[Vision2020] Repost: Happy 137th Birthday, Gandhi!

Nick Gier ngier at uidaho.edu
Fri Sep 29 22:20:48 PDT 2006

Once again Adelphia or FirstStep failed to post my post.  At least it did 
not appear in my Adelphia in-box.  Apologies if you saw this the first time.


I'll be in Boise for four days, so I'm again posting my radio commentary 
Gandhi's BD is on Oct. 2.

Nick Gier


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as the Mahatma, would have been 137
years old on October 2. I would like to take the occasion of his birthday to
reflect on what it means to be a saint. The title Mahatma means "great soul,"
and I would like to suggest that a great person need not be morally perfect.

Philosopher Susan Wolf has defined a saint as one "whose every action is as
morally good as possible," but she finds that moral perfection alone does 
make a
normal life or an especially rich one. She finds this conclusion disturbing
because we have always been told to be as morally perfect as we can be.

In his response to Wolf, fellow philosopher Robert Adams claims that she has
made moral perfection too central to the life of the saint. Adams says that
"saintliness is not perfectionism," and if we look at the lives of our saints
will indeed find a few moral flaws. Even Jesus said that "no one is good 
but God
alone" (Mark 10.18), and the Buddha begged his disciples not to deify him.

Adams also criticizes Wolf for viewing the saints apart from their religious
lives, and the transformative role that God allegedly has had on these 
persons. Religious saints have sacrificed everything because they have faith
that God will provide not only for them but also for their great projects.

The achievements of Gandhi and other saints appear to go far beyond the
resources of their respective background and character.  Like the prophets of
old they were very unlikely and somewhat reluctant political and spiritual
leaders.  Many attributed their success to divine grace, and this presumably
explains why they were able to exhibit great love and compassion while still
remaining flawed human beings.

To be fair to Professor Wolf, she does offer a broader vision of the saint by
adding the qualities "personal bearing, creativity, and sense of style" as
necessary to the saintly life. These qualities could be summed up by the word
"charisma," so I propose that we should look for moral charisma in our saints.

The souls of saints are not morally perfect; rather, they are great in 
compassion, and courage. The saint also has a broad vision of cultural,
political, moral, and spiritual possibilities. Gandhi=s commitment to
recognizing the good in every religion and every person, his strong empathy 
his enemies, and his ability to draw diverse people to his cause make him an
outstanding charismatic saint.

Contrary to common perceptions, Islam in India and Indonesia was not spread by
the sword, but by Sufi missionaries and saints.  When I visited a Hindu friend
in Jaipur in 2005, the first religious site we visited was the shrine of a 
Sufi saint in Ajmer.  There were just as many Hindus there as Muslims.

In 1995 Hindu friends from Panjab University invited me to join them in
celebrating a Sikh saint's birthday.  The Hindu men and I were conspicuous 
in a
throng of thousands because we did wear turbans.  Except for the minority 
and Muslim fundamentalist families, Indian children are taught to revere all
saints regardless of religious affiliation.  Gandhi embodied this Indian
tradition in spades, as only a true saint could do.

The Buddha and Christ are two of our foremost ancient practitioners of
nonviolence.  Christ's message that we are to love even those who hate us is
essentially the message of the Buddha.  Both knew very well that hate
figuratively burns a hole in the heart.  Both were Great Souls whose virtue
shines down through the ages.

Equally remarkable, particularly because we know their personal histories and
weaknesses so well, are the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother
Theresa.  Taking the ancient saints of nonviolence or our more recent
charismatic saints as our models, let us all try to develop the virtue of
nonviolence until it becomes as natural as taking a breath.

Read selected chapters from my Gandhi book at

"Truth is the summit of being; justice is the application of it to human 
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Abstract truth has no value unless it incarnates in human beings who 
represent it, by proving their readiness to die for it."
  --Mohandas Gandhi

"Modern physics has taught us that the nature of any system cannot be 
discovered by dividing it into its component parts and studying each part 
by itself. . . .We must keep our attention fixed on the whole and on the 
interconnection between the parts. The same is true of our intellectual 
life. It is impossible to make a clear cut between science, religion, and 
art. The whole is never equal simply to the sum of its various parts." 
--Max Planck

Nicholas F. Gier
Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, University of Idaho
1037 Colt Rd., Moscow, ID 83843
208-882-9212/FAX 885-8950
President, Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO

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