On my desk in my classroom and at the center of my ancestral altar in my home there is a photo of Ramchandra Gandhi. Though we were not blood related I have never felt closer to anyone in the world and I know that I am not the only one that felt this way about Ramuji. What follows are many tributes to my dear Ramu mama…

The Philosopher’s Funeralby Arindam Chakrabarti

Just now, an Email message from a friend brought the stunning news that  Ramchandra Gandhi was found dead in his room at India International   Center earlier today, June 13th 2007. “Stunning” is most often used these days as an adjective of physical  beauty. There is nothing beautiful about this terrible news. Ramu-dA, my elder brother in philosophy we were “gurubhai”s, having done our  doctoral research under the same supervisor at Oxford, ten years  apart—was by far the most original philosopher that India had  produced in the 20th century since K.C. Bhattacharya, and more  internationally acclaimed than his only predecessor-competitor. For  academic philosophy in India and for the Indian intellectual scene at  large, this is an immeasurable loss. This was no age to die at. He  should have lived much longer. We should have seen to it that he did.

In India International Center, where (Ashish Nandy tells me) RNI-s  (resident non-Indians) escape from Delhi heat and hubbub to hobnob with  changers and interpreters of humankind from all over the globe,  Ramchandra Gandhi used to hang out, for the last couple of decades, usually in a corner of the bar or the restaurant, sometimes in the library, or in the lawn. As a public intellectual, he was the court-philosopher of Delhi’s cognitive oligarchy.

Although a compulsive talker, he was very selective about interlocutors, and extremely sensitive to the audience’s presence or absence of mind. He would almost always end up sulking about how his ideas were being ignored, on that occasion, as well as generally. And most of them were, I am afraid, because he overwhelmed us with millions of absolutely fresh ideas. It was hard not to disappoint or offend him. He exemplified and held us to steep standards of humane, responsible, honest and authentic thinking. No one could meet such expectations. Peppered with mannerisms—he would often close his eyes enacting the depth of the thought he was about to utter, he would stretch his mouth in a smile, with gleaming eyes unmistakably resembling classic photographs of the Mahatma, his grandfather—and with silly puns and jokes, his conversation would actually be exceedingly demanding in content and style. One thing he would never do or suffer is indulging in clichés.

Every time you listened to him, there was a new and difficult idea, an unexpected criticism of a political or social ideology or policy that you would expect him to approve of, a radically contemporary reformulation of an utterly outdated idea, a scornful rejection of a recent fad tempered with a profound sympathy for where the need for the fad is coming from. And few would see through the paradox-dropping, didactic, sage-like veneer into the recklessly exploratory imaginative mind, restless in its authentic search for tranquility. Well, he must be tranquil now, leaving us restless.

But I think, Ramu would be happy to explore the possibility that this grief over his untimely death is “stunning” even in the sense of being breath-takingly beautiful (the spirit of Ramu hangs over this unwitting pun on”breath-taking”). What I mean is best told through a bit of  autobiography. 1994. My father had just died. Seeing me clean-shaven in scorching Delhi sun, RamudA first offers a Khadi-towel to protect my head, and then inquires how he died and how the ShrAddha ceremony went. I told him, among other things, that I was very struck by one ritual the priests recommended during the ShrAddha. Apart from Bhagavadgita, and the Katha Upanishad story of young Nachiketa’s tryst with Death, they recommended that someone recite the Rasa LiilA section of Srimadbhagavatam, during the funeral rituals. Isn’t is weird, I asked RamudA, that during the solemn commemoration of one’s just deceased parent, the bereaved should have to listen to the erotic narration of the love-sport of SriKrishna with his gopi-girlfriends? He frowned for a while, pursed his lips, and said: “Let me think about this a bit”.

