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ARTICLES > SPIRITUALISM / RELIGION > Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Liberation of Self and Society
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Liberation of Self and Society
By Sudarshan Kapur*
Religion gave meaning and direction to the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.; it inspired their belief in the unity of life and commitment to the way of love. Service to humanity was part and parcel of their religion. The deeper they delved into serving society, the more they grew in their spiritual awareness. In the process, they became less self-centered and more spirit-centered. Their vision of a nonviolent social order was based on the assumption that individual transformation and social transformation are interrelated. Their lives are a demonstration of the fact that personal and social transformation are interconnected and interdependent.

DECADES AFTER THEIR assassinations, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) remain voices of hope and courage for people throughout the world. Even though these twentieth-century prophets were rooted in different religious traditions — Gandhi in Hinduism and King in Christianity — they had a shared understanding of what it means to be religious. Religion gave meaning and direction to their lives; it defined their visions and provided them with the means of transforming self and society. Religion also made them aware that at its core nonviolence is a way of life and not just a tactic for gaining ground in a conflict. In the world they sought to create, there was room for all creeds, classes, races, and nationalities. They did not view difference as a problem; rather, difference was accepted as a pathway to the realization of the ultimate Truth. Both Gandhi and King recognized that the inner and the outer, the personal and the political, the religious and the secular, are related and that there is a fundamental link between personal and social transformation. The renewal and liberation of their own lives, they firmly believed, was intertwined with the renewal and liberation of their societies. They lived their lives in the service of God and humanity — Gandhi through his vision of Sarvodaya (welfare of all) and King through his vision of the Beloved Community (a community where the law of love reigns). The religious values they inherited from their faith traditions, how they interpreted them, and how they applied those values in their personal and public lives is crucial to grasping the meaning of their lives.
Gandhi was born into a deeply religious household. His parents led pious and religiously informed lives. Putlibai, Gandhi’s mother, rigorously adhered to religious rituals, especially vows and fasts. “The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness,” Gandhi writes in his autobiography.1 His father was not only open to the many strands of Hinduism but he also sympathetically engaged persons of different faiths who were frequent guests in their home. According to Judith Brown, Gandhi’s British biographer, the religious environment that the family provided was perhaps “the only remarkable aspect of [an] otherwise unremarkable experience of” Gandhi’s early years.2 This, however, did not lead to Gandhi gaining “any living faith in God.”3 He disliked going to temple because of its “glitter and pomp” and even developed an interest in atheism.4 Yet he was touched by the religious spirit. “One thing,” he writes, “took deep root in me — the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality. Truth became my sole objective. It began to grow in magnitude every day, and my definition of it also has been ever widening.”5 In the process, he internalized a powerful moral teaching — “return good for evil”— a teaching that, starting in 1893 in South Africa, was to become his guiding principle in personal and public life.6 In his quest for wisdom about his own faith, he found a teacher, Raychandbhai, who helped him to gain a place of peace and stability within Hinduism.7
Son, grandson, and great grandson of ministers, King was touched deeply by religion from the outset at home and in the church. In an essay titled “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” King highlights closeness to his “saintly [maternal] grandmother” and the centrality of religion in his life. Systematic study and practice of religion also began early in his life. “Religion has just been something that I grew up in.”8 It “has been real to me and closely knitted to life. In fact the two cannot be separated; religion for me is life,” he added.9 So central was religion and the church in King’s life that already at the age of fifteen, he gave a trial sermon at his father’s church. And in 1948 he was ordained to preach. Just as Gandhi was pressed into learning the importance of compassionate living, so also was King encouraged from childhood to take seriously the Christian principle of love of the other. His family taught him to love all, a teaching the church reinforced.10 King did not readily grasp the wisdom of his parents’ teachings. He had to be convinced of their truth and social relevance, first at Morehouse College, then at Crozer Seminary.
The first real test came when King was only six years of age. He had a white playmate from the age of three. Their friendship suffered and finally ended when they started school. It was then that the white boy’s father forbade him to play with King.11 Perplexed, King sought an explanation from his parents, who told him about racism and the insults and injuries Black people, including them, had experienced and were still experiencing. King’s parents underscored their love and God’s love for him. “Don’t let this thing impress you. Don’t let it make you feel that you are not as good as white people. You are as good as anyone else, and don’t you forget it.”12 Parental words of affirmation, however, were not enough to soothe his feelings of anger at and rejection of whites. He began “to hate every white person.”13 The feeling of hatred of whites “continued to grow” in him despite the fact that his parents impressed upon him that it was his “duty as a Christian to love” all people.14 “The question arose in my mind,” King reflected years later, “how could I love a race of people [who] hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends?”15 It was not until King got to college and participated in interracial activities that he was able to “conquer this anti-White feeling.”16 In subsequent years, especially with the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the love of the other, the stranger, the enemy became the operating principle of his public life also. He not only preached the way of love, he persistently practiced and forcefully advocated it.
It was in England that Gandhi “first discovered the futility of mere religious knowledge.”17 He understood well that the Hindu tradition, not unlike other religious traditions, had within it many strands. He chose to live his life according to what the Gandhi scholar Raghavan Iyer suggests is “a neglected strand of Indian tradition — the path of karma yoga, or spiritual realization through social action.
. . . Gandhi believed strongly . . . that the time had come for the purification of politics and the reformation of formal religion in India.”18 Once this was understood, withdrawing from the affairs of the world was not an option. Gandhi was convinced that it was only by engaging the world that he could attain his ultimate religious goal — Moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). “What I want to achieve, — what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years,” he highlights in autobiography, “is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end.”19 He continued to believe that it is not possible to find God by withdrawing from the affairs of the world. “If I could persuade myself that I should find Him in a Himalayan cave, I would proceed there immediately. But I know that I cannot find Him apart from humanity,” he told a European visitor as late as 1936.”20
That God could be realized only through service Gandhi learned firsthand in South Africa. It was there that the way opened for him to begin to serve both God and humans. Aged twenty-four, Gandhi arrived in Durban on “a purely mundane and selfish mission” to earn a living, not to change the world or to pursue a saintly path.21 “I was just a boy returned from England wanting to make some money.”22 Racial segregation was the established norm of South African society; public facilities were strictly segregated. Gandhi had been in South Africa just a few days when he was thrown off the train for refusing to leave the first class compartment set aside for white passengers. As a result, he sat and shivered at the train station through the night, and asked himself the question: “Should I fight for my rights or go back to India or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after finishing the case?”23 Convinced that “it would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation,” he decided to stay and “to root out the disease [of color prejudice] and suffer hardships in the process.”24 We can see that, even at this early stage, Gandhi had intimations of the notion that personal and social transformation cannot be placed in separate, unrelated compartments; the two are inextricably linked. The night spent on a cold railway station, we know now, would prove to be a transforming experience for Gandhi. “It changed the course of my life. . . . My active nonviolence began from that date. And God put me through the test during that journey,” he told Dr. John R. Mott, a Christian missionary, decades later.25 “Was it destiny, heritage, luck, the Gita, or some other immeasurable quantity” that led Gandhi to “resist the evil” of racism, asks his biographer, Louis Fischer?26 Whatever the precise answer, Gandhi’s experience at the train station put him on a path which demonstrated to the world the transformative power of peaceful ways of coping with conflict. Thus the way and the vision became one.
As Gandhi consulted with members of the Indian community, he realized that his experience was by no means unique. Instead of finding an exceptional solution for the wrongs that had been done to him, Gandhi sought ways of confronting segregation as such — his personal concerns became political. In 1906, he launched a mass movement founded on the principles of nonviolence, a movement that was to inspire many all over the world and none more so than Martin Luther King, Jr. The deeper Gandhi got into the service of his community the more he grew in his spiritual awareness. In the process, he became less self-centered and more spirit-centered.27 “Gandhi was a self-remade man and the transformation,” Fischer writes, “began in South Africa. It is not that he turned failure into success. Using the clay that was there he turned himself into another person. His was a remarkable case of second birth in one lifetime.”28
Judith Brown also stresses the significance of the melding of the spiritual and the political during Gandhi’s time in South Africa. “These African years were crucial in forging Gandhi into a public man, inwardly and outwardly. In his self-understanding, too, Africa was a seminal experience; but it was only the spiritual and political prelude to his life’s work.”29 From his South African sojourn, Gandhi emerged committed to spiritualizing politics. All the work that he did from 1915 onwards in India was built on the insight that called for the harmonization of religion and politics. As he told a missionary group in 1938, “I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind and that I could not do unless I took part in politics. The whole gamut of man’s activities today constitutes an indivisible whole. . . . I do not know of any religion apart from activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities without which life would be a maze of sound and fury signifying nothing.”30
When the time came for King to choose his vocation, he decided to give his life to the service of the church. Though King, Sr. influenced the son in his decision to enter the ministry, the call to ministry came “neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road to life’s experience. . . . [I]t was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry,” King notes in his autobiographical essay.31 In the fall of 1954, with his doctoral dissertation for Boston University still not written, King took up the leadership of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Steeped as he was in the distinctive social gospel tradition of the African American Church, King brought a wide range of public concerns to his ministry and a commitment to politically engaged religion.32
The elder King’s activism, according to historian Clayborne Carson, also “shaped his son’s understanding of the ministry and presaged King, Jr.’s own career.”33 King, Sr.’s conviction that “the true mission of the church” is “to do something about the brokenhearted, poor, unemployed, the captive, the blind, and the bruised” greatly influenced his son.34 By his refusal to accept discrimination personally and actively engaging in voting rights for African Americans, King, Sr. set a powerful example of politically engaged religion for King.
Equally, if not more, significant was the influence of King’s teachers. Under their guidance, “he began to rethink his religious attitudes.”35 Morehouse Professor George D. Kelsey removed “the shackles of fundamentalism” from “my body,” King recalled years later. 36 Kelsey guided King “to see that ministry could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying. When he accepted this fact,” writes Coretta Scott King, “it opened the way for him to go into the church.”37 Perhaps none among his teachers was more influential in pressing King into the direction of politically engaged religion than Benjamin E. Mays, President of Morehouse College.38 King acknowledged Mays as “my spiritual mentor” and “one of the great influences in my life.”39 Mays encouraged his students to go out into the world and challenge segregation openly and without fear. He stressed that “a religion which ignores social problems will in time be doomed.”40 And the meaning of that heritage was the call to serve God by fully engaging the world.
Direct participation in the African American struggle for justice and equality, however, was not in King’s plans. “Although we had come back to the South with the hope of playing a part in the changes we knew were on the horizon,” King remembered later, “we had no notion yet of how the changes would come about, and no inkling that in little more than a year we would be involved in a movement that was to alter Montgomery forever and to have repercussions throughout the world.”41 But all that changed with Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man and the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955. The successful year-long nonviolent bus boycott brought King to the heart of the Black struggle and ultimately catapulted him to national and international prominence.
No sooner had he accepted the leadership of the bus boycott than he became the target of police harassment, obscene and threatening phone calls and an arrest. As stress and tension mounted, King began to grow in fear and his resolve to stay in the struggle weakened. When, in January, his house was bombed, King’s “crisis of confidence peaked,” writes King biographer David Garrow.42 In the dead of night in his kitchen at home, King seriously considered relinquishing the leadership of the boycott without appearing a coward. Not only that, he was even ready to give up the struggle altogether.43 In his moment of despondency, King turned to God like he had not done before. “And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. . . . I  prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I am right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering, I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”44 He “heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.”45 In what, according to historian Taylor Branch, was King’s “first transcendent religious experience of his life” uncertainty and fear left him; he regained the courage and the strength to continue.46 Though very different in their setting and historical context, there is likely a parallel between King’s kitchen experience and the night Gandhi spent in South Africa in 1893 in the cold at a train station.
