Frames of Mind

Feb 02 2013, 03:20 IST
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SummaryIndia’s modern intellectual history, approached through the “swa” in “swaraj”

Book: Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India

Author: Ananya Vajpeyi

Press: Harvard University Press

Price: Rs 995

Pages: 368

A few years ago, I met with a senior faculty member at my department to persuade her to let me do a course in South Asian intellectual history for my PhD qualifying examinations. After much equivocation, she blurted out that she didn’t believe that South Asia had an intellectual history. Her exact words were, “South Asia never had a Freud or a Marx.” Ideas, therefore, are still often seen as Europe’s keep (and culture as Asia’s). Happily, a recent slew of efforts in the arena of South Asian intellectual history have more than responded to such a Euro-centric vision of intellection.

Cambridge historians Christopher Bayly and Shruti Kapila fired an early salvo, in the name of a new intellectual history, in a collection of essays published in Modern Intellectual History (2005). They argued that such an approach to South Asian history blurred the distinction between ‘Westerner’ and ‘Oriental’, and shifted the focus from nation and empire, to ideas and their purposes. It broadened the “range of methods, texts and actors” while debunking the long-held belief that concepts emanated from the West and were merely assimilated in the East. There has since been a tremendous resurgence of interest in both the stock figures and lesser known figures involved in the making of modern India. 

Ananya Vajpeyi’s highly readable, and yet scholarly work, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, identifies five major thinkers to whom she ascribes the political foundations of modern India. These include Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore and somewhat unusually, the painter Abanindranath Tagore. Her proposition is simple: Alongside the battle for political swaraj, thinking Indians faced a profound crisis of self (i.e. the precise content of the “swa” in “swaraj”). This book recounts five responses to this crisis. She deploys one (or two) Indic concepts to understand each thinker’s work. This is innovative because the concepts fit well and help her enrich the now somewhat bland tradition-modernity interpretive prism. Here instead we have a series of “hybrid” concepts that have strong roots in Indian history but are interpreted anew by the five thinkers. But it’s problematic because one never knows if these figures would themselves have chosen these concepts to sum up their endeavours. 

For Gandhi, that concept is ahimsa, usually translated as “non-violence”. After skilfully reviewing the concept in different Indic thought

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