Betrayal in the Garden
Amongst Indians and African-Americans who possess lived experience of the movement for peace and freedom in the twentieth century, the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1959 visit to India, the Land of Gandhi, persists. Upon his return, King emphasized that “the bourgeoise—white, black or brown—behaves about the same the world over,” and enjoins the Americans to support the Indian independence “in a spirit of international brotherhood, not national selfishness,” the spirit which undo reigns today in the relation of the West to the rest of the world.
However, it nevertheless also remains true that a great deal is being done to sever India’s ancient and modern ties to Africa and African-America in order to assimilate Indians–particularly in the West, though even in India, to white ideals and values. Even at this late date, we see new iterations of the white man’s burden in virtually every sphere of world society. As a result, Indians in the West or even in India are not fully cognizant today of the deep ties linking India and African-America politically, spiritually, as well as culturally. If we think about it, the Indian anti-colonial struggle would not have been possible without the recognition of Africans and African Americans, who were among the first believers of Gandhi’s gospel of love.
Likewise, Gandhiji’s ideas were foundational to the black freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi touched the lives of black intellectuals and leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, Hubert Harrison, A. Phillip Randolph, Eslanda Robeson, Sue Bailey and Howard Thurman, George Washington Carver, William Nelson, James Lawson, and Howard Thurman as well as Dr. King the four decades between 1920-1960. Many black leaders visited with Gandhi from 1935 to 1937. These thinkers and leaders were building the necessary links between the black struggle and the struggles of oppressed peoples throughout the world at the turn of the century, doing the heroic work of sowing the seeds for the civil rights movement to which the Gandhian method of satyagraha—the steadfast insistence upon the truth—was central. African-American satyagrahis, like Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Thurman, W.E.B Du Bois, Paul Robeson and countless others together waged the battle for peace. They saw the continuities as well as idiosyncrasies of their own oppression here in the United States, and that of the Indians in India, seeing parallels between racial caste here and caste and colonial oppression there. Several of Gandhi’s English and Indian followers, like Miriam Slade and Sarojini Naidu, met with African Americans in the U.S. and black universities became central to the dissemination of the Gandhian message of peace. A. Philip Randolph, the black labor leader who opposed segregation in the Americen workforce during World War II, began to assert similarities between his methods and those of Gandhi during the 1940s, while the Congress of Racial Equality and other groups also adopted Gandhian techniques. Dr. King would himself say that the Anerican civil rights movement was patterned after the Gandhian movement in India though with one crucial difference: while the Indian anti-colonial struggle sought to send the British back, the goal of the African-American freedom movement under the leadership of Dr. King was integration. Integration, however, was not assimilation; for Dr.King, it meant the end of segregation and the realization of God’s beloved community at long last. Gandhism did not gain mass appeal until Dr. King, who saw in Gandhi’s bhakti yoga (devotion), the gospel of Jesus Christ. Out of the lectures, studies, hymns, and conversations organized by these individuals over the course of their many visits came a new synthesis of ideas, a new forging of history, a new epistemology, or way of looking at and knowing the world, and a renaissance in art and culture.
In the seventh book of Plato’s Republic, we find the allegory of the cave. An allegory is a story with a double meaning, a second moral-political valence underlying the larger story. In the allegory of the cave, we find a group of prisoners who have been chained to one another in a cave facing a wall. Behind them, meanwhile, there is a fire and their captors carry on with their lives ignoring their suffering. So the prisoners can only see the shadows projected onto the wall by the firelight. At one point, one of the prisoners escapes to sunlight and sees the truth. When he comes back to save the rest of his comrades, he is deemed a madman. Plato’s allegory is a good example of the ways in which ideas can hold us captive, particularly false ideations that inhibit human freedom. The work we are undertaking during the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi seems to dispel the shadow puppets of Western civilization, the chimeras which beleaguer us in the aims and ideals of Western imperialism. Gandhiji, like Dr. King, Paul Robeson, Dr. Thurman, and other leaders of the anti-imperialist movement recognized that independence and liberation would only come with the full and unabashed rejection of Western values and paradigms on the part of the oppressed. Education was thus at the center of Mahatma Gandhi’s program for peace, prosperity, and truth, most importantly.
The historical continuities and unities between African-America and India have not received much attention because of the imperial record of history which predominates in the West. We know, however, that Asia has been linked to Africa through trade and civilization for millennia; these relationships were destroyed by European colonialism and slavery. One can observe cultural continuities between Asia and Africa, even in the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose roots were Afro-Asiatic. The Greco-Roman gods, for example, are linked to the fertility cults of Western Asia and pharaonic civilization of Egypt as well as the culture of Africa below the Sahara. The knowledge, art and architecture of ancient Indian kingdoms in turn influenced the Greek and Roman empire. Sometime in the nineteenth century, however, when the world historical paradigm shifted to the “Aryan model” of history, we started seeing this all very differently argues Martin Bernal. The long history of contact between ancient Egypt and ancient India was rejected to accommodate the lie of black inferiority when Egypt was conquered by Napoleon and when the Europeans pivoted to direct colonialism in Africa and Asia. The influence of Indian and African culture on Greco-Roman culture as well as Persian civilization (and certainly vice versa) was omitted from the historical record, which became, in the mainstream, a defense of European rule over the vast masses of humanity.
