Liberty and Nationalism – the Indian way – Part 1

Liberty and Nationalism – the Indian way – Part 1

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Part 1: Meaning and scope of freedom

freedom converted2

[ In this 4 part series I’m addressing Meaning and scope of freedom, Role of freedom, spirituality and dharma, What is nationalism and patriotism and The practical implications of patriotism and free speech. ]

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” -Nelson Mandela

Debate on some fundamental ideas of life which is always refreshing – these include the preferability of various forms of government, roles of citizens and the government, constitution, race, caste, gender etc. A debate is healthy as long as it brings some enlightenment, does not divide the world further and settles for progress and peace.

India is churning.  Indians are analyzing and reviewing what the unique Indian knowledge system has been and what has been imposed by the outside world on her – first during the medieval Islamic invasions, then by the western colonists and finally the Marxists’ buffs.  The process of decolonization and de-marxization of Indian thoughts has made good progress in recent times, though there is a long way to go.

Indian civilization expressed reality using some unique and broad ideas such as dharma, Ishwara, rashtra, varna, yoga, darshana, atman and many more which people have tried to express through non-Indian terminology with limited and detractory meaning of these concepts using words such as religion, god, nation, caste, relaxing exercise, philosophy  and soul etc. respectively. This has caused great harm not only to India’s cerebration and her socio-cultural-economic progress, but also to the world at large by undermining the understanding of the scope and trajectory of individuals and the current civilization. Indian institutes such as the JNU have been a conduit to this process.  India has retained a continuous history and knowledge culture for millennia despite enduring a multitude of assaults; much of Indian wisdom, fortunately, is still available to the world to re-discover.

Freedom (of expression) and nationalism is the theme today – subject matters of age-old debate which deals with our true nature as individuals as well as our relation to the world.

Let us first try to understand how the West which is the torch-bearer of modern democratic societies expresses the concept of freedom in a secular way.

British scholar Isaiah Berlin, [Two Concepts of Liberty] proposed two types of freedom: negative and positive.

Negative freedom: the area within which a man can do what he wants.

Positive freedom:  demands obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves and to which no man can enslave himself.

English philosopher Maurice W. Cranston [Freedom, a New Analysis]  accepts Berlin’s ideas and  refined positive freedom into individualist “rational freedom” [Kant] , which finds  freedom in self-discipline, and “compulsory rational freedom” [Hegel]  which finds freedom in discipline alone, thus becoming a social ethic or obligation.

American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler discussed “circumstantial” and “acquired” freedom. Circumstantial freedom:   Unhampered actions by which the individual pursues his own good as he sees it and thus realizes his desires which looks to the circumstances that affect a man’s ability to carry out his wishes.

Acquired freedom: In doing as one ought; it depends on the state of mind or character which enables a man to act in accordance with a moral law, or an ideal befitting the human nature.

What is the difference?  “The acquired freedom of being able to will as one ought, and the circumstantial freedom of being able to do as one pleases.” The idea of ‘acquired freedom’ is in line with Plato, the Stoics, Kant and Hegel.

Most of the world talks about ‘rights’ – human, women, black, minority and so forth. The discussion happens because their rights are not obviously granted, their freedom is curbed. India is a unique place where ‘duty’ was given primary focus and less for the ‘rights’. India believed that all entities in a society performed their ‘dharma’ (duties and not ‘religion’) according to his or her position and role in the society, rights of all would be taken care of. India has long lost that much of this righteous norm, hence there is so much corruption and discrimination and nepotism prevalent today. But India can return to her natural order, and not only it can change its own state and destiny but in doing so it will also impact our entire global civilization.

With this contextual framework let us look into Indian concepts of ‘freedom’. In recent times four Indian thinkers and leaders have contributed significantly in this area of thoughts: Vivekananda, Rabindranath, Aurobindo and Gandhi. Their thoughts do not give much credence to socialistic ideas (Aurobindo severely criticized socialism and communism and has shown its internal contradiction and limitations). They have also evaluated western secular thoughts and connected those with higher and broader ideas of liberty, highlighting the key characteristics of Indian thoughts as expressed by  Swami Vivekananda:

 “There is one wonderful phenomenon, connected with our lives, without which ‘who will be able to live, who will be able to enjoy life a moment?’ – the idea of freedom. This is the idea that guides each footstep of ours, makes our movements possible, determines our relations to each other – nay, is the very warp and woof in the fabric of human life.” For India, freedom is sacred and thus spiritual.

What kind of freedom was  Vivekananda talking about?

Liberty of thought and action is the only condition of life, of growth and well-being. Where it does not exist, the man, the race, the nation must go down. Caste or no caste, creed or no creed, any man, or class, or caste, or nation, or institution which bars the power of free thought and action of an individual – even so long as that power does not injure others – is devilish and must go down.”

Sri Aurobindo on the other hand said: “By liberty we mean the freedom to obey our being. .. liberty is at once the condition of vigorous variation and the condition of self-finding.”  He also added: “the more the outer law is replaced by an inner law, the nearer man will draw to his true and natural perfectionThis further evolution demands the growth of a higher form of freedom. ..The solution lies in … a spiritual, an inner freedom that can alone create a perfect human order.”

Rabindranath analyzed it this way: “Neither the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship, is the goal of human history. And India has been trying to accomplish her task through social regulation of differences, on the one hand, and the spiritual recognition of unity on the other. …from the early time of the Upanishads up to the present moment, a series of great spiritual teachers, whose one object has been to set at naught all differences of man by the overflow of our consciousness of God. In fact, our history has not been of the rise and fall of kingdoms, of fights for political supremacy. In our country records of these days have been despised and forgotten, for they in no way represent the true history of our people. Our history is that of our social life and attainment of spiritual ideals.”

Therefore from the Indian point of view, the highest form of freedom is ‘spiritual freedom’. Although Berlin’s ‘positive freedom’ and Cranston’s ‘rational freedom’ somehow echo Indian ideas, many western thinkers such as John Laird, H.J.Mueller criticized and rejected Indian ideas as meaningless and irrelevant – since their views stem from materialistic worldviews and different understandings of human nature and not from the idea of an Absolute, and its relevance to the sphere of politics. 

According to Berlin – “Negative Freedom wants to curb authority as such. Positive Freedom wants it placed in their own hands.”

India does not look at the so called negative and positive freedom as two different irreconcilable  but as two ends of the same spectrum. Freedom from all bondage, physical and mental, material and psychological, as well as political and social, was seen by the Indians as one end, and freedom to perceive one’s harmony with all beings and to realize one’s self in the material world as the other end.

A great example of this thought is presented by Vivekananda by strongly connecting the concept of God, nature, individual self and freedom:

The God of heaven, becomes the God in nature, and the God in nature becomes the God who is nature, and the God who is nature becomes the God within this temple of the body, and the God dwelling in the temple of the body at last becomes the temple itself, becomes the soul and man — and there it reaches the last words it can teach. He whom the sages have been seeking in all these places is in their own hearts; the voice that you heard was right, says the Vedanta, but the direction you gave the voice was wrong. That ideal of freedom that you perceived was correct but you projected it outside yourself, and that was your mistake. Bringing it nearer and nearer until you find that it was all the time within you, it was the Self of your own self.”

He then addressed the material side of human nature:  “What, again, is the meaning of liberty? Liberty does not certainly mean the absence of obstacles in the path of misappropriation of wealth etc., by you and me, but it is our natural right to be allowed to use our own body, intelligence or wealth according to our will, without doing any harm to others; and all the members of a society ought to have the same opportunity for obtaining wealth, education or knowledge…One should raise the self by the self…Let each work out one’s own salvation. Freedom in all matters, i.e. advance towards Mukti, is the worthiest gain of man. To advance one’s self towards freedom, physical, mental and spiritual, and help others to do so, is the supreme prize of man. Those social rules which stand in the way of the unfoldment of this freedom are injurious, and steps should be taken to destroy them speedily. Those institutions should be encouraged by which man advance in the path of freedom.”

This inner freedom starts with loosening the grip of our self-programmed instincts, emotions then moving towards rational and finally spiritual. If one can free oneself from greed, anger, jealousy, deep attachments to materials for pleasure is the first step towards the ultimate freedom – the attainment of godhead. Then only the virtues and interpersonal conducts of ahimsha (non-injury), satya (commitment to truth-seeking and living) , asteya (not taking possession of things without proper ownership and consent), brahmacharya (limiting sensual pleasure)  and aparigraha (not going after unchecked accumulation of wealth, limiting greed)  would have real meaning for our social and individual existence – the power to free oneself from lower impulses and instincts is within the atman. The Indian yoga system is for individuals and societies to evolve to higher levels of conscious living. Modern evolutionary and developmental psychologists such as Clare Graves, Don Beck, Robert Kegan,Kurt Fischer, and Jenny Wade are pointing to a socio-cultural evolution of humans and societies, gradually coming closer to what Indian seers gave to the world long back.

This idea of freedom is also echoed by American Economist Samuel Bowles: “The cause of Freedom is the cause of God!

Next Part 2: Meaning and role of freedom, spirituality and dharma

Kanchan Banerjee

About the author

Kanchan co-founded the NGI platform and portal in 2008. Kanchan is a prominent NRI living in Boston, USA for over 3 decades. His interests include History, Neurology, Yoga, Politics and Future of mankind. His top hobbies are travelling, cooking and writing. Email:

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