After a few minutes, he got back to me. “How did you miss this allusion Arindam? Don’t you recall the famous thumri sung in the background in the film Satranj Ki Khiladri, “babul mera naihar chhuto hi jAy” ?” There he goes, I thought, explaining one obscure thing with something obscurer! “In the  antarA of that song, you will hear of four carriers lifting up the “doli”, to take me to the house of the beloved, and the last journey to the cremation ground is always identified with the grown-up girl’s leaving her ‘parent’s home’ to get united with her  loved one at her own true home. Your father’s soul lived gratefully in this “parental home” of his body, but it was always betrothed to a beloved with whom the consummation of his union must be celebrated with the story of divine love. And of course, the world will never approve of this union, because the body thinks it is the legitimate site for your father’s consciousness, and leaving it to enjoy some other union is illicit love, as was the Gopis'” I recall this explanation of the connection between eros and thanatos, when I feel called upon by a counterfactual possibility that the dead Ramchandra challenges me: “Why is my death so stunning?”

This is not an obituary. So, I am not trying to recount the path-breaking work that Ramchandra Gandhi did, the generations of philosophy students that he has inspired as a teacher in St.Stephen’s College Delhi, in Visvabharati, Shantiniketan, in Pune, in Hydrabad, in California Institute of Integral Studies and elsewhere. His books, his fiction, his dance-dramas (e.g. The Last Temptation of Swami Vivekananda) will be and need to be commented upon. His strikingly original and meticulously argued defense of a spiritually and socially regenerative logically elegant Advaita-based Ahimsa needs to be understood and studied by our academics and policy-makers. His famous puns (e.g.:”Most of India’s elections are naturally rigged, because Indian culture follows rig veda!”) and his distinctive sense of humor need to be recapitulated. But above all, what Ramchandra Gandhi imbibed from his spiritual hero: Ramana Maharshi, the sense of deathlessness in the middle of dying, the sense of deep contemplativeness in the middle of a fun-loving politically feisty worldliness, the sense of loving union in the middle of leaving for ever, must be kept alive.

Still, in every sense, the news of his sudden death is stunning. To be stunned is for our minds to be arrested. An arrested mind is how SamAdhi is defined by Patanjali. As I am feeling temporarily arrested myself, faint memories of Ramu Bhai singing for me an old Hindi film song from some rendition of the Ramayana ring in my ears: “dukhi ek rAjkumAri ki hum kathA sunAte hain, hum vyathA sunAte hain!”

Professor Gandhi was fond of Sita, around whose kitchen he wove the plot of his only novel. Sita—the “dukhirAjkumAri”—didn’t die. She sank inside the earth, where she came from, at the end of her sorry, misunderstood and lonely life. Ramu was lonely and misunderstood too. In his brilliance and spiritual quest, and his impossible mixture of contemporariness and traditionalism, he had no peer, or equal compatriot.His body was apparently found dead, in his room in IIC, and it will be seen going into the same fire used repeatedly to test his adored Sita.

Nobody, including himself, saw him dying or ceasing to exist. Nobody could. The fire-sacrifice will remember him, remember his Austinian good performances done with his words :krato smara, kr.tam smara (Isha Upanishad). 

“The Iconic Iconoclast” by Sanjaya Baru, Hindustan Times, June 15, 2007

Like millions of Indians, I was brought up to revere Mahatma Gandhi. So I was not prepared for my first encounter with his grandson in a seedy bar in Hyderabad. It was the winter of 1979. I had just joined the faculty of the University of Hyderabad. My colleagues, the historian Gyanendra Pandey and the writer Alok Bhalla, and I walked into the dim-lit Three Castles Bar down the road from the University. Alok found a friend who waved to him. We joined him at the table and ordered our beers.
“Have you met Ramu?” Gyan asked, introducing me to the professor of philosophy. “Bhai, teen beer lao aur Don ka gaana lagao,” shouted Ramu to the bearer. A university don humming Kishore Kumar’s ‘… main hoon Don’? I was amused. Alok whispered into my ear, “He’s Gandhiji’s grandson.” I fell off my chair!My first conversation with Ramachandra Gandhi, a professor of philosophy, with a doctoral degree from Oxford University, a teacher who had taught in Britain and the United States, at Shantiniketan and in Delhi, author of The Availability of Religious Ideas and Sita’s Kitchen: A Testimony of Faith and Inquiry, and other books and essays, and, of course, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, on the father’s side and C Rajagopalachari, on the mother’s, was in a bar. So was my last conversation with him, more recently.In its early days, the Central University of Hyderabad was located in the ancestral home of Sarojini Naidu, the ‘Golden Threshold’, in the middle of Hyderabad’s busy shopping area of Abids. “I am told the Professor of English sits in what was Sarojini Naidu’s bedroom.
I sit in her bathroom. That’s where philosophy has been relegated to in our social sciences,” Ramu complained, adding “I wonder which room she wrote her poetry in.”

Three incidents from those university days summed up Ramu Gandhi for me. The first was his response to a curfew imposed in the old city of Hyderabad during university examinations’ time, due to communal violence. The vice-chancellor convened a faculty meeting to decide whether exams should be postponed. Most of us practical-minded fellows agreed, since many of our students could not come to the university. Ramu
objected.

“We cannot succumb to the blackmail of communal forces. Let us ask the police to provide escort vehicles so that we can take the question paper to the homes of our students and conduct the examination there.” Only a few dozen students were affected and Ramu felt this was do-able. The University administration vetoed him. He observed a day of
silence in protest.

The second anecdote relates to an invitation Ramu received from a Dalit student who wanted him to go to his village, in the Mahboobnagar district of the Telengana region on October 2 and participate in Gandhi Jayanti celebrations. Ramu declined the invitation. He would always play down his lineage. “I am a Gandhi, not a Gandhian,” he would say.

The student complained to me, urging me to persuade Ramu to go. I scolded Ramu, explaining to him that this obviously means a lot to the boy and he must go. “Most of these students go back to their villages to talk about Marx, Mao and Ambedkar. Here is a boy who wants you to talk about Gandhiji. How can you refuse?” I said to him. Ramu relented.

Soon he received several such invitations and he would go and speak. “Most people come to see me, not hear me,” he complained once, “and they try to see if I bear any resemblance to Gandhiji’s statue in their village. I think all these statues must be destroyed as a tribute to Gandhiji. Not just because he opposed the erection of statues, but also because they bear no resemblance to him.”

The third incident was a very Gandhian act that finally resulted in Ramu’s decision to leave the University of Hyderabad. A giant neem tree in the Golden Threshold was marked for chopping to enable the University to build classrooms. Ramu objected. “Why can’t classes be held in the shade of the tree,” he asked an exasperated vice-chancellor. No one in the administration took Ramu’s objection seriously. They regarded him a ‘cranky philosopher’. Ramu opted for satyagraha.

The night before the tree was to be cut, Ramu launched his own chipko movement on campus. Many students joined him and surrounded the tree. As one would expect, the University authorities had Ramu physically removed and then, after a few days, got the tree chopped down during the night when no students were present. Ramu quit the university in protest and moved to Delhi.

I cannot write about Professor Gandhi’s academic work since I am not a student of philosophy. But one book of his that will be read for a long time, and not just
by philosophers and Indologists but by all secular-minded Indians, is his slim volume Sita’s
Kitchen. It was a philosophical treatise on Hinduism and Buddhism and was a tribute to his gurus, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi, and was dedicated to his students in California. He re-published it with a postscript in response to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri masjid controversy.

Ramu has a telling quote in it from Swami Vivekananda. While praying in a temple in Kashmir, on the very subject of temples being destroyed to build mosques, Vivekananda claimed to have heard the Divine Mother say, “What is it to you, Vivekananda, if the invader breaks my images? Do you protect me, or do I protect you?” The word ‘Ayodhya’, Ramu reminded us, stood for ‘beyond conflict’ and not conflict!

As all the newspaper obituary announcements have mentioned, in recent years Ramu Gandhi had become a permanent fixture at New Delhi’s India International Centre. Some years ago, when I saw my daughter learning about Gandhiji’s life at school, my wife and
I drove her to Gandhi Smriti on Tees January Marg, to show her where Gandhiji died. It suddenly occurred to me that she should, in fact, meet Ramu Gandhi. It was around half past six in the evening and I was sure we could catch up with Ramu at the IIC. We drove from Gandhi Smriti to IIC and he was there, seated next to the pillar facing the lawn.

