Dialogue  July-September, 2006, Volume 8  No. 1

Understanding India through some recent attempts at Swaraj in ideas

Ramesh C. Shah

In the year 1929, K.C. Bhattacharya – one of the most incisive philosophical minds that modern India could produce, delivered a lecture called ‘Swaraj in India’, which, to my mind, is one of the most important texts emerging from our long – drawn – out struggle for independence. The two other texts comparable in relevance as well as coherence, are, of course, Sri Aurobindo’s Foundation of Indian Culture’, and Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj’. Bhattacharya had, in that essay, spoken of two dangers: ‘the greatest danger’, in his view, was our blind subservience to ‘the so called universalism of reason or religion’ which, being the result of a rootless education, stood more than anything else in the way of ‘Swaraj in ideas’. As for the other danger of national conceit and obscurantism, ‘it needed less stressing’, in his opinion, because, to quote his words, “our educated men suffer from over-diffidence than from over-confidence. We are readier to accept others’ judgments about us than to resent them.”

Now, what is the nature of this cultural subjection which continues to persist even to-day, vitiating the very springs of our intellectual and moral life? According to Bhattacharya, “there is cultural subjection only when one’s traditional cast of ideas and sentiments is superseded without comparison or competition by a new cast representing an alien culture which possesses one like a ghost.” Infact, this lecture exhorts our countrymen to shake themselves free from it. “That’s the only way”, our philosopher tells us, “to experience a rebirth, that is Swaraj in ideas”.

Have we exorcised the ghost? Western culture was imposed upon us, no doubt. But that was an inevitable consequence of our long neglect and ultimate loss of political freedom. Morever, we had asked for it: hadn’t Rammohan Roy pleaded so strongly for it? But Roy himself could not have visualized the subsequent turn of events. He himself was the product of a Sanskrit pathshala and his open-eyed assimilation of the west did enable him to become the pioneer of what, has since come to be called ‘Comparative Religion’ ‘a fact, which European scholarship has never really acknowledged’. As events later on proved, we were as unworthy of Rammohan Roy as of Swami Dayananda, because we miserably failed to assimilate Western culture in an open-eyed way with our old-world Indian mind. “That Indian mind”, as our philosopher had so aptly put it, “has simply lapsed in most cases for our educated men has subsided below the conscious level of culture.”

Now, that exactly is the malady we still suffer from: self-alienation, that is, the banishment of our native mind to the subconscient, resulting in what our philosopher had diagnosed as a ‘shadow mind’. To quote his own words, “these ideas springing from a rich and strong life induce in us a shadow-mind that functions like a real mind except in the matter of genuine creativeness.”

KCB himself had not found much evidence of genuine creative work by his countrymen in his own times. Has the situation changed beyond recognition in our own times? ‘It is in philosophy’ – KCB had said in that essay, “that the task of discovering the soul of India is imperative for the modern India – the task of achieving, if possible, the continuity of his old self with his present day self. Genius can unveil the soul of India but it is through philosophy that we can methodically attempt to discover it.’

Now, so far as spiritual genius is concerned, no one will deny the fact that India has produced the richest crop of it throughout the last century. But, ‘methodical philosophical attempts to discover the soul of India’ - as KCB envisaged the problem – are hardly visible on the surface to laymen like us. As for scholarship in disciplines like sociology, history and political science, the present spectacle is rather depressing. It’s dominated by shadow-minds who question the very existence or perception of India as a coherent whole politically or culturally. It’s the tribe of intellectuals like Romila Thapar, Sunil Khilnani and Meghnad Desai which is increasing and not that of R.C. Mazumudar, Anirvan and Raja Rao. Recently I happened to be reading a much-talked about book called ‘The Argumentative Indian’ by Amartya Sen, the nobel laureate, in which the author has chosen to flaunt his sense of belonging to – this very ‘soul of India’ in a way which would have confounded KCB himself. Amartya Sen, in this book, invokes the memory of his grandfather K.M. Sen – the greatest scholar of medieval Bhakti-poetry, - to prove his point, that the ‘Lokayatik’ (that is, the secular-materialistic) sect can lay at least as much a claim to representing the philosophical soul of India, as Vedanta or any other tradition does.

KCB had lamented, in his own day, the absence of any ‘distinctively individual estimates of Western literature and thought”. He had implicitly recommended such a counter-movement because he felt very concerned about the prevailing confusion of ideas and ideals in his milieu. Are things any better now? He found it an imperative need of the hour ‘to clear up the confusion and make it develop into a definite conflict’. This, incidentally reminds me of a famous (and true) story. A Bengoli professor once visited W.B. Yeats – the great poet – and asked for his message for India. Yeat’s response was a little bit theatrical, but very sincere and passionate. He unsheathed a Japanese Sword, brandished it before his guest and exclaimed. “conflict, more conflict. That is my message for India. Tagore talks too much of God...... my mind resents it.” This was in 1935. Ten years later, we find S.H. Vatsyayan, the leading Hindi poet and revolutionary, emphasizing the urgent need to evolve and establish a critic-nation (Ålochak Råshtra).

