MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. once said that the greatest Christian of the 20th century was not a member of the church. He was referring to Mohandas Gandhi. A remarkable number of King’s fundamental beliefs—the use of active nonviolence as a tool of social reform, the commitment to loving one’s enemies—can be traced back to the influence of Gandhi, which means that one of the defining figures of 20th century American Christianity was profoundly shaped by the example of an Indian Hindu. As King said in 1958 of the civil rights movement, “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”
But what of Gandhi’s influences? How did a skinny, middle-class, mid-caste Indian, so scared of public speaking as a student that a classmate had to read his speeches aloud for him, come to lead one of the great liberation struggles of the past century? A new book by Arvind Sharma, professor of comparative religions at McGill University, makes the case that the source of Gandhi’s strength was his spirituality. And while the heart of Gandhi’s faith was Hindu, as King’s was Baptist, the influences were remarkably diverse.
Pointing out that most of the biographies of Gandhi really tell the story of Mohandas Karamchand (the name he was given by his family), not Mahatma (a title that means “great soul” and is given to saints in India), Sharma’s book Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography sets out to give an account of the Mahatma. Sharma quotes Gandhi directly on the importance of highlighting the dimension of spirituality in any attempt to understand him: “What I want to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these 30 years—is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain moksha [the Hindu term for liberation]. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal.”
What struck me most in Sharma’s biography was Gandhi’s interfaith journey as a student. As King first encountered Gandhi’s work at Morehouse College and later at Crozer Theological Seminary, so Gandhi’s conversations about relig-ion during his days as a law student in London shaped him for the rest of his life. In London, Gandhi read about the Prophet Muhammad and came to admire his bravery and austerity. He attended the funeral of an atheist and decided he could respect someone whose actions he appreciated, even when their belief systems were very different. Most profoundly, Gandhi got a different view of Christianity.
As a child, Gandhi had developed a strong distaste for Christianity, mostly as a result of watching Christian missionaries hound Hindus in his hometown to convert. When someone finally did convert, the missionaries would make them eat beef, drink alcohol, and wear Western clothes.
This might have been Gandhi’s entire experience of Christianity had he not gotten into a conversation with a Christian at a boarding house in England. The man, a fellow vegetarian and teetotaler, suggested that Gandhi read the Bible, with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount. The description of the holiness of meekness and mercy in those verses went straight to Gandhi’s heart, shaping for the rest of his life his views on the meaning of moral force. Gandhi’s reading of Tolstoy while in South Africa and his friendships with Christian theologians and ministers during the India campaigns are all predicated on the conversation with that Christian in England and the Bible study that followed.
As I read those pages in Sharma’s biography, I thought to myself: This is precisely why working with young people is so important. As the interfaith journeys of King and Gandhi illustrate, formative experiences with religious diversity can create a moral and spiritual foundation upon which greatness is built.
Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes about social justice from his perspective as a Muslim American of Indian heritage.
Image: Mahatma Gandhi, SNEHIT  / Shutterstock.com