The devastating earthquake which hit Nepal on Saturday seems to have set off a process of unscientific inquiry among some associates of the Sangh Parivar. Most of their speculation has focussed on the causal factors which led to this violent displacement of the earth’s crust.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad functionary Sadhvi Prachi linked the earthquake to Rahul Gandhi visiting Kathmandu. Lest you dismiss her views out of hand, she backed this up with another data point: as it turns out, Rahul had also visited Uttarakhand before this and soon that state saw massive flooding.Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Sakshi Maharaj extended this line of thought: Rahul Gandhi had caused this calamity because he ate beef and then went to Kedarnath  last week, without any sort of purification ceremony. Without such basic precautionary measures in place “the earthquake was bound to happen,” said Maharaj.

Sandeep Balakrishna, chief editor of a right wing website called India Facts, changed tack: ignoring Rahul, he went in for the always dependable religious-minorities-are-responsible angle. “Call me superstitious,” he tweeted, cleverly anticipating his critics, “but the Nepal earthquake happened because the missionaries are trying to destroy dharma”.

Echoing Gandhi

Naturally, this sort of talk led to outrage. The factors which cause earthquakes have been known to science for hundreds of years now and none of them involve the Gandhis, steaks or the Lord’s Prayer. However, the outragers should know that the people linking human actions and earthquakes have an illustrious predecessor, who did the same thing, eight decades back: the Father of the Nation, Mohandas Gandhi.

In 1934, Nepal and Bihar were hit by a devastating earthquake. Unlike 2015, Bihar was also severely affected, with even Patna facing widespread damage. In response to this, Gandhi, in a statement to the press, said that he believed that this natural disaster was “a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we describe as Harijans”.

God had punished Biharis, Gandhi said, because they practised untouchability against Dalits.

This irrational correlation set off a public debate between Gandhi and the man who had given him the title of “Mahatma", Rabindranath Tagore.

Tagore shot off a rebuttal on rationalist lines, with a request for it to be published in Gandhi’s journal, Harijan.  The letter expressed “painful surprise” at “this kind of unscientific view of things”. It was simply inaccurate, Gurudeb argued, to “associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomena”.

Thanking Gandhi for inducing a “a freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen”, Tagore nevertheless felt “profoundly hurt” when Gandhi’s words strengthened the “elements of unreason” which was the “fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect”.

Earthquakes and morals 

Gandhi published this letter but stuck to his guns. Expressing “profound regard” for the “Bard of Santiniketan”, the Mahatma wrote:
“Visitations like droughts, floods, earthquakes and the like, though they seem to have only physical origins are for me somehow connected with man’s morals. Therefore, I instinctively, felt that the earthquake was a visitation for the sin of untouchability. Of course, Sanatanists have a perfect right to say that it was due to my crime of preaching against untouchability. My belief is a call to repentance and self purification. I admit my utter ignorance of the working of the laws of nature. But even as I cannot help believing in God though I am unable to prove his existence to the sceptics, in like manner, I cannot prove the connection of the sin of untouchability with the Bihar visitation even though the connection is instinctively felt by me.”

Tagore did not reply to this and the debate ended here. The correspondence between these great figures of pre-independence India is extensive and very interesting, and the two would also clash on the idea of nationalism, on which, again, Tagore’s rationalist philosophy went up against Gandhi’s more emotional views.

Gandhi is, today, a symbol for India’s left wingers and liberals. India’s present-day conservatives do not like Gandhi all that much. Even though Sandeep Balakrishna and the Mahatma might share common ground over the role human religion has to play in causing an earthquake, Balakrishna’s website, India Facts has multiple articles shrilly critical of Gandhi with what are now standard right wing arguments: Gandhi attacked Hindu sentiments, disliked Hindu nationalists, denied political empowerment to Hindus and so on.

Gandhi, the conservative

This episode, though, gives us an interesting look at a Gandhi that almost everyone has forgotten today: Gandhi, the conservative.

Gandhi, says writer Mukul Kesavan, had a “willingness to deploy a 'Hindu' idiom in political discourse”. This is what he did for the earthquake, of course. To fight the social evil of untouchability, Gandhi bought in the idiom of theology. It wasn’t enough to educate people about it; Gandhi also said God himself was displeased with this practice, hence he killed twenty thousand people. Gandhi was, maybe, self-aware of his irrationality, but used this argument nonetheless given the potential good it could do. Gandhi wrote: “If my belief [of connecting the earthquake and untouchability] turns out ill-founded, it will still have done good to me and those who believe with me”.

This belief, that using the religious idiom was the best way to reach out to people, was the bedrock of Gandhi’s politics.  In Young India, 1925, Gandhi had this to say:
“For me, politics bereft of religion are absolute dirt, ever to be shunned. Politics concern nations and that which concerns the welfare of nations must be one of the concerns of a man who is religiously inclined, in other words, a seeker after God and Truth.”

Miracle worker

The bland literal translation of the word “Mahatma” in English as “great soul” does not really capture the force of the word as it’s used in Hindi. This use of a religious idiom by Gandhi meant that across many parts of India, he came to be seen as a true mahatma, a religious guru with occult powers. Historian Shahid Amin has culled some instances of these beliefs from the local Hindi press of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh during the Non-Cooperation Movement (1921-’22):

1. Sikandar Sahu said that he would believe in the Mahatmaji when the karah (boiling pan) full of cane-juice in his karkhana split into two. The karah split in two in the middle.
2. A pandit of Rampur village was repeatedly told by many to give up his habit of eating fish, but he did not listen to anybody. He said: “I shall eat fish, let's see what the Mahatmaji can do”. When he sat down to eat the fish, it was crawling with worms.
3. Pt Damodar Pandey, from district Basti, reported that a man in Dumariya near his village had called Gandhi names, as a result of which his eyelids had got stuck.
4. In Rustampur, a purse of a man containing Rs 90 had disappeared from his hut. When he took manauti (prayer) of Mahatmaji, he found it back in his hut, and the money was intact.

The use of the religious idiom, of presenting himself as a mahatma, meant that Gandhi could reach out to the many millions who would remain untouched if his message had been delivered using blander political language. In Gorakhpur, for example, a very many number of people came out against the Raj, not for any explicit political reasons, but because they simply believed that a mahatma had told them to do so and it was their religious duty.

Gandhi’s religious idiom today

Of course, Gandhi was no mindless Twitter troll. He knew what he was doing and, in what is often a complex idea to digest given our binaries today, his irrationality and use of religion wasn’t driven by narrow mindedness. He reached out to Muslims too, using a community-specific religious idiom: the preservation of the Muslim Caliph after World War I.

Gandhi was a great soul but, more than that, he was a great mind. He used these religious idioms for causes that many would today recognise as rational and “good”: Hindu-Muslim unity, fighting untouchability and anti-colonialism.

But, of course, as Gandhi himself postulated many times, the ends rarely justify the means. Once these religious idioms had been placed out there and popularised, there were open to be used by people with souls not nearly as great as Gandhi’s. The earthquake is a minor example, but two of the Mahatma's biggest religio-political symbols, Ram and cow protection, have been used to the hilt by religious conservatives in Independent India, for ends that many would consider distinctly unGandhian.