Gandhi had open mind on Manusmriti : The Tribune India

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Gandhi had open mind on Manusmriti

Manusmriti has often been invoked and condemned as a code of scriptural law perpetuating untouchability and creating an inflexible caste hierarchy, which Dr Ambedkar described with anguish and pain as "graded social inequality", fostering what he called a "descending order of contempt and ascending order of reverence.

Gandhi had open mind on Manusmriti

Gandhi collecting money for Harijan welfare while travelling by train. file photo



Satya Narayana Sahu
Former OSD and Press Secretary to President late KR Narayanan

Manusmriti has often been invoked and condemned as a code of scriptural law perpetuating untouchability and creating an inflexible caste hierarchy, which Dr Ambedkar described with anguish and pain as "graded social inequality", fostering what he called a "descending order of contempt and ascending order of reverence." What we have so far heard and studied is the intensely critical stand taken by Dalit leaders on Manusmriti, beginning with its public burning by Dr Ambedkar on December 25, 1927, and the subsequent denunciation of it by rebellious leaders and young minds who swear by the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and the enduring values associated with reclamation of human personality. 

So far, the discourse on Manusmriti gets centered around the impactful narrative carefully framed by Dalit leaders who deplore that caste Hindus perpetuated untouchability based on the vicious and obnoxious provisions of that scripture. Hardly does one hear of other leaders of the freedom struggle whose opinion on Manusmriti preceded Dr Ambedkar's in terms of the intensity of criticism. 

While scholars set the discourse on Mahatma Gandhi vis-a-vis Dr Ambedkar in antagonistic terms, completely and deliberately obscuring their commonalities, it is important to explore the convergence of their thoughts and common fund of values which they shared in critically assessing Hinduism. An exploration of Gandhi's 'Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi' reveals that Gandhi had rejected Manusmriti even as he affirmed his credentials as a Sanatani Hindu based on his adherence to morality and compassion of religion. Around November 5, 1917, while speaking in Godhra on the theme "A Stain on India's Forehead", he referred to untouchability and its persistence as orthodoxy and hypocrisy and said that it was no use quoting verses from Manusmriti and other scriptures in defence of orthodoxy. He then said, "A number of verses in these verses are apocryphal, a number of them are quite meaningless" and those who followed the injunctions in them would get polluted. 

Such disapproval of Manusmriti brings out his critical outlook on the scriptural foundation of religion, which we find much later Dr Ambedkar categorically asserting that scripture-based religion should yield place to a religion based on liberty, equality and fraternity. It is rather educative to note that much before Dr Ambedkar, it was Gandhi who while declaring in a letter written to Ranchhodlal Patwardhan on September 9, 1918, from Sabarmati Ashram that he took up the problem of untouchables purely out of considerations of Dharma and not politics. He asserted:"If we were to follow some of the tenets of Manusmriti, there would be moral anarchy" and so he quietly discarded them altogether. 

The rejection of Manusmriti by Gandhi on the grounds that it would cause moral anarchy makes him one of the earliest leaders of India who found it unacceptable because of its features which he found repugnant to morality. On December 25, 1920, exactly seven years before Dr Ambedkar burnt Manusmriti, Gandhi while speaking at Antyaj Conference in Nagpur said that it would not be difficult to put an end to Satanism of the British empire because it was worldly in nature whereas the Satanism of untouchability had taken the colour of religion. He asserted that if the practice of untouchability was enjoined in the Vedas or the Manusmriti, they ought to be replaced. However, he raised a question: "Where are the men who will write new scriptures?" Expressing his inability to lay down any moral and ethical code for the Hindus, he, therefore, exhorted the victims of untouchability to make him worthy of their compassion so that he could fight for them and eradicate untouchability. 

It is revealing to note that Gandhi disapproved of Manusmriti on other grounds also. While speaking at Juhu on March 30, 1924, he said that Manusmriti categorically permitted flesh eating and asked, "Will you, therefore, eat meat?" It is such interrogation  which distinguished him as a man who applied reason and intellect to evaluate numerous religious propositions. In 1926, he said that all that is written in Sanskrit should not be regarded as holy scripture and everything written in Manusmriti should not be seen to be relevant for the present day. He asserted: "Whether old or new, everything should be tested on the anvil of reason, and anything which does not stand the test should be rejected." 

When Dr Ambedkar burnt Manusmriti on December 25, 1927, Gandhi reflected on it in a letter to PT Pillay on May 4, 1928, and never considered it as equivalent to burning of foreign cloth. He observed, "Burning of foreign cloth is like burning a thing that is injurious; but the burning of Manusmriti is at best like the burning of an advertisement for foreign cloth showing nothing but childish rage." The "childish rage" which he referred to was indicative of his partial accord to the burning of Manusmriti which he thought was not on a par with the bonfire of foreign clothes. In that letter to Pillay, he admitted that he did not regard Manusmriti as an evil as it contained much that was admirable even as it contained many things which were bad. He stated that a reformer would treasure all that is excellent in ancient code and expurgate all that is injurious or of doubtful value. 

Gandhi used some aspects of Manusmriti which were morally rich and invigorating while writing a letter to Lord Curzon who while addressing the conovation of Calcutta University in 1905 had said that "the highest ideal of truth is to a large extent western conception" and "undoubtedly truth took a high place in the moral codes of the West before it had been similarly honoured in the East, where craftiness and diplomatic wile have always been held in much repute." Gandhi refuted and responded to Lord Curzon's speech by quoting several passages from Manusmriti which stressed on lofty moral principles in 1280 BC. 

While accepting all that was good in Manusmriti, he was categorical in asserting that it contained a lot of injustice to women and lower castes.  His acceptance of good aspects of Manusmriti can be juxtaposed with Dr Ambedkar's invocation of it for the cause of women's right to property when he explained the provisions of the Hindu Code Bill and pleaded for its passage. 

Gandhi's exposition on Manusmriti brings out his critical faculty and open mind to accept all that is in harmony with reason and morality and reject all that is repugnant to truth and non-violence. He wrote in "My Experiments with Truth" that "Manusmriti at any rate did not teach me ahimsa". However, he valued certain moral principles from that scripture and flagged them as useful for developing self-restraint. Such an open mind in assessing scriptural injunctions is indispensable for our time when bigotry and fanaticism often define public discourse based on outmoded notions of religions and religious texts. 

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