How the Bible influenced Mahatma Gandhi and millions of people like me

The govt dropped ‘Abide With Me’ from tunes played by the armed forces band on Beating the Retreat. Arun Sharma highlights how the Bible influenced Mahatma Gandhi, non-Christians, even non-believers

How the Bible influenced Mahatma Gandhi and millions of people like me
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Arun Sharma

Reading through the Gospel of Matthew, one comes across the passage that moved Mahatma Gandhi and was to form the basis of his Satyagraha against the British Government. The actual verse reads:

But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat,

Let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, Go with him twain. (Matthew, 39-41)

Gandhi-ji followed this advice to the word. When demonstrators at Chauri Chaura turned violent and killed 20 policemen, he called off the non-cooperation movement against the British.

‘Let the opponent glory in our humiliation or so-called defeat,’ he wrote. ‘It is better to be charged with cowardice and weakness than to be guilty of denial of our oath and to sin against God.’ He also went on a five-day fast to atone for the violence done by his people.

In that sense, Mahatma Gandhi was also a Christian convert.

During my childhood in Mumbai, I studied for some time in a Christian school. Although mentally vulnerable at that age, none of my teachers tried to convert me to Christianity. In the building where we lived, we had quite a few Catholic families for neighbours. I remember at least two annual visits to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, more commonly known as Mount Mary Church, to attend the Bandra fair.

One of my batchmates on the postgraduate English Literature course at the university campus in Jaipur was an ordained priest named K.J. Kuruvilla. St. Xavier's School Jaipur, where he was a teacher, had sponsored his study to enhance his proficiency in English.

Visiting the teachers’ hostel in the St. Xavier's School premises where he stayed, I once met Reverend Father Wilzbacher, an American Jesuit priest of German descent. Old timers from St. Xavier's Jaipur (I am not one) still remember Father Wilzbacher, with his larger-than-life personality, who would never fail to inspire anyone who was meeting him even for the first time. His foremost concern was the future of his students which endeared him to everyone.

He had made Jaipur his home where he lived for nearly forty years till his last. One would often see him cycling to the poorer quarters of the city for charity work. It was also a lesson in selfdiscipline to see Father Wilzbacher in his study. One never saw him idle. It was also a joy to listen to him speak on whatever subject you chose to get his opinion on, whether it was democracy or ethics or the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

He, at my request, gave me a copy of the Authorised Version of the Bible. During the many discussions I had with him, however, he never talked about Christianity, let alone try to influence my views on religion. But what Father Wilzbacher did not do, the Authorised Version of the Bible given by him did. It converted me to Christianity if that is what it means to have been enchanted by the poetic beauty of its language and to be influenced by its content.

As a student of English Literature, one could not but admire its simple and lucid style. It is worth noting that the Bible does not use exclamation mark, the question mark or the quotation mark. It also uses the comma and the full stop to the minimum.

Bertrand Russell, who otherwise did not believe in the divinity of Jesus as one gathers from his essay, Why I am not a Christian, commended the style of the Bible. 'Nothing could better in style', he says in the essay How I Write, 'than the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible'. George Orwell too lavished praise on the style of the Bible. Bernard Shaw, the great iconoclast of the 20th century, used the first verse from the Gospel according to Saint John, to say, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Shaw, and the Word was Shaw’ replacing the word God with his own name, an indirect tribute to the beauty of the original verse.

Not many people are also aware that phrases like clear as crystal, still small voice, arose as one man, sweat of the brow, broken reed, lick the dust and many more we use come from the Bible.

Just as the style of the Bible refined one’s literary sensibilities, its content had a positive influence. Much of it was practical wisdom one would follow for one’s own good.

From the vast depository of sublime thought contained in its pages, it is difficult to select the best passages. However, a few memorable verses stand out in my memory. One gives a matter-of-fact advice on plain speaking while another cautions you not to bank upon mere prayers to expect any good to come your way:


• But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more cometh of evil. (Matthew, 5:37)

• Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew, 7:21)

One need not have to be a believer (I am not one) to appreciate the wisdom contained in the following passages. The first one advises on the need to be laborious and to save for the rainy day; the second one cautions against the pitfalls of accumulating unnecessary wealth and the last one dwells on the uncertainty of man’s life.

• Go to the ant, thou sluggard; Consider her ways and be wise: Which having no Guide, Overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, And gathereth her food in the harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)

• Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth Corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust Doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew, 6:19-21)

• I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, Nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9: 11)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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