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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 32, August 5, 2023

Spiritualty in Indian Freedom Struggle | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 5 August 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



Indian Ideas of Freedom:
B.R. Ambedkar, Aurobindo Ghose, Mahatma Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, M.N. Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda

by Dennis Dalton

HarperCollins India
Pages: xv + 519; Price: Rs 699

Indian ideas of freedom dew deeply on indigenous traditions of thought, especially religious. But the men and women who led the long and arduous campaign for independence were no religious bigots. They incorporated Indic traditions in their focus on inner freedom, on the spiritual liberation of the individual. At the same time, they were not afraid of acknowledging the importance of Western concepts of political and social liberty.

When Dennis Dalton, who has researched and lectured on Indian political thought across the world for six long decades, wrote his first book on the subject in 1982, he only covered the quartet of Aurobindo Ghose, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. All four rested their political and social thought on certain religious beliefs concerning the nature of man and of the Absolute. Each of them considered that the nature of man is divine, and that his highest aim should always remain the discovery of his own nature or what could be termed self-realization or spiritual freedom. It is in this book, published this year, that Dalton included B.R. Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan and M.N. Roy.

If the marriage of politics and religion had been indicated by Aurobindo, it was consummated in the thought of Gandhi. Vivekananda equated "perfect freedom" with the goal of Karma Yoga. When Gandhi innovated Satyagraha, Karma Yoga, renunciation and ahimsa formed some of his key words.

Vivekananda was very particular that if one wanted to regenerate India, then religion must be the basis of all reform movement. But he was not narrow minded, unlike some of his followers today. The teachings of Jesus Christ had a great influence on him. "Had I lived in Palestine in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, I would have washed His feet, not with my tears but with my heart’s blood," Vivekananda once said. No wonder, Vivekananda never preached hatred against any religion even if he occasionally pointed out the wrong with various religious practices, Hinduism included.

Unlike Gandhi, Aurobindo reached the summit of his capacity as a thinker only after his withdrawal from political activity. His retirement from politics itself, he said, was a divine command. Aurobindo, who was tried for sedition by the British before he moved to Pondicherry, equated Sanatan Dharma with nationalism. But he was no uncritical admirer of ancient India. He felt a rational age can only be achieved when the multitude learns to think and exercise its intelligence actively – vis-à-vis their life, needs, rights, duties and aspirations as human beings.

Gandhi was undoubtedly the perfect karmayogin. He was not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke. For him, the movement for swaraj was self-purification. It is this ingrained belief that made him withdraw, no matter what the criticism, an ongoing civil disobedience movement when its adherents blundered by killing others. Gandhi did what Vivekananda had perceived but early Congress moderates had ignored: use traditional Indian language and symbols to involve the people in the national movement. No wonder, Gandhi was seldom called a political theorist although he was one. The conception he shared with Vivekananda and Aurobindo was on the divine nature of man. The highest form of freedom was moral and spiritual in quality because man was essentially moral and spiritual.

Many of Tagore’s ideas were in conformity with what Gandhi, Aurobindo and Vivekananda preached. But he was very clear that while India’s adoption of nationalism might further the struggle for independence, it could only thwart the essential quest for moral and spiritual freedom. This made Tagore urge Gandhi to exercise caution in his use of non-cooperation. He even called the mass adulation of Gandhi a slave mentality. Some of Gandhi’s ideas, he felt, foolishly spurned the knowledge and advances of the Western world. Tagore passionately believed that the attainment of national independence was a search after truth.

Once Ambedkar left Marxism behind, his philosophy of freedom followed Buddhist principles to develop parallels with other Indian thinkers. He wanted Hindus to kill Brahmanism and caste "to give a new doctrinal basis to your religion". When he asked people to shed anger and to forget their enemies, he was taking forward an ancient truth in Indian spiritual traditions. For Ambedkar, it was more important to struggle against those Hindus who ruthlessly dominated Dalits as a matter of routine oppression. Eventually, his pilgrimage became a courageous journey of mind and body comparable to that of Lord Buddha’s compelling life story.

M.N. Roy, who evolved from his Marxist to Radical Humanist phases, was without roots in Indian nationalist politics but nevertheless remained profoundly grounded in the Indian intellectual tradition as a whole. Both Vaishnavism and Vivekananda became major influences on him. Over time, Roy divorced communism in favour of Radical Humanism, whose ultimate value he said was spiritual freedom. From a trenchant critic of Gandhi, he came around to thinking like the Mahatma: "It is a fallacy to hold that the end justifies the means. The truth is that immoral means necessarily corrupt the end. This is the empirical truth." Until his very end, the one man for whom Roy held the greatest respect was the revolutionary, Jatindranath Mukherjee. "He believed himself to be a Karmayogin, trying to be at any rate, and recommended the ideal to all of us… Jatinda was a Humanist – perhaps the first in modern India."

Jayaprakash Narayan could have easily become Jawaharlal Nehru’s righthand man and perhaps his successor too but he gave up power politics in his pursuit of Gandhian ideals. At the core of his vision lay a blend of Marx’s and Gandhi’s dreams: unselfish and altruist individuals living in self-supporting communities. No wonder, he commanded the respect to stimulate hundreds of thousands when Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian tendencies came to the fore. But even when the men he guided to form a political party ousted Indira Gandhi, he refused all allurements of office.

This is a profoundly enriching and historically relevant book. Dalton feels that contemporary India reveals a wide gap between political practice and the outstanding theory produced during its freedom struggle. The question is whether the challenges and standards posed by its formidable intellectual tradition led by the group of seven will have a significant impact on what India’s leaders and people do today.

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