In this review of Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri’s newly-launched book titled A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State, we take a close look at the meta-values that inform this purportedly “New Idea of India”. While the book is a useful and timely intervention in the growing body of literature critiquing the Nehruvian socialist economy and the Indian state’s own brand of perverse secularism, we focus on the more problematic assertions of the book with regard to the veneer of ‘civilisational’ character given to the idea of the Indian republic envisioned by the authors. Identifying three principal premises of the book, we offer a critique of each premise from an emic indigenous perspective, and demonstrate that the idea of India forwarded through the book is a Eurocentric one. Of these, we first look at how the book interprets the Dharmic traditions, followed by a discussion of nation and civilisation as per the emic Indic perspective. We then turn our gaze upon the authors’ deployment of the concept of ‘legibility’ in nation-building, state-building, and India’s transformation from a civilisation to a modern nation-state which the authors claim to be a ‘civilisational republic’. Finally, we discuss how the authors have perpetuated Eurocentrism by championing the cause of neoliberal values in economy, governance, and sociocultural spheres before offering our final remarks.
A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State, authored by Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri, sets out to project the duo’s idea of a “civilisational republic” as the surest guarantor of ‘individual freedom’ – a notion that is animated by the concept of individual rights in the book. The book makes an important contribution to the growing body of literature that critiques the malformed idea of secularism as practised by the Indian state. It also presents a detailed analysis of the Nehruvian brand of socialist state interventionism, breaks it down to expose its rather weak foundations, and offers an argument for market liberalisation and globalism, with relevant context-specific protections for domestic players as a superior strategy for growth.
The book has much to offer to those who are befuddled by the vocabulary of the political and intellectual discourses in India today. From the ideas of civilisation, nation, and state to the much maligned but less understood notions of secularism and communalism, we get a fairly good coverage of terminology. Essential public policy and political economy concerns that emerge out of tensions and contestations at the intersection of the individual, state, culture and market get crystallized and the uninitiated reader gets a well-curated tour. The strongest sections of the book demonstrate the ingenuity and tenacity of the Indian entrepreneur when the policy environment creates a conducive environment, like the National Telecom Policy of 1999 had. This section also highlights the significance and the emergence of public infrastructure as an outcome of a healthy interplay between the state and the market. The policy solution framework adopted by the authors is a fairly standard version of the global playbook for liberal democracies – consisting of free markets, rule of law, contract enforcements and the role of the state as an enabler for markets – but the authors strive hard to locate these in the Indian context. It could also be a good read for young political science researchers who are tracing the trajectory of Indian political theories and trying to understand the political logic of the emergence of India’s ‘Right-Wing’ as a dominant political force. The book is particularly useful to disabuse naive notions about modern Indian history and the infallibility of some central figures of the freedom movement, particularly Nehru. The recommendations on judicial reforms, state control of Hindu religious establishments are noteworthy while the proposed solutions on education and public health might warrant more scrutiny.
The authors make a case for adopting the neoliberal value-framework not only in the sphere of economic policy, but also in the socio-cultural spheres straddling both social institutions and the individual. In doing so, they betray a lack of touch with the essential nature of the crucial 3rd pillar (to borrow Raghuram Rajan’s phrase) of the Indian samāja. This high-pitched endorsement of neoliberal value-framework is reflected in their very conception of the role of the state in India’s fundamentally decentralised indigenous structures of society and culture – structures which are at the core of the outstanding resilience shown by the Indic civilisation in the face of repeated invasions and prolonged colonisation. Our review is focused not on the individual elements of the book but on the world-view and meta-values that inform the architecture of this ‘New Idea’ endorsed by the book.
