“Love Speaking to Love”: Friendship Across Religious Traditions

Anantanand Rambachan


Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not.

Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.
Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger.
I am uneasy at heart when I have to leave my accustomed shelter;
I forget that there abides the old in the new,
and that there also thou abidest.
Through birth and death, in this world or in others,
wherever thou leadest me it is thou, the same,
the one companion of my endless life
who ever linkest my heart with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.
When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut.
Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose
the bliss of the touch of the one
in the play of many. Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali)

If I were asked what had been the best of all human gifts in a long lifetime, I should answer without a moment’s hesitation, “ The gift of noble friends who have trusted me with their love.” C.F. Andrews

Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, a small Caribbean island of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, people of other traditions were constantly present in my life. While this presence took a formal expression somewhat later in the mode of interreligious dialogue, it was there in childhood friendships, in the Sunday school classes that we occasionally visited, in high schools that I attended which were founded by Christian and Muslim denominations, in public festivals at Easter, Christmas and Eid and now in work at a Christian institution of higher education. Their influence is subtle and overt, elusive and unmistakable and aspects of it will always remain unknown. It is especially difficult to identify the impact and significance of human relationships, some of which have endured for more that a quarter of a century. One encounters another tradition most meaningfully through its embodiment in persons who express that faith in their way of life and the impact is inevitably profound. But how does one discern and speak of the influence of friendships deep in care, trust and love? How does the love of a friend of another religious tradition, sharing sorrow and joy, transform one’s thinking about the meaning of one’s own tradition and its core values? Although these are some of the most important influences of interreligious friendship, they remain as unspoken, though not unmanifest, treasures of the heart. My religious journey as a Hindu is deeply enriched and challenged by my friendships across traditions and the impact of these must await a more proper consideration.

The Ideal of Friendship

Friendship (maitri) is a relationship that is highly valued and commended in the traditions of Hinduism. In fact, friendship is the ideal towards which we are invited to aspire in all our relationships. In the Bhagavadgita (12:13-20), Krishna offers a detailed description of the human being who is dear (priyah) to him. He describes this person as one who is free from hatred, who is a friend to all beings, compassionate (advesta sarvabhutanam maitrah karuna), non-possessive, free from self-centeredness, and forgiving. As is clear in this description from the Bhagavadgita, friendship has both a negative and positive character. Negatively, it signifies freedom from hate. Positively, friendship implies a value for the other, along with compassion and a forgiving disposition. In the vision of the Bhagavadgita, one who has attained the ideal of friendship transcends the dualism of friend and enemy and sees all beings with the vision of friendship. Such a person is free from hostile attitudes towards others and is described as “the same with reference to an enemy and friend, and in honor and disgrace.” (Bhagavadgita 12:18). The fulfillment of friendship in the Hindu tradition is the overcoming of the division of the world into friends and enemies, those who are loved and those who are hated and despised. The terminology of “friend” and “friendship” is retained, but is given new meaning by including all beings (sarvabhutanam).

Friendship and the Unity of Life

At the heart of the ideal of an all-inclusive friendship is the teaching that the infinite brahman exists identically in all beings. Since the infinite is present in each being as the warp and woof of selfhood, to see the infinite in another is to see oneself in another. To be hostile to and alienated from another is to deny and reject oneself. As the Isa Upanishad (6) puts it, “ One who sees all beings in the Self and the Self in all being does not hate.” Hate arises from the condition of ignorance (avidya), which is a blindness to the unity and identity of the infinite in all beings. The unliberated divides the world into friends and enemies, but the liberated sees only with the eyes of friendship. Appreciating the nature of ignorance, and its potency to distort our view of reality, the liberated sees only with compassion (karuna). This does not idealistically and unrealistically deny the possibility of differing viewpoints or even the necessity to oppose and struggle against another. Wisdom, however, enables us to see ourselves in the other, the one with whom we disagree and with who we may be locked in struggle. We cannot dehumanize the one in whom we see ourselves or rejoice in his humiliation. We see this method in action in the case of Gandhi. Even in the midst of the strongest disagreements, Gandhi never sought to win support for his case by demonizing his opponent. He understood clearly that when a conflict is constructed sharply in terms of we and they, friend and enemy, victory and defeat, the doors to reconciliation and a transformed community are shut. One is left with an enemy, a defeated enemy perhaps, and the next round of the conflict is only postponed. Gandhi included the opponent in the circle of his friendship and identity, his we. Friendship, in the highest sense, is the overcoming of alienation and estrangement from others through the recognition of one’s own Self, the infinite brahman, in the other.

