There is a sense of wholeness at the core of man That must abound in all he does; That marks with reverence his ev’ry step; That has its sway when all else fails; That wearies out all evil things; That warms the depth of frozen fears Making friend of foe, Making love of hate, And lasts beyond the living and the dead, Beyond the goals of peace, the ends of war! This man seeks through all his years: To be complete and of one piece, within, without.
— “Knowledge . . . Shall Vanish Away,” in The Inward Journey
Impure means result in an impure end. Hence, prince and the peasant will not be equaled by cutting off the prince’s head, nor can the process of cutting off equalize the employer and the employed. One cannot reach truth by untruthfulness. Truthful conduct alone can reach truth.
The artist of this untitled piece, K.H. Ara, was a satyagrahi who was imprisoned for his participation in the famous Salt Satyagraha. The production of salt, a dietary staple, was heavily taxed by the British colonial administration. Satyagrahis marched for nearly a month on foot to the sea. More than 80, 000 were arrested. Not a single weapon was in their hands. Martin Luther King Jr. would preach about Gandhi’s strategy and leadership of the Salt March upon his return to the United States from his trip to the Land Of Gandhi in a sermon entitled “Palm Sunday Sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi remarking
And you have read of the Salt March, which was a very significant thing in the Indian struggle. And this demonstrates how Gandhi used this method of nonviolence and how he would mobilize his people and galvanize the whole of the nation to bring about victory. In India, the British people had come to the point where they were charging the Indian people a tax on all of the salt, and they would not allow them even to make their own salt from all of the salt seas around the country. They couldn’t touch it; it was against the law. And Gandhi got all of the people of India to see the injustice of this. And he decided one day that they would march from Ahmadabad down to a place called Dandi.
We had the privilege of spending a day or so at Ahmadabad at that Sabarmati ashram, and we stood there at the point where Gandhi started his long walk of two hundred and eighteen miles. And he started there walking with eighty people. And gradually the number grew to a million, and it grew to millions and millions. And finally, they kept walking and walking until they reached the little village of Dandi. And there, Gandhi went on and reached down in the river, or in the sea rather, and brought up a little salt in his hand to demonstrate and dramatize the fact that they were breaking this law in protest against the injustices they had faced all over the years with these salt laws.
Gandhi’s method of protest, it should be remembered, was a scientific method based on sociology, psychology, law, economics, as well as theology. It draws on all these methods of knowing the truth in order to heal the human personality, which he recognized had become inured to the notion that it is human nature to be violent. Like Socrates, who averred that humanity tended towards justice rather than injustice, love rather than hatred, Gandhi too maintained that in the end, any Republic founded on the “interest of the stronger” would not last, for the arc of the moral universe, as Dr. King also said, bends towards justice. Such is the genius of Gandhiji’s science of Ahimsa, which, he insisted, was the science of love. Love strives to rise above nature, to transform nature in its image. Gandhi, it should be noted, took love as a force in the universe, as an animating primum mobile capable of effecting measurable change in the order of universe. In the Salt Satyagraha, we see a concrete social example of human action anchored in the philosophy of Ahimsa; the Indian people transmute the quotient of their moral discipline and physical suffering into energy that is in turn dedicated to the production of a necessity seized by the imperialist. satyagraha is rooted in renunciation and self-sacrifice, which is a philosophical idea integral to the practice of Hinduism. This forceful collective renunciation powered the movement for swaraj because in impelling the masses to forego attachment to their physical reality even unto death, Gandhi emphasized that they would be redeemed in the love of their children for whom they struggled.
The soul-force is infinitely greater than the physical form and the revolutionary, in particular, must learn this truth if he or she is striving to overcome the fear of death, which is really a fear of love because if we love from the soul force we will know that we never truly die. We we will return again and again, like the universe sucking into itself until at last we are at the center of that which is changeless, formless, that which is beyond space, time, and causality, the perfect stillness which the Christians call the peace which passeth understanding and the Hindus call Brahman, which represents the totality of the soul force.
As an energetic force, love represents more than willpower for Gandhi as Schoepenhauer had claimed; rather, love is an acknowledgement of the ephemerality of the physical form itself; it can work as a physical principle because it cuts across time. It is the understanding that desire produces suffering and that we are responsible for our misery because we are too attached to our material life at the grave expense of our spiritual life. Consequently, we are bound to the rigors of mortality, bogged down by the petty crimes and frustrations of everyday life which keep us further distracted from the truth: that all is maya and that in truth, we are energetic forms that are merely taking new shape and new intervals navigating the great force field that is the universe. We depend on light for life but where does it come from and does it come from us, if the kingdom of God is inside us? The search for “scientific truth” has taken modern Western man outward; and yet as our sages and leaders have told us, to seek truth, we must indeed go inward–the inward journey, in the words of the great Howard Thurman. In the form of Hinduism Vivekananda emphasized, when one escapes rebirth, one returns to complete unity with the universal soul or the Atman. In truth, he argues, we are all perfect; it is just that we have become inured to ignorance as a result of our attachment to illusions of reality. To truly achieve the freedom of the soul, both Gandhi and Vivekananda suggest, one must overcome these illusions and confront the truth of one’s soul force. The soul force is ancient as it is new. It represents the embedded unity of past, present, and future because it is time itself. Time would not exist without the soul in this epistemology for it is the karma of the soul which impels causality in time-space.
The Salt Satyagraha reveals that Ahimsa is more than a concept: it is an actual perception capable of being shared by a large mass of people and uniting them in common purpose and action, in karma and dharma. It represents a new epistemology that compels man to overcome the brute in him by recognizing the grand illusions and painful distortions of reality that hold us in bondage to suffering.
Fundamental to the Gandhian epistemology is a rejection of the rigid empiricism characteristic of Western science. Rather, it embraces the central message of peace underlying all of the world’s religions and sees them as temporally dialogical to Science. We might remember here that even Western science began in African and Asian religious and scientific texts, which acknowledged, as it is revealed in the Vedas, the unity in the plurality of forms. The distinction that has arisen between Religion and Science in the West is dispelled in the thought of Vivekananda and Gandhi, revealed as something of a false dichotomy, for the real question is the relation of humanity to nature and this question takes us to both science and religion; this theoretical legacy is indebted to with the teachings of the Vedanta as well as the sacred texts of other religions.However, this idea of non-injury as the highest ideal of civilization is reiterated most impactfully in the modern epoch in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his greatest disciple Swami Vivekananda, both of whom Gandhiji admired greatly. Again, we are entering a new epistemology here because historically in the West Science has been emptied of moral purpose and Religion has unfortunately been declared, even by great social scientists like Marx, as a deviation from scientific truth. Like Vivekananda, who insisted upon the unity of all of the world’s religions, Gandhi recognizes “a perfect unity in the plurality of designs.” Thus he did not see a contradiction between Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths and science. It is for this reason that he defends his theory of Ahimsa as scientific; as he maintained
Nevertheless, I do feel, as the poor villagers felt about Mysore, that there is orderliness in the universe, there is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives. It is not a blind law, for no blind law can govern the conduct of living being and thanks to the marvelous researches of Sir J. C. Bose it can now be proved that even matter is life
What does the method and philosophy of Satyagraha reveal? It exposes the heart of human nature, in all of its contradictions. The law of satyagraha compels us to act with soul force, which necessitates activation of our soul memory, our spirit consciousness.
If it follows that we were still born though we do not remember our babyhood, then it is also true that our soul-force stores memories from many lifetimes through which we have traveled. Just because we do not remember our babyhood, for example, does not mean we did not exist. This line of thought was illumined in the teachings of Swami Vivekananda; it also drove the pedagogy of Gandhiji’s satyagraha. the soul is infinite, a persistent energetic impulse perambulating the universe. It merely changes form as it morphs through time. Moksha, when the soul liberates itself from rebirth, is not unlike supernova. The soul achieves unity with space and time and does not need to resolve its contradictions in earthly life; it is free to join with Brahman. The soul-force or the Atman is our direct connection to the force we know as God or Brahman. This is why those souls who attain this unity with Brahman, mahasamadhi, escape the illusion of physical life and experience a perfect bliss. It is the peace of godly love, the peace which transcends understanding as posited in Christian doctrine.
