What does it mean to be ‘Indian’?

A new book by S.N. Balagangadhara, Balu to his many admirers, has been published recently. Prof Balu is an original thinker and this new book presents his ideas in a manner accessible to a lay audience. Every time I listen to a video or read something written by him, I come away with important new perspectives that clarify my understanding. Given below are some excerpts that may get you interested in buying and reading the book. I highly recommend that you do!

Excerpt 1:

I think our culture is going to see a renaissance. Such a renaissance is of importance not just to us, Indians, but also to all of humankind. Because this is going to lay the real foundation for the sciences of the social, it will provide a surprising answer to the question, ‘what does it mean to be ‘Indian’?’ This process is going to take place – sooner, if we accelerate the pace; later, if we do nothing about it. In the latter case, this may not happen in your lifetime or mine; but happen it shall. Of this, I am utterly convinced. It is this conviction that has kept me going all these years; it is the same conviction that has made me want to reach out to you.

Excerpt 2:

Any group that survives as a culture would thus have built two extremely rich storehouses containing two things: linguistic items and actionable items. Even though this distinction appears simple, their diversity and complexity are enormous: human languages and human institutions are extraordinarily varied. The latter – whether family, marriage, rituals, child rearing, schools, clubs, legal and political organizations-are congealed human actions. Poems, stories, theories, hypotheses, speeches, and talks are embodied in languages. As we grow up, our elders draw upon these multiple storehouses to educate us. Through education, we learn to make our environments habitable, i.e., learning is a way of creating a habitat. As we learn, we also draw upon the treasure chests that our teachers use.

Not only do we draw upon these resources, but we also learn how to use them both to learn and to go about with things in our two environments. The same consideration applies to those who teach us. They too use this reservoir of knowledge to teach us to use it better. Because these resources used by both teachers and their pupils help us to relate to others, we could call them the ‘resources of socialization’.

In simple terms: human beings are socialized using the resources of socialization. As I indicated earlier, in this process, we also learn how to use these different resources. In the broadest terms, this is what a ‘culture’ is: the available resources for socialization and their uses.

Excerpt 3:

I suggested above that religion produces and reproduces a configuration. In that case, how do we understand the role of Christianity and Islam in India? Are not the followers of these religions socialized differently because of their religion, and is not their presence a disturbing factor for Indian culture? Why would these religions not produce their configurations of learning and adapt instead to the Indian configuration of learning? My answer will be simplified here again: when these religions entered India, they met a culture that was already formed as a stable configuration of learning. As a result, these religions had to adapt themselves to this culture to survive. That is, these religions could continue to hold their beliefs and practice their religious activities only by adapting to Indian uses of the resources of socialization. Thus, Indian Christianity and Indian Islam remain Indian irrespective of their religious beliefs and practices. The specificities of their religions are given a space to survive and flourish in Indian culture as one of the many diversities present within it. In this process, these religions themselves undergo modifications and changes in how the believers live their daily life, which does not affect their beliefs (say about Christ or Mohammed) or their places of worship. It is this kind of adoption of and adaptation into Indian culture that many Madrassa schools fight. It is this adaptation to India that Catholicism and Protestantism in India have undergone which the Evangelical Christians militate against. Whether such resistance has any effect at all or not depends not on their militancy but on the vibrancy of Indian culture. A vibrant Indian culture (because it is a culture) allows a place for these religions and absorbs their drive to create other configurations of learning within its own multiplicities that constitute a configuration of learning. These religions, on their own, cannot do what the military, economic and administrative powers that supported them, viz., colonialism, could not do, which is to destroy Indian culture. However, this does not mean that the two colonialisms did not damage Indian culture. They did, and their effects are still visible. We will discover what these are in later chapters.

Excerpt 4:

Reflection on experience is sensible only in relation to non-introspective thinking. Introspection does not make experience accessible; instead, it takes us away from experience. It creates a self-sustaining loop by sending us to a place where experience is impossible but results only in an endless series of imaginary thoughts. When we think, all we do is blame ourselves: recrimination, beating ourselves up endlessly, feeling guilty, etc.

The first step in thinking about experience the Indian way, as I see it, is to break free from introspection and desist from reflecting on thoughts and feelings, etc., as being unique and individual. Then we can come to an understanding of ourselves and our psychologies by discovering how human we are. To understand why human beings react in specific ways is to understand them; we must see our own reactions and responses as ‘facts’ of a hypothesis. This is also an activity: we actively learn how to deal with our idiosyncrasies. Growing up as an Indian is to learn these things and to transmit them as well.

The white sahibs in India: Excerpts (part 2)

“In order to restore India to its pristine condition, we have to return to it. In our own civilization there will naturally be progress, retrogression, reforms, and reactions; but one effort is required, and that is to drive out Western civilization. All else will follow.” – Hind Swaraj, M.K. Gandhi

Our long education brainwashes us into not seeing the ‘satanic’ nature (as Gandhiji calls it in Hind Swaraj) of western civilization and its British envoys who completed the task of destroying India. ‘The white sahibs in India’ is a very good eye-opener.

The full book is available online here and given below are some hard-hitting excerpts.

Excerpt 1:

Following the [Jalianwala bagh] massacre, which has often been excused as an act of panic, a deliberate and diabolical regime of terror was established in the city. No Indian will ever forget General Dyer’s “crawling order” by which all Indians who passed along a particular street were made to crawl on their bellies, on pain of instant death. For the slightest indication of “disrespect” to their British masters Indians were publicly flogged, while military tribunals sat daily, dealing out summary “justice” against which there was no appeal. Water supplies were cut off from Indian houses and prisoners were kept in open cages under the scorching sun.

Throughout the whole of the Punjab martial law was imposed. Eighteen death sentences were passed and immediately carried out, while twenty-eight persons were sentenced to transportation for life. To prevent news from reaching the outside world, no one was allowed to enter or leave the Province. Meanwhile an inestimable number of people were killed by the bombing of Punjab villages from the air, and armoured trains which pulled up in these villages massacred all inhabitants within range by indiscriminate firing from machine guns. In one town the biggest schoolboys were flogged, apparently to encourage the others, and at Lahore all students were forced to attend a roll-call four times a day.

Dyer justified his action on the ground that he saved India from revolution. Whether this was the case or not, he certainly did more than any other man to arouse a revolutionary mentality in the Indian people. All over the country meetings of protest were held as the news of the Punjab horrors gradually became known. Festivities organised by the Government to celebrate the Allied victory were boycotted, and the Government’s processions passed down empty streets, where the shops were closed in token of national mourning.

The last act of the Amritsar tragedy was the virtual endorsement of all the actions of the military by a Government which clearly deplored the clumsiness rather than the crime.

Excerpt 2:

The Government’s official publication ‘India in 1929-30’ spoke of poverty as “the most characteristic feature of the rural classes of India.” According to this authority:

“A large proportion of the inhabitants of India are still beset with poverty of a kind which finds no parallel in Western lands, and are living on the very margin of subsistence.”

This poverty is the result of 150 years of extortion. It began in Bengal with the robberies described in the early chapters of this book and a steady rise in the land tax assessment to double or treble the amount exacted by the Indian rulers. It progressed with the policy of annexation, whereby the revenues of Indian States were plundered on the pretext of defence. It was systematised in some of the Provinces by the creation of an Indian land-owning class, which by the year 1900 was paying only 28 per cent of its rents to the Government and keeping the rest of the plunder as a reward for its loyalty.

In the ryotwari provinces a standard levy of 45 per cent to 50 per cent on the gross produce of the peasant, and in some cases of a revenue assessment actually exceeding the gross produce, drove the helpless villagers into permanent indebtedness.

Excerpt 3:

“India had been populous and flourishing, the people thriving and happy,” wrote Horace Wilson of the conditions “for centuries prior to the introduction of European agency.” Unlike previous conquerors, the British, till force of circumstances compelled them to make terms with the reactionary elements of Indian society, excluded the conquered people from all positions of responsibility.

“There is probably,” wrote Holt Mackenzie, “no example of a Government carrying the principles of absolutism so completely through the civil administration of the country, if that can be called civil which is in spirit so military.”

Under such a system, embryonic of modern fascism, Indians were for years “excluded from every honour, dignity or office which the lowest Englishman could be prevailed upon to accept.” By the end of the nineteenth century the villagers, powerless to protect themselves either from the Government or the native parasites whom it shielded, were paralysed with poverty. The results of an enquiry made in 1888 by the Government were so frightful that the authorities kept them secret; but we have the authority of Sir William Hunter that in his time forty millions passed through life with only one meal a day. Another eminent official stated that half of the agricultural population did not get a square meal during the whole course of the year, the standard of “squareness” being the food supplied in the Indian prisons.

The white sahibs in India: Excerpts

The following excerpts are from ‘The white sahibs in India’ by Reginald Reynolds, a book that we want to re-publish and popularize. The full book is available online here.

Excerpt 1:

Reference has already been made to the antiquity of this panchayat system. Megasthenes, who visited India three centuries before Christ, described the village communities as “republics” which were “almost independent of any outside relations.” The village originally owned the land on which the villagers lived and worked; so that before the dislocation of the peasant industries many of these communities had remained, right up to the time of British rule, economically self-contained units. In the North of India, however, a previous succession of rapacious conquerors had already done much to destroy this economic independence, and the zemindars or rent collectors of the Moslem rulers were already acquiring something like feudal power in pre-British days.

The zemindari system hardened rapidly under British rule. In Bengal the “Permanent Settlement” of 1793 turned these revenue collectors into owners of the soil and confirmed their status as a landed aristocracy. For a hundred and forty years since that time, while the value of money has fallen steadily and the rents of the Bengal peasants have risen in proportion, the tax paid, by the zemindars to the Government has remained stationary, fixed for all time by the settlement of 1793. This far-sighted piece of legislation has enabled the landlord class which it created to squeeze enormous sums from the peasants by the payment of a light tax on the proceeds. The effect of this is that whilst the Government gets a smaller share of the spoils than it might expect by direct taxation of the peasantry, it gains a powerful ally in a landlord class the very existence of which is bound up with the continuation of British rule.

Excerpt 2:

“…to take the ordinary acts of husbandry, nowhere would one find better instances of keeping land scrupulously clean from weeds, of ingenuity in the device of water-raising appliances, of knowledge of soils and their capabilities, as well as the exact time to sow and to reap, as one would in Indian agriculture, and this not at its best alone, but at its ordinary level. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of mixed crops and of fallowing. Certain it is that I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of careful cultivation, combined with hard labour, perseverance, and fertility of resource, than I have seen in many of the halting places in my tour.”

This quotation brings us back once more to the fact that it is from no lack of knowledge or skill, but from the conditions under which he lives that the Indian peasant suffers. An instance indicated by Dr. Voelcker is that of manure, of which there is a great shortage, owing to the prevalence among Indian peasants of the habit of using cow-dung for fuel. This is not, as is commonly supposed, a matter of ignorance or wilful waste, but a matter of necessity. The value of cow-dung as manure is about three times its value as fuel; but as the Forest Laws make it illegal for the peasant even to collect a few twigs from the forests, his manure is the only fuel available. However near he may be to forest land, he must pay for wood, and this he cannot afford to do. Consequently he burns his cow-dung, though he knows its value, simply because it is the only fuel that he can obtain without paying for it.

Excerpt 3:

There is a true story of India that is also a parable of British rule. It is to be found in the history of the Sal forests of the Gangetic Plain.

For fifty years British forestry experts protected these forests from fire, and it was only a few years ago that they made an interesting discovery. It appeared that, after all, these Sal forests, unlike resinous forests, required an occasional fire to stimulate their growth. Fire destroys the undergrowth, leaving an ash which forms an alkaline mould and makes good soil for the young saplings.

Fifty years of protection produced a thick undergrowth, damp and heavy in the rainy season. It kept the light from the young shoots and covered them with a poisonous acid mould which killed them. Such shoots as survived were eaten by deer, which multiplied under British forestry laws. For while deer were protected by law, white sahibs on safari had greatly reduced the number of tigers which (regardless of law) might otherwise have kept down the number of deer.

A few years before, the protection of India’s forests had been considered indisputable evidence of the success of British administration in this sphere. By 1930, though it was not (and will not be) publicly admitted, the experts knew that British efficiency had been misplaced. They were humbly learning from a natural, unprotected forest how sal regenerates itself when freed from interference.

The white sahibs in India

At SIDH we are thinking of publishing some books that we consider very important, that are not very well known and are currently out of print. ‘The white sahibs in India’ by Reginald Reynolds, first published in 1937, is the first one we hope to publish in this series. The author in the preface dedicates the book to – “all who have suffered in Indian jails for the crime of patriotism.”

Pearl S. Buck says about the book:

“It tells the story of English officialdom in India, not from the government point of view, nor from the the Indian, but from the point of view of an incorruptibly just and honest man, and one thoroughly humane. The facts he presents make a picture of imperialism which does not pale before Italy in Ethiopia or before Hitler and the Jews. It would be interesting to know if there can possibly be another side to the question than the one here given.

Reginald Reynolds has written a bold, brave book. One hopes he will not suffer for it. In some other country than England he would.”

Here is what the dust jacket of one of the versions says:

“India is in the headlines again. The year 1937 sees the inauguration of the new Constitution in the Indian Provinces. Behind the latest constitutional developments lie over three hundred years of history since the formation of the East India Company. The story, so little known in England, is told in this book, with special chapters to explain such problems as those created by the Depressed Classes and Hindu-Moslem differences.

The author traces the economic influences which moulded Indian history from the fall of the Mughals to the present day. Inevitably this involves the explosion of many popular myths regarding individuals and incidents. The “Black Hole,” Clive and Hastings, the Mutiny, Lord Irwin and the Round Table Conference, are all subjected to the same merciless scrutiny. Less familiar subjects, such as the administration of village communities in pre-British times, and the rule of the Indian Princes, receive equally close attention.”

Next week I will share some excerpts from the book to highlight its relevance and importance to present day India.

The history of Bharatvarsha: Rabindranath Tagore

“The kind of unity that the European Civilization has opted for is discord-centered; the kind of unity that Bharatavarshiya Civilization has opted for is concord-centered.”
From ‘The history of Bharatvarsha’ by Rabindranath Tagore

The article from which the above quote is taken reminds us to stay grounded in an Indian perspective when we try to make sense of our Indian history. I hope the extracts given below encourage you to read the full article.

Extract 1: The history of India that we read and memorize for our examinations is really a nightmarish account of India. Some people arrive from somewhere and the pandemonium is let loose. And then it is a free-for-all: assault and counter-assault, blows and bloodletting. Father and son, brother and brother vie with each other for the throne. If one group condescends to leave, another group appears, as if, out of the blue; Pathans and Mughals, Portuguese and French and English together have made this nightmare ever more and more complex.

But if Bharatavarsha is viewed with these passing frames of dreamlike scenes, smeared in red, overlaid on it, the real Bharatavarsha can not be glimpsed. These histories do not answer the question, where were the people of India? As if, the people of India did not exist, only those who maimed and killed alone existed.

Extract 2: However, while the lands of the aliens existed, there also existed the indigenous country. Otherwise, in the midst of all the turbulence, who gave birth to the likes of Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya, and Tukaram? It was not that only Delhi and Agra existed then, there were also Kasi and Navadvipa. The current of life that was flowing then in the real Bharatavarsha, the ripples of efforts rising there and the social changes that were taking place, the accounts of these are not found in our history textbooks.

Extract 3: What is the chief significance of Bharatavarsha? If a precise answer to this question is sought, the answer is available. And the history of Bharatavarsha upholds that answer. We find that a single objective has always been motivating Bharatavarsha. This objective has been to establish unity among diversity, to make various paths move towards one goal, to experience the One-in-many as the innermost reality, to pursue with total certitude that supreme principle of inner unity that runs through the differences. It has also been her endeavor to achieve these without destroying the distinctions that appear in the external world.

Extract 4: It needs talent to make outsiders one’s own. The ability to enter others’ beings and the magic power of making the stranger completely one’s own, these are the qualities native to genius. That genius we find in Bharatavarsha. Bharatavarsha has unhesitatingly entered other’s beings, and has effortlessly accepted things from others. Bharatavarsha has not discarded anything and has made everyone her own after accepting him or her.

Extract 5: Amongst the civilizations of the world Bharatavarsha stands as an ideal of the endeavor to unify the diverse. Her history will bear this out. Amidst many travails and obstacles, fortunes and misfortunes, Bharatavarsha has been seeking to experience the One in the universe as well as in one’s own soul and to place that One in the variegated, to discover that One through knowledge, to establish that One through action, to internalize that One through love, to exemplify that One through one’s own life. When through the study of her history we would be able to realize this everlasting spirit of Bharata, then the rupture of our present with the past will disappear.

The full article is available here. Let me know what you think.

Gently reminding us of who we are: Dharampal

I think that someday all Indians will know about Dharampalji, one of the great scholars of modern India. His collected writings that runs into five volumes has the potential to shift our entrenched perspectives about who we are, to change our self-image built on colonial lies. However, this week I am going to focus on his long essay, Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala, that is part of volume 5 of his collected writings. The full essay is also available for download at the Centre For Policy Studies website here.

Excerpt from the essay:

To solve the problems of life on this earth, and to restore the balance, the divine incarnates, again and again, at different times in different forms. This is the promise that Srikrishna explicitly makes in the Srimadbhagavadgita. And, the people of India seem to have always believed in this promise of divine compassion. It is therefore not surprising that when Mahatma Gandhi arrived in India in 1915 many Indians suddenly began to see him as another Avatara of Vishnu.

The state of India at that time would have seemed to many as being beyond redress through mere human efforts, and the misery of India unbearable. The time, according to the Indian beliefs, was thus ripe for another divine intervention. And it is true that with the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi the state of hopelessness and mute acceptance of misery was relieved almost at once. India was set free in her mind. The passive acceptance of slavery as the fate of India disappeared overnight, as it were. That sudden transformation of India was indeed a miracle, and it had seemed like a divine feat to many outside India too.

But though Mahatma Gandhi awakened the Indian mind from its state of stupor, he was not able to put this awakening on a permanent footing. He was not able to establish a new equilibrium and a secure basis for the re-awakened Indian civilisation. The search for such a secure basis for the resurgence of Indian civilisation in the modern times would have probably required fresh initiatives and a fresh struggle to be waged following the elimination of political enslavement. Unfortunately, Mahatma Gandhi did not remain with us long enough to lead us in this effort, and the effort consequently never began.

It seems that the spirit that Gandhiji had awakened in the people of India was exhausted with the achievement of Independence. Or perhaps those who came to power in independent India had no use for the spirit and determination of an awakened people, and they found such awakening to be a great nuisance. As a result the people began to revert to their earlier state of stupor, and the leaders of India, now put in control of the state machinery created by the British, began to indulge in a slave-like imitation of their British predecessors.

The self-awakening of India is bound to remain similarly elusive and transient till we find a secure basis for a confident expression of Indian civilisation within the modern world and the modern epoch. We must establish a conceptual framework that makes Indian ways and aspirations seem viable in the present, so that we do not feel compelled or tempted to indulge in demeaning imitations of the modern world, and the people of India do not have to suffer the humiliation of seeing their ways and their seekings being despised in their own country. And, this secure basis for the Indian civilisation, this framework for the Indian self-awakening and self-assertion, has to be sought mainly within the Chitta and Kala of India.

Gandhiji had a natural insight into the mind of the Indian people and their sense of time and destiny. We shall probably have to undertake an elaborate intellectual exercise to gain some comprehension of the Indian Chitta and Indian Kala. But we can hardly proceed without that comprehension. Because, before beginning even to talk about the future of India we must know what the people of this country want to make of her. How do they understand the present times? What is the future that they aspire for? What are their priorities? What are their seekings and desires? And, in any case, who are these people on whose behalf and on the strength of whose efforts and resources we wish to plan for a new India? How do they perceive themselves? And, what is their perception of the modern world? What is their perception of the universe? Do they believe in God? If yes, what is their conception of God? And, if they do not believe in God, what do they believe in? Is it Kala that they trust? Or, is it destiny? Or, is it something else altogether?

About Dharampal: (Written for this blog post by Pawan Kumar Gupta, December 10, 2020)

Dharampal jee dropped out of college in 1942 soon after Mahatma Gandhi’s call for “Quit India”. He never went back to formal education after that. But he was a keen observer and in the words of the great Buddhist scholar, philosopher and intellectual in the traditional manner, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, an “original thinker”. So his education continued – he was socially and politically active. He worked closely with Mira Behen, and Jaiprakash Narayan. He wrote a scathing letter, addressed to all Members of Parliament after the debacle of the 1962 war with China, calling Pandit Nehru a traitor. He was arrested and finally had to leave the country.
While living in London he started delving deep into the British archives in the India Office Library, a huge section in the British library. His research was inspired by something Gandhi jee said in London in 1931, when he referred to the amazing educational system that existed in India – covering a large part of the country, completely autonomous and managed by the local community – just before India was colonized and how it got uprooted under the British occupation. Very few in India had any idea about this or believed that any system of education for the common ordinary people even existed in the country before the arrival of the British. But Dharampal jee decided to explore the British records of those times (late 18th and early 19th century), believing Gandhi jee’s words. His painstaking research spread over several years, yielded rich dividends, and revealed to him various facets of our past – from indigenous Science and technology to the agricultural practices to the thriving economy of the country and, of course, the education system. Not just these, but he got a deep understanding of the British ways of doing things, their perspective and the manner in which Indians behaved and looked at life. We need to appreciate the fact that when Dharampal jee was doing his research there were no computers or photocopying machines. He had to read, take extensive hand written notes and then painstakingly type them out. My guess is not even 20% of his research has been published till now and many of the books are out of print.
Many of us believe that “Bhartiya, Chitta, Manas and Kala” came out of his years of tapas – research, observation and trying to understand the Indian mind and swabhava. Indian mind, swabhava, ways of doing things, organizing the world around and perception has been very different from the western mind and now the modern Indian mind. What made India a vibrant society and what has happened to us now? Perhaps this essay gives us a direction in which to ponder and find answers.

Links for further study:
Pawan Gupta talking about Dharampal on YouTube in 3 parts. Part 1 . Part 2 . Part 3 .
Centre of Policy studies Dharampal archival collection (with over 15000 pages)