In the spring of 1907, the London publisher John Murray published a book on Persian mystics by one F. Hadland Davis. The book appeared in a series called ‘The Wisdom of the East’, whose editors desired their publications to be ‘ambassadors of good-will and understanding between East and West, the old world of Thought, and the new of Action.’ Through the books in the series, it was hoped that the Western (and Christian) reader would acquire ‘a deeper knowledge of the great ideals and lofty philosophy of Oriental thought [which] may help to a revival of that true spirit of Charity which neither despises nor fears the nations of another creed and colour.’

One of the first readers of the book was an Easterner educated in the West, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Then based in Johannesburg, Gandhi may have acquired the book from a local store, or perhaps ordered it from London. At any rate, he was deeply impressed, writing about it in the journal he then edited, Indian Opinion. Of the mystics whom Hadland Davis had profiled, Gandhi was charmed most by Jalaluddin Rumi, who aspired to ‘a pure heart and love of God.’ Gandhi quotes Rumi saying, when asked where one could find God, that ‘I saw the Cross and also Christians, but I did not find God on the Cross. I went to find him in the temple, but in vain. I saw him neither in Herat nor in Kandahar.

He could be found neither on the hill nor in the cave. At last, I looked into my heart and found Him there, only there and nowhere else.’ Gandhi ended his review by saying that he would ‘like to recommend the book to everyone. It will be of profit to all, Hindus and Muslims alike.’

Gandhi’s meditation on Rumi was published in June 1907. That November, the Gujarati New Year, Nutan Varsh, fell on the same day as the great Muslim festival, Id. Gandhi used this coincidence to offer a brief homily on the significance of inter-faith understanding. ‘If the people of different religions grasp the real significance of their own religion’, he wrote, ‘they will never hate the people of any religion other than their own. As Jalaluddin Rumi has said or as Shri Krishna said to Arjun, there are many rivers, and they appear different from one another, but they all meet in the ocean.’

A hundred years ago Jalaluddin Rumi was known only to the specialist, but due to the efforts of more recent translators and publicists this 13th century mystic is—according to an article in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement—the most widely read poet in the Western world today. As it happens, after those two occasions in 1907 Gandhi did not write about the Sufi mystic again. However, the lesson he took from Rumi he upheld and affirmed all his life.
Twenty-five years after his review of Hadland Davis’s Persian Mystics, Gandhi received an anguished letter from an English disciple named Verrier Elwin. A licensed priest of the Church of England, Elwin was threatened by his Bishop with excommunication, because he refused to take the Gospel to the Gond tribals he then lived with. The priest had learnt from Gandhi that there were many paths to God; while he himself had chosen the one laid down by Christ, he would permit the tribals to follow the road of their ancestors. The Bishop vehemently disagreed, saying that Jesus commanded his followers to make Christians of unbelievers.

Faced with expulsion from his Church, Elwin wrote to Gandhi for advice. The Mahatma asked him not to take to heart what the Bishop had told him, since the message of Jesus was ‘in the main denied in the churches, whether Roman or English.’ Even if he was thrown out of the Church of England, he could remain a Christian according to his own lights. For, as Gandhi consolingly told the confused young man: ‘Your pulpit is the whole earth. The blue sky is the roof of your own church.’

This last piece of advice is highly pertinent to the once very intense, then moribund, and now revived dispute in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. For Jalaluddin Rumi and Mohandas K. Gandhi did not need structures of marble and stone to find God in. Nor should we. One can be good, godly, and devout without ever entering a temple, or mosque or church either.
Twenty-four years have passed since the locks were opened in the makeshift shrine to Ram; twenty-one since L. K. Advani led a blood-soaked ‘rath yatra’; eighteen since the Babri Masjid was brought down by a mob. In this time, a generation of Indians has come of age with no memories of the dispute which once polarized the country. Do we need to open the wounds again? When asked this question by a visiting journalist earlier this month, a student in Ayodhya answered by saying that he hoped that instead of a temple or a mosque, a hospital would come up in the disputed site instead.

Before and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, various suggestions were offered as to how to put an end to the controversy. A well-meaning Gandhian suggested a multi-faith centre. Another gave this idea more specificity; we should, he said, build a ‘Ram-Rahim Darwaza’, a large archway signifying open-ness and dialogue. The proposal of the young student is as noble as any other, and perhaps more practical. What could be more meaningful than a structure tending to the poor, the sick, and the wounded, in a place whose mythic and historic resonances once provoked riot and mass murder in the name of faith?
This week the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court was to decide who owned the title-suit to the site in Ayodhya. The Court’s sitting has now been postponed; however, whatever its decision, the matter will surely be taken by one or other party to the Supreme Court. The arguments will drag on. The Sangh Parivar will insist that a grand Ram temple come up on the site. Muslim extremists will argue that the Babri Masjid must be rebuilt.

In my view, rather than leave the matter to the courts, the Central Government should intervene decisively to end the dispute. Under the Land Acquisition Act, the State can acquire property from individuals and communities in the name of the ‘public purpose’. This act has been grossly abused in the recent past, to allow private companies to grab land owned by peasants and tribals. (The conflicts at Singur, Nandigram, Kashipur and Niyamgiri were all sparked by the misuse of this Act.) Here now is a chance for the State to redeem itself and simultaneously to put an end to this religious—or shall we say pseudo-religious—controversy. Nothing would serve the ‘public purpose’ better than if the Government of India was to acquire the land being fought over in Ayodhya, clear it of intruders, and build a new, well-equipped, and adequately staffed hospital for the residents of the town.

Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest Ram bhakt since Tulsidas; yet once he had reached adulthood, he never entered a Ram temple (or any other). Jalaluddin Rumi turned away—or was turned back—from the mosques in Herat and Kandahar. Both men knew that the path to God was independent of physical structures and self-appointed preachers. Had they been alive, I think Gandhi and Rumi would both have approved of a hospital being built at the disputed site in Ayodhya.

(published in The Telegraph, 25/9/2010)