“Gandhi has become everything for all people”

On December 23, 1926, a man named Abdul Rashid murdered Arya Samaj leader Swami Shraddhanand, a freedom fighter who was close to MK Gandhi. It was a quick moment in the life of a society already torn by communal tensions, which two decades later, during the division of the subcontinent, would take on a terrible dimension.

Aside from the sadness he felt at the news of Shraddhanand’s violent death, Gandhi’s main concern was, as the scholar Jyotirmaya Sharma writes in his new book: Elusive Nonviolence: The Emergence and Dissolution of Gandhi’s Religion of AhimsaIt was supposed to “stave off an endless chain of retaliatory killings”. To this end, the Mahatma published a strangely worded homage in which he described Shraddhanand’s death as “remarkable and extraordinary”. Gandhi praised the deceased’s efforts to foster a spirit of “brotherhood, tolerance, forgiveness, and self-purification” as part of Arya Samaj’s mission and praised his death as a shining example of his unwavering belief in non-violence.

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Shraddhanand, as Gandhi saw it, died no less than a martyr. “Let us all be brave enough to die the death of a martyr,” he added warningly, “but let no one ask for martyrdom.” Rashid, the murderer, on the other hand, was a “brother” who led on a path of doom had been.

Gandhi’s response to Shraddhanand’s death is one of the extreme manifestations of his belief in ahimsa (non-violence) as the guiding principle of life – not just as a secular, moral force, but as a religious doctrine that is at the core of his re-shaping of Hinduism as a reformed belief. Sharma draws on Gandhi’s published writings extensively to untangle the layers that made up his concept of nonviolence. The process involves a deep immersion in the Mahatma’s evolving engagement with Hindu scriptures, which at times may seem capricious, even selective, and condones no authority other than his own personal agenda.

While Gandhi’s belief in ahimsa was a mainstay of his philosophy, it has never been set in stone, although the world has inherited it in a good versus bad binary form. On the contrary, he obsessively thought about it, revised his views, and spoke, wrote and articulated his arguments for the rest of his life. When he, like Shraddhanand, succumbed to the bullets of Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948, Gandhi also seemed to have died the noble death of a “martyr” in peace with the logic of Ahimsa. Sharma’s book attempts to understand Gandhi’s complex and comprehensive intellect by placing his ideas in the larger context of his ever-evolving politics. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

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Elusive Nonviolence – The Becoming and Abolishing of Gandhi’s Religion by Ahimsa: From Jyotirmaya Sharma, Westland, 268 pages, ₹699.

Gandhi’s concept of ‘Ahimsa’ has survived into the 21st century as a moral principle, as a secular guide to life, and even less as a religious doctrine that was part of his conception of Hinduism, into the 21st century. The fact that he has made concessions to violence under certain circumstances has also tarnished his image as an advocate of absolute nonviolence. How do you explain these shifts?

Gandhi exists as a powerful image. Whoever looks at the picture reduces it to practical purposes and appropriates it for various ideological reasons. But there is another Gandhi who is a thinker. Thinkers must be evaluated on the basis of the overall context of their thinking. In this case, it is counterproductive to fragment Gandhi’s thoughts. He has become everything to all people. You have to go beyond slogans, sentimentality and political prudence.

I am not suggesting that there is no place for the image: myths are important and it is a very powerful one. But it’s the thinker that interests me. He wrote a lot and talked a lot. It is therefore easy to extract a quote from him that will fit any situation. For me there is a remarkable consistency in his thinking. The central idea that is characteristic of Gandhi’s thought is non-violence. It is a complex creation and can only be understood in the overall context of his overall thinking. So what you call his concessions to violence are not really like that. They arise from his creation of binaries like courage versus cowardice. His religious idealism is the source of many contradictions and paradoxes in his thinking.

You continuously grapple with Gandhi’s contradicting impulses as a reformer and Orthodox Hindu patriarch. What were the pitfalls of these inconsistencies in his lifetime? How did you influence his legacy?

Many commentators find inconsistencies in his thinking. Not me. Whether you agree with them or not, he was absolutely consistent and clear in his ideas. He himself said: “My language is aphoristic, it lacks precision. It is therefore open to several interpretations ”(from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 53). As an important interpreter of religion, he also formulates the categories of reform and orthodoxy in an unconventional and unusual way.

Gandhi’s version of Hinduism may seem capricious, selective, and contradictory. Does such a perception, particularly its belief in the superiority of Hinduism over any other religion, intersect with the tenets of the contemporary Hindutva movement?

I don’t think it was moody. Nor was it a contradiction in terms. He’s very consistent. But he’s part of the 19th century reformulation of Hinduism and that venture was selective. It is only controversial because it struggled with western modernism and nationalism. In other words, many forces and influences had to be brought into harmony in order to fabricate Hinduism, which arose from that time and continues to do so. I don’t make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. I define Hindutva as the politically dominant face of Hinduism, if not its only face.

Despite his declared friendship with Muslims and the “untouchables”, Gandhi was against mixed marriages and believed in the sanctity of the caste system. Was that a pragmatic attitude or religious puritanism?

It was neither pragmatism nor puritanism. This attitude towards mixed marriage and caste is an integral part of his understanding of Hinduism. He was against untouchability, but supported the old Varna ideal. He believed that when truth and nonviolence, radical nonviolence, instilled into Hinduism, it would care about what he believed to be aberrations like untouchability.

Had Gandhi been alive now, he would likely have been “voted out” by the left, right and center. Nevertheless, he continues to preoccupy the world more than 70 years after his death. What does that say about the importance of his ideas?

As I said above, it is more likely to survive as a picture and continues to draw attention to itself through selectively quoted quotations. His unique achievement, however, was to formulate what he calls his “religion of Ahimsa”. During his lifetime he saw the failure of this concept in India and admitted that failure. For any serious reading of nonviolence it is essential to take its formulation seriously, but also to question it as a carefully constructed ideal. In this sense, Gandhi suffers the same fate as Buddha. When the ethical implications of a thinker’s thinking are separated from his metaphysics, then it becomes free will. So you can have a Buddha bar, Buddhist meditation techniques, and a Buddhist diet and completely forget that everything the Buddha preached was to facilitate nirvana. Gandhi’s ideas are also subject to such an unfortunate fragmentation.

The book will be released on October 11th.

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