Indigenous Alternative to Western Modernity

Yudhishthira receiving knolwedge from Bhishma

Swaraj is seen as the indigenous alternative which can counter the Western domination and answer over the question of India’s national status and negates the imposition of Westernisers 


Shri Prakash Singh

Much ink has been spilt over the issue of superiority of Western and Indian civilisations. The debate about India’s civilisational foundation continues to swirl academic wind in the Western as well as Indian scholarship. Even intrinsic but deep-seated foundational question like India’s nationhood remains the core of contention to them insofar as they brazenly maintain that India had not been a nation prior to the advent of Western influence but merely an amalgamated place of different sects, races and creeds. Contending this erroneous proposition, aptly remarked, in the book, The Fundamental Unity of India (1914), written by Radha Kumud Mookerji and introduced by J. Ramsay MacDonald as:
If India is merely a geographical expressions, a mere collection of separate peoples, traditions, and tongues, existing side by side but with no sense of nationhood in common, Indian history cannot be the record of an evolution of a civilization – it can be nothing more than an account of raids, conflicts, relations of conquerors and conquered. That this is the common view is only too true; that a superficial view of India lends all its weight to that view is only too apparent; that it is the view of many of the present governors is proclaimed without secrecy from Ceylon to Afghanistan.
The narrow attempt of Western scholarship of looking at the notion of nationhood notoriously eschews India’s enriched civilisational aspect which was, somehow besieged by the dark corners of the Indian history. To mention convincingly, the hyphenation was eliminated which clouded the radiant Indian civilisation under series of exogenous impacts, say, foreign invasion and cultural onslaught, by reinstituting Swaraj, not merely in the political sense but also holistic cultural and social senses.

Swaraj: A Historical Excursion

The idea of Swaraj is not a new phenomenon; rather, it has in-depth historical and philosophical foundations beneath it and as old and enriched as Indian civilisation. The term Swaraj has, undoubtedly, Vedantic lineage. Etymologically, the term ‘Swaraj’ is made up of two words- Swā (self) and Raj (rule), which means self-lumined or the self-rule; the self is the soul and henceforth it is the state of being where soul rules over the body. Subsequently, the term self may be individual or collective in manner. As in the case of the individual, it is a state of Mokśa. The term Swaraj appears at multiple places in Rigveda and Atharvaveda and have a similar meaning, i.e. the state of identification with the self-refulgent when the individual attained freedom. Further, this would be the ideal society or state, if ruled by the self-refulgent king, then it is a Swaraj State. According to the Vedic literature, the issues of Swaraj can be discussed under the two heads, i.e. Swaraj for the self and Swaraj for the society. Both the Swaraj could be attained if it is functioning according to the dharma. Thus, dharma is the foundation of Swaraj even for the individual or for the state/society. This relational connotation can be understood with the assistance of the ancient maxim ‘Yata Pinde tata Brahmande’ i.e. as the man so as the world.
More or less, all the major schools of the Indian philosophy had stressed on the term Swaraj as the goal of human life. This involves the discussion of the true liberation from the objective conditions of mental faculties of the individual which emerged from the personal desires, actions, and ignorance. It is the knowledge that liberates the individuals after releasing them from this unenthusiastic desires. This is the finest reflection of the condition of ‘anānda’ where the creature abolished the individuality and it becomes the one who enjoined with the great divine, i.e. creator which means he realised his oneness with the almighty itself. According to Chandogya Upanishad, immorality is lifting oneself upon the region of the deity. The liberated self becomes one with the all and lives the life in unity with the god. Further, Chandogya Upanishad states Swaraj in the spiritual sense that “self-governing autonomy and unlimited freedom in all world were the traits of Swaraj in the sage. As in the Gita, this liberation evolved from a higher consciousness, an awareness of the unity of all being, the identity of oneself with the universal self or atman”. In the words of Srimad Bhagwat Gita, one can easily trace the methodologies of attaining the Swaraj under which the individual is a moral agent of aspiring for his own spiritual liberation. Man, who spends his whole life thoroughly in the service of the humanity and attainment of self-liberation from materiality, attains true Swaraj. So, Swaraj is possible only through the control of passions, senses and ill-will desires. Further, Bhagwat Gita made it crystal clear that there is divinity in every man; the only need is to realize it. And, to realise this truth, while alive, one should have the realisation of the self. It is widely accepted that the real ethos of the Indian life which is carried by the ancient civilisation of Indian was not political liberty as defined under the instrumental use of freedom for the pursuit of material ends, but freedom from desires, or what ancient sages described it as mukti/mokśa.

