By Makarand Paranjape August 1997 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. FREEDOM FIRST 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 C
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