It’s no big secret that Martin Luther King Jr. took great inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi in pushing forward his Civil Rights Movement. Although the two never met personally, Dr. King was introduced to Gandhi’s teachings while at Crozer Theological Seminary. His first application of the non-violent campaign came in 1955 during the Montgomery bus boycott. Here he had a firsthand opportunity to witness the power of a peaceful protest. His conviction to pursue this course of action strengthened during his 1959 visit to India. He is quoted as saying «It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a non-violent campaign. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India…» Later during a radio interview, he stated that more than ever before, a non-violent campaign would be the most powerful weapon for oppressed people.
Although there may have been political and strategic reasons that Gandhi pursued a non-violent campaign, I believe the ultimate motivation came from his inherent Hindu faith. The Sanskrit term for non-violence is «ahimsa.» In his autobiography, Gandhi states:
«A true votary of ahimsa therefore remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature, tries to save it…He will be constantly growing in self-restraint and compassion…»
In this passage Gandhi suggests saving even the tiniest creature. Gandhi demonstrated this not only on a grand scale in how he dealt with the British but also on a smaller and more personal level, by being a vegetarian. One teacher of the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Prabhupada, expands on the meaning of «ahimsa» by saying that «Nonviolence is generally taken to mean not killing or destroying the body, but actually nonviolence means not to put others into distress.»
The teaching of «ahimsa» is an essential focal point of Hinduism. Without the gradual development of this trait, it is impossible to achieve self-realization and union with God. It encourages us to try to see all creatures, human and animal, with an equal vision and not discriminate based on bodily differences and designations. During his India visit, Martin Luther King was very moved to learn how Gandhi dealt with those who were labeled as «untouchables» and denied entrance into temples. Gandhi would personally escort the «untouchable» class into the temples. He went so far as to rename them as «Harijans» or the «children of God.»
Like many Hindus, Gandhi also depended on the Bhagavad Gita for inspiration and direction. He is quoted as saying «Whenever doubts haunt me and disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me. I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.»
Both Martin Luther King and Gandhi were people who gained tremendous inspiration from their faith traditions and were able to perform tremendous feats of courage through the implementation of non-violence. Today, as a culturally diverse society, we can imbibe their spirit and carry forward their legacy by increasing our application of the non-violent principle. We can accomplish this by becoming more compassionate in our thoughts, speech, as well as our actions in dealing with the people around us – family, friends, colleagues, and strangers.