In satyagraha, the soul force must be compelled to take refuge in this truth: that the soul being eternal, the body is merely a vessel, as frail as it is powerful. This realization gives the satyagrahi immense soul confidence, the authority to act with the superhuman courage that brings forth the great men and women of an epoch. The soul is time itself, for it bears a record of its rebirths and so is conscious of its antiquity and its future at the same time. It is a force in the universe comparable to other forces such as gravity.
If it follows that the purpose of human civilization is to evolve a culture of absolute peace, in our progress from our primitive origins, then ahimsa or the way of non-violence that is revealed when one seeks the truth of the soul force is the only pathway forward in a time that desperately demands such soul-awakening. Satyagraha is often portrayed as a weaker cousin of the “real” revolution. However, lest we misconstrue its true intent: satyagraha is entirely active if we take human will and conscience to be acting forces in nature.
Satyagraha thus demands a fierce courage and loyalty to the call of soul-truth, which may necessitate imperilment even of the physical body in the fight, paradoxically, to save one’s soul. The satyagrahi’s consciousness of her capacity to renounce the law of self-preservation and embrace self-immolation creates the courage to sacrifice even the body if necessary in the pursuit of love, freedom, and justice. The soul is not free in conditions where untruth and decadence prevail.
The soul force then is the voice within us that cries out for justice of God, an seething energy capable of defeating the evil lurking in the heart of man. it compels us to be killed rather than be moved to kill ourselves. We have been taught in Western civilization that the drives of human nature cannot be overcome, that we are victims of our natures, that the causes of our problems are due to external rather than internal factors. In this paradigm, desire becomes misconstrued as need and we are forever using this tragic misconception to justify the illusion of reality that keeps us trapped behind loveless masks. We are trapped because we are afraid to let go and because we are afraid to let go, we cannot love. We become stronger when we learn to discern the differences between one and the other, between genuine need and frivolous desire.
Western psychoanalysis holds that we cannot overcome our base instincts due to certain uncontrollable factors or complexes that mandate certain inevitabilities in our social relations to each other. Consequently, the allegories of Oedipus and Electra are invoked to justify certain sexual impulses in man and woman. And yet, what of those who manage to transcend such impulses through the unity of mind and heart?… Pained by the condition of his people, Gandhiji began to ask himself how he could change the capricious heart of man. He did not find answers in Freud (neither did Dr. King, interestingly). Rather, he turned to scripture, producing copious translations and notes of the Gita, the Bible, The Quran, and other gospels. Slowly, he began to see that the only way he could change the world was by changing himself.
We remain victims in the Western conception of reality and human nature because we are forever blaming forces beyond ourselves instead of taking charge of our inner drives, which more often than not lead us astray from the marrow of existence, which is the soul-force or prana. The psychoanalytic seems an impoverished view of the human personality to me; we are human precisely because we take responsibility, on our best days, for our actions. Human beings are also capable of transcending their conditions. A poor man can make something of nothing; genius overcomes struggle by gaining mastery of it; both a rich man and a poor man can be enslaved to their natures.
Taking responsibility requires humility and patience with one’s limitations. It takes immense inner strength and willpower to say no to that which restricts one’s growth and well-being. It takes greater strength to exemplify in your response to this force, whose origin is the fiend who roams the world bloodlustily, that you will not mimic his behavior and dishonor your soul force by retaliating.
In your resistance to evil, however, you must paradoxically not resist and so this is why Jesus said resist not evil. Only the ancient sages and prophets have managed to detach from maya, the illusion that keeps us attached to the physical body. we must overcome these lower urges which today most tragically suffuse the values of a decaying Western empire. Like the Buddha, Mohandas K. Gandhi saw the profound misery accompanying the self-indulgence of worldliness. He sought to educate, clothe, and feed the sons and daughters of India. He strove mightily to cure the blight of caste oppression. He fought to free the soul of India from the unbearable agony of three hundred years of imperialism, which had orchestrated immense suffering in India. Under the English, Bharat Mata was raped and exploited, her wealth looted, her education neglected and her future darkened. Pained by the condition of his people, Gandhiji began to ask himself how he could change the capricious heart of man. Slowly, he began to see that the only way he could change the world was by changing himself. This is why he renounced meat, sex, wealth, luxury, and other distractions which keep us attached to the illusions we tragically mistake for reality.
Like Swami Vivekananda, Gandhiji’s renunciations awakened the West as the Buddha had awakened the East. In the United States, the African-American people who were making triumphs in their long march to freedom began to hear of Gandhiji’s political agitations in South Africa as well as India. Many African-American leaders, like Howard Thurman, Benjamin E. Mays, William Nelson, and James Lawson, would make pilgrimages to study the Indian anti-colonial movement and the power of the soul-force in the progress of our struggle. They shared with Indians the spirituals of their church, many met with Gandhiji, others organized their people using methods they learned during their pilgrimage. Musicians like Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, and others riffed and improvised on the Eastern theme, awakening the slumbering spirit of the Afro-Asiatic sound. Black universities began teaching courses on satyagraha and Ahimsa as political tactics in the struggle for civil rights. In a manifestation of Gandhi’s prophecy to Howard Thurman that it would be through the American Negro that the the message of non-violence would bear fruit, black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama committed satyagraha by refusing to ride the segregated bus lines. And so, Sermon on the Mount united with the eternal Song of the Gita yielding to satyagraha in America.
Reprinted from THE JOURNAL OF RELIGIOUS THOUGHT Autumn-Winter Issue, 1957-1958
CHANGE in the social order today is proceeding often violently and is frequently being resisted just as violently. Our own country is caught in a strange conjunction of Christian and democratic principles, fanatical resistence even to the belated application of these principles, and grave uncertainty as to how best the victims, the victimizers, and the innocent can escape both moral embarrassment and physical pain.
Somehow, happily, men appear less reluctant than formerly to hear testimony to faith in non-violence, a testimony borne so urgently in the past by Jesus of Nazareth, Gautama Buddha, Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi is nearest to us in time, the problems he faced were extraordinarily akin to ours, and his experiments with non-violence in the presence of these problems were so unique in method and so revolutionary in result that we are constrained to ask what guidance he has for us. Moreover, he fell under the influence of those who went before, and in him their spirit flowered.
I have chosen to discuss the principles of Gandhi’s non-violent non cooperation. Those who wish to understand the practice of non-violence must understand both the principles and the methods of the Gandhian way. There is, however, a limit to what may be included in one paper.
Gandhi was a practical man, but a man whose practice was rooted in verities from which he was unshakable. Thus when he sought a name for his struggle he chose Satyagraha, which means literally firmness in truth, but translated from the vernacular into English means Truth-Force and is called also Soul-Force. All of these terms are completely applicable to Gandhi’s movement, for” the movement was equally the product of this firmness in truth and a demonstration of the power of truth and of the spirit.
What, in Gandhi’s view, was truth? In the answer to this question lies the first step to an understanding of Gandhi and Satyagraha, for Satyagraha is a method of pursuing truth.
“What then is Truth?” asks Gandhi, and he answers: “A difficult question, but I have solved it for myself by saying that it is what the Voice within tellsyouV Still again he says, “What a pure heart feels at a particular time is Truth.” We would say obedience to one’s conscience.
In Tallahassee, Florida, a few months ago I explained this Gandhian version of truth to some of the members of the Inter-Civic Council of that city and one member of the Council raised the very natural question as to whether this did not make truth a variable, dependent upon an individual’s interpretation, and thus not an absolute, fixed eternally in the heavens. Gandhi anticipated this question and answered it in this wise: “Well, seeing that the human mind works through innumerable media and that the evolution of the human mind is not the same for all, it follows that what may be truth for one may be untruth for another, and hence those who have made experiments have come to the conclusion that there are certain conditions to be observed in making those experiments. . . . Everyone should, therefore, realize his limitations before he speaks of his inner Voice.” For Gandhi, the experiment leading to the right to speak of one’s following truth must include the vow of truth, of purity, of non-violence, of poverty, and of non-possession.
What I wish here to emphasize is that Gandhi’s entire theory of non violent non-cooperation had at its center the principle of truth or obedience to one’s conscience, a consuming conviction burnished by the fire of a pure life. The true Satyagrahi (that is, one who fellows truth, Satyagraha, or the non-violent way) cannot be the tool of self-interest or the victim of prejudice or a moment’s emotion. He must be deeply convicted after long and humble self-searching. “One discovers Truth,” said Gandhi, “by patient endeavor and silent prayer. I can only assure friends that I spare no pains to grope my way to the right, and that humble but constant endeavour and silent prayer are my two trusty companions along the weary but beautiful path that all seekers must tread.”