Attaining this ideal of friendship is undoubtedly challenging. The principal obstacle, from the perspective of the Hindu tradition, is our non-recognition of the culturally and socially constructed nature of the many identities that we profess and our tendency to regard these as absolute and unchanging. Such identities may be constructed on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture and, in the case of many Hindus, caste. Such identities are then opposed to other similarly constructed but different identities that are regarded as inferior. Such ways of seeing obscure the fundamental and unconstructed identity that all human beings share – the unity of self in the infinite. In the case of caste identity, for example, one professes an identity that is hierarchically related to other identities and that limits one’s ability to form friendships with others who are regarded as impure. The liberated vision in the Hindu tradition is incompatible with such caste-based identities and requires their overcoming thorough self- understanding. [1]

It must be emphasized, however, that this understanding of the unity of self is not opposed to the multiplicity of particular identities, provided these do not dehumanize and demean those who do not share these and do not limit our ability to enter into relationships of friendship. The problem is non-recognition of the more fundamental identity that is shared and that is the ground and possibility of all particular identities. Particular constructed identities must not obscure the universal identity that the Hindu tradition sees at the heart of the universe. I am reminded here of the words in Galatians (3:28), “ There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Without ignoring the specific context of these words, they speak powerfully also to the Hindu if the word brahman is substituted for Christ Jesus. There is and is not a Jew, Greek male and female.

Tulasidasa’s Understanding of Friendship: Compassion, Ethics, Trust, and Generosity

Friendship describes the character of the relationship that we establish with others when our understanding is centered on life’s unity and the indivisibility of the infinite. What are the features of such a relationship? What are its defining characteristics? To answer this question, I turn to the 16th century poet-saint, Tulasidasa and his version of the Ramayana. In the fourth chapter (Kishkindhakanda) of his text, Tulasidasa characterizes friendship as having a fourfold character and I will note each one in turn.

The first, according to Tulasidasa is a shared identity expressing in compassion or concern for the other. Tulasidasa describes a friend as experiencing sorrow when his friend is in sorrow. In fact, he goes on to add that, in the eyes of a friend, the other’s sorrow, even though like a grain of sand, is always mountain-like in dimensions. Tulasidasa seems to be suggesting here that the ground of friendship is a form of identification with another. One includes the other in one’s understanding of oneself in a manner that makes the suffering of the other a matter of concern and urgency. One cannot be a friend and be indifferent to the other’s suffering.

Second, according to Tulasidasa, friendship implies mutual ethical responsibilities. Friends feel morally responsible for each other and are committed to each other’s moral wellbeing. Friends care about each other’s ethical health.

Third, friendship is a relationship of mutual trust; it excludes suspicion about the other’s motivation. He illustrates his understanding of the meaning of trust in friendship by explaining that a friend only speaks publicly about the virtues of the other. Trust means freedom from the desire to humiliate or demean.

Fourth, friendship is generosity. Friends give and receive without anxiety. The anxiety mentioned here is the fear that one will not receive equal value for what is given. In friendship, there are times when one may give more and receive less, or when one may receive more and give less, but friends do not keep records of what is given and received. Record keeping signifies a different kind of relationship. For Tulasidasa, therefore, friendship signifies a relationship infused with compassion, ethical obligations, trust and generosity.

The Promises and Challenges of Interreligious Friendships: Gandhi and C.F. Andrews

If we employ this fourfold characterization of friendship by Tulasidasa, how does it illumine our understanding of the promises and challenges of friendships across religious traditions? Let us again consider each one in turn. We will also examine Tulasidasa’s four characteristics in the light of the friendship between Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), and his closest Christian friend, Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940).

Andrews was the son of a Christian minister belonging to the Catholic Apostolic Church, but later joined the Church of England. He was ordained as a priest in 1897 and moved to Delhi, India in 1904 to teach at St. Stephen’s College. In 1914, Andrews responded to a call from the Indian nationalist leader, Gopal Krishna Gokhale for volunteers to help Gandhi in his struggle on behalf of Indian indentured laborers in South Africa. From 1914, until his death in 1940 Andrews worked closely with Gandhi in the Indian independence movement and in the service of India. He was perhaps Gandhi’s closest friend and certainly the only person to call the Mahatma by his first name “Mohan.” Gandhi, in turn, addressed him as “Charlie.” Their friendship blossomed quickly and remains an illuminating example of a relationship across religious traditions. Andrews spent one month with Gandhi in South Africa. His note to Gandhi after his departure speaks for itself about the depth of their relationship.

It was so like you to be occupied in dear acts of service for my voyage. I didn’t quite know how much you had learnt to love me till that morning when you put your hand on my shoulder and spoke of the loneliness that there would be to you when I was gone. When I saw you on the wharf, standing with hands raised in benediction, I knew, as I had not known, even in Pretoria, how very, very dear you have become to me. [2]

Shared Identity

Compassion as a quality of a human relationship is grounded in a discernment of a shared identity or the ability to see oneself in another. This opens up the possibility of sharing the suffering and joy of the other. In the case of religious traditions, this shared identity consists often in the sense of belonging to a community that is defined by allegiance to a person, specific doctrines or rituals. Boundaries are forged from shared doctrines or loyalty to founder/teacher. We identify strongly with those sharing this identity, speak out when we feel that their rights are infringed and empathize with their suffering and successes. We are not always as attentive and responsive to the condition of those who we define, theologically or otherwise, as being outside the boundaries of our community of identity.

