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, along with 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 of satyagraha(satya is truth which equals love, and grahais force; satyagraha thus 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.
I. THE SOUL-FORCE IN HISTORY
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?
© 2019 Divya Nair
Yet no one really believes that science is the one perfect mode of disseminating mistakes. The progressive ascertainment of Truth is the important thing to remember in the history of science, not its innumerable mistakes. Error, by its nature, cannot be stationary; it cannot remain with truth; like a tramp, it must quit its lodging as soon as it fails to pay its score to the full.
–Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana
The flash and flutter of a lens can capture a moment in eternity. In the photograph below, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., second from left, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, wear garlands in the Hindu tradition. It is 1965 and they are marching from Selma to Montgomery. I am unsure which of three marches this photo is taken from. Protestors marched 87 kilometers to the state capital, where King delivered his speech “Our God is Matching On.” In the sermon, he reaffirms the people’s faith in God as love, truth, and peace, compelling them to test their faith in peaceful non-cooperation so as to win the protracted struggle for civil rights. In 1930, Gandhi would lead a similar kind of march, leading thousands of people from Sabarmati to the sea to make their own salt in protest of British taxation of the mineral.
The wreaths encircling the marchers’ necks recall the garlands with which the nascent government of independent India greeted the King Embassy, which would visit Gandhi’s tomb. Witnessing this example, I heed Gandhi’s advice about faith—that it transcends reason, that the precipitate of this transcendence is none other than love.
Like King, Gandhi was assassinated by reactionary elements in the struggle against imperialism and white domination. Recognizing the Indian leader’s martyrdom, King proclaimed that “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work” at a a gathering in Brooklyn, New York following the Supreme Court’s ruling that Montgomery’s bus segregation was unconstitutional.
The significance of these words must be weighed in light of the Thurman delegation’s visit to India in 1935-1936, which was central meditation in the latter’s seminal work, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949)? Jesus and the Disinherited is a moral inquiry into the condition of Christian civilization in the modern epoch, which witnessed a deplorable distortion of the faith, as the loving teachings of Christ–who stood with the poor and the disinherited–were twisted into a diabolical defense of colonialism, black enslavement, and the psycho-social subordination of the darker races to the white masters of the world . King carried the book with him everywhere.
Above, King removes his shoes at the Gandhi Memorial, to pay homage to India’s fallen Mahatma known to the people and his loved ones as Bapu. If a camera illuminates the truth by flooding light into the aperture of a lens, then the revolutionary prophecies of these great leaders illuminated the world by flooding it with love, chiseling into presence a grand legacy of peace and culture amongst humanity over the course of their lifetimes which we now inherit in our own. Contacts between India and African-America in the twentieth century germinated a cultural renaissance, manifesting a new plane of human understanding and civilization—aesthetically, politically, scientifically, and above all, spiritually. Where will these liaisons lead in the fulfillment of our common destiny in the twenty-first century of the Prince of Peace?
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.
The gift arrived as promised a year later.
© 2019 Divya Nair
You have your own conscience, your own intelligence, and you know your own mind.
–Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane
A portrait of Alice Coltrane, R. Divya Nair
In this clip, Turiya Coltrane, the grand-daughter of jazz pianist, harpist, and vocalist Alice Coltrane (née McCleod) reflects on her grandmother’s study and interpretation of Hindu philosophy through the gospel of the Detroit churches of her childhood. The Hindu bhajan (devotional) and the African-American spiritual together constitute the formal foundations and thematic touchstones of Alice Coltrane’s ecumenical sound. I may have mentioned that a few weeks ago, I had the great honor of singing her composition, “Om Shanti,” at Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Saturday Free School’s celebration of the philosophy of Robeson, King, and Du Bois, at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. I chose the piece because it is an invocation to world peace and a much-needed intervention in the politics of imperialism which thrives on perpetual war, war waged by the few at the grave expense of the many. The earth reels from many centuries of ceaseless destruction as humanity cries out for an end to oppression and a resolution to the degradation of the darker races in the past four-hundred years of white rule. Since then, I have been reading voraciously about her, focusing in particular on her spiritual evolution, namely her turn to Hinduism, the world-historical significance of her interpretation of it, and how it connects with the contributions of her contemporaries, familiars, and interlocutors.
