Gandhi’s “Children of God”

John F. Clifford, an artist from St. Paul, MN, has been a frequent visitor to Syracuse. As a graduate of Notre Dame University, he had admired the life of Gandhi.

by Frank Woolever

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series on Gandhi. See the January PNL for the first article.

Of all the disagreements Mahatma Gandhi had with Hindu religious teachings, none was deeper and more resistant to change than the position of the untouchables in Indian society. The untouchables were the outcasts, the fifth of the population that did not fit the caste system of India. According to Hinduism’s reincarnation teaching at the time, the untouchables were being punished for their actions in previous lifetimes. Gandhi rejected this explanation, considering it an accretion on the original Hindu religious beliefs.

Even as a child, Gandhi challenged this notion of personal defilement by his willingness to touch an untouchable in the employ of the family household. As an adult Gandhi welcomed an untouchable family into his ashram in India, and offered to adopt the daughter of this family. Bringing other untouchables into the mainstream of his nonviolent movements brought him face to face with deep seated prejudices, even initially from his own wife. Instead of outcasts, he called the untouchables “Children of God” (“Harijans”). He even published a newspaper with that title, beginning in 1933. At great personal cost, Gandhi’s witness brought the issue into open discussion. This cut against the grain of accumulated cultural and religious tradition of centuries, but it started changing some people’s thinking.

How do Gandhi’s actions and example fit with the efforts of those working for justice and peace today? Gandhi showed great courage in his willingness to stand against irrational and entrenched prejudice and fear. Confronting prejudice and encrusted fear in today’s culture, either within ourselves or others is never easy. Simply naming them and bringing them into the light is a first step. Resistance can always be expected. Workers for peace and justice have learned to take this resistance for granted, while still being open to examine their own motives and prejudices.

In considering the untouchables in India, it might help to think about the outcasts in our own society. Who are the untouchables today? Each of us could make a different list. Newcomers, immigrants, documented and undocumented, are but a few that might be on many lists. Others might include the fear of people with disabilities, mental and developmental, that have made the term NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) commonplace. An Anglican friend of Gandhi, Charles Andrews, suggested that the race issue in our country and in England had parallels with the issue of untouchability in India (and to a lesser degree in South Africa). The stronger the hold of materialism in any society, the longer the list of outcasts will be.

Because of the need to address issues such as untouchability, Gandhi saw himself not as a politician, but as a vigorous religious reformer. It was not only the issue of the untouchables that he challenged in the Hindu religious teaching and culture, but he also openly opposed child marriages and temple prostitution. The taboo against widows remarrying was another target of Gandhi, especially since many widows were children or very young women. In his lifetime, Gandhi was seen as a champion for women’s rights in India, although his wife, Kasturba, might have questioned that opinion during their early years of marriage.

The momentum of Gandhi’s attempts to purify the Hindu religion and culture continued on after his assassination. In an article on Hinduism published in 1959 in the Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths, A. L. Basham mentions some of the developments only eleven years after Gandhi’s death. He says that the Indian government has been able to do more for the untouchables than the British colonizers, as outsiders, were ever able to attempt. Yet, it was Gandhi’s relentless attacking of these deep rooted and ancient religious and cultural prejudices that began the momentum for change. “Thus temples and shops are now open to untouchables by law,” wrote Basham, “and, though social pressure against them is still strong in some regions of India, actual prosecutions have already taken place to enforce their rights.”

Confronting religious and entrenched cultural elements earned Gandhi respect among his peers and devotion from the outcasts of society. It was his own experiments in self-discipline that allowed him to focus on spiritual issues as he perceived them. In midlife, Gandhi moved to completely dedicate himself to public service. The underlying foundation of nonviolence, Ahimsa, was the lifeblood of every movement. This dedication earned him recognition as a Mahatma (“Great Soul in beggar’s garb”), as the poet, Rabindranath Tagore, called him. Small in physical stature, Gandhi was a giant in moral and spiritual dimensions. Common Indian villagers recognized these qualities. He was their Mahatma. Others recognized them too, even those who disagreed with him. Gandhi’s attitude of love and forgiveness, his belief in truth-force, and his teaching of nonviolence have been an inspiration to peace-makers world-wide before and long after his assassination.

Frank is a longtime activist who served three months in prison in 2006 for his participation in the nonviolent protest movement to close the US military training facility formerly known as the School of the Americas.