Gupta and Mantri define this entity that they call a ‘civilisational republic’ in the following manner: “a ‘civilisational republic’ [is] a democratic polity based on the rule of law that in turn is rooted in India’s millennia-old pluralistic ethos”. (Gupta and Mantri 2020) The arguments put forward through this book mainly spring from three propositions, which are broadly concerned with the ontology of the civilisation of Bharatavarsha/Hind/India and Sanātana Dharma, the bedrock of Bhāratīyatā/ ‘Hindutva’/‘Indianness’, as well as with explaining nation, civilisation, and the state. These propositions are as follows:
a) The Sanātana Dharma tradition, or more commonly the Hindu tradition, is essentially a “sceptical tradition” as opposed to the dogmatic certitude of Abrahamic religions;
b) Hitherto India has not been a coherent nation, instead it has been an amorphous and rather abstract civilisation with an “authentic yet somewhat conveniently abstract past” (Gupta and Mantri 2020, p. 19) as its anchor. It is only recently (i.e. in the last few decades) that India has been set on the path to transforming into a nation through the instrumentality of a modern, secular, liberal-capitalist, democratic state; and
c) The project of state-building and that of nation-building overlap considerably, if not fully; and that the nation-building project is a modernising project which transforms a traditional society with its traditional ways of thinking and doing things into a neoliberal, free market, individual rights-based society, causing India to ‘rise’ globally while remaining a ‘civilisational republic’.
All three propositions are extremely problematic, to say the least. A perusal of the book may cause the unsuspecting reader some perplexity, who may be tempted to ask questions such as: Is the destination of a civilisation a nation? Does being a civilisation preclude being a nation? And if we are already a civilisational state, then what is the additional work or advantage of a nation-state? These confusions arise mainly out of the book’s universalist application of Eurocentric notions of nation and civilisation on one hand (Gupta and Mantri 2020, p. xxviii), and the conflating of the projects of nation-building and state-building on the other. Of these, we will first look at how the book interprets the Dharmic traditions, followed by a discussion of nation and civilisation as per the emic Indic perspective. We will then turn our gaze upon the authors’ deployment of the concept of ‘legibility’ in nation-building, state-building, and India’s transformation from an ‘abstract’ civilisation to a ‘coherent’ state which the authors claim to be a ‘civilisational republic’. Finally, we will see how the authors have engaged in perpetuating Eurocentrism by championing the cause of neoliberal values in economy, in governance, and most crucially in socio-cultural spheres before offering our final remarks.
The Book’s Notion of Sanātana Dharma: Reinvention or Misrepresentation?
In their zeal to proffer a new idea of India as a ‘civilisational republic’, the authors have invented a novel interpretation of the Hindu tradition as well. According to this newfangled reading of Hinduism, the metaphysics of India’s dominant philosophical tradition is characterised by a marked sceptical attitude. In order to oppose central planning and foreground liberal capitalism as a “scientific” economic system, the authors end up pleading for a Hinduism that would be, in their words, a ‘scientific’ religion which would, like science, be ever ready to forgo its claims whenever challenged and demonstrated as ‘wrong’. Their preferred version of Hinduism is that of a falsifiable theory.
This betrays a very poor understanding of Sanātana Dharma or Hinduism on the authors’ part. It is one thing to try and marry liberal capitalism with the Indic worldview, and quite another to attempt a deconstructivist inquiry into what Hinduism is. The authors seem to prefer both, or rather, they adopt the deconstructivist approach as their preferred methodology to carry out an ontological exercise on Hinduism by ignoring important categories and inventing new ones. E.g. they classify Indic worldview as ‘not deterministic’ by positing that it is cyclical rather than linear (as in the case of Abrahamic religions). But they ignore the initial mantras of the same Nāsadīya Sūkta (Rig Veda, Book X) that they have quoted at the beginning of the chapter wherein they copiously speculate, without any meaningful direction, about ‘eschewing certitude’ and ‘embracing scepticism’. Those initial mantras, going by the same translation (by A.L. Basham) that the authors have conformed to, read:
“Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other. (2)
At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined cosmic water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat. (3)
In the beginning desire descended on it –
that was the primal seed, born of the mind.
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is, is kin to that which is not. (4)
And they have stretched their cord across the void,
and know what was above, and what below.
Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse. (5)”
These mantras not only offer a very specific ontological certainty to the foundation of the universe in the form of pure consciousness as its matrix; they also accord certitude to their claim about cosmogony, describing each sequential step in the manifestation of the cosmos. Moreover, the mantras also specify the knowers of the Truth in a terse but profound statement at the end of the fourth mantra. “The sages”, it says, “who have searched their hearts with wisdom/ Know…” (Basham has translated the original term ‘Kavi’ as sage; in the Vedic parlance, the Kavi or the seer of the Vedic mantra is another term for the Rishi, it does not indicate a mere poet as the term has come to mean in today’s common parlance.) When the mantras no. 2 through 5 of the Nāsadīya Sūkta have so many certainties to offer as wisdom or direction in the spiritual pursuit, it remains a mystery as deep as the last two sublime mantras (no. 6 & 7) in this Sūkta as to why would the authors highlight only that which they have (inaccurately) perceived to be an evidence of uncertainty and scepticism? Is this because such a selective reading will favour their New Age interpretation of Hinduism and Indic civilisation?
Indic Formulations of Nation and Civilisation
Swami Vivekananda had pointed out that every civilisation in history has flourished by pursuing a civilisational mandate of its own. It is a unique purpose, a national calling, which the civilisation seems to fulfil through its very existence. The civilisation lives as long as that mandate is undelivered, and it dies just after the mandate has been accomplished. We find that historically, different civilisations have lived with different, and more importantly, unique purposes. But every one of them has come into existence to shine its light on a particular facet of Truth. Speaking metaphorically, every civilisation approaches the Shrine of Truth via a unique path which it forges for itself and which suits its temperament the best. Walking down that distinctive path leading to the palace which houses the hallowed Shrine of Truth, the civilisation reaches a certain wall of the palace and opens for itself a unique window on it, through which one may peep down into the dark chambers where the Deity of Truth resides. And from that unique angle, the pilgrim holds up a lamp which burns with the fuel of his life’s work and sheds a peculiar light on the Deity. To shine its own hue of light on the Truth of Man, to offer its own share of intensity into the great fire that dispels the dark of Man’s ignorance, is verily the purpose of a civilisation’s existence. For this very reason, we call such entities ‘civilisation’ – a coherent social organisation with a very high level of sophistication, the degree of which varies from place to place – and which is distinct from, and often actively opposed to, barbarism.
In Vivekananda’s own words,
The Indian nation cannot be killed. Deathless it stands, and it will stand so long as that spirit shall remain as the background, so long as her people do not give up their spirituality. Beggars they may remain, poor and poverty-stricken, dirt and squalor may surround them perhaps throughout all time, but let them not give up their God, let them not forget that they are the children of the sages. Just as in the West, even the man in the street wants to trace his descent from some robber-baron of the Middle Ages, so in India, even an Emperor on the throne wants to trace his descent from some beggar-sage in the forest, from a man who wore the bark of a tree, lived upon the fruits of the forest and communed with God. That is the type of descent we want; and so long as holiness is thus supremely venerated, India cannot die.
– (“My Master”, Lectures and Discourses, Volume IV, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda)
We get a distinctly Indic conception of the idea of ‘nation’ from the above. Here, the nation is conceived as a community, which, by virtue of its natural physical habitat and a comprehensive predilection of its members across time and space, is committed to a singular goal. In India’s case, that goal is a unique indigenous formulation of spirituality, which provides it with a set of first principles that helps in the ordering of the cosmos as seen from the peculiar standpoint of the community and in facilitating its social organisation. It is an unfailing compass which helps determine the community’s priorities with regard to identifying its leadership; just as India has traditionally prioritised the spiritually wise and morally upright (and hence materially poor) section of her society to be its leading light – providing proper direction to the society, dispensing law codes, and offering mentorship – while those wielding military strength and financial clout have been assigned roles that are subordinate to or at least a function of the roles of the first.