Introducing my daughter, I said to him that if he continues to sit there, some tour operator may well include a visit to the IIC in his itinerary to see the Mahatma’s grandson. He laughed. “I don’t think they’ll believe him,” he said. “On the contrary,” I told him, “you could charge him and get him to pay for your beer.”

My last encounter with Ramu was at the IIC bar several months ago. “How is Manmohan?” he asked. “He is a good man. It is not easy running this country. I am glad
you are there for him.”

I never saw him again, except this morning at the crematorium. His family, his two very distinguished brothers, his friends and students and a few regulars at the IIC bar were there to bid him farewell. I spotted the High Commissioner of Pakistan. Not a single political leader from any party was around.

Sanjaya Baru is Media Advisor to the Prime Minister
 

Ramachandra Gandhi: A Student Remembers, K. Sridhar, June 14, 2007

When the news of Ramubhai’s death reached us on Wednesday afternoon, it added a greyer hue to the mid-June sky of Mumbai. One remembered dearly the long and intense conversations with him where he would bend forward, narrowing his eyes, trying to see whether you were following his line of thought. It is, indeed, difficult to believe that Ramubhai is no more with us — that death should snatch away someone from our midst who infused life into every moment of his interactions with people. It was difficult not to get charmed by Ramubhai in these interactions — his was an ineluctable touch which was simultaneously abstract and human, a kind of profound simplicity.For the world he was Dr. Ramchandra Gandhi, philosopher from Delhi and author of the well-known book Sita’s Kitchen: A Testimony to Faith and Inquiry and the recent Swaraj: An Exploration of Tyeb Mehta’s Shantiniketan Triptych, but to close friends he was Ramubhai.It was Ramubhai whom my wife Gita and I first met more than 20 years ago as students in Mumbai University. He was visiting the University for a few weeks and we had heard of him, through friends, as a philosopher and grandson of theMahatma. Both these descriptions were over-awing and we did not know quite what to expect when we first met him.But we had to meet and talk to Ramubhai only once to realise how different from our naïve picture Ramubhai was. If he carried the legacy of the Mahatma it was with a certain lightness of touch that made him that much more approachable and when he approached philosophy, it was not so much from within the pedantic confines of academia but more as a vital discourse about life. His approach was characterised by a directness and an enthusiasm which was unique. Our first meetings with him were particularly important because he could contextualise his exposition of Advaita for us in terms of the existential questions, snared in inescapable dualities, that we as young people were confronting. Ramubhai was an Advaitin but in his exposition of Advaita he mapped out new trajectories instead of following the hackneyed path of many predecessors. This freshness of approach was also reflected in the wide spectrum of topics that Ramubhai confronted using the Advaitin epistemology which spanned politics (Sita’s Kitchen), aesthetics (Swaraj) and a more recent engagement with the issue of gender and sexuality. To the purist within the Advaitin framework, the question of the individual’s enlightenment may be the paramount one but to Ramubhai the question of enlightenment did not stop here and he chose to untiringly inquire about the world in the light of Advaitin wisdom. If the context of Ramubhai’s explorations was novel, the content of these was also very interesting. His understanding of Advaita owed more to Ramana Maharishi than to formal expositions. Again, it was not dry exegesis or empty syllogism that Ramubhai was interested in — he would settle for nothing less than illuminating wisdom that would help shed light on the existential questions that we grapple with. This important philosophical choice that Ramchandra Gandhi made is very significant given that he lived and worked as an academic philosopher all his life.

