books in state schools continue to speak of Gandhi, though state-initiated rewriting has erased the information from books that a Hindu killed Gandhi. Unlike Gandhi, Savarkar had no problems with guns and bombs. Unlike Gandhi, but in the company of several Muslim leaders of the sub-continent, Savarkar ridiculed the notion that Hindus and Muslims could live together. He fits in far better than Gandhi does with India's new nuclear arsenal, and with the hawkishness that from time to time ominously erupts in India and Pakistan. I would like America to be aware of what is happening in India.

I also want America to be really involved with India. But I urge America to hold India to India's bold highest standards. And if there are signs of some kind of negative ideology asserting itself in India, which has anti-Christian and anti-Muslim and anti-human matters, I hope American voices will urge India to remember India's own values. I want America to be friends with India, but one important aspect of friendship is honest speech, and I hope America will not fail to do that with India.

Thoughts About the U.S.Let me refer to America's ability to accept changes. More than any other country America has foreseen change and accepted it in the world and in itself. This is one of the remarkable things about America. On September 11, 2001, the New York skyline changed. Tall creations came down, melting or pouring out their human and physical contents. But this change of human-engineered destruction was not expected or foreseen. And rightly, America refuses to accept its recurrence. Can self-preservation, though, be the chief goal of the world's sole superpower?

I was in my home south of New Delhi when 9/11 occurred. Like tens of millions of the world, I saw that great trauma, tragedy, and folly on TV and all of its aftermath. I've often asked myself how Abraham Lincoln would have responded. With what phrase? With what plans? I wonder whether Lincoln would have summarized the essence of his reaction in just three words: war and terrorism.

If Lincoln had been obliged following an event like 9/11 to take on world leadership, he would have called for a world of law and justice and reconciliation. Make no mistake, he might have said, America will defend her own, America will deter her enemies. America will do this in partnership with everyone, for a new and just world for all. Even as Lincoln acknowledged that both sides in the Civil War prayed to the same God, he would have acknowledged that in today's alleged clash of civilizations that both sides pray to the same God, have the same longings for themselves and their loved ones, and have the same imperfect human character.

I don't think we should do anything to reduce or minimize the significance, the scale, or size of the 9/11 folly. It was something too terrible to describe. It was wrong from every point of view. It has hurt the whole world, including the Arab world. But I think we should go deeper into it, as I suspect that Lincoln would go deeper into it. The people who did this wicked thing have something that they're hoping or praying for. It's not just a reflection of the folly of Islam. If America buys the line that Islam created 9/11, that Islam is creating the division and the hate in the world, then I'm afraid that we're entering a very dangerous phase in the history of the world. Despite the fact that so many of the terrorists are Muslims, I hope we will have the wisdom to recognize that difference.

Globalization is a very complex business. It hurts some; it helps some. Some aspects of it are irreversible and inescapable. We are all here in evidence of globalization, and we don't want to stop that. But when globalization helps only the rich and hurts the poor, then we have to raise our voice against those particular items in the agenda. I don't think any of this will be in opposition to the coming together of the world, which is what we want, but we must make sure that economic policies do not hurt people, as they very often do.


America has brought the world to America. America has united on this soil so many races and ethnicities and has taught them to observe the rule of law. It's absolutely amazing to witness people from my part of the world, who were not particularly keen on respecting traffic laws or tax laws: the day after they arrive in the United States they are the most conscientious observers of laws. When they return to India, within a day or two, they're back to old habits. So America brings the world and changes the world on American soil. It is phenomenal. I wonder whether Americans understand the significance of America.

On the other hand, America is often very ignorant of crucial parts of the world that it wants to help or cooperate with. Yet, within an America made up of all the races of the world, there's a unity under law and in freedom. This hasn't been achieved anywhere else on this earth. How can we now export this achievement to other parts of the world? This is America's new challenge. We should now be thinking about how America can play this role. The days of American seclusion and isolation are sadly, but absolutely, over. The great world role for which America was created now awaits America's implementation.

Today's question is that with 9/11 having dried up the Atlantic and the Pacific, and America having joined the world, if America cannot lead the world, which other nation can? There isn't one, of course. So we must ask, does America have the qualities that global leadership calls for? Does it have wisdom, patience, and understanding of qualities of the far corners of this world? Does it have the willingness for sacrifice, courage, and evenhandedness?