Philosophy of Indianness
An attempt to capture in conceptual grasp the meaning and content of Indianness is to plunge ourselves into the depths of Indian history and to discern those characteristics that are unique to India and which bring us to the understanding of the genius, spirit and soul of India.
Geographically, India's boundaries have often been fluctuating, although the great land between the Himalayas and the Indian ocean gives us a sense of unity of our dwelling, the land of our parents and the land of our birth; it is our sacred soil that we cherish and for which we have a passion of belongingness. But at a deeper level, our inner body is the men and women who compose our nation, and we realise that even our physical geography is a pulsating living power of the national soul that has its own line of development, its own temperament, and its law of being and becoming. We see teeming millions of our nation at work and in an ever-continuing labour, greatly determined and determining environmental motives, a play of economic forces, and a gradual course of institutional evolution. We go deeper and witness those exceptional individuals whose lives and examples have moulded the national thought and character and shaped the
course of events. At a still deeper level, we discover Mother India, Bharat Mata, protector and nourisher of her children, inspiring them and helping them in their battle and victory, and leading them to the gradual revelation of her intention and will for her children as also the children of other nations, working for herself and for the world in collaboration with the mother-souls of all the nations i» a spirit of collaboration, mutuality and goodwill for the Supreme Good of all.
To understand India is to understand Mother India and to grasp and possess four of her essential powers that have been developing since ages, viz., the power of spirituality, the power of intellectuality, the power of vitality, and the power of skills, — skills of art and craft, and skills of emotional bonds and durable relationships, and skills of fruitful life and harmony.
We must not judge India and derive the concept of Indianness from any superficial study or from the study of India of its latest phase when it began to show signs of exhaustion after having sought and attained and worked and produced incessantly at least for preceding three thousand years. The period of decline has to be admitted, and we have to acknowledge that the decline reached a nadir of setting energy. But that period cannot give us basic clues to the real spirit and soul of India and its expressive power of life, its intellectuality and creativity.
The British rulers gave to us three words to describe what they understood to be the chief characteristic of India, namely, metaphysics, religion, and the sense of
Maya or illusoriness of the world; and by metaphysics, they meant an abstract and clouded tract of thought; by religion, they meant a system of ceremonies and rituals; and by Maya, they meant dreaminess, unpracticality and inefficiency to deal with life. For a time, Indians submissively echoed their new Western teachers and masters and considered these three words to be the formula of Indianness. The British could hardly understand the spirit of Indian art and dismissed it as something primitive. Fortunately, Europe discovered in due course that Indian art had remarkable power and beauty. But in regard to other domains of life, the British imposed upon India the view that India could hardly be recognised as a civilised country, and, in their ignorance of the true account of Indian history, derided the Indian discovery of the Dharma, belittled the enormous developments of Indian systems of knowledge or Shastras, considered Indian sociology as an unintelligent basis of the rigid and oppressive caste system, and thought of India's political ability as of no significance other than that of series of quarrels resulting in failure to achieve the unity of the country. Their views were imprinted strongly on the subjects that they ruled, and even though much has been discovered by Indians *themselves and others to contradict the earlier distorted opinion concerning India, and even though during the Freedom Struggle much was done to recover the sense of India's greatness, there is still unpardonable misunderstanding, among many Indians, of the real meaning of the Indian genius, obliging us to study deeply and formulate to ourselves in clearer terms what we ought to mean by Indianness.
If we study Indian history properly, we shall find that her first period was luminous with the discovery of the Spirit; her second completed the discovery of Dharma; her third period elaborated into detail the first simpler formulation of the Shastra; none was exclusive, the three elements were always present; into the fourth period India had, even while getting exhausted, a kind of rejuvenation with the birth of a number of Indian languages and new religions of Bhakti and submission to Divine Love and Will. We must examine these periods and arrive at our own impartial judgement of India's Indianness.
In broad terms, it can be stated that Indian spirit and Indian temperament have manifested themselves, broadly speaking, on five lines:
1) Integrality, assimilation, and synthesis, based on centrality of spirituality;
2) Development of exuberance of life and robust and meticulous intellectuality so as to support multisided inquiry and questioning, and experimentation of every major line of spirituality, thought, and life activity and tendency to its extreme acuteness, followed by a wide and catholic assimilation and quintessential crystallisation;
3) Development of organisation of life on principle of decentralisation followed by the process towards unity that supports and encourages diversity;
4) Highest worship for knowledge and wisdom, highest admiration for courage and heroism that involve self-sacrifice, and battle for the Right and Justice, intense appreciation for mutuality in
relationship and artistic creativity and generous charity that aims at welfare of all; and
5) Intense labour to manifest a detailed perfection and exuberance of joy of life, as also for system, organisation and restraint that secure equilibrium, balance and graduality of development.
The master-word of Indianness is spirituality, and this word has to be understood in its distinct clarity and fullness. For although the spiritual is associated with religion and morality and refinement of mental or aesthetic sensitivity, it still transcends them all and fulfils them all, and acts as a sovereign and liberating and integrating power. Although India developed a number of religions like a banyan tree and even gave place to religions that came from other countries, it still pointed to a distinct and higher power of spiritual development, which goes beyond belief or dogma and rituals and ceremonies and codes of conduct. It begins with experiential contact with reality or realities that lie above body, life and mind and supports union, growth or waking into a spirit, self, soul by the practices of inner aspiration to know, feel and to be, to enter into a greater Reality beyond and pervading the universe and to be into communion with It and- union with It. It culminates not only into a turning and conversion but into a transformation of our whole being and our entire ordinary physical, vital and mental nature. So distinctive is this spirituality of India that its entire domain constitutes the field of experimentation and verifiable and repeatable experiences and realisations and a well-developed discipline that has been
acknowledged increasingly as a Science of Yoga.
Long ago in the remote past, there arose a quest in a small nucleus of people, surrounded by a large population, still in the early conditions of life, in the subcontinent that came to be called Bharatavarsha and much later India. This quest, which appears to have been extremely arduous and heroic, resulted in a momentous spiritual attainment and victory, the records of which have been called the Veda, the Book of Knowledge. The language of this book is highly symbolic, and even though its meaning is greatly veiled, it allows occasional transparency and even full revelation to those who are enlightened and illumined. During this quest, the leaders, who were called poets or Rishis, had made a number of discoveries, which were repeated and verified and internalised and even transmitted to the initiates, as a result of which there grew up what can be called a Tradition. The knowledge attained was fundamentally spiritual in character, even though it had also many other aspects connected with the knowledge of the physical universe and several other planes of existence, which are clearly described in these ancient records.
The Vedic seers also developed specific methods by which their fund of knowledge can be sustained, enriched and further developed. These methods, in due course, came to be known as Yogic methods, and the Veda can rightly be looked upon as the foundation of Yoga. However, as it often happens, spiritual knowledge and spiritual methods often get clouded
and deteriorated into external ritualism, and this seems to have happened in regard to the Vedic knowledge, as can be seen from the Brahmana literature. Normally, under the excessive weight of ritualism and growing obscurity, the original knowledge would have been eclipsed almost totally, but in India there came about a period of a fresh movement of quest, and the Vedic knowledge was revisited in a constant recurrence of realisation, the records of which are known as Upanishads and they became a perennial reservoir from where numerous fountains sprang up and continue to be rising until today. As a result, the central characteristic of Indianness came to be firmly established, and spirituality can unhesitatingly be seen as the distinguishing speciality of the Indian soul and the defining differentia of Indianness.
The description of the quest that we find in the Upanishads is so living and vibrant that the scenes of the old world live before us and we seem to witness the sages sitting in their groves ready to test and teach the visitor; we witness also princes and learned Brahmins and even great landed nobles going about in search of knowledge, and we see how the soul of India was born and how the highest vistas of the knowledge of the Spirit came to be embodied and expressed in terms, less symbolic and much more accessible to philosophical thought. The Vedic and the Upanishadic spirituality has remained constantly alive in varied degrees, and the Upanishads have particularly been the sufficient fountainhead not only of Indian philosophy and religion, but of all Indian art, poetry and literature.
The Vedic and the Upanishadic quest was that of immortality and of the eternal Truth in its integrality, discoverable on the heights beyond the mind and in the planes described symbolically as those of higher light and highest light, swar and surya respectively. As a Rigvedic rik proclaims:
उदृयं तमस्णरि स्वः पश्यन्त उतरम् |
देवं देवत्रा सूयोमगन्म ज्योतिरतमम् | RV.I.50.10
We perceived the higher light of Swar beyond the darkness, and we arrived at the highest light of the Sun.
