Light from a Holy Man

It has been 50 years since 4 million—perhaps 5 million—people filled the streets for the funeral procession of Mohandas Karanchand Gandhi. The father of Indian independence deserves his place in history as a political giant, but animating his politics was a philosophy and moral example that is even more important than his political achievements.

To honor his memory a half-century later, it behooves one to remember the whole man. Gandhi remains even today a figure of some controversy and his legacy has not been immune from criticism. Yet in the spirit of marking the anniversary of his death, it is possible to see in Gandhi a powerful witness to some doctrines that the Church herself proclaims with ever greater urgency.

Gandhi was ignorant of Christianity. It is reported that when asked about Christianity, he replied that he only regretted that more Christians did not practice it. Gandhi preached and lived poverty, self-denial, and purity. He spent hours in prayer and contemplation. He was devoted to God, the truth and nonviolence. He was a Hindu whose life was marked by heroic virtue, and he remains a vivid example of how grace moves in mysterious ways. The Spirit blows where he wills, and Christians would do well to recognize in Gandhi a light sent by God to this century of darkness.

Power vs. Truth

The distinguishing feature of 20th century politics has been the awesome power of the modern state. So awesome has this power been, and so ferociously has it been unleashed, that it required non-violence in order to defeat it. Therein lies the drama of this age, the confrontation of power with truth. Gandhi was at the middle of this mighty confrontation, and he was killed in the middle of the century on which he left an enduring mark. The man who taught the century non-violence was assassinated 50 years ago, Jan. 30, 1948.

Gandhi came to be known as “Mahatma,” rather than his given name of Mohandas. Mahatma roughly translates as “great soul.” In a century that has celebrated many great men—from Churchill and deGaulle to Stalin and Mao—Gandhi was one of the few great souls whose name belongs in the highest place on a different scroll, one that includes Martin Luther King Jr. and Lech Walesa.

“If I could popularize the use of soul force,” Gandhi once told Lord Chelmsford, the British viceroy of India during the first world war, “I know that I could present you with an India that could defy the whole world.”

The British were only the first to learn what “soul force” was. Apotent combination of non-cooperation, nonviolent civil disobedience, and a willingness to suffer in patient witness to the truth, it brought independence to the jewel in the British imperial crown and, later, overturned segregation laws in the United States, removed the Marcoses from office in the Philippines, and brought down the mighty Soviet empire—peacefully.

It has long been thought that illegitimate regimes need to be overthrown by force, that soldiers, not saints, are needed. Gandhi showed a new way. The oppressed no longer had to stoop to the tactics of his oppressor. Gandhi rethought the solution to the problem of man's inhumanity to man; man would become a witness to his own humanity, and soon even the inhumane would be overcome. Man, no matter how downtrodden, could insist on his dignity, refuse to cooperate with his oppressor, and deny to his oppressor what tyrants want most: submission in mind and spirit. Gandhi was rediscovering the power of the martyr's blood, and giving it a forceful application to political life.

Gandhi taught the primacy of truth. Hinduism ascribes various attributes to God, but the one that Gandhi thought was most central was truth. “God is truth,” he said, “and truth is God.”

Gandhi insisted that knowing the truth ought to be man's aim, and spent his life sorting out what he identified as inconsistencies in his own thinking. Gandhi knew that truth was one and so could not admit any inconsistencies. He had a deep respect for others whose sincere search for truth led them to different conclusions, and worked closely with those of other faiths, particularly Muslims. He understood that the truth cannot be imposed, but must be discovered. Once discovered, the truth has transformative power. “The only virtue I claim,” he said, “is truth and non-violence. I lay claim to no superhuman power. I want none.”

It is an approach that echoes a profoundly Christian philosophy. The truth is not something beyond man in the realm of the gods or abstract ideas. Rather, the truth can be known by man, indeed, it is man's task to know the truth. This truth confers real power, precisely because it is real. But it is not an otherworldly power coercing man from without, but the deeply human experience of being transformed from within. Gandhi's linking of truth to nonviolence follows directly upon this understanding.

Violence obscures truth. It does not appeal to reason and conscience but to fear. Nonviolence is first and foremost witness. Gandhi's great insight was that nonviolence is not all passive, but a dynamic witness to the truth. Refraining from violence clarifies that witness, allowing the testimony to be given pure and without being obscured under violence. In his early days Gandhi recognized that the common term “passive resistance” was inadequate. He coined the term satyagraha, which he defined as “force, which is born of truth and love or non-violence.” This is not sentimentality; satyagraha is definitely a force that does not imperil the body of the enemy, but awakens his conscience.

