Spiritual journeys of the Mahatma

Gandhiji used religion to unite people and spread love, but today we find it used to divide and spread hatred.

October 06, 2019 12:07 am | Updated 12:07 am IST

Mahatma Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi.

“Gandhi essentially belongs to the line of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda, and as if by divine wish, Gandhi erred into politics,” K. Swaminathan, Chief Editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi , had said. And so it is that Gandhi took two mantras to his countrymen, Vande Mataram (from a Bankim Chandra Chatterjee work) and Ram Ram (from the Ramayana). In those days, the sastras did not permit upper caste Hindus to travel abroad crossing the oceans, but in the case of Vivekananda, this code did not apply since he was a sanyasi.

When young Mohandas prepared to go to London for studies, people of his caste threatened his family with Jatibhrashta (expulsion from one’s caste). Gandhi was able to convince his people that age-old beliefs which were irrational should be rejected. Through persuasion and determination, he managed to convince his people and get permission to go abroad. The determination to fight for a cause was present even then in the young mind.

Vivekananda was a monk who took up social issues such as caste and untouchability, women’s rights, freedom, poverty and ignorance. “Awake, arise and stop not till the goal is reached,” he said. But how to unite a society which is vertically and horizontally divided? The key is again in religion. With all its imperfections and inequalities, religion holds the people together. Gandhiji used to begin his public meetings with a new common prayer, “ Iswar Allah terey naam ”.

Men on a mission

Vivekananda went to Chicago where his talks on Vedanta attracted the world’s attention. The notion in the West that India was a land of a million gods and as many castes and people kept in slavery and steeped in superstition had to be displaced.

A land with a rich civilisation, a people reduced to slavery, its wealth plundered by successive bands of invaders was awakened by the call of Vivekananda. Gandhi, a young lawyer, went to South Africa. There, the sufferings of his countrymen stirred his conscience and the barrister took up the cause of Indians deprived of even basic human rights.

The satyagraha in South Africa attracted the attention of the colonial masters and they were alarmed at the challenge posed by their subjects and it a new kind of war they had to now face. During the trial in the court in South Africa, Gandhiji was given the choice to withdraw the struggle and live peacefully or be deported to India. Gandhiji said, “The choice is with the court.”

He fought for his people till justice was done — be it in South Africa or India. If anything, the deportation order only helped shift the battleground from South Africa to India, a far wider theatre.

Finding faith

As Gandhiji had faith in religion, religious leaders reposed faith in him. In the course of his nation-wide tour canvassing support for his movement, Gandhiji met many people in many places. In Kerala, he met Sree Narayana Guru, a spiritual leader from the suppressed class and a social revolutionary. When the Kanchi Sankaracharya Sri Chandrasekhara Saraswathi was camping in Palakkad, Gandhiji went to meet him. They were closeted together for some 30 minutes and afterwards, neither disclosed what had passed between them.

Sometime later, in the presence of his devotees and the followers of the Mahatma, the Kanchi seer said that his kaavi (saffron) robe was khadi-spun. What better tribute can a spiritual leader pay to the Mahatma?

Spiritual politics

The first biography of Gandhiji was written by a Christian missionary, Rev. J.J. Doke, when Gandhiji was engaged in a satyagraha in South Africa. He compared satyagraha to the passive resistance of Jesus, and observed that Gandhiji’s satyagraha was not a political adventure, but a spiritual mission.

Writers, both Western and Indian, have produced tomes of Gandhian literature and from among them, the one that comes to the mind first is Erik Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth — On the Origins of Militant Non-violence . It was published for the Gandhiji centenary and rated as a bestseller that year.

It is said that Westerners understand Gandhi better than we do. Some Indians put him on a high pedestal; others pull him down. About this trend, Sundara Ramasami, a Tamil novelist well-versed in Gandhian thought, said, “Gandhi’s mind was groomed in Indian tradition but he developed a Western outlook.”

His adherence to Indian tradition came from his birth in a pious Hindu family and his Westernised outlook came from his education abroad. Gandhi could see the cow as a “poem of piety” and he could be firm in opposing reserved constituencies for oppressed castes. Indian political observers find in this a conflict of views, while Western thinkers find a fusion of Eastern philosophy and Western diplomacy.

On Gandhiji’s 150th birthday, we ask ourselves whether his message has any relevance or it ends as a mirage. Gandhiji used religion to unite people and spread love, but today we find it used to divide and spread hatred. Yet, we are a nation of optimists and believe that there are will always be Arjunas to fight for a right cause.

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