Imitation of Christ? The World's most famous Hindu became the greatest exemplar Of the Sermon on the Mount

- By Harris Wofford

A former senator from Pennsylvania, Harris Wofford wrote with his wife, Clare, the book "India Afire," based on their travels in India in 1949. Shortly before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. read Wofford's 1955 paper advocating Gandhian action in the civil rights movement. Wofford became an adviser to King until his death.

When Mohandas K. Gandhi was killed in 1948, among his spare worldly possessions were about a dozen books, including the "Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ" and the gospel of St. John. On the wall by his side was a picture of Jesus with the words, "He is our peace."

Gandhi's interest in Jesus began early in his life. In England, sent to learn law in l888, the young Hindu was persuaded to read the Bible even before he had studied the Bhagavad Gita and other Indian classics. The Sermon on the Mount, he said, "went straight to my heart": "When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as...'whoever smiteth thee on thy cheek turn to him the other also' I was simply overjoyed."

Later, during his struggles in South Africa, Gandhi called on the Indians of the Transvaal to "stagger humanity without shedding a drop of blood," by following the example of "Gentle Jesus, the greatest passive resister the world has seen." Though Jesus died, Gandhi said, "He lives in the memory of all true sons of God."

In the early 20th century, a favorite debate topic in at least one New England school was: Who is more important, Socrates or Jesus? Part of the question's appeal to lively Christian students may have been the danger of possible sacrilege. Similarly, it may seem sacrilege to some Christians to put Jesus and Gandhi on the same playing field. But would-be saints have always tried to imitate Christ, and Gandhi's aim "to live the Sermon on the Mount" puts him in that tradition, even to the point of martyrdom.

Gandhi--and Socrates, for that matter--would have laughed at the comparison. Both spoke of an inner voice, perhaps of divine inspiration, that told them what not to do. But neither the Indian nor the Athenian made any claim to be an incarnation of God. "Never have I dreamt that I am a Mahatma," Gandhi repeated futilely as people insisted on giving him the reverential title of "Great Soul." He entitled his autobiography "The Story of My Experiments With Truth" and publicly confessed his sins and Himalayan miscalculations.

Gandhi fought off the temptation to see himself as a messiah with a robust sense of humor. His son Devdas, who became a leading newspaper editor in Delhi, said his father's most memorable characteristic was his great contagious laugh. Gandhi's comic spirit is often caught in the films that show him smiling, and his wit became famous. As he climbed the steps of Buckingham Palace to talk with George V at the Roundtable Conference, he was asked if the white sheet he carried around him to cover his loincloth was enough clothing for an imperial reception; he replied, "The King had enough on for both of us."

Until his last, agonized years, Gandhi's gaiety seemed irrepressible. On going to jail for civil disobedience, he once said: "We must widen the prison gates, and we must enter them as a bridegroom enters the bride's chamber." Sentenced to six years imprisonment, Gandhi thanked the judge for his fairness and courtesy, urged his followers to turn from civil disobedience to constructive work, and, amid others' tears, gaily departed for prison, where he soon reported that he was "happy as a bird" and signed himself, "M.K. Gandhi, #827."

Was the historical Jesus like this? No one can say, since he became transfigured into the figure of God. There was one obvious disconnect: Jesus reportedly said that the Kingdom of God is not of this world, and that we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Not Gandhi. He called for every human being to take responsibility for injustice everywhere in this world. He attempted "to revolutionize the political outlook." "Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics," he once said, "do not know what religion means.... Spirituality that has no bearing on and produces no effect on everyday life is an 'airy nothing.'"

The redemptive power of suffering that Jesus brought to a climax in the crucifixion, Gandhi turned into a political strategy: "Nonviolence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evildoer, but it means putting of one's whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honor, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire's fall or its regeneration."

Martin Luther King brought that strategy to America, saying he had gained his Christian ideals from his own background, and from Gandhi he learned his operational technique. "Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale," said King. "Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social transformation."

In the American "season of suffering" that King led, and India's struggles in Gandhi's time, as well as in early Christianity under the Roman Empire, this kind of love transcended mere technique. "Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities," King wrote, quoting Gandhi that "Things of fundamental importance to people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering. Suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason."

Gandhi, who lived longer than King (or Socrates or Jesus), was the most ready for martyrdom. His agony over the partition of India, which he took as his personal failure, was overwhelming. "You can cut me in two," he pleaded, "but don't cut India in two." In the wake of partition, he said he had lost all desire to live longer.

As partition took effect and millions of refugees were forced from their homes as violence by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs swept the land, the 78-year-old Gandhi undertook the last resort of a nonviolent soldier: a fast unto death.

Sixteen years before, he had undertaken a fast-unto-death to move his Hindu compatriots to end the terrible caste discrimination of untouchability. At the end of that fast, Gandhi had said, "I want to live to be 125...not merely to see India politically free but also to see how I can help to bring about the Ram Raja [Holy Raj] of my dreams." But he then warned, "If I survive the struggle for freedom, I might have to give nonviolent battle to my countrymen."

That's what he was doing in his last fast. For a moment, history stood still and Gandhi's old magic seemed to work. Leaders of all the religious communities came to his bedside and solemnly promised communal peace. Nehru's cabinet agreed, albeit reluctantly, to send to the new Islamic state of Pakistan its share of the Indian treasury. When Gandhi broke his fast, and a few days later was strong enough to resume his daily public prayer meeting, he refused police protection despite the cries of "Death to Gandhi" that had been heard. In the garden, a fanatical young man who believed Gandhi had emasculated Hindu India met Gandhi face to face and pulled the trigger.

The vision of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain and his night in the garden of Gethsemane goes beyond anything in the very human story of Gandhi's life and death. No voice out of the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him." But in the winter of l948, in the first worldwide mourning in the history of mankind, hundreds of millions of Indians seemed to be hearing him, if only for a short time.

No worldwide church will emerge from Gandhi's ashes, but his spirit came to America in the decade of Martin Luther King, and for a while, in the last decades of the 20th century, experiments with truth and nonviolent direct action, not unlike Gandhi's, played a part in the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the end of apartheid in South Africa, and in the protests of Chinese youth.

Will Gandhi's ideas live on in the 21st century? Combining the comic spirit of a little man trying to transform a mighty empire, with the tragic dimension that has the greatest power to open ears and hearts, isn't Gandhi the kind of passionate hero our cool time needs not a messiah, not a saint, but nevertheless a Great Soul?