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The Gentle Revolutionary

By Thomas Merton

In 1931 Gandhi, who had been released from prison a few months before, came to London for a conference. The campaign of civil disobedience which had had begun with the Salt March had recently ended. Now there were to be negotiations. He walked through the autumn fogs of London in clothes that were good for the tropics, not for England. He lived in the slums of London, coming from there to more noble buildings in which he conferred with statesmen. The English smiled at his bald head, his naked brown legs, the thin underpinnings of an old man who ate very little, who prayed. This was Asia, wise, disconcerting, in many ways unlovely, but determined upon some inscrutable project and probably very holy. Yet was it practical for statesmen to have conferences with a man reputed to be holy? What was the meaning of the fact that one could be holy, and fast, and pray, and be in jail, and be opposed to England all at the same time?

Gandhi thus confronted the England of the depression as a small, disquieting question mark. Everybody knew him, and many jokes were made about him. He was also respected.  But respect implied neither agreement nor comprehension. It indicated nothing except that the man had gained public attention, and this was regarded as an achievement. Then, as now, no one particularly bothered to ask if the achievement signified something.

Yet I remember arguing about Gandhi in my school dormitory: chiefly against the football captain, the head prefect, who had come to turn out the flickering gaslight, and who stood with one hand in his pocket and a frown on his face which was not illuminated with understanding. I insisted that Gandhi was right, that India was, with perfect justice, demanding that the British withdraw peacefully and go home; that the millions of people who lived in India had a perfect right to run their own country. Such sentiments were of course beyond comprehension. How could Gandhi be right when he was odd? And how could I be right if I was on the side of someone who had the wrong kind of skin, and left altogether too much of it exposed?

A counterargument was offered but it was not an argument. It was a basic and sweeping assumption that the people of India were political and moral infants, incapable of taking care of themselves, backward people, primitive, uncivilized, benighted pagan, who could not survive without the English to do their thinking and planning for them. The British Raj was, in fact, a purely benevolent, civilizing enterprise for which the Indians were not suitably grateful……

Infuriated at the complacent and idiocy of this argument, I tried to sleep and failed.

Certain events have taken place since that time.  Within a dozen years after Gandhi’s visit to London there were more hideous barbarities perpetrated in Europe, with greater violence and more unmitigated fury than all that had ever been attributed by the wildest imaginations to the despots of Asia. The British Empire collapsed. India attained self-rule. It did so peacefully and with dignity. Gandhi paid with his life for the ideals in which he believed.

As one looks back over this period of confusion and decline in the West, the cold war, and chaos and struggle of the world that was once colonial, there is one political figure who stands out from all the rest as an extraordinary leader of men. He is radically different from the others. Not that the others did not on occasion bear witness to the tradition of which they were proud because it was Christian. They were often respectable, sometimes virtuous men, and many of them were sincerely devout. Others were at least genteel. Others, of course, were criminals. Judging by their speeches, their programs, their expressed motives, they were civilized. Yet the best that could be said of them may be that they sometimes combined genuine capability and subjective honesty.  But apart from that they seemed to be the powerless victims of a social dynamic that they were able neither to control nor to understand.  They never seemed to dominate events, only to rush breathlessly after the parade of cataclysms, explaining why these had happened, and not aware of how they themselves had helped precipitate the worst of disasters. Thus with all their good intentions, they were able at best to rescue themselves after plunging blindly in directions quite other than those in which they claimed to be going. In the name of peace, they wrought enormous violence and destruction. In the name of liberty they exploited and enslaved. In the name of man they engaged in genocide or tolerated it. In the name of truth they systematically falsified and perverted truth.

Gandhi on the other hand was dedicated to peace, and though he was engaged in a bitter struggle for national liberation, he achieved this by peaceful means. He believed in serving the truth by non-violence, and his non-violence was effective insofar as it began first within himself, as obedience to the deepest truth in himself. 

 It is certainly true that Gandhi is not above all criticism, no man is.  But it is evident that he was unlike all the other world leaders of his time in that his life was marked by a wholeness and a wisdom, an integrity and a spiritual consistency that the others lacked, or manifested only in reverse, in consistent fidelity to a dynamism of evil and destruction. There may be limitations in Gandhi’s thought, and his work has not borne all the fruit he himself would have hoped.  These are factors which he himself sagely took into account, and having reckoned with them all, he continued to pursue the course he had chosen simply because he believed it to be true. His way was no secret: it was simply to follow conscience without regard for the consequences to himself, in the belief that this was demanded of him by God and that the results would be the work of God. Perhaps indeed for a long time these results would remain hidden as God’s secret.  But in the end the truth would manifest itself.

What has Gandhi to do with Christianity?  Everyone knows that the Orient has venerated Christ and distrusted Christians since the first colonizers and missionaries came from the West.

