PEACE in Action

Gandhi's Vision: Inter-Faith Harmony in Southern India

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Building a Culture of Peace
Gandhi's Vision: Inter-Faith Harmony in Southern India

Most Americans remember Mahatma Gandhi as the apostle of non-violence who led India on the path to independence from the British Empire. Yet Gandhi embraced not only the hope that India would be free, but also that it would be harmonious. Furthermore, he yearned for the day of universal religious understanding:

I can see clearly the time coming when people belonging to different faiths will have the same regard for other faiths that they have for their own.

Jay McDaniel’s new book, Gandhi’s Hope, lifts up Gandhi's dream as the touchstone for building inter-faith understanding. In turn, I have had Gandhi’s vision in mind as I have prepared this report on significant efforts by Christians in South India to bridge sectarian divides and undergird a culture of peace. My report also references several criteria that Daniel suggests are needed for religions to help build a culture of peace. These religious benchmarks include embracing pluralism, welcoming strangers, and learning from other traditions.[1]

Christian tradition in India dates back to a period immediately following the crucifixion of Jesus, the time when classic Hinduism began to emerge. India’s Christians believe that St. Thomas the Apostle came to the west coast of India near modern Mangalore, traversed southern India, and established a following near modern Chennai (Madras). Tradition says that St. Thomas fell victim to an assassin’s spear, and that his body reposes in a tomb beneath the modern Basilica of San Thome in Chennai.

Even though Christians constitute a meager 2.5 percent of India’s population, they make significant contributions to inter-faith understanding. A recent tour of southern India, sponsored by Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary, afforded me the opportunity to learn of inter-faith efforts by three of India’s Christian seminaries. I will utilize the criteria previously described to reflect on experiences of my tour, which I undertook as a doctoral student of inter-faith relations.

Karnataka Theological College: the Legacy of Stanley Samartha

My tour’s visit to Karnataka Theological College (KTC) in Mangalore made clear that reconciliation efforts of contemporary Indian Christians rest in no small part on the work of Dr. Stanley Samartha. A doctoral graduate of Hartford Seminary, Samartha served as Principal (President) at the college and later became an Indian theologian with a global reputation. His prominence grew when he headed the special program on inter-faith dialogue from 1970-1981 for the World Council of Churches (WCC).

In his book, Courage for Dialogue, Samartha underscored that “a particular religion can claim to be decisive for some people … but no religion is justified in claiming that it is decisive for all.” His work not only moved the WCC towards a more open and pluralistic stance towards other religions; it also contributed substantially to building fruitful dialogue between faiths both locally and globally.

The current Karnataka principal, Dr. John S. Sadananda, during introductory remarks to the Hartford tour participants, acknowledged Samartha’s role in particularly improving Hindu-Christian relations. Our orientation also sketched the seminary’s long history of providing training to local residents in weaving and tile manufacturing in its associated vocational workshops—it distinguished itself in producing the famous Mangalore ceramic tile, the first product line of khaki clothing, and cuckoo clocks. Karnataka even served as an orphanage at the time of World War I. It once boasted a multi-lingual printing capability, and it still provides a multi-linguistic curriculum and library. Karnataka is ecumenical in both faith and language, catering to Kannada-speaking local ministerial students and English-speaking foreign seminarians.

KTC’s extensive regional outreach has contributed to the Mangalore area’s overall inter-faith harmony. The seminary trains Christian ministers, but it also provides opportunities for a wide range of viewpoints – an approach intended to engender coexistence among faiths. This impression was echoed during a seminar by a local agnostic educator. He challenged the seminar to reject exclusivist claims to truth since all religions can be truthful in providing solace to their respective devotees.

Henry Martyn Institute: A Center for Interfaith Reconciliation

A second stop on my tour featured the Henry Martyn Institute (HMI) in Hyderabad. HMI calls itself an international inter-faith center “…striving to create better understanding between people of different faiths and facilitate the processes of dialogue and reconciliation.” HMI undertakes its mission by grappling with inter-religious misunderstanding and violence in order to increase cooperation and trust between contending groups. This sounds like Gandhi’s vision, but it began as an initiative of Christian denominations.

