First Published: 13/4/2014
In 1903 Gandhi went to Varanasi for the first time. As a Hindu, he wanted naturally to visit the Kashi Viswanath temple. He was unimpressed by what he saw. “The swarming flies and the noise made by the shopkeepers and pilgrims were perfectly insufferable,” he wrote, adding: “here one expected an atmosphere of meditation and communion, it was conspicuous by its absence”.
When Gandhi finally reached the temple, he “was greeted at the entrance by a stinking mass of rotten flowers”. The marble floor had been “broken by some devotee innocent of aesthetic taste, who had set it with rupees serving as an excellent receptacle for dirt”. He walked all over the shrine, “search[ing] for God but fail[ing] to find him” in the dirt and the filth.
Gandhi was back in the holy city 13 years later. He had been invited to the opening of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in February 1916. This was his first major public appearance after his return to India from South Africa. Gandhi was one of the less important invitees; the real VIPs were the Rajas and Maharajas whose donations had enabled the new university. Also present were important leaders of the Congress. Compared to these dignitaries, Gandhi was then relatively unknown. Characteristically, he did not let his obscurity or comparative lack of social status hinder his quest for the truth.
When his turn came to speak, Gandhi charged the elite with a lack of concern for the labouring poor. The opening of the BHU, he said, was “certainly a most gorgeous show”. But he worried about the contrast between the “richly bedecked noblemen” present and “millions of the poor” Indians who were absent. Gandhi told the privileged invitees that “there is no salvation for India unless you strip yourself of this jewellery and hold it in trust for your countrymen in India”. “There can be no spirit of self-government about us,” he went on, “if we take away or allow others to take away from the peasants almost the whole of the results of their labour. Our salvation can only come through the farmer. Neither the lawyers, nor the doctors, nor the rich landlords are going to secure it.”