Infact, synthetic treatment of our values with western ideals is not called for everywhere. Wherever it seems justified by our need for self-renewal, the alien elements have to be assimilated to our own life-worlds and values and not the other way round. Here we can note with some satisfaction a couple of such examples where we can recognise the efforts of some contemporary Indian minds to clear up the prevailing confusion and make it develop into a definite conflict. In a recent lecture called ‘Comprehending India on or through its own terms’, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan has convincingly demonstrated how the secret of India’s comprehending itself in its incredible continuity and change lay in its ability to evolve categories which facilitated absorption, assimilation, and transformation without radical rejection. Concentrating on some seminal terms like ‘Üåstra’ and ‘prayoga’, ‘mårga and ‘dea’ and ‘loka’, she exposed the willful distortions and gross misinterpretations that the shadow-minds operating amid our intelligentsia have inflicted on them. Her close examination of the Indian system reveals beyond a shadow of doubt that an inter-disciplinary approach was at the core of our ancestral vision and structural system. Thus “it was no accident that the image of man as Purusha has been uniformly used as a term of reference in all disciplines and spheres of life, ranging from the cosmological to the purely physical as one symbolizing coordinated activity where each part is inter-connected with the other.” The most pervasive and rampant tendency in the contemporary discourse on India is to flaunt the theoretical constructs of the ‘great’ and little’ traditions in sociological terms, ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ in artistic terms, which, as Dr. Vatsyayan has persuasively argued, have no real basis in the primary sources of textual or oral traditions. Bhattacharya had warned his contemporaries that, “the way to know facts is not the way to know values.” But in our own times, even the facts have been jeopardised – what to speak of values! – by the shadow-minds amongst our hard-headed and soft-headed intelligentsia by dissociating the key-terms from the original contexts in which they were used. It is in this way - that, as Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan has amply demonstrated, that terms like ‘¯Såstråchar’ and ‘lokåchar’ have become sociological categories. This, as she has rightly observed, “has led to a tacit acceptance of an inherent tension between the two – a hostility rather than a continuum on differentiation within a system.” Little wonder thus, she adds, that “the tribal, rural, urban classification of sociologists, placed in a unilinear progressive graph, has not been able to contain the complexities of the Indian social structure.”

Thus, a beginning – and a significant beginning at that, - seems to have been made in recent times, in this all-important project of understanding India on and through its own terms. It’s almost a platitude to assert that India stands or falls by its spiritual-philosophical achievements which constitute the core of its age-old memoried self. But the task of achieving the continuity of India’s old self with his present self, is, as we have already seen with KCB, at once the most challenging and the most daunting, until and unless there appears a unique combination of spiritual philosophical wisdom and literary insights to counteract the wrongs. Sri Aurobindo in our immediate past and a few philosophically up-to-date personalities endowed with literary insights in our immediate present, appear to me to have worked towards that end – more or less successfully. Here we can just look at a couple of examples to indicate the significant trends.

But, why literature ? – Someone may ask. The answer, I think should be obvious. Philosophy is under seize everywhere, and if it is to reclaim and reassert its central position, it has to look for close allies. Now, India, in this respect, is in a uniquely privileged position because of the fact that here, right from the beginning, the poetic, and the spiritual-philosophical insights have worked in unison; and they can be seen to have preserved and augmented this close collaboration throughout the history of our civilization. There is little or no in-built conflict or tension between the Muses which preside over the different vocations of poet, philosopher and saint. Similarly, because of this unity at the origin, and also because of the consequent cosmogony, the in-built tension between the religio-philosophical inquiry and the scientific inquiry, so patently obvious in European history is hardly conceivable here: a cursory glance at the reactions to the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in European Churches on the one hand and among the Indian religious pandits on the other hand, should be enough to reveal this difference between the two civilizations.

