Spirit of India as a nation

Makarand Paranjape examines the history of India to reveal that it’s spiritual backbone is at the heart of all that it is today

The history that we are taught doesn’t always tell the truth. I came to this conclusion in two ways: First, I began to arrive at my own understanding of how history works. Second, 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.’ Everything in history is constructed from a particular viewpoint. 

The whole discipline of history is grounded upon the assumption that human life is shaped by political, economic, social, and cultural forces. Yet, even by such a token, there will be many different versions of the ‘same’ events. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the manner in which the recent history of India is being written. First, the British wrote our history, partly to understand us and partly to justify their rule. Later, the nationalist schools of history tried to recapture the Indian past and thereby earn the authority to reshape India’s future. 

Despite the plurality that is built into these historiographies, all of them tend to underestimate the forces 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 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. It is the body which requires consciousness for it to exist and not vice versa. Similarly, it is spirituality which controls materiality. That is because the spirit includes and exceeds matter, and is not apart from it. 

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. It is this that our history books do not tell us. They see political freedom as the master narrative of which spiritual awakening is but a small part. 

Of Spirituality and History
To understand the recent history of India, particularly its independence, we will have to peep behind the veil of politics, economics, and culture. These are only the exoteric coverings, the esoteric kernel of whose inner significance is usually hidden from most people. Swami Vivekananda explained what this hidden truth about India was: “In India, religious life forms the centre, the keynote of the whole music of national life.” So, in India, religion forms the base, politics and economics, the superstructure. To change the latter, you have to act on the former. The greatest impact could be made by those who altered the spiritual organisation of society. The Buddha, Shankara, Nanak, Kabir, Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, Gandhi, and Ambedkar are prime examples. 

The importance of Dharma in Indian life has been summed up well by Sri Aurobindo in his famous Uttarpara speech in 1909: “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. If a religion is not universal, it cannot be eternal.”

Swami Vivekananda, too, believed that India had a special mission to fulfil in the larger course of human civilisation. It was for this that our civilisation had survived the ravages of the centuries. India had made the choice long ago to live and die by her faith. “Our vitality is concentrated in our religion. You cannot destroy it and put in its place another,” uttered Vivekananda.

It is obvious, then, that there is a completely different way of studying and understanding our history. What is beneath but anterior to the political, the economic, and the social is the spirit, acting upon the external events and being shaped by them in turn. The freedom struggle was only a part of a larger, ongoing response to the onslaught on India of a modern, mechanised civilisation by British imperialism.

Earlier, India had provided a hospitable environment for the Sufi traditions within Islam, to allow for the coexistence of such contradictory faiths like Hinduism and Islam. Also, a new religion—Sikhism—surfaced, which combined features from both these major religions. Similarly, subsequent to British rule, several new religious movements were born, which played a major role in our freedom movement. It becomes clear that we shall have to seek the origins of the freedom movement in the religious ideas prevailing in the 19th century, in the early part of which Indians were gradually beginning to understand that the challenge posed by British power extended far beyond political subjugation. 

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. Subsequently, the new response would come from the newly emerging native bourgeoisie. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a remarkable man of his class, was not only a scholar, educationist, and social reformer but also the founder of a new religious movement, the Brahmo Samaj. Founded in 1828, the Samaj tried to reform and rationalise Hinduism, going back to the Upanishads, on the one hand, and drawing from modern European ideas, on the other. The Samaj was very influential in its day, with a liberalism which had not only religious but political implications as well. Roy was also among those prominent Indians who helped found the Hindu College in Calcutta, which later became the Presidency College.

Within decades, 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 Dakshineswar, outside Calcutta, Ramakrishna was actually a spiritual dynamo. He had mastered all the available sadhanas (spiritual practices) of his time, including yoga, tantra, mantra vidya, and the Saivite, Vaishnavite, and Shakta traditions. Furthermore, he was also familiar with Islam and Christianity.

Ramakrishna encouraged his disciples to accept all paths as legitimate ways to reach the Divine and raised a band of dedicated sanyasis (renunciates) 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. He also inspired the Indian youth to rise to shoulder the responsibility of a new India. 

Amongst other movements of that time, the Arya Samaj, which Swami Dayanand Saraswati founded in 1875, propagated what it considered to be a pure Vedic religion. It was rational and reformist in its outlook and played an important role in rousing the dormant conscience of the Hindu society against idol worship, caste system, and many such customs of that time. The Samaj gave many prominent leaders, like Lala Lajpat Rai, to the Indian independence movement.

The Theosophical Society, which had its origins in the West, 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. Theosophy, which means divine wisdom, was able to synthesise 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 Banaras Hindu University. She also became the president of the Indian National Congress. It was no accident that its founder, 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 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, the likes of Ranade, Gokhale, Agarkar, and Tilak were deeply religious, though their work was socially oriented. Among the backward classes, Jyotiba Phule was, first and foremost, a religious reformer, a critic of traditional, caste-based Hinduism.

Similarly, in the south, Narayana Guru, a Sanskrit scholar and Vedantist, helped to give the anti-caste movement a spiritual dimension. Even Ambedkar, by converting to Buddhism, sought to strike at the heart of the caste problem: the Hindu religion itself. However, Ambedkar Buddhism, which is less spiritual and religious than 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.

Vande Mataram
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous novel, Anandmath (1882), includes the famous song ‘Vande Mataram’:

Mother, I bow to thee!

Rich with thy hurrying streams,

Bright with thy orchard gleams,

Cool with thy winds of delight,

Dark fields waving, Mother of might

Mother free!

(Sri Aurobindo’s translation)

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 inspired millions of Indians throughout the freedom struggle. 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. They played an important part in the freedom struggle, deriving their inspiration from spirituality. 

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 was for most Indians a figure of reverence, even worship. He was the Mahatma, the great soul, a sort of national guru. More than a politician, he was cast in the mould of a religious leader.

A close examination of Gandhi’s life shows that spirituality was its keynote. He said clearly: “For me, even the effort for attaining swaraj (independence) is a part of the effort for moksha (spiritual liberation).” Throughout his life, much like a yogi or sadhak, he tried to attain perfect control over his body and his senses. 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 is a deathtrap because they kill the soul. Political life must be an echo of private life and there cannot be a divorce between the two.” 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.”

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, non-violence, and so on. To these, he added his unique innovations such as khadi (hand spinning) and the removal of untouchability.

He said, “For me, the road to salvation lies through incessant toil in the service of my country and, therefore, of humanity.” Gandhi’s novel, My Experiments with Truth and his advocacy of ahimsa (non-violence) indicate that his central preoccupation was to bring spiritual values to bear on political life. 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. Gandhi believed that only ahimsa could safeguard the future of the human race and that this gift of ahimsa was India’s greatest contribution to the world.

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. 

The unfinished agenda
Several other men and women played a notable role in India’s struggle for independence. In all probability, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Subramanya Bharati, Maulana Azad, and Sardar Patel, in one way or another, believed in India’s special destiny. Even Nehru, the most scientific and secular of these leaders, wished to reconcile science with spirituality. As he clearly said: “Secular philosophy must essentially have spiritual values and certain standards of behaviour.”

It is only when we thus, reflect upon the larger objectives of the freedom movement that we realise that the 50th anniversary of India is the occasion for as much sombre introspection as it is of joyous celebration. As we have seen, spirituality does not mean a withdrawal from the world but an action in the world which is transformative. 

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 rules our world. Even so, all of us need to come to our own conclusions, our own understanding of history. I, for one, believe that the true significance of India can be summed up beautifully in 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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Posted by on Jun 28 2022. Filed under Body Mind Spirit, Community, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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