Intro : Lokmanya Tilak, a selfless, courageous and erudite sage who took on the might of one of the greatest empires of the world.
In 1909 legendary Marathi playwright Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar wrote an influential play named Bhaubandaki (A Family Feud). It is based upon an 18th century political murder of the young Prime Minister and the de facto head of Maratha Empire, Narayanrao Peshwa. Everyone in the court knows that the current Peshwa and Narayanrao’s uncle Raghoba is behind the murder but no one has the grit to utter the truth. An upright and learned Chief Justice of the empire Ramshastri takes the mantle of proving Raghoba guilty upon him and finally in unequivocal terms announces a capital punishment to the incorrigible ruler. Raghoba succeeds in saving his life only to get overthrown by the courtiers in the denouement.
|Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak,
23 July1856 to 1 August 1920
Watching the allegory audience could swiftly relate tyrannical Raghobadada with the British bureaucracy, well-meaning and patriotic moderate congress politicians who valued Tilak's leadership and personal integrity but opposed him politically on ideological grounds, were the loyal courtiers and Lokmanya Tilak was that selfless, courageous and erudite sage who took on the might of one of the greatest empires of the world. Indeed he was that great philosopher-activist who through his lifelong selfless endeavors begot a new era which produced new systems, new theories, new dreams, new hopes and new India. Mahatma Gandhi rightly called him ‘A Maker of Modern India’. Tilak ushered in modernity in India on the terms set by Indian people. Following his death. ‘The Hindu’ observed ‘As was once said of Napoleon Mr. Tilak was not so much a man as an idea and the idea of lofty patriotism and noble self-sacrifice he presented will under providence endure.’ The objective of this essay is to explore and analyse this idea called Lokmanya Tilak.
Tilak’s thoughts on philosophy of life and ethics are well documented in his magnum opus Geetarahasya. In Geetarahasya he analysed the message of Bhagvad Geeta in the light of Eastern/Western philosophies and also material sciences to come to the conclusion that Nishkam Karmayoga, action sans attachment or desire, is the ultimate trick to live life ethically to achieve knowledge and progress in both material and spiritual realms. However like Rousseau, Hobbes or any other oriental or occidental political thinker he never wrote any book dedicated only to the topic of political philosophy. He was first and foremost a political activist who was busy in galvanising and mobilising masses for a long political agitation. This was in accordance with his opinion that ‘Learned persons are not just the eyes but also the active Gurus of the society.’ He wasn’t just an observer but a doer. He was always a man on the move. Whatever he wrote in the editorials, every speech that he made as a politician, his every action as a national leader carried a political message as well as the underlying political philosophy.
Tilak’s concept of Swarajya
In Tilak’s writings one can find that, being both a realist politician and an idealistic political philosopher, he is articulating the concept of Swarajya by focusing on the prevailing political situation as well as by deliberating on more fundamental questions of the legitimacy of authority of any government over the people or a justification of state’s power over an individual. As a politician he was embroiled in a lifelong political battle with the oligarchic British bureaucracy to replace it with the democratic self-rule. At the same time a philosopher in him was busy in laying down the fundamental principles on which the edifice of future democratic regime would be built. It is evident that the word Swarajya had two different connotations. Swarajya or Home Rule as it was translated was an immediate political goal of the dominion status under the British crown. Tilak’s politics could not go beyond the demand of Home Rule due to socio-political and historical constraints. He fought steadfastly against the formidable and cunning adversary with all his might of character, intellect and political acumen and awakened the masses to work collectively towards the common goal.
Tilak’s concept of Swarajya is based on the Vedanta philosophy. Almost every leader of that era was obsessed with this idea. Leaders like Aurobindo, Bipin Chandra Pal, and Gandhiji have written and spoken extensively on it. They were presenting this idea to the nation as a solution to all the miseries that the British rule had brought. Tilak pronounced the idea and invented methods to achieve the goal. Throughout his life he was doing the Lokasangraha to achieve the goal of Swarajya.
The definition of Lokasangraha as Tilak wrote in Geetarahasya is as follows ‘The enlightened person should teach people about how to do the work as per the Chaturvarnya system with Nishkam Karmayoga i.e. doing work skillfully and successfully without having desires attached to the final outcome.’
Tilak further explains that in the era when Geeta was written Chaturvarnya system was in place. That doesn’t mean Chaturvarnya System (with all its so-called benefits and shortcomings) must be followed now. As the time changes social systems should also undergo change rather it is a responsibility of intellectuals to rectify the problems in social structures to encourage the Lokasangraha. Geeta ultimately tells us that everyone should strive for the salvation of samashti and choose action over inaction i.e. to do Lokasangraha. Tilak urges everyone to do Lokasangraha to attain Swarajya for the personal and national perfection. Though welfare of everyone is the ultimate aim of the Vedanta before accomplishing this goal, Lokasangraha at the initial stages like family, community and nation are also important. Thus whatever may be the impetus behind the Lokasangraha, Tilak always supported it.
Thus in Tilak’s political theory equality, liberty, justice and all the natural rights find their origin in one term called Swarajya which has its foundations in Vedanta philosophy. Once Lokasangraha and Swarajya are decided as the ultimate objectives Tilak urges people to use every means to achieve the goal. This is the third pillar of the Tilak doctrine – Sadhananam Anekata (Using multiple means/tools). Once this context is set, Tilak’s politics and political philosophy can be understood. He used the Congress and the British judiciary for the national debates and mass awakening when parliamentary or any other system was not available in India and rules and laws were being formulated arbitrarily by the foreign government.
At the time when Moderate leaders were seeking proper implementation of the existing British policies and political philosophy in India, whereas extremists under the Lokmanya were seeking the replacement of that philosophy Tilak said there can be no contract between the unequal parties. Tilak professed self-reliance. He rejects the Theory of Social Contract as the basis of the state. He says ‘It is essentially an English (western) idea that a political agitation is an attempt to enforce such an agreement (contract). The Eastern (Indian) idea is different.’ Thus the agitation that he spearheaded was different. One must note that Tilak’s fight wasn’t against the British rule because the rulers were of different religion or race. He was perfectly aware of the possibility of loss of Swarajya even under an indigenous ruler
Tilak’s perspective on imperialism
On many occasions Tilak had pointed out the irrationality and immorality of imperialism. In his moral argument he says “Since all living and non-living objects have the same soul (Atman). It is everyone’s natural right to live happily. And it is unethical if someone ignores this common natural right just because that person or society is superior to other person or society in terms of might, numbers or tools and technology.”
In his editorial titled “Pachhahipana ka Gulamgiri?” (Imperialism or Slavery?) he puts forward political and economical argument to prove that Imperialism is harmful to both ruling and the subject nation. Imperialism suits only a select few of the ruling nation and for majority of the people it is economically, politically and culturally detrimental.
Tilak’s modern approach
Mahatma Gandhi said in his article following Tilak’s death that ‘He was a born democrat’. This point is further elaborated and explained by the first English biographer of Lokmanya Tilak, DV Tahmankar. In couple of paragraphs he has summed up Tilak’s democratic political credentials in the biography titled “Lokmanya Tilak father of Indian unrest and Maker of Modern India”-No one before him (Tilak) had conceived the possibility of enlisting the masses in the Indian struggle for liberation and using mass action in the form of passive resistance. It was he who first turned for strength, help and inspiration to the common people who were, sixty years ago, little better than a helpless, inarticulate and terrified mass of humanity. He believed that democracy would be the only way forward for India.
Modern industrialised scientific world is a chaotic place to live in. It offers immense possibilities that no one could foresee in the past. Lokmanya was the first mass leader of a pan India appeal in this modern era. It wasn't just a fight for independence that he was fighting he was building the nation in its modern form by burying the futile, unwanted and unbecoming orthodoxies of the past and the uncritical acceptance of western philosophies as a readymade solution to all the problems of India. Another dogma was espoused by India’s Western educated elite it was politically represented by the moderate faction of the Indian national. They had complete faith in British justice and European liberal political philosophy. Tilak represented third path which had firm foundations in the age old Indian idea of Swarajya and at the same time had a proclivity towards every great tool that the changing times were offering
Lokmanya Tilak was a polymath. He was well versed in law, philosophy, mathematics, grammar, oriental studies, history, and astronomy. He could have easily secured a successful career and an eternal glory in any of these fields but he chose the exacting life of a political agitator and an unenviable job of a mass awakener when a hostile regime constantly obstructed him in his mission. He could do it because he firmly and genuinely believed that when entire nation is in trouble the Apaddharma – duty under distress becomes Swadharma. He wanted educated privileged people to be the Loksangrahak and the Nishkam Katmayogins who would strive for the downtrodden and by practicing the doctrine of Karmayoga along with their own material and spiritual progress.
Tilak believed that to run the state machinery properly every cog, small or big must work properly as per his/her Swadharma. If basic material development is not achieved spiritual development would always remain a distant dream.
Tilak has provided us with the ethical and philosophical barometer with which we can gauge our political freedom. With the criteria that he provided us we can judge the political authority and if any aberration arises then we can always assert our natural right of Swarajya. Another anecdote gives the crux of Tilak’s message to the Indians. Once some students asked Lokmanya that why didn’t he write Geetarahasya in English? He replied – Geetarahasya teaches the doctrine of Karmayoga. Europeans are already Karmayogis that’s why they have achieved so much. I want to teach it to my people. It’s not meant for scholars but for common people. That’s why I wrote it in Marathi and would get it translated in other Indian languages.
If today we are enjoying the fruits of democracy and right to self determination the lion's share of the credit goes to the great lion who once roared “Swarajya is my birth right and I shall have it” when most of his compatriots were oblivious of it and a small section which was aware of it was either indifferent or too diffident to strive for attaining this natural right. Tilak's own life was idealism in action. He practiced what he preached. His life shows the world that there can be perfect synergy between idealism and pragmatism. This essay is a humble but earnest attempt to enumerate those eternal themes of Lokmanya's life, work and philosophy.
Soham Thakurdesai (The writer is a Computer Engineer in Oracle)