The Spiritual Legacy of J. C. Kumarappa - Rev. Dr. Bruce Miller

Most commentators will focus on Kumarappa as “Gandhi’s economist” or as the “Green Gandhian.”  What is also noteworthy is that Kumarappa was a Christian and it is clear from his important prison document on Jesus that for him spirituality was a key ingredient in the satyagraha movement.

It is common for us today to talk about spirituality rather than religion, especially in a global secular society where so many do not identify as belonging to a religion but still claim to be spiritual.  It is quite astounding to note that the movement that Gandhi inspired was from the beginning an interfaith and religiously pluralistic movement.  In South Africa, and later in India his satyagraha campaigns were remarkable for their inclusivity and pluralism.  They included both men and women, all classes, merchants, labourers and priests, all eating together, talking together, struggling together and going to jail together.  And they included a pluralism of religions:  Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians and Jews.  It is not surprising that a Christian like J. C. Kumarappa would join with Gandhi and be welcomed by Gandhi.  Gandhi said that the practice of truth and non-violence melted religious differences “and we learnt to see beauty in each religion.” 

The prison treatise of J. C. Kumarappa, titled Practice and Precepts of Jesus was an important document contributing to the spiritual basis of satyagraha.  As a prison writing it reminds me of many other prison documents, such as the Apostle Paul’s “Letter to the Philippians,” Paul Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, written from prison in 1666, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963, and of course Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, written while in prison in the early 1930’s.  Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous book The Discovery of India was written while in prison from 1942 to 1946.  At the same time, J. C. Kumarappa wrote two documents while he was in Jabalpur Central Jail in 1944, Economy of Permanence and Practice and Precepts of Jesus

I am focusing on Kumarappa’s view of Jesus both as a Canadian and a Christian.  I have been an active member of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation for World Peace, based in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada.  It is obvious to me that both Canada and India have much in common in dealing with the issues of inclusiveness and pluralism.  Our challenge in Canada with only two official languages doesn’t seem as tough as the challenge in India with 22 official languages.  And for the last 26 years I have been a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, an American group of scholars who through extensive research have tried to retrieve the authentic voice of the historical Jesus.  It is my judgment that Kumarappa’s prison treatise on Jesus demonstrates an uncanny ability to discern what is central and enduring in Jesus’ teaching and his prison writing continues to be relevant and inspiring for us today.

His work on Jesus focuses primarily on the teachings of Jesus in contrast to the Judaism that preceded Jesus and the Christian Church that emerged after Jesus.  Kumarappa expresses alarm at the contrast between the teachings of Jesus on love and the practices of the churches that throughout history too often legitimated violence and war.  He chose to focus on the historical Jesus as reflected in the four Gospels rather than the Letters of Paul or the Book of Acts arguing that most of the New Testament was written decades after the events and interpolations “often repugnant to the spirit of Jesus” crept into the texts.  More recent scholarship would go further and distinguish the authentic words of Jesus from the attempts by the Gospel writers themselves to soften and domesticate the radical words of Jesus.  In his prison document Kumarappa takes us through the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, the Temptations Story, and the Parables of Jesus illustrating the consistent and coherent teachings of Jesus on non-violent love and the importance of sacrifice and service.  Reflecting our modern distinction between religion and spirituality, Kumarappa preferred to refer to those who espoused the teachings of Jesus as the “followers of Jesus,” which could include today Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and of course even “Christians,” if they really do put the teachings of Jesus into practice.

