An article published in the American The Leader 3rd October 1931 is even today, after 83 years, still relevant and worth introspecting. There are countless thinking people of the world who have understood Gandhi in depth and consider his philosophy important. Today his philosophy is even more relevant and coherent. People like Gandhi and Jesus can never be killed. They will rise from the dead and continue their teaching. Let us respectfully accept his eternal message from his soul.
If Gandhi were to visit America today, the first thing he would do is to explain the meaning of their religion to them. This might sound odd to the readers for two reasons.
First because Gandhi was not a Christian, he was a Hindu, albeit he was closely associated with Christianity. He has many times mention having been influence by and has expressed his debt to the ‘New Testament’ and more specially the Sermon on the Mount, though he is totally immersed in the religion he was born into.
Second, in the west, people one does not see any outward signs of their religion in appearance or behaviour. When Gandhi was in jail, he used to read the Bhagwat Gita and not the Bible for peace of mind and to comfort his soul. In his morning and evening prayers he did not pray to the Christian trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but to the Gods of his land. It is impossible to visualize him wearing the roman papal vestments or to picture him standing in front of the altar in a church or to see him sitting comfortably with the protestant worshippers.
When Gandhi was in South Africa, he once entered a protestant church where a dear friend of his, Andrews, was delivering a sermon. He was quietly told that the church was only for the whites and therefore he could not enter it.
Therefore technically or formally he was not a Christian nor does he exhibit any characteristic which we in the west associate with Christianity, then why do I claim that he can teach us something about Christianity? Nevertheless, we should remember that this very same question had presented itself about Jesus of Nazareth and that he too was not a Christian; he was a Jew and did not go to a Church but was brought up in the surroundings of the synagogue. He had never read the New Testament and he prayed to the Israeli god Jehovah. It is as difficult to imagine Gandhi in a church as it is to picture Jesus on the throne of Saint Peters.
The idea of Jesus entering any of the churches in America or Europe is so incongruent that I would venture to be audacious enough to say that Jesus of Nazareth would not be welcome in any of the Protestant churches that I know of if he were to enter New York City today.
After the above introduction, we should understand that the essence of Christianity does not lie in churches and chapels or even in its rituals, philosophical thoughts or seminar halls; rather it is a matter related to life and existence. Life should be full of compassion, forgiveness, free of hatred and love for even our enemies.
This key to life free of hatred, a friend of the enemy, and love for all mankind was discovered by Gandhi and lived by only Jesus in his lifetime. Gandhi was an epitome of this philosophy and mastered it completely. That is why only a Hindu saint, more than anyone else, can teach us, the Americans, the meaning of Christianity which we discuss a lot but follow only in a shallow manner.
One other thing that Gandhi could teach us and the world is simplicity and moderation.
There was a time when life in America was simple and uncomplicated and had become a way of life for the people. A simple life uncomplicated from extreme materialism and freedom from the rat race like that we see today. It has to be admitted that this uncomplicated and simple life style was more due to circumstances, out of necessity and forced on them. For many generations the new colonist and their heirs remained loyal to the highest values of simplicity.
Ralph Waldo Emerson internalised the words of Wordsworth and commanded his contemporaries to adopt a life of simple living and high thinking. More recently Theodore Roosevelt reminded us the about adopting simplicity in our lives. The President recommended the reading of the famous book The Simple Life by Pastor Wager, though he was not as influential in his later years as he was in the earlier phase of his tenure. Money has crushed our mind. Materialism and amassing of material goods is ensnarling us.
It seems laughable to think about Gandhi coming here to America and living among us because on the one hand we live a life of indulgence and luxury and on the other to see Gandhi with a simple loin cloth around his waist, with his legs below the knees exposed. A handful of dates were enough food for him and sleeping on a hard floor with only a blanket spread out under him instead of a cot was all he asked for.
Mahatma’s ideal and ascetic life style can only be understood in the background of the oriental (eastern) culture which has become a way of life with the eastern people. The importance of these customs can only be fathomed when we see one man who understood this culture and adopted it, on behalf of the poor of his country, as a tool to fight the political and economic exploitation by the most successful imperialistic nation. This man’s piece of cloth around his waist, his fistful of dates and cup of goat’s milk is not just a symbol of India’s struggle for independence but is a manifestation of the man’s soul which has experienced the eternal beauty of truth. The same truth that Jesus Christ discovered: life is superior to food and body is more than the clothes.
Mahatma Gandhi’s simplicity of dress and food did not just indicate the beauty of his religion but also manifested the essential power of his faith which was perceptible. His real strength came from the fact that he did not have anything material to lose in the struggle he had started and that is why he did not fear the consequences. It is well known that the more material possessions one has the weaker it makes the person. The more the person has accumulated, the more he fears. Those nations which have colonized more land, have great fortunes and have built up empires of business in other nations fear war and rumours about war. Only a poor man feels secure and only a small nation is fearless.
An incident before partition: Gandhji had gone to attend the All India Congress meeting at Karachi. Many socialist went to meet him. They went not only to quarrel with him but maybe also assault him. The same day that he reached Karachi, the British Government in India had hanged three Indians for the murder of a British officer. There was unrest all over the country due to this hanging. These socialists had a grudge against Gandhi that he did nothing to save these three unfortunate young Indians. Had Gandhi’s assistants not saved him in time, these socialists would have injured him or even killed him. These visitors then asked Gandhi to meet their representative. Gandhi not only agreed to meet them but met them in solitude.
When these inexperienced agitated youth started talking to him in anger, Gandhi listened to them in peace and restrain. And then what he told them only the Mahatma could have said it. He said, "If you kill me, I will have no complaint against you. You can see I have no bodyguard. Only God looks after me. Just because I love my enemies some people think I am mad and some think I am foolish! But this is the foundation of my faith and my whole life’s work. There is nothing that I possess now which I need to give up. I do not have any worldly possessions. I am a beggar, but the day Bharat (India) gives up the noble philosophy of Ahimsa (non-violence), that will be the day I will allow my weak body to get destroyed. You feel that I am causing harm to India and you have the right to think so, but my duty is to keep to the path of love and truth. I have nothing but love to oppose you. I do not want anyone to take the responsibility of guarding mu life; that only God can do. Lord Ram is my protector." Barely had Gandhi finished talking that the young people asked for his forgiveness. The newspaper describing this incident wrote, "They all returned humbled and with a feeling of repentance."
I do not want to do injustice to the American people. I am an out and out American myself! Even then I have to say with sadness that we have become victims of worldly pleasures. It is as if nothing but material possessions excites us! For instance the corruption and impropriety around us does not seem to bother us at all.
At one time an American gentleman who was a Christian priest, a very honest, faithful and generous human being, met Gandhi in India. From all outward appearance he looked an American just like any of us. When asked how he felt sitting across Gandhiji he said, "when I saw the small loin cloth above his knees, my beautiful exquisite attire started pricking me and seeing his pure half naked body and comparing it with my own grand suit, I felt a sense of guilt."
You know what is the greatest fear from our materialism? We have become fearful of enjoying the pleasures of life. Why? We spend our days and nights earning our wealth then why do we feel guilty? It is because when we become engrossed in making money and go after it blindly, our conscience gets blunted and we lose our sensitiveness. This sad truth is depicted in Mathew Arnold’s poem ‘The Buried Life’.