Mahatma Gandhi and the Sermon on the Mount
- Dr. P.T. Subrahmanyan
Gandhi came in touch with the Sermon on the Mount while in London. Sermon's resemblance with the didactic stanza of Shamal Bhatt only made this attraction possible. He drew great inspiration from Jesus' teachings in the Sermon concerning doing good to evil. Later the Sermon became an important source for developing his Satyagraha philosophy of non-violence and non-resistance. However, Gandhi differed with the traditional interpretation given to the Sermon by the western Christianity. While Christian theologians negated the message of the Sermon, Gandhi showed its practical relevance in the public affairs of the world. Further Gandhi found the Indian tradition of ahimsa present in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon and assimilated its spirit into his life and thought.
There is a soul to soul relation between Gandhi and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. As a Sanatani Hindu, his eclectic mind was open to assimilate the message of Jesus in the Sermon and to make it as his own. In modern times, than many Christians, Gandhi drew the attention of the world to the noble message of the Sermon on the Mount. He reiterated its relevance for the peaceful living of humanity. Moreover, he has practically shown its application, especially its teaching on non-violence to the public affairs of life. This article is an attempt to see Gandhi's views on the Sermon and his unrelenting effort to bring its worthiness to modern life.
Gandhi's Acquaintance with the Bible
Gandhi had the chance to read the Bible during his stay in London through his Christian contacts. He says about this acquaintance with the Bible that: "Even when I was 18, I came in touch with good Christians in London...who placed the Bible in my hand."1 Gandhi in his autobiography very specifically mentions about "...a good Christian from Manchester,”2 who was a vegetarian and happened to meet in a hotel (whose name has not been revealed by Gandhi). He gave Gandhi the first copy of the Bible; that might have happened probably in the year 1888. Gandhi promised to that man that he would read the Bible.
However, when Gandhi started reading the first part of the Bible, namely the Old Testament, it bored Gandhi, as it sent him to sleep. However, he read it just for the sake of reading it as he says: "I could not...take much interest in the Old Testament, which I had certainly read, if only to fulfil a promise I had made to a friend whom I happened to meet in a hotel."3 But the second part of the Bible, the New Testament and very particularly the Sermon on the Mount part of the St. Mathew's Gospel attracted him, which he described very elaborately in his autobiography.4 He says: "But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart."5 These differences of feelings felt by Gandhi while reading the Old Testament and New Testament clearly denotes the Indian mind's approach to Old Testament and New Testament. The experience of reading the Old Testament is generally disliked by Indians, as the experience of Gandhi shows. Therefore, the Old Testament is unwelcome and ambiguous in Indian context, while the New Testament is warmly welcomed and received wholeheartedly. Gandhi himself states about this difference between the Old and the New Testaments, that: "Between the Old and the New there is a fundamental difference. Whilst the Old [have] some very deep truths, I am unable to pay it the same honours I pay to the New Testament."6 Probably, the presence of frequent wars and bloodshed in the pages of the Old Testament and its justification of the thought of vengeance and retaliation might have brought such a strong dislike for the Old Testament in the mind of Gandhi. Hence, the Old Testament brought repulsion and dislike in Gandhi, while the New Testament and its Sermon on the Mount part overjoyed him. About which he say: "it delighted me beyond measure" and "gave me comfort and boundless joy."7
As a result, Gandhi revered the Bible as a sacred book8 and approached it like a devout Christian. He said: "I consider it as part of my scriptures."9 Further on many occasions Gandhi found consolation and derived inspiration and strength from the Bible, particularly from the New Testament.10 Thus, his prayerful study of the New Testament, which he started from London, went on later in South Africa and throughout his life. He acquired a good knowledge of the New Testament. Often he read passages from the Gospels. Mathew's Gospel had a particular appeal to him, as it contained Christ's sayings in the Sermon on the Mount orderly and systematically (Chapters 5-7). However, as Gandhi earlier distinguished the Sermon from the Old Testament and Mosaic Law, later he also distinguished it from the letters of Paul in the New Testament. He thus said: "I draw a great distinction between the Sermon on the Mount and the Letters of Paul. They are a graft on Christ's teachings, his own gloss apart from Christ's own experience.”11 Hence, for Gandhi, the Sermon alone contained the message of Jesus and he was therefore very selective in his admiration and assimilation of the teachings of the Bible, to the extent of calling him as a "Sermon-on the-Mount Christian," with his known partiality for the Sermon.
