(The Pioneer, 1 January 2014)
Shortly before independence, Mahatma Gandhi asked Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to step down as candidate for the Congress leadership and hence for the upcoming job of Prime Minister. It was the only way to foist Jawaharlal Nehru on India, as Sardar Patel would easily have gotten a majority behind him. Yet, Nehru was overtly Westernized and known to be in favour of industrialization and modernization, while Gandhi was reputedly opposed to this approach.
Was Patel’s outlook not more capable, more popular and more Gandhian? With the benefit of hindsight, we can moreover say that the choice for Nehru ultimately led to the festering Kashmir problem, to proverbial socialist poverty, and to the communalization of the polity. Yet, when Gandhi made his fateful pro-Nehru move, he tried to minimize its importance and laughed it off: “Jawaharlal is the only Englishman in my camp.” This was a most curious reason, as Gandhism was popularly taken to imply a choice for native culture and against Westernization. But then, Gandhi himself was not really a votary of Gandhism.
Superficially, of course, with his spinning-wheel, he seemed to be the colourful paragon of Indian swadeshi (native produce) ideals. But there already, the problem starts. Indian culture had never opted for willful backwardness. In its time, the Harappan culture played a vanguard role in industry and trade. When you compare the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, you find decisive technological progress: Arjuna has abandoned Rama’s bow and arrow (not to speak of Hanuman’s mace, the primitive weapon par excellence) for a sword and a chariot. Jokes about Hindus highlight their uptight and greedy nature, but none would question their entrepreneurial skills. Indeed, Indian emigrants to more libertarian countries, and now also the native Indians relatively freed from socialist controls, have surprised everyone with their economic success.
It is the British who de-industrialized India, thus dooming it to backwardness and poverty. In order to give some justification to their policy, they fostered the idea of a “spiritual” India, uninterested in material progress. Gandhi proved to be a faithful propagator of this British notion. He also tapped into an anti-modern fashion in the West, where some intellectuals got tired of industrialization and set up autarchic communes.
Although Gandhi led the Freedom Movement, he was also a British loyalist. He volunteered for military service in the Boer War and in the suppression of the Zulu rebellion, and recruited for the British war effort in the First World War. From 1920 onwards, as the formal leader of the Indian National Congress, he got crowds marching but didn’t achieve much in reality. He let his enthusiastic foot-soldiers down. Initially, it was still possible to be both pro-British and pro-Indian, e.g. Annie Besant’s Home Rule League aimed for autonomy (swaraj) within the British Empire, on a par with “grown-up” states like Canada and Australia. In 1929, however, Congress redefined its goal as “complete independence” (purna swaraj). Mass agitation highlighted and popularized this goal, but Gandhi’s subsequent conclusion of a far less ambitious pact with Viceroy Lord Irwin betrayed his own pro-British feelings, not shared by his disappointed younger followers. In 1927, he had indeed blocked a similar resolution for full independence, pleading for dominion status instead. From 1942 onwards, as India’s independence was being prepared, he was relegated to the sidelines. When Prime Minister Clement Attlee finally announced the transfer of power, the memory of Gandhi’s mediagenic mass campaigns was only a “minimal” factor, as he confided later in an interview.
Being a loyalist of a world-spanning empire, Gandhi was at least immune to a rival Western fashion: nationalism. His opponent Vinayak Damodar Savarkar took inspiration from small nations seeking their nationhood, like the Czechs and Irish wanting independence, or Germany and Italy forging their unity, as exemplified by Savarkar’s translation of Giuseppe Mazzini’s book championing Italian nationalism. His “Hindu nation” was numerous enough, but centuries of oppression had given it the psychology of a defensive nation. Gandhi, by contrast, had the outlook of the multinational empire. That helps explain why in 1920 he could become enamoured of the Caliphate movement, defending the Muslim empire from which the Arabs had just freed themselves. It certainly explains his incomprehension for the founding of Hindu nationalist organizations (Hindu Mahasabha 1922, RSS 1925) in reaction against his tragicomical Caliphate agitation.
