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What’s Jesus got to do with Gandhi?

On the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Rahil Patel, a former Hindu monk, reflects on the influences that shaped the life and teaching of the revered Indian leader. Was it the man, or the teaching he followed, that garnered such worldwide attention?

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January 30th is a date that chimes in the minds of over a billion people. It was on this day in 1948 when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was assassinated by the Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse.

For decades, these two names have lingered amidst the subconscious minds of the vast Indian population as well as its diaspora and penetrated deep into nearly every conversation when the spicy hot topic of British Indian history emerges. 

Gandhi is a personality in world history that can both easily and controversially split the South Asian population into two halves: those who love him and those who loathe him. Those who love him believe he was all-embracing and kind to all faiths and cultures, whilst those who loathe him feel he was too soft on Muslims and compromised the Hindu faith.  

Whilst there are volumes upon volumes written about this mystical man and statues of him in nearly every major world city, we can’t ignore or forget the Christian influence on Gandhi’s personal worldview and political campaign for India’s independence. After all, it was the Evangelical Manifesto for India’s Freedom drafted in 1838 that offered Indian intellectuals the ideas and notions of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Self-Rule’. Many knew that it was a Christian duty to ensure that the Indian people were set up for self-rule at some point, and for that, they would need the right ideas and institutions. 

The Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ most famous teachings on principles for how to live a fulfilled and peaceful life, had a weighty impact on Gandhi, who believed that it was not only a profound spiritual document but the greatest political document of all time. He created a lifestyle and community around this world-turning message, which consequently shaped his campaign against British rule. As a result, the German pastor, prophet and spy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was encouraged by his mother Paula to visit Gandhi and seek counsel as to how one can employ nonviolent resistance against oppression and live in a monastic style community based upon the priceless sermon. The young Pastor Bonhoeffer wrote to his grandmother in 1934 that he wished to visit India (Gandhi) as he had ‘given a good deal of thought to the issues there (in India) and believe(ed) that there could be important things to be learned.’ Although the great theologian Karl Barth disagreed with Bonhoeffer on the need for such a monastic community, the 28-year-old German Pastor created one in Finkenwalde, where he trained many ordinands in the mould that Gandhi had begun around the truths the Sermon on the Mount advocated. Bonhoeffer argued that one can live in a monastic community and not get trapped into its ‘legalism’, which is why he went on to write, ‘Christianity did in fact come from the East originally, but it has become so westernised and so permeated by civilised thought that, as we can now see, it is almost lost to us.’ (He was writing in the context of the German Evangelical Church, the Reichskirche, which was set up by Adolf Hitler’s men).  

 Mohandas Gandhi learned from the Bible’s biographies of Jesus that self-sacrifice can liberate the other. Vedic rituals and Yajnas (fire sacrifices) entail many items, from ghee (clarified butter) to gold and even animals, but self-sacrifice or ‘self-Yagna’ is not a concept across all Hindu traditions. By putting his body under immense strain through fasting, he believed that those in the British Administration who were hungry for power and money would be liberated from its enslavement. In Hinduism, pursuing money is not frowned upon. In fact, Dharma (duty), Artha (wealth), Kama (pleasure) and Moksha (liberation of birth and rebirth) are all to be pursued as ‘spiritual endeavours’. However, Gandhi knew that in the Christian worldview, one cannot serve God and money and so he fasted for those he felt were slaves to wealth from a Christian viewpoint. It’s important to note that fasting is also a Hindu practice but for one’s own personal benefit. Here, Gandhi used it for a Christian ending. The liberation of the other.  

The Gospel of Matthew and the Parable of the Sower played a key role in Mahatma’s understanding of uplifting everyone from poverty and not just those of a high caste or who may have performed good karma in previous lives. The Grace of Christ, as he had said when reading the Gospels, ‘had penetrated his heart’ which violently opposed the Hindu concept of Karma and works.  

The Anglican Priest C.F Andrews, who was dubbed by Gandhi as ‘Christ’s faithful Apostle’, played a vital role in influencing his campaign and approach to the British Administration, as did the Russian Orthodox Christian Leo Tolstoy. But equally, Gandhi knew that if he applied Christian truths to his campaign for India’s freedom against a nation that was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, he would gain attention. And that he did. It struck a chord with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.  

Today, India has become the focus of the world with its booming economy, one-fifth of the world’s population and a young population with an average age of 27! It will be the 3rd largest economy in the world by 2030. This naturally attracts all the world leaders who covet the various economic advantages India has to offer today. One interesting fact about all these leaders who visit New Delhi to meet India’s ruling class is that they ardently visit the Gandhi Ashram located on 30th January Road in New Delhi. But is that due to the man? Or the Christ-like nature of his mission? 

Rahil Patel is a former Hindu monk and author of Found By Love. He is a Tutor and Speaker at OCCA, The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. 

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