Ramachandra Gandhi: Philosopher and Friend
By U R Ananthamurthy – Posted on November 6th, 2008
I first came across Ramachandra Gandhi (Ramu Gandhi to me) at a restaurant in Oxford. I saw him (then, he must have been of age twenty six or twenty seven years) from a distance.  When my friend pointed at him saying, ‘Look! That’s him! Ramachandra Gandhi’, I stared at the man looking for any resemblance with Mahatma Gandhi’s ears. I showed that man to my little son also. Many years later, when I narrated this all this to him, he spoke about the sea of change that had occurred in his way of thinking since those days. His first book was published in those Oxford days, amidst his pure western thinking and had earned him considerable fame. Later, he rejected all that to become a true Indian seer. It was at Nehru Centre that a well known European philosopher was deliberating on our days and times. Just as the audience was recovering from the awe of the speaker’s eloquence of ideas, Ramu stood and sent quivers among the audience by pointing towards the relevance of Ramana maharshi and the state of consciousness the sage had attained, in order to properly understand our times. Embarrassment of the audience lured to western knowledge was palpable since they were being forced to welcome an Indian sage amidst them.  
Ramu Gandhi was among my close friends. I would be all ears and mind to Ramu’s words as much as I was to my other friends like our Subbanna, Ashis Nandy or Shiv Vishwanathan. Despite the fact that we were close friends, there was respectable space between us. This was true of most of his friends. I would always find him at the India International Centre (IIC), the place where he died. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t talk to him each time I saw, as he would always be sitting in a corner in a state of deep meditation, with a glass of rum in front that wouldn’t get emptied for long. Some curious onlookers would introduce him to their friends; ‘This is Mahatma’s grandson’. Immensely embarrassed Ramu would then tell me: ‘These pranksters deliberately do so to imply that Mahatma’s grandson is a rum consumer’. Ramu’s problem was not just about having one famous grandfather; but two. His other grandfather, maternal one was none other than morally upright and shrewd Rajaji.    
Ramu Gandhi was a jangama in the real sense of the word. He never attached himself to any specific job. After he returned from Oxford, he was appointed as professor of Philosophy at Hyderabad Central University, where he developed the Philosophy department to a level that is still recalled today by many of his peers. His department building was an old bungalow where Smt. Sarojini Naidu once lived. It was an old and beautiful structure with plenty of trees in its courtyard. The vice-chancellor of the university set his eyes on the tree, especially on one particular giant tree which was dear to late Sarojini Naidu. He decided to cut it. Ramu opposed it vehemently. Notwithstanding, the tree was felled and on the same day Ramu resigned and walked out of the university. After this incident, Ramu never stayed in any job for long time. He invested some amount on one small room in a house near Delhi’s Bengal market and lived there all alone. His daughter would visit him occasionally.  His room looked empty and dreary except for a photograph of Ramana maharshi with his stiff stick in hand pressing the floor, sitting on a boulder with crossed legs, almost naked, except for a small piece of cloth around his waist; more naked than Mahatma himself.  Ramu had presented another photograph he had of Ramana with merciful look in his eyes to my wife Esther just after she had recovered from cancer. Framed photograph was slightly heavy and Ramu was visibly embarrassed about it while presenting it to her.  That picture still adorns the wall of my house.
Everyday, Ramu Gandhi would visit IIC to read and have his light meals. There was a joke among us, his friends: `Ramu Gandhi is a jangama, but with an attachment towards his room and IIC’. Probably he had chosen to stay in the central room of IIC to escape Delhi’s scorching heat and must have breathed his last in his sleep. Few months back I had invited him to Bangalore; an invitation he had accepted gladly, by replying ‘I would love to; but right now my health is not cooperating’.
Ramu Gandhi had the habit of taking out his pen and scribbling his random thoughts on a small notebook. One could frequently see him strolling in Lodhi Gardens wearing one waist-coat upon another on his creased kurta, suddenly stopping between steps and scribbling in his notebook. I felt he resembled an ancient sage and sometimes even like Rishi Doorvasa. Let me recall an incident to illustrate what I mean:
When a mosque in Ayodhya was demolished and nation was engulfed in fear and violence, Ramu Gandhi shared an idea with me. ‘Within next fifteen days, we will all stage a march from Parliament house to Birla house, place where Mahatma was killed. Therefore, from today onwards I will be renouncing rum. Convey this to all your friends, I will also do the same’.
In spite of our best efforts we could gather only around twenty five people for the march. Ramu didn’t lose heart. Every good work starts with small bunch of people, was his view. One fine morning we all gathered at the place decided earlier. Ramu was our leader. He had chosen Tagore’s ‘Ekla cholo…’ for us to sing during the march. Initially, I found our small group of twenty five, seriously marching through the large Delhi crowds, bit embarrassing. I am not sure now, whether it was the strength of Tagore’s song or the tenderness on Ramu Gandhi’s face, we all were able to involve ourselves in the noble objective shedding our false dignity and walk in line with discipline. Although people around were laughing and mocking at us sometimes, singing intensely in unison we reached the place of Mahatma’s assassination and offered our prayers in silence. Some Tibetian monks later joined our meeting and offered their prayers in their own manner. Though Tibetian way of praying may sound strange to some of us, the very strangeness moved us nevertheless. We returned from the place after some of us spoke. (For Ramu Gandhi, the only other person to retain Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence was Dalai Lama).
