India’s 71st Independence day celebrations (Photo: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Swaraj is not a form of narrow nationalism or jingoism. Instead, it is a special, cooperative and pluralistic way of being in the world.

Though we have completed 70 years of independence, it is obvious that the struggle for swaraj is far from over. To me, the central purpose of understanding our parampara or tradition is to bring us closer to swaraj. That is because swaraj is more than political independence; it is the reassessment and reassertion of our civilisational genius.

To achieve this, we must try to overhaul our entire intellectual infrastructure, not just seek a new vocabulary to accomplish this. Such an overhauling would mean, at the least, the realignment of our intellectual enterprise with what we have truly sought and valued for millennia – the pursuit of self-knowledge, truth, virtue, beauty, and, of course, happiness – and the organisation of our material resources in such a way that our daily life conduces to these aims. In the previous sections in this series, we saw how this orientation was provided by our pursharthas, the cardinal aims of life – Dharma, Artha, Kama, and, ultimately, Moksha.

But in our attempts to regain our parampara, merely substituting English by, say, Hindi or Tamil, will not do. These languages are almost as colonised as Indian English is. Therefore, changing the medium alone will not be sufficient, just as sprinkling some Indian words into English will not do. The work of colonisation and enslavement was also done in our own languages, as it was in English. At the same time, English was also used for swaraj-ist purposes.

Indeed, it has been consistently used, against the grain as it were, for the past 150 years or more in India and elsewhere for swaraj. Language chauvinism is not the answer to our language problems. English dominance and anglocentrism may be opposed, but not necessarily the language English itself. We need to change our minds. This fundamental transformation is far more crucial than the superficial changes that are usually advocated by language, religion, or cultural nationalists. We need multicultural or multilingual registers of exchange in India, not to substitute one monoculture or monolingualism with another.

Once we understand that swaraj is the issue, we see parampara not in dialectical opposition with its other, adhunikata (modernity), nor is Bharatiyata (Indianness) a mere opposition to Pashyatikarana (Westernisation). Parampara, instead, is whole, integral, not just fragmentary or antithetical. Not a knee-jerk reaction to the domination of Western categories over Indian ones, but a deep understanding of the difference will take us forward. This can be done, as we have seen, by opening a dialogue between Bharatiya parampara and Western modernity to create new spaces of knowledge and swaraj. In this discussion itself, while I have used both parampara and tradition, I have never tried to find a substitute for swaraj. Some words and concepts, which form the cornerstone of our thinking and culture, must not be substituted, while the rest of our discussions can be carried out, arguably, in any language.

What is Swaraj?

Swaraj is a very old Vedic word, but comes into the vocabulary of modern India in the nineteenth century. Some say Dayanand Saraswati’s Satyarth Prakash (1875) contains its first modern usage, but I have not been able to find it. Dayanand quotes the Vedic “Yah svayam rajate sa svarat”, but does not apply it to political independence from Britain.

The earliest modern use is probably in Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar’s pamphlet Shivajir Mahattva (1902), republished two years later as Shivajir Diksha. Deuskar was a friend of Sri Aurobindo, who also began to use the word. In a few years, with the struggle for freedom acquiring momentum especially because of Lord George Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905, it became the most evocative and popular of indigenous words for political freedom, whether purna or total, or partial within the British Empire.

Several important political leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo used the word, as did Mahatma Gandhi, who also adopted the word, making it a household mantra.

Book Cover and First Page Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj Book Cover and First Page Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj

Hind Swaraj (1909) is not only one of his most important books, but also a comprehensive statement of the aims and methods of non-violent revolution. In the discourse of the freedom movement, though swaraj mostly signifies political autonomy, Gandhi meant much more by it. Perhaps, he and others were intuitively aware of its etymology, though they did not explicitly explain it.

Actually swaraj is an adaptation and shortening of the Sanskrit word swarajya, which is an abstract noun. The word is a compound of swa + raj; swa means self and raj means to shine (the etymology being raj deepnoti). Hence the word means both the shining of the self and the self that shines. The root raj gives us many words associated with power including raja, rex and regina.

