“For Gandhi, understanding religion was essential for patriotism”: Dr. J.K. Bajaj

    Date : 27-Mar-2021
Discussion with
Dr. J. K. Bajaj
(Director, Centre for Policy Studies)
on his book
"Making of a Hindu Patriot: Background of Gandhiji's Hind Swaraj"
“For Gandhi, understanding religion was essential for patriotism”: Dr. J.K. Bajaj
Making of a Hindu Patriot
“For Gandhiji, patriotism and religion were the same,” said Dr J.K. Bajaj, Director, Centre for Policy Studies while introducing his new book, "Making of a Hindu Patriot: Background of Gandhiji's Hind Swaraj" that he had co-authored with Prof M.D. Srinivas. The discussion on his book was organised by India Policy Foundation on March 13, 2021.
Transcript of this online discussion :
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo:
Today we are going to have a discussion on the book, “Making of a Hindu Patriot: Background of Gandhiji's Hind Swaraj" which is being widely debated. This book is written by Dr. J.K. Bajaj and Prof. M.D. Srinivas. So, we requested Dr Bajaj ji to take some time out of his busy schedule and introduce the book to us.
Before beginning the program, I would like to formally introduce Dr Bajaj. He hails from Punjab. An interesting fact about him that many are not aware is that he did Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics. He did M.Sc. from Punjab University in 1973. After that, he was CSIR research fellowat Physics Department, Punjab University and IIT Kanpur. After this, he served as UGC Research Associate at Madras University,then as Research Fellow, Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. During 1983-86, he served as ICSSR Fellowat IIT Bombayand then he was with CSDS Delhi. After that he became associated with journalism. From 1986-1989, he was with Jansatta where he wrote articles on several topics. From 1989-90, he was Fellow, PPST Foundation, Chennai. In 1990, he founded the Centre for Policy Studies.
He was Member, Advisory Board, Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); Member, ICSSR; Member, Governing Body, National Council of Rural Institutes; Member, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla; Member, Governing Board, Centre for Social Studies, Kolkata; Member, Research Council, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, CSIR; Member, Expert Group on Environment Standards, Ministry of Environment, Government of India.
His areas of expertise include Scientific and Technological traditions in India, Indian Society,Economy and Polity. His book, Hind Swaraj was published in 2012. An important book authored by him is ‘Scheduled Tribes of India: Religious Demography and Representation.’ In addition to this, a much-debated work of Dr Bajaj is ‘Religious Demography of India’ which was published in 2003. The book was co-authored by A.P. Joshiji and Prof. M.D. Srinivasji. In 2001, with Prof. Srinivas, he wrote the book, ‘Timeless India: Resurgent India: A Celebration of the Land and People of India.’ ‘Restoring Abundance: Regeneration of Indian Agriculture to ensure Food for all in plenty’ was another book he co-authored with Prof. M.D. Srinivas for Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. In 2001, he wrote ‘Food for All.’ His other important works include, ‘Annam Bahu Kurvita: Recollecting the Indian discipline of growing and sharing food in plenty,’ ‘Ayodhya and the Future of India’ and ‘Indian Economy and Policy.’ He had edited ‘Bharatiya Chitta Manas and Kala’ written by Sri Dharampalji. He has also prepared the Madhya Pradesh Resource Atlas. He has several papers to his credit.
His latest book was released by RSS Sarsanghchalak Ma. Mohan Bhagwat ji. As we are entering the 75th year of Independence, a discussion on the book, "Making of a Hindu Patriot: Background of Gandhiji's Hind Swaraj" will help to throw light on many aspects. Now I request Dr Bajaj ji to share with us why he decided to write this book and provide the background of the ideas that he had discussed in the book.
Dr J.K.Bajaj:
Thank you Kuldeepji !
In 1909, Gandhi ji wrote Hind Swaraj. In it, he explained why the Indian civilisationwasway better than the Western civilisation by giving numerous examples. The main difference between Indian culture and Western culture that he has stated in his book is that the origins of the Indian culture is in Dharma while the Western culture does not have anything to do with Dharma. He repeatedly says in his book, “I am not concerned that India has beenenslaved but my concern is that India is moving away from the path of Dharmaand it is something that should never happen.” This is the main message of the book. He kept revising this book. So, we made an effort to study the original manuscript that he wrote in Gujarati and all the writings that followed to understand the evolution of his ideas.