The Sermon on the Mount
Shamal Bhatt was a medieval Gujarati narrative poet and he played a great role in initiating Gandhi towards the Sermon. Bhatt's noble mind and imagination and very particularly his pictorial description of returning tenfold goodness to whatever is done to us, through a didactic stanza has really attracted Gandhi's childhood mind. In fact, Gandhi learned from this poem that, the real beauty consists in doing good against evil. About which he states: "A Gujarati didactic stanza...gripped my mind and heart. Its precept-return good for evil- became my guiding principle. It became such a passion with me that I began numerous experiments in it."12 Gandhi quotes those wonderful lines of this stanza in his autobiography,
For a bowl of water give a goody meal;
The influence of the ethical teachings of this didactic stanza during his childhood actually prepared him to feel the attraction towards the Sermon on the Mount later in London, because Shamal Bhatt's poem had close resemblance with the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, the Sermon in St. Mathew's Gospel acted as a potent stimulus in reviving Gandhi's mind to the ethical ideas he learned during his early childhood.
Gandhi thus compared the teaching of the Sermon - "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" - with Shamal Bhatt's immortal lines, - "for a bowl of water, give a goodly meal" - which had been inculcated upon him from his early childhood.14 Gandhi thus said: "...the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount echoed something I had learnt in childhood and something which seemed to be part of my being...."15 Because both the Sermon and Shamal Bhatt's stanza narrates the theme of returning good towards evil. This common theme of the Sermon and Bhatt's stanza had a key role in moulding Gandhi's philosophic and religious thought and was instrumental in revolutionising his whole life.
Hence, it is through the Sermon that Gandhi came to appreciate the Bible, knew Jesus Christ as a great teacher of humanity and related himself with Christianity. For he says: "It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me."16 Gandhi greatly prized the spiritual and ethical ideal presented in the Sermon and held it in great esteem. And he considered the author of the Sermon (Christ) as one of the greatest among the teachers of humanity17 and as a beautiful example of the perfect man.18 Thus, it seems that the ethics of the Sermon and its wonderful and picturesque language created graphic images in the mind of Gandhi, which in fact became inscribed in his heart. He therefore saw 'the grace of expression' and beauty in those words of Jesus and this aesthetic sense in Gandhi made him even to call Jesus as "a Supreme artist."19 Hence, the Sermon on the Mount had a significant impact and role in the transformation of Gandhi's personality.20 For he said: "Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart."21 And "The Sermon on the Mount left a deep impression on my mind when I read it."22 Thus, the Sermon made a permanent and lasting impact on Gandhi, as he followed it till the end his of life, being called as the 'Apostle of non-violence.'
What really impressed Gandhi in the Sermon was the teaching of Jesus - 'resist not evil.' So he often quoted from Mathew 5: 39,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you and pray for those who treat you badly. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek; to the one who takes your coat, give also your shirt.
What Jesus expects in this passage is not tit for tat, but the end of all resentment and retaliation. We must graciously forgive others of their wrong-doings and our goodness must exceed the evil that is there in the world. We must win over the evil by our goodness. That means we must not return evil for evil, but our response to evil must be good. And how to respond to the evil with goodness is a challenge always. Gandhi understood this challenge and loved the noble teaching of Jesus to love your enemy (ahimsa) in the Sermon. This meant non-violence, non-retaliation and non-resistance to the evil and doing further good to the evil ones. For example, Gandhi saw in Jesus' verse "If any man will take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also?" a picturesque and telling manner the great doctrine of non-violent non-co-operation. He says:
Your non-co-operation with your opponent is violent when you give a blow for a blow, and is ineffective in the long run. Your non-co-operation is non-violent when you give your opponent all in the place of just what he needs. You have disarmed him once for all by your apparent cooperation, which in effect is complete non-co-operation.23
Hence, Gandhi realised that Jesus' 'new law of love' is totally different from that of Moses and his old law ('Tdrah) that, 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' For him, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Gandhi further observed that Jesus changed this old Mosaic Law so that it became a new law. And the 'new law of Jesus' is that "...be ready to receive two blows when one was given, and to go two miles when you were asked to go one."24 Hence, of all the things Gandhi read, what remained with him forever was this 'new law' of Jesus.25 And this new teaching was non-retaliation, or non-resistance to evil; positively speaking it meant, loving the enemies and returning good to the evil done by them. In this great teaching of Jesus in the Sermon, Gandhi also found the presence of the Indian tradition of ahimsa (non-violence) and further confirmed his belief in ahimsa. Hence, he related Jesus' Sermon with the Indian tradition. For example, in November 1926, when he ran a series of articles in Young India on the Sermon on the Mount, he wrote, "...Jesus has given a definition of perfect dharma in those verses. [That] Sermon on the Mount contained yamas (cardinal spiritual exercises) and that the Lord's Prayer contains everything that the few letters of the Gayatri Mantra mean."26 This way of Gandhi's relating Jesus' teaching with the Indian tradition reached its culmination, when he compared the Sermon with the Gita.