In retrieving Jesus’ message and mission, Kumarappa emphasizes an inner spiritual discipline that results in action for others.  It is important to engage in prayer as meditation, and cultivate a spirituality of love, but this must result in action.  When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he underlined the fact that all people are our family.  When Jesus prayed, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” he pointed to the reality that yes, the kingdom is within us, but this means service for those in need.  We are the agents of love on earth!  If God’s will prevails on earth how can there be social inequalities, economic differences of rich and poor, one nation lording it over another or nations warring against nations?  With these remarks, Kumarappa identifies the spiritual basis for his most important contribution in promoting Gandhian rural economics and village industries throughout India.  This was one of the pillars of Gandhi’s program of swaraj, the promotion of homespun yarn and handwoven fabrics as self-sustaining industries in the thousands of villages throughout India.  Kumarappa was convinced that economics should be based on the Gandhian principles of satya and ahimsa, truth and non-violence.  He perceived correctly that the social program of Jesus meant the rebuilding of peasant society from the bottom up and was motivated by what theologians have called the “preferential option for the poor.”  Kumarappa was more of a man of action than an academic and his leadership with the All India Village Industries Association demonstrated that his interest was not just theoretical but practical.  A constant theme throughout his writing is that there must be a unity between our words and action, our theories and practice.

Another theme of his prison writing was to contrast Jesus’ teaching on non-violent love with the brutality of the Roman Empire and also other examples of imperialism including the British Empire.  This emphasis is now supported by contemporary research on the historical Jesus.  When Jesus spoke often about the “Kingdom of God,” the only kingdom or empire that people knew was the Roman Empire.  Jesus challenged people to think and consider what the world would look like if God is in charge and not Caesar?  Kumarappa points out that the saying of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” has been wrongly used to promote loyalty to a foreign power.  A more authentic interpretation of this text would point out that in the final analysis everything belongs to God and nothing to Caesar.   Jesus’ emphasis on radical discipleship placed him and his followers on a collision course with the violence of the Roman Empire.  For Kumarappa there is always the temptation to opt for a temporal kingdom displaying the domination of the Romans, power over others, like Alexander the Great, or Mussolini or Hitler or the forces that dominate a village panchayat or parliaments and legislatures.  Following the teachings of Jesus may well mean taking up the cross and enduring the risk of following the path of service and sacrifice.Christians should not isolate themselves within an organized religion.  The followers of Jesus must live out their lives in the context of the political and economic realities and this may indeed mean the risk of sufferingWe might take issue with some of Kumarappa’s views, his dualistic contrast of the heavenly with the earthly,the contrast of the spiritual with the animal character of our humanity, his views on sexualitywhich seem quite old fashioned and his rather harsh view of the old dispensation of Judaism, but the central thrust of his prison writing is to retrieve the voice of the historical Jesus and his teaching of non-violent love.  Gandhi did the same thing when he wrote in his Autobiography that his reading of the Sermon on the Mount “went straight to my heart.”  It is amazing how much of Kumarappa’s view of Jesus dovetails with modern scholarship on the historical Jesus, and he did not have many books with him in prison.  He had a copy of the King James translation of the Bible and modern translations by E. J. Goodspeed and James Moffat.  He was not happy with the King James translation of Matthew 5:39, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil…” Kumarappa exclaims that this can’t mean that we passively let all social wrongs and evils go unchecked.  This is a translation that King James probably preferred, emphasizing that resistance to a sovereign’s tyranny is to be frowned upon.  But “resist not evil” does not make any sense given the overall teachings of Jesus and the example of his life.  Kumarappa argues that Jesus’ life was a battle against evil, so he prefers the Moffat translation, “You are not to resist an injury,” a translation that emphasizes the way of suffering and sacrifice.  The recent translation by the Jesus Seminar makes it even clearer, “But I tell you, don’t react violently against the one who is evil; when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.”  Kumarappa didn’t have this translation available to him but his interpretation of the voice of Jesus was on the right track.  In Jesus’ teaching and practice there was no place for retaliation and violence.  And there was nothing passive about Jesus’ preaching and life style.  It is important to note that Gandhi was not happy with the English expression “passive resistance,” and substituted the Indian word satyagraha.Kumarappa explains that the movement of satyagraha means, “Do not hurt your neighbor even under the gravest provocation.”  We are encouraged to meet violence, not with violence but with self-suffering and a generous spirit.

J. C. Kumarappa states at the beginning of his book that his involvement with Gandhi made him realize the relevance of Jesus’ teachings, and his prison writing on Jesus, which we now can read 75 years later, is still challenging and inspiring, retrieving for us the voice of Jesus and demonstrating that there is a rich spiritual base for the ongoing movement of satyagraha today.