Ramubhai talked to make you think. It was difficult to listen to him and not undertake some of the intellectual journeys he did. One’s path may have diverged eventually from his or to the uninitiated the all-encompassing principle of Advaita may not have the same appeal as it did to him, but the connections that Ramubhai made always left one with much to ruminate about. Add to it his inimitable style, all complete with his enthusiastic manner of speaking and his irrepressible sense of humour (Jo purna hai, woh churna bhi hai, is a Ramubhai line I will never forget), and what resulted in every interaction with him was nothing short of an intellectual treat. 

Thinking of Ramubhai now, I am reminded of the lines from Aurobindo’s Savitri:

Only the unborn spirit’s timeless power can lift the yoke imposed by birth in time.

Only the Self that builds this image of self can raze the interminable line that links these changing names, these numberless lives,these new oblivious personalities.

(K Sridhar is professor, Department of Theoretical Physics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research)

Ramachandra Gandhi: A personal meditation
published in Economic Times, 16 June 2007
Shail Mayaram
Senior Fellow, CSDS
 
One of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century is no longer with us in body. Ramachandra Gandhi was a jnani, a bhakta, a rasika, a sage of modern India. But his own self-representation was of a sadhaka, advaitin and a sisya of Sri Ramana, the guru who gave him a second birth-as he told the group known as his Saturday Seminar who had collected to celebrate his seventieth birthday.
I was part of this satsang that has been in existence for seven years. The Seminar was organised around workshops on a series of thematics including Religion, Secularism and Violence; Krishna, Christ and the Buddha; the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Bhagavatapurana; the Isa, Katha and Mandukya Upanishads. Woven through the series were reflections on Ramakrishna Paramhans, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi, contemporary issues, art and literature spiced with lines of Beatles and Bollywood songs. As a storyteller there was magic in his abhinaya , the use of bhava and gesture that transported one to the transcendent and ultra mundane.
Our questions and arguments often spurred him to flashes of insight. The group became a source of sustenance seeing him through dark moments that invariably go with extraordinary levels of creativity. We went through crises when his resources would dry up and he would talk about leaving Delhi, refusing to draw on support from either family or friends. The move from his barsati to Bangalore became a virtual sanyas. He gifted his possessions-including books to friends, an inverter to an orphanage, a radio to his dhobi. For us he was a srahrdaya sharing the pain of some of us who experienced personal loss and sustaining the group’s own creative imagination.
I knew this handsome figure as Ramu-for that is what my parents called him. In the early 70s he joined as Reader in the Department of Philosophy at Jaipur. Like many other students-his philosophy class held under a tree would last for hours-I was mesmerized by his ideas articulated with passion in English or Hindi. He was particularly close to my mother, Francine. Ramu is a prima donna, she would remark-referring to his many troubled relationships! She recognised the times he would want to sit alone at the IIC bar, that maikhana-masjid where he contemplated the mystical and miraculous. After she passed away he counseled me, contrary to conventional wisdom, on how I must support Daya in his endeavour to live on his own.

The grandson of C. Rajagopalachari and Gandhiji, Ramu was an heir to both in many ways. From Rajaji and his beloved, Amma, he imbibed his feel for the Indian epics and from Gandhiji, the philosophy of ahimsa, tempering it with Buddhist karuna (compassion) and Sri Ramana’s non-anthropocentric, ecologically-oriented thought.
Every home must have three dictionaries, one each in Sanskrit, Hindi and English, I recall him saying. His feel for language was the relationship of a musician to his tanpura-advaita was not monism! Philosophy means bad news, he would comment wryly-unraveling the fabric of famous Upanishadic commentaries and responding to celebrated formulations like Descartes’ cogito ergo sum-What a narrow way to define selfhood. I am, isn’t that enough?

In the subcontinent his became a voice of moral authority-outspoken on the Congress’ authoritarian turn. Sita’s kitchen is recognised as one of the most outstanding responses to the deep crisis of the Indian polity confronted by the politics of hate. How many times Ramu recounted Swami Vivekananda’s Kshir Bhavani story, each retelling wondrous. The sage wants iccha mrtyu and laments, “Why did you let these invaders come and loot your temples?” Then for the first time in the history of religions, the divine feminine speaks from the sky chastising him, “What is it to you? Do I protect you or do you protect me?” A profound admonishment for all self-proclaimed karsevaks in all religions! To the so-called martyrs who kill themselves and others, he cited Maulana Azad’s comment that they die for their religion but do not know their God!
The Christian conception of atonement recurred: there will be no peace till India and Pakistan have commemorated the million who died in partition, propitiating their spirits. Hindus cannot lay claim to the Ramjanmabhumi (that was always for him Sita’s rasoi-an aboriginal space sanctifying both plant and animal life) till they have atoned for untouchability.

A group at his funeral sang Raghupati raghav raja ram, sabko sanmati de bhagvan and his theorisation of sanmati returned to me. Sanmati was in its chemistry of moksa and martyrdom a greater ideal than satyagraha, the urge to Truth. Moksa, itself was the true martyrdom, the ceaseless bearing witness to the “I am,” “I am each one of you.” The witnessing is also to maternality, the generative principle of life, Muniya’s light that is in each girl-child.
I had met him a couple of weeks ago in the throes of the Gujar mobilisation. We discussed the question of injustice and violence and I told him I had written a piece asking the Gujar leadership to do a repeat act of Gandhi’s Chauri Chaura and withdraw the satyagraha given the outbreak of violence. I hadn’t planned to go to his birthday get-together on Saturday. I was part of a team investigating the deaths in police firing in Rajasthan-that had an urgency Ramu would have been among the first to recognise. I don’t know what it was that made me delay my 4 am departure and decide to leave only after I had greeted him on his birthday. We spoke of my mother and he reminded me to send me the Chauri Chaura article. As soon as I return, I responded.  Kitni batein ankahi, afsane ansune….Our conversations will have to be carried on now with the Ramu in so many of us, illuminating the potential luminosity of our atman.

What follows is an email my dear friend sent to me because I was unable to attend the funeral because I was in Geneva. I saw Ramu mama 17 days before he died. I still remember it like it was yesterday. We were sitting at the IIC and he gave me his very own copy of Arthur Osborn’es biography of his spiritual hero Ramana Maharshi. I had moved close to the IIC just so I could spend more time with him and study with him and the news of his death was shocking. Even though we spent only close to ten months in each others company it felt like so much more. As a friend pointed out to me time becomes elastic when spent in deep togetherness and awareness — it loses its linearity so that we have lived more in one moment than we may have in a less connected state in a year or more.

  

Hi Meena,

It has been raining since early this morning. Though it was hot and humid last evening at Ramu ji’s remembrance meeting. We gathered in the verandah at the IIC where Ramu ji would sit everyday in the evening. His favourite chair was there, with offerings of flowers. Though it seemed empty to our mortal eyes, his presence was palpable to many of us.

Many people came, some familiar to me, others not. I didn’t meet or see Shankar, though I am certain he was there and will also relate the events of the evening to you. Ramu ji’s brother and Suresh Sharma of the CSDS officiated. They began with Ram Dhun, and moved on to short reminiscences by Ramu ji’s friends, colleagues, and admirers. A lot of these were in the nature of platitudes that can sometimes throw a veil over the reality of the person they are directed at. Even though, there were some poignant moments. Geeta Kapur, the art historian, remembered her long association with Ramu ji that began in Delhi’s Modern School where they both studied. She sketched an image of him in every decade of his life, including that of a ‘stylish’ young academic with whom all the women were in love with, and a rare glimpse into his love for art.

Roshan Seth, the actor, read out a poem in which he referred to Ramu ji as “an enigma”, and somebody who had the knack of being private in the most public of places. He proposed that Ramu ji’s chair at the IIC verandah be turned into some sort of a memorial, and nobody be allowed to sit on it. I wondered what Ramu ji would have said about that!

Ashis Nandy, the academic, said that Ramu ji was never a Gandhian but had always been a rebel. He also chided newspapers who were now referring to him as the “greatest philosopher of the 20th century” because they hadn’t said it during his lifetime, and seemed to suggest that this might have lifted the depression he often felt during the last few years of his life. One of the waiters from IIC spoke simply and beautifully about what Ramu ji meant to the staff at IIC, and how he would enjoy cricket and exult every time India won a match.

