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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 29

Ramchandra Gandhi—Philosopher and Teacher

Saturday 7 July 2007, by Sagari Chhabra



Ramchandra Gandhi, writer, philosopher and the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, died in India International Centre, on June 13, appropriately perhaps, because to Ramu, as he was known to both friends and acquaintances, the IIC was like a second home. He would work in the library and then just sit in the courtyard doing what he did best—philosophising.

He was the author of several books including ‘Sita’s Kitchen’; the shrine—sita’s rasoi buried under the debris of the Babri Masjid—became an inquiry into the Ayodhya issue and the spiritual life of India. In his own inimitable style Gandhi had focused on what Hindu bigotry was doing to Hinduism: destroying its very foundation.

He writes: “The insistence that the sanctum sanctorum of the mosque is the precise and exclusive place of Rama’s birth is blasphemy, not faith; and not theology, or archaeology or history... What is blasphemous is the denial of omni-presence by imposing the task of imaging it exclusively on any one spot.”

Drawing on his extensive knowledge of philosophy and comparative religions, Ramu Gandhi’s affirmation of the construction of the Babri mosque is worth reading today. Always original in his arguments, this one has to be read for its sheer interpretation of Hinduism. Gandhi justified the creation of the mosque on the sacred site as enhancing the ideals of Hinduism. In his own words: “the mosque makes a stupendous contribution to Indian self-knowledge... Indian spiritual self-knowledge cannot become self-realisation without encounter with other non- Indian (perhaps he implies non-Hindu) spiritual traditions and without sharing time and space with them. Held in topographical and historical embrace by the birthplace and kitchen zone of Ayodhya, the Babri mosque is evidence not of Hindu humiliation but of its venturesome sadhana of self-realisation.”

Ramu Gandhi’s approach was that the universe of Hinduism was only widened by the Islamist perspective; that the entire zone of Ayodhya was sacred, not limited by a particular ‘janmabhoomi’ and only enhanced by the presence of the mosque. Yet after the Gujarat carnage as a rejoinder to the bloody call of Hindutva, in a talk at IIC he urged all Hindus in the hall: “Let’s start calling ourselves Sindhus, as Hindus grew up on the banks of the river Sindhu and were originally known as that.” There were not many in the audience who were willing to embrace this somewhat maverick idea.

YET that was Ramu Gandhi, always one to engage in ideas, throwing them back and forth in a masterly use of language; discussing work in progress with various individuals, a quintessential philosopher at large. A regular walker at Lodi Gardens, he once stopped while I was engaged in an argument with the police. I had spotted a cop opening the door of my car while the cop argued he was only checking. I didn’t quite believe him. Having just completed research for a film on custodial rape, did not exactly enhance my faith in cops. Ramu happened to pass by and inquired what the matter was. He adroitly dispensed with the cops saying “yeh meri bitiya ki tareh hein—she is like a daughter to me” then admonished me to be more careful. He was, after all, always a teacher even at IIC, but the best of Ramu came out when he talked about his daughter, Leela. In his last book ‘Muniya’s Light’ Ramu writes an imaginary conversation between Ravi Srivastav, a philosopher, and Ananya, a young woman graduate, whom he affectionately calls Muniya. He chose the name, he said, because he wanted to embrace the concept of the girl-child, ‘muni’ and the word ‘muni’, which implies sage. In many ways, Ramu was reaching out to many Muniyas, engaging with them and passing on philosophical values like a quintessential teacher.

In ‘Muniya’s Light’, written as a conversation, while travelling from San Francisco to Mumbai, the philosopher and young woman explore India’s spiritual past, India’s struggle for freedom and the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi. He exhorts Muniya and through her the new generation: “India must not forget its meaning. When somebody crosses a line of division, of caste or class or gender or creed, breathing out their foul air and refusing to breathe in the pure air of the all encompassing sky which unites all in its most intimate bond of identity, the identity of self- realisation, the sky under which alone this land of Bharata has most insistently sought to live, we must hold them not in imprisonment, but in our embrace and ask them to breathe in the air of love.” It is this impassioned love for Bharata and an enunciation of secularism as an inclusive act of love; not a diatribe of denouncing “them” that makes his work so memorable.

Gandhi wrote six plays on spiritual masters: Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Francis Assissi and several others. Always dressed in a khadi kurta-pyjama with a ‘gamchha’—a cloth around his neck, Ramu brought his own conception of philosophy into IIC—simple living and engaging relentlessly in the world of ideas. On New Year’s Day he would be seen distributing sweets to the IIC staff and thanking them for serving him.

He is survived by his brilliant daughter, Leela, who teaches literature at La Trobe University, Australia, of whom he would speak of with the quiet pride of a father, revealing: “She spends a lot of time volunteering to teach the children of aboriginals and first generation learners.” It was a sobbing but brave Leela who alone conducted all the cremation rites: the pouring of water from the earthern pot, the smashing of the pot and the lighting of the funeral pyre. It was as Ramu expressly desired. There was the time-honoured tradition of Hinduism, with continuity, yet change. He was philosophising and teaching all of us present at his cremation.

The author is an independent film-maker and writer.

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