Applications of Gandhi’s Thought to Religious Studies Today – by Alex Damm

In modern universities, the discipline of religious studies seeks to understand religion and religions in all of their richness. Much as geographers analyze elements of physical and cultural landscapes, or historians investigate the relationships among past events, students of religion analyze phenomena that we call “religious,” phenomena that Robert Bellah defines as “a set of symbolic forms and actions that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence” or to an ultimate reality. In our study ofreligion, we ask questions that can help us appreciate the structures, histories, origins, goals and logic of religion in general and of the numerous world religions. And to answer such questions, we employ methods drawn from across the intellectual spectrum, including psychological, literary-critical, sociological and linguistic methods. Ultimately, religious studies in the university aims to appreciate the complexity of religion as a human activity, to foster critical thinking skills, and to build a stronger appreciation and toleration of the world’s religions and ultimately of other people. It is worth noting, too, that the fundamental approach to religious studies is academic or critical: religious studies has no desire to accept (or to deny) truth claims of religions, but rather to describe and assess them as human endeavours, without appeal to faith or religious authority.

To a point, this critical approach to the study of religion is satisfying. But only to a point. As I reflect on my stance as both a student of religion and a participant in religion, in particular as an admirer of the religious principles of Gandhi, I wonder whether there is more room in religious studies to accommodate and acknowledge the value of religion to our lives. In the university, I wear an “observer’s hat” and teach about religion without investment in my own or others’ religious well being. As a human who thinks about how we can align ourselves to ultimate reality, though, I wear a
“participant’s hat”: I strongly believe, as many of us do, in principles espoused by Gandhi, including a commitment to nonviolence and to the fundamental unity of life. While I hope that I would remain objective and never teach students that one religious stance is normative or “better” than another, I also believe that many of Gandhi’s principles are noble, are practically universal, and are worth sharing. And there are precedents for this stance: certain of my own professors have taught me, explicitly and through their personal example, that we can do more to embrace and respect others, and to raise consciousness of Gandhian principles. Are there, then, ways in which Gandhi’s thought can find a place within the academic teaching of religion?

I submit that Gandhi’s thought can inform today’s teaching about religion. My insight is not novel: work by Glyn Richards among others has demonstrated the timeliness of Gandhian thought to religious studies. I believe that we can further apply Gandhian thought in ways that will enrich our study of religion yet also maintain its academic objectivity. In what follows, I shall outline some Gandhian principles and then suggest that certain of these principles are consonant with and so can enhance, the teaching of religion in universities.

Gandhi on Post-Secondary Education

Perhaps the most direct means to discover Gandhi’s value for teaching religion is to examine his thinking on education. From at least the 1920s, Gandhi wrote and lectured on the kind of education that India required to function well as a sovereign state. For Gandhi, the basic purposes of all education are social and religious. On the one hand, education has a social purpose: to equip people to “serve their country.” Put more precisely, the purpose of education is to inculcate in students the virtues of swaraj and sarvodaya. The term swaraj or “self-rule” denotes intellectual and manual skills that foster autonomy and build in their turn a just and equitable society for all. Critically for Gandhi, education must impart such swaraj. Education must train individuals and families in skills to help them support themselves and their families (for instance, trade skills that produce good income, as well as skills in maintaining one’s own clothing, healthy accommodation and food). Similarly, education must train citizens about their nation’s history and culture, using national languages, so that citizens will appreciate and in turn keep the interests and well being of the nation, the people of the nation, front and centre.

Sarvodaya is a second virtue that Gandhi believed needed the support of education. Often translated as the “uplift of all,” sarvodaya denotes the amelioration of the lives of as many people as possible. Significantly, Gandhi held that education had to equip citizens for sarvodaya; education needed both to teach moral values of service and compassion, and to emphasize practical skills that can express such compassion, whether in natural science, medicine, engineering, or philosophy. For Gandhi, the centre of gravity in post-secondary education is to foster social well-being; it places no premium on individual achievement in the form of income or professional status.

Underlying and infusing these social purposes, on the other hand, Gandhian education has at its core a religious purpose: to teach students to value truth, the essence of which is ultimate reality (or God) as well as one’s real self (or Atman). Manifestations of truth in our world include the moral principles of nonviolence and of love that recognizes others as fundamentally linked to oneself; indeed, truth manifests itself in the social values of swaraj and sarvodaya. Education should inculcate precisely these values.

