The culture under colonialism symbolized the dominance of men and masculinity over women and femininity. The colonial rulers identified masculinity with rulership and identified femininity with submissiveness. Femininity-in-masculinity was now perceived as the least desirable, a pathology more dangerous than femininity itself. Many pre-Gandhian protest movements reflected this cultural change. The dominant culture of the colony had become the ultimate definition of manliness: aggression, achievement, control, competition and power.
In The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Ashis Nandy says that probably the person who most dramatically sought to redefine popular mythology to fit the changing values under colonialism was Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73) whose Bengali epic Meghnadvadh Kavya was hailed, in his lifetime, as one of the greatest literary efforts of all time in Bengali. Meghnadvadh retells the Ramayana, turning the traditionally sacred figures of Rama and Lakshmana into weak-kneed, feminine villains and the demons Ravana and his son Meghnad into majestic, masculine, modern heroes.
For Dutt, Meghnadvadh was a tragedy in which evil, represented by Rama finally triumphs. The culture of colonialism had influenced him so much that he endorsed the demonic masculinity embodied by the rakshasas. Nandy writes, ‘Indian culture rejected most forms of competitive individual achievement, frequently underplayed sex-role differences, gave low status to high technology, granted equal status to myth and history, and rejected hedonism, including possessive individualism and consumerism. Madhusudan now freed Ravana from these traditional constraints to give him a new stature as a scientific, learned, modern Ksatriya king, fighting the non-secular politics and anti-technologism of a banished pastoral prince.’
By writing Meghnadvadh as a tragedy, Madhusudan Dutt was agreeing wholeheartedly with the hypermasculine self represented by Ravana that had previously been looked down upon in Indian culture. The image of a just king that Rama projected and had been worshipped for generations was now represented as a non-masculine, immature, effete godhead not worth emulating. It held that the softer side of human nature was irrelevant to the public sphere. It openly sanctified new forms of institutionalized violence. Ashis Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism:
It interprets the encounter between Rama and Ravana as a political battle, with morality on the side of the demons. The epic ends with the venal gods defeating and killing the courageous, proud, achievement-oriented, competitive, efficient, technologically superior, 'sporting' demons symbolized by Meghnad. Simultaneously, Madhusudan's criterion for reversing the roles of Rama and Ravana, as expressed in their characters, was a direct response to the colonial situation.
He admired Ravana for his masculine vigour, accomplished warriorhood, and his sense of realpolitik and history; he accepted Ravana's 'adult' and 'normal' commitments to secular, possessive this-worldliness and his consumer's lust for life. On the other hand, he despised 'Rama and his rabble' — the expression was his — because they were effeminate, ineffective pseudo-ascetics, who were austere not by choice but because they were weak.
The opposite side of this psychological tussle is the colonial power’s search for the ‘worthy’ opponent among the oppressed. Thus they came up with the concept of ‘martial races’. According to the concept, certain ethnic, religious, caste or social groups were regarded as possessing a more masculine character, as being loyal and therefore especially suited for military service. Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims, Hindu Jats, Dogras, Gurkhas, Garhwals, Pathans and Afridis were among the groups regarded as “martial”.
Gandhi was fully aware of this psychological tussle between Indians and the British and his response was anything but a passive acceptance of the status quo. He formulated his own unique model of masculinity which found expression in his political, social and economic thought. Gandhi knew that it was difficult to compete British imperialist masculinity with physical power; so he gave emphasis on moral superiority. By presenting this new model of masculinity, Gandhi wanted to remove the inferiority complex from the minds of Indian men.
He seemed to act with the belief that people fighting an oppressive system may internalize the norms of that system because they start believing that the opponent is not just economically but also culturally superior. He refused to grant cultural superiority to the British and resolutely defied the temptation to regain self-esteem by equaling the oppressor in violence. He refused to accept that it was the Indians who were inferior and had to copy the Europeans in order to become more advanced. In Gandhi in the 21st Century, Prof. Bhikhu Parekh describes the problem faced by the colonialists that Gandhi sensed:
Colonialism did promote their material interests, but only at the expense of their larger and infinitely more important moral and spiritual interests. For Gandhi material interests had only an instrumental significance, and were positively harmful when they hampered moral and spiritual development.
Gandhi challenged first the colonial culture's ordering of sexual identities which considered manliness as superior to womanliness, and womanliness as superior to femininity in man. The initial Indian response to this was to accept the ordering, look back at their tradition and decide that Ksatriyahood was true Indianness. Gandhi's solution was different. His post-1916 reformulation of courage as equally a feminine attribute with unique connotations of its own, led him to recommend the incorporation of femininity into the masculine. Ashis Nandy writes that he used two orderings, each of which could be invoked according to the needs of the situation:
- The first ordering was that manliness and womanliness are equal, but the ability for a man to show feminine characteristics is superior to both i.e. the best situation is when a man possesses the gentler side of human nature like love, kindness, forgiveness, empathy, etc.
- The second ordering was that the essence of femininity is superior to that of masculinity, which in turn is better than cowardice. Cowardice, for him, was worse than the violence signified by masculinity. A man cannot practice ahimsa and at the same time be a coward. Gandhi feels that possession of arms is due to lack of courage. In the face of violence and injustice, Gandhi considers violent resistance preferable to cowardly submission. There is hope that a violent man may someday be nonviolent, but there is no room for a coward to develop nonviolence.