India and Liberalism

Map of India. Most of India is yellow (elevation 100–1000 m). Some areas in the south and mid-east are brown (above 1000 m). Major river valleys are green (below 100 m).

India has never been more ‘nationalistic’ in recent history. With the wave of elections and the upcoming big one in 2019, it is even more obvious that a string of jingoistic messages are being floated. In equal measure though, is the ‘liberal’ front of things questioning ideologies and far standing traditions. The term ‘liberal’ is a more recent concept in the history of time (earliest references are 17th century) wherein freedom of religion, a general acceptance of free thinking, open and transparent society are fundamental tenets. Traditionally India has been a unitized fabric of rulers and the ruled; and religion has been inseparable, as it is today. Mighty kings fought and expanded their vast empires stretching all the way from Afghanistan to parts of present day Burma even. Up until the 10th century, predominantly, three religions were practised: Hinduism, Buddhism & Jainism. I shall not get into the Aryan-Dravidian divide and shall discuss India as it stands. Let us start from the time when a coherent system of barter, metallurgy, pottery, politics, warfare and agriculture was developed. Religion and state were never separated and yet society prospered at various times and at other times there were setbacks. How has the country fared from the view of the modern ‘liberal’ tag during several phases of her existence?

Times from the Epics:

The idea of “Bharata khanda” begins with the great epics. The Ramayana offers us the ideally ruled state or the “Rama Rajya” which is so passionately evoked by our political leaders today, especially during the fever pitch of elections in the Hindi belts. So let us indeed start with the epics. It is assumed that Rama’s rule was some time in 8000 BC. The Ikshvaku kings of which Rama was the most proliferous, were clearly guided by dharma. Before one dismisses dharma as a “Hindu” concept, they are mere guidelines for what a person must do. The word Hinduism itself is a misnomer merely because it is a name given by the British for civilizations near the river Indus. Hinduism would be more appropriately called Sanatana Dharma or a coherent set of values for attaining liberation. There is a dharma for every individual, position, relation, profession etc. If the kings merely followed the edicts which also called for a king to prioritize his subjects over his own family, there is little reason to object. It is naturally assumed that Rama was an epitome of a person who followed his “Raja Dharma” to a T. However, other aspects of religion were inherently present in the Ramayana. Examples of appeasing Gods for progeny, prosperity in society etc are evident.

Similarly, during the period of the Mahabharata (roughly around 4000 BC-5000 BC), there is ample evidence of shrewd politics guided by Dharma. Vidura, the prime minister to the king Dhrithrashtra, the king of the Kauravas, was a stalwart in politics. An exposition of what a king ought to do is part of a large discourse by Bheeshma to the newly crowned king, Yudhishthira, after the great war- emphasis being policies of state guided by the light of religion. Another common link in these two epics are the wars. The wars were more a fight for dharma than a fight for might or right. For instance, Rama could have used Vaali’s help in bringing back Sita from Lanka, but he chose the dharmic way and sought Sugreeva’s help instead, although it was a more arduous path. Similarly, the Mahabharata was a fight for dharma, for all the ‘adharma’ that the Kaurava princes had afflicted on the more dharmic Pandavas.

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The general society that existed during the times of the epics is a little hard to interpret except from various versions and the stories handed down to us through generations. Caste system, wealth distribution, justice and the likes are explained through several stories and if the modern view of time then is to be believed, the society was prosperous and the kings in general were valorous and kind to their subjects in a large sense. Of course, in that period of time, there is hardly any evidence of an alternate religion prevalent in society. At least from the available sources of the epics, it is said that society was largely just, devoid of lust among the subjects with significant importance being offered to the fairer sex. There is evidence of the caste system proving to be an eyesore – Karna, Ekalavya being victims while Sabari and the sages Valmiki and Vishwamitra being accorded statuses not offered to even kings. What does this tell us? Within edicts of society, caste system and gender bias was prevalent, but once these boundaries were shattered by superior ideals, they were rendered moot.

