From Arya Samaj to Mahatma Gandhi
(I promised this intellectual autobiography to Hashmat, some twenty years ago. Hashmat wrote frequently in the Organiser under the general heading “Pakistan X-Rayed”. It is years since I lost track of him. But I never forgot my promise. I wonder what I would have written twenty years ago. I wonder also how this story will shape if I wait for another twenty years. And I do not know what its worth is today. But I am impelled to write it because in today’s India it is not sufficient to be a Hindu by birth. Hindu society and culture are under attack from several quarters. One has to be a convinced and conscious Hindu to meet and survive that attack. One has to find one’s roots in Sanatana Dharma).
I was born a Hindu. But I had ceased to be one by the time I came out of college at the age of 22. I had become a Marxist and a militant atheist. I had come to believe that Hindu scriptures should be burnt in a bonfire if India was to be saved.
It was fifteen years later that I could see this culmination as the explosion of an inflated ego. During those years of self poisoning, I was sincerely convinced that I was engaged in a philosophical exploration of cosmic proportions.
How my ego got inflated to a point where I could see nothing beyond my own morbid mental constructions, is no exceptional story. It happens to many of us mortals. What is relevant in my story is the seeking and the suffering and the struggle to break out of that spider’s web of my own weaving. I will fill in the filaments as I proceed.
My earliest memory of an awakening to interests other than those with which a young boy is normally occupied, goes back to when I was eight years old. My family was living in Calcutta. My father was a total failure as a broker in the jute goods market. But he was a great storyteller. He could hardly be called an educated person having spent only 2-3 years in a village school. But he had imbibed a lot of the traditional lore by attending kathas and kirtanas in his younger days. His knowledge of Hindu mythology, legendary heroes, and the lives of saints was prolific.
One fine evening he started telling me the lengthy and complex story of the Mahabharata. The narrative lasted for more than a month, each installment lasting over an hour or so. I absorbed every event and episode with rapt attention and bated breath. The sheer strength of some of the characters as they strode across the story lifted me up and above the humdrum of everyday life, and made me dwell in the company of immortals.
The Mahabharata has been my most favourite book ever since. I regard it as the greatest work ever composed. My yearning for reading this great story in print led to a funny episode a few years later. I was a student of the fifth standard in my village in Haryana. An Urdu magazine was publishing a verbatim translation of the Mahabharata in monthly installments. The only subscriber to it in our village was a retired veteran of the First World War. But he kept the series locked in his baithak (study), and stubbornly refused to lend them even to his own son who was my classmate. The two of us watched his timings in the baithak, broke into it via the skylight on the roof, read the installments one after another, and restored them to their original resting place. The theft was never discovered.
The character that impressed me most in the Mahabharata was, of course, Sri Krishna. His great words and deeds left me enthralled. The admiration was to deepen in later years till it became a worship. His holy name became a sacred mantra. Sri Krishna is the foundation, the middle, and the apex of the Mahabharata. I am told by one who should know that Sri Krishna is the highest symbol of Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Power which the human psyche has thrown up.
But I was painfully surprised when a wise man in the village equated the Mahabharata with Alha Udal, and warned that the narration, even the possession, of these two stories always led to feuds and bloodshed. I have read Alha Udal also, the entire 52 martial episodes rendered into sonorous verse by Matrumal Attar. And I feel very strongly that the comparison is absolutely superficial, and the belief purely superstitious. Hindus in North India have neglected the Mahabharata for a long time. The very fact that the Mahabharata has come to he equated with Alha Udal in the popular mind in the north is indicative of a great intellectual and cultural decline.
To return to my story, while still in Calcutta I made my first contact with another mighty scripture, the Granth Saheb of Sri Garibdas. This Jat saint of Haryana has been the patron saint of my family ever since an ancestor of ours, who was the saint’s contemporary, became his votary in the first half of the 18th century. We revere him as the Satguru (true teacher) who was an avatara of the Highest Being. He was totally illiterate but composed and sang some 18000 verses of very sublime poetry which scales the highest spiritual heights. The story goes that my ancestor would not have his first morning sip of water unless he had paid homage to the saint who lived at a distance of 4 miles from our village.