It is worth while to remember with Arnold Toynbee here that “the difference in ethos between Hindu Weltanschauung and the Western Weltanschauung was an outright anti thesis.”1 The effect of western imperialism on India was very different from what it was elsewhere. There was, as Toynbee says, “a for sharper tension here between a native spiritual force and an alien one.”2 The Russian intellectuals in comparable circumstances, were enabled to find release through the gift of artistic expression, as Toynbee himself adds – laying emphasis on their original and innovative use of the literary form of the novel. Toynbee doesn’t actually say so, but, implies in effect that the Indian intelligentsia couldn’t find relief through literature. Actually, one could cite several literary creations – novels as well as poems in Hindi to contest this: the poems of Nirala, Prasad and Agyeya and the fictional works of Renu, Agyeya and many others, including even such Indo-Anglian novelists as Raja Rao and Mulkraj Anand do appear to have served as safety valves for realising the pent-up emotions of Indians under the foreign yoke. These works also serve to provide understanding of Modern India in its travails as well as aspirations. However, since India’s genius is predominantly spiritual-philosophical, even these considerable literary achievements seem to fall short of our own high expectations. Perhaps, altogether, they do not reach the heights of self-exploration and self-realisation, which a Tolstoy or a Dostoesky can be credited with. But we have to remember that Russia (and America too, for that matter) are comparatively very young nations. They don’t have to carry the burden of millennia-old history and tradition. As Sri Aurobindo has said somewhere, “the entire achievement as well as aspiration of Indian culture are enshrined in Vyas, Valmiki and Kalidasa alone.” Understandably, therefore, even modern Indian writers have to prove themselves worthy of that high heritage in order to be able to do justice to their vocation as writers. Preparing the ground for that is the first pre-requisite: poet-mystics like Aurobindo, philosophers like KCB, scholar-sages like Anirvan had done precisely that and now, other scholars have arrived on the scene to carry forward that legacy. ‘There is no reason why poetry should not be a part of the Sådhanå’ – says Sri Aurobindo in one of his letters. Prof. J.L. Mehta, an eminent philosopher, in his wonderful monograph on this great patriot and sage, says that, “Within the Indian tradition, its Central Vedic stream would seem to affirm the primacy of the word”. Let us listen to his further observations, helpful as they are in understanding not only the unique contribution of Aurobindo, but also, simultaneously, the peculiar thrust given by India to man’s search for the meaning of his life and world:

Poetry and philosophy, both wordy affairs, are expressions of man’s urge to overcome his finitude, but they never allow this distance between man and transcendental reality to lapse totally. .....India, however, discovered Yoga, following hints in the Sruti, but radicalising its theory and practice even beyond the interiorization process envisioned in the Upanishads, and thus, found a way of eliminating the distance mentioned above....It ran a parallel course, outside the central Vedic stream, but often with close interaction between the two. In Aurobindo, these two converge again in an integral Yoga, which takes up within itself the modern western idea of an evolutionary quantum leap in human kind.

Our age differs from all the other ages in its frantic pace of change, its cultural confusion and its unique risks and challenges. We Indians now have to understand and appropriate on our own terms, an alien mode of thinking and knowing – the way of conceptual control of the universe. Simultaneously, we have to reconceive and redeem our own heritage from the tragic situation we find ourselves in – a situation of historically distorted and estranged relationship with it. The long history of Western Indology had not recognised any worthwhile wisdom in our ancient texts. The utmost it could concede was an interesting ‘psychology’: philosophy itself being a western enterprise. This tacit assumption of religious and philosophical superiority can be seen at work not only in the western attitude towards ancient India, but also towards the modern exemplars of that spiritual-intellectual tradition. One remembers Renou’s contemptuous dismissal of Aurobindo’s Vedic exegesis. History, however, has its own ironical twists and turns. The West is no longer in a position to maintain and enforce its superior stance: its theology has been eroded; its mainstream philosophy no longer concerns itself about soul or spirit or transcendental truth.

As for the Song of the Sirens – the tune of the rational-scientific discourse – it is, of course, irresistible. But, what about The Word that speaks to the Faustian Man? It is the latest manifestation of India’s philosophical intelligence and it helps our understanding of India in a unique and unprecedented way. The sub-title of this book (a series of volumes) is – ‘A translation and interpretation of the Praœ»håntray and ¯Sankara’s Bhåœya for the participation of contemporary man’. This is how Prof. Somraj Gupta, the author, understands and articulates the foundational difference between the Indian and the Western civilizations:

The Greeks, we know, found man a being that lived among others.... The polis was the ontological place, the ground of man; beyond it lay the desert, the home not of man, but of beasts. The desert and the polis were opposites for the Greeks... The Indian on the contrary, interiorised the forest into the village or the city so thoroughly that the capital city extended to it. For the forest was not merely the home of birds and beasts but also of ¾œis, seers... the civilization that interiorises the forest to such on extent is a civilization that, in a sense, disowns itself; it does not find itself pitted against nature; rather it extends itself into that nature... (Vol. III p.175)

From this understanding of Indian civilisation as Nature’s extension, nature’s step towards the divine through the human, let us go back to what the author had said in his preface to the second volume:

Modern man finds no use in the seer that fuses the forest into civilization, for him, a system embodying his rationality is enough. The loneliness of the helpless old man does not add new dimensions to it, nor the tragedy of the unsuccessful man nor of the mad man.