A nation can turn into a civilisation, provided the former reaches a certain advanced stage of sociocultural, technological, political, and spiritual development and organisation. And therefore a civilisation may well be represented by a single nation, such as in the case of India. Of course, there are other civilisations which are represented by multiple nations. The African civilisation, for example, consists of various nations, like the Yoruba, the Igbo, the Ijaw, the Maasai, the Yaaku Waata, the Sanya etc. Similarly, the Western civilisation is essentially a conglomerate of diverse nations such as the English, the French, the Dutch, the American, and so on.
Thus, it is futile to argue, as A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State does, that “India is a civilisation which is transforming into a ‘nation’ through the instrumentality of a sovereign, democratic state”. Bharatavarsha i.e. India has been a nation in the distinctly Indic sense as described above as well as a civilisation from long before the concepts of nation-state and Westphalian sovereignty – or even that of democracy, for that matter – came into existence in Europe.
Bharatavarsha, or Hind or India as the rest of the world knows it, is an ancient nation among the great nations of the world, some of which have ceased to exist, and some of which are struggling hard to remain relevant in today’s world. The Bhāratīya nation, having achieved a high degree of socio-political organisation quite early, attained ‘civilisationhood’ when its Rishis were able to grasp the essence of Ṛta and translate it for their society in terms of Satya and Dharma, a value framework to be followed in social life, in politics, and in any other sphere of human endeavour.
Gupta and Mantri bank on the French philosopher Ernest Renan’s definition of nation, wherein the idea of nation is formulated in terms of two essential elements. One of these elements is a common possession of “a rich legacy of memories”, while the other is “present consent” to live together and continue investing in the received heritage that is jointly held by a national society. This definition sees the nation as little more than a sum total of past legacies and experiences, and thus this idea, although sublime, fails to capture the reality of several other nations and civilisations. It essentially renders the object it has set out to define an abstract category, because the constituent elements used in this definition are abstract ideas in themselves.
But the nationhood of India is not merely an abstract category, for India has also historically been a very real and rather vast territorial entity, with an extraordinary linguistic and cultural diversity of its constituent provinces. All other races and nations of the old world have identified these provinces, from Sindh to Kamrup, and from Kashmir to Ceylon, as Hind/India. Travellers from Ancient nations and civilisations, such as Greece, Rome, Persia, China, and Arab, who made their pilgrimages and commercial expeditions to this land, have invariably referred to these parts as Hind/India – names which foreigners have always used to refer to Bharatavarsha. Even in the Dark Ages of Europe and in the early modern era, European travellers and explorers have roamed these parts and described them as India. Foreign literatures bear ample number of references to the ancient land of Hind/India which has captured the imagination of the external world all throughout history. Moreover, India’s unique civilisational mandate organically integrates all these Indian provinces into a vibrant nation, just as the various parts of the human body have different but unique and essential functions. That mandate is to shine the light of spirituality to the rest of the world; the light that is indispensable to explore Man’s internal universes and to experience Truth in its absolute totality, and not just in its partial aspects. India boldly declares that we can reach this deepest core of Truth only by exploring the inner universe of Man. No other nation, no other civilisation has made this the highest goal of its pursuits. And because there is still a necessity in Man to discover his true nature, the Indian civilisation persists and the Indian nation remains alive, although severely wounded due to loss of vital territory. India lives because her civilisational mandate is yet to be delivered.
Of all the various mandates borne by different civilisations of the world – many of which arose at some obscure point in beginningless, endless time and then got dissolved into the turbulent currents of history after having fulfilled their purpose – India’s is the one which has not lost its relevance even after all this time. This is not a claim to an Indian exceptionalism, nor is it a supremacist’s claim; it just so happens that out of the many nations of the world, the Indian nation has been entrusted with the task of bearing the torch of spiritual science. It has to teach, not only to its own children but to the entire breadth of humanity, the ways of the spirit – as well as the ethic which sustains life and peace so as to offer Man the leisure to turn his exploring gaze within, to enable Man to reach for something higher than his present plane of existence, to ready himself for the ultimate search of the Truth.
