Gandhi is preeminent as India’s “drum major” national leader who put his ideas into practice. In terms of the conceptual paradigm noted above, Jawaharlal Nehru made no significant contribution to Indian ideas of freedom however important he indisputably remains as a central figure in his nation’s history. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he ranks as a transformational leader, not an original thinker. Yet, he conveyed astute and eloquent analyses of Gandhi’s message.

“The essence of his teaching,” Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India, “was fearlessness...not merely bodily courage but the absence of fear from the mind.” Then after naming the myriad fears fostered by the Raj, he concluded that “It was against this all-pervading fear that Gandhi’s quiet and determined voice was raised: Be not afraid.”

The consequence, he claimed, was that Gandhi’s leadership of the freedom struggle created “a psychological change, almost as if some expert in psychoanalytical methods had probed deep into the patient’s past, found out the origins of his complexes, exposed them to his view, and thus rid him of that burden.”

An apt complement to Nehru’s diagnosis comes from Ashis Nandy, who observed that “colonialism is first of all a matter of consciousness and needs to be defeated ultimately in the minds of men...the liberation ultimately had to begin from the colonised and end with the colonisers. As Gandhi was to so clearly formulate throughout his own life, freedom is indivisible, not only in the popular sense that the oppressed of the world are one but also in the unpopular sense that the oppressor too is caught in the culture of oppression.”

At the same time, for all of the decisive context of colonialism, the case argued in this book is that modern Indian thinking about freedom contains a distinctive quality, moving into new theoretical territory. Gandhi conceived a nexus of ideas that defined Indian meanings of freedom. This started with his original thinking about freedom in Hind Swaraj (1909). He introduced here his classic distinction between “inner” and “outer” freedom, the relationship of swaraj as “self-rule” to satyagraha, “soul-force or love-force”.

Gandhi brought to the fore not only the correlation of inner and outer freedom, but also the conceptual correspondences among those ideas just mentioned that bear repetition: first, freedom as both internal and external liberation; second, an imperative that means are preeminent, taking priority over ends; third, nonviolence as the right method of change; and, finally, ethics as being integral to politics.

Therefore, in this short treatise, he created a remarkable synthesis, written in white heat during a sea voyage from England to South Africa, and composed by a lawyer-turned-activist, not a philosopher, at age forty. This consequent set of conceptual correspondences appears as the brightest star in a constellation of Indian political thinkers that achieved a renaissance of political theory and practice in the last century.

Gandhi’s way of thinking about freedom thus appeared early in his life, and not only in his public pronouncements but in his personal correspondence as well. So, in 1910, he advised a nephew who was earnestly committed to India’s independence: “Please do not carry unnecessarily on your head the burden of emancipating India. Emancipate your own self. Even that burden is very great. Nobility of soul consists in realising that you are yourself India. In your emancipation is the emancipation of India.”

This correlate of self and system became his signature theme and whatever inconsistencies or conceptual developments marked his subsequent public or private life, this idea of freedom, and the cluster of thought around it, never changed. In 1931, following the Salt Satyagraha, the highest point of his leadership, he wrote: “The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment...This is the correct view of freedom.”

Outward or “external freedom” meant Indian “independence”, necessarily joined by social reforms, that is, his repeated “three pillars of swaraj”: Hindu-Muslim unity, abolition of untouchability and economic equality. The necessary correlation is an inward form of swaraj that demanded rigorous, sometimes agonising reappraisal, as when Gandhi called it a “painful climb” in life’s arduous, endless pilgrimage, a search for truth through ceaseless experimentation, subject to the theory and practice of nonviolence.

Evidence of this intellectual renaissance comes from the striking fact that Aurobindo and Tagore both expounded this formulation of “internal” and “external” freedom coincident with Gandhi’s formulation. Moreover, there were other Indian thinkers not included in this group of seven, like BC Pal and BG Tilak, who used similar language for defining swaraj in 1907, before Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj.

The conclusion here is that by this first part of the twentieth century, a fertile intellectual groundwork had been established in Indian thinking about the meaning of freedom.

As we trace the roots of this modern Indian conceptualisation of freedom, then its earliest expression occurs in Swami Vivekananda’s thought, initially formed in the late nineteenth century. This had profoundly inspired others by the time of his death in July 1902.

Vivekananda observed that freedom “does not mean [only] the absence of [external] obstacles” but, correspondingly, ‘spiritual freedom’; that “one should raise the self by the self. Let each work out one’s own salvation. Freedom, in all matters, is the worthiest gain of man. To advance oneself towards freedom – in its fullest sense, physical and spiritual, political and economic – 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 [and moral virtues] should be encouraged by which men advance in the path of freedom.’

It was Vivekananda’s voice of freedom, as a process of political and spiritual evolution, personal and ethical transformation, that inspired Aurobindo in the twentieth century. He systematised it philosophically when he wrote in as early as 1916: “Spiritual freedom is not the egoistic assertion of our separate mind and life but obedience to the Divine Truth in ourselves and our members all around us...not only to seek one’s own individual liberation or perfection, but also the political and moral freedom of others is the complete law of the spiritual being ... he who sees god in all will [give freely to everyone] the service of love; not only his own freedom, but the freedom of all.”

MN Roy’s Radical Humanism may be superficially interpreted as antithetical to Aurobindo’s philosophy. In fact, they mutually evolved towards common ground in their mature thought, to write original theories on freedom. In Roy’s case, this is evidenced in his outstanding Problem of Freedom, published in 1945. In accord with others in this group of seven, Roy contended that ‘positive’ or ‘internal’, ‘spiritual freedom’ of personal morality has the advantage of being built on solid ethical foundations, thus securing a firm base of community, ‘supplying the individual with the new moorings of a co-operative collective existence’.

It must be emphasised that, as philosopher James Tully, an authority on John Locke, has observed, this Indian thinking about freedom is distinctive. It should not be confused with Isaiah Berlin’s famous “two concepts of liberty” formulation that represents a binary mode of thought.

As Gandhi recognised in 1931, and Roy concluded later, conceiving of freedom only as independence lacked emphasis on interpersonal connectedness. From self-liberation flowed collective emancipation as an evolution of ideas, not a dichotomous conceptual construction of opposites.

Therefore, for Roy, like Gandhi, India’s independence was necessary but decidedly insufficient. Roy and Gandhi devoted their lifelong political careers to the attainment of “external freedom” or what Roy called “the absence of all obstacles to the pursuit of happiness”. Yet this must correlate with freedom in its “positive” or internal form. This is their distinctive contribution, and it is very carefully reasoned in Roy’s Problem of Freedom: “Positive freedom is the condition for the self-realisation of life...only on that philosophical and psychological foundation can the structure of collective freedom be raised by the continuous efforts and collective work of spiritually liberated individuals.”

In his prolific writings on freedom after 1945, Roy explicitly identified “positive” with “spiritual” freedom, thus explicitly relating his conception to fellow Bengali thinkers, specifically Vivekananda and Aurobindo. As I’ve shown elsewhere, the explicit invocation of “spiritual freedom” became a cornerstone of his Radical Humanism.

Before turning to Ambedkar’s contribution to the group of seven, this should be stressed: among the seven members of this intellectual constellation, the conceptual correspondences in thinking about freedom are striking. Evident differences exist, but not when we focus on their ideas of freedom. The point is that these leaders of the Indian national movement signify, through their ideas of freedom, aspects of a vital and enduring intellectual tradition. This was aptly termed an “Indian renaissance” by Aurobindo and Roy.

BR Ambedkar is a fascinating member of this ostensibly disparate group. His harsh criticisms of Hinduism and Gandhi are well known. Less studied is his interpretation and embrace of Buddhism in The Buddha and His Dhamma; so the following analysis of his thought here focuses entirely on it. This singular work deserves to be called his magnum opus because it marks the end of his theoretical journey as the climax of his rich reconstruction of Buddhism.

As presented briefly in this introduction, and developed at length in chapter 9 on his thought, Ambedkar’s idea of freedom in Buddha and His Dhamma ranks as his major contribution to the group of seven.

In contrast to the six other Indian thinkers selected here, Ambedkar was an outstanding scholar with formidable academic credentials, as explained further in the later chapter. This is shown in his scrupulous documentation throughout Buddha and His Dhamma with meticulous footnotes. As only one textual example of his preoccupation with the idea of freedom, at one point in the book he repeats the word “free” five times in a single paragraph, significantly identifying it with freedom from “fear” (all cited from Buddha’s Dhammapada with thirteen footnotes). In other places, he refers amply to freedom in a variety of contexts. These are consistently employed to elucidate, from a Buddhist perspective, a pursuit and theory of spiritual freedom.

There is a particularly dramatic instance of this in The Buddha and His Dhamma that merits special attention. It occurs when Ambedkar relates what might be called the “allegory of the dungeon” (alluding to Plato’s famous allegory of the cave in The Republic). This passage from Buddha and His Dhamma reads as follows with the Buddha speaking to his disciples:

You must realise that the world is a dungeon, and man is a prisoner in the dungeon. This dungeon is full of darkness; so dark that scarcely anything at all can rightly be seen by the prisoner. The prisoner cannot even perceive that he is a prisoner. Indeed he has not only become blind by living too long in the darkness, but he very much doubts if any such strange thing as light can ever exist at all ... But the case of the prisoner is not as hopeless as it appears. For there is in man a thing called will. when the appropriate motives arise, the will can be awakened and set in motion. with the coming of just enough light to see in what directions to guide the motions of the will, man may so guide them that they shall lead to liberty. Thus though man is bound, yet he may be free; he may at any moment begin to take the first steps that will ultimately bring him freedom. This is because it is possible to train the mind in whatever directions one chooses. It is mind that makes us to be prisoners in the house of life, and it is mind that keeps us so. But what mind has done, that mind can undo. If it has brought man to thralldom, it can also when rightly directed, bring him to liberty ... [It only] requires a free mind and free thought.

The similarity with Plato’s allegory of the cave, in both language and thought, is remarkable, but there are also substantial differences. First, in Plato’s cave allegory and philosophy, there is no concept of spiritual freedom. Second, in contrast to Plato, Ambedkar asserts that Buddha is a “born democrat”, devoted to freedom and equality for all, while at the same time, serving as a guide to spiritual enlightenment. This demonstrates Ambedkar’s interpretation of Buddhism as a perfect synthesis of internal and external freedom. Note that there is no binary thinking with Ambedkar, contrasted to Isaiah Berlin’s theory of the irreconcilability or the essential opposition of negative to positive freedom. Instead, Ambedkar describes Buddha’s allegory as a progressive cognitive journey out of the dungeon, a steadfast pilgrimage, culminating in spiritual freedom.

Indian Ideas of Freedom

Excerpted with permission from Indian Ideas of Freedom, Dennis Dalton, HarperCollins India.