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Gandhi and Christ – III

Harris Wofford

Can Mahatma Gandhi, the world’s most famous Hindu, be considered an imitation of Christ? Gandhi became the greatest exemplar of Jesus Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount”. (Continued)

Was the historical Jesus like this? No one can say, since he became transfigured into the figure of God. There was, however, 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 revolutionise 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 to a political strategy: “Non-violence 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 honour, 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 non-violent resister realises, 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 his last resort to a non-violent 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 untouchablility. 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 Rajya’ –Holy Raj – of my dreams.” But then he warned, “If I survive the struggle for freedom, I might have to give non-violent 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 region. 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 1948, 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 non-violent 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 protest 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?

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.

- Beliefnet.com