Understanding and responding meaningfully to universalism – Review of 1982 Film, Ghandi
Created by Jon Taylor - Sunday 24 Feb 2019
Jon Taylor
Understanding and responding meaningfully to universalism – Review of 1982 Film, Ghandi

I remember watching the 1982 version of Ghandi starring Ben Kingsley thirty years ago and not really understanding all that was going on. Watching it last week afforded great insight about how he came to hold those views and what he was aiming to achieve. This also helps to explain his claims about various religions being compatible when their respective positions about who God is and how to be reconciled with God are so different. Once it is understood what universalists are aiming towards, it is then easier to show how the system of thought falls short and how the gospel provides a certain hope, good news and assurance of salvation.
South Africa
Ghandi was a Hindu lawyer in South Africa travelling first class by train. Though he purchased his ticket, the guard was still insistent that as a coloured he couldn’t travel first class, leading Ghandi, who refused to relinquish his principles, to be thrown off the train. Ghandi later on lead a peaceful protest where train tickets were burnt, and he was prepared to take a beating in the process. He was brave in tackling racism head on and he challenged and was successful in changing the views of many, even gaining the respect of Jan Smutts.
Early on in the film, Ghandi and a vicar become friends and the vicar greatly admired Ghandi’s example of practising what he preached. However, Ghandi takes the classic stance of quoting a line from the Sermon on the Mount and thinks it can be applied to any situation in a blanket sense without considering context or what the rest of Scripture says. So, for example, ‘Turn the other cheek’ is supposed to advocate pacifism – period. This fails to consider that Jesus recognised the faith of the centurion, yet he wasn’t commanded to relinquish his responsibilities in that role. Surprisingly he doesn’t say, “Don’t judge”, as might be expected and as many people do today, to excuse themselves without referring to context, since if we think about it, there is a need to make judgements, but it is how we make those judgements. He does say more helpfully “we are all sinners and should leave the judgement to God”. Nonetheless if no judgements were made at all, there would be no justice.
Possibly the favourite argument of the universalist is to cite the golden rule of doing to others how you would want them to treat you. That principle is excellent, but in isolation, leaves God out of the equation. Ghandi says, “Love thy neighbour”, which is biblical and then, “Hindus could do with that too”. However only part of the truth is being presented. The decalogue’s first four commandments instruct us how to relate to God and the following six concern how we relate to others. The Greatest Commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Universalism tries to amalgamate, ‘loving thy neighbour’, across the board as a lowest common denominator and is content to pretend that all religious positions are equally valid so that everyone can get along.
Interestingly, Ghandi says astutely ‘If you are a minority of one, that truth is the truth.’ Or in other words, a plurality of advocates for one position doesn’t make something true. Indeed, something is either true or it isn’t. Something doesn’t become true by wanting it to be so or through visualisation. When it comes to religion however, Ghandi fudges over irreconcilable differences.
Again to his credit, Ghandi was willing to serve food and clean toilets for others. In traditional Hindu culture, cleaning public toilets was something reserved for the untouchables. He sets a great example which his wife, after a bit of soul searching, eventually comes around to, which is good. Sadly, even until very recently in some remote Indian villages, there were still a minority of Hindu wives that would cast themselves on their deceased husband’s funeral pyre. Later on in India, Ghandi called for the untouchable category to be removed.
India 1915 onwards
Interestingly and thoughtfully, Ghandi travelled India in traditional dress, not as a lawyer, almost reminiscent of a Hudson Taylor breaking down cultural barriers by dressing like a Chinese person in China. Ghandi was concerned that the British were trying to divide India by religion, colour and race. India demanded home rule and the representation of the country not by 300 statesmen assuming the views of 700,000 villages. He was successful in tackling oppression, enabling crops to be grown and impossible rent demands to be altered, meaning people in villages could actually live instead of being subjected to devastating poverty. He cleverly employed the weight of numbers to enable salt production when previously it wasn’t permitted without a licence. He achieved this by taking a long 240 mile walk to the sea and doing some do-it-yourself salt making, thereby inspiring a multitude of others to do the same. Three decades later he was a major influence in enabling India to become independent.
