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Archive for the ‘Mohandas Gandhi’ Category

The idea of a “bhakti movement” has long been one of the largely unexamined verities that have played a critical role in the idea of “Indian civilization” and, more specifically, the notion of a “composite culture”.  Bhakti is in English generally rendered as “devotion”; in the generally accepted narrative, a devotional movement originating in the Tamil country in the 8th century gradually made its way north and eventually engulfed the entire country.  India’s history for a thousand years, from the early medieval period until around 1650, a period perhaps not quite accidentally coinciding with the advent and then ascendancy of Islam, is thus described as having been preeminently shaped by a remarkable number of men (and often women) whose philosophical and literary compositions were marked by an intense devotional spirit.  Whatever the differences amongst these great devotees (bhaktas) of God, and whether they considered themselves followers of Shiva or Vishnu or conceived of God as formless (nirguna), they are supposed to have shared certain attributes.  The bhakti movement is said to have opened the doors to God to women and the lower castes; where Brahminism affirmed the ritual superiority of the Brahmins, the infallibility of the Vedas, and the idea that each person was bound to the observance of his ‘caste’ duties, the adherents of bhakti are said to have rebelled against the authority of the Vedas and the upper castes and prioritized the idea of personal experience of God.

Much of the scholarly literature on bhakti has pivoted around certain themes.  The distinction between saguna (conceiving of God with form) and nirguna (the notion of God as formless) was a bedrock of the literature for a long time.  Another strand of the scholarly literature focused on differentiating women bhaktas from men bhaktas.  From around the early 20th century, some colonial writers had dwelled on what might be called the social capaciousness of bhakti, or, to put it with a tinge of provocation, the insurrectionary and rebellious aspects of bhakti.  Some of the more recent scholarly works on bhakti, showing an awareness of how the language in which we speak of bhakti has changed, have worked in themes of subaltern agency and Dalit consciousness into their discussions of the works of bhakti poets such as Kabir and Tukaram.

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Sant Tukaram, in a popular representation

John Stratton Hawley of Barnard College has been a student of bhakti over the last several decades, and in his most recent study of the subject he takes the study of bhakti in very different directions.  The fundamental achievement of A Storm of Songs is to probe how the idea of a “bhakti movement” came about and what Indian scholars, inspired by nationalism, might have contributed in giving rise to a canonical narrative about bhakti’s place in shaping an Indian sensibility.   Hawley hints, though he could have dwelled on this idea at greater length, that the colonial period generated an anxiety, which Indian nationalists commencing in the late 19th century were eager to address, about the basis of Indian unity.  From the late 18th century, it became a staple of colonial writing to argue that India had never constituted a “nation”.  If the colonial claim that only British rule had succeeded in giving geographical integrity to a people divided by immense differences of caste, religion, and language was to be ably contested, some palpable evidence of India’s cultural unity had to be put on offer.  The Sanskritist V. Raghavan, in his 1964 Sardar Vallabhai Patel Memorial Lectures, led his hearers on a tour where the itineraries of bhakti and its most sublime exponents—the Alvar poets, Virasaivas, Jnandev, Narsi Mehta, Jayadev, Caitanya, Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Tulsidas, Surdas, Mirabai, Laldeo, Tukaram, among many others—might reasonably be construed as having wrought a tapestry of emotional and territorial integration that led inescapably to the idea of “India” itself.  Raghavan described his religious subjects as “The Great Integrators: The Saint-Singers of India”, but he was scarcely alone in giving voice to such a view.  Two decades earlier, working in an entirely different medium, the artist Binodbihari Mukherji and his students created frescoes of these “Medieval Saints” on the walls of the Hindi Bhavan at Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati (pp. 275-83), a “world university” envisioned as a monument to interculturality, civilizational dialogue, and an integrated conception of the “human”.

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Kabir, the Poet-Weavr, with his Disciple, a painting from around 1825.

The more precise contribution of Hawley’s impressive study, which draws upon his four decades of experience of India’s massive devotional literature and the concomitant scholarship in a number of Indian languages, however lies in his delineation of the two major constituents of what would become known as the bhakti movement.  The central part of his story revolves around the notion of the four sampradays, that is the traditions of teaching and reception which were the conduits through which bhakti was thought to have made its way to the north from the south.  Secondly, two prominent Hindi scholars, Ramchandra Shukla and especially Hazariprasad Dvivedi, emerge as the principal figures who helped to shape the commonplace understanding of the bhakti movement.  This portion of Hawley’s narrative, esoteric and rather detailed at times, will be of interest mainly to specialists, but its wider import can be estimated if we pause to think how the idea of a bhakti movement became enmeshed with the desire to carve out a space for Hindi as something like a national language.

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Binodebihari Mukherji, “Medieval Saints”, a fresco at Visvabharati, Hindi Bhavan (North Wall)

Few scholars can claim the wide and erudite command over the literature that Hawley brings to his subject.  His articulation of the politics of knowledge that has informed the idea of the bhakti andolan (movement) is enviable and forces us to consider anew some of the most important strands of the cultural and intellectual history of India. However, some readers might find it amiss that there seems to be comparatively little analysis of bhakti compositions, and readers will get acquainted with very few bhakti poems or compositions as such.   Most of the verses that Hawley chooses to quote and analyze have a bearing on his discussion of the four sampradays: having dwelled on the notion of ‘movement’, the reader might perhaps in vain look for the spirit of bhakti.  More striking, still, is the comparatively understated role and near omission of certain major figures who, in various ways, were critical to the consolidation of the idea of a bhakti movement.  India, the great Bengali writer Bankimcandra Chatterji was to proclaim in Krsnacaritra (“The Life of Krishna”), had become overwhelmingly captive to the idea of bhakti, and this passivity and devotionalism seeded the country’s oppression under the Muslims and then the British.  The question of whether Bankim’s essay is at all persuasive aside, the influence of this long essay was very considerable and remains to be gauged.  Similarly, while Hawley recognizes the supreme importance of Narsi Mehta’s bhajan (devotional song), “Vaishnava Janato” (p. 28), in the Gandhian rhetoric of resistance to colonialism in the language of love, he might perhaps also have considered the fact that Gandhi dared to describe the venerated Rammohan Roy, the author of the “Bengal Renaissance” and by some measures the architect of Indian modernity, as a “pygmy” in comparison with Kabir and Nanak.  Nevertheless, in A Storm of Songs, Hawley has succeeded in gifting us an exceptional study of India’s much lauded bhakti movement.

 

[This is a modified and slightly lengthier version of my review of John Stratton Hawley, A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 2015), first published in the Canadian Journal of History (Spring-Summer 2017).]

 

 

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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime III

 

Nearly ten years ago I received an email from someone who had apparently been my peer when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins (1978-82).  I had nearly no recollection of him at all, but I must clearly have left something of an impression on him:  we were from being friends and had never exchanged any correspondence. He was now writing to me in the hope that he could enlist me as a foot-soldier in the crusade against abortion, and he was so emboldened in thinking because he remembered me as someone who talked often of Gandhi.  Surely, he told me, given that Mohandas Gandhi was almost certainly opposed to abortion, I had much the same abhorrence for abortion as did the Mahatma.  To press home the point about the undiminished evil of abortion and the wreckage of lives it entailed, he sent as attachments a number of grisly photographs of aborted fetuses. My computers screen seemed splattered with blood, fluids, and tissue. These images were calculated to provoke the same reaction of disgust and horror, and more, that photographs of the slaughter-house are intended to induce in the somewhat ambivalent meat-eater who might be on the fence.

Mohandas Gandhi had little occasion to write about abortion, but his position on this question may perhaps quite reasonably be inferred from his unstinting opposition to contraception.  Gandhi even met with Margaret Sanger, the American champion of contraception as a pill of liberation for women, but he remained unpersuaded that contraception heralded an advance for humanity.  However, certitudes about Gandhi are never easy, as scholars of Gandhi are keenly aware:  he retains, almost seventy years after his death and after a mound of scholarship, the ability to surprise.  Whatever his views on abortion, there can be little doubt that he would have found the violence and ferocity of the anti-abortionists, whose disdain and unbridled contempt for many of the living is matched only by their ingenuity in having themselves described as pro-lifers, deeply objectionable.  The subject of this brief rumination, however, is not Gandhi’s views on abortion, but rather the unfettered and single-minded devotion of the greater majority of Republicans, and especially what is called the Republican “leadership”, to the cause of making America abortion-free.  It is perfectly acceptable, on their world view, that the United States should remain the undisputed world leader in wasteful consumption, incarceration, solitary confinement, obesity, and other monstrosities that form the horror cabinet of everyday American life, but the country’s landscape should not be marred by abortion clinics.  All this, of course, is also on the assumption that the fetus is as much as a human as a Latina, an African-American, or the poor white.

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An anti-abortion demonstration. Credit: AP/Orlin Wagner.

This Republican “concern” for the dignity of human life may seem, at first glance, to be rather touching.   But to dissect the obsession over abortion that is the most distinctive characteristic of the American religious and political scene, one must ask the question that everyone is loathe to ask.  Nowhere else in the world do we witness the pitched battles over abortion that are played out in the Congress, on the airwaves, in demonstrations, and in arguments before American courts.  Why is that the case?  To be sure, there are a few other countries where disputes over abortion have triggered public disputes, as has been the case in predominantly Catholic Ireland.   Abortion, however, is not illegal in Ireland; but it is illegal in six countries, among them, not unsurprisingly, the Holy See (the seat of the Vatican), as well as—once again, mainly Catholic—Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic.  There are also another dozen countries, among them Iran, Haiti, and Malawi, where abortion is severely restricted.  One can be sure that the United States does not care to be lumped with these countries; if any Republican such as Vice-President-elect Michael Pence, whose own undisguised love affair with the fetus will be the subject of another blog, were to argue otherwise, one might encourage him to take residence in one of these exemplary lands.  On the other hand, the countries—among them, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, and Great Britain, to name just a few—that the United States does see as its friends and natural partners in the aim of bringing democratic freedoms to less fortunate people have permissive abortion laws.

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Two teens from an anti-abortion summer camp in Southern California that drew 1000 youngsters protesting at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Credit: Timothy Bella/America Tonight

To reiterate:  whatever the status of abortion in any other country, nowhere else in the world have the anti-abortionists displayed such venom towards not only advocates of abortion but towards women who seek recourse to abortion, and in no other “free” country does abortion animate with such intensity the passions of its opponents.  Abortion clinics have been bombed; abortion providers have been murdered and listed on “Wanted” posters by anti-abortion activists organized in groups such as the “Army of God” and “Operation Rescue”.  There is a contradiction writ large here, since in anti-abortion discourse it is the wanton and heedless enactment of passion that leads women to the path of evil.  What to speak of abortion, even contraception is described by many anti-abortionists as deplorable and an unmitigated sin.  Mick Huckabee, a former presidential candidate and one of the torch-bearers of the anti-abortion crusade, has said that “women are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido . . . without the help of government.”  In comparison with his soul-mate Rush Limbaugh, Huckabee seems almost moderate.  “So Miss [Sandra] Fluke and the rest of you feminazis,” Limbaugh announced on his radio talk show, “here’s the deal.  If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something.  We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

One might, of course, argue that the unregulated sexuality of women remains a pervasive concern among men everywhere, even in so-called “enlightened” societies.  But this common recourse to the template of “patriarchy” cannot explain why the dispute over abortion remains a raging fire in American society, to an extent that seems incomprehensible in much of the rest of the world.  The massive commentary on abortion that appears in print, on television and radio, and increasingly on social media sites has shed little or no light on this matter.  And yet the singularity of the anti-abortion movement, a holy crusade, in the United States begs for an explanation.  America, in the eyes of its most devoted champions, has long been envisioned as the shining city on the hill:  here, and here alone, in this fabulist narrative can every child make something of himself or herself.  It is the country where, from the standpoint of anti-abortionists, women should want to have babies.  If the United States is the promised land, women must surely want to be mothers—more so, that is, in the general sense in which women are enjoined to be mothers and thus fulfill themselves and do credit to men, their family and community, and the nation. Feminists who have explicated on the social reproduction of motherhood are doubtless right in pointing to the various ways in which the notion of the sanctity of motherhood works to restrain and confine women to certain spheres of life, but the anti-abortion crusade in the United States points to a more ominous conclusion.  Women who seek an abortion, and their supporters, are in the anti-abortion discourse which has now found a fresh lease of life fundamentally traitors—not just to the race of women, but to the nation called America—who have jettisoned the enchantments of the promised land and thus forfeited their own entitlement to liberty.

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He may be the “Father of the Nation”, but it is more than his reputation, lately under assault from all the wise ones, that lies in tatters.  A plaque at the entrance to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was confined for two years after he issued a call to the British to “Quit India” in August 1942, furnishes a brief introduction to this “monument of national importance”.

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Aga Khan’s Palace, Pune.  Source:  Khushroo Cooper, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kcooper/3074143937/sizes/o/in/photostream/

 

On my visit to this monument in March of this year, I found it in a state of utter dilapidation.  This is far from being India’s only “national monument” that has suffered from neglect and indifference; however, its association with Gandhi most likely ensures that it is not likely to see a revival of its fortunes.  If the murder of Gandhi was a permissive assassination, one celebrated by those elites who were enraged at the thought that the old man would if alive continue to exert an influence upon the affairs of a young nation-state struggling to find its feet in an evil world, permissive neglect seems to be the modus operandi through which Gandhi is slowly being sent into oblivion.

 

The Aga Khan Palace is remembered not only as the place where Gandhi served out the last of the many prison terms handed down to him by the colonial regime.  One of the most moving photographs in the vast archive of images of Gandhi shows a forlorn Mahatma sitting in a corner of the room across from the body of the deceased Kasturba.  She has lately, and not a moment too soon, come into the awareness of many as a woman who did not merely stand by her husband but was in the front ranks of those whose names are inscribed in the annals of anti-colonial resistance.  (No, it is not political correctness that has provoked an interest in Kasturba.) It is here, at the Palace, that their marriage which lasted over 60 years was brought to an end by her demise.  Not only that:  Mahadev Desai, reputedly closer to Gandhi than any of his sons, and often characterized in the Gandhi literature as his Boswell, also died during his confinement at the Aga Khan Palace.  In any other age, Mahadev, an uncommonly good writer and translator with a gift of observation and an exceedingly disciplined mind, would have achieved recognition as something more than the amaneunsis of Gandhi.

 

One might have expected, then, the Aga Khan Palace to be preserved as a treasured place in the nation’s history.  There are nearly a dozen large oil canvases; not all of the paintings are of great artistic merit, but they are a distinct and unique part of the repertoire of visual representations of Gandhi.  The canvas showing Kasturba in the cradle of Gandhi’s lap is not only unusual, but suggests a quiet intimacy between them which may not be visible to those who are determined to establish Gandhi as someone who exercised a tyrannical sway over Kasturba.

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One of the somewhat better preserved paintings, though “Rural India” is not very much on the minds of the Government of India or the country’s elites.  Photo: V. Lal, 2016.

“New Hope for Rural India” is one of the rare paintings of Gandhi that points to his engagement with the “Constructive Programme”.  All of the paintings are clearly in want of restoration:  the colors have uniformly faded, on occasion there are pigeon droppings, and the wooden frames show signs of decay.  Some paintings, shockingly, are now beyond repair.  Gandhi is little more than a white ghost in “A Crusader for Humanity”; many of the other figures are blurred.

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The artist was not attempting to create a blurred effect with his painting on Gandhi as a “crusader for human equality”.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

As is common in India, the museum displays resonate with inspiring slogans and exemplary didactic lessons—except that the unmistakable impression that is conveyed is that once the duty of parading homilies has been fulfilled, they can be easily dismissed as bearing little or no relationship to life.  Gandhi experimented for the greater part of his life with toilets that would work with little or no water.  One display in the Aga Khan museum complex is entitled “bhangi mukti” [freedom for the scavenger], but the lower half of the exhibit has been wiped out; the following panel, on the subject of “Cleanliness and Public Hygiene”, is one big blur.

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The slate of Gandhi’s teachings on cleanliness has been wiped clean!  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

Perhaps there is nothing accidental here: notwithstanding the hullabaloo over ‘Swacch Bharat’, the country has for decades blotted out the very idea of public hygiene from its consciousness.  V S Naipual had something nasty to say about this years ago, and however intolerable he is on most occasions, he had the gift both of observation and of writing.  But he was, not unexpectedly, roundly derided for reminding everyone of the shit that mars nearly every Indian landscape.  India, let us recall, holds—and by an exceedingly large margin—the world record for open defecation.  But there is something else about these paintings and displays that grabs the eye. Gandhi, even as he wrestled with issues of the greatest gravity, was always supremely attentive to the minutest details.  Here, at a museum dedicated to his life, the aesthetic sensibility is entirely lacking; not one frame or exhibit suggests any interest on the part of the curators, caretakers, or administrative staff in the extraordinary legacy that is under their charge.  The entire Palace and museum complex reeks of decay, indifferent, and neglect.

 

The shocking state of disrepair in which the Aga Khan Palace—a monument, let us reiterate, dedicated to the nation both for its place in the struggle for self-determination at a pivotal stage, and as the site of events critical to Gandhi’s life—has been allowed to languish is not likely to excite anyone’s attention.  The hostility to Gandhi among the advocates of Hindu nationalism is palpable.  Considerable segments of the RSS have thought nothing of glorifying his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who not coincidentally was born in Pune District.  Whatever the culpability, which cannot be doubted, of previous local administrations, neither the present local nor the state government can be expected to have any interest in reviving an institution intended to celebrate the life of a man whom they view as guilty of appeasing the Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation.  The Government of Maharashtra is securely in the hands of a BJP-Shiv Sena combine; the Shiv Sena’s former leader, the late Bal Thackeray, was often heard deriding Gandhi as a eunuch.  It is also worth recalling that Pune is the site of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a venerable research institution that was ransacked by Shiv Sena goons for none other than the reason that an American scholar, Jim Laine, had some years ago done research there to produce a book on Shivaji which his modern-day acolytes found to be inadequately reverential to their hero.  For those who pride themselves on the imagined glory of their martial traditions, a shrine dedicated to an effete Gujarati bania is just as soon forgotten.

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At this rate, all that will be left of Gandhi is pigeon droppings.  This panel is illustrative of the condition of many of the displays.  Photo:  V. Lal, March 2016.

However, the country’s left intellectuals will not be rushing to register their dismay at the state of this monument either.  Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly entitled “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate”, arguing that every constituency in India had a grievance with him.  In the intervening years, it has become almost obligatory to denounced Gandhi as a sexist and racist; and there are even websites that claim that he raped virgins and should have been jailed as a serial sex offender.  Some of his critics had been long been convinced that he had prevented the possibility of a “real” revolution—apparently, unless several million people have not been killed, or the enemy has not been exterminated in a calculated genocide, a genuine upheaval cannot be viewed as having taken place—in India, but lately we have also heard that his empathy for Dalits was nothing but a sham and that he even fortified the British empire in South Africa and India alike.  Arundhati Roy is, of course, much too smart and sophisticated to write a book with a title akin to something like ‘The Gandhi You Never Knew’, but the substance of her critique is effectively the same.  And that critique is nothing other than the stupid idea that the “real” Gandhi has been hidden from history.  If the state of the exhibits at the Aga Khan Palace suggests anything, it will not be long before Gandhi disappears altogether from public view.  Then India can celebrate its “real” independence and manhood.

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Vaishnava janato

A recent trip to Porbandar and Rajkot, where Gandhi spent his adolescent years, set me thinking yet once again about his religiosity.  Much like nearly everything else in his life, Gandhi’s religion defies easy description. Though Gandhi viewed himself as a Hindu, he also maintained that a man could describe himself as a Hindu and yet not believe in God. Many of his most determined foes harbored no doubts about Gandhi’s betrayal of the Hindus, but others were equally certain that he contaminated public life in India by his insistent resort to the paraphernalia of Hinduism—its stories, myths, symbols, and much else.  He almost never visited temples and everything in his conduct suggests that he remained indifferent to the temple-going experience; yet no one made as concerted an attempt as he did to open up Hindu temples to Dalits (or, as they were then known, the Untouchables).  Indeed, it is Gandhi’s attempts to open up the temples to Dalits that earned him the wrath of Ambedkar.  But the conundrums do not end here:  Gandhi venerated the Ramacaritmanas, the immensely popular version of the Ramayana penned by the poet-saint Tulsidas in the late fifteenth century, but he also insisted that passages in Tulsidas which were anathema to one’s conscience and reason—such as the one which characterizes drums, the illiterate, animals, the lower castes, and (disobedient) women as fit to be beaten—ought to be summarily rejected. To the end of his life Gandhi persisted in describing himself as a believer in the idea that Hinduism rightly prescribed duties for each of the castes (varnashrama dharma), but he made it known that he would only bless intercaste weddings. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.”  (As an aside, it is unthinkable that the Aam Aadmi Party could have embraced the broom as its symbol had Gandhi not set the precedent.)  He went so far as to declare that he would only want to be reborn as a scavenger (bhangi) whose very presence would be polluting to an upper-caste Hindu. Perhaps nothing underscores his anomalous standing as a Hindu more than two facts: while M.A. Jinnah—his staunchest political foe and eventually the chief instigator of the idea of Pakistan—persisted in viewing Gandhi as the supreme representative of the Hindu community, Gandhi’s assassin—a Brahmin from Pune by the name of Nathuram Godse—partly justified his act with the observation that Gandhi was not Hindu enough.

 

Unraveling the religious life of Gandhi is thus no trifling matter. Nevertheless, his life—extraordinarily complex in some respects, and equally straightforward from another vantage point—furnishes various windows into his religious thought and practice. The Bhagavad Gita was, to Gandhi, a manual for daily living; and it is in the Gita that we first encounter a description of bhakti yoga, the way to God through devotion. What is often referred to as the ‘bhakti movement’ had swept India from around the ninth to the sixteenth centuries, and in Gandhi’s native Gujarat the most famous exponent of bhakti was doubtless Narasinha Mehta, born into the orthodox caste of Nagar Brahmins around 1414. Much like other bhakta-poets, Narsi (as he is commonly known) was oblivious to caste differences and scarcely moved by bookish learning; and his biographers are agreed that he deeply offended his own community of Brahmins as he would often consort with the lower castes, even singing in the houses of the Untouchables and spending his nights in their homes. Narsi’s fellow Brahmins eventually excommunicated him, but Narsi was no more perturbed on that account: “They say I am impure, and they are right. / I love only those who love Hari [Krishna]. / I see no difference between one Harijana and another.” It is Narsi’s term Harijans, meaning “children of God,” that Gandhi would controversially adopt in the 1920s to designate the Untouchables.

 

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh:  The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh: The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro:  The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and   his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro: The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

 

Gandhi’s unbound affection for Narsi’s composition Vaishnava janato is as good a way as any to gauge the Mahatma’s religious sensibility. Vaishnavism—which takes its name from the god Vishnu—was an important part of the religious milieu in which Gandhi grew into adolescence, and in the opening chapter of his autobiography Gandhi describes his mother as a saintly woman for whom a visit to the “Vaishnava temple” was “one of her daily routines.” Gandhi was not particularly interested in the sectarian divide between Vaishnavas and Saivites (the followers of Shiva), and he sought to endow the term “Vaishnava” with a more capacious meaning. Narsi’s bhajan, or devotional song, permitted him to enter into the state of being of a true Vaishnava. Narsi sings: Vaishnavajana to tene kahiye, je pira parayi jaane re / par dukha upkaar kare, to ye man abhiman na aane re. Call only him a Vaishnava, says Narsi, who feels another’s pain as his own, who helps others in their sorrow but takes no pride in his good deeds. The rest of the bhajan further adumbrates the qualities of a Vaishnava, who is pure in thought, action, and speech; despising no one, and treating the low and the high alike, the Vaishnava adopts the entire human family as his own and so works for the liberation of everyone. It is from Narsi, and not from the Gita alone, that Gandhi imbibed the values of nonattachment, humility, and the renunciation of avarice. When, as Narsi says, “all pilgrimages sites are embodied within the body of the Vaishnava” (sakal tirtha tena tanma re), we are better positioned to understand why Gandhi did not share the Hindus’ propensity towards pilgrimage sites.

 

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Vaishnava janato was sung at Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings. As Gandhi commenced his almost 250-mile march to the sea in 1930, writes his biographer Narayan Desai, he was handed his walking stick by his close associate Kaka Kalelkar, and Narayan Khare sang Vaishnava janato. The bhajan remained on the lips of Gandhi and his companions throughout the Dandi March. Widely known as Narsi’s Vaishnavajana to may have been to Gujaratis, it was Gandhi who popularized it through the length and breadth of India. It has been set to music by some of India’s famous instrumentalists, among them Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. M.S. Subbalakshmi’s rendition has done much to give it an iconic status in the country’s staggering musical pharmacopeia, and more recent performances by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar have ensured its popularity. One of the more intriguing testimonies to the afterlife of Narsi’s bhajan is the fact that Sahmat, an activist cultural organization with a distinctly left-secular outlook founded in the 1990s, thought it fit to print a large poster of the bhajan in attractive calligraphy and circulate it widely. We may say that Gandhi attempted to live by the ideals described in Narsi’s devotional song, and he would have seen in the song’s popularity at least some faint signs of what he took to be India’s enduring interest in the spiritual life.

 

NOTE:  This piece will also appear in a new blog tentatively called “Gandhi Scrapbook” and to be launched shortly.  See

Gandhiscrapbook.blogspot.com.  Pieces on Gandhi will be posted on both this blog and the new blog until such time as the new blog is well established.

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Gandhi and Hilter:  In Close Proximity, at the Om Bookshop, Gurgaon

Gandhi and Hilter: In Close Proximity, at the Om Bookshop, Gurgaon

A Strange Case of Doppelgangers?

A Strange Case of Doppelgangers?

Mein Kampf, which by law cannot be sold in Germany, has much more than a respectable market in India. In a country where the sale of 5,000 copies is enough to warrant a title’s inclusion in the best-seller list, it is notable that a reprint of Mein Kampf by the Indian publisher Jaico had, as of June 2010, sold over 100,000 copies in ten years. When we consider that the book is also sold on the pavement in various pirated editions, the real sales figures are bound to be much higher. London’s Daily Telegraph, in an article published on 20 April 2009, first drew attention to this phenomenon with a striking headline: “Indian business students snap up copies of Mein Kampf”. Notwithstanding anything that Sir William Jones might have said in the late 18th century on the common Aryan links between Indians and Germans, or the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg’s views on India as the ancestral home of the Aryans, Indian students appeared to have eschewed the grand historical narratives that have animated so many intellectuals for something seemingly much more pragmatic. The same articles informs its readers that sales of Mein Kampf have been soaring in India as Hitler is regarded as a “management guru”, an opinion apparently derived from conversations with several booksellers and students. The owner of Mumbai’s Embassy Books, who reprints Mein Kampf “every quarter”, explained that Indians read in the book “a kind of a success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it”. A related BBC article, which appeared a year later, quotes a 19-year old Gujarati student, “I have idolised Hitler ever since I have had a sense of history. I admire his leadership qualities and his discipline.”

Hitler’s popularity in India arises from a conjuncture of circumstances and certainly shows no sign of diminishing; indeed, I wonder if the political ascendancy of Narendra Modi, who is similarly admired, especially by the Indian middle classes, for his “leadership qualities” and authoritarian style of governance, might not make Hitler an even more attractive figure. The evening before last, on a visit to the Om Bookshop at the Ambience Mall on the Delhi-Gurgaon border, where my friend Darius Cooper was launching his collection of short stories, I was struck by the extraordinary proximity of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Gandhi’s Autobiography on the shelves and in the display area. On one shelf, the two books were placed next to each other; closer to the cash counter, the two books were again arrayed next to each other in a display bound to catch the attention of most visitors. The salesman was luckily inclined to answer my queries: in the four years since the bookstore was established, Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s Autobiography had each sold something in the vicinity of around 500 copies at that store alone. I can’t say if I breathed a sigh of relief at being told that Gandhi had just marginally edged out Hitler—as well that he should have, considering Gandhi’s bania origins—though, as the reader shall find out shortly, this is far from being the case all over the country.

In India, and in much of the rest of the world, it has become commonplace to view Hitler as the supreme embodiment of evil in the twentieth century, just as Mohandas Gandhi is likely to be seen as the greatest instantiation of good. There are, of course, some exceedingly enlightened voices, so we are told, who would rather speak of Hitler and Gandhi as representing a strange case of doppelgangers. Slavoj Zizek, we might recall, gave it as his considered opinion that Gandhi was more evil than Hitler, and Gandhi has been much more than a source of irritation to one who extols the Gandhians with guns walking the Indian countryside and apparently creating revolution. But let us turn to the more conventional view: the cover of a fairly recent issue of Time (3 December 2007) sums up this opposition quite well: on the left side of a large sketch of the brain is a hologram showing Gandhi, and on the right side is a hologram featuring Hitler. The cover story is entitled, “What Makes Us Good/Evil”, and the caption accompanying the story states: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures––and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” In the land of his own birth, nevertheless, Gandhi appears to have been eclipsed by Hitler, and the comparative sales of Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, with the former outselling the latter by a margin of nearly two to one at the Crossword chain of bookstores, is only one of the telltale signs of the diminishing place of Gandhi in the country’s public life. The young who idolize Hitler’s life as a model of ‘leadership qualities’ and ‘discipline’ evidently have little knowledge of the manner in which Gandhi left his huge impress upon the anti-colonial struggle, forging a mass movement of nonviolent resistance that at times displayed an extraordinarily high level of discipline, and transforming the principal nationalist organization, the Indian National Congress, from a party of elites into a body of mass politics. Yet, if there were misgivings about Gandhi in his own lifetime, many of those have become aggravated in an India which views Gandhi as a backward-looking luddite who emasculated India and would have set the country hopelessly adrift in a nation-state system where national interest and violence reign supreme. In such a setting, Hitler’s idea of a virile nation set on a course of domination appears as an attractive alternative, even if it left Germany smoldering in ruins.

One might also suppose that it is but natural that Hitler should have a constituency in Mumbai, large chunks of which over the last few decades have been under the control of Shiv Sena, a political party comprised in good part of hoodlums who appear to have learned something about both terror tactics and racial ideologies of hate from the Nazis. However, as empirical and anecdotal experience alike suggest, copies of Mein Kampf have sold well in other parts of India, and as the BBC article noted, the more pertinent fact is perhaps that “the more well-heeled the area, the higher the sales.” The Indian middle class has been strongly inclined to view admirably countries such as Germany and Japan, the success of which, most particularly after the end of World War II left them in ruins, is held up as an example of what discipline, efficiency, and strenuous devotion to work can accomplish. Of Japan’s atrocities in the war very little is known in India, and the middle class gaze has seldom traveled beyond what is signified by the names of Sony, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, and the like; as for Hitler, the same middle class Indians marvel at his ability to command millions, forge an extraordinary war machine, and nearly take a country humiliated at the end of World War I to the brink of victory over India’s own colonial master. I heard from more than one person, in the weeks leading up to the World Cup final, that Germany deserved to win because it had the most “efficient” machinery of football domination. Yes, there is little doubt that Hitler, too, was supremely efficient.

There is, however, an equal measure of truth and falsity in the Daily Telegraph’s assessment of “the mutual influence of India and Hitler’s Nazis on one another. Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with the Fuhrer, pro-Independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army allied with Hitler’s Germany and Japan during the Second World War, and the Nazis drew on Hindu symbolism for their Swastika motif and ideas of Aryan supremacy.” Gandhi addressed two brief letters to Hitler, urging the German leader to renounce war and take advantage of his unparalleled sway over the masses to usher in a new era of nonviolence. But by no means can this be described as a ‘correspondence’ with the Fuhrer: exercising its wartime prerogatives of censorship, the British Government of India ensured that neither letter reached the addressee. Hitler never wrote to Gandhi: under these circumstances, ‘correspondence’ seems an extraordinarily extravagant description of what transpired. On the other hand, the invocation of Subhas Chandra Bose, who commenced his political career in awe of Gandhi but came to a parting of ways with the Mahatma, may perhaps go some ways in explaining the attraction felt for Hitler among India’s youth. Bose is revered nearly as much as Gandhi, and certainly has fewer critics; lionized for his relentless opposition to British rule, which eventually led him to an opportunistic alliance with the fascists, Bose is remembered most of all for the creation of the Indian National Army. In a daring escape while he was under house arrest in Calcutta, Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where he founded the Indian Legion, comprised of Indian POWs captured in North Africa and attached initially to the Wehrmacht. Its members, significantly, were bound to an oath of allegiance which clearly establishes the nexus between Hitler and Bose: “I swear by God this holy oath that I will obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose.” It is an equally telling fact that Hitler had little interest in granting Bose an audience, only agreeing to a short meeting more than a year after Bose’s arrival in Berlin—a meeting at which Hitler refused to issue a statement in support of India’s independence. Fooled perhaps by the esteem in which India was held by the supreme figures of the German enlightenment, from F. Schlegel, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Goethe to W. von Humboldt and Herder, and fooled too perhaps by his own personal affinity to Germans, one curiously shared by other supposed ‘radicals’, Bose seems to have been unable to fathom that, from the standpoint of Nazi ideologues, India was a living testament to the degeneracy to which the eastern branch of the Aryans had fallen when they failed to preserve their purity.

If the troubled relationship of a nationalist hero with the Nazis is insufficient to explain Hitler’s privileged place in the middle class Indian imagination, we may turn with greater success to the writings of Hindutva’s principal ideologues. At the annual session in 1940 of the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party founded to promote the political interests of the Hindus and advance the idea of a Hindu rashtra (nation), Savarkar, in his Presidential Address, described Nazism as “undeniably the saviour of Germany under the circumstances in which Germany was placed”. Though Savarkar’s admirers describe him as a man of great intellectual acumen, it is remarkable that his only riposte to Jawaharlal Nehru, who throughout remained a vigorous critic of both Nazism and fascism, was to argue that “Hitler knows better than Pandit Nehru what suits Germany best”: “The very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of Nazi or Fascist magical wand is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded.” M. S. Golwalkar, who presided over the RSS from 1940 to 1973 and became the chief spokesperson for the idea of a Hindu nation, was similarly moved to argue that “the other nation [besides Italy] most in the eye of the world today is Germany. The nation affords a very striking example.” That spirit which had enabled ancient German tribes to overrun Europe was once again alive in modern Germany which, building on the “traditions left by its depredatory ancestors”, had taken possession of the territory that was its by right but had, “as a result of political disputes’, been “portioned off as different countries under different states.”

Nazism was built, however, on the twin foundations of expansion and contraction: if the idea of lebensraum became the pretext for the bold acquisition of territories, Germany itself was to be purified of its noxious elements, principally the Jews but other undesirables as well, among them gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and mental retards. The treatment meted out to Jews was, from the standpoint of those desirous of forging a glorious Hindu nation, an object lesson on how Hindu India might handle its own Muslims. Much ink has been spilled on just who all were the advocates of the two-nation theory in India, though Savarkar is clearly implicated. “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation,” he told his audience while delivering the Presidential Address to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937; rather, “on the contrary, there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.” These two nations, moreover, did not stand on the same footing, as the Hindu alone recognized Hindusthan as his or her pitribhu (fatherland), matribhu (motherland), and punyabhu (holyland); the Muslim, his eyes always looking beyond Hindusthan, was a rank outsider. The fate of Indian Muslims was sealed: as Golwalkar put it unequivocally, “the foreign elements in Hindusthan” had but “two courses” of action open to them, entertaining “no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race,” or they were to live “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.” In all this, Golwalkar held up Germany as a country that might usefully be emulated by India: “Germany has also shown how impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”

How long will we, in India, continue to place Gandhi and Hitler alongside each other?

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"Martyrs of Humanity", cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

“Martyrs of Humanity”, cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

[On the occasion of the anniversary of the death of Mohandas K. Gandhi (January 30)]

There is but no question that Mohandas Gandhi remains, more than six decades after his assassination, the most iconic figure of modern India. He was one of the most widely photographed men of his time; an entire industry of nationalist prints extolled his life; and statues of his abound throughout India and, increasingly, the rest of the world.  Gandhi has been a blessing to cartoonists, ever since he signalled his arrival on the political scene in South Africa; and most Indian artists of consequence over the course of the last half-century, from M. F. Husain and Ramkinkar Baij to Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh and Atul Dodiya, have engaged with Gandhi in their work.  What is equally striking is that this immensely rich visual archive, which encompasses such unusual items as caricatures of Gandhi in Fascist publications, anti-Gandhi Soviet propaganda posters, and lewd comics of Gandhi from Tijuana, Mexico, has altogether escaped critical scrutiny –– barring some recent scholarly work on nationalist prints, and an occasional article on Gandhi and photography.

A distinct iconography began to develop around Gandhi’s figure in his own lifetime.  Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that, deities, the great bhaktas, and the founders of religion such as the Buddha aside, there is no figure in the history of India who could be so readily signified, whether by Gandhi’s trademark spectacles, his walking stick, the sandals he himself made, or the time-piece tucked into a corner of his dhoti.  Cartoonists delighted in those large ears that prompted Sarojini Naidu to dub him ‘Mickey Mouse’, and some of the most striking photographs are those where, in the midst of men dressed in overcoats, silk suits, or other formal wear, Gandhi appears singular in the shining armor of his nakedness.  One cartoonist had the good sense to represent the battle between Gandhi and the forces of violence as the struggle between ‘the shirtless’ and ‘the shirted’.

However, the various representations of Gandhi cannot be interpreted as offering a seamless narrative on his unique place in the national imaginary or as a figure of global protest.  What we do not see is just as important as what we do see.  Printmakers, photographers, painters, and sculptors are alert to different considerations.  The photographers of Gandhi, for instance, were naturally sensitive to the play of light and shadows, while printmakers drew on mythic material that they construed as the grounding of Indian civilization. The interpretation of public statuary leads us to a different set of questions:  where are statues of Gandhi placed, with what effect and consequences, and to what end?  The vast archive can also be viewed in the light of other interpretive strategies.  We can speak, for example, of ‘the seated Gandhi’, ‘the walking Gandhi’, ‘the spectral Gandhi’, and so on.  A consideration of ‘the sartorial Gandhi’ would enable us to gauge his life from the clothes that he wore at different stages of his awakening, and arrive at an assessment of how, after he had made a decision to reduce his clothing to the bare minimum, he came to embody, in the most profound ways, the idea of nakedness in its fullness.

It is, as we approach the anniversary of the Gandhi’s assassination on January 30th, of ‘the martyred Gandhi’ that I shall now speak.  Many have argued that Gandhi had a premonition of his death.  There had been several assassination attempts on his life in the preceding fifteen years.  What is unequivocally clear is that he spoke often, especially in the aftermath of Indian independence and the country’s vivisection, of wanting to die –– as he told his grand-niece Manu after the failed attempt on his life at Birla House at January 20th, ‘On this occasion I have shown no bravery.  If somebody fired at me point-blank and I faced his bullet with a smile, repeating the name of Rama in my heart, I should indeed be deserving of congratulations.’  On January 27th, Gandhi, still recovering from the fast that brought peace to Delhi and conviction to Nathuram Godse that the old man no longer deserved to live, told the visiting American journalist Vincent Sheean, ‘It might be that it would be more valuable to humanity for me to die.’  Yet, at other times Gandhi had, with equal assurance, declared that he wished to live for 125 years.

Some still dispute whether Gandhi died with the name of Rama on his lips.  The front cover of the 25 January 1970 issue of Illustrated Weekly of India echoes the confusion and shock experienced by all those around him; unusually, the revolver seems almost suspended between the assassin’s hands, though by all accounts Godse executed the task with firm and efficient resolve.  Indian printmakers went to work almost immediately after Gandhi’s death, likening him to Christ and Buddha:  though Gandhi was no founder of a religion, he seemed to some of his contemporaries to have had a similar impact on those who encountered him or had some awareness of his teachings.  These printmakers borrowed effortlessly, recognizing no cultural boundaries.  Gandhi adored Michelangelo’s Pieta and would have been humbled by the comparison.

Gandhi was also a world historical figure and his death was registered across the globe.  In the United States, the eminent cartoonist D. R. Fitzpatrick, long associated with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was reminded of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  His cartoon, ‘Martyrs of Humanity’, points to the place that Gandhi had come to occupy in the American imagination.  One doubts very much that the nation-state meant to Gandhi what it meant to Lincoln, but the image provokes precisely such questions.  Two decades later, another assassination would shake the world.  More so perhaps than any other cartoonist, Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times captured the poignancy of the killing of another architect of non-violent resistance.  In his famous cartoon, published in April 1968, an avuncular-looking Gandhi stretches out his hands towards Martin Luther King in a show of solidarity and says, ‘The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.’  Men such as Gandhi, who knew better than most the art of dying, have to be assassinated repeatedly.

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(First published under the same title in Sunday Times of India, 27 January 2013, p. 9)

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An epidemic of fasting has of late engulfed India.  Some months ago, the social reformer Anna Hazare, whose activities over the last three decades had been largely confined to his village Ralegan Siddhi or the area around it, or at most to his native Maharashtra, burst upon the national scene with a 5-day fast at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to highlight the problem of corruption.  Hazare again pressed his demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill with a spectacular show of force at the Ramlila Grounds in August, and much of India’s attention was riveted on the 74-year old man who, having put his body on the line with an indefinite fast, seemed to have stunned the government into submission.  Many decades ago, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, George Orwell, in an appreciative if critical assessment of his life, marveled at the fact that Gandhi would take a public decision to fast and, as it seemed to Orwell, the entire country would come to a standstill –– not once, or twice, but on a dozen or more occasions.  Not for nothing was Gandhi the Mahatma.  Some in our times have marveled at the fact that a former truck driver who has something of the appearance of a country bumpkin, and who seems to have little in his personal appearance, demeanor, oratorical skill, or worldview that might resonate with the middle classes, should be the one to revive memories of a time when Gandhian nonviolent resistance rewrote the rules governing dissent.

 

When Hazare went on a fast, so did 65 other men and women at Azad Maidan in Mumbai.  Seventeen of them persisted to the end, breaking their fast on the thirteenth day alongside Hazare.  One other who followed in Hazare’s wake has now come into the limelight:  Anna Hazare and Narendra Modi, the detractors of both say, are joined at the hip. They have openly expressed admiration for each other, though Hazare has stated that his advocacy of Modi does not extend beyond the Chief Minister’s apparent skills in shepherding Gujarat to the model ‘development state’ in India.  Two weeks ago, Modi commenced his ‘Sadbhavana’ mission, and his letter to the public, issued as a full-page advertisement in newspapers across India and featured on his slick website, which is available in five languages, described his 72-hour fast as ‘a prayer for togetherness’.

 

The twenty first century, wrote Modi, ‘did not begin well for Gujarat.  In 2001, the devastating earthquake on our Republic day, took a very heavy toll.  In the subsequent year, Gujarat became the victim of communal violence.  We lost innocent lives, suffered devastation of property and endured lot of pain.’  Many see this statement as the first expression of atonement by Modi in the nearly ten years since the pogrom against Muslims, in which Modi and many senior officials in his government are believed to be implicated, took over 2,000 lives and rendered tens of thousands more homeless.  ‘I am grateful to all those’, Modi adds, ‘who pointed out my genuine mistakes during [the] last 10 years.’  Modi does not, of course, admit that it was largely the Muslims who were the victims; indeed, like any good officer of the law, he is careful not to mention any community by name.  It is Gujarat that became ‘the victim of communal violence’:  the passive construction encourages the reader to believe that there was no agency in the killings; no responsibility can be assigned for the crimes that occurred.

 

Every action, Modi had infamously said when the killings were taking place, leads to a reaction, ‘Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai’; as Donald Rumsfeld put it, apropos of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad and other atrocities following the American invasion of Iraq, ‘Stuff happens.’  When the Supreme Court ruled that it would send the case against Modi back to the High Court, Modi and his friends swiftly interpreted the gesture as a vindication of the Chief Minister.  ‘God is great’, Modi had tweeted, but his public letter on the eve of his fast does not even remotely advert to this background.  His letter concludes with the rationale for his fast:  Modi will ‘continue to pray to the Almighty’ so that he develops the strength that prevents him from harbouring ‘any ill-feeling or bitterness’ towards those who defamed the state of Gujarat and maligned him personally.

 

No sooner had Modi announced his fast than he began to be taken to task.  The Congress, not surprisingly, described it as a ‘gimmick’, and it was soon characterized as a ‘five-star’ fast and public ‘spectacle’ when it surfaced that Modi would hold the fast in Gujarat University’s Convention Hall amidst 2,000 policemen, elaborate media arrangements, LCD screens, ten counters to receive bouquets and gifts, and teams of medical specialists.  Meanwhile, Shankersinh Vaghela, a one-time BJP leader who is now one of the more prominent faces of the Congress in Gujarat, announced that he would counter Modi with his fast at Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Ashram.   The Sabarmati Ashram is a hugely symbolic site, but not only for the obvious reason that it was here that Gandhi established a foothold upon his return from South India or that it is from the ashram that Gandhi launched his march to Dandi.  Sabarmati Ashram, in a shocking repudiation of everything that Gandhi stood for, shuts it doors to Muslims seeking refuge from marauding bands of killers in 2002.  Even if Gandhi’s legacy has been mercilessly dumped in his home state, even if at every turn middle class Gujaratis have rejected him as the very antithesis of what a modern, developed, and respected nation-state ought to look like, Modi and Vaghela have not been slow to understand that Gandhi’s name still carries immense cultural capital.

 

Hazare, Modi, Vaghela:  these are only the more visible faces among countless numbers who in India have taken to fasting, and in their midst are the likes of Irom Sharmila, a 38-year old woman from Manipur who has been fasting since 2000 in her quest to have the state repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian piece of legislation that activists describe as the death-knell of democracy.  Gandhi never had to suffer the indignity of being force-fed; Irom Sharmila, by contrast, has often been force-fed, released, and then re-arrested on her resumption of fasting.  Her long struggle is more reminiscent of the ‘cat and mouse’ game waged between English suffragettes, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and the British government which led to the imposition of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act in 1913, popularly dubbed the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.  Nevertheless, in India the comparison with Gandhi is almost always unavoidable.

 

Gandhi was the modern master of the fast; and, yet, he did not just stumble upon fasting, nor was he the first to come to an awareness of how the body could be inserted into the body politic and create waves.  In one of his lesser-known plays, “The King’s Threshold”, William Butler Yeats wrote about a practice long extant in Ireland (and, though Yeats was not entirely aware of this, in India).  When a creditor was unable to collect an outstanding loan from a debtor, and found himself unable to call upon the forces of the state to help in the redressal of his grievance, he would come and sit outside the debtor’s door and refuse to move –– and thus refuse to eat.  To sit dharna in India similarly means to render oneself into an obstacle; and this act of ‘door-sitting’, as more than one Indian medieval text in India informs us, has fasting as its necessary concomitant.  India even had its own form of the medieval duel.  It was not unknown for the debtor to commence fasting when the creditor refused to partake of food at his doorstep.  We speak today of surrogate mothers and fathers, but India had long pioneered the idea of surrogate hunger strikers.  If, as was often the case, the creditor was a moneylender, he occasionally hired a Brahmin to sit and fast in his place.  Whoever prevailed could claim justice on his side.

 

There can scarcely be as dramatic a text for insights into traditions of political fasting in India as Kalhana’s 12th century ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir’ known as the Rajatarangini.  This book by a Kashmiri Brahmin furnishes incontrovertible evidence of the widespread recourse to fasting.  King Chandrapida himself fasted as a form of penance, in atonement for his inability to bring to justice the murderer of a man whose widow sought death by starvation unless punishment were inflicted on the guilty man (IV:82-99).  The remedy of fasting, however, appears generally to have been available only to Brahmins, and Kalhana was not averse to passing sharp remarks on the ease with which members of his community would, singly or collectively, stage a hunger strike to safeguard their interests.  As an illustration, Kalhana describes the events that transpired in the year 1143, in the reign of Jayasimha.  Enraged by a plot to overthrow the king, in which they suspected the hand of the ministers Trillaka and Jayaraja, ‘and anxious to safeguard the country’, the Brahmins commenced a hunger strike ‘directed against’, notes Kalhana, ‘the king’ –– the king because he had, through his weakness and inaction, permitted the kingdom to fall into ruins.  Kalhana suggests that the Brahmins may at first have been moved by noble intentions; but, ‘intoxicated with their own knavery’, they ‘obstinately persisted in their perfidious course’ until they had prevailed upon the king to dismiss his honest minister Alamkara and promise them that he would ‘uproot Trillaka after he had disposed of the pretenders to the crown’ (VIII:2737).    Elsewhere Kalhana describes the contagion of fasting:  in 1211 AD, when the Brahmins at Aksosuva ‘held a solemn fast directed against the king’ to protest against the pillage of their monastery, the Brahmins ‘in the capital’ followed suit, and were in turn emulated by ‘the members of the Temple Purohit Association’ (VIII:898-900).  Hunger strikes had become so common, if Kalhana is to be believed, that officials were appointed to be especially ‘in charge of hunger-strikes’ (VI:14).

 

Though there is nothing to suggest that Gandhi was aware of the Rajatarangini, there is but no question that he had some familiarity with Indian traditions of hunger striking.  He termed most hunger strikes, which he distinguished from fasts, as a form of ­duragraha –– a distinction that today is upheld in the contrast between anshan and upvasa.  Gandhi would have been the first to recognize that there may never be anything like a pure fast, entirely free of coercion –– certainly not if one’s fast is in the public domain, or likely to have political consequences.  Many of the principles of fasting to which he adhered are now common knowledge, and everyone recognizes, for example, Gandhi’s insistence on listening to one’s inner voice, or his idea that fasting is a form of communion between oneself and one’s own God.  Rather than trying to resolve whether Hazare, Modi, Vaghela, and others meet the standards that Gandhi set for himself when he embarked on a fast, we might try to aim at a different comprehension of the Gandhian universe itself.  Gandhi’s many fasts, his enemas, his weekly day of silence, and much more:  all this was a way of emptying himself, reducing himself to zero, silencing the noise within, rejuvenating his tired limbs and mind –– all the more so that he could lead life to the fullest.  How does one begin to comprehend the enormity of a life where one’s own body becomes the site of ecological homage to mother Earth?

First published in The Times of India, The Crest Edition (1 October 2011), p. 10.

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