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A Unique Revolutionary

Rina Kashyap

By Margaret Chatterjee
Promilla & Co. in association with Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 371, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 12 December 2005

The act of revisiting is not simply a nostalgic walk down memory lane; especially so when it is compelled by the need of the hour. Our times are punctuated by crisis, some of which are portrayed as religious conflicts. ‘Clash of civilizations’ is said to be rooted in the incompatibility of different religious worldviews. One of the ironies of our times is the increasing inability of ‘democratic’ societies to be able to deal with difference. Discussions and debates about the issue have been reduced to an exercise in polemics. In the context of a weak-kneed theory, practices cannot be adequately critiqued, in the process only the undemocratic ones get legitimized.   Therefore, the significance and relevance of Margaret Chatterjee’s examination of Gandhi’s standpoint on religious pluralism by focusing on his engagement with religious texts and, encounters with peoples of faith other than his own, and his work with them. For Gandhi, religion is concerned with living not theorizing. The key words here are praxis and dynamism. Arriving at the truth through religion requires not just the cultivation of inner truth but also its evidencing in action. As Chatterjee points out, in Gandhi’s view, whatever may have happened in the past, the need of the hour was to make new history through our actions now. An inherited cultural basket cannot be a ground for continuing an undesirable practice. She, therefore, credits him for being a radical hermeneutic, much in advance of his time. He reinterprets his own tradition; is not fazed by ‘authorities’.   The book’s primary worth lies in bringing alive Gandhi’s dialogue with individuals and texts that influenced him substantially. The Mahatma conducted what conflict resolution theorists term an appreciative inquiry. Also his rigorous self critique privileges him in doing so without being accused of having a hidden agenda. He was, therefore able to graft ‘his own corpus of thought, ideas from multiple sources’.   Chatterjee nuances Gandhi’s thought on religion. For him the boundaries between religions are not absolute and cultures are permeable, forever borrowing and accommodating. But she cautions, against mistaking his efforts to pool insights from various religions as a syncretic or eclectic exercise. He was in agreement with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) who argued that plurality is a matter of divine provenance, thereby ruling out the question of a universal religion. It is important to remember that even as Gandhi strove to ...

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