The Ideas of Indians

What did Ashoka, Shah Jahan and the Buddha mean to modern India's founding fathers?

01 March 2013
Righteous Republic re-examines the political thought and practice of MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, among other nationalist leaders, in light of their engagement with classical and historical Indian intellectual traditions.
BETMAN / CORBIS
Righteous Republic re-examines the political thought and practice of MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, among other nationalist leaders, in light of their engagement with classical and historical Indian intellectual traditions.
BETMAN / CORBIS

WHERE DID THE IDEAS that shaped the political foundations of modern India originate? What were the sources of the commitments that guided its constitutional imagination and its understanding of democracy? In recent decades, these questions concerning the intellectual roots of Indian democracy have coalesced around the notion of “the idea of India”, a coinage of Rabindranath Tagore’s whose contemporary valence stems from Sunil Khilnani’s book of the same name. In that seminal work, first published in 1997, Khilnani drew attention to the unprecedented character of India’s democratic experiment. Unlike the democratic revolutions of America and France, the Indian story was wholly novel in instituting universal suffrage in a country whose population was overwhelmingly illiterate and poor, and tethered to social and religious institutions, such as caste, that were deeply hostile to the logic and language of equality. Moreover, this political vision did not ground itself in the idioms of classical Indian political thought, a tradition that was often rejected or bypassed on the grounds that it lacked precisely those political concepts—democracy, freedom, and equality—deemed essential to the new institutional order. In this sense, the founding ideas of a democracy so conspicuously modernist in form and aspiration have often been understood as imported from without, from liberal and constitutional traditions that had their primary referents in the West.

Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic seeks to correct and add nuance to this account. For Vajpeyi, “the idea of India” has deeper roots in Indian pasts, and in its modern form emerged through an intimate engagement with, and not a rejection of, Indian intellectual traditions. Vajpeyi returns to the classical phase of Indian nationalism—roughly, from the late 19th-century to independence—and its pantheon of “founding fathers” to reconstruct the decisive moment in which modern Indian identity came into being. In her account, this was a shared endeavour undertaken by, among others, MK Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, and BR Ambedkar—the five figures to which she devotes her attention—and it cohered around the meaning of swaraj or self-rule. More specifically, she suggests, it entailed a profound meditation on what constituted the ‘swa’ of swaraj: the nature of the Indian self that would rule and be ruled. Most crucially, Vajpeyi argues that in their collective search for Indian selfhood, the “founders” were deeply influenced by Indian traditions of moral and political thinking, and turned to ancient and classical texts, ideas, and ideals in the formulation of their political values and visions.

The quest for the Indian self, as Vajpeyi describes it, tethers the search for political sovereignty to a cultural project that attempts to secure the unity and identity of the incipient nation—as in all modern nationalisms. Indian nationalism likewise sought to create, restore, and give substance to an Indian “self” in the wake of a traumatic and dislocating encounter with colonialism. The crisis of the Indian self under colonialism was compounded by the concomitant decline of Indian political traditions. In her view, historians of modern India have all too often represented this encounter, and the nationalist response it provoked, as yielding a modernity derivative of colonial and Western influence. For Vajpeyi, however, a defining feature of the nationalist reconstruction of the self was its understanding of and orientation towards Indian pasts, to Indian history and specifically Indic traditions. Through the course of the book, Vajpeyi aptly demonstrates that Gandhi, the Tagores, Nehru, and Ambedkar all engaged with iconic texts and figures of Indian religious, literary, and political history. This is done through chapters that successively focus on Gandhi’s reading of the Gita, Rabindranath’s rewriting of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, Abanindranath’s depictions of Emperor Shah Jahan, Nehru’s interest in Ashokan edicts and symbols, and Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism.

Karuna Mantena teaches political theory at Yale University and is the author of Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (2010). She is currently writing a book on Gandhi’s political thought.

Keywords: Perry Anderson Rabindranath Tagore colonialism intellectual history nationalism Mahatma Gandhi Ananya Vajpeyi BR Ambedkar Ashoka
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