A reflection on the man’s political philosophy– its origins, its contemporary effects and, its legacy
In 1909, legendary Marathi playwright Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar wrote an influential play named Bhaubandaki (A Family Feud). It is based upon an 18th century political murder of the young Prime Minister and the de facto head of Maratha Empire, Narayanrao Peshwa. Everyone in the court knows that the current Peshwa and Narayanrao’s uncle Raghoba is behind the murder but no one has the grit to utter the truth. The upright and learned Chief Justice of the empire, Ramshastri takes the mantle of proving Raghoba guilty upon him and finally in unequivocal terms announces a capital punishment for the incorrigible ruler. Raghoba succeeds in saving his life only to get overthrown by the courtiers in the denouement.
In the Act two, there is a telling dialogue of Nana Phadnavis, a courtier in Peshwa durbar. While speaking with senior courtier Sakharam Bapu he says –
“Bapu, Ramshastri will certainly expose Raghobadada’s sin. Only a selfless and erudite savant is useful in such extraordinary situations. All the seasoned courtiers, diplomats, politicians, bureaucrats have to wait for an opportune time. While speaking in the durbar they have to restrain themselves and speak in a mild and moderate manner. But worldly things like affluence and allegiance can never obstruct the march of a selfless sage. He is almighty due to his impeccable character. He doesn’t wait for favourable time; he begets new times which produce new courts, new courtiers, new diplomats and new sovereigns.”
Every word of the above dialogue is loaded with a strong political imagery. Watching this allegory, audience could swiftly relate tyrannical Raghobadada with the British bureaucracy. Well-meaning and patriotic moderate Congress politicians who valued Tilak’s leadership and personal integrity but opposed him politically on ideological grounds, were the loyal courtiers and Lokmanya Tilak was that selfless, courageous and erudite sage who took on the might of one of the greatest empires of the world. Indeed he was that great philosopher-activist who, through his lifelong selfless endeavours, begot a new era which produced new systems, new theories, new dreams, new hopes and new India. Mahatma Gandhi rightly called him ‘A Maker of Modern India’.
Tilak ushered in modernity in India on the terms set by Indian people. Following his death ‘The Hindu’ observed, ‘As was once said of Napoleon Mr. Tilak was not so much a man as an idea and the idea of lofty patriotism and noble self-sacrifice he presented will under providence endure.’ The objective of this essay is to explore and analyze this idea called Lokmanya Tilak.
Celebrated British journalist Henry Nevinson admired Tilak for his unwavering conviction and absolute lack of dilemma, the foible that pesters common people and the great personalities alike. The source of his conviction and dexterity in critical decision making is in the philosophy that he believed in and lived, the philosophy of Bhagavad Geeta.
Tilak’s thoughts on philosophy of life and ethics are well documented in his magnum opus Geetarahasya. In Geetarahasya he analyzed the message of Bhagavad Geeta in the light of eastern/western philosophies and also material sciences to come to the conclusion that Nishkam Karmayoga, action sans attachment or desire, is the ultimate trick to live life ethically to achieve knowledge and progress in both material and spiritual realms.
However, like Rousseau, Hobbes or any other oriental or occidental political thinker he never wrote any book dedicated only to the topic of political philosophy. He was first and foremost a political activist who was busy in galvanizing and mobilizing masses for a long political agitation. This was in accordance with his opinion that ‘learned persons are not just the eyes but also the active Gurus of the society.’ He wasn’t just an observer but a doer. He was always a man on the move. Whatever he wrote in the editorials, every speech that he made as a politician, his every action as a national leader carried a political message as well as the underlying political philosophy.
Though Geetarahasya’s main aim is not to propound a political theory; in the book Tilak discusses many concepts which lay the ethical foundation of his political philosophy and define the moral contours of his political activities. Geetarahasya can be used as the polestar while traversing Tilak’s other writings. Before going into the details it is warranted to say a word or two about Tilak’s writing style. In George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and The English Language’ (April, 1946) he criticizes the pretentious style of political writers and journalists, he writes –
The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively so long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.