To help Bharatavarsha carry out its own unique civilisational mandate, the natural order of things has ensured that its life is not extinguished already and that it may carry out its task relatively unperturbed by the great upheavals of political history. This is one of the main reasons why politics and military conquests have never been the focus of the Indian civilisation. Instead, all its best minds have invested themselves to liberation in the absolute sense of the term – i.e. freedom from old age, disease, and death – the limitations and inevitable pitfalls of the human condition.
Legibility, Nation-Building, and State-Building
Starting with the premise that India is transforming from a civilisation to a nation through the instrumentality of the state, the book depicts the state as a tool which is becoming progressively precise in penetrating deeper into all aspects of the Indian society and gaining ‘legibility’ (borrowing Yale University political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott’s theoretical framework and terminology). The authors argue that the Indian state and its citizens are becoming more and more ‘legible’ to each other with the widening reach of digital technologies and latest digital public goods. They also go on to claim that the citizens “are in national communion with fellow citizens only in name” unless the state is ‘legible’ to them through the receiving of government welfare schemes. This is an extremely reductionist view of national fellowship among citizens of a country which has been a well-defined polity at several junctures of its history, not to mention a millennia-old living civilisation. Its actual civilisational institutions which facilitate national fellowship and the building of a pan-Indian national consciousness (such as the tīrtha-yātrā or pilgrimage which has been doing this for millennia) have been completely ignored in this context.
It should be pointed out that Scott’s exposition of the concept of legibility in his 1998 book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed effectively demonstrates that the modernising activities of the state tries to render things ‘legible’ in the eyes of the central observer and planner, i.e. the state, and it does so through a bureaucratic ordering of nature and society by placing excessive confidence in the power of science to ‘upgrade’ each and every aspect of human life, from a purely utilitarian point of view. The state uses its authority and coercive power to intervene and bring about large-scale changes and in the process it often renders the civil society and the traditional social institutions (including intimate human relationship-building institutions like marriage) powerless. In Scott’s words: “In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.” (Scott 1998) In our view, the present work by Gupta and Mantri is performing the function of articulating the high-modernist ideology that Scott speaks of, providing the state with a strong desire and incentive to implement a modernising project in an Indian context, to the detriment of India’s traditional institutions of samāja, family, civil society, and above all, India’s civilisational character. The very conception of the state and its role in this framework is fundamentally opposed to the Indic conception of the state and its role – wherein the state has been designed in such a way that it remains subservient to the overarching structure and institutions of the samāja. Here, the state becomes a functional instrument of the samāja; and it is the samāja which takes care of education, healthcare, and even public works to a considerable extent through its various institutions, of which the principal ones are family and svadharma. This characteristically Indic relationship between the higher-order samāja and the lower-order state is something that has been clearly articulated in the smriti literature, and the same thing has been articulated for the Modern (i.e. post-British invasion) Indian by none other than Rabindranath Tagore in his Bangla essay Svadeśī samāj, written in 1904. This is ātmanirbhartā or self-reliance in the true sense of the term, when the samāja would not have to look up to the state for each and every essential service that it would need. Such dependence breeds weakness and that weakness paves the way for tyrannical power and all forms of perverse corruption in the state machinery.
We find echoes of the same Indic formulation of samāja and the state in M.K. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj as well. There’s absolutely no doubt that we need to invest a good deal of thinking and action in state-building exercises, the state being an essential instrument in safeguarding our dharma and our civilisation; but it must be the kind of state that has Indic civilisational underpinnings, as articulated by authentic civilisational thinkers – from Vyasa and Chanakya to Tagore and Sri Aurobindo.
Scott’s nuanced critique of the state’s ‘legibility’-enhancing exercises has been essentialised by the authors of A New Idea of India into a tool for uncritically praising the phenomenon of large-scale digitisation of public goods, identity, and information in India (a process which began in the UPA era) as a ‘rise’. This is a rather narrow reading of the original concept as well as critique of ‘legibility’ and its wide implications. We believe that without carrying out a thorough critique of the immense power that large-scale digitisation and technology bestow upon the state, and without convincing the readers of the presence of overwhelming advantages over the obvious disadvantages in bestowing such absolute power through such a critique, such eulogies can hardly be reconciled with making an argument in favour of an ‘individual rights’-based society and polity that the authors claim to have achieved.
