There is a photograph of the Second Round Table Conference in London, which shows every person in the room looking at the camera except for Mohandas K Gandhi. The maharajas, the leaders of the Depressed Classes and the Muslim League, the officers of His Majesty’s Government — all have their face turned at the photographer come to capture them. Not Gandhi, who sits in his chair, wrapped in a shawl, looking downwards at the table, waiting for the tamasha to end and the discussion on India’s political future to resume.
Gandhi’s critics complained that he was a saint who was trying to become a politician. He answered that he was a politician who was trying to become a saint. In that self-deprecatory remark lay a solid core of truth. Gandhi’s main work, in the public domain, was to fight for India’s freedom, for justice for women and low castes, and for harmony between religions. But to him the moral and spiritual life was equally important, this conducted privately, in his ashram, and often against the frailties and imperfections of his own self.
In the Christian, Buddhist, Jain, and Sufi traditions, there is a close connection between spirituality and solitude. So too in Hinduism, and even, modern Hinduism. Fleeing the colonial police, Aurobindo retreated to the French enclave of Pondicherry where he pursued, more vigorously than it had been possible when he was a revolutionary, the spiritual life. He read, meditated, and wrote. As his search focused further inwards, he gave fewer discourses and met fewer and fewer disciples.
A near contemporary of Aurobindo was a Tamil named Venkatraman. He ran away from home and spent his youth sitting in contemplation in caves, hillsides, and recesses of temples. His mother sent emissaries to ask him to come back. His answer was to intensify his own, inward search. He was well into adulthood when he resumed contact with the workaday world. This contact, for the rest of his life, was limited to discourses with disciples, who knew him as Ramana Maharishi, and built him a small ashram on a hillside outside Tiruvannamalai.
On the other hand, a hunger for publicity is the hallmark of some of the best-known spiritual leaders of contemporary India. They spend as much time on making themselves known, and praised, as on seeking the truth. Consider a guru in my home town, Bangalore, who, like Ramana, is a Tamil, indeed from the same Iyer sub-caste. In other ways he is emphatically different; in his careful attention to his dress and appearance, for example, or in his not-so-careful cultivation of the rich, the powerful, and the influential.
Or consider the holy man who, these past days and weeks, has been much in the news. Those who heard, in part or in full, Baba Ramdev’s recent day-long discourse at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, would have heard the words ‘kala dhanda’ and ‘bhrashtachaar’ (black money and corruption) as well as the words ‘dharm’ and ‘imandaari’ (morality and honesty). I heard them too, but I also heard words that were more telling. These were ‘mein apne media ke bhaiyyon se kehna chahta hoon’, a phrase that recurred often, perhaps half-a-dozen times an hour. It was characteristic that Ramdev sought to address the media above all (and characteristic also that his social imagination excluded the possibility of women reporters).
The crossroads where spirituality and politics meet are redolent with moral (and financial) corruption. There have, in living memory, been two sterling exceptions to this trend — Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. Exiled from his homeland, the Tibetan leader had perforce to assume a political role if he was to save the honour of his people. This he has done for five decades now, and without any manifest anger towards his persecutors, the Communists in China, or any manifest ambition either (the honours that he has acquired having come to him without any desire or effort on his part).
Like many others of my class and gender, my mind is ever in turmoil. Solitude and contemplation do not come easily to me. Even when I am alone I must converse, often intensely, with a book or a computer. The two occasions I can remember on which I have felt an inner peace are when I visited the Ramana ashram in Tiruvannamalai and when I was in a gathering that had come to hear, and see, the Dalai Lama.
Solitude and spirituality — the link between them is intimate and indissoluble. In between satyagrahas, Gandhi spent months at a stretch in Sabarmati or Sevagram, thinking, searching, spinning. Ramana and Aurobindo did not leave their ashrams for decades on end. Yet our contemporary gurus can’t be by themselves for a single day. When the police forced him out of Delhi, Ramdev said he would resume his ‘satyagraha’ (sic) at his ashram in Haridwar. But within 24 hours he left Haridwar, in search of closer proximity to his brothers in the media. Externed from Delhi, Ramdev knew that many television channels were headquartered in Noida. So he would go to them, since he knew that, despite their national pretensions, these channels would not send their reporters, still less their anchors, to the benighted state of Uttarakhand. He set off for Noida but was stopped en route at Muzaffarnagar on the orders of the UP chief minister.
The desire to leave his ashram for the arc lights was entirely in character. For Ramdev occupies an important place in the history of publicity, rather than in the history of spirituality. To be fair, this can also be said of the other babas and gurus whom one meets nowadays in newspapers or on television, the Dalai Lama only excepted.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy email@example.com. The views expressed by the author are personal.