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Seeking a sense of India's self

Ananya Vajpeyi chronicles how Indian leaders and thinkers engaged with tradition to forge a

Kranti Saran 

Ananya Vajpeyi’s award-winning book chronicles how M K Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, the painter Abanindranath Tagore, and engaged with tradition to forge a “self” for modern India. What is the self that is the “swa” of “swaraj”? How, asks Ms Vajpeyi, does it relate to sovereignty (the “raj” of “swaraj”)? And why did these founding fathers feel the need to forge it at all?

Ms Vajpeyi argues that they were motivated by a felt crisis of the self. What crisis? Tradition is the product of individuals, just as individuals are the product of tradition. A gap in tradition is a gap in the self. Due to colonialism and the decay of traditional learning, these founding fathers felt a discontinuity in tradition, and so a discontinuity in the self. How did they respond to this crisis? They built a bridge back to tradition to find the self. The bridge was their creative interpretation of traditional texts. What did they find in those texts to forge the self of modern India? The answer, Ms Vajpeyi argues, must attend to the words they retrieved. Those words picked out concepts absent in the Western liberalism they accepted, concepts without which they could not fully understand themselves, their society, or the nation they founded.

Those words provide the framework for Ms Vajpeyi’s story: “ahimsa” for Gandhi; “viraha” for Tagore; “samvega”, or aesthetic shock, for Abanindranath Tagore; “dharma” and “artha” for Nehru; and “dukha” for Ambedkar. She weaves the strands of self and sovereignty together to argue that Indian nationalism was a moral project to create a distinguished by its “solid plinth of moral selfhood and ethical sovereignty”, without which India would be just another state.

Ms Vajpeyi gives a rich account of each founder’s thinking. Gandhi, she argues, took the central tenet of the Gita to be ahimsa or an orientation of non-harming towards others. She points out that ahimsa is not “non-violence” since it only rules out violence in intention, not in action. Ms Vajpeyi’s subtle reading includes a fascinating discussion of ahimsa as the norm of norms, without which no ethical action is possible.

Tagore’s key category emerges from a reading of his rendering of Kalidasa’s epic poem Meghaduta. Viraha, or longing, represents the unbridgeable chasm between us and the past; the best we can do is imagine a journey to the past. Ms Vajpeyi contends that India conceived through the lens of viraha is not a space of power but of the imagination, of emotion, and the natural environment, and so an object unrecognisable to the orthodox nationalist.

Ms Vajpeyi reads Abanindranath Tagore’s painting of the dying monarch, “The Passing of Shah Jahan”, as producing samvega, or an aesthetic shock of recognition of the truth. What truth? That while sovereign power is always finite, the self is not. (How exactly the Tagores’ aesthetic categories become political categories remains obscure.)

Nehru is at the crossroads of “aspiration and instrumentality”. On the one hand, he is the new Ashoka, drawing from Buddhism the concept of dharma, or the perfect moral commonwealth — characterised by non-violence, equal state protection for all communities, moral personal conduct, an openness to the world, a robust state, and benign political leadership. On the other, his respect for Kautilya’s realpolitik keeps his passion for dharma in check.

Ms Vajpeyi’s voice emerges most powerfully in the chapter on Ambedkar. She persuasively argues that Ambedkar, who uses the category of dukha for the suffering caused by caste society, makes the story of the Buddha “banal”. Ms Vajpeyi’s unsparing directness towards Ambedkar left me wondering how the other founders would have fared had she turned an equally critical eye on them.

How successful are Ms Vajpeyi’s arguments? One might worry there is no unitary Indian self to forge, as she seems to assume. Or that the words she uses to frame her book did not really guide the conception of the self forged by the founding fathers; they merely fit it. Or that the silence of the Yaksha and Malavika, on which Ms Vajpeyi’s reading of Tagore is premised, does not signal a chasm of “absolute aphasia” but rather the profound intimacy and communion only possible in silence. Such worries left me unconvinced by her arguments; however, their inherent interest and richness provoke a demand for more detail and reworking, not dismissal.

Some warnings for a busy general audience. The 48-page Introduction recapitulates much of the material in the 15-page Preface. While the book is gracefully written, there are instances of unexplained jargon (“autotelic self”, the “dominance/hegemony” distinction, etc) and cryptic declarations (“But since the logic of time is premised on separation, presence is always deferred, and the deferral of presence to futurity leaves us, inevitably, yearning”) that leave you scratching your head. Your head, however, will certainly be a more interesting place for reading this book.


The reviewer teaches philosophy at Delhi University

Ananya Vajpeyi
Harvard University Press; Rs 995