Svaraj In Ideas by Krishnachandra Bhattacharyya — A Summary


Lecture presented in 1928–30. First published in Visva Bharati Journal 20 (1954): 103–114.

My Reference:
Krishnachandra Bhattacharyya, “Svaraj in Ideas,” in Indian Philosophy in English: From Renaissance to Independence, ed. Nalini Bhushan and Jay L. Garfield (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 101–111.
[Google Drive Link]

I must warn the reader that, unlike other summaries, I have taken considerable liberty in rephrasing this text.


(1) We speak today of Svaraj in politics. For our subjection is felt most tangibly in the political sphere. I wish, however, to speak of Svaraj in ideas in order to impress the point that we need to break out of our cultural subjection. By cultural subjection, I mean the supersession of our traditional ideas and sentiments without comparison or competition by an alien culture.

(2) How far have we assimilated our western education? How far has it become an obsession? Perhaps there is some assimilation. But has this assimilation happened after a full and open-eyed struggle between it and our indigenous culture? It appears not. For we generally receive the alien culture first and then peer at our own as a matter of curiosity.

(3) It is a truism that this alien culture has been imposed on us. But we have not been unwilling recipients. The problem I see is that we have not assimilated it in an open-eyed way. The Indian mind has simply lapsed. It still operates in the humdrum of daily existence of course. But it does not exert itself in the cultural sphere.

(4) There is no vital assimilation. There is assimilation no doubt, as I have just said. But that assimilation happens the form of a mere absorption that induces certain habits of soulless thinking. The century old contact with the vivifying ideas of the west, springing as they do from its rich and strong life, have led to any vigorous Indian contribution in a distinctive Indian style to the thought and culture of the world.

The imagery of “life” is significant in the lecture, but especially in this passage. Bhattacharyya talks about vital (from Latin vita, meaning “life” [he doesn’t mean “important”!]) assimilation; the vivifying (from the Latin vivere, “to live”) ideas of the west; the rich and strong life of the west; and the lack of vigorous (from Latin vigeo [via vigor] meaning “to be lively or energetic”) Indian contribution.

(5) Forget about great contributions to the culture and thought of the world, even in mundane activities of daily life, we either accept or repeat the judgment passed on us by western culture. Sometimes, we resent them but have hardly any estimates of our own that are derived from an inward perception of the realities of our position.

(6) In politics, we are only realising now that the principles we counted upon are applicable to countries that are already free. In the case of social reform, we have failed to examine if the social principles of the west are applicable universally. We are either unthinkingly conservative or airily progressive.

(7) And in the field of learning, no Indian has given a distinctively Indian estimate of western literature and thought.

(8) Of course, I am not saying that judgements or estimates have not been made. Just that they are not Indian. Indeed such judgments do not differ much from that of an English critic, and one suspects if such judgments are authentic, or if they are merely the mechanical thinking of the galvanic mind induced in us through our western education.

Note the low estimation of the “mechanical” thinking, which would stand opposed to vigorous, lively, and vital thinking. Also, galvanism refers to the production of electric current by a chemical reaction, a term invented by Alessandro Volta. By galvanic minds, Bhattacharyya means a mind that is induced (or shocked or excited [note the connection with electricity]) into action.

(9) In philosophy, no educated Indian has written anything that displays a synthesis of western and Indian thought; no judgment on western philosophy from the standpoint of Indian philosophy. This is unfortunate because one would think that the most the most prominent contribution ancient India to the culture of the world.

It is in philosophy, if anywhere, that the task of discovering the soul of India is imperative for the modern India; the task of achieving, if possible, the continuity of his old self with his present day self, of realising what is nowadays called the Mission of India, if it has any. Genius can unveil the soul of India in art but it is through philosophy that we can methodically attempt to discover it.

(10) Our education has not helped us understand ourselves, the significance of our past, the realities of our present and the mission for our future. It has instead driven our real mind into the unconscious and replaced it with a shadowy and rootless mind. Neither has fully worked: the real mind hasn’t been fully vanquished, and its substitute is not effective. Thus there is a confusion between the two minds creating a hopeless Babel in the world of ideas. “Our thought is hybrid through and through and inevitably sterile.”

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east,a they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. … Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused [Hebrew balal, meaning “to confuse”] the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Genesis 11:1–9 (NRSV)

(11) Consider the strange medley of vernacular and English in which we speak. We find it very difficult to express cultural ideas in our own language. “If I were asked; for example, to conduct today’s discourse here in Bengali, I would have to make a particularly strenuous effort.” Surmounting this barrier of language would be the first step in acquiring Svaraj in ideas.

(12) This hybridisation is distressing. It is unnatural and may be regarded with the same sentiment with which on old world-Hindu looks upon varṇasaṃkara (वर्णसंकर). For while thought may be universal, ideas are not. Rather, they are carved out of thought differently by different cultures according to their genius. So that “no idea of one cultural language can exactly be translated in another cultural language.”

Varṇa-saṃkara literally means mixing or, in this case, confusion (saṃkara) of castes (varṇa is usually translated as “caste”, but literally means “colour”). For example, the Bhagavad Gita (1.41, trans. Franklin Edgerton) says:

अधर्माभिभवात् कृष्ण
प्रदुष्यन्ति कुलस्त्रियः |
स्त्रीषु दुष्टासु वार्ष्णेय
जायते वर्ण-संकरः |

adharmābhibhavāt kṛṣṇa
praduṣyanti kulastriyaḥ
strīṣu duṣṭāsu vārṣṇeya
jāyate varṇa-saṃkaraḥ

Because of the prevalence of lawlessness, Kṛṣṇa,
The women of the family are corrupted;
When the women are corrupted, O Vṛṣṇi-clansman,
Mixture of caste ensues.

(13) “A patchwork of ideas of different cultures off ends against scholarly sense just as much as patchwork of ideals off ends against the spiritual sense.” There is always room for adaptation and synthesis. But we must be clear about how to do so. In life, we may accept facts and adapt our secular life and secular ideas to the times. But we cannot compromise our ideals in our spiritual life. Here, we might, if possible, adapt the times to our life.

(14) But the world confronts us with aggressive ideals too. How may we respond to them? Shall we respect them without accepting them? Do we attempt a synthesis without compromise? Or should we simply accept them? Different responses might be given. What will not do is a patchwork without adjustment accepted complacently. What can work is acceptance along with a synthesis.

(15) We often talk of the conflict between ideas and ideals of the west and those that are our own. But often, there is only confusion and no conflict. The point is to make that conflict clear and definite. The realisation of such conflict and the commitment to one’s ideals in the face of such conflict will lead to a deepening of the soul.

(16) We also, indeed I already have, talk readily of the need for synthesis. But “it is not necessary in every case that a synthesis should be attempted. The ideals of a community spring from its past history and from the soil: they have not necessarily a universal application, and they are not always self-luminous to other communities.” And whenever synthesis is demanded, the foreign ideal is to be assimilated to our ideal and not the other way. There is no demand for the surrender of our individuality in any case: Perform your own duty, not that of another.

There is a reference to the Bhagavad Gita (3.35, trans. Franklin Edgerton).

स्व-धर्मे निधनं श्रेयः
पर-धर्मो भयावहः|

sva-dharme nidhanaṃ śreyaḥ
para-dharmo bhayāvahaḥ

Better death in (doing) one’s duty;
Another’s duty brings danger.

(17) Some find this insistence on individuality dangerous; they think it to be the expression of “national, communal, or racial conceit and the excuse for a perverse obscurantism.” Instead of these, they believe in “abstract self-luminous ideals for all humanity, in a single universal religion and a single universal reason.”

(18) I grant that there is a case for universalism, that the progress of humanity implies a gradual simplification and unification of ideals. But this the rationalising and universalising movement, the emergence of a common reason. But there are two forms of rationalism. In one, reason follows the travail of the spirit: here reason is put in the service of spirit, it is the efflux of reverence for traditional institutions, and through it “customary sentiments are deepened into transparent ideals”. In the other, reason works impenitently to mechanically separate the essential from the inessential. Among the inessential are such things as customs and institutions which are bound up with age-old sentiments: these are discarded. The right kind of rationalism is the first; it is that in which there is space for humility and patience, indeed for reverence, in the adjustment of the world of ideas.

(19) We need not reject an ideal from a foreign country simply because it is foreign even if it is felt to be a simpler and deeper expression of our own ideas. The acceptance of such an ideal is really no surrender of individuality; it is our own. “The guru or teacher has to be accepted when he is found to be a real guru, whatever the community from which he comes.” What must be remembered is that not every foreign ideal will be of such a kind.

(20) Those who advocate universalism will do well to keep in mind that the universalism of reason is a work in progress, not an established fact or code. Indeed, the only thing that is universal is the commitment to one’s own spirit and our own ideals. “The only way to appraise a new ideal is to view it through our actual ideal; the only way to find a new reverence is to deepen our old reverence.”

(21) I will say only so much against universalism. The reason why I spent this much time time on universalism is because a half-baked universalism is the inevitable result of our ‘rootless’ education. It, more than anything else, stands in the way of Svaraj in ideas.

(22) There is another danger: the unthinking glorification of everything in our culture and depreciation of everything in other cultures. In our time, this seems to require less stressing because we seem to suffer more from over-diffidence than over-confidence. The old habit of regarding everything we are taught as sacred, even if they are merely the opinion of others, refuses to leave us.

(23) A good deal of learning imparted to us is of a tendentious kind. In it our own culture and history is appraised from a foreign standard. Our attitude to such standards should be that of critical reserve. Even though a critical attitude is abhorred by our foreign teachers and by many of us as uncultured and ignorant, and likened to the absurdity of refusing to recognise the truths of geometry.

(24) The question of imposition does not arise in mathematics or the natural sciences, for these have no nationality and imply no valuation. “A valuation of our culture by a foreigner from the standpoint of his own culture should be regarded by us as meant not for our immediate acceptance but for our critical examination.” If we accept such valuation docilely, we become slaves.

(25) This is because all concepts and ideas, barring perhaps those of science, have the distinctive character of the culture from which they emerge. “They have to be accepted, but [as] metaphors and symbols to be translated into our own indigenous concepts. The ideas embodied in a foreign language are properly understood only when we can express them in our own way. I plead for a genuine translation of foreign ideas into our native ideas before we accept or reject them.”

(26) “In the sphere of ideas, there is hardly yet any realization that we can think effectively only when we think in terms of the indigenous ideas that pulsate in the life and mind of the masses. We condemn the caste system of our country, but we ignore the fact that we who have received Western education constitute a caste more exclusive and intolerant than any of the traditional castes. Let us resolutely break down the barriers of this new caste, let us come back to the cultural stratum of the real Indian people and evolve a culture along with them suited to the times and to our native genius. That would be to achieve Svaraj in Ideas.”