The Dance of Indian Modernity and Tradition

Nowhere does antiquity animate politics and society like India. Some pan on for a golden age of yore that is more myth than matter. Others want to incinerate the past as they view it as an age of oppression and inherent ignorance. Still, some are completely ambivalent to it, viewing attachments to the era of ancients as useless, tradition as fruitless, and machine-like pragmatism as the sole solution to India’s salvation.

Yet I believe, as in most cases, there needs to be a Middle Path. The roots of Indian identity are deeply embedded in the sacred earth of the subcontinent. People are naturally moved by myths and stories. They fight not only for resources and material goods but also for ideas and gods. A state can only derive legitimacy from brute power for so long; eventually, it must also sustain trust and belief in something beyond the cold machinations of bureaucrats and bullets. A state must uphold something greater than itself. An idea that is based on principle, on struggle, on beauty. For India, the incarnation of that idea is obvious – Dharma. For it is only the wheel of Dharma that has outlasted every hegemon and human that has walked Bhārat.

The Unborn

The Vedas are described as apaurusheya or “not of a man.” They are said to be eternal and unborn, revealing themselves to great sages in each epoch. As the Himalayas have given birth to many of the great rivers of the subcontinent, cradling and nourishing the Indian civilization since time immemorial, so have the Vedas birthed various philosophies & ideas across Indian history; and as they shall again, age after age.

The latter part is the crux of the matter.

While the Vedic ethos promoted diversity in thought as different philosophies, darshanas, expounded and expanded from the minds of rishis, Indians have become more narrow-minded as time has broadened. By the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni, the inquisitiveness of the Upanishads had collapsed into a cesspool of arrogance and sloth of mind. Indian thinking for the last millennium has been masochistically enraptured by an intense and maddening myopia as al-Biruni narrates:

The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner. According to their belief, there is no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever…


Al Biruni, while prejudiced in his own right as he gleefully watched Mahmud pillage the temples of infidels, was indeed spot on of the contemporary Indian psyche. Unfortunately, so much of that psyche has carried over today.


Notions from beyond the Indus have penetrated the Indian mind over successive empires of Turks and Europeans, but these catastrophic imperialisms seem to have furthered the insulation of Indian wonder. And even worse, many of those who are interested in the lands beyond adopt slavish attitudes crowned with inferiority complexes; constantly harping on the mediocrity of India and its people.

This bipolarity of thought has been the bane of India for a near century. On one hand, was a deeply conservative society resistant to reform consisting of individuals and communities overwhelmingly concerned with upping their neighbor in a contest of who starves the least. On the other hand, was an engorged anglophile elite who forced stern forms of socialism and secularism on the populace, ideas profoundly foreign to a society that worshipped a Goddess of Wealth and whose town center would be a temple.

Tabula Rasa Adbhutam

In the midst of Nehruvian reform and nagarik resistance, were the twin ideologies of Gandhian Swaraj and Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s Integral Humanism. While both were influenced by European thinking, Gandhian Swaraj and Integral Humanism derived inspiration from Dharma. Whether through the daring and grand universalism of the Bhagavad Gita, the oneness of Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta, or the non-violence of Mahavir’s Jain ethics, Gandhi and Upadhyay drew from Dharmic faiths to create an “Indian” ideology. They also both favored a devolved federal and economic structure, something that Nehru wisely contrasted in his political endeavors but got a bit carried away within the economic realm.

Gandhi’s Swaraj placed primacy on the village as the base political and economic unit of the state. A strongly decentralized polity that sought to encourage non-violence, promote religious pluralism, and a strident self-sufficient economic structure. Various leaders have tried to implement these principles; but the reality of violent caste and communal strife in villages, the follies of pacifism laid bare by India’s neighbors, and the grasp of globalization have broken the khadi wheel of Gandhian Swaraj.

