The Isavasya Riddle: What Gandhi held Sacred
To understand Mahatma Gandhi’s position on political economy, one must go to the first few verses of his favourite Upanishad.
Mahatma Gandhi continues to be quoted by people of different political persuasions. He is seen by some as a “friend of capitalists” and by others as a “votary of socialism”. It is my contention that in order to understand Gandhi’s position on political economy, one needs to understand the sources of Gandhi’s ideas. Who influenced him and how? Gandhi was an English barrister and clearly Common Law concerns about trusts and trusteeship were part of his education and training. He was very friendly with Quakers, who almost certainly influenced him with respect to pacifism. Quakers have also had fairly strong views on issues like slavery, wealth, inherited wealth and so on. In the religious field, the influences of the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramcharitmanas, Gujarati Vaishnava hymns and the Sermon on the Mount are well-known. In this article, I propose to review the influence that the Isavasya Upanishad had on Gandhi and how it accounts for his surprisingly unusual and radical views on wealth, capitalism and trusteeship.
The Mahatma was not acquainted with Sanskrit. But we are told that he read not only the Theosophists’ English translation of the Upanishads, but several other variants as well. What is not in question is his saying that if all other Hindu scriptures were lost, and only the opening verses of the Isa Upanishad were preserved, then Hinduism, or at least Hinduism as Gandhi visualised it, would still survive. This is a pretty strong endorsement of the Upanishad and tells us that while the Gita, the Manas and Vaishnava hymns were undoubtedly important in the development of Gandhi’s persona, the Upanishads and this one in particular, need greater attention on the part of Gandhian scholars.
The Isavasya Upanishad is one of the authoritative texts of the Vedanta school, which is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophical thought which have acquired an aura of orthodox approbation. Traditionally, all the Upanishads which have been the subjects of commentaries by Adi Shankara are part of the Prasthana-trayi, or three authoritative fountainheads of Vedanta—the other two being the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutras of Veda Vyasa. The Isavasya, which is a “poetic” rather than a prose text appended to the Shukla Yajur Veda, is clearly one of the authoritative Upanishads. Following Shankara, the other great acharyas, Ramanuja and Madhva have also written commentaries on this Upanishad.
Many have argued that Gandhi’s inspiration was from medieaval Bhakti-oriented popular hymnal literature, rather than from venerable Sanskritic sources. His attachment to the Isavasya would suggest that this is in fact not the case. Here Gandhi was seeking inspiration from a text that has stamped on it all the characteristics of great importance and legitimacy going back in antiquity.
Gandhi was not a classical scholarly bhasyakaara or commentator who specialised in verse-by-verse elucidations. Hence we cannot analyse in detail why exactly he attached so much importance to the Isa Upanishad. But as we explore the Upanishad, especially its opening sequence, we can undertake the journey that the Mahatma possibly made and seek the path that lead to the brilliant outcomes which he was capable of. Being an unusually short poetic Upanishad and one associated directly with a Vedic Samhita, rather than with Aranyakas or Brahmanas, as most of the other prose Upanishads are, the Isa has garnered a lot of interest. There is endless debate as to its exact antiquity, as to whether it is pre-Buddhist or post-Buddhist and of course as to its proper interpretation which goes all the way from pretty pure monism to emphatic pluralism. Curiously enough, the Isa also allows for a dialogue between ascetic and morally informed material fulfillment as both being intellectually legitimate.
Starting with a simple working translation of the expression of “Isa” as having “the Lord” as its equivalent, it appears that the Upanishad opens with the thought that the universe is enveloped by the Lord. Depending on the strength of one’s monistic interpretation, one can argue that the universe is nothing but the manifestation of the Lord—the Lord verily is the universe. More pluralistic views would suggest that the universe is pervaded by the Lord or interestingly that the universe is activated or energised by the Lord. Net-net, one is left with an overwhelming impression that the universe exists on account of the Lord, is imbued by the Lord and in fact could be nothing but the Lord itself (Note: not himself or herself—as heno-theistic interpretations of “Isa” as a male Lord extend beyond the Upanishad itself and are derived, if needed, from priors that the interpreter takes for granted).
