Gandhi’s Religion

Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 2019

(First of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The subject of Gandhi’s “religion” has never been more important than at present when Hindu nationalism is sharply ascendant and Hindu pride is being championed as a necessary form of the reawakening of a long subjugated people.  The contemporary Hindu nationalist narrative also feeds on other propositions, among them the conceit that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, the view that Hinduism is uniquely tolerant, the apprehension that Hinduism’s tolerance has historically rendered it vulnerable to more aggressive faiths, and the twin conviction that Indian civilization is fundamentally Hindu in its roots and that secularism is alien to India.

Gandhi would not have abided by much of this worldview.  Indeed, he would have been sharply critical of what is represented by Hindu nationalism, and therefore it becomes imperative to assess what he understood by Hinduism, what it meant for him to be a Hindu, the relationships that he forged with Muslims and Christians, and the centrality of Hindu-Muslim unity in his thinking. It is well to remember that Gandhi’s assassin felt justified in killing him partly on the grounds that Gandhi had betrayed the Hindu community.

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The more secular-minded have thought it fit, with some justification, to characterize his religion as manavta (humanity), manav seva (the service of humankind), or sarvodaya (the welfare of all).  But the fact remains that Gandhi often declared his belief in varnasrama dharma and he remained a devout Hindu.  The roots of Gandhi’s religious worldview and conduct must be located in the religious milieu from which he emerged and in which he was raised.  Gandhi’s predilection for the Vaishnavism of his household and the region was reflected later in his life, one might say, by his fondness for Narsi Mehta’s bhajans, most famously “Vaishnava Janato”, and Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas. His mother belonged to the Pranami sect which, if centered on Krishna worship, showed a remarkable ecumenism in also drawing upon the Quran and the Bible and multiple linguistic traditions.  But Jainism also left a deep impress upon Gandhi from the outset, and Gandhi drew upon all three traditions in his thinking about ahimsa and what Jains call anekanantavada, “the many-sidedness of perspective”.

Gandhi has himself said that he first acquired an understanding of textbook Hinduism in England. He first became familiar with the Gita, a work which would in time become his life-companion, in the English rendering of it by Edwin Arnold called “The Song Celestial”. The world of Christianity really opened itself up to him in South Africa: the Old Testament put him to sleep, but portions of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, moved him deeply.  And it is in South Africa that he encountered a great many missionaries, who all came to the conclusion that it was impossible to convert Gandhi to Christianity since he was a much better Christian than any they had ever encountered.

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Gandhi had known Indian Muslims in South Africa and he addressed the question of Hindu-Muslim unity in Hind Swaraj (1909). Nevertheless, it was upon his return to India in 1915 and his immersion into Indian public life that made him gravitate to the view that the question of Hindu-Muslim unity was pivotal.  Indians, and most historians, have gravely misunderstood his advocacy of the Khilafat as an attempt by him to extract from Muslims in exchange their support for a ban on cow-slaughter. Rather, he had by this time, around 1920, come around to the position, radical then and now, that both the Hindu and the Muslim are incomplete without each other. This would remain one of the cornerstones of his religious belief.

In reflecting upon what endures from Gandhi’s lifelong and extremely rich understanding of the religious life, some principles stand out. First, in moving from the proposition that ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’, Gandhi sought to signal a certain inclusiveness and suggest that the core of ethical life is the quest for Truth.  A confirmed non-believer such as the social reformer Gora, who wrote a fascinating little book called An Atheist with Gandhi, could partake of Gandhi’s religious universe.  Secondly, he stood by the idea that no religious outlook was acceptable, no matter how venerable a text, until it passed the litmus test of one’s individual conscience.  He unequivocally rejected passages from the Ramacaritmanas and the Quran that he found unacceptable.