My father was able to acquire a copy of the first printed edition of the Granth Saheb of Sri Garibdas soon after it was published from Baroda. He would frequently read it out to my mother and myself with his own running commentary on the lives of saints and bhaktas as they were mentioned in the sakhis and the ragas. I also sat sometimes turning the pages of this work. I hardly had the mental equipment to understand the mystic messages. But the stories of some great saints like Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Dadu, Namdev, Chippa, Pipa and Dhanna were very strongly impressed on my mind, as also the stories of renowned Muslim sufis like Rabiya, Mansur, Adham Sultan, Junaid, Bayazid and Shams Tabriz. These stories were to flower into an abiding satsanga (holy company) in years to come.
During that year’s stay in Calcutta, I also came in contact with the freedom movement for the first time. It was at its brightest and stormiest peak the Salt Satyagraha. The atmosphere was full of Mahatma Gandhi and Bharata Mata. I sobbed uncontrollably as I watched the mammoth procession following the arthi (bier) of Jatindra Nath Das on its way to the Nimtallah burning ghat. The martyrdom of Bhagat Singh came soon after. I became vaguely aware that my country was not free. My mother told me that we were being ruled by a queen sitting on a throne across the seven seas. History for her had not moved since the days of Queen Victoria.
The Congress movement was never strong in my countryside which was dominated by the Zamindara League of Sir Chhotu Ram. But the Arya Samaj movement was sweeping everything before it. Almost all men of note in the village were Arya Samajists, including the half-a-dozen freedom fighters who had been to jail. The preachers and songsters of the Arya Samaj visited our village very frequently. I was very keen to attend these sessions, many a time late into the night. It was from their lectures and bhajans that I learnt my first lessons in nationalism. The point of this nationalism, however, was turned not against the British rulers but against Muslim invaders and tyrants like Mahmud Ghaznavi, Muhammad Ghori, Alauddin Khalji and Aurangzeb. The national heroes were Prithvi Raj Chauhan, Maharana Pratap, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Guru Govind Singh, Banda Bairagi and Raja Surajmal of Bharatpur. They became a part of my religious consciousness along with the heroes of the Mahabharata and the saints and sufis of the Granth Saheb of Sri Garibdas.
The Arya Samaj of my young days in the village had three main themes to which they devoted the largest part of their programmes the Muslims, the Sanatanists, the Puranas. The Muslims were portrayed as people who could not help doing everything that was unwholesome. The Sanatanist Brahmins with their priestcraft were the great misleaders of mankind. And the Puranas, concocted by the Sanatanists, were the source of every superstition and puerile tradition prevalent in Hindu society.
I never felt any animosity towards the Muslims except the Muslim invaders and kings already mentioned. Our house was in a neighbourhood full of Muslim telis (oilmen). Most of them had Hindu names like Shankar and Mohan. They participated in Holi and Diwali. Only their women wore trousers unlike the Hindu women of the village. My Muslim neighbours were gentle, quiet, unassuming and very hardworking people. We addressed them as uncles and grandpas as we addressed their women as aunts and grandmothers. An elderly member of their clan who lived alone in a big but deserted Hindu haveli (big house) was a very strong albeit a lovable character. I did not like it when someone passed unkind remarks about these Muslims on account of their religion, which was not unoften.
Nor did I lose my respect for the Brahmins. Some of them in our village were quite learned. Other., inspired great respect by the dignity of their demeanour in the midst of great poverty. None of these venerable ones was an Arya Samajist. On the other hand, the president of the Arya Samaj in our village was quite a questionable character. He was president of the Congress also. One, of his great exploits, of which he was very proud, was to defecate in the sanctum sanctorum of the village temple. I always avoided him and many a time turned back when I saw him coming from the other side of some village street.
But I did take very seriously the Arya Samajist denunciation of the Puranas and the Sanatanists. They became something tantamount to the effeminate and the immoral in my mind.
There was not much of traditional Sanatanism in my family due to the influence of Sri Garibdas, a saint in the nirguna tradition of Kabir and Nanak. Our women did keep some fasts, performed some rituals and visited the temple and the Sivalinga. But the menfolk were mostly convinced about the futility of image worship, and did not normally participate in any rituals. The Brahmin priest was not seen in our homes except on occasions like marriage and death. The great religious event in our family was the patha (recitation) of the Granth Saheb performed by Garibdasi sadhus who stayed with us for weeks at a time. I remember very vividly how lofty a view I took of my own nirguna doctrines and how I looked down upon my classmates from Sanatanist families whose ways I thought effeminate. I particularly disliked their going to the annual meld (festive gathering) of a Devi in a neighbouring town. God for me was a mate person. Devi worship was defilement of the true faith.
