Relatively little is said about Gandhi, except in high school and college classes, where instructors praise one of the best of men who ever lived. But this year is an exception, especially in Indian-American communities who know 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. (He was born October 2, 1869.) Allow me to survey the reasons we must never forget him in any year. The lessons we should take away from his life will lead to a more peaceful world and make better men and women of us all.
One of the things that most afflicts our world today is the rise in religious fundamentalism. A fundamentalist is a person who cannot imagine any religion but his own being pleasing to God. I spot them in my classes from time to time. I remind the Christian that if she had been born in Saudi Arabia, she would be just as avid a Muslim as she is now a Christian. Or the Muslim that he would be quoting from the New Testament rather than the Quran if he had been born to Christian parents.
This lesson was not lost on Gandhi. He had a profoundly democratic mind, no doubt nurtured by the multi-religious community he was exposed to as a child. It went against his nature to assume that any one faith had a monopoly on the truth. “All faiths,” he once wrote, “constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect, and liable to error.” Gandhi was a Hindu, of course, but he once said, “I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Moslem and a Jew.” And Dr. Stanley Jones, a prominent American missionary, once remarked on the irony of “one of the most Christlike men in history” not being called a Christian. More importantly, he is arguably the world’s greatest apostle for peace in modern world history.
I remember well what it was like to be narrow. I grew up Catholic and from an early age felt sure I was in possession of the final truth. I had the great questions answered, because my church answered them all for me. Occasionally I wondered at my good fortune. Why me? Why was I so lucky to have been born in the true faith? One of the events that helped bring down this imperialistic attitude was hearing a Hindu swami when I was enrolled at a Catholic university in New York City studying theology. His saintliness blazed forth; it electrified me; I went home in a daze and wrote several pages in a journal. The seed that Gandhi’s teachers planted in him in his early teen years finally got planted in me. It took a Hindu to show me what religion at its best was, and when he did, my world expanded exponentially. Not only were there Catholic saints whose readings I had to explore; there was a whole world of saints from a number of traditions out there. I’ve been exploring them ever since. And when you cut away all the cultural accretions, they’re all saying pretty much the same thing. Listen to these words of a saint: “The love of God in its essence is the illumination of the heart by joy because of its nearness to the Beloved.” Is the speaker Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, or Jew? A ninth-century Sufi spoke these words, but there is no way to tell from the words themselves.
The great Catholic saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a missionary after Gandhi’s own heart. She hadn’t the slightest doubt that Hindus are as dear to God and Christ as Christians. So why uproot Hindus, she asked, from their traditions? “Be the living expression of God’s kindness,” she said: “kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes; kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.” Never did she say, “Win them for Christ.” Gandhi’s biographer Louis Fischer says that Gandhi “could have converted many Christians to Hinduism. At a hint from him, Miss Slade and others would have become Hindus. He just told them to be good Christians.” He and Mother Teresa were cut from the same cloth.
So what do we have to learn from Gandhi?
- That one of the greatest saints of the twentieth century was a Hindu. Christians who feel that Gandhi is undeserving of heaven because he fails to think about Christ in the approved way or to adopt him as his personal savior might ask what kind of God they are worshipping.
- That we are all brothers and sisters. As we look around at faces both pale and dark, at dress both Western and Eastern, at medallions and insignia from religions that have historically hated and persecuted each other, we should remember the little man in the loin cloth who once said, “I am but a poor struggling soul yearning to be wholly good.” “To be wholly good”—not rich or famous or powerful —but good. Gandhi, like every other saint, calls us back to sanity, back to the fundamentals. We are not here to get a lot out of life, but to give a lot to.
- The roots of the September 11 tragedy, and more recently the slaughter of 250 Sri Lankans, most of them Catholic Christians worshipping in their churches on Easter morning last April, are several. Most prominent is the feeling that there is only one religion that pleases God and only one scripture that contains his word. Today this attitude is particularly prevalent, as we all know, in radical Islam (a relatively small minority of Muslims), but its roots lie in the ancient Jewish notion of being God’s one and only chosen people. This is a notion that must die. The most thoughtful Jewish thinkers long ago repudiated the ugly side of the doctrine. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, for example, took it to mean that Jews should regard themselves not as uniquely favored by God, but as uniquely called to service. Let us do our part to ensure that Gandhi’s vision, that all religions at their best are facets cut from the same diamond, will never die. Only thus will peace come to our suffering world.