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Because Gandhi was a devout Hindu many Christian hymns including "Abide with me” were his favourites

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 26, Jan 2020, 10:52 am IST | UPDATED: 21, Feb 2020, 10:04 am IST

Because Gandhi was a devout Hindu many Christian hymns including
Thankfully good sense prevailed and the Modi Government has decided to rescind its decision to drop "Abide with me" from the beating the retreat parade of 2020 and introduce in its place "Vande Mataram".  It was indeed shocking that  initially such a convoluted decision could be taken to dispense with the famous Christian hymn ""Abide with me"  which has been played in beating the retreat parades every year since 1950 and it resonated across the nation and generations have the fond memories of listening to its uplifting rendering by  military bands performing in the majestic premises of Vijaya Chowk in the Raisina Hills.

It was one of the favourite hymns of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation, whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated and he included it in the numerous hymns  famously known as Ashram Bhajanabali, the hymns of Sabarmati Ashram. The outrageous decision to exclude "Abide with me" from the beating the retreat parades constituted an affront to the father of our nation who in spite of  being an ardent Hindu included that hymn in his manifold prayers which he chose from diverse faiths.

Even his famous prayer Raghu Pati Raja Ram, Iswar Allha Tero Nam has not been spared. Rama Guha in his article "Godse Worship Goes Mainstream in India" published in the Hindustan Times dated 1st June 2019 wrote that in early 1990s when illustrious follower of Gandhi Dr. Sushila Nayar  participated in a meeting in Ayodhya to promote communal harmony and recited Gandhi's much loved prayer "Raghu Pati Raghab Raja Ram" and as soon as she started singing the line " Ishwar Allah Tero Naam" a few protestors prevented her to continue with the prayer. She tried to allay their apprehensions and assure them that she and her associates were representing the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and, therefore, reciting his favourite hymn, the protestors countered it by aggressively asserting that they represented the legacy of Nathuram Godse. That episode narrated by Guha sadly underlined the point that sublime prayer of Mahatma Gandhi upholding communal harmony and unity and proclaiming the ideal of reconciliation and understanding among all people in spite of their variegated religious identities is not acceptable to those who believe in defining India in terms of one religion and imposing a monolithic narrative at the core of which remain invocation of divinity in a rigid, narrow and constricted form. It negates pluralism and diversity which are central to the pursuit of spirituality.

The forceful prevention of recitation  of "Ishwar Allah Tero Naam" in 1990s of Mahatma Gandhi's much loved prayer "Raghu Pati Raghab Raja Ram" and the initial decision to drop "Abide with me", another favourite hymn of Gandhi from the beating the retreat parade of 2020, clearly indicate a narrow and exclusionary outlook actuating people to promote majoritarianism at every level including at the level of music which Gandhi defined in terms of rhythm, harmony and order.  

In fact, Mahatma Gandhi himself in a letter to a lady Gulchen Lumsden  wrote on 10th February 1933 that her information obtained from Sir Henry Lawrence that "Abide with me" was one of his favourite hymns was correct. He also stated her that  he chose such a hymn from Christianity as his favourite hymn even though he was a devout Hindu or because he was a devout Hindu. It is worthwhile to quote his own words. Gandhiji wrote. " Sir Henry Lawrence was right when he told you that “Abide with me” was one of my favourite hymns. Though I am a devout Hindu, or even because I am a devout Hindu, I have no difficulty in appreciating the devotional hymns of other religions, and having had intimate contact with many Christians I came to appreciate some of the hymns even as a youngster. You will perhaps be glad to know that among them “Lead,Kindly Light” is the most favourite. But there are others also which you do not need to know".

The clear stand taken by Gandhi that he chose "Abide with me" as his favourite hymn in spite of his identity as a devout Hindu or because he considered himself as a devout Hindu offers  a vital lesson to those who perpetuate exclusion in the name of  Hindutva which of course is a negation of Hindusim. The initial decision to drop "Abide with me" from the beating the retreat parade affirmed the assertion of the ideal of exclusion in the name of Hinutva and it was evident in a more pronounced manner when Vande Mataram was included in place of "Abide with me". There is no harm to include Vande Mataram but to do so at the expense of "Abide with me" means a clear demonstration of exclusionary outlook in the name of Hindutva. To do so at a time when the country is celebrating 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in a way constitutes an attempt to negate the expansive vision and worldview of Gandhi. When in 1930 he was re requested by Meeraben to establish a prayer hall in Sabarmati Ashram and put an idol there for the purpose of offering prayers Gandhiji rejected the request and said that they all offered prayer in open air, the ceiling of which constituted the sky and all four directions- east, west, north and south- constituted its four walls and the objective of prayer offered in such a prayer hall was to transcend the barriers of religion, caste, nationality and all narrowness.

Inclusion must be stressed and exclusion must be avoided. It is worthwhile to recall here the advocacy of Odisha Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik to include non-violence in the preamble of the Constitution to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary and to defeat forces representing bigotry, hatred and fanaticism. At a time when youth,  people and women are reading the Preamble of the Constitution across the country to uphold fraternity and unity of all faiths and all Indians we need to uphold the ideal of inclusion inherent in the Preamble.  

It is heartening that the decision to drop "Abide with me" has been reversed and the ideal of inclusion has been affirmed. It would be part of beating the retreat parade this year and Vande Mataram would also be included. The good sense to annul the exclusion and include "Abide with me" is a reminder that the forces advocating its exclusion may be active again to drop it on the avoidable ground that it is a Christian hymn. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out in future given the context at the national level that even prayers are looked at the from the narrow perspective completely disregarding the broad vision of Mahatma Gandhi that he chose "Abide with me" because he was a devout Hindu. We need such an inclusive approach to safeguard our diversity in all fields be it religious, social, political or economic.

.The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.
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