What has been much less examined and until recently implemented is Upadhyay’s Integral Humanism, the official ideology of the BJP. Upadhyay focused on a middle ground between the individualism of capitalism and the collectivism of communism. He saw both as grossly materialistic ideologies that could only be tempered by Dharma. Economically, it favored small-scale industrialization like Gandhian Swaraj. Upadhyay argued that the Westminister system that India adopted would enflame various ethnic, caste, and religious fissures and instead supported a Presidential system to dial down extremities and build consensus. Unlike Gandhian Swaraj, which would go out of its way to accommodate the proselytizing Abrahamic faiths, Upadhyay was keenly wary of expansionary elements in Christianity and Islam. He argued that safeguards must be put into the Constitution to mitigate these elements and ensure a successfully plural society.


These ideologies placed an emphasis on preservation along with policies to ensure the protection of Indian traditions and way of life. Swaraj and Integral Humanism wanted to keep Indians grounded, albeit in a good way, but did not have plans for Indians to take flight and truly rise. While much of the Bhagavad Gita, which lit the fire of freedom in the hearts of these ideologues, focuses on the preservation of Dharma, there is also a cavalier spirit of expansion. A grand universal message that peaks when Krishna reveals his panoramic, cosmopolitan, unanimous celestial form. The battlefield, the friends and family destined for death in Arjun’s gaze, and the many worldly reasons that Krishna initially offered to fight dissolved in the incinerating light of a grand and all-encompassing vishwarupa form of Krishna.

And this is where we must examine the other side of India’s ideological uniqueness. This is where Hindutva comes in.

The Saffron State

Hindutva is complex in origin but essentially was best articulated by Veer Savarkar in the midst of the Indian independence movement. Savarkar insisted on building the consciousness of a common nation (rashtra), ethnicity (jati), and civilization (sanskriti) to create a people ready for the difficulties of modernity and rise above the previous millennium of failure and subjugation. Decisively reactionary (though, how many ideologies are not in truth?) to both British as well as Islamic imperialism, Hindutva aimed to unite viciously tribal Hindus as well as Indians in general into a political unit that transcended caste, region, and language. To achieve this, Savarkar, an avowed atheist, turned to pragmatic rationalism over a religious foundation.

While what actual “traditional” Hinduism is up for debate, Savarkar rebelled against the norms of his time seeing them as handicaps holding Hindus back from modernity and prosperity. Savarkar would castigate the caste system and strongly encouraged both intermarriage between castes and the undoing of customs that discriminated based on caste. He even went as far as to chastise the one sacred cow of Hinduism – the ban on eating the sacred cow. Savarkar lambasted various purity rituals such as preventing conversions into Hinduism and restrictions on oceanic travel in addition to many others. Luckily for Savarkar, the multifarious and innovative nature of Hinduism allowed for several of these ideas to proliferate and eventually be patronized by political parties as well as social and religious reform movements.


Savarkar would have a fairly ignominious end of his life, being tarred due to his association with Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi. His ideology would be seared from the public by Nehru as it was seen as directly responsible for Gandhi’s death alongside being viewed as a danger to India’s newfound secular nature. But just as Savarkar’s ashes were taken by the winds and waters across all of India, eventually so did follow the sparks of his pragmatic and fiery ideology.

The journey of Hindutva is a story unto itself, but for now, let’s focus on why it has been victorious. Savarkar’s pragmatism and realization of India’s twin fatuities, caste tribalism and Gandhian secularism, would erupt over the decades as the BJP took on the mantle of Hindutva to ascend to its current zenith. In brief, the success of saffron boils down to 3 main pillars:

