Scholars that have plumbed the traditions of Indian intellectual history appear to be driven by a tendency to rely greatly on western traditions of political thought and concepts, explicating their resonance in India through a process of institutional transplantation. But what of India’s own ideational and moral (Indic) traditions that extend back millennia? Are they important or redundant? Can we, plainly, attribute the endurance of India’s democracy to the capability of the nation’s founding figures to deftly read, interpret and deploy these texts to assist in the founding and governance of the republic? Ananya Vajpeyi argues that we can. Her recent book, The Righteous Republic, is an ode to the significance of Indic traditions of thought dating back to the likes of Buddha, Kabir, Asoka, Kautilya and the Gita; by examining these philological texts, Vajpeyi contends that five seminal founding figures of India – Gandhi, Nehru, Tagores (Rabindranathan and Abanindranath) and Ambedkar, drew from them to define the notion of India’s selfhood (swa in swaraj) or the understandings of what an independent India would be and how it would exist. Portions of these historical tracts were instrumental in determining how these thinkers hoped and wished of India once it became a sovereign entity. To do so, Vajpeyi delineates five different political concepts, tethered to these founding figures and their interpretation of various Indic traditions – Ahimsa or the self’s orientation (Gandhi), Viraha or the self’s longing (Rabindranath), Samvega or self’s shock (Abanindranath), Dharma and Artha or self’s norm and purpose (Nehru) and Duhka or self’s suffering (Ambedkar).
By conducting this inquiry, Vajpeyi seeks to add nuance to the notions of the ‘Idea of India’ popularized around the seminal work of Sunil Khilnani in his seminal study of the Indian political experiment in 1997. What Khilnani and other accounts that tread close to his emphasize is how India’s nationalist leaders sought to embark on an unprecedented political journey through the institution of a nation that was embedded under the shackles of oppressive religious and social traditions. To do so, they drew heavily from western concepts of liberty, democracy and equality, that were hitherto foreign to India’s political terrain, or the story goes. Vajpeyi rejects this notion and argues that there existed a rather robust and deep ‘Indian’ political ethos that extends back centuries, which were utilized at various points of India’s founding to institutionalize political practices and traditions, contributing to the definition of India as a sovereign state with a ‘self.’ Through these leading founding figures, Vajepyi goes on to show that the idea(s) of India, indeed, predated the birth of India, which made them rather useful once autonomy was acquired.
As an intellectual exercise, Vajpeyi’s work is noteworthy in underscoring that scholars must not desist from considering and exploring whether (and how) Indic traditions served as key intellectual guides leading to the creation of India and thereafter. One of Vajpeyi’s laments, which is detailed early on, is the notable lack of understanding of Muslim intellectual traditions in pre-Independent India and the intellectual influences of leaders like Jinnah and Maulana Azad as they worked with and against Congress leaders like Nehru and Patel and Gandhi himself. Though admirable, shifting the emphasis towards domestically oriented and homegrown traditions must not arrive at the expense of dispensing with western ideas, which many nationalist leaders not only imbibed but also applied as they sought to create a republic. Or in other words, what is important is to understand how these literary traditions clashed with each other through the politics of the moment, leading to different political choices. Disentangling one from the other does a major disservice since the origins of India and the nationalist movement were far from ‘national’; they were clear international origins to the nationalist surge in India and it is critical to intellectually fuse these different traditions to gauge their importance and eventual influence. On this count, Vajpeyi arguably errs given her approach is grounded on unearthing valid Indic traditions and delineating their influence rather exclusively.