Plutarch (46 – 120 CE), a Greek historian, biographer and essayist, who wrote Parallel Lives (an important source for Shakespeare’s history plays) describes the Greek encounter with India as follows
As for the Macedonians, however, their struggle with Porus blunted their courage and stayed their further advance into India. For having had all they could do to repulse an enemy who mustered only twenty thousand infantry and two thousand horse, they violently opposed Alexander when he insisted on crossing the river Ganges also, the width of which, as they learned, was thirty-two furlongs, its depth a hundred fathoms, while its banks on the further side were covered with multitudes of men-at arms and horsemen and elephants.
As a consequence of these lapses in the historical record, many shadow projections keep Indians and other dark nations tethered to the false ideations of Western history and scholarships. For instance, Indians in America are inured to the notion that we are a people of Indo-European descent rather than part of a civilizational complex with extensive networks of trade and culture with Africa, where humanity originated, as well as to Europe. W.E.B Du Bois is perhaps the most crucial figure in dispelling these myths, showing in his pathbreaking scholarship that the foundations of Indian civilization are black– not “Aryan” at all, but Dravidian. He further explores this thesis 1928 novel, Dark Princess, embodying the political unity of Pan-Africa and Pan-Asia in the struggle against imperialism in the romance between Matthew Townes and Princess Kautilya Of Bwodpur, a fictional Indian kingdom. Kautilya falls in love with Matthew, an African-American doctor patterned after Du Bois himself in many ways. Matthew flees to Berlin, where he meets the Princess after he is barred from medical school examinations by the Dean due to the color of his skin. Those of us who escape the allegorical cave where our senses are dimmed and manipulated have a responsibility to enlighten those who are still held in captivity, the novel reminds us, to become teachers of teachers.
Dr. Du Bois made an inestimable sociological and political contribution in his scholarship, showing us like Gandhiji that in fact, Indians can join African-Americans in their struggle for peace here in the United States, with the understanding that in doing so they advance the freedom of their brothers and sisters in India and Africa. This is where our unity as the darker races should emerge today and this is where the hope lies: in recognizing the true significance of our common bond and discovering what it means for us to relate in the twenty-first century in fraternity and common struggle, for as King said, “we are wrapped in a single garment of destiny.”
Gandhiji’s philosophy of nonviolence was anchored in the principle of ahimsa, the negation of violence, and satyagraha, holding onto one’s soul force in the struggle for truth and the battle for peace. India, he warned, should not focus her efforts on marshaling arms but on achieving peace in the world. The pursuit of war was antithetical to the aims and ideals of Indian civilization, he correctly recognized–a betrayal of the truth underlying by the plurality of faiths that have flowered in southern Asia. Gandhiji incorporated both of these concepts, ahimsa and satyagraha, into his political philosophy and led a number of national strikes using methods of non-violent non-cooperation to achieve his mission of swaraj, or home rule. His thought, however, cannot be limited to Hinduism as he was influenced by all of the world’s religions, particularly the example set by Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus, which he cherished towards the end of his life, when he was betrayed like Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane. Du Bois presaged these ideas in his poem “Hymn To the Peoples” wherein he remarks
The Buddha walks with Christ;
And Al-Koran and Bible both be holy!
Gandhi studied the New Testament closely and was particularly drawn to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in the Gospel Of Matthew. Like Christ, he sought to drive out the money-changers from the temples of Jerusalem. When Jesus commanded his disciples to love their enemy he was telling the disinherited to love the Romans who would turn around and crucify him. Jesus said in his sermon,
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God…Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
“I have not been able to see any difference between the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad Gita,” Gandhi once confessed. He would write at least six commentaries and translations of the Gita and was constantly interpreting the text, which appears to most of us as a manual for warfare, given what Krishna asks of Arjuna; however Gandhiji correctly understood it as a handbook of nonviolence. The Gita reveals the contradictions of the human heart. That is why God is infinitely greater than frail humanity. As Gandhiji said in his interpretations of the Gita
If Arjuna had forgotten the difference between kinsmen and others and had been so filled with the spirit of non-violence so as to bring about a change of heart in Duryodhana, he would have been another Shri Krishna. However, he believed Duryodhana to be wicked.
