How Gandhiji Redefined Hinduism for His Political Movement of Satyagraha and Non-Violence
On 2nd October, we all remembered Gandhiji, the man who used non-violence to win the freedom of 36.1 crore people from the British.
He is the symbol of forgiveness, peace, and communal harmony, and from 2014, of cleanliness and hygiene too. Whenever we talk about him, there is the Raghupathi Raghav Raja Ram song playing in the background, representing the truthfulness, sacrifice, and non-violence that he preached.
The Hindu Philosophy
Lord Ram, the god we so ardently associate Gandhiji with, waged a war against another nation to rescue his captured wife. Lord Krishna famously advised Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita to wage war, even if it means killing one’s brothers, to establish dharma in the land.
But according to Gandhiji's perspective of Hinduism, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana teach us non-violence, truthfulness, and sacrifice to maintain harmony. In this equation, anyone who talks about protecting dharma or standing up for it is seen as a Hindu fanatic, also referred to as an expounder of the Hindutva ideology.
The ‘Violent’ History of Hinduism
Before the Independence movement in India split into moderate and extremist factions in the late 19th century, there was a bloody history of freedom struggle. It starts with the first Western that ever arrived in India, Vasco da Gama. That history of conflict and wars goes further back to the Islamic era, and before.
The Hindu political structure is divided into four: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. Kshatriyas have one duty: protect dharma through the active defense.
We have countless Rajput kings and soldiers who sacrificed their lives for rescuing this land from violent Islamic leaders and Western invaders. We had landlords and military leaders toppling the British troops without modern weaponry. Kalarippayattu was so advanced in Kerala; guns and cannons were no match for them, forcing the British rulers to ban it. It was only after that ban that they could take control of the land of spices!
Through the centuries, our military powers weakened or were brutally suppressed. The ways of waging war transformed through the century, but we had no warriors to adapt them to our defense system.
The moderate movement in India after the late 1800s was the result of the introduction of English education and the emergence of the Westernized Indian. The educated Indians concluded that they could use reason and bureaucracy to win the good judgment of their masters. Gandhiji, too, was hopeful of that.
In his political career, he rejected any extreme action or radicalization because he felt it was detrimental to getting his message across to the British rulers. But, he did strike at the heart of colonial rule, the flow of money through cheap labor and raw materials. That is why the British couldn’t ignore Gandhiji’s boycott movements, civil disobedience, and swadeshi movements. The country would stop producing for the British at the command of this half-naked Fakir.
Ahimsa and Satyagraha
"Its root meaning is holding on to truth, hence truth-force. I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself." - M. K. Gandhi
Gandhiji coined the term ‘satyagraha’, i.e., the non-violent selfless way of protest. To invent ‘satyagraha’, he combined the word ‘Satya’, meaning truth, and ‘agraha’ meaning intention. Along with them, he adopted the concepts of Tyaga and Brahmacharya, which stand for sacrifice and continence, respectively.
He used these terms adopted from the Hindu traditional wisdom to craft a unique political movement that bewildered and fazed The British Raj. This, along with his movements against casteism and portrayal of a hermetic lifestyle fit for a sadhu or a yogi, enabled him to create a new image of Hinduism.
Influence of Christianity
It has been long debated that Gandhiji was greatly influenced by Christianity, which he attempted to practice for a while in South Africa.
He borrowed a lot of Christian concepts, accumulated them into Hinduism, and employed them in his political ideology.
Ahimsa and satyagraha are the best examples. Though Yogic traditions have Ahimsa as an important tenet, it never meant disarmament. Rather, it meant a harmless lifestyle, i.e., living without harming another life. There is a big difference between offense and disarmament.
Brahmacharya is another term that was evangelized to become a part of Gandhiji’s political ideology. Gandhiji used ‘Brahmacharya’ in his autobiography for absolute celibacy. But, in reality, celibacy is not a widely prescribed path in Hindu traditions. Brahmacharya literally means ‘towards the path of Brahmam’ and it is defined in the Yoga Sutra as the "conservation of veerya or energy for a higher purpose". It can mean abstinence, among other things. But after Gandhiji’s use of the term, Brahmacharya has become synonymous with celibacy, a Christian concept.
The Repercussions of a Disarming Hindu Philosophy
Gandhiji’s political movement may have shaken British rule and amassed the entire nation behind him in a matter of a few decades. But, with its success, came an unexpected change in the essence of Hinduism.
The Hindu civilization no longer had brave warriors and powerful kings. Educated Indians found their epics and philosophies redundant and non-sensical. We were also forced to showcase unity between the Hindu and Muslim religions to fight the British. The Hindu courage or veer became lost in the rhetoric!
As Gandhiji’s movement assumed an ideological undercurrent, it sidelined the more revolutionary political and philosophical movements. Indians happily got beaten up on the streets for freedom, and it was assumed to be a good thing.
Hindus saw Islamists as their brothers, even when they massacred them. In 1921, Gandhiji implored Hindus to forgive Islamists involved in the Mappila or Moplah Massacre, and they did!
“If the Mussalmans of India offer non-cooperation to Government in order to secure justice on the Khilafat, it is the duty of every Hindu to co-operate with their Moslem brethren." - Gandhiji during a speech at Calicut addressing the spirit of non-cooperation and the question of Khilafat, 18 August 1920.
When India and Pakistan became separated, millions died in the streets of urban India, and it was also deemed forgivable because secular Hindus understood Ahimsa and Tyaga, along with the ideal of communal harmony.
“Let there be no Hindus, no Parsis, no Christians, and no Jains. We should realize that we are only Indians, and that religion is a private matter.” -Gandhiji, at a public gathering, December 1947.
In many ways, Ahimsa and Tyaga became the means to control the Hindu population after Independence.
No more grievances about the Partition because we revere and love other religions. That’s the Hindu way.
No more upheavals about Islamic rule or the Islamic tyranny of the past. No need for rebuilding temples or digging up history! Because we are a non-violent sacrificial bunch that holds onto the ideal of religious harmony.
No need for Hindu ideology, worship, or revival because secularism is the new Hindu ideology.
Today, these narratives are changing.
Lord Rama is no longer Gandhiji’s footnote. Rather, He is the mighty king who braved everything to rescue his wife and restore dharma.
Lord Krishna is no longer a mistaken Hindu fanatic because he urged Arjuna to wage war, but the sustainer of Dharma.
Shivaji, Shamji, and Baji Rao are hailed as brave leaders. So are many brave warriors and heroes who took arms against external malevolent forces.
But Hinduism still needs to rediscover itself, and the basic concept in it, dharma. What is dharma that we are supposed to fight for?
When the Hindu ideology was bent for personal political gains, an entire population lost their cultural courage to understand what’s good and evil. Rediscovering that cultural and moral courage is quintessential to sustaining the Hindu philosophical tradition.