Monday, 13 July 2015

Gandhi’s Vision of Ramarajya: A Critique: Part I

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Ramarajya, ‘’the kingdom of Rama,’ is the projection of an ideal state in the Sanskrit epic, Valmiki Ramayana. When Rama, after rescuing Sita, his wife, from the demon Ravaṇa, came back from his fourteen-year exile, he was given back his kingdom by his devoted brother, Bharata. Rama, we are told, was a model ruler. His reign is described in glowing terms in the Sixth Book, The Book of War (Yuddhakanda), canto 116 verses 84-90 as follows:
While Rama was ruling the kingdom, there were no widows to lament, nor was there any danger from wild animals, nor any fear born of diseases. 84
The world was free from robbers. No one felt worthless, nor did old people perform obsequies of the youngster ones. 85
Every creature felt pleased; everyone was intent on virtue. Turning their eyes towards Rama alone, creatures did not kill one another. 86
While Rama was ruling the kingdom, people survived for thousands of years, with thousands of their progeny, all free from illness and grief. 87
The trees there were bearing flowers and fruits regularly, without any injury by pests and insects. The clouds were raining in time and the wind was delightful to the touch. 88
All [that is, Brahmins (the priest-class), Kshatriyas (the warrior-class), Vaiśyas (the class of merchants and agriculturists), and Sudras (the servant-class)] were performing their own duties, satisfied with their own work, and bereft of greed. While Rama was ruling, the people were intent on virtue and lived without telling lies. 89
All the people were endowed with excellent characteristics. All were engaged in virtue. Rama was engaged in the kingship thus for one thousand years. 90   
Tulsidas Goswami (Tulsidasa Gosvami, c.1532–1623) in his Rama-charita-manasa, the Hindi version of the Valmiki Ramayana, paraphrased this passage in the The Last Book (Uttarakanda), not in the Book of War as in the Valmiki Ramayana, as follows:
Under the rule of Rama there was none who suffered from affliction of any kind – whether of the body, or proceeding from divine or supernatural agencies or that caused by another living being. All men loved one another: each followed one’s prescribed duty, conformably to the precepts of the Vedas. Dharma with its four pillars (viz., truth, purity – both external and internal, compassion and charity) reigned everywhere throughout the world; no one even dreamt of sin. Men and women alike were devoted to Sri Rama’s worship and all were qualified for final beatitude. There was no premature death nor suffering of any kind; everyone was comely and sound of body. No one was destitute, afflicted or miserable; no one was stupid or devoid of auspicious marks. All were unaffectedly good, pious and virtuous; all were clever and accomplished – both men and women. Everyone recognized the merits of others and was learned and wise; nay, everyone acknowledged the services and benefits received from others and there was no guileful prudence. (Listen, O king of the birds, (continues Kakabhusundi,) during Sri Rama’s reign there was not a creature in this world, animate or inanimate, that was liable to any of the sufferings attributable to time, past conduct, personal temperament and character. (pp. 995-96)
In addition to everyone’s adherence to his or her duties (as in Valkmiki Ramayana 6.89), Tulsidas mentions the Veda as the authority which ordained the division of work (not mentioned by Valmiki) and brings in Dharma, again, something not mentioned explicitly by the ‘first poet’ (adi-kavi). 

Let us now examine whether Gandhi’s concept of Ramarajya corresponds at all to all this or provides a totally different picture.


The First Phase:  non-violence

The first reference to Ramarajya in Gandhi’s works is found in a passage which, however, highlights non-violence rather than any alluring feature of an ideal state visualized by Gandhi:

If the king is mindful of the difficulties of the weakest section of his subjects, his rule would be Ramarajya, it would be people’s rule. We cannot expect this of any government in modern times, be it British or Indian, Christian, Muslim or Hindu. Europe, which we are so impatient to imitate, also worships brute force or, which is the same thing, majority opinion, and the majority, surely, does not always look after the interests of the minority. (Navajivan, 30-05-1920)
Apparently it is not political or economic equality or even equity which Gandhi stresses. He never spoke of the first but mentioned the second later (see below). Both brute force and majority opinion are unacceptable to him, for neither of them protects the minority. Gandhi thinks in terms of the whole people; his sole interest is in protecting the weakest section, but not in empowering them, apparently because he is not yet thinking in terms of the abolition of privileges and thus build up a state free from all oppression: in other words, a state which has neither the strongest nor the weakest section: the whole people are empowered.

