Thomas Merton’s Reflections on Mahatma Gandhi – by Rasoul Sorkhabi

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi 1948 (now sixty years ago) and Thomas Merton, a renowned Trappist monk and author, was killed in a tragic accident in 1968 (forty years ago). These anniversaries are valuable opportunities to reflect on the legacies, works and teachings of these two great men of peace. Gandhi has influenced many minds and movements of the twentieth century. In this article, we review Merton’s impressions of Gandhi and how they are helpful for our century and generation as well.

Thomas Merton, born in 1915, was forty-six years junior to Gandhi. Merton spent the first two decades of his life in France, UK and USA. In 1939, he received his MA in English literature from Columbia University, and decided to become a Catholic monk. The following year, he accepted a teaching position at St Bonaventure University, a Franciscan college in southwest New York State. In 1942, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane, a Trappist (Franciscan) monastery in Kentucky, as a novice monk. Merton or Father Louis as he was later called at Gethsemane lived the rest of his life there in a quiet and contemplative life and an inspiring natural environment. He kept journals and wrote many essays and poems, and books. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948 became a best seller.

In the 1960s, Merton was attracted to Eastern religious thoughts and traditions, including Gandhi’s ideas. Merton wrote two articles about Gandhi: (1) The first entitled ‘Gandhi: The Gentle Revolutionary’ was first published in Ramparts (December 1964), a magazine founded two years earlier by Edward Michael Keating (1925-2003). This article was also included in Merton’s book The Seeds of Destruction (1964), and more recently in an anthology of Merton entitled Passion for Peace (edited by William Shannon, Crossroad, New York, 1995, and an abridged version in 2006). (2) The second article, ‘Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant’ first appeared in the January 1965 issue of Jubilee, a magazine founded in 1953 by Ed Rice (1918-2001; Merton’s friend from school days in Columbia). This article was later included as an introduction to Gandhi on Non-Violence (New Directions, New York, 1965), a selection of Gandhi’s words by Merton from a much larger, two-volume anthology Non-Violence in Peace and War (published by Navajivan, Hyderabad, 1942, 1949).

In both articles, Merton analyses Gandhi’s thought mainly from a Christian standpoint with references to Jesus’ teachings. (For instance, Merton quotes Gandhi as saying: “Jesus died in vain, if he did not teach us to regulate the whole life by eternal law of love.”) This is all understandable given Merton’s background and the fact that both Ramparts and Jubilee were Catholic intellectual magazines. Nevertheless, Merton’s underscoring of ‘Christian elements’ in Gandhian thought is significant as most of the writings about Gandhi’s life and works have been either political history or Indian religious philosophy.

In ‘Gandhi: The Gentle Revolutionary’, Merton remembers his first encounter with Gandhi in 1931 when the latter was visiting London as a representative of the Indian Congress to attend the Round Table Conference the British government was hosting to discuss the Indian issue. Merton was then a student at Oakham boarding school in Rutland, England. He was sympathetic to Gandhi’s ideals about a free India and recalls an argument he had with his school football coach who believed that Indians were primitive people and needed to be governed by the British Raj. Merton then adds that

“a dozen years after Gandhi’s visit to London there were more hideous barbarities perpetuated in Europe, with greater violence and more unmitigated fury than all that has ever attributed by the wildest imaginations to the despots of Asia. The British Empire collapsed. India attained self-rule. It did so peacefully and with dignity. Gandhi paid with his life for the ideals in which he believed.”

Merton devotes the rest of his article to the significance of Gandhi’s political thought and action. He singles out Gandhi “as a great leader, one of the noblest men of our century” because he was truly and sincerely (not opportunistically or verbally) committed to peace politics. Gandhi resented power politics as a means to empower oneself and to humiliate or wipe out the other party in the battle, and instead suggested Svad-dharma (‘religion of service’) as characterizing his political action. And Gandhi’s political action was based on a thoroughly religious understanding of being, life, love and human’s place in the world. Merton quotes Gandhi: “If love is not the law of our being, the whole of my argument fails to pieces.” Merton refers to Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha (usually translated as ‘Truth Force’) and defines it as “simply conforming one’s words to one’s inner thought.” Merton then explains that “our aims, our plans of actions, our outlook, our attitudes, our habitual response to the problems and challenges of life” more effectively than words ‘speak’ of our inner being.”

Merton also refers to Gandhi’s other formula – Ahimsa (‘nonviolence’) – and remarks that unlike the dirty, greedy politicians who wage wars in the name of catch phrases like liberation, Gandhi did not use the word Ahimsa deceitfully against the English; Gandhi really meant and intended it, and “did not think that peace and justice could be attained through violent or selfish means.” In short, Merton remarks that

“Gandhi is not above all criticism, no man is. But … he was unlike all the other world leaders of his time in that his life was marked by a wholeness and a wisdom, an integrity and a spiritual consistency.”

