The Essential Gandhi

Mohandas K. Gandhi, political liberator of India and Hindu spiritual master, sought to translate Jesus' Sermon on the Mount into a practical political philosophy. He wrote this in 1938: "I am convinced that great faiths will live together only to the extent that their followers imbibe [Jesus'] central teaching of nonviolence.... It is not a thing to be grasped through mere intellect; it must sink into our hearts."

These words should be repeated often today.

Gandhi spent his life experimenting with truth and attempting to put into practice key teachings of Jesus. Some consider him an idealist who was simply unwilling to understand and accept practical politics. Others view him in the way his mentor G. K. Chesterton spoke of Christianity. Chesterton believed that the essential message of Jesus was not an ideal found wanting but a reality never fully lived by those claiming to be his followers.

Gandhi wrote in 1936, "Today, I rebel against orthodox Christianity, as I am convinced it has distorted the message of Jesus. He was an Asiatic whose message was delivered through many media, and when it had the backing of a Roman emperor, it became an imperialist faith as it remains to this day."

GANDHI BELIEVED it wasn't possible to change a person's convictions through violence, and he offered several anecdotes from his own marriage to demonstrate this. The resistance of his wife, Kasturbai, to his verbal and physical abuses made him both embarrassed and ashamed of his attempts to convince her of something against her will. Using these discoveries, he suggested that world leaders could not be forced to change their policies through power politics, but through empathy.

"We should try to understand the psychology of evildoers," he said. "They are very often victims of their circumstances. By patience and sympathy, we shall be able to win over at least some of them to the side of justice."

Men who began as Gandhi's most bitter opponents and critics—General Smuts in South Africa and his British colonial masters in India—ultimately became his warmest friends. "Times change and systems decay," said Gandhi. "But it is my faith that in the end, it is only nonviolence and things that are based on nonviolence that will endure."

John Dear, a Jesuit priest, does a masterful job as editor of the book. He read mountains of Gandhi's writings to offer readers an excellent collection, and he also includes a helpful background essay. Chapters include Gandhi's reflections on his search for God, and his pursuit of nonviolence, nuclear disarmament, prayer, and steadfast resistance.

The book can't possibly do justice to a modern spiritual master who some would claim is more an example of Christ-like living than anyone. Yet those who seek to be more truly Christian will not go wrong reading and digesting this book by and about a man who rejected Christianity. Gandhi's stance was not one of judgmentalism or arrogance. Ultimately, he saw himself as a Hindu who wanted to absorb what was best in all religions. Perhaps his greatest legacy for Christians is that he encourages us to be more authentic followers of Christ.

Wayne A. Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.

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