The revival of cultural consciousness among Indians looks like a Hindu renaissance but there is more to it than meets the eye.
We live in interesting times. A Hindu nationalist party has established itself as the country’s primary political force. A yogi rules the most populous state of the country. A sense of pride in being Indian, something we lost along the way, is visibly reviving. Genuine efforts to reclaim the values our civilization stood for, coupled with their unapologetic expression in a modern framework, are gaining momentum. Those coerced into sacrificing these values are standing up against the hegemony.
It is quite fascinating to analyze this multi-pronged movement and the course it will take. Such movements take place when the cornerstones of a civilization erode in time. How the ethnic factor and historical circumstances make this renaissance unique, the extent of degradation it is up against, the magnitude of work required to bring about palpable change, and its current strengths and weaknesses, are some of the parameters which will help us better understand this movement.
The very fact that it isn’t just any renaissance, that it is an Indian renaissance, gives the movement distinction. Some of the theological ideas we come across today in India have their origins in one of the earliest periods of civilization known to mankind. Some of the practices we follow today are evolved versions of practices from that period. India is the only civilization that remains deeply connected with such a period. Other civilizations with rich and glorious pasts- Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and others in Africa and Latin America- have unfortunately died out in time. Whatever stands in these regions today is completely disconnected with what stood there once. What this reveals about India is that the period in question has been and continues to be held in high regard. What it imparted continues to be a guiding light. Movements to bring it to the forefront every now and then, to turn towards what it offered in its essence, especially in periods of crisis, is what an Indian renaissance or reawakening is.
Contrary to the general connotation of the term ‘renaissance’, an Indian renaissance is not a one-time cultural outburst moulded in the image of a long-gone classical age. It can be perceived as a near-continuous process. Throughout history, one comes across people in various corners of India turning towards what this guiding light offered, rediscovering its essence, enriching those around them and adding to the civilization’s vast tradition. Sri Aurobindo writes in an essay called The Renaissance In India:
“The first age of India’s greatness was a spiritual age when she sought passionately for the truth of existence through the intuitive mind and through an inner experience and interpretation both of the psychic and the physical existence. The stamp put on her by that beginning she has never lost, but rather always enriched it with fresh spiritual experience and discovery at each step of the national life. Even in her hour of decline, it was the one thing she could never lose.”
The three blows
One of the factors that make the current edition of this renaissance unique, is that the extent of decline has never been of such horrific proportion. In the last five centuries, the Indian civilization has undergone three consecutive body-blows, with each strike landing before India had time to recover from the previous. Although they came one after the other, there was a degree of overlap with the recoil from one blow facilitating the landing of the next. A lot can be written about each one of them, but let us stick only to a general overview of each, just enough to get a sense of their detrimental effects on the Indian civilization.
The Muslim Dynasties, the first blow, persecuted the native population on religious grounds. They taxed and punished Indians for following the native way of life, and destroyed their places of worship. They instilled fear among Indians, creating an environment in which joining the ranks of the invading cult became a means to avoid great inconvenience and financial burden, not to mention the threat to life itself. The effect of the first blow was large-scale religious conversion. This has resulted primarily in three types of losses for the Indian civilization. The framework of coexistence with every alien cult that set foot in India has been lost because the advent of the cult in question was a direct assault on the framework itself. Native practices and places of worship were lost due to the rulers’ intolerance. And a civilization that, despite political disunity, spread from the western borders of Southeast Asia right up to Afghanistan, stands dismembered today.
The second blow came in the form of the British imperialists. Although the process that led to dismemberment began before they colonized India, it was inadvertently facilitated by them. Under the British, India lost its material wealth and its ancient knowledge. To establish supremacy in the region, the British orchestrated artificial divisions among the native population. Although they landed on Indian shores with the intention to dominate and enrich themselves, the narrative they peddled and perhaps believed in, was that they were here to uplift an inferior race. This was absurd, considering that the material and spiritual achievements of ancient Indians simply had no parallels in the colonizers’ own civilization. Be that as it may, the British sucked the life out of the Indian civilization. India’s share of the world GDP was 27% when the British arrived, and 3% when they left. Moreover, the traditional institutions for the propagation and preservation of knowledge and the values that went along with them were systematically attacked and an effort was made to replace them with concepts that were alien to the culture of the land.
The ill-fitting values thus became the third and final blow – more than six decades of chaotic self-loathing in matters of law and governance. Secularism, an Enlightenment principle that espoused the separation of religion and state, was twisted to end up being the separation of the majority religion Hinduism and the state. In fact, the minorities were pampered as state policy, often at the cost of Hindus. A constitution with major flaws allowed one-sided religious conversion under the banner that citizens were free to “profess, practice and propagate” their religion. Most importantly, the education policy was so skewed and politically motivated that it produced intellectuals and academicians, who unabashedly undermined Hinduism and worked towards making Hindus feel ashamed of their way of life. The media and pop-culture faithfully followed suit in this mad rush to culturally uproot the people of the country.
It is in these circumstances that the ‘renaissance’ takes place today. The Indian nation has a population bomb ticking in the backyard. Its deracinated people are under attack and worse, unaware of the threat staring them in the face. Arguably, the Indian civilization has never been in such a battered condition. And yet, a conscious effort to arrest the decline and reclaim what we stand for is underway.
Aside from how deep the rot runs, another factor makes the current edition of the renaissance unique. The earlier Indian renaissances generally followed a pattern wherein they had spiritual realizations as their basis, and systems, institutions, and cultures were built upon them. This time around though, what we are witnessing is a bottom-up approach. The circumstances of our times- factors such as the internet especially- have democratized this renaissance and made a mass movement of it. The scale at which it takes place is something we might never have seen before. Despite over six decades of covert oppression, sparks of pride and genuine interest about our civilization have been propelled into the mainstream.
The mass-movement format has its merits and demerits. The three body-blows have resulted in the consolidation of a diverse civilization, and consequently, the reawakening is widespread. Many argue that these blows were, in fact, responsible for the transformation of a way of life into a religion, with its rigid and militant aspects. What seems missing though in this edition of the reawakening, is the spiritual spark. The reawakening seems to be taking place on the material plane, on the knowledge plane, and it seems to have set certain latent survival instincts into motion. But in India, where the worldly and the otherworldly go hand in hand in every walk of life, politics has been no exception. If this key trait, something that defines us and that we have always espoused, is missing from the equation as we rediscover and re-establish ourselves, one cannot help but wonder what we are really fighting for.
I believe such a dichotomy can be resolved in two ways. The time-frame one deals with is only relative, and therefore it is ultimately a matter of perception. If the renaissance that takes place today has reactionary tendencies and not a spiritual realization as its basis, it allows the Indian civilization to be eclectic, in its drawing from the plethora of past spiritual currents to guide and enrich it. Perhaps, because of the sheer scale of it this time around, it might be an opportunity to draw inspiration and build upon various strands of realization simultaneously. At the same time, considering how much the civilization has lost and how badly it was battered, there is a possibility that this edition may not touch the spiritual plane at all. Perhaps, this is solely an exercise to strengthen and re-establish ourselves as a materially vibrant society, thus setting up a fertile base and an environment conducive to the many future awakenings in store for humanity.
Considering our civilization’s many highs and lows, our many successes and failures, the current edition must be perceived as being part of a perpetual process. What might be an apparent deficiency isn’t necessarily an obstacle. We must use it as a stepping stone instead. Irrespective of the role it plays, we must embrace it and advance it. Knowing fully well what we have undergone, we cannot afford to be complacent at this point. Our civilizational journey thus far gives us compelling reasons to believe that certain aspects of our current renaissance could be a part of a larger puzzle and in that sense, predetermined. As many Indian luminaries have stated, what our civilization has to offer in its essence, is an elixir not only for India’s well-being but for the good of the planet earth and its diverse life forms.