Gandhi, Vivekananda and Subrahmanya Bharati on widow remarriage
#1
There was a recent surge in interest in the Indian blogosphere in the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate (Appendix I and II here, among other online venues). Earlier in the forums, there have been discussions on Vivekananda's lukewarm zeal for reform besides considerable lip-service and also about the firm yet respectful disagreement of Tagore with Gandhi on the role of Reason. While those debates, all involving the subject of untouchability, have received much commentary, it is a a womens' rights debate involving the said interlocutors from the same time, which the national poet from Tamil Nadu, Subrahmanya Bharati, waged in writing, pitted against Gandhi and Vivekananda, that is the topic of this thread.

The frank exchanges between Bharati and the two objects of his long-standing admiration, are related in the following short televised talk in Tamil by Suki Sivam. Mr. Sivam is a well-known speaker giving religious discourses and commenting on various social issues, who enjoys a wide audience among Tamil-speakers globally. Though the speaker is primarily associated with religious discourses, the content of this particular talk can resonate well with anyone claiming freethinking and humanistic sensibilities:



In the first half of the talk, Mr. Sivam speaks of the importance of challenging authority and convention when the greater social good is at stake. He cites as historical examples Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and Vallalar as fearless critics of the orthodoxies of their times in their societies (much as Goparaju Ramachandra Rao 'Gora' does in this note), and most importantly, in a way that would please freethinkers, goes one further by calling upon believers today to not hesitate in exercising their freedom of conscience should the need arise to criticize the utterances of those very prophets. As a detailed illustration, Mr. Sivam goes on to cite the example of Bharati, who on other occasions had composed paeans to Gandhi and Vivekananda and hailed them as visionaries, vehemently disagreed with them on the subject of widow remarriage. Below, Bharati's proposal is near-literally translated from the quote read by Mr. Sivam and the rest of the exchanges are paraphrased (with comments in parentheses).

Bharati's proposal:
"Women who have lost their husbands may have lost their companions but still possess their bodies. The have lost neither their five senses, nor their feelings, nor the human heart, nor the yearning for companionship nor the means to experience and express such companionship."
Thus it is a grave injustice and a humanitarian tragedy if remarriage is denied to bereaved women.

Gandhi's response:
It is the practice of men remarrying promptly after their wives depart, that is leading to the indignant feminist calls for women to exercise the right to do similarly. The solution is for men too to eschew remarriage.

Bharati's rebuttal to Gandhi:
When called to support emancipation of women from the weeds of widowhood, the Mahatma is instead advocating bondage of men too to those very privations and deprivations!

(Bharati was vociferous in his rejection of Gandhi's much overused method of asceticism as atonement, and argued that only what is life-affirming can be truly emancipatory.)

Vivekananda's response:
Reformists from the depressed classes are more radical in their demands for widow-remarriage than those from the classes deemed upper-castes. Part of the reason for this state of affairs maybe demographics, since women seem to outnumber men in the upper social strata and men seem to outnumber women in the lower social strata. It may not be prudent to attempt to change this state of affairs overnight, given that we would also have to ignore the counsel of the sages of old if we did so in a hurry.

Bharati's rebuttal to Vivekananda:
The Swami is evading a moral question by citing statistics. The numbers may well be right, but cannot be reason enough to impose life-denying circumstances on even one woman.

(Bharati's robust stance here that ethical challenges cannot be reduced merely to empirical claims, is a study in clarity on the distinction between factual claims and value propositions and a safeguard against the hazards of numbers games leading to indifference towards the rights of non-dominant groups.)
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#2
Wow. Never heard of this. I was aware of Bharathi's progressive views. But I did not know that Gandhi and Vivekanand held such bizarrely conservative views. Wonder why? These men were surely more exposed to the west than Bharathi.
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#3
(02-May-2014, 06:12 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote: Wow. Never heard of this. I was aware of Bharathi's progressive views. But I did not know that Gandhi and Vivekanand held such bizarrely conservative views. Wonder why? These men were surely more exposed to the west than Bharathi.

In a manner of speaking, their greater exposure to the West may have actually contributed to the revivalist stances of Gandhi and Vivekananda. Their worldviews were subject to an essentializing of East and West, which is an assumption underlying all Orientalist worldviews. Riding on this essentializing Orientalist assumption is an almost eschatological belief in the historical inevitability of some nations playing a transcendental civilizational role in subduing the aberrant Western world-domination and offering leadership to both these 'worlds', a belief that led Vivekananda to make a case for Indian exceptionalism, and led Ivan Ilyin and others make a case for Russian exceptionalism. Exceptionalists of any nationality are wary of embracing 'universal values' that happened to first be adopted by societies other than their own, as illustrated in the antipathy of the People's Republic of China to parliamentary democracy today, and it is the Indian exceptionalism of Gandhi and Vivekananda that may have led to their instinctive rejection of archetypal revolutionary narratives from elsewhere.

It is also far from coincidental here that both Gandhi and Vivekananda had personally taken vows of celibacy, at age 36 and age 23 respectively, and therefore are likely to have shared the assumption that abstinence arising out of any circumstances is conducive to penance, and therefore anything but a cardinal evil. For Gandhi, the vow was not only a personal discipline, but also served a political function in opening up public life to women, which in his judgment in his time could be accomplished only by maintaining an environment of effectively 'voluntary sterilization', unlike the contemporary ethic of mutual consent trumping all else. 'Householder reformers' who were not thus bound by monastic disciplines were more forthcoming in their advocacy and aid for widow remarriage like Mahatma Phule, or as in the case of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, led by personal example.

