Mahatma Gandhi loved Jesus, or rather the conception of Jesus he gleaned from the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, Gandhi's detractors charged him with being a secret Christian. Some of his admirers said he was one of the most Christ-like men in history although he was not at all a Christian.
"If I could call myself, say, a Christian or a Moslem, with my own interpretation of the Bible or Koran, I could not hesitate to call myself either. For the Hindu, Christian, and Moslem would be synonymous terms. I do believe that in the other world there are neither Hindus, nor Christians or Moslems," Gandhi said.
In his paper, 'Young India' (1929), Gandhi said he got his idea of passive resistance from the Sermon on the Mount. And in his 1927 address to the YMCA in Ceylon, he declared: "If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, 'Oh, yes, I am a Christian'...But negatively I can tell you that much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount."
While in London nearly forty years earlier, Gandhi found time to read a Bible introduced to him by a Bible salesman. The Old Testament bored him, put him to sleep; he did not get past Leviticus and Numbers. The New Testament was a different story, one that held his attention, and the Sermon on the Mount went "straight to my heart", he said, especially the provisions for resisting not evil, turning the right cheek, and giving more than is received or taken.
Gandhi met Madame H.P. Blavatsky and her protégé, the activist Annie Besant, in London, and read their books on theosophy. Blavatsky's KEY TO THEOSOPHY particularly inspired his interest in Hinduism. He found certain parallels between the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and theBhagavad Gita; he synthesized what he learned into his own version of the doctrine of renunciation, a doctrine he thought expressed the highest form of religion.
After having four sons, Gandhi took the vow of brahmacharya in order to devote maximum energy to the public good. Thus he eventually turned from Christianity and Theosophy directly to Hinduism and its morale of selfless service, non-possession, and action without attachment to results - his "infallible guide to conduct."
Gandhi's beliefs were further influenced by Henry David Thoreau's essay, 'Civil Disobedience'. He borrowed a copy from the library of the South African prison he was sentenced to in 1908. Although the essay's influence on him seems obvious, he denied it was the source of his related, "Satyagraha" concept, which is also similar to the Christian ideas he studied. Satyagraha, or "holding onto truth", is a continuous searching for truth. That quest includes non-violent resistance and self-suffering, hence is not merely passive resistance - it is active, constructive disobedience, resistance pursuant to Gandhi's maxim, "Means are ends in the making."
Gandhi did say that he was a Christian only to the extent that he interpreted what Christianity really is. He discountenanced every element of Christianity disagreeable to his "inner conscience".
Now a few Christians still believe scripture literally means what it says, hence it leaves no room for personal interpretations, while others find scripture confusing if not contradictory and prefer to rely on the judgments and interpretations of a traditional ministry. Yet others, whose numbers are dwindling, believe that Christ appeared to free individuals from external authority: they are reliant on their own consciences and are glad to protest any infringement of authority on that freedom of conscience even though their fellows might accuse them of the "sin of pride" and condemn them to suffer eternal damnation in hell for doing so. Perhaps Gandhi falls within the latter group, the cult of individual freedom of conscience and of personal responsibility for one's own actions. Hinduism, the "umbrella" for a variety of religious systems and their attendant philosophies, is tolerant of the view that God is within the self although not contained by the self. Thus God is directly available to each individual, who can become liberated from nescience by becoming one with God. For that end, various methods of unification with God are recommended. Of course one finds authorities guiding this liberating process: the novice needs a bona fide spiritual master to show the way. Such spiritual masters are legion in spiritually inclined India; there are a wide variety of spiritual masters who are well prepared to help the willing disciple.
That being said, Gandhi's political beliefs and their religious underpinnings are apparent. Self-rule of the individual is the order of the day, and self-rule for India as if it were a person. Psychologically, the individual must gain self-control, and self-mastery of fear. Politically, there must be a high degree of self-sufficiency in all political units, from the village right on up. Change begins with individuals in relation to their relations, friends, and adversaries, hence only in those relations is self-fulfillment possible. Moreover, public institutions should be organizations devoted to independence. Most importantly, real progress can only be measured in terms of helping the desperately poor; all the social forces must be rallied around that aim, without which there is no real political progress. Helping the poor entails helping them to help themselves. Even Brahmin or holy men who traditionally depended on others to support them because they were owed a living, should follow the self-help rule. Gandhi did not cater to able-bodied mendicants with alms bowls.