If there is any doubt as to the hold of truth upon Gandhi, one need only recall that he identified God with truth. “I have come to the conclusion,” he said, “that for myself God is Truth.” Then, he added that he had gone a step further and was prepared to say that truth is God.
Having heard this from him, that truth is one’s own and deepest inner voice and that this is God, it is at first unsettling to hear him say also: “The very insistence on Truth has taught me to appreciate the beauty of compromise. . . . But Truth is hard as adamant and tender as a blossom. The golden rule of conduct, therefore, is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall see Truth in fragment and from dif ferent angles of vision. Conscience is not the same thing for all. Whilst ividual conduct, imposition of that con duct upon all will be an insufferable interference with everybody’s freedom of conscience.” None, thought Gandhi, can realize truth perfectly “so long as we are imprisoned in this mortal frame,” but men do have the obligation to experiment in their search and they have the right to err. He said “compromise,” but he did not mean compromise on fundamentals.
Here then is a central principle upon which Gandhi built his program— truth or conscience, the voice of God itself, but a principle which never prevented him from, indeed, which led him to endless, tireless effort to reach agreement with those who differed with him.
The second great principle of Gandhi’s program was non-violence. “And,” says he, “when you want to find Truth as God, the only inevitable means is Love, i.e., non-violence, and since I believe that ultimately means and ends are convertible terms, I should not hesitate to say that God is Love.”
In this, two very important ideas are apparent: the first, that non violence is equated with love; and second, that truth and love are the twin pillars upon which Gandhi’s great revolutionary program rests.
Let us now take a further look at the nature of non-violence as Gandhi saw it. Repeatedly, Gandhi made it clear that non-violence is not to be confined to physical action but that it involves also words and even thoughts: “One had better not speak it,” he said, “if one cannot do so in a gentle way, meaning that there is no truth in a man who cannot control his tongue.” This does not suggest, he makes clear, that one should be deterred from telling a truth which may for the moment appear harsh or unpopular for fear of wounding susceptibilities.^The intention never to do violence must be controlling.
For Gandhi, in the second place, non-violence is non-violence of the strong and not of the weak. At the beginning of his mission, he was offended by South African interpretations that this method was devised for the weak, and toward the close of his life he was hurt beyond words that his own people had never learned the lesson that non-violence was of the strong and not of the weak. What virtue is there in a man being non-violent when he possesses no weapons? “Non-violence,” he says, “presupposes the ability to strike. It is a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for ven geance.” He rejected the use of the term “passive resistence” because of its being interpreted as a weapon of the weak. Moreover, he said, “Non cooperation is not a passive state, it is an intensely active state.”
Again non-violence makes a distinction between evil and the evil doer, and a Satyagrahi must never forget the distinction. He must not habour ill- will or bitterness against the latter (that is the evil doer). He may not even employ needlessly offensive language against the evil doer however un relieved his evil might be. No attack upon character should be made and no word should be spoken that will do lasting injury, lead to later regret, and make reconciliation impossible, remembering that the purpose is always to convince and correct, to reconcile and not to coerce. “. . . It is an article of faith with every Satyagrahi that there is no one so fallen.in this world but can be converted by love.” Gandhi was glad to contrast his attitude toward the colonial policy of the British Empire and his determination that not even the hair of one Britisher should be harmed.
Said he, “I hate the system of government that the British people have set up in India. I hate the ruthless exploitation of India. . . . But I do not hate the domineering Englishmen. … I seek to reform them in all the loving ways that are open to me. My non-cooperation has its roots not in hatred, but in love. My personal religion pre-emptorily forbids me to hate anybody.”
We are led immediately to an idea so fundamental that to fail to under stand it is to fail completely to grasp the spirit and method of Gandhi. I repeat these words from Gandhi: “For it is an article of faith with every Satyagrahi that there is no one so fallen in this world but can be converted by love.” Without this faith there can be no non-violence in the Gandhian sense. Read Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth. Follow him day by day along the torturous path of bringing an empire to bay or making “untouch ables” “Children of God,” and you will see not only the persistence in him of his faith in human beings but its near miraculous power.
“If I am a follower of ahimsa (non-violence),” says Gandhi, “I must love my enemy. I must apply the same rules to the wrong-doer who is my enemy or a stranger to me as I would to my wrong-doing father or son.” This is hard but it is the price which Gandhian non-violence exacts. “Having flung aside the sword,” he says, “there is nothing except the cup of love which I can offer to those who oppose me. It is by offering that cup that I expect to draw them close to me. I live in the hope that if not in this birth, in some other birth I shall be able to hug all humanity in friendly embrace.”
The Exaltation of the Means
I come now to a third principle of Satyagraha, the relation of means to ends. Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav writer, whose recent book, The New Class, has created such a sensation, states that “nothing so well reveals the reality and greatness of ends as the methods used to attain them.” There is still, however, a subtle and dangerous fascination in the doctrine that “the end justifies the means,” and no doubt many a well-intentioned person has fallen under its allurements. Gandhi wrestled strenuously with this problem for his was the need of fashioning means for the attainment of certain over riding ends and he was forced to make his choice in the light of a principle or court moral chaos. He defined his position unmistakably. He wrote that men often say, “Means are after all means.” He said, “Means are after all everything. As the means so the end. There is no wall of separation between means and end. . . . Realization of the goal is in exact proportion to that of the means. This is a proposition that admits of no exception.” He went on to compare the seed to the means and the end to the tree, and to quote the maxim, “As is the God, so is the Votary.” He says one would scarcely speak of worshipping God by means of Satan. “We reap exactly what we sow.”
It was suggested to Gandhi that the English had attained certain ends by brute force and that it was possible for the Indians to do likewise. To which Gandhi answered that surely Indians did not want that—the very kind of subjugation from which they were then struggling to be freed.
Or, as he said to me on the eve of India’s freedom, “We could have killed the British and perhaps have had our freedom but it would not have been this way.” By “this way” he meant that of the British leaving peace fully without the outward sign of animosity and the prospect of the two nations living not only in peace but in friendship. Twenty-five years earlier he had said, “Let there be no manner of doubt that Swaraj (freedom) estab lished by non-violent means will be different in kind from the Swaraj that can be established by armed rebellion. . . . Violent means will give violent Swaraj. That would be a menace to the world and to India herself.” For him, it was not the immediate but the enduring result which mattered.
The application of Gandhi’s philosophy of means and ends can be seen clearly in what he held to be the relationship of non-violence] to truth. Truth is the end. Non-violence is the means. To take care of the means, to keep them pure, is to reach the end sooner or later. Ultimate victory is assured.
Gandhi’s program of non-violent resistance or non-cooperation is often associated solely with his efforts to free India from British rule or from any one or more of the oppressive aspects of that rule. It was more than this. It involved intra-Indian conflicts and included numerous constructive movements within Indian life which in Gandhi’s view were essential to the winning of the freedom sought more directly by forms of non-violent resistence.
Untouchability was a curse in Indian life which Gandhi could not abide, and against this institution he fought relentlessly and against great odds. “My idea of village Swaraj,” he said, “is that it is a complete repub lic. . . . There will be no castes such as we have today with their graded untouchability. Non-violence with its technique of Satyagraha and non cooperation will be the sanction of the village community.” He said further, “I have put untouchability in the forefront because I observe a certain remissness about it. . . . We can never reach Swaraj with the poison of un touchability corroding the Hindu part of the national body. Swaraj is a meaningless term if we desire to keep a fifth of India under perpetual sub jection and deliberately deny them the fruits of national culture. . . . In human ourselves, we may not plead before the Throne for deliverance from the inhumanity of others.”
