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From Gandhism to Communism

I had a brief encounter with the Sthanakavasi Svetambara sect of Jainism also, at about the same time. The school in which I was a student was a Svetambara Jam school. The relative with whom I stayed was also a Jain. There was a daily period in our school for teaching the elements of Jain dharma. But the Jam community which I saw from close quarters was too decadent, self centred, and morose for my taste. The lectures of some Jain sadhus which I attended in the local sthanaka (Jain hermitage) were narrow and sectarian, and never made any sense to me. What scandalised me most was the Jain version of Sri Krishna. He was portrayed as a crook. I was told that Sri Krishna had descended into the fifth hell for the killings in which he had indulged and that he was still there. I had to wait for years before I came to understand Bhagvan Mahavira and Jainism via my understanding of the Buddha and Buddhism. Both of them, I found, had scaled the same Himalayan heights of the soul.

A friend and classmate one day gave me biographies of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda written by Romain Rolland. I was enthralled and felt strongly drawn towards Vedanta. The library in Delhi which I frequented had complete works of Swami Vivekananda and Swami Ram Tirtha, in eight volumes each. I read all of them. But my gain was very little indeed. The mistake I made was to imagine that mystic consciousness, which alone could witness the truths of Vedanta, was a matter of mental, at best intellectual, attitudinizing. Both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were to come back to me in later years as embodiments of’ our great spiritual and cultural traditions.

Five paise of the old currency was not exactly a small sum for me in those days. But I gladly parted with it for a small sized copy of the New Testament which a pavement bookseller had in his collection of old books. I did not know at that time that I could have acquired a much better edition and that for the asking if I had approached some Christian church or mission. I did not know any at that time. I read the gospel part of the New Testament immediately. The rest of it did not interest me. But the personality of Christ on the cross fascinated me so much that I bought a picture of Christ and put it on the wall of my small cell along with pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Ram Tirtha. The Sermon on the Mount intermingled and became one with the message of Mahatma Gandhi.

It was at about this time that I came in contact with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) also. Some of my classmates were members of this organisation of which I had never heard so far. They invited me to a function held in Gandhi Grounds on the occasion of Vijayadashmi. I was very much impressed by the mass drill and I.he torchlight procession that I saw. But the speech by Shri Vasantarao left me aghast Amongst other things he said: “It is a sin and a crime to be weak. The Vedas had prescribed that a lion should be slaughtered in one of the sacrifices. But who could catch a lion? So the poor goat was substituted for it. Why? Simply because the goat was weak.” I had often joined in singing Surdas’ famous song, nirbala ke bala Rama (the strength of the weak is Rama). Jesus had also told me that the meek shall inherit the earth. This denigration of the weak and glorification of the strong, therefore, scandalised me at that time. I had to learn a lot from history, past and present, before I realised that Shri Vasantarao was stating a great truth. It is indeed a sin and a crime to be weak . It is only the strong who can fight for dharma and practise kshama (forgiveness).

But as my moral and intellectual life was preparing to settle down in a universe of firm faith provided by Mahatma Gandhi, my emotional life was heading towards an upheaval which I had not anticipated. Let me hasten to clarify that this upheaval had nothing to do with love or romance. The dimensions of this disturbance were quite different. I started doubting, first of all slowly and then rather strongly, if there was a moral order in die universe at large and in the human society in which I lived. The sages, saints and thinkers whom I had honoured so far were sure that the world was made and governed by a God who was satyam (Truth), sivam (Goodness), sundaram (Beauty). But all around me I saw much that was untrue, unwholesome, and ugly. God and his creation could not be reconciled.

This problem of evil arose and gripped my mind partly because of my personal situation in life. In spite of my pose of humility learnt from Mahatma Gandhi, I was harbouring a sense of great self esteem. I was a good student who had won distinctions and scholarships at every stage. I had read a lot of books which inside me feel learned and wise. I was trying to lead a life of moral endeavour which I thought made me better than most of my fellowman. Standing at the confluence of these several streams of self esteem, I came to believe that I was somebody in particular and that the society in which I lived owed me some special and privileged treatment. All this may sound ridiculous. But people who take themselves too seriously are seldom known for a sense of humour.

My objective situation, however, presented a stark contrast to the subjective world in which I loved to live. I was very poor and had to lead a hard life. My learning, whatever it was worth, did not seem to impress anyone except my teachers and a few classmates. Most people around me thought that I was a bookworm and a crank. My interest in Arya Samaj, the freedom movement and Harijan uplift had alienated the family elders in the village. I had even suffered physical assault from one of them. But the unkindest cut of all was that whenever I visited the home of some city classmate who liked me, his family people made it a point to ignore me as a village bumpkin outside the ken of their class. I was always so poorly dressed as to be mistaken for one of their servants. it took me a long time to forget and forgive the father of a close friend who chided his son in my presence for having fallen into bad company. I did not know at that time that our upper classes are normally very uppish and that their culture and good manners are generally reserved for their social superiors.

