Mohandas Gandhi, (1869 – 1948) was a major political and spiritual leader of India and its independence movment. He was a pioneer of non-violent, civil disobedience, a tactic and philosophy that figured in many of the human rights movements of the 20th century. Gandhi was commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi, a title derived from the Sanskrit for "Great Soul."
In some respects, Gandhi not only represents the best elements of Hinduism, he also was interested in the reform of this and other world religions, which he acknowledged, sometimes are applied and interpreted in ways that keep the poor and oppressed peoples of the planet in a permanent state of powerlessness.
Gandhi first employed his ideas of civil disobedience in the Indian struggle for civil rights in South Africa. Upon his return to India, he helped lead poor farmers and labourers to protest oppressive taxation and widespread discrimination. Leading the Indian National Congress, Gandhi worked for the alleviation of poverty, the liberation of women, and an end to the caste system.
Gandhi remained committed to non-violence even in the most extreme situations. He was a student of Hindu philosophy and lived simply, organizing an ashram that was self-sufficient in its needs. He made his own clothes and lived on a simple vegetarian diet. He used rigorous fasts for self-purification as well as a means of protest. One of his foremost concerns was improving that status of India's lower classes, drawing the poor and the marginalized into the freedom struggle. Gandhi's teachings have inspired civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the US and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Famous Gandhi quotations:
Religion - a Matter of the Heart: "True religion is not a narrow dogma. It is not external observance. It is faith in God and living in the presence of God. It means faith in a future life, in truth and Ahimsa…. Religion is a matter of the heart. No physical inconvenience can warrant abandonment of one's own religion."
Hinduism: "I call myself a Sanatani Hindu, because I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, and all that goes by the name of Hindu scripture, and therefore in avataras and rebirth; I believe in the varnashrama dharma in a sense, in my opinion strictly Vedic but not in its presently popular crude sense; I believe in the protection of cow … I do not disbelieve in murti puja." (Young India: June 10, 1921)
The Gita: "Hinduism as I know it entirely satisfies my soul, fills my whole being … When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.
My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita." (Young India: June 8, 1925)
Seeking God: "I worship God as Truth only. I have not yet found Him, but I am seeking after Him. I am prepared to sacrifice the things dearest to me in pursuit of this quest. Even if the sacrifice demanded my very life, I hope I may be prepared to give it.
The Future of Religions: No religion which is narrow and which cannot satisfy the test of reason, will survive the coming reconstruction of society in which the values will have changed and character, not possession of wealth, title or birth will be the test of merit.
Faith in God: "Everyone has faith in God though everyone does not know it. For everyone has faith in himself and that multiplied to the nth degree is God. The sum total of all that lives is God. We may not be God, but we are of God, even as a little drop of water is of the ocean."
God is Strength: "Who am I? I have no strength save what God gives me. I have no authority over my countrymen save the pure moral. If He holds me to be a pure instrument for the spread of non-violence in place of the awful violence now ruling the earth, He will give me the strength and show me the way. My greatest weapon is mute prayer. The cause of peace is therefore, in God's good hands."
Christ: "I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, but I do not regard him as the only begotten son of God. That epithet in its material interpretation is quite unacceptable. Metaphorically we are all sons of God, but for each of us there may be different sons of God in a special sense. Thus for me Chaitanya may be the only begotten son of God … God cannot be the exclusive Father and I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus." (Harijan: June 3, 1937)
Conversion: "I believe that there is no such thing as conversion from one faith to another in the accepted sense of the word. It is a highly personal matter for the individual and his God. I may not have any design upon my neighbour as to his faith, which I must honour even as I honour my own. Having reverently studied the scriptures of the world I could no more think of asking a Christian or a Musalman, or a Parsi or a Jew to change his faith than I would think of changing my own." (Harijan: September 9, 1935)
All Religions are True: "I came to the conclusion long ago … that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu … But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian." (Young India: January 19, 1928)
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.