As human beings, we all imbibe the values of the society and civilization we grow up in, whether or not we recognise this fact in all its dimensions. This includes unsaid and implicit assumptions, the practice of how we interact with others, and a framework to view and understand the world. These factors can be said to broadly define a civilization, and are in turn a result of its history.
In essence, each of us carries with us the weight of our history and civilization. It becomes necessary at some point in our lives to examine deeply these implicit values and assumptions, and weigh them to determine what path into the future we want to take as individuals, and more broadly as a people. The question that then arises is, what is the criteria by which we should judge a civilization?
In this time, and for decades past, many fall into the error of judging a civilization merely by its technological progress. Those in India and much of the previously colonized world look up to the scientific, efficient and gleaming west. They see western civilization as the standard to which the rest of the world must be raised, out of the poverty, sickness and hunger it finds itself in. It is the image in which everyone in the world must remake themselves. They believe that their own historical errors and inadequacies have pushed them into this misery. Of course, in believing so, they inevitably deny the role that Western Europe and the United States has played in the world, and are pushed into a corner to justify Western superiority through the myths of white supremacy.
However, there is another measure for the progress of a civilization, and that is the progress of its morality. As Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi argues in his essay Non violence and Civilization, the state of each civilization can be measured by the extent to which it embraces the principles of non-violence or ‘ahimsa’.
Damodar Kosambi’s thoughts are reflected in the writings and practice of the great politician and philosopher, Martin Luther King Jr, who was responsible for awakening the African American people politically and spiritually in the civil rights and Black freedom movement. In a speech from 1949 entitled The Greatest Need of Civilization, King said,
Naturally, this link between civilization and non-violence takes us to the singular figure of the 20th century who has defined, more than any other individual, the ideas that formed the foundation for a free India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
In each epoch, humanity has given rise to figures that have acted as its moral conscience and taken it to the next step of human empathy and peace. These figures include the Christ, Mohammed, the Buddha, and in recent times, M. K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The lives of Gandhi and King can only be understood when they are seen as continuing the work of Buddha or Christ for modern times, and when they are seen as those who continue humanity’s age-old tradition of peace fighting and non-violence. Indeed, Gandhi himself said,
“Buddha would have died resisting the priesthood, if the majesty of his love had not proved to be equal to the task of bending the priesthood. Christ died on the Cross with a crown of thorns on his head defying the might of a whole empire. And if I raise resistance of a non-violent character, I simply and humbly follow in the footsteps of the great teachers.” Tying Gandhi into this tradition, King stated, “Christ showed us the way and Gandhi in India showed it could work.”
Apart from being united by their ideas, Gandhi and King are also united by historical links that contributed to their growth. In 1899 theologian and scholar Howard Thurman visited India, Burma and Sri Lanka leading a delegation on the invitation of the Indian Student Christian Movement. Thurman and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman would meet with Gandhi and engage in an extraordinary conversation about the situation of African Americans, and the potential of civil disobedience.
During their visit Gandhi is reported to have told him prophetically, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” Howard Thurman later would mentor King in his political and spiritual journey. Further, it was through a lecture by Mordecai Johnson, then president of the historically black, Howard University, that King first felt compelled to buy books on Gandhian thought.
Mordecai Johnson had earlier visited India and studied the movement of non-violent resistance to British oppression. Many others in the Black freedom movement would correspond with Gandhi, and follow the course of the Indian freedom struggle.
In their fight for peace, both Gandhi and King had to recognise and understand western colonialism and its effect on their people. It was necessary for them to combat the interruption in the movement of human civilisation towards non-violence that Western civilization had caused. Western Europe and White America held the masses all over the world in the clutches of poverty and violence. Many people make a distinction between western colonialism and western civilization, but King and Gandhi saw that they were both two sides of the same coin.
