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Why Gandhi resonates in Rome

Reflecting on Gandhi’s 1931 visit to Rome and the echo of his message in Pope Francis’s pronouncements.

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
October 2, 2013 1:56:47 am

Reflecting on Gandhi’s 1931 visit to Rome and the echo of his message in Pope Francis’s pronouncements.

Rome,the Eternal City,is still as inviting as ever. But there is a certain new thinking in the air in Italy’s capital,born of three factors — prolonged economic recession,political instability and the arrival of a progressive new Pope in the Vatican. I am here to give a talk at the Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue on my book Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. I am also participating in an international meeting for peace,whose theme is “The Courage of Hope: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”. It is organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio,a voluntary spiritual organisation dedicated to serving the poor,inter-faith harmony and conflict-resolution,three activities that were close to Gandhi’s heart.

Before coming to Italy,I had tweeted about a recent speech by Pope Francis that the whole world is now talking about. I had highlighted the close similarity between Gandhi’s rejection of economics without ethics and the Pope’s flaying of the current global economic system that has put “an idol called money”,and not people,at its heart. Speaking extempore to loud applause from a large crowd of unemployed youth in Sardinia,the Pope — he has quickly earned the reputation of being the Poor Man’s Pope — said,“Let us all fight the money idol,against an unfair system without ethics in which money rules everything. To protect this idolatrous system we abandon the weakest,the elderly,those who have nowhere to sleep… Even the young are abandoned and left without dignity.”

Safeguarding human dignity is the true teaching of Jesus Christ and Gandhi,and Pope Francis is giving impassioned voice to this philosophy. In his thoughtful speech at the peace conference,Italy’s PM Enrico Letta,whose coalition government is sought to be destabilised by Silvio Berlusconi’s supporters,touched upon another Gandhian theme — conflict-resolution through dialogue. Back from the UN General Assembly,he said the global community heaved a sigh of relief that America’s imminent military strike on Syria had been avoided due to dialogue among major countries at the UN. Describing as “a miracle” the agreement on Syria’s elimination of chemical weapons,Letta said the dignity,prestige and usefulness of the UN system has “finally been restored”. The audience greeted these words with thunderous clapping.

I say a new thinking is in the air in Italy and elsewhere in Europe because their leading minds are increasingly beginning to see the vacuous nature of the economic and political systems controlling the lives of people,spreading misery and cynicism. They are realising the disastrous consequences of abandoning the ethical and spiritual traditions of Europe and the world. In the new Pope’s unconventional pronouncements,they are finding an amplification of their own desire to see religion in a fresh light — not in the discredited old practice of one faith proclaiming its superiority and exclusivity,but in a new eagerness to respect and learn from all faiths.

These hope-giving sights and sounds in Rome make me recall Gandhi’s historic visit to Italy in December 1931,on his way back from the failed Second Roundtable Conference in London. The Mahatma knew the London roundtable was doomed to fail,but his real purpose of undertaking an extended journey to Europe was to broadcast his message of truth (by which he meant recovery of the true essence of religion),non violence,universal brotherhood and a fundamental change in international economic and political systems to ensure human dignity and justice for all. Against the advice of many,he went to meet Benito Mussolini because of his conviction that the pursuit of peace through principled dialogue — especially at a time when the dark clouds of a new world war were hovering — could not exclude anybody,not even dictators and tyrants.

The highlight of the Mahatma’s visit to Italy was his pilgrimage to the Vatican. Shockingly,the Pope refused to meet him,an indication of how far the church had moved away from the essential message of Christianity. The outward grandeur of the Vatican didn’t impress Gandhi much. But he was spellbound by a particular statue of Christ on the cross above the altar of the Sistine Chapel. The profound effect it had on the Mahatma was later described by Mirabehn: “He remained perfectly silent,as if still in contemplation. He then said,‘So deep an impression did that crucifix make on me that it stands out all alone in my mind,and I remember nothing else of my visit to the Vatican.’” Was the Mahatma having a premonition of his own martyrdom 17 years later when he stood in front of the statue?

The Vatican press at the time scorned Gandhi’s visit. However,in 1986,John Paul II visited Raj Ghat in Delhi,and said,“Today,as a pilgrim of peace,I have come here to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi,hero of humanity. The figure of Gandhi and the meaning of his life’s work have penetrated the consciousness of mankind.”

There is a beautiful description of Gandhi’s visit to Italy by Maria Montessori,the talian educationist whom he greatly admired. “His [Gandhi’s spirit is like a great energy that has the power of uniting men because it effects some inner sensitivity and draws them together. This mysterious and marvellous energy is called love. I felt this very deeply when Gandhi paid a visit to Europe and stayed a few days in Rome on his homeward voyage. During his stay in his honour,and while he sat on the floor and spun,children sat around him,serene and silent. And all the adults who attended this unforgettable reception were silent and still. It was enough to be together,there was no need of speeches.We must think about this spiritual attraction,it is the force that can save humanity,for we must learn to feel this attraction to each other,instead of being merely bound by material interests.”

I can feel the presence of Gandhi’s mysterious power here in Rome,as we at the inter-faith peace conference discuss the mighty challenges facing our world.

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