Gandhi’s Religious Thought
By Margaret Chatterjee
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Review Author: Eileen Egan
While the film Gandhi brought to countless millions the drama of one of the 20th century’s rare souls, it omitted five words of crucial and bedrock significance in understanding Gandhi’s life and achievements. These words are “Satyagraha” and “Sermon on the Mount.” If these words had explicitly entered the dialogue of the film, with a sentence or two of clarification, the yearnings of many young people for an alternative path to social and political change might have found a response as well as a resource for action.
Margaret Chatterjee, philosopher and former head of the Philosophy Department of Delhi University, illuminates in Gandhi’s Religious Thought the ground and development of Satyagraha and the role of the Sermon on the Mount in Gandhi’s religious thought as well as in his practical political program. This unique and valuable book does much more, of course, since it traces Gandhi’s religious formation to many strands of Hinduism, including the Vaishnava tradition of his family. A simple form of prayer he learned there, the repetition of the name of God, Ramanama, was a practice he retained for his entire life. This prayer, which he shared with the poorest Indian villager, Gandhi called “a door of purification even for the illiterate.” That this practice kept him in the presence of God is revealed in a statement:
Hanuman [the monkey servant-god] tore open his heart and showed that there was nothing there but Ramanama. I have none of the powers of Hanuman to tear open my heart, but if any of you feel inclined to do it, I assure you you will find nothing there but love for Rama, whom I see face to face in the starving millions of India.
We know that Gandhi died with the name of Rama on his lips.
During his early years, Gandhi heard the recitation of the devotional epic, the Ramayana, in his home, and in later years, his love of the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of the Lord, was so intense that he made his own translation of it. It was published on the day in March 1930 when he set out on the 200-mile Salt March to the sea to defy the infamous Salt Tax of the British Raj.
While he considered himself a Hindu, Gandhi was not a temple-goer, nor did he have temples in any of his ashrams. In the ashrams, however, there were daily prayer meetings, with hymns from many religious traditions, including such Christian hymns as “Lead Kindly Light” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Chatterjee delineates how Gandhi’s respect for various religious paths, as he called them, led him to find spiritual nourishment in each of them.
Discussing the impact of Christianity on Gandhi, Chatterjee singles out the influence of the Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi, after an early distaste for Christianity because of its relationship to imperialism and the aggressive behavior of certain Christian “soul-savers,” came to a deep identification with the message of Jesus. He said:
When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as “Resist not him that is evil; but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” and “Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you, that ye may be sons of your Father which is in Heaven,” I was simply overjoyed and found my own opinion confirmed where I least expected it.
These teachings reinforced the message of a hymn of his childhood:
But the noble know all men as one
And return with gladness evil done.
The Sermon on the Mount also harmonized with the message Gandhi took from the Bhagavad Gita, in which he saw the battle it depicted as allegorical, as the struggle in the human heart between good and evil. For Gandhi the concepts of love and non-retaliation in the hymn and in the Sermon on the Mount “should revolutionise the whole life.” In Gandhi’s case, they did. “It was the New Testament,” he asserted, “which really awakened me to the rightness and value of passive resistance.”
“Passive resistance” was the term used by Gandhi to describe his first efforts at righting wrongs through nonviolence. He later chose the term Satyagraha, which can be described as adherence to truth and insistence on it by self-suffering. The option to violence is closed and Gandhi’s satyagrahi teams underwent an intense spiritual discipline and training in love and respect for the enemy that would issue forth in non-retaliation — even in the face of brutal force, as was unforgettably portrayed in the Gandhi film. Innocent suffering, willingly borne, became the basis of the Gandhi campaigns, not only for liberation from the British Raj, but from social injustice and from untouchability. The ground of Gandhi’s life and work was love in action. Chatterjee quotes a telling statement of the Mahatma: “My life is one indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another, and they all have their rise in my insatiable love of mankind.”
Chatterjee points out that Gandhi’s love led him to penetrate the disguise of the poor and outcast to see the divine. “As for seeing God face to face,” she writes, “Gandhi, like…Mother Teresa, sees God in the poorest of the poor.” One is reminded of Mother Teresa’s description of finding “Christ in the distressing disguise” of the beggar, the leper, or the spittle-covered figure dying in the gutter.
The vision of “the other,” even of the enemy as a repository of the divine, as well as an unconditional love of humankind, are concepts many find imbedded in the message of Jesus. It was Gandhi’s gift to the world to live this vision and this love in a setting of conflict and liberation from oppression.
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