The Vedantic-Advaitic Moorings of Swadeshi

A Swadeshi Poster (Courtesy: Republic of Less)

Swadeshi is a thought, an ideal that arose across several countries and not just India. However, the roots in India arose from the 1905 movement whereby the extremist division of the Congress, led by the famous Lal-Bal-Pal trio (Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal) pushed for an aggressive movement towards home rule, furthered in 1916 by the Home Rule and later in the form of Gandhi’s spiritual form of disobedience. Across the three was a common thread running - creating an economic alternative to demonstrate that India was, just like many other Commonwealth nations or even the crown state of Britain, more than capable of being self-reliant, be it machinery, trade, textile, education or any other aspect. The act was not just political, but was driven by the sentiments related to Bharat Mata that was already whipping up – this was around the same time that the fiery intellectual revolutionary Aurobindo Ghosh through his Anushilan Samiti and other revolutionaries had given the clarion call of complete independence, even rejecting the idea of being a self-governing country of the British empire in totality. When one starts to scratch the surface, the realization of the spiritual inspiration driving these various forces starts to become increasingly evident. While the Anushilan Samiti and many other revolutionaries were inspired by the Ramakrishna Mission sannyasi thought and in particular Swami Vivekananda’s ideas and following his death the inspiration from Sister Nivedita, people like Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw in their deep understanding of Sanatan Dharma and the Maratha identification with the triple helix of Deva-Desha-Dharma. 

A classic part of this was the seemingly divergent ideas of what economic independence would mean, which was presciently captured in the 1905 swadeshi movement based novel Ghare Baire written by Rabindranath Tagore, where one lead character talks boycott and seeking only Indian goods, while another lead focuses on creating products that would be able to replace the opposite. This very much aligned with the personal views of Tagore, who saw a challenge in the way in which swadeshi movement was shaping up. This saw parallels though in real life changes taking place at the time. For instance, the formation of the Swadeshi Steamer Company of V O Chidambaram Pillai, which gave the British steamer services a run for their money riding high on their good service and cost effectiveness before being run aground by British high handedness was a daring attempt at creating an alternative. Another great example, the Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals set up by Prafulla Chandra Ray, thus creating complimentary options for the swadeshi adherents to pursue wherever possible. Interestingly, in the Marathi movie on a movie about Dadasaheb Phalke’s attempts at learning the art of filmmaking, we see an incident being played out of Phalke reading Tilak’s newspaper writings and taking inspiration from his idea of swadeshi even when it came to the art of making cinema for Indians by Indians. 

The common thread binding these two seemingly divergent schools of action and thought however remained the same - the influence of the Prasthan Trayi in part or whole on the various thinkers and doers of the time, and consequently the impact of the Advaita-Vedanta and its variants can be observed across the spectrum. Tagore being a Brahmo Samaji was highly exposed to them, as it formed a critical part of the movement’s canonical literature, and its imprint can also be seen in the essay collection Nationalism where he criticizes the European motherland concept but clearly identifies with a spiritual nationalism that is inspired by the Upanishads. Tilak too can repeatedly be seen taking umbrage in the three texts, and while he emphasized subsequently on the karma yoga siddhanta in his commentary of the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, the root of his nationalism too arose from the deep study and analysis of this body of canonical literature. However, it is folly to divorce the spirit of action from the spirit of oneness, for only if we can do welfare of all can be engage in the welfare of one’s self. What applied to Sri Ramanuja when he spread the great liberation mantra to all applied very much to the ideas of swadeshi that the luminaries of that era had pursued. 

This is a philosophy that even Gandhi carried over with his own vision of Swadeshi and his attempts at bringing in a spiritual revolution of sorts within the independence movement. Clearly, from his own personal experience and from the readings of texts like the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi too was influenced enough to pursue and encourage a path where one is engaged in the karma of weaving khadi, is one not engaging in deep thought and meditation that would bring the person in question closer to the deeper understanding of the universe, the Creator and the realization of brahma jnana that is essential towards mukti of the soul. Hence, whenever people make out swadeshi to be a purely materialistic idea, they make a grave error in identifying and understanding the spiritual underpinnings of the concept for the Indian people at large. 


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