India’s rising profile in the world has meant that more books are being written about the country than at any other time in the history of publishing except, perhaps, in the decade after independence. But even among the foreign writers and intellectuals who have recently produced works of comment or reportage about the root principles of Indian civilization, the country’s recent history, or the present moment in Indian life—Christopher Kremmer, Bernard Imhasly, Guy Sorman, Ilija Trojanow, Akbar Ahmed, Michael Wood, Diana Eck—there may be no one as dedicated and painstaking as the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo.
The two years that Jahanbegloo spent in India—from 2006 onwards—as the Rajni Kothari professor of democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi (punctuated, ironically, by a four-month spell in an Iranian prison, after being detained by the country’s regime) have so far yielded three books.
The Spirit of India:Penguin, 172 pages, Rs225.
First, there was Talking India, a fascinating book-length conversation with the Indian writer and social scientist Ashis Nandy; and, last December, there appeared a second set of conversations, this time with leading Indian intellectuals, artists, journalists and sportsmen, called India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India. Jahanbegloo’s new book, The Spirit of India, carries forward his dialogue with Indian civilization, this time through meditations on 20th century Indian personalities who thought deeply about the relationship of Indian tradition with modernity and of spiritual life with material life.
Books with a title and a method like Jahanbegloo’s have long gone out of fashion (the best place to find them is on the dust-showered shelves of the New and Second-hand Bookshop at Kalbadevi in Mumbai). As scholarship has become more specialized, more grounded in particularities and footnotes, so it has struggled to comprehend any problem in its entirety. But it would seem that Jahanbegloo’s inspiration in this regard would be his subjects—Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Maulana Azad— none of whom were afraid of speaking in a lofty and generalized idiom.
For instance, as freedom is one of the buzzwords of our times, and we aspire towards the elimination of many traditional restrictions—whether imposed by state, society or family—it is worth thinking about Jahanbegloo’s gloss on the Gandhian ideal of freedom, which was closely caught up with ideas of duty, responsibility and self-actualization.
The idealist: The author is inspired by Nehru.
“According to Gandhi, to value human freedom only as the freedom to pursue one’s self-interest lacks moral and spiritual depth and creates a life devoid of meaning or truth,” writes Jahanbegloo. Freedom for Gandhi was not just a state of ease but a challenge and a responsibility. That is why he always connected independence and political freedom—the actualization of the potential of the nation—with individual transformation and self-actualization.
Jahanbegloo repeatedly refers to his subjects as seekers, grappling with difficult circumstances and arriving at complex answers that borrow creatively from many traditions and can be applied in turn to diverse situations. He shows how Nehru urged Indians towards a dynamic rather than a static understanding of the past (“Nothing is more advantageous than a rich heritage but nothing is more dangerous than to sit back and live on that heritage… What builds a nation is creative, inventive and vital activity”) and how Radhakrishnan championed a critical spirit that neither genuflected before tradition nor rejected it altogether (“Those who condemn Indian culture as useless are ignorant of it, while those who commend it as perfect are ignorant of any other”).
The spirit of a country, says Jahanbegloo, quoting Hegel, is made up of the internal life of its people, and their capacity to identify themselves with the traditions shaping this life. It is a kind of self-cultivation, resulting from an internal dialogue with the past—a dialogue that will be made richer for everyone reading this book.
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