In the case of friendship across religious traditions, common doctrine and ritual may not be sources for a shared identity that enable the flourishing of identification with others. If caring for the other is a vital feature of interreligious friendships, the elements of our shared identity that enable these to flourish will have to be identified and affirmed. In interreligious relationships, identity with others cannot be contingent on common doctrine or shared rituals or on a change in the other’s identity or self-understanding. The shared identity that we affirm must allow the other the freedom to be different.

In the case of the Hindu tradition, the ground of identity with a person of another religious tradition is the equal and identical existence of the Infinite one in all. One recognizes oneself in the other. Shared doctrines and rituals foster community and friendship, but there is an inclusive identity that disposes us positively to the other, overcomes the idea of the other as a stranger and inspires us to form relationships of friendship. The important question that must engage us all is the following: Why is the person of another religious tradition important and valuable to me? Why should I extend to him or her, the embrace of friendship? What is the shared identity that includes him?

Gandhi and Andrews differed considerably in background and training. Andrews was British and belonged to the nation that exercised imperial rule over India. Gandhi was Indian and led a struggle against British rule in India. Andrews was Christian; Gandhi was Hindu. Andrews was trained for the Christian ministry; Gandhi was educated as a lawyer. Gandhi’s opening words in an article that he wrote after Andrew’s death provide insight about their attraction to each other.

Nobody, probably, knew Charlie Andrews as well as I did. When we met in South Africa we simply met as brothers and remained as such to the end. It was not a friendship between an Englishman and an Indian. It was an unbreakable bond between two seekers and servants.”[3]

Gandhi and Andrews were both deeply committed to their respective religious traditions and their primary motivation in life was religious. They saw in each other, however, an earnest fellow seeker after God. For Gandhi, God or Truth is always beyond full human comprehension and our understanding is ever evolving.

If we had attained the full vision of Truth, we would no longer be mere seekers, but have become one with God, for Truth is God. But being only seekers, we prosecute our quest, and are conscious of our imperfection. And if we are imperfect ourselves, religion as conceived by us must also be imperfect. We have not realized religion in its perfection, even as we have not realized God. Religion of our conception, being thus imperfect, is always subject to a process of evolution. [4]

Gandhi thought of himself as an earnest seeker, searching out fellow seekers in all traditions, learning from them and seeing with greater clarity his own errors. This is what drove him to seek friends across religious boundaries.

Andrews’ journey to India helped him to see the limits of his theology, to discern God in the teachings and practices of Hindus and to be open to the wisdom of the Hinduism.

The world’s great religious literature has now been opened to our gaze, and we find that this inner vision and these supreme moments of exaltation are not confined within the boundaries of Christendom. It is impossible, for instance, to read the vital spiritual experiences told by men and women in India, especially the religious folk-songs of the peasant mystics, without coming to that conclusion.[5]

The shared quality of openness to deeper understandings of religious truth was complimented by a deep concern on the part of both men to live their lives as servants of the poor and the oppressed. This is what first attracted him to Gandhi when he learned of Gandhi’s work in South Africa. Andrews had the experience of serving industrial workers in the slums of London. He saw Christ in the suffering Indians in South Africa and in the untouchables of India. For Gandhi, whose ultimate aim in life was to know God, a life of service was indispensable. One finds God by seeing God in creation and becoming one with it. This is possible only through service. “ I am endeavouring to see God through service of humanity,” wrote Gandhi, for I know that God is neither in heaven, nor down below, but in every one.”[6]

Gandhi and Andrews remained rooted in their respective religious traditions, but the quality of religious seeking inspired them to cross boundaries. They recognized that the Truth they sought was always greater than the traditions to which they belonged and they sought to learn from each other. They were united also in the conviction that the God they served lived in all beings and in creation and that love for God must find expression in life as a servant. Gandhi gave his friend the affectionate title, dinabandhu (friend of the poor). A deep yearning for God and a commitment to the poor and oppressed drew them to each other and provided the common ground for their friendship. Gandhi and Andrews shared a deep value for the common humanity of the poor and this was inseparable from the discernment of their own shared humanity as seekers after God. Gandhi and Andrews discovered their common humanity and shared identity by recognizing in one another the earnest seeker and the servant of the poor. This found expression in a profound care for each other.

Ethical Obligations

The ethical dimension of interreligious friendship is perhaps its most difficult and challenging, but it is also the one that saves such a relationship from superficiality and relativism. It reminds us that interreligious friendships do not require that we dispose of our deepest values and the theological commitments that serve as our norms for decision-making. The nature and sources of our ethical criteria must be explicitly articulated and we cannot entirely avoid conversations about justice/injustice, oppression/liberation, and caste/racism. Interreligious friendships allow us to be questioned and to question our practice and understanding of ethical obligations. Identity with the other is deepened when it permits such mutual questioning and opens up the possibility for ethical growth and transformation.

The growth and maturity of an interreligious friendship into one in which each enjoys the liberty to critically question and disagree with the other is powerfully exemplified in the Gandhi-Andrews relationship. Gandhi expected his Christian friends to be critical of him. In a letter to Horace Alexander, a friend and colleague with Gandhi and Andrews, Gandhi implored him to “criticize me as frankly and fearlessly as Charlie used to do.”[7] He concluded a letter to Andrew, one in which he disagreed with Andrews, with the following words.

Instead of a letter, I have inflicted upon you what may almost read like an essay. But it was necessary that you should know what is passing in my mind at the present moment. You may now pronounce your judgment and mercilessly tear my ideas to pieces where you find them to be wrong.[8]

Andrews and Gandhi disagreed publicly on several significant issues. Andrews was opposed to Gandhi’s vow of celibacy. He did not think it should be prescribed for everyone joining the ashram community. For Gandhi, it was essential to his life of religious seeking and his commitment to the service of India. Andrews felt that Gandhi’s efforts to enlist Indians to fight on behalf of the Allied cause in the First World War betrayed his emphasis on non-violence as a moral force. Gandhi, in his turn, argued that one who lacked the ability to use force, cannot claim to be non-violent. Andrews argued with Gandhi about his tactic of setting fire to imported clothing, claiming that it created the conditions for violence. Gandhi saw it as a necessary part of his emphasis on using locally made cloth and developing economic self-sufficiency. Gandhi’s response to Andrew’s stinging criticism speaks to the trust established between them both. “It is so like him,” wrote Gandhi. “Whenever he feels hurt over anything I have done-and this is by no means the first of such occasions – he deluges me with letters without waiting for an answer. For it is love speaking to love, not arguing. And so it has been over the burning of foreign clothes.”[9] Their profound loving friendship enabled them to be critical of each other’s choices and saved their relationship from dogmatism and superficiality. A secure interreligious friendship that allows such critical interrogation is rare and such rarity certainly points to one of the challenges. It certainly requires humility and, in the case of Gandhi and Andrews, a sense that the journey to God is an ongoing process. They were influential leaders but deeply conscious of their limits as human beings.

Mutual Trust

Tulasidasa’s explication of mutual trust as implying that one speaks in public only about the virtues of the other is significant for interreligious friendship. It makes us aware of our proclivity to speak of our own traditions in the ideal, to ignore the gulf between ideal and reality, but to speak loudly about the “realities” of other traditions. The historical expressions of all our traditions, however, leave much to be desired. In his concluding address to the World’s Parliament of Religions (27 September, 1893), Swami Vivekananda reminded his listeners that the interreligious gathering proved that “holiness, purity, and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character.” In interreligious friendships, we grow in appreciation of the complexity of other traditions and understand their deepest aspirations. We are careful in our public utterances about persons of other traditions, extending to them the same charitable considerations that we wish extended to us. The face of our friend is always before us and we learn to speak the same in absence as in presence. When trust is not established, public criticism of another tradition will be heard as demonization.

Gandhi seems to interpret the meaning of mutual trust in interreligious relationships in a manner different from Tulasidasa. Gandhi does not rule out public criticism of other traditions and of his own tradition, but believed that the right to criticize another tradition had to be earned. One had to first befriend the other, and to show reverence for all that is good in the other tradition. In one of his well-known statements, Gandhi spoke of the “duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others’ religions, as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty.”[10] One should seek understanding of other traditions by pondering the writings of those who are practitioners of those traditions.

There is one rule….which should always be kept in mind while studying all great religions, and that is that one should study them only through the writings of votaries of the respective religions. For instance, if one wants to study the Bhagavat, one should do so not through a translation of it made by a hostile critic, but one prepared by a lover of the Bhagavat.[11]

Gandhi was writing these words at a time when, other than Hindu practitioners, missionaries with a proselytizing agenda produced most of the studies on the tradition. Today, we have a vast body of work from scholars who do not share this agenda and that are very useful for our understanding of the tradition. But Gandhi’s point is valid. The voices of those who live the tradition must inform significantly our understanding.

Andrews earned the trust and friendship of Gandhi and Hindus by his earnest efforts to understand the tradition and to enter into its spirit. He felt that it was his Christian obligation to search out the wisdom of Hinduism and he sought to share with fellow Christians its spiritual richness. At the same time, Andrews was well aware of the oppressive practices and structures that were present in Hindu society and he was outspoken about these. He cooperated closely with Gandhi for the removal of untouchability. He commended the work of reform movements within Hinduism such as the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj.