Bharati's commitment towards women's rights incidentally was kindled thanks to an encounter with Sister Nivedita, herself a disciple of Swami Vivekananda. It is a testimony to the poet's independence of thought that the convictions gained from a disciple's inspiration led him to reject the views of the master. It is also a testimony to the poet's genuine universalism, not limited by parochial exceptionalism, that he treated a woman of Western origin as his inspiration for his vision of women's empowerment in India. It may appear at a first reading that Bharati's view of women's welfare is unduly circumscribed in a marital setting, but he acquits himself of this potential accusation by placing the women's preference as paramount in deciding lifestyle choices in his '10 commandments of women's empowerment' that can be read here.
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#4
Arvind,

How did other prominent figures (you already covered Ambedkar in the references) like Nehru interact with Gandhi and Vivekanand on social issues like women's right and caste system?
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#5
(03-May-2014, 03:24 AM)Captain Mandrake Wrote: Arvind,

How did other prominent figures (you already covered Ambedkar in the references) like Nehru interact with Gandhi and Vivekanand on social issues like women's right and caste system?

Anthologies of correspondence of luminaries with Gandhi are easier to source than those with Vivekananda since Gandhi's life-span was twice that of Vivekananda's (and also Bharati's). Here are two reading recommendations in this regard courtesy of Prof. Ramachandra Guha:
Quote:The Gandhi-Tagore correspondence is published as 'The Mahatma and the Poet' (NBT, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, ed), the Gandhi-Nehru correspondence by OUP (Uma Iyengar and Lalitha Zachariah, ed.).

Two leading voices from the Right, the philosopher-statesman S Radhakrishnan and the patron saint of the Indian center-right C Rajagopalachari seem to have been effusively hagiographic in their treatment of Vivekananda and to a great extent also of Gandhi. Even Rajagopalachari's dissent with Gandhi, on matters of 'due process' and unease with saintly exceptionalism, has been described as 'faithful' and 'loyal' by Gopalkrishna Gandhi and by Ramachandra Guha. Two leading voices from the Left, the revolutionary Subhas Bose and the Fabian socialist Jawaharlal Nehru too were no less hagiographic about Vivekananda. Their difference from Gandhi's vision was often articulated in economic terms favoring heavy industry, which from Gandhi's standpoint was also an assault on his social policy which was inseparable from the model of self-sufficient village economies.

Staying with Nehru for a second, the title of this review of the Nehru-Gandhi correspondence compilation 'The Prophet and the Statesman' seems to share an uncanny resemblance with (or served as an unacknowledged inspiration for) the more recent contentious essay The Doctor and the Saint. Nehru's and Ambedkar's collaboration on the Hindu Code Bill (related in Ramachandra Guha's 'India after Gandhi' here) happened after Gandhi's assassination, and support for the same would have been far from guaranteed from Gandhi had he been alive and had held on to his earlier views on social policy. As for Gandhian economic policy, it was jettisoned soon after independence and it was the vision favored by Nehru, Ambedkar and Bose that was favored, not without being counterproductive, as Arundhati Roy notes in the contentious essay:
Quote:The impetus towards justice turned Ambedkar’s gaze away from the village towards the city, towards urbanism, modernism and industrialisation—big cities, big dams, big irrigation projects. Ironically, this is the very model of “development” that hundreds of thousands of people today associate with injustice, a model that lays the environment to waste and involves the forcible displacement of millions of people from their villages and homes by mines, dams and other major infrastructural projects. Meanwhile, Gandhi—whose mythical village is so blind to appalling, inherent injustice—has, as ironically, become the talisman of these struggles for justice
In a recent talk at UCLA, veteran activist Medha Patkar acknowledges the challenge of simultaneously adapting the model of empowerment of India's village republics while being mindful of the age-old inequities within the village itself.

Another voice from the Left that is instructive to consider in a discussion on caste-abolitionism and women's empowerment is the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia's. A famous Lohiaite slogan is 'roti aur beti', 'bread and daughters', listing what this thinker felt the dominant castes must 'share' with the oppressed. What such sloganeering shared with the modus operandi of the likes of Gandhi and Gora in this area was not limited to the encouragement of intermarriage but a callous obliviousness to the autonomy of those marrying, under the assumption that it is upto the visionary parents to decide their wards' marital choices. This recent Nirmukta article quotes Ambedkar in this regard:
Quote:“To agitate for and to organise inter-caste dinners and inter-caste marriages is like forced feeding brought about by artificial means. Make every man and woman free from the thraldom of the shastras, cleanse their minds of the pernicious notions founded on the shastras, and he or she will inter-dine and intermarry, without your telling him or her to do so.”
The same article, reviewing Vijay Tendulkar's play Kanyadaan, continues:
Quote:Jyoti, along with Arun’s violence, is also subject to her father’s domination, even if the purpose of this domination is reverse. Nath urges Jyoti to marry Arun to fulfil his own ideals. By putting his cherished ideals ahead of everything else Nath undermines Jyoti’s autonomy. She is the ultimate victim of Kanyadaan.
One is led to imagine that Bharati would have been livid.
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