Gandhi did not simply speak and write against untouchability. He threw the full force of Satyagraha and his very life against it. In 1924 and 1925 Satyagraha was undertaken in Vykom in the Province of Travancore, South India. Its purpose was to obtain permission for “untouchables” to use certain roads about the temple in Vykom. Gandhi was not present in Travancore, but from a distance he sent advice and encouragement. The importance he attached to this episode is seen in the following statement which he made in Young India, the paper he was editing at that time: “The Vykom Satyagrahis are fighting a battle of no less consequence than that of Swaraj. They are fighting against an age-long wrong and prejudice. It is supported by orthodoxy, superstition, custom and authority. Theirs is only one among the many battles that must be fought in the holy war against irreligion masquerading as religion, ignorance appearing in the guise of learning.”
In September, 1932, Gandhi was in jail after his threat of a civil dis obedience campaign against the passage of certain oppressive ordinances by the British. From newspapers he had learned that the new constitution for India proposed by the British was to grant separate electorates for the “untouchables,” that is, that these members of the so-called “Depressed Classes” would have both a vote as Hindus and a vote as “Untouchables.”
Previously the British had made a somewhat similar provision for both Moslems and Hindus. To Gandhi this would be unbearable. He could not suffer these people to be separated from other Hindus in this statutory manner. As he wrote to Prime Minister MacDonald, it was a matter of pure religion, for it would arrest “the marvellous growth of the work of Hindu reformers who have dedicated themselves to their suppressed brethren in every walk of life.” The decision of the Government, therefore, he must resist with his life, in a fast unto death. This fast, he said, “is aimed at a statutory separate electorate, in any shape or form, for the Depressed Classes. Immediately that threat is removed once for all, my fast will end.” Since the British had stated that any different and mutually satisfactory agreement reached by the Hindus and “Untouchables” would be satisfac tory to them, this fast, according to Gandhi, was “to sting Hindu conscience into right religious action.” Such an agreement was reached and on the sixth day the fast was ended. During the period of the fast “a spirit of reform, penance, and self purification swept the land.” Hundreds of temples were opened to “untouchables,” thousands of the orthodox who had never received food from “Untouchables,” did so: villages, towns, and cities, or ganizations of many kinds, resolved to stop discrimination against these people. The fast has rightly been called the “Epic Fast,” and it was directed by Gandhi at his own people.
Another acute internal problem which haunted Gandhi was that of the unhappy Hindu-Moslem relations. The causes were both ancient and new and very deep. But Gandhi knew that tragedy for India was the price of continued failure to solve the problem. The freedom of India, he felt, depended upon Hindu-Moslem friendship. In 1919 he was given an oppor tunity to take a step toward reconciliation. The Moslems of India were deeply distressed that the Armistice of November 11, 1918, following the defeat of the Central powers, provided not only for the overthrow of the Turkish Sultan as temporal sovereign but as the Caliph or religious head of Islam, in spite of the promises made by Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, that the suzerainty of their religious head would be respected. This was a source of deep distress to the Moslems of India who organized a powerful opposition movement called Khilafat. Gandhi sympathized with the Moslems of India and persuaded the Congress, which was the organiza tion for the mobilization of Indian opposition to foreign rule and oppres sion, to engage in a movement of non-cooperation on behalf of the Moslem position. This non-cooperation provided for a boycott of British exports, British schools, British courts, British jobs, and British honors. Unhappily for Indian Moslems, Kemal Pasha (Ataturk), the powerful leader of the new Turkey, deposed the Caliph and left the Moslems in India without a cause. But Gandhi had attempted one more contribution toward the strengthening of Hindu-Moslem relations and toward the freedom of the Indian people.
Gandhi was deeply opposed to the use of alcoholIf beverages and to all the other evils growing out of the use of intoxicants there was the inability of those who were in their grip to contribute moral effort to Satyagraha. He urged especially that women take up agitation against the sale of liquors, and women who had lived the most sheltered lives were to be found in picket lines outside stores dispensing intoxicants. Moreover, they were enjoined to lay hold of the hearts of those given to drink by the provision of recreational facilities and other acts of loving service.
Dear to the heart of Mr. Gandhi was his movement called Swadeshi and Khadi. These too, he felt, were indispensable to the attainment of freedom. Swadeshi is the use of all home-made things, in so far as such use is necessary for the protection of home industry—more especially those in dustries without which India would become pauperized. Gandhi was so fervent about the importance of Swadeshi that he addressed huge meetings and asked those present to take off such garments as were foreign made and place them in a pile. He would then set fire to the pile. Inherent in the move ment is the sacrifice of a love for fineries and gladness in the wearing of coarse but beautifully hand-woven fabrics of India.
Khadi is this homespun cloth. Not only did Gandhi declare against the use of foreign-made cloth and for the wearing of homespun garments; he demanded that Indians make the garments themselves. Let every one be come his own spinner, he urged. Spinning he put in the center of the Satyagraha program, “no haphazard programme of spinning, but scientific understanding of every detail, including the mechanics and the mathema tics of it, study of cotton and its varieties, and so on.” “That,” he said, “is the mass constructive programme I want you to do, and that is the basis of the training for the non-violence of the brave.” In this program, Gandhi led, for he spun his cotton and he reduced his needs for clothing practically to a loin cloth.
Satyagraha had, therefore, what Gandhi called its constructive side. In this side he included many other programs but it is well illustrated by his determined efforts to heal the divisions of caste among the Hindus, to unite Hindus and Moslems, to break Indians away from intoxicants, and to unite the nation in the rejection of foreign fineries and in the making of their own necessary apparel.
I come now to the principle of renunciation, the final principle of Gandhi’s movement of non-violent non-cooperation which I shall discuss. Gandhi’s recurrent theme was “I must reduce myself to zero.” From the beginning of his program he almost achieved this in matters material. In England he knew how to play the English gentleman. All this was changed, however, by his bitter experiences in South Africa and his dogged determination to do what he could about them. To his son he wrote: “Remember please that henceforth our lot is poverty. . . . The uses of poverty are far sweeter than those of riches.,, At his Tolstoy farm, which was a kind of “co-operative commonwealth” for civil resisters, the members ground their own wheat, labored at construction work, and excluded every item of food above that necessary to health. Walking to the city, a distance of 21 miles, on any private errand was the rule, and Gandhi on one day walked fifty miles.
This was the beginning of nearly fifty years of austerity. It included the barest of clothing and food, the minimum of physical comforts of every sort; it included, at the age of 61, a walk to the sea of twenty-four days to break the law against the making of salt. Gandhi spent years in prison. At the age of thirty-seven, in marriage, he took the vow of sexual abstinence which vow he kept to the end of his life. His fasts were numerous. He died a martyr.
Why this renunciation and self-suffering on the part of Gandhi? He reminds us that sacrifice means to make sacred. He knew and he told those who would be leaders of the people that they must become one with the people. Said he of the people, “We must first come in living touch with them by working for them and in their midst. We must share their sorrows, understand their difficulties and anticipate their wants. With the pariahs we must be pariahs and see how we feel to clean the closets of the upper classes and have the remains of their table thrown at us. . . . Then and not till then shall we truly represent the masses and they will, as surely as I am writing this, respond, respond to every call.”
Or again he says, “The Satyagrahi s course is plain. He must stand unmoved in the midst of all cross currents. He may not be impatient with blind orthodoxy, nor be irritated over unbelief of the suppressed people. He must know that his suffering will melt the stoniest fanatic. . . . He must know that relief will come when there is least hope for it. For such is the way of the cruelly-kind Deity who insists upon testing His devotee through a fiery furnace and delights in humbling him to the dust.”
Leading India to freedom was a monumental achievement of Gandhi. But if freedom had never been attained, leading the Indian people by his own example to sacrifice themselves in the struggle for freedom would have been an achievement equally as monumental. Thousands upon thous ands of them entered the prisons and some died there, including Kasturbai, his wife. They were beaten; they were killed. Following his example they entered upon the simple life, even the formerly well-to-do. They spun and wore khadi; they foreswore intoxicants; they embraced the lowliest, lived among them, died among them. They reduced themselves, in their sights, to zeros. This was renunciation, the fifth great principle of non-violent non cooperation.
These are principles upon which the great Gandhian experiment was based: truth, non-violence, the exaltation of the means, constructive service, and renunciation. The experiment was determinative in the winning of India’s freedom. It altered the lives of countless Indians. But the experi ment is not completed. There is still oppression in the world, humiliation, and other offense. Well might we join in the wish of the President of India, Rajendra Prasad, recently uttered: “May some individual or nation arise and carry forward the effort launched by him till the experiment is com pleted, the work finished and the objective achieved.”
