In 1599, the Burmese king Nanda Bayin died an unusual death. He laughed when he was informed “by a visiting Italian merchant, that Venice was a free state without a king”. He laughed so hard that his lungs burst, just like the frog who died singing a bit too loudly.
That individual men and women should be free – indeed, that individual men and women can be free – is a relatively new concept for humanity. The coercion inherent in feudalism, slavery, casteism, fascism, communism, theocracy – these have defined the relationships of many human beings with each other until the last century, and indeed to some extent this one too. The idea that all citizens could be masters of their destiny, that they could be running their lives and careers according to their wishes, while still respecting the individual rights of others who happen to be momentary minorities in their community or polity – no matter how obstinate or obnoxious the ideas or lifestyles of said minorities might seem to some – this remains a radical idea.
That is, the idea of individual freedom, that every single person has a right not be stripped of his life, liberty or property so long as he does not physically or financially harm anybody else is one that is not often appreciated in even the abstract in our country, forget in policy details.
Note we are not referring here to the insipid cultural debate between some mythologized Western rugged individualism and ostensible Eastern harmonious social co-operation; we are talking about the autonomy of individuals and groups as opposed to the ever-increasing authority of the state and its functionaries – bureaucrats and politicians.
For example, one can be for generous voluntary charity and various socio-cultural associations while still being against the idea of these aims being enforced by the government – especially beyond a certain necessary minimum and in a one-size-fits-all centralized manner. One can peacefully protest or better still economically boycott artists and writers producing work that one finds offensive – that happens to be a voluntary, social-based activism route – while still defending those very artists from being arrested, or their works being censored.
After all, such authoritarian steps by the state reduce the autonomy of those individuals who may not find the paintings, say, to be offensive. Indeed, even if everybody found that painting to be offensive, but so long as it was just a painting, banning it still takes away the autonomy of the artist.
Therefore, when one talks about individual freedom, one does not call for a lonely atomism – whereby any collectivism is looked down upon. Getting together for a cause – or for good old fun – is second nature to man. What is morally worrying to many is a coerced collectivism that is either not prevented by the state, or is worse underwritten by it – whether such collectivism is along social divisions like caste or religious purposes, or along the more Marxist thought of class lines.
As the American polemicist Thomas Paine wrote in his revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense, the biggest mistake that many people make (and quite clearly, continue to make) is to confuse the nation’s state with the nation’s society. Whether something should be done is one normative question, who it should be done by is another normative question (and how it should be done is yet another – although that is less of a normative and more of a positivist question).
Indeed, such ideas based on voluntarism and trusteeship formed the underpinnings of Mohandas Gandhi – who was strongly against a centralized, powerful state, and who has been grossly misinterpreted by Indian politicians. Another point to note here about this rather silly accusation of individual freedom resulting in a lonely and listless society, is that it is actually coercive collectivism – especially in the form of socialism – that leads to people living lonely and relatively more “atomized” lives with no more need for family and community as a safeguard for individual welfare.
So, when I talk about individual freedom here, I refer simply to freedom from an overbearing government and not to a comprehensive political and personal philosophy that guides you towards your moksha. There are other interpretations of freedom, and we must struggle with that but just for a moment step back to get a sense of how radical the very idea of and the very call for freedom has been – and continues to be.
Pick a random time in human history and you are likely to find that, in the vast majority of cases, a few men (and they were mostly men indeed) have had arbitrary and discretionary powers over the lives of a much bigger number of people. Even if we ignore the dark ages in the west, and the colonial ages in the “global south” and pick the best periods from history, what we find is not very encouraging.
The “enlightened” Greek states could not run without slavery. The great achievements of the Chinese and the Egyptian civilizations were on the backs of indentured labour and high taxes and even the American republic had the original sin of slavery on it for almost a century, not to mention that many Western “democracies” got universal franchise for all – women, minorities and the poor – only in the last century. This is not to dismiss the civilizational achievements of any of these examples, but just to say that while people like me – the younger generation in India, and many others – may now take for granted certain individual rights and political privileges, in humanity’s long history such a phase started very recently.
Freedom, in other words, is the new kid on the block when it comes to influential political philosophies and still has a long way to go.
To see that illustrated in detail, look no further than the golden periods in our own ancient history. We were not much freer than other civilizations. Yes, many aspects of our metaphysics (what could now be called the core of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism) are not very far from the idea of individual rights and non-coercion.
Indeed, the Katha Upanishad says that “Than ‘Person’ there’s nothing higher; He is the goal, He the All-highest Way”. The thoughts of Carvaka and other movements challenged Hindu orthodoxy from within, and the mystic Sufis partially did so too in the case of Islam – and such movements made our culture more tolerant and syncretic.
But the ground reality of our caste system was already stultifying, Indian women suffered gross discrimination except perhaps during the early Vedic period (and even that claim is in speculative territory), and our governments were autocratic except a few Mahajanapads for some time.
Even those brilliant metaphysics had been overshadowed by illiberal writings and enabled the suppression for the vast majority at the hands of a “holy” few. I do not want to quote here the most vile of some of our codified ancient “laws”, but suffice it to say that for a long time we did manage to consider certain animals to be more sentient and worthy of respect than certain humans.
Of course to train our modern sensibilities on the ancient past and then getting disappointed is inevitable. Yet, the point is to demonstrate exactly that. There is a lot we can learn from our history and our ancient philosophies, but they should serve as guides – not vetoes. Else our derision towards ideas simply because they seem “foreign” or “new” will be equally fatal.
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