By Makarand Paranjape
The spiritual resurgence in India was the moving force behind the country’s freedom struggle that ultimately led to independence
WHAT HISTORY DOESN’T TELL US
The history that we are taught doesn’t always tell the truth. I realized this many years after I had left school and college. I came to this conclusion in two ways. First, I began to arrive at my own understanding of how history works. Secondly, my readings in the philosophy of history revealed that histories are governed as much by the underlying ideologies of those who write them as they are by ‘facts’. In fact, there are no such things as ‘plain facts’. Everything in history is constructed from a particular viewpoint.
Now, the dominant viewpoint from which history is written is materialistic. The whole discipline of history is grounded upon the assumption that human life is shaped by political, economic, social, and cultural forces. By understanding the latter, the course of national events may be understood. Yet even by such a token, there will be many different versions of the ‘same’ events, many histories instead of one History.
Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the manner in which the recent history of India is being written. There are, of course, various schools of Indian history. First, there was the imperial school, which dominated. The British wrote our history, partly to understand us and partly to justify their rule. Both ends were, of course, related.
As opposed to this was born the nationalist school of history, which tried to recapture the Indian past and thereby earn the authority to reshape India’s future. Later, there were other schools of history, notably the Marxist and, more recently, the subaltern studies enterprise. Despite the plurality that is built into these historiographies, all of them tend to de-emphasize, downplay or underestimate the force of spirituality in shaping India’s past, present, and future. In fact, the prevalent belief even among spiritual people is that India needed to be free so that she could progress spiritually.
While this last viewpoint is valid, it is only partially correct. The problem with it is that it subordinates the spiritual to the political, as indeed most histories do. Does the spiritual depend on the material? That is like asking whether consciousness depends on the body. In both cases, if we were to view the issue from a spiritual point of view, we would have to reverse the relationships. As a matter of fact, it is the body which requires consciousness for it to exist and not vice-versa.
Similarly, it is spirituality that controls the material conditions of our life. That is because the spirit includes and exceeds matter and is not apart from it. To view them dichotomously is, therefore, misleading. So, one may as well reverse the question. It is not that the growth in spirituality was a result of our political freedom, but that the birth of political freedom was an outcome of our spiritual expansion and self-apprehension.
It is this that our history books do not tell us. They see political freedom as the all-important, all-subsuming goal, the master-narrative of which there are many other smaller stories, including that of India’s spiritual awakening. The emergence from slumber is seen as a contributory factor to permanent freedom.
OF SPIRITUALITY AND HISTORY
What, then, from a spiritual point of view might be the truth behind the recent history of India, particularly its independence? To answer this question, we will have to peep behind the veil of politics, economics, and culture. These are only the exoteric coverings of world events, the esoteric kernel of whose inner significance is usually hidden from most people.
Writing more than 100 years ago, Swami Vivekananda explained what this hidden truth about India was: ‘Here in this blessed land, the foundation, the backbone, the life-center is religion and religion alone. In India religious life forms the center, the keynote of the whole music of nation.’
In other words, in India, religion forms the base, politics and economics, the superstructure. To change the latter, you have to act on the former. This is what revolutionaries in India have recognized down the ages. The greatest impact could be made by those who altered the religious and spiritual organization of society. Any number of examples can be cited: the Buddha, Shankaracharya, Basava, Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya, and in more recent times, Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, Gandhi, and even Ambedkar.
The importance of dharma in Indian life has been summed up well by Sri Aurobindo in his famous Uttarpara speech in 1909: ‘When it is said that India shall be great, it is the Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism) that shall be great. When it is said that India shall expand and extend herself, it is the Sanatan Dharma that shall expand and extend itself over the world. It is for the Dharma and by the Dharma that India exists. To magnify the religion means to magnify the country.’ When Aurobindo was in jail, the Divine actually spoke to him, giving him the following message:
‘Since long ago I have been preparing this uprising and now the time has come and it is I who will lead it to its fulfillment.’ At the end of this historic speech, Aurobindo repeated his main contention: ‘I say no longer that nationalism is a creed, a religion, a faith; I say that it is Sanatan Dharma which for us is nationalism. This Hindu nation was born with the Sanatan Dharma, with it, it moves and with it, it grows. When Sanatan Dharma declines, then the nation declines ‘
Of course, it needs to be stressed that by Sanatan Dharma, Aurobindo meant the eternal, universal religion, not any particular sect or creed: ‘If a religion is not universal, it cannot be eternal. A narrow religion can live only for a limited time and a limited purpose.’
