Looking Back at the Festival of Festivals: Idea of India Part 5

Idea of India Part 5: The Idea of Indian Liberalism

By Harish Alagappa, Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger

It is quite common for the genesis of Indian liberalism to be traced to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries CE. The assumption is that, following the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British became the most dominant power in India, and it was in the best interests of the Indian educated elite to learn English and secure a cushy job in the British East India Company.

In fact, your humble author’s great-great-great-great grandfather made that very decision, abandoning the family practice of becoming a Brahmin Priest at the temple of Srikalahasteeswara, to instead seek employment as a translator for this new power in the land. Whilst the East India Company job didn’t offer the potential perk of being reincarnated as a king in the next life, it did provide a stable monthly salary (with housing included) in this life. By learning English, my grandfather, along with many of the Indian elite, were exposed to the ideas of European liberal thought, through the works of people such as John Locke, Montesquieu, and Thomas Jefferson.

But there is more to the narrative of Indian liberalism that this: in fact, liberalism had already experienced a heyday in India over two thousand years before. On exploring surviving fragments of history, literature, and philosophy from the Mahajanapada period in Northern India (between the sixth to around the second centuries BCE), a fascinating picture of a fertile period of intellectual flowering is revealed. This was an era of philosophers, religious leaders, and kings who redefined centuries-old Bronze and Iron Age-derived ideas of what it meant to govern.


Raphael School of Athens


It was a strangely shared global phenomenon, with similar examples of learning found both to the east and west of India. It could be seen in the works of Greeks such as Solon, Thales, Heraclitus, and Socrates, where the diverse city-states of the Aegean acted as laboratories for different political experiments, from the democratic plutocracy of Athens to the militaristic dictatorship of Sparta. In China, the Zhou Dynasty was in the midst of its Spring and Autumn period, which witnessed the emergence of The Hundred Schools of Thought, each of them either founded or led by a luminary of Chinese philosophy, including Confucius, Zichan, Laozi, Deng Xi, Mozi, and Sun Tzu.


Watercolour of two monks by an Indian artist, 19th century Wellcome


Around the same time, India also saw the emergence of similarly adventurous thinkers. Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism, advocated a middle path between self-indulgent materialism and Spartan asceticism. Vardhamana Mahavira, founder of Jainism, expounded non-violence to the extent that some of its more extreme practitioners starved to death rather than consume any living thing, including plants. Makkhali Gosala, founder of the Ajivika school of philosophy, a deterministic sect, postulated that free will did not exist and that everything was predetermined. Sanjaya Belatthiputta, a contemporary of the Buddha, espoused teachings best described as agnostic, with a healthy dose of existentialism thrown in, stating, “I don’t think so. I don’t think in that way. I don’t think otherwise. I don’t think not. I don’t think not not”.

Perhaps the most interesting schools were the ones that completely rejected the Vedic tradition, such as the Carvaks, who proposed a weirdly modern-sounding brand of scepticism and empiricism over two and a half thousand years ago. What we know of their beliefs comes from religious sources trying to defame and discredit them, which has the inadvertent effect of making them sound incredibly ahead of their time. Their founder, Ajita Kesakambali, is said to have argued:

There is no other world other than this;

There is no heaven and no hell;

The realm of Shiva and like regions,

are invented by stupid imposters.

These ideas would not find traction in most parts of the world until the very late Enlightenment, when thinkers such as Diderot, Rousseau, and David Hume started to question the established dogmas of Christian Europe. They were almost completely eradicated from the mainstream of Indian philosophy with the official adoption of Buddhism as a state religion by Emperor Asoka of the Mauryan Empire around 260 BCE, and the subsequent Revival of Brahmanical Hinduism during the Gupta Empire, which existed between 320 to 550 CE. Yet, during those centuries in the Mahajanapada Era, it was not uncommon to find grand debates between differing schools of thought. Spiritual leaders would accumulate followers until they were bested in a battle of reason, after which their followers would usually abandon them to join the winner’s sect.

This atmosphere of liberal thinking and freedom of expression gave rise to the first era of Indian liberalism, which believed in a plurality of philosophical approaches to the problem of why we are here and what are we supposed to do. Many of these approaches revived when they found themselves merging very slowly with the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers from Europe. While Enlightenment thinkers independently arrived at many of the conclusions that Indian, Greek, and Chinese philosophers had discovered thousands of years ago, they built upon those ideas even further, which then fed into the scraps and remnants that still survived in the Indian liberal philosophical tradition, to create the modern school of Indian liberalism. This movement, championed by the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, C. Rajagopalachari, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and Mohandas Gandhi, is the idea of a liberal India. Despite efforts in the past and present to exterminate the light of liberal thought, the idea of a liberal India has managed to persist, from its origins over two and half thousand years ago right into the twenty-first century.


(c) Harish Alagappa. 2016.


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