Gandhi as Yudhishtira, Zaehner, 'Liberals'
"Hinduism", RC Zaehner, Oxford University Press, New York, 1966.
I am generally reluctant to accept the received wisdom of westerners
in regard to Hinduism. However, this slim volume by Prof. Zaehner,
formerly Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford
University, is my personal favorite for short and comprehensible
introductions to Hinduism both as a religious and as a social path.
Written primarily for the interested western student of Hinduism (with
a secular Christian perspective), it is an invaluable tool for many of
us Indians who are products of a western-centric educational and value
system, and in particular for those living outside India. Without
undue trivialization or over-simplification, Professor Zaehner covers
the following topics: Veda, Brahman, Moksha, God, Dharma, Bhakti,
Encounter (referring to the British period), and "Yudhishtira Returns"
(referring to Mahatma Gandhi). Prof. Zaehner reminds me of a somewhat
more pedantic and less populist Joseph Campbell; where the latter
astonishes with his breadth and his sweep across human societies, the
former impresses with his extraordinary clarity of thought.
I re-read the chapter on the Mahatma recently, and was struck again by
the insight and lucidity of the work. I will let it speak for itself:
the author avers that the Mahatma was, in effect, Yudhishtira
returned, the righteous man, desirous of nothing more than the pursuit
of Dharma, tortured by doubts but steadfast in his path. I would go
further and say that the Mahatma was, although as a human being he had
his flaws and weaknesses, the greatest man who lived in this century.
There is a great deal of relevance to what Gandhiji preached and
practiced as far as we expatriate Hindus are concerned: for instance,
what is our dharma? What does it mean to be a "liberal" Hindu? What is
the role of Hinduism in our lives, our self-image, our self-respect? I
will touch upon a few of these by quoting at length from Prof.
---------------------- Begin quotes -------------------
Chapter 8: Yudhishtra Returns
"Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye
therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
"Mahatma Gandhi was no Christian, and the Christians were amazed that
this should be so, for never in modern times had they seen any man
tread more faithfully in the footsteps of the Christ. Whence did he
derive his astonishing strength, and how was it that he alone could
transform a 'nation of slaves' into one of free, self-confident, and
self-sacrificing men? For Gandhi did not see himself primarily as the
architect of Indian independence from British rule but as the
liberator of the Indian spirit from the fetters of greed and anger,
hatred and despair...... He described himself as a sanatani Hindu, one
who follows the sanatana dharma, the eternal law once embodied in the
dharma-raja, Yudhishtira. And Gandhi's dilemma was the same as
Yudhishtira's: what and where was the sanatana dharma he claimed to
follow? Was it in his heart or was it in what the Brahmans
.... The outraged conscience of Yudhishtira speaks through the lips of
Mahatma Gandhi. And Gandhi's God too is the God of Yudhishtira, not
the God of bhakti or of the philosophers. 'To me God is Truth and
Love; God is ethics and morality; God is fearlessness; God is the
source of Light and Life, and yet he is above and beyond all these.
God is conscience.' God is, in fact, what Gandhi in his heart feels
him to be: he is not the God of the law-books or even of the Vedas,
should these prove in conflict with the light within him.... Just as
Yudhishtira, after the conclusion of a triumphant war, could not rid
himself of the feeling of guilt and responsibility, so did Gandhi take
full responsibility for the eruption of violence that his Civil
Disobedience campaign had led to and against which he protested with
all his soul.
..... Among the many things that astonish us about Gandhi is that,
though claiming to be an orthodox Hindu, he was yet the greatest
reformer Hinduism had ever seen. The reason for this is that he
practiced what he preached, or rather, in the words of Louis Fischer,
'he did not preach about God or religion; he was a living sermon. He
was a good man in a world where few resist the corroding influence of
power, wealth and vanity.' Though the centre and leader of India's
massive movement for independence, he never saw himself as such: he
saw himself as, and was, a sannyasin for whom 'liberation' meant
rather liberation from the bondage of sin--desire, anger, avarice,
sloth and so on--than liberation from the British. ....
.... In his later years Gandhi was asked what he considered to be the
essence of Hinduism, and he replied that the whole of Hinduism was
contained in the first verse of the Isa Upanishad which he translated
All this what we see in this great universe is permeated by God.
Renounce it and enjoy it.
Do not covet anybody's wealth or possession.
Gandhi claimed to be an orthodox Hindu, and his attachment to his
ancestral religion was deep and genuine, but his attachment to
conscience was deeper still..... He is in history what King
Yudhishtira was in myth, the conscience of Hinduism that hungers and
thirsts after righteousness in defiance of the letter of the law of
gods and men.....He did all he could to save the structure of
Hinduism, defending even such practices as the veneration of the cow
which in fact entirely lacks the sanction of antiquity, for in the
homage paid to this gentle beast he saw the 'worship of innocence',
the 'protection of the weak and helpless', and 'one of the most
wonderful phenomena in human evolution'. He saw that if Hinduism were
to be deprived of the 'superstitions' that gave it its characteristic
flavour, and if it were to be reduced to a bloodless ethical system,
it would surely die. Annie Besant had sensed this before him and
Gandhi would have agreed with her when she said:
Make no mistake. Without Hinduism India has no future.