Swami Vivekananda, too, believed that India had a special mission to fulfill in the larger course of human civilization. It was for this that our civilization had survived the ravages of the centuries: ‘This is the theme of Indian lifework, the burden of her eternal songs, the backbone of her existence, the foundations of her being, the raison d’etre of her very existence—the spiritualization of the human race. In this, her life course, she has never deviated, whether the Tartar ruled or the Turk, whether the Moghul ruled or the English.’
Vivekananda believed that India had made the choice long ago to live and die by her faith: ‘For good or for evil, our vitality is concentrated in our religion. You cannot change it. Your cannot destroy it and put in its place another.’
It is obvious, then, that there is a completely different way of studying and understanding our history. In this way, the political, the economic, and the social are all epiphenomenal; what is beneath but anterior to them is the life of the spirit, the underlying religious reality of life as it unfolds, acting upon the external events and being shaped by them in turn. The Indian awakening of the 19th century was, thus, in keeping with an older pattern of cyclic upheaval and renewal, which Indian society had witnessed many a time. The only difference this time was the external challenge: British imperialism, which was also the carrier of a modern, technological, materialistic civilization.
The freedom struggle was only a part of a larger, ongoing response to this onslaught on India of a modern, mechanized civilization. Earlier, during the long centuries of Muslim rule in the subcontinent, India had responded not only by providing a hospitable environment for the Sufi traditions within Islam, but developed newer, syncretic forms of devotion so as to allow for the coexistence of such contradictory faiths as Hinduism and Islam . What is more, it had responded with a new religion, Sikhism, which combined features from both these major religions.
Similarly, subsequent to the British conquest of India, several new religious movements were born here. These movements played a major role in our freedom movement. In fact, it might not be an exaggeration to claim that Sri Ramakrishna gave birth to a new religious tradition, a tradition that was able to cut across conventional religious boundaries so as to reach out to people of different faiths. This interfaith movement found its greatest apostle in Mahatma Gandhi, who changed Hinduism more radically than any reformer in the past 200 years.
From such a perspective, it becomes clear that we shall have to seek the origins of the freedom movement in the religious ideas prevailing in the 19th century. By the early part of this century, Indians were gradually beginning to understand that the challenge posed by British power extended far beyond political subjugation. India would have to contend with a totally different civilization, with modern science and technology, with an altogether new philosophy and culture. The idea that the British could be overthrown by sheer force of weaponry received a setback with the failure of the Great Revolt of 1857. Feudal aristocrats, who constituted the ruling native elite, found themselves dislodged and defeated.
The new response would come from the newly emerging native bourgeoisie, which was actually a product of colonialism. A remarkable man rose from this class, a man who initiated a large-scale reform of Indian society. Rammohun Roy was not only a scholar, educationist, social reformer and journalist, but the founder of a new religious movement, the Brahmo Samaj.
Founded in 1828, the Samaj tried to reform and rationalize Hinduism, going back to the Upanishads, on the one hand, and drawing from modern European ideas, on the other. Roy was among those prominent Indians who helped found the Hindu College in Calcutta, which later became the Presidency College. The Samaj attracted many young men of its time, among them Dwarkanath Tagore, the grandfather of Rabindranath. Dwarkanath’s son Debendranath took over the mantle from Rammohun, but the Samaj split, with Keshub Chandra Sen leading the breakaway faction. There were similar societies in Bombay, Madras and Lahore. The Samaj, though restricted to the educated middle classes, was very influential in its day. It inaugurated a liberalism which had not only religious, but political implications as well. Within decades of its formation, however, the Samaj lost its initiative because a greater, more authentic religious force descended on the Indian soil.
The advent of Ramakrishna was an event of far-reaching consequence for Indian nationalism. Although he was, to all appearances, the illiterate priest of the Kali temple in Dakshineshwar, outside Calcutta, Ramakrishna was actually a spiritual dynamo. He had mastered all the available sadhanas of his time, including yoga , tantra , mantra vidya, Saivaite, Vaishnavaite, and Shakti traditions. Furthermore, he was also familiar with Islam and Christianity . Ramakrishna stressed the plurality of religious endeavor, encouraging his disciples to accept all paths as legitimate ways to reach the Divine.
