For Gandhi, Prayer Preceded Politics

Article excerpt

Last year Newt Gingrich paid a $300,000 fine for ethical lapses. Bill Clinton faces allegations of sexual misconduct and perjury. Strangely, the media seem more excited than the public. It appears that Americans are getting accustomed to the idea that, though political leaders may be personally corrupt, they can still govern.

This separation of morality and politics comes with a cost. Political debate is rarely about the moral issues of justice and peace. Instead, in a modern version of bread and circuses, we parse the Dow Jones Averages and devour crime and scandal stories.

But just when people may be ready to despair of public figures who combine personal integrity, spiritual depth and engagement for social justice, we pass an anniversary that brings to mind a remarkable life. Fifty years separate us from the death of Mohandas K. Gandhi on Jan. 30, 1948. Perhaps by re-examining this life of personal integrity, we can renew his legacy and with it the possibility of treating politics as a spiritual enterprise.

Gandhi saw the world as a place to serve God through liberating people from brutality and degradation. This vision led him to strive for truth and for the social justice and universal mercy that truth entails. His was a life of prayer, but prayer that engendered politics -- the latter being an expression of and fuel for the former.

Gandhi worked out a synthesis involving three poles: union with the divine, discipline of the self and engagement for social justice. From the time he was a young boy, he maintained the daily practice of ramanama, a mantric repetition of one of the holy names of God. In London for university studies, he became a vegetarian, the first of the many disciplines in a quest for inner purity and self-control. In South Africa as a young lawyer, he experienced apartheid and responded by stepping decisively and forever into the realm of politics.

Even as he was organizing marches and writing newspaper articles, he began to explore the themes of union with God in prayer and willful self-discipline for the advancement of a new social order. He gave the name satyagraha, "holding fast to the truth," to this evolving political theology.

Upon his return to India in 1914, Gandhi set up an ashram, a sort of school of political spirituality. Teacher and students alike worked to strip away layers of fear, anger, lust and greed -- the darker temptations of political power. They took vows of truth, celibacy, nonviolence, nonstealing, nonpossession and control of the palate.

In the struggle for Indian home rule, Gandhi stressed above all else the political necessity of spiritual tactics. Nonviolence was not just a simple necessity due to British military advantage. It was a political fundamental, a universal love that would transcend the distinctions between "good" and "bad" people. …