What I missed was somebody talking about him purely as a seeker of truth, a yogi. And he embodied all the conflicts that come while walking on the path. It would have been nice to hear (or even read) a tribute that focused on this aspect of his life which I suspect for him was the most important.

I hope you are well, Meena. My good wishes are with you.

Love,

Swati

 Ramachandra Gandhi: the quintessential argumentative Indian
By Ashish Mehta
Jun 13, 2007, 16:36 GMT

New Delhi, June 13 (IANS) He was a constant at the India International Centre (IIC), a quiet presence reading in a corner, or studiously writing away in another. Ramachandra Gandhi, philosopher and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, Wednesday passed away in his beloved IIC, the intellectual bastion of the capital he lent so much gravitas to. The 70-year-old Ramachandra Gandhi was at heart a philosopher beyond narrow academic classifications while equally rooted to the soil.

Having earned doctorates in linguistics – he studied with the legendary H.P. Grice – and philosophy, he taught at universities in Britain and the US and in India at Santiniketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore, Panjab University and Bangalore University. He, in fact, founded the philosophy department at Hyderabad University.

As a teacher, he used to say that three R’s of education should be replaced by three E’s – Ethics, Ecology and Enlightenment.

Even as he left an indelible impression on a generation of students and teachers, Ramachandra Gandhi – or Ramubhai as he was affectionately known by all – was anything but a straitjacketed academic.

He was at home with Indian philosophy as much as with western contemporary thoughts, but his chief interest was in the Hindu system of thought known as Advaita Vedanta or non-duality.

In ‘Moksha and martyrdom: reflections on Ramana Maharshi and Mahatma Gandhi’, Ramubhai juxtaposed the two 20th centuries icons – Gandhi, the political leader who inspired non-violent revolutions around the globe, and Ramana Maharshi, who revived the Advaita tradition of Adi Shankaracharya in modern times.

And, just like the Mahatma, his spiritual quest was never divorced from the ‘responsibility to the other’, and he remained engaged in efforts towards social questions.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Hindu rightwing campaigned for destroying the 16th Babri Masjid and building a Ram temple in the belief that the Hindu lord was born there, Ramachandra Gandhi used his close reading of Hindu epics for a counterargument.

Inspired by an incident from ‘Ramayana’ on the life of Lord Ram, ‘Sita’s Kitchen: A Testimony of Faith and Inquiry’ was a terse reply to the Hindu rightwing, using the same mythology as it did.

The same method was at work when Ramubhai responded to the 2002 communal violence in ‘Gandhi’s Gujarat’, in which 1,169 people, a majority of them from the minority Muslims community, were killed.

Drawing lessons once again from another Hindu epic, ‘Mahabharata’, Ramachandra Gandhi reminded us of Gandhari’s curse to Lord Krishna after the Kuru clan was wiped out: ‘Your people will also kill themselves in fratricidal frenzy!’

His politics, however, was one of a critic in the public sphere. For a man who was grandson of not only the father of the nation but also of independent India’s second governor-general, Ramachandra Gandhi was remarkably free of any ambitions to any political position.

His intellectual journey also took him to the world of art and in recent years he penned two magnificent volumes on art criticism. ‘Svaraj: A Journey with Tyeb Mehta’ is an extended essay on the famous painter’s triptych on Santiniketan – which incidentally fetched a record price in the market. Ramchandra Gandhi made it a starting point for his meditations on swaraj, or self-rule, a political concept that coloured India’s freedom struggle.

For the Vedanti that he was, the concept went beyond politics and led to a spiritual journey within one’s self.

Another foray into art criticism was ‘Ideas Images Exchanges’, co-authored with critics Ranjit Hoskote and Roshan Shahani.

In recent years, he had also started offering weekend workshops in New Delhi on synthesising politics, culture and spiritualism – and thus extending the history-making work of the Mahatma.

Advertisements