Gandhi: A Modern Medievalist
There can be no doubt that Gandhiji was a towering personality of 20th century India. I was raised listening to the enchanting lines of the song of the film ‘Jagrati’,
“De di hame aazaadi binaa kadga binaa dhaal/
Sabarmati ke sant tuu ne kar diyaa kamaal”
You gave us freedom without the help of the sword and the shield/
O saint of Sabarmati you performed a miracle indeed.
The content of these lines were taken as God’s own truth by me not only in my school and college days but even during the first decade of my teaching career.
But things started to appear very different when my familiarity with classical texts became deeper and more independent of the jargon that is usually foisted upon it. It seemed that not only Gandhi but quite a few of the leaders of modern India were so intimidated by the Christian notions, supposedly of monotheism, non-violence and love for suffering and celibacy that they set about whitewashing the traditional chain of Indian ideas to show that they also uphold the Christian ideals.
Christian monotheism (expounded as One Father as Christians see Him) devalued many of the cardinal doctrines of Hindu philosophy as inferior or only reflective in spirit of the Christian dogma. There was a clear attempt to disparage the worship of murti or vigrah as an inferior mode or at best as symbolic of the real formless Father or One God. The great beauty of Hindu worship of the divine manifesting as incarnate was set aside by most of our own leaders as ritual or hoax. Our own thinkers never paused to think that Christianity itself had taken a new path by accepting the Greek idea of incarnation in creating its Trinity.
Non-ritualism sticking to the verbal bhajan mode only was pursued by Gandhi as a way of the Hindu tradition closest to the Semitic paradigm of worship. He also elevated the notion of personal conscience to resolve moral dilemmas. He never went in for an extensive public debate but only into his own personal, so-called inner self.
Personal Bhakti applied to social and political reform fascinated Gandhi. He followed a path, which comprised an Indian medieval mindset which sought personal salvation akin to the followers of the Bhakti tradition. Gandhi sought to reorganize Indian society along the model of personal Bhakti rather than social reform and control that the classical tradition and previous Indian reformers like Aurobindo had fought for and espoused. The personal moksha sadhana tactics and prescriptions when applied to social strategies of reform did not work as they cannot work. The moksha dharma does not apply to samaanya dharma.
Satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) as absolutism was Gandhi’s way. In his autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” factual and ethical truth is equated with ultimate philosophical or spiritual truth. But in the practice of ahimsa, a mystical force of non-violence is presumed to be experienced as ultimate truth that can bring about the change of heart in the opponent. In other words, his practice of truth or transparently right conduct acquires the mystical power of saving the self and the others. This is the medieval Vaishnava practice where surrender through right conduct “saves” the devotee. But as a political doctrine this approach does not always deliver the change of heart in the opponent, let alone oneself.
Thus Gandhi’s disappointing engagement not only with Muslims, Christians, the British, and the Communists but also to a large extent with Hindu Indians too. In the Buddhist lore, Gautama was able to transform Angulimala but Gandhi was unable to convince Jinnah to give up his demands.
Gandhi was a contrast from the classical Hindu vision of balance between the four stages of the individual life –brahmacharya, grihastya, vanaprastha, and sannyasa (chaturashrama), and the four concerns of Hindus – dharma, artha, kama and moksha (purushaarthas). His was a mind that was fairly neglectful of the ancient systems of Indian knowledge and arts, and hence his restrictive definition and view of the Hindu self. Gandhi’s transition from the medieval to the modern without the understanding of the ancient led to his incomplete view of Indian history, culture, and mores.
Another major impact of Christian doctrine on the Hindu minds, especially that of Gandhi was the guilt for the Hindu avataras who use violence for restoring the moral and universal order. That is why Gandhi said that the Gita was not preaching a combat for punishing the immoral kings but was advocating every human to battle with his inner demons.It was Gandhi’s distortion of the message of Gita, which culminated in Wendy Doniger’s calling Gita a bad book.
Similarly, Gandhian economics rested on sharing with the bhaktas the material wealth and regarding the owner as the trustee. It also rests on the principle that frugality is essential to keep the mind free for higher activity. The same is true of his attitude to sex. All these of course are neither new nor strange in ascetic and spiritual practices.
But to bring them into the public sphere and to insist that all Indians follow him was both the weakness and the arrogance of Gandhiji. Individual transformation is what is emphasized in Indian/Hindu spiritual practice. The organization of society for pragmatic ends needed and needs a different approach. The utopian society that Gandhiji wanted to construct thus is not dissimilar to any other millenarian ideal, and thus fraught with the same dangers.
Brahmacharya: Gandhi had a very flawed understanding of this traditional Indian concept. First of all, tradition has held that absolute and total abstinence from sex was meant only for the yogi who has withdrawn from the very daily interaction in the world. Among other things, it was not meant for the householder (for whom periodic abstinence was prescribed and some on specific days that would keep the chances of pregnancy low).
Sexual abstinence was for those who had retired to the forest or taken the sannyasa. Even here, in the larger social interest, as aapad dharma even a sanyasin was allowed to cohabit a woman should she want to be impregnated on her request or in niyoga for the sake of progeny. The custom was a precursor of sorts of a modern fertility clinic.
