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‘Gandhi has become all things to all people’

MK Gandhi's 'ahimsa' was tied to his perception of Hinduism and not a black-and-white notion, scholar Jyotirmaya Sharma argues in his new book

‘Gandhi With People’ (1995) by Madhvi Parekh.
‘Gandhi With People’ (1995) by Madhvi Parekh. (DAG)

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On 23 December 1926, a man named Abdul Rashid murdered the Arya Samaj leader Swami Shraddhanand, a freedom fighter who was close to M.K. Gandhi. It was an incendiary moment in the life of a society already riven with communal tensions, which would assume a horrific dimension two decades later, during the partition of the subcontinent.

Apart from the grief he felt at the news of Shraddhanand’s violent death, Gandhi’s primary concern, as scholar Jyotirmaya Sharma writes in his new book, Elusive Non-Violence: The Making And Unmaking Of Gandhi’s Religion Of Ahimsa, “was to avert an endless chain of retaliatory killings”. To this end, the Mahatma put out a curiously worded tribute, describing Shraddhanand’s death as “remarkable and extraordinary”. Praising the deceased man’s efforts to foster a spirit of “brotherhood, tolerance, forgiveness and self-purification” as part of the Arya Samaj’s mission, Gandhi hailed his passing as a shining exemplar of his unshakeable belief in non-violence.

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Shraddhanand, as Gandhi saw it, died nothing less than a martyr. “Let us all be brave enough to die the death of a martyr,” he added as a cautionary note, “but let no one lust for martyrdom.” Rashid, the killer, on the other hand, was a “brother” who had been led astray down a path of doom.

Gandhi’s reaction to Shraddhanand’s death is one of the extreme manifestations of his belief in ahimsa (non-violence) as a guiding principle of life—not just as a secular, moral force but as a religious doctrine that was at the core of his re-framing of Hinduism as a reformed faith. Sharma draws extensively on Gandhi’s published writings to unravel the layers which made up his idea of non-violence. The process involves a deep dive into the Mahatma’s evolving engagement with the Hindu scriptures, which, at times, may appear capricious, even selective, brooking no authority other than his own personal agenda.

While Gandhi’s belief in ahimsa was a major pillar of his philosophy, it never was writ in stone, even though the world has inherited it in the form of a good-versus-evil binary. On the contrary, he thought about it compulsively, revised his views and spoke, wrote and re-articulated his arguments until the end of his life. On 30 January 1948, when he succumbed to Nathuram Godse’s bullets, like Shraddhanand, Gandhi too seemed to have died the noble death of a “martyr”, in peace with the logic of ahimsa. Sharma’s book tries to make sense of Gandhi’s complex and capacious intellect by situating his ideas against the larger context of his ever-evolving politics. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

Elusive Nonviolence—The Making And Unmaking Of Gandhi’s Religion Of Ahimsa: By Jyotirmaya Sharma, Westland, 268 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Elusive Nonviolence—The Making And Unmaking Of Gandhi’s Religion Of Ahimsa: By Jyotirmaya Sharma, Westland, 268 pages, 699.

Gandhi’s notion of ‘ahimsa’ has survived into the 21st century as a moral principle, a secular guide to live by, and much less as a religious doctrine that was integral to his perception of Hinduism. The fact that he made concessions to violence under specific circumstances has also obscured his image as a votary of absolute non-violence. How do you explain these shifts?

Gandhi exists as a powerful image. Those who look at the image reduce him to practical purposes and appropriate him for a variety of ideological reasons. But there is another Gandhi, who is a thinker. Thinkers have to be evaluated on the basis of the overall cohesion of their thought. In this instance, fragmenting Gandhi’s thought is counter-productive. He has become all things to all people. One has to go beyond slogans, sentimentality and political prudence.

I am not suggesting that there is no place for the image: Myths are important and he is a very powerful one. But it is the thinker that interests me. He wrote a great deal and spoke a great deal. It is, therefore, easy to extract a quote from him to suit any situation. For me, there is a remarkable consistency in his thought. The central idea that is distinctive in Gandhi’s thought is non-violence. It is a complex creation and can only be understood within the overall context of his entire thought. Therefore, what you call his concessions to violence are not really so. They emerge from his creation of binaries such as courage versus cowardice. His religious idealism is the source of much of the contradictions and paradoxes in his thought.

You grapple with Gandhi’s conflicting impulses as a reformer and orthodox Hindu patriarch throughout. What were the pitfalls of these inconsistencies in his lifetime? How have they affected his legacy?

Many commentators find inconsistencies in his thought. I don’t. Whether one agrees with them or not, he was utterly consistent and lucid about his ideas. He himself said: “My language is aphoristic, it lacks precision. It is therefore open to several interpretations” (from The Collected Works Of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.53). As a significant interpreter of religion, he also restates the categories of reform and orthodoxy in ways that are unconventional and unusual.

Gandhi’s version of Hinduism may seem to be capricious, selective and self-contradictory. Does such a perception, especially his belief in Hinduism’s supremacy over every other religion, intersect with the tenets of the contemporary Hindutva movement?

I don’t think it was capricious. Neither was it self-contradictory. He is very consistent. But he is part of the 19th century restatement of Hinduism and this enterprise was selective. It becomes contentious only because it had to contend with Western modernity and nationalism. In other words, many forces and influences had to be reconciled in order to fabricate the Hinduism that emerged from that time onwards, and continues to do so. I make no distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. I define Hindutva as the politically dominant face of Hinduism, though not its only face.

Despite his avowed amity towards Muslims and the “untouchables”, Gandhi was opposed to intermarriage and believed in the sanctity of the caste system. Was this a pragmatic stance or religious puritanism?

It was neither pragmatism nor puritanism. These attitudes towards intermarriage and caste are part and parcel of his understanding of Hinduism. He was against untouchability but supported the ancient varna ideal. He believed that if truth and non-violence, radical non-violence, is infused in Hinduism, it would take care of what he thought were aberrations like untouchability.

Had Gandhi been alive now, he would probably have been “cancelled” by the left, right and centrists. Yet he continues to obsess the world more than 70 years after his death. What does this say about the salience of his ideas?

As I said above, he survives more as an image and continues to attract attention based on selectively quoted quotes. However, his singular achievement was formulating what he calls his “religion of ahimsa”. In his own lifetime, he saw the failure of this concept in India and acknowledged this failure. For any serious reading of non-violence, it is imperative to take his formulation seriously but also interrogate it as a carefully constructed ideal. In this sense, Gandhi suffers from the same fate as the Buddha. When the ethical implications of a thinker’s thought are dissociated from his metaphysics, then it becomes a free-for-all. You can, then, have a Buddha bar, Buddhist meditation techniques and a Buddhist diet, forgetting altogether that everything the Buddha preached was to facilitate nirvana. Gandhi’s ideas too have been subjected to such an unfortunate fragmentation.

The book releases on 11 October.

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