Hinduism is the soil into which India's roots are struck, and torn out
of that she will inevitably wither, as a tree torn out from its
place... Let Hinduism go, Hinduism that was India's cradle, and in
that passing would be India's grave.
Gandhi did not let Hinduism go: but after Gandhi Hinduism will never
be the same again.
.... The crisis through which Hinduism is passing today resembles in
many ways the crisis of modern Judaism; for 'Hindu' like 'Jew' is both
a racial and a religious term. Both Jews and Hindus may change their
religion; in that case they risk being 'outcasted' by the orthodox in
whose eyes they will have ceased to belong to the national community.
Or, if they stay within the fold of the national religion, they be
'orthodox', 'liberal' or merely agnostic in that they conform but not
believe. The 'liberal' Hindu, like the liberal Jew, has broken with
much of the written law and oral tradition, he has assimilated much
from Christianity and probably knows his synoptic Gospels at least as
well as the Gita and certainly better than the Upanishads. At the same
time he sees the good in in all religions and tends, like Gandhi, to
regard them all as different paths leading to an identical Truth. If
pressed to specify what this Truth might be, he would probably reply
that it is the 'Oneness of all being'. He hates the exclusiveness of
Christianity and Islam which he rightly regards as an obstacle to the
harmonious cooperation of religions. Often he will deny that he has
any use for religious syncretism, and say rather that it is his
dearest wish that each religious tradition should develop and grow in
accordance with its own native genius, while honoring and respecting
the other great religions as being paths converging upon the same
central point, the One which is at the same time Truth and Love. This
often appears self-evident to him, and he is genuinely bewildered at
the zeal displayed by his Christian and Muslim friends for gathering
others into their respective folds and in this he differs little from
his forbears of whom Al-Biruni said: 'There is very little disputing
about theological topics among themselves; at the utmost, they fight
with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their
prosperity on religious controversy'.....
------------------------ End of quote ------------------
This last section on the 'liberal' Hindu is particularly noteworthy:
this animal is what is known as the pseudo-secularist on this network,
I suppose. What Prof. Zaehner points out is that, unconsciously, the
liberal Hindu, not realizing how dependent he is on his Hindu roots,
downplays their significance and even actively opposes Hindu ideas.
But the liberal Hindu is naive to not realize that it is only in the
Hindu context that his liberalism is viable: in an exclusionary
religious tradition, his skepticism or distance would not be tolerated
at all. As I have mentioned elsewhere, heretics and apostates often
meet an abrupt end in the Semitic traditions. What the pseudo
secularist fails to understand is that his rather woolly liberalism
and goodwill for other religions--as Zaehner points out above--is not
Do 'liberal' Hindus, just like liberal Jews, also suffer inordinately
from self-hate? Perhaps. We are taught to deride and deprecate our
science, our art, our literature--no wonder some of us hate
themselves. Oddly enough, our science (e.g. the holistic nature of
healing, ayurveda, yoga, the cyclical nature of the universe,
evolution, and the great antiquity of the world) is becoming more
accepted as closer to the truth (whatever that is). Our art, when we
have allowed it to flourish, is seen as a sublime and continuous
tradition, with a range from Afghanistan to Cambodia, and equal to the
more conventional traditions (note the opening of the South
Asian-Southeast Asian wings at the Smithsonian and the NY Met Museum).
Our agricultural practices of maintaining genetic diversity and
maintaining environmental quality are seen as viable long-term
solutions. And even our food is becoming more acceptable to the
average westerner. Our country is waking up and is preparing to take
its place as a colossus in the coming Asian century. It is ironic
indeed that at this optimistic moment, some of us Indians/Hindus
persist in negativism, and in refusing to see the good we have--our
diamonds in the rough that, I agree, need to be polished.
The other point that came up in a very interesting series of articles
in the New Perspectives Quarterly (I think in their summer or spring
94 issue) is that we face a pluralistic world, with people of
different faiths and different ideologies living together in more or
less a state of detente. The exclusionary traditions, such as
Christianity, Islam or Communism, have trouble dealing with pluralism.
In that sense, perhaps Hinduism had the right idea all along: tolerate
ambiguity, tolerate differences of opinion, tolerate violently
differing points of view, do not impose axiomatic dogmas on people,
allow for the free flow of ideas. If this is the sort of thing that
the 'liberal' Hindu wants to encourage in Hinduism and in other
religions, then I have no quarrel with him. However, it appears that
the average 'liberal' feels that he has to belittle Hinduism and
negate it and destroy it, rather than reform it and improve it. This
is where we part company.
In some future post on Hinduism-related topics, I shall quote from a
biography of Sree Narayana Guru. His successful struggle to reform
Hinduism in Kerala is a stirring story, and has a great deal of
relevance in today's climate of caste animosity. People often claim
that Hinduism has not seen reformers, and I think, have they not heard
of Gautama the Buddha, Mahavira, Sankara, Basavanna, Raja Ram Mohun
Roy, the Brahmo and Arya Samajis, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Sree
Narayana Guru? If you want to know of a recent (within the last 50-60
years) successful reform movement in Hinduism, Sree Narayana's story
will be of interest.