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  Between saints and secularists — 4  

  Belonging
  Vol II : issue 3

  Amrita Pritam
  Claudia Card
  K. Satchidanandan
  Daud Haider
  
Gagan Gill
  Merle Almeida

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K. Satchidanandan

I shall conclude this brief monologue with some comments on Gandhi’s attitude to the whole question, which I consider to be in the best of our Sramana traditions and to be valid even today as an alternative to Western touch–me–not secularism, which is completely divorced from the moral and spiritual insights of religion in fighting communalism. Here again, I am drawing heavily on Bikhu Parikh and Rustam Bharucha, besides Gandhi’s own writings. Gandhi’s faith was dynamic in character, tuned to the living wide-awake consciousness of God within. He had little faith in rituals; he would not accept the sacred thread since it was a sign of caste superiority. He found that ‘places of pilgrimage have lost their purity and, instead, become nurseries of hypocrisy’. He found the Kumbh Mela oppressive and was critical of the sensuality of pleasure-seeking pilgrims. He did not have high regard for religious symbols either, and when he had to choose symbols, he chose mostly from the kitchen and workplace, like the handful of salt and the charkha, in the tradition of the saint-poets. His Krishna was the very opposite of Jayadeva’s sensuous lover: he was the ‘inspirer of the lives of millions of human beings’.


Gandhi belongs to that great tradition of critical insiders within religion, and to invoke his image and to liberate it from the disuse into which it has fallen in the hands of the state and his self-proclaimed followers is, I believe, a moral-political act of great significance today, when the country is once again being asked to defend its sovereignty and its traditions of amity in plurality

He aspired towards God as an Absolute Truth while admitting that he was able to know only the relative truth. His shift from ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’ in 1928-29 was strategic in that he wanted to appeal to the atheists as well. He claimed that sat (that which exists) the Sanskrit word for Truth, came closest to expressing the belief affirmed both in Hindu philosophy and the Kalma of Islam that ‘God alone is and nothing else exists’. He can be called Rama or Allah, Khuda or Ahura Mazda. Naming is a historical act, while God Himself is above Time. ‘There are many religions’, he said, ‘but Religion is only one’. ‘I do not differentiate between the sweeper and the Brahmin. My mind finds no difference between a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian’. He denounced yajnas like most of the Sramana saints and said that the only true yajna is self-sacrifice for a higher cause. He refused to consider any prophet superior to any other. ‘To say Jesus was 99 per cent divine, and Muhammad 50 per cent and Krishna 10 per cent is to arrogate to oneself a function which does not really ‘belong to man’ — a simple argument, yet strong enough to refute all claims to superiority put forward by the fundamentalists. He considered the Koran, the Bible, the Zend Avesta, the Vedas and other religious texts as equally ‘divinely inspired’. He loathed monolithic categories and believed there were always many interpretations of Truth, many names for God, and many manifestations as scripture.

Truth, non-violence, abstinence, poverty and non-possession were the five vows he advocated; each was well thought-out and reasoned about. He never claimed, as fundamentalists do, that he spoke for truth or as truth, but only that he was ‘in search of truth’. He did not trust the shastras since they often offended his moral sense. ‘If Hinduism sanctioned untouchability,’ he once said, ‘I should denounce it’. Still, he was not prepared to give up his faith altogether; he held on to it even in the worst days of partition. He qualified Truth subjectively. ‘I represent no new truths, I endeavour to follow Truth as I know it.’ This is where he differs from the fundamentalists who always objectify Truth as something external to them and ask everyone to follow it. Gandhi also separated his notions of ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ from caste: "Caste has nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger. But I do know that it is harmful both to the spiritual and national good." He did use religious terminology — Ramarajya, moksha, karma, Ishwar, shastra — but always cleansed them of their communal possibilities and redefined them. Thus Ramarajya becomes another name for a just and egalitarian society, moksha becomes emancipation from everything that chains the body and the mind; karma becomes fearless action for the general good; Ishwar becomes a pure consciousness that never tyrannises man, shastra becomes a mixture of sattva, rajas and tamas.

Gandhi belongs to that great tradition of critical insiders within religion, and to invoke his image and to liberate it from the disuse into which it has fallen in the hands of the state and his self-proclaimed followers is, I believe, a moral-political act of great significance today, when the country is once again being asked to defend its sovereignty and its traditions of amity in plurality. I will consider my argument wasted if anyone feels that he/she is being persuaded to follow the footsteps of Kabir or Vivekananda, Sree Narayana or Gandhi. My essential plea is for a paradigm shift in our understanding of politics as well as philosophy. I have been looking at some of the positive aspects, the dimension of resistance within the idealist/spiritual traditions in India. In historical and practical terms, the materialist-idealist opposition does not work, at least in India. It has to be urgently replaced by the opposition between the hegemonic and the subaltern or the governing and the subversive. For this, one has to look at the internal critique that religions have developed, if we ever want to relate to the believing majority in the country. Arguments external to religion might appeal to an intellectual minority; but reformers like Sree Narayana, Vivekananda or Gandhi were forced to develop a spiritual idiom to persuade the people to fight the orthodoxy. It is wishful to think that religious revivalism and fundamentalism can be fought with philosophical materialism. One has to look at the history of struggle within and draw one’s energies for the contemporary combat against communalism from the strategies of the critical insiders within religions, especially the majority religion in India.


p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 p. 4

 
K. Satchidanandan is Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi. A major Indian poet
writing in Malayalam, he lives in New Delhi