Gandhi, Christ and Christianity

- By Pascal Alan Nazareth*

Gandhi's fundamental contribution in the field of religion was to give primacy to Truth and rationality rather than conformity to traditional practices. In fact he made Truth the basis of all morality by declaring: "I reject any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality".1

Though a deeply devout Hindu, Gandhi's basic approach to all religions was 'sarvadharma samabhav' (equal respect for all religions). For him all religions had equal status and were different paths to the same goal of achieving union with the Divine. His religion was that "which transcends Hinduism, which changes one's very nature, binds one indissolubly to the truth within and ever purifies. It is the permanent element in human nature which leaves the soul restless until it has found itself, known its maker and appreciated the true correspondence between the maker and itself."2 He affirmed "For me different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden or branches of the same majestic tree."3 He often said he was as much a Moslem, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and Parsee as he was Hindu and added "The hands that serve are holier than the lips that pray."4 At his prayer meetings there were readings from all the holy books. His favourite hymn began with the line "He alone is a true devotee of God who understands the pains and sufferings of others."5 His religiosity is therefore best described as a spiritualized humanism.

Gandhi's great respect for Christ and the extent to which he drew inspiration from him are revealed in his following statements: "What does Jesus mean to me? To me, he was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had."6 "Jesus lived and died in vain if He did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.".7

"Jesus, a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act."8

"Jesus was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was non-violence par excellence."9 "Jesus expressed as no other could the spirit and will of God. It is in this sense that I see him and recognize as the Son of God. And because the life of Jesus has the significance and the transcendence to which I have alluded, I believe that he belongs not solely to Christianity but to the entire world, to all races and people. It matters little under what flag, name or doctrine they may work, profess a faith or worship a God inherited from their ancestors."10

Louis Fischer, Gandhi's biographer, reveals that when he arrived at Sewagram Ashram in May 1942 to spend a week with him, he noticed there was "only one decoration on the mud walls of his hut: a black and white print of Jesus Christ with the inscription 'He is our peace.' He asked Gandhi about it, who replied "I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Moslem and a Jew....Looking at all religions with an equal eye, we would not only not hesitate but would think it our duty to blend into our faith every acceptable feature of other faiths."11

Gandhi's great respect for Christ, however, came only after he went to England and South Africa. In his youth he had a strong aversion to Christianity. In his autobiography he writes that whereas he had learnt from his parents, who had many Jain and Moslem friends, to respect religions other than his own "Christianity at that time was an exception. In those days Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their Gods. I could not endure this. I must have stood there only once but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment. About the same time, I heard of a well known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that when he was baptized he had to eat beef and drink liquor, change his clothes and thenceforth go about in English costume including a hat. I also heard that the new convert had begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.'"12

It was in London, towards the end of his second year there, that he was first introduced, through Theosophy, to the Gita, Buddhism and Christianity. Soon thereafter he met a devout Christian, in a vegetarian boarding house, who spoke to him about Christianity. Gandhi confessed his aversion to it since his school days. The Christian replied " I am a vegetarian. I do not drink. Many Christians eat meat and drink; but neither meat eating nor drinking is enjoined by scripture. Do please read the Bible."13 Gandhi agreed and began reading the Bible. Parts of the Old Testament "repelled" him, but the 'Sermon on the Mount' in the New Testament, "went straight to my heart"14 and he "tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, the 'Light of Asia' and the Sermon on the Mount."15 Subsequently he wrote "The New Testament gave me comfort and boundless joy, as it came after the revulsion that parts of the Old Testament had given me. Today, supposing I was deprived of the Gita and forgot all its contents but had a copy of the Sermon on the Mount, I should derive the same joy from it as I do from the Gita"16

On his way back to India after the 1931 Round Table Conference in London he stopped in Lausane (to meet Romain Rolland), and in Rome where he visited St. Peters and the Sistine Chapel. Seeing a painting of the crucified Christ in the latter, he commented "What would not I have given to be able to bow my head before the living image of Christ crucified. I saw there at once that nations like individuals could only be made through the agony of the cross and in no other way. Joy comes not out of infliction of pain on others but out of pain voluntarily borne by oneself."17

In enunciating his educational ideas he wrote "Jesus never uttered a loftier or a grander Truth than when he said that wisdom cometh out of the mouth of babes. I believe it. If we are to reach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children."18

Writing about Art he stated "Jesus was to my mind a supreme artist because he saw and expressed Truth. All true art must help the soul to realize its inner self. ....Truth is the first thing to be sought for and beauty and goodness will then be added unto you. True art takes note not merely of form but also of what lies beyond."19

