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Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas

Part 3: Mahatma Gandhi's conversation with a missionary

(Excerpts from Arun Shourie's book with similar title)

Editor’s note: Following is the transcription of a conversation that reportedly took place between Mahatma Gandhi and a Polish missionary, as cited in: The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 64, pp. 202-204, here quoted from: Shourie, A. (1994): Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes and Dilemmas, HarperCollins Publishers, New Delhi, 1994. After the transcription is Mr. Shourie’s short commentary.

On 2 January 1937 a Professor of Philosophy from Poland , Krzenski, came to see Gandhiji. Krzenski told Gandhiji that Catholicism was the only true religion.

“Do you therefore say that other religions are untrue?,” Gandhiji asked.

Krzenski : If others are convinced that their religions are true they are saved.

Gandhiji : Therefore you will say that everyone would be saved even through untruth. For you say that if a man really and sincerely believes in what is as a matter of fact untruth, he is saved. Would you also not hold, therefore, that your own way may be untrue but that you are convinced that it is true and therefore you will be saved?

Krzenski : But I have studies all religions and have found that mine is the only true religion.

Gandhiji : But so have others studied other religions. What about them? Well, I go further and tell you that religion is one and it has several branches which are all equal.

Krzenski : I accept that no religion lacks divine inspiration but all have not the same truth, because all have not the same light.

Gandhiji : It is an essentially an untrue position to take, for a seeker after truth, that he alone is in absolute possession of truth. What is happening to the poor astronomers today? They are changing their position every day, and there are scientists who impeach even Einstein’s latest theory.

Krzenski : No. But I have examined the arguments in favour of other religions.

Gandhiji : But it is an intellectual examination. You require different scales to weigh spiritual truth. Either we are all untrue – quite a logical position to take – but, since truth does not come out of untruth, it is better to say that we all have truth but not the complete truth. For God reveals His truth to instruments that are imperfect. Raindrops of purest distilled water become diluted or polluted as soon as they come in contact with mother earth. My submission is that your position is arrogant. But I suggest to you a better position. Accept all religions as equal, for all have the same root and the same laws of growth.

Krzenski : It is necessary to examine every religion philosophically and find out which is more harmonious, more perfect.

Gandhiji : That presupposes that all religions are in watertight compartments. That is wrong. They are always growing. Let us not limit God’s function. He may reveal Himself in a thousand ways and a thousand times.

Now the professor switched on to next question, viz., that of fighting materialism.

Gandhiji : It is no use trying to fight these forces without giving up the idea of conversion, which I assure you is the deadliest poison that ever sapped the fountain of truth.

Krzenski : But I have a great respect for your religion.

Gandhiji : Not enough. I had the feeling myself one day, but I found that it was not enough. Unless I accept the position that all religions are equal, and I have as much regard for other religion as I have for my own, I would not be able to live in boiling war around me. Any make-believe combination of spiritual forces is doomed to failure if this fundamental position is not accepted. I read and get all my inspiration from the Gita. But I also read the Bible and the Koran to enrich my own religion. I incorporate all that is good in other religions.

Krzenski : That is your goodwill.

Gandhiji : That is not enough.

Krzenski : But I have a great respect for you.

Gandhiji : Not enough. If I were to join the Catholic Church you would have greater respect for me.

Krzenski : Oh yes, if you became a catholic you would be as great as St. Francis.

Gandhiji : But not otherwise? A Hindu can not be a St. Francis? Poor Hindu!

Krzenski : But may I take your photograph?

Gandhiji : No, surely you don’t care for materialism! And it is all materialism, isn’t it?

Gandhiji’s acuity and wit! On the other side the trap the dogmas of certainties lays for its adherents.

For the position that Krzenski was articulating is the standard position, it is the ineluctable position that every adherent of a revelatory, millennialist religion must take. The premises of such religions – of Christianity, of Islam, of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism – are that there is one truth; that it has been revealed to One man – the son of God Jesus, the Messenger of God Mohammed, the Culmination of Philosophers Marx; that is has been enshrined by him or on his behalf in One Book – the Bible, the Quran, Das Kapital; That this text is very difficult to grasp and therefore one must submit to and be guided by One (external, overarching) Agency – the Church, the Maulvi, the Party. Now, as the Millennium shall come only when, but immediately when all accept the Revelation, it is the duty of the Agency – of the Church, of the Islamic rulers and Maulvis, of the Party – to see that everyone sees The Light. If, even after The Light has been shown to a person he refuses to subscribe to it, he must be put out of harm’s way. For in that circumstance the man is not merely harming himself, he is coming in the way of the Mandate of God, of Allah’s Will, or, as in Marxism, of History.

The presumptions Gandhiji was nailing in that representative conversation follow necessarily from these premises: there is no salvation outside the Church or the Faith or the Party – the poor Buddha, with all his compassion, just can not be a St. Francis. What must be done also follows inevitably from those premises: the Church must convert, Lenin and Mao must export the revolution, Khomeini must export the Revelation. These are inescapable responsibilities.

By: Arun Shourie

The first part: Need for a rational discussion

The second part: Is missionary work really that noble?

The third part: Mahatma Gandhi's conversation with a missionary

The fourth part: The inevitable consequences

The fifth part : Gandhi's recommendations for missionaries

Also see: A review of "Missionaries in India" by C.J..S. Wallia on

Copyright: Arun Shourie 1994

Excerpted from: Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas, pp. 10-13. Published by HarperCollins Publishers India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1994. Price: Rs. 295.

Note: These excerpts are provided here for informative purpose and to present a very interesting view point of one of the most articulate and prolific author in independent India. IndiaWorld on the Net has no commercial motives whatsoever in publishing these excerpts. Further, no guarantee can be taken for eithter textual or factual correctness of the provided text. Readers are advised to consult the original as well as other authoritative sources of information to ascertain authenticity.

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