Today is the 65th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as the Mahatma or “Great Soul.” One of the most important and remarkable figures of the 20th Century, Gandhi is perhaps best remembered for the way he led India to independence through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, and in so doing, inspired civil rights and freedom movements around the world.
Gandhi was a deeply spiritual man. Prayer and meditation were as important to his strategy as were fasting and marching. In Buddhism, prayer is not a central part of the practice. The Buddha was a bit pessimistic about the so-called power of prayer. Yet, there is a correlation between the purest form of prayer and meditation. With that in mind, today I offer a short sketch of Gandhi’s evening prayer service and some brief thoughts of his on prayer, meditation, and mantra.
The sun had set when we got back from his regular evening walk. Hurricane lanterns were lit; Gandhi settled down at the base of a neem tree as ashramites and the rest of us huddled in. I managed to get a seat close by, where I could fix my whole heart on him.
Some hymns were sung, a Japanese monk opened with a Buddhist chant, a British lady began one of Gandhi’s favorite hymns, John Henry Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light,” and then Gandhi’s secretary began reciting the second chapter of the Gita. Then it happened . . . Not that I can describe it very easily. Gandhi’s eyes closed; his body went stock still, his eyes closed in deep concentration, as if absorbed in the words; it seemed as though centuries had rolled away and I was seeing the Buddha in a living person. I saw what we had almost forgotten was possible in the modern world: a man had conquered himself . . .
I believe I found these quotes at gandhi.org.
Gandhi on Prayer and Meditation*
I do not forbid the use of images in prayer. I only prefer the worship of the formless . . .
Prayer is no flight of eloquence; it is no lip-homage. It springs from the heart. If, therefore, we achieve that purity of the heart when it is ‘emptied of all but love’, if we keep all the chords in proper tune, they ‘trembling pass in music out of sight’. Prayer needs no speech. It is itself independent of any sensuous effort. I have not the slightest doubt that prayer is an unfailing means of cleaning the heart of passions. But it must be combined with the utmost humility.
Even if your mind wanders in meditation, you should keep up the practice. You should retire to a secluded spot, sit in the correct posture and try to keep out all thoughts. Even if they continue to come, you should nevertheless complete the meditation. Gradually the mind will come under control.
First, mantra should come from the heart. To install mantra in the heart requires infinite patience. It might take ages. But the effort is worthwhile. However, one’s mantra cannot be heartfelt unless one has cultivated the virtues of truth, honesty and purity within and without. This does not mean that one should give up reciting on the ground that one has not the requisite purity. For recitation of mantra is also a means for acquiring purity.
For one who has experienced peace and is in quest of it, mantra will certainly prove to be a philosopher’s stone. The [divine nature] has been given a thousand names, which only means that it can be called by any name and that its qualities are infinite.
In 1933, Nichidatsu Fujii, a Nichiren priest and later founder of the Nipponzan-Myohoji order (well-known for their Peace Pagodas) visited the ashram in Wardha, where he lived for some time and taught Gandhi how to chant Namo-Myoho-Renge-Kyo while beating a drum. This is likely the “Buddhist chant” mentioned above. Although, Gandhi liked this chant, it is difficult for me to believe he would have had much regard for Nichiren’s extremist philosophy.
The mantra that Gandhi chanted throughout his life and which had the most meaning to him was Om Sri Rama Jaya Rama, Jaya, Jaya Rama (Om Victory to Rama, victory, victory to Rama.)
In a talk he gave some nine months before he was assassinated, Gandhi said, “Even if I am killed, I will not give up repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.”
Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, held by some to be a supreme being. Rahim is derived from al-Rahim, an Arabic word meaning “The Merciful.”
Indeed, when Gandhi was shot, the last words on his lips are reported to be either “Rama, Rama,” “He Ram” (“Oh God”), or “Rama Rahim,” according to different accounts.
* K.L. Seshagiri Rao, Mahatma Gandhi And Comparative Religion, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990