After her husband, the legendary John Coltrane of North Philadelphia, passed on to the next world, Alice immersed herself further in the study of Hindu scripture and Indian classical music forms. She traveled to the city of Chennai in southern India to study with Swami Satchidananda. However, it was John Coltrane who would introduce her to the philosophy, theology, music, and meditation practices of Pan Africa and Pan Asia. John, who was ten years older than Alice when she first met him at age 26, likely encountered these sources during his world tour in the U.S. armed services–an experience which deeply inscribed upon him the evils of war and American imperialism. Coltrane would himself undergo a spiritual awakening in 1957.
Following her husband’s death, Alice fell into a deep tapas, a self-imposed spiritual retreat undertaken by Hindus committed to an intentional path wherein one lives a life of strict mental and physical discipline in order to reach a higher spiritual plane of existence and consciousness. Tapas often yields states of high spiritual vibration characteristic of Alice’s ecstatic compositions. During this period, it is said that Alice made connection with John’s spirit. She strove to continue advancing their common aspiration to create music capable of illuminating the totality of the human experience, the internal struggles of the atman (soul force) in the face of the external strife of humanity’s relation to itself and the physical world–songs of innocence, songs of experience, songs of pain, and songs of bliss. Indeed, her chosen spiritual name Turiyasangitananda roughly translates to the transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss. In Hindu philosophy, turiya (Sanskrit: तुरीय or English “the fourth”) refers to the fourth dimension of consciousness, underlying waking consciousness, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The seventh verse of the Mandukya Upanishad, which discourses upon these four states of consciousness which are accessible through the universal syllable Aum or Om, refers to the magnitude of Turiya’s infinity and incalculability in the following terms:
Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,
not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,
unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark,
non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance,
of which is the state of being one with the soul
the cessation of development, tranquil, benign, without a second,
such they think is the fourth. He is the soul (atman). He should be discerned.
The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad is the shortest of the Upanisads and is associated with the Atharvaveda, which is chiefly concerned with the practice of everyday life. It is also an affirmation of the soul force underlying all existence and creation. It reflects on the physics of the four-part structure of the sound AUM–A + U + M + “silence,” which not only harnesses the past, present, and future of time, but bends them such that the transcendence of time by the soul force is made possible. The intonation of the Aum sound explains the progression of sound through the universe, tracking its movement from the syllable “a,” which signifies Apti (searching and aspiring), to “u” or Utkarsa (exaltation) to “M” or Miti (Reconstruction) followed by the punctuating silence that separates each intonation. The rhythmic chanting of aum thusrepresents the human will to know in this world and beyond, to be of one’s time and yet, reach beyond it.
As such, it is high time that we recognize the true significance of the commitment to Afro-Asiatic civilization in twentieth-century jazz composition, a realization which once again affirms the intercivilizational unity of Pan Africa and Pan Asia in the struggle against imperialism and European civilization’s ongoing attempts to repress the contributions of the darker races to humanity. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that John and Alice Coltrane, along with Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Yusuf Lateef, and so many other black composers in the United States, re-imagine the relation of the darker races to one another at a time when W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul Robeson were extending their hands in open friendship with revolutionary leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and others. They dedicated their life’s work towards establishing an epistemology that saw the civilizations of Africa and Asia in a historical continuum, so as to break free from the chokehold of the Western interpretation of human history.
Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane thus participated in the invention of a radically new form of world spiritual music that fundamentally re-interpreted Hinduism–not unlike her contemporaries Don Cherry (e.g: his record “Mahakali”), Pharaoh Sanders (e.g “The Creator has a Master Plan”), and indeed, John Coltrane (e.g “Om”)–in terms of the African-American spiritual tradition and political struggle for freedom, truth, and peace. Her work ought to be considered in dialogue with other Black composers of the period who increasingly turned to Africa and Asia to discover their relation to African-America and broadly, the truth about the origins of humanity and the shape of its future. In the wake of their musical and cosmological experimentations, they left behind a rich body of music characterized by a distinctive Afro-Asiatic sound . What distinguishes their aesthetic practice at this juncture in history is their grounding in the black anti-imperialist political tradition. Prophets and architects of peace, these artists were committed to fulfilling the Creator’s great plan for the advancement of humanity in the twenty-first century.
