Mahatma Gandhi, some believe, is the greatest Indian after Gautam Buddha. Many of the greats, among them Rabindranath Tagore and Dalai Lama, heralded Gandhi as the Buddha of our times.
Arguably Indian civilisation’s foremost saint, Tathagata’s teachings of ahimsa, karuna and tapas were inextricably bound with his understanding and teaching of anatmavad, the theory of no-self and no-soul, which implies a non-theist, no-God position.
Gandhi, however, has a very radical and dynamic conception of God. Gandhi thinks of “God” as ceaseless activity...God is continuously in action without resting for a single moment...He must express Himself in every, even the smallest act of His votary”.
Gandhi loved to quote Akha, a medieval Gujarati saint, who says: “Even as the thread spins out, so be your life. Do what you may and receive the grace of Hari”. Eminent scholars tell us that this is an ‘immanent’ conception of God, rather than a ‘transcendent’ or top-down conception.
Unfortunately, this nuance does not enrich Gandhi’s engagement with the Buddha. For example, in Lectures on the Gita (Chapter 2), he tries to show that the Buddha did believe in the existence of God: “A number of learned men have shown that the Buddha did not teach a doctrine denying the existence of God”. Gandhi can be given a long rope here, since one can argue that Buddha was not an atheist but more like a non-theist, a non-believer rather than a disbeliever.
However, combined with his anatmavad, this non-theism is a very strong one, close to atheism, or something even more rigorous than atheism!
In the same paragraph, Gandhi goes on to state, “There is no reason for supposing that there is a distinction between the nirvana mentioned by Lord Buddha and the nirvana of the Gita”. Gandhi moves in highly contentious territory here without really delving into the specificity of the Buddhist notion of nibbana.
Interestingly, in collapsing Buddhist nibbana (nirvana in Pali) with the one in the Gita, Gandhi thinks that he is doing a service to the teachings of the Buddha. Gandhi is concerned that since the Buddhist nirvana means ‘extinction’ or shunyata (emptiness), it can slide into nihilism. So, he wants to establish that, “This nirvana is not like the black, dead peace of the grave, but living peace, living happiness of a soul which is conscious of itself, and conscious of having found its own abode in the heart of the Eternal.” (Young India, 1927). Gandhi avoids a real engagement with the specifically Buddhist theory of nirvana-as-extinction. He extols it by simply denying that it involves any real ‘extinction’!
He does not want to consider the possibility that even in the sense of shunyata, it need not mean ‘nihilism’ and might in fact tremendously contribute towards a morally responsible world. One reason for this could have been his over-investment in showing Buddhism’s continuity with Hinduism, notwithstanding his own avant garde conception of Hinduism. He seemed to be under a secret compulsion, perhaps against his own wish, to define everything within an expansive, pluralist Sanatani Hindu tradition.
Illusory self vs self-purification
Let us take Gandhi’s idea of self-purification and self-suffering (tapas), which is central to his approach. Immediately, we notice the sharp divergence from the Buddha for whom the self (and not just the ‘ego’) itself is an illusion. We cannot then avoid the question: What does it mean to purify something which is itself illusory, impermanent, and the source of dukkha?
For Gandhi, the self should undergo suffering, tapas, for it to be steeled into a moral agent, a satyagrahi. Tapas, forbearance, self-suffering is part of the practice which makes the individual free of fear and hatred. The moral failings of others could now be seen in an undistorted manner, making way for a true and immanent understanding in society so that we do not end up demanding ‘an eye for an eye’ making the world go blind.
In contrast, Buddha wants to eliminate the self, for the self can never be a moral agent since it is itself what stands in the way of reality. The self is part of what is called prapancos, a dogmatic obsession. The saintly self, arrogates to itself a mediatory role, creating a division in society between those who have attained to the higher moral self and those who haven’t.
Ahimsa, satyagraha, tapas in Gandhi redoubles the self, re-inscribes it, as a moral self. In Buddha, on the other hand, ahimsa and karuna arises out of the elimination of the self, which is a ‘recognition’ of ‘the fact of no-self’.
The Mahasatipatthana Sutta tells us about the bhikku’s ardent effort (tapas) directed towards realising that the four elements — body (kaya), feeling (vedana), mind (citta), and dhamma — that constitute the self are all, ultimately, vibrations. Tapas and mindfulness make sure that these vibrations ultimately go extinct.
Hence it is wrong to say that the Buddha ‘entered into nibbana’, or that someone ‘attained moksha’, which assumes no extinction of the self. The correct term is parinibutto, full passing away, full extinction, which is what happened with the Buddha.
It is not purification of the self, but the extinction of the self which will then lead us to not just give up our attachments to the bad things, to the flesh, but also give up attachments to the moral ideals and asceticism.
That is why Buddha is against asceticism, the idea of tapas or burning/suffering as the mortification of the flesh. This is also why Buddha’s Path is called the Middle Way, avoiding the extremes of self-indulgence and asceticism.
It may seem we are being unfair towards Gandhi. So, allow me to open a new window to Gandhi’s thought.
Recall the first sermon from the Dhammachakkapabbatana Sutta where the Buddha declares to the five bhikkus: I have found the Way, the Path. This is of course the four noble truths and the eight-fold path. Buddha has found ‘the Way’ to break away from the world of karma and karmic effects and discover the world as it is.
With Gandhi, there is no singular ‘the Way’. Gandhi is operating within a highly surcharged moral atmosphere. It is not about escaping the karmic chain altogether. It is about lessening moral wrong-doing in this world by establishing a particular relationship between satyagrahi’s voluntary suffering (self-suffering, tapascharya) and the effect it has on others, thereby lessening wrong-doing.
Thus, when after Chauri Chaura, Gandhi went on a fast in 1922, he pointed out: “I must undergo personal cleansing. I must become a fitter instrument to register the slightest moral variation in the moral atmosphere about me.”
How does one approach Gandhi and Buddha in the light of this unique moral philosophy?
We can say the following
Gandhi is an architect, a craftsman, tirelessly at work within the ‘moral atmosphere’. He is working in the belly of the beast, deep inside the karmic world. He has to focus, within it, on the distribution of the bad and the good, karmic and non-karmic, the moral and the immoral. We have to make the best out of the world we have at hand.
Gandhi is working within the karmic world, with no possible nirvana-like exit from it, while the Buddha is working with one foot outside the ‘moral atmosphere’.
To come close to this causal world is a step towards dhamma, for the Buddha. To craft a moral life within the karmic world is a step towards dharma, for Gandhi. So close and yet so distant: such is the relationship between Gandhi and Buddha.