Ramachandra Guha's new book, 'Gandhi before India', is not entirely innocent of historical scholarship yet joyously jejune in its hagiographic claims- things like, 'Gandhi was born and raised a Hindu, and he avowed that denominational label all his life. Yet no Hindu before or since had such a close, intense engagement with the great Abrahamic religions. '
Is Guha right?
Raja Ram Mohan Roy had a close and intense engagement with all three Abrahamic Religions- not just Arabic, he even learnt Hebrew- and went on to found a monotheistic sect which strictly forbade idolatry. Nor was Roy unique. Many North Indian Hindu lawyers had a profound knowledge of Islamic law and Religion; in addition to Persian, some attained proficiency in Arabic; and, from about 1830 onward they had a lot of exposure to Christianity.
As for the South Indian littoral, Judaism had always maintained a presence. Indeed, in Kerala, Hindus have lived side by side with Jews, Christians and Muslims for over a thousand years. Is it plausible that not one single Malyalee Hindu- more particularly given the genius for theological speculation displayed by the people of that region- failed to engage equally intensely with 'the great Abrahamic Religions'? One way to engage intensely with a Religion is to convert to it. We know some Hindus converted to Judaism and Christianity and Islam- how can we have a priori knowledge that their engagement was less intense than Gandhis?
Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya was an associate of Vivekananda in the Ramakrishna Mission. He later became a Catholic Sanyasi of a type which has officially existed since 1831 and whose contribution to Christology is the doctrine of the retention and transmutation into the elixir of stupidity of the Logos Spermaticos.
Perhaps, Guha thinks Hindus who convert no longer count as human. But there are people who engage with Abrahamic Religions without demitting their ancestral faith. Consider the case of some young Hindu alive in the world today. How do we know his engagement with Abrahamic religion is less intense than Gandhis?
It may be argued that Guha's absurd claim is nothing but harmless hyperbole.
Yet, when we read what he goes on to write in justification of it, we find that this absurdity lies at the heart of Guha's historiography.
He is saying that only in South Africa, at that particular time, could Hindus and Jews and Christians and Muslims intermingle in a manner such that Gandhi, despite being intellectually unexceptional and deeply provincial to boot, could suddenly turn, by some miracle of elective affinity, into the highest attainable point, at least for a Hindu, of engagement with the Abrahamic Religions.
Thus, Guha tells us that Gandhi 'understood Judaism through a highly personal lens, through his friendships with (Henry) Polak, (Hermann) Kallenbach and Sonja Schlesin especially. His interest in Christianity was both personal and theological—he liked (Joseph) Doke and loved (Charles Freer or C.F.) Andrews, but whereas he was not really influenced by Jewish thought he was profoundly shaped by heterodox Christian texts, above all Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. His relations with Islam were partly personal, but largely pragmatic and political. He had read the Quran (probably more than once), but was never really moved by it in the same way as he was moved by the Bhagavad Gita or even the Sermon on the Mount. He had some Muslim friends, but what concerned him more—much more—was the forging of a compact between Hindus and Muslims, the major communities in the Indian diaspora in South Africa, as they were in India itself.'
Gandhi had some Jewish friends- but they weren't orthodox- and he had some Muslim friends- but he wasn't a 'shagird' of a Sufi master or anything of that sort- and he had some friends who were ordained Christian ministers- but they didn't discuss Christian theology with him since their own Irenicism was of an eclectic type.
Under these circumstances, how did Gandhi manage to achieve a closer engagement with the great Abrahamic religions than any Hindu before or since? Virtually every Hindu with a modicum of personal charm, who studied in Europe at that time, would have had some Christian and Jewish and Muslim friends. No lawyer conducting a successful practice in Bombay or Madras or Calcutta- or even Kipling's Lahore- would not have had a friendly acquaintance with some Jews and Christians and so on. Some Hindus were good at learning languages. Some Hindus did and do learn Arabic to read the Quran, Hebrew to read the Torah, Greek to read the New Testament, Latin to read the Vulgate and so on. Furthermore, some of the same Hindus studied or study Philosophy and Theology. Many joined or join progressive organizations of various types- Beasant's Theosophical Society, Kipling's Freemasons, or even just the local lending Library. How does Guha know that Gandhi achieved a closer engagement with the great Abrahamic religions than any such Hindu? Guha assumes what he needs to prove- viz. there was something special about Gandhi. But Guha also maintains that there was nothing special about Gandhi. Had he remained in Porbandar, he would have been a nonentity. Yet it was Porbandar, more particularly his elder brother's influence there, which opened the door to a job with a Muslim firm inSouth Africa for Gandhi. It seems, Porbandar wasn't such an out of the way place after all. The threads that connected it to the wealthiest Muslim businessmen in South Africa were spun of not gossamer but steel.
