I’ve broadened my Hinduism by loving other religions as my own’, claimed Gandhi, articulating that one could be a better Hindu by giving respect to, and creatively drawing from other faiths. This is in sharp contrast to the Hindutva politics of today, which not only defines India as exclusively Hindu, but also wants all Indians to be subsumed under the rubric of Hinduism. Clearly, Gandhi attempted to bring about a religious and spiritual cohesion to the freedom movement, while today’s politics of Hindutva centres on a militant Hindu chauvinism. In 1923, the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha launched the programme of Shuddhi (purification; Hindu movement to reclaim those who had converted from Hinduism to other religions) on a large scale in north India, particularly Uttar Pradesh. Touted as a movement to reclaim the ‘victims’ and protect the ‘faithful’, it had a definite communal character. It produced and enforced notions of a primordial religious identity, whereby everyone were perceived as Hindus, while Islam and Christianity were ‘denationalised’. An Arya Samajist tract declared: Shuddhi karwane se apni jo koi is dam chukega, Wah bhrasht hamesha bana rahe, sansar usi ko thukega (Whoever fails to perform Shuddhi this time, will always remain corrupt and the world will condemn him) The movement also critiqued the principle of ahimsa with these words: ‘The sermon of ahimsa has emasculated the Hindu nation.... We do not need Gandhi’s advice. We have to follow the teachings of Lord Krishna of Mahabharat’.
Expressing his serious objection to Shuddhi, Gandhi wrote in 1924: ‘In my opinion, there is no such thing as proselytism in Hinduism…The modern method does not appeal to me. It has done more harm than good… It has degenerated into an appeal to the selfish instinct…My Hindu instinct tells me that all religions are more or less true. All proceed from the same God, but all are imperfect because they have come down to us through imperfect human instrumentality…The best way of dealing with such propaganda is to publicly condemn it’. He again stated: ‘Through the Shuddhi movement we only encourage corruption and obstruct worthwhile reformation among the Hindus. The present movement has absolutely no rational basis’. Gandhi recognised that the rhetoric and language of Shuddhi was not motivated by a desire to promote Hindu spirituality and religious values, but by a strong anti-Muslim instinct, which also fostered a creed of violence and Hindu masculinity. Significantly, Gandhi was also attempting to invert, or at least challenge, prevailing notions of femininity and masculinity by his emphasis upon ‘feminine’ strengths. Gandhi’s reflections were both far more nuanced than present attempts at implementing anti-conversion laws on the one hand and celebration of ghar wapsi or reconversion into Hinduism on the other. Let me take another example. The cow emerged as a potent and sacred symbol of the Hindu nation in north India, particularly between 1880 and 1920, when there was a flourishing of gau rakshini sabhas and gaushalas, and cow-protection movements acquired a new importance, with violent agitations and riots around it.
Involving struggles over sacred symbols and spaces, with appeals to the icon of the cow as a universal mother, the movements relied upon and further generated a parochial definition of the Hindu community, with a marked anti-Muslim (and anti-Dalit) feeling. While deeply committed to gauraksha, Gandhi reflected: “Hindus must not imagine they can force Mussalmans to give up cow-sacrifice. They must trust, by befriending Mussalmans, that the latter will of their own accord, give up cow-sacrifice…Nor must Mussalmans imagine they can force Hindus to stop music or arati before mosque”. He also regarded the ‘cow protection societies’ as ‘cow killing societies’ due to their inherent violent nature. The debunking of a language of force and violence, and the articulation instead of a dialect of persuasion, understanding and mutual consent, advocated by Gandhi, is even more pertinent in today’s context, when there have been serious attempts to exploit the emotional fault lines of a section of Hindus, and vigilante groups have been violently attacking minorities in the name of cow-protection. My third example draws from Gandhi’s use of Hindu idioms, particularly that of Ramarajya. He stated that if the said word offended anyone, it could be replaced with Dharmarajya, imparting it a different meaning, and squarely equating it with his ideas of freedom, including khadi, refusal to pay the salt tax, and Swaraj. He declared Ramarajya to be a “moral government based upon truth and non-violence, in other words universal religion”, and a rule under which “the poor will be fully protected, everything will be done with justice, and the voice of the people will always be respected”. While using a symbol that could potentially spell alienation for some, he nonetheless appropriated it to signal a long utopian tradition in India and then cleverly intermeshed it with contemporary political desires of a just, equal and free society. Rejecting Hindutva’s exclusivist interpretation, Gandhi’s conception encompassed not only the mythical, ancient rule of Rama, but also the medieval, Mughal system of urban production and economy, and then went beyond it to provide a language of hope, dignity and rights for all. These three brief examples illustrate that in Gandhi’s Hindu spiritual ethics, religion was not an abstract doctrine, but a living body of thought, which was redeployed by him to express an ethical way of political practise.
As an icon, Gandhi has been a figure of all seasons, who has been invoked for very different ends. A simple nostalgic invoking of Gandhi as a figure of non-violence and traditional values in today’s times of Hindutva nationalism may not take us very far. Further, while we need to reflect on some of the inherent contradictions in Gandhi’s attempts to reform Hinduism from within, communalism cannot be countered by a simple condemnation of religious consciousness. As Bhikhu Parekh argues, Gandhi’s Hindu intellectual space and perspective, with all its limitations, marked a critique from within, which underscored how communal understanding profoundly corrupted and ultimately destroyed the ethics and integrity of religious consciousness itself. The language of secularism in its western paradigm, and of a secular modern citizenship, may have few takers in present day India. There is much we can learn by revisiting the complicated and contested legacies of Gandhi. The reiteration of Hindutva nationalism in contemporary India, along with vilification of our syncretic dynamism, makes this imperative. Our vocabularies today need to recuperate ideas of moral legitimacy, fluidity, unity and plurality of religious faiths, along with an inclusivist ethical humanitarianism, and a belief in nonviolence and peace, to carry forward Gandhi’s legacy.