Jesus, Gandhi, and the Reason for the Season

Many years ago I acquired a lapel button around this time of year with the saying, “Jesus: The Reason for the Season.” The saying was no doubt an attempt by some anonymous person to register a critique of the commercialism that has come to surround our celebration of Christmas in the United States.  In this post I want to share some of my own musings on the Christmas event within the context of the story of our evolving Universe.  In addition, I spent the weeks between November 28 and December 20 in India, and my experiences there add to the richness of my reflections.

As human beings, our consciousness emerges within and is shaped by the various cultures that surround us as we grow.  This includes the culture and its traditions of our family of origin and/or early caregivers, who in turn were shaped by the cultures within which their own consciousness was formed.

It was through my exposure to the feminist agenda and its critique of many of the patriarchal assumptions of the dominant culture under which most of us developed that I first became aware of the need to ask questions of the culture one has inherited rather than simply accept everything as “the way things are.”

This need to ask questions of our culture for each of us has become even more significant as a result of the view of our planet, Earth, from space and the various technologies that today bring us into easy contact with people of other cultures.  We will not become “One Planet, One People” until we understand and appreciate our cultural and religious differences and the regional evolutionary histories that have led to those differences. My reflections on the Christmas story also are influenced by this critical cultural awareness.

My recent trip to India was an opportunity to experience a culture and religion vastly different from my own.  While parts of India certainly are becoming “Westernized” and secularized, there are still present many ancient cultural and religious influences. In the northern regions where religious and cultural practices associated with Hinduism are strong, many households are marked with images of Hindu gods and goddesses.

While in Delhi, I had the privilege of visiting the site where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948.  There was a bookstore and museum there, and I picked up a short pamphlet containing Gandhi’s commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, an ancient Hindu sacred text.  In the midst of the Christian season of Advent in which we prepare to celebrate at Christmas the “incarnation” of Jesus as “the Word made flesh,” I found myself reading Gandhi’s explanation of belief in the incarnation of Lord Krishna in Hinduism, his own tradition:

In Hinduism, incarnation is ascribed to one who has performed some extraordinary service of man [sic]. All embodied life is in reality an incarnation of God, but it is not usual to consider every living being an incarnation. Future generations pay this homage to one who, in his own generation, has been extraordinarily religious in his conduct. I can see nothing wrong in this procedure; it takes nothing from God’s greatness and there is no violence done to Truth. There is a Urdu saying which means, “Adam is not God but he is a spark of the Divine.” And therefore he who is the most religiously behaved has most of the divine spark in him. It is in accordance with this train of thought that Krishna enjoys, in Hinduism, the status of the most perfect incarnation (p. 8).

Gandhi, who felt that all of the world’s religions hold Truth, goes on to describe in more detail the person who is “religiously behaved” in such a way as to incarnate the “spark of the Divine” in human form.

This belief in incarnation is a testimony of man’s [sic] lofty spiritual ambition. Man is not at peace with himself till he has become like unto God. The endeavor to reach this state is the supreme, the only ambition worth having. And this is self-realization (p. 9).

Gandhi goes on to describe the person who has made this journey of self-realization:

He is the devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm, who has dedicated mind and soul to God, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action and yet remains unaffected by it, who renounces all fruit, good or bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect or disrespect, who is not puffed up by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason (p. 11).

From within this view of an “incarnated” one from his own tradition, Gandhi could also praise Jesus, whom he admired as the only prophet who preached love. Gandhi was strongly influenced in his choice of nonviolence as a strategy against the British by his reading of the “Sermon on the Mount.” Included in Gandhi’s written comments about Jesus are the following:

What does Jesus mean to me? To me, he was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had.

Jesus was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was non-violence par excellence.

So what does this exposure to Gandhi’s remarks on incarnation and Jesus prompt me to say about the Christmas celebration?

When we view the complexity and diversity that has emerged as a natural part of the evolutionary process, it becomes easy to question whether any one part of the process, any one thread of tradition, can claim exclusivity or dominance.  I see no need for exclusivity. I am interested, as Gandhi was, in the process through which we humans can grow more fully into the “spark of the Divine” which we are.

I believe Gandhi himself achieved this in an extraordinary way.  Albert Einstein said of Gandhi, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a man as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Gandhi was too humble to consider himself so extraordinary, but as Gandhi also did, I see the Jesus story as proof that the dynamic of spiritual growth and development is real, can bring God present into the world, and is needed more in our time than ever before.  For me, this is the message of Jesus, the message of Christmas. In our celebration of the Jesus story, in our gift-giving, in our daily choices to be more than our ego, we fulfill the vision of Christmas.

Gandhi, M.K. (2008) The Message of the Gita. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan Publishing House. [Twelfth Reprint]

Nazareth, P.A. (2007) Gandhi’s 0utstanding leadership. Bangalore, India: Sarvodaya International Trust. [Second (Revised) Edition]

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