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Gandhi, Stoics and the Bhagavad Gita

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By Dr SATISH C AIKANT
When the French President Emmanuel Macron recently visited India to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations he was gifted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a replica of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. The incident was widely reported by the media. What was not publicised as widely is that President Macron also visited the Dargah Nizamuddin Aulia, a 700-year-old Sufi shrine in Delhi. President Macron was at the dargah for about an hour and also enjoyed Qawwali there. He was accompanied by none other than India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.
President Macron showing deference to both Ram and Rahim was practising French secularism on the Indian soil. On the other hand, when Gandhiji’s favourite bhajan ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’ was sung at the grand ceremony of the consecration of the Ram Mandir the crucial line in the bhajan as improvised by the Mahatma ‘Ishwar Allah Tero Nam’ was omitted. Earlier Gandhi’s favourite hymn ‘Abide with me,’ composed by an Anglican priest, was dropped from the list of tunes played by the military band at the Beating Retreat ceremony. The reason is obvious. A section of people, their number growing, increasingly feel uneasy with the idea of secularism and an inclusive society perceived as alien to the cultural domain of ‘New India.’
Gandhi was an exemplary Hindu who, though a firm believer in sanatan dharma, nonetheless was heavily influenced by the spiritual currents that came from the West. He is said to have remarked: ‘I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.’  Borrowing as much from the New Testament as from the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi said of his own faith that he had broadened his Hinduism by loving other religions as his own. Hence his inter-faith prayer meetings, where texts of different religions were read and explained to mixed audience. His response to the New Testament was avowedly sympathetic. The gospel that the Sermon on the Mount preached was very dear to Gandhi, and, as he confessed in his autobiography, ‘it went straight to my heart.’
We know that Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy had considerable influence on the thought of Gandhi. But the sources go far back to the Greek Stoics. He knew about them through a book on three major Stoics – Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus – that he records having read between 1922 and 1924 in Yerawada Jail and which he specially picked out from his long reading list as ‘an inspiring book.’  In addition, it was noticed by Gandhi’s learned secretary Mahadev Desai, that his ideals were sometimes remarkably similar to theirs. It can be confidently said that Stoic values overlapped with those of  Gandhi’s at least to some extent.
Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno in Citium, Cyprus, around 300 BCE. Zeno studied with philosophers of several schools in Athens, including Crates, a major representative of the cynic individualism. Zeno managed to create out of these origins a useful and lasting philosophy that became a model for many Greek citizens.  For Gandhi the value of debate for discovering the truth would have been common ground with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, although their debates were with single individuals or with members of a philosophical school, rather than with the general public.
Detachment is a key element of the Stoic philosophy. Much like the Stoics Gandhi sought to practice emotional detachment. There was a difference though. While the Stoics felt alienated from the social life Gandhi was deeply involved in the social and political life. Yet, despite this difference, they both believed in extending love to all humans. The emotional detachment gave to both a certain kind of freedom.
Gandhi found the idea of emotional detachment as nishkam karma of the Bhagavad Gita. Perhaps relying on the English translation of Edwin Arnold Gandhi translated the Gita into Gujarati while he was in Kausani in Kumaun Uttarakhand in 1929. His lieutenant Mahadev Desai in turn translated the Gujarati version into English incorporating Gandhi’s interpretation. Later he also gave a set of discourses on it in his ashram at Ahmedabad in 1926. He advocated the philosophy of Anasakti Yoga essentially approaching the material world in a spirit of non-attachment. In Gandhi’s commentary we find at some places comparable statements by the Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. But even though the overlap of values was a mere convergence, and not the result of influence, Gandhi’s devotion to experiment – the term he used in the title of his autobiography – throws light on a similar viewpoint of the Stoics. Both the Stoics and Gandhi were known for their unorthodox approach to issues of the day. Gandhi was also known for his eccentricities, all, however in good faith.
Gandhi was well read in both Western and Indian ideas. He judiciously borrowed from the Christian and Platonic traditions.  He also has his differences from them and there are several instances of reinterpretations as well. Ruskin’s book Unto This Last impressed Gandhi enormously, and in 1908 he wrote its abbreviated paraphrase for Indian readers. But he changed the original text considerably. Ruskin’s title referred to Christ’s parable about the workers in the vineyard, and his book was a devastating critique of economic science as it then prevailed and held sway. He saw it as a science that disregarded all moral considerations and treated humans as if they were machines that had no other interest than gaining economic advantage at the expense of other human values. Those who were rich were concerned with maximizing their own wealth by ignoring such motives as affection and loyalty. Gandhi also drew the conclusion that Indians should ideally live in villages, not in cities which he saw as designed to promote industry for the purpose of selective increase in individual wealth. Ruskin by contrast wanted to preserve factories, although he wanted them run by government in a beneficial way. He protested that he was not against private enterprise and private trade.
An even greater influence on Gandhi was Tolstoy, especially his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which again takes its title from Christ’s sayings. Tolstoy pleads for nonviolence following the message of Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ a sermon for which Gandhi repeatedly expressed his admiration. In 1926 he gave a series of lectures to students of a Gujarat college on what he saw as the centrepiece of the Christian Bible, Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ which he called the pivot of the New Testament. He said that his reading of the Gospel had confirmed him in his own ideas, that the story of such divine life and action was possible among all countries and peoples and that nobody could claim the monopoly of inspired thoughts. He proclaimed that the Sermon on the Mount was very like the Hindu Bhagvadad Gita and was confirmed in the Muslim Koran.
Gandhi would always put stress on self-control and discipline. The Stoic Seneca however believed that control of the inner life was not universally possible. Things are also contingent upon sensations. It is only through rational judgments and reflection that one can be controlled. Gandhi believed that inner control is important, since it gives peace of mind by eliminating negative emotional attitudes. For Gandhi control entailed self-rule, a form of swaraj that can be directed to larger social cause. The emphasis upon self-control as the way of becoming virtuous reaches its peak in the Yoga philosophy. It emphasizes the disciplining and stilling of the body and mind so that one may find one’s true self and attain the highest state of union with Brahman. We find this stressed continuously in the Bhagavad Gita.
Stoicism places a strong emphasis on achieving inner harmony and tranquillity by cultivating virtues such as wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Similarly, Gandhi believed in inner peace and harmony as essential components of individual and collective well- being. Stoicism and Gandhi’s philosophy both advocate simplicity and detachment from superfluous material possessions. Stoicism teaches the importance of focusing on what is within one’s control and minimizing desires for external goods, while Gandhi lived a simple lifestyle and emphasized the value of self-sufficiency and non-attachment to material possessions.
Epictetus emphasizes the importance of aligning one’s actions with their inner principles and ideals. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience was deeply rooted in personal integrity and self-discipline, much like the Stoic emphasis on living in accordance with one’s nature and virtues. Both Gandhi and Epictetus stress the importance of inner transformation and the pursuit of ethical action even in the face of adversity.  The message of the Bhagavad Gita too is to maintain equanimity in all circumstances.
                    (The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University).