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POLITICS AND PLAY | The four thinkers whom Dennis Dalton had originally focused on were Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rabindranath Tagore

Ramachandra Guha Published 12.08.23, 06:38 AM
The thinkers profiled in Indian Ideas of Freedom are perhaps best characterised as “critical traditionalists” (to use a phrase of Ashis Nandy’s).

The thinkers profiled in Indian Ideas of Freedom are perhaps best characterised as “critical traditionalists” (to use a phrase of Ashis Nandy’s). Sourced by the Telegraph

In the early 1980s, while a doctoral student in Calcutta, I read a brilliant essay by the American scholar, Dennis Dalton, on the evolution of Gandhi’s views on caste. This was published in an edited volume titled India: Unity and Diversity. Later in the decade, I came across other insightful articles by Dalton, among them an essay on the Salt March and a comparison of Gandhi and the Bengali radical, M.N. Roy.

By now, I was reading a great deal of stuff about Gandhi, and saw that Dennis Dalton’s work stood out in several respects. First, while Dalton had closely read Gandhi’s own writings and speeches, he also incorporated other primary sources, such as newspaper reports. Second, he paid careful attention not just to Gandhi’s followers and acolytes but also to his rivals and adversaries. Third, while a political scientist by training, unlike others of his academic discipline, he had a deeply historical approach to his subject.


In 1993, Dennis Dalton brought together a lifetime of research and writing on Gandhi in his book Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action. I read the book not long after it appeared, and have returned to the text several times since. It remains one of my favourite books about the Mahatma and his legacy.

It was many years after I read Dalton on Gandhi that I was made aware of an earlier book of his, which dealt with a quartet of thinkers, rather than just one. That work, called Indian Idea of Freedom, was first published in 1982. Now, four decades later, the book has been republished in a greatly expanded edition. The eight chapters of the original text are prefaced with a long personal memoir, where Dalton describes, with sensitivity and feeling, his lifelong engagement with India and with Indian thinkers, and followed by new chapters dealing with three remarkable individuals not featured in the first edition of the book, these being B.R. Ambedkar,
M. N. Roy, and Jayaprakash Narayan. The inclusion of these three thinkers has necessitated a small but subtle change in the title, which has now become Indian Ideas of Freedom.

The four thinkers whom Dennis Dalton had originally focused on were Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Gandhi, and Tagore. The first was a spiritual leader, the second a revolutionary-turned-mystic, the third a politician and social reformer, and the fourth a poet. None was a ‘political theorist’ in the way Western academics define the category; that is to say their professional and personal trajectories were rather different from those of canonical European thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Kant and Mill. Yet the contributions to Indian political thought of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Gandhi, and Tagore were far greater than those made by any number of academic philosophers or theorists.

The key thesis of this book is that Indian ideas of freedom drew on indigenous traditions of thought, especially religious thought. Dalton argues that these thinkers all saw the quest for freedom as both individual and political; as a deeply personal search for spiritual liberation that was linked to and, indeed, preceded the transformation of society as a whole. They were all also concerned with the ethical dimension of public life, with the relationship between ends and means, for example. Hence the emphasis of several of these thinkers on non-violence.

The thinkers profiled in Indian Ideas of Freedom are perhaps best characterised as “critical traditionalists” (to use a phrase of Ashis Nandy’s). “There were many elements in the Indian tradition,” writes Dalton, “which Vivekananda emphatically rejected, and his idea of growth meant that India must not merely recall her past, but improve upon it.” This assessment broadly holds true of Aurobindo, Gandhi and Tagore as well. These individuals were culturally grounded as well as open-minded and innovative in their thinking. They drew deeply on their cultural resources while recognising the need to adapt to the challenges of the modern world. They thus incorporated Indic traditions in their focus on inner freedoms, on the spiritual liberation of the individual; at the same time, they were unafraid to acknowledge the importance of Western concepts of political and social liberty.

B.R. Ambedkar’s intense admiration for the Buddha is well-known. In a fascinating passage of the book, Dalton points to the less-noticed impact of the Buddha on Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and Gandhi as well. This constellation of Indian thinkers, argues Dalton, “viewed life, and Buddha’s example especially, as a quest for spiritual liberation and thought. They actualized this ideal within a common intellectual tradition. The archetype of Buddha’s lifetime transformation and search for enlightenment served as exemplary for the evolution of their intellectual journeys.”

The book draws the reader into the narrative through vivid, well-chosen quotations from the thinkers themselves. Here, for example, is Tagore explaining the difference between the spirit and the form of religion: “The spirit of religion says that disrespect for man confers no benefit on him who insults and on him who is insulted, but the form of religion says that failure to obey scrupulously the detailed rules for treating man with cruel contempt is apostasy. The spirit teaches us not to destroy our own souls by inflicting unnecessary suffering on our fellow creatures, but the form warns parents that it is sin to give food and drink on specified days of the month to their widow daughter even to relieve her of the worst suffering. The spirit tells us to atone for evil thoughts and deeds by repentance and by performance of good deeds, but the form prescribes bathing in particular rivers at the hour of solar or lunar eclipse. The spirit advises us to cross seas and mountains and develop our minds by seeing the world, but the form puts an expiatory ban on sea voyage. The spirit tells us to revere all good men irrespective of their caste, but the form enjoins respect for the Brahmin, however unworthy. In sum, the spirit of religion leads to freedom, its form to slavery.

And here is Ambedkar writing in The Buddha and his Dhamma on how humans can make themselves free: “When the appropriate motives arise, the will can be awakened and set in motion. With the coming of just enough light to see in what directions to guide the motions of the will, man may so guide them that they shall lead to liberty. Thus though man is bound, yet he may be free; he may at any moment begin to take the first steps that will ultimately bring him freedom. This is because it is possible to train the mind in whatever directions one chooses. It is mind that makes us to be prisoners in the house of life, and it is mind that keeps us. But what mind has done, that mind can undo. If it has brought man to thralldom, it can also when rightly directed bring him to liberty.

While Dalton has a fine eye for the telling quotation, his own judgements are themselves illuminating. Thus, he writes of Gandhi’s multipronged approach to social reform that “his campaign against untouchability was, above all, a movement to create a common feeling among castes and untouchables; his struggle for Hindu-Muslim unity sought a harmony of religious sympathies; and his attempt to advance the use of khaddar and the spinning wheel was an effort at bridging the gulf between groups of educated Indians and the majority in the villages.”

Finally, here is Dalton on why, and in what manner, Tagore stands out from the three other thinkers profiled in the original edition of the book: “Many of the ideas which Tagore voices... are in profound agreement with those of Gandhi, as well as with Vivekananda and Aurobindo. All agree, ultimately, on the primary need for social reform in India, as well as on the supremacy of moral or spiritual freedom. Tagore’s unique contribution rests with his early and emphatic assertion that though India’s adoption of nationalism might further the struggle for Independence, it could only thwart the essential quest for moral and spiritual freedom.”

This column will appear in print a few days prior to the seventy-sixth anniversary of our country’s independence from British rule. That event will doubtless be accompanied by much boastful speechmaking by the men who now rule India. For a deeper meaning of freedom, however, younger Indians might wish to turn to this new edition of a book by a veteran American scholar. Indian Ideas of Freedom is a work of great learning as well as of deep humanity which deserves to be widely read — and discussed.

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