In the next reference too it is non-violence, ahimsa, that is emphasized. The allusion, however, is not to the merits of Ramarajya, but to the evils of Ravaṇarajya, with which Gandhi compares the British Empire. He looks at the whole thing as divine dispensation; without God’s will nothing can be achieved – neither Swaraj nor Ramarajya. The term, Ramarajya, occurs no fewer than seven times in this lecture.  Gandhi says:
The present Government is no Ramarajya; it is Ravanarajya. We suffer under this Ravanarajya and learn the ways of wickedness under it. How are we to be rid of this Ravanarajya? By becoming evil men in dealing with evil men? By meeting a crafty man with craftiness? How can we ever match them in their wickedness? How can we outwit the Empire in its cunning ways? How can the men of policy among us succeed against this Empire which, by its skilful deceptions, has conquered even Europe with all her cunning ways? Even if we, Hindus and Muslims, would employ cunning, we simply do not have it. If we want to kill Ravana with brute force, we should have ten heads and twenty arms like him. From where are we to get these? It is only a man of Rama’s strength who can do so. What was that strength of his? He had observed brahmacharya and he was God-fearing. His army consisted of monkeys. Have monkeys ever used weapons? During Diwali we celebrate even today the victory of Rama over Ravana. But we can truly celebrate this victory only when we destroy this monster with not ten but a thousand heads. So long as we have not accomplished this, there is nothing but vanavasa for us. If you are men who would never cast lustful glances at chaste and devoted women like Sita, then alone will you be able to mobilize sufficient strength to destroy this Empire. If any power has succeeded in subduing Satan, it is God’s. He it was Who created Satan and He it is Who can kill him. Man can never vanquish him by his own strength. It is God Who subdues him through the agency of a man serving Him with single-minded devotion. (Navajivan, 03-11-1920)
It is in the same speech than Gandhi recalls the Hindi proverb: Ram is the strength of the weak, Nirbal ke bal Ram.

The Second Phase: Protecting the poor, the women and the starving millions, and ensuring safety and food

Two years later, Gandhi for the first time comes out with the promise of Ramarajya, characterized by the following features:

But, at the end of this struggle, we hope to establish Ramarajya and the poor hope to get protection, women to live in safety and the starving millions to see an end of hunger. (Navajivan 15.01.1922)
It is no longer a question of violence versus non-violence, but a definite goal to be achieved in everyday life. God or providence is no longer invoked. Gandhi’s Ramarajya thus takes the shape of a model state, ensuring protection to the poor (but holding out no hope of the eradication of poverty), safety for women, and freedom from hunger. One might venture to remark that in this stray remark Gandhi’s Ramarajya for the first time takes a concrete shape.

‘No curtains (purdah) during Rama’s rule’

 In his next reference to Ramarajya Gandhi sticks to mundane matters such as the purdah (curtain separating the women from the men in a public gathering) system. He never approved of the purdah and was aggrieved to find such a segregated place for women in the venue of the Kathiawar Rajput Conference held in June 1924. He expressed his disapproval by referring to Ramarajya, which, according to Gandhi, had no such purdah, although neither Valmiki nor Tulsidas mentions anything of that sort. The idea was Gandhi’s own. He said:

The organizers of the Conference certainly deserve congratulations on making such perfect arrangements. But one can only express sorrow for the fact of curtains having been put up. This time, one may say, when curtains were necessary is past. There seem to have been no curtains during Rama’s rule. It is of course true that we still do not have Ramarajya, but if we so desire, we may act right from now as if we had it. (Navajivan, 22.06.1924)
Swaraj = Ramarajya

While addressing the audience in a prayer meeting for women in 1926 Gandhi, again for the first time equated Swaraj with Ramarajya. He, however, tells his audience that it was only in women’s gatherings that he refers to Swaraj as Ramarajya,  presumably to communicate the idea of Swaraj in a more homely way, understandable even by the commonest of common woman who did not have the privilege of any political education. This equation of Swaraj with Ramarajya  continues to persist for many years, not just in women’s gatherings any more, but for all occasions. In 1926 Gandhi declared: ‘At women’s meetings I have always used the word Ramarajya in place of swaraj’.

Democracy and swift justice at low cost

Let it be noted at the outset that Gandhi, unlike Thomas More (1478-1535) and many other European modern European authors and social thinkers after him, did not write any Utopia (1516). Nevertheless, he spoke and wrote of an ideal state envisaged by him which he used to call ‘Ramarajya’.  Right from 1929 to the last year of his life (1948) he refers to it. It is possible to locate those short occasional utterances and arrange them in such a way that a full picture of his utopia would emerge in outline, though not in full.

Gandhi elaborated his concept of Ramarajya in a speech in a public meeting, Bhopal on 10.09.1929 as follows:

