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National Resurgence Reviled as Hindu Revivalism

Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883) was speaking at a meeting in Calcutta when some stones were thrown at him by some members of the audience disgruntled by his criticism of Hindu orthodoxy. He remained calm and self-possessed. He appealed for a patient hearing in the following words: ‘The British Government has guaranteed freedom of speech to all of us. Why should I be deprived of that freedom? Please! Let me say what I want to say. Those who disagree with me will also have their turn.’

This part of his speech was reported to the then Viceroy of India. The Viceroy thought that the Maharshi was a great well-wisher of the British Raj. The Maharshi was, therefore, invited to the Government House and given a warm reception by the Viceroy himself. An official interpreter was standing close by to establish communication between the Indian recluse and the representative of the mightiest empire in world history.

After a brief spell of some small talk, the Viceroy broached the subject he had on his mind. He said: ‘Swami, the people of India have started forgetting the benefits conferred on them by the British Raj. They are being misled by some mischief-makers. You did well to remind the people of Calcutta that it was the Raj which had given them freedom of speech. I hope you will keep on telling the same truth to your countrymen everywhere you go. Freedom of speech is not the only benefit we have brought to India. There are many more. I am sure you known them all.’

The Maharshi found it difficult to hide his embarrassment. He kept quiet and looked away. The Viceroy was puzzled and prodded him for an affirmation. The Maharshi had to break his silence. He said: ‘Sahebji, I am sorry I have been misunderstood. Forgive me for what I am being forced to say. The reference to freedom of speech was made by me in a specific context. It was not at all my intention to uphold the British usurpation of my country. Make no mistake. I consider the British Raj to be a curse. I stand for svarajya.’

The Viceroy was taken aback as the message of the Maharshi was conveyed to him. He walked away in a huff, without so much as saying a good-bye to his great guest. The rest of the viceregal retinue melted away in the next few moments. The Maharshi walked out of the Government House, alone but unrepentant. His gait was akin to that of a lion who had dared a dangerous adversary in the latter’s own den.

Message of Maharshi Dayananda

Maharshi Dayananda lived to found the Arya Samaj in 1875. It made a great contribution to India’s fight for freedom. But before the veterans of the Samaj joined the political battle, they fought for a deeper freedom of the spirit. That was the message of the Maharshi-the surrenders made by our people at the spiritual, cultural, psychological and ideological levels had to go before the shackles at the physical level could be broken.

During the days of Muslim military domination, some sections of the national elite in some parts of the country had started kowtowing to the imperialist ideology and totalitarian culture of Islam. The same or some other collaborationist sections had been similarly cowed down by the imperialist ideology and culture of Christianity, soon after the British succeeded in seizing political power by force of arms. The twin surrenders were joining forces and working havoc with the morale of our people when the Maharshi appeared on the scene.

The Maharshi was the first great Indian in modern times to see through both Islam and Christianity. He challenged the claims of these closed theologies masquerading as religion. And he appealed to his people to eschew every element which Indian culture had borrowed or imbibed from these alien cultures. He called Islamic and Christian cultures alien not because they had come from foreign lands but because they were contrary to the basic canons of rationalism, universalism and humanism, enshrined in the ancient Indian culture.

But that was the least significant part of the Maharshi’s message. He made a positive contribution when he pointed out that India had inherited a spirituality and a culture which were not only indigenous but also intrinsically superior to the imported creeds and cultures. He encouraged and enabled his people to reawaken to their own inner sources of strength, and hold their heads high in the face of foreign invaders. He was the first to use the terms swadeshi and swarajya.

At the same time, the Maharshi restored the Veda to its rightful place as the permanent and profound centre of Indian spirituality, culture and social philosophy. His people had lost consciousness of this centre when they had started drawing a sharp line between nishreyasa (highest good) and abhyudaya (worldly welfare), between here and hereafter, between spirituality and science. They had become dwarfed in mind and emaciated in body because, to start with, they had separated these two from their unity in the Spirit.

He did something more. He raised an accusing finger against the heavy weight of empty rituals and outmoded social traditions which were smothering India’s indigenous society. There was a meaningless multiplication of sects and cults. Superstition and magic had replaced religion in many cases. Education had been reduced to a matter of cramming certain traditional texts. Health had been ruined by early marriages, and the lack of a proper physical culture. Women had been driven into purdah, and deprived of their proper status as equal partners with men in all spheres of life. And a sizable section of our society had been condemned to live as untouchables, without an opportunity to make their own characteristic contributions to social welfare. The Maharshi appealed to his people to throw away all this dead wood, and start breathing again in the unpolluted air of that spirituality and science for which India had been famous in ages past.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

A younger contemporary of Maharshi Dayananda had meanwhile dived deep into the ocean of Indian culture and come up with a vast and variegated treasure. That was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894). The Maharshi had never known what was passing for modern education and his know-ledge of the West as well as of Christianity had perforce to be second-hand. Bankim Chandra did not suffer from this disadvantage. He acquired a wide knowledge of Western philosophy, sociology and science from the horse’s mouth. He also knew Christianity from its original sources. He was thus placed in a good position to compare his own heritage with whatever was being trumpeted about as the latest and the best from the West.