Tilak echoed similar thoughts in his editorial ‘Swarajya Ani Surajya’ dated April, 1907 –
If the thoughts are half-baked then the words that come out of mouth would also be incoherent. Similarly if someone is confused while speaking then it can be inferred that his thoughts are also chaotic. Many times even intellectuals use pompous words to conceal their confused mind and ambiguous thoughts.
Tilak with his sincerity of purpose wrote a simple, succinct and matter-of-fact prose in Marathi and English. By doing so he brought the content of many branches of knowledge out of the messy jargon and made it accessible to common man. It was a great achievement in itself and it helped him to communicate effectively with the masses. He could initiate the bloodless revolution because of his simple but powerful words. He conveyed his political ideas of Lokasangraha (Uniting People for action) and Swarajya (Political Self-rule) very clearly. Even for the posterity they are intelligible because these ideas are universal and there is no disconnect between the ideas and the choice of words that expressed them.
In Tilak’s writings one can find that being both, a realist politician and an idealistic political philosopher, he is articulating the concept of Swarajya by focusing on the prevailing political situation as well as by deliberating on more fundamental questions of the legitimacy of authority of any government over the people or a justification of state’s power over an individual. As a politician he was embroiled in a lifelong political battle with the oligarchic British bureaucracy to replace it with the democratic self-rule. At the same time a philosopher in him was busy in laying down the fundamental principles on which the edifice of future democratic regime would be built.
It is evident that the word Swarajya had two different connotations. Swarajya or Home Rule as it was translated, was an immediate political goal of the dominion status under the British crown. Tilak’s politics could not go beyond the demand of Home Rule due to socio-political and historical constraints. He fought steadfastly against the formidable and cunning adversary with all his might of character, intellect and political acumen and awakened the masses to work collectively towards the common goal. Swarajya as a fully developed political theory goes far beyond its temporal meaning as stated above. Tilak construed it as an ultimate spiritual emancipation of the individual and the community (samashti).
Tilak’s concept of Swarajya is based on the Vedanta philosophy. Almost every leader of that era was obsessed with this idea. Leaders like Aurobindo, Bipin Chandra Pal, and Gandhiji have written and spoken extensively on it. They were presenting this idea to the nation as a solution to all the miseries that the British rule had brought. Tilak pronounced the idea and invented methods to achieve the goal. Throughout his life he was doing the Lokasangraha to achieve the goal of Swarajya. The definition of Lokasangraha as Tilak wrote in Geetarahasya is as follows –
The enlightened person should teach people about how to do the work as per the Chaturvarnya system with Nishkam Karmayoga i.e. doing work skillfully and successfully without having desires attached to the final outcome.
Tilak further explains that in the era when Geeta was written Chaturvarnya system was in place. That doesn’t mean Chaturvarnya System (with all its so-called benefits and shortcomings) must be followed now. As the times change social systems should also undergo change. Rather, it is a responsibility of intellectuals to rectify the problems in social structures to encourage the Lokasangraha. Though acquiring the knowledge and understanding and experiencing the true nature of the self and the cosmos is the ultimate aim of any person, this personal salvation must be attained in unison with a salvation of the samasthi i.e. entire community, nation and humanity. So Geeta ultimately tells us that everyone should strive for the salvation of samashti and choose action over inaction i.e. to do Lokasangraha. Tilak urges everyone to do Lokasangraha to attain Swarajya for the personal and national perfection.
Though welfare of everyone is the ultimate aim of the Vedanta, before accomplishing this goal, Lokasangraha at the initial stages like family, community and nation are also important. Thus whatever may be the impetus behind the Lokasangraha, Tilak always supported it.
Here it must be noted that Tilak’s argument presupposes the existence of God as explained in Upanishads as an absolute, constant reality (Brahman) behind the sensory world. In chapter Adhyatma of Geetarahasya, Tilak, after comparative analysis of multiple philosophies, argues in favor of Vedanta philosophy. As if countering the famous quote of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov – “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” Tilak says –
“Equanimity achieved through the true understanding of the nature of soul and universe can be the only foundation of ethics.”
While explaining the concept of Swarajya, Theodore Shay quotes nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal in his book ‘The Legacy of the Lokmanya’ –
“The ideal of Swaraj that has revealed itself to us is the ideal of divine democracy…There is a higher message still : men are gods and the equality of Indian democracy is the equality of divine origin, the divine nature, the divine possibilities and the divine destiny of every individual being.”
Thus in Tilak’s political theory equality, liberty, justice and all the natural rights find their origin in one term called Swarajya, which, has its foundations in Vedanta philosophy. Therefore, while speaking against the scourge of untouchability, as a true Vedanti Tilak could declare –
“If God were to tolerate untouchability I would not recognize Him as God at all.”
Once Lokasangraha and Swarajya are decided as the ultimate objectives Tilak urges people to use every means to achieve the goal. This is the third pillar of the Tilak doctrine – Sadhananam Anekata (Using multiple means/tools). Once this context is set, Tilak’s politics and political philosophy can be understood. He used the Congress and the British judiciary for the national debates and mass awakening when parliamentary or any other system was not available in India and rules and laws were being formulated arbitrarily by the foreign government. In editorial “Constitutional and Legal” 1907 he wrote –
“There is no constitution of India. So there is no question of constitutional agitation. Now the only question that remains is whether our agitation is legal or illegal. In current situation it is not possible for us to formulate laws. Thus even if our methods have the support of morality, historical tradition and natural rights it’s up to the government to decide whether it is legal or illegal. Sometimes our right actions can be construed as illegal then we must say that the law is oppressive. If we break such law then we would be punished. We have to fight injustice by enduring punishment. When ethics and laws conflict these things are bound to happen.”
One can see that the method described above is a precursor of some of the Gandhian methods. Similarly he used Boycott and Swadeshi as the politico-economical weapons. He encouraged development and usage of all material sciences and technologies. To encourage home-grown industries he also supported movie business and realized the potential of cinema as a great entertaining and enlightening tool. Tilak even suggested to Dadasaheb Phalake (Founder of Indian Cinema) that he launch a film company with American assistance to make films for domestic and international markets.
At the time when Moderate leaders were seeking proper implementation of the existing British policies and political philosophy in India, whereas extremists under the Lokmanya were seeking the replacement of that philosophy. Tilak in his speech made this point clear by saying –
“…another speaker had referred to the theory of social contract of Rousseau and (…) had construed the Proclamation of 1858 as a contract. For my part I think that the word ‘contract’ cannot be made applicable to relations existing between unequal. (…)
It is true that what we seek may seem like a revolution in the sense that it means a complete change in the ‘theory’ of the Government of India as now put forward by the bureaucracy. It is true that this revolution must be a bloodless revolution, but it would be a folly to suppose that if there is to be no shedding of blood there are also to be no suffering to be undergone by the people.”
First part of the above excerpt shows Tilak’s clear understanding of the British imperialism. Moderates were demanding the political reforms from the very people who usurped them in the first place. Thus Tilak said there can be no contract between the unequal parties. Tilak professed self-reliance. He rejects the Theory of Social Contract as the basis of the state. He says ‘It is essentially an English (western) idea that a political agitation is an attempt to enforce such an agreement (contract). The eastern (Indian) idea is different.’ Thus the agitation that he spearheaded was different. One must note that Tilak’s fight wasn’t against the British rule because the rulers were of different religion or race. He was perfectly aware of the possibility of loss of Swarajya even under an indigenous ruler. In article ‘Swarajya Ani Surajya’ (Self-rule and Good-rule) he defines Swarajya –
What is Swarajya? One would say answer is simple Swarajya is our own rule. But what do we mean by our rule? Is it the rule of our community, our religion, and our aristocrats or of the king who belongs to our religion? When the sovereign and the subjects belong to the same religion or community and the government always strives for the welfare of the people then people can consider it as Swarajya. But if the indigenous government turns oppressive or ignorant of people’s needs then people start despising such rule. That was the condition in the later period of Peshwa rule and that’s why people didn’t feel sorry when British colonial rule replaced it.
Then he gives examples of Russia and Germany where the king belongs to people’s religion and race but still they don’t have Swarajya as people are not consulted in the while running the country. Ultimately the power should be with the people of the country. This definition of Swarajya is indeed akin to the definition of democracy. The only and important difference is the difference of origin of these two concepts. Swarajya’s systemic corollary could be democracy. But Swarajya is a bigger and loftier idea than democracy. Tilak said in 1917 –
“The science of Political ethics is Swarajya. If political theory takes you back to slavery then we reject it. Politics is country’s Vedanta. You all have the soul. I’m just going to revitalize it.”
Political philosophy tries to give the logical justification of existing political order or of a new order that it needs to establish. It seeks to prove legitimacy of the institution of the government. Every political philosophy faces the problem of reconciling the individual liberty with the need of everyone to come together under a political authority by forgoing a portion of the individual liberty.
Tilak conquered this inherent duality with the sword of Vedanta philosophy. Since there is no duality between the individual and the universal soul thus Swarajya joins personal purpose of life with the national purpose. As per Social Contract theory it is expedient to come together to form a political authority but as per Tilak’s theory Swarajya is a moral imperative an inalienable natural right of every soul.
On many occasions Tilak had pointed out the irrationality and immorality of imperialism. In his moral argument he says –
“Since all living and non-living objects have the same soul (Atman). It is everyone’s natural right to live happily. And it is unethical if someone ignores this common natural right just because that person or society is superior to other person or society in terms of might, numbers or tools and technology.”
In his editorial titled “Pachhahipana ka Gulamgiri?” (Imperialism or Slavery?) , he puts forward political and economic argument to prove that Imperialism is harmful to both ruling and the subject nation. Imperialism suits only a select few of the ruling nation and for majority of the people it is economically, politically and culturally detrimental. He quotes Spencer and calls these cliques as ‘Electoral Oligarchies’ which decide every policy. These people decide who would become the Member of Parliament. To satiate their quench of power they need more money and common British people bear the cost in the form of increased taxes.
Mahatma Gandhi said in his article following Tilak’s death that ‘He was a born democrat’. This point is further elaborated and explained by the first English biographer of Lokmanya Tilak, D. V. Tahmankar. In couple of paragraphs he has summed up Tilak’s democratic political credentials in the biography titled “Lokmanya Tilak father of Indian unrest and Maker of Modern India”-
‘No one before him (Tilak) had conceived the possibility of enlisting the masses in the Indian struggle for liberation and using mass action in the form of passive resistance. It was he who first turned for strength, help and inspiration to the common people who were, sixty years ago, little better than a helpless, inarticulate and terrified mass of humanity. It is significant that he did not approach the princes or the big landlords for help ; he went to the masses, galvanized them with a new spirit, and organized them in a national movement where they contributed to the final outcome-the end of the British Raj in India and of imperialism in Asia’
Mr. Tahmankar, then contrasts Tilak’s democratic movement of passive resistance with other contemporary political movements across the globe and shows that in Germany, Italy and Japan their respective national leadership relied upon aristocrats and powerful industrialists to shape up the national future but their endeavours lacked a firm foundation in the common man’s consciousness of his democratic rights and responsibilities. He believed that democracy would be the only way forward for India.
Modern industrialized scientific world is a chaotic place to live in. It offers immense possibilities that no one could foresee in the past. Lokmanya was the first mass leader of a pan India appeal in this modern era. It wasn’t just a fight for independence that he was fighting, he was building the nation in its modern form by burying the futile, unwanted and unbecoming orthodoxies of the past and the uncritical acceptance of western philosophies as a readymade solution to all the problems of India. He had to break both the jinxes. Tilak fought these two dogmas throughout his life.
Indian orthodoxy’s adherents were trying to mould new India into an image of its past. Another dogma was espoused by India’s western educated elite which was politically represented by the moderate faction of the Indian National Congress. They had complete faith in British justice and European liberal political philosophy. Tilak represented the third path which had firm foundations in the age old Indian idea of Swarajya and at the same time had a proclivity towards every great tool that the changing times were offering. But it would be wrong if we construe Lokmanya’s approach as a hybrid one. He wasn’t trying to strike a political deal between two warring political entities. His ideology is not a mean of these two extremes. It is not a balancing act of an ordinary politician but an original vision of the great nation builder and statesman.