In his youth, Gandhi had been influenced by Jain and Vaishnava saints, but as an adult, he mainly took inspiration from Christian writers like Leo Tolstoi and befriended Westerners like architect Hermann Kallenbach. His name was elevated into an international synonym of non-violent agitation by American journalists. It is logical to suspect a direct transmission from the West for his voguish doctrines, like this political non-violence or his slogan of sarva-dharma-samabhava, “equal respect for all religions”.
The marriage of non-violence and political agitation seems an innovative interpretation of Hinduism’s old virtue of Ahimsa. But Hinduism had tended to keep ascetic virtues separate from Raja Dharma, a politician’s duties. When the Jain Oswal community decided to opt for uncomproming Ahimsa, it gave up its Kshatriya status and adopted Vaishya dharma, the bloodless duties of the entrepreneur. The personal practice of virtues was always deemed different from the hard action that politics sometimes necessitates. From the start, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence was tinged with the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice, of being killed rather than killing. Not that many Christian rulers had ever applied this principle, but at least it existed in certain Gospel passages such as the Sermon on the Mount. When, during the Partition massacres, Gandhi told Hindu refugees to go back to Pakistan and willingly get killed, he did not rely on any principle taught in the wide variety of Hindu scriptures. But in certain exalted Christian circles, it would be applauded.
This is even clearer in Gandhi’s religious version of what Indians call “secularism”, i.e. religious pluralism. This was a growing value in the modern anglosphere. Within Christianity, Unitarianism had set out to eliminate all doctrinal points deemed divisive between Christians, even the fundamental dogma of the Trinity. On the fringes, the Theosophists and Perennialists sought common ground between “authentic” Christianity, Vedicism and “esoteric” Buddhism as expressions of the global “perennial” truth. Gandhi’s contemporary Aldous Huxley juxtaposed the goody-goody points of all religions in a book aptly titled The Perennial Philosophy. Outside the West, this trend was imitated by progressive circles, such as the Bahai reform movement in Iran, harbinger of modern values like egalitarianism and internationalism (e.g. promotor of Esperanto, the linguistic embodiment of the globalist ideal). In India, the British-influenced Brahmo Samaj and Ramakrishna Mission had promoted the idea of a universal religion transcending the existing denominations. Hinduism had always practised pluralism as a pragmatic way to live and let live, but these movements turned it into an ideological dogma.
So, Gandhi’s religious pluralism, today his main claim to fame, was essentially the transposition of a Western ideological fashion. Of Vivekananda, it is routinely claimed that he was besieged by alternative religionists as soon as he set foot in the USA, and that this influence coloured his view and presentation of Hinduism. Gandhi’s worldview too was determined by Western contacts, starting in his student days in England, when he frequented vegetarian eateries, the meeting-place par excellence of various utopians and Theosophists. It must be emphasized that he borrowed from one current in Western culture while ignoring another, viz. the critical questioning of religion. Historical Bible studies had reduced Jesus to a mere accident in human history, neither the Divine incarnation worshiped by Christians nor the spiritual teacher venerated by many Hindus. In the pious Mahatma, this very promising rational approach to religion was wholly absent.
Hindus themselves are partly to blame, having long abandoned their own tradition of philosophical debate, embracing sentimental devotion instead. This has led to a great flowering of the arts but to a decline in their power of discrimination. Great debaters like Yajnavalkya or Shankara would not be proud to see modern Hindus fall for anti-intellectual soundbites like “equal respect for all religions”. Very Gandhian, but logically completely untenable. For example, Christianity believes that Jesus was God’s Son while Islam teaches that he was merely God’s spokesman: if one is right, the other is wrong, and nobody has equal respect for a true and a false statement (least of all Christians and Muslims themselves). Add to this their common scapegoat Paganism, in India represented by “idolatrous” Hinduism, and the common truth of all three becomes unthinkable. It takes a permanent suspension of the power of discrimination to believe in the syrupy Gandhian syncretism which still prevails in India.
The Mahatma’s outlook was neither realistic nor Indian. Not even the Jain doctrine of Anekantavada, “pluralism”, had been as mushy and anti-intellectual as the suspension of logic that is propagated in India under Gandhi’s name. It could only come about among post-Christian Westerners tired of doctrinal debates, and from their circles, Gandhi transplanted it to India.