Paul Robeson had stated questions young Blacks might ask looking at an Africa ravaged by colonialism and poverty, “What of value has Africa to offer that the Western world cannot give me? (...) Where they exist, he is looking at the broken remnants of what was in its day a mighty thing; something perhaps that has not been destroyed, but driven underground, leaving ugly scars upon the earth’s surface to mark the place of its ultimate reappearance.”
Many young Indians today ask the same questions when they look at what is seen as Indian tradition. They see the prejudice, empty ritualism and superstitions of a clan structure warped by colonialism, and ask what has this to give us for the future? What is there for us in idols and temples that can answer the questions that confront us today? They see the poverty of the Indian people, the garbage that chokes all Indian cities, and ask, is our culture and value system to blame?
There are others that seek to defend the tradition as our inheritance, yet see it as a static monolith which we must return to in order to defend ourselves against the cultural attacks of the West. Yet, ironically, they often believe versions of their tradition that were put forward by the West to keep India in subjugation.
What was believed and upheld in the freedom movement of our nation is missed today: that Indian tradition, and indeed, religion is a means to further the project of human liberation. As such, it must also be a domain for ideological struggle for the people. It cannot be static or unchanging, stuck in a past that no longer exists, but must rise to the challenge of confronting the modern world.
The history of Indian philosophy is in many ways the same as the history of religion in India. To be organic to this history means to recognise that debate has defined this tradition; that at every stage of our history, there are philosophical positions that emerge which seek to further human freedom, and those that seek to preserve the status quo. Religion is not separate from ideology and politics. It is the task of every young person seeking their place to know what has come before and strive for a new synthesis of their tradition that can show the way forward.
This was the ethos of the non-violent struggle led by Gandhi that faced and changed the conditions caused by colonialism. Gandhi based himself in the Geeta and fashioned Hindu thought and philosophy into a weapon of mass struggle. It is the purpose of this essay to look at two figures that worked on the ideas that Gandhi put into practice: Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Muhammad Iqbal.
Both figures are rejected by much of the left today as conservatives and nationalists, yet both worked out a profound revolutionary thought drawing from the traditions of Hindu and Muslim philosophy which then became part of the Indian freedom movement. They sought ideas organic to the Indian people that could strengthen them in the struggle for self determination. They squarely confronted the West and its claims of scientific superiority through ideas. This essay will argue that they indeed belong together and must be studied as revolutionary figures by the Indian youth as it makes its future.
Geeta Rahasya and Asrar E Khudi
Geeta Rahasya, Tilak’s commentary on the Geeta was published in 1915. Iqbal’s epic poem, Asrar-E-Khudi was published in the same year in Persian. 1915 was also the year that Gandhi returned to India after his time in South Africa. Both Tilak and Iqbal were witness to the degradation of the Indian people under colonialism. They saw their people crippled with hunger, poverty and illiteracy, unable till then to pose a sustained challenge to colonialism. They saw the elite classes of India aping the whites, aspiring to the British lifestyle and turning their backs on the Indian masses. They saw the elite behave in pathetic and spineless ways, justifying the ideas that perpetuated colonial rule in India.
Iqbal had returned from getting his PhD in philosophy in Germany in 1908. He then set up a law practice in Lahore but focussed on writing poetry and philosophy. Iqbal saw how aspects of religion broadly, and Indian Islam in particular, had been contorted to suit colonial rule. He saw the preachers of Islam promise their followers dreams of a heaven beyond, and only an escape from the brutalities of their lives. He saw his people justify inaction with claims of an acceptance of God’s will. In words they talked of giving up their lives to God, but in effect gave up their agency to the British. Iqbal saw the need for a spiritual awakening of his people, a strengthening of their selves so that they could engage in struggle. He saw the need for a new synthesis of ideas that would allow Islam once again to be used as a weapon against injustice. This is what took him to writing Asrar-E-Khudi in which he sets out the basis for a new philosophy, rooted in the old, but striving for the future: “I have no need of the ear of To-day, I am the voice of the poet of To-morrow.”
Tilak began his study of the Gita to understand the relationship between the religion he was born into and the world he saw around him. His elders had told him from a young age that attempting to achieve liberation meant renouncing the world. The corruption and codification of Hinduism in that time meant that the religion had become a means for retreat and escape from the horrors of colonialism, instead of a means to engage with and change the world. In the face of this Tilak asked, “Does my religion want me to give up this world and renounce before I attempt to, or in order to be able to, attain the perfection of manhood?” He saw all around him examples of the Indian elite who proclaimed piousness and the rules of right conduct according to religion, but could not face the White man ruling them and their people. When faced with the choice between comfortable living in an unjust system, and sacrifice, they chose the former.