What Guha fails to see is that Gandhi's world was already so interconnected as to be relatively hysteresis free. Such opportunities or acquaintances as came his way were not not unique or providential but largely interchangeable and arising out of his own autonomous life-project. Had Gandhi remained in London, working for an Indian firm, he would have blossomed from being a vegetarian activist into a broader role which would have brought him, sooner or later, within the same coterie in which he played so signal a part. Had he remained in Bombay- perhaps teaching part time while building up a clientele amongst his caste fellows- he would have slowly climbed the ladder of municipal politics while finding like minded associates in the Theosophical and Servants of India Societies. Sooner or later, Gokhale or Phirozeshah Mehta or Bownargee would have asked him to volunteer his services as the Congress Party's representative to either Fiji or Zanzibar or South Africa or Trinidad or something of that sort. Gandhi had an adventurous spirit. He was brave. He had compassion. He would have risen to the occasion.
Perhaps Guha's thesis- viz. that living outside India turned Gandhi into a totally different man (even though the means to live outside India arose entirely from his Indian connection)- is really about South Africa and the curious course of events which made it the center of World attention in the opening years of the last Century. However, the truth is Gandhi's role there was as a supporting actor, nothing more, in a drama whose real star was not Lord Milner but Jan Smuts.
Ultimately, Guha's failure in this book arises from his distaste for, or ignorance of, Religion.
Take the case of Dr. Pranjivan Mehta who who was Gandhi's first mentor in London and, till his own death, his most loyal supporter and financier. Guha calls Pranjivan the Engels to Gandhi's Marx and mentions the influence of Raichandbhai Mehta (who was related to Pranjivan by marriage) on Gandhi but does not pause to consider why a Jain might consider Gandhi a 'Mahatma'.
The answer has to do with a crisis within Jain meta-ethics, most strikingly articulated by Acharya Bhikshu, whereby good deeds, save that of feeding monks, by reason of the exigent circumstance represented by India's cumulative impoverishment, had lost soteriological efficacy because such deeds, that too, in ever increasing volume, were now so vital for the simple survival of the species that they could not be seen as merely instrumental in creating a karmic tropism towards the diksha- i.e. renunciation- of the ascetic than which no higher temporal goal can exist for the laity. In this context, Gandhi- a Hindu- could be seen to be creating a new type of vyavahara, or customary morality, for the masses such that premature Cosmic dissolution could be averted. By an imaginative interpretation of Yasovijaya, an interesting possibility arises in this context- viz that some intermediate 'dharma' (duty) is abrogated during the period of activity of a vyavahara stabilizing Mahatma such that a layman, like Raichandbhai, could indeed have achieved kevalya (Gnosis) even though he died before he could take diksha and, in any case, no Tirthankara existed during his life time. In other words, Pranjivan had a specific soteriological stake in wishing to see Gandhi as a Mahatma and, because he himself was not 'a mediocre student' or a provincial boor, his efforts to build up Gandhi (for example by arguing with Gokhale regarding the latter's more objective assessment of Gandhi's ability) played a much bigger role in both Gandhi's self-image and the respect accorded to him than the fact that he was pals with a couple of Jews or Christians or Muslims.
Guha was not trained as a historian. He doesn't know much about Indian literature and philosophy. He isn't into Religion. That's why his comments about Gandhi are stupid.
One other point. Guha is not a novelist or a playwright. He doesn't watch crap TV soaps and old weepie melodramas. Thus he fails to understand the dynamics of what he describes.
Take the case of Jeki Mehta- the scarlet woman of Satyagraha- Gandhi had asked his second son Manilal to nurse this daughter of Pranjivan's, who was supposedly unwell, so as to instill in the young man an immunity to the temptations of her flesh. No doubt, this ploy would have worked had the lady in question, recently married but perhaps unhappily so, not been in rather better health than Gandhiji supposed. Manilal was not a pervert. Tending to a sick person does not stimulate erotic thoughts in either patient or nurse. But, if both are healthy and young, then the situation could not be more highly erotically charged..
Gandhi has been accused of having reacted in an extreme manner to what then happened. But what was he supposed to do? The girl was the daughter of his mentor and financial supporter. She was married to a lawyer whom Gandhi had recruited and sent to Fiji. She was living under his roof. His own son was implicated. A lesser man would have hanged himself or hushed it up or shifted the blame on to someone else.
The one unquestionable contribution that Gandhi made to Indian politics was in getting women out of the prison of purdah and into proper Jail cells. How would that work if the sluts expected nookie as a reward? It really doesn't bear thinking about which is why I want you to stop thinking about it otherwise I'll just stop typing this and then you'll be all like trawling porn sites for Savita bhabi does Satyagraha or Debbie does the Dandi March or... FUCK ME the video I just thought of actually exists! Won't post the link though. That will teach you to only think pure thoughts in future..