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Mahatma and the myths

Almost as much as we remember Gandhi, we forget him.

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

I remember for the first and only time wearing a "Gandhi cap". That was in 1961 when my father was posted as an assistant engineer in Sirsi, a small town in Karnataka. My parents were still young, they had five small children and Sirsi was a "Mofussil" town with little of the pleasures and provenance of urban 1960s India. My elder brother and I were enrolled in one of the local schools and in celebration of Gandhi Jayanti, we were all asked to wear the "Gandhi cap" to the day's events. We were proud and a little self-conscious wearers of the cap and the only thing that I recall in some detail of the day is getting separated from my elder brother: he was eight and I was five. But we both made it home safe and soon we were sent away to grandparents in Mandya (my elder brother and elder sister) and Bangalore (myself), because my parents were overwhelmed minding us all in the small town. We left our Gandhi caps behind in Sirsi.

On arrival in Bangalore at my paternal grandparents' house, I noticed that the only photograph displayed on the walls, other than that of Hindu murtis and gurus, was that of Gandhiji, in the famous "Striding with a walking-cane/ Dandi march" pose. He was not wearing any cap. I was told that it belonged to one of my uncles. Not much talked revolved around Gandhiji at my grandparents' house, if I recall correctly. Lower middle class in status, my grandparents headed a household that still included two or three of my unmarried uncles, a couple of unmarried young aunts and where everyone was busy minding the house, going to college, or struggling with their first jobs. Talk in the evenings and over weekends was mostly about domestic issues. But the photograph of Gandhiji was a statement of the household and it is still etched in my memory.

Gandhiji of course was in all our school history books. He was the "Father of the Nation", we were told and on a pedestal we all put him. We read about his eating goat meat and ruing the act, his sailing to England, the South African episodes, about nonviolence and Satyagraha, the march to Dandi, Round Table conferences, the Quit India Movement and his assassination. Later, in high school, I recall reading an expurgated version of My Experiments with Truth that was given to all students studying at the National College in Bangalore, whose then principal, Dr Narasimhaiah, was a Gandhian and which college my elder brother attended.

Now I have an 8 ½ by eleven-inch copy of an artist's rendering of Gandhiji's smiling visage sitting atop a bookshelf in my office. And I often wonder when I walk into my office what it is about Gandhiji that has mesmerised us all and how we have all used him selectively for our own purposes. This introspection became even more urgent when I read that the CPI-M mouthpiece was going to publish a series of articles to frame the RSS for Gandhiji's murder and the renewed debate about the role of people like Savarkar in the assassination.

Left ideologues also assert that for Savarkar and the RSS, the "Purpose and goal of freedom was to establish Hindu rashtra". For Gandhi, Nehru and for the Left, they say, the "Goal was to establish a modern, plural, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, democratic India". That this is a gloss and a simplistic assertion is not lost on many Indians who prefer to ignore the ramblings of the opportunistic ideologues.

While the charge against Godse, Savarkar and the RSS continues, I am really not troubled by the fact that Godse was indeed an RSS swayamsevak for a while, or that he continued to be in touch with the RSS at the time he assassinated Gandhiji, or even that he received encouragement from Savarkar. I am also not troubled by the fact that former RSS leaders or present day leaders have quarrels with Gandhiji. Who did not have quarrels with him? We forget the fact that Gandhiji was a politician first and whatever else later. It was not just the RSS that quarreled with him but so did Jinnah, Annie Besant, Aurobindo, Ambedkar and a host of others. Annie Besant told Durga Das that she thought Gandhiji was leading the country to anarchy. Gandhiji's personal peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies drove quite a few people up the wall. He was considered by many to be a "Difficult person, " and why not with his insistence that those around him and the people of India follow him in his peculiar "ascetic" ways?

Christian missionaries heaped abuse on him and the Communists did everything possible to undermine him. That these two political chameleons now seek to paint the RSS red with the blood of Gandhiji, therefore, is neither surprising nor out of character. Muslims did not really consider him their leader and that the Mahatma comes in handy to them now to beat the RSS with is no different from the others' use of him. I recall that in the US, a well-known Indian Muslim organisation refused to use the term "Mahatma" to refer to Gandhi because, of course, Mohammed is the last prophet and there are no great souls after him.

The Congress party that rode to power on Gandhiji's coat-tails (or dhoti ends) does nothing more now than pay lip service to some of the most important ideals the Mahatma tried to propagate, simple living, honesty and openness and non-violence. The Congress is as much a party of goons, opportunists, criminals and ignoramuses as any other political party in India. The only difference is that the Congress party wishes to claim Gandhiji for itself and to use his good name to continue in power by demonising the BJP and the Sangh Parivar as the Mahatma's murderers.

Godse has been turned into an epitome of evil and Gandhiji put on a pedestal. Thus, we have little opportunity to study the two as human beings. Godse was both an assassin and a good man: he was as much an ascetic and a lover of the Bhagavad-Gita as was Gandhiji. Gandhiji was both a fascinating moral leader and a flawed politician. And Gandhiji is now etched in our memories as an extraordinary man in no small measure because he was assassinated and did not die a frustrated and bitter old man neglected by the country and Congress leaders.

Because he was assassinated, we now ignore the frailties and the follies of the Mahatma. Professor Bharat Gupt of Delhi University argues that Gandhiji's was an Indian medieval mindset, which sought personal salvation just like the followers of the Bhakti tradition. He sought to organise society for reasons of Bhakti rather than for social reform and control that previous Indian reformers had fought for and espoused. It is not that he disregarded social reform, like the new Dalit leaders proclaim. It was simply that for Gandhi social reform followed from individual change. That is why people like Ambedkar did not much care for Gandhiji's social movement.

But Gandhi's version of individual growth and enlightenment ignored the traditional Hindu version. His 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 (purushaarthasI). His was a mind that was fairly ignorant of the ancient systems of Indian knowledge and arts and hence his restrictive definition and view of the Hindu self. Gupt argues that Gandhiji'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.

Gandhiji defined satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) as positivistic and absolutist respectively. In his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, factual and ethical truth is equated with ultimate 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, we observe Gandhiji's disappointing engagement not only with Muslims, Christians, the British and the secular-millenarian Communists, but also with a large majority of Hindus too. Unless we understand clearly why Gandhiji evoked mixed responses, we will simply continue to deify him by building his statues and naming roads after him and by ignoring him in our daily routines.

Similarly, Gandhian economics rests 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/ were 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 emphasised in Hindu spiritual practice. The organisation 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 therefore fraught with the same dangers.

Gandhiji, strangely enough, was not averse to pragmatism. He wrote a lot, he traveled enough and he put himself in the limelight often so that the world would not ignore him. Even in the modest India collection at our university, there are shelves overflowing with Gandhiana. While the Catholic Church will not anoint him a saint anytime soon, he is already sainted by the world which frowns upon any criticism of him and which then promptly ignores him.

On 30 January, Martyrdom Day, we heard from his personal assistant, Venkita Kalyanam, that Gandhiji did not die uttering, "Hey Ram." Unfortunately, that particular observation will not make our historians and textbook writers to stop incorporating that "myth". Gandhi, in the Indian land of make-believe, has been conveniently added to pantheon of mythic figures.

 
     
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