Politics

Deendayal Upadhyaya’s Prescription for India Was ‘Dharma-Rajya’, Not Hindutva

Just as M.N. Roy moved away from Marxism and Nehru from the socialism of his earlier years, the Jana Sangh leader left the Hindu nationalism of Golwalkar to chart his own course

Deendayal Upadhaya, seated between a young Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the older M.S. Golwalkar, head of the RSS. Screen grab from YouTube/Deendayal Upadhyaya | Jeevan Darshan, a film directed by Vinay - Samaksh

Deendayal Upadhaya, seated between a young Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the older M.S. Golwalkar, head of the RSS. Screen grab from YouTube/Deendayal Upadhyaya | Jeevan Darshan, a film directed by Vinay – Samaksh

September 25, 2016 marks the birth centenary of Deendayal Upadhyaya,
founder of the Bharatiya Janasangh, forerunner to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In the writings and speeches of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, especially those of his later years, we find a clear departure from Golwalkar’s perceptions of India, a shift of emphasis so very fundamental that his vision of future India is not that of Hindu India.

Deendayal Upadhyaya was born on 25 September 1916, at Dhanakiya, a small village situated on the Jaipur-Ajmer rail route, his father a railway station master, like his grandfather. After his studies he dedicated his life to the Sangh.

After the formation of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951, he became one of its general secretaries, and early in January 1968 its president. Although the Jan Sangh set out as a political party, its intimate connection with the RSS remained, for not a few of its leaders came from the Sangh family, and retained its outlook.

His speeches and writings, in Hindi, were published in three collections: Rashtra Jivan ki Samasyaen, or ‘The Problems of National Life’, 1960; Ekatma Manavavad, or ‘Integral Humanism’, 1965; and Rashtra Jivan ki Disha, or ‘The Direction of National Life’, 1971.

What is the framework of Deendayal Upadhyaya’s social and political perceptions concerning India? The essential thing to be observed is that that framework is not of Hindu nationalism. His concerns are undoubtedly still with the Indian nation and its social and economic problems; but those are viewed in the setting of dharma and not Hindutva, or ‘Hindu-ness’. Excepting one place, nowhere else in his speeches and writings, if we consider the three works mentioned above, does he talk of Hindu-rashtra, or Hindu nation. He talks of dharma-rajya instead. And there is a world of difference between the two conceptions. Nor does he view dharma as a ‘Hindu’ category.

Dharma, not ‘Hindu consciousness’

The proposition around which Deendayal Upadhyaya’s thoughts revolve, like those of Golwalkar, is that the existence of a nation lies in its distinctive consciousness. It rises or falls in the same degree as that consciousness comes into light or is obscured. But, unlike Golwalkar, who perceives India’s consciousness as ‘Hindu consciousness’, Upadhyaya perceives it as centred in dharma, about which, however, there are numerous misconceptions.

Golwalkar’s concern is to make Hindu society united and strong, and since in his view Hindu society is the Indian nation, to make the Hindu nation the chief object of every Hindu’s devotion. Deendayal’s concern is to bring to light the real nature of Indian consciousness, its citi, as he calls it; for it is only then that one can obtain a satisfactory answer to the question, ‘what direction shall India take?’

But what is dharma which gives to Indian society its distinctive consciousness, and should give to the Indian nation its direction? He clears the ground by first saying what dharma is not. It is not ritualism. It is not a system of rites and ceremonies. It is not to be found necessarily in temple or mosque or church. They are not dharma any more than a school is knowledge. They are a medium, but they are that only-a medium. Dharma is not a sect, nor a philosophical opinion, nor any one spiritual path. In short, dharma is not ‘religion’.

Wrongly translated as ‘religion’, in the next step all the social disorders which religion in the West produced are quickly attached to dharma as well. ‘Of the very many damages done to us by English translations, this is one of the greatest’.

The fundamental cause of the numerous problems that modem India is faced with lies, according to Deendayal Upadhyaya, in the indiscriminate application of the Western forms of thought to Indian political life, obscuring thereby the true nature of Indian consciousness. The policies that have been advanced after independence reflect, not that consciousness, but one Western ism or another. Far from achieving coherence and harmony of social purpose, the national life of India has been turned into a battle-ground of conflicting economic and political philosophies.

There are, he says, those who regard the means of production alone as the determining social factor; it is in their given ownership and distribution that they see the cause of all disorder, and in their transfer from private to social domain the cure of all social evils. They believe that, as elsewhere in the world, Indian political life must be grounded in purely economic realities, culture and religion being secondary. Socialists and communists constitute this group.

Role of power, the place of  ‘one-civilisation’

Deendayal Upadhyaya greeting well-wishers. Screen grab from YouTube/Deendayal Upadhyaya | Jeevan Darshan, a film directed by Vinay - Samaksh

Deendayal Upadhyaya greeting well-wishers. Screen grab from YouTube/Deendayal Upadhyaya | Jeevan Darshan, a film directed by Vinay – Samaksh

Then there are those who look upon political power as the ultimate factor. They assess religion, culture, and economics strictly in the light of political considerations. Most of them belong to the Congress. Again, there are religious groups who want that India’s political and economic policies should be based on their respective religious principles. Religious dogmatists belong to them. And there are those who believe that India’s life is in its civilisation, and the chief concern should, therefore, be to preserve it and enhance it. They form a very large part of Indian society, many of them belonging to the RSS, and not a few to the Congress as well.

