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Sean Messarra


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Sean Messarra

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. advocated nonviolence, shared a belief in the necessity of suffering, and frowned upon cowardly behavior. However, the language, tone, and mood of their works diverge when examined closely. This can be explained for two reasons. Firstly, the time period in respect to their movements affected aspects such as attitude, tone, and mood in their works. Secondly, the audience they were writing for influenced the language used. The audience of both men in particular played a role in the divergence of thought.

Firstly, the time period in which the works of Gandhi and King were written greatly influenced their attitude, tone, and mood. To begin, King claimed his campaign followed four important steps. The first step required facts to back the existence of injustices. If injustices were backed by facts, negotiations would be attempted to solve the issue at hand. If negotiations were to fail, a process of “self-purification” was to be performed thus leading to the final step of direct action. The four steps of a nonviolent campaign explained by King are applicable to Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence.

Gandhi’s writings presented in the text began in 1914, early in the movement for Indian independence. India did not gain independence from England until 1947. This shows that Gandhi’s work was at the step of “self-purification” and not completely manifested yet into the form of direct action. This can be seen through Gandhi’s writings being more philosophical and theoretical than the writings of King. Gandhi describes thoroughly his beliefs and desires for India. He goes into depth about “the theory and practice of passive resistance”, “the law of suffering,” and the “meaning of satyagraha.” Gandhi argued and defended his beliefs at a period in England’s colonial history, where the movement had not taken full course yet. Gandhi was writing to gain support from the masses.

On the other hand, King’s writing was more absolute, due to being in the step of direct action. King’s writing was written while he was locked in a jail cell for protesting in Birmingham, Alabama. King was already directly absolved in the movement for civil rights in the United States of America. The movement had fully manifested itself into the streets thus resulting in a more direct writing that combated the issue at hand. King defends his already existing actions against the negative commentary thrown upon him by his fellow clergymen. Being locked in a cell, King writes more realistically, explaining the situation of segregation and why it must be ended. This contrasts greatly to Gandhi’s atmospheric writings of truth and love. Though King does preach truth and love, King is already past the stage of “self-purification” in his movement. King is now in the stage of “direct action” whereas Gandhi is in the stage of “self-purification”.

Secondly, the audience in which Gandhi and King were writing for influenced the language found in the writings. Gandhi was writing for an audience much wider in scope compared to King. Gandhi’s movement had an ultimate goal of liberating an entire region from western imperialism. Thus the writings of Gandhi had to reach out to the millions of people living under colonized India.

In any revolution, war, or struggle, different interests are present. King too experienced conflicting interests within the black community concerning how to end segregation. For King, blacks either felt hopeless towards the cause, took support in the cause violently, or wished for segregation to remain the same. The same issue was present in India. India had a diverse population composed of various major religious groups. Within India was a majority of Hindus and beneath Hindus were significant populations of Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. Therefore the writings of Gandhi had to please all sectors of Indian society in order to unite to create a unified movement to end English imperialism. Gandhi needed a message that would find interest in all the religious and cultural sects of India.

Gandhi found this message in satyagraha, or soul-force. Principles of nonviolence and suffering were applicable to Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. The message of Gandhi was universal in order to efficiently unite India to break away from England. The separation between religions became so intense that in the same year India gained its independence, Pakistan (made up of the Indian-Muslim majority) formed its own nation-state within India. This being proof of the religious tension and diversity found in India.

King wrote for a more direct audience. In his letter from Birmingham Jail, King is directly targeting the black community, the white moderate, and the clergy. Also, King’s ultimate goal is more focused and limited in scope. King wished to end segregation and oppression of his black brothers and sisters in the United States. King is not trying to break away from the United States or entice insurrection such as Gandhi. King’s audience is overwhelming a Christian majority. This resulted King’s writings to favor a Judeo-Christian worldview. King did not have the same issue of religious diversity that Gandhi had. King constantly brought up the message of Jesus Christ and questioned the validity of American churches to get his point across. King quoted Saint Augustine and numerous other Protestant theologians to reach his Christian audience. King made use of biblical references, favoring a religion unlike Gandhi who had to please many religions.

At one point, King defines what is and what is not a sin. King then continued to define moral, immoral, just, and unjust laws. King was able to efficiently use these definitions because at the root of Christianity are these fundamental principles. Gandhi did not define sin, and instead wrote that what’s a sin for him, should not be a sin for others. If Gandhi defined what made a sin, he would have lost many followers in his movement. This would have meant that Gandhi would be threatening the moralities of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. This is best seen in Gandhi’s take on vegetarianism. Gandhi considered eating meat to be a sin coming from a Hindu background. However, the existence of an overwhelming Muslim population which ate meat, without religious restrictions (except for pork) meant Gandhi could not absolutely define meat-eating as a sin. If Gandhi said eating meat were a sin for everyone, he would have lost a very important Muslim majority to his cause.



In conclusion, Gandhi and King differed in regards to their mood and language found in their writings. The time in which Gandhi wrote required the mobilization of millions to free themselves from western imperialism, while the time in which King wrote required the defending of his actions to an already existing movement. This resulted in the unique moods of each piece of writing. Concerning language, the two different audiences resulted in different writings taking the form of more cultural and religious issues. Gandhi and King agreed when it came to nonviolence, suffering, and cowardly behavior. However, each man had to satisfy the needs of their movements and audiences to successfully combat injustice.


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