Abstinence from sex was no virtue and no text to my knowledge valorizes it. On the contrary, sex was the joy of life. Virtue lay in controlling yourself, not denying yourself. Gandhi had no direct acquaintance with ancient texts or even the scholars of his times. He was raised on a vaishnavism of which he had a confused understanding—between the secular and the spiritual, and hence his very Christian and puritanical notions about food and sex.
The ancient Hindu view had no place for Gandhi’s valorizing of abstinence. For his higher degrees, Gandhi had gone to England when the Victorian notions of sex as a marital duty, ‘close of your eyes and think of England’, was the prescription. Going from a religious education of the home instruction variety, especially the Pranami version, Gandhi had no counterpoint of Hindu dharma as Kama also.
Gandhi was practicing a brahmacharya which the classical texts would prescribe for the saints and yogis only and not for those who have to live in the world respecting and using artha and Kama. Hence, the great puritan image of Hindu spirituality (adopted for political or moral reasons) created acute problems for him and his disciples and his family. The way he prescribed a colorless life for women made the author Raja Rao say, “Gandhi made women into little men.”
It was this bizarre Puritanism of Gandhi, so alien to the spirit of Hinduism, which in reaction to his forced notions of celibacy and opposition to moderate consumption and indulgence that skewed post-independent India’s economic and education related theories. All political leaders and even the middle class pay lip service to Gandhi but practice today consumerist indulgence to the hilt. This is the Augustinian swing which India had got into because of his imposed Puritanism. Even Buddha preached the middle way, let alone Manu.
Sometimes obstinate traditionalists and even some liberal left scholars give the example of Bhishma who had acquired immortality through his terrifying (bhishma) vow of total celibacy to elevate Gandhi’s insistence on it. It is here that a need for a complete understanding of the ancient comes to help.
Bhishma is an example of the tragic irony of celibacy. His vow, rooted in moha for his father (who in old age lusted for a woman to the extent of becoming a depressed ruler and was not bound by any vow like Dasharatha). Bhishma was a victim of his father’s excesses. He was a victim all his life of the rajadharma he tried to uphold but could not as he adopted methods in which in following one dharma he demolished another. He abducted a royal princess for the good of his kingdom but destroyed her as a human being and therefore had to pay for it by his death. His celibacy did not bring immortality but only the power to postpone death. Abstinence brings the right condition for yogic sadhana but does not yield its fruit. Gandhi was prescribing an eligibility of the moksha sadhana for samaja sadhana and thus ended up in confusion.
Now, coming to the view that Gandhi wanted to raise himself to the level of a yogi devoted to the social and political cause of the freedom of the nation and wanted to sublimate his sexuality for a higher level of energy, it is difficult to understand why he chose this method of testing his purity of mind.
After all who can know a person’s mind except that person (or God, if you believe in one)? If his mind was pure (devoid of traces of sexual desire) he would have known it himself and shouldn’t that be enough? Why did he have to conduct an experiment with truth by ritually sleeping with young girls? This is not a demonstrated experiment like in physics. I think this speaks volumes about Gandhi’s notion of ‘truth.’ How can a spiritual truth be demonstrated the same way as an athletic race? And what was the final outcome of this experiment? I may be missing it but Gandhi has written no note on the results.
The Khilafat “Movement” which was one of the earliest political debacles of Gandhi typifies the same kind of misplacement of a bhakta’s forgiveness and generosity to a political situation that needed an analytical approach rather than the emotional comradeship which Gandhi set out to provide to the Muslim community in their support to Khalifa worshippers (a mistake that may come alive again now with the ISIS tapping our doors).
Did the Muslim Khilafat supporters in India and Gandhiji understand at all that in supporting the Khilafat they were legitimizing a non-democratic regressive order in opposing a modernist Kamal Ataturk? Gandhi was not looking at things dispassionately. Was it necessary to support Khilafat blindly to garner ‘Muslim-Hindu unity’?
If Gandhi could criticize passionately some aspects of Hindu backwardness while fighting for swaraj, why could he not do so with regard to some aspects of Muslim backwardness? One may today dig out some sentences of his demanding reform in Muslim laws, but he had no such focused agenda nor such a pressure upon the Muslim supporters of Congress. Gandhi founded the tradition of regarding the Muslim as a legitimate concession-seeker, the ‘chhotaa bhai’ to be treated be indulgently.
Such a tradition has harmed Muslims more than Hindus in the long run as it has kept entrenched and patronized the backward-looking Muslim mindset and leadership and was responsible for accepting what has become finally a jihadist state called Pakistan. This was primarily because Gandhi’s ethics that came from a medieval Bhakti set up of religiosity and non-classical understanding of the social policy.
Gandhi had a poor understanding of democratic modernity and none of the classical Indian balances because he himself was a man with a medieval mind, in which abnegation becomes spirituality and enjoyment becomes licentiousness, in which emotional dealing (change of heart doctrine etc) overtakes the dispassionate, flavorless and impartial (‘nirmama’) law of nature and dharma. He is the great founder of the doctrine of compensatory discrimination (give special concession to those who are weaker in terms of numbers, gender, social wrongs done to their ancestors, in ethnicity or in language). This doctrine is the bane of modern India.
Let us therefore begin to reassess him as a thinker in the history of ideas and not be overawed by him a founding father of modern India. This shall also begin the process of right sizing the all the makers of 19-20th century India (of ALL shades and parties). But let us do it in the framework of our civilizational history of philosophical development and not through Marxist, Deconstructionist, Freudian or Structuralist or similarly foreign models.