Sarva Dharma Samabhava
“Sarva Dharma Samabhava” is a distinct Indian secularist notion that evolved in independent India under the influence of Gandhian ideology and is steeped in Hindu culture and history. In Hindi, India’s primary language, the phrase “Sarva Dharma Samabhava” literally means “equal respect for all religions.” It developed during the course of postcolonial India’s state building and is frequently regarded as an Indian philosophical contribution to political thinking. The concept differs greatly from the western definition of secularism, which emphasises ultimate separation of state and religion rather than treating all religions equally.
While imprisoned in Yervada Jail in Pune in 1930, Gandhi frequently reflected on the subject of
In his writings to the residents of his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, he used the phrase “Sarva Dharma Samabhava.” Gandhi was always drawn to the objective of Hindu-Muslim unity and peace, and he worked tirelessly to achieve it. His challenge was to create a secular social space in a society where religion was fundamental to popular belief and behaviour (Rao,1989).
Gandhi’s stance toward religion is crucial to understanding his life and philosophy. Gandhi thought that religion should unite rather than divide people. Gandhi’s closest connection to Hinduism stemmed from the Gita, which he referred to as his “spiritual dictionary” and which had the most influence on him (Nanda, 1995, p.13). The words aparigraha (non-possession) and samabhava in the Gita had a profound impact on him (equability). Gandhi, on the other hand, had a strong intellectual and sceptic inclination that made his religious thought, albeit rooted in Hinduism, highly humanist and international. Gandhi’s Hinduism was summed up in three core beliefs: God’s absolute existence, the unity of all life, and the importance of ahimsa (love) as a method of realising God (Nanda, 1995, p. 17). He believed that the true measure of spiritual advancement was the ability to apply one’s ideas in everyday life. Religion cannot be defined by what cannot be followed in daily life.
Gandhi had conducted a comparative study of faiths during his time in South Africa, and he was struck by the underlying unity of all religions. From then on, he emphasised the importance of coexistence and tolerance among people of different religions. Religions were compared to “as many leaves of a tree”; they may appear diverse, yet “at the stem they are one.” God, Allah, Rama, Narayan, Ishwar, and Khuda were all names for the same Being. God’s grace and revelation did not belong to any particular race or nation; they descended equally on all who relied on God. He believed that no religion was perfect. All of them are equally flawed or more or less perfect.
Gandhi remarked in his 1927 article ‘Why I am a Hindu’ that he regarded Hinduism to be the most tolerant of all religions… Its lack of dogma allows the votary the most freedom of expression. Because it is not an exclusive religion, it allows its adherents to admire and incorporate whatever is good in other faiths, rather than simply respecting them. Nonviolence is prevalent in all religions, but it is best expressed and applied in Hinduism… Hinduism believes in the oneness of all living things, not only all human existence (Young India 21 October 1927, quoted in Nanda, 1995, p.21). While he emphasised individual judgement and conscience, he also emphasised coexistence and tolerance in relationships with adherents of other religions.
Gandhi felt that everyone had the right to practise any religion they wanted and that the form of worship should not be determined by the state. As a devout Hindu, he believed that all faiths represented different pathways leading to the same destination, Truth. There is a religion that exists beneath all religions. In the face of conflicting counsel from other religions, Gandhi felt that Truth is greater to everything, and that anything that contradicts it should be rejected, just as anything that contradicts nonviolence should be rejected. Similarly, everything that contradicted Reason must be dismissed. As a result, Truth is the religion that underpins all religions. Gandhi valued logical thought above all else. He envisioned a nonviolent society in which all choices were reached via reasonable debate in which each person tried to see the issue from the perspective of others. This underpinned his secularism, which was founded on religious pluralism, mutual respect, and toleration. Toleration, he argued, would be the guiding principle for all organised religions in a multi-religious society. This was the core of Gandhian Indian secularism, ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhava,’ which means ‘equal respect for all religions.’
In this sense, Gandhi was a genuinely religious man who was devoted to the pursuit of truth, which he saw as the religion that underpinned all religions. In his philosophy and life, he united experimentation and religion. This combination of spirituality and modern humanistic viewpoint in him was continually expressed during the independence movement and won him the sympathy of the public. He tirelessly advocated for a
Unity of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians based on a pluralistic theism with the underlying concept of Truth as ultimate and one.
Gandhi recognised India’s multi-religious and cultural diversity when he asserted in Hind Swaraj that India cannot cease to be one nation since people of different religions reside there. More than anything else, Gandhi’s advocacy of religious plurality influenced the establishment of secularism in India. In his own words, Gandhi’s religious pluralism is effectively expressed: “My position is that all religions are inherently equal.” We must have the same natural reverence for all religions as we do for our own.’ He pushed for both mutual tolerance and equal respect. It demanded Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians to accept all religions as equally valid. His notion of secularism is based on pluralism, which considers all religions as the same and all gods as varieties of the One.
Gandhi could be said to have spoken of secularism through the lens of religion, and religious plurality through the lens of polytheistic Hinduism. Thus, Gandhi might be regarded to have played a significant role in conveying a pluralist view of secularism among Hindus. Gandhi’s religious policy, therefore, was different in the sense that inter-faith relationships and religious harmony were built on the equality of all religions rather than a separation of religion from the state. Within this concept, being secular in politics meant not abandoning one’s religion entirely, but rather abandoning the religious use of political and legal institutions such as the government (Rao, 1989, p.33).
Gandhi’s religious journey not only affected his personality, but also the political strategies he used to combat racism in South Africa and colonialism in India. While Gandhi’s advocacy of mutual tolerance and respect between different religions stemmed from his study of comparative religion, it also had a practical aspect that manifested itself in his leadership of struggles against racial, social, and political injustice with adherents from all major religions. Gandhi recognised the schism between Hindus and Muslims, India’s two largest communities, and the critical necessity for tolerance. However, Gandhi’s secular viewpoint has not been without controversy. He has been accused of using religion to rally the populace or of using Hindu symbols, which contributed to communal polarisation and India’s separation.
Mahatma Gandhi was an excellent advocate for the notion of sarva dharma samabhava. Gandhi’s humanistic and pluralistic approach led him to find the value in all religions and teach to the world the importance of respecting the beliefs of others. Gandhi’s views were misunderstood, and it was because of this narrow-minded approach that he became a victim of communal divide and difference. To underline what Parel mentioned, Gandhi sincerely wished for India to evolve as a true multi-religious and multilingual nation marked by harmony and tolerance. In this day and age of severe communal divisions, Gandhi’s teachings are worth reviewing in order to instil some of the moral and spiritual principles he stood for throughout his life. In this environment, Sarva Dharma Samabhava is a necessity not only for our country but also for the entire world.