Gandhi and Ayodhya

Written by  //  October 2, 2010  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  3 Comments

Celebrating Gandhi Jayanti, 2nd October, 2010

Given the recently delivered judgment in the Ayodhya title suit,[1] and the preceding and subsequent attention the issue has been receiving,  it is probably opportune to consider what Gandhi’s position was or would have been on this extremely contentious issue. The consideration is opportune for various reasons, primarily because it is Gandhi Jayanti. More importantly, however, because, whether one agrees or disagrees with Gandhi’s principles and methodologies, one cannot deny his importance and influence on any issue of any connection with India, especially the issue of the meaning and content of Indian secularism.

Secularism, as it is practiced today in India largely owes its origin to Gandhi’s principles and actions during the run up to Independence and during Partition. The image of him in Noakhali on the eve of Independence are the lasting images of a man committed to his principles and peace. It was quite clear that he valued communal harmony over any notional or conceptual attainment of independence or freedom. There could be no real celebration when people were being killed on the streets and violence of a gargantuan scale was going on. In that sense, he was clearly a pragmatist – no overarching attainment of an ideal in abstraction (the attainment of independence) could distract him from the fact that the India was witnessing the worst bloodshed in human history. Further, throughout his political career, it was very evident that he was at pains to demonstrate his secular credentials and his appreciation of the vulnerabilities of the minority community. In fact the main cause for complaint of the Hindu right against Gandhi was that he was “excessively” secular. They question his role and wisdom during the Khilafat movement which they see as an act of blatant Muslim ‘”appeasement”.

Viewed in this sense, the answer seems simple enough; he would have given paramount importance to peace and not be unduly concerned with an idea in abstraction devoid of any historicity – the idea of Ramajanmabhumi.

However, in this analysis, which is primarily informed by a CBSE history textbook view of Gandhi, one is missing out on a very essential feature of his personality which has intrigued historians and which has given fuel to those scholars who question his secular credentials: his obsession with Lord Ram! And one must remember in the middle of all the ruckus about Nimrohi Akhara[2], the Sunni Wakf Board, the VHP, the Karsevaks, Shilanyas, Rath Yatras, and all the other side characters, the main protagonist of this piece is Ram himself. In fact Ram Lalla Virajman, the idol of the infant Ram is one the parties to one of the suits so elaborately decided by the Allahabad High Court.[3]

Gandhi’s Ram Bhakti is very evident and manifests itself in many forms. Firstly what is most prominent in national consciousness is his slightly tweaked version of “Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram” (the second slightly corny line, “Ishwar Allah Tero Naam” is his own insertion into the originally purely Ram dominated Bhajan). Add to this, his practice of singing a lot of bhajans on all occasions. His favorites list looks like what would be sung in the house of a very pious Vaishnavite (which of course he was) – “Vaishanava Janato” et al. Would he not be extremely keen that the idol of the infant Ram be placed where it belongs and a glorious temple be built there?

Secondly, his constant harping on the theme of Ramarajya. Now, Ramarajya as he viewed it, as an impersonal ideal of just governance had a lot going for it. But this view was not shared by everyone. For instance, Periyar, the South Indian ideologue viewed the Ramayana itself as a sort of Sanskrit Mein Kampf which narrated the story of Aryan domination over the Dravidians. It did not help matters that the South, in the Ramayana was populated by talking monkeys – a not very politically correct reference to Dravidians perhaps? Further, when not being egged on by talking monkeys Ram was busy exterminating Asuras in their millions. Asuras, according to various Dravidian scholars (and ideologues such as Periyar) probably referred to the early Tribal people in the South.[4] Viewed in this sense, Ramarajya was not perhaps an ideal that everyone in this country aspired to. Indeed, it was positively feared by the vast sections of the country’s indigenous population and was reflective merely of the aims of a minute articulate vocal moneyed middle class.

Finally, his last words. According the Bhagavad Gita, and much of Hindu theology, if one is meditating the name of the Lord just before one’s last breath, one is assured of moksha. The reason for this doctrine is very evident. At the moment of ones death, one is devoid of all pretensions and fake ornamentation one wears during life. As everyone knows, Gandhi’s last words were “Hey Ram”. So clearly Ram was of paramount spiritual significance to Gandhi.

But do these aspects of Gandhi’s personality make us conclude that he would have wanted to build a temple on the imagined site of Ram’s birth at such a great cost? The costs include the destruction and vandalism of a very real historical heritage, a grand mosque built by the first Mughal Emperor of India. The costs include the possible killing of a number of innocent people across India. The costs include earning the mistrust of the biggest minority community. The costs include being labeled (quite justifiably) a paper democracy with little respect for the real content of secularism. I think his interest in preserving peace and his higher appreciation of religion would have meant that Gandhi would not have insisted on any temple.

