Gandhi—Man of the sacred and secular, East and West

Bronze status of Mahatma Gandhi in Westminster, London's Parliament Square. Photo: Iviolet/Shutterstock
Published May 22, 2018

My first awareness of India probably came to me when, as a child, I heard and then read from the famous works of Englishman Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936). His children’s tales included The Jungle Book, and later, poetry like Mandalay. These were writings from an era when Great Britain stood at the height of empire. A favourite was The Ballad of East and West, which portrayed parallel military bravery and prowess, and concluded with the famous lines:

“Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face,

Though they come from the ends of the earth! ”


Hardly would Kipling know during his lifetime that, emerging from the soil of colonial India, was an opposing native force for human good in the person of Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948). A true opposite to Kipling, Gandhi succeeded in leading his fellow-Indians to self-rule (Swaraj) from imperial Britain in 1947. This historic event occurred not through force of arms, but by virtue of a politics informed by a brilliant integration of Eastern and Western thought: ethics and duty, economic prosperity, democracy and the fulfillment of basic human pleasure through the pursuit of spiritual transcendence—a blend of the sacred and secular.

Gandhi was trained and experienced in both Western law and politics. He had studied and worked in England and South Africa before returning to India, and was able to communicate clearly using Western and Eastern mindsets. What has always impressed me about Gandhi was his ability to challenge his colonial rivals on their own highest values. He forced them to see their lack of integrity.

Pax Gandhiana is a political and spiritual philosophy that focuses on the discipline of self and community. It is a revolutionary, non-violent way (Satyagraha) of securing human rights against an oppressive regime. Making politics, ethics and spirituality work together meant that Gandhi had to take seriously the violence and evils that lurk in the self and in society. In that, he was a pragmatist, well aware of human nature. His views evolved over time.

Pax Gandhiana is also the title of a newly published book by a long-time colleague and friend, Anthony Parel. He was born, raised and received his early theological education in Kerala State, India. Like Gandhi, he extended that Indian education into the study of political science in Europe, graduating with a doctorate from Harvard. Parel then spent more than 50 years of his life influencing many as a professor at the University of Calgary.

Parel’s new book represents lifelong reflections on the Mahatma, summarizing decades of reading, lecturing and writing about Gandhi’s hope-filled goal of creating a truly peaceful political order—not utopian—but until now,  unsuccessfully achieved.

Much of what has transpired in Indian politics since his death would have disillusioned Gandhi. Still, India remains the world’s largest democracy and exemplifies an intriguing blend of traditional and modern global culture.

Much more could be written, but not in this column. For me, what stands out about Gandhi, was his conviction of the possibility of a modern secular state indebted to traditional spiritual values. That is something Canadians need to think about.




  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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