Merton opens his second article ‘Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant’ with the remark that the white man came to Africa, Asia, and America like a one-eyed giant, “bringing with him the characteristic split and blindness which were at once his strength, his torment, and his ruin.” Gandhi emerged against this background in world history and Asian-African geography. Merton then discusses the salient features of Gandhi’s life mission and legacy which may be outlined below:

(1) Gandhi discovered the East through the West. He was educated in England, read Tolstoy, Thoreau and the New Testament, and rediscovered many Christian values in his own Indian religions.

(2) In his rediscovery of ‘the right mind’ in Indian religions, Gandhi’s approach was not that of a bookish scholar but as a simple human in touch with the Indian people and life. Therefore, “the Indian people were awakening in him” as well.

(3) Unlike the re-awakening process of some Asian nations (for example, Japan), Gandhi did not lead the Indian mind toward intolerance, extreme nationalism or exclusive religion. He reached out for humanity, unity, love and peace both nationally and internationally.

(4) Gandhi’s life was “eminently active rather than merely contemplative.” Although Gandhi prayed, fasted and practised his religion, his spiritual life was not separate from his political life; he participated “in the life and dharma of his people;” “for him the public realm was not secular, it was sacred.”

(5) Gandhi adopted Ahimsa, non-violent methods of struggle against injustice and oppression, not out of naivety, escapism or cowardice,but out of love, caring, bravery (“a kind of bravery far different from violence”) and the wisdom that “to punish and destroy the oppressor is merely to initiate a new cycle of violence and oppression; the only real liberation is that which liberates both the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time.”

(6) Gandhi considered his Indian experience not as a limited national case but as a part and an example of a world experiment to create a new human history.

(7) Gandhi did not consider political liberty and social freedoms as end-products of his mission; Gandhi stressed (and showed by his own example) that inner freedom from selfishness and seeing “all life as one in a sacred cosmic family” are crucially important for the spiritual and social development of humans as well as the humanity.

It was for all these causes and ideals that Gandhi lived and stood, and for which gave his life in the end. Merton concludes his essay: “Gandhi’s principles are, then, extremely pertinent today, more pertinent even than they were conceived and worked out in practice in the ashrams, villages and highways of India.”

Merton’s selected texts of Gandhi in a small but rich volume, Gandhi on Non-Violence, brings out the essence of Gandhi’s doctrine and practice of ahimsa. He divides the book into five sections: (1) Principles of Non-violence; (2) Non-violence: True and false; (3) The spiritual dimensions of non-violence; (4) The political scope of nonviolence; and (5) The purity of non-violence. There are many gems in this book – words uttered by Gandhi and loved by Merton. Here are three:

“When the practice of ahimsa becomes universal, God will reign on earth as He does in heaven.”

“Man as animal is violent but as spirit is non-violent. The moment he awakes to the spirit within he cannot remain violent.”

“Non-violence is the only thing that atom bomb cannot destroy . . . Unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.”

It is true that Gandhi was influenced not only by the Bhagavad-Gita but also by other religious scriptures including the Gospels and the Qu’ran. Reading through Merton’s essays, it appears that only in Gandhi’s political life Merton finds a Christian model of non-violent struggle for world peace for the contemporary generation. This is not surprising. First because the essence of all major religions is “the law of love.” Moreover, in the political history the so-called Christian West, as Merton would have agreed, one finds less and less Jesus and more violence and more greed. Perhaps that is why, in his second article Merton writes: “What has Gandhi to do with Christianity? Everyone knows that the Orient has venerated Christ and distrusted Christians ever since the first colonisers and missionaries came from the West.”

In 1968, Merton went to Asia – his first trip ever to the East. He was to give a lecture at a monastic conference in Bangkok in December. He journeyed to India during October and November, and then went to Thailand. He was killed in a Bangkok hotel by electric shock as he stepped out of his bath and touched an un-grounded electric fan. That was 10 December 1968, twenty-seven years after Merton had entered the Gethsemane monastery, and twenty years after Gandhi had been gunned by a Hindu nationalist fanatic opposing his efforts to bring about peace between India and the new partitioned Pakistan. Today, there is an International Gandhi Peace Prize, which has been awarded annually by the Government of India since 1995, and also a Thomas Merton Award, awarded by the Thomas Merton Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, since 1972. Gandhi and Merton were brothers in soul, two great peaceful minds of the twentieth century; their legacies and messages are to inspire people of this century as well.

Rasoul Sorkhabi lives in Salt Lake City, USA.
Copyright: Rasoul Sorkhabi (2008).

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Categories: America, Spirituality & Religion


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2 Comments on “Thomas Merton’s Reflections on Mahatma Gandhi – by Rasoul Sorkhabi”

  1. May 20, 2009 at 5:51 pm #

    This essay is an excellent summary. Also in Merton’s “One-eyed Giant” intro to Gandhi is the observation that “the crisis of the West” and now growing crisis of the East is the denial of God, also termed in other words for divine including “reality.” As we face terminal issues in finance, global heating, resource depletion and mass destructive war making, sober thinking and action needed.

    I portray Gandhi in the US, UK, Canada, and India, where I have been called “the American Gandhi.”


  2. Mr Devendra Oza
    November 17, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    Merton and Gandhi were kindred souls. They would understand each other FULLY and ABUNDANTLY.


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