Staying true to the progressive tradition of the Black struggle, with its roots in African American Christianity, King made the teachings of Jesus the cornerstone of personal morality and socially responsible activism. Two years into his involvement in the Southern Nonviolent Movement, King reiterated his position on the place of religion in society. “On the one hand [religion] seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”47 Just as for Gandhi, so also for King, mere religious knowledge is not enough; religion must inform our personal and public lives.
Religion also provided the Mahatma and King their openings to nonviolence. In a fundamental sense, Gandhi’s journey to nonviolence began early. At age fifteen he stole a piece of gold out of his brother’s armlet to clear a debt his brother had incurred. Though the debt was cleared, Gandhi could not bear to live with himself for the wrong he had committed. As a first step, he resolved never to steal again. Next, he decided to confess his errors to his father. Terrified of speaking to his father, he decided to write a confession note seeking forgiveness. With fear and trembling, Gandhi handed the note to his father. Tears fell down his father’s cheeks as he read the note, which he tore up. “This was, for me,” Gandhi recalls, “an object-lesson in Ahimsa [nonviolent love]. Then I could read in it nothing more than a father’s love, but today I know that it was pure Ahimsa. When such Ahimsa becomes all-embracing, it transforms everything it touches. There is no limit to its power.” And he added, “This sort of sublime forgiveness was not natural to my father. I had thought that he would be angry, say hard things . . . . But he was so wonderfully peaceful.”48
The application of the principle of forgiveness became foundational in Gandhi’s life. As he matured, Gandhi found support for the way of nonviolence in the scriptures — Upanishads, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita. Chandogya Upanishad lists ahimsa as one of the five virtues.49 “Ahimsa is the greatest religion,” says the Mahabharata. Contrary to what some Hindu theologians have suggested, Gandhi insisted that in essence the Gita was an essay in the way of nonviolence. “Even in 1888-89, when I first became acquainted with the Gita,” Gandhi writes, “I felt that it was not a historical work, but that, under the guise of physical warfare, it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.”50 According to Gandhi, the Gita does not establish the “necessity of physical warfare;” it proves “its futility.”51 The New Testament, Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within You, and Henry David Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience” further reinforced Gandhi’s evolving faith in the way of nonviolence.52 Once he grasped the meaning of nonviolence, Gandhi worked to transform himself as well as society — first in South Africa and then in India. Yet, as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton argues, in Gandhi “the spirit of non-violence sprang from an inner realization of spiritual unity in himself. The whole Gandhian concept of nonviolent action and satyagraha is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved.”53 [Original emphasis] And this “inner unity” too was nurtured in and by a particular understanding of religion.
If the notions of forgiveness and “returning good for evil” in daily living played their part in Gandhi’s acceptance of nonviolence as a way of life, the concept of Christian love and the example of Jesus were foundational in King’s pilgrimage to nonviolence. His favorite childhood gospel song, we are told, was “I Want To Be More and More Like Jesus.”54 And to want to be “more and more like Jesus” meant loving one’s neighbor and forgiving all wrongdoers. “Forgiveness,” as King emphasized in his mature, activist years, “is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.”55 Biographer David Lewis stresses that King’s character traits, such as “abhorrence of violence” and a “desire to assume the suffering of others” in evidence in his childhood, also prepared him well for the practice and advocacy of nonviolence.56 In his Voice of Deliverance, Keith Miller argues that “King arrived at [Crozer] seminary [in 1948] with his most important ideas already intact,” including nonviolence.57 Nevertheless, King had to labor some to deepen his understanding of nonviolence. Encountering Gandhi was important to this process. Under the guidance of Crozer seminary’s lone pacifist professor, George W. Davis, King began his exploration of the life and thought of Gandhi. While still at Crozer, a talk on the Mahatma by Howard University president, Mordecai Johnson, inspired King to take Gandhi more seriously than he had done until then. Johnson, a longtime admirer of Gandhi, had recently returned from India, where he had participated in the World Pacifist Conference.58
Yet it was not until King’s involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott that he fully grasped the meaning of nonviolent resistance. Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley, major twentieth-century theoreticians and practitioners of nonviolence, were most helpful to King in this. And in good measure because of them, he was able to meld the teachings of Jesus and the method of Gandhi. As a result, at the height of the bus boycott, King could say, “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work.”59 From the accounts of both Rustin and Smiley, King and other Montgomery Improvement Association office holders had less than adequate understanding of the fundamentals of nonviolent resistance. For example, in the early phase of the bus boycott, both Rustin and Smiley had to tell King to get rid of the guns that people were holding on to for self defense. Even at that early a stage in the South-based nonviolent movement, King demonstrated a genuine interest in nonviolence as a way of life. Tactical aspects of nonviolent resistance were secondary for him.60 Just as at the start of the bus boycott, when he reminded the mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church that they are Christian people who believe in the teachings of Jesus, so also in subsequent years King drew upon the notion of Christian love and the teachings of Jesus to mobilize and galvanize the African American community. And the Black church played an important role in keeping nonviolence at the center. Before long, King became a major twentieth-century proponent and practitioner of the way of nonviolence.
