The Mahatma and the Cardinal
- Fr. Cedric Prakash sj*
On Sunday September 19th, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify John Henry Cardinal Newman in Birmingham, UK. Beatification, is the very last stage before canonization in the Catholic Church, when a person of exceptional holiness and other qualities, is raised to the altars, as a Saint.
What has perhaps not caught the limelight, however, is the tremendous influence which Newman exerted on Mahatma Gandhi. Newman lived in England from 1801 to 1890. As a young professor, in Oxford University, he proved to be one of the foremost scholars and thinkers of his time, who could hold vast congregations of students and intellectuals, spellbound with his depth, erudite and brilliant communication skills.
He was a restless seeker of the truth and in a major shock to the Victorian establishment and intelligentsia of his times, he left the Church of England to embrace Catholicism. During his Oxford days and thereafter, he was also a prolific and incisive writer. His most well-known poem-prayer is 'Lead, kindly Light', was apparently penned during his quest to do what is right.
In a matter of time, this poem (first published in 1834) became very popular in literary circles and even in Churches in England and in the United States. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who studied in Alfred High School, Rajkot would most probably have come to know about this poem as a school-boy. He would have surely become more acquainted with it as a student of law in London from 1888-1891, just at the time when Newman's death, would have left a deep void in the literary and religious circles of England.
Later on in South Africa, the tremendous impact this poem had on Gandhi, was obvious from the fact that 'Lead, kindly Light' held a unique position as the motto of the Satyagraha movement, which he launched in 1906.
There is an unnerving similarity in the spirituality of both Newman and Gandhi which is reflected in the very first verse of the poem:
"Lead, kindly Light', amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene—one step enough for me.!"
Both Newman and Gandhi went through a process of discernment asking for light before they took a crucial next step in their journey ahead. These 'enlightened steps' were indeed turning points, not only in their lives but impacted the lives of several others. In 1916, after Mahatma Gandhi had established his ashram on the banks of the River Sabarmati, Ahmedabad, 'Lead, kindly Light' had a very special place in the daily prayers of the Ashram.
Gandhi had the prayer translated into Gujarati by Narasimharo Divetia; the initial words read 'Premal Jyoti' (Light of Love). For more than thirty years, several of Gandhi's writings and speeches had a reference either to 'Lead, kindly Light' or to 'one step enough for me'.
Once, when asked the reason for his constant references to Newman and the latter's works, Gandhi quipped,"he is perhaps the only honest Englishman ,I have come across!" On March 10, 1947 Gandhi wrote to Vinobha Bhave, his closest disciple, "in my prayers, I pray to God to lead me from untruth to truth, isn't the same idea conveyed in 'Lead kindly Light'?"
Somehow, we desperately need to listen today, to the prayer and the promptings of Cardinal Newman and Mahatma Gandhi. 'Satyameva Jayate!'
18 September 2010
(*Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace.)
'PRASHANT', Hill Nagar, Near Kamdhenu Hall, Drive-in Road, Ahmedabad 380 052,GujaratTel: 079 66522333, 27455913 Fax: 27489018 Email: email@example.com