Over a period of time, I found that I was getting overwhelmed by a great sense of loneliness and self pity. This black mood got intensified by my voluminous readings of the great tragedies from Western literature. Thomas Hardy was one of my most favourite novelists. I read almost all his works. The comedies of Shakespeare I always gave up midway. But I lapped up his tragedies. I knew by heart all the soliloquies of Hamlet. And I thought that my situation was summed up by the following stanza in Gray’s Elegy:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

I was sure that I was one of those gems and flowers which would never get the appreciation they deserved by virtue of their brilliance and fragrance. I translated the whole poem into Hindi verse.

But, by and large, the problem of evil was occasioned by the cruelty, oppression, high handedness and injustice which I witnessed in the world around me. I will describe only one of the many instances which revolted me. Our village had a large population of Harijans who, besides other occupations, worked as agricultural labourers also. Several other villages in our neighbourhood ran short of agricultural labour at harvest time. These villages, therefore, promised better wages than those paid in our village. Harijans from our village naturally started going to the neighbouring villages, which was not to the liking of peasant proprietors in our village. A band of these strong men descended on the Harijan basis (locality) one day, demolished several Harijan houses and threatened to molest Harijan women if their menfolk did not agree to work exclusively in our village for wages determined by the village panchayat in which the Harijans had no representation. I happened to be in the village that day and went on a visit to the basti along with boys from the Harijan Ashram. I could not suppress my own tears when I saw a newly married Harijan bride stunned into tearless silence by the terror of it all.

At this critical juncture in my life, I made great friends with a classmate who was a student of philosophy which was not my subject. He was very well read. But what was more, he had the gift of the gab. His company came as a godsend at a time when I was in great need of it. It became our daily routine to go for long walks along the Jamuna or on unfrequented roads outside Delhi, which was a rather small city at that time. During these walks, he gave me lessons in inductive and deductive logic, ethics, psychology and the various systems of Western philosophy. It was all very fascinating and a new world of thought and perception opened before me. I still regard him as one of my two great gurus.

In between, however, he would express his own views and judgments on subjects about which I thought I had already arrived at final conclusions. We had a violent argument one day when he denounced the marriage institution and opined that a man and a woman should be free to live together as long as they liked one another. But I fell murderous in spite of my devotion to non violence when one fine morning he declared that Gandhi was the embodiment of all reaction. This was a new term for me. He asked me to read Yashpal’s Gandhivada ka Savaparikshana (postmortem of Gandhism) and find out for myself. I had never heard of Yashpal nor did I care. I did not read the book till I became a Communist several years later. My friend was not a Communist at that time and never became even a Marxist in his life. But he was an admirer of the revolutionaries whom, he said, some people wrongly described as terrorists. I knew nothing about any revolutionaries or terrorists except Bhagat Singh whom Mahatma Gandhi had described as a misguided patriot.

My mental defences in support of Gandhism were giving way one by one under assault after assault mounted by this philosopher friend whom I loved as a remarkable human being and to whom I conceded a superiority of intellect and knowledge. But I refused to share his conviction that this world was created and controlled by the Devil who off and on spread some grains of happiness over his net in order better to trap the helpless human beings. I was not prepared to give up all hope so fully and finally. But the evolutionistic explanation of the world, inanimate and animate, which I had read in H.G. Wells’ Outline of History an year or two before, now suddenly started coming alive in my consciousness. So far I had remembered only some unconventional observations made in this big book, namely, that Ashoka was the greatest king in the annals of human history, that Alexander and Napoleon were criminals, and that Muhammad was some sort of a loafer. Now I started wondering whether this world was really a chance concourse of atoms with no purposive consciousness leading it towards a godly goal, and no moral order governing at the heart of its matrix.

Another nail in the coffin which Gandhism had now started becoming for me, was driven by the book Gandhism Versus Socialism which attracted my attention at the Sasta Sahitya Mandal bookshop. Till this time, I knew nothing about Socialism. The controversy between Gandhiji and Subhash Chandra Bose had brought this term to my notice for the first time two years ago. I had referred the matter to my friend in the Harijan Ashram. He had told me that the Socialists belonged to the Bomb Party and believed in violence. That had settled the matter for me. But as I read this book, Socialism underwent a tremendous transformation in my eyes. In the debate between a number of leading Gandhians and Socialists, the Gandhians had lost the contest. I was struck by the fact that while the Gandhians were on the, defensive all along the line and were trying to prove that Gandhism was also Socialism, the Socialists were on the offensive and saying in so many words that Gandhism was not Socialism but something reactionary and revivalist instead.

