Thursday, May 8, 2008

On Asceticism, Gandhi and Tagore

Sometimes, you have to take a step back from yourself and take a hard look at your practices. The other day Crunchy Chicken started a discussion about religious asceticism on her blog, and I have to admit it shook me a little.

You see, I don't view myself as an ascetic. I was born a Hindu, it's true. And it's also true that many Hindus are known for their practice of asceticism. But in fact, it is this background that has led me to reject asceticism completely and utterly.

Rejecting asceticism, says the woman who hasn't bought anything new in months. Yes. That's right. I don't believe in asceticism. I mean, I'm not here to judge other people's actions per se. If shunning worldly pleasures is what floats your boat, go to. But personally, I don't find such a life particularly appealing.

You see, back when I was a wee undergrad and only a little bit difficult, I ended up doing some life-changing research on Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Tagore and Gandhi were two of the Greats. They loved and respected each other dearly. But that didn't stop them from vehemently disagreeing with each other.

When I first started my research, I assumed I would side with Gandhi, because, well ... he's Gandhi. All my life I had believed in the certainty, in the truth and the righteousness of passive protest and an ascetic life.

And who was this Tagore? A poet? What did he know about politics anyway?

Quite a lot actually. And as my thesis progressed, I realized that it was Tagore who spoke to me clearly. It was Tagore's life and practices that I wished to emulate.

Tagore and Gandhi were products of Colonial India, and, in many ways, they were both success stories of Colonial India. Both were sent to the University College of London to study law (though Tagore didn't actually earn a degree.) Yet, they each dealt with the duality of being an Indian and British subject in opposite ways.

Gandhi is famous for having rejected what was British or Western from his life and his self. Adopting a platform of swadeshi, he called for a national boycott of among other things, British goods and British centers of education.

Tagore deplored Gandhi's principle of non-cooperation. In a letter to Charles Freer Andrews, Tagore writes:

The idea of non-cooperation is political asceticism. Our students are bringing their offering of sacrifices to what? Not to a fuller education but to non-education. It has at its back a fierce joy of annihilation which at its best form is asceticism and in its worst form is that orgy of frightfulness in which human nature, losing faith in the basic reality of normal life, finds a disinterested delight in unmeaning devastation, as has been shown in the late war and on other occasions which came nearer home to us. No in its passive form is asceticism and in its active moral form is violence. The desert is as much a form of himsa as is the raging sea in storm, they both are against life. (Rabindranath Tagore, An Anthology)
Let's unpack this a little, shall we? Non-cooperation is characterized by the negative. Instead of making the positive choice to embrace India, non-cooperation is the negative choice to reject Britain. To reject education. To reject humanity.

As an Indian-American, I understand what it is like to feel caught between two cultures. I have dealt with the identity crises. I have questioned who I am, and where I belong. But as part of a life-long struggle, I have realized that I am happiest when I embrace what is best about both.

This was Tagore's philosophy. Tagore believed in positively embracing his dual identity. And while he passionately supported an independent India, he did not believe in Gandhi's methods of passive resistance.

The problem with asceticism is simply this: asceticism is a rejection of the world around us. Asceticism places the concept (of nirvana) over the tangible (people). Obviously, Gandhi cared deeply for his people. No one would deny this. Yet, his adherence to an ascetic life consistently pitted his commitment to principle against his commitment to person, and inevitably he chose principle (even when the person in question was himself).

It is because of this commitment to unyielding principle, that this was Gandhi's advice to the British people in 1940:

I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them. (Non-Violence in Peace and War)
There are no simple answers in a time of war. But it is clear that asceticism is not the answer, and yet Gandhi insisted on clinging to passive resistance. Again, I want to be clear. It is not that Gandhi was unsympathetic to the plight of the British during World War II. But, Gandhi believed that "non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering."

I don't support conscious suffering. When I talk about walking more, or not buying crap, I don't mean to reject the comforts afforded to me by the first world. I don't believe everyone in the world should be living the life of an Indian villager. Rather, just as Tagore celebrated the duality of being an Indian and a British subject, I choose to embrace the duality of living a lower impact life in a higher impact world.