Western Christians often assume without much examination that this oriental respect for Christ is simply a vague, syncretistic and perhaps romantic evasion of the challenge of the Gospel: an attempt to absorb the Christian message into the confusion and inertia which are thought to be characteristic of Asia. The point does not need to be argued here. Gandhi certainly spoke often of Jesus, whom he had learned to know through Tolstoy. And Gandhi knew the New Testament thoroughly. Whether or not Gandhi “believed in” Jesus in the sense that he had genuine faith in the Gospel would be very difficult to demonstrate, and it is not my business to prove it or disprove it.  I think that the effort to do so would be irrelevant in any case.  What is certainly true is that Gandhi not only understood the ethic of the Gospel as well, if not in some ways better, than most Christians, but he is one of the very few men of our time who applied Gospel principles to the problems of a political and social existence in such a way that his approach to these problems was inseparably religious and political at the same time. 

 He did this not because he thought that these principles were novel and interesting, or because they seemed expedient, or because of a compulsive need to feel spiritually secure. The religious basis of Gandhi’s political action was not simply a program, in which politics were marshalled into the service of faith, and brought to bear on the charitable objectives of a religious institution. For Gandhi, strange as it may seem to us, political action had to be by its very nature “religious” in the sense that it had to be informed by principles of religious and philosophical wisdom. To separate religion and politics was in Gandhi’s eyes “madness” because his politics rested on a thoroughly religious interpretation of reality, of life, and of man’s place in the world. Gandhi’s whole concept of man’s relation to his own inner being and to the world objects around him was informed by the contemplative heritage of Hinduism, together with the principles of Karma Yoga which blended, in his thought with the ethic of the Synoptic Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount.  In such a view, politics had to be understood in the context of service and worship in the ancient sense of leitourgia (liturgy, public work). Man’s intervention in the active life of society was at the same time by its very nature svadharma, his own personal service (of God and man) and worship, yajna. Political action therefore was not a means to acquire security and strength for one’s self and one’s party, but a means of witnessing to the truth and the reality of the cosmic structure by making one’s own proper contribution to the order willed by God. One could thus preserve one’s integrity and peace, being detached from results (which are in the hands of God) and being free from the inner violence that comes from division and untruth, the usurpation of someone else’s dharma in place of one’s own svadharma. These perspectives lent Gandhi’s politics their extraordinary spiritual force and religious realism.

The success with which Gandhi applied this spiritual force to political action makes him uniquely important in our age.  More than that, it gives him a very special importance for Christians. Our attitude to politics tends to be abstract, diverse and often highly ambiguous.  Political action is by definition secular and unspiritual. It has no really religious significance.  Yet it is important to the Church as an institution in the world.  It has therefore an official significance. We look to the Church to clarify principle and offer guidance, and in addition to that we are grateful if a Christian party of some sort comes to implement the program that has thus been outlined for us. This is all well and good. But Gandhi emphasized the importance of the individual person entering political action with a fully awakened and operative spiritual power in himself, the power of Satyagraha, non-violent dedication to truth, a religious and spiritual force, a wisdom born of fasting and prayer. This is the charismatic and personal force of the saints, and we must admit that we have tended to regard it with mistrust and unbelief, as though it were mere “enthusiasm” and “fanaticism.” This is a lamentable mistake, because for one thing it tends to short circuit the power and light of grace, and it suggests that spiritual dedication is and must remain something entirely divorced from political action: something for the prie dieu, the sacristy or the study, but not for the marketplace. This in turn has estranged from the Church those whose idealism and generosity might have inspired a dedicated and creative intervention in political life.  These have found refuge in groups dominated by a confused pseudo-spirituality, or by totalitarian messianism. Gandhi remains in our time as a sign of the genuine union of spiritual fervor and social action in the midst of a hundred pseudo-spiritual crypto-fascist, or communist movements in which the capacity for creative and spontaneous dedication is captured, debased and exploited by the false prophets.

In a time where the unprincipled fabrication of lies and systematic violation of agreement has become a matter of course in power politics, Gandhi made this unconditional devotion to truth the mainspring of his social action.  Once again, the radical difference between him and other leaders, even the most sincere and honest of them, becomes evident by the fact that Gandhi is chiefly concerned with truth and with service, svadharma, rather than with the possible success of his tactics upon other people, and paradoxically it was his religious conviction that made Gandhi a great politician rather than a mere tactician or operator.  Note that Satyagraha is matter for a vow, therefore of worship, adoration of the God of truth, so that his whole political structure is built on this and his other vows (Ahimsa, etc.) and becomes an entirely religious system.  The vow of Satyagraha is the vow to die rather than say what one does not mean.

The profound significance of Satyagraha becomes apparent when one reflects that “truth” here implies much more than simply conforming one’s words to one’s inner thought. It is not by words only that we speak. Our aims, our plans of action, our outlook, our attitudes, our habitual response to the problems and challenges of life, “speak” of our inner being and reveal our fidelity or infidelity to God and to ourselves.  Our very existence, our life itself contains an implicit pretension to meaning, since all our free acts are implicit commitments, selections of “meanings” which we seem to find confronting us.  Our very existence is “speech” interpreting reality. But the crisis of truth in the modern world comes from the bewildering complexity of the almost infinite contradictory propositions and claims to meaning uttered by millions of acts, movements, changes, decisions, attitudes, gestures, events, going on all around us.  Most of all a crisis of truth is precipitated when men realize that almost all these claims to meaning and value are in fact without significance, when they are not in great part entirely fraudulent. 

