Albert Einstein’s Fascination for the Indian Mahatma, by Sarojini Henry
Metanexus Chronos. 2005.02.04. 2,696 words.
A portrait of Mahatma Gandhi adorned the upper room of a two-storied house on112 Mercer street, a side lane branching off from the main road leading to thePrinceton University at Princeton, in the United States… Besides the pictureof Gandhi, there were photographs of the physicists Michael Faraday and JamesClerk Maxwell. Writing on Einstein’s fascination with Mahatma Gandhi, SarojiniHenry, Professor of Systematic Theology, briefly details this fascination withreferences to correspondence and excellent juxtapositions revealing how theseenigmatic and world-transformative figures are in essential ways more alike thandifferent.
Sarojini Henry started her teaching career, after completing the Master’sdegree, as a lecturer in Mathematics at Sarah Tucker College in South India.After taking her M.Phil degree, in Mathematics, she worked as Professor ofMathematics at St John’s College, teaching graduate students. In 1981, Sarojiniwas invited by Union Theological Seminary, New York as their ecumenical fellowfor a year. It was as a doctoral student at Union, that she received the P.E.O.Fellowship for Women and the Roothbert Fellowship. After completing herdoctorate in ethics, (Thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr’s Critique of Mahatma Gandhi’sNon-Violence) at Union, Sarojini joined the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary,Madurai, as professor in Systematic Theology. In 1990, she was invited by theLouisville Presbyterian Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky as an adjunct professorfor a semester. In 1992, she was awarded the Martin Buber Institute fellowshipby the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a semester.
From 1992, Sarojini started giving lectures on science and religion at theEcumenical Christian Center at Bangalore and still continues to do so. In 1994,she introduced a course on science and religion for the M.Th theology studentsat the United Theological Seminary, Bangalore where she was already a visitingprofessor. In 1997, she received the Templeton Religion and Science Course awardfor this Institution. In 1999, she received a second Religion and Science Courseaward for a liberal arts college, the American college at Madurai. In 2000, shewas appointed Professor of Systematic Theology at Gurukul Lutheran TheologicalSeminary, and for this Institution, she received a Templeton Science -ReligionCourse award in 2001.
Albert Einstein’s Fascination for the Indian Mahatma
By Sarojini Henry
A portrait of Mahatma Gandhi adorned the upper room of a two-storied house on112 Mercer street, a side lane branching off from the main road leading to thePrinceton University at Princeton, in the United States. Albert Einstein hadbought the house in August 1935 after he had moved to America to join thefaculty of the newly found Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. Awisteria vine made a graceful lavender frame for the front porch of Einstein’shouse. The upper room which Einstein used as his study overlooked the greenluxurious garden at the backyard. Half of the wall on that side was replacedwith a huge window which seemed to bring the green trees into the room Two wallshad book shelves running from the bottom almost to the ceiling. Besides thepicture of Gandhi, there were photographs of the physicists Michael Faraday andJames Clerk Maxwell.
Einstein’s spectacular theories of general and special relativity has brought ina new paradigm in science. in the twentieth century. Besides his scientificingenuity, his courageous struggle for peace and justice in the world has earnedfor him a unique place in human history. If a bold search for what isscientifically new stood first and foremost in Einstein’s mind, his commitmentand aspiration for peace and concord among nations occupied the second place.
Perhaps, it was in his quest for peace and harmony in the world that Einsteincame to revere Mahatma Gandhi on the other side of the globe On 27thSeptember,1931, Einstein sent a message to Gandhi who was in London at that time:
You have shown by all you have done that we can achieve the ideal even withoutresorting to violence. We can conquer those votaries of violence by thenonviolent method. Your example will inspire and help humanity to put an end toa conflict based on violence with international help and cooperationguaranteeing peace to the world
With this expression of my devotion and admiration I hope to be able to meetyou face to face (1).
By the year 1931, Gandhi became the world’s foremost advocate and exemplar ofnon-violent methods in political action. Gandhi was then in London to attend theSecond Round Table Conference as the sole representatives of the Indian NationalCongress. The Conference itself ended in a hopeless uncertainty about theBritish Government’s intention towards India. But Gandhi made use of the visitto meet some distinguished British personalities-George Bernard Shaw, LloydGeorge, Gilbert Murray among others. By the middle of October, Gandhi was arelaxed mood and on 18th October he replied to Einstein thus:
I was delighted to have your beautiful letter sent throughSundaram. It is a great consolation to me that the work I am doing finds favourin your sight. I do indeed wish that we could meet face to face and that too inIndia , at my ashram. (2)
When Gandhi was assassinated on 30th January, Einstein, along with other severalother world leaders, felt it as a personal tragedy. On 11th February1948,Einstein issued the following statement for the memorial service held in Washington.
Everyone concerned with a better future for mankind must be deeply moved by thetragic death of Gandhi. He died a victim of his own principle, the principle ofnon-violence. He died because in a time of disorder and general unrest in hiscountry, he refused any personal armed protection. It was his unshakable beliefthat the use of force is an evil in itself, to be shunned by those who strivefor absolute peace
To this faith he devoted his whole life and with this faith in his heart andmind, he led a great nation to its liberation. He demonstrated that theallegiance of men can be won, not merely by the cunning game of political fraudand trickery, but through the living example of a morally exalted way of life
The veneration in which Gandhi had been held throughout the world rests on therecognition, for the most part unconscious, that in our age of moral decay hewas the only statesman who represented that higher conception of human relationsin the political sphere to which we must aspire with all our powers. We mustlearn the difficult lesson that the future of mankind will only be tolerablewhen our course, in world affairs as in all other matters, is based upon justiceand law rather than the threat of naked power as has been true so far. (3)
At the end of the year 1948, on 2nd November, Einstein sent the followingmessage to the Indian Peace Congress, referring to Gandhi’s teaching and message:
The initiative of India, which finds such a vivid expression in this Congress,is a new and welcome proof that Gandhi’s great original idea had deeply affectedthe thinking of his people; brutal force cannot be met successfully for anylength of time with similar brutal force but only with non-cooperation towardsthose who have undertaken to use brutal force . Gandhi recognized that this isthe only solution of the vicious circle in which the nations of the world havebecome caught.
Let us do whatever is within our power so that all people of the world mayaccept Gandhi’s gospel as their basic policy before it is too late. (4)
Again in the year 1949 Einstein sent the following message appraising Gandhi’swork for India’s independence.
We can all be thankful to be able to experience that Mahatma Gandhi’s work forthe liberation of India has now come to completion. Liberation itself is alreadyan event of world historic significance. But even more so the fact that thisgoal has been achieved without the use of violence. For the first time, it wasshown to humanity what can be achieved through a strong will and consequentialaction without the force of arms. When the world will succeed in grasping thefull implication of this event and will adjust their behaviour accordingly, thenthe permanent overcoming of the current dangerous situation will not meet withgreat difficulties. (5)
There is no historical evidence that Gandhi and Einstein ever met. Einstein,however, continued to commend Gandhi as the greatest political genius of thetime. It is possible that Einstein identified the quality of a rare courage inthe Indian Gandhi, a trait that Einstein himself possessed although in adifferent field. Both Gandhi and Einstein endeared themselves to all around theworld probably because they had the courage to stand alone.
The Courage to Stand Alone: Gandhi and Einstein
If Einstein had the courage to think about the universe in revolutionary ways,Gandhi developed the courage to act in the field of politics in a way that wascompletely unprecedented. If Einstein altered the way we understand theuniverse, Gandhi altered the course of political history, by starting theprocess of dismantling the structure of colonialism in the Asian context. Andboth had the courage in following their own truth, even to the point of ridiculeor rejection.
If Einstein revolutionized theoretical physics by his profound intellectualbrilliance, Gandhi radicalized politics through the purity of his moral force.Whereas a bold search into the secrets of the universe was the hallmark ofEinstein, a daring venture into the dubious field of politics armed with simpleethical principles was the distinctive feature of Gandhi. The year 1905 wasEinstein’s annus mirabilis with the publication of his relativity theory whichwould change the face of physics for the rest of the century. For Gandhi, themiracle year was 1908; for, it was in that year that he coined the termSatyagraha, his life’s gospel. Einstein was ever alert to the scientific mysteryof the intelligibility of the natural order, whereas Gandhi’s whole life hadbeen a quest for and a series of experiments with truth. Einstein in hisscientific adventure was motivated by a profound artistic conviction that beautywas there in the cosmos waiting to be discovered. Gandhi knew that in his searchfor soul force, there will be found an inner beauty in the human heart.
Banesh Hoffman, who was Einstein’s assistant in 1937 attests that Einstein’searly suspicion of authority, which never wholly left him, was to prove ofdecisive importance, For without it he would not have been able to develop thepowerful independence of mind that gave him the courage to challenge establishedscientific beliefs and thereby revolutionize physics (6).
What is remarkable about Einstein was his belief in the power of thought.Einstein’s discovery was not just a matter of mere accumulation of facts, butinvolved a measure of intuition, a leap into the unknown, a flash ofpenetration. Perhaps, it was the toy compass, which his father gave him at agesix, that inspired young Albert’s first thought-experiment. How could theisolated needle have the constant impulse to point to the north? As Einsteingrew up, it made him reflect on the mysterious properties of the empty space.
