“Understand then, that it is the same with the soul, thus: when it settles itself firmly in that region in which truth and real being brightly shine, it understands and knows it and appears to have reason; but when it has nothing to rest on but that which is mingled with darkness—that which becomes and perishes... it grows dim-sighted, changing opinions up and down, and is like something without reason.”
From the Upanishads? The Bhagvad Gita? The Vedas?
No. It’s from Plato’s Republic. Written sometime in 6 AD, the volumes describe a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon about justice, the just man and the city state. Sixty-four years since India became a republic, the discourse is as relevant today as it was when Asoka, sickened by the slaughter in Kalinga, renounced violence and embraced the Buddha. Over time, all significant events acquire the sepia romance of history, however dark they may be. The Republic of India was born in blood demanding justice—Rani of Jhansi, Jallianwallah Bagh, the hanging of Bhagat Singh and a Mahatma assassinated in Delhi’s Birla House in 1948. The 1947 Partition created a Republic of Hate. Like the Russian matryoshka doll, there are many republics within the republic we celebrate with pomp and military splendour on January 26. The Republic of the Poor, of the Rich, of the Corrupt, of the Helpless and the Republic of Pride—a nation where Ram Mohan Roy is ignored by khaap panchayats, glittering cities contradict the poverty and prejudices of India’s hinterland and whose conquest of Silicon Valley coexists with the ramshackle jalopies on village roads.
Much before Plato wrote his seminal work existed India’s Republic of the Soul, governed by a collective memory of knowledge handed over through generations. A knowledge earned in contemplation and exploration, in the austere practice of charting the path of the atman through esoteric means, opening the senses to the intensity of Nature—the great snow-crowned Himalayas which hold the mysteries of meditation and where the great god Shiva waits through millennia to dance his tandava and purify the earth by destroying it with fire; the all-forgiving Ganga that receives the sinner and grants absolution with the indulgence of a mother; the endless forests that were home to the timeless gods of the glades which were worshipped in a pagan covenant with Nature that is man’s mater dei; the gurukuls where wise men taught initiates the secrets of the Universe sitting in the sun-dappled shade of Banyan trees—such is the gestalt of the timeless republic of India. It absorbs all, and proceeds to transform interlopers. The Mughals tried to destroy Hindustan’s soul with conquests and persecutions, but left behind heartbreakingly beautiful monuments like the Taj Mahal, elaborate courtesies of Urdu, its calligraphy and a cuisine that is one of the greatest in the world. The British, led by imperialists like Macaulay, tried to corrupt India culturally, but left behind a language that was enriched and changed by India’s own tongue, giving wing to Tagore, Naipaul and Rushdie.
Plato’s work describes a cave in which people are chained to a wall in such a way that they can only see moving shadows of people carrying objects, which they believe is the reality. Even the sounds they make as they walk and move are perceived by prisoners as the sounds the shadows make. Today, in this republic of ours, walk puny men carrying their huge ambitions that cast massive shadows. Not Plato’s philosopher kings—lovers of wisdom governed by archetypal ideas—but leaders poxed with corruption and devoid of compassion, only seeking a mandate to rule. In reality, they are just shadows without substance.
The question, when will the Republic of India’s Soul be freed from the shadows of political enslavement, is the quintessential seed of contemporary protest. But little do we know, caught in the karmic drollery of our ancient culture, that the answer precedes the question, and that the Republic of Bharat is eternal India.