Andrews spoke strongly against Christian missionaries who emphasized only the historical flaws of the tradition and not its spiritual riches. He repudiated a British author who wrote of Hinduism as a disease.

Those of us who have lived among the Hindus and have witnessed the deep sincerity of their religious life, especially that of the women in the household, can do nothing but writhe at the insults which she pours upon the Hindu faith as though it were one of the most obscene things on earth. Her object seems to be to exalt the special virtues of the British. She tries to do this in such a way as to afford to a certain type of Englishman or women a secret satisfaction at the contrast with his own ideals and make him say within himself, like the Pharisee of old: ‘God I thank Thee that I am not as the other men are, or even as this Hindu.”[12]

Andrews and Gandhi crossed what Diana Eck refers to as the “terra incognita on the map of interreligious dialogue.”[13] Their friendship and trust created a safe space for mutual questioning and criticism. In fact, Andrews is a truly remarkable example of a Christian who was embraced as a friend by the Hindu tradition and whose criticism was understood as springing from an unambiguous love for Hindus and Hinduism. His friendship was transparent. Gandhi and his fellow Hindus did not suspect a hidden agenda.


Generosity is the mutuality of giving and receiving. Interreligious friendships cannot grow and flourish if one thinks of oneself as having everything to give and nothing to receive. The generosity of giving must be complemented by the humility and openness of receiving. It seems difficult to enter into deep friendship with someone of another tradition whose theological conclusions permitted only a one-way conversation and whose relationship is determined apriori by theological positions and not by encounters with practitioners. Andrews saw clearly that Christian missionaries went out to India only to give and without any thought of receiving. They sought the worst in the tradition and not the best. On his part, Andrews entered the world of Hinduism not blindly, but as a reverential seeker and he imbibed deeply from its nourishing spirituality.

His religious life was deepened and enriched by his study of Hinduism and his friendship with Gandhi. His understanding of God, prior to this encounter, emphasized the nature of God as Creator and Ruler, existing outside of creation and inviting awe. “But when I went deep into the heart of India,” wrote Andrews, “I found the whole emphasis to be laid on the realization of God inwardly and spiritually within the soul. There was no less awe than in the West, but it was more of an inward character…..This, when fully grasped brought me nearer to Saint John’s gospel than the ordinary Western teaching. It meant that not only Christ could say, “I and my Father are one,” but that we, as God’s children, in all reverence, could say this also.”[14] His friendship with the Hindu tradition opened new windows of understanding of his own tradition.

Gandhi’s own deep learning from Christianity is well known. The Sermon on the Mount moved him and he described Jesus as the “Prince of satyagrahis.” It was the Sermon on the Mount, he claimed, that truly awoke him to the value of non-violent resistance. He acknowledged the influence of Jesus on him and commended him, in remarkable words, to other Hindus.

Jesus occupies in my heart the place of one of the greatest teachers who have made a considerable influence on my life. Leave the Christians alone for the present. I shall say to the Hindus that your lives will be incomplete unless you reverently study the teachings of Jesus. [15]

Gandhi’s openness to entering into friendships with persons of other faiths was the expression of his desire, as he famously put it, not to live in a house “walled in on all sides and my windows and doors to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. Mine is not a religion of the prison-house.”

There is no doubt that Gandhi’s friendship with Andrews deepened his appreciation for Christianity. He spoke of Andrews as a rishi (holy sage), one of the highest Hindu titles conferred upon a human being. He used the example of his friend to implore Indians not to hate the British. “As long as there is even one Andrews among the British people,” wrote Gandhi, “we must, for the sake of such as one, bear no hatred to them.”

The Risks of Friendship

Interreligious friendships, as the relationship between Gandhi and Andrews, demonstrates are not without risks. In the case of Gandhi, he had to deal with the accusation that his friend’s influence on him was too strong, especially in the matter of advocating on behalf of the untouchables. Gandhi’s sensitivity to this criticism could be discerned easily in a letter he wrote to Andrews in response to Andrew’s prodding that he make this work his central purpose in life.

You are thinking as an Englishman. I must not keep one thing from you. The Gujarati is endeavouring to weaken my proposition on the question by saying that I have been influenced by you in this matter, meaning thereby that I am not speaking as a Hindu but as one having been spoiled by being under your Christian influence. This is all rotten, I know. I began this work in South Africa before I ever heard of you and I was conscious of the sin of untouchability before I came under other Christian influences in South Africa. [16]

On Andrew’s side, he had to deal with the condemnation of the white South Africans for his friendship with Gandhi and, on one occasion, bending to touch Gandhi’s feet. He faced opposition because of his association with the Arya Samaj, a reformist Hindu movement that was opposed to Christian proselytization. Fellow Christians questioned his commitment and loyalty to Christianity.