Occasionally, Ramu would want to come out of his meditation to get active. He told me once, `Mahatma was perhaps the biggest tantrik. In Ramu’s opinion, right from spinning wheel to salt march and in the end walking bare foot through Noakhali with a stick in hand taller than him, scouring toilets, clearing rocks and thorns from the pathway, all such acts were techniques of a good tantrik to attain the desired.
Looking at everything as symbols that are free from the `self’ and are meaningful signs of soul, was the way of Ramu’s thought process. Mahatma Gandhi carrying the stick that taller than him and walking through Noakhali indicated to Ramu, Mahatma’s urge to grow in stature higher than what he was then, by means of a stick that was useful in the uneven areas.
Mahatma was his grandfather. But many times it would appear to me, Ramu had completely surrendered himself to maharshi Ramana. He would keep bringing evidences that bolstered advaitha philosophy that would sound convincing enough to us.  The book he wrote about Tayyab Mehta’s Shanti Niketan trilogy is a classic example to illustrate this. He wanted me to write the prologue for that book. Nobody else in the world has written such a book on art of painting. Book is a prolonged meditation, where the external painting meets the inner mind to become one, the advaitha. He was pleased with one particular remark I had made about the book. I had compared Ramu’s writing in that book to illuminating arati to the gods in temples. I had said that his writing in this book is like, starting to illuminate with only one lamp initially and then lighting many others, circulating them around the vigraha, occasionally pausing in between and slowly but gradually illuminating the whole sculpture and making it visible for us completely in arati’s light.
Ramu Gandhi’s other brilliant book of course is Sita’s Kitchen. What sangh parivar looks at as Rama’s birthplace, Ramu shows us the same place to us as Sita’s kitchen.  No other book on Ayodhya incident has been written with such an immense Indian sensibility and consciousness. These last twenty years have been filled with plenty of confusions and conflicts for me in my mind. Ramu as my friend and philosophical teacher taught me how to win over hate, animosity and jealousy that we have witnessed in these years, not just by rejecting them with the aid of secular and materialist worldview, but also by rejecting them on the grounds of deep spirituality.  
When I was living in Kerala, I had invited him to a conference. He came happily. Along with him, my other friend late Nirmal Varma and philosopher Daya Krishna were also there. So was Daya Krishna’s American wife clad in sari, kumkum on forehead and with her neatly combed hair, most of it she had lost owing to cancer. She expressed her desire to visit the famous temple of Guruvayur. Ramu took her to see the temple. But, Priests didn’t permit her inside the temple stating she is non-hindu. Ramu recalled his grandfather immediately and protested. He refused to enter the temple without her and returned with Rishi Durvasa like temper.
Ramu had an in depth faith in Indian shastras, various religious sects within Hinduism, Vedas, Upanishads and myths, along with it the quality that was inherent among our ancestors of being `an argumentative opponent’. I also saw in him quite frequently, how the same person can also be vehemently angry about Hindus’ pettiness, casteism and communal arrogance. He had this desire to have a debate with an eminent Islamic scholar and win! That too about advaitha!
Ramu would suddenly think of new ideas. For example he had told me once how he would catalogue the various philosophical books in the library he would construct. He said, ‘one section would contain books by only those who believe God has both form and essence; these are the books written mostly by vaishnavas, second section will contain books by only those who believe God has no form but only essence; these are the books mostly written by Muslims, Christians and Jews. The third section will contain books by only those who believe that God has neither form nor essence. These are the books by Buddhist philosophers and sages like maharshi Ramana’ to which I added, ‘books on vachanas of Allama’.  
At that point, I also raised a thought little mischievously, ‘I can understand the concept of God having both form and essence, or God not having form but only essence, or God neither having a form nor any essence; but is it possible to perceive God having a form but no essence?’ Ramu, though a man of austere silence, would sometime get into Nitze’s Dionysian kind of enthusiasm. When in a state of high, he would talk animatedly shaking his entire body. `Well! That is bureaucracy!’ he had replied laughing boisterously. He would point us to anybody who would come across and like a cartoonist would compare him to some creature, make us laugh to let out from us an innocent joy, only to re-withdraw himself into the world of maharshi Ramana instantaneously.
Ramu Gandhi had written something that is politically impossible for anyone else to write. On the question of `whom should Kashmir belong?’, he had written: ‘If Pakistan can become a secular state like India, treating all religions with equal respect, then it is not an important question for me, whether Kashmir is in Pakistan or in India’. Those who are able to speak like this have love for their nation without the angst of a nationalist. And a belief that all religions survive based on the strength of their intrinsic truth and not due to the institutions built with warrior like instincts.
Thus, Ramu keeps surfacing in all of my thoughts. This way, he will always live within me