Jesus and Gandhi: A Study in Commonalities

By Robert P. Sellers 

In 2019, during the 150th anniversary year of the birth of Mohandas K. Gandhi, I was invited to give a webinar speech, made available throughout India, on the topic of “Gandhi in the New Era.” The sponsoring and inviting body was Harijan Sevak Sangh, the organization that Gandhi himself formed in 1932 to carry on his work of championing the human rights of the casteless, or “untouchables,” of his country.

It was a distinct honor for me as an American Christian to present my thoughts on Gandhi. Throughout my many years of involvement in higher education and especially during the quarter century I lived and worked in Asia, I had grown to appreciate, value and learn from followers of other religions. I am a better Christian because of the people from other faith traditions whose lives of devotion have instructed and motivated me. Gandhi, in particular, had become an inspiration. His personal sacrifice and public example had often influenced what I said, wrote, and did to promote justice for the world’s most marginalized peoples.

Reaching out to Hindu friends across our cultural, racial and religious boundaries was an opportunity I perceived to be divinely orchestrated. It caused me to revisit various accounts of the life of the Mahatma, or “Great Soul,” and thus to be enriched and emboldened once more. It called me to understand that I must never underestimate the power of my one voice to help persons who are socially neglected or systemically abused because they are different from the norm.

As a Christian I follow Jesus, who has often been referenced in Christian theology as the “human face of God,” one whom millions of Hindus might call an “avatar” of the Divine. They celebrate the Mahatma as the “Father of the Nation,” one that millions of Christians credit with inspiring the modern, political application of Jesus’ moral posture of nonviolence and non-retaliation. In a sense these two men uniquely connect Christians and Hindus, for many Hindus honor Jesus while many Christians honor Gandhi.

As I thought about “Gandhi in the New Era,” I realized that Gandhi and Jesus had in common multiple historical circumstances, character traits, personal choices and life commitments.  

First, formative incidents occurred in the lives of both men when they were just 12 years of age.

Although these events were very significant in the individual families where these boys were growing to maturity, they also prefigured the passions that would guide the public lives of the famous men these boys would become.

Jesus, reared in a typical, pious Jewish family, made the journey to Jerusalem with his parents when he was 12, on the cusp of his bar mitzvah, or coming of age initiation. As the Gospel of Luke tells the story, Jesus already had a mind of his own. When his parents and fellow townspeople left the capital city to begin their multi-day trip walking back to their village of Nazareth, Jesus wasn’t in the crowd. He wasn’t running on ahead of the adults, laughing with other children, throwing rocks and playing games. His parents, Mary and Joseph, assumed he was in the caravan somewhere but simply out of sight. But he wasn’t. Jesus had stayed behind in Jerusalem, perhaps sleeping in a dark corner of the Temple complex at night, then wandering the Court of Israel during the day and asking questions of priests and Torah scholars. Two days later, his frantic parents somehow found him in that gigantic place overrun with pilgrims. Immensely relieved, they took him home after securing his penitent promise to be submissive to their authority. Yet Jesus had seen the city – teeming with the masses of commoners, governed by privileged ecclesial and political power brokers. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the status and wealth he observed, compared to the hopelessness of the outcast poor who flooded the city, made a profound mark on the boy’s psyche and would shape his striving for justice years later when he was an adult.

Gandhi was 12 when something in his household happened that he would never forget. A man named Uka, a bhangi, a scavenger – a member of the lowest varna, or class – was employed by the Gandhi family to clean the latrines. Since the Hindu scriptures only mention four classes in society, to be relegated to a supposed fifth varna meant that one was considered to be casteless. Indian purity regulations dictated that if anyone of a superior class touched a scavenger, even accidentally, then ritual ablutions had to be performed in order to become clean again. Young Mohandas told his mother, however, that he didn’t consider Uka inferior to anyone, and furthermore that he believed the Hindu scriptures did not justify untouchability or the need to purify oneself after touching a scavenger. Indeed, he later realized that the Bhagavad Gita places the Brahmin, or first varna, and the bhangi, the so-called fifth varna, on the same level – textual proof for the adult Gandhi that he had properly defended his friend Uka and challenged his mother Putlibai so many years before [Vogesh Chadha, Gandhi: A Life (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1997), 10]. 