And when the Vedic seers spoke of the attainment of immortality, they spoke of their victory while in the physical body. As Parashara points out:
आ ये वऽवा स्वपत्यानि तस्थु : ||
कुण्वानासो अमृतत्वायगतुम् | |
महना महदभिः पुथिवी वि तस्थे |
माता पुत्रैरदितिघ्येसे वेः | RV.I.72.9.
"The physical being visited by the greatness of the infinite planes above and by the power of the great godheads who reign on those planes breaks its limits, opens out to the Light and is upheld in its new wideness by the infinite Consciousness, mother Aditi, and her sons, the divine Powers the supreme Deva."1
It was the search of this victory that we find in the Kathopanishad when Naciketas asks of Yama to reveal
to him the meaning of immortality and the method by which immortality can be won. And it is this immortality to which reference is made in the Brihadaranyka Upanishad in its famous prayer:
असतो मा सद्गमय।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ॥
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.3.28
Lead me from the unreal to the Real;
Lead me from darkness to Light;
Lead me from death to Immortality.
And the Vedic seers have laid down that immortality cannot be won except by Truth —Truth that is all-comprehensive and capable of manifestation without disintegration. It is this realisation that led to the powerful formulation of the Mundaka Upanishad: सत्यमेव जयते (it is truth that conquers), and it is significant that these potent words have now become the motto inscribed in the emblem of free India
Let us first note the/act that the loftiest spiritual experiences are found recorded in the Vedic Samhitas, and it can be said that the spirituality of the Veda and the Upanishads was already synthetic and integral. An exclusive spirituality emphasises and remains confined only to one state of spiritual consciousness, — such as
that of eternal Silence or of eternal Joy, or of dynamic Power, to either divine Personality or to divine Impersonality. It emphasises only one method of approach, such as that of works, knowledge or devotion. But we do not find this kind of exclusiveness in the Veda and in the Upanishads like the Isha, or Kena or Katha or Taittiriya. The fullness of spiritual life is perceived in the great pronouncement of the Vedic and the Upanishadic Rishis: तेन त्यकतेन भुञ्जीथाः (by having renounced thou shouldst enjoy) is one of the formulas of the integral spiritual life; and there are several others in the Ishopanished itself, such as those relating to the Reality that is ay once moving and unmoving, that relating to the synthesis of Ignorance and Knowledge, and that relating to birth and non-birth ( सम्भूति and असम्भूति ). We do not find here the rejection and meaninglessness of life and the world but rather the secret of transcending the limitations of the world and yet embracing with mastery the life and works in the world. The idea that the world and its activities must be renounced was a later development, when India made an experiment of sounding each Line of spiritual experience to its farthest point, and chose to look from that farthest point at existence, so as to see what Truth or power it could give. That was the part of the heroic adventure of the Indian spirituality that manifested the spirit of experimentation and even a risky experimentation. There have been from this point of view the birth and growth of a number of excusive spiritual pursuits, but underlying them there has been the spirit of synthesis and assimilation. It is remarkable that after the period of decline, when Indian is rising once
again, we find among the leaders of the renascent spiritual India a definitive turn, with a greater richness and fullness, to a new integrality, such as what we find in Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Aurobindo. We have now in our own times the development of spirituality that found itself on the special emphasis on synthesis and dynamic manifestation of the Spirit in life on the earth.
In a larger perspective of the history of the Indian spirituality, we can derive three important lessons that characterise true Indianness; firstly, that spirituality does not flourish on earth in the void; secondly, that spirituality and exuberance of life and robust intellectuality are not opposed to each other, but are rather complementary to each other; and thirdly, that spiritual tendency does not imply inefficiency or incapability to deal with life successfully and fruitfully, but, on the contrary, it can provide the highest basis for perfection of life on the earth.
It has, indeed, been argued that too much religion ruined India, because India made whole life religion or religion the whole life. This is a complete misreading; it is true that India did fall in its period of exhaustion, and it did fail for a certain perrbd of time; but if we study the period of this fall and failure, we shall find that it was because the public life became most irreligious, egoistic, self-seeking, and materialistic that India fell and had to pass through a painful period of slavery and deprivation. But once again, when India rose in the 19th and 20th centuries, the most leading power of reawakening has come from the impulse of dynamic
spirituality and a synthetic spirituality.