People who are socially inclined would not beg to differ with Gandhi here either on religious or political grounds. After all, only an anti-social religion or politic would not preach the universal betterment of life. Gandhi's program is appealing inasmuch as the "selfish" individual takes personal responsibility for bettering his own conditions, and does so by establishing helpful and cooperative relations with other people. And cooperation might include active civil disobedience of the religious and political authorities who are the enemies of progress, liberty, and truth.
Which brings us to Gandhi's complaints regarding those who profess social progress while bringing society to ruin; particularly Christian hypocrites. He was profoundly disturbed by the intolerance of those Christian missionaries in India who were constantly disparaging Hindus, their customs and gods, while converting them to alcoholism, meat-eating, and the wearing of vulgar European clothes. This reminds us of the old but true story about how Christians saved themselves in from being persecuted as Muslims or Hindus in some areas by declaring, "I smoke, drink, and curse. I'm a Christian!" Of course such desecrations of the spiritual temple are blasphemies to the best Christians, who are well aware that addictions destructive of the personal and social body are deadly adulteries.
Gandhi was understandably averse to missionary activities, given his experience with the hatred and bigotry of so-called Christians. His dislike for missionaries was not without precedent: Jews have said that one way to murder a Jew is to convert him; therefore hating missionaries is sanctioned right tantamount to hating enemies during wars. However, Gandhi's dislike of missionaries fell far short of hatred given his loving precepts. In any event, alien busybodies who must go about publicly recruiting sheep for their faith, who are constantly seeking security in numbers, do not seem to be very secure in their faith. However that may be, Gandhi believed faith is a matter of personal conscience.
A faithful Christian did inform Gandhi that intolerance of other religions is unchristian. Of course wise Christians know Christianity was born from the finest thoughts of its antecedents, hence there is no real gulf between religions. His Christian counselor cited Mithras' cult as an example: the cult practiced baptism, communion, and confirmation; taught morality, continence, chastity, self-denial; and its adherents believed in immortality and the resurrection of the dead.
As far as Gandhi was concerned, the belief that Jesus is the only incarnation of God is absurd, for, if God could have sons, we are all his sons. And he disbelieved that only Christians have souls. He accepted metaphors about Jesus, but not mysteries. Nor did the mahatma or great soul think Christianity was philosophically superior or different than the best of other religions. He accepted Jesus as a teacher, but he did not accept him as most perfect or most divine.
Enlightened people cannot blame Gandhi for his disbeliefs; for the self-serving beliefs he disavowed are signs of arrogance: they constitute the height of the "sin of pride" which some misguided Christians rely on, while taking Jesus Christ's name in vain, to maintain their professional dictation of bigoted ("by-god") authority. We still observe a growing number of hate-mongering anti-christians plaguing the world who believe their every sin will be forgiven as long as they give lip-service to God's names.
On the subject of sin, Gandhi did not believe the blood of the murdered Jesus redeemed the murderers. When a Christian explained to him how sins are redeemed by Jesus, Gandhi said, after observing the Christian sinning as usual, "I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless."
In Mahatma Gandhi we find a student, a father, a frustrated Christian, a theosophist, a Hindu, a free thinker, a lawyer, a union leader, a political activist, someone who is at once a hero and a great soul yet is just a man who believed, "The seeker after truth should be humbler than dust." We have in Gandhi a mortal who was murdered by an radical brahmin. We have a saint to many, a sage who said, "God is not encased in a safe to be approached through a little hole bored in it, but He is open to be approached through billions of openings by those who are humble and pure of heart."
Mahatma Gandhi was asked, "If there is only one God, should not there be only one religion?"
"A tree has a million leaves," Gandhi replied, "There are as many religions as there are men and women, but they are all rooted in God."
In the Name of the Past, the Present, and the Future, as One
References, Suggested Reading:
Mahatma Gandhi, AUTOBIOGRAPHY, the story of my experience with truth, Trans. Mahadev Desai, Boston: Beacon 1957
THE COLLECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI, New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India 1988
Chitambar, Jashwant Rao, MAHATMA GANDHI, his life, work, and influence, Philadelphia: John Winston c1933
Fischer, Louis, THE LIFE OF MAHATMA GANDHI, New York: Collier 1962
Previous Public Commentary: rorajoey 03 Nov 2000 - I don't really care whether he was a Christian or not, but this was still an interesting article. I have a lot of opinions about religion, and I almost want to comment on several points you raised, but this is not the place. Let me just thank you for encouraging me to think about it. :) sleeper 14 Dec 2000 - This is a great article. I suspected this to be true about Gandhi. The other day I even gave Ghandi as an example for a man that followed the principles of Jesus Christ, without necessarily being a Christian. You added a good deal to my knowledge base on Gandhi, and I feel that I'm catching little by little upon Hinduism. I appreciate your work and wish I had time to read it all. I will, but slowly. anjita14 Dec 2000 - This made me think. there is a lot more to mahatma and his religere...the one man who jesus may not talk to ever! this man used religion to galvanize a movement. He never loved his people enough..read up his notions on caste heirarchy.they are an eye-opener...this guy didn't have a religion...and of course no faith. talk about christianity...you must be kidding!!! He wasn't even a true hindu...to ever be a true christian, that's a laugh! vasundhara 14 Dec 2000 I am amazed at your insight into Gandhi. He was a very well-read and erudite person and did have vast knowledge about most religions. However, Gandhi seldom did anything without a motive. Also, the concept of Satyagraha and the emphasis on non-violence is less to do with religion than practicality. In a poor nation the only way to fight colonialism was to cloak the Freedom Movement in a certain ideological-religious manner. He couldn't arm the nation physically so he did it mentally. Further, the fact that he was impressed with the Sermon on Mt. Sinai is not conclusive proof of his having believed in Christianity. Gandhi was that way. He praised certain features of all religions but only he knew if he mean it. He was a Hindu through and through. he came in for much criticism for having supported the Indian caste system that religiously legitimised the exploitation of lower castes by upper caste Hindus. He did try to act like the messiah of the downtrodden, but as Dr. Ambedkar would say in "What the Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables", he did absolutely nothing for them, save terming them as "Harijans". Gandhi played on the peoples' superstitions and tried to color every issue by giving it a moral dimension. For more on Gandhi and to see how his mind really functioned impracticably do read "Hind Swaraj" where he holds "civilization" responsible for India's poor state. Also, Dr. Ambedkar's writings verbally accusing Gandhi of irreligion would be interesting. Further, do read "The Mahatma and the Poet" that talks about the intellectual debate between Gandhi and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore where Tagore wins. All of this I hope will create an awareness about the man who was accused of trying to turn the Congress into a "Spinners' Association" by MN Roy. He was also caled a Bourgeois Marxist and if this holds, I would conclude that Gandhi did not believe in religion. He just used it. It cost the Congress a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty. So I doubt Gandhi could ever have been remotely inclined to Christianity. white_lace15 Dec 2000 - I have to agree with ppl that U R the BEST! LUV U! ¤¿¤ moffsawyer15 Dec 2000 - YEAH!!!!!! Keep these coming! Sometimes I didn't know who was saying what in the quotes, but the ideas flowed well. You did include some of your own it seems... i couldn't tell if this was an information or persuasion oriented. Both I guess! sekhmet16 Dec 2000 - Ghandi, like most Hindus, was a monolatrist. I think Ghandi's distress at Christians was because he could see the God was such a large concept it could change to suit the vision of Hindu, Christian, Muslim and any other faith in the world. He clearly saw the ONE in the Many names of the Divine. poornima shankar 23 Mar 2001 - A lot of hard work...but have to agree with Vasundhara's argument too! walters 1 Apr 2001 - Thank you all! The various points of view are all truly enlightening!