Mahatma Gandhi used to write a lot. He would write at least 2-3 pages daily. From 1888 till his last time, every day he wrote something. We studied his collected works. We started from the beginning up to the writing of Hind Swaraj and up to the time he came back to India, which is 1915. We tried to analyse what made him write a book like Hind Swaraj.
One thing that we found fascinating while reading through his works is that in all his writings almost from the beginning, the one emotion that is constantly visible in him is that of Dharma-nishtha (devotion towards Dharma). His whole life seems to be an exploration of being religious and to understand religion.
Mahatma Gandhi was born in Porbandar and he did his schooling from Rajkot. He was born in a family of Dewans but the place that he was born at was essentially a small village. In such places, Dharma or devotion plays a very important role in all households.This could also be seen in the public spaces there. So, the first indication of his interest in religion or religiosity was seen in his earlier days. And that religiosity is something that he would have got from his mother who would have been fasting every other day. He would have learnt it from Bhagvad Kathas which were happening at least once in a year. He would have learnt it from his maid who would have told him various mythological stories. So, this is the kind of atmosphere that used to be part of small town living in India. This was the India, if I remember correctly, even up to the point when I was young. During Navaratra time, this is the situation in most of the Indian towns even today. So, that is where his religious learning begins. But the religion that he learnt there was that of being a “Sahaj” (natural) Hindu which meant that he did not have to learn anything new as it was a way of life in the place where he grew up. This involved disciplined living, compassion for all living beings and living in harmony with all.
When he grew up, he was the kind of Hindu who believed in the essential Hindu way of living. After he completed his matriculation, he left for England in 1888 aged 19. It is a misfortunate of Indian people that at a very young age, most of us have to leave our homeland to find satisfaction elsewhere. It is not a very happy situation but this situation has been there at least from the early 20th century and it is becoming worse. Anyway, he went there and found out that what was till then a natural way of being Hindufor him was not the case there. He had to explain it. He had to explain it to himself and he had to explain it to others. For example, before going he had taken a vow with his mother that he will remain a vegetarian, he will not drink and he will not womanise. Other things were alright but vegetarianism had to be explained to others once you go abroad. When you are in India and you are a natural Hindu, you don’t have to explain it to others. It is just the way of being. But in England, he had to explain his choice.
So, he joined the Vegetarian Society started by the theosophists there. He wrote several articles about vegetarianism in their journal. And those articles are worth reading because those early articles show his deep interest in the Indian way of being and deep empathy for what the ordinary Indian is. The theosophists asked him what kind of Hindu he is if he has not read the Bhagavad Gita. So, for the first time he started reading the Bhagavad Gitaand, in the process, he started becoming a ‘conscious Hindu’ from a ‘natural Hindu.’
After coming back from England, he was in India for some time after which he went to South Africa in 1893. The situation that he faced in England became worse in Africa. He had gone there as an employee of a Muslim merchant. And that Muslim merchant had a Christian attorney. Mahatma Gandhi was such a nice person and such a believing person that both the merchant and the attorney thought that he should be in their respective faiths. The merchant was a good Muslim and the attorney was a good Christian and in good faith they proposed to him that he should convert to their religion. And Mahatma Gandhi being Mahatma Gandhi said that he would give it a thought. He told himself, “I cannot possibly change my religion till it is proved to me that the religion in which I am born is not sufficient to fulfil my seeking.” So, he starts a very intensive study of religions. He reads about Christianity, Islam and much more than anything else, he reads about Hinduism.
His urge to learn about Hinduism is such that in thatperiod of 3-5 years, he would have read through a very large part of the Hindu corpus or what is the Indian religious classical corpus. In this, he is helped by a very unusual person whose name we do not take. There is somebody called Srimad Rajchandra (also known as Raychandbhai). I don’t know how many of us in India have heard his name. He was a Jain diamond merchant but he was also a Yogi. He was very deeply interested in religion. Mahatma Gandhi had met him when he returned from England, before going to South Africa. He adopts Srimad Rajchandra as his teacher. It was Srimad Rajchandra who sends him various books and Mahatma Gandhi engages in a very long conversation with Srimad Rajchandra. It is a written conversation where he is asking questions on religion. What it means? What it means in a particular context etc. and he is getting answers from Srimad Rajchandra. And at the end of this great conversation, Gandhi (he was not yet a Mahatma) thinks that the long correspondence with Srimand Rajchandra and his long readings pacified the ferment that had started in him when he was exposed to the urgings of the Christians and Muslims to convert. He came to the conclusion that he can do whatever he needs to do in his life through his own Dharma. Gandhi says that one sentence of Srimad Rajchandra in one of his letters finally pacified him. And the sentence was, “On a dispassionate view of question, I am convinced that no other religion has the subtle and profound thought of Hinduism, its vision of soul orits charity”. From that day onwards, Gandhi became a devout, committed, erudite, scholarly Hindu, from a Sahaj (natural) Hindu. This happened in the first five years of his stay in South Africa.
In 1905, he becomes so confident of his religion that he gives a series of lectures to the theosophists in Johannesburg. There is this Masonic Lodge where he gives those lectures. Those five lectures of his on religion are worth reading. What is interesting about those lectures is that, in one of the lectures, he compares Hinduism with Islam and mentions that Islam found foothold in India through violence, through the sword. He also said that Islam was mostly adopted by lower castes.InSouth Africa, Muslims were the important Indians. They got very angry. He tries to convince them in various ways that he holds nothing against the Muslims but they never forgive him for this. The kind of correspondence that goes between him and the Muslims during that period becausehe made that statement is worth reading. The other important thing is that after giving those five lectures, he tells his audience, “If after listening to what I have told you about Hindu religion, anyone of you has been favourably impressed, and has come to feel that the Hindus or the Indians in whose country the religion is founded above prevails cannot be altogether an inferior people. It was not my intention to preach a sermon, neither am I fit to do so.But if it has produced any favourable impression on your mind, I would appeal to you to let my brethren have its benefit and defend them whenever they are maligned.”
Gandhi was very clear from the beginning that his seeking is for moksha. His seeking is a religious seeking but this seeking he must fulfil through the service of his people. So even when he is giving those five lectures, it must be for the sake of his brethren, that Africans must not have a prejudice against them. That they must have the benefit of doubt of Hinduism being great. In fact, at one point, he says, “If I have found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realisation.” So, serving the community is a path tomoksha for him. And that also he decided very early. He says, “I felt that God would be realised only through service, and service for me was service of India.”
What we have tried to establish in the book is that these are the “sthayibhav” (permanent emotions) of Mahatma Gandhi – 1) religion is paramount. 2) the pursuit of religion is through the service of humanity,and 3) humanity for us Indians is Indian humanity. All these three things are explicitly and repeatedly stated. Service of India and service of Indians.That is why over the years, he started saying that for him, patriotism and religion are the same. This part of his religious growth happens by 1905.
Making of a Hindu Patriot
But during that period, he is going through another process and that was the process of the extreme prejudice that the South African society practiced against the Hindus and the Indians in general. And Mahatma Gandhi personally goes though that experience, that prejudice from almost his very first day in South Africa. But he is clear that if you are a religious person, you will not accept insult to your person or to your religion. To protect your dignity, you have to fight to the end. So, for him being a religious person means you must protect your dignity and the dignity of your brethren. For him Satyagraha becomes a form of religious protest. From the beginning, it has been so. In fact, at one point he said, “People ask me, when you are fighting against the law, where is the religious question in it and I ask them if we are religious, are we human persons or not? And if my human person is not given the due dignity, is it a religious question or not?” He went on to say that dogs cannot be religious but men are religious because they are able to protect their dignity. So, the fight for freedom, fight for the dignity of Indians in South Africa, fight for freedom of India,is a religious fight.It is part of being religious that you do not allow your dignity or freedom to be touched. And you do it not only for yourself, you do it for your country and for all your brethren. This is extraordinary and he is continuously developing this.
That third things which happens is that for Indians, austerity is part of their religion. But moksha is not merely ordinary living, it is achieved through tapas. The religious pursuit must ultimately involve some penance or tapas. And Mahatma Gandhi actually goes through immense tapas in South Africa. When the Satyagraha was launched in 1908 to the first half of 1909, in that period of one and a half years, he spent about eight months in prison. And prisons in South Africa are very difficult. For one, you were classified there with the natives. You get the food what the natives get and if you are non-meat eating, then going to prison meant starving. And Mahatma Gandhi puts up a fight for getting proper Indian food while being in African prisons. And he continuously insisted that there cannot be an Indian diet without ghee. He demanded that atleast 60ml of ghee should be given and in the end he actually succeeds. But personally, for him starving was not the issue.
The first prison experience was not serious for him. But the second prison experience was extremely difficult. He was made to break stones on the streets. The situation was so bad that the issue got raised in the British Parliament at that time. He was made to walk on the streets in handcuffs. And for one day, he was put in a cell where he was afraid of being sodomised. He could not sleep all night because the criminal inmateswere continuously leering at him. That was the kind of prison life he had. In the third prisonhe was put in isolation. The neighbouring cells were of rapists and murderers. He was asked to mend old blankets sitting on the floor and when he asked for a stool as his back was aching, he was refused the stool. So those three months of his life were like passing through major tapas. When you read about his experiences, you feel that he has actually seen God sitting in the open skies in those months. He felt that presence within himself. At the end he also says, “I have written about my experiences in prison. I have written it notto share my painbut I have written because I wish that everyone who reads about this account should cultivate patriotism, if he does not have it and learn satyagraha therefrom. And if he has patriotism, be more firm in it. I am growing more certain everyday that one who does not know his religion cannot have true patriotism in them.”
This is what we have tried to argue in our book that Gandhi is a man who became a Hindu through his experiences and through his penance. This is a man who all through has insisted that religion is the same as patriotism. That you cannot be religious without serving your people and without serving your country. One of the major reasons why we wrote this book is because we feel that we are losing both religion and patriotism. And Mahatma Gandhi is a great resource to recover both. No country ever forges ahead without these two attributes being deeply engrained in the sons and daughters of the country. That is what Mahatma Gandhi believed in and that I think is the Sanatana truth, the universal truth.
After 1909, these two phases of Mahatma Gandhi – of his great religiosity and his great patriotism start becoming obvious to everybody. During those days, he had a correspondence with Tolstoy. There is a letter of Tolstoy, Letter to a Hindu. Gandhi translates that letter and writes to him. After that correspondence, Tolstoy’s diarist wrote that Tolstoy praised Mahatma Gandhi and said he was an interesting person except for his Hindu patriotism. This Hindu patriotism for Tolstoy is a problem because he is a Christian and a universalist. He finds both Hinduism and patriotism problematic. Mahatma Gandhi later writes in one of his essays, “It is being said that I am a Hindu patriot. But this is what I am. What I have is my Hinduism and the love for my country. There is nothing more to it.”
The day before he leaves South Africa which was in 1914 middle, there were two meetings held of Hindus – in Verulam and in Durban. And in both of those meetings, they give him written address and in both he is addressed as Shriyut Mahatma Gandhi, Deshbakth Mahatma. So, it was the Hindus of South Africa who started seeing a Deshbakth Mahatma in him by the time he was leaving that country, and the title of Mahatma was given to him much before he returned to India and started movements for India’s freedom.
One final point I would like to add is that RSS Sarsanghchalak ji released this book and, in his address that day, he made two very important points. One, he said that during the independence struggle, there were several people who were great patriots but who were not in agreement with Mahatma Gandhi on the question of non-violence. The Sarsanghchalakji said that those people who disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi were great patriots and they might be right at that time but today after Independence, I am saying that Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence is even more significant than it was in the period before Independence. Because today there is nobody here against whom we need to exercise violence. There is no foreigner in India against whom India needs to exercise violence. So, today non-violence is even more important in our society and Mahatma Gandhi is even more important today than he was during pre-Independence.The other issue that he raised was that, you cannot understand Hinduism without understanding Gandhiji. And you cannot understand Mahatma Gandhi without understanding Hinduism. We all need to think about these observations. With that, I will close my talk.
Making of a Hindu Patriot
Q&A Session
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo: Thank you sir for the elaborate background about Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj.
One question I want to raise is: What was his opinion about Western civilisation, particularly about Christianity? Because it was a huge influence on him and how did he develop his own defence mechanism, and his confidence in Hinduism?
Dr Bajaj: In the whole of Mahatma Gandhi’s writings, I have not found any strong words. But in his writings, you see a strong distaste of Christianity which he says he developed from his early childhood. One of the reasons why we wrote this book was that when I was listening to Irfan Habib once, he claimed that in Mahatma Gandhi’s make up, there is nothing Hindu. All of it was either from Christianity or from Islam. Mahatma Gandhi in his autobiography has said that in Rajkot, in his school days he learnt from his father to be tolerant of all religions. But he developed a distaste for Christianity when he saw the missionaries standing on the roads and abuse Hinduism. And then he writes about the experiences of one person from town who got converted and the way he gave up the kinship with his own people. So, this idea that Mahatma Gandhi was greatly influenced by Christianity is an odd idea which has been put into our heads. In fact, I feel sad that every other day we say that Tolstoy was the teacher of Mahatma Gandhi and that he was his Guru. And Mahatma Gandhi says that if there was any Guru in the religious field, it is Srimad Rajchandra. In fact, he says that he had not reached far enough in his spiritual life to deserve a Guru because Guru is granted only to somebody who has arrived at a particular place.
Mahatma Gandhi was concerned about Vaishnav Bhava which essentially means having compassion for all living beings. And wherever he finds Vaishnav Bhava in other religions, he adopts it. But that he learnt anything from Christianity and Islam, I am extremely doubtful. At least there is nothing in his writings which can show that he was influenced by these religions.
As far as the Western civilisation is concerned, after 1909, after his third prison term, he had more or less arrived as a religious person. That is when he goes to England and spends about three months there. And in the writings of that period, you can see a distaste for Western civilisation. He writes in a letter that while attending a dinner that was hosted in honour of an Ambassador, he felt like he was in the durbar of Ravana. In fact, Hind Swaraj was largely written because he is disgusted about the life of the elite in the West. He is repeatedly telling himself that it is better to be in the prisons of South Africa than waste time sitting in high society drawing rooms.
Making of a Hindu Patriot
Prof Kapil Kapoor: In the beginning, Gandhi ji had identified himself as a patriotic Hindu. When he came back to India, did his thoughts change? Another question I have in this context is, Balgangadhar Tilakji never went anywhere and stayed in India. He was also a Hindu patriot. But the one thing that was there in him a lot more when compared to Gandhiji was Shatru Bodh. So along with self-identification, did Gandhiji critique Islam and Christianity also?
Dr Bajaj: I have read Gandhiji only till 1914. I can answer this question with respect to whatever happened till then. From that I can tell you that in South Africa, his experience with Muslims was terrible. After the lectures he gave in South Africa, though he tried to tell them that he had nothing against them, they were not willing to listen to him.
In 1908, he was assaulted by a Pathan and it was a lethal assault. It was by luck that he escaped. The reason given was that he was a leader of Hindus and did not do anything for Muslims. Once again, they tried to assault him and that time and this is the first time where he said that he was saved because there was a gun wielding man sitting on the stage, otherwise he would have been killed.
And the worst of it, there were several farewell meetings that were held when he was leaving. In the farewell meetings where Indians in general participated, he was called Deshbakth Mahatma and was highly eulogised. That time, the Muslims insisted that he come for a farewell meeting of theirs. And that farewell meeting was like an inquisition where they told him that he had done so much for Hindus, but nothing for them. I don’t think anyone has experienced Muslims the way Mahatma Gandhi did when he was in South Africa. In fact, my strong feeling is that, his last Satyagraha which was for the minors who were mostly Hindus, was because he didn’t want to leave Africa without leading a Hindu Satyagraha. And in that, he found the Tamilians most interesting and devoted. This may not answer your full question but this is what I have learnt from the period I studied.
Rajesh Saxena: Do you think from the 1920s, his political personality took over the religious personality?
Dr Bajaj: I will be able to answer that question only after reading his writings from that period.
Hemant Tak: What is the difference between Mahatma Gandhi’s patriotism and Vivekanada’spatriotism.
