In 1903 Gandhi went to Varanasi for the first time. As a Hindu, he wanted naturally to visit the Kashi Viswanath temple. He was unimpressed by what he saw. “The swarming flies and the noise made by the shopkeepers and pilgrims were perfectly insufferable,” he wrote, adding: “here one expected an atmosphere of meditation and communion, it was conspicuous by its absence”.
When Gandhi finally reached the temple, he “was greeted at the entrance by a stinking mass of rotten flowers”. The marble floor had been “broken by some devotee innocent of aesthetic taste, who had set it with rupees serving as an excellent receptacle for dirt”. He walked all over the shrine, “search[ing] for God but fail[ing] to find him” in the dirt and the filth.
Gandhi was back in the holy city 13 years later. He had been invited to the opening of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in February 1916. This was his first major public appearance after his return to India from South Africa. Gandhi was one of the less important invitees; the real VIPs were the Rajas and Maharajas whose donations had enabled the new university. Also present were important leaders of the Congress. Compared to these dignitaries, Gandhi was then relatively unknown. Characteristically, he did not let his obscurity or comparative lack of social status hinder his quest for the truth.
When his turn came to speak, Gandhi charged the elite with a lack of concern for the labouring poor. The opening of the BHU, he said, was “certainly a most gorgeous show”. But he worried about the contrast between the “richly bedecked noblemen” present and “millions of the poor” Indians who were absent. Gandhi told the privileged invitees that “there is no salvation for India unless you strip yourself of this jewellery and hold it in trust for your countrymen in India”. “There can be no spirit of self-government about us,” he went on, “if we take away or allow others to take away from the peasants almost the whole of the results of their labour. Our salvation can only come through the farmer. Neither the lawyers, nor the doctors, nor the rich landlords are going to secure it.”
The day before he spoke at the BHU inauguration, Gandhi visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple. He found it as filthy as before. He saw the state of the temple as symptomatic of the state of Indian society. As he told the well-heeled dignitaries at the BHU: “If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is not this great temple a reflection of our own character? I speak feelingly as a Hindu. Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are? The houses round about are built anyhow. The lanes are tortuous and narrow. If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be? Shall our temples be abodes of holiness, cleanliness and peace as soon as the English have retired from India, either of their own pleasure or by compulsion, bag and baggage?”
Gandhi’s plain-speaking was too much for his audience. Annie Besant and Madan Mohan Malaviya — both of whom played a key role in the setting up of the BHU— called on him to stop. The bejewelled Princes rose in collective disgust and left the venue. The Chairman, the Maharaja of Darbhanga, declared the meeting closed.
A hundred years later, the questions posed by Gandhi remain compellingly relevant. The English are long gone, but our temples — including those in Varanasi—remain dark, dirty, and in the control of grasping priests and pandas. The hereditary princes no longer exist; but they have been replaced by a new breed of corporate Maharajas, who live extraordinarily luxurious lifestyles while giving back little to society.
At various points in their political journeys, Mr Narendra Modi and Mr Arvind Kejriwal have invoked the name of Mohandas K Gandhi. I wonder if either man has read Gandhi’s speech in Benares in 1916. Surely one who speaks so feelingly of cleaning up society should not be shy of asking that places of worship and prayer be cleaned up as well. Surely one who boasts so often of his own humble origins should not be shy of asking his billionaire friends at the Vibrant Gujarat summits to show more sensitivity to the poor Indians excluded from those meetings.
Gandhi was a notoriously poor public speaker. He had a low, almost indistinct voice. He looked down, and mumbled, even — or especially — when a camera was focused on him. He never roared, but in his own quiet way was relentlessly self-critical; holding out a mirror to himself, and to his society.
Unlike Gandhi, Mr Modi and Mr Kejriwal are both excellent orators. One is powerful and eloquent; the other, mischievous and witty. For all their confidence and speaking ability, however, one is yet to hear them — in Varanasi or elsewhere — ask hard questions of their countrymen, or, indeed, of themselves.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him at @Ram_GuhaThe views expressed by the author are personal