Ramakrishna did not act directly on society, but raised a band of dedicated sanyasis who spread his message and teachings. Of these Vivekananda was easily the most influential. He not only founded the Ramakrishna Mission, but toured the US and England extensively, taking Indian ideas beyond our shores. The impact of Vivekananda on the Indian youth of his time was incalculable. He urged and inspired them to rise to shoulder the responsibility of a new India. Vivekananda, was, thus, one of the greatest motivators of the Indian struggle for independence.
A few other movements of that time also need special mention. One of them was the Arya Samaj, which Swami Dayanand Saraswati founded in 1875. The Arya Samaj propagated what it considered to be a pure Vedic religion. It was rational and reformist in its outlook. The Arya Samaj played an important role in rousing the dormant conscience of the Hindu society against idol worship, caste system, and many other social evils of that time. The Samaj gave many prominent leaders to the Indian independence movement, perhaps the most famous being Lala Lajpat Rai. Another important movement had its origins in the West. The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by Madame H.P. Blavatsky. They believed that the ancient wisdom of the East contained the answers to the world’s problems. They shifted the headquarters of their society to Adyar, near Madras.
Theosophy, which means divine wisdom, was able to synthesize the spiritual core of all faiths. It played an extremely important role in the Indian awakening.
During the tenure of its dynamic president, Annie Besant, Theosophy touched nearly every aspect of India’s social and cultural life. Along with Madan Mohan Malaviya, Besant founded the Central Hindu College, which later became the Benaras Hindu University. She started the Home Rule League in 1915 and also became the president of the Indian National Congress. It was no accident that the founder of the Congress, Alan Octavian Hume, was himself a Theosophist, as were many of its members.
Even in the Indian Muslim community, political aspirations were closely linked with religious reform. The Wahabis of Patna and Moradabad appealed for a return to the simplicity of early Islam. The heterodox Ahmadiya movement of Punjab had affinities with the Baha’ism of Iran. Members of the Ismaili sect regarded their leader, the Aga Khan, as an incarnation of Vishnu. But the most influential of these reformers was Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who founded the Anglo-Arabic College in Aligarh in 1875. This later became the Aligarh Muslim University and played an active role in the creation of Pakistan.
In western India, too, the growth of political ideas was linked to religious reform. The names of Ranade, Gokhale, Agarkar, and Tilak readily come to mind. All of them were deeply religious people, though their work was socially oriented. The same pattern of religion affecting political developments was observed among the backward castes and classes. Jotiba Phule was, first and foremost, a religious reformer, a critic of traditional, caste-based Hinduism. Similarly in the south, Narayana Guru established several new temples for untouchables. A Sanskrit scholar and Vedantist, he helped to give the anti-caste movement in the south a spiritual dimension. Even Ambedkar, by converting to Buddhism, sought to strike at the heart of the caste problem: the Hindu religion itself. However, Ambedkarite Buddhism, which is less spiritual and religious than it is political and social, has created a confrontationist and separatist politics.
All these movements, including the atheist, anti-Aryan Dravida Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, were religious (or anti-religious) in their outlook. All of them sought to reform society by reforming religion. In most cases, the result was a revival of Indian spirituality, while in some cases it was the rejection of these spiritual traditions.
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous novel, Anandmath (1882) begins at an apocalyptic moment. There is a famine in Bengal—Mohendra Singha and his beautiful wife, Kalyani, are leaving their ancestral homestead to tread the broad road to Calcutta. Though Mohendra is a rich landlord, he and his family are starving. Everywhere men, women, children and cattle are dying of hunger. Famished and angry, the impoverished villagers have taken to dacoity. Yet the tax collectors of the Government are unrelenting. Clearly, the British rule has reduced India to beggary.
Mohendra is separated from his wife and is taken to a clearing in the forest where a group of sanyasis, called the Children, are organizing a revolt against British rule. Mohendra’s escorts burst into the famous song ‘Vande Mataram‘:Mother, I bow to thee!
