Was Gandhi a better Christian than many Christians? Or, was he a wise Hindu who had a higher view of religion itself? Maybe he was “just” a wise person?
Most people know that Mohandas (Mahatma—“Great Soul”) Gandhi, was a Hindu leader and teacher who inspired India’s independence from Great Britain before he was killed by a Hindu fanatic in 1947. Many people also know that Gandhi was a man of peace who worked with Muslims and Christians and admired Jesus of Nazareth.
In a letter he wrote to an American Christian named Milton Frantz, Gandhi responded to a question about Jesus (see “Letter Revealing How Gandhi Really Felt About Christianity is sold for $50,000,” HuffPost, March 6, 2018):
“I am afraid it is not possible for me to subscribe to the creed you have sent me. The subscriber is made to believe that the highest manifestation of the unseen reality was Jesus Christ. In spite of all my efforts, I have not been able to feel the truth of that statement. I have not been able to move beyond the belief that Jesus was one of the great teachers of mankind.”
The Mahatma respects all faith traditions but says creeds are different because brains are different. “But what does it matter,” he says, “if all these are hung upon the common thread of love and mutual esteem?”
Gandhi was a practitioner of what he called “satyagraha” or “truth-power.” If your religious, ethical and political views are based on actual realities in the world, there will be a power to act wisely with justice and compassion. He drew this teaching from his study of the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), the Sermon on the Mount (Christian), the Qur’an (Islam) and the philosophy of Jainism—a non-violent religion in India.
For truth to have genuine power in the real world, requires reason, understanding, experience. Gandhi lived into that in his world where people were mistreated, oppressed and brutalized by individuals, groups and whole systems that dehumanized others, especially in the “lower class.” As he saw it, those who were the “lowest” were deserving of the greatest respect, which echoes the highest ethics of religious traditions.
Apparently Mr. Frantz thought he could influence Gandhi’s beliefs by sending him an article claiming the Christian creed and belief in Jesus is “the highest manifestation” of the divine. The Hindu sage calmly wrote back with respect for the writer and for a “great teacher” of humankind.
Gandhi’s response should be a model for believers who have a myopic message in mind that their view of God or Spirit is somehow superior to other views, opinions and beliefs.
The Indian leader ends his letter with something that may seem insignificant. He says he is returning the stamp “kindly sent” by Mr. Frantz because “it cannot be used in India.” I smiled when I read that. The American seemed to forget the fact that an American stamp couldn’t be used for return postage in another country.
Just as the religious American thought he could “school” the religious Indian in theological matters, he perhaps (unconsciously?) assumed a stamp from his country was better than one from such a “foreign” land.
Of course, this kind of attitude has driven much mission work for centuries. Not all, but some missionaries confidently bring their superior “good news” to “heathen” lands to show their beliefs and their culture (language, dress, etc) are a “higher manifestation.” Of course their God is highest and best as well.
We need more of Gandhi’s reasonable humility. He could have fired back an angry response to put this writer in his place, especially with his immense intellect. He chose to calmly, firmly express his views and briefly reveal his quite radical faith in truth.
“In spite of all my efforts, I have not been able to feel the truth of that statement … .” What a helpful way to express this. He has read, studied and thought about these feelings and beliefs for a long time. He just hasn’t “felt the truth” of certain theological statements. How or why would anyone choose to argue with that? It’s honest, clear and humble.
In my interactions with persons of different faiths I’ve heard several kinds of “letters and stamps.” People write or talk as if they will be hurt if I don’t accept their views. Others sound like they will be angry if I don’t. Some invite actual conversation and mutual learning. Others don’t seem interested in conversation at all. They may “send a return stamp” but they don’t really appear to want a reply.
I wonder if Gandhi was more the Christian than his American friend.