Recently, on an unbearably hot July afternoon in Delhi, I found myself standing barefoot in pilgrim reverence at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). This self-proclaimed Hindu has been called one of the most Christlike men in history. When India, a Hindu-majority nation with a large Muslim population, wanted to pay its highest compliment to its most famous native son, it chose to describe him as a Christlike man. (1) Missionaries in India were greatly influenced by his example of Christlike living. They would sit at his feet, seeking to learn what it meant to live like Christ within the Indian context in order to communicate him more effectively to a Hindu and Muslim populace. (2)
Gandhi was captivated by the person and message of Christ. He spoke of the Sermon on the Mount as going "straight to my heart." (3) While Gandhi remained fundamentally a Hindu in outward things, he was more Christlike than most Christians, with his inner life more and more transformed toward Christ. In many ways Gandhi, a non-Christian, helped to Christianize unchristian Christianity, yet his influence for Christ on Hindus and Muslims was even greater. His life, outlook, and methods provoked great interest--indeed fascination--with Christ. (4)
A Peaceable and Sacrificial Approach
Gandhi challenged Christians to make love their "working force," adopting it as a total way of life, "for love is the center and soul of Christianity." (5) This advice fits with an early picture we have of Gandhi, as reported by C. F. Andrews. Andrews, a respected Scottish Anglican missionary to India, once visited Gandhi at the Phoenix Ashram in South Africa, where he found Gandhi surrounded by children, whom he loved. A baby girl belonging to a family that in India was considered untouchable was in his arms, along with a little Muslim boy who was an invalid. Gandhi's tenderness toward the smallest thing that suffered pain was part of his devout search for truth, or God. (6)
Gandhi would constantly say to Christians and missionaries, "Don't talk about it. The rose doesn't have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it forth, and people are drawn to it. Live it, and people will come to see the source of your power." (7) Because of Gandhi, a nonorganized "Christ following" arose in India, apart from the church. The leading ideas of this movement were love, service, and self-sacrifice, which created an atmosphere for understanding the Gospel.
Gandhi called his type of power "soul force" or "the power of suffering": taking suffering on oneself but never causing suffering. Normally, the Hindu doctrine of karma has little or no room for the cross. But with Gandhi's teaching that Hindus could joyously take on suffering for the sake of achieving righteous purposes, there came a new sensitivity to the cross. (8) In light of this shift, a Hindu intellectual once said, "What the missionaries have not been able to do in fifty years, Gandhi by his life, trial and incarceration has done, namely, he has turned the eyes of India toward the cross." (9)
Gandhi's humility and sacrificial nature were particularly evident in his relationships with Muslims. At the age of seventy-eight, during the riots in Calcutta between Muslims and Hindus, he chose to stay in a Muslim home in the very center of the riot district. There he welcomed the Muslim former premier, called "The Butcher" by Hindus because they believed he had incited the riots, who stayed with him. In order to stop the brutalities, Gandhi went on a fast until death. As a result, after seventy-two hours both sides came to him to guarantee the lives of the opposite community with their own lives, laying all their weapons at his feet. Later at the even greater Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi in early 1948, he drew up eight points on which all must agree, or he would fast until death. All eight points shamelessly favored the Muslims, including returning 117 mosques that had been converted into Hindu temples or residences. …