Thus far, we have described Gandhi’s views on the purposes of education. What role did teaching specifically about religion play in achieving these purposes? Gandhi believed that in schools and universities, students ought to become aware of the world’s religions and study them in a manner that was, as Richards puts it, empathetic. By learning about other religions, and also by taking one’s learning back to nurture a better appreciation of one’s own religious tradition, the student could gain a better and fuller grasp of truth.

Gandhi’s Relevance to Religious Studies

I believe that Gandhian philosophy can “fit” within and indeed support the contemporary teaching about religion in publicly funded, secular universities. Already Richards has observed that Gandhi anticipates modern teaching about religion, for instance in his concern for examining world religions and for a tolerant and equitable method of study. Richards is entirely correct; I would add only that Gandhi can further inform the study of religion in ways that do not compromise the discipline—indeed, in ways that are consonant with the aims of a university as a whole. To their credit, certain university departments of religious studies already teach in ways that reflect, consciously or unconsciously, the influence of Gandhi. Be that as it may, I propose that four tenets of Gandhian thought can fit comfortably into any religious studies program: sarvodaya, nonviolence, inter-religious dialogue and the importance of seeking after truth.

First, the teaching of religion can comfortably afford to encourage sarvodaya. For instance, in a department’s required religious studies course, such as a course in method and theory, students could write about ways in which their study might help them pursue meaningful social service after graduation. Reflection on the social value of one’s discipline certainly does not compromise its academic integrity; it simply extends our studies beyond academic training into contributions to others’ welfare. And no university would deny (I hope!) that we apply our academic training to the welfare of society; indeed, universities aim to promote such welfare through disciplines as diverse as medicine, music and physics.

Some universities offer courses that concern religion and violence, but there does not exist to my knowledge a course specifically about religion and nonviolence. Such a course would be highly valuable in raising awareness of Gandhi and others’ teachings on the benefits of nonviolence. This kind of course needs not compel students to take a stance on the appropriateness of violence and nonviolence (even though it would seem hard to argue against nonviolence as a universal value). Teaching about nonviolence in world religions would encourage students to reflect on the values of nonviolence for themselves.

A third application of Gandhi’s thought to the teaching of religion is in inter-religious dialogue. Gandhi believed in what scholars call a dialogical method of study, whereby students could reflect on similarities between one’s own traditions and other traditions, and so come to better appreciate truth. University courses in inter-religious dialogue could serve this very aim. In Canada, some universities already offer courses in dialogue among religions. Established though these courses may be, we can afford to offer more such courses.

Finally, the teaching of religion can and should accommodate Gandhi’s cardinal principle that it is our obligation to pursue understanding of truth — to “experiment” and adapt our lives accordingly with truth. Gandhi described truth in terms that could appeal to adherents of any religion. I believe that it is important in teaching about religion to encourage students to use their knowledge in their own quest for truth. Often, the practice of religious studies — and here I include my own practice — deconstructs religious phenomena in ways that are necessary but which forget to remind us that, outside the classroom, religion and its quest for truth is highly noble and necessary. And once again, this quest for truth need not be phrased in a “religious” manner; after all, universities have for centuries prided themselves on the effort to discover truth, however one might conceive it; the motto of the university that I attended as an undergraduate is that “truth conquers all.”

In these ways, and others too, I believe that Gandhi’s thought is consonant with the values of the university, and that as such it can infuse the teaching of religion with a fresh relevance that respects objective study and can help us apply our knowledge in commendable ways. I hope that in a small way, this submission can contribute to our appreciation of Gandhi’s importance to our world.

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Categories: Spirituality & Religion


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One Comment on “Applications of Gandhi’s Thought to Religious Studies Today – by Alex Damm”

  1. Bhuwan Thapa
    June 4, 2010 at 10:48 am #

    As all of us are aware of the agitation being headed by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha in Darjeeling for a seperate state of Gorkhaland. This agitation is claimed to be democratic and of Gandhian principles. However there has been an increasing number of murders and assualts by the followers of this party and the leaders.
    We feel that this movement is misusing the name of Gandhi and giving the father of our nation a bad name.
    We would like to know if it is possible to stop Bimal Gurung and his followers from associating the name of Mahatma Gandhi with his bloody movement


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