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Ro Khanna Reflects on Gandhi’s 150th Birthday

October 2, 2019
Ro's Op-Eds
Ro Khanna

As a child growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, my connection to my Indian roots came from summer visits to New Delhi where my grandparents lived. My grandfather, or Nana Ji, as we called him, was a family legend. Amarnath Vidyalankar spent his life fighting for India’s independence, which included spending four years in prison in Mahatma Gandhi’s movement. I still remember the conversations we had together, many of them while playing chess. These conversations, and the stories that lived on after his passing left a lasting impression on me.

Our family’s values come from my grandfather’s embrace of a Gandhian worldview. On Gandhi’s 150th birthday, I want to touch on the aspect of Gandhi’s principles that stuck with my family and me the most: Hinduism, at its core, is an inclusive philosophy grounded in a respect for all faiths and all that lives.

Gandhi reminded those who followed his faith that perhaps its most important aspect was its commitment to oneness. To quote Gandhi directly, he said Hinduism led him to believe “in the oneness not of merely all human life but in the oneness of all that lives.”

One scholar he respected deeply, his peer Swami Vivekananda, shared the same philosophy. In 1893, Vivekananda brought Hinduism to America by giving a speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He preached the same principles of Hinduism Gandhi would go on to live, saying that as Hindus, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Today’s leaders would do well to consider a few of the closing lines Vivekananda delivered: “Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descen­dant, fanaticism have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with vio­lence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.”

By choosing to have many different religious texts next to his bedside, Gandhi respected and tried to understand other world views. When asked how he felt about religion, Gandhi said, “The essence of all religions is one; only their approaches are different.” He saw the value and universal truths in the Torah, the Gita, the Koran, and the Bible. In the New Testament, Gandhi-ji said the Sermon on the Mount went “straight to [his] heart” and he “tried to unify the teaching of the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount.” Gandhi called Jesus “one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Gandhi lived these challenging lessons in his nonviolent struggle against the British, later inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. and the US civil rights movement. I recently learned that King always carried two books with him: the Bible and The Gandhi Reader. His civil rights movement led to the Immigration and Nationality Act, which paved the way for my parents to immigrate to America.

When my parents first arrived in the 1970s, they brought with them this Gandhian Hinduism they inherited. In Bucks County, the Indian community was at most one half of 1 percent. Our neighbors were warm and inviting, even though they hadn’t met too many people with our names or stories. Many of them would shape my childhood, as my teachers, mentors, and little league coaches.

But there was a small concern that initially was on their mind: Would the Khannas participate in the Christmas Eve celebration? Every year, the houses on our street put candles on the sidewalk. But now that we had moved in, some neighbors were curious if our faith would let us participate. We said, “Of course.” Hinduism, after all, was a pluralistic faith—one that appreciates the beauty of all traditions.

In our own small way, we felt this was a chance to extend the Gandhian tradition into Bucks County. Later, when I was 14, I authored an op-ed in my county paper for a high school English assignment. I asked George H.W. Bush to get out of the Middle East, criticizing our participation in the Gulf War. Today, at 43, I retain that passion in the halls of Congress. As I reflect on my commitment to peace in South Asia and my bipartisan legislation to end the bombing of civilians in Yemen or prevent a war with Iran, I know where my values come from.

In a time of much division and strife and confusion, let us remember a mantra that summons us with three Sanskrit words: “sarve banthu sukhinah”—may all beings, no matter their color or creed, find peace and well-being. On what would have been his 150th birthday, may we honor Gandhi by finding ways, big and small, in our own lives, to live out his lessons of pluralism and peace.