Gandhi's declaration that India's freedom must lead to freedom of other oppressed people formed the basis of the foreign policy of India after independence. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India espoused the cause of freedom in the United Nations and the Commonwealth, in sports bodies and other forums. India imposed sanctions against South Africa in 1946 and earned the hostility of the western powers.
Gandhi's Comparison of the Sermon with the Gita
Gandhi's study of the New Testament and of the Bhagavad-Gita went on simultaneously. He compared the Sermon on the Mount with Gita.27 For him, the fundamental morality of Gita is similar to that of the New Testament. For example he says: "I have a Christian friend telling me that the Gita shows him how to live the New Testament, and that many passages in the latter which used to be dark were intelligible to him through a study of the Gita."28 He thus found practically no "difference between the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad Gita..."29 On the other, he found a meeting ground between the Sermon and the Gita and saw them as mutually complementary.30 "What the Sermon describes in a graphic manner, the Bhagavad Gita reduces to scientific formula."31 He thus stated: "The spirit of the Sermon on the Mount competes almost on equal terms with the Bhagavad Gita for the domination of my heart."32 Hence, he even said: "Today supposing I was deprived of the Gita and forgot all its contents but had a copy of the Sermon, I should derive the same joy from it as I do from the Gita."33 Gandhi therefore perceived an essential unity in the teachings of Gita and Sermon and assimilated the spirit of both the sacred texts in his soul, which in fact became 'giri-gita' in Gandhi.
Sermon on the Mount and the Philosophy of Satyagraha
Gandhi's philosophy of Satydgraha has been influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, as the concept of Satydgraha appeared to become a nonviolent path for truth in line with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.34 Jesus and his teachings were thus an important source in deriving Gandhi's philosophy of Satydgraha. For example, he says: "It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the Tightness and value of passive resistance."35 He therefore saw the New Testament as a book of peace, as it exhorts us to "...look forward to an age when no swords would be needed and the material used for making them could be diverted to make other useful things."36 He thus declared: "I can discover no justification in the New Testament for wars."37 Finally, while in South Africa, the revelation of passive resistance came to him after reading the Sermon on the Mount in 1893.38
Gandhi hence considered Jesus Christ as the 'sower of the seed' of non-violent philosophy.39 He calls Christ as a "Heroic satyagrahi;"40 as Christ represented the principle of non-violence, which is the purest form of soul force. Jesus overcame evil with good, hatred by love. Jesus preferred gentleness, forgiveness and love and not vengeance and hatred. This example of non-violent Jesus inspired Gandhi as he says: "... the example of Jesus' suffering is a factor in the composition of my undying faith in non-violence which rules all my actions, worldly and temporal."41 In fact, he found in the message of 'resist not evil', the ethic of non-violence, the power of soul-force, and the infinite possibilities of universal love.42 Gandhi was thus actually reinforcing the concept of non-violence or soul-force through his Satyagraha campaigns. He thus says:
When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as 'Resist not him that is evil but whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek turn to him the other also,' and 'love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you, that he may be sons of your father which is in heaven.' I was simply overjoyed, and found my own opinion confirmed where I least expected it.43
As a result, Gandhi decided to apply Christ's attitude of overcoming evil with good as a principle to public affairs.44 The result was revolutionary, as Gandhi was able to lead the world's largest non-violent movement in relation to India's freedom struggle against the brute weapons of the British.
Gandhi's Difference with Christianity in his Interpretation of the Sermon
It seems that Gandhi considered many of the interpretations of the Sermon as adulterated and partial. So through his interpretation what he was trying to do was to take the Sermon 'as a whole' and 'unadulterated.'45 He wanted to have it as pure and whole. That's why in relation to the Sermon, Gandhi followed his own interpretation. He for example said: "...in connection with the Sermon on the Mount, my own humble interpretation of the message is in many respects different from the orthodox."46 "I did not agree with their interpretation of Christ's words."47 And "If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, 'Oh yes, I am a Christian.'"48
Hence, Gandhian hermeneutics of the Sermon was radically different from the 'Orthodox' interpretations given to it by many of the Christian theologians. When Christian interpreters emphasised the 'impossibility' of the Sermon, Gandhi showed its practicality in the affairs of real life. For example, many theologians contended that the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to mundane things and ordinary people, and that it was only meant for the twelve disciples. To this Gandhi replied: "Well, I do not believe this. I think the Sermon on the Mount has no meaning if it is not of vital use in everyday life to everyone."49 "Nor do I accept the limitations that are sought to be put upon the teaching of The Sermon on the Mount."50 Rather for Gandhi, the Sermon on the Mount was delivered not merely to the peaceful disciples but to a groaning world.51 He thus boldly said: "The teaching of the Sermon was meant for each and every one of us.”'52
Gandhi therefore observed that, the west ignored the message of the Sermon, and the message of the Sermon has suffered distortion in the West.53 As a result, the western Christianity followed colonialism, violence and war. But Gandhi studied it prayerfully and brought a different spirit in the reading of the Sermon, in order to discover its truth, as the western Christendom often tried to bury them. Hence, in modern times, it was Gandhi who unearthed the Sermon and showed its practical relevance in relation to the world affairs such as conflict-resolution and peace building.
Gandhi's Message to Christians
While explaining the relevance of the Sermon on the Mount to the Christians of Europe, Gandhi said:
To try to explain Jesus' teachings to the followers of Jesus is like carrying the Ganga water to Varanasi. But although I am myself not a Christian, as a humble student of the Bible, who approaches it with faith and reverence, I wish respectfully to place before you the essence of the Sermon on the Mount.54
Hence, for Gandhi, "...the Sermon on the Mount was the whole of Christianity...."55 But he discovered that the so-called Christians have given up the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount on nonviolence.56 So "...much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount."57 Gandhi said this, as he distinguished between the life of Christians in the West, with their multiplicity of wants and material comforts on the one hand; and the essential teaching of the Sermon on the other.58 Therefore, Gandhi plainly told to Christians that, "Become worthy of the message that is imbedded in the Sermon on the Mount."59 However, he observed that to live their lives in strict accordance with the Sermon on the Mount, there is much to give up and much to remodel immediately.60 Thus, in order to drink deep of the fountains in the Sermon on the Mount, they have to take sack-cloth and ashes.61 Nevertheless, if the Christians of Europe could translate their lives to the simplicity of the message of Jesus, it would give Gandhi such a greater pleasure, as he was looking forward for such an ideal life from Christians, which is encoded in the Sermon.62
Gandhi therefore very much emphasized Jesus' teaching in Matt. 7:21.63 It is not he who says 'Lord, Lord' that is a Christian, but 'He that doeth the will of the Lord' that is a true Christian.64 Hence, for Gandhi, the Christians should not be much worried about organizations, forms of ministry, doctrines, etc., but simply cling to the message of the Sermon on the Mount and live the life as described therein, than merely speaking it or preaching it.65 Because the real imperceptible life meant greater for Gandhi, than the overemphasis given to the visible pulpit and public preaching. So Gandhi very particularly used the analogy of rose in relation to the life enjoined in the Sermon on the Mount. He says: "A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon.”66 But the gospel that Jesus preached is more subtle and fragrant than the gospel of the rose. If the rose needs no agent, much less does the gospel of Christ need any agent.67 Thus, 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.68 So the aroma of the life in accordance with the message of Sermon is subtler and greater than the fragrance of a rose. In fact, Gandhi expected such a greatly transformed mature life from Christians.
Although Gandhi did not identify himself with orthodox Christianity, the message of the Bible, especially the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount was a great source of his life and his philosophy of Satyagraha and non-violent resistance. Shamal Bhatt's stanza made him to feel at home with the Sermon. He saw the essence of the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and held it dear than anything in the Bible and Christianity. It was actually the Sermon that endeared Jesus to him and through the Sermon he considered Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, as his teachings in the Sermon got a moral import and value to the whole world. He was able to see the Indian tradition of ahimsa present in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon and found a meeting ground, between the Sermon and the Gita. However, his approach and interpretation of the Sermon was different from the traditional interpretation given to it by the Christian theologians. He found the practicality of the Sermon in real life contexts and exhorted the Christians to live the life enjoined in the Sermon on the Mount.
Notes and References
Courtesy: Gandhi Marg, Volume 39, Number 1, April-June 2017.
DR. P.T. SUBRAHMANYAN obtained his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala. He teaches Religion and Philosophy in India Bible College & Seminary (Under the Senate of Serampore), Kumbanad and also a visiting faculty in a number of theological institutions. Address: Oikos, Karimala Road, Kattode, Manjadi P.O., Uruvalla, PTA Dist., Kerala. Pin. 689 105. | Email: email@example.com