(The article was originally published in Indian Express on October 6, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
It was interesting to read Rahul Gandhi’s soliloquy on Hinduism and its inner meaning in these pages last week. He articulated a version of Hinduism centred around his pet themes of fear, anger, hatred and love. Hinduism allows that freedom to everyone, from a wise man to an idiot, to interpret its salient features according to his or her own comprehension, a luxury not easily available in other religions.
Philosophically speaking, there need not be much contestation about Gandhi’s version of the great Hindu Dharma that fascinated, mesmerised and also bewildered many for millennia. Upon first reading, one gets the feeling that the article was necessary for political reasons, to clarify the Congress party’s position in the context of the attacks on Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism by some of his alliance colleagues.
Gandhi’s analogy of the ocean and the constant human endeavour to cross it through the joys and sorrows, and pleasures and fears of life is also a traditional understanding of Hinduism. His insistence that Hinduism cannot be merely understood as “a set of cultural norms” and cannot be limited to “a particular nation or geography” is indisputable too. But his understanding is superficial as the analogies of sagar (ocean) and sanatan (eternal) in Hinduism are profound and complex.
Gandhi’s emphasis that a Hindu shall never allow “her fear to capture her and turn her into a vehicle for anger, hatred or violence” is also spot on. He learnt this the hard way himself when he angrily tore up an ordinance brought in by his own government in 2013, that would have shielded convicted lawmakers from immediate disqualification. The act returned to haunt him a decade later, leading to his disqualification from Lok Sabha after his conviction by a Surat court in a defamation case.
However, the problem lies elsewhere. How much does Gandhi really believe in what he wrote? Preaching is a natural art that he inherited from his great grandfather. Jawaharlal Nehru was essentially a non-believer. He once told the renowned Indian American metaphysicist and author Raja Rao that Indians “have had enough of Rama and Krishna”. In his book, The Meaning of India, Raja Rao recounted what Nehru told him during an encounter in Germany’s Black Forest, where the latter had gone to attend to his ailing wife, Kamala: “‘Deity, what Deity?’ He twitched angrily. ‘Why Siva and Parvati, Sri Krishna!’ ‘Three thousand years of that and where’s that got us — slavery, poverty…with twenty-two-and-a-half years of life expectancy and five pice per person per day of national income?”
Yet, Nehru wrote eloquently about Indian spirituality in his 1946 book The Discovery of India. He gave many speeches extolling the greatness of Indian culture without ever practising it in his lifetime.
Gandhi is no different. Hence, despite efforts to prove his Hinduness in the last few years, his views will obviously not be seen as a philosophical discourse on Hinduism. Instead, they will be seen from a political prism as many of the points he makes have been his themes in the last few years for attacking his political and ideological adversaries. That is where he comes out as hollow and hotheaded.
For example, he told the media recently that he had “read the Gita and the Upanishads and I never heard that Hindus should be aggressive.” The essence of the Bhagavad Gita can be summarised by one statement made by Krishna to Arjuna: “Yuddhaya krita nischayah”. This verse 37 in Chapter 2, which arouses Arjuna to “be prepared to fight with determination” the adharma (injustice), is integral to Hinduism. In fact, the infantry regiment of the Indian Army, the Garhwal Rifles, has this verse as its motto.
Undoubtedly, hatred and violence have no place in Hinduism. But the non-violence argument cannot be casually invoked or politically misused. Mahatma Gandhi, the epitome of Ahimsa, himself once clarified that Ahimsa does not mean weakness. “Even if we believe in non-violence, it would not be proper for us to refuse, through cowardice, to protect the weak. I might be ready to embrace a snake, but if it comes to bite you, I would kill it to protect you,” he wrote.
For all his talk about hatred and love — the famous “nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukan (a shop of love in the market of hatred)” slogan — and his statement that Lord Ram “felt compassion for Ravan,” Rahul Gandhi has consistently demonstrated hatred for his adversaries. For all his talk about humility, he has consistently betrayed his arrogance and sense of entitlement.
His attacks and low-level jibes about great national leaders like V D Savarkar and the RSS demonstrate not only his lack of understanding and knowledge, but also his lack of humility. In fact, many leaders in his own party had to run for cover when he made remarks about Savarkar, like “My name is not Savarkar. I won’t apologise,” while allies like Sharad Pawar were compelled to tell him that Savarkar was a “progressive”, “had a scientific outlook” and that his sacrifices cannot be ignored.
Mahatma Gandhi and Savarkar remained ideological adversaries throughout. But when Savarkar was under house arrest in Ratnagiri, the former made it a point to personally visit him to discuss untouchability and other issues related to the Independence movement. Indira Gandhi, certainly the better Hindu in the Nehru family, wrote in 1980 that “Veer Savarkar’s daring defiance of the British Government has its own importance in the annals of our freedom movement.”
A senior Congress leader revealed in his book that despite differences with the RSS, Indira Gandhi included M S Golwalkar in the high-powered committee to examine the implementation of complete cow slaughter ban in 1967.
Hinduism cannot be captured in one article, nor can it be fully understood in one or two election cycles. The deeper you dive, the more treasures you find, as Mahatma Gandhi used to say.