Alice Coltrane’s songs are hymns to truth, grace, love, and peace. Her oeuvre ought to be studied in light of her deep spiritual longing for what James Baldwin memorably christened the New Jerusalem. In the new galaxies of sound she maps out for the world, in her cosmic distillations of jazz, we see the outlines of all that which remains to be won by humanity in our common quest for a kingdom of heaven on earth.
In this letter dated May 7th, 1963 from Nairobi, Kenya, Kenyan official Chanan Singh writes to W.E.B Du Bois about the possibility of contributing to the Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois had very early established the need for a an encyclopedia that presented the truth about Africa and its civilization in place of the lies of Western Enlightenment. He endeavored to develop a Black equivalent to the colonial Encyclopedia Britannica and thereby overturn Western epistemologies of knowing and being. As he put it in his 1945 essay, “The Need for an Encyclopedia Of The Negro,”
There is need for young pupils and for mature students of a statement of the present condition of our knowledge concerning the darker races and especially concerning Negroes, which would make available our present scientific knowledge and set aside the vast accumulation of tradition and prejudice which makes such knowledge difficult now for the layman to obtain: A Vade mecum for American schools, editors, libraries, for Europeans inquiring into the race status here, for South Americans, and Africans.
Notably, Singh–who was then serving in the capacity of Parliamentary Secretary to Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President from 1964 to 1978–inquires whether Du Bois’s proposed Encyclopedia Africana will include articles about Indians living in Africa and offers assistance with compiling historical and statistical information on the subject:
I wish to offer my services to help you in compiling information about the Asians of Indian origin… For 15 years, I wrote the editorials and editorial notes of a local weekly, The Colonial Times. I was a member of the Legislative Council Of Kenya from 1952 to 1956 and again from 1961 to 1963.
Singh’s letter is significant, in part, because it once again illustrates the geographic and epistemological continuities between Africa and Asia and the necessity of looking at their civilizations in a continuum. Many thanks to the folks at Black Agenda Report for picking up “Reflections on the Pan Afro-Asiatic Civilizational Complex.”
From the time of the Balfour Declaration (during World War I) Palestine was under five British mandates, and England promised the land back and forth to the Arabs or the Jews, depending on which horse seemed to be in the lead. The Zionists – as distinguished from the people known as the Jews – using, as someone put it, the ‘available political machinery,’ i.e., colonialism, e.g., the British Empire – promised the British that, if the territory were given to them, the British Empire would be safe forever…the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of Western interests. This is what is becoming clear (I must say it was always clear to me). The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ and for Europe’s guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years…The collapse of the Shah not only revealed the depth of pious Carter’s concern for ‘human rights,’ it also revealed who supplied oil to Israel, and to whom Israel supplied arms. It happened to be, to spell it out, white South Africa.”
The contests between European nations for world imperial hegemony in World War I–whose causus belli, as Du Bois crucially observes, lay in Europe’s scramble for Africa and suffocation of Asia–created the conditions for the rise of fascism in Germany, which subsequently conducted a pogrom against its Jewish citizens in the name of advancing whiteness which it erroneously named Aryanism, an ideology that emerged out of Europe’s colonization of India and a desire to recognize the common origins of so-called “Indo-Aryan” civilizations so as to suppress the historical connections between African and Asiatic civilization. However, as I make clear in an earlier post, this is not the case, for Indian and Asiatic civilizations are more akin to African civilizations than Western civilization in their political struggle. moreover, from a sociological standpoint, share distinct patterns of continuity with respect to art, religion, cosmology, science, amongst other civilizational developments over time.
Shortly after the First World War, the British government, under the leadership of Lord Balfour led the way in recognizing Zionist aspirations for a national homeland for European Jews. Arab Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived in this region for many centuries; the Zionist crusade in Palestine was thus a racial program in that it created a home for European Jewry in the name of preserving their whiteness. It is no wonder, then, that the state of Israel would form a military alliance with apartheid South Africa, as Baldwin pointed out.
