Wrestling with Gandhi and Jesus
(Thank Heaven for Buddha)
a book summary
(with added reflections)
Jim Douglass recently published a new book—one he did not expect to write, he says—which lays before the reader a kind of cosmic ideological struggle between violence and nonviolence, with the fate of civilization hanging in the balance.
The book is Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment with Truth. Unlike Douglass’ previous book, JFK and the Unspeakable, which I wrote about on this blog in 2010, this is a thin volume, less like a slowly unfolding crime novel than a cram course in 20th century East Indian politics.
Sorting out the names and places alone is daunting. I was familiar with the historical outline but knew very few of the details and almost none of the characters. I suspect we in America, on average, have no idea what Gandhi and his followers accomplished when they drove the British from India without firing a shot or harming a single adversary. Douglass’ book gives us an idea.
His story is well-documented from many sources. I don’t know how much of it is new information. Possibly, as in JFK, he assembles it with fewer omissions than others before him, presenting a more complete and, admittedly, more troubling account.
|Gandhi with Nehru|
In short, Douglass presents the likelihood that after independence on August 15, 1947, the emerging rulers of the new nation of India, including his close disciple Jawaharlal Nehru, passively cooperated with a conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi by letting it happen. That secret complicity in high places to eliminate forces for peace and justice is what Douglass calls The Unspeakable.
There is little doubt, then, that various government and police officials knew about a plot to kill Gandhi, had information on who his likely assassins would be, but, in numerous suspicious ways, didn’t act to stop it. The reasons for this are murky, but, Douglass says, subsequent events make clear that, for the new power elite, winning a country through nonviolence was one thing. Ruling it nonviolently, as Gandhi wanted, was quite another. Gandhi had become a problem for the new powers-that-be, who already were thinking it might be good for India to possess her own nuclear bomb. For Gandhi, nuclear weapons meant suicide for humanity.
The ostensible reason for Gandhi’s assassination by right-wing Hindu nationalists was his support for unity among the country’s Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. He always opposed the partition of India to create Pakistan, a Muslim country. But volatility among the groups—with Hindus and Sikhs united in their hatred of Muslims and vice versa—sent Gandhi in his old age into the countryside, walking alone on peace missions from village to village and, on at least two occasions, one within two weeks of his murder, fasting to the brink of death until the warring faiths pledged to reconcile. To the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the RSS, this persistent demand for nonviolence, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, was treason.
Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, made the argument to justify his actions in a nine-hour oration he read to the court at his trial. But, Douglass points out, it’s not likely Godse was the author of that document. The author was most likely Godse’s ideological guru Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
This got my attention. It’s the stuff of heroic myth, the champions of Violence and Nonviolence contending for the future of Earth. And Violence wins. As Douglass points out, it wasn’t so much Gandhi the assassins intended to kill as it was nonviolence itself. They wanted to purge the concept from the nation’s vocabulary, which, coincidentally, would elevate Savarkar’s place in history over Gandhi’s.
At his trial Godse, parroting Savarkar, declared violence is necessary to protect a nation against enemies, within and without. Douglass summarizes his arguments as follows:
“Nonviolence is incapable of resisting aggression. As government policy it would destroy a nation.”
“Befriending an enemy...responsible for atrocities against our people is wrong. The enemy should be killed.”
“To win or preserve freedom, killing must be done, including assassinations and the other acts of modern warfare.”
“Violence in retaliation against the wicked is simply human nature. Retribution in fact makes it possible to govern society.”
As early as 1921 Savarkar is recorded as teaching that Gandhi’s “perverse doctrine of nonviolence and truth...is an illusion, a hallucination.... It is a disease of insanity, an epidemic and megalomania.”
Today, Douglass reminds us, Savarkar’s RSS political party is the ruling majority in India. The country Gandhi gave his life to create has, to all appearances, been coopted by his arch-rivals. To date, then, violence has prevailed over nonviolence.
But what is the philosophy of nonviolence that Gandhi embodied so belligerently, and where does it come from?
Christians might be interested to realize that Gandhi was inspired by Jesus. But rather than become a Christian he found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, particularly in the love-of-enemies passages, a deep connection with his own Hindu roots. Jesus seems to have been a spiritual brother to Gandhi. In the 50-year struggle against “the Empire” leading to his martyrdom, Gandhi endured physical and spiritual trials every bit as rigorous as those required of Jesus in his three short years of open ministry.
From the beginning Gandhi decided that the only way to freedom was to train himself to be indifferent to death. “Do or die” became his mantra. For every act of protest he organized he prepared himself to die, if necessary, rather than retaliate or surrender. He also impressed the same mantra upon his followers, who, astonishingly, marched behind him by the thousands into brutal beatings and arrests without raising an arm to protect themselves. Clearly this was a man of tremendous personal authority.
