Gandhi’s Teachings Are Alive

Gandhi’s Teachings Are Alive

Mohandas K. Gandhi, killed sixty years ago, was a moment in the conscience of mankind. But the flame of hope his life inspired shapes our lives still.


Editor’s Note:

In New Delhi on January 28, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. delivered the Gandhi Memorial Lecture, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The text is published as part of The Nation‘s ongoing Moral Compass series, devoted to the spoken word.

Mahatma Gandhi–sixty years later, his legacy is alive. His dreams for democracy, decolonization, human rights, his quest to end barbaric enmity based upon class, tribe, race and gender, has momentum… For the most part, all of Africa, Asia, South, Central and Latin America and the Caribbean has been decolonized in the last sixty years–most of the world’s people.

Nuclear war and greed remain our threats, non-violence and Satayagraha–soul force–remains our therapy, and the only window from which the peace we seek is possible.

Dr. King said, “Just call me a drum major for justice.” Dr. King and Gandhi were drum majors and dreamers who marched to a different beat, and heard a different sound.

Dreamers march to a different beat because with their third ear they hear something unordinary. Dreamers are often counterculture. They swim upstream. Dreamers most often are change agents, sometimes called misfits. They are artists. They write the play you never imagined. They sing the song or make the sound that seems totally new. Dreamers are politicians with a new vision, a new capacity to connect with exquisite timing. They seem to capture the zeitgeist moment in the fullness of time.

These dreamers are not asleep; they dream with their eyes open. They are the stuff of which change is made.

So often in life they are rejected, imprisoned, killed or martyred.

In the Old Testament, Joseph, the visionary, the interpreter of dreams, was rejected by his brothers, but ultimately saved the rejecters, his family, the jailers and the nation. Jesus was rejected by his religion. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and isolated. Dr. King was attacked by his government. His home was bombed; he was stabbed, and ultimately martyred.

Mahatma Gandhi, the merciful, imprisoned by his government and killed by the merciless and the unknowing: his attackers just didn’t know who he was.

Ironically, those who sought to give their lives, had their lives taken from them. In each instance, these dreamers had majority visions bigger than their own ethnicity, common surroundings, their country and their practiced religion. We live in the wake of their dreams, their risks and their sacrifices. We are beneficiaries of great legacies that obligate us to act and to serve.

Today we reflect on sixty years since the assassination and martyrdom of Mohandas K. Gandhi (the Mahatma), and forty years since the brutal assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This master teacher and the master student–Gandhi and King–they changed the world in life, and even more powerfully in death. It can seldom be said that one person changed the course of the whole world, or that of a nation. But through acts of unusual courage, risky acts of sacrifice, selflessness and vision, in some time from some place… it happens.

Jesus the Christ transcended his race, religion, geography and his time.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a devoted Christian, with spiritual powers, intellect and timing, and courage, lifted the veil in America. Dr. King exposed its democratic contradictions of racism as national policy. He led a valiant non-violent struggle where people of faith confronted unjust laws and prevailed. He harmonized moral and legal law, ending unjust application of the US Constitution.

Nelson Mandela, in twenty-seven years of suffering in Robben Island prison, showed the power of non-cooperation with evil, and suffered his way into prominence until a government with nuclear power could not contain him. He forced the world to choose dignity and decency over contracts for trade routes, gold and diamond mines, and military positioning.

Early one Sunday morning, he walked out of jail to freedom, freeing his jailers, choosing reconciliation over retaliation. He chose to move forward by hope and not backward by fear, as a way to create a bright future shared by all.

One can argue that Mahatma Gandhi, known as Bapu (father) to his compatriots, was the spiritual godfather of these world-class figures who changed the world. They all sought to give their lives; their lives were taken. The result of their martyrdom ushered them into immortality. We are the beneficiaries of their genius, their sacrifice, their lessons and their example.

Gandhi was born October 2, 1869, four years after the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended legal slavery in the United States that existed for 246 years. He was martyred January 30, 1948: at his memorial we see his birth date over which he had no control: where, when and to whom.

You will see his death date–which was not his plan, though inevitable, nor was it the object of his fear. Death did not frighten him. It did not deter his mission. He took away death’s power through his fearlessness. He radiated a light that the darkness of death could not extinguish.

These two dates we memorialize, but it is the “dash” in between on which he made choices, judgments, lasting contributions–as a teacher, lawyer, philosopher, liberator, emancipator.

While I admonish you to think of the “dash” at the memorial, between birth and death, the straight line of the dash is misleading. In reality, the dash is more complicated: it has curves, ups and downs, twists and turns, setbacks, errors, peaks and valleys, experiments… all in the pursuit of truth.

