IDEA OF SVARAJ
Bhattacharya’s discourse “Svaraj in ideas” is as relevant today after
more than fifty years as it was relevant when it was delivered around
1928-30 at a time when India was still about twenty years away from
the goal of political Svaraj. Its
current relevance redounds greatly to its author’s credit (combining
as it does an impassioned plea with keen analysis), but, what is more
to the point, also to the discredit and shame of contemporary Indians.*
More than three decades of political independence have not
seen us even substantially nearer the goal of Svaraj in ideas. In all conscience the discourse by Bhattacharya should have become
by now only a document of successful struggle for that second Svaraj.
A reconsideration of the discourse is certainly
welcome therefore, but the occasion should not be permitted to degenerate
into one of collective breast-beating or one of a rehash of the latest
slogan of “ideational decolonization” currently fashionable in the
West or, more insidiously, one of pleading for “Svadeshi in ideas”. Though “Svadeshi in ideas” was far from the
author’s intention, there is a real danger of that sort of misreading
of Bhattacharya’s discourse – not because the author is in any way
unclear or ambiguous on the point but because the misreading is an
easy way out for the tired mind or the lethargic mind.
I propose to do on this occasion is two things, namely, first, to
block the way to the misreading, and, secondly, to consider the circumstances
that led to the situation lamented by Bhattacharya and to the lamentable
continuance of that situation. But
let us first present Bhattacharya’s argument (as far as possible,
using his own phraseology). This would also help me to set out more clearly
the points on which I have some reservations about that argument.
The domain of ideas is the conscious level of operation of culture. So any consideration of culture processes is
also applicable to processes that have to do with ideas. (Bhattacharya nowhere says this in so many
words, but it is an obvious presupposition underlying his argument.)
Cultural assimilation is acceptance of alien ideas in place of (or
in addition to) indigenous ideas as a result of conscious and free
choice. This process is typically accompanied by critical
sifting and fair competition between the alien and the indigenous.
Cultural subjection is submission to alien ideas without any critical
engagement either with the alien ideas being accepted or with the
indigenous ideas that are being replaced.
This process is typically unconscious.
Cultural self-determination is more than a desirable goal – it is
the natural condition of a community in a state of health.
Its absence or loss is life-harming not only to the community
but also to the very soul of its members.
Cultural assimilation is compatible with cultural self-determination;
indeed in a given case it may assist progress.
Cultural subjection is the antithesis of cultural self-determination
and therefore an evil, especially when, in its acute form, there is
even no consciousness of the restraint on freedom.
An initial resistance to alien ideas is natural and even a healthy
defence against cultural subjection.
One associates such resistance with folk wisdom. (Bhattacharya perhaps should have explicitly added : The initial
resistance should remain initial, a symptom of critical reserve and
not a symptom of blind rejection of the alien.)
So much for Bhattacharya’
controlling ideas. It may be noted by way of a historical footnote
that these ideas of his seem to be a reflex of the anti-Benthamite,
idealistic trend of European thought and thus an instance of healthy
cultural assimilation on the part of Bhattacharya.
As assimilated alien ideas they get linked up in his mind with
the indigenous idea underlying the Sanskrit adage about svadharma
Now let us see how
he brings these controlling ideas to bear on India under British domination. He accepts the received division of that society
into “our educated men” (cultural élite in today’s women.) The cultural élite are usually further divided
into the conservatives or revivalists on the one hand (the two terms
possess overlapping but non-identical ranges of application) and the
reformists or Westernizers on the other hand.
Bhattacharya offers a somewhat different account of this customary
subdivision of “our educated men.”
Indian society under British domination presents an interesting case. Given the rich, indigenous, pre-British culture
of India, one would have expected cultural assimilation. Instead one
finds cultural subjection, especially among our educated men.
Such being the case, one finds among them, especially the Westernizers,
hybridization rather than synthesis, docile acceptance of the alien
idea rather than a critique of the fundamentals, unawareness of the
inherited or hasty comparison between the inherited and the alien
rather than critical comparison between the two, passive survival
of inherited ideas as marginal relics rather than a lively sense of
continuity between the past and the present, patch-like addition of
the alien to Indian culture rather than a translation of the alien
into indigenous terms. Even
the use of a hybrid language rather than alternating between English
and the Indian language appears to reflect this state of affairs.
Even the conservative or revivalist stance from an impotent resentment
rather than a critical and therefore selective rejection grounded
in a true appreciation of any conflict between the alien and the indigenous. (One wishes that Bhattacharya had developed this insight further
and brought out how uncritical conservatism/revivalism and uncritical
reformism are but two sides of the same coin; namely, a basic sense
of insecurity, loss of nerve. Adler
would have called it the unconscious inferiority complex, which sometimes
parades as boasting about the superiority of the indigenous.)
How to account for this strange and sorry state of affairs?
The primary cause is of course the crippling sense of helplessness
in the face of a foreign power from which only a genius may escape. But there is a secondary cause also. It appears that our educated men have uncritically
swallowed the Western idea of a brusque rationalism, a plea for the
rational and therefore universal conceived in abstract terms without
any organic relationship with the inherited and local.
One should rather conceive of the rational and therefore universal
in terms of the concrete universal and so brought into organic relationship
with its particular manifestation.
Thus, an alien idea if found acceptable after critical appraisal
will have to be thoroughly assimilated to the indigenous if it is
to have its expected beneficial effects. While brusque rationalism may do for science
and technology, only mature rationalism will do for human sciences
Again, a historical
footnote, Bhattacharya does not use the expressions “organic” and
“concrete”, but clearly means what these expressions say.
The two alternative versions of rationalism-universalism correspond
to the utilitarian-British-Continental-idealistic-vitalistic-Coleridgeian
version that we have mentioned earlier. (Compare Mill’s essays on
Béntham and Coleridge.)
Assuming that this
is a fair and correct account of Bhattacharya’s plea for a Svaraj
in ideas addressed to his contemporary Indians, one can se how it
may give comfort but no justification to the misreading, namely, that
Bhattacharya is pleading for nativism, for Svadeshi in ideas.
The parenthetic observations under items (6) and (9) are critical
– they lead us to see both how the misreading may arise and also how
the reading is indeed a misreading.
So much for plugging the leak, blocking the escape route. Now
for a critical assessment of item 10, which offers Bhatacharya’s explanation
for the sad state of affairs. In my opinion Bhatacharya’s explanation is
correct in so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It does not tell us, for example, why there
were not enough geniuses around to escape the paralysis of political
slavery and so to rescue the other geniuses, if not the rest of the
élite , if not the masses. The
embarrassing fact is that even some geniuses could not wholly escape
cultural subjection. ( I am sure that Bhattacharya would not have
defined such figures out of the class of geniuses to save his hypothesis!)
I now offer a hypothesis
supplementary to Bhattacharya’s hypothesis, with which I have no essential
quarrel. (For ease of reference,
I shall continue numbering items).
The Indian response is puzzling if we recognize the high degree of
development of the indigenous culture as inherited from the distant
past, but not so puzzling if we recognize the high degree of degeneration
of the Indian society and culture of the recent past.
While the alien ideas of the West sprang from real minds functioning
in a rich and vigorous life, the indigenous ideas of pre-British India
had already lost this support of real minds and a rich and strong
life. The paralysis of political
slavery under invading Muslim rulers and indigenous but partially
de-Indianized Muslim rulers cannot wholly account for this loss of
There was an earlier atrophy of Indian culture.
Indigenous ideas couched in highly literary languages like
Sanskrit and Pali and Prakrit had already lost touch with the life
as it was lived from day to day in the vernaculars.
On the one hand the vernaculars had no prose of ideas; for
the masses and even for most educated men the indigenous ideas were
either a sealed book or available in attenuated or garbled versions.
On the other hand, even for those who cold wield the literary
languages the expressions in these languages had become overly abstract
terms with no organic contact with everyday life or, worse still,
mere names to be repeated parrot-like.
The Indian response to the West involved, among other things, the
replacement of Sanskrit by English.
No wonder the first attempts at a prose of ideas in the vernaculars
were very often couched in English in the guise of Sanskritized translations
imperfectly fusing with the vernacular.
The Medieval resurgence (associated with the bhakti poets) and the
Indian awakening (misnamed the Indian Renaissance) were two
attempts to counteract this atrophy).
Both these attempts fell short of the job on hand, but this
should not detract from their spirit and partial success.
“Our educated men”
have too often been made the whipping boys by the various physicians,
Marxist or otherwise, diagnosing the malaise of this wounded civilization
or giving the “native” civilization a clean bill of health.
I still have no answer
to the remoter question, namely, why the Indian civilization atrophied
in the first place, and why the two indigenous attempts to pull it
our and up by its bootstraps fell short of the job.
(For a brave attempt to tackle the first sub-question, see
D.D. Kosambi’s writings on the Indian civilization.)
In any case I feel
that we shall gain a better perspective on the problem that was the
occasion of Bhattacharya’s anguish, if we compare the Indian response
to the West with the response of the Islamic World, of China, of Japan,
and now of Africa. Again, before we glibly plug for “roots” and “going
native” and “authenticity”, we must realize that in India with its
regional, religious, caste-based, and class-based heterogeneity these
terms are relative. If “cosmopolitan” universals can be suspect to
the rooted Indian, “pan-Indian” universals are equally suspect to
the particular Indian rooted in his region, religion, caste, and class.
Finally, as I have hastened to point out earlier, Bhatacharya’s
diagnosis and remedy are no more free from alien ideas, well assimilated
Western ideas to be sure, than the thinking of the whipping
boys is, at least some of whom achieve cultural assimilation
some of the time.
Krishna Chandra. 1954. Svaraj in ideas.
Visvabharati Quarterly 20.103-14.
Damodar Dharmanand. 1965. Culture
and civilization of ancient India in historical outline. London : Routledge and Kegan Paul.
John Stuart. 1950. Mill on Bentham and Coleridge.
Ed., introd., Leavis, F.R. London : Chatto & Windus. Reprinted. Cambridge : Cambridge UP, 1980.
piece was reprinted in Indian Philosophical Quarters 11:4,
October 18, 1984 as ‘Svaraj of Ideas’.
The present comment appears in the same numbers: p.350-6