For Gandhi, as Douglass summarizes him, means and ends must be aligned. If the means are evil the outcome will be also. Violence, an expression of anger, is an evil. Therefore violence can never produce a good outcome.
For a good outcome, Gandhi reasoned, the means to achieve it must be good. Nonviolence is good because it’s based in love for your opponent. Rather than attack him violently you allow him to attack you, even kill you if necessary, as a sacrifice to God in the name of Love, which is Truth. As Douglass explains it, God and Truth and Love are all the same in Gandhi’s view of things, and to die nonviolently is to give up everything without reservation to God.
And, indeed, Gandhi always forgave his assailants, even as they assaulted him, saying later he held no grudge because he understood they were innocent, only doing what they thought was right. He met his death that way, crying “Rama,” his name for God, as he fell to the ground with three bullets in his body.
|Gandhi with his grandnieces,|
Abha and Manu,
on way to prayer.
This practice of “instant forgiveness” was a pillar of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, and, in fact, often throughout his life turned enemies into friends. But his philosophy made mortal enemies of Savarkar and his violent disciples. Gandhi wanted a nonviolent world, understanding it would be a new world. Savarkar defended the traditional world, violent as it had always been, with himself and like-minded in control of it. However, unlike Gandhi, he didn’t do so well in prison, where he was sent in 1911 as a convicted accomplice to the assassination of a British magistrate. Within a year he petitioned for clemency, promising loyalty from then on to the British Empire. In 1924 he was released to turn his violent impulses against the enemies of Britain. They, of course, included Gandhi.
Comparing the two men’s willingness to suffer for their beliefs—Gandhi cheerfully enduring repeated assaults and imprisonments while Savarkar switched sides in return for clemency—makes clear their opposing temperaments. Savarkar was a pragmatist and an egotist, sending others to do his dirty work while he remained in the shadows behind a cloak of deniability. Gandhi was a radical idealist who led his columns of followers into harm’s way without any thought of protection for himself.
Who was the more successful? Savarkar was exonerated of Gandhi’s murder, which it had long been his life’s work to accomplish, and remained a political force in India for another 15 years. The political party he co-founded now rules the country. Gandhi won India’s independence—no small achievement—but he could not bring peace within to India herself. It was his only failure, and it claimed his life.
Today, though most of the world has heard of Gandhi, there is no peace on Earth. Yet few remember Savarkar. How is it that Gandhi is revered around the world while the arc of history, at least up to now, has bent toward the will of his violent adversary, who most of us have never heard of?
That’s just one of the peculiar contradictions I find as I consider the Gandhian path of nonviolence, which is pretty clearly the way Jesus also pointed for those who would know and serve God. I believe there are many others who share with me both desire and dread at the prospect of following the nonviolent path of self-sacrifice for the greater good.
The thing is, we live in a dualistic world of opposites—good-evil, joy-sorrow, day-night, male-female, and on and on, including violence-nonviolence. In Buddhism, not good or evil but dualism is the illusion. There really is no good or evil until naming makes it so. And as soon as we name something “good” we create its opposite “evil” because, in a dualistic world, good and evil have no meaning without each other.
Beyond good and evil, then, is the Buddhist path, reaching toward unity, the source from which good and evil proceeds. The Buddhists do not generally name that source, perhaps because, as in Judaism, no name can suffice. But influential Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has called it “the ultimate dimension” and, on occasion more recently, God.
So Gandhi, it seems, must be taken for what he was—a fantastic dreamer experimenting boldly with Truth as he perceived it with the full commitment of his being. What he leaves behind is an extensive legacy which now includes Jim Douglass’ concise and perceptive accounting of the man, what he stood for, and how and why he died for that Truth.
Perhaps inconveniently, Gandhi’s Truth is found at the heart of Christianity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, creating a merger of East and West, Hindu and Christian, at the highest spiritual levels. Christians, then, need look no farther than Gandhi to find the kind of man Jesus probably was. But Jesus attracted his opposite as well, in the Hebrew hierarchy and, eventually, in Caesar.
We need the concept of something greater, something beyond the struggle between good and evil, to rescue us from the endless war between opposites. We need the calming effect of an intermediary—a visit, for instance, with the Buddha.
With so many excellent spiritual traditions in the world, it makes most sense to me to use them all to piece together the Truth—but always to reserve for yourself any final decision on the matter. I believe that’s what Gandhi also would advise.
In any case, if you want to challenge yourself on these issues, read Douglass’ book. But be prepared to enter your own “Passage to India.” It’s a consciousness-raising experience.