By The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
My wife, being a prolific reader of novels, is always going with me to return books to the local library. At the very front of libraries is a section for recommended new books. While there, I was pleased to find a brand new book Gandhi Before India. It was news to me that Gandhi was excommunicated by his own Bania caste from daring to go to England to become a lawyer: “For his transgression, the boy would be treated as an outcaste; anyone who spoke to him or went to see him off would be fined.” Gandhi’s family sacrificed greatly to send him to England, even pawning the family jewels. While in England, Gandhi for the first time read the Bible, finding the New Testament compelling, especially the Sermon on the Mount.  As Gandhi commented, it ‘went straight to my heart’. The lines about offering one’s cloak to the man who had taken away one’s coat touched him greatly. Gandhi demonstrated that the Sermon on the Mount will radically change one’s life and one’s society if put into practice.
After completing his law degree in England, Gandhi returned to India for a short while before moving to South Africa. While there are numerous books on Gandhi, many skip over Gandhi’s foundational twenty-one years in South Africa. Even the excellent Gandhi movie by Richard Attenborough doesn’t do justice to the prolonged complexity to Gandhi’s time in South Africa. Dr. E Stanley Jones commented that South Africa provided the rehearsal for the real drama of India: “He might have floundered had he tried India straight off.” Sadly in South Africa when Gandhi was most interested in the Gospel, he encountered the greatest restrictions: “To allow Gandhi to sit along white worshippers was impossible. The vicar’s wife, out of solidarity and sympathy, offered to sit with him in the vestibule, from where they heard the service.” One of the people who had the greatest impact on Gandhi was Leo Tolstoy, especially his book The Kingdom of God is within You: “he was ‘overwhelmed by the independent thinking, profound morality, and the truthfulness of this book.” Gandhi purchased and gave out even to his jailers countless copies of Tolstoy’s ground-breaking book on peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount.
Upon returning to India, Gandhi was initially rejected by other Indians who feared that they might become ritually polluted by even offering a cup of water to someone of the wrong caste. When Gandhi successfully stood up for their rights, he became hailed as a hero and liberator. Gandhi campaigned nonviolently for the independence of India for numerous decades, spending 2,089 days in Indian jails (almost six years).
Dr. E Stanley Jones described Gandhi as the architect of the new India. In many ways, Gandhi was like an Abraham Lincoln bringing freedom to hundreds of millions of his fellow citizens. Louis Fischer compared Gandhi to David standing up to the Goliath of racial discrimination. Gandhi went from being an initial supporter of caste discrimination to being a campaigner against its divisiveness. Jones commented:
…in his life, (Gandhi) breaks all the rules of caste, transcends them, adopts an outcaste as his daughter, and in the end does more to break down the system of caste than any other man, living or dead.”
Jones held that “in Gandhi the word of freedom became flesh. When he spoke, freedom spoke. Gandhi was India.” Most people believe in democratic freedom. Not many are willing to sacrifice over many decades to obtain such goals. Before Gandhi, it was mostly the Indian intelligentsia campaigning for democracy. Because Gandhi humbled himself and unselfishly served the poor and untouchables, both rich and poor awoke to the vision of an independent India. Gandhi made room for all regardless of race, religion and wealth. Albert Einstein said regarding Gandhi: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” In reading Jones’ book Gandhi: Portrayal of a Friend, Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired to launch the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.
Jones described the complexity of Gandhi’s personality as like Mount Everest:
Gandhi was simple and yet very complex amid that simplicity. You thought that you knew him and then you didn’t. It was intriguing. There was always something there that eluded your grasp, that baffled you. And yet out of that many-sidedness which amounted to complexity, there arose simplicity, a unified character, simple and compelling.
In an India full of racial, religious and economic division, Gandhi brought people together, giving them a vision for an independent democratic India. Gandhi , whose favorite hymn was ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’, chose the costly way of the cross, of sacrificial love even for his enemies. On the wall of his mud hut was a black and white picture of Jesus Christ under which was written ‘He is our peace’. Gandhi was a peace-maker who chose to forgive those who despised him and rejected him. Every day he would read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, motivating Gandhi to peacefully love his adversaries. Jones, who had been a friend of Gandhi in India for many years, said once to him: ‘You understand the principles. Do you know the person?’ Gandhi was very drawn to the person of Jesus Christ. My prayer for those reading this article is that we may embrace both the principles and person of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-an article previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News
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