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Gandhi and the Gurus - Johannes Aagaard

Outside the theater where Richard Attenborough’s film on Mahatma Gandhi was showing to full houses, a young man stood distributing handbills. They appeared to be produced by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, the Hare Krishna’s publishing house. The text sought to channel the filmgoers’ excitement about Gandhi toward ISKCON’s special version of Hinduism. The handbills advertised an "amazing offer" on one of the Hindu religion’s holy books, the Bhagavad Gifa, which was referred to as "Gandhi’s book of knowledge" and said to be "5,000 years old...thousands of years older than the Dead Sea scrolls." The truth is, the Bhagavad Gita dates from the period around Christ’s birth.

But those faulty statements about the Bhagavad Gita’s age are unimportant in comparison with the assumption that was implied in ISKCON’s propaganda; namely, that Gandhi and the gurus represent the

same philosophy because both promote, among other things, the Bhagavad Gita. What shall we say to that?

The observant onlooker will have noticed in "Gandhi" that Mahatma’s murderer looks back for just a moment when he loses courage on his way to meet Gandhi. His eyes are met by the eyes of a guru figure seated on a horse-drawn wagon outside the gates who waves the youth forward with authority. The murderer then resumes his walk, carried along with the mass of people gathering to hear Gandhi.

That same holy man appears later in the film when a group of young Hindu fanatics, dressed in black caps and carrying black banners, line up outside Gandhi’s ashram to demonstrate against his negotiations with Jinnah, the Muslims’ arrogant leader. That same figure with the long white hair and beard and intense, sombre look is seen at other points throughout the film. He can even be seen on the posters advertising the film--his face is just behind Gandhi’s. Nevertheless, he is not given a name in either the film or its promotional literature. He is anonymous but not insignificant.

Nathuram Godse, the man who fired the fatal shot at Gandhi, was a Chitpawan Brahmin like so many other of the country’s nationalists. First and foremost among them was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966). He was accused in 1948 of being an accomplice to, even the mastermind behind, Gandhi’s assassin. Those charges were dropped, however, on the ground of insufficient evidence.

It is undeniable that Godse and his conspirators belonged to the Hindu Mahasabha (HM) movement which was founded in 1913 as the Hindu’s answer to the formation of The Muslim League in 1906. Led by Savarkar, the HM recruited especially among devotees of Arya Samaj (AS) in Punjab and among Chitpawan Brahmins from Maharashtra. AS is a reform Hindu movement from the 19th century that is characterized by a revengeful attitude toward Islam and Christianity. In 1923 Hindu Mahasabha directly took over Arya Samaj’s program to turn lapsed Hindus back to their faith and to win Muslims to Hinduism. The resultant violent reactions from the Muslims can be seen in the murder of HM leader Swami Shraddhanand in 1926.

Vinayak Savarkar was also the leader of a militant Hindu front organization that had turned against India’s Islamic minority and also against India’s Christians, desiring the country to become a Hindu state with Hindutva (Hindudom) as its spiritual basis. That demand for "Hinduization", it seems, was to provoke Indian Muslims to assert a counterclaim to "Islamize" the country, thus creating an atmosphere of extreme tension.

In naming Savarkar leader of the HM, I must also name the leaders of the RSS movement founded in 1925. RSS stands for Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh which means People’s Self-Servant Society or Ready to Selfless Service. That sounds idealistic, and it is. But the movement’s ideology also has strong nationalist and fascist overtones. When the RSS marches--and they do so in all major Indian cities on important festival days--it reminds one uncomfortably of Hitler Jugend.

In that connection it is important to note the role yoga plays in the RSS. It is used as a tool for political indoctrination and for semi-militaristic drills. That allows the RSS to be led by a political figure who has all the attributes of a guru, including use of the ochre-yellow banner that waves above each Hindu holy sanctuary and over the RSS’s strongholds and activities. The RSS’s first leader was Dr. Keshab Baliram Hedgewar, called Doctorji, who was in office from 1925 to 1940. His hero was Shivaji, a famous Hindu from the Middle Ages who defended Hinduism against Islam in Maharashtra. Doctorji’s closest coworker and successor was Guruji, also known as Shri Madhav Rao Sadashi Golwalkar, a person shrouded in mystery. From 1940 to 1973, Guruji built the RSS into a truly paramilitaristic fighting organization and charged it with Hindu nationalism. No longer was the battle cry simply Hindutva but also Hindu Rashtra (Hinduland). That provoked the Muslims to call for an independent Pakistan, separate from the predominantly Hindu India, and again the tensions between the two factions rose.