The work of British colonisation and enslavement of India was also done in our own languages, as it was in English. The work of British colonisation and enslavement of India was also done in our own languages, as it was in English.

The symbology of light is very important in the Vedas because it suggests the sun of higher consciousness — tat savitur verenyam, as in the Gayatri Mantra.It is to that sun, savitur, that Aurobindo refers in his great poem Savitri. So swarat is a self-luminous person, and swarajya is a state of being swarat or enlightened. We might actually say that swaraj is a very ancient word for enlightenment, the power and illumination that come from the mastery of the self. When applied to a single individual, its form is swarat, an adjective. It is a word that occurs many times in the Rig, Sama, and Yajur Vedas, as it does later in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Upanishads, it can be found in the Chandogya, Taitteriya, and Maitri. But what is this swarajya and who is swarat?

It is in India that political independence came to be expressed even in modern times in terms of enlightenment and self-illumination, not merely political power or independence. Opposing the colonisers and imperialists was thus the external aspect of swarajya; the internal aspect was to have a good, just, and beautiful state, an enlightened social order.

Swarajya is therefore the principle that aspires for better self-management, more effective inner governmentality, because illumination comes from internal order, not oppression. Originally, swarajya refered to the inner management of a person’s powers and capacities, of the senses, organs and of all the different constituents of the person. When these were well-governed, the person too would be all-powerful. For Gandhi, the homology between the individual body and the body politic was a useful metaphor if not a self-evident truth.

But what of swa, from the same root as the Latin sui? Self-rule also means the rule of the self — but which self? The id, the ego or the superego, to use the Freudian set? In traditional Indian psychology, unlike in Freud, there was not only the unconscious self but also the super-conscious, the higher self, what may be termed the “divine” self. In common with pre- and post-Christian Gnostics, Sufis and mystics in other traditions, the ancient Hindus too believed in an unfallen, mighty, spiritual self as constituting the core of each individual. So swaraj would mean the rule of that self within us.

Swarajya is the state of self-mastery; the master of senses is swarat. He or she is nothing less than the yogi perfectly poised in himself or herself. What is the opposite of swarat? It is anyarat anya, other – ruled by others. These others could be the British, the Americans, the Chinese, the dominant or upper classes, our bosses, superiors, fathers, mothers, lovers or even our own internal demons, sins, addictions, habits, propensities, errors, whether we are Brahmins or Dalits.

Synonymous with liberty, freedom and independence, swaraj thus suggests a host of possibilities for inner illumination and self-realisation. The word swaraj is preferable to decolonisation because swaraj is not anti- anyone else. One’s own swaraj can only help others and contribute to the swaraj of others.

In swaraj, the personal and the political merge, one leading to the other, the other leading back to the one. I cannot be free unless all my brothers and sisters are free and they cannot be free unless I am free. Swaraj allows us to resist oppression without hatred and violent opposition. To fight for swaraj, Gandhi developed the praxis of satyagraha or insistence on truth or truth-force for the rights of the disarmed and impoverished people of India.

The swarat is a person who has command over his own body, mind and senses or good internal self-government. Gandhi applied it to the body politic. Simply speaking, he argued that we do not want to be ruled by others; therefore, we should not try to rule over others either. Swaraj, as mentioned earlier, therefore implies self-restraint, self-regulation and self-governing. If we are self-governing, the state as we know it will wither away. For Gandhi, an ideal society consisted of highly evolved, self-regulating individuals, who respected themselves and others. Such a society would not need law enforcers because each citizen would look out for the welfare of his fellows.

Swaraj thus means self-restraint, forbearance, refusal to rule over others. One of the clichés about India is that no matter how powerful the country was, it did not send expeditions of conquerors to countries outside the peninsula, huge armies to conquer, colonise, and bring back pelf from overseas expeditions. This is how the Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Persians, Afghans, Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and the others behaved, coming to India to conquer or plunder, but there is no record of Indian armies doing the same in other lands. There are no narratives of Indians bringing back loot from China, Egypt, Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia, sending out huge ships to conquer and plunder. Or out-rigging land expeditions, to bring back elephants or camels laden with the spoils of war.

