• Part 1: Discussing Narasinha Mehta, the Adi Kavi of Gujarat

    Ananya Vajpeyi in conversation with Neelima Shukla-Bhatt

    July 16, 2019

    Narasinha Mehta was a 15th-century poet-saint of Gujarat. He was an exponent of Vaishnava poetry and is revered in Gujarati literature, as its Adi Kavi (Sanskrit for "first among poets"). Since the late nineteenth century, the circulation of his songs and narratives has become a cultural resource to understand the larger devotional, moral, social and literary aspirations of Gujarati speakers since the medieval period. Narasinha Mehta is most famous for his bhajan Vaishnav Jan To which became popular as Mahatma Gandhi's favourite and become almost synonymous with him.

    Neelima Shukla Bhatt in her book, Narasinha Mehta of Gujarat: A Legacy of Bhakti in Songs and Stories presents an illuminating account of the life, legend, and works of the great poet-saint who profoundly influenced Mahatma Gandhi and remained a source of moral inspiration for him.

    In a three-part interview series with the author, Ananya Vajpeyi discusses the legend of Narasinha Mehta, how Gandhi related to the Narasinha tradition and the relevance of the bhajan Vaishnava Jan To as a cultural resource for healing in dark times. Below is an extract from chapter six, "A Saint-poet in the Making of a Mahatma: Narasinha Mehta and Gandhi" of the book, where Bhatt outlines how Gandhi began to be associated with the Narasinha tradition. 

    The greatest homage to truth is to use it.

    —Ralph Waldo Emerson


    On October 1, 2009, the eve of Gandhi’s 140th birthday, the India-based news service Mid-Day and many others uploaded a clip of its news broadcast on the video-sharing website YouTube. The clip contains a recording of US President Barack Obama’s conversation with a group of students. Here, a student asks the president, “If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?” The president first exclaims that “dead or alive” is a big list. But, he then says thoughtfully, “I think it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine. . . . He inspired Dr King. So, if it hadn’t been for the nonviolent movement in India, you would not have found the civil rights movement in the United States.”1 President Obama’s response referred to a chain of inspiration that links him to his two heroes, one from across the world and the other from home. Perhaps, it was also meant to inspire the students to be a part of that link. The Indian news channels had tapped into the unique appeal of this tribute to Gandhi for those young Indians who regard President Obama as a hero.

    Although President Obama has evoked Gandhi on several occasions,2 his response in the school context can be viewed as a moment of what Marshall Ganz, the well-known activist and an expert on grassroots movements, terms “public narrative.” Ganz defines “public narrative” as “a leadership practice . . . for enabling others to achieve purpose” that can be used to link one’s own calling to that of one’s community. He suggests that through such “narrative we learn how to make choices in response to challenges of an uncertain world—as individuals, as communities and as nations.”3 In responding to the student’s question, the president had seized an opportunity to engage in a narrative of this type.

    If asked the same question as President Obama, Gandhi perhaps would have mentioned Narasinha Mehta. Like President Obama, Gandhi also had a long list of people from human history to whom he pays glowing tributes in his writings—Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad, Leo Tolstoy, John Ruskin, his Jain mentor Raichandbhai, the Indian political leaders Gopalkrishna Gokhale and Dadabhai Naoroji, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and many saint-poets of medieval India such as Tulsidas, Surdas, Mira, Kabir, and Narasinha.4 Among the saint-poets, Tulsidas (sixteenth century), the author of the Hindi epic Rāmcaritmānas, which Gandhi praised as the greatest book in all devotional literature, has the largest number of references in the voluminous Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG).5 Yet the spontaneity with which references to Narasinha appear in Gandhi’s personal letters and public communications suggest his distinct affinity with this saint-poet of his native Gujarat.6 The references to Narasinha in Gandhi’s writing indicate that the saint-poet’s songs formed an integral part of Gandhi’s inner world and that the saint’s sacred biography, with its marked stress on voluntary poverty and empathy for the downtrodden, offered him a model to emulate as well as to invoke in public life. Gandhi also found in these songs and narratives valuable resources to support his social and political ideology. He adopted the term “Harijan” (children of God) from a Narasinha song to refer to the Dalits, the “untouchables” of Hindu society—formerly called achut (untouchable) or antyaja (last born)—and recurrently alluded to the saint in public debates about untouchability in Gujarat.

    While Gandhi drew considerably from Narasinha’s songs and sacred biography, he also contributed to the shaping of the saint’s tradition in modern times. The way he related to Narasinha’s songs and sacred biography on secular public platforms contributed greatly to their recognition as inspirational resources for constructive relationships and the creation of a just society. His use of Vaisnavajana to (Call only that one a true Vaishnava) in public prayers and events transformed it into a globally performed song of compassion and moral integrity. His references to the saint’s tradition in social and political debates drew attention to its ethical relevance beyond religious contexts. His recommendation led to the production of a Hindi film on Narasinha—Narsi Bhagat made by Vijay Bhatt in 1940 (discussed in detail in the next chapter)—that highlighted the saint’s association with the Dalits. Even though his use of the term “Harijan” generated sharp debates about self-representation by Dalit groups that raised sharp questions with regard to the political leadership of caste Hindus, in relation to the Narasinha tradition, it reinforced the saint-poet’s image as an exemplar of egalitarian social ideology, especially in Gujarat. Gandhi engaged with the Narasinha tradition in Ganz’s sense of public narrative. As he did so, his approach both related to and deviated from the two social circles with which he closely identified—the educated Gujarati intellectuals of the early twentieth century and the traditional society of peninsular Gujarat.