It is not uncoincidental that Matthew–recalling the Book of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount–is also the name of the protagonist of Du Bois’ novel, Dark Princess. Du Boisian nomenclature is nothing if not multiply symbolic and allusive in its significatory range. Gandhi would also say that the Qu’ran was the most beautiful and perfect work of literature in Arabic. Humanity is beloved because we are children of Allah, his most perfect creations. As he put it,
“Truth is the first thing to be sought for, and Beauty and Goodness will then be added unto you. Jesus was, to my mind, a supreme artist because he saw and expressed Truth; and so was Muhammad, the Koran being, the most perfect composition in all Arabic literature – at any rate, that is what scholars say. It is because both of them strove first for Truth that the grace of expression naturally came in and yet neither Jesus not Muhammad wrote on Art. That is the Truth and Beauty I crave for, live for, and would die for.”
For Gandhiji, God is truth because he is love and because he is love he is light which in turn gives birth to life, like a flower growing towards the beaming sun. Life, he argued, was sacred and the British had decimated Indians of all faiths by this point through lynchings, torture, war, starvation and all manner of unspeakable crimes. In the face of such widespread violence, Gandhi could only conclude from his study of the law, the world’s religions,that non-violence was the only moral way forward in the face of persistent bloodshed and savagery. In the face of rioting and needless violence on the eve of Independence Gandhiji insisted that India was the home of all of the world’s religions, a land held together in the creative and syncretic tension of its diverse peoples, civilizations, and landscapes.
On the whole, Western Christianity has been cruel to the spiritual life of the darker races, making a mockery of our faiths and so that Hindus, Muslims, and even Indian Christians during independence naturally distrusted the white missionary. Christianity arrived to India in the third century and evolved in a distinct way. This is what Howard Thurman discovered upon traveling to India, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Thurman, a theologian, minister, Professor, and Dean of divinity at Howard University saw that there was a great interest amongst Indians to understand African-American Christianity and its political significance in the struggle against lynching and segregation in the US. During a brief three-hour conversation with Gandhi during his Pilgrimage of Friendship to India with his wife Sue Bailey Thurman, Rev. Thurman asked Gandhi, “ I wanted to know if one man can hold violence at bay?“ to which Gandhi replied, if he cannot, you must take it that he is not a true representative of ahimsa (nonviolence). So from this prophecy we learn that the principle of ahimsa (nonviolence) is none other than the law of love, which Jesus held as the supreme commandment, and Gandhi also recognized. This is perhaps why King said that “And it is one of the strange ironies of the modern world that the greatest Christian of the twentieth century was not a member of the Christian church. (…) that this man took the message of Jesus Christ and was able to do even greater works than Jesus did in his lifetime.”
And yet, ever humble in his struggle unto the last, Gandhi always said that he neither wished to be anointed as a saint nor reviled as a sinner, for he was a human being and human beings are prone to mistakes, whose cause is simply ignorance. This, there is hope for everyone in their struggle towards self-realization. In the Eastern yogic tradition, the first step is ahimsa or non-killing and our spiritual practice must begin here because the root cause of violence is anger which is the outgrowth of desire. And Desire, as the Buddha asserted, is at the root of all human suffering–desire especially for the things and pleasures of the world–sex, riches, fame, name, glory. The transformation of the human being begins with her struggle to overcome these lower instincts. It is for this reason that William Stuart Nelson, an African-American theologian who turned to Gandhi during the civil rights struggle and played a key role in mentoring Dr. King, said that we all have a brute in us. The purpose of a true education is to overcome this brutality in us which causes us to injure one another in the name of ego. Thus, there is always hope for a violent man who wishes to overcome the violence in him; indeed, his victory over his base circumstances will be an example to millions in the world struggling with the same problem.
When Gandhiji’s centennial was celebrated in the United States in 1969, many distinguished guests, including Coretta Scott King, Marian Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, William Stuart Nelson, and others convened to create a centennial committee, which planned various activities and celebrations aimed at furthering Gandhi’s message of peace. However, fifty years ago, the conversation about Mahatma Gandhi was strikingly different. Today, there is a growing trend among Indian who are celebrated by the Western intelligentsia of discrediting Gandhiji’s accomplishments and his vision for a free and independent India, which parallels recent efforts to smear Dr. King’s legacy. Both efforts go hand in hand with the various programs launched by Western intelligence to suppress the civil rights movement and inhibit black freedom. Similarly, our Mahatma has recently been charged as a racist; he has been vilified by very cultural nationalists, who assassinated him; and his statue was recently toppled in Ghana, whose father, the great Kwame Nkrumah, once professed his great admiration for Gandhiji. Gandhiji’s influence on Nkrumah’s leadership of the Gold Coast independence conveniently forgotten, his leadership of the struggle against the identity pass in South Africa dismissed; his eclectic and radically universal interpretation of Hinduism and solidarity with Indians of all faiths suppressed; and his message to Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman in 1936 buried: that “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” As such, we must ask: why is a man, who was revered by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Howard Thurman, all of whom took inspiration from his leadership of the Indian Revolution, so reviled by the mainstream literary establishment today and does this actually say something about us? Does it beg for a return, now more than ever, to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, to the injunction Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you?