Review: Ramchandra Gandhi: Talks and Writings edited by A Raghuramaraju - Hindustan Times
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Review: Ramchandra Gandhi: Talks and Writings edited by A Raghuramaraju

Hindustan Times | ByAshutosh Bhardwaj
Nov 06, 2020 08:26 PM IST

One of independent India’s most inventive minds, Ramchandra Gandhi’s essays, talks and interviews reflect his deep concern about the fate of humanity

308pp, Rs 995; Orient BlackSwan
308pp, Rs 995; Orient BlackSwan

In his foreword to the English translation of Harilal Gandhi’s biography, the philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi (1937-2007) observed that “Harilal’s rebelliousness must have tempered Bapu’s ego by the realization that he could not control everything,” and added: “Harilal’s role in the spiritual growth of Gandhi cannot be overestimated.”

This short text by Ramchandra Gandhi, fondly called Ramu by his friends, aptly mirrors one of independent India’s most inventive and sparkling minds. In a few penetrating words, he overturned conventional beliefs about the two men and underlined a “deeper mystery which united” them. If the alcoholic son contributed to the Mahatma’s spiritual evolution, both the lives must be assessed afresh.

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This foreword is contained in a new book, Ramchandra Gandhi: Talks and Writings, edited by his student A Raghuramaraju, now a professor at IIT-Tirupati. Raghuramaraju also edited an earlier book of his writings, The Seven Sages (2015). Ramchandra published several books on philosophy, culture and myths, besides a work of fiction. By compiling his remaining essays, talks, interviews and newspaper articles in these two books, Raghuramaraju has commendably performed his duty of a student. Indeed, Ramchandra had a long list of eminent admirers and students, several of whom still hold regular gatherings in his remembrance.

Among the few who had a scholarly engagement with modern Indian philosophers, Ramchandra obtained a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford before finding a permanent home in Advaita.

A devotee of Ramana Maharshi, he himself was an orator in the tradition of Indian sages, even termed the best ever at the lectern of the India International Centre. His genius perhaps best erupted in his lectures and talks as he looked like an ancient story-teller who would traverse the universe in the course of a short conversation.

In a talk at California Institute of Integral Studies in 1988, drawing an illuminating connection that both Ramakrishna Paramahansa and J Krishnamurti had died of cancer, he proposed that Gautam Buddha also succumbed to the disease because Buddha’s compassion “would have invited the madness which cancer represents”. A decade ago, Susan Sontag had also made a wonderful analysis of the disease in some literary texts. But Ramchandra knew no textual limitations and could cross several millennia to hold a dialogue with the Buddha.

In another lecture at the same institute, he lined up “a cricket team” of Indian sages between a span of a hundred years — 1886, the year Ramakrishna Paramhansa died, to 1986, when J Krishnamurti died. He saw an “off-spinner” in Ramakrishna; and elsewhere located “Beethoven’s later music” in Mahatma Gandhi’s speeches around Partition violence: “not symphony, but illusive like the concertos, very illusive”.

I recall that Theodor Adorno wrote a marvellous essay on the German composer’s later music, Late Beethoven, which Edward Said developed in On Late Style. But that was about art and artistic personalities. To discover Beethoven in someone like MK Gandhi requires a phenomenal artistic faculty.

The mind of this grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari effortlessly navigated across time and space zones, locating seamless and fascinating umbilical cords among seemingly disparate and diverse people and phenomena.

It reflected his extraordinary range of interests but it was also perhaps a result of his Advaitin consciousness, a state of existence where the external differences stand dissolved in an endless expanse of oneness.

He could begin a chapter on Krishna with a quote of Godard and compare the second innings of a Test match with rebirth. He could invoke Ludwig Wittgenstein and Ramana Maharshi in the same breath, and ask with an innate wonder: “What a pity Wittgenstein never met Ramana!”

He spoke about an India that had escaped the gaze of historians, novelists, anthropologists and sociologists. With great intuitiveness he blended mythology and spirituality with contemporary politics.

In a lecture, Indian Spirituality and the World, he lent a unique interpretation to the casting of Peter Brooks’ play The Mahabharata (1985). While the actor who played Draupdi was an Indian, all the five actors for the Pandavas were of different countries. “Five elements, five continents, five races,” he noted, “married to one Draupadi, one India!”

Before the audience could actually grasp the profundity of this statement, he began narrating an anecdote about Shiva and Parvati, and suddenly, leaving that hanging, moved to an insightful description of Peter Sellers’s The Party (1968).

Was there any method to these insights that moved in a lightning flash? Perhaps he dropped a little clue when he began a lecture on Moksha and Martyrdom with these words: “My training is philosophical and mythological, and increasingly devotional. But I don’t by this mean that I have retreated from the demands of rigour. There are many ways of being rigorous. I will try to be rigorous, but not in the sort of premise to conclusion way, but often conclusion to premise, often premise to premise, and often conclusion to conclusion.”

In the burst of a sentence, he dislocated conventional methods of logic. The philosopher who loved mythology and, in yet another stunning interpretation, said that myth means My Truth, used his language in a manner that would evoke the envy of great novelists and poets.

His writings also reflect his deep concern about the fate of humanity. When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi told China that Tibet was its internal affair, he strongly criticised the government for abandoning the Tibet issue. “Indian Vedanta and Tibetan Buddhism are the in-breath and out-breath of the mystical body of the earth which will suffocate to death if these two vital traditions become alienated from one another.”

He then offered a solution, that only he could have: Screen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Sacrifice for world leaders at the Potala Palace; and hold an MS Subbulakshmi concert on the banks of the Lake Mansarovar.

Perhaps his most adorable trait was an unrivalled sense of humour, quite unlike the stodgy and stoic image philosophers usually carry. In an apparent allusion to the Emergency, he wrote in a satirical piece that the Isa Upanishad be “supplanted” by the new Misa Upanishad.

Or consider an article, A Sense of Rumour, in which he wrote that “it is strongly surmised that the Chinese pull-back from our doorstep in 1962 was caused by President Radhakrishnan’s thunderous declaration on All India Radio that Dharma was on our side. Thinking that Burma, a new ally, was on our side, the Chinese wisely withdrew.”

How to decode this coming from a Vedantin?

He once remarked that “there is maximalism, an insatiability, to Indian spirituality”. This, perhaps, was Ramu himself. A maximalist master.

And this book is a testimony to his maximalism.

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an independent journalist and writer. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the naxal insurgency.

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