Now coming to the third proposition proper, which too has been used as a vital premise of the book, some comments on the book’s conflation of nation-building and state-building are in order. Although they are related, the projects of nation-building and state-building are two distinct things, and almost all modern interventions made in the name of nation-building are in reality state-building, where the rhetoric of nation-building is typically employed to gain confidence and build consensus. As Australian National University professor and International Relations expert Sinclair Dinnen shows, history and local context are absolutely critical to nation-building. Drawing upon the mid-twentieth century debates on decolonisation and independence in postcolonial states in Asia and Africa, Dinnen demonstrates that the lessons from those debates and practical experiences of state-building point out that nation-building in the postcolonial states have essentially been exercises of transitioning from tradition to modernity by building all of the institutions of the ‘modern’ (i.e. the Western) state. (Dinnen 2006) His empirical analysis corroborates Scott’s theoretical exercise around the concept of ‘legibility’, and reinforces the view that all-pervasive state interventions at the cost of tradition and diverse local culture are destructive of these elements. Such interventions originate from a Eurocentric approach to the idea of state and nation-building, and as such there cannot be anything ‘Indic civilisational’ about it. Calling such a vision of state a ‘Civilisational State’ fails to remind us of anything other than the absolutist, all-seeing Eagle of the iron-fisted Ancient Roman Empire.
Championing Eurocentric Liberal and Neoliberal Values
Another question that naturally arises is: why is this newfound Indic scepticism not directed towards the neoliberal narrative and the values underpinning that narrative? The entire work seems to be about arguing that India’s civilisational ethos, as per the authors’ understanding, is ‘fit for purpose’ for liberalism and its various modern shades. The book also betrays that the colonial narratives of caste and gender oppression in India are internalised without employing much of this freshly discovered scepticism.
The authors’ notion of the Indic civilisation’s ‘pluralistic ethos’ also seems to be closing in on the formulation of multiculturalism as understood through a very Eurocentric cultural relativism lens, rather than approaching the Indic idea of pluralism based on Vedantic metaphysics. It is evident in the terminology they use in order to get the concept of dharma embedded in a context of conflicting nations and civilisations, as well as in the direction of their gaze on things that are Oriental. And therefore they assert: “Dharma is the original multiculturalism of our world”. (Gupta and Mantri 2020) This becomes more apparent when the authors plainly express their opinion on the postmodern phenomenon of devaluing Hindu texts by according the same value to every new interpretation: “That is why the opposition from some groups to multiple interpretations of, say, the Ramayana, is very unfortunate”. (Gupta and Mantri 2020) Perhaps this is understandable, because otherwise the authors’ own novel interpretations of Hinduism, Dharmic tradition, and Indic civilisation don’t stand a chance.
Contrary to what the authors have attempted to portray, the quintessential Indian Mind was not a sceptical mind; it was a refined mind which saw things for what they were based on the knowledge systems that purified the cognitive apparatus and developed ‘dṛṣṭi’ for direct experience of the deepest levels of Truth. The Indic way is neither dogmatic nor sceptical. It has the ability to inquire, empirically assess, clinically reason but at the same time also revere – and all of this was grounded in a specific praxis, much of which have been successfully preserved by the various Indic traditions.
The discerning reader may also want to ask the authors: how can a ‘New Idea of India’ not have even a cursory mention of some of the most pressing problems of our times – such as environmental concerns, and the inherent seeds of inequality in the neo-liberal market apparatus etc.? The overarching assumption here seems to be that we can deal with them once we get to 5k per capita. One feels almost obligated to ask: how does such certitude reconcile with the rediscovered scepticism on everything else that is Hindu or Indic?