Underlying the accusations directed at Gandhi and Andrews is the fear that such deep friendships across traditions will diminish one’s commitment and faithfulness to one’s own. Gandhi was very well aware of this fear and spoke to it.

Let no one, even for a moment, entertain the fear that a reverent study of other religions is likely to weaken or shake one’s faith in one’s own.[17]

It is not that Gandhi held the Hindu tradition to be perfect. Far from such a view, he professed that his religion bore all the marks of human imperfection. He likened his relationship with Hinduism to his relationship with his wife, who moves him, despite her faults, like no other woman does. With her, he shares an indissoluble bond.

Division on Conversion

On the matter of conversion, one of the most contentious issues between Hindus and Christians in India, these two friends remained divided. Andrews was certainly not a missionary in the traditional sense. He repudiated conversion programs and material rewards to induce conversion. He shared with Gandhi a belief that one’s life speaks for one’s tradition more than words or preaching. Gandhi appreciated that attempts to convert him to Christianity never intruded on their friendship. He made special mention of this quality of their relationship in an address to Christian missionaries.

If I want a pattern of the ideal missionary, I should instance C.F. Andrews. If he were here, he would blush for what I want to say. I believe that he is today truer, broader, and better for his toleration of the other principal religions of the world. He never speaks with me about conversion to Christianity though we are closest friends. I have many friends, but the friendship between Charlie Andrews and myself is especially deep.[18]

Yet, unlike Gandhi, Andrews believed that conversion from one tradition to another should be possible. It meant for him the seeking of baptism in the Christian Church following an inner spiritual experience.

“….if conversion meant the denial of any living truth in one’s own religion, then we must have nothing to do with it. But it is rather the discovery of a new and glorious truth for which one would sacrifice one’s life. It does mean also, very often, passing from one fellowship to another and this should never be done lightly. [19]

Gandhi has commented extensively on the matter of conversion and his view must be seen in the context of colonial India where the Christian tradition was an ally of the exploitative British Empire. In general, he was opposed to all conversion. A person, in Gandhi’s view, should adhere to his religion, not because he considers it to be the best among all religions, but because he can transform it by learning from other traditions and help it to grow towards a fuller understanding of truth by the enrichment of other traditions. This is the substance of his famous lines.

So, we can pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu; or if we are Mussalmans, not that a Hindu or Christian should become a Mussalman; nor should we even secretly pray that anyone should be converted; but our inmost prayer should be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim and a Christian a better Christian.”[20]

It is clear that any obsessive and persistent efforts to convert the other in a relationship of interreligious friendship would not have Gandhi’s approval. At the same time, he welcomed the influence that friends of different traditions have on each other through the power of their traditions in their lives. He compared this often to the fragrance of a rose.

The rose irresistibly draws people to itself and the scent remains with them. Even so, the aroma of Christianity is subtler even than that of the rose and should, therefore, be imparted in an even quieter, and more imperceptible manner, if possible. [21]

Faith is not imparted like secular subjects. It is given through the language of the heart. If a man has a living faith in him, it spreads its aroma like a rose its scent. Because of its invisibility, the extent of its influence is far wider than that of the visible beauty of the colour of the petals.[22]

Friendship is the relationship that allows us to breathe in the fragrance of each other’s religious lives.

The issue of interreligious friendship and conversion continues to be debated within the Hindu community. In 2009, Hinduism Today, an international Hindu newspaper, published an article by a correspondent from Malaysia on the practice of what is characterized as “friendship evangelism.”[23] Maruthu Dharmalingam described his experiences as a medical student in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, after he lost his mother and was befriended by a Christian upperclassman. After his trust was gained through acts of kindness Dharmalingam was invited to Christian gatherings, and to a family celebration of Christmas.

After Christmas day, I received a gift from the family. “This is a special gift. Do not open it until you are back home in Kuala Lumpur.” It was a Christian Bible. It had a cover letter that I remember to this day. It read, “You are saved only by accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior. They say your sins are washed away by taking a dip in the Ganges. No. There is no truth in Hindu religion. Jesus Christ died for our sins, you must accept him personally, too!”

Hinduism Today went on to highlight the employment of interreligious friendship as part of a strategic drive to convert. None of these recommended activities, from a document produced by the International Student Ministry, would be problematic if they were not strategically conceived as part of a mission program.

As a student group, we encourage our members to be a part of the Hindu student club on campus. Together we go to their festivals and parties. We also attend important community functions like dance recitals and Diwali. In these ways, we connect to the culture and have a natural meeting place to develop friendships with Hindus…. Once the friendships are formed, it is important to train students to go deeper in friendships and really get to know one another through giving to and receiving from our Hindu friends.

Such instrumentalization of friendship in the interest of conversion undermines trust and leads to cynicism and suspicion. Trust, as we noted in the relationship between Gandhi and Andrews, is a vital component of interreligious friendship. Interreligious friendships will not germinate and flourish in soil saturated with mistrust about mutual intentions.