There was a large sphere of Indian influence, most of it not through armed conquest, but cultural osmosis and exchange. The historical record of India does not show a desire to go and rule other people, to enforce its will on them, to trample them, to exploit them economically, to oppress them, to crush them — that is not, it would seem, the Indian way. But, by the same token, to be ruled by others is also unacceptable to the Indian spirit; Indians, like other self-respecting peoples, fought against it.

The Parampara of Swaraj

Throughout Indian history, the struggle for swaraj has continued, often unrecorded. We have innumerable instances of villagers protesting against emperors, blocking roads, refusing to pay taxes, fasting and so on. In the 150 years of British rule, there was a revolt practically every single year in India. Some part or the other was always up in arms against the British rule. So Pax Brittanica was a great illusion. How could there be? If you are an imperialistic power, you can only enforce your rule with the force of arms. In today’s context, how can you have peace in Iraq or Syria, where every other day people die by explosions, executions, bullets and bombs? For lasting peace, you need swaraj.

Swaraj is a political ideal that comes from a deep spiritual ideal. Despite settling for Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, Gandhi never quite gave up the effort for swaraj. Writing in his paper Harijan a year before Independence, Gandhi outlined his vision of a good society:

“In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units. Therefore the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.”
Gandhi in his paper Harijan

In Gandhi’s model of oceanic circles, we have a way of relating to one another and to political authority which is very different from the pyramidical paradigm. In the latter, a few people on top rule the rest; as you go higher and higher, the number is smaller and smaller, until at the very top, you have only one person. In Gandhi’s model, the individual is the centre of the oceanic circle, but continually expands his world to include his family, his neighbourhood, his village, his state, his country and so on.

What is wonderful is that Gandhi allows each person to be the centre of his or her cosmos. What is wonderful is that Gandhi allows each person to be the centre of his or her cosmos.

What is wonderful is that Gandhi allows each person to be the centre of his or her cosmos, a centre that wishes to expand and include. So the self in swaraj is not a limited but an expanding, potentially unlimited self, which can stretch to embrace the whole world till, ultimately, the self alone is; there is no other. The Gandhian model is not one of conflict, but of cooperation. Progress does not necessarily come though clashes of opposites as in Hegelian and Marxian dialectics, but through sacrifice and transformation.

While swaraj has an inbuilt anti-imperialistic orientation, it also evokes a culturalist-nationalist position in which one’s civilisational heritage is owned up, even embraced, rather than discarded. In that sense, it suggests not a Western type of universalism, but a colourful cosmopolitanism, rooted in a radically different notion of “self”. But there is nothing “communal” or fanatical about this project. That is why I believe that Gandhi took great pains to emphasise that swaraj is not a form of narrow nationalism or jingoism. Instead, it is a special, cooperative and pluralistic way of being in the world, as this quotation shows: “My nationalism, fierce though it is, is not exclusive, is not devised to harm any nation or individual.”

In this context, it would be useful to notice how words which nowadays denote secular phenomena have deeply spiritual roots in India. We have already seen this with the word swaraj. The other word that is frequently used for political independence is swatantrya or swatantrata. Both these words are central to the eschatology of Kashmir Shaivism or trika philosophy. Metaphysically and epistemologically, Shiva, the ultimate reality, is free or utterly independent; so his self-forgetting or self-restricting as well as his self-remembering and self-realisation are signs of his total independence. Since the jiva or the individual is the “same” as Shiva, we too are ignorant or wise as the case may be out of our own free and (un)conscious choice. When we suffer, we forget ourselves and our own self-perfection; when we are happy, it is because we have regained our original nature.

