The teachings of Jesus Christ are deeply inspiring. His powerful message and example have led generation after generation of Christians to follow him and live by his teachings. But the path of Christ is universal, as are the lessons he offered to the world. His teachings can be followed by people of any religion or culture. The story of Mahatma Gandhi illustrates how someone who is not Christian can be inspired by Jesus.
Gandhi’s civil rights activism dated to his days as a young lawyer in South Africa, when he led campaigns to protest discrimination against the Indian population there. It was then that he coined the term satyagraha (which means “holding firm to the truth”) to describe his philosophy of non-violent resistance to injustice.
His greatest achievements began after he returned to India in 1915 at age 45 and became a leader of the movement for Indian self-rule and independence from the British Empire. At every turn, he encouraged satyagraha: using Indian goods instead of British imports, refusing to pay taxes, resigning from government jobs. Even when Gandhi and his supporters were imprisoned, even when protestors were beaten or killed by the British government, he stood firm in his principles. He refused to turn to rioting and violence to achieve his ends; he also refused to stop protesting.
In 1947, India achieved independence at last. But his campaign did not end there; he held several fasts to protest the sectarian violence that erupted in the wake of independence and partition. His efforts were brought to an end by an assassin’s bullet in 1948, when he was 78 years old.
Where did Gandhi draw the inspiration for his tireless work? Although he was a devout Hindu, one of his great inspirations was the example of Jesus Christ. Gandhi was open in his respect and admiration for Jesus, calling him “one of the great teachers of mankind.” He considered satyagraha to be perfectly in line with Christ’s ministry, as he wrote: “Jesus was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was non-violence par excellence.”
Gandhi drew deep inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, stating in a 1931 speech that “This teaching was non-retaliation, or non-resistance to evil. Of all the things I read, what remained with me forever was that Jesus came almost to give a new law… not an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but to be ready to receive two blows when only one was given, and to go two miles when you were asked to go one.”
Like Jesus, Gandhi identified himself with the poor. He dressed in a homespun loincloth and shawl and lived in a modest hut. His concern for the poor was more than symbolic; he organized rural farmers to protest unfair taxes and fasted to oppose the idea of “untouchability” in Hindu culture. Like Jesus, he “offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others.”
Unlike many fellow supporters of Indian nationalism, Gandhi envisioned India as a country open to all faiths. He was a believer in sarvadharma samabhav, or equal respect for all religions. In a 1926 letter to an American religious leader, Gandhi shared his belief that “religious unity is to be had not by a mechanical subscription to a common creed but by all respecting the creed of each.”
Just as many people find inspiration in Jesus Christ, so too do many find inspiration in Mahatma Gandhi. His birthday, October 2, is celebrated as a national holiday in India and as the International Day of Nonviolence worldwide. His philosophy of satyagraha has been adopted by many others who resist injustice, including American civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., who used non-violent resistance to protest racism and discrimination.
It might be odd to think that someone seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus should look to a non-Christian as an example. But Mahatma Gandhi’s life demonstrates that you do not have to be a Christian to follow in the path of Christ.
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