Gandhi: From Colonial Racialism To Hindu Humanism

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Oct 25, 2016 05:00 PM +05:30 IST
Gandhi: From Colonial Racialism To
Hindu HumanismA memorial statue of Gandhi. Photo credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/GettyImages
  • India has a great duty to make the oldest university in Ghana understand the importance of Gandhi in challenging the distortions of native cultures whether it is Indian, African or native American.

The recent decision to remove the statue of Mahatma Gandhi from the oldest university in Ghana, on the charges that he was an anti-African racist is regrettable. There had been a sustained campaign against Gandhi in recent times. Starting from Arundathi Roy to evangelical pseudo-Dalit organisations like Dalit Freedom Network (DFN), there have been attempts to discredit Gandhi. Roy notoriously pitted Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar against Gandhi. Soon this binary became part of the shrill Leftist voice.

In Tamil Nadu for example, a few months prior to 2014 elections, a discredited TV anchor of a popular Tamil TV channel, gave a lecture to a group of radical Islamists informing them that there was a Hindutva conspiracy in introducing Gandhi on the Indian currency notes.

Both inside and outside India a visceral hatred towards Gandhi often always is indicative of a hatred towards Hinduism and Indians. In Africa, the Indian diaspora was made to face the local ire by the British. Indians, who came to Africa as indentured labourers to escape the famines caused by British colonialism back home soon were made supervisors in estates and other colonial projects in Africa. Naturally, Indians became the immediate target of ire for the locals. Gandhi appeared on the scene in South Africa during such colonial times. He was both the product of his times and also simultaneously a man who tried to overcome the limitations set by his surroundings. And he was frank about it.

Thus during his time in South Africa, Gandhi opposed the colonial government grouping Indians with the native blacks. He even used the derisive term 'kaffir' to denote them. Gandhi held Indian civilisation 'superior to kaffir (black) civilisation' in 1906. He was against putting Indians in the same prison as the native blacks. He even avowed to continue the fight if the government persisted in treating 'the cultured Indian passive resistor' on par with 'the aboriginal native fellows of the worst type'. This racial outlook was the result of European colonialism though Western writers like Jad Adams (Gandhi: Naked Ambition) subtly suggest the role of 'inbuilt inequality of Hinduism'.

Gandhi through his own experience moved out of racism gradually but definitely. He volunteered during the Boer War (1899-1902). He was on the side of the whites, who were suppressing a native rebellion. Despite the colonial prejudice in him, the Indian in him formed a common connect with the Zulus. Gandhi wrote:

“My heart was with the Zulus and I was delighted on reaching headquarters, to hear that our main work was to be the nursing of the wounded Zulus. The Medical Officer welcomes us. He said the white people were not willing nurses for the wounded Zulus that their wounds were festering, and that he was at his wits’ end. ... The Zulus were delighted to see us. The white soldiers used to peep through the railings that separated us from them and tried to dissuade us from attending to the wounds. And as we would not heed them, they became enraged and poured unspeakable abuse on the Zulus.”
(An Autobiography: Story of My Experiments with Truth)

Such a gesture can never come from a racist. One may accuse him of being paternalistic here but definitely not a racist. In subsequent years we find definitive changes in Gandhi. A detailed look at the way the native blacks are described in the first 11 pages of his 1928 book Satyagraha in South Africa shows a remarkable anti-racist humanist forming in Gandhi, who incidentally was more humanistic than most of the contemporary Western humanists.

Gandhi calls Zulus 'handsome' and then makes a critique of the Western notions of the aesthetics of physical form: "A fair complexion and a pointed nose represent our ideal of beauty." Gandhi adds that if we discard this superstition for a moment, we would find perfection in Zulu form. (p.8) The man who talked once of 'superiority of Indian culture' over that of blacks now finds a resonance with the native tradition of Africa and India: "Like ourselves, the Negroes plaster the walls and the floor with earth and animal dung." Their architecture with round forms predominating is in tune with nature he observes. (p.9)

The Westerners often made the nudity or minimal dressing of native Africans as an indicator of their savagery. Gandhi makes a strong critique of this and does this from a very Hindu point of view. Like a modern anthropologist, Gandhi argues for cultural relativism and then gives a very Indic spiritual example to make his readers disabuse their own mind from the narrow confines of West enforced notions of civilisation and barbarity:

“Where a large society follows a particular custom, it is quite possible that the custom is harmless even if it seems highly improper to the members of another society. These Negroes have no time to be staring at one another. When Shukadeva passed by the side of women bathing in a state of nudity, so the author of the Bhagavata tells us, his own mind was quite unruffled; nor were the women at all agitated or affected by a sense of shame. I do not think there is anything supernatural in this account. If in India today, there should be none who would be equally pure on a similar occasion, that does not set a limit to our striving after purity, but only argues our own degradation. It is only vanity which makes us look upon the Negroes as savages. They are not the barbarians we imagine them to be.” (p.10)

So, here we have a man, who started with calling the blacks 'aboriginal native fellows of the worst type' but now compares their civilisational norms to almost equal that of Sukadeva one of the greatest seers in Indian tradition. He further calls their language 'sweet and poetical'. (p.11)

Gandhi with his characteristic softness chides the missionaries on the issue of religion: "According to the Christian missionaries, the Negroes previously had not, and have not now, any religion at all. But taking the word religion in a wide sense, we can say that the Negroes do believe in and worship a supreme being beyond human comprehension." (p.11)

Then he makes moral conduct rather than belief in the supernatural the basis of religion. This is an Indic departure from the colonial anthropology. Here the awareness of the embedded moral order – Rta and Dharma – rather than belief in god forms the basis of religion. Based on that, Gandhi makes a case for the religion of blacks: "If we acknowledge morality as the basis of religion, the Negroes being moral may be held even to be religious. They have a perfect grasp of the distinction between truth and falsehood. It is doubtful whether Europeans or ourselves practise truthfulness to the same extent as the Negroes in their primitive state do." Then he writes about the so-called civilising mission with mild sarcasm:

Civilisation is gradually making headway among the Negroes. Pious missionaries deliver to them the message of Christ as they have understood it, open schools for them, and teach them how to read and write. But many who, being illiterate and therefore strangers to civilisation, were so far free from many vices, have now become corrupt.” (p.11)

In hindsight, we may find some notions of romantic savage in the writings. However, what is important is the way Gandhi moved away from the colonialist racial perspective to the deep Hindu humanistic perspective. From his brief account of the blacks we can deduce three principles:

· Rejection of Euro-centric aesthetics: whether viewing human form or architecture

· Importance of cultural relativism in understanding the unique aspects of another civilisation

· Embedded morality-based religion rather than belief-based religion to validate native spiritual traditions

They are relevant even today for the post-colonial societies to break free from the Euro-centric narratives imposed on them. So Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a great duty to make the oldest university in Ghana understand the importance of Gandhi in challenging the distortions of native cultures whether it is Indian, African or native American.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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