Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi’s essay, “The Message of the Gita,” gives me new insight into Christianity. A devout Hindu, Gandhi opens his essay by stating that he’s never believed the sacred Bhagavad Gita is an historical account. For him, the story is an allegory, written to teach humans how to perfect themselves.
I like Gandhi’s refusal to let other people interpret scripture for him. He takes from the Gita what makes sense for him and ignores the passages about reincarnation and caste.
Gandhi sees the central theme of the Gita as, “renunciation of the fruits of action.”
You have a right to your actions,
But never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake
And do not be attached to inaction.”
(Gita 2:47—Stephen Mitchell translation)
I like the idea of right action for its own sake. Gandhi says this is possible only by overcoming attachment. Freedom from ego and from cravings for material possessions free a person to act without desire for reward.
This idea differs quite radically from Middle-Eastern religions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are based on rewards and punishments. God commands. He blesses those who obey. He punishes those who don’t.
In these religions, blessings in this life and salvation in the next are a simple matter of cause and effect. The problem for me is that the world doesn’t work this way. Jesus taught this in the Sermon on the Mount: “. . . He (God) sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” That’s not a scripture I’ve heard quoted often in church.
Probably most Christian religions teach the doctrine of original sin—that humans are born in a depraved condition and must be guided to civilized behavior. The Book of Mormon scripture, “the natural man is an enemy to God,” (Mosiah 3:19) supports this idea.
Much observable human behavior in the world today tends to prove that many people will not behave in a civilized manner unless forced to do so. Religions that emphasize rewards and punishments no doubt help create stable societies. And yes, I know that people go to war with each other over religious beliefs. Still, I suspect the good done by religion outweighs the bad, although I don’t know of any research supporting that theory. The problem with delving into the effects of religion is that human motives are often mixed.
Rewards and punishments motivate many people. I don’t see churches that emphasize this kind of motivation giving it up anytime soon. But I do think church leaders need to keep in mind that the end goal is not doctrinal orthodoxy. The end goal should be helping people understand themselves and act in responsible ways to promote well being for themselves and others.