Today is Gandhi’s birthday. He was born in 1869, 147 years ago and two years after Canadian confederation. Environmentalist Bill McKibben has made this interesting comment about him: that he is the only great political figure of the 20th century with whom we are not “finished.” Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Roosevelt–dead and buried; but Gandhi continues to challenge us.
His name was in the news recently in regard to a recently-erected statue of him at the University of Ghana, a gift of the Indian government. Some of the students want to tear it down, on the grounds that Gandhi was a racist, that he was in his time in South Africa (1893-1914, as I recall: you can check the dates) a racist, prejudiced against black Africans and favouring his own Indian community there.
The written/printed evidence for this is undeniable. Yes, he was prejudiced, and he worked for the betterment of his own ethnic community above all. But this is not the end of the story. He went back to India, where he worked for what he called Hind Swaraj–Hind – India; swa – self; raj – rule–Indian self-rule. Interestingly, his first level of meaning for that phrase pertained to individuals ruling themselves. It makes me think of a phrase favoured by school teachers today: “self-regulation”–which is what they want the kids they are teaching to learn. Only when there was a critical mass of individuals who had actualized swaraj in their own lives, he believed, would India be ready for independence. In fact, rather than “ready,” he said “worthy” (ouch!) of independence. He was overtaken by events, and when Indian independence came, it was a tragically bloody moment, which of course demonstrated the truth of his emphasis on the need for personal self-rule. But his idealism was too much for the politicians, and Indian independence came in spite of him.
And in working for swaraj at both levels, he grew. Late in life he said “I am a Hindu and a Muslim and a Christian and a Jew.” His concern eventually transcended race, language, ethnicity and religion; he became one of the first notable global citizens. His spiritual/political growth in this regard is a good example of the pertinence of the American philosopher Ken Wilber’s marvelous aphorism: “include and transcend.” My hope is that someone will point this out to the Ghanaian students, and that they will focus on the end of his life rather than on that early and undeveloped time. As the blessèd bard says, “All’s well that ends well.”
I could say much the same thing about Thomas Merton, with whom I have been keeping company since 1972. Most people, hearing that Merton is worth reading, start, unfortunately, with his famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. And many readers quit half-way through and give up on Merton, because they don’t realize how he grew and developed after writing that best-selling book. The author of that book, although an engaging writer, was a smug, rigid, anti-ecumenical Roman Catholic with a very limited vision. He ended, however, as a transcultural and transreligious spiritual teacher, taking his place alongside the few others in this category in our time: I think especially of the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Leonard Cohen, and perhaps Desmond Tutu. He too learned how to include and transcend. He didn’t cease to be a Roman Catholic, but his Catholicism became a wide-open and generous faith: the word “catholic” originally meant “universal,” and so it was for him, especially in the last decade of his life.
Back to Gandhi, and a note to those of you living in the Vancouver area. Simon Fraser University commemorates his birth each year by giving the Thakore Award to someone who in some way exemplifies one or more of his concerns. This year the award is being given to Judy Graves, the longtime point person for homelessness for the city of Vancouver, and an outstanding humanitarian. The award ceremony will take place tomorrow, October 3, at Simon Fraser Harbour Centre, 515 West Hastings St in downtown Vancouver: rooms 1420-30, 7 – 9 pm. The sponsor, SFU’s Institute for the Humanities, asks that you register. But if you don’t read this in time to register, I would encourage you just to show up. Here’s the link.
So happy birthday, Mahatma, and may we remember you for many more birthdays, as we ourselves move on from our undeveloped selves towards maturity, forgiving ourselves as we do.