But on this dash a truth was embodied in a man to change nations, to alter the course of rivers, and relations in the world. M.K. Gandhi. The Mahatma. Bapu.

On this dash, rebellion against degradation. In South Africa.

On this dash, a defiant march to the sea.

On this dash, a campaign to end discrimination against India’s 165 million untouchables. The Indian Constitution explicitly abolishes “Untouchability,” and its practice in any form is forbidden. The plan for inclusion and equality of opportunity and the right to live free from discrimination is contained in India’s constitution. India is a model nation with a model plan to overcome historic errors through reconciliation, growth and peace. It is model that should be embraced the world over.

On this dash, a collaborator for women’s rights, who viewed women as an equal partner of strength and moral power, and proclaimed, “If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women.”

On this dash, the science of personal and social transforming non-violence.

On this dash, Satyagrayha and Ahimsha.

On this dash, the weavers were empowered. On this dash, Britain’s armies and navies and wealth trembled and had to retreat from the power of soul-force. He not only spun cloth, he spun lessons, and a methodology and lifestyle that altered the course of the world.

The Biblical writer John would say, “In Him the Word became flesh, and dwell amongst the people.” While referring to Jesus, this has great application to Gandhi. For too many there is a huge gap between word and flesh. Between what is said and meant, and what is done. Gandhi closed that gap.

Following in the footsteps of great African American leaders like Dr. Howard Thurman, Dr. Mordecai Johnson, Rev. James Lawson, a devout student and practitioner of non-violence and war resistance, Dr. Benjamin Mays–Dr. King’s college President and mentor–Dr. King made a five week pilgrimage to India, hosted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

At the feet of Hindus he listened, learned, studied comparative religions and shared influences. A devoted Christian, Dr. King said of Gandhi, “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals, into a powerful and effective social force.” The question had troubled him, how does one carry out a social reform? He said that in the non-violent resistance of Gandhi he found the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.

King said there are two types of laws: just and unjust. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. An unjust law is a code by which a numerical or powerful majority group compels a minority group to obey, but does not make binding on itself.

“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with the willingness to accept the penalty.”

Our struggle embraced Gandhi’s tactics. Dr. King embraced non-violence, humility and dignity not merely as a tactic but as a way of life. He felt, like Gandhi, that mass protests could not merely change laws; they must be transforming and change hearts and minds. Our willingness to go to jail with dignity and free of fear, to turn jail cells into classrooms and prayer closets; our effective use of boycotts of non-cooperation with the oppressors has in it the reverberating sounds of Gandhi.

Rev. James Lawson, who studied Gandhi’s teachings while visiting India with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, became the primary teacher of non-violence to many in the civil rights movement. His philosophy is found rooted in the Statement of Purpose that he wrote for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–the student protest movement of the 1960s that Dr. King helped to initiate:

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of non-violence as the foundation of our purpose; the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love…. Through non-violence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair…. Justice for all overthrows injustice…. By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, non-violence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.

No doubt, Gandhi was in the DNA of our struggle to change America, and thus had such a powerful impact upon the world.

Forty years after Dr. King’s assassination, and sixty years after the martyrdom of Gandhi, let’s explore some of Gandhi’s power.

Through his teachings and insights:

1. There is more power in giving than in receiving.

2. There is more power in sacrifice than in greed and surplus.

3. Resist evil with non-cooperation.

4. Hate the sin, and not the sinner.

5. In battle, leave room for reconciliation and redemption.

6. A German philosopher once said, “Lies run fast, but they have short legs.” Let me hasten to say, however, truth makes long-lasting strides. Truth is a long distance runner. Dr. King would often say truth crushed to the earth will rise again.

7. There is no future in war. Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, leaves us blind, disfigured and ugly.

8. Conquest of another is not lasting for long; it is un-doable, and is not morally right.

9. Use minds, not missiles, to resolve conflicts.

10. A little light will challenge much darkness, and prevail.

11. There is power in self-inspection, self-denial and self-worth and appreciation in pursuit of self-respect and self-dignity.

12. Nonviolence is stronger than violence. Nonviolence is a sign of strength, not of weakness. Nonviolence is active, not passive, resistance.

13. You must be the change you want to see in the world–you cannot expect everything around you to change to fit your world view.

One finds much of these powers through fasting and prayers; to thy own self be true.

Power is in seeing anew one thought to be your enemy. Gandhi, when asked about Ahimsa and non-violence, said this,

Literally speaking, Ahimsa means non-violence. But to me it has much higher, infinitely higher meaning. It means that you may not offend anybody; you may not harbor uncharitable thought, even in connection with those who you consider your enemies. To one who follows this doctrine, there are no enemies…. This doctrine tells us that we may guard the honor of those under charge by delivering our own lives into the ands of the man who would commit the sacrilege. And that requires far greater courage than delivering of blows.

Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” Such an admonition seems to border on the absurd. But hear the admonition of Jesus and Gandhi; love your enemy, not his ways, for his person is a gift from God. Love can be an alkaline to his poison.

Love can neutralize his animus toward you if you apply it consistently, without flinching, to visit a perceived enemy in the hospital, and share flowers and prayers, makes him rethink himself and who you are.

Love can convert, ultimately, a perceived enemy. Love can detoxify.

Love obligates you to see upon self-evaluation, that you may have done something to make your enemy, your enemy.

Love is enduring; it never gives up, like a mother and a runaway child, the door remains open.

Gandhi found power by overcoming fear. Jesus said perfect love casts out fear.

Dr. King said, “I fear no man, no enemy, mine eyes have seen the Glory and the coming of the Lord.”

Hinduism placed major emphasis on overcoming fear. This religion–expressed most aptly in contemporary times through the Gita–is 5,000 years older than the Bible, perhaps the religion of the Magi, the three wise men who came from the East as spiritualists and astrologers. They came to honor Jesus, but learned of Herod’s deceptive and devious plan to kill Jesus and kill all the first-born babies in pursuit of him. They warned Mary and Joseph of this impending danger and went back another way. I am inclined to believe that the visit of these Three Wise Men from the east, and the stories about them by Mary and Joseph–his mother and earthly father–and his first twelve years in Egypt or Africa, contribute to his universal love ethic and his appreciation of his father’s world.

Strategic to Jesus’ methodology, so different than his own religion, was insistence upon the power of fasting, praying, meditating, self-purification and love as the informing and unifying force in the universe, and then declaring, perfect love casts out all fear.

You need the power to overcome fear. We are controlled by fear. Fear paralyzes. Hope accelerates. Be fearless without instilling fear. Fearlessness without love can be vicious and destructive.

We go forward by hope, backwards by fear.

We fear starvation. It incites us to riot.

We fear the water supply being cut, and thus territorial disputes.

We fear our neighbor because of walls between us. We must choose bridges that connect us and share the radiance of sunlight.

We fear loss of control.

We manipulate fear for power–and create wars.

We fear loss of income.

We fear loss of status.

We fear unfaithfulness and become jealous and mean.

The ancient Biblical story in Genesis, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the first brother to brother murder, it said, fear will make you lie and be greedy. If you lie you will steal. If you steal, you will kill. Fear can twist the human personality and lead to distortion of the whole human race.

We fear losing, so we don’t try.

We fear jails, and thus we empower the jailer.

We fear guns and death. Fearlessness of death disarms the bearer of guns with the threat of death.

We fear death.

Paralyzing fear stops us from affirming a high quality of dignity.

We stop trying.

Fear drives greed.

Nkrumah once said, “The secret of life is to have no fear,” to which Marianne Williamson followed, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Gandhi gave up the material race. He gave away all of his material possessions. He sought nothing. But he had everything–the power of his being, and a soul at peace.

Dr. King once said to me that if he left wealth, even to his family, it would blemish his legacy.

He said he did not want to leave his organization money or an endowment, for if they kept serving they would continue to gain support; if they stopped they didn’t deserve to exist anymore.

Greed drives the artificial needs. It turns wants and sometimes foolish desires into needs.

We are driven by fear to seek more than we need, for fear we won’t have enough surplus.

Greed drives exploitation, polarization, extremes and war.

Freedom from fear disarms the oppressor. It counterfeits his money. You can’t be bought. It takes the power from his gun. It takes away the sting from his bullets, and the intimidation of his jail cells.

It takes away the power of his negative media, and his ability to shape public opinion.

Love, fearlessness and faith puts you in to another zone of consciousness–love for the oppressed and faith in God–“faith the substance of things hoped for and evidence of things unseen”–and no fear of the oppressor, are revolutionary weapons.

Armed with these powers, the oppressor loses control. They panic. They jail you. Your popularity increases. They kill your body, only to see you immortalized which demoralizes their efforts to stop truth.

The Bible says, “Fear not them which killed the body, but are not able to kill the soul. But rather fear him that is able to destroy both body and soul” (Matthew 10:28).

Look at the immortal fruits of the leaders in the zone of love and faith without fear.

Dr. King, a fearless leader. Martyred. There is now a national holiday in his name, and with moral authority greater than Presidents.

For Mandela, after twenty-seven years in jail, now father of a new nation. Former jailers give deference to him and seek his autograph.

For Gandhi, the master teacher, the chief headstone at the fountain of hope.

