Ahimsa has no political hue

Gandhi and Upadhyaya responded in strongly similar idioms, with non-violence as a central concept, in trying to chart an ethical course for a newly decolonised India

Updated - April 12, 2016 09:46 am IST

Published - October 02, 2015 02:05 am IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

In 1909, while aboard a ship sailing from London to South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj . The only anecdote about its creation that could possibly convey the intensity of his vision is that he wrote with such fury that when one hand started aching, he wrote with the other. He wrote it in Gujarati and in English. More than a century later, his righteous fury against a world going wrong seems truer than ever.

While Hind Swaraj and Gandhian thought have been taken up for serious study in academia, there has been very little discussion of another manifesto for decolonisation, which was delivered as a lecture 50 years ago, by an unassuming thinker who, respectfully enough, acknowledged > Hind Swaraj right at the beginning. >Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya ’s Integral Humanism lectures pick up, in many ways, from questions of the sort examined by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj .

Vamsee Juluri
Hind SwarajswarajswarajHind Swaraj

Similar idioms What is profoundly similar to both Gandhi and Upadhyaya (and temptingly easy to overlook in hasty or superficial readings) is the deployment of > ahimsa as an intellectual tool to answer these questions. It is telling that one of the first ideas Upadhyaya engages with in Integral Humanism is that of the “survival of the fittest”. Drawing a parallel between the “law of the jungle” and the idea of the “six lower tendencies of human nature” (lust, anger and so on), he argues that a philosophy can recognise such brutal tendencies, but cannot presume to build whole cultural and social edifices upon them (in the manner of colonial modernity, by implication). It is significant that both Gandhi and Upadhyaya respond in similar idioms, but slightly different terms of reference, to an ethnocentric, colonial cultural presumption, which has now spread even more deeply into the global consciousness through mass media and modern education: the notion of human nature, or just nature in general, as being innately violent. And sadly, the belief in violence and nature remains widespread today even in discourses about another topic deeply explored in both documents, which is religion.

Critics who think of Gandhi as an anachronism or Upadhyaya as a mere soft-cover for some hard majoritarian agenda should respect the incredible similarity of their views on religious universalism as well. Gandhi might have called it “that religion that underlies all religions” and Upadhyaya might have preferred the more homely notion of dharma (which he clearly states is more of a universal ethical ideal rather a creed, while expressing his opposition to theocracy). There is, of course, a far more elaborate use of what may be called metaphysical idioms in Integral Humanism than in Hind Swaraj , but in the rush to level charges of essentialism or supremacism using stray comments, one must not lose the global import of the vision. Upadhyaya, after all, rose from a far more humble origin than many cherished intellectual leaders of that time, and his far-reaching cosmopolitanism for a man who privileged circles might put aside as “provincial” for his appearance or simplicity is an accomplishment of spirit and intellect. His love for India’s civilisation, he says after all, is not of the archaeological kind, to be mummified and preserved in fantasies about a pristine or glorious past. It is about elevating “nara” to “Narayana,” or the human to the divine.

Engaging with diversity The real genius of India’s civilisational legacy perhaps is its ability to engage with diversity deeply and meaningfully enough to restore the primacy of what is important, and dismiss the distractions of the superficial and the deleterious. With the earnest interest being expressed in Pandit Upadhyaya by members of the present government, we can hope that we will find the return of ahimsa as an important guiding concept in India’s sense of itself, after a long, and violent run of post-colonial divide-and-rule identity politics.

Critics on the Left will do well to recognise that a leadership with a reigning philosopher like Upadhyaya does not deserve blind demonisation. Critics on the Right should also recognise that the new-found passion for celebrating unsung heroes of the Independence movement should not turn into a crude stoning of the man this world still calls, even with his mistakes and faults, a “Mahatma” for good reason. Rather than linger, with petty distractions, on which identity group betrayed who, perhaps it is best to honour the architects of a vision for a moral India by focussing on himsa as the central problem of our times. And, perhaps, given the incredible coincidence of birth dates here, we might consider celebrating the week from September 25 (Upadhyaya’s birthday) to October 2 (Gandhi Jayanthi) as ahimsa week every year, and dedicate it to the study and practice of these two eloquent visions that remind us that decolonisation still has a long way to go.

(Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of  Rearming Hinduism.)

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