By Esme Wynne-Tyson
Very few people know Gandhi. Most people compartmentalize Gandhi's qualities of vegetarianism, nonviolence, truth, etc. and leave it at that. Very few people realize that Gandhi was the latest and most consistent exponent from a long line of world teachers and idealistic philosophers who lived by the principles of truth (satya) and brahmacharya (celibacy). One of the earliest philosophers to expound this theory was Pythagoras. Pythagoras and his followers lived as vegetarians in Crotona (Italy) and were regarded as wonders of the western world much in the same way Gandhi was to be regarded many centuries later. This article propounds the theory that Gandhi was carrying on the work of the great philosophers of ahimsa and satya, who lived centuries before him
Rudyard Kipling’s famous line, “What do they know of England who only England know?” could well be paraphrased, “What do they know of Gandhi who only Gandhi know?” It is quite certain that the majority of people only “know Gandhi”. They are quite unaware of the long line of World-Teachers and idealistic philosophers of whose teachings Gandhi was the latest and one of the most consistent exponents.
To most people in the West he was a wise (or crafty) politician who played a leading part in ridding his country of its foreign yoke and so earned the title of the Father of the Indian Nation. They know that he was morally a good man and an ascetic who belonged to a Hindu sect which did not believe in taking life: hence his “queer” notions about diet. And there they usually leave the matter. But these inadequate, compartmental and unrelated facts do not begin to describe or explain Gandhi, the mahatma, whose teachings and whole manner of life were in the tradition of an age-old humane philosophy that I have renamed “The Philosophy of Compassion”, and which is traceable in Western history from the time of Pythagoras, the first great exponent of the way of ahimsa in the West.
It is doubtful whether Gandhi knew much about Pythagoras, or his influence on Western philosophy. He was a man of action with little time for metaphysical studies. It was the English Theosophists who brought the great Hindu work, the Bhagavad-Gita, which was to become his Bible, to his attention, and even then the only time he found in which to study and memorise it was during his morning ablutions. We find in his Autobiography: “The operation took me thirty-five minutes, fifteen minutes for the tooth-brush and twenty for the bath. The first I used to do standing in Western fashion. So on the wall opposite I stuck slips of paper on which were written the Gita verses and referred to them now and then to help my memory.”
This passage is significant in that it shows how little time he had for this sort of study, and explains why we find so few traces in his writings of the knowledge of the great Masters of thought whose tradition he so nobly upheld and whose way of life he sometimes exceeded in austerity. He led an extremely active life as lawyer, reformer and politician. Only by the integrated application of his rapier-keen legalistic mentality to the highest spiritual teachings of his countrymen was he able to gain so much of their meaning in the limited time at his disposal. Had he known more of Pythagoras and his way of life he would not, as a believer in reincarnation, have found the suggestion altogether fantastic that he might once have been this wise philosopher whose name is believed to have been a corruption of the Hindu “Pita Guru”, or Father-Teacher; just as Pythagoras believed himself previously to have been Euphorbus, the son of Panthous, since he clearly recognized his own shield that he had used as a participant in the Trojan war where he possibly lost his taste for violence.
In his day, Pythagoras and his vegetarian-humanitarian community at Crotona in Italy were regarded as wonders of the Western world, even as Gandhi was afterwards to be regarded in the East. The Sage of Samos would greatly have approved of Gandhi’s three disciplines. As the “Friend of Wisdom”, he loved truth (satya) above all things. He believed, with the priests of Isis who taught him much of his wisdom, that the aim of life for man was to outgrow his animalism, and would certainly have agreed with Gandhi that this could only be achieved by the practice of brahmacharya. The keynote of the Pythagorean life was ahimsa so that, like Gandhi, the Sage of Samos deplored and avoided flesh-eating, the exploitation of the lesser creatures and animal sacrifice. In his Metamorphoses Ovid quotes him as saying: “Alas, what wickedness to swallow flesh into our own flesh, to fatten our greedy bodies by cramming in other bodies, to have one living creature fed by the death of another.”
Complaining of Roman gluttony, Juvenal wrote in Satire XV: “What would not Pythagoras denounce, or whither would he not flee, could he see these monstrous sights - he who abstained from the flesh of all other animals as though they were human?”
If the present tendency towards flesh-eating continues to increase in India, it will be necessary for a twentieth-century Juvenal to arise to remind the inhabitants of the Pythagorean views of the Father of their nation.
Empedocles, a later follower of Pythagoras, wrote of the Golden Age referred to by his Master as being under the rule of a Goddess when “every animal was tame and familiar with men - both mammals and birds; and mutual love prevailed....nor had these happy people any War-God, nor had they any mad violence for their divinity. Nor was their monarch Zeus or Kronos or Poseidon, but Queen Kypris (the divinity of Love).”
Gandhi would have found it easy to worship this Goddess, for to him God was Love as well as Truth. In Harijan (26-9-36) he wrote: “If love or nonviolence be not the law of our being....there is no escape from a periodical recrudescence of war, each succeeding one out-doing the preceding one in ferocity.”
His way of ahimsa was also the way of the Essenes, from whom, as we now know, Jesus of Nazareth gained so much of his wisdom. This vegetarian sect which refused to take part in animal sacrifice and were so strongly pacifist that they refused even to make weapons of war, undoubtedly found a resurrector of their faith and teachings in Gandhi of the twentieth century. Above all, they saw the necessity, as he did, for the practice of brahmacharya for one who aspired to evolve to a higher species than the present “Centaur” man, half-animal, half-human - and to be delivered from the miseries of life lived in the flesh. Pliny describes them as “a solitary race and wonderful above all others on the globe; without women, renouncing all usual enjoyment, without money....From day to day they are recruited by the flocks of newcomers whom the world drives from itself, all tempest-tossed by the way of fortune. In this way, incredible to tell, the race wherein no birth ever takes place, has endured for thousands of years, so useful for recruiting their numbers is the disgust of other men with the world.” This description of a sect so like the Early Christians as to have been confused with them should be compared with Jesus’ statement, puzzling to his modern followers, that in the kingdom which he came to establish there would be no marriage nor giving in marriage.
The descriptions of the Essenic communities given by Philo Judaeus, and Josephus who was one of their students, sound like blueprints for the Gandhian ashrams in which, as those who have read Gandhi’s Autobiography know, brahmacharya as well as ahimsa was obligatory. Yet nowhere in his writings have I found any indication that Gandhi even knew of the existence of the Essences. He was inspirationally reviving and re-teaching a philosophy that has been resisted and repressed in the West since the original Christian Gospel was replaced by the State - serving and supporting Churchianity that has plagued and befuddled humanity since the reign of Constantine, when in order to gain the power and prestige of being the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Church abandoned its essential policy of nonviolence, and its congregations were no longer forbidden to bear arms in defence of the State. Since that date the gap between Churchianity and the philosophy of compassion, on which the teachings of the Essenes and the life of Jesus were based, has gradually widened. An attempt was made to bridge it by the Neoplatonists, and for a time the philosophy of Plotinus found in his famous Enneads seemed to have effected this reconciliation. In Origen and Greek Patristic Theology, W. Fairweather writes of Neoplatonism that “at the commencement of the fourth century it had become the prevailing philosophy in Christian as well as pagan circles”. As it included the wisdom of Vedanta, it might well have led to the spiritual unification of mankind. But the theologians of the victorious “Christian” church which had triumphed over its pagan rivals, continued to invent the most impossible doctrines until, by the sixth century, it became evident, even to the theology-loving Emperor Justinian, that it was impossible to reconcile the two ways of thought: religion as it had become as the result of theological tampering, and the philosophy of religion which had been able to clarify the earlier teachings. So, as the cooperation of a powerful and well-organised Church was necessary for the support of the tottering Empire, philosophy had to go. Justinian closed the doors of the Academy of Athens where, until then, it had been preserved and banished the philosophers with their sanity. Small wonder that this folly was soon followed by what is rightly known as The Dark Ages.
Some vestiges, however, of the ancient philosophy survived in the works of classical Western writers and in those books by the pagan philosophers that managed to escape their periodic burning by Church and State. One of these, although part of the fourth and final book has been lost, was Porphyry’s famous treatise on Abstinence from Animal Food. In reading this, one is constantly reminded of the words and views of Gandhi. He and Porphyry, who was the disciple of Plotinus and the editor of his Enneads, would have been in complete agreement on their view of life. Porphyry quotes Diogenes as saying: “Thieves and enemies are not found among those that feed on maize, but sycophants and tyrants are produced from those who feed on flesh”. Throughout his treatise this ardent advocate of ahimsa answers conclusively all the objections of flesh-eaters to a harmless diet, and leaves them, dialectically, “with not a leg to stand on”. This book would have enormously appealed to Gandhi and it is surely significant that it has been reprinted in translation very recently after over a century during which it has not been available to the general public, for it at once confirms and calls attention to the deepest teachings of Gandhi at a time when even his own countrymen seem in danger of forgetting them. It also shows how he has once again provided that bridge of a spiritual unification that was so earnestly sought after in the fourth century and demolished by the act of Justinian. Let us hope that it will be recognized and used by those who wish to maintain what Dr S. Radhakrishnan has called “the Idealistic View of Life”, and not be once more rejected for a lower ethic.
Gandhi and Christianity
The indifference found in the West to the Gandhian philosophy is usually excused by the argument that Gandhi was not a Christian. But, in fact, as I discovered as a result of my researches for my book, The Philosophy of Compassion, what he taught and practised was much nearer to the original gospel of Jesus Christ than anything taught and practised by the Churches that profess to be Christian.
Gandhi explained in his Autobiography that the reason why he would not call himself a Christian was that he could not accept what he rightly considered the immoral doctrine of vicarious atonement. “I do not seek redemption from the consequences of my sin”, he said to a Plymouth Brother who was trying to convert him: “I seek to be redeemed from sin itself, or rather from the very thought of sin”.
This was precisely Jesus’ way of salvation, the way of rebirth by water (total purification) and of the Spirit (gnosis, or wisdom), as he explained to Nicodemus (John 3:5). To be “saved” a Christian must follow his celibate Exemplar in thought, act and life. He must, as Paul was later to describe it, “put on the Mind of Christ”.
The doctrine of vicarious atonement, a wholly Judaic concept, was just the sort of primitive idea that Christianity was meant to replace. It was introduced by Jewish theologians, in particular the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, long after the crucifixion. Gandhi’s method of self-purification and the outgrowing of animalism was the way of Jesus Christ, as it was also that of the Essenes, the idealistic philosophers and the founders of the pre-Christian Mystery religions.
Jesus said: “Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free”. Gandhi declared that “Truth is God”, and that God is the only liberator. Gandhi was a pacifist who taught his followers the way of nonviolent resistance. Origen, the great Alexandrian Father of the Church, wrote of Jesus that he had “forbidden entirely the taking of human life”, and said: “No longer do we take the sword against any nation, nor do we learn war any more since we have become sons of peace through Jesus”.
In the present century those still calling themselves Christians have already taken part in, or given their consent to, two world wars, with the blessings of their apostate Church; yet they can consider the nonviolent Gandhi as less “Christian” than themselves!
Gandhi deplored the cruelty and violence involved in modern materia medica and advocated, instead, nature cure and spiritual healing. Jesus not only taught and practised spiritual healing, but his early followers understood this to be part of the Christian way of life, and were practising it in the time of Origen, who tells us in his book, Contra Celsum, that he had “seen many delivered from serious ailments and from mental distractions and madness, and countless other diseases which men had failed to cure” (Book III: 24). Yet the modern “Christian” churches, with the exception of the Church of Christ Scientist, insist on the cooperation of a medical service based on animal experimentation and vivisection described by Gandhi as “Black Magic”, even when they are trying to effect a cure by “faith” and “prayer”. The more logical Gandhi, referring to spiritual healing by practising the presence of strength-giving Ramanama, writes: “To claim belief in Ramanama and at the same time to run to doctors do not go hand in hand” (Truth is God, p. 31).
As a lawyer, Gandhi revered justice and therefore found it easier to believe in the doctrine of reincarnation than in the untenable idea propounded by the Christian theologians of a new soul being born with every body yet somehow achieving immortality, despite the fact that whatever has a beginning must have an end. Gandhi wrote in Truth is God: “I am a believer in previous births and rebirths”. In this he was not only in agreement with the great thinkers of the ancient Western World - Pythagoras being quoted by Ovid as saying: “Our souls are immortal, and are ever received into new homes, where they live and dwell, when they have left their previous abode” - but also with the Founder of the Christian Faith who proclaimed, “Before Abraham was, I am”; and taught man’s co-existence with God in the words: “I and my Father are one”. Nor did he rebuke his disciples when they said that his hearers believed him to be a reincarnation of some former prophet; indeed, he confirmed the doctrine by positively stating that Elisha had been reborn in John the Baptist (Matthew 17: 11-13). The “Orthodox” teaching of the Resurrection of the body on Judgment Day was an illogical concept borrowed in pre-Christian times from the Zoroastrian religion, and afterwards perpetuated by Christian theologians who preferred anything to agreement with the pagans. Augustine of Hippo complained bitterly of how this teaching was scoffed at by pagan critics who asked “whether the abortive births shall have any part in the resurrection?...They pass to deformities... misshapen members, scars and suchlike; enquiring with scoffs what forms these shall have in the resurrection. If we say they shall be taken away, then they come upon us with our doctrine that Christ arose with his wounds upon him still. But their most difficult question of all is, whose flesh shall that man’s be in the resurrection which is eaten by another man through compulsion of hunger? For it is turned into his flesh that eats it....Whether, therefore, shall he have it again that owned it at first or he that eats it and so owned it afterwards? These doubts are put into our resolutions by the scorners of our faith in the Resurrection.” It is noteworthy that the distressed Bishop did not attempt to answer these rational arguments.
As a man of law, as well as a man of God, Gandhi taught, as Jesus had done, that what a man sows he reaps, and that rebirth alone can make this harvest possible in the majority of cases.
How wonderfully Gandhi understood the Mind of Christ is seen when we compare Matthew 22:37, 38 where Jesus proclaims the great commandment of the law to be: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”, with Gandhi’s statement in Truth is God (p. 16) where he writes: “Those who would make individual search after truth as God, must go through several vows, as for instance, the vow of truth, the vow of brahmacharya (purity) - for you cannot possibly divide your love for Truth and God with anything else - the vow of nonviolence, of poverty and non-possession.”
This passage reads like a description of the life and conduct of the Founder of the Christian Faith. But in which Christian Church are these vows taught? Clergymen preach as though they were almost entirely unconcerned with the first and great commandment, especially ignoring the word “all” which shows what our first allegiance should be. Instead they concentrate on the subsequent commandment advocating love for the brother man, and give it precedence over the first. But it was no accident that both Jesus and Gandhi ranked it second in importance. Jesus told his hearers that they must love their neighbour as themselves but we do not worship ourselves, and should not become obsessed with the human self, either that of our own or of others. What is required is to meet its genuine needs and then leave it free for its real occupation of seeking and finding God. Instead of which, by concentrating on mankind to the exclusion of the wisdom and Truth which is God, we are ruining the characters of the beneficiaries of Britain’s Welfare State by spoon-feeding them with material benefits while depriving them of a spiritual philosophy of life which is incompatible with the creed of scientific materialism; while the Freudian psychologists continue to mislead them ethically and morally, especially on sexual matters. With the immense increase of promiscuity, illegitimate births and venereal disease, there is an urgent need for true sex-instruction; but no one has the courage, or is given the opportunity, to teach as Gandhi did that “the man who is wedded to Truth and worships Truth alone, proves unfaithful to her, if he applies his talents to anything else. How then can he minister to the senses? A man whose activities are wholly consecrated to the realization of Truth, which requires utter selfishness, can have no time for the selfish purpose of begetting children and running a household.... Hence one who would obey the law of ahimsa cannot marry, not to speak of gratification outside the marital bond.” (Truth is God, p. 34.)
Does not this passage clearly explain what have been considered the “hard” sayings of Jesus found in Luke 14:26 and Matthew 10:36, 37: “A man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”, together with his further proclamation: “I am the...Truth”. That this point of view was understood and accepted by the early Christians for centuries after the Ascension, is proved by the fact that Origen castrated himself to make certain of his entry into the heavenly kingdom! This was a mistaken materialization of what both Jesus and Gandhi intended to be a purely spiritual process, but at least it established proof of the fact that originally the followers of Christ understood that brahmacharya was essential to salvation. Why has no modern church dignitary arisen to teach this unpalatable but undoubtedly Christian truth to Western congregations? Does it mean that our Bishops have less moral courage than Gandhi, and prefer their present undignified arguments about “oral pills” to the risk of unpopularity? Have they failed to note that “he who would save his life must lose it” applies to Churches as surely as it does to individuals? All must be sacrificed to the Truth that Gandhi called God.
In a letter written in 1942, and quoted by C.F. Andrews in Mahatma Gandhi: His Own Story, Gandhi wrote: “I do not consider myself worthy to be mentioned in the same breath with the race of prophets...” Owing to his great humility, it is doubtful whether he ever changed this opinion. Nevertheless, inasmuch as he taught the same liberating Gospel as the greatest teachers and philosophers of the West as well as the Rishis of the East, it is impossible not to include him among their number. For, as both he and Jesus taught, it is the Truth that sets us free, and it was undoubtedly that Truth which we can now so clearly trace through the teachings of the wisest men of the human race, that Mahatma Gandhi reintroduced to a world that had done its best to forget it. This is always the sign and seal of the divine, or evolved, man: he teaches nothing new, but always advocates the age-old method whereby man can evolve to a higher species, the species that the Teachers themselves, from Pythagoras to Gandhi, have exemplified in their purified and noble lives.