These four, interrelated talks on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1969-1948) may be considered as an attempt to understand and articulate the coherence of an exemplary life. Given how he regarded it himself—“My life is my message”—Gandhi invites to be read in terms of a consistency in his anubhav (original experience), vichar (thought and ideas), and achaar (conduct and action). To that extent, his is a life which sets itself up almost in opposition to modernity—almost, because it might be reductive to see Gandhi merely as an opponent of modernity. But if the primary tendency of modernity, as Gandhi himself described it in Hind Swaraj (1909), is centrifugal, then Gandhi’s lifework was contrary to modernity in being centripetal. The 100th anniversary of Hind Swaraj, then, affords us a special occasion to re-examine key facets of Gandhi’s life in an integral, rather than fragmentary fashion, asking what he has to say to our own times.
Lectures on Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi at the OCHS 1: The Death of Gandhi (lecture)
Mahatma Gandhi at the OCHS 2: Hind Swaraj in Our Times (seminar)
The second seminar rehearses the significance of Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, a booklet that Gandhi wrote on board the steamship Kildonen Castle in November 1909, on his return from England to South Africa. The book has acquired the status of a classic to the extent of being dubbed ‘the Bible of non-violent revolution’. Yet, it is also an extremely difficult book to stomach, with its uncompromising attacks on the British parliament, on machinery, on railways, doctors, lawyers, and English educated elites. Though some have called it a post-modern text, it shares none of the anti-foundationalism of post-modernism nor the latter’s premium on indeterminacy. Instead, Hind Swaraj seems to be a last-ditch stand in favour of a pre-modern, traditional civilizational ethos, which exalts manual labour, self-restraint, and the pursuit of virtue and sacrifice, instead of pleasure and profit. What kinds of demands does the text make on us a 100 years after its publication? More importantly, what hermeneutical strategies can we bring to bear on it to make it more palatable?
Mahatma Gandhi at the OCHS 3: The "Sanatani" Mahatma (lecture)
The third lecture is on the “Sanatani” Mahatma. Sanatani here may be taken as both the perennial Gandhi, but also the Hindu, in the sense of Sanatana Dharma, Gandhi. This lecture, thus, attempts to ask what aspects of Gandhi outlive him, but also in what ways he was the quintessential, perhaps the greatest, Hindu of his times. Such questions, understandably, assume greater urgency in a post-Hindutva India. If we closely examine his life, we notice not just how radically Gandhi modified and reformed the Hinduism that he had inherited, but also how deeply he renewed and burnished it. Some of the most challenging tensions in Gandhi’s thought, including his critique of modernity, may be better understood, if not resolved, if we see his key ideas in a sanatani perspective. It is such a non-exclusive reading of Gandhi that can help us move beyond both the reductionism of Hindutva and of a self-constitutively secular academic discourse itself.
Mahatma Gandhi at the OCHS: Film Lage Raho Munna Bhai
Mahatma Gandhi at the OCHS 4: Gandhigiri vs. Gandhiism: The Afterlife of the Mahatma in Lage Raho Munna Bhai (seminar)
The last seminar is as much a celebration of Bollywood as of Gandhi. It is to the former that the credit for most effectively resurrecting the Mahatma should go, certainly much more so than to Gandhians or academics. For Bollywood literally revives the spirit of Gandhi by showing how irresistibly he continues to haunt India today. Not just in giving us Gandhigiri—a totally new way of doing Gandhi in the world—but in its perceptive representation of the threat that modernity poses to Gandhian thought is Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) remarkable (film to be shown Monday morning). What is more, it also draws out the distinction between Gandhi as hallucination and the real afterlife of the Mahatma. The film’s enormous popularity at the box office—it grossed close to a billion rupees—is not just an index of its commercial success, but also proof of the responsive cord it struck in Indian audiences. But it is not just the genius and inventiveness of Bollywood cinema that is demonstrated in the film as much as the persistence and potency of Gandhi’s own ideas, which have the capacity to adapt themselves to unusual circumstances and times. Both Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning epic, and Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai show that Gandhi remains as media-savvy after his death as he was during his life.