In some ways aspects of what Tilak was addressing continue on in Indian society to this day. The opulence of Indian temples and the rigidness of rules, unwilling to give way to the new, drive away young people who wish to engage with the world. As Tilak had asked, any young person born into a Hindu family may ask today: does my faith have nothing to do with the world we see around us? Are we to go to work in Western companies, emulate the American lifestyle, while practicing an empty ritualism on the side? Indeed, is a striving for a more just world at odds with my religion?
And so Tilak began a study of the Gita and found in it the answer he had been searching for: “The conclusion I have come to is that the Gita advocates the performance of action in this world even after the actor has achieved the highest union with the Supreme Deity by Gnana (knowledge) or Bhakti (Devotion). This action must be done to keep the world going on the right path of evolution which the creator has destined the world to follow.”
Life is an Endeavor for Freedom: Action, Vice-Regency
Tilak wrote Gita Rahasya then to clarify that if the book is approached with an open mind, without the influences of western thought, the Gita asks us to engage in just action. We may today look back at Gandhi’s movement which drew on this thought and call it revolutionary action. Inherent in Tilak’s work and interpretation of the Gita was a criticism of the Indian elite and middle classes who had accepted British rule and saw their ‘duty’ within the exploitative system of colonialism to achieve good standing with a higher God. He says, “If man seeks unity with the Deity, he must necessarily seek unity with the interests of the world also, and work for it. If he does not, then the unity is not perfect, because there is union between two elements out of the 3 (man and Deity, and the third (the world) is left out.”
Tilak clarifies in his work that other interpreters of the Gita call for a path to liberation through knowledge (Gyan yoga) or devotion (Bhakti). Yet, he sees the main thrust of its message as action guided by knowledge and enriched by devotion. Thus, within his commentary was an appeal to the poor, that liberation was accessible to all, irrespective of wealth or social standing. One must know in order to act, and knowledge amassed without purpose was useless and decadent. Thus, the striving for freedom within religion, and indeed, in the world was not the domain or property of intellectuals.
Similarly, Iqbal explored in Asrar-E-Khudi the concept of Vice Regency. “We are gradually traveling from chaos to cosmos and are helpers in this achievement. Nor are the members of the association fixed; new members are ever coming to birth to co-operate in the great task. Thus the universe is not a completed act: it is still in the course of formation. … The process of creation is still going on and man too takes his share in it, in as much as he helps to bring order into at least a portion of the chaos. The Quran indicates the possibility of other creators than God.”
For Iqbal, in order to become co-creators of the world, the people of India had to strengthen their individual selves. “In one word -- life is an endeavor for freedom,” he said. Iqbal also believed that knowledge was not the end, but must serve a higher purpose, which was life itself. “The object of science and art is not knowledge, The object of the garden is not the bud and the flower. Science is an instrument for the preservation of Life, Science is a means of invigorating the self.”
In order to develop the self, one had to keep one's personality in tension, to confront contradictions within oneself and in the world. The self was fortified by love, and weakened by asking. And how could one overcome contradictions and tension to evolve closer to God? The answer lay in taking revolutionary action. “Subject, object, means and causes -- all these are forms it (Life) assumes for the purpose of action.” Iqbal even denied love as assimilative action: “Thus, in order to fortify the ego, we should cultivate love, i.e. the power of assimilative action, and avoid all forms of asking, i.e. inaction.”
Thus we see these two intellectual giants follow different paths -- yet arrive at the same conclusions that draw from Hindu, Islamic, Sufi and Western philosophy. In the first preface to Asrar-E-Khudi, Iqbal says, “In the intellectual history of humanity, the name of Shri Krishna will always be taken with courtesy and respect — that this great man, in an extremely captivating way, criticized his land and people's philosophical traditions, and made the truth apparent that the renunciation of action is not the renunciation of everything. Because action is a requirement of nature, and through it arises life’s stability. Rather, by renunciation of action is meant that there should be absolutely no attachment of the heart to action and its results.”
The Individual Self in Modern India
The racist narrative about Asia and Africa paints the people of these continents as a sea of nameless faces. In the eyes of the white world, and indeed for their collaborators within India, the Indian poor are vaguely ‘collective’ and do not have individual personalities. This is a convenient philosophy when world order is built to extract surplus value from their labor, and to treat them as sub-human. It is only the western man who is allowed to be an individual with aspirations, desires and existential concerns.
Yet, the anticolonial struggle in India saw the people of India wake up to their individual potentials. The India of today is the result of this anticolonial project that has allowed a large section of dark humanity to rise from poverty and engage in the project of human science, art and philosophy. It is Iqbal’s conception of the individual that must guide the consciousness of this humanity going forward. As other articles in this issue will illustrate, the individual for Iqbal was a fundamental category of understanding the world, yet different from existentialism or liberal thought. His ideas were modern ideas. He says, “What then is life? It is individual: its highest form, so far, is the ego (khudi) in which the individual becomes a self‐contained exclusive centre. Physically as well as spiritually man is a self‐contained centre, but he is not yet a complete individual. The greater his distance from God, the less his individuality. He who comes nearest to God is the completest person. Not that he is finally absorbed in God. On the contrary, he absorbs God into himself.”
