Why we value Gandhi?
A Hindu Perspective
Vijay Mehta firstname.lastname@example.org
The Gandhi Foundation
A talk given at the 2005 Annual Multi- Faith Service (Kingsley Hall, London)
We all have our own ways of remembering Gandhi. When I was a little boy, my father, an intellectual and a solicitor who strongly believed in the ideals of Gandhi, took me to many of his daily prayer meetings. This multi-faith service brings me back to that part of my childhood.
When questioned about the beliefs which an orthodox Hindu should hold, the reply tends to include:
With these in mind, we may assert that Hindu systems of philosophy, and religious movements and teachings, are motivated not merely by the purpose of discovering Truth but also by realising Truth in We. In other words, the teacher analyses the nature of Reality, so that the student may no longer be caught up in the cycle of rebirth but may achieve moksha.
The story of Gandhi and his religious thought are intertwined. It lies in his ability to criticise Hinduism from within, a common feature of the religion through the ages. He was a major figure of the twentieth century, to the extent that the centenary of his birth was commemorated in 1969 by almost every country in the world when special stamps were issued. In India he is probably best remembered now for his contribution to the Independence Struggle (in this Richard Attenborough got it right. In the nineteen-eighties, Lord Attenborough directed a film, Gandhi, which brought this great Indian to the attention of many people who had never heard of him. His spirituality emerged implicitly but the film emphasised his political role). Almost every Indian town has a street named after him, and most towns of any size boast a statue. His samadhi in Delhi, a square plinth of black marble, is a place where all visiting dignitaries must pay their respects. In London's Tavistock Square, there is a beautiful and emotive statue where marigolds can still be seen, placed in his honour.
Each day he held a morning and evening prayer meeting, first at his ashram in Sabarmati, then at Wardha. The ashram hymnal, bha-janavali, included Rock of ages, Abide with me, Who would true valour see, and his favourite Christian hymn, Lead, kindly light.
According to Gandhi, God and dharma are inseparably linked, and both are combined with moksha. Religion and politics could not therefore be divided. Dharma and moksha were social not individual concepts. In the Gita, Krishna (God) is a friend (bandhu) who comes to Arjuna in his time of distress. This should be remembered when we read that for Gandhi, Truth is God'. Truth is no impersonal absolute nor a substitute for God. Truth clarifies what God meant when he used the term. It is also a source of power; hence his use of the word satyagraha, truth force. Once he explained it thus:
Its root meaning is holding onto truth, hence truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul-force.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to fit Gandhi into any of the philosophical schools of Hindu philosophy, because of his belief in an ultimate unity between God and the universe. He wrote:
I subscribe to the belief or the philosophy that all life is in essence one and that humans are working consciously or unconsciously towards the realisation of that identity. The belief requires a living faith in a living God who is the ultimate arbiter of our fate.
Elsewhere he wrote:
Man's ultimate aim is the realisation of God, and all his activities, social, political and religious have to be guided by the ultimate aim of the vision of God. The immediate service of all human beings becomes a necessary part of the endeavour, simply because the only way to find God is to see him in his creation and be one with it. This can only be done by service for all. I am part and parcel of the whole, and I cannot find him apart from the rest of humanity.
The search for salvation or liberation can be selfish, claimed Gandhi; hence his criticism of the sannyasin who left society, including his family, to pursue his own spiritual journey. Buddhist teachers and Swami Vivekananda had expressed the view that no one would obtain moksha until the last one had achieved liberation. Gandhi shared the view that:
He is a true Vaishnava (devotee of Vishnu) who feels the suffering of others as his own suffering.
Gandhi and Hinduism today
At present there is a resurgence of Hindu nationalism, accompanied by a suspicion of Islam and Christianity as alien to India and threatening to Hindu values. Even moderate Hindus may be heard to say that they have been too tolerant to the minority religions. There has been a recent rise in militant Hinduism, seen in the growth of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has won considerable support in recent times. This trend is dangerous for the rise of Hindu nationalism can potentially threaten democracy and the rights of minorities.
We are all admirers of Gandhi, but like other great leaders, he was only human as shown in his peculiar ways. During his formative years in South Africa, his attitude towards black South Africans was far less benign, while his decision to remain celibate raised questions about his sexuality.
It is in the area of religion that the teaching of the Mahatma might best be remembered and revived. Gandhi is a reminder, as Ram Mohan Roy and Dayananda Saraswati were before him, that Hinduism possesses the ability to criticise and reform itself from within. As the religion moves in a more nationalistic and militant direction, there are many other Hindus who wish to maintain the secular principles of the Indian Constitution, and who believe that it is time to turn again to the teachings and practices of the Mahatma.
In conclusion, it will be appropriate to quote Gandhi again about the section of society he cared deeply for:
Recall in the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him, will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to control over his life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj, self-rule, for the hungry and also spiritually starved of our countrymen?
Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.
Just like the prayer meeting is etched in my memory, his funeral, which I attended, remains a poignant moment. I remember being immersed among the tens of thousands of his followers as we marched to his resting place. The sheer scale of the event is a testimony of the legacy he left behind. Lets us endeavour to act on the wisdom and knowledge he worked so hard to spread.