Ram, Allah and God were convertible terms to Mahatma Gandhi, and his concept of Ram-Rajya represented not Hindu rule but principled rule, writes Rajni Bakshi.
Some of the ideas and values that were most precious to Mahatma Gandhi had a way of getting him into trouble. Historians and sociologists are still debating whether Gandhi did more harm than good by invoking the image of Ram-Rajya. Many dalits resent Gandhi’s coining of the term ‘Harijan’ to refer to the oppressed castes.
It is a truism that many conflicts are a consequence of the gap between the intention of what was actually said and how it was received by the listener.
The great tragedies of both individual lives and societies occur when both speaker and listener are ‘right’ – as in their perceptions are necessarily born of their given context and experience of life.
So there is merit in looking at why Gandhi was drawn to the Ramayana not in relation to the reactions it provoked among different groups, but rather as an end in itself. How this engagement of Gandhi was received is a much larger story, one that I will not attempt to grapple with here.
~ As a child, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had a fear of ghosts and spirits. Rambha, an old servant of the family, suggested that he repeat Ramanama to overcome this fear. “I had more faith in her than in her remedy, and so at a tender age I began repeating Ramanama to cure my fear of ghosts and spirits. …I think it is due to the seed sown by that good woman Rambha that today Ramanama is an infallible remedy for me,” Gandhi said in My Experiments with Truth, which was written in 1925.
Ramanama, as Gandhi experienced it, is an esoteric phenomenon – connected with but not limited to the story of Ram, Prince of Ayodhya. Thus, said Gandhi: “Rama, Allah and God are to me convertible terms.” The japa (repeated recitation), of Ramanama or a prayer in any other tradition, was for Gandhi fundamentally a way of working towards self-realisation.
It was on the basis of this inward journey that Gandhi built his politics and his concept of the ideal state or rajya. In 1929 Gandhi wrote with emphasis, in Young India, that: “By Ramarajya I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by Ramarajya Divine Raj, the Kingdom of God. …Whether Rama of my imagination ever lived or not on this earth, the ancient ideal of Ramarajya is undoubtedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure. …Ramarajya of my dream ensures equal rights alike of prince and pauper.”
This approach did not die with Gandhi.
Murari Bapu is widely regarded as the most eminent exponent of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas in our times. Some years ago Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan invited Murari Bapu to be the keynote speaker at a public meeting to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary.
Traditional pauranic lore says that Ram-Rajya began when Lord Ram returned from the 14-year exile and became king of Ayodhya. In his speech on that January 30th, Murari Bapu put forth a different view. Ram-Rajya, he said, begins when the sage Vishwamitra comes to King Dashrath and asks that the young princes, Ram and Lakshman, must accompany him to his forest hermitage.
Again the conventional version of the story is that the sage needed the princes to protect his ashram from attacks by asuras. According to Murari Bapu the far more important reason was that Vishwamitra knew that Ram could never fulfil his destiny as a model ruler, adarsh raja, if he remained with all the pomp and comfort of princely life in the palace at Ayodhya.
When Ram and Lakshman accompanied Vishwamitra into the forest they went not in the garb of princes but of ascetics. Therefore they left their chariots and horses behind and, like their guru, walked everywhere.
This act of walking, Murari Bapu said, inaugurates Ram-Rajya because it brings Ram into direct contact with ordinary people and their life condition. Establishing this connection of concern and understanding between the ruler and the people is a key element of Ram-Rajya.
It is thus from Ram, Murari Bapu went on to say, that Gandhiji learns the importance of walking rather than zooming by in a vehicle. The Dandi March could not be what it was – a campaign which riveted people scattered all over India — if the satyagrahis had been rushing through villages and towns in either motorised vehicles or bullock carts or bicycles.
The conventional narrative about the Dandi March, and other occasions when Gandhiji chose to walk, is that these were tactical master-strokes. That is true, but there was much more to walking than just mobilising the masses and spreading the message about satyagraha. It was also a way of being in close contact with the people whose toil and dreams Gandhi sought to understand and empathise with.
It was this element that lived on in the work of Vinoba Bhave and parts of the Sarvodaya movement. It is said that when the First Five-Year Plan was being drawn up the union government invited Bhave to come to Delhi and participate in the deliberations. He agreed to participate but declined to be present on the appointed date – because he wanted to walk to Delhi from Wardha, instead of taking an airplane or train.
Later it was on one of these padayatras that Bhave found a few landowners who were willing to give up a part of their large land holdings to the landless. Thus the Bhoodan movement was born.
From Ramayana to the Bhoodan movement may seem far-fetched. But it does help to illustrate the essence of Gandhi’s interest in Ramarajya – which meant adarsh rajya or principled rule – not the rule of a Hindu king or Hindu elite.
It is commonly known that under Ramarajya both those at the helm of public institutions, as well as the public, would live by the highest moral values. In this sense it is a form of Utopia.