Nirmai Kumar Bose, Selectionsfrom Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1948) M. K. Gandhi, The Story of My Experiment With Truth (Washington, D. C., Public Affairs
M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1951)
M. K. Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House,
Gopinath Dhawan, The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (Ahmedabad, Navajivan
Publishing House, 1946)
Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi, The Last Phase (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1956) D. G. Tendulkai, Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. 8 Vols. (Bombay, V. K. Jhaveri and
D. G. Tendulkai Publishers, 1951-1954)
Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (New York, Harper and Brothers, 1950)
IT IS my firm belief that Europe today represents not the spirit of God or Christianity but the spirit of Satan. And Satan’s successes are the greatest when he appears with the name of God on his lips. Europe is today only nominally Christian. In reality, it is worshipping Mammon.
Young India, 8-9-1920
Neither railways nor hospitals are a test of a high and pure civilization. At best they are a necessary evil. Neither adds one inch to the moral stature of a nation.
Young India, 26-1-1921
I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it satanic….
(YI, 17-3-1927, p. 85)
This industrial civilization is a disease because it is all evil. Let us not be deceived by catchwords and phrases. I have no quarrel with steamships or telegraphs. They may stay, if they can, without the support of industrialism and all that it connotes. They are not an end. We must not suffer exploitation for the sake of steamships and telegraphs. They are in no way indispensable for the permanent welfare of the human race. Now that we know the use of steam and electricity, we should be able to use them on due occasion and after we have learnt to avoid industrialism. Our concern is, therefore, to destroy industrialism at any cost.
(YI, 7-10-1926, p. 348
A time is coming when those, who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we done?’ Civilizations have come and gone, and in spite of all our vaunted progress, I am tempted to ask again and again, ‘To what purpose?’ Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, has said the same thing. Fifty years of brilliant inventions and discoveries, he has said, have not added one inch to the moral height of mankind. So said a dreamer and visionary if you will–Tolstoy. So said Jesus, and the Buddha, and Mahomed, whose religion is being denied and falsified in my own country today.
By all means drink deep of the fountains that are given to you in the Sermon on the Mount, but then you will have to take sackcloth and ashes. The teaching of the Sermon was meant for each and every one of us. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. God the Compassionate and the Merciful, Tolerance incarnate, allows Mammon to have his nine day’s wonder. But I say to you…fly from that self-destroying but destructive show of Mammon.
(YI, 8-12-1927, p. 414)
Formerly, when people wanted to fight with one another, they measured between them their bodily strength; now, it is possible to take away thousands of lives by one man working behind a gun from a hill. This is civilization. Formerly, men worked in open air only as much as they liked. Now thousands of workmen meet together and, for the sake of maintenance, work in factories or mines. Their condition is worse than that of beasts. They are obliged to work, at the risk of their lives, at most dangerous occupations, for the sake of millionaires….This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed.
HS, pp. 36-37
I would have our leaders teach us to be morally supreme in the world. This land of ours was once, we are told, the abode of the gods. It is not possible to conceive gods inhabiting a land which is made hideous by the smoke and the din of mill chimneys and factories and whose roadways are traversed by rushing engines, dragging numerous cars crowded with men who know not for the most part what they are after, who are often absentminded, and whose tempers do not improve by being uncomfortably packed like sardines in boxes and finding themselves in the midst of utter strangers who would oust them if they could and whom they would, in their turn, oust similarly. I refer to these things because they are held to be symbolical of material progress. But they add not an atom to our happiness.
(SW, pp. 354-5)
I am humble enough to admit that there is much that we can profitably assimilate from the West. Wisdom is no monopoly of one continent or one race. My resistance to Western civilization is really a resistance to its indiscriminate and thoughtless imitation based on the assumption that Asiatics are fit only to copy everything that comes from the West. I do believe, that if India has patience enough to go through the fire of suffering and to resist any unlawful encroachment upon her own civilization which, imperfect though it undoubtedly is, has hitherto stood the ravages of time, she can make a lasting contribution to the peace and solid progress of the world.
In the following letter, Dr. King writes to Dr. William Nelson, dean of Howard University, a historically black university in Washington D.C., in order to ask whether he knew of any books or pamphlets on the caste system in India. Here, King comments upon the significance of his trip to India, which he deems “full of meaningful insights,” decisively re-anchoring his commitment to non-violence. He expresses his desire to dialogue on these matters to Nelson. The letter is yet another testimony to the unity of India and African-America in the great freedom struggle of the twentieth century, when the dark world struggled to free itself of the long night of bondage and slavery, as Dr. King put it.
Amongst liberal and neoconservative pundits alike, Gandhi is reviled and torn apart for all manner of crimes imputed to his character which was recognized as saintly by the world’s masses during his extraordinarily purposeful lifetime. And yet why the sudden stigma when one utters the name Gandhi today in the hallowed halls of the academe? When did the Mahatma begin to cull in us a silent undertow of shame, and with it, a need to apologize for a great man’s greater deed of freeing an oppressed nation?
Strangulations of Gandhi’s spiritual and political development in the Western academy altogether too easily forget his sacrifice for the truth, which he defined very clearly as the liberation of the human soul-force. Thus, his greatest contribution to the sciences and the arts, and to human inquiry in general, lies in his emphasis on the law of love. Gandhi recognized in the oppressor’s inability to love, a weakness, an ignorance, and above all, a terror stemming from a profound loneliness and spiritual crisis.
William Nelson had visited India some years before King, and it was he who recommended contacts for the King embassy, which traveled to India in 1959, an episode King reflects on in passing here. He expresses his regret at not being able to secure any books on the subject of caste oppression whilst in India, though he, like Thurman, was taken aback by it. Nelson was himself a Gandhian who taught a course at Howard called “The Philosophy and Methods of Non-Violence.” In 1957, he played a decisive role in establishing the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at Howard. At its seventh annual gathering in 1966, King gave a lecture on the oneness of mankind and the sanctity of the human brotherhood, just two years short of his tragic assassination on April 4, 1968
April 7, 1959
Dear Dr. Nelson:
I trust that you are now settled down after your six month stay in India. We met many people in India who knew you and they never tired of mentioning your name in the most favorable manner.
In a real sense my visit to India was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. While I would not be so rash as to pretend to know India after such a brief visit, I do feel that I gained many meaningful insights that will deepen my understanding of nonviolence, and also my commitment to it. I hope that we will have an opportunity to sit down and talk about the trip in the not-too-distant-future.
I am writing you mainly to inquire whether you have any books or pamphlets on untouchability. If so, I would like to borrow them for about two weeks. I am in the process of making a study of untouchability, and unfortunately, I left India without securing any material on it.2If you have such material, and can find it possible to mail it to me, I would be more than happy to reimburse you for the costs involved. And you can expect me to return it within two weeks
There is another matter that I would like to explore with you which I will be With best wishes, and warm personal regards, I am writing you about in a few days.3
Very sincerely yours,
Martin L. King, Jr.
Very sincerely yours,
Martin L. King, Jr.
1.King had hoped that Nelson would serve as his guide in India, but Nelson left the country before King arrived. Nelson did consult on some of the arrangements for King’s visit before returning to Howard University (Stewart Meacham to King, 12 December 1958, and Bristol to Johnson, 24 December 1958).
2.In his travel account published inEbony,King compared the caste system in India with American segregation (see King, “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” July 1959, pp. 235-236 in this volume).
3.In a 24 April letter, King invited Nelson to participate in a nonviolent institute being planned by SCLC for July 1959. Nelson agreed to do so in a 30 April reply. For more on the institute, see Resolutions, First Southwide Institute on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation held on 22 July-24 July 1959, 11 August 1959, pp. 261-262 in this volume
Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.
Dr. King imprisoned for his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, 1956
In the following letter to Richard Bartlett Gregg (1885-1974), a white American pacifist and social theorist, presents his thoughts on Gandhi had a significant influence on Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the American Civil Rights movement responds to an offer of assistance from Gregg, who had written to King inquiring if he could help with arranging the publication of his account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story. When asked to choose the five books that shaped his philosophy after his leading role in Montgomery’s struggle for peace, King named Gregg’s 1934 book, The Power Of Non-Violence, alongwith Gandhi’s Story of my Experiments with Truth and Louise Fischer’s 1950 autobiography of Gandhi as decisive influences. Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, and Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis were also influential. The work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian who opposed the Third Reich, also shapes King’s approach to the struggle for black freedom in the United States.