Similarly, we might argue that colonialism overcomes us, as Gandhi himself said in Hind Swaraj, because we “give” our freedom, not to mention wealth and well-being, to others; decolonisation, then, is only a reclamation of what is ours, a recognition and reassertion of who we are. Never fully colonised in the first place, we now merely assert our right to be free again.

Meaning-making, thus, depends not so much on the sign or on the object under consideration, but on the consciousness of the thinker or perceiver. As our consciousness is, so the world appears to us. But the task of changing our consciousness is not easy. It requires a continuous engagement with the material realities that surround us. What the tradition does show us is that these material realities are not fixed, but determined by the level of consciousness we can bring to bear upon them.

Regardless of our political or intellectual inclinations, most of us are obsessed with Project India. Perhaps, the only thing that proponents of all shades of political opinion from the extreme Left to the extreme Right are agreed upon is that this project is still unfinished. The Left thinks that Independence was partial, if not false, because it brought about a bourgeois not a proletarian revolution. The Hindutvavadis believe that the dream of the Hindu Rashtra has not yet been fulfilled. We often forget that the frail old Mahatma also thought that our “tryst with destiny” was not all that glorious. While Jawaharlal Nehru was taking his oath of office in a glittering ceremony in the Viceroy’s palace, the stubborn apostle of love and non-violence was trying to bring peace in the blood-soaked streets of Calcutta. Obviously, the coming of Independence was not as momentous to him as the wrenching reality that swaraj was still a distant dream.

That which harmonises our personal and political aspirations is the swaraj that Gandhi was after. In it is constituted our true sovereignty, as individuals and as a people. Swaraj does not mean political independence alone, but a certain vision of society free from exploitation, oppression, violence and unhappiness. It will not be a society of the haves living at the expense of the have-nots or a society wherein the individual is dwarfed and crushed by the government, nor will it be a society in which making money and indulging in sense pleasures are the be all and end all of life. Just as each individual seeks swaraj, so does each nation, society or country. I shall sum up in Gandhi’s words, “I submit that swaraj is an all-satisfying goal for all time… It is infinitely greater than and includes Independence.”

If debates on globalisation, sovereignty and culture are ultimately debates about which way we want India to go, it is clear to me that both modernity and post-modernity represent paths which we should not buy into fully. At best, they provide convenient points of entry to the real questions that shape our lives. Because these paths have made inroads into our own life and consciousness, they must be examined, understood, possibly appreciated from a distance, but ultimately negated or incorporated into the broader quest for swaraj.

I am convinced that our anxiety over how to cope with the latest intellectual assault from the West will be mitigated once we understand better who we are. This requires a radical dislocation of our subservient fixation upon the West and a realignment of our intellectual energies to serve our own civilisational enterprises.

The Persistence of Parampara

Before I close, I would like to mention the extraordinary sense in which Dr Baidyanath Chaturvedi, then associated with the Indira Gandhi National Centre, explained the concept of parampara to me. According to him, parampara can never die because it predicts its own decline, even death. Because of this foretelling, the breakdown of the parampara becomes a part of the parampara itself. In that sense, parampara signifies the ultimate reality or truth, beyond or outside which no meaning-making is possible.

He cites as example the Puranic foretelling of the decline of dharma. In Kali Yuga, so the legend goes, the bull of dharma stands only on one leg. That is why in Kali Yuga people forget the dharma. There is wickedness and chaos everywhere. Moral values are uprooted; social and family norms lose their meaning. There is disharmony, degradation and corruption. What happens to dharma in such a situation?

Only a few wise ones, who are aware of the parampara, are able to follow dharma. The rest go astray. Even when a particular epoch comes to an end, as in the metaphor of pralaya or flood, which submerges all life, the Vedas or the gnosis they embody is saved for the next yuga, the next cycle of creation. In this manner, parampara reigns across the times of its own demise, linking the broken-down and bygone order with a new birth.

In this extraordinary sense of the word, parampara signifies that which transcends itself, transcendental of the transcendent, which can only signify the movement of supreme reality itself, simultaneously immanent and supernatural, in time and beyond time, situated and spaceless.

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