Of course extreme monistic approaches could result in the argument that as the Lord and the “self” are one and the same, it is one’s own self that envelopes the world and that is in fact the entirety of the universe. Again, this line of argument really extends beyond the Upanishad itself and is dependent on strongly monistic priors in the mind of the interpreter.
Western Sanskrit scholars Vernon Katz and Thomas Egenes, who follow Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Mahesh Yogi, have a pretty convincing translation which is most probably what Gandhi himself would have approved of. It represents a delicate balance between monism and pluralism: “Everything here, whatever moves in the moving world, is pervaded by the Lord.” Gandhi’s approach was that this world is sacred—a position that is obvious if the Lord pervades this world. In contrast, however, Gandhi, while having no qualms about talking about death, mostly avoided discussing the “next” world. The sacred nature of this world led almost effortlessly to a requirement that Gandhi himself approached it with a sense of responsibility and realism. He could not and did not treat the world as an illusion as he remained till his last breath a restless, energetic and determined actor.
The last line of the first verse is short and on the surface relatively simple. Indologist Ralph Griffith’s academic translation is as follows: “Covet no wealth of any man.” Swami Krishnananda starts off with a similar version: “Do not covet anybody’s wealth.” But being of the monist persuasion, he adds characteristically within brackets: “Do not covet, for whose is wealth?” In this case, it is not just another man’s wealth that is not to be coveted. It is wealth of any kind. And why is wealth of any kind not to be coveted? Quite simply because it belongs to the Lord. It is the Lord’s wealth as the Lord pervades all. Literally, coveting this is almost inherently meaningless, foolish and trivial in the extreme.
Some of Shankara’s extreme monist followers go one step further. If the self and the Lord are one and the same, then how can the Self covet that which already belongs to the Self, that which in fact is the Self? Medieaval Hindu monist thinkers had probably not heard of the Greek legend of Narcissus. Gandhi, who had written a rather more than candid autobiography of his early years, was acutely conscious of the temptations of self-love. It is unlikely that he would have considered the entire world as his own or as himself. The Madhva pluralistic translation, “Do not seek anyone else’s wealth” is probably one which would have sat best with him. This point is important as I come back to discuss the ultimate trajectory and multiple destinations of Gandhi’s thought process.
The middle portion of the opening verse of the Isa is the one that is fraught with the most difficult interpretational challenges because it straddles asceticism and material fulfillment in the enigmatic, puzzling way so characteristic of all the Upanishads, and which provides each generation of translators and commentators with plenty of meaningful activity. Katz and Egenes opt for this version: “Enjoy it (the World) by way of relinquishing it.” The mystery of how one enjoys something by way of relinquishing it, would, in the opinion of these scholars, not be something that can be explained or intellectually comprehended. It lies therefore in the realm of experience. When the knowledge of the fact that Isa pervades the moving universe is embedded deep within the interstices of the mind, then the revelation as to what constitutes simultaneous renunciation and enjoyment will follow.
The Madhva tradition prefers a robust statement: “Enjoy whatever is given to you by Him.” Note the quiet entry of the heno-theistic male Lord. Note also the unabashed invitation to enjoy the Lord’s gift. There is almost a Judeo-Christian spirit here, suggesting that the gifts of the world are given to humans by the Lord for enjoyment. Unsaid, but probably automatically understood by followers would be that such enjoyment should be in accordance with dharmic principles. Griffith is a little puzzling, but similar. “With that removed, enjoy thyself” is how he puts it. The enigma as to what he implies by “that removed” is not explained. What is this mysterious “that” which is removed? Swami Krishnananda is more straightforward. He translates as follows: “Protect yourself through that detachment.” No mention here of enjoying anything. The emphasis is on “protecting” oneself, again an almost Judeo-Christian concern for temptations and attempts to avoid them.
Shankara has a characteristic directness when he translates thus: “Through such renunciation do thou save thyself.” If one ploughs through the thousands of pages of Gandhi’s collected works or charts the course of his life and activities, it does not appear that enjoying the gifts of the world, even if such gifts come from the Lord, was high on his priority list. Gandhi, with his obsession for reducing and simplifying his wants, his asceticism, his fasts and penances, would probably have gone along with Katz and Egenes in arguing that the act of renunciation was in fact enjoyable. Or alternately, he might have preferred the terse Shankara version that Gandhi could save himself only by way of renunciation.
