Millions of people in India believe in the transmigration of souls. It is not for me to judge what measure of truth such a belief contains. It is a belief that is characteristic of more than one religion, and is not entirely foreign to that religious civilisation in which I, as a Jew, was brought up. Gandhi believed in reincarnation, and more than once he was asked by some of his followers whose reincarnation he was. Who had been, so to speak, re-embodied in him. Some regarded him as the cyclic reincarnation of Buddha; others - in the Occident - were inclined to the view that the Nazarene had reappeared in his person. I should say that both were mistaken. If one must seek a prototype of Gandhi in the distant past, I should rather see in him the reincarnation of the Indian Emperor Asoka.
My knowledge of India is very inadequate, yet I am certain that in your great country there have been, and still are today men who, in a certain sense, deserve the title “saint” more than did Gandhi. Gandhi was not a sadhu, an ascetic who goes into retreat from the tumult of social life and lives in silent retirement, in prayer and in pure, undisturbed “contemplation”, somewhere in the Himalayas. He did not follow the path of Buddha’s lonely individualism, and although the New Testament left a deep impression on him, his life was not an Imitatio Christi.
From a certain point of view, his spiritual physiognomy was more akin to the Jewish prophets than to Buddha or Jesus. His conscience revolted against that “cosmic snobbery” which places itself outside and above history, beyond the stream of social change. For saintliness too can be egoistic, devoid of responsibility, sinful. The saint who would live outside society, in a world of pure contemplation, in constant communion with transcendental truths, undisturbed by concrete sufferings of concrete human beings, by the fate of billions of fellow men, of nations, of races, arrogates to himself a privileged position, a luxury which is sinful in its essence. Though he live in state of poverty and chronic hunger like a Buddhist monk, though he be naked and barefoot and without shelter like a Franciscan in days of old - he is sinful simply by virtue of having built a huge pyramid and seated himself, with a carefree, mystical megalomania, on the sharp point of that pyramid. “Saintly” detachment from suffering - even from the most “common”, “physiological” suffering of fellow-men and fellow-creatures - is a passive form of cruelty, something tantamount to sacrilege. That sin of indifference and aloofness, Gandhi sought always to avoid; he determined to be “less holy” than he would have wished to be or that he could have been. How often he must have longed for retirement, for solitary prayer, solitary meditation, and mystical experience. However, he never indulged in this “extravagance” for any lengthy period of time - at any rate, never at the expense of what he considered his duty and his debt to India.
Buddha possessed exaltation without loving-kindness - how can I compare him to Gandhi, in whose soul loving-kindness was the foremost drive? Jesus of Nazareth (insofar as we know him) was possessed by a stream of ecstatic vagrancy, which took as its pattern the “carefree” birds of the air and the lilies of the field - how can I compare to him Gandhi, the perpetual co-sufferer and co-martyr? For Buddha, “Caesar” simply did not exist. He withdrew so far into the lonely trails of the Himalayan altitudes that he became completely unaware of him. For the Nazarene, “Caesar” was a strongly entrenched and hated reality; he therefore decided to ignore him: Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (or what Caesar claims as his due), and let him leave you in peace, so that you may be “free” to live in the invisible Kingdom of Heaven. Gandhi did not ignore Caesar. He did not seek to “bribe” him or pay him a “ransom”. His passionate aim was to destroy tyranny, to unseat Caesar from his throne - but with Gandhi’s own “un-Caesarian” weapons. Instead of being a sadhu, he became a social crusader.
I remarked earlier that if there really are reincarnations, Gandhi was more probably a reincarnation of Asoka, of that Indian Emperor who, three centuries before the Christian era, sought to embody his vision of the Kingdom of Heaven through historical realisation, in a new social creation, in legislation, in the framework of a state. That epoch in the history of India is - for me, at least - a very obscure chapter, and I do not know to what extent that sovereign-genius succeeded in clothing his dream in flesh and bones. Yet I know what Asoka aimed at: to establish a state in which there would be no contradiction between “the measure of law” and “the measure of mercy”, to use Hebrew terms, where law itself would be suffused with mercy. Upon ahimsa, upon the three-thousand-year-old ideal which sprang up in a unique form in India, upon the principle of not-killing, not-injuring, not-causing-pain, upon the idea of an all-embracing loving-kindness, he sought to build up the constitution and the mechanism of the state. And it is in this “paradoxical” way that Gandhi also set out to make his life’s journey in our generation.
The tragedy of our age - and not of our age alone - is the thick wall which we ourselves have erected between the transcendental world and the process of history, between ends and means, between what some of us experience as eternal and the everyday stream of life, between religion, ethics and aesthetics on one hand, and politics (in the broadest sense of the word), on the other hand. It is that wall which Gandhi sought to destroy. He knew, perhaps more grievously than others in our generation, that that wall cannot entirely be removed. The absolute and the relative will never be able to merge and become one. He believed however, that everyday acts and deeds can be suffused with elements of the Absolute, and that it is impossible to live and bear a world in which holiness is a sort of remote and isolated “reservation” that is beyond contact with the broad highways of life.
Such a view is not foreign to Jewish religious tradition. Despite the long chronicle of suffering and humiliation in Jewish history, we have until now triumphed through our martyrdom. For two thousand years, Jews have practised ahimsa. Some call it “passive resistance”, but in reality it has nothing to do with passivity or acquiescence. Jewish passive resistance against enemies and oppressors who were immeasurably stronger physically than we were, constituted activity in the highest degree: Self-concentration upon a truth; fixed determination not to renounce that truth, not to betray it for untruth (or what we regarded as untruth), not to capitulate even when we faced physical annihilation, the gallows, burning at the stake - all this is a far higher and more intense degree of vitality, of doing, battling and combatting, than the use of weapons and physical force.
The Jewish conception of Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctifying the Ineffable Name) signifies not merely readiness for sacrifice, for triumphant death. It is also an urge to keep life holy. Not to preserve sanctity shut away in a special tabernacle, to be opened only at intervals, and then sealed away once more, but to keep the source of sanctity always open, and let it shine forth into the everyday, penetrate the secular, imbue with its essence forces operating in history. What in Hindu religious feeling and in Gandhi`s religiosity is signified by Dharma corresponds to the code, the Shulkhan Arukh, in the Jewish way of life.
I shall not now assess to what extent Gandhi succeeded in his experiment. He had long-range vision and the patience of great faith. He planted seeds in the earth whose full fruit may perhaps be gathered generations later. But he gave the world - not only India - a demonstration of how to create a kind of “pipe-line” between the transcendental and the historical, how to fight for holy ends with means that are not in contradiction to the nature of the ends.
From the procession which yesterday followed his dead body to the shore of the sacred river, cries were heard: “Victory for Gandhi”. The people of that million-headed mass who uttered those cries knew that a few hours later only a meagre heap of ashes would be left of Gandhi’s body. Yet they believe that “somewhere” he still lives, that his spirit is indestructible, and that that spirit will still achieve great triumphs - in us, through us, for us.
Sources: GandhiServe Foundation - Mahatma Gandhi Research and Media Service (reprinted with permission)