Whenever someone wants to object to the Christian belief that salvation is found in Christ alone, they bring up Mohandas Gandhi. The 20th century Indian political activist is a secular saint, and lots of non-Christians cannot conceive of the possibility that Gandhi is not in heaven. Even lots of Christians have a problem imagining heaven without the Mahatma; a recent blog post at Sojourners by Kiran Thadani included this:
As someone who did not grow up in the Christian tradition and a great-grandchild of a nonviolent activist who worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1940’s, the statement: “Gandhi’s in hell” creates a deep sadness in my spirit.
Now, that statement is problematic for me as well, but only because none of us know the eternal fate of any given individual. As a matter of principle, the thought that Gandhi might be in hell is no more disturbing than that any other individual might be.
But here’s the real point: the reason why Gandhi is the person who is always mentioned in this context is because of the myth that he was somehow “better” than the run of humanity. Unfortunately, a new biography, entitled Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, suggests that such a view needs to be laid to rest.
A review of the book by Anita Desai in the New York Review of Books offers this Gandhian view of the African residents of the Transvaal region of South Africa:
It was when the so-called Black Act was passed in 1906, forcing Indians living in the Transvaal to register, that he held meetings and urged his fellow men to burn the permits they were required to carry and found himself being marched off, as he wrote, to
“a prison intended for Kaffirs…. We could understand not being classified with the whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. It is indubitably right that the Indians should have separate cells. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.”
Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Roberts offers this:
Joseph Lelyveld has written a generally admiring book about Mohandas Gandhi, the man credited with leading India to independence from Britain in 1947. Yet “Great Soul” also obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him. Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.
A ceaseless self-promoter, Gandhi bought up the entire first edition of his first, hagiographical biography to send to people and ensure a reprint. Yet we cannot be certain that he really made all the pronouncements attributed to him, since, according to Mr. Lelyveld, Gandhi insisted that journalists file “not the words that had actually come from his mouth but a version he authorized after his sometimes heavy editing of the transcripts.”
We do know for certain that he advised the Czechs and Jews to adopt nonviolence toward the Nazis, saying that “a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees” might be enough “to melt Hitler’s heart.” (Nonviolence, in Gandhi’s view, would apparently have also worked for the Chinese against the Japanese invaders.) Starting a letter to Adolf Hitler with the words “My friend,” Gandhi egotistically asked: “Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?” He advised the Jews of Palestine to “rely on the goodwill of the Arabs” and wait for a Jewish state “till Arab opinion is ripe for it.”
Gandhi claimed that there was “an exact parallel” between the British Empire and the Third Reich, yet while the British imprisoned him in luxury in the Aga Khan’s palace for 21 months until the Japanese tide had receded in 1944, Hitler stated that he would simply have had Gandhi and his supporters shot. (Gandhi and Mussolini got on well when they met in December 1931, with the Great Soul praising the Duce’s “service to the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about a coordination between Capital and Labour, his passionate love for his people.”) During his 21 years in South Africa (1893-1914), Gandhi had not opposed the Boer War or the Zulu War of 1906—he raised a battalion of stretcher-bearers in both cases—and after his return to India during World War I he offered to be Britain’s “recruiting agent-in-chief.” Yet he was comfortable opposing the war against fascism.
None of this is to say that Gandhi was a worse human being that others ( he, like the rest of us, was a sinner who fell short of the glory of God), nor is it to denigrate his genuine accomplishments. It is to say that when someone suggests that God would be somehow unjust to refuse Gandhi entry into His Kingdom on the basis of his lack of faith in Christ, we need to respond that he was–just like us–a deeply flawed, sinful human being who is no more deserving of a place in heaven on the basis of his own righteousness than anyone else.