Rich with thy hurrying streams,
Bright with thy orchard gleams,
Cold with thy winds of delight
Dark fields waving,
Mother of might
(Sri Aurobindo’s translation)
Later, the master of Anandmath (the Abbey of Bliss), Satyananda, shows Mohendra the image of Jagaddhatri, the protector of the world. This is the image of the Mother as she was. In contrast, he is shown another image, ‘enveloped in darkness, full of blackness and gloom’. It is an image of Kali, ‘stripped of all, therefore naked’.
Satyananda explains: ‘The whole country is a burial ground, therefore is the Mother garlanded with skulls.’ Finally, Satyananda shows Mohendra ‘a beautifully fashioned image of the ten-armed goddess, made in gold, laughing and radiant in the light of the early sun’. Satyananda explains that ‘this is the Mother as she shall be’.
What Bankim does here is to identify India as Mother herself, the consort and energy of Vishnu, the sustainer of the Universe. Such a deification of the country as we know was to inspire many millions of Indians throughout the freedom struggle.
Vande Mataram, the anthem, was banned as was Anandmath. Yet the worship of Mother India or Bharat Mata once instituted was here to stay. Across the Indian political spectrum, regardless of ideological differences, the idea of the sacredness of the Motherland was widely accepted.
Bankim‘s novel inspired many revolutionaries who gave up their lives for their Motherland. Aurobindo himself considered to be a prophet of Indian nationalism, during his revolutionary phase wanted a Bharat Mata Mandir to be established in every province of India. These temples were to be the nucleus of revolutionaries who like Bankim‘s sanyasiswould dedicate their lives to the freedom of the country.
Thus the Indian revolutionaries, who were an important part of the struggle for freedom, also derived their inspiration from spirituality and religious sources. Of course such patriotism, taken to its extreme, may breed chauvinistic nationalism.
THE DESTINY OF THE NAKED FAKIR
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was, in many ways, India’s man of destiny. More than anyone else, he came to embody the hopes and aspirations of the Indian people. Not only was he the most popular and powerful leader of the freedom movement, but he also was for most Indians a figure of reverence, even worship. He was the Mahatma, the great soul, sort of a national guru. More than a politician, he was cast in the mould of a religious leader.
Indeed, a close examination of Gandhi‘s life shows that spirituality was its keynote. He said clearly: ‘For me, even the effort for attaining swaraj(self rule) is a part of the effort for moksha (liberation).’
Throughout his life, much like a yogi or sadhak (ascetic), he tried to attain perfect control over his body and his senses. He wished to perfect the instrument with which he strove to work for the uplift of the masses and for India’s freedom. It would be erroneous to consider Gandhi to be merely a faddist or eccentric moralist. All the institutions that he established were on religious lines. The Sabarmati Ashram, for instance, had 11 rules of conduct, which included traditional injunctions such as truth, nonviolence, chastity, non-stealing, non-possession, and so on. To these he added his own unique innovations such as khadi (hand spinning) and the removal of untouchability.
Gandhi declared that his politics was merely a part of his religious life: ‘For me there is no politics devoid of religion. They subserve religion. Politics bereft of religion are a deathtrap because they kill the soul.’ However, Gandhi‘s religion was not such that it necessitated a withdrawal from this world: ‘For me the road to salvation lies through incessant toil in the service of my country and therefore of humanity. I want to identity myself with everything that lives. In the language of the Gita I want to live at peace with both friend and foe.’
The question whether Gandhi was a saint or a politician has been around for a long time. In fact, Gandhi himself had to answer it. Though he disclaimed being either, he asserted that ‘the politician in me has never dominated a single decision of mine’.
Gandhi‘s experiments with truth and his advocacy of ahimsa (nonviolence) indicate that his central preoccupation was to bring spiritual values to bear on political life. He said that his political guru, Gokhale, had taught him that ‘the dream of every Indian…should be…to spiritualize the political life of the country, and the political institutions of the country’.
Further, Gandhi goes on to ask: ‘What is the meaning of spiritualizing the political life of the country? What is the meaning of spiritualizing myself?’ He answers these two difficult questions quite simply: ‘I think political life must be an echo of private life and that there cannot be a divorce between the two.’ Gandhi repeatedly said that he was in politics only because ‘politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries’.