Problematizing Friendship in the Hindu Tradition

Gandhi’s attitude to friendship, while personal in many respects, also reflects some of the broader features of the tradition. The Hindu tradition is a very diverse family of traditions, reflecting the cultural, historical and geographical diversity of the Indian sub-continent and, in more recent times, the experiences of Hindu communities across our world. These traditions are decentralized and do not have the central authoritative institutions of other religions. Although there are shared beliefs and similar religious practices, these are not required. Formal membership in a religious community is not a criterion for Hindu identity and notions of heresy or excommunication are inappropriate. Religious boundaries are porous and fluid. There is no persistent and widespread negativization of the fact of religious diversity and no systematic effort at homogenization. Hindus tend, on the whole, to see religious diversity as naturally reflecting the diversity of human nature and experience.

The decentralization of the tradition and the significant intra-religious diversity mean that there are fewer doctrinal obstacles to interreligious friendships. Doctrines evolved, such as the teaching about the ishtadeva (the chosen God), and the manyness of the names and forms of God, that disposed Hindus to see the God worshipped in another community in a positive light and as a different understanding of the One God. Such attitudes to other religious communities facilitate friendships and lower theological barriers.

Although theological considerations are not significant obstacles to friendships across traditions, caste identity certainly acts as a barrier and caste practices are often legitimized by interpretations of religious teaching. Caste attitudes and practices are changing in contemporary India under the circumstances of urbanization, economic growth and legislation to abolish discrimination. Yet, long established customs persist and several of the traditional features of caste militate against friendships across traditions. Caste identity informed one’s social groups, the community with which one shared meals, marriage partners and one’s choice of work. It prohibited contact with those who were seen as outside of the fourfold caste structure and regarded such physical association as polluting. This resulted in the stigmatization and the shunning of those considered to be untouchables. This matter is still relevant because of the fact that a significant number of those who convert to Christianity, Buddhism and Islam come from the so-called untouchable communities. It is a well-know fact also that conversion does not guarantee freedom from caste labels and stigmatization continues with membership in a new religious community. The impact of caste identity on relationships between Hindus and members of these religions in contemporary India needs to be studied. The role of caste in the formation of interreligious friendships in contemporary India needs to be studied also. In Hindu communities outside of India, caste considerations are less significant and less likely to deter interreligious friendships.

Along with caste considerations, contemporary India has witnessed the rise of the Hindu nationalist ideology of Hindutva. This ideology was articulated most succinctly by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1833-1966) in his influential book, Hindutva. He contended that Hindus were the original people of India and constituted a single nation and race with a common origin and blood. Savarkar defined a Hindu as one who considers India his holy land and ancestral homeland. Hindutva (Hinduness) includes religion (Hinduism), but also the wider historical, racial, and cultural factors constituting the Hindu nation. Savarkar’s definition of Hindu and Hinduness includes Jains, Sikhs and South Asian Buddhists, but excludes East Asian Buddhists, Western converts to Hinduism, and, most importantly, Indian Muslims and Christians. For him, the latter are essentially alien communities in India. Hindutva emphasizes the differences between Hindus and members of these traditions and has contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion. Its effect on interreligious relations needs further study. It is a powerful example of the impact of politics on relationships between religious communities.

Concluding Thoughts

Gandhi embodied the best possibilities for interreligious friendships offered in the Hindu tradition but he had to struggle against some of its constraints. It is well known that his caste community denied him permission to journey to London to study law for fear that it is not possible to observe caste rules in a foreign country. He persisted against their wishes and was expelled. In India, he formed an ashram community that that included so-called untouchables and members of India’s religious minorities.

Gandhi and Andrews shared a rare and remarkable friendship. They recognized in each other a deep yearning for God and a commitment to the service of the suffering. The love, trust, sharing, and critical questioning that their relationship exemplified are vital for understanding meaningful relations across religious frontiers and instructive as we ponder the challenges of such relationships.

I started this essay by noting that friendship, in the Hindu worldview, is the ideal towards which we must aspire in all relationships. A person who realizes the ideal of friendship overcomes the dualism of friend and enemy and sees all beings with the vision of friendship. Gandhi reached for this ideal in his relationships even with those against whom he struggled. It is well known that he made a pair of sandals for General Jan Smuts who imprisoned him in South Africa. He wrote polite letters to his adversaries, including Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India and signed such letters with the words. “Your friend, M.K. Gandhi.”