Dr Bajaj: Both are greatly religious persons and both have great experience of the ordinary Hindu ways. The main difference between them is that of language. Mahatma Gandhi has read all the classical Indian religious texts. But most of the times he writes in day-to-day simple language, he doesn’t quote texts. Even when he quotes, he quotes only sants of Gujarat. Vivekanand ji knows the Sanskrit tradition much more. But I don’t think there is any difference between the Bhakti tradition and Sanskrit tradition. I find Vivekananda as worried about India as Gandhi was.
Dr Alok Sharma: How do you motivate the youth to know more about their culture and roots?
Dr Bajaj: This is very difficult because we have destroyed our school education system. We are unable to teach the basics. But things may change as many who are perceptive want to learn about the Indian way of living. But till we do not change our family life and the school life appropriately, things will be difficult. Once we become a little more prosperous, all these may return.
Prof Sandhya Jain: Probably, only one letter was exchanged between Gandhi ji and Tolstoy after which the latter passed away.
Dr Bajaj: Perhaps the exchange is little more than one letter. You are right. Tolstoy dies in 1910 and this exchange between them starts in October 1909. There is no question of Tolstoy being Guru of Gandhi ji. There is this interesting incident. Gandhi comes across the English translation of Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu and he wanted it to be translated to Gujarati and get it printed in large numbers. He writes to Tolstoy asking for his permission to do the same and also requested him to delete a line on reincarnation. Tolstoy got back to him saying he is not going to take back anything. But when Mahatma Gandhi published it, he had removed the word. That is the kind of relationship shared by the two.
Question: Sir, you have mentioned in the book that associating education with English education was a great error. Can you throw more light on that aspect?
Dr Bajaj: Mahatma Gandhi was extremely concerned about languages. His interest in language was so deep that he wrote almost everything in Gujarati. While talking about languages in a school in South Africa, his position was that everyone must learn their mother tongue. In addition to that, we must know our classical language. He said that if you are a Hindu, then you must learn Sanskrit and if you are a Muslim, you must learn Urdu. He was so concerned about people misspelling in their regional languages and he gets the only spellings dictionary in India ever published – a Gujarati dictionary.
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo: Is there anything in Gandhiji’s writings that point towards him being concerned about hisphysical fragility which motivated him to opt for non-violence?
Dr Bajaj: I did not see anything in his writings that point so. For him abhaya was as important as ahimsa. In fact, he is repeatedly saying that one who is not fearless cannot be non-violent. For him, cowardice was not an option and he also says that if you cannot follow non-violence and is willing to submit, you better be violent.
Coming to prejudice, on his third day in South Africa, he goes and sits in the Magistrates Court in Durban wearing an Indian turban. And the Magistrate gets him removed for wearing that. This is the first experience he has. The local newspapers cover it and heading of the news items was – ‘an unwelcome visitor.’ Mahatma Gandhi replies to them saying that their report is wrong and later even said that this ‘unwelcome visitor’ is going to become a thorn in the flesh of these people.
After 15-20 days, he had to go to Pretoria. In that train, he took a first-class ticket and when the train reached Pietermaritzburg, he was thrown off it as some white passengers had protested his presence. It was a very cold place and he was unable to sleep that night. So, he thought whether he should go back, accept this treatment or fight it. He said, he was not going back, norgoing to accept such treatment. But the next day, when he takes the coach, he has a much worse experience. The coachman wanted him to sit outside the coach, next to the driver as the English people were sitting inside. He agrees to sit outside considering the experience of his previous day. But after about two hours, the conductor wanted to smoke and wanted to sit outside. So, he asked Gandhi to sit on the footboard. Mahatma Gandhi refused to do so and the conductor boxes him on his ears. So, conditions in South Africa were extremely difficult. When he reaches Pretoria, he was denied a room in a hotel to stay in. That is when he decided to fight this. That is one reason why he becomes very suspicious of the Western civilisation. He says that a civilisation which doesn’t grant the humanity of others must be somewhere seriously wrong. The Europeans again beat him up for saying that.
Dr Kuldeep Ratnoo:
Thank you for your insights! I express my gratitude on behalf of India Policy Foundation to Dr Jatinder Bajaj ji, and all other participants today. Thank you very much!