Bankim Chandra brought out the shallowness of modern Indology in two short satirical essays. The poverty of mind at the back of Western scholarship vis-a-vis Hinduism was thus brilliantly portrayed. He also questioned the notion current in his times that India had always been a game for every foreign invader. It was he who showed with facts and dates and for the first time that the Islamic sword which had swept so swiftly over a large part of the world had taken a long time even to breach the borders of India, and that it had failed in the final round. Our people were thus enabled to look back at their past with a sense of pride.

It was also Bankim Chandra who restored the Mahabharata to its rightful place as a profound elaboration of what the Veda had said in the form of mystic mantras. The Gita which had been subjected to sectarian interpretations for several centuries past, was rescued by Bankim Chandra from the quagmire of casuistry. This great scripture had been interpreted by many acharyas either to support sannyasa or to bolster bhakti. Its central core of karmayoga had been consigned to oblivion. Bankim Chandra was the first in modern times to restore the lost balance, so much so that in his ÃnandamaTha it was the sannyasin who took up the sword in defence of Dharma. In days to come, the Gita was to become the greatest single inspiration for revolutionary action. Many a freedom fighter mounted the gallows with the Gita in his hands and Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram on his lips.

But the greatest achievement of Bankim Chandra was the rehabilitation of Sri Krishna of the Mahabharata. This highest Hindu image of the seer, the statesman, and the hero had been made to sing and dance with the gopis for far too long. Some devotees of Sri Krishna’s dalliance with the gopis had gone to the extent of saying that Krishna had ceased to be Krishna as soon as he left Vrindavana. Bankim Chandra did not fall foul of this portrayal. Instead, he quietly brought back the Krishna who had sided with the just cause in a controversy involving Dharma, who had befriended Draupadi in moments of her great distress, who had guided the Pandavas through every twist and turn of fortune, who had given the Gita on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, who had rescued Yudhisthira from a fit of unmanly remorse, but who had nonetheless bowed before Bhishma as that paragon of valour, virtue, and wisdom lay on his deathbed.

Swami Vivekananda

Soon after Bankim Chandra, another brilliant star rose on the spiritual horizon of Bharatavarsha. That was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). He was a great shishya of a great guru. He started as a spiritual seeker. But such was the sweep of his vision that it soon embraced every type of human suffering in the world. The plight of his own countrymen invited his particular attention. He started with the Upanishadic message, uttiSTha, jagrata varan nibodhah. But such was the depth of his sympathy for the poor and the downtrodden that in reply to a question by one of his disciples, he said: ‘The poor, the ignorant, the illiterate, the afflicted, let these be your God; know that service to these is the highest religion.’ He warned his people that they had mistaken their tamas (inertia) for adhyatma (spirituality), and that it was a fatal folly.

Vivekananda was the first Indian to see clearly that Christianity had no intrinsic worth, and that the missionaries in India were making inroads into Hindu society simply because they were equipped with
huge financial resources supplied by Western countries. He was also the first to carry a campaign against Christian imperialism into the latter’s own homeland. At the same time, he made India’s universal spirituality known to the world. Here was a genuine spirituality, he said, which was not at all in conflict with modern science, unlike the theology of Christianity which had recoiled at the very first touch of the scientific temper. Thus he had placed himself truly in the tradition of those monks and mystics who had carried the message of India’s universal spirituality to many foreign lands, before Christian and Islamic imperialism had raised an impenetrable wall in their way.

It was only a few years after the passing away of Swami Vivekananda that the world witnessed what Shri H.V. Seshadri has described as ‘A Nation Bestirred’ in The Tragic Story of Partition. The stir had frightened the British rulers as well as the residues of Islamic imperialism - the descendants of foreign swordsmen and Sufis who had brought the terrorist creed of Islam to this country.