Gregg was the first American to study Gandhi’s thought seriously in the early twentieth century. He had traveled to India in the early 1900s, but did not commit himself seriously to the anti-colonial struggle until the 1920s, as his biographer Joseph Kip Kosek writes. While in India, Charles E. Andrews, one of Gandhi’s earliest followers who was an English clergyman Gandhi met whilst in South Africa, introduced him into Gandhi’s Sabarmati ashram. Gregg resided at Sabarmati Ashram for a number of months. Here, he also had a chance to meet with Rabindranath Tagore, like Howard Thurman, who would meet Tagore in Shantiniketan during his own pilgrimage of friendship to the East with his wife Sue Bailey Thurman. Gregg stayed in India for four years and studied deeply non-Western conceptions of science, particularly economics and its relationship to Indian social development, authoring books such as Economics Of Khaddar and A Preparation for Science, both of which defended the Gandhian approach to science rooted in faith, as a force in the moral government of the world rather than serving as an appendage of Western exploitation.
Central to the story of the struggle against segregation in the South, is King’s pilgrimage to non-violence, which gave fruit, in turn, to his physical pilgrimage to the Land of Gandhi in 1959, a detail he alludes to at the close of his letter to Gregg. Indeed, it was Gregg who provided King with contacts to meet during his 1959 visit to India. That same year King would write the foreword if the second edition of Gregg’s book, The Power Of Nonviolence. In it, King praises Gregg’s elaboration Of Gandhian principles at a time when the world was teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Of King’s foreword to The Power Of Nonviolence, Gregg writes:
Your introduction will greatly help the sale of the book and thus spread further Gandhi’s ideas and help solve conflicts of all kinds.
Gregg himself had by now become a notable authority in Gandhian studies, having recently also authored an influential book called A Philosophy of Indian Development, which he had enclosed with his offer of assistance with publishing King’s manuscript–King had initially thought of publishing Stride Towards Freedom directly through the Gandhi Memorial Trust.
In his preface to Stride Towards Freedom, King describes the book as
The chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love and who in the process acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.
He further discusses the epiphany of nonviolence in the sixth chapter of the treatise, which is titled “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” Here, Gandhi’s influence on King’s conception of history is particularly relevant for it illuminated the true significance of nonviolence in the resolution of human strife. Gandhi argued that history is the by-product of infractions against the law of love, of its disavowal in struggles between families, castes, classes, and nations for power. Similarly, King defines history in Stride Towards Freedom as
a series of unreconciled conflicts and man’s existence is filled with anxiety and threatened with meaninglessness. While the ultimate Christian answer is not found in any of these existential assertions, there is much here that the theologian can use to describe the true state of man’s existence.
He saw nonviolence as the restoration of the law of love, and the beloved community which had inspired in him a “quest for a method to eliminate social evil.” King comments extensively on the Gandhian concept of Satyagraha in an early draft of Chapter Six which I quote from here, defining it in terms of his own autobiography of the problem of evil in the world.
The whole Gandhian concept ofsatyagraha(satyais truth which equals love, andgrahais force;satyagrahathus means truth-force or love-force) was profoundly significant to me.
As he weighs the philosophical evidence attesting to the power of love as a social force, he “delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi,” which abated his initial skepticism about nonviolence as a political strategy and moral position. Once he came to this awareness, he realized that nonviolent and principled opposition “was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
Gandhi himself was faced with a nation whose industries had been destroyed and whose cities and villages were severely depressed by poverty, mass famine, illiteracy, and widespread misery created byBritish colonial rule. It was not only that the poor did not possess the arsenal to fight the might of the imperialists: more importantly, Gandhi saw that to use the method of violence to obtain freedom was in truth a concession to Western civilization because it was based in a Machiavellian worldview–that means need not coincide with ends.Ultimately, King was won over to this position.
The African-Americans of Montgomery, similarly, were
exhausted by the humiliating experiences that they had constantly faced on the buses
in the face of the brutal “Jim Crow” regime, which had been institutionalized through the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in the wake of the repression of the Black Reconstruction, a period in the history of the United States when the black working class emerging from slavery struggled to advance democracy in a lawless land.
Accordingly, King vowed to organize the Gandhian approach into a “socially effective situation” for Montgomery. In the process of insisting upon the principle of love-unto-truth, the people of the town were thus able to find their soul-force, which is capable, literally speaking, of moving mountains, if one believes in the power of spiritual unity in the transformation of human reality and in the elimination of human suffering.
If it is true, as the Bhagavad Gita says that it is the soul which moves the body and the body which moves the world, then it was the spiritual movement of their soul-force, anchored in a love of truth, the love of freedom, which spurred mass action in the story of Montgomery, which intimately links African-America to India. If God is truth, love, life, and light, then to hold firmly to the truth–to commit satyagraha–is an act which moves the pilgrim closer to the Universal Light (vishvabhanuh) a practical action capable of marshaling “inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give” in the “midst of outer dangers,” as one navigates the spiritual sea (dharmasagara). In this way, the power of love–the love of truth and the truth of love–together transform the “fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope” as we stride towards the New Jerusalem.
Mr. Richard B. Gregg
Dear Mr. Gregg:
On returning to my office a few days ago I found your very kind letter of October 27, on my desk. I was very gratified to know of your interest in having my book published in India. I have been deeply concerned about the book being read in India, since I gained a great deal of inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.
There has already been some discussion of this with my agent and the publishers. A few months ago an outstanding Gandhian disciple, Kaka Kalelkar, visited our city and on discovering that I had written a book suggested having it published in India through the Gandhi Memorial Trust. I immediately placed my literary agent in contact with Mr. Kalelkar. Since that time I have been so involved that I have not had a chance to consult the agent on the outcome. I am now getting off a letter to New York to find out what has been done in this line. As soon as I hear from them I will be glad to contact you concerning future possibilities. I have no concern for making any money from an Indian publication of my book. My only concern is to share my message with the people of that great country.
Thank you for your suggestions concerning our next best steps. I gained a great deal from this practical, yet profound advice. Incidentally, I have received a copy of your book,A Philosophy of Indian Development, and I am deeply grateful to you for it. Although a busy schedule has prevented me from reading it thus far, I hope to take some time out in the next few days to go through it. I am sure that it will be very helpful and stimulating.
It is always gratifying to know of your interest in our struggle and realize the presence of your moral support. I look forward to the day that we will be able to meet personally.
Very sincerely yours,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
P.S. Mrs. King and I will be going to India around the first of February and we plan to spend about six weeks in that country. I would appreciate any suggestions that you have concerning our visit and also the names of persons that it would be helpful to see.
Extracted from Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.
In his spiritual message to the world, notable because it is one of the rare extant speeches Mohandas K. Gandhi gave in English, the satygrahi remarked that
There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything, I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses.
God is indescribable and ominpresent for Gandhi, capable of being sensed without manifesting physically. Love is perhaps the most important illustration of this truth: one cannot see love, one cannot grasp it in one’s hands; it lodges itself in the deep recesses of memory and time to be reawakened in each epoch by resurgent forces that seek to preserve it. We can thus see, equally, what is not loved for where there is no love, there is loss and war, war with self and war with the greater family of humankind. To the Western empiricists who demanded proof that Indians were deserving of their freedom, all the while beating, jailing, and exploiting them, Gandhi effectively replied: I cannot show you, but I can assure you that I feel a deep love for my downtrodden countrymen and for you, because you have not yet been discovered by God’s love.