Gandhian Concept of Swaraj: An Exploration of Indic Civilisation

Swaraj, as discussed, does not restrain only to the attainment of political liberation rather it lies in the self-enlightenment of the minds towards one’s own culture, civilisation, and human values. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi, spells out the concept of Swaraj, through his Hind Swaraj, that it is a mechanism through which it inherits the metaphysical drift of the ideas on nation and nationalism. It is, gradually, translated as the self-rule, i.e. the rule which the self exercises over itself. As defined by Gandhi in ‘Hind Swaraj’, where he states Western civilisation merely is a disease and suggests that the cure is to be found only in the traditional Indian practice of self-control over mental and physical faculties, the entire notion of the self has metaphysical ramifications.
In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi traced the evidence of civilisational exploration which he referred to as the normative concept that is emerged to distinguish good from bad and superior to inferior. To Gandhi, the West recognised the material preferences as the primary concern of civilisation which is, undoubtedly, restrained with the particularity of time and place. Unlike Western Civilisation, for Gandhi, Indian civilisation deals with the sacredness and purity of mental faculties that were duly associated duty, self-control, and morality. According to Gandhi, as discussed in Hind Swaraj, described by John Stuart Mill in his ‘Civilization’, an Essays on Politics and Society, ed. John M. Robson, “the term civilization both as normative ideal and descriptive term that is somewhere co-relational with culture.” Subsequently, Hind Swaraj is a nationalistic text which also reflects the universality while theorising the civilisational values. Swaraj is a paradigmatic instance of imperial critique, after demystifying European civilisation, and described a set of values and finally asserts the universality.
In Young India, Gandhi believed, Swaraj can neither be gifted by one nation to another nor it can be purchased. Swaraj is thus the fruit of incessant labour after suffering beyond tolerance. At another stage, he said, there is a need to enhance the ability to defend ourselves against the western imposition to live life in true perfection. One of the most renowned commentators on Gandhi, Anthony J. Parel in his Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony spells out that “the autonomy of the self as found in Hind Swaraj follows substantially the Gita conception of Karma”. Thus, Gandhi invoked Gita’s ideas and principles, primarily Nishkama Karma or selfless action, provides objective correlational aspects to his notion of Swaraj. Few amongst the commentators have argued about the distinctness between the Gandhian Swaraj and Hindu philosophical underpinnings but as noted his concept of Swaraj never invokes Hinduism, merely, as an institutionalised religion.
As a civilisational concept, Swaraj for Gandhi meant that the idea of a nation has been an old principle even before British colonisation. The term Swaraj has an enriched correlation with the historicity of the nation and civilisation. Unlike prior interpretation of Swaraj, Swaraj is a bit more inclusive and considered with more historical meanings with the sense of positivity altogether with the moralistic elements within it. As Bhikhu Parekh in his influential study, Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi’s Political Discourse, sums up his notion of Swaraj as, “Swaraj was(is) a form of collective integrity, a community’s mode of being true to itself and running its affairs in harmony with it deepest truth. For Gandhi, Swaraj was (is) the ultimate ideal of every territoriality organised society independence was (is) it's necessary but by no means, enough conditions and was(is) desirable only because a country forced to live by its ruler’s truth remained untrue to itself”.
Thus, the detailed explanation of Swaraj, as discussed, lifts the scepticism over its civilisational correlation where Swaraj reflects and later proves that the nation is an organic concept which evolves with the passage of time without losing its civilisational ethos and values. This led to the issues of what is the frame of the nation set by the followers of Swaraj. Another instance of Swaraj where it proved its civilisation significance in the making of a nation is not restraining the individuality which is never been undermined or tampered. As the individuals’ autonomy is the primary condition of realising Swaraj notion of nation. Swaraj lost its worth if it starts compromises with the subjection of the individuals but Gandhi, however, negates the autonomy at the cost of nations unity and nation subjection to the others. As Gandhi states in Hind Swaraj, in order to reply to the readers’ question about India’s subjection, “The English have not taken India; we have given it to them”. According to this, it was the Indian who raised their accord to the Britishers in the hope of unexpected progress which they believed is only their self-interest. In a nutshell, Indians hold the materialist values, comparatively more than indigenous ethos and values, of Western civilisation that is the cause of India’s subjection.
Finally, while summing up, the Swaraj is seen as the indigenous alternative which can counter the Western domination and answer over the question of India’s national status and negates the imposition of Westernisers. As explained by the Swarajists, specifically Gandhi, Swaraj is the power of that nation, here in India, which is heterogeneous in quantity and quality, sensitive by historicity, multidimensional by a culture that surprised many amongst the dooms-day speculators. More interestingly, the political pundits of the present era of globalisation and multiculturalism who have been constantly impersonating the breaking India concept, Swaraj, under the civilisational hold, becomes a riposte to them and any such threat can be easily countered with that.
(The writer is Prof. of Political Science in the University of Delhi)