Having elucidated my brief thoughts on the epics, the question I would like to answer is, are the rulers in the epics liberal? There is no evidence in the epics that the kings did anything to unjustly wage wars. It was their duty to wage wars of course as per their dharma, and to expand territory without plundering the kingdoms they were conquering. The ‘conquered’ kings were free to rule and practice their policies in their kingdoms as long as they pledged allegiance to the victors. To me, this is a sign of liberalism. The kings were true to their people, their nation and did everything in their might to improve the status of whom they called ‘theirs’ while strictly following a religion. Any king who betrayed this path and fought wars for mere wealth, slaughter, power over the weak and bloodshed was clearly adharmic and had to be wiped out from the face of earth which were the enemy in the two great wars.

Ancient India:

If one dismisses the above as mere mythology and not part of Indian history, let us once move to the golden age of the Guptas (319 CE-485 CE). The Guptas were prolific Hindu rulers and under their rule, the country prospered in terms of economy, military, science, arts, literature and religion. General evidence that exists of this era is that succeeding kings of this dynasty encouraged the growth of other religions. The Guptas were devout Vaishnavas or Vishnu followers. However, they constructed several Shiva temples. Buddhism greatly flourished in Sanchi and evidence of Buddhism from the time is also seen in the caves of Ajantha. Although Sri Lanka was brought under the belt of the Guptas, the king was allowed to follow Buddhism in his country. That said, the likes of Kalidasa enjoyed his position in the Navaratnas of the palace of Chandragupta as much for his poetic genius as for the subjects of his poetry which were largely Hindu. It may also be noted that Vatsyayana was also a part of the king’s subjects. The diverse philosopher is often (unfortunately) associated with the Kamasutra. That a treatise on such a subject back in the 3rd century when Europe was tolerating the more brutal and ruthless Roman empire, clearly shows the progressive outlook of the times. In addition, science went hand in hand with religious freedom as is evinced in the scientific outpour from the great Aryabhatta (contribution towards zero, evidence for earth being round etc), Sushruta (the first surgeon in India) etc.


All in all, it is very clear that the monarchs were very generous in ‘allowing’ people of all faiths to practice their religion in society. Buddhist monks were as revered as Hindu priests. Nationalistic pride was primary though and the Huns who were the foreign elements were clearly despised. That there was lot of cultural liberty along with a clear social order shows that the kings were liberal to a great extent. However, there is clear evidence that there was no ‘equality’ or even an effort towards it in society as everyone had their clearly defined edicts and place in society which also extended to women. Women’s role was subservient to that of men and the period was largely patriarchal. That said, women were highly respected and were even active in certain administrative positions. Slavery was non-existent although the lower castes served the upper castes and were paid duly for their duties.

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If we look at the Mauryan empire (322-185 BCE) which preceded the Gupta dynasty and was perhaps the first of the ancient Indian dynasties to consolidate a region as large as India, the most defining kings of this era have been Chandragupta Maurya and his grandson Ashoka. Both started as staunch Hindu kings, with the latter having a change of heart after witnessing the mass destruction his invasion of Kalinga had resulted in and switching to Buddhism. Chandragupta, the founder of this vast empire had one of the greatest political minds by his side – Chanakya (or Kautilya). While after his time Chandragupta adopted Jainism until his death, Ashoka adopted Buddhism, neither of them enforced it on their subjects. In fact the two religions thrived in India until the advent of Advaitic and Visishtadvaitic masters – Shankaracharya and Ramanuja who propagated Hinduism pan India. However, this period will remain but a mere mention of the kings if it were not to have contained the magnum opus of Chanakya – the Arthashastra. Chanakya had served as the chief advisor and the mastermind behind the unification of the kingdoms stretching all the way from Afghanistan to two kings – Chandragupta and his son Bindusara thus influencing two successive generations on how the state is to be run. Arthashastra while meaning “teachings of wealth” clearly goes beyond it which includes topics such as Hindu religion, its philosophy, the caste system and so on and holds important clues to the social fabric of those times. From what is understood of the teachings, there were strict rules of taxation, law and order, position of castes, women etc. Even keeping religion aside, the social construct of the state was never disturbed, giving a lot of importance to several family values that exist to this day in India. It is as though some of these have never eroded in the course of time. Some examples being arranged marriages, the son’s duties and responsibilities in a household, value of the elder in society etc. In some way, the Arthashastra to me must represent at least 75% of life in those days.