Gandhi and King lived as if the world’s peoples, with all their diversity, were their family. As already noted, Gandhi’s early exposure to world religions put him on a path that ultimately made him a major advocate for and practitioner of religious pluralism. But his acceptance of religious pluralism was neither easy nor smooth. Early in life, he “developed a sort of dislike for” Christianity; he could not “endure” the abuse Christian missionaries poured on Hindus and their gods.61 Gandhi’s deep study of world religions as well as sustained working relations with practicing Christians stretching over several decades, first in South Africa and later on in India, helped him to understand not only the spirit of Christianity but also deepened his commitment to religious pluralism.
Gandhi’s encounter with the American Christian missionary E. Stanley Jones, is instructive here. Jones asked Gandhi: “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift? What would you, as one of [the] Hindu leaders of India, tell me, a Christian, to do in order to make this possible?” Gandhi gave the following answer — “First, I would suggest that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, Practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, Emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, Study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.”62 As we can see, instead of judging Jones or his endeavors, Gandhi shared out of his own understanding the essential meaning of Christianity. He related to all religions with respect and in the spirit of sympathy. Gandhi’s interpretation of the teachings of Prophet Mohammad further illustrates his approach to religion. Contrary to scholarly as well as popular interpretations of Islam wherein recourse to violence is accepted under certain situations, Gandhi saw only a sanction for  nonviolence.63 When we examine the worldwide rise of militant Islam, including the December 2008 bombings in Mumbai, we can see that Gandhi’s is a minority interpretation of the teachings of Prophet Mohammad. In other words, for Gandhi what really mattered is that we live according to the life-affirming tenets of our religion even as we reach out to the truths of other faith traditions.
Gandhi realized that only in and through a diverse community was it possible for an individual to be whole, to be fully human. Beginning in 1904, Gandhi founded four communities — Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farm (1910) in South Africa and Sabarmati Ashram (1915) and Sevagram Ashram (1933) in India. These communities provided each member the space in which to begin to live “as if” their dreams were already a reality. They encouraged people to be good and to be connected to the stranger — the other. Ethnically diverse and religiously pluralistic in their makeup, these communities were laboratories for personal and social transformation. Prayer and meditation were the glue that held these communities intact. At the same time, social concerns were at the core of all that the communities represented. On the one hand, members had the space in which to nourish their inner being; on the other, they could engage the world that lay beyond the confines of the community.