  • Economic agnosticism naturally evolved into pragmatism as the BJP would oscillate its pecuniary compass between the invisible hand of the free market and more so recently, towards the fiscal fist of the state. A manic marathon of infrastructure building, streamlined welfare delivery, and digital inclusion has led the BJP to outflank its adversaries from their own stalwart economic left field. Now, they begin their promenade to the right as privatization and economic liberalization become the next phases in India’s economic evolution.
  • Savarkar cursed the madness around caste as Hindu division over one’s birth and background weakened a society already on the brink. The BJP has hammered this abundance of disunity as a primary reason for Hindu defeat over the centuries. The recent zealous appropriation of Ambedkar, pushing societal reform around castes, and integration of lower castes into leadership and organizational roles have caused the BJP to become the overwhelming first choice of the historically downtrodden OBC, SC, & ST voters. Thus securing a precarious brute majority of Hindu votes including their steadfast General category voters.
  • While the BJP has continued a number of aspects of Gandhian secularism regarding appeasement of minorities, it has also dismantled various planks in both the political and societal sphere. Hindutva has indeed encouraged the concept of “the other” as a way to unite Hindus via communal rhetoric. Even so, many Hindutva supporters argue that their mission is one of returning to a baseline of law and societal expectations pointing to policies such as Universal Civil Code, treating religious spaces and schools equally, and ensuring societal parity amongst all Indians. Of course, many Hindutva supporters also explicitly aim for a Dharmic State that gives Dharmic citizens a “first among equals” status. That being said, the components of this Dharmic state or Hindu Rashtra are still up for fierce debate even within Hindutva circles. Saffron indeed has many shades.

Are all these an exercise in modernity? The first two pass the smell test on first sniff, but the third is a bit more complex. The return to baseline camp is thoroughly grounded in the modern principle of equality. It is mindboggling that one should adhere to different laws based on their religion, that only Hindu temples should be nannied and siphoned by the state, and how prevalently media gymnastics occur to cover up minority-related violence. On the other hand, many decentralized elements of Hindutva embody reactionary revenge that seeks to put minorities “in their place” and view the primary principle of politics solely as power.

Now we venture into the arena of what even exactly is modernity in an Indian context and how does it settle with the vibrant and rooted traditionalism of the Indian masses?

Archaic Innovation

Hinduism is known by a native term called Sanātana Dharma. Sanātanatranslates into “eternal” linking itself to the apaurasheya, unborn Vedas which reverberate through time and space ad infinitum. Across the saga of Dharma, various Avatars and Gurus are said to incarnate and inspire a return to the primordial Vedic way, innovating not by forgetting the past but by building a future with foundations rooted in the past. A restoration of Dharma, not a revolution against it.

Indian history is one of the most brazenly politicized fields in the world. It is extremely difficult to parse what India or Bhārat or Jambudvīp were in the past. Each Indian region had its own ever-evolving culture over the eons imitating and influencing other regions as well. Smritis were updated according to the era with various conflicting maxims and mandates. Yet, this is Dharma. One size rarely fits all, especially in India. Likewise, we can deduce commonalities that transcended time and space in India; this is also Dharma. Yet when it comes to modernity, the goal should be to adopt lessons and customs conducive to success in the present. Therein lies Indic victory; as the greats of yesteryear restored Dharma to the land, so we should aim to today.

Integral in the pursuit of modernity is a grand franchisement of a society’s members. Indeed, one of the most pivotal factors in the rise of Anglo-American countries was their embracing of Enlightenment principles that empowered individuals across the societal spectrum, not just a narrow aristocratic class. This form of dynamic meritocracy, where equality of opportunity is spread to increase competition and sources of progress, is something that should be wholeheartedly embraced by India. Whether the lessons of meritocracy come from the episode of Eklavya or the transcendence of one’s background in the story of the demon-spawn devotee, Prahlad, the tales of India’s past are replete with examples that provide bases of empowerment to India’s downtrodden and disadvantaged. As Upadhyay saw the essential oneness of Shankara’s Advaita as justification for ensuring the welfare of all Indians, Indians today can draw inspiration from tales of the past, even if our heroes don’t fit today’s notions of social justice, equality, and reason.


