Hindustan Times (Amritsar) - - Think! - RAMACHANDRA GUHA Ramachandra Guha is the au­thor of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

In 1932, a young Chris­tian priest named Ver­rier El­win was thrown out of his church. Ed­u­cated at Ox­ford, El­win made his home among the Gonds of cen­tral In­dia. He sought to bring ed­u­ca­tion and health­care to the adi­va­sis, but re­fused to take the gospel to them, out of re­spect for their own spir­i­tual tra­di­tions. For this, he was ex­pelled from the priest­hood by his bishop. Ver­rier El­win knew and ad­mired Ma­hatma Gandhi. When he wrote to him about his ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Gandhi wrote back: “Your pul­pit is the whole earth. The blue sky is the roof of your own church.” Gandhi con­soled El­win that the mes­sage of Je­sus was, in any case, “in the main de­nied by the churches, whether Ro­man or English”.

A Chris­tian did not need a grand or beau­ti­ful build­ing in which to express his faith. Nor did men or women of other faiths. Gandhi called him­self a de­vout Hindu, yet in the many years he lived in Ahmed­abad, he did not go to any of the city’s tem­ples to demon­strate to him­self (or to oth­ers) how deep or strong his Hinduism was. He prayed on the ground in front of his hut, fac­ing the Sabar­mati river. When he moved to Se­va­gram, he prayed in the open in that ashram too.

Gandhi’s Hinduism was syn­cretic rather than sec­tar­ian. He re­spected other re­li­gions, and con­ducted a life­long cam­paign for interfaith har­mony. No­tably, though, the last words he ut­tered were of the Hindu de­ity, Ram. That par­tic­u­lar de­ity was a par­tic­u­lar favourite of his. He spoke of a just so­ci­ety as be­ing a “Ram Ra­jya”, and cor­re­sponded with his spir­i­tu­ally in­clined friends on the ben­e­fits of Ra­manama, viz., ut­ter­ing the name of Ram re­peat­edly, in har­mony and with de­vo­tion.

Gandhi’s Hinduism was ex­pressed in many ways and in many places. But al­most never in tem­ples. His faith did not re­quire this. Be­sides, his own ex­pe­ri­ences with fa­mous places of wor­ship were not en­tirely pleas­ant.

In 1902, on his first visit to Varanasi, Gandhi went to the Kashi Vish­wanath tem­ple, and was unim­pressed. “The swarm­ing flies and the noise made by the shop­keep­ers and pil­grims were per­fectly in­suf­fer­able,” he re­called, adding: “Where one ex­pected an at­mos­phere of med­i­ta­tion and com­mu­nion, it was con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence.” He walked through the en­tire tem­ple, “search[ing] for God but fail[ing] to find him” in the dirt and the filth.

In 1916, after re­turn­ing to In­dia, Gandhi re­vis­ited the Kashi Vish­wanath tem­ple, to find it as dirty and de­graded as be­fore. These en­coun­ters in Varanasi con­firmed for him that the gods of Hinduism were not to be found in the tem­ples erected for them. Over the next three decades, Gandhi trav­elled all across the coun­try, by train and on foot. In the course of these jour­neys he vis­ited ev­ery town con­tain­ing a ma­jor Hindu shrine. But while he saw these an­cient tem­ples from out­side, he never sought to go within, with one ex­cep­tion (to which we will re­turn).

Gandhi’s lack of in­ter­est in wor­ship­ping in­side tem­ples stemmed from two rea­sons. First, he be­lieved that God resided in one’s heart, and that trust in or love for God was re­alised through one’s per­sonal con­duct; rather than in prayer, ritual, pil­grim­age, or cer­e­mony. Sec­ond, he saw that the mes­sage of gen­der and caste equal­ity was de­nied by Hindu tem­ples, which had dis­crim­i­nated harshly against women and sav­agely against Dal­its.

After his early and chas­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ences with the Kashi Vish­wanath tem­ple, Gandhi never went back there, al­though he vis­ited Varanasi of­ten. Gandhi vis­ited Puri, but he re­fused to en­ter the Ja­gan­nath tem­ple. He spent time in Than­javur, but de­clined to wor­ship at the Bri­hadeeswara tem­ple. How­ever, when the Meenakshi tem­ple in Madu­rai ad­mit­ted Dal­its in 1946 — fol­low­ing 20 years of sus­tained strug­gle — Gandhi vis­ited the tem­ple, to sig­nify ap­proval of this be­lated de­par­ture from Hindu or­tho­doxy.

In 1921, Gandhi vis­ited Ayodhya for the first and last time. He did not care to en­ter any of the town’s many tem­ples.

How­ever, while ad­dress­ing a pub­lic meet­ing, Gandhi said he “con­demned vi­o­lence most strongly and un­equiv­o­cally, and said he con­sid­ered it a sin against God and man”. Sev­eral decades later, north­ern and west­ern In­dia ex­pe­ri­enced an orgy of vi­o­lence com­mit­ted by men speak­ing in the name of a God said to be born in Ayodhya.

Ma­hatma Gandhi would have been ap­palled by the ha­tred and big­otry spread in the name of Ram in the 1980s and 1990s. I say this as Gandhi’s bi­og­ra­pher, but also as a ci­ti­zen of the Re­pub­lic, who lived through that vi­o­lence, and stud­ied it at first hand. I can tes­tify to the shame and in­dig­nity it brought to Hin­dus, Hinduism, and In­dia. Do we want a re­peat, a re­run, of those aw­ful years now?

In the 1990s, and since, sev­eral pro­pos­als were of­fered as al­ter­na­tives to the po­lar­is­ing project of build­ing a large tem­ple to Ram in Ayodhya. They have in­cluded a hospi­tal and a univer­sity, each com­mit­ted to serv­ing peo­ple of all faiths. The Ma­hatma’s own grand­son, the philoso­pher Ram­chan­dra Gandhi, sug­gested the con­struc­tion of a “Ram-Rahim Cha­bootra” to “hon­our the old­est tra­di­tion of in­ter­re­li­gious spir­i­tu­al­ity in the world”.

Which of these pro­pos­als would have most met with Gandhi’s ap­proval we can­not say. What we can say is that Gandhi was al­to­gether op­posed to the be­lief that a mas­sive struc­ture was in any way nec­es­sary to spir­i­tual faith, or to na­tional and civil­i­sa­tional pride.

There can be ab­so­lutely no doubt that the Ma­hatma would have seen the move­ment for a grand Ram tem­ple in Ayodhya as a tragic mis­di­rec­tion of the en­er­gies of Hin­dus and Hinduism.


■ Gandhi be­lieved that God resided in one’s heart, and that trust in or love for God was re­alised through one’s per­sonal con­duct. (A model for a Ram tem­ple, Kumbh Mela, 2019)

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