He described his methods carefully as not passive resistance, but active and provocative resistance. He therefore called for a ‘day of prayer and fasting’ which in reality equated to no work being carried out, no markets being run, no transport systems in operation and publishing articles in newspapers. It worked initially. What follows tragically though, is rioting and then English civilians being killed and then a disproportionate response by the British massacring 1516 innocents. Real prayer and fasting involves trust in God and bringing matters before Him that we recognise we need His help to deal with.
Many of Ghandi’s followers were incredibly brave, being willing to take beatings from the military for their cause. Ghandi says “Only an eye for an eye, makes the whole world blind”. ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ wasn’t a system of extracting the equivalent body parts, which wouldn’t help the victim, but involved some form of compensation for the victim and ensured that the perpetrator wasn’t unpunished.
Hindus and Muslims
In Hinduism, many are willing to add on extra gods from other religions. Basically Ghandi was willing for the Vedas to be read, alternating with the Quran as long as ‘God was worshipped’ and that people respect each other and get along. In Ghandi’s Temple, the Priest read from both scriptures. He famously said that he was a Muslim, Hindu, Christian and a Jew.
Calcutta had become a war zone and there were casualties on both sides. He managed to enable 5,000 Hindus and 5,000 Muslims to march in Calcutta for peace though eventually most of the Muslims went to Pakistan and the Hindus to India. Touchingly he meets a Hindu man who killed a Muslim child since a Muslim killed his child, so Ghandi instructs Him to care for a Muslim child and be sure to raise him as a Muslim.
Ghandi’s goal was peace and for everyone to get along and for oppression to cease. He challenged various forms of discrimination at many levels. His blind spot was the incompatible differences between various religions since in his view they were equally representative. He tried all his life to use human solutions to resolve spiritual problems and the problem of the sinful human condition. There wasn’t a serious examination of what those religions actually taught and whether their competing truth claims were in any way realistic. Even the basic tenets of Monotheism and Polytheism are mutually exclusive! That didn’t appear to be on Ghandi’s radar since his aims were in dealing with class discrimination, race and religious conflicts.
What is required is a serious enquiry as to who God is and how we should live in respect of that. The gospel of grace is entirely different to any other system of faith since it trusts upon God and the finished work of the Lord Jesus rather trying to save ourselves or others. We can never please God through meritorious works or the most altruistic sacrifice. Furthermore, it is an insult to what He has already accomplished. His condescension from eternity past in perfect uninterrupted fellowship within the Godhead to His incarnation and separation from the Father whilst He bore the weight of sin as a sin offering, is a free gift that cannot be earned. To try to earn that would be a grievous act of rebellion to God.
Ghandi’s fasts
Ghandi was effective in stopping conflicts by being willing to go without food for prolonged periods and to suffer himself on behalf of others. He would suffer for others as a substitute. He was also consenting to go to prison. Essentially, Ghandi was trying to be a saviour and wanted to bring peace. This exposes something about human nature. It is a human characteristic to attempt to purchase our salvation through trial or suffering to pay for our iniquities, or for those of others. (Penance and purgatory operated on the idea of paying for others to relieve their suffering before sin had been atoned for). No matter how well intentioned we may be, we cannot save ourselves or others or bring a lasting peace or bring peace with God.
The Muslim hopes that their deeds will be weighed favourably and that they will get to Paradise. The Hindu hopes for a better reincarnation. The Buddhist hopes to be released from desire. Yet there is no assurance, certainty or peace. The Universalist hopes that everyone will get on and things will get better in this life and that they will all meet up at the same place in the next life and in a better life.
Only the Lord Jesus was sinless and only He could provide Himself as a substitutionary atonement for our sins. He is the only way to be reconciled with God. He died for our sins and is the only One who could rise from the grave. Only He can forgive sins. Only He can judge the world in righteousness. Only He can provide assurance of where we are going in the next life and that is truly good news.
Sunday 24 Feb 2019