Gandhi’s Way to God (8/1/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Most of us like to read, because it keeps our brains from atrophying. It is especially important for preachers to read, because if they don’t their sermons all start sounding the same. Books can be compared to good meals. You don’t remember everything about them—some you don’t remember at all. But just like a meal, a book becomes a part of you. You digest it, and you grow as a result of having done so. (My meals seem to be making me grow in the wrong places, but you get the idea.)
Many books can be equated with junk food. And I enjoy that type of reading, but like the potato chips and pizzas we all struggle to avoid, digesting those pulp fiction books doesn’t do a lot for our positive growth. I will even admit to reading the occasional horror type of novel—Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz—and enjoying them. But over the days I read those books, my general mood is not as good—my spirits are not as high—as when I read material with a more spiritual bent.
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In computer language the saying is GIGO—garbage, garbage out—meaning that if you put bad information into a computer you shouldn’t expect miraculous results regardless of how much money you spent on the computer. It’s the same with food. My beloved cheddar cheese and beef jerky have begun to express themselves in this spare tire starting to grow around my waste. And when I read horror novels, and watch a lot of television, and spend too much time following the news—which is even more terrifying than a Stephen King novel—well, garbage in, garbage out. My life becomes a reflection of all the junk I absorb.
So I’ve tried to read more quality books lately, slipping in some of my beloved pulp fiction only about once every fifth book. And once or twice a year a book stops me in my tracks. Maybe one book out of fifty does more than subtly become a part of me; it instead changes me. It challenges me to think in new ways, or deeper ways, usually because it manages to bring together in some cohesive form some of the thoughts bouncing around inside my head—those thoughts that seem important, but which I can’t quite tie together.
I’ve recently read such a book called The Way to God. It is a collection of writings by Mohandas Gandhi, assembled after his death, and only recently translated into English.
You know the importance I place on developing a relationship with God. That is why I preach; not to save souls, but rather to point people toward a relationship with God. This little book of Gandhi’s writings is one of only eight or ten books that have actually deepened my spirituality, and helped my relationship with God. Much of what we’ll consider this morning could be described as “heavy,” but there’s not much we can do about that. The subject of God is the most difficult subject the human mind can conceive of. But it is also the most important subject we can, and must, deal with.
We’ll begin with a brief biographical sketch of Gandhi, just to refresh our memories about the life of this great man. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in India in 1869. Gandhi is best known for helping to free the people of India from British rule through nonviolent resistance. He thus became one of the most respected spiritual and political leaders of the twentieth century. India honors him as “Father of the Nation” and as a “Mahatma,” or Great Soul.
Gandhi left India in 1888 to study law in London and returned to India in 1891 to practice. In 1893 he accepted a one year contract to do legal work in South Africa. At the time, South Africa was controlled by the British. He soon came to realize that the ethnic Indians of South Africa, even though they were British subjects, suffered discrimination. Gandhi stayed in South Africa for 21 years working to improve the rights and conditions of ethnic Indians. It was in South Africa that he developed a nonviolent method of direct social action based on spiritual principles, known as passive resistance.
In 1915 Gandhi returned to India. Within 15 years he became the leader of the Indian nationalist movement. Using the tenets of passive resistance he led the campaign for Indian independence from Britain. Gandhi was arrested many times by the British for his activities in South Africa and India. He believed that it was honorable to suffer or go to jail for a just cause. He spent a total of seven years in prison for his political activities, and often fasted as a way of impressing upon others the need to be nonviolent.
Through the efforts of Gandhi and others, India was granted independence in 1947, but partitioned in two–thus were born India and Pakistan. Rioting between Hindus and Muslims followed. Being an advocate for a united India where Hindus and Muslims could live together in peace, Gandhi began a fast at the age of 78 in order to stop the bloodshed. After five days, the opposing leaders pledged to stop the fighting, and Gandhi broke his fast. Only twelve days later he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic who opposed his program of tolerance for all creeds and religions. He died with the mention of God on his lips.
Albert Einstein eulogized Gandhi, saying, “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood.”
Gandhi truly was one the most respected and important figures of the 20th Century. I’m not going to say anything else about Gandhi as a public, political figure. To watch the movies about this great man, or to read biographical sketches, he sounds like a political figure. But he was first and foremost a religious leader. His politics were driven by his faith, and not the other way around. Everything he did in life was anchored on his devotion to God. He was a devout Hindu, who believed that people should not move from religion to religion. He believed that all the world’s great religions lead directly into the heart of God, if the heart of the person making the faith journey is sincere.
I am a Christian. I always will be. It is through the teachings of Jesus and the spiritual presence of Christ in my life that I make my faith journey. I have studied all the world’s great religions, and I appreciate them all. But I have a special affinity for Hinduism. Actually, I should say that I have a special affinity for Hindu scriptures. I don’t know much about the practice of modern Hinduism. My worship life is, and always will be, in the church. But my faith journey has been greatly enhanced by the Hindu scriptures that shaped Gandhi, particularly the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. They make spiritual sense to me, and I have no problem whatsoever incorporating their insights into my Christian faith.
Let’s move to Gandhi’s thoughts on God. Gandhi does not believe God has gender. God is not more male than female. But Gandhi uses the pronoun “he” to refer to God. This is more a result of custom and tradition than philosophy. You have probably noticed I make every effort not to use male pronouns for God, except when quoting from the Bible. I will use Gandhi’s language in this sermon. Let’s begin with the first paragraph from Gandhi’s The Way to God:
God is one, without a second. He is unfathomable, unknowable and unknown to the vast majority of mankind. He is everywhere. He sees without eyes and hears without ears. He is formless and indivisible. He is uncreated, has no father, no mother or child; and yet he allows himself to be worshipped as father, mother, wife and child. He allows himself even to be worshipped as stock and stone, although he is none of these things. He is the most elusive. He is the nearest to us, if we would but know the fact. But he is farthest from us when we do not want to realize his omnipresence.
The first thing we should notice here, and Gandhi makes a strong point of it in his book, is that Hindus do not worship multiple gods. Just like Christianity, Hinduism acknowledges that there are spiritual powers other than God, but there is only One God. Generally speaking, there is nothing in Gandhi’s description of God that runs contrary to Christian thinking, if we get past our complicated Trinitarian formulas that usually cause more confusion than insight into God’s nature. The God Gandhi describes sounds to me like the very God who moves over the face of the waters and calls creation into being in Genesis. And this God who Gandhi says is everywhere, and at the same time so very near to us, is the God of Jesus, the God in whom, according to the Apostle Paul, we live, and move, and have our being.
Gandhi agrees with traditional Christian thought when he says that God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent; or to put it in plain English, God is everywhere, all-knowing, and all powerful. Gandhi insists that God is not a person who is out there, somewhere. God is within everything, and everything is within God. God knows even our innermost thoughts. Gandhi writes, While everything around me is changing and dying, there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and recreates. This spirit is God.
Gandhi compares God to a force—the very essence of life—eternal, pure, undefiled consciousness. In attempting to explain how God relates to us, Gandhi compares God to electricity. I’ll quote Gandhi: Electricity is a powerful force. Not all can benefit from it. It can only be produced by following certain laws… [A person] can utilize it only if he can labor hard enough to acquire the knowledge of its laws. The living force which we call God can similarly be followed if we know and follow his law leading to the discovery of him in us.
And then Gandhi says something that I find of great importance. You have heard me say countless times that God is in control of what happens beyond the grave, and God has made us responsible for what happens on this side of the grave. Gandhi writes, My God does not reside above. He has to be realized on earth. He is here, within you, within me. He is everywhere. You need not think of the world beyond. If we can do our duty here, the beyond will take care of itself.
Reading Gandhi’s descriptions of God is a lot like reading the New Testament, which is not surprising since Gandhi was quite familiar with, and greatly influenced by, the New Testament. He was for the most part disappointed with Christians, in whom he saw very little of the teachings of the New Testament being lived out. But listen to some of these excerpts from Gandhi’s writing. They relate so perfectly to Christian teachings, they could be seamlessly written into the Bible.
Gandhi writes, God is life, truth and light. God is wholly good. There is no evil in him. Compare that to 1st John: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.
Gandhi writes, All the dry ethics of the world turns to dust because apart from God they are lifeless. Sounds a lot like the Apostle Paul’s words concerning the law in 2nd Corinthians: the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, [Your Father in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Gandhi writes, If any one of us refuses to bow to God’s will, he says, “So be it. My clouds will rain no less for thee. I need not force thee to accept my sway.”
Before we close I want to spend a few moments considering Gandhi’s view on the relationship between a human being and God. How is it that certain people—like Gandhi—live life in such a positive and secure relationship with God?
We’ll let Gandhi speak for himself. He writes, We may not be God, but we are of God, even as a little drop of water is of the ocean. Imagine it torn away from the ocean and flung millions of miles away. It becomes helpless, torn from its surroundings, and cannot feel the might and majesty of the ocean. But if someone could point out to it that it is the ocean, its faith would revive, it would dance with joy and the whole might and majesty of the ocean would be reflected in it.
That reminds me so much of Paul Tillich, one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 20th Century. Tillich suggests we think about God like this. Imagine that the whole universe is a giant ocean. That giant ocean is held together by God. In this analogy, God can be compared to water, or to the power that makes those molecules of water cling to one another. And we human beings are waves that arise from the ocean. We are part of the ocean. We are part of God. The waves are all different, but they all come from the same place and return to the same place. And once a wave realizes it is really a part of the ocean, it will never fear. It has always been and will always be water. What is there to fear?
It would have been wonderful to hear a conversation between Paul Tillich and Mahatma Gandhi, but to my knowledge that conversation never occurred.
I will leave you today with one of my favorite sayings of Gandhi, which I find especially meaningful in a congregation that claims “head and heart are equal partners in faith.” That is the motto of our church, which appears on our letterhead, and it is a very important idea. Churches that fail to balance head and heart end up in trouble. When they leave the “head” factor out of the equation, effectively checking their brains at the church door, we find a rejection of science, and ultimately wind up with a superstitious religion that pits it’s version of the faith against the truth—never a good idea. On the other hand, when a church loses its heart, and becomes a place of academic exercises aimed at proving it’s congregants are really too smart for ideas like God and Jesus, well, it’s no longer a church.
Gandhi says that it is the ability of a human being to balance both head and heart that makes humanity in the image of God—it is what separates us from brutish animals. I leave you with what I am bold enough to say is Gandhi’s endorsement of our congregation. He writes:
It is man’s special privilege and pride to be gifted with the faculties of head and heart both, that he is a thinking no less than a feeling animal…In man reason quickens and guides the feeling. To awaken the heart is to awaken the dormant soul, to awaken reason is to learn to discern between good and evil. Again, to awaken the heart is to awaken the dormant soul, to awaken reason is to learn to discern between good and evil. I almost wish that would fit on our church letterhead.