So where do all these hair-splitting discussions and our hypotheses of what Gandhi might have thought, leave us apropos of his views on property, wealth, trusteeship, capitalism, socialism and so on? And as the Mahatma himself might have pondered: are there any practical lessons out there? At a minimum, let us establish what Gandhi’s version of the famous opening verse of the Isa would be. He would have viewed the world as sacred because the Lord pervaded the world. He would not have opted for enjoying the gifts of the world, but for renouncing them. The idea of protecting himself from temptation would have struck a chord with him. And he would have gone along with not coveting wealth, whether the wealth belonged to others or to the public realm.
If the world is sacred, then humans are at best trustees of the world. They are not, as anthropocentric thinkers might suggest, the rulers of the world. They are temporary inhabitants who need to deal with the external world as a sacred trust, not very different from the fiduciary responsibilities that his studies of English law would have suggested to him. He would practise renunciation which automatically would have dwelt well with his ascetic tendencies. And of course, he would not covet wealth of any kind.
What does this imply about the economic system that he would have supported? A sacred world is not an illusion. The mayavada doctrine of extreme monists would have no place in Gandhi’s worldview. The world is a real place where Gandhi and his followers needed to act. The argument for renunciation from Gandhi’s point of view would be akin to Shankara’s. Since the world is pervaded by the Lord, it is to the Lord that the world belongs. In renouncing possession and attempts to own or dominate the world, one only confirms the Lord’s pervasive presence and in the bargain one saves oneself from conceit, arrogance and hubris. Given his oft-stated dislike for a strong centralised state, one thing is clear. Gandhi could not have gone along with a socialist expropriation of wealth. So certainly, he would have agreed with the proposition of not coveting the wealth of others.
I would argue that on the question of individuals not coveting any wealth, Gandhi might have adopted a dual standard. For himself, he would have been perfectly willing to agree that he would not covet any wealth. For others, he is unlikely to have adopted the same position. His friendship with several Indian capitalists and his exhortations to them to act as trustees of their wealth makes sense only in this context. When he set up his Indian headquarters in Ahmedabad, he actually mentioned publicly that one of the reasons he was attracted to Ahmedabad was the existence of wealthy and public-minded benefactors there. An entirely Mahatma-like practical twist to a geographic choice!
One thing is for certain. Gandhi’s “trusteeship doctrine” was not a clever sleight of hand to help legitimise the wealth and the behaviour of his rich friends. It certainly had roots not only in other wellsprings, but in the Isavasya Upanishad, a sacred text for which he had the greatest of regard. There is no woolly-headed impractical appeal to rich people which is again something Gandhi has been accused of. On the contrary, trusteeship ideas can be derived from one of the oldest and most authoritative texts of the Hindus. The argument that Gandhi’s doctrine was and is impractical is one that can be made against virtually all similar ideals. The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes somewhere that the early Christian fathers were not foolish in setting up ideals which human beings may find difficult, bordering on the impossible to attain. Kierkegaard viewed this as deliberate. If ideals were easy, they would not be ideals. As the Gospels say, “strait is the gate and narrow the path to Life”. Or as Robert Browning put it: “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”
Gandhi would have strongly argued that the views of Kierkegaard and the poetry of Browning additionally justified his insistence that the Isavasya should be a scripture of choice as we go about determining our relationship with our sacred world and as we go about dealing with thorny issues like renunciation and covetousness or its absence.
In practical terms, could Gandhi’s insight provide a moral basis for human society which goes beyond the anthropocentric, which recognises a real world, but one which is imbued by the presence of the Lord and which calls upon humans to avoid covetousness and follow a path of informed renunciation which is adopted with the clear-eyed understanding that in doing so, the Self saves itself? This is easily the most important question in the realm of political economy that Gandhi challenges us with.
Because the answer to such a question is not easy, it does not mean that attempts cannot or should not be made. That would be the Mahatma’s almost playful, but deadly serious response.
The author is the former CEO of MphasiS, and was head of Citibank’s Global Technology Division. He is currently the Chairman of Value and Budget Housing Corporation (VBHC), an affordable housing venture. Rao is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Swarajya.
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