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The Mahatma Versus Christian Missionaries

Guest Opinion

Why India and the world need Gandhi: The New York Times


Gandhi very well understood that people belonging to different religions do not generally encounter one another in purely religious arenas. Rather, it is in the everyday social milieu that they cross paths. Therefore, did Gandhi try to understand religious plurality in a crisscross of overlapping human experiences. Gandhi, being a Hindu, started engaging with Christianity because it mattered to his friends in London. The business acumen and honesty of the Muslim merchants brought them close to one who immediately recognized their "bania"(the Indian regional variant for trader/merchant) virtues. [1]

Gandhi’s engagement with Christianity can be unraveled based on his general attitudes towards religious pluralism, but it also deserves a distinct dissection of its own owing to its distinctive nature. Christianity, unlike the other religions, jostled with Gandhi in a power hierarchy of colonialism. It unquestionably tainted the relationship of Gandhi with the British, throughout his life. Although there was a presence of Christians in India long before British arrived, a quick rise in the number of Christian missionaries in India happened only with the entry of British. [2] Christianity thus came to be concomitant with its ‘colonial genesis ’. [3] Christianity was Gandhi’s tool to reprimand the colonial master. He himself admitted that he had learnt a lot from Christianity. The Christians who knew Gandhi in fact felt that Gandhi would make a much better Christian than they were. [4]

In this essay, we aim to reveal Gandhi’s engagement with the religion of Christianity. In such a revelation we will begin by analyzing Gandhi’s take on, perception of, and use of Jesus Christ in his political life as a promoter of non-violent methods of resistance. In addition to this, we shall portray Gandhi’s views on conversions carried out by Christian missionaries against the backdrop of his belief that one does not need to convert in order to respect and learn from other religions.

Jesus: the Son of God?

For Gandhi, Christianity was not so much about worshipping Christ as it was about becoming Christ. Though he never revered Jesus as ‘Son of God’, he also did not let go of Christ all through his life. [5] He rather chose to understand and grasp the ideals by which Jesus lived his life as a person. This was a reaffirmation of Gandhi’s ‘my life is my message’ approach [1] [6] which he also adopted towards Christianity. He thus wrote:

“Faith does not admit of telling. It has to be lived and then it becomes self-propagating. Nor do I consider myself fit to interpret Hinduism except through my own life. And if I may not interpret Hinduism through my written word, I may not compare it with Christianity.” [7]

Gandhi turned to religion in order to justify the righteousness and just nature of freedom movements. In Young India of 4th August, 1920, Gandhi wrote:

“I venture to submit that the Bhagavad Gita is a gospel of non-cooperation between forces of darkness and those of light…To say of the Bible that it taboos non-cooperation is not to know Jesus, a prince among passive resisters, who uncompromisingly challenged the might of the Sadducees and the Pharisees and for the sake of truth did not hesitate to divide sons from their parents.” [8]

Gandhi was always skeptical of popular religious beliefs and ever-ready to break the scriptural interpretations when they were used to justify violence and oppression. But being a man of quick wit, he turned to the same scriptures in order to challenge the acts of the oppressor. Bhagavad Gita was one of the texts that lay at the heart of Gandhi’s differences with those Indian revolutionaries who felt that resorting to violence was the correct way to go ahead. Bhagavad Gita is an account of Lord Krishna explaining to Arjun the justification for him to fight the battle of Kurukshetra. The likes of V.D. Savarkar chose to interpret Bhagavad Gita as a call for violence. But Gandhi used the text itself to give the following interpretation:

… the Gita, … under the guise of physical warfare, it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, … The author of the Mahabharata … has made the victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance, and has left them nothing but a legacy of miseries.” [9]

In the same way, he used the Christian texts at various instances to condemn the acts of violence and excesses committed by the western civilizations. The colonial masters had tried to justify these using Christian religious scriptural interpretations. In his letter dated 29th of November, 147 to Madam Edmond Privat, whom he also called Bhakti, Gandhi wrote:

“Europe mistook the bold and brave resistance full of wisdom by Jesus of Nazareth for passive resistance, as if it was of the weak. As I read the New Testament for the first time I detected no passivity, no weakness about Jesus as depicted in the four gospels … Has not the West paid heavily in regarding Jesus as a passive resister? Christendom has been responsible for the wars which put to shame even those described in the Old Testament and other records, historical or semi-historical.” [10]

Gandhi used his knowledge of Christian ideals from the scriptures and the life of Jesus Christ to also offer advice to Jews under the rule of Hitler. To one of his advice of non-violence, a newspaper under Anglo-Indian management retorted by saying that Gandhi has failed to understand the message of the scripture as portrayed through Christ’s life. They essentially said that it was because Christ opted for non-violence that he faced the hardships and bad times in life. They also concluded that Jesus had to die because he was upholding his idea of passive resistance. To this Gandhi replied as follows:

“Though I cannot claim to be a Christian in the sectarian sense the example of Jesus's suffering is a factor in the composition of my undying faith in non- violence which rules all my actions worldly and temporal. And I know there are hundreds of Christians who believe likewise. Jesus lived and died in vain if he did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal Law of Love.” [11]

Gandhi’s proclivity to hold Jesus in high regard as a person and to imbibe from his way of life was a stern and lifelong journey, which even after his demise made repeated appearances in the way Gandhi is perceived by people all around the world. John Haynes Holmes, a prominent unitarian minister in New York said in 1921, “When I think of Mahatma Gandhi, I think of Jesus Christ” [12]

Conversion or Commercialised Trade?

Gandhi, in his understanding of religious assistance in transcendence from light to dark, was hinting at a shift from tamasik to the sattvik i.e. a shift from darkness of aloofness to the light of moksha. He believed that a prayer was not asking its devotee to give up his swadharma and find refuge in a foreign dharma. Whereas, ‘conversion’, was the only connotation when the Christian missionaries promised a person, a shift towards light. [13]

Gandhi welcomed the ideals of Christianity while ordaining his Hindu identity and expected the same from Christians. He wanted the Christians to help Hindus be ‘better Hindus’ and vice-versa. He was not the one to advocate conversion. He rather found the idea of having to change one’s way of being, like one’s name, attire, dietary habits and such, in order to adopt the ideals of Christianity, ridiculous. Gandhi as a kid, saw such missionaries standing at street corners speaking ill about Hinduism and trying to lure people to convert to Christianity. [14]

Mirabehn, having renounced her previous ways of life, chose to adopt a lifestyle based on Hindu ideals, and wanted to convert to Hinduism. But Gandhi staunchly opposed her decision to abandon her religion. [15] He wanted her to assimilate Hindu way of life into the folds of Christianity because he believed that there was a commonality of good in both Hinduism and Christianity. The need was to find it without abandoning one religion for the other. He wrote in Harijan of 25-1-1935:

“I am no keeper of anybody’s conscience, but I do feel that it argues some sort of weakness on the part of a person who easily declares his or her failure to derive comfort from the faith in which he or she is born.” [16]

Gandhi ascribes the act of conversion being carried out by the Christian missionaries, to a colonial intent of destroying the cultural diversity of India. A question that Gandhi posed on the ideals of the missionaries who engaged in conversion in the name of Christianity was ‘why should not the service be its own reward?’. He believed that the aspiration and motivation of Christian missionaries behind the spreading the message of Christ was inspired by financial gains and insincere motives. He suspected that every time a Christian missionary rendered his medical or spiritual services to Indians, he did so with a hope that the recipient of such service would convert and accept Christ ( Harijan, 17-4-1937).

Gandhi believed that a tokenistic change of religion for material gain, through fear, starvation, etc., is not conversion, rather it is the selling of religion. [17] Gandhi not only argued against the conversion and compartmentalization of religion, but he also was of the strong opinion that one could sincerely respect the tenets of another religion without forsaking their own religious identity. Joseph Doke writes about an instance when Gandhi was engaged in a simultaneous reading of Bhagavad Gita and revelations of Chri