Too often Hitler’s rise and the outbreak of the Second World War are unmoored from historical hindsight. Particularly, the rise of German cultural nationalism–Nazism–is deliberately severed from the crisis of European imperialism, which was rapidly collapsing in the mid-twentieth century as the dark nations emancipated themselves from European bondage. In 1929 the world found itself in a serious depression not unlike our own. Those who believed in communism and the planned production and distribution of goods were severely persecuted. Indeed, there were many Jews who stood against imperialism, particularly in the United States; many joined the Communist Party in the 30s which witnessed a new lurch towards socialism under Roosevelt. We think of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Herbert Aptheker, and others who heroically stood with African-Americans in their struggle against segregation and lynching.
Hitler, we must not forget was not simply an anti-Semite; he was an anti-communist, seeing communist internationalism as an obstacle to German expansion–the rationale of seeking lebensraum. In the wake of the Second World War, Europe needed Israel to rebuild itself and the anger and humiliation faced by Jews under Hitler was quickly converted into nationalism chauvinism as the Europeans flocked to Palestine, Perpetrating all manner of evils against Arab citizens who we must remember we’re also being oppressed by the British and other European powers.￼ For this very reason, Mahatma Gandhi whose own country was being exploited by the British wrote in a series of letters that it was historical folly on the part of European Jews to impose themselves on the Arabs whose own civilization was being suppressed by Europeans:
My sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became life-long companions. Through these friends I came to learn much of their age-long persecution. They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them. Apart from the friendships, therefore, there is the more common universal reason for my sympathy for the Jews.
But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the and the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?
Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.
White America, on the other hand, needed a steadfast business partner in Western Asia in order to assert hegemony Asia Europe collapsed in the wake of two world wars.
Finally, it is worth remembering that it was not the Allies but the Soviet Union that defeated Adolf Hitler, precipitating his suicide. Herein lies the failure of Hannah Arendt’s argument: she mistakenly conflates Hitler’s Germany with Stalin’s Soviet Union, which though attacked by the German military in Leningrad, heroically routed it from Russian soil, drastically diminishing Hitler’s power. Israel as it was envisioned by the world communist movement differed markedly from its present form. As W.E.B Du Bois, a Pan-African socialist, warned at the close of the war, Israel should align itself in the struggle against imperialism–not join with it. As he put it, Jewish and African history have been intertwined for more than 3000 years.￼￼ It was the Soviet Union, which Du Bois also supported, as a black man in segregated America, which defeated Hitler’s army under the leadership of Josef Stalin.
Gandhi similarly argued that if the Jews were to settle in Palestine, they ought to offer satyagraha to the Arabs. He had encountered the Jews in South Africa and had many beloved friends in the Jewish community, including Herman Kallenbach, with whom he established Tolstoy Farm, in South Africa. He, like Du Bois, saw that it made more sense for European Jews to cast their lot with colored Asiatics and Africans. Thus, he recommended that they offer Satyagraha in Germany and as a last case scenario offer satyagraha to Arabs in the interest of their own cause against the British Empire. As he noted,
It is hardly necessary for me to point out that it is easier for the Jews than for the Czechs to follow my prescription. And they have in the Indian satyagraha campaign in South Africa an exact parallel. There the Indians occupied precisely the same place that the Jews occupy in Germany. The persecution had also a religious tinge. President Kruger used to say that the white Christians were the chosen of God and Indians were inferior beings created to serve the whites. A fundamental clause in the Transvaal constitution was that there should be no equality between the whites and coloured races including Asiatics.
While he is careful not to endorse the violence of the Arab either in their struggle for freedom, as a proponent of ahimsa, he also points out that is utter hypocrisy for the European Jew to visit the same injustice on the Arab as was done to him by Hitler’s Aryanism:
And now a word to the Jews in Palestine. I have no doubt that they are going about it in the wrong way. The Palestine of the Biblical conception is not a geographical tract. It is in their hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart. The same God rules the Arab heart who rules the Jewish heart. They can offer satyagraha in front of the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without raising a little finger against them. They will find the world opinion in their favour in their religious aspiration. There are hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if they will only discard the help of the British bayonet. As it is, they are co-shares with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them.