Or, to put it differently, there are, he says, three main groups: one holding the theory of ‘one-civilisation’; the second, of ‘two-civilisations’; and the third, of ‘many-civilisations’. The first group believes that there is in India only one civilisation; does not admit the existence of any other forms of civilisation in India; and, if they do exist, it believes that they should all be assimilated in the one dominant civilisation. `The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the advocate of this point of view. The group that believes in the ‘two-civilisations’ theory consists of those who advocate it openly and clearly, as in the Muslim League, contending that the Hindus and the Muslims are two distinct civilisations; and those, as in the Congress, that outwardly reject that theory, but in actual practice try, unsuccessfully, to reconcile one with the other, thus betraying their belief that the two are, after all, really different from one another.

Finally, the third group upholds the theory that India is ‘many-civilisations’, those of different regions, and, applying the doctrine of self-determination, contend that they all are autonomous. The communists and the language-based regionalists form this group. To the communists, it is the unity of economic and material interests that is the main thing, not the mythical unity brought about by civilisation. Those who believe in the existence in India of two or many-civilisations are evidently mistaken. But those who rightly believe in the existence of one-civilisation as the substance of the Indian nation can be mistaken about its nature. So we return again to the question, what is the nature of Indian civilisation?

Nation as consciousness

Deendayal Upadhyaya clears the ground further by taking up the question of ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’. Nation is not just a political concept, a changing construct of the mind, much less just a territorial concept. Nation is not a collection of the people that have historically lived together; nor is the people, jana, simply a collection of human beings living in a geographical space. Nor is nation just a geographical space. It is not born out of social contract, nor would it die should that contract be abrogated. Nation arises out of a deeper life-force; it is self-created, swayambhuha. It has a historical growth, of course, but history alone cannot explain it. Language, culture, literature, are undoubtedly the basic elements of a nation’s unity, but they are basic because they reflect something even more fundamental that gives life to a nation-its citi, or consciousness. They are attributes of nation, not its cause. Confusing attributes with cause, the Western thinkers, then, believe that a nation can be created by somehow putting together those attributes. That cannot be done, for the common elements of a national life are only expressions of an inherent consciousness at work, which cannot be created artificially by political means. Each nation has its own unique consciousness.

That is what distinguishes it from others. So long as that consciousness, the citi, lives, that nation lives; when it dies, the nation dies. A nation dies, not by the loss of territory, or by decrease in its population; a nation dies when its consciousness ceases to exist.

Deendayal Upadhyaya advances the thesis that the traditional Indian perspective on nation and nationality is born out of a worldview in which, giving primacy to creative harmony, everything is seen as connected with everything else. The individual, having his distinct existence, his legitimate self-interest, and desires and pursuit of happiness, fulfills himself in the larger life of society: society derives the meaning of its existence from the still larger life of the nation: the nation finds its ultimate fulfilment in serving the universal interests of mankind. All these units of life are interconnected, not in a hierarchy, but in a natural, innate, inviolable simultaneity of reverence for life.

These, according to Upadhyaya, constitute the ideals of traditional Indian national life. They form the Indian consciousness, its underlying life-force, the purpose of its existence – its citi. That consciousness finds its clearest expression in dharma, which is the sustaining force of all civilised life, indeed of all life. Dharma is the vital impulse, the life-breath, of Indian civilisation. The one ideal that India has kept before itself, through the numerous vicissitudes of its existence through centuries is respectful acceptance of the diverse forms in which life expresses itself.

Deendayal Upadhyaya and associates. Screen grab from YouTube/Deendayal Upadhyaya | Jeevan Darshan, a film directed by Vinay - Samaksh

Deendayal Upadhyaya and associates. Screen grab from YouTube/Deendayal Upadhyaya | Jeevan Darshan, a film directed by Vinay – Samaksh

Dharma is sovereign, not nation or state

After saying what dharma is not, Upadhyaya, in the major part of his three works that we are considering here, gives an exposition of what dharma is. He then applies it to the social problems of India today. He recalls the classical definition of dharma as that force which sustains, upholds. Dharma is everything which has that characteristic. It follows that it is only when the legal and the political arrangements adopted by post-independent India will have that characteristic, that they will have any creative moral force. He maintains that the state exists for the sake of the nation, and not the nation for the sake of the state. Similarly, the nation is not a means of achieving political ends; rather, policies shall have the one aim of strengthening the nation, and shall express a nation’s deeper consciousness, the purpose of its existence. The people will, rightly, decide who will govern; but neither those who are thus elected to govern, nor the people, can determine what principles will govern such governance; that can be determined by dharma alone.

Governments are elected by the will of the majority; but what truth is, what justice is, cannot be determined by the majority; those can be determined only by dharma. In short, neither the state, nor the majority of the people, nor the government, is sovereign. The force that is sovereign above them all is dharma. This is the essence of Deendayal Upadhyaya’s understanding of traditional Indian thought.

It is from this understanding that arise his critique of the prevalent political ideas and policies and his vision of the future India.

He makes some obvious criticisms: that Indian politics has turned into a free hunting ground for the unscrupulous, the opportunists, and the unprincipled; that the disorder of today is caused, first of all, by the lack of knowledge as regards the goal and direction of the national life; and complete disregard for Indian consciousness. His aim, however, is not to compile a list of all that is wrong with Indian polity today. Rather, his concern is to battle with that one fundamental error of perception in which all the ills of Indian society originate.

The harmony of individual and social

Deendayal Upadhyaya. Credit: bjp.org

Deendayal Upadhyaya. Credit: bjp.org

That error, Deendayal Upadhyaya points out, lies in adopting a fragmented view of social reality, which leads to dividing what in reality are integrated and interdependent social units. Indian thought, he maintains, has never seen the individual and society as two conflicting and colliding entities. Neither has it ever seen them in their separateness. One has no existence apart from the other; the two are inseparable. Indian thought has throughout its history looked upon the individual and society as an indivisible unity. Both have their distinct requirements, which can be fulfilled, not in the subjugation of the one to the other, but in their interdependence. At the same time this interdependence is not a mean state, one of helpless dependence; rather, in the Indian conception, it is a state of mutual harmony, where one is not seen as a threat to the other, but as the natural part of one’s growth.

Deendayal emphasises the truth that higher than even interdependence is the state of ‘inter-harmony’, or ‘inter-agreeableness’. In dependence, there is little dignity; in inter-dependence, there is genuine self-respect. It is only in a social order where this mutual-harmony, or mutual-agreeableness, is the guiding principle of social and individual relationships, that true freedom is obtained for man. But only he can be agreeable who in his own being is independent. The true meaning of freedom is the freedom to be in harmony with others. It is the freedom to summon one’s inherent physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual powers in the service of one’s own self and of others. This, then, is the meaning of dharma; and dharma is the link which binds the individual and the social in an integral unity of humanness.

From these traditional philosophical principles of Indian civilisation he derives the political and economic contents of dharma-rajya. Set forth, with perfect clarity of principle and practical details, they are as follows:

  1. Assurance to each individual of a minimum living standard, which will imply an assured opportunity to every able-bodied individual of purposeful employment.
  2. Beyond these, such increasing prosperity that will offer the means, to the individual and to the nation, to enable them to contribute, in the light of their distinctive consciousness, citi, to the progress of the world.
  3. Taking into account the productive potential of the nation, to develop appropriate technology; to husband the natural resources; and to arrange for the safety of the country.
  4. The question of ownership of different industries, whether it shall be with the individual, or the State, or any other organisation, shall be decided on the basis of what is most practical.
  5. The order, advocated above, should be such that in no way must it disregard man; be an instrument of his full development; and protect cultural and other life values of Indian society. This is that protective line which in no circumstances must the economic order transgress.

No dharma without free education, free healthcare

In Deendayal’s dharma-rajya there will have to be, besides, free education for everybody. It is inconceivable, education of the people being in the greatest interest of society, that anybody should have to pay to get himself or herself educated; or, if unable to pay, remain uneducated. Education in traditional India was always free. That was the case, until 1947, in Indian states as well. Primary and higher education shall be a charge on the nation. It is equally inconceivable, he says, that people should have to pay for medical treatment, which, like education, will have to be made available, free, to everybody. Health and education will be, in dharma-rajya, the two primary concerns of society.

If two words are required to indicate the direction in which Indian polity should move, they are, he says: de-centralisation, and self reliance. Diversity, he says, is an inestimable gift of nature: Indian life, like nature, has been immensely diverse, where life has expressed itself in different colours, sounds, textures. This excessive veneration for centralising every social and economic function in one authority can produce only disorder, for it will be against life itself. Authority must be dispersed, so long as the different centres of authority, and initiative, are all held together by dharma. Similarly, self-reliance must take the place of this pathetic dependence on what is foreign, in practically every field, in thinking, social arrangements, methods, capital, the ways of production, technology, and standards of consumption. This dependence on the others cannot be the way of progress. But neither does it mean that India blindly follows only that which is ancient. Many old institutions will change and the new ones take their place.

Finally, Deendayal advocates the thesis that dharma does not lie either in the rule of the majority or even in the people. Dharma is eternal. It is not sufficient, therefore, that democracy be understood only as the rule, of the people; it must also be a rule for the good of the people. What the good of the people consists in can be determined only by dharma. Hence democracy will have to be also dharma-rajya, the rule of dharma. True democracy is only that where both freedom and dharma combine.


Chaturvedi Badrinath was a former officer of the Indian Administrative Service and the author of several important books on philosophy and religion. He received the 2009 Sahitya Akademi award for The Mahabharata: An Inquiry In The Human Condition.

This article, a shortened excerpt from Chaturvedi Badrinath’s Dharma, India and the World Order: Twenty-One Essays (Pahl-Rugesntein and St Andrew Press, 1993), is published with the permission of Tulsi Badrinath.