Lokmanya Tilak was a polymath. He was well versed in law, philosophy, mathematics, grammar, oriental studies, history, and astronomy. He could have easily secured a successful career and an eternal glory in any of these fields but he chose the exacting life of a political agitator and an unenviable job of a mass awakener when a hostile regime constantly obstructed him in his mission. He could do it because he firmly and genuinely believed that when entire nation is in trouble the Apaddharma – duty under distress becomes Swadharma. He wanted educated and privileged people to be the Loksangrahak and the Nishkam Katmayogins who would strive for the downtrodden and by practicing the doctrine of Karmayoga.
An interesting anecdote tells us about Lokmanya’s great vision and his leap of imagination. In the year 1919, Tilak was in London to campaign for the Indian cause in England and in post-war Europe. One evening Tilak was having a walk with a friend. Seeing many people frequenting restaurants with families Tilak’s friend laughed mockingly. Tilak said to him-
‘No need to laugh at these people; when women education would be commonplace in India women would come out of house and start working” to his friend’s surprise Tilak then added, “Due to this sooner or later even in India frequently going to restaurants would be a common thing.” Lokmanya could foresee in fine details what would happen 1990s onward way back in the 20s.
The above spectacle is now common in many places. But many parts of India still slumber in the medieval darkness. Unless this transition of medievalism to modernism is complete true Swarajya is not attained. Tilak had said that to run the state machinery properly every cog, small or big, must work properly as per his/her Swadharma. If government as per its Dharma (duty) protects every citizen but a potter fails to make pottery or a railway signalman fails in his duty then Lokasangraha remains unrealized. And if basic material development is not achieved spiritual development would always remain a distant dream. Then there is no Swarajya, notwithstanding the political independence, and human life’s purpose is not fulfilled. Tilak’s trident of Nishkam Karmayoga, Self-reliance and Sadhanam Anekata would always help generations in conquering the ethical dilemmas and would enable them to achieve the true Swarajya for material and spiritual perfection. Tilak has provided us with the ethical and philosophical barometer with which we can gauge our political freedom. With the criteria that he provided us we can judge the political authority and if any aberration arises then we can always assert our natural right of Swarajya.
Another anecdote gives the crux of Tilak’s message to the Indians. Once some students asked Lokmanya that why didn’t he write Geetarahasya in English? He replied –
“Geetarahasya teaches the doctrine of Karmayoga. Europeans are already Karmayogies that’s why they have achieved so much. I want to teach it to my people. It’s not meant for scholars but for common people. That’s why I wrote it in Marathi and would get it translated in other Indian languages.”
If ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ is the cornerstone of the American Dream, then achieving and maintaining all-encompassing Swarajya through Karmayoga should become the Indian Dream.
If today we are enjoying the fruits of democracy and right to self determination the lion’s share of the credit goes to the great lion who once roared “Swarajya is my birth right and I shall have it” when most of his compatriots were oblivious of it and a small section which was aware of it was either indifferent or too diffident to strive for attaining this natural right. Tilak’s own life was idealism in action. He practiced what he preached. His life shows the world that there can be perfect synergy between idealism and pragmatism.
Alfred Hitchcock’s movies have a plot device called MacGuffin. MacGuffin could be any object in the movie. It is used to make the story interesting and get the plot going. It is important for the characters in the movie but its thematic importance for audience and director is nil. Same is the case with the controversies in the lives of public figures. Tilak had his fair share of political controversies in his forty-five year long public life but even his worst detractors would say that his personal conduct, character and patriotism were beyond reproach.
No doubt the contentious issues have their limited historical importance but writing and speaking about them ad nauseam is a futile enterprise. The characters involved in it along with Tilak are dead and gone. If our attention is fixated only on these issues then we, despite the advantage of being detached in time, would be focusing more on the MacGuffin than on the eternal themes. This essay is a humble but earnest attempt to enumerate those eternal themes of Lokmanya’s life, work and philosophy.
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