Every day, as I walk to the metro, I pass libraries, schools, theatres, restaurants, and stores. I am constantly reminded that I have a good education, health insurance, a retirement account, and food in the fridge.

So you see, it is not so much that I am refusing to buy stuff, but rather, that I am reveling in what I already have.

In his essay "East and West," Tagore writes:

Earnestly I ask the poet of the western world to realize and sing to you with all the great power of music which he has, that the East and the West are ever in search of each other, and that they must meet not merely in the fulness of physical strength, but in fulness of truth; that the right hand, which wields the sword, has need of the left, which holds the shield of safety.
Many years have passed since Tagore wrote those words, but they could have been written just yesterday. For if we ever hope to move to a better world, the East and West must meet each other. Working together, we can build a happier, more comfortable, AND more sustainable life for every person on this planet.

Let's get to work.


Joyce said...

Wow. Excellent, excellent essay.

Jennifer said...

Very well said.

Sam said...

The path to Nirvana is after all, The Middle Way.

I've been having an identity crisis for a very long time. Am I Indian? Am I American? Am I a geek? Am I a faker? Am I the only Indian who dislikes Gandhi? Why in the world didn't that man wear more clothes? I finally have decided to embrace my identity as myself. Its called Beanyism (except I use my actual name not some fakey online identity).

Anonymous said...

crazy good job.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Wonderful post and lots of food for thought(unlees you are practicing an ascetic fast from thinking, the primary form of asceticism in the US). I have admired many ascetics but have been more drawn to the simple folk, Quakers, Bretheren, Amish, Mennonites as models, although I eschew their religion and their sophistries. Thanks for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Really thought provoking. I really love how you manage to make positive changes truly for yourself and not for image sake and how you don't allow it to become a means to judge others. (Oh...and it is totally okay to not like Gandhi. I'm pretty sure his cotton wrap was not organic.)

ruchi said...

Joyce, Jennifer, SDG, thank you! I'm glad you liked it.

Beany, you are right, and personally, I think Tagore's path is "The Middle Way."

Equa Yona, an ascetic fast from thinking is truly the worst form of asceticism!!

Orgie, I really don't want to judge others. I'm not a Christian, but I believe very strongly, "Let he without sin cast the first stone." I have sins, so I'm not going to judge others. Rather, I try to live how I live and I find that sometimes others are inspired to live more lightly as well. And I think that's great.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. This is why I like your blog. Plus, you're funny.

ruchi said...

Thanks, Megan!

pink dogwood said...

i thought I just posted a comment - but it disappeared. Anyways, great post - love the way you write.

ruchi said...

Thanks PD!

Holden Caulfield said...

dear arduous,

please understand the politics of the common indian (and the diaspora) in all this.

the indian is afraid of debating gandhi. he has been elevated to the status of a demi-god. to criticize gandhi means you are either a 'hindu fundamentalist' or a 'market fundamentalist'.

the diaspora is guilty of jettisoning his or her rooted past in the heat and dust of india. gandhi's image fits the india he or she left. gandhi-worship, in its totality, continues.

rabindranath also wrote an essay called the cult of the charkha. and amartya sen has written about gandhi and tagore in his book the argumentative indian, and in an essay now posted on the nobel prize website.

Buy Tamiflu said...

I don't know why but I am sure that people practicing asceticism, are despaired. Their lives are so bad that they have no other way out.

Nitin Jain said...

I think calling Non-cooperation movement, rejecting humanity is bit stretched. While the movement aimed to reject British made goods, it also aimed at promoting Made in India goods and services. So it was not entirely a negative movement altogether. Bapu was a perfect mix of political acumen, deep rooted religious beliefs, ability to constantly question and work with the people cutting across sections of the society. With my limited experiences, I feel that a 'do'er will always have differences with 'think'er. Both will be knowledgeable in their own might, but a thinker will rely on largely on pure logic and logical deductions, a doer will rely on his experiences + everything else. It was the first time when the British realized that Indians can unite for an extended period of time, despite internal differences in the society. From whatever I read I think the British empire was severely critical of Hinduism, they tried their best to attack the psyche and prove their superiority on not just military but religious grounds as well. Non-cooperation movement was far from an attack on any individual or religion, but an attempt to re-discover the lost Indian confidence in itself.