Second, the oppressive life context and response to it by the one global Christians call “Savior” and “Lord” and the one Indian Hindus call “Bapu” and “Gandhiji” are also fascinatingly parallel.

While a child of his times, Jesus was not a prisoner of his culture. Rather, he was often criticized for defying social convention. Historically, he lived during Israel’s occupation by a foreign power, the Roman Empire. Jesus grew up hearing the frustration and despair from his fellow Jews who felt humiliated because they lived in a conquered land. He could understand their longing for liberation, yet he believed – and said – that freedom could not be found by taking up swords.

Gandhi also lived counterculturally, refusing to base his life choices or conduct on the opinion of either friends or foes. He saw how his countrymen and -women languished with the heavy boot of the British Empire on their necks. Gandhi heard those who argued for armed resistance against the colonial overlords, but he conceived of another way – Satyagraha, the “Force born of Truth and Love,” the path of non-violence. 

Third, it seems that both Jesus and Gandhi experienced personal traumas so intense that they were inspired to become advocates for justice, human dignity and liberation.

Jesus grew up in the Galilean village of Nazareth, where he trained alongside his father to become a carpenter, a trade he practiced into young adulthood. According to the Gospel of Matthew, however, when he found out that his cousin John was preaching to crowds of spiritually hungry people along the banks of the Jordan River, he left home and traveled south to find him. Intrigued by what John was saying, he asked to be baptized by him and thus became a novitiate in the movement. He must have heard people saying that his cousin had once brashly confronted Jewish religious leaders who were in the crowd at the river. Perhaps those Pharisees and Sadducees had enough clout to complain to powerful friends how they had been publicly shamed by John, because it wasn’t long until John was arrested. When Jesus learned what had happened to his cousin, he returned to Galilee. There, he abandoned his carpentry shop and began gathering disciples to accompany him in his own new work as an itinerate teacher and reformer. The subsequent news of the beheading of John by King Herod Antipas would surely have hit Jesus hard, yet it also must have strengthened his resolve to stand firm against unjust power.

By all accounts, Gandhi’s life direction was also forever altered by personal trauma – an ugly, racist experience he had in South Africa on June 7, 1893. Mohandas was a young lawyer riding a train to Pretoria. A white passenger disapproved of the Indian’s having taken a seat in the first-class carriage of the train. The 23-year-old was holding a first-class ticket and refused to move; so white stewards and the conductor forcibly removed Gandhi, a person of color, from the compartment and threw him off the train at the very next stop. Shaken by this unfair treatment, Gandhi determined to continue acts of civil disobedience as a way to fight the “deep disease of color prejudice.” He soon decided to return to India, where his life was never again the same [Arvind Sharm, Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 54-59].

Fourth, neither Jesus nor Gandhi sought notoriety or fortune, although each became wildly popular.

 Jesus was a celebrated teacher who drew large crowds of the curious and the faithful, but he rejected the trappings of fame. When the devil tempted him with worldly power, Jesus sent him away, declaring that only God should be worshipped, not kingdoms or earthly splendor. Later, when an exuberant crowd attempted to force Jesus to become their king, he immediately withdrew to a lonely place to calm his spirit and tamp down the temptation to worldly power. He emphasized his commitment to austerity by reminding those who wanted to follow him that he owned no property, had nowhere to lay his head, and carried no baggage to distract him from his crucial mission. In one of his most famous teachings, he told a wealthy young man seeking eternal life that he must sell all that he owned and give the proceeds to the poor. Guided by that demanding principle, Jesus lived simply, and at the time of his death he possessed only one garment, gambled for by his persecutors.

Gandhi, too, was well-known both in the ashrams of India and the parliaments and presidential halls of Western governments as a man who embraced simplicity. People were startled that this major figure on the world’s political stage preferred his shaved head, sandals and dhoti, spinning wheel and dried mud and bamboo hut. Gandhi had very few personal possessions at the time of his death, despite the fact that he had not been born into a poor family. Trained as a lawyer in London, later practicing his profession in South Africa, Mohandas nonetheless returned to India where he rejected the three-piece suits of traditional success and consciously adopted a modest demeanor he felt would bring him closer to the poor people whose causes he wanted to champion. 

Fifth, advocating for the marginalized, the left out, the disadvantaged and the poorest of the poor was the special work of both of these prophetic teachers.

 Jesus repeatedly defied convention and took the side of marginalized persons in first-century Palestine. Religious conservatives, like the Pharisees and Torah scribes, accused him of not adhering to their standards of piety and purity. They faulted him for not rebuking a hemorrhaging woman who hoped for a miracle by touching his robe. They were scandalized that he would allow another woman – one known publicly as a “sinner” – to wash his feet and dry them with her hair. They criticized him for putting his hand on the skin of a leper he was healing, and for approaching the corpses of the dead that he raised to new life. They complained that he conversed with the demons of possessed victims, and spoke affirmingly of half-breed Samaritans. For these leaders of religious society, the problem with Jesus was that he was not clean enough; for Jesus, the problem with these self-righteous judges was that they were not compassionate enough.

Gandhi did not forget how he felt to be told that Uka was polluted and polluting, and he also remembered what he had said to defend him. When Gandhi’s voice grew larger and louder, as an adult he made his opposition to untouchability a major part of his life’s work. He campaigned to liberate the Indian people from the shackles of colonial occupation, but he also endeavored to free outcasts from the bonds of discrimination and dereliction. He accepted the wisdom that different occupations together contribute to the welfare of society, but rejected the notion that distinctions in labor should necessitate diminished wages or reduced respect. All people, he believed, were worthy of dignity [Dhirendra Mohan Datta, The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1963), 105]. Thus, he went on a 10-month journey of 12,000 miles in 1932, visiting towns and villages everywhere to preach against the evil custom that put the poorest people in a subhuman status. Moreover, when an earthquake devastated large sections of the Bihar province in 1934, Gandhi publicly proclaimed that the disaster was a “chastisement for…the sin of untouchability” [Chadra, Ibid., 232-233].   

Sixth, both Jesus and Gandhi based their assessment of the worthiness of all individuals on everyone’s inherent connection to God.

In the Gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus appeared to his distraught disciples beside the Lake of Galilee. At a campfire where he was cooking breakfast, Jesus gave instructions to Simon Peter, one of his closest followers. He said to him, “Simon, if you love me, take care of my little ones.” For Jesus, all people were his little ones. Christians should read this command to Peter not only as a first-century charge to one disciple, but also as a compassionate directive intended for every disciple throughout all of Christian history. I hear this ancient admonition as a pointed pronouncement that challenges me personally – to do everything possible to lift up the fallen and improve the status of the forgotten of society. I believe I must do this because such people – those who are physically, mentally, sexually, socially, economically, politically and religiously outside the parameters of what society considers to be normative – are God’s special “little ones” whom God loves, members of the Family of God.

Gandhi, in his crusade to create a new and better reality for the outcasts, used a different term to define them. They were not “untouchables” or “scavengers,” but “harijan” – the “children of God.” He founded an eight-page weekly, called Harijan, and through this journal disseminated his convictions about untouchability. To join in the struggle, he founded Harijan Sevak Sangh, an organization that still bears the name and continues the work begun 90 years ago. In 1933, Gandhi turned over the Sabarmati Ashram, where he had lived for almost two decades, to those beloved partners. He undertook a 21-day fast in 1943 to protest for the rights of the children of God, an ordeal he might not have survived if his friends had not secretly added fruit juice to the water he allowed himself to drink. At the core of all these acts of solidarity with the Harijan was his belief that everyone is born into this world with innate nobility. To take up their cause was his proud decision, for as Gandhi said: he was “touchable by birth, and untouchable by choice” [Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banares (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 207]. 

Seventh, a trait that characterized both Jesus and Gandhi was their acceptance of persons who followed other religious paths.

Jesus was committed to the idea that religious exclusivism did not reflect the wide, wide love of God. So, he unapologetically attended to the needs of Gentiles, as well as he cared for his own fellow Jews. He healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman, cleansed a Samaritan leper, and saved the dying servant of a Roman soldier. All of these people needed a miracle – the Canaanite, the Samaritan and the Roman. They practiced spiritual traditions other than his own, yet the compassion of Jesus was expansive and his concern for others included them. In his final public statement, as Matthew recounts it, he sent his followers out to Jews and Gentiles alike – to people of all religions and no religion – to share the gospel (“Good News”) of a Divine Presence who cares for all of God’s children.

Gandhi, too – although a Hindu by birth and choice – had an openness to the best of other spiritual traditions. In his study of the scriptures of the great world religions, he discovered that each of them offered insights to help people attain a truly religious life [Datta, Ibid., 44-45]. He explained: “Hinduism is not an exclusive religion. In it there is room for the worship of all the prophets in the world.” Asked if he were a Hindu, Gandhi replied, “Yes I am; I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew” [“Mahatma Gandhi Quotes,” Goodreads, accessed at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/361107-yes-i-am-i-am-also-a-muslim-a-christian]. 

Eighth, both Jesus and Gandhi have been identified with what is called the “Sermon on the Mount.”

New Testament scholars explain that the Sermon on the Mount, comprising three chapters of ethical material in the Gospel of Matthew, contains Jesus’ central teaching on what it means to be an authentic member of the new community that he was establishing. The “Sermon” – most certainly a compilation of moral instructions rather than one long, sustained discourse – contains some of Jesus’ most memorable and challenging thoughts.

The Sermon on the Mount was very inspiring and challenging to Gandhi. He felt that if it were truly followed, it should “revolutionize the whole of life.” He observed, however, that Christians didn’t practice what the Sermon taught – expressed in the words of Methodist Harvard professor Diana Eck as “identifying with the poor, loving one’s enemies, absorbing insults and returning love.” Thus, Gandhi admitted: “If…I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount, and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh yes, I am a Christian’…. But I can tell you that, in my humble opinion, much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.” In saying this, Gandhi condemned the behavior of the Christians he observed who didn’t practice the faith they professed [Eck, Ibid., 206].

But Jesus lived what he taught. So did Mohandas Gandhi. Both men embodied principles that opposed community disharmony and fostered interpersonal unity. 

Ninth, both men paid a terrible price for their integrity, morality and humility, because their courage and countercultural lives led to their deaths.

Jesus was martyred, the victim of jealous and corrupt religious leaders who lied to insecure and self-promoting politicians. They, in turn, conducted sham trials and sentenced this peaceful religious reformer to be crucified – the cruelest form of execution the Roman Empire had ever employed – a punishment reserved for those who dared to challenge the State.

Gandhi too was martyred, the victim of a disillusioned and angry fellow Hindu, Nathuram Godse. He, along with two other conspirators, believed the Bapu had shown favoritism to Muslims in the discussions and ultimate decisions concerning the partition of India. So, as the frail and elderly Mahatma made his way to an afternoon prayer, he paused to offer namaskar to some of the faithful who had gathered. That’s the moment, as Gandhi smiled with his hands folded in the traditional gesture of respect, that his assassin rushed forward and shot him three times at point-blank range [Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Wikipedia, accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_Mahatma_Gandhi].

Anantanand Rambachan is a Hindu emeritus professor of religion, philosophy and Asian studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He contributes to a book on Hindu-Christian dialogue by writing: “As a Hindu, I have never found it difficult to identify with the person of Jesus. The symbols and images, parables and examples used by Jesus in talking about the spiritual life do not appear, in my view, to be entirely different from those employed in the Hindu tradition. From my Hindu viewpoint he embodies the ideals and values of the authentic spiritual life” [Anantanand Rambachan, “Christian Influence on Hindu Spiritual Practices in Trinidad,” Hindu-Christian Dialogue: Perspectives and Encounters, ed. Harold Coward (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), 212-213].

I am moved by this confession of appreciation for Jesus from a Hindu scholar. In fact, I feel that I can make a very similar admission: As a Christian, I have never found it difficult to identify with the person of Mohandas Gandhi. The symbols and images, stories and examples used by Gandhi in speaking about the spiritual life do not appear, in my view, to be entirely different from those employed in the Christian tradition. From my Christian viewpoint he embodies the ideals and values of the authentic spiritual life. 

Tenth and finally, the memories of these heroes of Christian and Hindu tradition are sometimes presented quite differently today, and may be said even to be distorted.  

This is because not every Christian nor every Hindu necessarily agrees with testimonials to the authenticity of the spiritual lives of Jesus and Gandhi.

Some Christians, maybe many who claim to follow Jesus, choose to overlook the difficult, countercultural and risky actions of the Galilean. They turn his non-conventional and challenging teachings on behalf of others into a call for a personal, interior life of spirituality that is touchy-feely nice and safe. Some of them condemn other Christians who claim that the Good News Jesus embodied and imparted was about social justice. They distort his memory by making the historical Jesus into a self-help guru and the eternal God into a needy Deity who wants our praise more than our service to God’s children and the earth.

Hindu critics, some who comment on Gandhi today – join others who are not themselves Hindu – to analyze this founding father of India with less than admiration. Christopher Hitchens, for example, notes that in India, a Hindu nationalist organization called the Hindu Maha Sabha, wants to erect statues of the man who murdered Gandhi. As Gopalkrishna Gandhi, an academic, former governor of West Bengal and another of Gandhi’s grandsons, said in 2015 in the British capital at a ceremony honoring his grandfather: “The fact that London….raises a statue for him even as India has some people [who] contemplate a temple for his assassin, shows that Gandhi’s work for freedom of belief and expression succeeds in the most unbelievable ways” [Christopher Hitchens, “The Real Mahatma Gandhi: Questioning the Moral Heroism of India’s Most Revered Figure,” The Atlantic Magazine, accessed at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/ 2011/07/the-real-mahatma-gandhi/308550/].

It seems clear that we live in a time that needs to consider both “Jesus in a New Era” and “Gandhi in a New Era.” I am committed to do all that I can, through my writing and teaching, to contribute to that new (old) view of Jesus as religious and social reformer who wanted to be followed rather than worshipped. And, I am also supportive of the efforts of Harijan Sevak Sangh and others – who want to return to Gandhian means for the sake of humankind – by calling for a new (old) view of Gandhi as an imperfect man who did all that he could in his life and work in India to liberate the nation and raise the status of the untouchables of society.   

I close with a personal anecdote.

One of my beloved mentors was John Jonsson, a world religions scholar who grew up as the son of Swedish missionaries in South Africa. John was a legendary minister who stood for election to the South African Parliament as an anti-apartheid candidate. He was one of the very few whites who signed the famous Kairos Document, which originated in the Soweto townships of Johannesburg, and was a liberation declaration of rights for Blacks in South Africa.

After John barely lost his bid for election, the Afrikaner regime of Prime Minister P. W. Botha confiscated all of his properties and bank accounts, so he and his wife immigrated to the United States, where John became a theology professor. In one of his classes, a young seminarian asked him, “Dr. Johnson, do you think you will see Gandhi in heaven?” John paused but a moment, then replied, “No, I don’t think I will see Gandhi in heaven.” The exclusivist Christian student was pleased and smiled, thinking the professor had validated his opinion that only Christians would enjoy the afterlife with God. Then Johnson continued: “I won’t see Gandhi…because he will be so far ahead of me in heaven that our paths will never cross!”

I agree with John’s conclusion that Gandhi is acceptable to God because of the life of compassion and forgiveness he lived – a life that in so many ways became a reflection of Jesus’ own life.

Of course, as a Christian, I respond differently to Jesus than to Gandhi. Jesus is the one whose ethical way of being in the world has challenged and transformed my life and enabled me to be reconciled to the Divine. Yet, as I reflect upon the example of this simple Indian saint, I affirm that he truly was a “Great Soul.”

— Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary. He is the immediate past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.

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