Seven books. Seven authors. In between them, the most profound answers to the most pressing questions around Indian nationalism.
1. From Colombo to Almora, Swami Vivekananda
These are 17 lectures delivered by Swami Vivekananda between 15 January 1897 and 19 June 1897. This was the period between and including Vivekananda’s docking in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on his way back from US, and reaching Almora, in present day Uttarakhand.
The book contains both the journey impressions as well as the lectures, and was published in the same year.
This book can be considered as the most explicit link between the Hindu nation and the Indian state. If one needs to understand how Vedanta has shaped the best of the present Indian nation and society, then one has to read these lectures. In them, Vivekananda defined the Hindu society’s relation to the ancient faith, to its core, and prepared the Indian mind for the challenges of the present and future.
If one needs to understand the humanistic and universal (not expansionist) kernel of Indian nationalism, From Colombo to Almora is a must read.
2. Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo
This was first published as an article series in his journal Arya from December 1918 to January 1921, and then as a book in 1953.
In Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo responds to British writer William Archer, who had termed Indian culture as uncivilised.
Sri Aurobindo repudiates each of those attacks and goes on to elaborate on how Indian culture is important to the very future of human species as a whole. He places two definite possibilities before the future of India:
Either India will be rationalised and industrialised out of all recognition and she will be no longer India or else she will be the leader in a new world-phase, aid by her example and cultural infiltration the new tendencies of the West and spiritualise the human race.
His description of Indian art, architecture, literature, polity and sciences, particularly the inner sciences, provide us with frameworks with which we should have explored every aspect of our culture and society.
He also points out the deficiency of Western scholarship in studying Indian culture and spirituality which he says is “thrusting in its own habitual reactions upon things in the indigenous conception in which they have no proper place”. And, he points out “the curious misreading of the dance of Shiva as a dance of Death or Destruction” even as it “expresses on the contrary the rapture of the cosmic dance with the profundities behind of the unmoved eternal and infinite bliss”.
A reading of this book will make every Indian student of history, literature, sociology and psychology forge Indic tools to explore their culture.
3. Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
This book by Mahatma Gandhi is a series of 17 articles written in the form of a dialogue and published in 1909. The book is important for any lover of India to understand the core worldview of the person who exerted the greatest influence on Indian polity and society during the crucial decades between 1920s and late 1940s.
It should be noted here that Gandhi defines India’s nationhood through the oneness of her culture and spirituality. He wants Indians, especially Hindus, to be accommodative in the process of building a national movement. This would later degenerate into a dangerous policy of appeasement.
That said, the author, despite being crude in his seemingly negative approach to Western civilisation, had intuitively grasped the fundamental problem of the West being built on a mountain of human suffering. To him India needed to find her own unique way.
Though coarse, the book contains the seeds of Hindu environmentalism. A book which can complement the reader and make Hind Swaraj more relevant is Gandhian Economics: A supporting Technology (Impex India, 1977), by a deep thinker of Hindutva and a seer, Ram Swarup.
Whether it is securing freedom for the nation or protection of the cow, Gandhi wants Indians in general and Hindus in particular to give up their own lives instead of taking other’s lives. In principle, Gandhi sees India as defined by her pilgrimages and in practice he wants India to remain India — deeply religious in the most expansive meaning of the term.
A reader today, in hindsight, may agree or disagree with Gandhi but for that reading Hind Swaraj becomes a must.
4. Essentials of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
Written by Savarkar between 1921 and 1923 and published under the name Maratta, this book made the discovery of Hindutva the driving force of India’s national being. With a cold analysis, Savarkar looks into what makes us a nation.
The single greatest achievement of this book, which often goes unnoticed, is the way it defines the term ‘Hindu’. This appealed so much to Dr B R Ambedkar that he later incorporated almost the same in the legal definition of the term. A Hindu is one who considers this land as sacred ‘punya bhumi’. For Savarkar, “Hindutva is not identical with Hindu Dharma; nor is Hindu Dharma identical with Hinduism”.
He is direct on conversion and says that when a Hindu is converted to a non-Hindu religion, the convert can no longer regard this land as ‘punya bhumi’. “That is but natural. We are not condemning nor are we lamenting.” But he is not willing to brush it under the carpet either.