There he stands sixty years later, the landmark by which we judge leaders and nations.

Dr. King would often say, “Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ We all want to be accepted. Politics asks the question, ‘Will it work? Can I win? Morality and conscience asks, ‘Is it right?’ ”

It be neither popular or politic, but is it right? This remains the eternal question of our time. This question irritates the status quo and the oppressors and tyrants, and is the key to the kingdom.

Gandhi is as relevant today as he was sixty years ago. He would argue that there is no nuclear weapons balance possible, only unfathomable destruction and counter-destruction if due to some fit of foolishness they are unleashed.

We must go another way and study war no war. The Biblical question was asked, how do we find peace? The answer was when lion and lamb lie together, there will be peace in the valley. If you know the nature of lions with their greed and power, and that of lambs–weak and meek and slow afoot–what will make a lion humble enough to negotiate a peace treaty with the lamb? What would make a lamb trust a lion that often goes out to eat the weak for sport?

Under what conditions do lion and lamb lie together? It’s the point in which they have something in common greater than the both of them. Neither wants the forest to catch on fire. Neither wants to drink poisonous water. Neither wants acid rain on their back. Surely if lion and lamb can find common ground, those who are weak can find common ground. Surely we, who are just a little lower than angels, and just a little less than God, can find common ground.

Gandhi would challenge the war in Iraq and the right to make a pre-emptive strike, invasion and occupation. He would challenge the vast billions spent in such a degenerate way. War is unsustainable, unnecessary, expensive and immoral. Truth trumped by lies has the whole world in an uproar.

To Kenya he would appeal to put down swords, stop the killing and disfiguring the legacy of a great nation. Africa needs revitalization, not revenge.

His heart would bleed over the crisis in Pakistan next door, where relatives and families are split by borders and religion. His heart would bleed over the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He would cry out to relieve the tension within Pakistan, and between Pakistan and India. The instability and uncertainty of the political climate, with the presence of nuclear weapons region, makes the whole world anxious. People must be assured of the integrity of the election process. Pakistan deserves world-class, open, free, fair and transparent elections.

He would challenge the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians, to shared security. He would urge the United States and Russia to be brokers and bridge builders, and to choose peace and not merely choose sides.

He would challenge them to do something more difficult than war: give peace a chance, choose co-existence over co-annihilation. You’ve tried sixty years of war; let’s go another way.

He would urge global investment in the poor, and infrastructure to struggling societies. It would lead to growth, not recession.

Gandhi would urge that we use modern technology not for smart weapons but for smart ways to fight global poverty and provide drinkable water for the world’s peoples.

Gandhi would urge us to build north and south bridges to the poor, not walls to lock them out and jails to lock them up.

Gandhi would urge that we wipe out poverty and not the poor and save our children.

The risks: loss of too much genius when at-risk children are abandoned.

Jesus was an at-risk baby, born under Roman occupation, scheduled for genocide. Look at what the world would have lost.

What is our responsibility to Gandhi and Dr. King, to Mandela?

What do we owe them?

How can we repay them?

The Bible says, first, remove not the ancient landmarks that our mothers and fathers have said, “Honor them as a frame of reference.”

When the children got across the Jordan River with the intervention of God, they were told to put twelve stones in the river as a memorial. They knew of God’s miracle. But future generations would not. So let these stones be reminders. When future generations ask, what of these stones, tell them that they might know. If you don’t tell them, they will not know, and will honor false Gods, and ascribe the wrong reasons–and engage the wrath of the real God who deserves honor and worship.

Tell them of Gandhi, King and Mandela.

What do we owe these leaders?

Remember or learn their sacrifices.

What do we owe them?

Be grateful.

What do we owe them?

Be committed to advance their cause. Equality of opportunity gained through non-violent action.

What do we owe them?

Be courageous.

What do we owe them?

Work diligently.

Don’t self-destruct through drugs, alcohol or suicide.

What do we owe them?

Don’t self-degrade.

What do we owe them?

Be faithful to truth and to God.

What do we owe them?

Act from love and not fear.

There are new leaders of emerging democracies. They must not go forward embodying old fears and corrupt patterns. As tyrants fall and as democracies rise, as we walk the halls that colonizers once ruled, and assume the roles as head of governments, new leaders must honor the integrity of the journey.

What do we owe the martyrs?

Do well.

What do we owe the martyrs?

Do well, He says to us. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly before God.

Do well.

Make the world better and more secure.

And life more lasting.

Thank you Mahatma, for your light, for your changeless values in changing times.

For the eternality of your vision, for your soul-force.

Through it all, he was a moment in the conscience of mankind, but his eternal flame of hope glows without end.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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