At a fundamental level, this argument of civilisational state meeting individual rights as the blueprint is both an incorrect representation of the Dharmic thought and a dangerous path to tread. Dharma as ‘that which holds’ has duties at its core – not ‘rights’. The inspiration for this is drawn from the very design of the cosmos, and the socio-political design is in accordance to the fundamental idea of Ṛta, manifesting in the earthly plain as righteous action or dharma.
If the argument is for advancing the cause of individual rights and some innovative interpretation of civilisation in an Abrahamic shell, then that can be achieved by simply remaining within the confines of those categories without having to contort the fundamental spiritual philosophy and metaphysics of Hinduism.
Towards a ‘Civilisational’ State and Society
An inverted mirror image of the Abrahamic world-view cannot lead us to a fair conception of a dharmic state. For example, scepticism – the antithesis of dogmatic certitude – is a very poor characterisation of the dharmic traditions of India, and a misleading yardstick to judge the same with respect to other traditions. Though dharmic traditions in general (and Sanātana Dharma or Hinduism in particular) eschew dogma and unquestioning blind faith in the ‘Word of God’ or ‘Logos’, they prescribe all those living in the tradition to inculcate śraddhā. This is why Arjuna, although he is instinctively aware of the divinity of Sri Krishna, could ask multiple questions and even offer counterviews in his dialogues with the latter – but the exchanges are carried out in such a manner that Arjuna’s attitude towards Sri Krishna throughout the Mahabharata can be regarded as the quintessence of śraddhā. We see that in all Hindu sampradāya-s, every man and woman is advised to take dīkṣā or initiation on a spiritual path under the close guidance of the Guru or preceptor. Thereafter the sādhaka or spiritual seeker adopts an attitude of reverence towards the Guru as well as the śāstra-s i.e. verbal authority, and cultivates reliance on them. This is prescriptive and a matter of becoming, which requires the site of the traditional family set-up to unfold because in general it necessitates constant practice and ‘leading by example’ within that structure. It is a delicate process that is transformational, as opposed to radical change through conversion into a new religion and subsequent forced adherence. Therefore, reverence for and reliance upon the Guru, the śāstra-s, and the family are the basic pillars of dharma and, consequently, of the Indic civilisation. This is contradictory to some core values of Eurocentric modernity and liberalism as well as neoliberalism. As Naik (2019) shows, to stay true to the civilisational character of India, or to reconnect with the same, we need to confront “an overarching dogma of modernity: the dogma that verbal authority is something to be rejected” (Naik 2019). Among the English-educated Indian intelligentsia, the uncritical acceptance of this dogma has been a legacy of the British colonial government, instituted through its ideological state apparatuses (such as the university and the news media). (Althusser 1970) Without confronting this and several other central dogmatic propositions of the liberal philosophy espoused by modernity, neither the Indian polity nor the Indian civil society can begin to meaningfully aspire after a reclamation of its ‘civilisational’ character.
The authors claim that India is “an ancient spirit [which is finally] embracing modernity”. (Gupta and Mantri 2020) Does this embrace imply an uncritical adoption of modernity? The reader is given little scope to think otherwise, as the authors seem to be determined to single out scepticism as the defining character of dharma, which is, in their words, Indic civilisation’s “credo…or even a nebulous idea that makes the incoherent coherent”; and which they reckon is at par with the USA’s “frontier spirit of the land of the free…with the Founding Fathers being slave-owners and ‘Indian’ killers” or with Russia’s obsession with “order…with a lot of rum and vodka”, or Pakistan’s “Great Mughal”, or even Bhutan’s “tasty jam”. (Gupta and Mantri 2020) That is indeed a novel understanding of dharma, civilisation, and nations as far as “new ideas” are concerned. The authors’ insistence on scepticism being the essence of dharma reaches a new height when they admonish an unnamed “fringe Hindu faction” by name-calling them as “anti-blasphemy medieval Turks” and “Prudish Victorian Englishmen”, reminding the ignorant Hindus of their unwitting subscription to “the same broad Hindu tradition that worships Krishna, famed for his relationship with Radha, with whom he was never married.” (Gupta and Mantri 2020) In the same breath, the authors talk of the “Indian society’s highest metaphysical impulses”, which they assert are lost on the Indian state. Too bad for the poor state perhaps, but such ‘high metaphysical impulses’ as these are lost on us too. And we cannot decide whether that is a good or a bad thing, for these can palpably compel one to characterise dharma as a ‘nebulous idea’ to be placed in the same brackets as certain genocidal ideologies and ‘tasty jam’, and to see the story of Śrīmatī Radharani and Bhagavān Sri Krishna as little more than an illicit love affair which is generally the stoff of some juicy pulp fiction.
Nevertheless, the book’s attempt to synthesise what is a time-tested civilisation with a strong, modern state at a theoretical level is a significant contribution, and a necessary one at that. Foregrounding certain keywords like ‘civilisational’, ‘dharmic’, ‘Indic’ also helps in introducing such crucial ideas into the mainstream discourses shaping our polity, policy, and politics. For, only then such discourses can aid the evolution of a more effective polity for India and reorienting the same towards a more India-centric approach. The book can also be seen as a response to the Left’s criticism with regard to an alleged lack of intellectual responses from the Indian Non-Left. It must be wholeheartedly acknowledged that the authors have shown commendable confidence in setting forth their thoughts on political economy, the state, civilisation, and nation before the larger public through this book and opening up those thoughts for scrutiny, which is how civil debates make progress. Such scrutiny and debate may expose errors in conceptions and their articulation, but that is only for the better because errors are, as Swami Vivekananda puts it, “our only teachers”, adding that “Who commits mistakes, the path of truth is attainable by him only”. (Br. Amal 2020)
However, while there is humility in saying that this is just ‘a’ new idea of India, there is real danger of this getting legitimized as ‘the’ idea through uncritical reception and internalisation, particularly by the Indian Non-Left who have not received the institutional support required to produce intellectual responses to the leftist onslaught. The risk with this is that we would be doing the job of the modernists and classical liberals for the Indian Non-Left and there would be nothing civilisational about it. And such legitimization, instead of decolonising our thinking and our polity, would amount to further perpetuation of non-Indic and Eurocentric ideas by ignoring or dismissing the deeper ideas that bring out the essential elements of a Dharmic state.
There is of course a tremendous amount of work to be done to articulate what a true Dharmic polity would look like for contemporary times. This includes expounding its theory of state, the means of pursuing the four puruṣārtha-s in a globalised world, the economic philosophy, and the societal structure that is aligned to the cosmic Ṛta. That work requires a serious engagement with the tradition and with the core of the Indic knowledge systems as well as Indic thought models. It needs an original vocabulary and the flowering of an Indic episteme. Attempts like this, while well-intentioned, might end up causing more harm than good.
- Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses by Louis Althusser 1969-70.” Marxists Internet Archive, La Pensée, 1970, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm.
- Amal, Br. Swami Vivekananda: Life and Teachings. Advaita Ashrama (A Publication House of Ramakrishna Math, Belur Math), 2020.
- Dinnen, Sinclair. “(PDF) Nation-Building.” ResearchGate, unknown, 1 Jan. 2006, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283136264_Nation-Building.
- Gupta, Harsh, and Rajeev Mantri. A New Idea of India. Westland Publications, 2020, p. Xxviii.
- Naik, Chittaranjan. Natural Realism and Contact Theory of Perception. Notion Press, 2019.
- Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State. Yale University Press, 1998.
- Tagore, Rabindranath. Swadeshi Samaj. Translated by Anasuya Guha, Dey’s Publishing, 2006.
- “The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda/Volume 4/Lectures and Discourses/My Master – Wikisource, the Free Online Library.” Wikisource, the Free Library, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Complete_Works_of_Swami_Vivekananda/Volume_4/Lectures_and_Discourses/My_Master. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.