In Essentials..., Savarkar also points out the fallacy of the notion of genetic or cultural purity. At a time when even the so-called enlightened European humanists used to consider race as a fixed category, Savarkar rejected the notion. And so, “the fundamental unity of man from pole to pole is true, all else only relatively so”, he declared.
So, ultimately for Savarkar, “a Hindu is most intensely so, when he ceases to be Hindu; and with a Sankara claims the whole earth for a Benares... or with a Tukaram exclaims ‘my country! Oh brothers, the limits of the Universe — there the frontiers of my country lie’.”
5. Annihilation of Caste, Dr B R Ambedkar
When we inherit the riches from our forefathers, we also inherit their debts. We cannot be selective. Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s stringent criticism of not just Hindu society but also the very shastras of Hindu dharma as being inherently against the fraternity, should be read by every Hindu to understand the pressure of that debt we have inherited.
The book, originally prepared as a speech to be given at an Arya Samaj-related event, is a penetrating analysis into the caste problem. While today, this text has been used to denigrate Hindus, Dr Ambedkar himself makes it clear that he seeks ‘Hindu sanghatan’ and sees caste as a great impediment in achieving that: “So long as Caste remains, there will be no Sanghatan; and so long as there is no Sanghatan the Hindu will remain weak and meek.”
Even though he had criticised Bhagavad Gita, when he speaks about creating a Hindu priesthood network for all of India, he points out that the idea resonates with ‘guna-karma’ thesis of varna.
Though Dr Ambedkar rejects ‘chaturvarna’ as impractical and wasteful in modern circumstances, he points out that caste and varna are different, and considers varna as superior to caste. He considers the ‘Vedic theory of varna’ as interpreted by Swami Dayananda Saraswati as ‘sensible and inoffensive’. “Varna and Caste are two very different concepts. Varna is based on the principle of each according to his worth, while Caste is based on the principle of each according to his birth.”
Dr Ambedkar criticised Gandhi in the strongest words possible for confusing ‘caste’ and ‘varna’. Such people, according to Dr Ambedkar, are “not only guilty of terminological inexactitude, but ... causing confusion worse confounded”.
6. The Beautiful Tree, Dharampal
The general historiography in India, both colonial and post-colonial, sees history as a movement from indigenous darkness to European enlightenment.
Dharampal, a Gandhian-freedom-fighter-turned-historian, went for the original archival records, studied the actual socio-economic as well as cultural and political conditions prevailing during the start of the colonial era in India, and revealed that India was not a stagnant, oppressive dark society and had its own educational system that was more democratic than any of the contemporary educational systems in the world.
The book does not speak of an old utopia. Rather, it speaks through facts and figures and points to a worrying fact. Which is that if after Independence India had adopted the native system with necessary improvements, it could have achieved more in all-round education both in terms of quality and quantity.
The work of Dharampal inspired educationist James Tooley to explore cost-effective, community-based, decentralised ways of taking quality education to the poorest sections of humanity.
The one-teacher schools or Ekal Vidyala run by Vidhya Bharati, India's largest voluntary non-profit educational service network, are again influenced by the works of Dharampal.
His collected works, which consists of four other books along with this one, are a must read for every Indian who wants to see India developed without losing her own self.
7. India 2020 – A Vision for a New Millennium, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam and Y S Rajan
Soon after the 1998 Pokhran tests by India, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam became a household name. In the same year, he and his colleague, Dr Y S Rajan, came out with the book India 2020, which gave a detailed mission statement to make India a developed country by 2020.
The book was dedicated to a young girl. Dr Kalam had asked this girl what her ambition was. Her answer — she wanted to live in a developed India. Dr Kalam and Dr Rajan give action plans for the youth to make India prosper and become self-reliant in food production, water conservation, defence, medical technologies and commerce. They cite the example of Israel with regard to self-reliance in food security, innovative solutions in water management and global leadership in defence technology. Even so, there is no ‘look at the other nations’ lament here.
In the end, they ask every section of the society, whether student, teacher, media, bureaucrat or entrepreneur to make India a developed nation by 2020. The authors make a core Indian concept the basis for this — ‘punya’. This non-translatable term needs to animate every sphere of Indian life — creating punyatmas everywhere in every domain — punya adhikaris, punya netas and punya citizens.
Today, after two decades and a year, we stand facing 2020. Every Indian should read this book again on the Independence Day of 2019 to see where we are today and how many miles we have to go.