In reading Iqbal’s Asrar-E-Khudi, one cannot but think of the freedom fighters that made up Gandhi’s movement, and Gandhi himself. They tell the story of a principled individual strengthened to the point where the world has to change to fit them. One also thinks of the figures that came out of the Civil Rights movement in America, and for me, these are the men and women I have studied most deeply and come into contact with who illustrate what Iqbal is describing. One thinks of Martin Luther King Jr, James Lawson and Diane Nash, whose moral authority and just action changed the American nation forever.
These remarkable people did not lead their lives on terms dictated by society, yet determined the terms on which society must re-make itself. They used only their Selves to take on the responsibility of an entire nation. They set an example which, in turn, changed the nation itself. Although theories of class struggle and revolution based themselves on the best of European thinking: Hegel and Marx, it is from India that the theory of non-violence arose. While being a theory of social change and revolution, it is essentially individual: it relies on each student of non-violence realizing and striving for principles that can guide human society. Yet the beauty of the philosophy lies in its universal nature; anyone, indeed the poorest and the weakest can adopt the struggle for strengthening of the self. In fact, in reading Iqbal, one is struck by how naturally his ideas address poor and working people.
“Albeit thou art poor and wretched
And overwhelmed by affliction,
Seek not thy daily bread from the bounty of another,
Seek not water from the fountain of the sun,
Lest thou be put to shame before the Prophet
On the Day when every soul shall be stricken with fear.
The moon gets sustenance from the table of the sun
And bears the brand of his bounty on her heart.
Pray God for courage! Wrestle with Fortune!
Do not sully the honour of the pure religion!”
Unlike the present liberal discourse which paints the poor as victims to be pitied or criminals to be wary of, Iqbal’s writing is a call and a challenge to the poor. In this regard, both Tilak and Iqbal remind one of Gandhi, who gave the call for the poor to make themselves worthy of Swaraj and self rule. The poor have immense moral and intellectual capabilities, and these revolutionaries saw that the future depended on their capability to develop these. They addressed directly and put into action a program to increase the capacity of the Indian people for struggle.
Love and Non-Violence
Thus, both Tilak and Iqbal’s ideas and work seem to form the philosophical basis of what became the Indian freedom struggle. Central to Gandhi and Iqbal’s philosophical foundation is love, which seems so starkly missing from European philosophy. Perhaps the closest parallel one can draw is the thought of Martin Luther King Jr. In his words, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” In Asrar-E-Khudi, Iqbal writes,
Be a lover constant in devotion to thy beloved,
That thou mayst cast thy nose and capture God.
Sojourn for a while on the Hira of the heart.
Abandon self and flee to God.
Strengthened by God, return to thy self
And break the heads of the Lat and Uzza of sensuality.
By the might of Love evoke an army
Reveal thyself on the Faran of Love,
That the Lord of the Ka‘ba may show thee favour
And make thee the object of the text, “Lo, I will appoint a vicegerent on the earth.”
Central to Iqbal’s thought is the idea that through love and a strengthening of the self man can become a vice regent to god on earth. He can become a maker of the world, and by the might of love evoke an army. Gandhi and King worked on similar lines, King called love ‘the sword that heals’.
Although Tilak did not explicitly speak about love, we can today see Gandhi’s ideas as a development on what he had built. Tilak’s practice was guided by a deep love for the people, and he was one of the first leaders to carry out ideological struggle among the people through his organization of large scale festivals in an anticolonial spirit. Gandhi often referred to love as a guiding and organizing force in the world, “The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of its working at every step. The universe would disappear without the existence of that force…. Thousands, indeed tens of thousands, depend for their existence on a very active working of this force.” Gandhi’s ideas on nonviolence direct action rested upon his conception of truth, soul force and love. This world view is not at odds with the ideas of Iqbal, rather it flows naturally from his poetry.
There is an effort today to paint the men and women who were part of our freedom movement as intellectuals, artists, organizers and politicians in extreme colors. The intelligentsia of today would have you believe that the freedom movement’s greatest names were narrow nationalists who defended social oppression. The truth cannot be farther from this, and we must call this ideology what it is: an effort to keep the next generation of Indians away from their revolutionary legacy. A people who do not know their history are lost, and easily manipulated. Much rests on the people of India in this time when the world is transitioning to a new stage. It is imperative that we rediscover our revolutionary thought, and Iqbal and Tilak represent two of its most profound proponents. The young people of India need the ideas of love, revolutionary action and khudi to build a new future.