When his Trusteeship concept was criticized as too idealistic he defended it thus "The question we are asking ourselves today is not a new one. It was addressed to Jesus two thousand years ago. St. Mark has vividly described the scene. Jesus is in a solemn mood. He talks of eternity but is the greatest economist of his time. He has succeeded in economizing time and space; he has transcended them. To him comes a young man, kneels down and asks "Good Master, what shall 1 do that I may have Eternal Life ? " he then goes on to recount the answer that Jesus gave including his affirmation that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." and adds "Here you have an eternal rule of life stated in the noblest words in the English language....The strongest testimony in support of it are the lives of the greatest teachers of the world, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya, Shankara, Dayananda, and Ramakrishna. They all deliberately embraced poverty as their lot."20

In view of his great admiration for Christ, attempts were made by some of his Christian friends to convert him to Christianity, particularly after he attended the Wellington convention in South Africa. About it he wrote " The convention lasted for three days. I could appreciate the devoutness of those who attended it. But I saw no reason for changing my religion. It was impossible for me to believe that I could attain salvation only by becoming a Christian....My reason was not ready to accept that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world. I could accept Jesus as a martyr, as an embodiment of sacrifice and a Divine Teacher but not as the most perfect man ever born........ Though I took a path other than the one my Christian friends had intended for me, I have remained for ever indebted to them for the religious quest that they awakened in me."21

Gandhi's "closest friend" Rev. C. F. Andrews, in his book 'Mahatma Gandhi : His Life and Ideas', describes "Satyagraha" as 'Corporate moral resistance"22 and adds "perhaps it would be true to say that since the days of the early Christian Church, no such effective acts of passive resistance have been organized as those which Mahatma Gandhi inspired."23 He gives an extract from Gandhi's 1925 address to Christian Missionaries at YMCA, Calcutta to indicate he had many Christian friends an why he was critical of missionary activities. "Not many of you know that my association with Christians - not Christians so-called but real Christians - dates from 1889, when as a lad 1 found myself in London. That association has ripened as the years have rolled on. In South Africa, where I found myself in the midst of inhospitable surroundings, I was able to make hundreds of Christian friends....... You missionaries come to India thinking you have come to a land of heathen, of idolators, of men who do not know God. One of the greatest Christian divines, Bishop Heber wrote two lines which have always left a sting with me" Where every prospect pleases and only Man is vile" . I wish he had not written them. My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary. I have gone from one end of the country to the other, without any prejudice, in a relentless search after Truth, and I am not able to say that here in this fair land, watered by the great Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Jumna, man is vile. He is not vile. He is as much a seeker after truth as you and I, possibly more so..... When I travel through India I see many Christian Indians

almost ashamed of their birth, certainly of their ancestral religion and of their ancestral dress. The aping of Europeans by the Anglo-Indians is bad enough; but the aping of them byxIndian converts is a violence done to their country, and shall I Say, even to their new religion.... Conversion must not mean denationalization. Conversion should mean a definite giving up of the evil of the old, adoption of all the good of the new and a scrupulous avoidance of everything evil in the new. Conversion therefore should mean a life of greater dedication to one's own country, greater surrender to God, greater self purification."24

Andrews then goes on to add "It must not be thought that Mahatma Gandhi's attitude towards Indian Christians and towards European missionaries was always critical. On the contrary, many of his most devoted followers and friends are among them. In South Africa some of the noblest of the passive resisters were Indian Christians. Besides his whole hearted appreciation of Indian Christianity is seen in his deeply touching tribute to Sushil Kumar Rudra, Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi, on his demise on January 30, in which he stated "I would ask my reader to share my grief over the death of an esteemed friend and silent public servant, Principal Sushil Kumar Rudra. He was a first class educationist. As principal he made himself universally popular. There was a kind of spiritual bond between him and his pupils. Though he was a Christian, he had room in his bosom for Hinduism and Islam, for both of which he had high veneration. His was not an exclusive Christianity that condemned to perdition everyone who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the only saviour of the world. Jealous of the reputation of his own, he was tolerant of other faiths....Ever since my return home in 1915 I had been his guest whenever I had occasion to go to New Delhi....The reader might not be aware that my open letter to the Viceroy giving concrete shape to the Khilafat claim was conceived and drafted under Principal Rudra's roof. He and Charlie Andrews were my revisonists. Non-Cooperation was conceived and hatched under his hospitable roof. He was a silent but deeply interested spectator at the private conference that took place between the Ali brothers, other Muslim friends and me. He exemplified in his life the truth that religious perception gives one a correct sense of proportion, resulting in a beautiful harmony between action and belief."25 Of all of Gandhi's Indian Christian disciples, S. K. George was the most emphatic about the gratitude which Christianity and the West owed to Gandhi. He wrote "My proposition that a true Christian in India must necessarily be a Gandhiite, is born of the conviction that Gandhi today is giving a practical demonstration of the applicability of the teachings of Jesus the Master, to modern problems. That was a sorely needed demonstration. The Christian Church despite all its adoration of Jesus, its exaltation of him to the throne of Divinity, has all along relegated his teachings as impracticable idealism. His great enunciation of the law of love as the only rule of life for man as a child of God, though repeated ad nauseam by professing Christians, has continuously been given the go-by in Christian practice, corporate and individualyModern politics and economics, with their dread alternatives of a unified world order or internecine conflict in a world made one, and threatened with extinction by science, may yet compel the West to turn to the teachings of Jesus as offering the only way out."26