King’s was also an inclusive vision of humanity founded on the unity of life and the interconnectedness of people everywhere. God loving people are called, he believed, to step out of their places of comfort and convenience and to risk position, prestige, and even life for the welfare of others.64 That much and more, he tried to do. He fought to make the world better for all people and not just Black people.65 This meant poor people, white people, brown people, black people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and people of every nation. According to King, as children of the loving God, humans, irrespective of their various identities, are members of one family. Therefore, it is not enough that we see people merely as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or Americans, Negroes or whites. In so doing, we “fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image,” he believed.66 In his Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community King once again stressed unity in diversity and encouraged people everywhere to learn to live in harmony. He insisted that “we have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”67
Unlike Gandhi, King did not have the experience of life in an ashram-like intentional community. The congregations of the churches he ministered and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were his communities. In the context of the African American struggle, King underscored the “interrelatedness of all [ethnic, regional, racial] communities” emphasizing that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”68 He was convinced that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”69 Turning to the world beyond the United States, at the height of his country’s involvement in Vietnam, he called upon his government to “see the enemy’s point of view.”70 King rejected the popular notion of patriotism, which insists that right or wrong a people obey their government. Speaking “as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam,” he reminded his nation that the Vietnamese “too are our brothers”71 He stood for the transformation of “this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood,” which depended on “a radical revolution of values.”72 King’s was a plea for ensuring that our loyalties “become ecumenical rather than sectional.” He urged that individual societies “develop an overriding loyalty” to humankind as a whole. “This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.”73 As a follower of Jesus, he was an extremist for love.74
Gandhi and King understood the sterile and self-destructive potential of materialism well. Gandhi critiqued modern civilization with its emphasis on bodily comforts, and he urged that we set “limit[s] to our indulgences.”75 An essential counterpoint to intoxication with materialism for Gandhi was self-rule in matters personal and societal. As an objective in life, self-reliance seeks to harmonize spiritual and material needs, inner and outer needs. Toward that end, Gandhi brought about a number of fundamental changes in his life. It was in South Africa that he initiated the most significant transformations. He simplified his life, reducing his personal needs to a bare minimum. With the start of the Phoenix Settlement, his personal and public concerns came together in fundamental ways; he gave up his entire personal wealth. The burdens of running a household ceased to exist; he now had more time to attend to public affairs as well as his inner needs. His involvement in nonviolent campaigns, though demanding, still left him with time for quiet and private reflection. This changed once he was involved in the Indian freedom struggle, however.
Though he further simplified his life, Gandhi’s political responsibilities grew exponentially and with it came a massive nationwide following that made inordinate demands on his time. In the process, he found himself with little or no time for quiet reflection. It was during this phase, in 1926, when he was working at breakneck speed and caught up in the intensity of constructive work, that Gandhi devised a way of getting away from the pressures of daily existence. An apparent physical need for rest led him to create the spiritual discipline of silence. “It happened,” he told Fischer, “when I was being torn to pieces. I was working hard, traveling in hot trains, incessantly speaking at many meetings, and being approached in trains and elsewhere by thousands of people who asked questions, made pleas, and wished to pray with me. I wanted to rest for one day a week. So I instituted a day of silence. Later, of course, I clothed it with all kinds of virtues and gave it a spiritual cloak. But the motivation was really nothing more than that I wanted to have a day off.”76 A day of silence a week soon became much more than just a “day off.” According to Fischer, “silence offered an opportunity for spiritual exercise.” Silence provided Gandhi the time to withdraw, to meditate, to get away from pressures of daily living, and to renew himself for engaging the world.
If Gandhi simplified his life by choosing communitarian living, King avoided the snares of materialism and opted to live simply in a modest house near a poor neighborhood in Atlanta. Nor did he accumulate wealth; King left behind less than $6,000.77 And the longer he stayed in the struggle for justice and equality, the more passionately he engaged in the fight for and on behalf of the poor. This was especially true after he took his campaign North in 1965 and experienced firsthand the horrible living conditions of the urban poor. Not surprisingly, from then on he brought issues of economic justice to the center of his concerns. A year before his assassination, he challenged his nation to retreat from its mad rush to materialism. “We must rapidly begin to shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society,” he said.78 Materialism, he argued, was one of the three evils confronting the nation, alongside racism and militarism. Without let-up, he continued to drive home the point that the nation must begin to attend to the basic needs of the poor. Forever speaking out of the depths of his religious sensibilities, and repeating his vision of the Beloved Community, he challenged the wealthy to recognize that “the agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
King came to national and international prominence at a younger age than even Gandhi. He was a few days shy of his twenty-seventh birthday when the African American leadership in Montgomery invited him to lead the bus boycott and head the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. With the leadership of the bus boycott, his days became very full. The post-boycott period did not bring any respite in his public responsibilities either. Before one campaign or an issue was tackled, another was there begging for attention. The presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded soon after the conclusion of the bus boycott in 1957, King’s speaking engagements that ran on an average of four per week, and the expanding movement in the South did not  allow him time to reflect or be still. He hardly had time to breathe.79According to historian Lerone Bennett, “King was not often in his house. Two-thirds of his time was spent elsewhere, a fact that disturbed him greatly. He had a feeling akin to guilt over his extended absences from his family. He said privately and on occasions publicly that nothing disturbed him more than his inability to fulfill his demanding concept of what the head of a household should be.”80 “I am not doing anything well,” King complained. He did not feel that he could “continue to go at this pace, and live with such a tension filled schedule.”81 The desire to slow down, to withdraw, to renew was there, but he failed to bring it about. He continued to carry on without respite until the end. The dynamism of the movement, with grassroots activists taking initiative on their own, did not help either. Unlike Gandhi, who was among the pioneers in the field of nonviolent resistance, by the middle years of the twentieth century, King was one among many. In early 1968, it seemed that King yet might succeed in taking the time to nourish his interior in ways he had not done before. Arrangements were made for him for a spiritual retreat with Thomas Merton at Gethsemani outside of Louisville.82 Before that could happen, King was assassinated.
Gandhi, on the other hand, was saved from the burdens King carried, especially after 1904, when he gave up managing a single family household. Yet life in community did not eliminate all the pressures of meeting parental or spousal responsibilities. Community living certainly simplified Gandhi’s life and made it easier for him to provide for many of the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of the Gandhi family. In the setting of a community made up of many families, the traditional role of “heading” a nuclear family was no longer relevant. Children, for instance, could be guided by community elders and not just their parents. Yet, as is well known, Gandhi’s eldest son, Harilal, with reason, felt parental neglect. And he blamed his father for that. Nor did Kasturba Gandhi, the Mahatma’s wife, feel that she had the freedom to be fully herself, especially in the early phase of their marriage.
The genius of Gandhi and King lay not in that they were above making mistakes or that they always succeeded in their personal and political endeavors. We know that each failed to live up to his ideals as a parent or a spouse. Equally, we know that neither fully achieved his goals in the social, economic or political arenas. Nor did they succeed in converting the masses in their respective countries to the way of nonviolence; the vast majority of their supporters and coworkers went along with them essentially for tactical reasons. The fact that these prophets of nonviolence died at the hands of assassins is proof enough that they failed to eliminate violence from their midst. For our purposes, it is worth noting that their assassins (and those who supported them) saw dangers to the existing social order in the inclusive worldview of King and Gandhi. The attempts of these leaders to bring those who stood on the periphery to the center of the body politic were even a bigger threat to the upholders of the status quo.83 Deeply committed to the notion of religious pluralism, Gandhi and King recognized their pastoral responsibility to all people. The limitations of their leadership notwithstanding, the challenges facing the world at the dawn of the twenty-first century press us to reexamine the visions of these men and to grasp the ancient wisdom of love, truth, tolerance, and compassion that inspired them to make this broken world community whole. For greed, bitterness, hatred, and violence, we know only too well, can give us neither meaning nor tranquility. It is possible these men might also inspire people everywhere to look into their particular tradition and to gain the necessary wisdom and the courage to reconcile, heal, and nurture our personal lives as well as the wellbeing of our communities. Perhaps their lasting contribution lies in that they had the courage to take risks and each in his own way and his own time attempted to live by the highest ideals known to humankind.

1. Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p. 4.
2. Judith M. Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 17.
3. Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 34.
4. Ibid., p. 31.
5. Ibid., p. 34.
6. Ibid., p. 35.
7. Gandhi, An Autobiography, pp.137, 138, 159.
8. Clayborne Carson et al. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1992), vol. 1, p. 361.
9. Ibid., p. 363.
10. Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and its Sources (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1998), p. 59.
11. Carson et al., The Papers, vol. 1, p. 362.
12. Quoted in Lerone Bennett, What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing, 1976), p. 19.
13. Carson et al., The Papers, vol. 1, p. 362.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., pp. 362-63.
16. Ibid., p. 363.
17. Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 70.
18. Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 49.
19. Gandhi, An Autobiography, xxvi. Also see p. 158.
20. Brown, Gandhi, p. 83.
21. K. Swaminathan, ed., The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereafter CWMG), (New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1977), vol. 68, p. 171.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid. p. 112.
24. Ibid.
25. CWMG, vol. 68, p. 171.
26. Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 42.
27. Eknath Easwaran, Gandhi the Man (Petaluma, California: Nilgiri Press, 1978), p. 28.
28. Fischer, The Life, p. 40.
29. Brown, Gandhi, p. 30.
30. Quoted in Iyer, op.cit., p. 41.
31. Carson et al., The Papers, vol. 1. p. 363 and p. 44.
32. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Touchstone, 1988), p. 115-16. See Carson, et al., The Papers, vol. 1. 181-97. In his 1948 essay titled, “The Significant Contributions of Jeremiah to Religious Thought” King argues that “religion should never sanction the status quo.”
33. Carson et al., The Papers, vol. 1. p.33.
34. Ibid. p. 34.
35. Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Plume, 1982), p. 19.
36. Ibid.
37. Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1969), p. 86.
38. Carson et al., The Papers, vol. 1. p. 44.
39. King, My Life with, p. 85. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 145.
40. Quoted in Carson et al., The Papers, vol. 1., p. 38.
41. King, Stride Toward, pp. 23-4.
42. David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage, 1988), p. 56.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid., p. 58.
45. Ibid.
46. Branch, Parting, p. 162; Garrow, Bearing, p. 58.
47. King, Stride, p. 36.
48. Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 28.
49. See Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (Berkeley, Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 111-13.
50. Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, John Strohmeier, ed. (Berkeley, California: Berkeley Hills Books), p. 16.
51. Ibid.
52. See Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 137. Also see Candadai Seshachari, Gandhi and the American Scene: An Intellectual History and Inquiry (Bombay: Nachiketa Publications, 1969), p. 18 for Gandhi’s discovery of Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience.
53. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Gandhi on Non-Violence: A Selection From the Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, edited with an Introduction by Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 6.
54. King, My Life, p. 80.
55. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 40.
56. Quoted in Fairclough, Martin Luther, pp. 34-5.
57. Miller, Voice of Deliverance, pp. 54-55.
58. King, Stride, p. 96.
59. Carson et al., The Papers, vol. 1, pp. 48-9
60. Branch, Parting, p. 180.
61. Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 33.
62. E. Stanley Jones, Mahatma Gandhi: An Interpretation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1950), pp. 69-70.
63. See Sheila McDonough, Gandhi’s Responses to Islam ((New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 1994), p. 120.
64. King, Strength, p. 35.
65. James Melvin Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 341.
66. King, Strength, p. 33.
67. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 167.
68. Washington, ed. A Testament, p. 290.
69. Ibid.
70. Ibid., p. 237.
71. Ibid., p. 236.
72. King, Where? P. 171; Washington, ed. A Testament, p. 240.
73. Washington, ed. A Testament, p. 242.
74. Ibid., p. 297.
75. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, Anthony J. Parel, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 37; 68.
76. Fischer, The Life, p. 235.
77. Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in King Years, 1965-68 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 768. Also see C. Eric Lincoln, ed., Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Profile (New York: Hill & Wang, 1984), p. 203.
78. Ibid., p. 242.
79. Branch, Parting, p. 225; Bennett, What Manner, p. 179.
80. Bennett, What Manner, p. 179.
81. Fairclough, Martin, p. 48.
82. Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, Selected and Edited by William H. Shannon, (New York: Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1985), 451, 639, p. 644. 83. See “The Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi” in Ashis Nandy, At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990). The argument that Nandy makes concerning the Mahatma applies equally to the situation in the United States of America. In seeking a just and an inclusive community, King posed a serious challenge to the powers that be.
Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 34, Number 1, April-June 2012

* SUDARSHAN KAPUR is Former Professor of Peace Studies, Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado, USA. Email: