Friday, September 6, 2013

Gandhi - the Esoteric Christian?

I might like to think that my future biographer (sic) would attribute my knowledge of Plato to a careful study of his works, read repeatedly over time. Whereas, in truth, though I have indeed read him, his influence has been most deeply experienced through reading a book called, 'The Third City: Philosophy at war with Positivism' written by Borna Bebek. The book was born in obscurity where, I confess, it sadly has remained!

But even if it had flourished at the time of its publication, it may have disappeared by the time a biographer arrives on the scene. What shapes our perceptions, our philosophies, our world views, even in the most famous, disappear from view with the passage of time (and our unwillingness to entertain the notion that our 'heroes' have dieted on anything less than the most exalted fare).

So it is with Gandhi, maintains Kathryn Tidrick in her absorbing biography, 'Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life'. We all know, if we know anything about Gandhi, the influence that reading the Gita, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Ruskin had on Gandhi but what about Kingsford and Maitland's 'The Perfect Way, Clothed with the Sun' or Henry Salt's 'Plea for Vegetarianism'?

Tidrick wants to show us three key dimensions to Gandhi. First his political life was utterly shaped by a core set of spiritual convictions that saw him, Gandhi, as a world saviour in the making, though this he understandably did not make explicit. Second that this life was seeded in London, nurtured in South Africa and came to bloom in India. Third in examining to who and to what Gandhi was exposed in London, we discover that it was to heterodox patterns of belief - about health and diet, about the East filtered through Theosophy and 'esoteric Christianity' that were formative and his subsequent use of Hinduism was transformed in this crucible in very unorthodox ways.

So, for example, 'ahimsa' goes from being traditionally a passive notion of doing 'no harm' and is transformed into actively pursuing a willingness to suffer self-immolation in the service of others, non-harming gives way to a search for universal love in a language whose origin was constructed by seeing an Indian (Hindu and Jain) concept passed through a Christian filter. You can see how this presents difficulties to those who want their nationalist hero 'pure and unadulterated' but, of course, there is no such thing (except in the fantasy worlds of fundamentalists of all kinds).

It is, also, a book that shows how our values and beliefs may tend in one direction, shaping a mission yet whose actual outcomes are different from what was intended and that this is not necessarily 'a bad thing'! Gandhi was instrumental in bringing about Indian independence, he did so in a way that has acted as an inspiration to many other struggles for liberation, not least the career of Martin Luther King and his life probes and tests us to this day around issues of social organisation, economic 'development and the relationship between personal change and social transformation.

But if Tidrick is right Gandhi's primary focus was on preparing the ground for the spiritual transformation of humanity that meant etherealising and leaving the inherently sinful nature of the 'flesh' behind and this 'flesh' was harried in his private life in a manner that gives one pause - obsessional, controlling and undoubtedly cranky!

It, also, goes to show how deeply influential 'esoteric' traditions have been in history, not excluding the twentieth century, and to these Tidrick is an admirably lucid guide and amusingly one who is wholly unconvinced of their merit (as accounts of reality). Having given a very clear account of the beliefs of Kingsland and Maitland (and it was the former that introduced Gandhi to Tolstoy's work), she says that they are no more fabulously ridiculous than the orthodox Christian narrative!

Influentially ridiculous however...

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