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While I do not extensively demonstrate the same of some of the powerful kingdoms in the South, one cannot simply ignore the evidence of art and architecture patronized by the Pallava, Chola, Chera, Pandya, Kakatiya kingdoms. At different eras in history, they have always been devout followers of Hindu gods/goddesses, propagated the expansion of their kingdoms while keeping some semblance of social justice. Perhaps the one that I would like to illustrate is the spread of Jainism under the king of Pandya, which can be evidenced through the famous piece of Tamil literature – Silapadigaram. The text to this day stands as the highest level of a female protagonist’s power. The Pandya kings themselves were staunch Hindus, but the book was authored by a Jain – Ilango Adigal and some of the characters adopt Buddhism. Whether every king and dynasty has followed dharma truly is of course very debatable and truly, that cannot be the case either. However, it was a sin in the eyes of the public for anyone to practice adharma and therefore the kings attempted at least to maintain a cleaner image of themselves. Of course with such constraints, it is once again evident that as long as the monarchs existed before the advent of the Muslim rulers, there was a clear religious alignment, specifically towards Hinduism, with other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism allowing to be practiced and sometimes being adopted by certain kings. There were strict rules in society with respect to birth, profession and gender.

Advent of Muslim Invaders:

The longest reign of another religion in India started with the advent of the Muslim kings. Evidently the earlier periods of these rulers were some of the most brutal among the eras in Indian history. While there were repeated attempts to enter India, the first successful ‘loot’ and I call this loot because Mahmud Ghazini and Ghori never settled in India, began in early 11th century. Each time they invaded (roughly 20 times by Ghazini alone), they plundered the subcontinent – desecrated temples (of which it is said that the city of Mathura alone was plundered to an extent of loading 100 camels with jewels), ravaged cities, raped women, killed men (calling them infidels) and took away the wealth of the country to their own lands and thus the banishment of Hindus from Afghanistan was done. Although to a lesser extent, the southern cities of Madurai, Warangal etc also endured the onslaught of the Islam rulers with loot according to sources amounting to weight carried by a thousand camels. Slavery was one form of loot where thousands of non-Muslims were made slaves and taken back to Central Asia and many thousands were forced to convert to Islam under fear.

The first ‘settlement’ by an Islamic leader in India started with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate by Qutubuddin Aibak whose reign was soon followed by the Khilji dynasty whose most tyrannical of all was Alauddin Khilji. There is ample evidence in history to show how he had unjustly raised taxes on agricultural produce, allowing only the Islam traders to trade in a free market in order to maintain a strong army. This era was followed by the Tughlaq dynasty during which the general intolerant atmosphere continued even when intellectually superior kings ruled the state. For the first time the Sultanate spread to South India where the more docile and liberal Vijayanagara empire fought back the onslaught. The latter while imposing strict social classes also allowed for liberal views such as the lower caste Kanakadasa being held in high esteem for his skill in music or for legalized prostitution in the streets, women taking up administrative roles etc. This was not to last, as soon Timur invaded India killing around 200,000 people in Delhi alone. It is in this dark phase that I would point out that the then India was ruled by extremely intolerant people other than the Vijayanagara kings, with zero tolerance of people of other religions, scant regard for the beliefs of the people and decaying rules in society such as increased incidence of sati, child marriages etc and a decreasing scientific and educational endeavor among the Hindus as the Muslim kings were no longer patrons of scholars other than of Islam. The ones who plundered and went away to their own lands (robbing wealth and women in the process) were savages. The ones who made India their home and still plundered it by not shielding the weak of their own empire, enforcing unjust taxes to followers of other faiths to me is as extreme a form of rule as is possible. Clearly, the society was in shambles with no ‘liberal’ reforms in place.