Additionally, we can go further in this vein where we derive modernity, whether values or even policies, from the rich past of the Itihasa-Purana and other scriptures that defined the culture of ancient India. In the lives of Narayan’s avatars, we see the dyad of bravery and compassion, a tempered action that renounced base feelings of hatred, jealousy, greed, and ego. Ahimsa is no Gandhian invention to be cast aside in the fire of Hindutva; it is an Upanishadic notion elaborated upon by the greatest of warriors, Bhishma, on his deathbed of arrows. Further, Bhishma’s counseling on the nature of Dharmic rule features as an early treatise on Indian political theory in the Shanti Parva. Chanakya’s Arthashastra builds on this providing a rich compilation of ethics, foreign policy, economics, and statecraft that still stands the test of time. There is so much from our ancients that is applicable today.

Meanwhile, the pursuit of modernity should not mean a wholesale junking of tradition as many fear or even want. If India detaches itself from its roots, we may see the disintegration of Indian society and even eventually the state itself. While Dharma is indeed contextual, the context has always been defined by wise scholars and saints, not vapid influencers and secular academics. And indeed the default of Dharma is to preserve. The Wheel of Dharma remains a wheel. The spokes retain their values for eternity. However, the scholars & seers of the present, charioteers of the sangha’sconsciousness, decide the direction & speed. So has been the Dharmic balance of the traditional and the contemporary across era after era.


The difference today is that democracy plays a fundamental role in the shaping of religion and culture. Seers and scholars are replete with understanding and expertise, but now sovereigns carry an even larger burden of defining Dharma. As Emporer Ashoka patronized the Buddhist Sangha and began the march of Buddhist missionaries across Asia, the RSS and the BJP play a similar role in acclaiming certain Hindu ideals and traditions in a bid to calcify their electoral coalition and achieve that miracle united Hindu vote spectrum. Many of these ideas will clash with certain strands of Hinduism as we see the interplay of tradition and modernity. A 21st century Samudra Manthan is on the horizon. With Indian thought as the serpent king, Vāsuki, the Indian state as Mount Mandara, and Indian society as the great Ocean of Milk, tradition and modernity will pull on each side creating a societal churn not witnessed in many years. In this churn of ages, we will receive both ratnas (gems) and halahala (poison) as India not only profoundly changes, but also deftly restores the grand audacity of thought that India nurtured long ago, in an age of Gods and Demons.


Originally posted on The Emissary. Follow me on Twitter!

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Pandit Brown
Pandit Brown
1 year ago

Some pan on for a golden age of yore that is more myth than matter. Others want to incinerate the past as they view it as an age of oppression and inherent ignorance. Still, some are completely ambivalent to it, viewing attachments to the era of ancients as useless, tradition as fruitless, and machine-like pragmatism as the sole solution to India’s salvation.

I think you would admit that these are all straw men, right? (Which is OK for the point-of-view you are advocating in this article.) For example, I would come closest to the last category, but by no means do I automatically assume that traditions are useless. I would instead observe and evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, whether a particular tradition still serves the stated purpose or is holding us back.

An idea that is based on principle, on struggle, on beauty

Ideas must also serve real-world (i.e., material) purposes. Their sole function should not be to make us feel good (which can be fleeting anyway).

Here I guess my scientific background (and way of thinking) collides with your thought process. I didn’t find a concrete suggestion in this article about how we should be dealing with the world, other than a vague exhortation not to abandon tradition willy-nilly (which I’d agree with, but that’s a low bar). Science and Western Enlightenment thinking, on the other hand, do give us the tools: empirical observation, scrutiny, logical analysis, etc. What is the counter-view? That we should not subject some ideas to scrutiny, if, say, they make us feel good? Of course, Enlightenment thinking can go off the rails, as it did with Marxism and now Wokeism, but the activists then tend to justify their beliefs not by scrutinizing their beliefs but by putting certain beliefs beyond scrutiny!

An example: Western medicine has a proven track record of success, though by no means is it perfect. It has a self-correcting feature. Yet, the occasional failures are overemphasized by practitioners of traditional medicine as evidence for systemic failure, even though traditional medicine is based far more on faith than its primary alternative.

Brown Pundits