Now I was in a desperate hurry to get a good knowledge of the doctrine of Socialism. It was a prescribed reading also for my next year’s course in the history of Western political thought. But I did not want to wait till the next year. The syllabus for B.A. Hons. had Harold Laski’s Communism on top of the books recommended for advanced reading on Socialism. I borrowed a copy of this book from the university library and sat down on the lawn outside to read it. Never before in my life had a book fascinated me as this one did. I was still reading it when it grew dark and I could read no more. I brought it home and it was late in the night when I finished it. it was comparatively a small book. But when I woke up next morning, Gandhism was lying in shambles all around me.

Laski led me straight to two more books in quick succession. Both of them were proscribed by the British government at that time. But our professor of political science had both of them and gladly agreed to lend them to me, on the condition that I carried them wrapped in a newspaper and opened them only in the privacy of my room. One of these books was Theory And Practice of Socialism by John Stratchey. The other was Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow. I found them as absorbing as Laski’s Communism. Stratchey was to leave Communism later on and join the British Labour Party. Edgar Snow was to be denounced by the Chinese Communists as a C.I.A. agent. But these two books, while they lasted with the reputation of their authors intact, made more Communists in India than any other literature.

A desire to read Karl Marx now became irresistible. First, I read the Communist Manifesto. It was simply breathtaking in the breadth and depth of its sweep over vast vistas of human history. It was also a great call to action for changing the world and ending exploitation and social injustice for all time to come. What was I most reassuring was that revolutionary action was only an aid to the evolutionary spiral of social forces towards an ultimate resolution of all class contradictions, inevitably and in spite of all opposition. I need not have read any more of Marx to become a Marxist. But I did read two volumes of the Das Capital, page by page. The meticulous and painstaking scholarship of Marx in the age old and true German tradition taxed my mental capacities to the limit. But I was left in no doubt that he had built his case against Capitalism and for the Labour Theory of Value on a solid foundation of recorded facts and figures, and by an exercise of razor sharp logic which left no loop holes and no loose ends.

I do not remember if I read any more Communist classics or any other Communist literature at this time. I certainly did not read any Lenin or Stalin. Mao had not yet emerged as a Communist theoretician. Nor did I know anything about the existence of a Communist or Socialist movement in India. Day to day and practical politics had no interest for me. I hardly ever read the daily newspaper in those days, leave alone any party periodicals. Mahatma Gandhi’s weekly, Harijan, was the only periodical I had ever read regularly so far. But that was not because of any political interest. The Mahatma’s preoccupation with moral problems was the prime source of my attraction towards his weekly. Marx had provided me with what I thought was a deeper solution of moral problems. An individual could not be moral in the midst of an immoral society.

Then came the great confusion which I think must have happened in many other cases. From being a Marxist, I became a Communist, that is, an admirer of the Soviet Union. I had not read a single book about conditions of life in Soviet Russia. Yet I concluded deductively that the millennium promised by Marx after the proletarian revolution must have started sprouting in a country which was known to be Communist. As I look back, I am amazed at the imbecility of my mind with regard to concrete facts while it was so alert with regard to theoretical questions. But the ideological swindle did take place very smoothly, and without any resistance from any Part of my intellect. So, when the Quit India movement was launched by Mahatma Gandhi, I found myself on the other side of the fence. I had no sympathy for the freedom fighters who were being killed by British bullets, or being herded into British jails. My eyes were fixed on the great battles being fought across the vast expanse of the Soviet Union. I had started reading the daily newspapers.

At the Same time, I concluded that God as a creator of this world could be conceived only in three ways either as a rogue who sanctioned and shared in the roguery prevalent in his world, or as an imbecile who could no more control what he had created, or as a samyasin (recluse) who no more cared for what was happening to his creatures. if God was a rogue, we had to rise in revolt against his rule. If he was an imbecile, we could forget him and take charge of the world ourselves. And if he was a samyasin, he could mind his business while we minded our own. The scriptures, however, held out a different version of God and his role. That version was supported neither by experience nor by reason. The scriptures should, therefore, be burnt in a bonfire, preferably during winter when it could provide some warmth.

There was a comic sequel to this declaration of my new credo. I was taking to a small assembly of interested intellectuals in our village. As I was unfolding my new vision, someone reported that the president of the Arya Samaj hid left his borne with a strong stick in his hand. He had also heard of what I was now preaching publicly. And he was convinced that I was bound to see, God in a new light and change my opinion about God’s role in the world as soon as the top of my head had a taste of his stick. I must confess that I was not prepared for this test. I, therefore, turned tail and left the village dust very day. I hoped that the president’s temper would cool down in due course. It did. And I was more careful in giving expression to my militant atheism before village audiences.