The Eight Sins of Gandhi
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 6, 2005
Arun Gandhi is the co-founder and director of the Mohandas K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, which is based in Memphis, Tennessee. He is also the fifth grandson of India’s legendary leader, the great man known as the “Mahatma”—the “Great Soul”—father of Indian independence; crusader for non-violence and peace.
Arun Gandhi was born in 1934 in Durban, South Africa, the city where his grandfather had spent 21 years as a lawyer as a young man. Growing up under the discriminatory apartheid laws of South Africa, he was beaten by white South Africans for being “too black”, and by black South Africans for being “too white”. As a child, Arun came to believe in the “eye for an eye” form of justice: if someone picked on him, he thought, they’d get more of the same for themselves.
But then, in 1947, when he thirteen years old, Arun was sent to India to live with his grandfather for 18 months. It was, as can be imagined, an experience that would change and reshape his entire life. From his grandfather, Arun learned that justice does not mean revenge, but rather, it means transforming those who persecute through love, compassion, and suffering. His grandfather also taught him, when searching out the ways of violence in the world, to look within his own soul first, and to come to know the violence there. “If we know how much passive violence we perpetrate against one another, then we will understand why there is so much physical violence plaguing our societies and the world,” the Mahatma taught his grandson. To help him with this deeper self knowing, his grandfather had him keep an “anger journal”, Arun said. The goal was to read the journal with the intention of finding solutions to the problems it chronicled. He also encouraged Arun to practice meditation in order to focus his thoughts on how to transform his life, and he had him construct a “family tree of violence” on his bedroom wall—depicting the ways in which different forms of violence feed on one another. The tree included not only acts of physical violence, but also those of passive violence—like violent thoughts, and anger, and envy, and prejudice. Eventually, Arun said, “one whole wall was filled with acts of only passive violence.” His grandfather would help him see how passive and active violence are related, and how repeated acts of passive violence eventually erupt into active violence. “Passive violence,” Gandhi said, “fuels the fire of physical violence.”
His grandfather also taught him about the violence we practice against nature, against the world itself. Throwing away or wasting resources is a violent act, Gandhi taught. Arun Gandhi tells the story about walking home from school one day, and throwing his pencil away in the bushes. It was very small, little more than a stub, and he trusted that his grandfather would give him a new one if he asked for one. Instead, his grandfather told him to get a flashlight, and go back and find the old one he had thrown away. We must not callously waste any resources, the Mahatma taught, for to do so is to squander the treasure of life we have been given. It was a simple lesson, but one which has stayed with him throughout his life.
According to Arun Gandhi, the essence of his grandfather’s teachings might best be summed up in a list of “The Seven Sins of the World”, which Mohandas K. Gandhi originally drew up in 1925 in an article inYoung India, a magazine of which he was the editor. The “seven sins” of the world, Gandhi said, were these:
1. Wealth without work.
2. Pleasure without conscience.
3. Knowledge without character.
4. Commerce without morality.
5. Science without humanity.
6. Worship without sacrifice.
7. Politics without principles.
To these seven, Arun later added one of his own, even more pertinent in our own time, he believes: Rights without responsibilities.
These eight sins pretty much cover the waterfront as far as the ways of this world are concerned. Certainly, we don’t have to look too hard find plenty of examples of all of them. They’re not “sins” in a personal sense alone—but rather, in a wider social or collective sense. They are the practices, Gandhi taught, which keep a society from realizing its deeper purposes; which keep it from becoming whole and united, a truly beloved community.
Nor do we need to read this list as merely more evidence on the side of how messed up things are, and how far “the world”, or “society” falls from the measure of goodness. This list is not just a yardstick for measuring how much we fail, then for wrapping ourselves on the knuckles when we see that we do, indeed, fail. For to wallow in despair about our shortcomings is also an act of violence against the goodness that lies at the heart of our humanity.
We can also read this list, it seems to me, as a set of prescriptions for what we can do to turn our lives around. As we make that turn in our own lives, one at a time, then in groups, then in every widening circles of caring and compassion—that is how society will change, at last. It begins with each one of us. It’s facile to say it, so simple, maybe even trite. But there’s no escaping it, as much as we might want to shift responsibility onto everyone else, or onto some greater power or principality or force beyond ourselves. Gandhi (the elder) was a great believer in the advisability of a democratic system of government over an authoritarian one. But he also knew that no form of government could take precedence over self-government, and that it was within each individual human heart that the world would be transformed. You can have the freest, most open society in the world, but if people refuse to think for themselves, and act for themselves, and just keep on ingesting the same old tired mass thought and mass ideas and following along like lemmings off a cliff, then what good does all your freedom do you? It all still boils down to something Lao Tzu taught in the Tao Te-Ching centuries and centuries ago:
So, what do we make of Gandhi’s admonition against “Wealth without work”?
Now, I’ve got nothing against buying an occasional lottery ticket from time to time. I do it myself (especially when the jackpot goes up over fifty or a hundred million dollars); in this, I’m not alone: 58% of Americans bought at least one lottery ticket over the past year. But is there any reason why we Americans should spend 70 billion dollars on legalized gambling every year, as we do? Think of what could be accomplished with that 70 billion dollars…
It’s not the occasional lottery ticket that’s the problem. There are deeper problems that our American addiction to “getting rich quick” point toward. Especially among younger Americans, it seems, there is no longer a link drawn between “working hard” and “becoming prosperous”. Rather, we think we can have it all—right now-- and that we’re not going to have to work for it. “Why do poor Americans in the ‘red states’ support the Republican Party?” someone once asked the President’s chief advisor, Karl Rove. “Because they all think they’re going to get rich one day,” Rove responded candidly; but, of course, he offered no strategy for how this might happen. Maybe they’ll win the lottery. Or get discovered on American Idol. Or marry a millionaire.
The American Dream is dying under the delusion of these “get rich quick”, “pie in the sky”, “we can have it all” toxins which our 400 billion dollar a year advertising juggernaut is belching out at us constantly.
No, at least to a large degree, it is our work which makes us human, and it is our work which makes us wealthy—not necessarily in a strictly financial sense (which isn’t, I think, how Gandhi meant it either). But it is through labor—through bringing to birth a new creation; through our own sweat and blood and physical and mental and creative exertion—that we gain the true wealth which life offers us.
Second: Pleasure without conscience.
“Pleasure is a freedom song, but it is not freedom,” Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet. There is nothing more fleeting in all of creation than the sense of physical pleasure—and, nothing more addictive. Sensual pleasure dissipates as quickly as it comes, yet leaves us yearning for more, more, insatiably.
It is only when our pleasure points toward something deeper—something more meaningful—that it abides and blesses our lives. It is our sense of conscience—our sense of connectedness with all creation—our discernment of the motives and consequences of our actions—which leads us toward this something deeper, and redeems our with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.
Third: Knowledge without character.
Character, too, is a connector. It connects our knowledge, our abilities, and our learning—our innate talents—with all of our relations. Character connects us in service to all living things.
What is character? “Character is what you do when no one else is watching,” someone once said. Character is the total picture of each of us, of each of our deeper beings. “Thoughts become acts. Acts become habits. Habits become character. Character becomes destiny.”
“Imagination is more important than education,” Albert Einstein once said. All the book knowledge in the world can’t take the place of the wisdom that comes from our simple, heartfelt sharing of what we know with one another to accomplish the work that is before us. It is that simple sharing which sparks our imaginations. From our imaginings, together, greater visions of the future can arrive.
The fourth sin of Gandhi was commerce without morality. That could easily be a sermon unto itself!
In sailing, I have read (because I don’t sail), there are two kinds of boats. Boats which are slower, which are powered only by sail and wind, which are smaller, are referred to as “privileged vessels”. Powerboats—motor boats—larger boats—are known as “burdened vessels”. This means that, when two different boats come upon each other in the water, the larger, more powerful one—the so-called “burdened vessel” has to yield the right of way to the smaller and weaker. In the ways of sailing, the smaller and weaker boats are the “privileged” ones.
That’s certainly not the way of the world, especially where business is concerned! There the privileged ones are the ones who are already powerful and wealthy; the ones who will do all in their power to run roughshod over those who are smaller and weaker and more fragile. Look at the ways in which the CEOs and company boards of giants like Enron and World Com seized the right of way, while the “smaller vessels”—the workers, the pension holders, the small investors-- had to yield to the rich and powerful.
This is “commerce without morality”, pure and simple. A moral economic system would see the care of all people—especially the poor and marginalized and those most at risk—as its real “bottom line”.
Gandhi’s fifth sin is closely related unto these others: science without humanity.
The rate at which our technical knowledge has increased has far outstripped the growth of our ethical knowledge. Until our ethical knowledge catches us, perhaps it is time to slow down. Maybe we can’t stop the human quest for scientific knowledge. There’s something in us that needs to strive, to seek, to search and discover. But certainly, we can use common sense to make sure that, in areas like cloning and genetic engineering, we are not dabbling in areas where we have no business.
Six: Worship without sacrifice.
It occurs to me that, in this frenetic culture in which we live, the very act of taking time to worship is a sacrifice. You have all given of your hard earned time to be here this morning. You sacrifice a little of your treasure to keep this church going. I am grateful for that, and let’s take time to consider just what a counter-cultural act worship is in this mad-dash society in which we live.
But the sacrifice of worship goes deeper. When we worship, truly, we let go of ourselves to become one with the spirit of all life. We sacrifice our ego, our little self, to join the Spirit’s greater self. We sacrifice our small and comfortable visions for greater visions of new heavens and new earths.
To do any of these things genuinely—to let the spirit into our lives and into our souls—is a matter of no little challenge, and no little sacrifice.
Finally, there’s Gandhi’s seventh sin: politics without principle.
Indeed, as we look out upon the political life of our nation, we may be forgiven for asking if there is anything other than “politics without principle”. That seems to be the “default” position which politics has taken in our time. Is the opposite—politics with principle—even possible?
You bet it is. It is easy to despair of the state of politics in the modern world (especially when the side you wanted to win just lost a national election). But remember: to cling to our despair is to do violence to the gift of life we have received. To cling to our despair about our political life is to disparage the gift of freedom which has been won at so high a price by men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit throughout our history.
In the Ukraine, people marched in the streets, in temperatures which hovered near zero, for weeks on end when they felt their votes weren’t being counted.
In South Africa, when apartheid finally ended, people in the townships waited for days on end, and lined up form miles, to vote for Mandela as president.
The recent election in Iraq was a most imperfect vehicle of freedom, and the war we have fought there was, in my opinion, hideously ill-conceived. But the tears shed by people able at last to cast a fair franchise for themselves after years of tyranny cannot but affect those of us who take our freedom for granted all too often.
If we want to see politics with principle, then we need to bring our principles to our politics. We have to get involved—and let our values ring out clearly in the public square.
If we do not, then we practice Arun Gandhi’s eighth sin, which is rights without responsibilities. We become mere consumers, and no longer citizens. We become mired and stuck, in the ruts of our own narcissism and hedonism. We fiddle, and amuse ourselves to death, while “the roof, the roof, the roof [of our house] is on fire.”
Arun Gandhi once said that there was another lesson which his parents taught him early in life, That was, as one acted in the world, one could choose either to be a big rock or a little pebble. A big rock tossed into a pond might make a big splash, they said, but then it would sink to the bottom in a flash. The small pebble, though, cast upon the water, would form rings that would grow and expand and soon even stretch from shore to shore.
Arun decided early in life to be a little pebble, rather than a large stone. He decided to do what he could to help people find peace in their lives, and in our world. He decided, as his grandfather had taught years before, to be the change he wanted to see in the world.
“We are constantly being astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence,” Mahatma Gandhi said soon after the atomic bomb was dropped by the United States on Hiroshima, “But I maintain that far more undreamt-of and seemingly impossible discoveries are yet to be made in the field of non-violence.”
It took a great soul to have such great hope.
Until that hour arrives, we each have our own work of peace to do.