Tomorrow the United States celebrates a holiday in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boston University, where I work, is always eager to remind everyone that King got his doctorate there. They are not always as eager to remind you that King studied at the School of Theology – and clearly learned his lessons there well, for he was not merely a great activist but a great philosopher.
I have come to know King’s thought through the courses I have taught in BU’s philosophy department – even though the courses were on Indian philosophy. I have nevertheless included King on the syllabus for that class, with guest speakers introducing him to the students, because I wanted to show students the contemporary relevance of Indian philosophy. Specifically, King drew a great deal of his ideas from Gandhi – who was a philosopher-activist like King, and in turn drew on earlier Indian thought like Jainism and the Bhagavad Gītā. It seems to me on reflection, though, that the student surpassed the teacher: that what King said and wrote with Gandhi’s influence was profounder and more valuable than Gandhi’s own thought was in itself.