Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Scintillating Discourse on Gandhi and King

No summary can do justice to the fascinating lecture we heard at the
KIC yesterday by Prof..Michael Warren Sonnleitner, a Fulbright Fellow
from Portland, Oregon on Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The
audience was thin as the notice was short and hence this note to give
you a flavour of the talk.

Prof. Sonnenleitner surprised us by saying that King had only a very
low understanding of Gandhi and that there were fundamental
differences between the approaches of King and Gandhi. King had read
only one book on Gandhi and one collection of Gandhi's writings and
listened to two lectures on him. But in answer to a question as to
whether King reached the Gandhian path independently of Gandhi, he
said that King was greatly influenced by Gandhi.

The fundamental difference between the two men was that while Gandhi
believed in the immortality of the soul, King was convinced that a man
had only one life to live and he would be remembered only if if he had
followers. For Gandhi, death was just a transition, but for King, it
was the end. King said that if people did not believe in Jesus, Jesus
would die. Jesus would live on as long as Christians followed him.
Since King knew that death was the end, he could be considered more
courageous than Gandhi. He was fearless, even though he knew he had
only one life to live.

King had the courage not only to face the local authorities, but also
the KKK and even the formidable Hoover, the head of the FBI, who had
secret files on all important people, including Presidents and
Congressmen. When Hoover threatened to reveal his secret life, King
dared him to reveal all after making a confession to his wife about
his indiscretions. He refused to be silent and continued his fight for

King believed in coerceive non-violence. He often quoted the Sermon on
the Mount to propagate the idea. He fought for social justice and
demanded a guaranteed annual income, not only for African Ameicans,
but also for the poor. He wanted national health care and education
for all, not to speak of ending racism in America. As a democratic
socialist, he was considered a national security threat. Many people,
including Coretta King, believed that the FBI killed him. His
"assassin", who had confessed to his killing as a plea bargain to
escape the gallows, stated later that he had not done it.

King's speeches were often quite inflammable. "I have a dream" speech
was not typical of his style. He condemned the state in the name of
God. He shook American society to the core.

In a telling illustration, Prof. Sonnleitner described how Gandhi and
King would treat the story of Daniel in the lion's den. Gandhi would
believe that Daniel could win over the lion with the power of his
soul. But King would want to cage the lion first and then try to tame

Gandhi encouraged the growth of other leaders and when he went to
jail, he left the movement to the others. But King did not have a
second tier leadership. His closest associates could not stand each
other without King's presence.

The lively discussion following the lecture was equally stimulating.
The Prof concluded by saying that America had not changed despite
King's thoughts and actions. There was nobody of the stature of King
to bring about social change. But he was glad that there were several
"small Kings", still active and effective, trying for change in their
own ways. He did not consider President Obama as one of them. Obama,
he said, was not a true African American. Obama is an African, an
American, an Asian, a white and a black at the same time and the
change he is seeking is not the one that King had sought.

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