A Review of ‘Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Leader’

John Dear’s Review of the new book, “Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Leader,” By Richard Deats, published by New City Press
(Hyde Park, NY, 2005, paperback, 136 pp, $12.95).
I have wanted to visit India since I was a boy. Some mystical, alluring quality attracted me to that far off land of a billion people and a hundred languages. When I encountered the life of Mahatma Gandhi, my interest in India grew. Eventually, I spent several years studying the collected works of Gandhi for my anthology, Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings, published by Orbis Books. Gandhi remains for me the most important figure of the last century. His teachings on faith-based nonviolence still offer the best hope for the world.
Earlier this year, I spent nearly a month traveling through India with Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson. We arrived two days after the horrific tsunami and watched with shame as the Bush Administration offered an initial aid package of $15 million, just as it was about to spend $50 million for his inauguration. But millions of impoverished Asians reached out to the survivors and helped prevent a cholera outbreak.
During our pilgrimage, we visited Gandhi’s ashram near Ahmedabad, the prison near Poona where he and his wife were held and she died, and the grounds of Birla House in New Delhi where he was assassinated on January 30, 1948. We also visited dozens of programs which carry on his legacy of self-determination for the poor, agrarian communes, homespun clothing, appropriate technology and grassroots movements of nonviolence. My Gandhian pilgrimage to India confirmed my desire to practice creative nonviolence, right here in the U.S.
My friend, Richard Deats, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, has published a fine new introduction to the life of Gandhi, perfect for students, parishes, and peace groups. The first half summarizes his life, while the second half offers a variety of Gandhi quotes on war, nonviolence, poverty, women and nuclear weapons.
All the basics of Gandhi are right here. If you don’t have the time to read one of the major biographies, this little book will provide the essentials. In particular, I liked the emphasis on Gandhi’s important insights into Christianity. Gandhi insisted that Jesus was perfectly nonviolent, and that we Christians are the only ones who do not recognize the radical nonviolence of Jesus.
When asked what advice he had for Christians, Gandhi replied, “First, I suggest that all Christians must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to people.” We Christians need to heed that advice today more than ever.
“My experience tells me that the Kingdom of God is within us,” Gandhi wrote, “and that we can realize it not by saying, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but by doing God’s will and work. If therefore we wait for the Kingdom to come as something coming from outside, we shall be sadly mistaken. Do you know that there are thousands of villages where people are starving and which are on the brink of ruin? If we would listen to the voice of God, I assure you we would hear God say that we are taking God’s name in vain if we do not think of the poor and help them. If you cannot render the help that they need, it is no use talking of service of God and service of the poor. Try to identify yourselves with the poor by actually helping them.”
Gandhi exemplified radical nonviolence, from his work to oppose racism in South Africa, to his movement to expel British imperialism from India, to his lifelong campaign for the abolition of untouchability, poverty, sexism and war. He urged everyone to disarm, practice nonviolence, serve the poor, and plumb the contemplative depths of the spiritual life. If we do, he insisted, we will become people of service, truth, kindness, compassion and peace.
“Nonviolence is the greatest force humanity has been endowed with,” Gandhi wrote to the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1926. “Truth is the only goal humanity has. For God is none other than Truth. But Truth cannot be and never will be reached except through nonviolence.”
“In the half century since Gandhi’s death,” Deats concludes, “powerful movements of nonviolent action for liberation have grown exponentially, including diverse movements like People Power in the Philippines, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the first Intifada in Palestine, the student-led overthrow of Milosovic in Serbia, and the peaceful overthrow of dictatorship in much of Latin America.” Gandhi’s legacy lives on in India, as I saw, and wherever good people engage in a grassroots movement for justice and peace.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima, on August 6, 2005, we especially need to heed Gandhi’s last, urgent call for nuclear disarmament. “Nonviolence is the only antidote to the atom bomb,” Gandhi wrote after Hiroshima. “There is no hope for the aching world except through the narrow and straight path of nonviolence.”
“Gandhi has left a legacy to all of us,” Deats concludes, “a vibrant faith, and a determination to experiment with Truth in every area of life, thereby fulfilling our divine potential.” May we take up Gandhi’s legacy, and join the global movement of nonviolence, justice, and disarmament.
(–This review by John Dear appears in Cistercian Studies, Spring, 2005)