This comparatist perspective becomes all the more compelling because the author is by no means oblivious of the fall and disgrace of the very civilization he seeks to evoke in its pristine purity and still living exemplars. He had already diagnosed its sickness thus:

The forest-polis civilization met its decline when the Brahmin became arrogant, holy and privileged .......the culture was ruined when caste was divorced from aœram, the system embodying the various stages of life. Caste turns into evil when the guiding spirit of renunciation embodied in the aœram ceases to inform it.

It is this guiding spirit of renunciation that the author has sought to re-interpret and reinstate through his startlingly fresh and original reading of the texts embodying that spirit. Besides his existentially authentic enactment of that ancestral wisdom, he has another weapon that he wields with consummate skill – his ability to evoke and yoke the internal evidence of great literature to drive home his points. Justifying this approach, he says in the preface to the first volume:

...Indeed if truth be told, the literary tradition of the west provides better analogies to the spirit of the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta than its philosophers. I have often invoked Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and poets like Rilke and Wordsworth to communicate at least a part of the meaning of the Upanishadic vision....

Somraj Gupta thus acknowledges the vital role that literary creativity has to play in our destitute times. At one place, he has underlined far us the significance of Virginia Wolf’s ‘The Lighthouse’ with a stunningly original insight. He says: ‘This self, this me cannot be reduced to relationality. When philosophy in England was trying to replace consciousness with language, literature was becoming more conscious of consciousness.’

This is a true observation and once made, appears to be so obvious. But no one so far had drawn our attention to this fact. Must we not ponder the implication it has for the future of philosophy itself?

To understand India, it is certainly not enough to understand the particular symbols or interaction-patterns of individual situations. One must also understand the overall structure of meanings within which these particular patterns and symbols are located and from which they derive their collective shared significance. The ordinary consciousness of everyday life is the web of meanings that allow us as individuals to navigate our way through the events of our life with others. Now, it is precisely this web of meanings, which has been threatened and jeopardized in the social life of India to-day. Our private and public worlds no longer nourish and sustain each other: on the other hand, they produce glaring contradictions. It’s not just consumerism and globalization that are responsible for the overall deterioration in the quality of our life. These are only symptoms of a malaise that lies much deeper, in the Cartesian ‘Cogito’ according to the author of The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man. “For a man who says, ‘I think, therefore I am’, ...nothing has self and being except the Cogito; only it has the self, is the self, it alone. Everything else turns into tools or into pleasures.”

Obviously, this ‘Cogito’ is not the Upanisadic self. But we are all infected by it. Let us now listen to Mallarme – the 19th century French poet – product of agnosticism at its most intense. Let us see haw this great symbolist poet unknowingly discovers that Upinisadic self as occult ground of everyone:

...I had just drawn up the plan of my entire life’s work, having found the key to myself – the centre of myself, where I dwell like a sacred spider on the principal threads already spun from my mind....

Is it mere coincidence – this image of the spider intruding into the privacy of the pure aesthete? – The sacred spider, UrÄanåbh which has served the Upinisadic vision so well? “I really have decomposed” – wrote Mallarme about this adventure of consciousness, “...and to think that this is what it takes to have a vision of the universe that is really whole! Otherwise the only wholeness one feels is that of one’s own life.3

To understand India is to inhabit “this vision of the universe that is really whole”. It would not be irrelevant therefore to conclude this essay with this incisive commitment of Roberto Calasso on that experience of Mallarme:

“Mallarme couldn’t know that he wasn’t speaking of himself, but of the self, the Åtman..... Prajapati appears on the scene, shrugging off the fog of centuries. Prajapati finds himself transposed into the golden age of positivism, when man is no more than physics plus chemistry, and consciousness but a vague by-product of the higher functions, something nobody has time to be bothered with. But why did Mallarme seek Prajapti without knowing him? Here modern and primordial meet and a spark is struck to create a work of absolute literature. One must reunite with the time before gods were born – when Prajapati began doing ‘tapas’ desiring an outward existence that world be visible and palpable. Who led Mallarme?” ‘Destruction was my Beatrice’ – Mallarme wrote to his friend – ‘I am no longer the Stephen you know but a disposition of the spiritual universe to see itself and develop itself through what I was.’4 

Reference & Notes

     1.   Toynbee, A study of history (London OUP, 1954) Vol. VIII,
pp. 205-06.

     2.   Ibid, p.207 (f.n).

     3.   Cited by Roberto Calasso in Literature & the Gods.

    4.  Ibid.


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati