Dharampalji as we knew him
PPST group came to know Shri Dharampal in the early eighties of the last century; his first formal participation in a PPST meeting being in 1982 when it was held in a suburban college in Chennai. For many of us, it was the beginning of a long, defining, productive and privileged relationship with him. Beyond his being the first president of the PPST Foundation, many of us had the good fortune to know him very closely and personally over the years, given the warmth and affection that he had for us. In that sense, what we know of Dharampalji , captured below rather cryptically, goes far beyond what is perhaps contained in his scholarly output like books, articles, and talks. (A brief bio-sketch of Dharampalji is here)
1. Through a series of rigorously researched and documented books, Dharampalji disrupted the then existing consensus among our elites about the ignorance, backwardness and dis-functionality of pre-British India. The picture he presented was that of a society that was highly sophisticated and advanced in its social-political ideas, economic arrangements as well as in its sciences, technologies and education systems.
We mention some of his major works below:
Science and Technology: In his book “Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century” (1971), Dharampalji details the extensive observations and reports by the British on the sciences and technologies that flourished here in varied fields in th 18th century, revealing a sophistication and efficacy that was not known earlier.
Civil Disobedience: His second book based on the archival records, “Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition” (1971), presented documents of an intense civil disobedience struggle that raged in Benaras and several cities of Bihar against the imposition of a new house tax by the British administration. Through this, he revealed the indigenous roots of Gandhiji's main weapon in the country's independence struggle, viz. Satyagraha.
Education: In his book “The Beautiful Tree” (1983), Dharampalji looked in detail at the British surveys done on indigenous education in the Madras Presidency in 1822, along with extracts from similar surveys done in Bengal (1835) and the Punjab (1882). What emerges is a fascinating picture of the extent, inclusiveness and sophistication of the then prevailing system of education in India as Mahatma Gandhi had claimed in 1931.
Political Economy: Though not published separately as a book by him, Dharampalji examined the detailed British records pertaining to the economy and society of the Chengelpet area of the Madras Presidency during the 17th- 18th centuries, and showed how the social and fiscal arrangements had ensured the security and well being of all the citizens of the area. This work again was bearing out the historical basis for Gandhiji's ideas on the “Oceanic Circles” mode of economy and society.
The Indian Mind: In his book Bhàratãya Chitta Mànas and Kàla (1993), Dharampalji reflects on the specificities of the Indian consciousness, the Indian sense of time and the civilisational essence of being an Indian. The tentative picture of the Indian Mind that he presented in this work was in substantial consonance with the material and organisational aspects of our society that he had revealed through the rest of his work.
Through his meticulous and rigorous research spread over decades, Dharampalji created a corpus that establishes that in most fields of human endeavour, India at the time of British conquest in 18th century was equal to or better than Europe of that time. Importantly, his work established that the Indian systems in these field were not only efficient and sophisticated but also allowed for wide participation of people in all aspects of the polity and economy.
Dharampalji was a Gandhian Scholar, and through his work he rigorously established many of Gandhiji’s beliefs and assertions of the fundamentally superior nature of Indian civilisation. In particular, his work on the tradition of Civil Disobedience in India and on indigenous education in the nineteenth century seems to be directly inspired by Gandhiji, and places Gandhiji’s ideas and methods in continuity with the flourishing civilisational traditions.
2. Dharampalji had observed the European society and the European mind very closely and had a deep understanding of their true nature. He believed that what the world at large had suffered at the hands of the West from the 16th Century onwards was no aberration; it is the inherent nature of the Western civilization that is the cause for it, and Dharampalji believed that this basic nature of West hasn’t changed to this day. He wanted the Indian intelligentsia to realize the hard and ruthless core of the West, and not be misled by its soft and appealing appearances and posturing.
3. Dharampalji had some appreciation for the manner in which the West went about its business, building on its inherent core nature, values and strengths. He wanted other, non-Western, societies to do likewise, and build up on their own innate strengths and values, rather than imitate the West as that was always likely to stay feeble and emaciated due to its essential rootlessness. Dharampalji believed that this reliance on the indigenous was one of the key sources of strength and success of Gandhiji's movement during our freedom struggle—viz. that instead of imitating the ways of the West, Gandhiji came up with modes of organization and action that was drawn from our own values, nature and tradition, and hence best suited to us.
4. Dharampalji had a rather poor opinion of our elite classes, and believed that their ways imitative of the West are never going to make India strong or creative. He was not impressed by most of what was being claimed to be the achievements of modern India as he saw them to be rather shallow, weak and imitative. He believed that we need to first build strength based on the core values, beliefs and methods of our own civilisation and our people, after which we can borrow whatever is required from elsewhere, including the West. In that sense, he had nothing against our taking to Western products, practices etc.; his opposition was only to making them the basis of our core organization and thought, and to the practice of referring to the West whenever we needed to find solutions to our own problems.