Mughal Empire:

In the wake of the weakening Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal empire arose with Babur. In general, the economy of the country improved tremendously for the three hundred odd years from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The subcontinent was one of the richest in the world with prosperity arising with agrarian reforms and trade. During the rule of Akbar, generally perceived as a moderate ruler, there were alliances formed even with Hindu kingdoms through marriages and better tax structures. The king is known to have patronized Tansen and Birbal, who were Hindu and counted them among the treasures of his court and even devised his own religion calling for a more benevolent approach. The society improved with a better confluence of language, arts, architecture and music between the Islam and Hindu styles.

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The general outlook of the Mughals was that while they weren’t as terrible as the Muslim dynasties before them, their general intolerance of non-muslims existed. Loot, mass murders of non- muslims, desecration of several ancient temples were common traits of many of the notable Mughal emperors notably by Aurangazeb whose savage behavior (number of estimated deaths under his rule is close to 5 million) is quite well known even to the non enthusiast of Indian history. Under the vast umbrella of Islam rule that spans over 8 centuries, this dynasty practiced a better governance than their Islamic predecessors. As the constant opposition to Aurangazeb was the Maratha kingdom spearheaded by Shivaji. In most documented texts including a handwritten letter to Aurangazeb, the king comes across as someone who allowed people to practice their own faiths. But before long, the British empire had begun eyeing the lucrative sub-continent to spread her tentacles. In the total span of several centuries of Islamic rule over India, while the general economy had improved, barring a few non-Islam kingdoms that barely exceeded a century’s rule to have had any deep impressions on the society, the country was unified by the Islam kings and successive kings had followed a form of extreme governance.

British Rule:

India’s early history with the Raj started when the small spice trading company, the East India company wanted to establish posts in India in late 17th century. Long before, the Portuguese influence on Asian spices had begun to dwindle and the French had cleverly manipulated the local princes into trading their lands for the superior “French trained” local men called sepoys, thus gaining large tracts of land in South India. The East India company began doing the same. Instead of getting people from England to set up shop here, it was easier to train the locals per European military standards without offering any higher positions. After the seven years war, Robert Clive had clearly established the East India company, routing out the French. However, this private company began to be very lucrative for the British and huge salaries were being paid to the British employees. To regulate the same, the British government had to step in and began sending Governor Generals to regulate the system. Some were tolerant and the others weren’t and after the famous Sepoy mutiny of 1857 stemming from cultural, religious and military discontent, the subcontinent directly came under the Queen of England. That a totally foreign rule had taken control of the sub-continent after centuries of Islamic rule truly shook the system.

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The press started having an influence at this time. Over 400 newspapers had begun to flourish in India by mid-19th century. However, freedom of press was largely stifled. Vernacular newspapers that usually called for collective unity against foreign rule was largely controlled by the British that controlled headlines, content and what was perceived as “threat to security”. The same control was never exercised on British press.

The British policy of divide and rule was evident. Not only were the policies different for white skinned gentlemen and the brown skinned natives, there was a general rigidity in society imposed by the British. The Doctrine of Lapse brought about the general ‘favour’ for a male progeny for right to the princely throne when women rulers were hitherto allowed to rule. The first rigidity of the Hindu society had begun when legalized prostitution had stopped in India. While 2300 years ago as mentioned in Arthashastra of Kautilya, the king and the society were obliged to the preservation of prostitutes and maintenance of concubines, the British along with the strict enforcement of Christian views regulated the same and made them illegal in several parts of the country, including the abolishment of the religious ‘Devadasi’ practice. The outfit of the Indian woman gave way to more ‘modesty’ per European standards. It is well known that women were covered only up to their waist and understandably so in the tropical heat of the areas. With the advent of the British, the ‘blouse’ similar to Victorian era dresses then was introduced, forcing the local populace to adapt it or risk paying heavy taxes. In a society such as traditional Kerala, it was very common for polyandrous relations as were polygamous ones. The British shamed such women (not the men, mind you), clothed such women and with the doctrine of lapse had them relegated to the kitchens. With such rigid structures in place, the society had truly moved from a relatively liberal one from the Golden ages of the Mauryas and Guptas to the most narrow-minded of societies. Under a pseudo democracy, the British worked for themselves (yes, the railways and telegraph systems were for their benefits to hasten trade and transport of goods) and not for the general transportation of the locals.

Some of the rare rays of sunshine were the constant policies against child marriages by social workers which included British. Child marriages were highly prevalent in Indian society thanks to the Muslim rulers who ‘took away’ young girls. Marriage prevented their availability. Medical facilities had begun to improve. Whether the concern to improve sanitation, prevention of Bubonic plagues, cholera and fevers like Malaria were geared towards the British troops while neglecting the indigenous population or the general responsibility of the government towards the public, the foundation set at that time had contributed significantly towards the reduction of diseases in India. However, the eye sores of the British Raj were the famines and the general apathy from the British. During the world wars, supplies were sent to the British troops at the cost of the local populace thus making India one of the poorest countries in the world. All in all, the British empire successfully squeezed the remaining wealth in India and transferred the wealth to Britain, bringing utter poverty, increased rigidity in society and leaving it with a blow to the self-confidence of the people who had ceased being masters for over two centuries. British imperialism was anything but liberal and served solely their own purposes (or the Queen’s).

I bring this writing to an end here and leave India after independence. India typically was never a “country” as such defined by boundaries, language, culture etc. It was a group of small and large kingdoms with shared borders. Although, there were records of transactional business, knowledge sharing etc. among these kingdoms, the rulers have always preserved their sovereignty with ferocity. There have been umpteen wars for the same. These wars were mainly for expanding the kingdoms, for the spread of religion or simply lust for conquer. All along, religion and state have been inseparable, yet society prospered at various times and at other times there were setbacks.

For the large part, the rulers had concerns of society at large, trying to improve the general wealth of their population, improving art, architecture, literature and science while being guided by principles of religion. True, India is today a secular democracy but the edicts of religion are topics of conversation every day and it is not possible to separate the two. This brings me to another question. Why is there a need to separate the two? After all, concepts such as ‘liberal’, ‘social’ etc are inherently present in Indian history without having to label them such. The kings of Gujrat were the only ones to immediately provide asylum to the Zoroastrian practitioners who fled Islam invasions of Persia and today the ‘Parsis’ are an integral part of the Indian society. When Europe was grappling with anti-Semitism, India openly welcomed Jews into her heart, especially under the Travancore kings of Kerala until many of them migrated to present day Israel. India has been a cradle for various religions to thrive and if this idea has been a part of the Indian psyche for millennia, why is there a need to enforce borrowed concepts which reiterate the same?


4 thoughts on “India and Liberalism

  1. I object to many things but here is one for definiteness: “Slavery was non-existent although the lower castes served the upper castes and were paid duly for their duties.” The writers/historians etc. were all upper castes. Why should their word be taken for what the lower castes faced?


    1. Oh yes, history has always been written by the victors and the ones in power 🙂 if I could find alternate data, I would include it! Just to note though, the words daasa or daasi exist and they weren’t slaves. Do you have any other data on this?


      1. No, I don’t and for a very good reason. One could probably look at the accounts by foreign visitors but none other the trampled upon can describe the pain. Since they were mostly unlettered, there is little hope beyond by modern interpretations of these ideas; these are are enough to shrivel me up.


      2. Wouldn’t you be satisfied by the Chinese and Italian travelers who had written about these? These are excellent sources of life in those times. I am not sure what is riling you here because this is not war,mere society


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