Gandhi at 150, and the Wisdom of the Upaniṣad

Gandhi at the AshramGeneva, October 6. This has been a busy time, and I have felt a bit guilty to have missed on October 2 the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas K. Gandhi — a most significant day to remember the Mahatma, the great-souled one who more than anyone else gave energy and depth to India’s rightful fight for independence. Some say that Gandhi is passé, a great man but of an India that was simpler, more religious, more inclusive, an India that has now given way to the modern, forward-looking harder and harsher India that now holds a rightful place on the world stage.

In a way, it was heartening to read Prime Minister Modi’s op-ed in the New York Times on October 2. Mr Modi praises Gandhi as the internationalist who insists on nationalism, love of country first; as epitomizing trust among all members of society; as one who spurned materialism and the grasping of political power, but used things – the spinning wheel, a pinch of salt – to work for personal empowerment, in service of the poor. All this is very good indeed, particularly if today’s Indian government will now put into action Gandhian dispositions toward the natural world, the poor, and religious minorities. But more can be said on the underlying spiritual motivation of Gandhi’s vision of India. He was happy to be called a Hindu, but insisted on a Hinduism grounded in humility, self-abnegation, rejection of superstition, and a refusal to exclude or terrorize minorities.

I will not venture here to opine on my own views of Gandhi or our future, but rather to let him speak for himself. In a seminar this semester, we are reading the Upaniṣads. This week we are reading the Īśa Upaniṣad, the shortest and one of the most compelling. It begins this way: “All this, whatever moves in this moving world, is enveloped by the Lord (Īśa). Therefore find your enjoyment in renunciation, do not covet what belongs to others.”

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, scholar and one-time president of India, in his reading of this versein his commentary on the Upaniṣad quotes from Gandhi. Here is what Gandhi said on the Upaniṣad in 1937, as the independence movement headed toward its tumultuous final phases (with the several parts omitted by Dr Radhakrishnan in brackets):

All this, whatever moves in this moving world, is enveloped by the Lord. Therefore find your enjoyment in renunciation, do not covet what belongs to others.

[I have fixed upon one mantra that I am going to recite to you, as containing the whole essence of Hinduism. Many of you, I think, know the Ishopanishad. I read it years ago with translation and commentary. I learnt it by heart in Yeravda Jail. But it did not then captivate me, as it has done during the past few months, and I have now come to the final conclusion that if all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Ishopanishad were left in tact in the memory of Hindus, Hinduism would live forever.]

[Now I should like to apply this mantra to present day conditions. If all that there is in the Universe is pervaded by God, that is to say, if the Brahmana and the bhangi, the learned man and scavenger, the Ezhava and the Pariah—no matter what caste they belong to—if all these are pervaded by Lord God, in the light of this mantra, there is none that is high and none that is low, all are absolutely equal, equal because all are the creatures of that Creator. I would like the mantra I have recited to be enshrined in the hearts of all our men and women and children, and if this contains, as I hold, the essence of Hinduism, it should be inscribed on the portals of every temple.]

The mantra describes God as the Creator, the Ruler and the Lord. The seer to whom this mantra or verse was revealed was not satisfied with the very frequent statement that God was to be found everywhere. But he went further and said: “Since God pervades everything, nothing belongs to you, not even your own body. God is the undisputed unchallengeable Master of everything you possess." [And so when a person who calls himself a Hindu goes through the process of regeneration or a second birth, as Christians would call it, he has to perform a dedication or renunciation of all that he has in ignorance called his own property. And then when he has performed this act of dedication or renunciation, he is told that he will win a reward in the shape of God taking good care of what he will require for food, clothing or housing. Therefore the condition of enjoyment or use of the necessaries of life is their dedication or renunciation. And that dedication or renunciation has got to be done from day to day, lest we may in this busy world forget the central fact of life. And to crown all, die seer says: ‘Covet not anybody’s riches.’ I suggest to you that the truth that is embedded in this very short mantra is calculated to satisfy the highest cravings of every human being — whether they have reference to this world or to the next. I have in my search of the scriptures of the world found nothing to add to this mantra. Looking back upon all the little I have read of the scriptures — it is precious little I confess — I feel that everything good in all the scriptures is derived from this mantra.]

If it is universal brotherhood — not only brotherhood of all human beings but of all living things — I find it in this mantra. If it is unshakable faith in the Lord and Master – and all the adjectives you can think of — I find it in this mantra. If it is the idea of complete surrender to God and of the faith that he will supply all that I need, then again I say I find in this mantra. Since he pervades every fiber of my being and of all of you, I derive from it the doctrine of equality of all creatures on earth and it should satisfy the cravings of all philosophical communists. This mantra tells me that I cannot hold as mine anything that belongs to God and that, if my life and that of all who believe in this mantra has to be a life of perfect dedication, it follows that it will have to be a life of continual service of fellow creatures.

Gandhi concludes,

[This, I say, is my faith and should be the faith of all who call themselves Hindus. And 1 venture to suggest to my Christian and Mussulman friends that they will find nothing more in their scriptures if they will search them. I do not wish to hide from you the fact that I am not unaware of many superstitions that go under the name of Hinduism. I am most painfully conscious of all the superstitions that are to be found masquerading as Hinduism, and I have no hesitation to call a spade a spade. I have not hesitated to describe untouchability as the greatest of these superstitions. But in spite of them all, I remain a Hindu. For I do not believe that these superstitions form part of Hinduism. The very canons of interpretation laid down by Hinduism teach me that whatever is inconsistent with the truth I have expounded to you and which is hidden in the mantra I have named must be summarily rejected as not belonging to Hinduism.] (Address in Kottayam, Kerala, January 30, 1937)

This is a grander vision of a religious India that remains grounded in spiritual values, sees the state as at service of the poor, and makes no divide between Hindu and Sikh, Christian, Muslim. Gandhi asks that all Indians do the work of finding the spiritual ground of their traditions, and in doing so, to do what is best for all traditions.

This old-fashioned ideal, grounded in the old-fashioned work of studying scripture, offers a message to us all today, 150 years after Gandhi’s birth. Let us, Americans too, Christians too, honor Gandhi by insisting on the spiritual grounds for respect for all and service to all. Gandhi believed that we could serve in accord with our capacities and duties in life, and do so because we see that all in in God’s hands, already.

I am not a liberator of nations nor a public intellectual of the riveting sort, so perhaps this is a good enough tribute for the Mahatma’s 150th, to bring alive his Īśa Upaniṣad and vision of all things, in the hands of God even in the America and the Harvard of 2019.