- An American in Gandhi's India: The Biography of Satyanand Stokes
This compelling account of the life of American missionary to India, Samuel Evans Stokes, Jr., written by his granddaughter, reads like a novel while offering a meticulously researched portrayal of the social and political environment of India in the decades prior to independence. Stokes, a well-to-do descendant of the Quaker Stokes and Spencer families of New Jersey and Philadelphia, was baptized and raised an Episcopalian, but over time distanced himself from the theology and ritual of that communion to explicitly identify himself with the spirituality and social commitments of his Quaker forebears. Stokes's struggles and accomplishments in India, where he remained all his life after boarding a ship in 1904 to work at a leper colony in the Punjab, and where he became an important figure in Gandhi's nationalist movement as well as in the Simla Hills, testify to both the possibilities of and impediments to genuine mutuality across racial, caste, and class barriers in a colonial context.
Stokes originally went to India to convert Indians to Christianity. However, he became increasingly disturbed by the pervasive ethos of domination and deference between Westerners and Indians, the white supremacy and material privilege of the Christian missions, and caste divisions within the Indian church. This compelled him to cease preaching Christ and to begin imitating the historical Jesus—aspiring to live intimately with Indians and identify himself with their cause. In an effort to shed his status as sahib, he adopted the role of saddhu, or wandering renunciant, and even founded an order called The Brotherhood of the Imitation of Jesus, which was short-lived, as he found himself more revered than ever, given the deep respect for saddhus in Indian society, and also misunderstood. He desired to communicate by his renunciation that the religious life entailed not seeking one's own salvation, as did saddhus, but selfless service to others. He then decided he could best break down barriers between himself and Indians and challenge the racism that kept Western and Indian Christians apart by marrying an Indian Christian woman and becoming a simple farmer, abiding by the customs of the local community.
As a resident of Kotgarh, Stokes was able to realize many of his ideals of service, supported by the wealth of his father. He cared for the sick, established an excellent school, successfully campaigned to end the forced servitude of the villagers to British officials and tourists, and perhaps most importantly, introduced the cultivation of Red and Golden Delicious apples, which over the decades allowed the impoverished community to grow prosperous.
After British General Dwyer's notorious massacre of Sikhs in Amritsar in 1919, Stokes found himself impelled into the Nationalist movement. He became a leading [End Page 50] associate of Gandhi—the only American to be a member of the All India Congress and imprisoned for the cause of independence. Stokes disagreed with Gandhi on his policy of non-cooperation with the government, convinced that independence should be accomplished via constitutional means, but recognized the importance of a united front against the Empire and fully stood behind Gandhi. Never a pacifist, insisting that true non-violence was inner, he became a naturalized British citizen to serve in the Indian Army in World War I, though he was assigned the role of recruiter and saw no active duty. Gandhi, who consistently regarded Stokes as a Westerner rather than Indian, remained a frank and cordial friend long after Stokes withdrew from politics following his imprisonment for sedition.
Stokes considered himself as preeminently a philosopher. Over time his Christian views were transformed by the message of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, which he believed accorded with Quaker faith in the inner light, and he articulated his novel intercultural theology in a book addressed to his wife and published in India as Satyakama. Among his most perplexing decisions, given his...