Friday, April 10, 2009


Gandhi was one of those Hindus who had studied the scriptures of all the important religions with open mind and without prejudice. During his prayer meetings, parts of the Bible were read out and at times Psalms were sung along with ‘bhajans’. The Sermon on the Mount “went straight to his heart” he used to say. During his lifetime Gandhi had developed friendship with several Christians. Some of them had become his followers like C.F. Andrews, Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur, Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn), and J.C. Kumarappa, to name just a few. The great French writer and philosopher Romain Rolland (who also wrote Gandhi’s biography) used to call Gandhi a ‘second Christ’. In fact Gandhi had shocked the Christian world by living like Jesus without being a Christian. Like Jesus he disowned all property as well as his relatives; became a celibate at the age of thirty seven, lived a simple life adorned by Truth and like Jesus he had gathered around him followers (apostles) who were prepared to do his bidding without demur. His life-style and his preaching added to his charisma. He had become a phenomenon, an enigma, a saint worshipped by millions of people in India. 1
Christian missionaries were greatly tempted to convert a man like Gandhi. They thought that if Gandhi was converted millions of his followers would automatically follow suit. Christian missionaries came from all parts of the world, to discuss with him matters religious but often with the sole aim of converting him to Christianity. They argued with him. He listened to them patiently, argued with them and sometimes even rebuked them for mixing up social work with proselytising. What they had brought to sell did not appeal to the Mahatma. He used to tell the missionaries that he refused to believe that Jesus was the only son of God and that the salvation of a person lay in accepting Jesus Christ as the Saviour (in other words by becoming a Christians). 1
Gandhi’s first exposure to a Christian missionary, while studying in school, was not a very happy event. It left, it seems, a lasting impression on his mind as childhood impressions often do. Gandhi has described this incident in his Autobiography (1929) in the following words: 1
"In those days Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this. I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment. About the same time, I heard of a well-known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one’s own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity." 1
While in England as a student (1888-91) Gandhi met several Christians, made a few friends but most of them were more interested in vegetarian diet than religious matters. Gandhi had become a member of the Vegetarian Society and discussed with other members matters dietary. The real confrontation with Christian missionaries started in 1893 while Gandhi was in South Africa. (This confrontation continued till almost the last days of his life). Gandhi has described these first attempts in detail in his Autobiography thus: 1
The first to come in contact was one Mr. A. W. Baker. He, besides being an attorney, was a staunch lay preacher. 1
He (Mr. Baker) upholds the excellence of Christianity from various points of view, and contends that it is impossible to find eternal peace, unless one accepts Jesus as the only Son of God and the Saviour of mankind. 1
During the very first interview Mr. Baker ascertained his religious views. Mahatma said to him: “I am a Hindu by birth. And yet I do not know much of Hinduism, and I know less of other religions. In fact I do not know where I am, and what is and what should be my belief. I intend to make a careful study of my own religion and, as far as I can, of other religions as well.” 1
Mr. Baker was happy to hear that and offered to introduce me to his co-workers in the church, which he had built at his own expense. He also gave some religious books to Gandhi to read, including the Holy Bible, of course. Mr. Baker had invited Gandhi to a prayer meeting next day, which Gandhi attended. Apart from the general prayer, Gandhi records: 1
“A prayer was now added for my welfare: Lord, show the path to the new brother who has come amongst us. Give him, Lord, the peace that thou have given us. May the Lord Jesus who has saved us save him too. We ask all this in the name of Jesus.” 1
One of the groups was a young man Mr. Coates, a Quaker. He had given Gandhi quite a few books on Christianity and had hoped that he would come round and embrace Christianity. Gandhi continues in the Autobiography: 1
“He (Mr. Coates) was looking forward to delivering me from the abyss of ignorance. He wanted to convince me that, no matter whether there was some truth in other religions, salvation was impossible for me unless I accepted Christianity which represented the truth, and that my sins would not be washed away except by the intercession of Jesus, and that all good works were useless.” 1
Gandhi was introduced to several other practicing Christians, including a family belonging to Plymouth Brethren, a Christian sect. one of the Plymouth Brethren confronted Gandhi with an argument for which he was not prepared. He said: 1
“How can this ceaseless cycle of action bring you redemption? You can never have peace. You admit that we are all sinners. Now look at the perfection of our belief. Our attempts at improvement and atonement are futile. And yet redemption we must have. How can we bear the burden of sin? We can but throw it on Jesus. He is the only sinless Son of God. It is His word that those who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. Therein lies God’s infinite mercy. And as we believe in the atonement of Jesus, our own sins do not bind us. Sin we must. It is impossible to live in this world sinless. And therefore Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind. Only he who accepts His great redemption can have eternal peace. Think what a life of restless is yours, and what a promise of peace we have.”
Gandhi’s reaction to this offer is typical of him and is oft quoted by his western biographers like Erik Erikson and Geoffrey Ash: 1
“The argument utterly failed to convince me. I humbly replied: If this be the Christianity acknowledged by all Christians, I cannot accept it. I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin. I seek to be redeemed from sin itself or rather from the very thought of sin. Until I have attained that end, I shall be content to be restless.” 1
Gandhi was troubled with what was written in the Bible itself after he started reading it. Gandhi narrates another experience: 1
“Mr. Baker was getting anxious about my future. He took me to the Wellington Convention. The Protestant Christian organizes such gatherings every few years for religious enlightenment or, in other words, self-purification. --- Mr. Baker had hoped that the atmosphere of religious exaltation at the Convention, and the enthusiasm and earnestness of the people attending it, would inevitably lead me to embrace Christianity. --- The Convention lasted for three days. I could understand and appreciate the devoutness of those who attended it. But I saw no reason for changing my belief - my religion. It was impossible for me to believe that I could go to heaven or attain salvation only by becoming a Christian. When I frankly said so to some of the good Christian friends, they were shocked. But there was no help for it.” 1
Gandhi continues: “My difficulties lay deeper. It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate Son of God, and that only he who believed in him would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God or God himself, then all men were like God and could be God himself. My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world. Metaphorically there might be some truth in it. Again according to Christianity only human beings had souls, and not other living beings, for which death meant complete extinction; while I held a contrary belief. I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept. The pious lives of Christians did not give me anything that the lives of men of other faiths had failed to give. I had seen in other lives just the same reformation that I had heard of among Christians. Philosophically there was nothing extraordinary in Christian principles. From the point of view of sacrifice, it seemed to me that the Hindus greatly surpassed the Christians. It was impossible for me to regard Christianity as a perfect religion or the greatest of all religions. 1
I shared this mental churning with my Christian friends whenever there was an opportunity, but their answers could not satisfy me.” 1
Gandhi was only twenty-four when these skirmishes with Christian missionaries occurred. This shows an amazing maturity of thought at this young age. 1
Let us take note of what Gandhi had thought about Christianity and Conversion: -
"I speak from experience, that many of the conversions are only so called. In some cases, the appeal has gone not to the heart but to the stomach. And in every case, a conversion leaves a sore behind it, which, I venture to think, is avoidable." 1
In answering a question from an American student of frank evaluation of the work of Christian missionaries in India. Gandhi said, "In my opinion Christian missionaries have done good to us indirectly. Their direct contribution is probably more harmful than otherwise. I am against the modern method of proselytising. Years’ experience of proselytising both in South Africa and India has convinced me that it has not raised the general tone of the converts who have imbibed the superficialities of European civilization, and have missed the teaching of Jesus. I must be understood to refer to the general tendency and to brilliant exceptions. The indirect contribution, on the other hand, of Christian missionary effort is great. It has forced us to put our own house in order. The great educational and curative institutions of Christian missions I also count, amongst indirect results, because they have been established, not for their own sakes, but as an aid to proselytising." (Vol. 29 p.326.Young India 17-12-1925) 1
Replying to question " if non-Christians in the Indian Dominion would have freedom to embrace Christianity" by the President of the Punjab Student Christian League, Gandhiji said: 1
"They would be guided in this connection by the rules and laws framed. Christ came into this world to preach and spread the gospel of love and peace, but what his followers have brought about is tyranny and misery. Christians who were taught the maxim ‘Love thy neighbour as thy self,’(1) are divided among themselves." (Hindustan Times, 3-8-1947, Vol. 88 p.471-72) 1
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