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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 43 October 15, 2022

Gandhi’s Life and Struggle: Impact of Jesus Christ | Ram Puniyani

Saturday 15 October 2022

by Ram Puniyani

Abstract

Gandhi emerged not only as one of the greatest persons of twentieth century, he also led the anti colonial movement in India with distinction. This struggle also had positive impact on other anti colonial movements across the World. This movement was unique as Gandhi followed the path of Non Violence, Satyagrha (invocation of Truth). He also evolved the path of love for all and put forward the ‘other Cheek’, to those opposing his path. He succeeded in uniting all the Indians, cutting across people of all the religions. He made this possible as he saw religion as morality, as values. He also drew from the moral values of different religions. For him religions were complimentary; not in opposition to each other. He learnt from all religions and one of his core beliefs was from Jesus Christ, the one of love, application of this doctrine of love; love not only for your neighbour but also for your enemy. This is his unique contribution, applying the interpersonal doctrine of love to the social-political movement. This was the major concept underlying his unique Satyagrah. This was also the key of his success in his mission uniting the people as Indian fraternity, irrespective of their religions and other identities. He did acknowledge the impact of ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in development of his values, which formed the base of his movement for freedom.

Introduction

World over the importance of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi is being realized more and more. In the dismal scenario where violence in the name of religion, violence for selfish goals is becoming more frightening, the need for the beacon light which gives the message of peace is being felt very acutely. It is in this context that United Nations declared Gandhi’s birth day, 2nd October as the ‘International Day of Non Violence’. Recently in the survey on the most prominent global icons of all the times, Gandhi ranked number one in the survey conducted by Time magazine of United States. [1]

One recalls that the major leaders of the World have paid tribute to him by following his path, in their struggles for their just rights. Many a leaders have paid tribute to the teaching of Mahatma, time and over again. Some of the major of these have been Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of African American’s in United States. In the strife ridden racist atmosphere, where the African Americans were struggling for a life of dignity, King Jr. resorted to the Gandhian ideals of Peace and Non Violence and was successful in uniting the African Americans to lead them to the path of getting their just rights. He openly acknowledged his debt to the path shown by Gandhi, and as to how he practiced Gandhian path to lead his people on the road of justice and honor.

Similarly the other notable example has been of that of Nelson Mandela. Mandela emerged as the leader of Africans in South Africa. South Africa was practicing apartheid. Mandela also realized the truth of non violent path, the path of amity of all people. Mandela took the principled path of Satyagrah and non-violence to rid South Africa from the apartheid regime without any bloodshed. He acknowledged the debt to Gandhi for the path shown to him. While these are just two major examples, the interest in Gandhi has been growing by leaps and bound around the World. World over Gandhi did become the beacon light for anti Colonial struggles, struggles for freedom of colonies from the oppressive colonial rule.

There are Gandhian Study Centers in many Universities around the Globe and Gandhi’s teachings are being studied by scholars all over. They are studying the depth and reach of the values of Mahatma in words and deeds. The latest in the series of following the values of Mahatma has been the path followed by the masses participating in social political revolution in Arab countries, especially Tunisia, Egypt etc.

Gandhi was given the title of Mahatma by Guru Rabindranath Tagore and it became the most popular prefix to his name. It also described the depth of the personality of Gandhi. There are other interesting descriptions of his, like the British Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill called him ‘half Naked fakir’, Nelson Mandel called him ‘sacred warrior’, and the Indian people called him and refer to him as ‘father of the nation’ and fondly address him as Bapu (father). He not only united all the people of the country across, region, language and religious boundaries, but was also a social reformer, who developed his own vision about the moral values in the field of religion, social and political life.

The Beginnings

Gandhi, after his law degree from Britain retuned to India and later was hired by a rich South African businessman to go to South Africa to fight his case. In South Africa, while travelling in a first class train compartment, he was pushed out from the train as dark skinned people were not allowed to travel in First class train compartment. It was a shock to him. After his humiliation, he decided to fight on this issue of apartheid by organizing the local non whites and those of Indian origin in particular. His method attracted the people from Indian origin in large number and he campaigned for the rights of dark skinned people in the brutal apartheid regime. He went on perfecting his methods of struggle over a period of time.

After his return to India he spoke about the conditions of Indians in South Africa and the policies of colonial power there. He was very well received in India. From here he joined many an agitations, Champaran, Kheda and understood the nature of economic and political plight of the people of different regions in India. The major impact on his life came when he decided to understand India, by travelling the whole country. He mostly travelled in the third class railways compartment. He adopted a simple life style, set up Ashrams where ‘Cleanliness is Next to Godliness’ was the dictum.’