Not many people remember it now that before the Partition in 1947, there had been another Partition, almost along the same lines and brought about by a combination of the same forces. That was the Partition of Bengal in 1905 which gave a brute majority to the Muslims in the very heartland of India’s national resurgence. Shri Seshadri has devoted a whole chapter to it in his book. He quotes The Statesman of Calcutta which had stated editorially that the Partition of Bengal was intended ‘to foster in Eastern Bengal the growth of Mohammedan power which, it is hoped, will have the effect of keeping in check the rapidly growing strength of the Hindu community.’1

This first Partition had to be annulled because an awakened nation offered a stiff resistance. The national vision had not yet become vitiated by an obsessive pre-occupation with the so-called communal problem. It was this National Vision which nurtured programmes like Swadeshi, boycott, and non-cooperation. It could also see clearly that the British rule was based on brute force, and that the nation had a right to use force for the overthrow of that rule.

Sri Aurobindo

The Partition of Bengal converted Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram into a mantra by reciting which our people scaled the highest heights of courage and sacrifice. But what made that brief episode important in the history of our fight for freedom was the emergence of another great seer and sage. That was Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). He shot like a meteor across the political sky, and soon retired into a self-chosen seclusion in search of new visions and victories. But the trail he blazed in the realm of India’s spirituality and culture yet holds the promise of a still more dazzling dawn.

Sri Aurobindo confirmed and completed the ideological work undertaken by his predecessors - Maharshi Dayananda, Bankim Chandra and Swami Vivekananda. The National Vision now became a vision which had fully awakened to Sanatana Dharma in all its dimensions. It was the ancient Vedic Vision at its highest and best. Sri Aurobindo’s insights into India’s inheritance - spiritual, philosophical, cultural, artistic, social, and political - went very far in restoring our people’s legitimate pride in their great past. He was very soon hailed as the Prophet of Indian Nationalism.

The National Vision Gets Vitiated

But, unfortunately, there were several other forces simmering below the surface. Several generations of Hindus had by now been fed upon Western education based on a materialist world-view, evolutionistic sociology, utilitarian ethics, hedonistic psychology and parliamentary politics. They had also swallowed heavy doses of Christianity disguised as Comparative Religion. And what was worst of all, they had become addicted to the Western version of Indian history and culture.

These self-alienated people behaved exactly as had been anticipated by Macaulay and his cohorts who had laid the foundations of a new educational system on the ruins of an old network which had moulded the national mind for ages untold. Their highest spiritual value was a mechanical monotheism, and a way of worship borrowed from the Christian Church. Their highest cultural aspiration was to dress, dine, dance, and decorate their drawing rooms after the fashion of their British masters, Their highest social aspiration was a self-centred and acquisitive individualism which frowned at every facet of the traditional social system. And their highest political aspiration was a Dominion Status within the British Empire.

Some of the leaders thrown up by this class of Indians were men of unimpeachable character. Shri Seshadri has paid handsome tributes to them for their ‘qualities of head and heart’. But, at the same time, he has noted that they could not rise above the limitations imposed upon them by their education and training. They could not think of India as a great and ancient nation which had suffered a decline as a result of imperialist inroads, Islamic and British. To them, India was still a ‘nation in the making’.

The Terminological Swindle

Meanwhile, Hindu society had been reduced from the status of a nation to that of a religious community in the counting of heads which the British rulers described as their census operation. Nationalism was now increasingly being labelled as Hindu Communalism. A revaluation of the national resurgence could not lag far behind. It was soon stigmatised as Hindu Revivalism. This new terminology which was being used by a growing tribe of sociologists and political scientists had far-reaching ideological implications.

On the other hand, Islam was getting raised from the status of an imperialist ideology to that of a religion. The residues of Islamic imperialism were now being rehabilitated as the representatives of a religious community which was in a ‘minority’ and which was trying to ‘save’ itself from the ‘domination of a majority’. The frantic efforts of a foreign fraternity to retain its unequal rights and privileges, earned during the days of its military domination, were now being described as ‘a minority’s struggle for self-identity’. At the same time, Islamic Atavism and resultant Muslim Separatism were being renamed as Muslim Revivalism. Here, too, the use of a new terminology had far-reaching ideological consequences.

This terminological swindle took place at the turn of the 19th century, and was brought about by the combined efforts of the British imperialists and the residues of Islamic imperialism. They shared a problem in common. The problem was the rising tide of National Resurgence in the indigenous Hindu society. The British imperialists now started pointing out that while they ‘appreciated the legitimate aspirations’ of the ‘majority community’, they could not leave the ‘minority community’ at the ‘mercy’ of the former. The ‘minority’ on its part started protesting that parliamentary institutions were not at all suited to the ‘peculiar conditions’ of a country divided into ‘rival communities’, and that the Muslims could not look with equanimity at the prospect of the British leaving India till the ‘majority community’ had succeeded in ‘winning the trust’ of the ‘minority community’.