I come to this conclusion for many reasons, but given the brief nature of this blog entry, I would like to highlight just one reason which was pointed out by Ramachandra Guha in a recent article in the Telegraph.[5] In that piece, Mr. Guha draws a comparison between Jalaluddin Rumi (the early Persian mystic) and Gandhi. Gandhi was inspired by Rumi in the early part of his political career. While reviewing Rumi’s book Gandhi quotes:

“Rumi saying, when asked where one could find god, “I saw the Cross and also Christians, but I did not find God on the Cross. I went to find him in the temple, but in vain. I saw him neither in Herat nor in Kandahar. He could be found neither on the hill nor in the cave. At last, I looked into my heart and found Him there, only there and nowhere else.”

Gandhi stated in his review that he would like to recommend the book to everyone. “It will be of profit to all, Hindus and Muslims alike”.


[1] As an entirely unrelated aside, Justice Agarwal’s monumental tome of a judgment running to over 5000 pages includes the Creation Hymn from the Rg Veda cited in my earlier piece: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/uncategorized/odd-passages-in-the-vedas-and-what-they-might-mean-i

Though, as with much of his judgment, one fails to find the relevance immediately. Perhaps Justice Agarwal knows or perhaps he knows not! You can find the entire judgment here: www.allahabadhighcourt.in

[2] For those readers who were as clueless as me about the origin of this group, the Wikipedia entry is not very illuminating: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirmohi_Akhara

[3] Yet another aside which is entirely unrelated: Justice S.U Khan’s judgment contains a delectable digression (for those readers who are lawyers) on whether an idol is a perpetual minor.  The Court disagrees with counsel for the Plaintiffs who tries to argue very ingeniously that because the idol is a minor for legal purposes, the Section in the Limitation Act which disapplies Limitation against minors will apply to an idol as well. The Court very wisely points to the pitfalls of extending a legal fiction beyond its logical boundaries. See the judgment of Justice S.U Khan at pages 137-187. (www.allahabadhighcourt.in).

[4] Of course, just because all this is claimed by the Dravidian ideologues does not make it true. The interaction between the early migrants from the North and the indigenous tribes of South India are documented extensively in Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, (Oxford, with a foreword by R. Champakalakshmi).

[5] http://www.telegraphindia.com/1100925/jsp/opinion/story_12963007.jsp

3 Comments on "Gandhi and Ayodhya"

  1. Arghya October 3, 2010 at 3:56 am ·

    Lovely post Subra.

  2. Rita Datta October 4, 2010 at 7:21 pm ·

    Believers normally think of God as omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. And Ram devotees DO believe he’s God and thus possesses the whole universe. Why would he need a tiny little place in a tiny little town in India as his very own?
    Secondly, even for a historical person like Chaitanya, there’s controversy as to WHERE he was born. How come some people are absolutely sure of WHERE, exactly where, Ram was born? Though they know where he was born no one can tell you WHEN. Now isn’t that funny?
    Thirdly, as a retired teacher of Indian History we start from the stone age. But we do not come across any king who fits Ram of the Ramayan. In this context let me fall back on Prof P. Lal’s transcreation of the Ramayan where the quotation from a very well-known name is given. It says, “There is no ground to believe that Rama is a historical figure….Do you believe a king marches to Lanka with an army of monkeys?” The speaker is no Marxist historian but Sri Aurobindo! Surely, this mystic and patriot wouldn’t have equated the proposed temple with NATIONAL pride?
    Lastly, engaging as the Ramayan is (though no patch on the other epic which is fascinatingly complex), there is no doubt that its a celebration of the Aryanisation of indigenous tribes. Who knows how many shrines of local gods were destroyed by the Aryans to spread their hegemony—just as the Turko-Afghans or maybe Mir Baqi did hundreds of years later. Ramrajya meant going by Aryan norms, of course, including slicing off the head of a low caste man who dared undertake the penance designed for Brahmins.
    I have great respect for Gandhi and feel he would have been saddened by the demolition of the Babri Masjid. But I do feel uneasy about his excessive religiosity. Our people need to question traditional beliefs instead of following them blindly, thought the latter is what would suit the leaders.

  3. Subramanian October 7, 2010 at 5:00 pm ·

    Dear Ms. Datta,

    Many thanks for your comment and apologies for the delay in replying.

    I agree entirely with everything you say.

    Indeed, the truly religious people are normally entirely unconcerned about where Ram or Krishna was born. And the people who are most vehement abouth these sort of things are usually the least religious or spiritual – at least in my meagre experience.

    Many thanks again
    Subra

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