Though ignorant of Christianity, Mahatma Gandhi—whodied 50 years ago by an assassin's bullet—was a powerful witness to doctrines proclaimed by the Church

Gandhi's philosophy of truth and religious faith made demands in the moral life. It is often remarked that the separation of morals from faith is one of the great errors of our time. Gandhi spoke emphatically against it: “My life is an indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another; they all have their rise in my insatiable love of mankind. We needlessly divide life into watertight compartments, religion and other; whereas if a man has true religion in him, it must show itself in the smallest details of life. The slightest irregularity in sanitary, social and political life is a sign of spiritual poverty.”

Consequently he lived the ascetic life with great zeal, voluntarily embracing poverty. Together with his followers, he lived in great simplicity with few material possessions, clothed only in his famous home-spun cloth. Though a husband and father, he and his wife took vows of celibacy and lived together in perfect continence. An exchange with the young Malcolm Muggeridge demonstrated his insistence upon chastity. When Muggeridge suggested that contraception ought to be part of India's demographic policy, Gandhi disagreed, advocating abstinence instead, if necessary.


It was not for the “sake of the kingdom” that Gandhi embraced celibacy, but he knew that celibacy allowed him to devote more fully both his mind and heart to the spiritual life. Moreover, celibacy and the other rigors of the ascetic life, including frequent fasting and periods of silence, were means to grow in self-control. Gandhi did not emphasize self-control (what in Christian terms might be better understood as the virtues of temperance and fortitude) in order to be more efficient or as an end in itself. Self-control was the integration of human action into the whole person. It might be too much to call Gandhi a personalist, but he went so far as to say, “I do not know any religion apart from human activity.”

It is in acting that the person reveals his deepest convictions, the acting person cannot be separated from the religious person—the former reveals the latter. Nonviolence, precisely because it demands the self-control, is a manifestation of the dignity of the man who is the author of his actions. Because man always remains capable of self-control, that dignity is inalienable. While Gandhi did not work out a philosophy of human action, his understanding of the link between self-control and man's inalienable dignity is remarkably similar to the Christian personalism advanced by recent Church teaching in the defense of human rights.

Gandhi died 11 months before the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated, and he did not speak in the contemporary language of human rights, but he belongs among the first rank of human rights champions. He understood that all men were equal in dignity and that the only secure basis of this dignity was in their status as children of God.

Hinduism's caste system relegated large numbers of people to the lowest status of “untouchables”—a term that fully described their lot in life. Gandhi challenged this system and pledged himself to work for the removal of untouchability. When untouchables were relegated to separate voting booths in the 1932 election, Gandhi began a fast to the death in protest. After five days the policy was changed and the fast ended.

Work of God

He then replaced the ugliness and cruelty of the word “untouchable” with a new term of this own: Harifans (children of God). “The most despised people are the most favored of God,” he explained.

In the poor and the weak Gandhi saw the work of God. He was full of humble reverence before the gift of life, which he insisted his followers respect. The obligation to respect life arose from his recognition that all life is a gift. “As man has been given the power to create, he has not the slightest right to destroy the smallest creature that lives.”

India was partitioned upon independence, with the creation of a separate Muslim state (Pakistan and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). After all Gandhi had preached about human equality and fraternity, it was a bitter blow to have his nation carved up along religious lines. “It is a spiritual tragedy,” he said, “I do not agree with what my closest friends have done or are doing, 32 years of work have come to an inglorious end.”

As riots accompanied the migrations occasioned by the partition, Gandhi appealed one last time to soul power. He marked Independence Day, Aug. 15, 1947, by fasting and prayer. When fresh atrocities broke out, he began to fast and threatened to continue unto death unless the Hindu-Muslim violence ceased. Such was his spiritual authority that the riots did cease. They started up again some months later, and he fasted again. Again the riots stopped.

But the violence soon claimed Gandhi himself. On his way to lead public prayers, he was shot by a young militant Hindu. His last words were He Rama—“O God.”

India and the world immediately realized the magnitude of the loss. In the blood-soaked first 50 years of the century, Gandhi had shown a different way, the way of justice, the way of peace. Albert Einstein, who felt in a special way this century's carnage, put it well.

“The moral influence which Gandhi has exercised upon thinking people may be far more durable that would appear likely in our present age, with its exaggeration of brute force. We are fortunate that fate has bestowed upon us so luminous a contemporary, a beacon for generations to come.”

Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.