In 1891, when he moved to 52 St. Stephen's Gardens, Bayswater, Gandhi started a new local branch of the Vegetarian Society, serving as its secretary; his friend and roommate, Dr. Josiah Oldfield, editor of The Vegetarian, agreed to preside over all meetings of their West London Food Resource Society.

"Good Christian" that Dr. Oldfield was, he tried to convert his young Indian

friend to the Anglican faith, urging him to read the Bible. Gandhi found the Old Testament much less appealing than the New, attracted on the first reading to the Sermon on the Mount, which "went straight to my heart." He thus received scriptural validation for nonviolence from Christian sources even before reading much about it in India's literature.

Two vegetarian bachelor "brothers" who had been studying the Hindu "Bhagavad Gita" (Song of the Blessed One), using Edwin Arnold's poetic rendition, "The Song Celestial," invited Gandhi to read and translate the original Sanskrit version of that epic poem with them. Edwin Arnold would later agree to serve as vice-president of Gandhi's Bayswater Food Society, and Mohan found his "Light of Asia," a life of the Buddha, just as compelling as his work on the "Gita."

The unnamed bachelor "brothers" were both Theosophists, and they tried to convert Gandhi to that esoteric sect. At one point they brought him to Blavatsky Lodge in London, where he met the mysterious founder of Theosophy, Madame Helena Blavatsky, then mortally ill. Her "Key to Theosophy," Gandhi recalled, "stimulated in me the desire to read books on Hinduism and disabused me of the notion fostered by the missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition." At London's Theosophical Society he first met Madame's recent convert, her most brilliant disciple, Anne Besant.

Annie had gained notoriety, long before meeting Madame Blavatsky, as atheist Charles Bradlaugh's lover, helping him lift a ban imposed on a book advocating birth control, leading the first women's strike (of matchmakers) in London, joining George Bernard Shaw's Fabian Socialist Society, and campaigning as vigorously for Irish Home Rule as she later would for Indian Home Rule. She was

to be the first woman, and the only Englishwoman, ever elected to preside over India's National Congress.

Annie tried her eloquent best to lure Mohandas into Theosophy, as she would later convert Motilal Nehru and his only son, Jawaharlal, but Gandhi remained impervious to all her allures, as he was to Dr. Oldfield's attempts to bring him "up" to Christ. "It was only after I came in contact with...Christians, that I resolved...I should be termed a Hindu," he later reflected.

Shamed by his new-found Theosophist friends into studying the "Gita," Gandhi viewed it through the lens of his prior reading of the Sermon on the Mount, resolving to try to reconcile Hinduism's misnamed "New Testament" with the message of his favorite Christian sermon. A singular challenge! He read again Hindu Lord Krishna's teaching to the noble warrior Arjuna, who lost courage facing his own guru and cousins just before an epic battle. Krishna instructed Arjuna to fight and kill without fear or malice, dispassionately, as a true warrior's sacred caste "duty."

The "Gita's" key message of "disinterested action" (karma yoga) was most effectively used by revolutionary nationalists like Bal Gangadhar tilak to provide ideological validation to young Indian assassins, who later gunned down or bombed British officials, even as it helped to inspire Gandhi's own assassin, Nathuram Godse. Krishna was the most popular earthly emanation of Lord Vishnu, Hinduism's powerful solar deity.

Gandhi's amazingly inventive reading of the "Gita," which allowed his syncretic mind to reconcile its potent advocacy of violence with Jesus' message to turn the other cheek to "whomsoever shall smite thee," was to argue that the

epic "Mahabharata's" "field of battle" around old Delhi was really a struggle between good and evil in the field of man's "soul."

Rather than convert himself to the idealistic Christian faith he loved and admired, to which his sensitive spirit so strongly resonated, Gandhi thus tried to reinterpret Hinduism's most famous philosophic justification for murder into a paean of Christian passivity. Like ancient Hindu logicians, he sought to reconcile those opposites and hoped by the sweet optimism of his analysis to disarm his staunchest opponents, whether British, Muslim, or Hindu. Ironically, his method was to prove most effective against Christians and least acceptable to a fanatical fringe of Brahmans of his own faith.

By the start of his third year in London, Gandhi had grown so interested in Christianity's good works that he took a visiting Indian poet, Narayan Hemchandra, with him to meet Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, whose personal intervention had been instrumental in settling the crippling London dock strike of 1889. Manning, then over eighty, greeted the young visitors at his residence. "I do not want to take up your time," Gandhi told him. "I heard a lot about you and I felt I should come and thank you for the good work you have done with the strikers." "I am glad you have come," the Cardinal replied. "I hope your stay in London will agree with you.... God bless you."

Perhaps it was Manning's energetic example of strike intervention that inspired Gandhi later to take such pains in resolving a number of important labor disputes and helping to organize India's first trade unions. Personal contact with such socially conscious leading Christians at any rate helped him to

appreciate the commitment to Britain's impoverished workers and may have contributed to the evolution of, if not directly inspiring, Gandhian Socialism, which he named Sarvodaya, "The Uplift of All."

Perhaps the greatest gulf between Gandhi and Nehru was to emerge over different forms of social action that appealed most powerfully to each man: Gandhi's inspired by early Christian and ancient rural Hindu ideals of love and communal sharing; Nehru's by Marxist-Leninist concepts of inevitable class conflict and violence, leading to victory by the proletariat.

During his last years in London, Gandhi also met industrialist Arnold Hills, whose editorials in The Vegetarian had inspired him to appreciate the Christian spiritual connections of the common faith in vegetarianism. Hills, like William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and John Ruskin, was a vigorous Victorian critic of the monstrous horrors of modernity's urban industrial pollution and human degeneration. His work and words inspired Gandhi to seek a simpler, more truthful ethos for India and all of humankind. "When he who is impure has learned to loathe the sensual sins which war against the soul, when he has learned to love that heavenly chastity which is a sign and seal of God's abiding presence," wrote Hills, "then for him the process of salvation has begun--for in the body he has begun to know God."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad