India’s founding fathers drew inspiration from ancient texts and artefacts. But they tiptoed around the Islamic tradition.

From the perspective of the dismal present, when the word that most springs to mind to describe politics is “venal”, what is one to make of the motto Dharma Chakra Pravartanaya (“For the promulgation of the Wheel of Law”) – at which every member of the Lok Sabha must have cast at least a casual glance?

As one follows Ananya Vajpeyi’s fascinating narratives of the intellectual journeys of five founding fathers of India’s freedom, in search of what she terms an Indic political tradition, one cannot help being left with contrary sensations: of despair at the mediocrity and greed pock-marking the present and the exhilaration of discovering along with her, the texts that the five sought in their quest for the meaning of swaraj, the sovereign self.

The text as window

Vajpeyi’s narratives are textual readings of textual explorations: In Righteous Republic, the reader becomes the traveller revisiting her subjects’ texts (Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Tagore’s Meghaduta) and through them ancient texts with new eyes.

We discover the truth in Italo Calvino’s words that a classic “has never finished saying what it has to say.” Whether it’s the Bhagvad Gita, Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal, Kalidasa’s Meghduta or Buddha’s notion of Dukha, or the Sarnath Lion Capital, Vajpeyi offers us new ways of reading those classical works.

In the bargain she introduces new terms into the discourse on India’s freedom as metonyms for the varied aspects of swaraj: Gandhi’s ahimsa (non-violence as more than just turning the other cheek), Rabindranath Tagore’s Viraha (the self’s longing) Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Samvega (the self’s longing) adapted by Abanindranath Tagore and Ambedkar’s take on Buddha’s concept of Dukhha (suffering).

Righteous Republic is a study in epistemologies, the search for the roots of knowledge spread far and wide from the Gita to a stone pillar that powered India’s freedom struggle.

Bookending discovery

Vajpeyi writes elegantly, her authorial presence, unlike that of many stodgy and self-referential historians, is unobtrusive and jargon-free, her prose almost belletristic. The enchantment begins in the first chapter and continues to the end because of her perspectival range covering art, poetry, sculpture, ruins, epigraphy and readings on them.

The outcome is stunning: her narrative-biographies are bookended by a word, swaraj, and a mural in Birla House. Her own inquiries as a historian begin with that word and an epiphany, her own samvega, “aesthetic shock”, that she experiences on viewing Ghulam Mohammad Shaikh’s digital collage work, Ark. Righteous Republic begins with a search and ends as one.

Tiptoeing past a past

And yet Righteous Republic, even as an imagined place that Vajpeyi terms it at the outset, leaves one with a vague dissatisfaction. Not just because the fissures of the cynical present will not permit redemption of that idealised Indic tradition.

India’s freedom struggle too did not reflect as much of that multi-hued tradition Vajpeyi constructs as the “repository of norms and values” that would have given its founding fathers some sense of a bridge between an idea and reality. Both the Tagores’ ethical and spiritual searches for the lost world and the aesthetic shock as a vehicle of transformative value were consigned to the pure realm of poetry and an abandoned art form: so was Gandhi and his idea of the sovereign self as a moral being and a society as a combination of personal and public ethical values.

If Tagore was to be remembered for his national anthem and poetry, Gandhi would, in his own lifetime, turn into myth and gradually into symbols of asceticism: prohibition, the topi and the khadi emporias.

As nationalism becomes more attenuated, so too would the nation-state become its simplistic manifestation. The romance and ethics of the composite Indic tradition had died by 1947 and the urges of modern statecraft. Ambedkar’s dukhha and Nehru’s coupling of dharma and artha were to be cleaved into expediencies of public policy.

But the greater flaw in the Indic tradition was perhaps its selectivity. Looking into the past for inspiration to a future, the five founding fathers tip-toed round the great Mughal experience. Five hundred years of co-existence and cultural assimilation between two great cultures seemed to have left no mark on those towering intellectuals.

Barring the painter, Abanindranath and his uncle the poet who saw in the tragic death of Shah Jahan an allegory on the mortality of the flesh more than the temporariness of power, no one else did.

Nehru may have had admiration for Akbar and the Great Mughal’s faith in religious tolerance, but Nehru’s single-minded emulation of Asoka left no room for Akbar’s own heroic attempts to foster religious coexistence.

Vajpeyi acknowledges this fatal absence. In her Introduction, she admits that the search for Muslim selfhood was important given the collapse of a political tradition with the defeat of the Mughals and the mutiny in 1857.

Muslims in South Asia wrote and expressed themselves in local languages from Braj to Malayalam, not Turkish or Arabic. In the same period that the founding fathers were searching for the roots of swaraj, Muslim poets and intellectuals too were seized with an epistemological crisis. The Muslim quest for selfhood, Vajpeyi notes, had to turn inward.

But what we perhaps needed instead was a dialogue between the two victims of epistemological crises whose frequent interactions had conceived multiple cultural offspring still alive and kicking today.

That dialogue was markedly missing, as was any initiative from the founding fathers, judging by Vajpeyi’s count. Expedience replaced conversation, as did the sense of insecurity and fear among the sub-continent’s two great communities who gave the world Kabir and the kebab; the chances of dialogue were fated to fade.

And thus was the darkling present born.

(This article was published on December 4, 2012)
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