Those two movements, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, have manifested themselves in India’s religio-political life through the Jansangh party, which is fast becoming the Indian middle-class party today. Those same movements have manifested themselves religiously through the development of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) which means World Hindu Mission. The same men who lead the RSS today also lead the VHP, and both organizations hold Guruji as their powerful, legendary father figure. it has been written in the movement’s magazine, Hindu Vishva (Hindu World) that Guruji, by his "indomitable personality," his "inspiration," and his "charm, dynamism and magnetism," founded the organization and left his mark on it (March/April 1979, p.5). The same article also says that Guruji was the man who called "the Dharma-gurus and Acharyas" out of their caves and monasteries in order to take part in the socio-religious revival that would further and protect Hindu Dharma.

It is estimated that the RSS has approximately one million devoted, disciplined followers today and nearly ten times that many sympathizers. Those people are, at the same time, supporters of the VHP. Members of the RSS emphasize recitation of mantras, prayers, and hymns and practice karate and judo. The leaders take a vow, promising to renounce sexuality in order to use all of their spiritual and physical strength for the RSS and their guru. Each day offerings are borne forward to the guru, who is present in the power of the ochre-yellow banner.

The RSS is mentioned as Shiv Sena, "Shivaji’s army," alluding to the national hero who instigated the war against Islam in Mahrashtra. Shivaji had a famous guru on his side; namely, Ramdas Swami who "transformed Shivaji’s blows into holy offerings and transformed his flag into a banner for Hindu Dharma" (Hindu Vishva, June 1974, p. 6). That led to "a sovereign state of the Hindus, for the Hindus, and by the Hindus" (ibid., p. 26), the country’s "Hinduization" the declared goal.

We can ascertain that the RSS is the fulfillment of the vision that originated with Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, and Hindu Mahasabha, who all sought to create an active Hinduism that would make a difference in the world. The RSS is the army of the aggressive brahmacharyas and of political yogis like the old Hindu reformers Swami Dayananda, Aurobindo, and Sister Nivedita. Each of those Swayamsevak’er were meant to be "a missionary fired with a national vision" ("A Bird’s Eye View," Hindu Vishva, 1978, p. 6).

Godse and his comrades belonged to that army of Hindu nationalists, and they murdered Gandhi exactly because he would not go in for Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra. On the contrary, he was willing to compromise with the Muslim people and their leaders to avoid religious dissension and bloodshed. Gandhi was murdered by fellow Hindus who considered him a traitor, by co-religionists who had moved as far as they possibly could from Gandhi’s worldview. The guru-figure behind Gandhi’s assassin has no name. But he could well be Attenborough’s composite representation of Savarkar, Doctorji, and Guruji. All were of the same caste as the murderer, and all were leaders of the wave of Hindu nationalism to which Godse belonged. He was a soldier in Shivaji’s army, the three leaders his strategists.

It is that same wave of Hindu religion that is now coming West out of India in the form of guruism, of which ISKCON is an example. ISKCON, seeking to exploit the public’s preoccupation with "Gandhi,’ is represented in the VHP together with most other of the guru movements. Its founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, is also applauded in Hindu Vishva magazine. Gandhi’s murderer’s spiritual children throw flowers on Gandhi’s grave and attempt to exploit him today to their own advantage.

But ISKCON’s assertions about the Bhagavad Gita need to be more closely examined. That extremely interesting book does not deal with nonviolence but rather is a religious, philosophical treatment of the necessity of violence. Krishna does not instruct the army leader Arjuna on ahimsa (nonviolence) in the course of their long conversation recorded in the Bhagavad Gita. On the contrary, Krishna tells him that violence is not so problematic at that. His message can be summarized as follows:

1. It is not decisive if a man kills or is killed--we shall all die sooner or later.

2. When one kills another human being, he has not killed the soul, for it is of an eternal nature and is simply born again in another body.

3. Sadness and joy are one and the same thing for the person who lives without attachment to his actions. The goal must be to disengage oneself from such attachment--not to act according to what is either good or bad.

4. Duty alone should be the true soldier’s motive. He should not be led by the results of his actions, be they good or bad.

After hearing Krishna’s instructions, Arjuna detached himself from his moral qualm and entered into war against his own family and friends. On the same grounds, the fanatical Godse decided to murder Gandhi. He was also momentarily caught by a moral qualm, but the unnamed guru held him to duty, blind duty. The same scene is playing before our eyes today when India’s gurus win power over Western youth and lead them into the Hindu worldview I have briefly outlined above. That is decidedly not Gandhi’s way. It is Gandhi’s murderer’s way.

Translated by Linda W. Duddy