BY RAMARAJYA I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by Ramarajya Divine Raj, the Kingdom of God. For me Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity. I acknowledge no other God but the one God of truth and righteousness.
Whether Rama of my imagination ever lived or not on this earth, the ancient ideal of Ramarajya is undoubtedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure. Even the dog is described by the poet to have received justice under Ramarajya. (Young India (hereafter YI), 19.9.1929, p. 305; Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereafter CWMG)  vol. 47 p.41).
The whole passage is remarkable for several reasons. Having projected Ramarajya as described in the Ramayana as his ideal, Gandhi instantly recalls that it is a work associated with the Hindus; it is the best known sacred book of Hinduism in north India. Therefore he immediately attempts to disabuse his listeners or any apprehension that he was opting for a Hindu theocratic state. After asserting his belief in one god, who is the god of both Hindus and Muslims (and by extension, of all religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, and other theistic sects) he goes back to the salient features of his ideal state. Democracy and easy availability of justice are two basic characteristics of this ideal state. Both the concepts, however, are anachronistic in relation to the epic, composed between – 400 and + 400. Ayodhyā is a hereditary monarchy, with no division of power between legislature, executive, and judiciary. There is no elected government that prevails in a democratic state. We are also unable to trace any reference to dogs having justice in the Valmiki Ramayana. There are two passages in the Ramayana where Ramarajya is described. Neither in Book 6 where ideal character of the Ramarajya is projected (quoted above), nor in Book 1 (The Book of Boyhood, Balakanda) where the city of Ayodhya, the capital of the kingdom of Dasaratha, is depicted as a land of heart’s desire. In neither of the two or anywhere else could we locate any reference to dogs, least of all to their getting justice. In all probability, Gandhi was thinking in terms of the cost of litigations that the poor Indians had to bear (as then so now). Like any utopian thinker, he would like to assure the poor that in the Ramarajya of his dream, even the meanest citizen could be assured  of swift justice without any ‘elaborate and costly procedure.’ Gandhi, it appears, was merely making use of the name Ramarajya; it has only that much to do with the epic.

The other point to be noted is the spiritual nature of his Ramarajya. It is the kingdom of heaven on earth. In other words, it is god-ordained, not dependent on human endeavour. In other words, it is purely providential and hence, will come when God would will so; human effort alone cannot achieve it for the benefit of the Indian people. Gandhi held and expressed  this same view earlier too (03.11.1920).

Swaraj, Ramarajya, and  Sitarajya

 While addressing women Gandhi, as noted before, equated the concept of Swaraj with Ramarajya, presumably to make the idea of self-rule more readily comprehensible. On one occasion, at a women’s meeting in Varanasi on 26 September, 1929, he introduced another concept, Sitarājya, which should precede Ramarajya. Swaraj now turns out to be not a political, but a moral concept:

I would like to say a few words to you. We want swaraj for the country. We should therefore know what swaraj means. Swaraj means Ramarajya. Swaraj does not mean unrestrained freedom. But how can we bring about Ramarajya without first attaining Sitarajya? If you all become as pure as Sita, Ramarajya is sure to follow. Sita did not wear fine clothes, nor did she wear a lot of jewellery. She had compassion in her heart for those who were suffering. (Aaj, 27-09-1929)

Swaraj = Ramarajya = the rule of dharma

Soon after this Gandhi again explained Swaraj as people’s rule, a ‘regulated power in the hands of thirty crores of people.’ But he does not speak of democracy. He refers to the undefined power of a ‘king’, who, however, would act as ‘the servant of servants’ and, like a mother in a joint family, look after the well-being of all it members. Who the king is or should be is not clearly stated or explained.
Gandhi further admits that the name Ramarajya might be misinterpreted by the minority religious communities as a Hindu rajya or Hindu rule. Hence he preferred the expression ‘the rule of dharma’ too. Nevertheless, the image of Rama as the ideal king seems to stay close to Gandhi’s mind.

The whole passage despite its length is worth quoting:

The gentleman seems to believe that swaraj means the transfer of power from British hands to Indian hands. To my mind swaraj means regulated power in the hands of thirty crores of people. Where there is such rule, even a young girl will feel herself safe and, if the imagination of a poet is correct, animals like dogs, etc., who live among human beings will have a similar feeling of safety. We shall have to arrive at various basic decisions in regard to swaraj because under swaraj such decisions are not subject to officials in power but are based on truth and justice. I have succinctly called this kind of swaraj Ramarajya. As the Muslims and others may misinterpret it, I call it the rule of dharma too. Here there is room for a king, but a king means a protector, a guardian and a trustee, the best servant, the servant of servants. A king subsists on the leavings of his subjects; hence he should sleep after making his subjects sleep, eat after feeding them and live after enabling them to live. May such kings live for ever. If such kings do not arise in this age, I am certain that the very word ‘king’ will perish. (Navajivan, 20-10-1929)

Gandhi’s concern for the dog, first expressed in the speech of 10.09.1929, also recurs in this article/letter.

Who will bring Ramarajya?

 A few days after this, Gandhi contrasts Jatin Das’s self-sacrifice after 63 days (died on 13.09.1929) of fasting to the sacrifice made by millions of ‘poor but heroic men and women’ of India. They too suffer but forever remain unwept, unhonoured, and unsung, while Jatin Das’s death gets the widest publicity. Gandhi favours ‘such unknown people’ and again equates Swaraj with Ramarajya. In reply to a reader of the journal Navajīvan, Gandhi’s organ in Gujarati, he made his position clear:

I have already written about Jatin Das. He has been praised all over the country and abroad. It is the special dharma of Navajivan to sing praises of those poor but heroic men and women whom no one knows nor would care to know. It is my firm belief that we are going to achieve true swaraj or Ramarajya with the help of such unknown people. Those who believe that without self-purification such swaraj is impossible should preserve such articles [published in Navajivan]. (Navajivan, 03-11- 1929)

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of PAVLOV Institute, Kolkata.


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