THE PHILOSOPHER'S FUNERAL - The news of Ramchandra Gandhi's sudden death is stunning

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By ARINDAM CHAKRABARTI The author is professor of philosophy, University of Hawaii
  • Published 17.06.07

Just now, an email message from a friend brought the stunning news that Ramchandra Gandhi was found dead in his room at the India International Centre earlier today, June 13, 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 “gurubhais”, having done our doctoral research under the same supervisor at Oxford, twelve years apart — was by far the most original philosopher that India had produced in the 20th century since K.C. Bhattacharya. 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. I needed to listen to his sparkling sentences a few more times.

In India International Centre, where 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 in the middle of a conversation, enacting the depth of the thought he was about to utter, then stretch his mouth in a smile, opening up a pair of 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. 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 unfashionable idea, a scornful rejection of a recent fad tempered with a profound sympathy for where the need for the fad was 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 tranquillity. 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 breathtakingly beautiful (may the spirit of Ramu bless this unwitting pun on “breathtaking”). What I mean is best told through a bit of autobiography. My father had just died. Seeing me clean-shaven in the scorching Delhi sun, Ramuda first offers a khadi-towel to protect my scalp, and then inquires with sympathy how my dad died and how the shraaddha ceremony went. I told him, among other things, that I was very struck by one ritual during the shraaddha. Apart from the Bhagavadgita and the Katha Upanishad story of young Nachiketa’s tryst with Death, they recommended that someone recite the Rasa Lila 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 Sri Krishna 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 Khilari, ‘Baabul mora naihar chhuto hi jaay’?” There he goes, I thought, explaining one obscure thing with something obscurer. “In the antara of that song, you will hear of four carriers — chaar kahaar — lifting up the doli, to take the girl to the house of the beloved. Man’s last journey to the cremation ground is always identified with the grown-up girl’s leaving her ‘parents’ 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’ dying to dance with Krishna.”

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 at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, in Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, in Pune, in Hyderabad, in California Institute of Integral Studies and elsewhere. His books, his fiction, his dance-dramas (for example, The Last Temptation of Swami Vivekananda) will be — and need to be — commented upon. His strikingly original and meticulously argued defence 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 (for example, “Most of India’s elections are naturally rigged, because Indian culture follows rig-veda!”) and his distinctive sense of humour 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. Arresting the operations of the mind is how samadhi is defined by Patanjali. As I am feeling temporarily arrested myself, memories of Ramu Bhai singing for me an old Hindi film song from some rendition of the Ramayana ring in my ears: “Dukhi ek rajdulaari ki hum kathaa 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 “dukhi rajdulaari” — didn’t die. When insults heaped upon insults hurled by her loving husband became too much for her, the ground beneath her feet opened as she sank into the earth. It was a puzzle to me how the logically astute Ramchandra could at the same time shed tears at the unjust sufferings of Sita, and remain so much a devotee of his namesake that he recommended, in print, that, in wisdom, courage and service, mankind ought to evolve into “Hanumankind” (I Am Thou). For all his non-dualistic love for Ramachandra, he never failed to identify with the lonely and misunderstood life of Janaka’s daughter. 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 Ramu Gandhi himself, saw him dying or ceasing to exist. Nobody could. I would like to imagine that that night when he practised, while going to bed — as he told me he did daily, recalling the first mystical experience of Ramana Maharshi — meditating on “what it is like to be dead” (the title of one of his classic papers published in Philosophy East & West) — his vivid imagination congealed into reality. How much livelier than death can imagination get? His dying thus remained a non-object, a self-witnessed event never to be objectified by any human experience, any mortal description.

The last fire-rite will remember him, remember his Austinian good performances done with his inimitable words, his promising, his apologizing, his warning. The first of the seven flames of the sacrificial fire is called, in the Mundaka Upanishad, “Kali” — the goddess about whom Ramuda wrote a profound piece called “Kali on a bicycle”. Let us pray to that all-devouring flame of Time, mother Kali: “krato smara, kritam smara (Sacrifice! Remember. Remember the done deed!)” — Isha Upanishad.