Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sermon: "Gandhi's Experiments with Truth" (Delivered 10-7-07)

[In preparation for this sermon I read The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas edited by Louis Fischer and with a preface by Eknath Easwaran. This book is a redacted version with commentary of Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of my Experiments with Truth. Bracketed numbers below refers to pages in The Essential Gandhi.]


By the year 1757, India lived under colonial rule. However, the colonial ruler was not in actuality a political nation or an occupying army. Rather, India dwelled under the rule of a corporate entity – The British East India Company. This company exercised tremendous power. It had the power to raise armies, create laws, and establish government in the form of “puppet regimes.” And while wielding this power, the British East India Company methodically transferred vast amounts of India’s material wealth into its own hands. India’s economy was raped. Natural resources were depleted. Villages were forced to grow crops for export rather than local use. These agricultural changes would eventually cause the death by starvation of 20 million Indians in the 19th century. By any historical comparison, “the fortunes made by the British were simply staggering.” [x-xi]

Under the rule of the British East India Company, there were various rebellions that attempted to drive the colonial forces out. Such insurrections were quashed mercilessly, and were punished with severe reprisals. Usually these rebellions were uncoordinated. India was a fractured nation, divided by religion and caste. British rule was accomplished easily because Indian Muslims could be turned against Indian Hindu’s. They could be manipulated into killing one another. Eventually, the rebellions grew in strength and the official military might of Great Britain was summoned in 1857 to establish official domination over their crown jewel. [xi]

And so it is with all occupations! We see this today in Iraq, with opportunists like Bechtel, Halliburton, and Blackwater seizing the fortunes of Iraq while double-dipping and getting our tax dollars to pay them to do so. In Iraq, we see a nation weakened by its inner divisions. So long as Shiites hate Sunnis and Sunnis hate Shiites and both hate the Kurds, and so long as terrorist groups see this as an opportunity to foment instability by targeting those who would try to bring unity, the occupation can continue, largely unchallenged. And, as in India 150 years earlier, the widespread consequences of occupation are disease and malnutrition for the populace at large. The human cost of occupation is staggering.

It was into such a climate that Mohandas Gandhi was born in 1869. Gandhi was born into an upper-middle caste family, was sent to be educated in law in England, and accepted a position practicing law in another part of the expansive British Empire: South Africa. Gandhi’s first day in South Africa would forever change the course of his life to follow. Arrangements had been made for Gandhi to travel in a first-class sleeper car on a train from Durban to Pretoria. However, mid-journey, he was told that he would have to go to the third class car on account of his skin color. Gandhi wrapped his arms around the armrest and it required several police officers and train agents to pry him loose. Following this event that Rosa Parks would reprise sixty years later, Gandhi spent the cold night on the station platform.

That night on the station platform would prove to be similar to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, or Martin Luther King’s kitchen table conversion, or Buddha’s enlightenment, or Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. Gandhi dedicated his life to the end of oppression for his people. Gandhi was 24, the same age that Dr. King would be when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and for the next twenty years Gandhi worked to reform South Africa.

This morning I am not going to re-tell the story of Gandhi’s life. You are probably familiar with at least some of the episodes of his amazing life. Instead, I am going to present several of Gandhi’s principles that I believe to be worthy of our consideration. My choice of Gandhi this morning coincides perfectly with a number of current events. Last Tuesday, October 2nd, was Gandhi’s Birthday, observed as a national holiday in India as “Gandhi Jayanti”, much the same way we set aside Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. The United Nations also proclaims each October 2nd to be International Non-Violence Day. Gandhi’s teachings continue to live on this week, as on the other side of the world we witness the human rights violations and atrocities in Myanmar where killings, torture, and mass detention are employed by the military dictatorship of that country to suppress pro-Democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

Gandhi’s teachings also continue to live on right here in our community as tonight our church hosts the first public meeting of Julia’s Voice, mothers and others against the war, as they mobilize to confront violence that they see as unjustifiable.

It is worthwhile to hold up the chain of the great thinkers in non-violence that influenced the world for the better part of the last two centuries. The chain begins with Unitarian Henry David Thoreau who wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” about his night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government that promoted slavery and wars of territorial expansion. Thoreau’s essay would reach Leo Tolstoy in Russia, who infused Thoreau’s teachings with spirituality. Tolstoy’s book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, was read by Gandhi in South Africa when it was among the books given to him by Christian missionaries who were trying to convert him. These teachings informed Gandhi’s own philosophy of non-violent, civil resistance which he called Satyagraha, literally, “The force which is born of truth and love.” [xxiv] Gandhi’s life would then serve as an example to Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement in our country.

Gandhi’s principle of Satyagraha can be thought synonymous to many other terms, both secular and religious: non-violence, civil disobedience, civil resistance, as well as soul-force. But it is not so important to define it, because it was a principle that was unfixed, and constantly being modified, tested, and revised. It was under-development.

Gandhi chose to title his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I love that term, “Experiments with truth.” I think this phrase would be particularly welcome to Unitarian Universalists, who see faith as something evolving. For Gandhi, the practice of Satyagraha, the force born of truth and love, was constantly evolving. For him, the task of liberating India was a form of spiritual warfare in which it was taken for granted that he would have to continuously develop, refine, and experiment with truth.

All his life, Gandhi was an experimenter. As a child, he attended a British school and was told that one of the reasons the Indian race was inferior to the Anglo race was their vegetarianism. In secret Gandhi began to eat meat during his teen years to see whether what he was told was true. [11-12]

In India Gandhi founded an Ashram, a spiritual community, committed to developing the spiritual practice of Satyagraha. People visited seeking advice. There is a story of a woman in a far-off village whose child was too fond of sweets. She decided to travel to Gandhi to have him instruct the child to stop eating sweets. Gandhi met with the woman and her son and told them to come back in several weeks. After several weeks had passed, the woman and her son returned and Gandhi told the child “stop eating so many sweets.” At this point the mother became irritated. “Why couldn’t you have just told him this week’s ago. Why did you make us travel all the way here a second time?” Gandhi replied that before he instructed the boy to give up sweets he needed to see for himself whether it was possible.

According to Eknath Easwaran, a student of Gandhi’s, two basic principles informed Gandhi’s non-violence resistance. [xxiv] The first of these principles was that oppression hurts the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Race prejudice degrades both whites and non-whites alike. Thus, knowing that the oppressor is suffering requires us to have compassion for the oppressor. And the victory we seek in ending oppression does not result in winners and losers, but rather in both sides feeling nobler at the end.

In South Africa, one of Gandhi’s major victories was in over-turning a government law that would require all Indians in South Africa to carry special identification permits. (There was, at this time, more Indians than whites living in South Africa.) Gandhi organized a series of strikes and got Indians to either refuse to register or to burn their ID cards. The jails were flooded. Indians lined up to take their turn serving jail sentences for disobeying the law. Many served jail terms sequentially, leaving jail and immediately going to the police to turn themselves in for failure to comply. Meanwhile, Gandhi organized farms and other forms of collective sharing to assist those families who struggled without income. And, perhaps most impressively, Gandhi encouraged his followers to show no ill will to those Indians who elected not to participate in the strike, who obediently registered themselves and crossed picket lines. The law only works if the people choose to abide by it.

Decades after this victory was achieved in South Africa, many of the British officials who were charged with carrying out the registration policies stayed in contact with Gandhi and treated him with respect and admiration. [98]

The second important principle underlying Gandhi’s teachings was to embrace voluntary suffering. According to Eknath Easwaran, “Gandhi discovered that reason is ultimately impotent to change the heart. Race prejudice was already causing suffering; the task of [Gandhi’s method] was to make that suffering visible. Then, sooner or later, opposition had to turn to sympathy, because deep in everyone, however hidden, is embedded an awareness of our common humanity.” [xxiv]

For Gandhi, such voluntary suffering meant accepting beatings and other acts of violence. It meant accepting imprisonment. It meant hunger fasts. And it meant giving up all manner of worldly goods.

His own willingness to take on voluntary suffering was crucial, because his non-violence resistance depended on all of his fellow citizens doing likewise. He cast off his own clothes, electing a simple homespun loincloth over dependence upon British clothing. He symbolically harvested his own salt, refusing to buy allow the British to profit from the sale of India’s resources. As he pointed out, there was no way one hundred thousand British could keep domination and rule over three-hundred million Indians unless the three-hundred million consented.

These were lessons the Civil Rights movement would emulate in order to successfully abolish Jim Crow. Non-violence, voluntary suffering, and unity in the cause. Sadly, these are also the lessons that I believe could have been used effectively to achieve victory over oppressive forces in the world today. Had the Palestinians taken the road of disciplined non-violent civil-disobedience, would the world not recognize their humanity and identify with their cause? In Myanmar we may be seeing the end of a brutal and repressive regime. In Iran, it is my hope that the progressive underground youth movement does not resort to violence in order to oppose a ruler who seems to court the apocalyptic destruction of his own country. I believe Gandhi’s teachings on non-violence are still viable today on whatever scale: local, national, or international.

Let me conclude with one last comment on the life and teachings of Gandhi. The success he had in liberating an entire nation depended upon his ability to bring together people of different faiths and classes. He frequently would say, “I am not only a Hindu; I am a Moslem, a Christian, and a Jew.” His Ashram accepted persons of all castes, including untouchables. Gandhi referred to the untouchable class as the Harijan, the favored children of God.

There is an amazing story that exemplifies Gandhi’s commitment to human unity. The story goes that he is at his simple dwelling one day, when, among the throngs who come to him for advice, there comes a Hindu man. The man explains to Gandhi that he is wracked by guilt. His son, he tells Gandhi, had been killed by a Muslim. In anger, the Hindu man went and killed a Muslim man, thus leaving the child of that man fatherless. Gandhi listened compassionately as this man confess his anger and shame. Finally he spoke and addressed the Hindu man and said, “Here is what you must do. You must find the Muslim child whose father you killed. You must raise him as your own son. But, that is not all. You must raise him to be a Muslim.”

Spending the past weeks reading Gandhi’s autobiography has been a joy, a true spiritual experience. I thank you for the gift you give me to explore and discover such inspiration. I pray that as you conduct your own experiments with truth, you discover a soul force within yourself that is born both of truth and of love.