Academic programs of teaching and research have served as the flagship of the ecumenical Institute since its founding in 1930 by several Protestant denominations. Since then, its mission has shifted from evangelism of Muslims to comprehensive inter-faith reconciliation. With the resources of a well-regarded faculty, multi-language library, and modern conference center, HMI has built a reputation for scholarship on inter-faith relations – especially involving Christians, Muslims, and Hindus.

Dr. Andreas D’Souza, the Institute Director, has developed a “theology of relationship” to guide HMI’s scholarly and practical endeavors. He disseminates his approach in scholarly journals and at international conferences. He says HMI’s work is “an expression of the Church’s ministry of reconciliation” – as reflected in a newsletter article about a 2003 address to the Canadian Theological Students Conference.

His theology of reconciliation seeks to reunite alienated individuals and groups. This goal of reconciliation, according to D’Souza, advances not through superficial unity, but by way of openness to transforming relationships and structures based on justice. Likewise he insists that faithful practice must undergird theory.

HMI extends its scholarly leadership through conflict resolution programs. In 2006, for example, it conducted at least 10 regional and teacher-training workshops. These workshops critique exclusivist ideologies, such as Hindu nationalism, in favor of a theology of reconciliation. In D'Souza's view, a diversified creation implies a diversified revelation.

An earlier empowerment program in a poor neighborhood of Hyderabad resulted from on-site research by social workers. They recommended a focus on health, hygiene, children’s education, and labor skills. For example, a tailoring course provides training for an equal number of Hindu and Muslim women. Such contacts provide a proven platform for building understanding and managing conflict between the two religious communities. Meanwhile, the training in tailoring and health empowers the individuals involved.

HMI also empowers women of different faiths by using the “Inter-faith Journey” method to generate stories that help participants to jettison religious stereotypes and build inter-faith bridges. The success of this approach may be seen in successive conferences held in India and throughout the world.

United Theological College: Samartha with an Activist Twist

A third ecumenical seminary on my tour that engages in inter-faith reconciliation is The United Theological College (UTC) in Bangalore. The College was founded nearly one hundred years ago with core support from churches in Great Britain, the Reformed Church in America, and the Trustees of the Jaffna College Fund. During the last century its ecumenical base has expanded to include other Indian missionary groups, the Indian YMCA, the Churches of North and South India, European and American Lutheran churches, as well as the Mar Thoma Church and The Malankar Jacobite Syrian Church, both of which trace their origins to the missionary work of St. Thomas the Apostle in India from c. 52 C.E.

UTC draws students from Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Accordingly, the seminary tunes its curriculum to cross cultural influences, the lot of the oppressed, and the impact of globalization. Its curriculum not only bridges social, political, and geographic divides, but it strives to integrate theory and practice in theology similar to the work of the Henry Martyn Institute.

Likewise, UTC’s outreach occurs within an ecumenical Christian framework although it joins HMI in promoting “justice, peace, and human solidarity in India and abroad.” For example, UTC’s Dr. I. John Mohan Razu, a Dalit (Indian sub-caste) and Professor of Christian Social Ethics, challenged our tour group to reject the globalization prescription for economic well being as “the idol of growth.” He argued that its emphasis on greed, individualism, consumerism, and speculation clash with the values of the Bible and other scriptures that sustain life and build community.

UTC of Bangalore does not boast its own comprehensive reconciliation program like that of HMI. However, it bears the imprint of Stanley Samartha who began his theological studies at UTC in 1941, after which he served two stints on the faculty of Karnataka Theological College. Samartha then returned to UTC from 1960-66 and 1980-85, serving respectively as Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion and as Visiting Professor.

UTC’s heritage and its strong ecumenical base enhance inter-faith contacts, which it often has undertaken in partnership with a sister organization, the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD). For example, UTC hosted a worship service featuring Gandhi’s favorite Hindu and Christian hymns with BIRD and other groups to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his martyrdom. The event showcased Gandhi’s universalism, tersely manifested in his famous statement. “I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Jew.”

Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD)

For its part, BIRD explicitly stated in a January 1, 2007 open letter to the Prime Minister of India, the U.N. Secretary General, the European Union, and the U.S. State Department that it supports peaceful coexistence among Indian religions and opposes aggressive proselytism. The letter was signed by some 650 Christian leaders including BIRD’s founder and coordinator, P.N. Benjamin, and Rev. Dr. Jayakiran Sebastian, Professor of Theology and Ethics at UTC.

Benjamin has spotlighted poignantly the futility of exclusivist religious truth claims by pointing out that not only Hindus bear responsibility for mistreating the Dalits or “untouchables.” He echoes Dr. Razu’s perspective by arguing that even Christians “… have miserably failed in taking care of 16 million Dalits converted to Christianity.”

BIRD members profess the Christian faith, but they value the Hindu tradition of Dharmic tolerance. BIRD not only writes about religious tolerance and pluralism; it also provides forums for mutual dialogue such as lectures, workshops, and conferences. These discussions lead to the formulation of action plans for peacebuilding in India, the U.S., and around the world. BIRD further organizes cultural tours, offers articles and commentary in the media, and conducts rallies and campaigns.

Of special note, BIRD joins with Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), a sister Hindu organization, in sending intervention teams to quell outbreaks of inter-religious violence and to set a framework for post-conflict resolution. In 2002, for example, it intervened to help squelch Hindu-Christian tensions arising from an attack on Mysore’s Holy Family Church. An article in the March 1, 2002 National Catholic Reporter said that a priest and a dozen Catholics were injured in the attack, and the new church was ransacked.

The joint fact-finding team condemned violence on the part of Hindus, while encouraging the Christians to evangelize with awareness that they “… should not cross the limits of decency and should not hurt the sensitivities of adherents of other faiths.” The report thereby pinpointed the Hindu misperception of aggressive proselytizing as a root cause of the violence while reassuring Christians that the joint team shared their anxieties. The joint team also recommended formation of a permanent Hindu-Christian community forum for dialogue “… to prevent recurrence of such incidents in the future….”

In conclusion, I found on my tour that the minority Christian community of South India has contributed substantially to building a culture of peace. This is reflected in the history, curriculum and programs of three ecumenical seminaries and a Christian advocacy group. These institutions have manifested Christian pluralism by embracing the religious stranger and learning from other faith traditions. In joining hands with Hindus and Muslims through education and reconciliation, these Christian institutes have helped thousands of people in southern India to realize Gandhi’s – and Samartha’s – vision of inter-religious harmony and social justice.


  1. ^ In my view, such criteria reflect the liberal pluralism of John Hick in his pioneering work, God Has Many Names; the dialogical pluralism of the Indian theologian, Stanley Samartha; and the combination of faithfulness and openness of David Ray Griffin and colleagues of all world religions in Deep Religious Pluralism.

Douglas Norell is Director of Legislative Affairs for the NGO Catholic Relief Services and a doctoral candidate studying inter-faith relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

The Golden Rule

All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets,
King James version: Matt. 7:12
None of you is a believer if he does not desire for his brother that which he desires for himself.
That which you hold as detestable, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law: the rest is but commentary.
Talmud, Sabbat, 21a
Brahmaism (orthodox Hinduism)
Such is the sum of duty: do not do to others that which, to you, would do harm to yourself.
Mahabharta, 5, 1517
Injure not others in the manner that would injure you.
Udana-Varga, 3, 18
Here certainly is the golden maxim: do not do to others that which we do not want them to do to us.
Analects, 15, 23
Consider that your neighbor gains your gain and that your neighbor loses that which you lose.
T'ai Shang Kan Ying Pien
That nature alone is good which checks itself from doing to others that which would not be good for itself.
Dadistan-i-dinik, 94, 5

Reprinted with permission from Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 9, 1975.

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