Recently, the controversy surrounding the murals on the pedestal of 54 feet high statue of the Hindu god Hanuman at the famous Sarangpur Temple in Gujarat, which depicted him as offering pranam to, or sitting at the feet of, Swami Sahajanand, afforded substantial fodder for discussion in public and private spheres in the state. As the slugfest that ensued between the sages and cultural leaders representing the Sanatan and Swaminarayan factions got murkier and people in my social circle recklessly took sides, it was my octogenarian grandmother who had the last word, maybe the last mocking laugh, on the subject. She said in a firm, no-nonsense tone: “Do they know better than my dada (Hanuman), the god of buddhi (intellectuality) and jnana (knowledge)? He knows better who and who not to offer pranam to, unlike those who go around joining their palms to everyone the street, no matter how venal or violent. Your pranam is pranam and ours is haram?”

The future of an ancient civilisation

I wonder if writer Amit Chaudhuri would have confirmed the presence of what he calls “innovative assignation of meaning” in the above quip. My Bigg Boss-loving, pan-religious grandmother, a staunch Ram-bhakt who visits every mandir or mazaar in Ahmedabad for divine blessings, is perhaps the kind of Gramscian organic intellectual Chaudhuri tries to define in his recently published book On Being Indian.

For a book that chronicles the nation’s recent history, marked by people’s movements devoted to the preservation of the idea of India, there could hardly have been a more apposite time to be published, as these are the times when nominal designations of the nation have come to cleave that idea from the middle, the times when dharma, defined in temporal terms of the eternal and the ephemeral, is being invoked to forecast the future, that is, life or death, of a millennia-old civilisation.

Bracketing its historical timeframe on one side by a return to power of a more confident government whose aggression went on display in enactments on triple talaq, the abrogation of article 370, and the Citizenship Amendment Act, the book segues into a threadbare investigation of the Gramscian idea of organic intellectual. Chaudhuri contrasts an intellectual, that is, an academic, an artist or an author who, limited by their disciplinary/intellectual traditions, imagines an autonomous existence for intellectual life, with an organic intellectual who “…is defined by class, by the economy, by profession (in a way quite different from academic professionalisation), and by their work” and proceeds to unpack their relationship with the Gramscian idea of hegemony through episodes that facilitated his encounters with real-life organic intellectuals. By discussing episodes of individual acts of dissent and opposition to legislation that smacks of xenophobia and otherisation, Chaudhuri brings out the fuzziness of boundaries between the notions of sacred and profane, secular and religious, and modernity and tradition. Much of this investigation remains embedded in semiotic analysis, though not limited to it.

The first in the series, which came under the shadow of triple talaq, was the famous Zomato tweet “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.” It was posted in response to a customer refusing to accept an order delivered by a non-Hindu rider, and eventually cancelling the order without a refund. Far from being a secular dictum, which the traditional intellectuals never get wary of mouthing, the tweet transcended the bounds of the religious and the secular in its Western and Indian constitutional senses; the pithy formulation poetically complicated the idea of the sacred and showed it as extendable to anything and everything. The aphoristic articulation was later supplemented by the Zomato co-founder’s tweet, which juxtaposed the logic of the market (the customer is always right) with the idea of India (its diversity) and then, unexpectedly, upheld the truth-value of the latter against the former.

The second case study is that of the committed IAS officer Kanan Gopinathan, who resigned in protest against the suspension of fundamental rights of the people of Kashmir after the high-handed abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Kanan’s lamentation over the silencing of the voice of those – the institutions and administration which “kept the ‘miracle’ of India functional” – whose responsibility it was to give voice to the masses embodied a dissenting organic intellectual.

Finally, Chaudhuri gives the example of the ingenious oppositionality deployed by two organic intellectuals about the forced inculcation of the idea of “tukde tukde gang” in popular imagination: politician Saket Gokhale’s rational, yet surreal, debunking of the propaganda through an RTI application in early 2020 proved that the designation was nothing but a figment of imagination. Rohit Mateti’s letter to the Indigo management after a hurried imposition of a flying ban on Kunal Kamra for disruptive behaviour called out the system for not being objective, truthful and SOP-driven.

The deft use of aphorism, defamiliarising wordplay, humour and hard-edged rationality in all the above instances, Chaudhuri suggests, distinguish an organic intellectual from their traditional counterpart. However, it is not just the recovery of language, distinct from the letters of protest and solidarity penned in profusion by traditional intellectuals, that defines an organic intellectual, but their location.

In confirmation of what UR Ananthamurthy termed “critical insiders”, Chaudhuri’s protagonists, like my baa or Ravish Kumar who asked his viewers to stop watching news channels in the interest of their sanity, operate within the system, are deeply invested in and address it subversively, reminding one of the subtle ways in which Gandhi tried to subvert the caste system by making the discharge of impure and low functions of cleaning and spinning, reserved traditionally for untouchables and women, a pre-condition for participation of freedom struggle. First-hand negotiation of shit and labouring over the charkha were oriented towards injecting experiential noise in the consensual value system of caste and building a counterhegemony against it.

Religion and logic

In his brilliant lecture, Ananthamurthy identifies religion as the most powerful instrument to manufacture consent for the authoritarian, the irrational and the outright unacceptable. By referencing nationwide anti-CAA protests across the country, Chaudhuri tries to probe its genesis and identify the robust place all of it – the language, symbolism, iconography, and reasoning – was coming from. The fact that not only burqa-clad women but also people of other religions thronged the spaces like Shaheen Baug, Park Circus, and public universities pointed, according to Chaudhuri, to newer meanings that the realms of the religious and the secular attained in a seemingly polarised context.

Chaudhuri situates the genesis of the movement not in constitutionalism or a cliched syncretism, but in vibrant religious traditions (parampara), occupied deeply with an alert and active semantics – that is, the act of meaning-making with an unalloyed “clarity of thought” – and the inexhaustible reserve of rationality “expressed over millennia through philosophical tracts, songs, and poems.” A chance encounter with Dalai Lama’s interview on Doordarshan demystifies for Chaudhuri the invariant core of these traditions. Dalai Lama said, “Reason can never be defeated by the irrational. Reason is based on pramana. In the end, reason is always victorious.”

Suddenly, Chaudhuri awakens to the error of tracing the history of that parampara, grounded ineluctably in reason, to the West or to science that habitually delegitimises “cultural manifestations, formations, lineages, or movements – say, religion, or the non-West, or romanticism” as anti- or non-rational. As against the post-enlightenment convention that set up religion against rationality in the West, Chaudhuri argues, rationality in India has always been used by religion to counter hegemony of all kinds, even the hegemony of religion itself, albeit of a bogus kind that foments xenophobic passions. He then proceeds to critically analyse poems of Kabir and Lalon to establish how, in Indian religious traditions, devotion has always relied heavily on evidence-based logic (nyaya), one that advocates complete self-surrender to the divine while rejecting a blind and non-rational allegiance to the trivia of the sacrosanct. In Europe, the post-Enlightenment, anthropocentric emphasis on rationality pitted reason against religion and even the masses, Chaudhuri observes.

“To Indian reasoning, whether the object of adoration, devotion, or focus exists is a secondary or nonquestion; what’s scrutinised is whether the adoration or focus is real and self-forgetful, or self-interested and factitious.”

Chaudhuri’s analyses of the poems of Kabir and Lalon are the go-to expositions to understand this formulation; however, Gandhi’s reworking of the famous Ram Dhun best exemplifies the argumentative Indian’s, or an organic intellectual’s, transformative and transgressive relationship with the notion of religion. The rich rationality capital offered by religion enables an Indian mind to put even the divine to the test of what the anti-CAA protesters called insaniyat (humanity). Gandhi drew from the context and history of rationality, created by Buddha, Bhakti poets, Gita, and so on, when he inserted Ishwar Allah Tere Naam / Sab ko Sanmati De Bhagawan in Ram Dhun and conflated the oppositional traditions of the formless and with-form divine in the figure of Ram.

And this transgression was not a big deal to either Hindus or the Muslims precisely because there was nothing factitious or selfish about it; it was a plain, well-meaning appeal for the impartation of sanmati (good judgement or reason) to entire humanity. The refrain of insaniyat folded in a dash of god into the idea of humanness and then proceeded to appeal to one’s better judgement and better faith to shore up that idea.

Chaudhuri’s book is an appeal to all Indians to locate the project of identity formation in the parampara that has sets store on the values of sanmati and insaniyat, both of which have historically underpinned the activism of organic intellectuals in India. In a recent talk given at Yoganiketan in Vadodara, Ganesh Devy defined the term parampara against the backdrop of the current hysterical urge of Indians for self-definition. Param is the superlative form of para (other/foreign), imparting parampara with a signification of taking in one’s (sva) stride, metaphorically of course, all that is extremely different from an extremely different time.

The great ‘Bharatiya parampara’

This signification of the much-celebrated Bharatiya parampara imbues it with values like love and compassion for the other in addition to the modes of self-critical, organic intellectuality discussed above. The polysemic Bharatiya concept of dharma, not only in the religious sense but also in the sense of the most overarching of purushartha, has evolved from this noble tradition, not only of dialogue and dissent, of piety and reason, but also from a whole-hearted embrace and rejection.

The lures of artha (money) failed to overpower the dharmic sense of Zomato, Kanan Gopinathan, Rohit Mateti, or Ravish Kumar, for they were reared in the unique Indian tradition, undergirded by a strong consciousness of dharma. And to my mind, Indians have never been forgetful of what this dharma entails, neither in contexts as banal as drawing-room discussions and social media memes, nor as catastrophic as the pandemic and people’s movements.

In the Afterword to a recently published book The Indians: Histories of a Civilization, which also addresses the existential question of who we are, Vinay Lal narrates an anecdote Tagore recounted to his Chinese audience about the nature of dharma in Indian civilisation. On a motoring trip through the drought-hit Bengal countryside, Tagore encountered people who readily parted with the little water they had to cool down the car’s engine that kept heating up every now and then. When Tagore tried to pay them for water, everyone refused the tempting offer in a surprising debunking of the commercial logic of demand and supply, because the idea of selling water for them amounted to the idea of selling life, an anathema. More than anything else, Tagore concluded, they were driven by their dharma, the same dharma that drove Buddha and Kabir and Lalon and Saket and Kanan and Rohit and my baa, that is, the only dharma which has stood the test of time.

Unsurprisingly, the first reference to the allegedly embattled sanatana dharma was made in the Mahavagga (The Great Chapter) of Sutta Nipata, a collection of Buddhist suttas, where it is depicted as inextricably related to truth. Such truth-based sanatana dharma gets destroyed, Draupadi says in Mahabharata, when a woman gets stripped in the royal court in the presence of learned scholars and great warriors. Dharma also gets destroyed when people refuse to tap into the intellectual resources bequeathed to them by rich cultural lineages grounded not only in buddhi and jnana, but also karuna.

Chaudhuri’s book is a call to every single Indian to recover and reaffirm the legacy of organic intellectuality that, I believe, has survived largely in “We, the people” of India or Bharat. However, I feel that traditional intellectuals are badly in need of urgent soul-searching, for quite a lot of them have clearly allowed themselves to be irrelevant, either on account of the lure of plum jobs or just snooty superciliousness.

The book asks the reader, torn by competing claims of identity, to choose what kind of an Indian they want to become: like Tagore’s benefactors, or like “All the great rishis and maharishis / so-called / great thinkers, all / the finest minds of our age / even people like / Atreya, Uddalaka, Shvetaketu”, who applaud Janamejaya’s idea of genocide in Arun Kolatkar’s long poem Sarpa Satra and gleefully,

“…invent a yajnya
– a complete innovation –
called Snake Sacrifice

just for his convenience.” 

Hemang Ashwinkumar is a bilingual poet, translator, editor, and literary critic working in Gujarati and English.

On Being Indian: The Organic Intellectual, Mystical Poetry, and Lineages of Indian Rationalism, Amit Chaudhuri, Westland Books and The Centre for The Creative and the Critical, Ashoka University.