Gandhi's American disciple, Martin Luther King wrote in his book 'Strength to Love ' "A religion that professes a concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them , is a spiritually moribund religion"27 and added " The whole Gandhian concept of Satyagraha (which means Truth Force or Love Force ) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished and 1 came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of non-violence is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom... Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method."28

Will Durant, in volume 1 of his 'The Story of Civilization' lauds Gandhi thus "He did not mouth the name of Christ, but acted as if he accepted every word on the Sermon on the Mount. Not since St. Francis of Assisi has any life known to history been so marked by gentleness, disinterestedness, simplicity and forgiveness of enemies."29

Writing from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton concludes his Foreword to 'Gandhi on Non Violence' as follows "Gandhi's principles are extremely pertinent today, more pertinent even than when they were conceived and worked out in practice in the ashrams and villages of India. They are pertinent for everybody but especially for those interested in implementing the principles expressed Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris. Indeed this Encyclical has the breadth and depth, the universality and tolerance of Gandhi's peace-minded outlook. Peace cannot be built on exclusivism, absolutism and intolerance; neither can it be built on vague liberal slogans and pious programs gestated in the smoke of confabulation. There can be no peace on earth without the inner change that brings man to his "right mind". Gandhi's observations on the prerequisites and disciplines involved in Satyagraha, the vow of Truth, are required reading for anyone seriously interested in man's fate in the nuclear age."30

Notes and References:

  1. Gandhi, M.K. Young India, 12.7.1920
  2. Gandhi, M.K. (1955), My Religion, Compiled/edited by Bharatan Kumarappa, Navjivan Pub.House, Ahmeabad, p. 3
  3. Gandhi, M.K. Young India, 10.11.1928
  4. Gandhi, M. K. (1927) An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Navjivan Publishing House, , Ahmedabad, p. 266
  5. Gandhi, M.K. (1948) Non-Violence in Peace & War, Navjivan Pub. House, Ahmedabad, p8
  6. Deshpande, MS (ed) (1978) Light of India or Message of Mahatmaji, 3rd ed. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House
  7. Gandhi, M.K. (1948): Non Violence in Peace and War, Volume I, p. 181
  8. ibid, Volume II, p. 166
  9. ibid, Volume II, p. 16
  10. Gandhi, M.K. (1955), My Religion, Compiled/edited by Bharatan Kumarappa, Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, p. 25
  11. Fischer, Louis (1950), The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, New York: Harper & Row, p. 416-17
  12. Gandhi, M.K. (1927): An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, p. 22-23
  13. ibid, p. 48
  14. ibid, p. 49;
  15. ibid, p. 49
  16. Gandhi, MJK. (1955), My Religion, op cit. p. 25
  17. ibid, p. 25
  18. Gandhi, M.K. Young India 19/11/1931
  19. Louis Fischer (1950), The Life of Ma hat ma Gandhi, op cit., p. 371
  20. Gandhi for the 21s' Century: Theory of Trusteeship^ 1998), Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. p. 1-4.
  21. Mahatma Gandhi, My Religion, op cit, pp. 13-14
  22. Andrews,C.F.(2005), Mahatma Gandhi: His Life and Ideas', Bombay: Jaico Publishing House, p. 132
  23. ibid, p. 132
  24. ibid, pp. 38^1
  25. ibid, pp. 58-60 ^
  26. George, S. K. (1947): Gandhi's Challenge to Christianity, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad p. xi
  27. King, Martin Luther Jr. (1963), Strength to Love: Pilgrimage to Non- Violence, Glasgow: William Collins Sons Ltd, p. 150
  28. ibid, p. 151
  29. Durant, Will (1935), The Story of Civilization, Vol. 1: Our Oriental Heritage, New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 628
  30. Merton, Thomas (1964) Gandhi on Non-Violence, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, p. 20