Satyagrah and Non-Violence

His initial battles were for the equality of all citizens in the British ruled India. During the course of this struggle he evolved the concept of Satyagrah as a method for struggle for the rights of people. Satyagrah means faith in Truth. It has been described as ‘soul force’ or ‘truth force’. He pointed out that we have a right to fight all forms of oppression but it must be done in a peaceful way- through Ahimsa, non-violence, a peaceful protest against the Government. This Satyagrah acts as an appeal to conscience when the armed police force attacks the peaceful protesters, and it will act as a moral force on the rulers to rethink their policies.

His major contribution to freedom movement was to involve average people in the freedom movement. The non-cooperation movement was the first major movement, which not only was in the form of a movement but was also an attempt to make all the Indians feel one. It was through his efforts that over a period of time more and more people started getting involved in the struggle against colonial powers. Later the major landmarks of freedom movement, Dandi March, Quit India movement all had the same imprint of Gandhi’s style. It was this effort by him which really built the Indian Nation. And the word, ‘India is a Nation in the making’ was coined for the whole process.

It was during this period that he also emphasized on the social reforms aimed at eradicating untouchability and also to see that the women are encouraged to participate in the social sphere, in all walks of life. He struggled to see that untouchables also are part of his Ashram. This had to be done against lot of opposition. He also used to stay in their colony, Bhangi colony (Scavengers colony) along with them. He took great personal pain to see that untouchables are accepted in his own Ashram. This had a great message for the whole nation.

National Movement

His efforts succeeded in gradually involving all the people to associate with the national movement, and it is because of this phenomenon that India’s, mass movement became the greatest ever mass movement in the World. After 1937, when the communal parties lost in the elections, they stepped up their Hate against ‘other’, leading to increasing intensity of communal violence. He was determined to see that the communal violence is stopped at all the costs and undertook fast unto death to stop the violence. During last period of his life he was focusing more on opposing the communal violence for which he staked his life. Unity of people of different religions was his central message, and this was disliked by those who wanted to spread hate in society for their political goals.

His efforts in the direction of opposing British rule through mass movement succeeded and the British realized that it is impossible for them to rule this country. They decided to give Independence to the country but played a mischief while deciding to give freedom to the Country. They had been promoting the communal forces, those doing politics in the name of religion, those who kept aloof from freedom movement, and those due to whose ‘hate propaganda’ the violence was increasing in the society. These communal forces were talking in the language of Muslim Nation or Hindu nation. Whole Nation under the leadership of Gandhi stood for Secular democratic India. British wanted to partition India as a United India would have been a strong country and Colonialist would not have succeeded in their designs to do economic exploitation of the region. Also they wanted to oppose the emerging Socialist block (Russia, China, later Vietnam, and Nehru’s commitment to socialism), so they needed a foothold in South Asia. Pursuing these long term designs, taking advantage of divisive policies of communalists, British partitioned the country in to Pakistan in the name of Islam. India was formed based on secular and democratic values, a nation with pluralism and recognizing it diversity at multiple levels.

Gandhi was most disturbed by the communal violence and the partition of the country. Somehow he felt that ending communal violence is a top priority and he hoped that the country’s partition will be undone in the future. But here the policies of colonial powers ensured that there is unrest in the South Asia leading to the sour relations between Pakistan and India. The communalists did not blame the British for partition and put all the blame on Gandhi’s uniting policies as the cause of partition. It is due to this distorted perception of the process of partition and the principles enunciated by Gandhi that one Communalist murdered him on 30th January 1948, one of the saddest days in human and Indian history. Gandhi lives through his contribution to making of Indian nation, freedom of India and the deep spiritual values which he contributes to Indian and global political life.

Gandhi: Religion: Pluralism to the Fore

Gandhi talked of secular India, articulating the aspirations of majority of the country. He wanted religion to be a private matter for the individual, "In India, for whose fashioning I have worked all my life, every man enjoys equality of status, whatever his religion is. The state is bound to be wholly secular", and, "religion is not the test of nationality but is a personal matter between man and God, and," religion is a personal affair of each individual, it must not be mixed up with politics or national affairs" [2]

It is clear that while communalists saw religion as the dividing institution, Gandhi in his unique way, more in continuation with Bhakti and Sufi traditions saw religion as the ground which united people, "I consider myself as good a Muslim as I am a Hindu and for that matter, I regard myself as equally good a Christian or a Parsi" This quote of his has to be seen along with his two other more often cited quotes," For me, politics bereft of religion is absolute dirt, ever to be shunned", and "politics divorced from religion is like a corpse, fit only to be burnt." [3]. This idea is again so exceptional in its innovation in understanding. Here by religion he meant its inner morality aspects and not just the ones related to rituals etc., the external identity.

Gandhi’s understanding of religion is very unique. Religion can be seen as a combination of various facets which can be clubbed in to

1. Identity constituted by rituals, poly places, places of pilgrimage, holy books and clergy,

2. Morality, which is the value system, meant for guiding people as to how to relate to others in society. While morality is the most important part of religion, in society all through identity has been given more projection.
Saints have harped on morality of religions. Similarly Gandhi also harped on morality of religions to unite humanity, in contrast to communalists who used religions identity to divide religious communities.

