Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals are betrayed every day by those who distort Hinduism to promote a narrow, exclusionary bigotry.
Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary year (2 October is his 149th birthday) comes at a time when his legacy, the very idea of Gandhi, stands challenged by the prevailing ideological currents. At a time when the standing of his historic detractors, whose descendants now form the ruling dispensation in the country, is at an all-time high, Gandhiji has been criticised for weakness, for having bent over too far to accommodate Muslim interests, and for his pacifism, which is seen by the jingoistic Hindutva movement as unmanly.
The Mahatma was killed, with the name of Rama on his lips, for being too pro-Muslim. Indeed, he had just come out of a fast he had conducted to coerce his own followers, the ministers of the new Indian government, to transfer a larger share than they had intended of the assets of undivided India to the new state of Pakistan. Gandhiji had also announced his intention to spurn the country he had failed to keep united and to spend the rest of his years in Pakistan, a prospect that had made the government of Pakistan collectively choke.
But that was the enigma of Gandhiji in a nutshell: idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined, a man who answered to the beat of no other drummer, but got everyone else to march to his tune. Someone once called him a cross between a saint and a Tammany Hall politician; like the best crossbreeds, he managed to distil all the qualities of both and yet transcend their contradictions.
The contradiction is mirrored in the attitude of the Hindutva-inspired BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi was schooled, like other RSS pracharaks, in an intense dislike for Mahatma Gandhi, whose message of tolerance and pluralism was emphatically rejected as minority appeasement by the Sangh Parivar, and whose credo of non-violence, or ahimsa, was seen as an admission of weakness unworthy of manly Hindus.
Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar, whom Modi has described as one of his heroes, had expressed contempt for Gandhiji’s ‘perverse doctrine of non-violence and truth’ and claimed it ‘was bound to destroy the power of the country’. But Prime Minister Modi, for all his Hindutva mindset, his admiration of Savarkar and his lifetime affiliation to the Sangh Parivar, has embraced Gandhiji, hailing the Mahatma and even using his glasses as a symbol of the Swachh Bharat campaign, linking it to a call to revive Gandhiji’s idea of seva through the recent ‘Swachhata Hi Seva’ campaign.
This may, or may not, represent a sincere conversion to Gandhism. PM Modi is hardly unaware of the tremendous worldwide reputation that Mahatma Gandhi enjoys, and is too savvy a marketing genius not to recognise the soft-power opportunity evoking Gandhiji provides, not to mention the global public relations disaster that would ensue if he were to denounce an Indian so universally admired. There may, therefore, be an element of insincerity to his newfound love for the Mahatma, as well as a shrewd domestic political calculation.
But the ambivalence speaks volumes: when many leaders of Hindutva groups, including BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, call for replacing Gandhiji’s statues across the country with those of his assassin, Nathuram Godse, the PM seeks to lay claim to the mantle of his fellow Gujarati for his own political benefit.
At the same time, there is also a tangible dissonance between the official governmental embrace of Gandhiji and the unofficial ideological distaste for this icon, which is privately promoted by members and supporters of the present ruling dispensation, some of whom have not hidden their view that his assassin was, in their eyes, a patriot.
It is a well understood reality that the vision of Gandhiji, an openly practising Hindu, differed greatly from that of Veer Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, the principal ideologues of the Hindu Mahasabha and what was seen as its more militarised alter ego in the post-Independence era, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and eventually, the Bharatiya Janata Party (formerly the Jan Sangh).
Gandhiji embodied the central approach of Advaita Vedanta, which preached an inclusive universal religion. Gandhiji saw Hinduism as a faith that respected and embraced all other faiths. He was profoundly influenced by the principles of ahimsa and satya and gave both a profound meaning when he applied them to the nationalist cause. He was a synthesiser of cultural belief systems: his signature bhajan of Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram had the second line Ishwar Allah Tero Naam. This practice emerged from his Vedantic belief in the oneness of all human beings, who share the same atman and therefore should be treated equally.
Such behaviour did not endear him to every Hindu. In his treatise on ‘Gandhi’s Hinduism and Savarkar’s Hindutva’, social scientist Rudolf Heredia places his two protagonists within an ongoing debate between heterogeneity versus homogeneity in the Hindu faith, pointing out that while Gandhi’s response is inclusive and ethical, Savarkar politicises Hinduism as a majoritarian creed.
But Gandhiji’s own understanding of religion, in Heredia’s words, “transcended religiosity, Hindu as well as that of any other tradition. It is essentially a spiritual quest for moksha but one rooted in the reality of service to the last and least in the world”. Unlike Savarkar, who believed in conformity, Gandhiji was a synthesiser like no other who took care to include Indians of other faiths in his capacious and agglomerative understanding of religion. He took inspiration from not just Advaita Vedanta but also the Jain concept of ‘Anekantavada’ – the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently by different people from their own different points of view, and therefore, no single perception can constitute the complete truth. This led him to once declare that ‘I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Parsi, a Jew’.
Hinduism and Hindutva, as I have argued in my recent book Why I Am a Hindu, represent two very distinct and contrasting ideas, with vitally different implications for nationalism and the role of the Hindu faith. The principles Gandhiji stood for and the way in which he asserted them are easier to admire than to follow. But they represented an ideal that is betrayed every day by those who distort Hinduism to promote a narrow, exclusionary bigotry.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.