I attended a talk by Ramachandra Guha at the Chennai Mathematical Institute in Chennai on January 27. In the talk titled, The Multiple Careers of Mahatma Gandhi, Guha put forward his claim that Gandhi was unquestionably the greatest figure of the 20th century and then treated the audience to an engrossing hour and a little more trying to justify his claim.
Here's what Guha had to say (his views paraphrasing his words).
Gandhi simultaneously had four careers (rather callings, since he wasn't doing these like you and me to pay the bills). In each of his four callings, Gandhi innovated and forged novel techniques to address what he saw as the fundamental problems. In each of the four callings he was bitterly opposed by multiple groups including those having diametrically opposite views to each other. Gandhi was a truly universal thinker who stands out for his enduring trans-Indian relevance.
Gandhi's four callings included that of a
- Freedom fighter
Gandhi was able to crystallise the diverse consituencies into a single force in a successful manner to achieve freedom for the nation.
He invented the concept of mass satyagraha - a means of non-violent struggle against colonial rule. Before him, there were two different schools of thought on how to go about achieving freedom from colonial rule. On the one hand were the constitutionalists who were basicaly pacifists petitioning the government, appealing to their sense of fair play and working through strictly legal means. On the other hand were the violent revolutionaries threw bombs and aimed to kill British officers hoping thereby to frighten the British into leaving.
Gandhi realised that the pacifist approach was not enough and deeply abhorred the violent approach as well. So he thought of Satyagraha - a means of peaceful mass protest that both the pacifists (who thought his methods too radical) and the violent revolutionaries (who thought non-violence was too sissy a means and not macho) were vehemently opposed to.
- Social Reformer
Gandhi worked towards undermining the institution of social untouchability and many times he put this calling of his ahead even of the Freedom Fighter. He adapted satyagraha in this calling of his and used the idea of temple entry to symbolically challenge the upper caste perception of social untouchability by congregating in front of a temple with a group of untouchables and demanding the right to worship with the uppercastes, in a non-violent manner.
In 1933-34, Gandhi undertook a padayatra through South India which was fully as important as the Dandi March of 1930 in its significance, given that the British were supporting separate electorates for untouchables. The padayatra was to promote the abolition of untouchability, which Gandhi felt was a deep and fundamental flaw in Hindu Society. When we are trying to get freedom from the British, how could we deny the same to a certain section of our own society? Without ridding society of this fundamental inequality, we would not have the moral right to demand freedom from the British.
Gandhi started the Harijan Sevak Sangh and went through the small towns of Karnataka and Kerala and raised money to open up temples for harijans and also start schools for harijan children. A shrewd bania, he adopted a novel method of fund-raising. He had obtained autographs of all popular congress leaders and would sell these for money at all the public meetings in the small towns across south India. Fortunately for us, the entire story of this padayatra of his is recorded in complete detail since the British had sent intelligence agents to follow every single move of Gandhi during his period. They simply did not believe that Gandhi's sole motive was social reform and assumed that this was only a fig leaf for his real motive of inciting the populace against the British. All the intelligence records are now available in the India Office Records at the British Library in London
His attention shifted, after a massive earthquake in Bihar in March 1934, and Gandhi called off his padayatra.
In his attempts at social reform, he again had two sets of opponents who were against methods. Ambedkar and his followers felt he was not doing enough to eliminate untouchability and the upper caste Hindus felt he had no business to challenge the structure of Hindu society. In fact the Shankaracharyas sent a petition to the British that Gandhi must be derecognised as a Hindu!
He was also very successful in addressing gender issues, but practice was always ahead of theory. For e.g. he didn't wholly approve of women working, but he was more successful than any one else in bringing more women into public life than any other leader in any other part of the world.
- Religious Pluralist
Gandhi felt that religion answered a fundamental human need which would not disappear with the advent of industrialisation or modern science, but would always have a role.
He devised the idea of interfaith prayer meetings as the means to help bridge the gulf between religions. This idea of his has enduring and compelling relevenace and deserves further study.
Gandhi met with resistance from three different groups of people to his idea of interfaith prayer meetings.
- The Scientists: who believed that religion and rituals were a manifestation of a backward culture which had no place in an industrialising world. Nehru and Betrand Russell were of this belief.
- The Proselytisers: who believed their religion was supreme and so there was no reason to accept other religions as equals
- The Hindus: who never proselytised, but felt that their religion was superior and other religions were somehow lesser and unclean. The Hindu fundamentalists exemplified by Godse also felt that Gandhi was giving too much importance to the other religions at the expense of Hinduism.