King often addressed the lack of a moral basis to western civilization. He warned of the collapse of the west if it continued on its path. In his 1967 speech titled The Three Evils of Society, he said, “Arnold Toynbee has said that some twenty-six civilization have risen upon the face of the Earth, almost all of them have descended into the junk heap of destruction. The decline and fall of these civilizations, according to Toynbee, was not caused by external invasion but by internal decay. They failed to respond creatively to the challenges impingement upon them. If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.”
He reiterated this idea throughout his life, imploring the rulers of the west to recognize their own eventual decay. In 1949 he stated, “Unless we can reestablish the moral and spiritual ends of living in personal character and social justice, our civilization will ruin itself with the misuse of its own instruments.”
Gandhi mirrored King’s analysis of the west, he would proclaim “It is my firm belief that Europe today represents not the spirit of God or Christianity but the spirit of Satan. And Satan’s successes are the greatest when he appears with the name of God on his lips. Europe is today only nominally Christian. In reality, it is worshipping Mammon.”
Recognising its moral decay, King and Gandhi sought to warn their people of the dangers of blindly following the west, unquestioning of its claims of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’. They knew that mere integration in the case of Afro America or independence in the case of India without a revolution of values would not free the masses from the yoke of Western immorality based on individualism and materialism. The method they employed was one that Christ and the Buddha had used before — a reform of the spiritual life worlds of the people, a new synthesis of ideas to show humanity the way forward.
This renewal can be seen in the practice in Martin Luther King Jr’s sermon, the Three Dimensions of a Complete Life. The sermon exemplifies one quality that both figures possessed as leaders, which is that they demanded a high moral standard from the people. They saw the oppressed as capable of great moral strength and drew upon it. They saw that every man or woman could overcome their contradictions, and develop themselves into great human beings. They also knew that if we were to build what King calls in the sermon a new Jerusalem, it would require an immense transformation of the human being. We would need to create the new man and woman, who would be complete in all three dimensions.
And so, they strove ceaselessly to pull the masses of people away from angry, unthinking, spontaneous reaction to oppression, which can be manipulated with ease by the ruling classes, towards all-encompassing, aware, intelligent and conscious, love. Being students of non-violence, they saw that descent into violence would be the antithesis of this transformation. Although western civilization has had its own radical tradition, which can be seen in the works of Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Luxemburg and others, it has lacked this concept of a transformation of the human.
King breaks down this transformation of the human being from unintelligent reaction to intelligent love in his sermon into three dimensions. The first dimension, the length of life, is love for the self. This is very different from the unthinking, decadent self-love, that is promoted to us in the media in the self-care culture today. It is a love that demands that we accept who we are and that we be proud, both in terms of each of us individually, and also in terms of the history that has created us. But it also demands that we be honest about the mistakes and limitations that we may have as individuals, and truthful about our history. This means that we must examine reality with ruthless honesty. He says we must find what is the true calling of our lives, and pursue it the best we can because we have a duty to.
The second dimension that King talks about is the breadth of life or the outward concern for the welfare of others. He asks us to rise above the narrow confines of individualism to the broader concern for all of humanity. This dimension shows us the connections of the Black Church to the Sufi traditions in Islam and the Bhakti traditions in Hinduism. What King is asking us to do is to see ourselves in others, and to realise that there is God in each of us. He compels us to ask ourselves, what would our response be if we saw God hungry, or naked or sick? How would we want others to respond, if we ourselves were hungry, or naked, or sick?
The third and final dimension is the height of life, the upward reach for God. King asks his listeners to seek a God beyond humanity. Gandhi would often use the same formalism, saying that in order to establish a new order, one must follow not just what is selfish, what is safe, what is popular, or even what is political, but one must follow the path that is right. The only way to do this, both said, was through a relentless search for the truth. Gandhi would emphasize how God in the Hindu tradition was connected deeply to truth. He said,
“The word Satya (Truth) is derived from Sat, which means ‘being’. Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. That is why Sat or Truth is perhaps the most important name of God. In fact it is more correct to say that Truth is God, than to say that God is Truth. But as we cannot do without a ruler or a general, such names of God as ‘King of Kings’ or ‘The Almighty’ are and will remain generally current. On deeper thinking, however, it will be realized, that Sat or Satya is the only correct and fully significant name for God. And where there is Truth, there also is knowledge which is true. Where there is no Truth, there can be no true knowledge. That is why the word Chit or knowledge is associated with the name of God. And where there is true knowledge, there is always bliss (Ananda). There sorrow has no place. And even as Truth is eternal, so is the bliss derived from it. Hence we know God as Sat-chit-ananda, One who combines in Himself Truth, Knowledge and Bliss. Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life. When once this stage in the pilgrim’s progress is reached, all other rules of correct living will come without effort, and obedience to them will be instinctive. But without Truth it is impossible to observe any principles or rules in life.”