Thirdly, Gandhi firmly rejected the idea that there is any kind of hierarchy to religions.  This is one among several reasons why he was not sympathetic to the idea of conversion, even as he recognized the absolute right of an individual to her religion.  The individual who seeks to convert has an inadequate comprehension of his faith, and there is practically nothing that one religion has to offer which is not to be found in other religions. Fourthly, Gandhi believed strongly that the practitioner of a religion has a moral obligation to understand other faiths.  He was a strong advocate of the fellowship of religions, and he pioneered the prayer-meeting as a new form of intercommunal and intercultural samvad.  The Hindu should pray, Gandhi was to write, that he should become a better Hindu, that the Muslim and Christian should become a better Muslim and Christian, respectively; similarly, a Muslim should pray not that the Hindu should convert, but that the Hindu should be a better Hindu, the Muslim a better Muslim; and so on.

Finally, and most critically, Hinduism to Gandhi was a religion of mythos not of history.  He couldn’t care an iota whether Krishna had been a historical person and arguments about the historicity of Krishna or Ram not only left him wholly unimpressed, but he found them singularly unproductive and antithetical to everything that he understood by Hinduism. When we consider that the entire Ramjanmabhoomi movement has been predicated on demonstrating the historicity of Ram, we can see how far modern-day Hindu nationalists have drifted from the spirit of Hinduism.  They claim to be freeing the Anglicized and deracinated Hindus from the stranglehold of Western interpretations but nowhere is the colonized Hindu to be seen more clearly than in the figure of the Hindu nationalist.  Their Hinduism and Gandhi’s Hinduism have almost nothing in common.

(First published on 2 October 2019 in the Daily Mail newspaper in a slightly shorter version under the title, “Gandhi preached a unity of religions“.)

Readers can access at least fifteen other essays on Gandhi on this blog using the search function.  Some of those essays include the following:

The Imprint of a Man’s Life:  Visualizing Gandhi’s Biography” (27 Oct 2018)

Footloose and Fancy Free:  The Killers of Gandhi in Modern India” (2 Oct 2018)

“The Homeless Gandhi” (30 January 2018)

Vaishnava Janato:  Gandhi and Narsi Mehta’s Ideal of the ‘Perfect Person'” (25 February 2015)

 

 

 

 

*A Woman’s Curse and the Death of a Hero

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Pragya Thakur, May 2019. Source: Hindustan Times.

 

On Wednesday, April 17, Pragya Singh Thakur enrolled in the BJP.  Hours later, she was nominated by the party to contest the elections from Bhopal, where the BJP has not lost in nearly three decades.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended his party’s decision to give her a ticket with these words, “They defamed a 5000-old culture that believes in Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam. They called them terrorists. To answer them all, this is a symbol and it will cost Congress.”

What a supposedly “5000 year-old culture” has to do with the nomination of a woman charged with heinous crimes of murder, terrorism, and the incitement of hatred between religious communities is far from being clear, but the Indian Prime Minister is not known to be a clear-headed thinker.  No one has even remotely suggested that Hinduism—which is not the same thing as either Hindutva or Hindu nationalism—ought to be linked to the terrorist attacks in Malegaon, Ajmer, and elsewhere more than a decade ago, and for Modi and the BJP to pretend otherwise points to the desperation, deceit, and rank opportunism that drives them to play the communal card.  Obfuscation is the first weapon of those whose only conception of worship involves the naked admiration for power and a ruthless determination to wield it in their own self-interest.

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Malegaon Bomb Blast 2008: Accused Muslim Men were Made Scapegoats, according to a headline in the Times of India.

Let us be clear about what is at stake in the BJP putting forward the name of Pragya Thakur as the party’s candidate for a Lok Sabha seat from Bhopal.  On 8 September 2006, during the festival of Shab-e-Barat, three serial blasts rocked Malegaon in District Nashik, Maharashtra, leaving 40 dead (mainly Muslims) and 125 injured.  The police and Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) took into custody nine Muslim men and extracted false confessions after torturing them and conducting Narcoanalysis tests that were not authorized by any court.  Two years later, bomb blasts once again shook Malegaon:  this time the bomb was fitted on a Hero Honda motorcycle registered to Pragya Thakur, who was arrested a month later in October 2008.  She was charged with offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and spent eight years in jail, and is presently out on bail—furnished partly on the grounds that she is in poor health, though whatever ailments she has have clearly not prevented her from running for office.  Indeed, she has been campaigning vociferously for the Bhopal seat.

Meanwhile, in January 2008, Hemant Karkare was appointed head of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), and it in consequence of the investigations by him and members of his team that a conspiracy among Hindu extremists, in which Pragya Thakur played a critical role, to terrorize Muslims was uncovered.  In December 2010, a man going by the name of Assemanand, whose real name is Naba Kumar Sarkar, confessed before a magistrate that the Malegaon blasts of 2006 and 2008 had been carried out by a radical Hindu group in “revenge against Jihadi terrorism”.  Pragya Thakur was named as the person who had assumed responsibility for assembling terrorist teams to carry out the 2008 Malegaon attack.  According to the chargesheet filed by the National Investigative Agency, Thakur, Aseemanand, and various other radicals had lengthy discussions and they “developed (a desire for) vengeance not only against the misguided jihadi terrorists but against the entire Muslim community.”  Aseemanand subsequently retracted his confession.

Just how exactly the investigations against these Hindu extremists proceeded, and with what consequences, is another story.  What emerges quite clearly from the reports is that Pragya Thakur is not only unprincipled, ruthless, and vituperative in her hatred towards Muslims, but that she has played the role of a ‘holy’ and aggrieved Hindu woman who is animated purely by love for the motherland to her advantage.  She calls herself Sadhvi, a devout woman given to the cultivation of spirituality, but this designation grossly ill suits her.  She would not, of course, be the first spiritual renunciate to hunger after power.

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Hemant Karkare (left); Pragya Thakur (right).

Pragya Thakur’s recent remarks regarding Hemant Karkare, who was killed in the line of duty during the coordinated attacks on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in late November 2008, are if anything more illuminating of her disingenuousness and her extraordinary capacity for manipulation.  Karkare was declared a hero for his part in attempting to neutralize or kill the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists and posthumously conferred the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime award for gallantry.  Less than two months before his death, Karkare had traced the Malegaon bomb blast to Pragya Thakur and it is his investigation that led to her being taken into custody.  Thakur now claims that Karkare had to die—and, so to speak, at her hands as in sending her and her fellow conspirators to jail, he had caused Hinduism’s custodians grievous harm.  Pragya Thakur says that she cursed Karkare, “I had told him you will be finished, and he was killed by terrorists in less than two months.”

As Pragya Thakur spoke these words at a press conference, the members of the BJP who stood by her side clapped.  It says something about the execrable state to which the BJP has fallen that a woman who stands charged of terrorist offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as well as charges under the Indian Penal Code of murder, criminal conspiracy, and incitement to hatred against members of another community, should now be championed as a defender of the faith and be rewarded with political patronage.  But it is her “curse” that is striking:  in India, at least, the curse remains a potent force of excommunication and revenge, as much as a peculiar demonstration of the power of primal (female) energy.  The curse is everywhere in the Mahabharata and Ramayana; it is part of the sensibility of the epic.  It has worked its way into the sinews of Indian society; it speaks in a language that resonates with many.

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Gandhari curses Krishna, from the Mahabharata.

In stating that she had hurled a curse on Karkare, and that he was thus doomed to death, Pragya Thakur has cast herself as a woman wronged.  The power of the virtuous is thought to form the backdrop of the curse.  Many commentators have supposed that Hindutva is most “successful” or effective when it exercises its muscle, but Pragya Thakur’s invocation of the curse suggests that Hindutva’s pharmacopeia runs deep.  I have long argued that Hindutva cannot be combated merely by producing better histories, or exposing what the secularists call ‘myths’, and Pragya Thakur’s “curse” on Karkare points to the fact that the forces arrayed against Hindu nationalists, bigotry, xenophobia, and religious hatred will have to be inventive and similarly resourceful in their deployment of Indian traditions, cultural norms, and popular lore if they are to force Hindutva on to the back foot and bring back civility and a genuine commitment to pluralism in Indian politics and society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The men with puffed-up and bloated chests who have run the country, or rather have run the country into the ground, are now counting upon a woman who claims that her shaap (curse) sent the leader of the anti-terrorism squad of one of the country’s principal police forces to his death.