Louis Fischer described him as “a living sermon”. A man who preached what he dared practice must indeed have seemed so to a Europe at the end of its tether battling Nazi tyranny, yet forced to prepare for a showdown with Stalin’s gulag in the aftermath of a bitter war that ravaged its societies and economies with painful impartiality. RC Zaehner, the celebrated authority on oriental religions, wrote, “Mahatma Gandhi was no Christian, and the Christians were amazed that his should be so, for never in modern times had they seen any man tread more faithfully in the footsteps of Christ.”
In the afterglow of freedom, when Gandhi was still a powerful moral colossus on the post-World War II stage, such encomia, though natural and spontaneous, served to inhibit a closer scrutiny of the human being behind the legend. Within the country, the dominant political elite perpetuated the Mahahna as an icon, and stifled any objective assessment of his role and contribution. Thus, the man who candidly invited scrutiny with the declaration, “My life is my message,” was imprisoned in a strait-jacket of approved history and projected primarily as the father of the freedom movement who, like Moses, had handed over the reins of authority to a chosen successor at the door of the promised land. Joshua became Jawaharial Nehru and assumed the leadership of the newly independent nation.
With the hindsight of 50 years of freedom, however, we owe it to ourselves and succeeding generations to evaluate the Mahatma afresh, to understand and be comfortable with his real legacy; if he said that we would find his message in his life, we must not hesitate to look at that life closely, veils, warts, et al. If he was big enough not to fear the scrutiny and judgement of small men, we must at least abandon our fear of portraying him as something other than the stereotypical saint. Gandhi was no suffering Christian saint, though he did suffer for his people and the cause he had made his own. Nor was he a fearsome prophet in the Judaic mould, predicting woe and damnation upon those who did not choose the right path in time.
He was India’s man of destiny at a crucial moment in history, with a role that transcended his lifespan. As such, he combined many roles in the folds of his complex personality; and it is little wonder that he has defied easy analysis and assessment. Perhaps that is why, with his fabled sense of humour, he virtually challenged one to dissect his life. He must have yearned to be understood, not merely revered and obeyed.
To my mind, Gandhi truly was what he claimed to be, but what his contemporaries refused to accept him as, viz., a Sanatani Hindu. He was, moreover, one with a mission. He would have accepted with equanimity Jinnah’s obituary reference to him as “a great Hindu leader”, a description that enraged (and to this day annoys) the Indian leadership and intelligentsia, across ideological lines. Among the tall Indians of his time, Rabindranath Tagore, who wisely did not press the point and left the realisation to time, perhaps best understood this reality.
Gandhi himself provided the clue to his personality with his insistence, right through the long, arduous and assiduous struggle for freedom, that mere independence from British rule was not the mission of his life. He aimed at the larger liberation of the spirit and soul of India from the fetters of fear, indignity and bondage, and the lack of self-respect and self-confidence that accompanies the loss of freedom. A society, he realised, must first be free in its soul, and this freedom must extend equally to all. Political freedom would come as a matter of course, and would only then be truly meaningful. And in an age in which neo-colonialism was still an unknown slogan, he proclaimed that true freedom must be accompanied by economic empowerment of the downtrodden.
To this end Gandhi chalked out the parameters of his socio-political programme. From the removal of untouchability and the upliftment of women, to literacy for all, self-employment and empowerment of the depressed sections of society, which to his mind constituted Ram Rajya, the reign of righteousness. The weapons he crafted for this purpose, ahimsa (non-violence) and the dharma of conscience and compassion were drawn from the ancient moral corpus of India.
The popular projection of Gandhi as a leader who sought to reform Hindu society in the light of Christian criticism of the faith, on the lines of early reformers like Rammohan Roy, is as mistaken as the belief that he was a votary of what is termed as composite culture. With his simultaneous battle on the social economic, civilisational and political planes, not to mention the mistakes he made in this process, it is easy to misunderstand him. What is wonderful is that despite this, so many were so willing to be guided by his superior moral light.
What Gandhi sought was the restoration of the cosmic order of the Sanatan Dharma, the ancient way of life. It was he, among modern Indian leaders, who provided the opening and legitimisation for the surreptitious return of a full-blooded Hinduism with a non-Christian ethos on the national stage, the fruit of which is only now ripening. His clarion cry of Ram rajya and accent on Karmayoga, as enunciated in the Gita (symbolised in his life by the charkha), was no coincidence. Nor can it be dismissed as the language natural to a religious leader. Gandhi, it must be remembered, was unlettered in the scriptures; he was a barrister who came to India to join the freedom struggle.
The conclusion seems unavoidable that Gandhi formally acknowledged the tutelage of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, but perceived his role as breaking the political impasse reached by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Hence he automatically adopted the tools crafted by Tilak, and consciously strove to accommodate the Muslims to the rise of an Indian nation that would be predominantly Hindu, since Hindus constituted the majority community. It must be remembered that Tilak’s somewhat abrasive personality, not to mention British sponsorship of Muslim separatism, had complicated the attempt to reform the moribund Hindu society and simultaneously seek freedom.
Zaehner opines that Gandhi believed Hinduism was the dharma of India, and that it was the duty of enlightened Hindus to preserve what was of value in the faith, but stamp out all that offended the conscience of the age. That Gandhi did not seek to “Christianise” Hinduism can be seen from his unabashed defence of the varnasrama dharma (caste hierarchy), temple worship, the veneration of idols, the domestic rites that orthodox Hindus performed at home, and the veneration of the cow. Indeed, he perceived the performance of Hindu rites in the home and temple as the very cement that held Hinduism together, a view Tagore is believed to have empathized with.
The question is often asked – could Gandhi have evaded the Muslim issue? I think, given the Congress’s difficulty in making a headway on the question of freedom, and the Anglo-Muslim alignment, it was well nigh impossible to do so. Where Gandhi erred was in not understanding the nature of Islam, and working on the premise that “modern, educated” Muslims would accept and adopt the bhakti version of Islam preached by Kabir, a poet-saint of north India. This wishful thinking is the heritage of present day secular Hindus. Gandhi realised his mistake when confronted with orthodox Islam’s exclusiveness and unmitigated hatred of idol worship. His secular offspring continue to grope for the elusive parity between Ram and Rahim, while evading the muni and the maulvi.
The Pioneer, 10 October 1998