For Gandhi, ahimsa was not the weapon of the weak, but the best way in which people could strive for legitimate political and social ends. It is no accident, then, that Gandhi was born in a century that also produced the atom bomb. It was as if these two paths before humankind were offered simultaneously. The 20th century that has witnessed bloodletting on an unprecedented scale—the two world wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the partition of India and the carnage that followed, the concentration camps in the former Soviet Union and China, the genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda—all these and much more are the legacy of this century. Gandhi believed that only an active ahimsa would be an antidote; only ahimsa could safeguard the future of the human race. And this gift of ahimsa was, Gandhi believed, India’s greatest contribution to the world.
Gandhi accepted all religions, but declared himself to be a Hindu. Hinduism, for him ‘is the religion of humanity and includes the best of all the religions known to me’. Obviously, what he meant by Hinduism was Sanatan Dharma, the Eternal Dharma, not any particular creed or cult. Further, he defined his religion as ‘the religion of Truth. Of late, instead of saying God is Truth I have been saying Truth is God…’
Gandhi gave India and the world some invaluable weapons to fight against injustice and oppression. Besides Truth and Non-violence, he also gave us the slogans of swaraj, sarvodaya, and swadeshi—self-rule, the uplift of all, and the use of locally manufactured goods. These ideals are not merely political or economic, but deeply rooted in India’s spiritual traditions. Swaraj, then, does not stand merely for political independence, but for a certain ideal of society: It is at once a term that signifies personal and political perfection.
THE UNFINISHED AGENDA
In the preceding account, I may have left out the names of several other men and women who played a notable role in India’s struggle for independence. Whether it is Jawaharlal Nehru or Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore orSubramaniam Bharati, Maulana Azad or Sardar Patel, it is my contention that all these, in one way or another, believed in India’s special destiny. Even Nehru, the most scientific and secular of these leaders in his temperament and attitude, wished to reconcile the values of science with those of spirituality. As he clearly said: ‘Secular philosophy itself must have some background, some objective, other than merely material well-being. It must essentially have spiritual values and certain standards of behavior, and, when we consider these, immediately we enter into the realm of what has been called religion.’
It is only when we thus reflect upon the larger objectives of the freedom movement and its deepest sources of inspiration that we realize that the 50th anniversary of India’s independence is the occasion for as much somber introspection as it is of joyous celebration. Political independence is certainly not India’s goal or ideal, though it is a necessary step. Nothing short of complete inner and outer perfection can suffice for those who are spiritual.
Spirituality does not mean a withdrawal from the world, but an action in the world that is transformative. We saw that was possible on a massive scale during the freedom movement. Luckily, we have many examples of it in action even today. The most notable of these is the Swadhyay movement, inspired by Pandurang Shastri Athavale. Embracing over 80,000 villages, this movement has brought about an unprecedented transformation in the lives of millions of people. What is more, Swadhyay, as the name suggests, is primarily about transforming the self, by self-study and voluntary action. Once again, we see how spiritual forces, when properly awakened and harnessed, can bring about large-scale social changes.
I reiterate that spirituality is not secondary to the material, but includes and supersedes it. This is by no means accepted by the majority of the people today, let alone by the dominant, culture-defining elite which rule our world. So what is the way out? Will different ideologies fight for supremacy, violently attacking and destroying one another? That is one way. The other way is to consider the point of view presented here as an invitation.
That, ultimately, is how India operates. It invites you to examine life from a certain perspective. If this perspective is appealing, satisfying, and enriching, you may wish to accept it. Otherwise, nothing is lost. All of us need to come to our own conclusions, to our own understanding of history. I, for one, believe that the true significance of India can be summed up beautifully in Vivekananda‘s words: ‘Our sacred motherland is a land of religion and philosophy… where and where alone, from the most ancient to the most modern times, there has been the highest ideal of life open to man.’
Vivekananda warns us: ‘Religion and religion alone is the life of India, and when that goes India will die…’ Indeed, that is what the secularists and modernists of all types might wish for, but luckily that has still not happened. I would like to end, once again, with Vivekananda‘s words: ‘The Indian nation cannot be killed. Deathless it stands, and it will stand so long as that spirit shall remain as the background, so long as her people do not give up their spirituality.’
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