What Gandhi Taught Me about Jesus
A Pastor’s Memoir — A.C. Oommen — June 17, 2015
This article first appeared in Plough Quarterly No. 5, Summer 2015.
Reproduced with permission and deep gratitude.
I first saw Mahatma Gandhi when I was twelve, when he came to our state of Kerala in south India to help remove the age-old injustice of caste discrimination. He addressed a huge gathering on a river bed near my school, and I found a seat on the sand near where he was sitting cross-legged on a raised platform. He spoke about vegetarianism, not about national issues, but it impressed me immensely – he spoke in Hindi rather than English, and I saw him as a symbol of the resurgent India.
At that time, Gandhi was already famous in Kerala because of his 1924 action in the nearby town of Vaikom to open the Shiva temple to Hindus of all castes. For centuries, outcastes had been forbidden to enter the temple, and notices even prohibited them from using the town’s roads. Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign to abolish this humiliating segregation had been the first major test of his teaching of satyagraha (“soul force” or “truth force”).
On coming home from hearing Gandhi, I told my mother that I was now a vegetarian. (I would remain one for the next eighteen years, until moving to Uganda, when I gave it up in order to dine in fellowship with my African brethren.) From that day on, I began to follow Gandhi’s teachings. Despite my conflicting feelings toward British missionaries, whom I admired for their sacrificial work to uplift the so-called untouchables in Kerala, I began to participate in the Quit India movement pressing for India’s independence from Britain.
Although as a twelve-year-old I would not have been able to articulate what drew me to Gandhi, I now see four facets of his life and teaching as keys to understanding him.
First, truth and nonviolence were identical to him; they supported each other and gave coherence to his life. Nonviolence was not just a methodology or a “Gandhian tactic” as some have labeled it, but his religion itself. Truth is the ultimate reality, the climax of our search – the point where all our coverings and curtains are taken off. We do not know if he saw truth as an idea or as a person (“I am the Truth”), but he openly lived out the answer to the question “What is truth?”
Gandhi reminded me of Saint John in his old age, who constantly repeated, “Little children, love one another.”
Second, simplicity. Simplicity is the heart of India’s age-old spiritual search. To Gandhi it was not just in lifestyle, but simplicity in all his actions. He simplified his dress code from that of the Western lawyer to that of the Indian sadhu, prompting Winston Churchill to call him a “half-naked fakir.” Gandhi dressed this way in England as well, even when he met King George V in Buckingham Palace at the king’s request. When the British press questioned the appropriateness of this dress for such a meeting, he replied that the king, as emperor of India, was wearing enough for two people, including clothing stolen from India’s poor. Gandhi’s own simplicity was thus a reflection of his nonviolence and compassion: he felt that if he used anything more than was absolutely necessary, he would be robbing a poorer brother or sister. For the same reason, he always travelled in what some now call the “cattle class” in Indian trains and followed the communal ashram style of living, remaining accessible to all who wished to meet him.
Third, Gandhi proclaimed and practiced the dignity of manual labor. He believed that no one has a right to eat unless he is willing to get mud on his hands and participate in the production of food. He taught his students never to make anyone else do a task that we felt to be below our own dignity. Despite being so well known and honored, he cleaned the latrines himself.
Finally, Gandhi’s life was transparent. He revealed his mind in advance to all who wanted to catch him for some fault. The secret police officer appointed to watch him for political reasons found him an easy assignment: he just had to ask Gandhi what he was going to speak about, and he would tell him. Yet those of us who admired his profound thoughts and practical actions felt the depth of his vision, his gift of withdrawal in the hurly-burly of an active and busy life, and his ability to relax, reflect, and meditate inside the storm.
I never forgot my boyhood encounter with Gandhi, and his voice continued to influence my life. In 1947, when India became independent, I was a university student at Calcutta. As the midnight bell rang on August 15, people all over India and beyond listened to the historic speech that Pandit Nehru, our first prime minister and a great disciple of Gandhi, gave at Parliament House in Delhi. But Gandhi was not part of the celebration; with urgent work to do, he had disappeared from the scene.
The reason for his absence was that, as a precondition for India’s independence, the country was to be split in two as India and Pakistan. Gandhi had given his consent to this division reluctantly. This was one of the rare occasions when he gave in to others against his inner conviction, which came from a part of his life hidden from others: meditation, silence, and careful listening to the still, small voice within him. One day of each week was strictly observed as a silence day. When he faced important decisions that affected his country, he asked for time to listen to that inner voice. Popular opinion was secondary to his decision-making because history is a dialogue between God and people. The world is pulled from above to a definite destiny, not pushed from behind by a blind force.
Upon partition, India witnessed violence on a scale it had never seen before, especially in Bengal in the east and Punjab in the west; Calcutta was the worst affected city on the eastern front. Thousands of families on both sides of the new line were uprooted. As law and order broke down completely, it was impossible to control the crowds; I saw dead bodies piled up on the roadside. The police and army acknowledged their inability to control the violence.
Then we heard that Gandhi was coming to Calcutta. He had no military protection, and anyone could easily have killed him.
He left Delhi unnoticed, traveling by train in a third-class compartment. Arriving in Calcutta’s Howrah station, he walked with his stick across the platform and asked for a small tent to be put up in the nearby maidan, where he seated himself on a raised platform. Remarking, “It’s better to die than to live in a world of violence,” he held a fast unto death.
The first two or three days went by without much change in the communal violence. By the third day, Gandhi was very weak and could not sit up. The news that he was dying spread far and wide. Leaders of the warring Hindus and Muslims came together in an attempt to save his life, promising Gandhi they would lay down their own lives to prevent any more deaths. But Gandhi insisted that he would continue his fast until he saw a real change among the people. It was Gandhi’s Satyagraha in action: the innocent taking on the burden of others’ sins, and offering his own life as atonement.
Then a miracle took place of which I am an eyewitness. It seemed as if a breath of the Holy Spirit blew across the city. People came out of hiding. They put down their weapons before him, fell prostrate, and asked for his forgiveness. I saw separate processions of the warring Muslim and Hindu communities coming from two sides. Before, they would have attacked each other and none would have been left alive. Now they embraced each other, saying, “We are brothers.”
Where are the Christians that live according to the Bible?
The transformation was deep and the cost of forgiveness great. At that time a Hindu asked Gandhi, “What shall I do? My only son was killed by a Muslim.” Straight came the reply: “Forgive. Adopt a Muslim child as your own. His parents may have been killed by Hindus.”
And so what the whole police force and the army failed to achieve in Calcutta, Gandhi accomplished in a few days. Lord Mountbatten, former governor general of India, called him India’s “one-man army.” Gandhi showed that innocent suffering is the most powerful tool to bring peace to a world weary of conflict and war, just as Isaiah wrote in the songs of the suffering servant: “With his stripes we are healed.” After establishing peace in Calcutta, Gandhi walked through the villages, and wherever he went the miracle occurred and people abandoned violence. I witnessed this.
Meanwhile, the violence in the northwestern border state of Punjab was even worse than in Calcutta. Gandhi was pained by the daily reports of suffering caused by large scale exodus and violence in the divided region. Through his newspaper, The Harijan, he sent out an appeal for volunteers to staff the growing refugee camps. One line struck me at the time: “Where are the Christians that live according to the Bible?” He argued that the Christians, as a minority in India, were not a threat to either the Muslims or the Hindus, and that they could bring the Christian message of reconciliation to both camps.
Having seen the carnage in Bengal, I was deeply moved by Gandhi’s call to Christians and found it impossible to study theology under these conditions. I shared my pain with like-minded classmates and we approached the principal of our college for a leave of absence to serve under Gandhi. He tried to dissuade us, arguing that India’s churches needed us to study for the future, but finally he gave permission. The National Council of Churches of India agreed to sponsor us. We went back home to Kerala to gather a few other young men who wanted to join us, and to bid farewell to our parents and dear ones. None of us were confident we would return home alive.
On our way to the Punjab, we stayed a few days in Delhi, where I met Horace Alexander. He had mediated between Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, former leader of the All-India Muslim League and now founder of Pakistan, in a last-minute attempt to avoid partition. Alexander took me to attend the daily prayer meetings at Birla House where Gandhi lived. Exactly at five each afternoon, Gandhi would walk into the maidan supported by a friend and take his seat on a raised platform. We would sing a hymn, often Isaac Watts’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Gandhi especially loved the final verse:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
A passage from the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Bible would be read. Then Gandhi would speak briefly, followed by a short silence. One day as I sat at his feet, a very agitated Hindu pleaded with Gandhi for permission to retaliate, saying that his whole family had been wiped out by Muslims. Gandhi replied, as he always did: “Forgive. Peace. Love.”
It was not easy or cheap for Gandhi to speak of forgiveness. His shoulders would come down as if he was carrying all of India’s pain and suffering. He reminded me of Saint John in his old age, who constantly repeated, “Little children, love one another.”
At Gandhi’s direction, we moved to the refugee camps to get to work. Our first assignment was the Muslim camp in Ambala. On the way, we witnessed the exodus of refugees, walking in lines nearly a mile long. The camp itself was shocking: two hundred thousand people on just over two acres of land. Smallpox and cholera broke out; we hardly had enough time to bury the dead. Then the wounded arrived from trains that had been deliberately derailed. Our main duty was to help the sick and wounded get into the overcrowded trains going to Pakistan.
Next we were assigned to a Hindu camp in Kurukshetra to receive those who were coming in from Pakistan. It was another scene of misery. Each refugee had a bitter story to tell of murder, rape, or fights, and their only thought was revenge. Anything we said about forgiveness, love, or reconciliation meant nothing; they had suffered more than we could imagine. Night after night we returned to our tent and poured out our pain to the Lord.
The great change happened on January 30, 1948. From a broken radio we heard the news that Gandhi had been assassinated – gunned down on his way to the daily prayer meeting, at the same spot where a few months before I had sat at his feet. We returned to the camp, and found it silent for the first time. I saw tears in many eyes that until then had been filled only with lust for revenge. The words spoken in unison were: “He died for our sake.”
We packed our things and left to attend the funeral in Delhi. It seemed like a different city. Not a single fire was lit in any of the homes. Broken-hearted crowds pressed toward the van carrying the dead body to the funeral ground. Even people who had been hiding in fear for their lives came out boldly into the streets to catch a glimpse of the dead martyr they adored. We took our stand by the side of the road to witness the procession, with the country’s leaders at the front. There was no need for the police or army to keep order. People threw weapons away and joined together, irrespective of caste and religion, to pay homage to the departed leader. I, too, shed tears – not only because of Gandhi, but because his death reminded me of an innocent death two thousand years ago, a death through which abundant life, a life of love and forgiveness, was offered to me.
Thanks to Gandhi’s witness, I found my life calling in the ministry of reconciliation. I have worked on race relations in Uganda, on bridging divides in a caste-ridden church in Kerala, and on achieving reconciliation between staff and management as chaplain in a hospital in Vellore. In all this, I have been guided by the life and death of Jesus – the Jesus whom I learned to love more deeply through the life and death of Mahatma Gandhi.
A. C. Oommen, a theologian and pastor in the Church of South India, lives in Kaviyoor, Pathanamthitta District in Kerala, India.
This article first appeared in Plough Quarterly No. 5, Summer 2015.