Gandhi was opposed to elevating one religion over another. Gandhi had conversations with many people from other religions and one such person was his close friend C.F. Andrews (who was the only one who used to call Gandhi by his first name Mohan. All others either addressed him either as Gandhiji or as Mr. Gandhi). Gandhi is to have said that his objective from these conversations was not to convert Andrews to Christianity, but to make him a better Christian and similary for Gandhi himself to become a better Hindu by learning from the teachings of Jesus Christ, who was truly an apostle of non-violence. Gandhi aimed for the good of one religion to get the good out of the other.
Gandhi's idea of using interfaith prayers to bring religions together was innovative - it was unknown before his time.
Gandhi was deeply concerned about the effects of industrialisation and modernisation and what he saw as the resulting destructionist tendencies. The analogy that comes to mind is that of the moth and the flame with the moth going faster and faster around the flame and finally perishing.
He drew on the thoughts and ideas of his disciple J.C. Kumarappa, whose ideas would today be called Appropriate Technology. Kumarappa called for a focus on decentralised, small scale and ecologically friendly approach to industrialisation. (For more on Kumarappa, see a brief life sketch of J.C. Kumarappa (1892-1960) on the web site of the Kumarappa Institute Of Gram Swaraj and a two part article in The Hindu titled What manner of men: Part I and Part II.)
Arguments with Gandhi and the universal relevance of Gandhi
Gandhi' life has been a series of criticism and arguments and those arguments and criticism continue today. Verrier Elwin wrote in a letter to his mother that the professional duty of every Indian seems to be to criticise Gandhi. (The very lively and passionate question and answer session at the end of Guha's speech showed the enduring nature of Verrier Elwin's remark!)
In the early 90s, when the Ram Mandir issue was at its peak, veteran Gandhian Dr. Sushila Nair (also Gandhi's personal physician) went to Ayodhya to promote peace and held an interfaith prayer meeting outside the Babri Masjid. They were singing "Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram" and at the phrase "Ishwar Allah Tere Naam" some Hindu militants who had gathered tried to disrupt the meeting. Being a Gandhian, Dr. Nair peacefully went up to them and asked them "Aap aise kyon kar rahe hain? Aise mat kijiye. Hum Gandhiji ki taraf se aaye hain" and the response of the militants was "aur hum Godse ki taraf se aaye hain" ("Why are you doing this? Please don't do this. We have come on behalf of Gandhiji", to which the militants responded "and we have come on behalf of Godse").
Another person who examplified the intense feelings that Gandhi generated was Kondapalli Sitaramaiah, the leftist leader. Sitaramiah had never met Gandhi, but saw him as his political opponent and felt compelled to symbolically deride Gandhi. One of the first things he did after his release from a prison term was to go to Gandhi's house in Porbandar and spit in front of the house.
When Richard Attenborough made the famous (but historically flawed) film on Gandhi, it was celebrated by many but deeply resented by many as well. Pakistan was forced to make a film on Jinnah and films have since been made on the lives of Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Veer Savarkar and Subhash Chandra Bose as well in rebuttal. There has also been a successful play to put across Godse's point of view. There is no doubt that if Attenborough hadn't made Gandhi, none of the other films would have been made.
Gandhi had many political opponents - Jinnah, Ambedkar, Bose and others, who were all great men. But what distinguished Gandhi from the rest and makes him stand out?
Gandhi was the only Indian whose work is relevant not just to India, but also has a trans-Indian relevance - Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Solidarity in Poland and many others have all drawn inspiration from Gandhi's work. Gandhi was a truly universal thinker and the reach of his ideas is such that he leaves everyone else behind.
In a parting thought, Guha said Gandhi is unquestionably the most original thinker since the Buddha. We succeeded in kicking out the Buddha. Will we succeed in kicking out Gandhi?.
Guha also related an incident from his own life to drive home the universal relevance of Gandhi. Some years back Guha had been invited by the University of California at Berkeley to offer a course on a subject of his choice and he proposed to offer a course titled "Arguments with Gandhi". His hosts at Berkeley felt there wouldn't be enough interest for such a course and suggested alternative topics like the environment vs development debate, but Guha persisted and his hosts reluctantly let him go ahead. Guha was nervous about his decision but on landing at Berkeley, Guha was extremely surprised to find an ad in the local newspaper which said "Only Gandhi knows as much as us about Fast - We give you your prints in 5 minutes"! He felt reassured that a local business thought its target audience would know enough about Gandhi to understand the ad, with a clever pun at that. His course turned out to be quite a hit with a sizeable number of people from a wide variety of backgrounds turning out for the course.
Guha mentioned that he had been studying Gandhi for a while now, but still had much left to study and hoped one day to be able to write a book on Gandhi.
This talk was the fifth in a series of talks titled Ideas for All organised by the Chennai Mathematical Institute.
The Hindu also carried a report on Guha's talk.
For those interested, Nathuram Godse's defense of himself is available online.
Here is a list of other speeches that I have attended or come across in recent times (with a brief summary and/or a transcript of the speech).