Part of Gandhi’s turn to nonviolence towards all human beings and living entities was profoundly influenced by the belief that all matter is life, a scientific discovery confirmed by Indian biophysicist, Jagdish Chandra Bose, who presented his experiment on the sensate faculties of plants at the Royal Society in 1901. Bose, who Gandhi references in this speech, would invent the crescograph to detect whether or not plants were able to feel and respond to external stimuli like members of the animal kingdom by sensing microscopic movements. This proved that a flower was capable of feeling pain, like a man. Humans, in Gandhi’s eyes, had a much higher purpose: to overcome the need to inflict pain and suffering on other beings. The putative progress of Western science had outrun its moral progress in prescribing the very opposite, Gandhi understood, like Martin Luther King Jr.,
Finally, Gandhi’s critique of Western science recalls W.E.B Du Bois’s critique of scientific positivism, the philosophy of science advanced by the Comteian school, which held that the human world could be studied like its physical counterpart, a perspective which could not fathom the infinitude of human decisive and creative power. Consciousness of the world and the struggle for life creates conditions for improbabilities that deviate from the expected trajectories and outcomes. These improbabilities are what we call history, which is nothing more than the words and deeds of humankind. Gandhi also said, like Marx, that struggle is the mother of history. History, Gandhi argued
is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul. Two brothers quarrel; one of them repents and reawakens the love that was lying dormant in him; the two again begin to live in peace; nobody takes note of this. But if the two brothers, through the intervention of solicitors or some other reason, take up arms or go to law-which is another form of the exhibition of brute force-their doings would be immediately noticed in the Press, they would be the talk of their neighbours and would probably go down to history. And what is true of families and communities is true of nations. There is no reason to believe that there is one law for families and another for nations. History, then, is a record of an interruption of the course of nature. Soul force, being natural, is not noted in history.
The soul force transcends history. It is the energetic residue that persists in the world after every physical incarnation of life, taking new form and life at every new interval. History interrupts the soul’s unfolding unto the cosmos because it creates divisions reinforced over time. Thus, Gandhi argues, we can see that what is true of family quarrels is also true of national conflict for it is the contending desires and wills of large units of people that then lives on in human memory. Consider, for example, the history plays of Shakespeare, the story of Abraham’s family, the fraternal conflict between Cain and Abel. Nowhere is this more true than America, where an unnatural color line persistently fragments the human family and suppresses the human soul-force.
Faith transcends reason because it returns us to this cosmic journey of the soul force to be free of earthly suffering. The belief in something higher than oneself, has been central to the development of human civilization for millennia because it forces consideration of the larger aims and ideals of civilization itself–of how human beings ought to live with one another. Thus, the greatest practitioners of all of the world’s religions have evolved a culture of peace, which overcomes our understanding, that is, our reason. And yet, faith without reason can degenerate into fanaticism. This faith in the power of the human mind and heart in its “upward reach for God,” to recall Dr. King, pervades Du Bois’s critique of Western science as it does Gandhi’s in his spiritual message to the world, which declares that all matter is life, and so, infinite in its relational and regenerative capacities.
Du Bois asserted that human behavior and society were not merely governed by fixed natural laws as claimed by Comte and others; rather, there was something fundamentally incalculable, and thus unknowable, about humanity and to accept a positivist dialectic would negate the truth of human reality, which is the mirroring of past and future against the present, each side existing simultaneously The infinitude and incalculability of human possibility grows in direct proportion to one’s faith in God which is why faith is the salvation of the oppressed, the Disinherited, to recall Howard Thurman. Faith confers to the disinherited the belief in their humanity in the face of dehumanization. Under such circumstances, faith deepens one’s own capacity to evolve to greater ends. It creates power, through self-love and communal affection, in the face of powerlessness, giving significance, substance, and continuity to one’s life. The love of the people for their civilizations, which were destroyed by imperialism, fired the freedom movements of the twentieth century, which sought to sever Europe and white America’s chokehold on the development of oppressed races and nations.
It is not historically insignificant that the last thing Du Bois entrusts his literary executor Herbert Aptheker with a book of poems called Prayers For Dark People before taking leave to Ghana. Du Bois, like Thurman and King, recognized the capacity of oppressed humanity to reach super-humanity through love, friendship, and material cooperation. The human will in both epistemologies is a decisive force. Thus, history and philosophy–the force of the human will to wrest destiny from a bitter Earth–could not be studied objectively in a natural vacuum, as the positivist averred. Rather, history was a contention of contesting wills struggling for the realization of self and people. This epistemology was indispensable to Du Bois because for too long, the black working-class was studied as an adjunct of American history rather than a shaping and determining force in the history of human relations on this continent.
II. THE PENALTY OF DECEPTION
To arrive at the truth one must face the truth about oneself. James Baldwin said in No Name in the Street that Western civilization is caught in the lie of its pretended humanism. Until whites reckoned with the psychological consequences of their investment in color prejudice, they would remain fundamentally severed from their own humanity. They cannot love their black childhood playmate, their initial care-providers, their very own children and siblings. And they cannot stop lying to themselves about who they are and how they arrived upon their identity, which is a founded upon a series of lies and distortions about black peoples all over the world.
Deception can only culminate in an eternity of guilt. The guilt of deception is overwhelming, robbing relationships of their sincerity and productivity. Howard Thurman writes that deception has particularly dangerous consequences for the development of humanity and the progress of civilization. As a consequence, Life becomes a meaningless series of events manipulated into a narrative that suits the liar’s interests, canceling out all moral distinctions and discipline. The internal lie of the liar persists such that he or she is inhibited from arriving at a sober distillation of the truth. As he observes in Jesus and the Disinherited
The penalty of deception is to become a deception, with all sense of moral discrimination vitiated. A man who lies habitually becomes a lie, and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not. In other words, the moral mercury of life is reduced to zero. Shakespeare has immortalized this aspect of character in his drama of Macbeth.
To face yourself, you must first know love. Thurman refers here to William Shakespeare’s play about the Scottish king, Macbeth, because though driven by purpose and a great sense of his destiny, Macbeth is ultimately defeated by his political ambition because he sought the love of power rather than the power of Love. If you cannot love others, you cannot love yourself and this has tragic consequences– psychological and physical–for Macbeth. He is consumed with guilt and paranoia, indeed paralyzed from ruling, his initial aspiration. The original sin of Duncan’s murder begets new sins and crimes Macbeth and his wife must undertake in order to stabilize their power over the realm, which ultimately results in their descent into madness and death.
Time is long. And the words and deeds of humans persist so long as there is suffering. Faith is the sigh of the oppressed, the Disinherited. Faith itself cannot be proved by extraneous evidence Gandhi deduced in his message of peace to humanity. As such, the safest course, was the moral government of the world. A moral science of America reveals a deeply divided country with a profoundly fragmented psychic and social life. In a nation plagued by a profound spiritual emptiness, we must once again pose the question: what does a truly moral government of the world, a kingdom of heaven on earth, look like and what has it to do with the pursuit of love and faith in our common humanity?
Sue Bailey Thurman and Howard Thurman travelled to India, Burma and Ceylon, as part of the first African-American delegation to colonial India in 1935-1936, at the height of its anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire. Known as the Pilgrimage of Friendship to the East, the delegation was organized by the Student Christian Movement in the United States in tandem with Christian student organizations in India, Ceylon, and Burma. The leader of the Christian student organizations in southern Asia at this time was a man named Augustine Ralla Ram, who felt that a black Christian delegation would be more accepted than white missionaries who cooperated with the British Empire, as Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt discuss in their new book, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African-American Nonviolence. He called the delegation because “Christianity in India is the oppressors religion” and that “there would be a unique value in having representatives of another oppressed group speak on the validity of the contribution of Christianity” (quoted in Dixie and Eisenstadt 70). An article in the Spelman Messenger reported Augustine Ram Ralla’s interest in “The social and class distinctions to which Negroes in America are subjected” which “seemed to parallel, to some degree, caste distinctions in India” (70).
The delegation was chaired by Howard Thurman, a renowned theologian and civil rights agitator who would become a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., introducing the young King to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. The significance of their visit to furthering mutual understanding between India and African-America cannot be underscored enough as it was the first Black Christian delegation to tour India. The pilgrimage would also constitute an crucial dimension of Thurman’s 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, a work of great spiritual striving and erudition, which King carried with him everywhere. Knowing this history is vital to understanding King’s oft-quoted remark that while he went as a tourist to other countries, to India he came as a pilgrim. In this book, Thurman would argue that
American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption. Churches have been established for the underprivileged, the weak, the poor on the theory they prefer to be among themselves. Churches have been established for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Korean, the Mexican, the Filipino, the Italian and the Negro with the same theory in mind. The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established – in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth or the like – this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers. (Jesus and the Disinherited 98)
Thurman was King’s senior by thirty years, sharing the same birth year with his father: 1899. His proselytization, teaching, and scholarship at Howard University and Boston University, had a profound influence on the civil rights struggle and black leadership in the twentieth century. His philosophy emphasized the oneness of humanity and his theology emphasized communion with God and nature as a way of arriving at the truth about human existence. He saw the segregation of the Christian church in the United States as a great evil and his search for peace took him to India, where he and Sue Bailey Thurman, lectured widely and built relations with prominent figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.
