Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 to a nondescript family in western India, but when he died in 1948 he was one of the greatest political leaders in human history. His influence and character were so strong that, by his mid-forties, he was already being referred to by the title “Mahatma,” meaning “great soul.” During his life, he was also referred to with reverence as Ghandi-ji, or more commonly as Bapu, (“father”). Gandhi’s legacy is built on his commitment to nonviolent revolution—or satyagraha—through which he helped India obtain independence from the British Empire. His birthday is celebrated in India as Gandhi Jayanti, and worldwide as the International Day of Non-Violence.
At age thirteen, Gandhi was married by arrangement to Kastur Kapadia, age fourteen. She would remain his wife until her death sixty-one years later. Gandhi attended law school in London, England, but struggled as a trial attorney, as he found it difficult to challenge witnesses on the stand. He then moved to South Africa. For more than twenty years, Gandhi struggled there against racial and religious discrimination. He was particularly bothered by the institutional racism that seemed to accompany British control over their territories. During this time Gandhi began to call for nonviolent revolution as a means to challenge authority. His efforts in South Africa garnered him great respect and a large following.
Gandhi returned to India, at that time still a British territory, and began working directly in politics. His primary goal was a fully independent India, one without any control from British or other foreign governments. His method for achieving this goal was satyagraha, roughly meaning “nonviolent revolution.” This approach focuses on pacifism and diplomacy, escalating to non-cooperation when reason and submission do not work. After decades of struggle, intermittent imprisonments, and setbacks, as well as four failed assassination attempts, Gandhi’s goal was finally achieved in 1947, as India was granted full independence.
Gandhi’s fifth brush with an assassin was his last, when militant Hindu Nathuram Godse shot him three times in the chest in 1948. Less than six months after realizing his dream of Indian self-government, Gandhi was being mourned worldwide.
Interestingly, Gandhi, a Hindu, was heavily influenced by the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Compassion for social issues is foreign to a classical Hindu worldview, and Gandhi’s social outlook was a product of his experiences with Christians and others. Gandhi also viewed Jesus’ method of nonviolent persuasion as the epitome of satyagraha. In particular, Gandhi valued Jesus’ moral commitment to not merely conquer a culture but to convert it. This, Gandhi realized, was the only way of effecting real, lasting change: a complete transformation in thinking. Jesus’ death on the cross, in Gandhi’s view, was humanity’s greatest possible expression of satyagraha: willing suffering, self-sacrifice, and non-violence on behalf of others.
While hailed as a great moral leader and a transforming figure, Gandhi’s legacy is markedly different from that of Jesus. Gandhi’s morals were sometimes conflicted, even contradictory. For instance, while he passionately argued for non-violence, the effectiveness of those efforts depended on a ruling power sensitive to moral arguments. His calls for unqualified pacifism and submission in the face of Fascist regimes such as the Axis Powers of World War II were seen as naïve and unrealistic (see Luke 22:36). And, when evidence of the extent of the Holocaust was uncovered, Gandhi’s suggestions seemed even more unreasonable.
Also, Gandhi himself was not free from morally questionable behavior. Though the details are often misunderstood, Gandhi spent some time in his later years sharing his bed with naked young girls, including children of family members. His claimed purpose for this was to test his commitment to sexual abstinence, despite being married. This behavior was extremely controversial, even among Gandhi’s most ardent admirers. Biblically, we are told not to purposefully seek temptation (Luke 11:4), and also we are not to deprive a spouse from physical intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Like Jesus, Gandhi spoke out against violence (Matthew 26:52), greed (Luke 12:15), oppression (Luke 4:18), and hypocrisy (Matthew 23:28). Gandhi recognized the need for a leader to identify with people (Matthew 11:19) in order to truly change them (John 3:7). However, Gandhi did not fully embrace the spiritual importance of Jesus Christ. As a young man, he referred to Hinduism as a “solace”; as he aged, Gandhi said he was stuck “in the slough of despond. All about me is darkness; I am praying for light.” His morality focused on each person working out his own improvement (Ephesians 2:8–9) under a Hindu sense of karma (see Hebrews 9:27).
Gandhi’s insight that culture needs to be transformed, not merely controlled, needed to be applied all the way down to each human heart (Romans 12:2), including his own. Without the transformation of Christ, our efforts are ultimately just fumbling in darkness (Matthew 6:23; John 8:12).