Gandhi: Influence of Christ

Gandhi was not sectarian in developing his guiding principles. He learnt and picked up from all the religions. His mother belonged to Pranami sect, [4] who respect Islamic traditions also. During the course of his stay in England he came across a Christian friend and started reading Bible. Earlier he had seen the Christian priests standing on corners of streets in India and abusing Hindu Gods/Goddesses. He did not carry a very good impression of them. Despite this background his reading of the New Testament was a big revelation to him about the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Pascal Nazareth writes, “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." [5] "Jesus lived and died in vain if He did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love." [6] He picked up the core value of love from here.

"Jesus, a man who was completely innocent, offered him as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act." [7]

Though Gandhi found Old Testament hard to grapple, he grasped New Testament and ‘Sermon on the Mont’, went straight to his heart. ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. On seeing a painting of Crusified Christ in Rome he remarked ‘ What would I have not given to bow my head to the image of living image of Christ crucified. I saw there at once that nations like individuals could only be made through the agony of cross and no other way, Joy comes not by infliction of pain on others, but out of pain voluntarily born by oneself. [8]

As per Gandhi Christ was the greatest resister and upheld non-violence to the highest level and that Jesus belongs to whole of humanity. 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." [9]

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." [10]

As a Christian, he connected the Hindu thinker’s words to the Biblical appeal of Jesus to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Martin Luther King (Jr) gives the best explanation of impact of Jesus on Gandhi. King himself was looking for the path to be adopted for freedom of the African American in United States. After deep and long introspection he saw that it was the concept of this love which Gandhi not only adopted but extended it further as the path for India’s freedom struggle. He writes“I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom,” King later wrote. [11]

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." [12] Gandhi’s great respect for Christ and the extent to which he drew inspiration from him are revealed in his statements: as pointed out above “What does Jesus mean to me? To me, he was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had.” And “Jesus lived and died in vain if He did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.” “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.”

“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.” [13]

Summing up

In this World full of injustices, the journey of mankind has been very complex. Most of the prophets were great revolutionaries of their times. They stood against the prevalent injustices and stood by the side of poor and marginalized, on the side of those who were victims of prevalent exploitation. They also talked of peace as the ground on which the path of struggles can operate and affect the system in a better direction.

In India the Shramanic tradition of Hinduism stood for equality and saw the humanity as one. Buddha focussed on equality. Mahavir’s central concern was non-violence. Jesus stood for justice and love. Prophet Mohammad talked of peace on a warring society; he also opposed the prevalent atrocities against marginalized section.

Gandhi in current times drew heavily from many of them in and adopted the path of Satya Graha on the path of non violence. The teachings of many religions were part of his being, and this also got manifested in his prayer meetings. In these not the rituals but the values were propounded from the scriptures of each religion.

 Gandhi’s respect was for morality of different religions. In the backdrop of his own development as son of Pranampanth (his mother Putli Bai was one belonging to this sect), where the positive values of Hinduism and Islam form the base, he went on to pick up from Jesus, particularly, from ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which deeply influenced him. The values of forgiveness, love from this teaching had the transforming impact on the life of Gandhi, who acknowledged it openly. His path was so impactful that many others picked up from him the path for liberation of oppressed in their own countries.

Currently, what Gandhi teaches us is the openness for all positive and humane values, irrespective of from which religion they came. It was precisely due to this that he could unite this diverse country under the overarching identity of Indian-ness. It was due to this deep impact of Sermon on the Mount, that despite launching the massive agitations against the British, he never hated the British. He famously said I am against the Colonial rule but not against the Britishers as such. This is what created a situation of lasting relationship with the colonial powers despite their exit from here. This is what impressed King, who saw in this the path of liberation and freedom from the domination of Whites in America.

The debt Gandhi owes to Jesus is immense. It does leave us with a message that creating boundaries around religions is against the grain of truth of the founders of those religions. Gandhi as epitome of love and non violence, could adopt this path due to lasting impact of Jesus Christ, goes without saying.


[2M. K. Gandhi, Harijan August 31, 1947

[3M.K. Gandhi, Harijan, May 25 197, page 164

[5Deshpande, MS (ed) (1978) Light of India or Message of Mahatmaji, 3rd ed. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House

[6Gandhi, M.K. (1948): Non Violence in Peace and War, Volume I, p. 181

[7ibid

[8M.K. Gandhi, My Religion, Page 25 (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5998724-my-religion)

[9Fischer, Louis (1950), The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, New York: Harper & Row, p. 416-17

[10Mahatma Gandhi, My Religion, op cit, pp. 13-14

[12https://churchleaders.com/outreach-missions/outreach-missions-blogs/151890-
eric_bryant_jesus_gandhi_and_martin_luther_king_jr.html

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