RADICAL POLITICAL thinking is more often the byproduct of a crisis rather than its cause. In Europe, it was several centuries of traumatic social upheaval that produced the brilliant run of thinkers from Bodin to Marx, all of whom addressed aspects of the birth of modern society and its new economic relations.
A similar moment arrived in India at the crisis of the colonial state, which was not in 1857—a bad year for British rule, though not fatal—but through the 1870s, as famine struck, the rupee fell, global recession hit, and investment in public works failed to produce the expected profits. This left the Raj cash-strapped and devoid of ideas. ‘High’ imperialism— full cultural supremacism—then appeared as a strategy to legitimise British rule that side-stepped elections, required no public spending, and lay beyond the power of Indians to discount. But imperialism, rooted in a view of the past and obsessed with present concerns, could not contemplate it own future. Constructive vision ended with the departure of Viceroy Ripon in 1884, leaving the intellectual initiative squarely with Indians.
The drama of 1857 did not immediately produce new political thinking in India, apart from a general recognition that military force was not a suitable response to a regime that relied so heavily on military force itself. The Uprising did, however, mark a decisive turn on India’s path to modernity, because after it, the British unilaterally broke off their alliance with the small band of middle-class, Indian modernisers in the presidency towns—the one section of the population that had stayed solidly loyal. Rebuffed, these people became the future liberal nationalists of the Congress. But new indigenous political ideas did not come from that quarter. Instead they came from a section of Indian society usually characterised as religious. Here the traditional historiography does not serve us well, because the description of the Indian response to Western intrusion is usually ‘renaissance’, whereas what took place was much more creative than a rediscovery of ancient forms. It was more like an Indian ‘Enlightenment’, a fundamental restructuring of intellectual terms and systems.
From the 1870s, Indian thinkers began to re-theorise government and society, but they were not living in a sovereign country, and this profoundly affected their conclusions. Unlike Europeans trying to imagine an ideal state, Indians were trying to get out of a very real and deeply imperfect one. What emerged therefore was rather more about a healthy society than theoretical governance.
There were also profound differences in the Indian approaches to religion, authority and Reason. The European Enlightenment revolutionised religious thinking by separating moral authority from other forms of power—cognitive, social and political— whereas in India religion was retained as a bedrock concept. The word, however, did not signify what it meant in Europe. Europeans deliberately abandoned divine authority in favour of Reason as final arbiter in their speculations, because religion in Europe had been such a destructive force. In India, however, it offered a basic terrain of unity, and Reason remained a process rather than a substitute for divine authority. The thinking that developed was consequently both innovative and locally specific, as Indians approached similar problems from a different angle. Like Hobbes, they had to explain why they were in the mess they were in, as well as how to get out.
There were several distinct approaches, but the golden thread, the most politically effective amalgam of ideas, ran from the spiritual diagnostics of Swami Vivekananda through to the political praxis of MK Gandhi. This ‘school’ explained the decline of India in multiple ways, took on squarely the problem of assimilation of Western ideas, and charted out a national revival, all in a positive manner without undue recrimination against either indigenous or alien actors. Most importantly, it was this sacred thread, and not the puritan revivalists of the Arya Samaj, the high-minded Brahmos, Tilak’s orthodox agitators, or the revolutionary esoterics following Aurobindo, that actively mobilised a trans-regional mass following.
This Vivekananda-Gandhi sampradaya was also intellectually distinctive, in that it aspired to discover universal truths. Universalism was the great triumph of European ideas, and though some of these can be seen as local approaches to local problems, they were dressed in grandiose universal language and have been taken seriously all over the world. The new Indian dharma was a close nexus of ideas which had all the universalism that the European endeavour boasted at its best. It had global ambitions to free everyone and reform everything.
The religious aspect of this Indian Enlightenment has been consistently misrepresented by Western writers. It was religious in character, but it avoided divine sanction and relied on human reason. Though Vivekananda was a renunciate and Gandhi a pietist, what they preached was not so much religion as community, because they viewed the connection between individual persons as a spiritual affair. Advaita was this connection, based in a relationship not to nation or state, but to God, to the shared essence of existence that Vedanta teaches. Advaita was a culturally familiar way of resolving conflicts in service of a larger purpose; not to secure peace as in Hobbes, or to secure property as in Locke, but to maintain independence in a morally refurbished, free India. Here was the unique benefit of accessing spirituality as opposed to sectarian religion— it was a short cut to the generalities that bind humanity.
Rational reflection on the political implications of non-dualism led to a practical conclusion, service of the poor; and an abstract conclusion, acceptance of unity in diversity. Gandhi then added a process—satyagraha—and used his long experience of activism to introduce symbols and slogans arranged around a central, focused personality. The result was a pioneering form of populism that resembled traditional bhakti. It was a redefinition of Indian religion as an advance into the world, not a retreat from it.