Interreligious friendship is a particular expression of this universal ideal of friendship between human beings. It is made possible by the universal ideal of friendship that enables us, in the first instance, to reach out to human beings across constructed boundaries. As a particular relationship, it has its own potential and challenges arising, in part, from differences in doctrine and ritual. Gandhi and Andrews help us to see, powerfully, that religious difference is not, in and of itself, a barrier to such relationships. They remind us that such friendships do not occur between traditions, but between human beings with different visions of truth. The challenge of interreligious friendship is no small one, but is made possible when such relationships are nourished in the fertile soil of mutual trust, identity with the other, generosity, and freedom to question and be questioned. There are, as we have seen, risks in such friendships, but the Gandhi-Andrews relationship is a resounding “yes” to interreligious friendship and an invitation to share its rich possibilities. I conclude with the words of Charles Andrews summing up what his friend meant to him.

Our hearts met from the first moment we saw one another and they have remained united by the strongest ties of love ever since. To be with him was an inspiration which awakened all that was best in me and gave me a high courage, enkindled and enlightened by his own.[24]

Practical Suggestions

1. Interreligious friendships are not possible without the existence of religious differences. An attitude to other religions that problematizes the fact of religious difference and devotes itself to the ideal of homogenization is not conducive to the formation of interreligious friendships. We need to promote a culture that values commitment to faith traditions while promoting the sharing of wisdom across traditions and a value and respect for religious diversity. Diversity is not a problem to be overcome and our discourse about religious diversity should never be framed in these terms.

2. The deep meaning and value of human friendship is exploited and trivialized when it is employed as a part of a strategic plan to proselytize and win converts. Such instrumentalization of friendship causes mistrust and suspicion and leads to the construction of defensive barriers. Friendship should not be used as a ploy in a program of conversion.

3. Friendship is meaningful when the relationship is informed by a willingness to receive and to give, to teach and to be taught. The mutuality of giving and receiving in friendship is possible only when friends are willing to profess their distinctive understandings of truth, but to admit also that truth exceeds all finite human formulations and expressions. We need, like Mahatma Gandhi and Charles Andrews, to recognize that truth is not limited by the boundaries of our traditions and may be discovered in deeper ways through friendships with persons of other religions.

4. The understanding of our neighbors of other faiths is an important need in our contemporary context of life in religiously diverse communities. The religious traditions of our neighbors are embodied in their lives and entering into friendships with them deepens our understanding of their tradition and what it means to them. Opportunities and spaces for such friendships must be welcome and encouraged.

5. Interreligious friendships must not mean that we conceal our core theological commitments and values. Mature friendships allow us to question and to be questioned, avoiding superficiality and dogmatism. This is the ideal that we recommend, but recognize that such a relationship requires profound trust that is not always immediate. Like all other meaningful relationships, interreligious friendships require effort and commitment and their demands must not be underestimated. The models that we recommend should reflect the honesty of mutual questioning and criticism.

6. Theological learning and sharing nourish interreligious friendships. These relationships also grower stronger and more meaningful through shared commitments to justice and the service of the oppressed and disadvantaged. Such commitments give meaning to friendship and are especially important in the context of our shared communities.

7. Although the theological barriers to interreligious friendships are lower in the Hindu tradition, there are other barriers. Caste and Hindu nationalist ideology are examples of such problems. Our discussion of theological issues cannot be separate from the social and political realities that also affect human relationships across traditions.


[1] I concur with Nesbitt who, in her discussion of the Sikh, tradition identifies caste, rather than religion, as more problematic to friendship. The same is true of Hinduism.

[2] Cited in David McI. Gracie ed., Gandhi and Charlie: The Story of a Friendship (Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1989), 41.

[3] Cited in K.L. Seshagiri Rao, Mahatma Gandhi and C.F. Andrews (Patiala: Punjabi University, 1969),11.

[4] Mahatma Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers (New York: Continuum, 2001), 61.

[5] Mahatma Gandhi and C.F. Andrews, 64.

[6] All Men Are Brothers, 34.

[7] Gandhi and Charlie, 3.

[8] Ibid., 61. Italics mine.

[9] Ibid, 97-98. Italics mine.

[10] Shriman Narayan, The Voice of Truth (Ahmedabad: The Navajivan Trust, 1969), 267.

[11] M.K Gandhi, All Religions are True, ed. A. T. Hingorani (Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1962), p. 231.

[12] Cited in Mahatma Gandhi and C.F. Andrews, p.44.

[13] Diana Eck, Encountering God (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 223.

[14] Gandhi and Charlie, 19-20.

[15] M. K. Gandhi, The Message of Jesus Christ (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1963), 42.

[16] Gandhi and Charlie,138.

[17] M.K. Gandhi, All Religions Are True, p.22.

[18] Ibid., 175. Italics mine.

[19] Mahatma Gandhi and C. F. Andrews, 54.

[20] The Message of Jesus Christ, p.52.

[21] Ibid., p.63

[22] Ibid., p.61

[23] http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=5031. Accessed 15 December 2012.

[24] C.F. Andrews, What I Owe to Christ (New York: Abingdgon Press, 1932), p.222-23.