Mahatma Gandhi’s engagement with Hindu heritage


Rajesh Kochhar



Mahatma Gandhi was not a Gandhian. Gandhism as a political philosophy emerges from an examination of his actions and a study of his writings.  For himself he was a pragmatist and an experimentalist, who fashioned his response to a situation keeping in mind its exigency, proceeded in small steps and improvised by trial and error. M. K. Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi’s engagement with Hindu heritage, that is with archival Hinduism and living Hinduism, has remained largely unexplored even though it is of historical and contemporaneous significance.


Gandhi’s approach towards colonial rulers in South Africa was largely negotiatory. Back in India, in the post-Jalianwala Bagh massacre era, Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards the British hardened and became confrontational. But he had to use negotiatory methods to enlist the support of Hindus and then broaden his mass base by inclusion of  Muslims.


Gandhi of the late 19th century was a typical product of colonial historiography and a votary of Aryan Race Theory. In a petition to the Premier of the Colony of Natal, followed by  a long open letter to the members of the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, Gandhi sharply reacted to the ‘general belief’ that seems to  prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa’ by pointing out on the authority of European scholars that ‘both the Anglo-Saxon and the Indian races belong to the same stock’ so that Indians were not an inferior people but ‘a brother nation’. Gandhi in fact goes overboard in defending all things Indian to the extent of declaring that  The Institutes of Manu have always been noted for their justice and precision’. This is the only time Gandhi refers to Aryanism .


In India he invokes imagery from living Hinduism which people would recognize from their upbringing. His first reference to Ramarajya is as early as 1915. Made in the princely state of Mysore with a Hindu ruler, it is in an administrative sense. Post-Jalianwala, Gandhi sets his political goal at  Swarajya, freedom from foreign rule. His first constituency is the Hindus. Therefore he entwines the concept with one which was familiar to all Hindus. From 1920  he begins to develop his thesis on Ramarajya. British colonial rule is called Rakshasa- rajya ( the rule of the devil) or Ravana-rajya and Ramarajya is presented as its antithesis. It is equated with Swarajya , but it is still a Hindu construct, with terms like Kaliyuga, Satyayuga, Dharmarajya, etc.,  mentioned in the same breath and. At the same time Mahatma Gandhi describes himself as a Sanatani and a Vaishnav and quotes Tulsidas and Gita. Through addresses at women’s meeting he repeatedly asked them to identify themselves with Sita.

By 1929, he is ready to give Ramrajya a transcendental meaning. I warn my Mussalman friends against misunderstanding me in my use of the word ‘Ramarajya’. By ‘Ramarajya’ I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by ‘Ramarajya’ Divine Raj, the Kigdom of God. For me Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity. I acknowledge no other god but the one god of Truth and righteousness. Significantly this speech was given at Bhopal whose ruler was a Muslim and where Muslims constituted a significant fraction of audience. The point was important enough for subsequent elaboration. ‘As the Muslims and others may misinterpret’ the equating of Swarajya with Ramarajya it, I call it the rule of dharma too’.

While Gandhi’s appeal to Aryanism in the African context remained a dead end, Mahatma Gandhi in India was able to successfully evolve a phrase from a Hindu sacred text into a transcendental national concept. By secularizing a concept that Hindus so far had considered theirs, Mahatma Gandhi is not only trying to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity but also asking the Hindus to be more accommodating.

Mahatma Gandhi places non-violence on a high ideological pedestal. He was no doubt aware of the practical reality that an armed struggle against a mighty enemy would not succeed. Earlier Mohandas Gandhi had been appealing to the Empire’s sense of noblesse oblige. He becomes the Mahatma when he puts it on the defensive on moral and ethical grounds. At the same time, he cautions his supporters not to become what they were resisting. He describes the colonial Empire as sinful, evil and satanic, but cautions its opponents  not to become angry or hateful themselves.


What assigns Mahatma Gandhi a place in the world history, and makes him relevant for today and all times to come in not the India-specificity of his goals but the universality of the means adopted to achieve them.

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