THE RELIGIOUS ELEMENT in all this, though, is better represented as spirituality. Spirituality is the least specific kind of religion, the one least concerned with scripture or community identity, and most open to the notion of progress. This synthesis of practical politics and higher abstraction was the genius of Gandhi, whose debt to Vivekananda is unmistakeable, and was acknowledged. Multiple conceptual and terminological threads connect the thought of the two men: truth, strength, self-help, fearlessness, service to the masses, the corruption of caste, non-sectarianism, civic nationalism, and India’s mission to save the world.
Unlike Europeans trying to imagine an ideal state, Indians were trying to get out of a very real and deeply imperfect one. What emerged was rather more about a healthy society than theoretical governance
In sum, the Indian response to imperial domination was a redefinition of what society is, what it is for, and how it should be run. This new thinking addressed history— how India had been ‘ruined’—and was ambitious enough to try to design a future, which none of the Europeans had ever really done, with the possible exception of Marx, whose ideas were taken up by revolutionaries in need of some haute couture intellectual clothing.
In the process, foundational liberal ideas were redefined. Liberty and equality became broader concepts, not narrow political ‘rights’, and became more purposive. Swaraj was more than voting, and it centrally acknowledged the issue of Will. Sarvodaya went beyond legal status, with a sense of social fairness and access to justice in its widest sense.
We can object that such notions were impractical or over-idealised, but we should remind ourselves that Europe’s pet abstractions have always enjoyed a very easy ride. No one asked John Locke to produce a copy of his Social Contract, signed by millions; no one told Hegel that his ‘zeitgeist’ was so much airy-fairy nonsense.
Though it was heavily wrapped in traditional garb, there was undeniably a modernist core to the thinking that transformed the Congress from bourgeois tonga to demotic omnibus in 1920. Choice and change lie at the heart of modernity, and the new Vedanta offered both. It also avoided relying on ancient scriptural authority or existing networks of privilege. Though it had a sense of the sacred it was a broad and socially open congregation, and its principal materialistic concern was for mass welfare. “Bread! Bread!” cried the Swami, while the Mahatma considered that ‘bread for the masses’ was a cornerstone of Swaraj.
The most politically successful indigenous response to British rule thus came from traditional wellsprings; it promoted national unity while addressing the problems that came with it, and set out a decentralised, humane approach to problems of society and self-government. It was not party political, and Gandhi tried very hard to make a virtue of its catholicity.
But it was a fragile package, and much of it was lost in the turbulent 1940s. Little survived into independent India, except perhaps the Bhoodan movement and Panchayati Raj—a meagre return for such an ambitious philosophy. So what happened?
National unity was not easily available to Indians through British colonial institutions or imported political ideologies. After 1947, it was much easier to return to sacralising God, not Man
When the moment of demission came, conventional political expectations took over; banal limitations swept idealism aside. The British gravitated to like minds on the Indian side, and Gandhi nominated Nehru as Congress leader. Thus the context that had created the new Vedanta also served to snuff it out. It could not easily be engrafted onto the existing institutions, or thrive in open competition for electoral office. It was oppositional and transformative, a system driven by the injustice of colonialism but which could not easily supplant its enemy. It was a blueprint for recasting the liberal notion of progress, but not a programme for government, especially not in a country beset with such pressing concerns on all levels. Implementing something so radical was always going to be very difficult in a colonially structured state set in a capitalist world economy. No one dared attempt to scale up the village of Gandhi’s imagination to the size of a subcontinent.
This can serve as a reminder that the harshest reality of colonial rule was that India was so constantly railroaded into a very limited range of options. National unity was not easily available to Indians through British colonial institutions or imported political ideologies. After 1947, it was much easier to return to sacralising God, not Man. The flexible, indigenous quality was lost, and India moved from spiritualised politics to politics about religion,with the instrumentalisation—even the weaponisation—of creed and caste. What followed was more Western in style than the ecumenical religion of mass politics that made modest demands on its adherents, and combined a broad sense of progress with a realistic view of achievable material ends.
In the end, Vivekananda’s core modernism failed to flourish, because the other anti-colonial forces had little use for it. They wanted its rallying power without its subtlety, its political liberation above its rational content or its spiritual mukti. As a result there has been a continuing polarity in Indian politics between the Left, peddling Euro- socialism, and the Right, sporting a nervous nationalism that was not the Mahayana of the 1920s. The fight for the soul of India has, ironically, been conducted on European lines.
Narendra Modi has used more of the lost language that any other leader since independence. He quotes Gandhi and Vivekananda approvingly. But where is he really? His mentors were wary of both nationalism and sectarianism, and were reluctant to embrace materialism as a gauge of success. The Swami declared himself a socialist, and many since, including SC Bose, have acquiesced in this claim. But his emphasis on strength, ‘more opportunity’ and national feeling has allowed the right to recruit him. We are reminded again that politics never stops. Both Burke and Rousseau have been claimed by left and right alike.
As civilisations, Europe and South Asia were on a roughly equal level in 1600 CE, but by around 1700, after a century of crisis, Europe had edged ahead in science, politics and finance. Within another hundred years these mutually accelerating advantages landed India in a colonial, military-fiscal straitjacket.
Europe was able to reap the benefits of her crisis in a way that India has yet to benefit from her own.