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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 42

Mahatma or Dharmatma

Wednesday 8 October 2008, by K Swaminathan


The following article, which appeared in Mainstream Annual 1988, was an abridged version of the author’s article in Employment News from where it was reproduced with due acknowledgement.

Gandhiji was a good man and his greatness grew out of his goodness. His dream was that India too should become great (if it was destined to become great) through the steady, conscious pursuit of goodness, not through muscular, monetary, mental, military or any other power. It is true that no man in history was obeyed by so many for so long, but the obedience was voluntary and free, not the result of fear of punishment or hope of reward.

He was a Very Ordinary Person who had trained himself to meet and mate with the everpresent element of goodness (sattva) in every person and every situation and so to create from moment to moment a fresh chance for a better life for all.

Like the other great figures of the Indian Renascence, Swamy Vivekananda, Narayana Guru, Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi, he put off holiness and put on intellect. Like Vinoba Bhave, he accepted and combined spirituality and science. Throughout his long life lived in the full glare of publicity, he boldly and humbly conducted his “Experiments with Truth” and proved in a scientific manner how the acceptance of dharma and its practice in the conduct of one’s daily life does lead to the experience of peace and bliss which is moksha in this very life, here and now. He was not a prophet, teacher or preacher, but a “doer” and a pilgrim, who sought and found innumerable fellow-workers and fellow-travellers in the steep and strenuous but exhilarating ascent to Truth. His favourite text from the Gita, the last 18 verses of Chapter II, and his powerful Talisman for selfless service as the secret of the Good Life, provide a perfect vade-mecum for the spiritual athlete, the Karmayogin, the servant of Rama, Lord of Righteousness, one of whose manifestations is Daridra Narayana. He became indeed a Hero worth emulating and he moulded many such heroes out of common clay, because he humbly, patiently and perseveringly practised and encouraged others to practice the swadharma taught by all our traditional religions. When Mother Teresa says, “I am but a pencil in the hand of God”, when the mystic prays, ‘Let me be to the Eternal Goodness what a man’s hand is to a man’, when Sri Aurobindo says, “Sanatana dharma is life itself, it has not so much to be believed as to be lived”, they only anticipate, echo or confirm the Gandhi Gospel: “Love and serve your brother, your neighbour, your countrymen, and you truly worship God.”

Great as Gandhi’s service has been to India and to his mother religion, not less and perhaps more lasting is his service to Britain and to Christianity. Many Jains, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims have conceded that Gandhi was as good a jain, Buddhist, Christian as anyone professing and claiming to be such. Gandhi himself wanted neither to found a new composite cult nor to convert or reconvert anyone. He strove rather to persuade people to strike deeper roots in their own faith and so to release and use the moral energy latent in them for “spiritualising” contemporary political and economic life. This was evident in his daily prayer meetings under the common canopy of heaven and it did succeed in gaining world-wide support for our non-violent freedom movement and appealed to the conscience of the British people. If today there are wars and threats of war, rampant corruption and mindless terrorism throughout the world and especially in our own region, the failure of Gandhi is no less the failure of the great religions.

That this failure is not final and permanent, that, far from despairing, thoughtful minds can still retain the faith and hope that “the world’s great age begins anew, the Golden years return”, that Gandhi will come into his own in the 21st century when the fission will end and the fusion begin between spirituality and science, that the great religious streams will recognise their common origin and ultimate absorption in the one, vast ocean of Sat-Chit-Ananda, all this is foreshadowed in many recent publications, some of which may be mentioned here.

The proselytising zeal of the Churches has now given place to a dialogues. The old Missionary thesis that “for India salvation is from time and history, not in and through time and history” has been laid to rest by Gandhi’s dynamic Vaishnavism. What Joad called “the counter-attack from the East” has culminated in the tacit acceptance of the ancient Indian thesis that realisation of the one Self is the fulfilment of humanity no less than the descent of divinity. The one and only dharma that can save mankind from self-destruction is the eternal universal, manava dharma, which cherishes trees and birds rather than one huge Tower to link earth and heaven. To break down the barrier between sacred and profane, to realise that all life is holy and all selves are one Self, this inter-religious dialogue may well lead to inter-religious co-operation in “spiritualising” the whole of life: individual, social, economic and political.

IN this chorus of faith and hope, Gandhi’s voice is the loudest and clearest. Why? Because he remains human all the time from Sisu to the Siva stage, from the animal Hanuman stage to the dharma-murti Rama stage. The way to restore faith in God is to rescue our faith in humanity.

As early as 1910 Gandhiji had declared: “The ideal of moksha, the highest value and immediate aim of all mankind, should not be lowered for any-one or withheld from anyone..” He asserted in 1926 that this moksha or self-realisation was “impossible today without service of and identification with the poorest”. And what Gandhiji meant by “service” was not relief or charity, but radical restructuring of the present exploitative economic system. For the individual as for society, life was a great ascent, a steady evolution from good to better; the Hindu should become a better Hindu, the Christian a better Christian; the Muslim a better Muslim and in the process the religions themselves will regain their pristine purity.

Gandhiji’s identity with others comes out clearly in the statement: “When someone commits a crime anywhere, I feel I am the culprit.” Like the contemporary Sri Ramana Maharshi, he gives to the theory of reincarnation the status of a lemma, an assumption, not a fact. He says in a letter: “For a belief in rebirth, it is necessary to believe in the existence of “I”. If “I” do not exist and God alone exists, then who is to be reborn and how?” In other words, service eliminates the ego and service alone can bring about realisation.

For, far too long we in India had used bhakti and jnana as respectable means of escape from dharma.As a result of this escapism we had accommodated side by side a A-one system of metaphysics, mythology and family life and a Z-26 society. Gandhi, like Mother Teresa and the English poet Derek Neveille, reminds us that God is within each human heart today as love, and in this sun today as light.

He is not in Heaven
- With part of His creation still in Hell
- He is no longer what we seek
- But what we have found
- Here on the common earth
- In common ways
- God of the every day.

Dharma is mutual love and service and its universal practice will put an end at once to wars and conflicts, slums and shanties. Dharma is life itself. Let us choose Life not Death. Let us humbly choose the goodness of love, not the pride of power. Let us be content to be dharmatmas, not megalomaniacs masquerading as mahatmas. Let us say with William James, “I am for those tiny, invisible, moral forces that work from individual to individual creeping through the crannies of the world, like so many soft rootlets, like the capillary oozing of water, which yet, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.”

London Bridge may fall down, but grass will go on growing. It is given to us to grow as Trees, the only true living bridges between Earth and Heaven.

(Mainstream, Annual 1988)
- Prof Swaminathan, the scholar-philosopher, was the Chief Editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.

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