Though Gandhi had embraced the teachings of Christ by the time the Thurman delegation came to India, most Indians were antagonistic towards Western Christianity given its repression of native spiritual traditions and saw great hope in African-American interpretations of Christ’s teachings. As Gandhi put it, he loved Christ, but couldn’t say the same about white Christians, who invoked the Bible to justify colonial violence against the darker races: “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” King also drew attention to this central contradiction in Christianity, noting in a fiery 1956 sermon about “Redirecting Our Missionary Zeal“:
The paradox of it all is that the white man considers himself the supreme missionary. He sends [millions] of dollars to the foreign field. And in the midst of that he tramples over the Negro.
Gandhi began developing his own interests in Christianity as early as South Africa, after having come in contact with an English priest named Charles Andrews, who decried the white church’s treatment of Africans and Indians and lent his support to Gandhi who was there to study the condition of Indian laborers. In 1929, Andrews traveled to the United States and spoke on the theory of nonviolence at black colleges and universities. At the time, Gandhi was organizing the Indian people against the repressive imperialist tax on salt, which culminated in the great Dandi Satyagraha, where he marched more than. 150 miles from Sabarmati, with upwards of 60,000 Indians vowing to produce their own salt, in defiance of the British tax on the sale of salt. The act commanded the attention of the world to the struggle of the Indians, and was widely covered by the international press.
But Gandhi’s ambition was much higher than independence. “Through the deliverance of India,” he said, “I seek to deliver the so-called weaker races of the Earth from the crushing heels of Western exploitation in which England is the greatest partner” (see “Independence vs. Swaraj, 12 January 1928). White Christianity was an integral part of Western exploitation. Like Thurman, Gandhi believed that the consequences of racial strife and Western exploitation were manifested them most tragically in the inner life of human beings, in the dilapidation of the soul, in the breaking of the spirit, in the negation humanity’s fundamental interconnectedness to each other as well as to God and nature.
As King put it later, we are all wrapped in a single garment of destiny and so responsible to the “cosmic partnership.” Western civilization, by contrast, had done great violence to this unity and oneness of mankind, valorizing in its wake man’s inhumanity to man. It was for this reason that Gandhi would refer to segregation as a “negation of civilization,” a thought that King would echo in his sermon, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” whose allegorization and ventriloquization of the Apostle Paul as a character requires King to go into a dramatic monologue. Here, he impresses upon the Afro-Asiatic origins of Western civilization, like Gandhi, drawing attention to the fact that Paul would have been writing in Greek. The irony of reading this speech through a Gandhian looking glass tripled when we consider the fact that Paul is beaten, arrested, jailed, and beheaded by the Emperor Nero for his bearing and conveying the teachings of Christ, king of the Disinherited, as Thurman knew him to be.
As is somewhat well-known, King came to the teachings of Gandhi during his time in Pennsylvania, where I am writing this from. He studied at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, where in a homework assignment, he recognized Gandhi for having revealed to him “the working of the spirit of God in bringing about moral transformation within the individual.” He confesses to becoming a disciple of Gandhi upon listening to a lecture given by Mordecai Johnson in Philadelphia, shortly after the Howard University president’s own trip to India.
Mirabehn (née Miriam Slade), an English disciple of Gandhi’s, played an important role in the concretization of the Thurman delegation’s invitation to India. Mirabehn who was christened as such by Gandhi himself, was a prominent British admiral’s daughter. Thurman, who had been searching for a way to organize a meeting with Gandhi, intercepted her during her visit to the U.S. As he writes of her in his autobiography, With Head and Heart
She was an Englishwoman who had given up her life in England not only to become a mere follower of Gandhi but also to live in his ashram as a member of the family community of which he was the center…Her situation was unique because she was a woman of the upper class And had given up her way of life, abandoning the goals of her peers, including wealth and status.
Now an Englishwoman who had renounced imperial Christianity, Mirabehn took it upon herself to defend Gandhi against his Western critics, leveraging her position as an upper-class white woman . By this time, Gandhi had transmuted the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement clamoring for Indian self-rule through a constructive program, which included the boycott of British goods and cultural institutions, an act that led to the mass jailing of thousands of satyagrahis, as his disciples were known, including Gandhi himself who was arrested and jailed in 1922 for two years on charges of sedition.
After making many inquiries as to her whereabouts, Thurman arranged for Mirabehn to give a lecture at Howard University:
I told her as Howard was the only Negro university of its kind in the United States, her experience there could not be duplicated anywhere else in the world.
In her address, she analyzed the connections between Gandhi’s teachings and those of Christ. She emphasized, that Christianity had arisen in the Near East, remarking that “the greatest spiritual teachings of the world have all come from the darker races.” As Gandhian philosopher-poetess Sarojini Naidu, had put it, “Jesus was an Asiatic, like me.” Watching Mirabehn speak passionately about these matters, Thurman came to a new awareness of the interconnectedness of Negro and Indian spiritual striving. Grateful for the experience at Howard, Mirabehn assured Thurman that she would relay his interest in visiting Gandhi’s ashram and she made good on her promise for Gandhi wrote back to Thurman:
Dear friend… I shall be delighted to have you and your three friends whenever you can come before the end of the year.
British officials initially opposed the trip, seeing the political connection between Afro-America and India as a threat to white supremacy and the colonial government. Sue Bailey Thurman, who was also invited as an official member of the delegation (not simply in her capacity as Thurman’s spouse), served as an important adviser on African American affairs to Mahatma Gandhi. During the visit to Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s University, she lectured on the historical and aesthetic development of Negro spirituals in America called “The History Of Negro Music,” after Tagore impressed upon her how much the Indian people found inspiration in African-American spirituals and traditionals. Coretta Scott King would discover the same sentiments amongst Indians, who had a great regard for the spiritual strivings of their black brothers and sisters in struggle. While in India, Sue Thurman taught local choirs how to sing spirituals and continued to develop these interests upon her return to the U.S. Thurman writes in his autobiography, “Sue delivered [lectures on the beauties of Indian civilization] at many campuses and communities in the United States and Canada on her return home.” She stayed at Shantiniketan longer than Thurman because “she wanted to learn more about India’s ancient musical instruments,” particularly the veena, a long-necked string instrument with a domed gourd on either end.
The delegation only met with Gandhi about five months into their visit, two weeks shy of their return. Gandhi, realizing that their stay was coming to an end, wrote them a note inviting them to Bardoli, where he was resting, rather than the sevagram. Thurman was lecturing at the University Of Bombay at the time. In his autobiography, Thurman writes of their discourse:
Never in my life have I been a part of the that kind of examination: persistent, pragmatic questions about American Negroes, about the course of slavery and how we had survived it.
The conversation about slavery took them to the question of religion and civilization, namely the existence of hierarchies amongst worshippers in all world religions except Islam. Gandhi reserved the highest respect for the Muslim Faith, noting that
If you had become Muslim, Then even though you were a slave, in the faith you would be equal to your master.
Likewise, he argued that Hinduism had been corrupted by caste and that as Hindus, we have lost our self-respect not because of the colonizer, primarily, but because of the presence of untouchability in Hinduism, which was–and remains–the greatest hurdle to be overcome by modern adherents of the faith.
As their three-hour conversation drew to a close (The Thurmans had to catch a train back to Bombay), Gandhi requests a song of them, the spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” (see here for Paul Robeson’s rendition which Gandhi likely encountered):
I feel this song gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering.
Thurman remarks that his wife was the real musician, but that he and the others would accompany her and so they joined in song as “Gandhiji and his friends bowed their heads in prayer.” As they took leave, Gandhi bestows a basket of tropical fruit to Sue Bailey Thurman, at which point Howard Thurman requests of him a gift of his own. After gazing upon the spinning wheel which accompanied Gandhi everywhere, he asks for a piece of khadi, the revolutionary fabric that would set India free:
I would like a piece of cloth that you yourself have spun from the flax.