To speak only of Indian spirituality is an incomplete and misleading description of Indianness. For before the period of exhaustion, for at least three thousand years, India created abundantly and incessantly, lavishly, with an inexhaustible many-sidedness; it built republics, kingdoms and empires; it constructed philosophies and cosmogonies; it developed sciences and arts and poems; it raised all kinds of monuments, palaces and temples and public works; it organised communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals; developed and systematised physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of Yoga, systems of politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts worldly, trades, industries and fine crafts. We are struck with India's stupendous vitality, her inexhaustible power of life and joy of life, her prolific creativeness.
We have to remember, too, that India expanded even outside its borders; its ships crossed the oceans and the superfluous surplus of its wealth brimmed over Judea and Egypt and Rome. India's colonies spread Indian arts, and epics, and creeds in the Archipelago; Indian religions conquered China and Japan and spread westwards as far as Palestine and Alexandria. In the ancient architecture, sculpture and art, India laboured to fill every rift with ore, occupy every inch with plenty. This was because of the necessity of India's super-abundance of life, of the teeming of the infinite of the Indian soul.
Intellectuality is also an essential part of Indianness. This intellectuality is strong and at once austere and rich, robust and minute, powerful and delicate, massive in principle and curious in detail. It has been rightly said that India has been preeminently the land of the Dharma and the Shastra. India laboured to discover the inner truth and law of each human or cosmic activity, its Dharma, and it went father to apply it and cast it into elaborate form and detailed law of arrangement and rule of life. There appears to be no historical parallel for such an intellectual labour as we find during the period from Ashoka well into the Mohammedan epoch. Prior to the invention of printing and facilities of modern science, India produced colossal literature, which certainly dealt with philosophy and theology, and religion and yoga; but it also dealt with logic and rhetoric and grammar and linguistics; it dealt with poetry and drama; it produced works on medicine and astronomy and other sciences; in the fields of arts, the literature spanned from painting to dancing, of the 64 accomplishments, and all that was known and could be useful to life and interesting to the mind. There is also literature available to us of that period that deals with such practical minutiae as the breeding and training of horses and elephants, each of which had its shastra with its art, its apparatus of technical terms and its copious literature. India's intellectuality can be seen to have been marked by insatiable curiosity, the desire of life to know itself in every detail, and at the same time by a spirit of organisation and scrupulous order, the desire of the mind to tread through life with a harmonised
knowledge and in the right rhythm and measure. Indian mind was powerful, penetrating and scrupulously intelligent, — combined of the rational, ethical, and aesthetic mind at a height of intensity.
As noted earlier, India has a tendency to pursue most opposite extremes to their highest point of climax, but this never resulted in disorder. Even its most hedonistic period offers nothing that at all resembles the unbridled corruption which have a similar tendency that was once produced in Europe. The reason is that the Indian mind is not only spiritual and ethical but intellectual and artistic, and both the rule of the intellect and the rhythm of art are hostile to the spirit of chaos. In every extreme, the Indian spirit seeks for a law in that extreme and its rule, measure and structure in its application. In the ultimate analysis, the Indian mind returns always towards some fusion of the knowledge it has gained and to a resulting harmony and balance in action and in institution. The Greeks had also arrived at balance and rhythm, but they arrived at it by self-imitation; India arrived at balance and rhythm by its sense of intellectual, aesthetic and ethical order and the synthetic impulse of its mind and life.
We stand today at a very important juncture of our history. We have already been able to recover ourselves to some extent, but we still need to understand our inmost soul and its need to express itself in the light of its own law of self-development. India has since ages erected the ideal of universal brotherhood, and this is the moment when the issue of unity of the world has
come to the forefront. It can be said that India can make the most important contribution to the growth and development of internationalism, unity of religions and spiritual disciplines, to the creation of a world union which can emphasise the freedom of each nation and the principle of decentralisation. Realising India's Indianness, India can fulfil its Indiannesss by embracing the totality of humanity and by regaining her true position among the nations in their world-wide unity.
Sri Aurobindo, speaking of the new awakening and the new impulses of the Indian Renaissance, has placed before us three tasks that India must undertake and fulfil. Let me conclude with the statement of these three tasks in Sri Aurobindo's own words:
The recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness is its first, most essential work; the flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge is the second; an original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian sprit and the endeavour to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society is the third and most difficult. Its success on these three lines will be the measure of its help to the future of humanity.2
2 Sri Aurobindo: The Foundations of Indian Culture, Vol. 14, p. 409, Centenary Edition