The tragedy of modern society lies partly in the fact that it is condemned to utter an infinite proliferation of statements when it has nothing to reveal except its own meaninglessness, its dishonesty, its moral indigence, its inner divisions, its abject spiritual void, its radical and self-destructive spirit of violence.

 Satyagraha for Gandhi meant first of all refusing to say “nonviolence” and “peace” when one meant “violence” and “destruction.” However, his wisdom differed from ours in this: he knew that in order to speak truth he must rectify more than his inner intention. It was not enough to say “love” and intend love thereafter proving the sincerity of one’s own intentions by demonstrating the insincerity of one’s adversary.  “Meaning” is not a mental and subjective adjustment. For Gandhi, a whole lifetime of sacrifice was barely enough to demonstrate the sincerity with which he made a few simple claims: that he was not lying, that he did not intend to use violence or deceit against the English, that he did not think that peace and justice could be attained through violent or selfish means, that he did genuinely believe they could be assured by nonviolence and self-sacrifice.

Gandhi’s religio-political action was based on an ancient metaphysic of man, a philosophical wisdom which is common to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity: that “truth is the inner law of our being.”  Not that man is merely an abstract essence, and that our action must be based on logical fidelity to a certain definition of man. Gandhi’s religious action is based on a religious intuition of being in man and in the world, and his vow of truth is a vow of fidelity to being in all its accessible dimensions. His wisdom is based on experience more than on logic. Hence the way of peace is the way of truth, of fidelity to wholeness and being, which implies a basic respect for life not as concept, not as a sentimental figment of the imagination, but its deepest, most secret and most fontal reality. The first and fundamental trust is to be sought in respect for our own inmost being, and this in turn implies the recollectedness and the awareness which attune us to that silence in which a lone Being speaks to us in all its simplicity. 

Therefore Gandhi, recognized as no other world leader of our time, had done the necessity to be free from pressures, the exorbitant and tyrannical demands of a society that is violent because it is essentially greedy, lustful and cruel. Therefore he fasted, observed days of silence, lived frequently in retreat, knew the value of solitude, as well as of the totally generous expenditure of his time and energy in listening to others and communicating with them.  He recognized the impossibility of being a peaceful and nonviolent man if one submits passively to the insatiable requirements of a society maddened by overstimulation and obsessed with the demons of noise, voyeurism and speed.

“JESUS DIED IN VAIN,” said Gandhi, “if he did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.”  Strange that he should use this expression. It seems to imply at once concern and accusation.  As Asians sometimes do, Gandhi did not hesitate to confront Christendom with the principles of Christ.  Not that he judged Christianity, but he suggested that the professedly Christian civilization of the West was in fact judging itself by its own acts and its own fruits. There are certain Christian and humanitarian elements in Democracy, and if they are absent, Democracy finds itself on trial, weighed in the balance, and no amount of verbal protestations can prevent it from being found wanting. Events themselves will proceed inexorably to their conclusion. Pacem in Terris has suggested the same themes to the meditation of modern Europe, America and Russia. “Civilization” must learn to prove its claims by a capacity for the peaceful and honest settlement of disputes, by genuine concern for justice toward people who have been shamelessly exploited and races that have been systematically oppressed, or the historical pre-eminence of the existing powers will be snatched from them by violence, perhaps in a disaster of cosmic proportions.

Gandhi believed that the central problem of our time was the acceptance or the rejection of a basic law of love and of truth which had been made known to the world in traditional religions and most clearly by Jesus Christ. Gandhi himself expressly and very clearly declared himself an adherent of this one law. His whole life, his political action, finally, even his death, was nothing but a witness to his commitment.  “IF LOVE IS NOT THE LAW OF OUR BEING THE WHOLE OF MY ARGUMENT FALLS TO PIECES.”

What remains to be said? It is true that Gandhi expressly dissociated himself from Christianity in its visible and institutional forms. But it is also true that he built his whole life and all his activity upon what he conceived to be the law of Christ. In fact, he died for this law which was at the heart of his belief. Gandhi was indisputably sincere and right in his moral commitment to the law of love and truth. A Christian can do nothing greater than follow his own conscience with a fidelity comparable to that with which Gandhi obeyed what he believed to be the voice of God. Gandhi is, it seems to me, a model of integrity whom we cannot afford to ignore, and the one basic duty we all owe to the world of our time is to imitate him in “dissociating ourselves from evil in total disregard of the consequences.” May God mercifully grant us the grace to be half as sincere and half as generous as was this great leader, one of the noblest men of our century.

From: Ramparts, San Francisco, December 1964