And so, to Gandhi, as it was to King, God was about the pursuit of Truth. It was through this search for the truth that the transformation of the human being would be initiated. Truth-seeking involved tapas — self-suffering. There was no place in it for self-interest, cowardice, or for defeat.
Religion in all its forms has many contradictions, and the aims of truth-seekers and organised religion have seldom been aligned. It is no surprise then that both Gandhi and King had to work tirelessly to reform Hinduism and Christianity, sometimes having to work against the religious institutions that should have been their closest allies. Perhaps since the Buddha, Gandhi was the most significant reformer of Hinduism. He reformed Hinduism to emphasise adherence to the truth, the principles of compassion, non-violence and selflessness, and abolish the practice of untouchability. From under the ruins of that colonialism had left it in, he attempted to re-established the spiritual basis of Indian civilization. Defining Hinduism he said,
“If I were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say: Search after Truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe even in God and still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit after Truth and if today it has become moribund, inactive, unresponsive to growth, it is because we are fatigued and as soon as the fatigue is over Hinduism will burst forth upon the world with a brilliance perhaps unknown before. Hinduism is the most tolerant of all religions. Its creed is all embracing.”
In India, it has become the norm in these times to either defend the Hindu tradition interpreted as static and codified or to condemn it as reactionary and counter progressive. Gandhi did neither. He saw the Hindu religion as a part of the spiritual life worlds of the people, but also saw the contradictions that it harboured. He attempted to release it from its moribund state and to revive it as a weapon of the oppressed.
Both Howard Thurman and King were rooted in the Black church. The great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois noted in his seminal work The Philadelphia Negro that the Black church predated the Black family on American soil. The Black church, Du Bois had said, was everything African. It represented the best of the African American people’s life worlds, who had created great beauty in music, art, literature, philosophy and community institutions out of the oppression they were subjected to. It was a synthesis of the African traditions the slaves had carried with them, and their experiences of oppression and resistance during slavery in America. The Black church for the most part, however, existed in horrific segregation within organized Christianity, which defended the very system of racism that King was fighting.
To address this, he wrote an imagined letter from the Apostle Paul to American Christians. In this letter, Paul speaks to American Christians about their allegiance to man-made systems rather than to the Truth. Paul says, through the words of King,
“…although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”
“You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” and “Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind,” you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America.”
King saw the great historical role and potential of the Black church and sought to bring it to a higher state of truth through the methods of non-violence and Satyagraha. He renewed the Black church and acted as the moral conscience of Christianity at large when he studied the method of Gandhi and applied it in the context of Black America. In a way, this renewal was a new synthesis of African American and Indian spiritual resources, a new and higher expression of man’s search for meaning and the truth.
In this time of moral, spiritual and economic crisis, we need to look again at these humanity old movements for peace. In the midst of nihilism and pessimism, we need to seek a way to renew our commitment to truth and humanity. The need today is for a new synthesis of ideas and morals that can revive people all over the world, strengthening them for the political and spiritual struggle that lies ahead. This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, and a year-long campaign in Philadelphia is celebrating his life and ideas through symposiums and cultural celebrations. The Year of Gandhi aims to carry out political education on the Indian anti-colonial struggle and Black freedom movement, and the deep historical legacy that ties us all in a single garment of destiny.