The Blind Alley

The leaders of the Indian National Congress could think only in terms of a parliamentary constitution patterned on the British model. They could, therefore, see no alternative to ‘winning the trust of the minority community’. That was the starting point of an endless exercise for finding a constitutional formula which could ‘satisfy’ the Muslims. They could not see that they were thus getting into a blind alley from which there was no way out. The reservations and weightages which the ‘minority community’ demanded in all spheres of national life, at every conference table, went on multiplying in direct proportion to the concessions made by the ‘majority community’. And the British were always there to compete with the Nationalists in making greater and greater concessions to the Muslims.

The constitutional settlement, however, was not the only settlement which the ‘minority community’ was seeking. It was also objecting to every manifestation of National Culture in the public life of the country. If the Hindus sang Vande Mataram in a public meeting, it was a ‘conspiracy’ to convert Muslims into kafirs. If the Hindus blew a conch, or broke a coconut, or garlanded the portrait of a revered patriot, it was an attempt to ‘force’ Muslims into ‘idolatry’. If the Hindus spoke in any of their native languages, it was an ‘affront’ to the culture of Islam. If the Hindus took pride in their pre-Islamic heroes, it was a ‘devaluation’ of Islamic history. And so on, there were many more objections, major and minor, to every national self-expression. In short, it was a demand that Hindus should cease to be Hindus and become instead a faceless conglomeration of rootless individuals.

On the other hand, the ‘minority community’ was not prepared to make the slightest concession in what they regarded as their religious and cultural rights. If the Hindus requested that cow-killing should stop, it was a demand for renouncing an ‘established Islamic practice’. If the Hindus objected to an open sale of beef in the bazars, it was an ‘encroachment’ on the ‘civil rights’ of the Muslims. If the Hindus demanded that cows meant for ritual slaughter should not be decorated and marched through Hindu localities, it was ‘trampling upon time-honoured Islamic traditions’. If the Hindus appealed that Hindu religious processions passing through a public thoroughfare should not be obstructed, it was an attempt to ‘disturb the peace of Muslim prayers’. If the Hindus wanted their native languages to attain an equal status with Urdu in the courts and the administration, it was an ‘assault on Muslim culture’. If the Hindus taught to their children the true history of Muslim tyrants, it was a ‘hate campaign against Islamic heroes’. And the ‘minority community’ was always ready to ‘defend’ its ‘religion and culture’ by taking recourse to street riots.

The Transvaluation of Values

In the process, the residues of a bygone imperialism became equal partners in staking their claims to the fruits of freedom for which they were not prepared make the slightest sacrifice In the process, traitors who were prepared to barter away India’s freedom for the sake of Turkey or Saudi Arabia or some other Islamic country, started swaggering around as more than equal to the proven patriots. In the process, quislings who were sending ‘invitations’ to the Amir of Afghanistan or the Shah of Iran to invade India, became ‘revolutionaries’ whose ‘idealism’ could not be questioned. In short, there was a complete transvaluation of values so that the black started looking white and vice versa.

The process is still continuing in the truncated homeland which the nation has been able to retain for itself for the time being. In fact, the process is fast moving towards a climax. The residues of Islamic imperialism have not had to pay any price for their treachery and treason; on the contrary, they have attained a higher status as the ‘guardians’ of democracy and secularism, which in their opinion are ‘being threatened by Hindu communalism, Hindu revivalism and Hindu chauvinism’. They have been joined by a motley crowd of secularists, socialists and communists, all of whom have mortgaged their minds to one imported ideology or the other. And Hindu society which constitutes the nation has been driven into a corner. Hindu leaders have been made to cry that they are not communalists, that they have renounced revivalism, that they cherish Islam as a great religion, that they regard Islamic heroes as their own heroes, that they have no use for people who regard the prevalent mode of secularism as perverse, and that they are fed up with that ‘lunatic fringe’ which still continues to take pride in the national heritage.

The Only Way Out

The nation will never be able to get out of this tight corner till it clears up the terminological confusion, stops making use of meaningless words like communalism and revivalism, and rewrites its books of history, politics, and sociology in an exact and appropriate language. This exact language will substitute Nationalism for Hindu Communalism, National Resurgence for Hindu Revivalism, Islamic Atavism for Muslim Revivalism, and Islamic Imperialism for Muslim Communalism. Then alone the various elements and forces struggling for supremacy in the country at present will fall into their proper places, and come out in their true colours.


  1. The Tragic Story of Partition, p. 30.