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.

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*The Intellectual Legacy of Dr. Manu Kothari, Part III: Gabbar Singh and the Cardiologist

On an October evening in 1977, Manubhai received word of the unexpected demise of his younger brother Dipak, an orthopedic surgeon based in New Jersey.  Manubhai has described his brother in Living, Dying thus:  “Dipak was a tall, handsome person, athletically built and inclined.  He had neither diabetes nor high blood pressure, nor excess weight—none of the ‘risk’ factors.”  No one in the family had ever complained of anginal pain; and, yet, at 30 years of age, Dipak had suffered a massive heart attack and passed away in his sleep.  It was a “rude shock” for Manubhai, but then “the head consoled the grieving heart, persistently driving home the point that death’s mathematics does its task governed solely by Pascalian probabilities, irreverent in the face of medical attempts at prevention, diagnosis and treatment.”  On reading this, I was reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s starkly beautiful essay on “Compensation”, where he described the loss of his small son as akin to the “loss of a beautiful estate, no more” (or words to that effect).  He wrote of his experience, “I cannot get it nearer to me”, words that have disturbed his detractors and some of his admirers who opine that Emerson was unable to feel anything.  Quite to the contrary, Manubhai, as Emerson much before him, had a deeper understanding of death as a soulmate, a profound awareness that the laws of compensation cannot be denied, and that what appears as a tragedy in one’s own personal life “is but a part of the impartial, fully just, greater order.”  It would be superfluous to add that, as with the case of cancer, Manubhai remained an unrelenting critic of coronary care, which he did not deign to redeem even as a form of dignified plumbing.  His conclusion to the article that he wrote on “Coronary Care” for the aforementioned The Future of Knowledge and Culture sums up his views:  “Our advice to the lay and the learned is to stay away from the well-conceived but useless and harmless procedures comprising invasive coronary care.  The cardiologists and coronary surgeons are riding a tiger they fear to dismount, lest the dollar Niagara come to a sudden end.  Angiography, by itself untrustworthy, inevitably spawns—plasty and/or bypass, the trio comprising costly iatrogeny on a global scale.  A wise person avoids any assault on the coronary tree, no matter how sophisticated the laser, reamer, rotor or what have you.”

Any tribute to Manubhai that does not acknowledge his wry sense of humor, erudition, love of literature, and cheerfulness would be woefully incomplete.  I last saw him, I believe, in or around March 2009.  He invited me to a leisurely breakfast at his home with him and Jyotibehn and two memories of that visit will persist with me to the end.  We had been discussing politics in Gujarat, and he was just as bothered as I was by the obscenity of some of the violence perpetrated in 2002.  Quite suddenly, Manubhai threw this question at me:  ‘What do you think is the holy book of the Gujaratis?’  I knew that he did not have the Bhagavad Gita in mind, nor the Tulsidas Ramacaritmanas, certainly not the Vedas; for a moment, I thought he might have had in mind the songs of Narsi Mehta, the great devotional poet.  But somehow I also sensed that Manubhai was laying a trap for me; and yet I could not bring myself to think of an answer beyond the ordinary.  I don’t now recall what I said; but whatever it was, it was not a patch on the brilliantly funny and incisive answer Manubhai had:  the cheque book!  We had a hearty laugh.  Later that morning, as we left his apartment, we made our way to the train station: for years, Manubhai had taken the local to KEM Hospital.  It was absolutely characteristic of him that he should travel in modesty:  however dreadful the cliché, “simple living, high thinking” seemed to furnish the motor to his life at every turn.

Manubhai died as he lived; moments before his death, I am told, he had been chatting and laughing away.  Not accidentally, one of the men he admired the most was J B S Haldane, a polymath who made significant contributions to physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, statistics, biometry, and various other fields; more to the point, Haldane, an Englishman of considerable pedigree who was educated at Oxford and had published his first scientific paper at the age of 20, migrated to India in 1956 and eventually took up Indian citizenship.  Haldane, to Manubhai’s mind, stood for the other West—a West that was critical of its own past, tolerant of dissenting traditions, aware of the homology between colonial dominance and the suppression of women, religious minorities, and people of other ethnicities, a West with which, in other words, India could enter into partnership.  Haldane thought of India as a freer country than any other, and some of his thoughts may be surmised from his observation that “the people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson. I don’t think their activities are very efficient, but that is not the question at issue.”  Percy Bysshe Shelley, be consoled:  it is not only poetry that makes nothing  happen.  Haldane passed away in 1964, but not before he had written a poem on his hospital bed, “Cancer’s a Funny Thing”, from which Manubhai quoted frequently:

I wish I had the voice of Homer

To sing of rectal carcinoma,

Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,

Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked . . . .

Cancer could be “rather fun”, says Haldane,

Provided one confronts the tumour

With a sufficient sense of humour.

I know that cancer often kills,

But so do cars and sleeping pills;

And it can hurt one till one sweats,

So can bad teeth and unpaid debts.

A spot of laughter, I am sure,

Often accelerates one’s cure;

So let our patients do our bit

To help the surgeons make us fit.

Manubhai was far ahead of his times, and it may take a few generations or more for us to understand the manner in which he lived and how he helped us all to become “fit”.

Coda:  Shortly after I finished writing this, by sheer coincidence my friend Ajay Singh sent me the following joke:

कार्डियोलोजिस्ट और गब्बरसिंह में क्या समानता है?
दोनो यही सलाह देते है कि तूने नमक खाया है अब गोली खा ।
(What is common to the cardiologist and Gabbar Singh?  Both come forward with this advice, ‘You ate salt, now bite the bullet.)
To audiences familiar with the world of the commercial Hindi film, this joke will resonate strongly:  The outlaw Gabbar Singh, featured in the immensely poplular film Sholay (“Embers”, 1975), shoots dead one of his henchmen, one of those who ate his salt, when he finds him no longer competent in discharging his duties.
(concluded)
See also parts I and II

*Vaishnava Janato: Gandhi and Narsi Mehta’s Conception of the Ideal Person

 

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.