    As an educated Gujarati, Gandhi began to associate pride in the Gujarati language with the figure of Narasinha early in his public career. Speaking at a meeting of Gujaratis in support of the third literary conference of the language (Gujarati Sahitya Parishad) in 1909 in London he said, “As the basis of my pride as an Indian, I must have pride in myself as a Gujarati. . . . Gujarati is not a language of little worth. No limits can be placed to the growth of a language that has been served by poets like Narasinh Mehta.. . .”7 Thus, he shared with Gujarati intellectuals admiration for Narasinha as a representative poet of his language. Yet, as he later explained in his presidential address at the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad annual conference in 1936, his literary ideals, focusing on the social relevance of literature, were different from theirs. Critiquing the concurrent literary scene in Gujarati, he suggested that literary works should be accessible to people in all strata of the society, including illiterate villagers, and should be usable as a tool for spreading literacy.8 In his view, Narasinha’s songs, along with those of other Gujarati poets of devotional lyrics, fit this ideal.

    Gandhi most closely identified with the villagers of India and was deeply attached to the traditional milieu of Gujarat. Margaret Chatterjee suggests that Gandhi’s moral journey was guided to a great degree by a rootedness in “the world of the common man, that of poor villagers he knew so well and whose way of life he shared.”9 Narasinha found a special place in Gandhi’s writings and public life because the tradition of this saint-poet as a whole—both songs and hagiography— offered him accessible and popular sources with which to share his moral and social vision with the people among whom he worked. Here too, while sharing an enthusiasm for Narasinha’s songs and hagiography with a large number of people in Gujarat, he emphatically advocated moral engagement with them for social reconstruction beyond the traditional context of devotion.

    Gandhi pushed for new boundaries of meaning in his interpretation of Narasinha as both a literary figure and a saint. Since his interpretations are well documented, his relationship with Narasinha provides a rich site for examining the shaping of a saint-poet tradition in a historical context with new interpretations. The detailed documentation available in CWMG makes it possible to look closely at a process in which a saint-poet tradition acquires new layers of meaning. It also allows us to see how the potential of saint-poet traditions of India to serve as religious and cultural resources can be actualized through the mediation of persons with moral imagination.


    1. The video clip is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpDoYBpUn_o. The same clip also formed a part of a Telugu news broadcast on the satellite television channel of Andhra Pradesh—TV5. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywz9ULdMUo4&fea ture=fvwrel. Both clips accessed on May 5, 2011.
    2. Obama evoked Gandhi in a speech during his reelection campaign. See, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QrmQBcfu0s (accessed on August 18, 2013). Obama evoked Gandhi again in 2012 in a United Nations speech against violence erupting against Americans in the world (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2z6A7lGxBfM, accessed on August 18, 2013).
    3. From the syllabus for Marshall Ganz’s course titled “Public narrative: Self & Us & Now” that was taught at Harvard in fall 2012, available at http://marshallganz.usmblogs.com/ files/2012/08/MLD-355-Fall-2012-Final-Syllabus.pdf (accessed on August 18, 2013).
    4. For the references to these figures in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), see its volume 99 (1992).
    5. For references to Tulsidas’s Ramayana (Rāmcaritmānas), see Gandhi 1957: 32. There are over a hundred references to Tulsidas in the CWMG. The print version of CWMG was published between 1958 and 1994 by the Publications Division of the Government of India; in 1999, CWMG was published in electronic form as Mahatma Gandhi—Interactive Multimedia—Electronic Book in 1999 also by the Publications Division, Government of India. This version generated a controversy over errors and omissions and was recalled. However, after checking the parts cited in this work in the printed original version for accuracy, I have chosen to cite the electronic version as reproduced on http://www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/cwmg.html as CWMG (E) so that a reader interested in seeing the larger context can do so. Citations also have dates so that an interested reader can refer to the print version.
    6. Even though Narasinha is not mentioned in Gandhi’s autobiography, there are numerous references to him in the Collected Works. In Gandhi’s Religious Thought, Margaret Chatterjee stresses Gandhi’s special relationship with Narasinha. See, for example, Chatterjee 1983: 15, 178; Majmudar 2005: 24, 125.
    7. CWMG (E) 10: 144–146. Akho (seventeenth century) and Dayaram (eighteenth to nineteenth-century) are well-known poets of Gujarati who composed popular devotional songs.
    8. For Gandhi’s speech at the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, see CWMG (E) 70: 25–35.
    9. Chatterjee 1983: 1.

    Read More:
    The Reader as “Hamdard”: the Life and Poetry of Neerav Patel
    How Ghalib Was Influenced by the Bhakti Movement

    Neelima is an Associate Professor and Director of South Asia Studies (with a focus on religions and cultures) at Wellesley College. She received her Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University in 2003. Ananya Vajpeyi is an Indian academic and writer. She is Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. She is the author of the award-winning book Righteous Republic: The Political foundations of Modern India (2012).

    These are an excerpt from Narasinha Mehta of Gujarat: A Legacy of Bhakti in Songs and Stories written by Neelima Shukla-Bhatt and published by Oxford University Press, 2015. Republished here with permission from the author.

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