5. Dharampalji believed that the greatest injury our society suffered from the British rule was the destruction of the indigenous modes of social and economic organization, and the fabric of complex relationships and shared norms and values that existed between the different segments of our population. These were the basis of our civilizational stability, continuity and well-being over long periods of time, and the British destroyed them for two reasons: One because they simply couldn’t comprehend them from the backdrop of their own limited historical experience, and two, because the indigenous ideas and organization offered resistance that had to be overcome in order to complete the subjugation of the Indian society. Dharampalji believed that these indigenous traditions in diverse fields were so potent that, despite all efforts at wiping them out during the colonial period, their roots remained alive and continued to provide succour to large sections of our society – although in a weakened state, deprived of any recognition and patronage by the modern Indian Elite and the State. He believed that Gandhiji's leadership was the only occasion in modern times that publicly recognized the role and value of the indigenous traditions and modes, and derived strength from them. Dharampalji believed that for India to emerge as a functioning and self-confident nation in the modern world, India shall have to build on these indigenous ideas, traditions and modes of organization.
6. Dharampalji did not think that we were conquered by the British because of some deep rooted and fatal flaw in our civilization; he seemed to say that in the course of history, these things do happen to nations and civilizations, and not too much need be made of it . To illustrate this point, he often referred to the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, or the Anglo-Saxon settlement in the 5th Century – all carried out by outsiders who were not considered civilizationally superior in any sense. In the case of India, a few hundred years of subjugation, however hard they might have been, cannot wipe out what had been built up over many thousands of years. He believed that this episode of our history, like many others before this, should be quickly put behind, and we should move on towards our civilisational destiny.
7. Dharampalji, of course, did not believe that our traditions were perfect or flawless – its defects and deficiencies disturbed him. In this his position might be close to that of Gandhiji, who believed in the essential soundness of our civilisation, notwithstanding the many visible defects and deficiencies, which he believed were correctable errors.
Dharampalji, like Gandhiji, considered caste as an organic formation of our society that endowed it with great strength and resilience. Caste formations historically had served the purpose of resisting any external authority that attempted to undermine the essential organization of Indian society, and thus prevented atomisation of our society as happened in the West. No ruler in India could ignore or run roughshod over the organic social and political organisations of the people from the level of village upwards. Dharampalji believed that, in any substantial sense, there were no oppressive hierarchies among the castes, and no caste system approved of evils like untouchability etc., though the large scale social and economic disruption by the colonial rule was bound to have distorted this picture significantly over time.
8. According to Dharampalji, the weakest and most unjust part of our present situation is the continued exclusion of large sections of our people from the processes of governance and participation in, and ownership of, the public space. We, he believed, haven’t done anything much after becoming politically independent to substantially repair the damage done during the British rule when a small section of people held all the controls, ownership and initiatives. Dharampalji felt happy and excited whenever he saw large masses of people from the disadvantaged sections making their presence felt in the public space; and, wherever he saw people following modes and idioms of thought and action rooted in our history and tradition in any field of public or private endeavour.
9. Dharampalji was deeply disturbed by what he saw as the widespread sense of powerlessness and lack of purpose and direction around him. He yearned for India to become a powerful and purposeful nation and society; but a power and sense of purpose arising from its own civilizational roots, values, genius, aspirations and inclinations. People organizing themselves into self-governing entities with a set of shared values and norms rooted in our traditions was a the key source of the strength that Dharampal wanted to see in India.
10. The corpus of work Dharampalji had created was relevant not only for correcting the scholarly understanding of different aspects of Indian civilization but also for showing the direction that Indian polity needs to take today. He carried out his work with great scholarly commitment and rigour, but mere scholarship was not his purpose. His seeking was not for some abstract objective truth, but for a way out of the current dis-functional state of India. He was politically active even before he began to delve into the archives. He took active part in the Quit India movement and worked closely with leaders like Sadiq Ali, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay and Mirabehn. He persistently tried to interest the political leadership across all ideologies in his work and ideas. His work was made possible largely with the blessings and patronage of Jayaprakash Narayan. He had a close association with Ram Manohar Lohia and Karpoori Thakur, tried to engage with leaders like Rajiv Gandhi, Devi Lal, Chandrashekhar, P. V. Narasimha Rao, Murali Manohar Joshi and others, and also developed warm relations with several senior leaders of the RSS. Most importantly, he tried to convey what he had discovered and what it meant for India of the past and present to young people across the country. From the early 1980s onwards, he repeatedly visited several major institutions of learning in India and engaged the young men and women there in long conversations spread over days and weeks. Many amongst them became suffused with a sense of pride for India and a passion to see India recover her genius and her functionality. We, the PPST Group, were fortunate to participate in those conversations of Dharampalji.
11. After completing his archival explorations and publishing the major books based on that evidence, Dharampalji felt that these works presented only the physical arrangements and structures of the Indian universe and were not saying much about the Indian mind and consciousness in which these diverse arrangements were anchored. Thus, he began an intense study of the classical literature of Indian civilisation, including the Vedas, Upanishads, Itihasas and Puranas. In the book Bharatiya Chitta Manas and Kala, he presented a simple understanding of the Indian consciousness and the Indian sense of time that emerged from this study. Some of the fundamental aspects of Indian consciousness that Dharampalji identified in that text may be summarised as below:
i. Indian sense of time is based in extremely long cycles of time that go far beyond the historical times that western world is familiar with. This sense of the unending cyclicity of time strongly impacts the Indian view of creation and man’s role in it.
ii. Indian consciousness is suffused with a sense of empathy and compassion for all beings. This has a bearing on all aspects of Indian civilisation including on the nature of Indian social, technological and political arrangements.
iii. India does not believe in a hierarchy of Karmas, actions. There are no high and low karmas; these can only be good or bad, efficient or clumsy, selfless or self-serving.
iv. India does not believe that there can be any final answers to the questions that arise in the ordinary business of living in the world. The civilisation only provides a way of asking and seeking. The answers have to be continuously sought in every context.
Dharampalji was aware that this state of our civilisation has probably undergone some distortions and corruptions over time, and be believed that the defects that have crept into our society over time needs to be set right.
He was also aware that what he formulated in Bharatiya Chitta Manas and Kala was only a tentative picture of the Indian consciousness and Indian sense of time. But he strongly felt that India of today must quickly form such a rough and ready picture so that the task of aligning our intellectual, physical and social arrangements with the Indian consciousness, with what animates and motivates the ordinary Indian, can begin in earnest. The picture, he believed, can be later refined, but the task of turning India back towards herself cannot be kept pending for a true and final picture of the Indian consciousness to emerge. His work tells us how India functioned in various fields of human endeavour before the coming of the British and what were the concepts and ideas that anchored and animated her functioning. Through his work Dharampalji set broad directions that India must take to recover herself and arise as an independent, self-confident and functioning nation in the modern world.
12. Through his scholarly work, Dharampalji revealed the rich indigenous knowledge content and organisation present and functional in diverse fields in our society prior to its British take over and dismantling – in various areas of sciences and technologies,from Agriculture to Astronomy , as well as in the orgnisation of economic, educational, and social activities. In particular, his work on the 18th Century S&T in India provided rich and vast material that challenged the notion of the Western system of S&T being the only valid and useful one for the entire world. The PPST movement drew heavily up on this work to propose how our society had developed a comprehensive system of understanding the material world in its own specific ways, totally independent of the West. And how such knowledge, sciences and technologies were used to build an economy and society that ensured a comfortable and just existence for its people and nature. Publication of the PPST Bulletin and the Congresses of Traditional Sciences and Technologies of India present the main thrust of such work that represent a significant challenge to the hegemonistic claims of Western Science as the sole agent of knowing the world .While Dharampalji did not write or speak much on Western S&T per se, his work reveals a position that is close to that of Gandhiji whose distrust and disapproval of the Western system and its ways is widely known and expressed explicitly by him in the fields of healthcare, agriculture, industry, etc. Gandhiji sought to resurrect Indian traditions of knowledge, the ways of thinking and doing, enriched by the experiences of later times, and Dharampalji's work on the 18th Century India contributed significantly to it. The knowledge question still remains central to the recovery and resurgence of India, its self and its people, and is a task that PPST is committed to take forward.
13. An understanding of Dharampalji and his work as captured above briefly, both on the pre-British arrangements that existed in various fields as well as his broad understanding of the working of the Indian Mind, suggest the following direction for the nation to follow:
A. Planning and Policy-making in every field must be informed by:
i. Compassion and empathy for all beings, and respect for the dignity of all persons and all professions.
ii. The Indian traditions and history in that field and our understanding of what suits the Indian genius and Indian ways of doing things.
B. In particular, the practice of science and technology in India must be informed by the Indian traditions and people's practices in the various domains. These traditions must be taken seriously and our current practices must be seen as being in essential continuity with the values and goals embedded in them; and in many instances the specific approaches and practices themselves. This would require a change in the perspectives, policies and institutional arrangements of S&T in our country.We have to start finding our own solutions to the problems we encounter , rather than copy the solutions that the West has come up with for their use.
In the centenary year of Dharampalji, we as the inheritors of his intellectual heritage should take the picture of Indian consciousness that he has described, along with the vast corpus that he has produced on the pre-British Indian arrangements in various fields, and try to turn the national discourse along such a direction.
The PPST Group 10th February 2021