I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.
In hindsight however, The state of Israel chose, however, to establish itself as a bastion of Western imperialism which is organized around the twin turpitudes of Western supremacy and capitalism.Today, the liberal Jew bemoans the treatment he received in Nazi concentration camps, rather than join with the struggles of the darker races for self determination against Western civilization. Following the Second World War, after immigrating to America, European Jews assimilated into the white world and became its chief gatekeepers, and in Palestine, Jewish settlers drove brown Arabs from their homes, destroyed their fields, and began the process of creating a white supremacist state not unlike America and South Africa. And all this with the ardent approval of America and Europe.
In the face of these historical truths, the descendants of European Jews in America continue to invoke the tale of Nazi atrocity to corroborate their special victimhood–and this at a time when the darker races continue to remain in a most depressed socioeconomic stage throughout the world. Thus, the problems of the European and now, American, Jew are problems of their own making, problems created by America’s and Europe’s greed, barbarism, and avarice in its relentless pursuit of the rape of Africa, the plunder of Asia, and the devastation of the black man and woman in America.
I dare say that we do not need any more Holocaust monuments that do not come to terms with the truth that European Jewry, which claimed the status of an oppressed nation, did not join with the struggle of the dark proletariat for self-determination, peace, and freedom, though the promise remains. Rather they contented themselves with preserving imperialism–like the white worker of the American South, the European Jew in the twentieth century strove to advance the project of Western imperialism by settling and partitioning Palestine. And it was base Britain–the so-dubbed bastion of liberal democracy and Germany’s arch foe and leader of the Allied Powers in the Second World War–which paved the way for the Palestinian demise.
We are by now altogether too familiar with the false prophets of Christianity who angle after the souls of the darker races in order to reinforce the cosmology and morality of white civilization. Baldwin said it best: “all that a slave can learn from his master is how to be a slave, and that is no morality at all.” We must look to the poor, the disinherited for moral guidance, not the morality of the master. Today, liberal and Zionist Jews alike continue this work through their direct and indirect support for the state of Israel, which was established–I hope I have adequately demonstrated–as a colony of Britain and though embarking upon the promise of democracy and freedom, chose the route of oppression. In America, Jews now constitute the new elite, heading publishing houses, university administrations, public health, prisons, public housing, banking, sports, arts, Wall St., Congress. This new class, though positioned to help the oppressed, has sadly become the new oppressor, financing Israeli violence against a decimated Palestine. This is also true of upper crust of Asian immigrants in America, who rank among the wealthiest. Of course, a class of poor exist among all races. In the United States, the advancement of newcomers like Asians and Jews who arrived in large numbers following the Second World War Is achieved at the expense of the African-American and even the white poor, though the latter continue to uphold their traditional role as peons, police, and overseers of black workers.
Finally, the partition of Palestine during this crucial moment follows the general strategy deployed by the British in Africa and Asia which were also summarily partitioned in an utter betrayal of their national independence movements. As such, the colonization of Palestine by Europe must be treated as part of the same broad pattern in the movement of history: one discovers a similar motif in historical developments in India and the Congo in the wake of decolonization as Africa and Asia were partitioned in the interests of Western empire and against the interests of their native peoples.
This profound obfuscation of the continuity of political developments in western Asia (code: “Middle East”) with its eastern and southern reaches and Africa contributes to a fragmented understanding of their conjoined history and moreover, the unity of the imperial system. Indeed, it is this ideological confusion that the West continues to exploit in its quotidian game of divide and conquer today as we enter the twentieth year of the War on Terror.
Given that there is greater contiguity between the laws of social development in Asia and Africa than either to Europe or America, it behooves us to see the civilizations of these two continents in terms of their longer history of relations before the rise of Western dominance in the world and examine the similarities in the strategies used by whites to gain social and economic control over both continents. Only then will we see peace between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Only then will we see the current struggle of Palestinians as an anti-colonial struggle whose only resolution is freedom from Euro-American intervention and unity with the rest of Asia and its longtime neighbor, Africa.