And I cannot help laughing even now when I remember my first encounter with a Purana. Srimad Bhagvata was the only Purana known and available in our village. I had a strong urge to read it. But I was always afraid that I might get caught in the act. It was years later when I had left the village and joined a school in Delhi, that I borrowed a copy of Srimad Bhagvata from the local Harijan Ashram and stealthily brought it home. As I read it, I was watchful lest someone should see me in the midst of this indulgence and spread the story abroad. I did not find it repulsive in the least, though I thought some of the stories highly exaggerated. But on the whole it did not impress me. Sri Krishna of the Mahabharata was strongly stamped on my mind. I found him missing in the Bhagvata. His frolics with die gopis (milk maids) left me cold. I, however, lived to learn that the Puranas were an integral part of that mansion of Vedic spirituality of which the Mahabharata was the crowning arch.
My interest in Arya Samaj brought me in contact with the newly established Harijan Ashram in our village. I was already a high school student in Delhi. During the summer vacations a friend in the village asked me to join a sahabhoja (fraternal dinner) in which Harijans were to serve sweetened rice to caste Hindus. I went to the Harijan Ashram and watched the assembly which included practically all emancipated luminaries of our village. I did not share the meal because the Harijans who were serving rice and the caste Hindus who were eating it, were dripping with perspiration in that midday of a hot month. But when I came out and was asked by some orthodox people whether I had par taken of the “chamar (cobbler)” food, I did not deny it. Deep down inside me I wished that my hygienic inhibitions had not stopped me from doing what I thought right and proper.
It was perhaps this sense of guilt which took me to the Harijan Ashram a few days later. The man in charge was a member of my own caste and a veteran freedom fighter who had spent long spells in jail. He was very tough and devoutly dedicated to Harijan uplift. One could hardly discuss anything with him without his introducing the Harijan problem into it. He made a deep impression on me, even though he was short tempered and intolerant towards everything which he could not trace to Mahatma Gandhi. Seeing him taking care of a band of young Harijan boys, I often suspected that his loyally to Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps secondary to his dedication to Harijan uplift.
It was this gentleman who told me that the sahabhoja had been organised not by the Arya Samaj but by the Harijan uplift movement of Mahatma Gandhi. And I was surprised, in fact shocked, when he told me that the Mahatma was not an Arya Samajist but a Sanatanist. He himself was a convert from Arya Samaj to the Mahatma’s way of worship and thought. This revelation landed me in a great dilemma. My knowledge of Arya Samaj did not go beyond what its preachers in the village had told me. My knowledge of the Mahatma’s doctrine was poorer still. But I was convinced that being a Sanatanist was something disreputable. How could a great man like Mahatma Gandhi be a Sanatanist? Yet I revered him with all my mind and all my heart. I had heard and myself shouted his jaya (victory) for several years now.
As chance would have it, the dilemma was resolved in the next few days, without any great intellectual effort on my part. One of my younger contemporaries who came to me everyday for lessons informed me that the Satyartha Prakasa was one of the several books he had borrowed from his school library in our district town. Copies of this magnum opus of the Arya Samaj were, readily available in private homes in our village as well is in libraries in Delhi. But I had never felt any interest in it. Now suddenly I was eager to study it and find out what it was all about.
I do not remember at this distance in time my reactions to the learned discussions which the Satyartha Prakasa carries on many subjects. But I do remember very vividly the painful shock I received as I read its remarks about Kabir and Nanak. These were two of the most hallowed names I had cherished since my first awakening to a religious consciousness. I concluded that Swami Dayananda had been unnecessarily unkind to these great saints, and that his way of thinking was wrong. That was the end of Arya Samaj for me at that time. It was years later when I read Sri Aurobindo’s Bankim, Tilak, Dayananda that I bowed, in repentance and renewed reverence, before that fearless lion of a man who tried his best to rescue and revive the Vedic vision among the Hindus. A true understanding and appreciation of the crucial cultural role which the Arya Samaj played at a critical juncture in our national life dawned on me simultaneously.