Political Unity in Ancient India

The whole basis of the Indian mind is its spiritual and inward
turn, its propensity to seek the things of the spirit and
the inner being first and foremost and to look at all else as
secondary, dependent, to be handled and determined in the light
of the higher knowledge and as an expression, a preliminary,
field or aid or at least a pendent to the deeper spiritual aim,—a
tendency therefore to create whatever it had to create first on the
inner plane and afterwards in its other aspects. This mentality
and this consequent tendency to create from within outwards
being given, it was inevitable that the unity India first created for
herself should be the spiritual and cultural oneness. It could not
be, to begin with, a political unification effected by an external
rule centralised, imposed or constructed, as was done in Rome
or ancient Persia, by a conquering kingdom or the genius of a
military and organising people. It cannot, I think, justly be said
that this was a mistake or a proof of the unpractical turn of
the Indian mind and that the single political body should have
been created first and afterwards the spiritual unity could have
securely grown up in the vast body of an Indian national empire.
The problem that presented itself at the beginning was that of
a huge area containing more than a hundred kingdoms, clans,
peoples, tribes, races, in this respect anotherGreece, but aGreece
on an enormous scale, almost as large as modern Europe. As in
Greece a cultural Hellenic unity was necessary to create a fundamental
feeling of oneness, here too and much more imperatively
430 A Defence of Indian Culture
a conscious spiritual and cultural unity of all these peoples was
the first, the indispensable condition without which no enduring
unity could be possible. The instinct of the Indian mind and of its
great Rishis and founders of its culture was sound in this matter.
And even if we suppose that an outward imperial unity like that
of the Roman world could have been founded among the peoples
of early India bymilitary and political means, we must not forget
that the Roman unity did not endure, that even the unity of
ancient Italy founded by the Roman conquest and organisation
did not endure, and it is not likely that a similar attempt in the
vast reaches of India without the previous spiritual and cultural
basis would have been of an enduring character. It cannot be
said either, even if the emphasis on spiritual and cultural unity
be pronounced to have been too engrossing or excessive and
the insistence on political and external unity too feeble, that
the effect of this precedence has been merely disastrous and
without any advantage. It is due to this original peculiarity, to
this indelible spiritual stamp, to this underlying oneness amidst
all diversities that if India is not yet a single organised political
nation, she still survives and is still India.
After all the spiritual and cultural is the only enduring unity
and it is by a persistent mind and spirit much more than by
an enduring physical body and outward organisation that the
soul of a people survives. This is a truth the positive Western
mind may be unwilling to understand or concede, and yet
its proofs are written across the whole story of the ages. The
ancient nations, contemporaries of India, and many younger
born than she are dead and only their monuments left behind
them. Greece and Egypt exist only on the map and in name,
for it is not the soul of Hellas or the deeper nation-soul that
built Memphis which we now find at Athens or at Cairo. Rome
imposed a political and a purely outward cultural unity on the
Mediterranean peoples, but their living spiritual and cultural
oneness she could not create, and therefore the east broke away
from the west, Africa kept no impress of the Roman interlude,
and even the western nations still called Latin could offer no
living resistance to barbarian invaders and had to be reborn
Indian Polity – 4 431
by the infusion of a foreign vitality to become modern Italy,
Spain and France. But India still lives and keeps the continuity
of her inner mind and soul and spirit with the India of the ages.
Invasion and foreign rule, the Greek, the Parthian and the Hun,
the robust vigour of Islam, the levelling steam-roller heaviness
of the British occupation and the British system, the enormous
pressure of the Occident have not been able to drive or crush
the ancient soul out of the body her Vedic Rishis made for her.
At every step, under every calamity and attack and domination,
she has been able to resist and survive either with an active or
a passive resistance. And this she was able to do in her great
days by her spiritual solidarity and power of assimilation and
reaction, expelling all that would not be absorbed, absorbing all
that could not be expelled, and even after the beginning of the
decline she was still able to survive by the same force, abated but
not slayable, retreating and maintaining for a time her ancient
political system in the south, throwing up under the pressure
of Islam Rajput and Sikh and Mahratta to defend her ancient
self and its idea, persisting passively where she could not resist
actively, condemning to decay each empire that could not answer
her riddle or make terms with her, awaiting always the day of
her revival. And even now it is a similar phenomenon that we
see in process before our eyes. And what shall we say then of
the surpassing vitality of the civilisation that could accomplish
this miracle and of the wisdom of those who built its foundation
not on things external but on the spirit and the inner mind and
made a spiritual and cultural oneness the root and stock of her
existence and not solely its fragile flower, the eternal basis and
not the perishable superstructure?
But spiritual unity is a large and flexible thing and does
not insist like the political and external on centralisation and
uniformity; rather it lives diffused in the system and permits
readily a great diversity and freedom of life. Here we touch on
the secret of the difficulty in the problem of unifying ancient
India. It could not be done by the ordinary means of a centralised
uniform imperial State crushing out all that made for free
divergence, local autonomies, established communal liberties,
432 A Defence of Indian Culture
and each time that an attempt was made in this direction, it
has failed after however long a term of apparent success, and
we might even say that the guardians of India’s destiny wisely
compelled it to fail that her inner spirit might not perish and
her soul barter for an engine of temporary security the deep
sources of its life. The ancient mind of India had the intuition
of its need; its idea of empire was a uniting rule that respected
every existing regional and communal liberty, that unnecessarily
crushed out no living autonomy, that effected a synthesis of her
life and not a mechanical oneness. Afterwards the conditions
under which such a solution might securely have evolved and
found its true means and form and basis, disappeared and there
was instead an attempt to establish a single administrative empire.

CWSA Vol 20 p 429-432


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