One of the free creations of the mind which made Einstein famous was his generaltheory of relativity. The key idea of the general theory of relativity, calledthe Equivalence Principle, is that the effects of accelerated motion and ofgravity can be considered equivalent. While working on this at the Bern office,a new thought experiment suddenly struck him. He described with some excitementthe portentous moment with these words All of a sudden a thought occurred tome; if a person falls freely he will not feel his own weight. I was startled. Itimpelled me toward a theory of gravitation (7). This meant that during thefall, there exists for the person no gravitational field. This was the basis ofthe equivalence principle and Einstein described the revelation to his friendBesso as the happiest thought of my life. .Many physicists believe thatwithout Einstein, it could have been another few decades or more before anotherscientist worked out the concepts and the mathematics of general relativity.
What aided him in his thought -experiments was the sense of wonder at the beautyand intricacies of the universe. Einstein had a deep conviction about therationality of the world. He described his religious feeling as a rapturousamazement at the laws of nature and believed that this amazement leads one toexperience the universe as one single significant whole. It is to thisexperience that he gave the name cosmic religiousness.
Raghavan Iyer rightly observes that Gandhi tended to assimilate all the virtuesto that of moral courage (8). Gandhi’s courage to stand alone can be seen inhis political creativity, just as Einstein’s courage was evident in hisapplication of creative imagination in science. Gandhi’s innovation was first tobring the masses into the mainstream of politics. In his political struggle,with every stage the tempo was quickened and the involvement of the massesbecame more intense and wide-spread. Gandhi surely did it with a determination,a charisma, creative courage and with the aesthetic sensibilities of dramatist..
Of the many civil disobedience movements that Gandhi had organized none was sodramatic and creative as the famous Salt March, India’s Via Dolorosa to freedom,which eventually loosened the British grip on India and united the nation. WhenGandhi walked to the sea at Dandi and scooped out a handful of salt, it was asignal to the whole country. And all over India people began to march to thenearest seashore to distill salt from sea water. Writing on the drama at theseashore, Gandhi’s biographer Louis Fischer would remark that to pick up apinch of salt in publicized defiance of the mighty Government, requiredimagination, dignity and the sense of showmanship of a great artist (9).
His influence has expanded both geographically and theoretically and this can beseen in the non-violent struggles of diverse political and religious ethnicgroups. In America, the fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resister’sLeague were formed, only with the inspiration derived from Gandhian ideals.Above all, it was Martin Luther King, who helped propagate Gandhi’s method ofnon-violence in his protest marches against the racist oppression in America.Gandhian non-violence has indeed become the most revolutionary idea of thetwentieth century.
Thus while Einstein stepped out of his private world to search boldly for whatwas new in science, Gandhi emerged out of his shy nature to enter into politicsand to seek ways of confrontation in which neither party will come out as thevictor- Einstein’s work provided a new description of the universe, a world-viewso radical that its implications are still percolating the scientific world.Gandhi’s Satyagraha has given a new insight into the drama of conflict that itssignificance is for ever resonating in the hearts of people. While Einstein hascome to symbolise the human quest for understanding the laws which govern theuniverse, Gandhi designates the human quest for liberation from all types ofoppression. Gandhi’s nonviolence has caused a ripple of hope in a world torn byhatred and injustice. Einstein’s discoveries have stimulated scientific urge inhuman beings in the hope that the laws of the universe can be fathomed. ForGandhi, Satyagraha was a way of life, a religious creed, and a doctrine ofsuffering. For Einstein, understanding the universe was an exquisite joy and theacquisition of scientific knowledge, a prerequisite for life.
Notes and References
1. Record 32. 589.1. Albert Einstein Archives (the Jewish National UniversityLibrary, Givat Ram, Jerusalem. Through the courtesy of Mr Ze’ev Rosenkranz BernDibner Curator, Albert Einstein Archives
2. ibid Both Einstein’s letter to Gandhi and Gandhi’s letter to Einstein are given inThe collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, 90 volumes, (Delhi: The PublicationDivision, Ministry of information and broadcasting Government of India, 1958-84)
3. Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden eds Einstein On Peace. (New York: SchockenBooks, 1968) pp467-68
4.Record 32. 609 Albert Einstein Archives
5. Record 32. 610. Albert Einstein Archives. The original letter written inGerman, was translated by Dr Paul R Mendes-Flohr, The Hebrew university ofJerusalem, Jerusalem
6. Banesh Hoffmann p24
7. Quoted in Amir D Aczel, God’s Equations: Einstein, Relativity and theExpanding Universe (New York: Four Walls and Eight Windows, 1999) p. 28
8. Raghavan Iyer The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi .(New York:Oxford University Press, 1973) p 69
9. Louis Fischer. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi ( Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan,1953) p.343
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