Satyashrama: A conception of Dharmic politics
Humankind subsists on self-organization as does most of nature, spurred on by processes that lead to the emergence of order out of apparent chaos. Society is a collective of minds, interests, emotions…realities. Governing these realities on the human realm is the task of politics. Even as the Indian General Elections 2019 come to the fore, with the election dates having been declared, I feel it is time to reflect on aspects of politics as they exist in contemporary times. And in the process of doing so, see if an Indian conception of politics, sans the crutches of western political philosophies can be synthesised.
Gerua: Rediscovering a tinge of renunciation
I feel the more earthy, rust-coloured ochre is the true colour of the Vedic idea of ‘renunciation’ rather than the almost-yellow saffron that has become representative of the way of life people regard as ‘Hinduism’. I will come to why I feel this is strangely important in contemporary times, but before doing so would like to briefly look at the historical moorings of ‘gerua’, the colour. In A Monograph on Dyes and Dyeing in the North western Provinces and Oudh , gerua is defined as jogia or the colour which mendicants, sages and fakirs used for dyeing their clothes. It refers to the colour as a dull orange. Understandably, this has been an austere colour for the Hindus and was in use for various ritual purposes.
For Gandhi, ochre was not merely a colour of renunciation, as is purported in most Hindu religious texts, it also meant ‘selfless service for the betterment of the world’. Robert Taylor was a British civil servant who put together banners of princely chiefs for the imperial assemblage of 1877, and he was vociferously quite dismissive about the colour saffron. For instance, when the ruler of Reewah wished that the ‘Basanti rang (spring colour) be part of his banner, Taylor found this to be the pale saffron worn by Rajputs at their weddings and in their display of fatal heroism. He further notes ,
The full name is bhagwani i.e. the colour of bhagwan which Forbes translates cloth dyed with geru (red ochre), another common name is jogirang i.e. the colour worn by religious mendicants. I collected a few samples and am told that they are all shades of cinnamon brown; the popularity of the colour may be judged from the blazons, seeing that tenne is in every instance only a representative of the lighter shades, and murry (sanguine) in most instances a representative of the darker.
This heterogenity in the understanding of the colour was unfortunately subsumed by what seems to be a forced homogenisation of the differences. There seems to have been a selective and partial interpretation of the colour in a manner wherein regional and local usages got attention and the meanings of geru or kesar or kusumba, which defied historical homogenity (also due to the lack of homogenity in those who wore it, cutting across various sects and belief-systems), acquired a specific shade of ‘saffron’ and also this shade came to be equated with the nation’s past in the twentieth century .
It was in the 1920s, around the time of the Khilafat movement that a certain shade of saffron came to be associated with the Hindus and also to India’s national history. Gandhi wanted to design a flag to represent his ideals, particularly that of Swaraj. On Gandhi’s suggestion, Pingali Venkayya of National College, Masulipatam designed a flag that contained a spinning wheel on a red (symbolising ‘Hindu colour’) and green (‘Muslim colour’) background in Bezwada. Later, white was added as the third colour. Gandhi writes ,
Hindu–Muslim unity is not an exclusive term; it is an inclusive term, symbolic of the unity of all faiths domiciled in India. If Hindus and Muslims can tolerate each other, they are together bound to tolerate all other faiths. The unity is not a menace to the other faiths represented in India or to the world. So I suggest that the background should be white and green and red. The white portion is intended to represent all other faiths. The weakest numerically occupy the first place, the Islamic colour comes next, the Hindu colour red comes last, the idea being that the strongest should act as a shield to the weakest. The white colour moreover represents purity and peace. Our National Flag must mean that or nothing. And to represent the equality of the least of us with the best, an equal part is assigned to all the three colours in the design. I would advise all religious organizations, if they agree with my argument, to weave into their religious flags, as for instance the Khilafat, a miniature National Flag in the upper left hand corner. The regulation size of the Flag should contain the drawing of a full-sized spinning wheel.
The 1920s witnessed a long civil disobedience movement only on the issue of the flag, first in Jabalpur in July 1922 and later in Nagpur from March to August 1923. Sadan Jha, of the Centre for Social Studies, writes 
After the National Flag Satyagraha of 1922–23, this hoisting of the Flag became a dominant way of showing loyalty to the nation and it acquired the status of a political ritual with its own demands for sacrifices, sometimes non-violent, sometimes blood and lives. To die for the National Flag was to die for the nation—a way to martyrdom. The hoisting of the Flag symbolised an act of defiance as well as a kind of statement of freedom and liberation. References were made and inspirations were drawn from the Nagpur Satyagraha while discussing and deliberating the question of the flag in the country. In this sense, the Nagpur Satyagraha redefined the visual political environment for the future struggle, a detailed discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article.
The major objection against the Swaraj flag came from the Sikh community, which urged Gandhi in 1929 to include a colour representing their community (preferably, yellow) or
to adopt a completely non-communal flag . A flag committee was appointed by a resolution of the Congress Working Committee at their meeting on 2 April 1931 at Karachi. The objective of this committee was to specifically investigate into the ‘objection to the three colours in the Flag on the ground that they are conceived on a communal basis’. The Congress Working Group perceived the Swaraj Flag as the national flag that gained ‘popularity by usage and convention’ and wanted to recommend a flag for acceptance. As its first act, this committee sent out a questionnaire to various provincial Congress committees by the end of May 1931. On the other hand, the general public was contacted and addressed through the press, while members of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) were individually contacted by the AICC office. A large number of responses suggested an approach that involved refraining from adopting a communal position in the flag.
In a letter to Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote ,
We should make it perfectly clear that our flag is not based on communal considerations. No colour represents or will represent a community…I should like to retain red and green as they are beautiful colours.
Suniti Kumar Chatterji from Calcutta was one of those who wrote at length, initially about how universalist ideas must be espoused, and then looking at specific nuances of the lives of Indians. In Chatterji’s words ,
Saffron colour was also the colour of discipline in life, physically or morally and spiritually, for it is the colour enjoined upon the Brahmacharin. A modification of this Saffron colour is the Yellowish Brown the Kasava or Kashaya of Buddhism, where it is the great symbol of the Buddhist brotherhood with its insistence on Ahimsa. This colour is of the earth it is a kind of khaki, for the red ochre is a pigment which is a gift of Mother Earth. This red-brown tint of the earth has also been accepted by Islam in India, for Muhammadan fakirs with robes dyed in geru are as much the wanderers over the highways of India as are their brothers in the quest, the Hindu Sadhus. It does not require much imagination or sense of the fitness of things to feel that in India’s National Flag her great message of Brahmacharya, Ahimsa and Vairagya should be symbolised by a colour which has been associated by her people with these ideals from time immemorial.
In the substitution of red with saffron, Chatterji was one among many in 1931 and this plan eventually was officially approved by the Congress and was subsequently adopted by the Constituent Assembly.
Coming back to the politicisation of the saffron, particularly around strong Marathi links with the bhagwa or kesariya colour, the homogenization of the ochre has so many layers of clarification required. In the process of this homogenization, the dark ochre that symbolized sacrifice and spirituality was removed from the scene. Instead it came to be associated with communist and socialist movements and ideologies…which neatly brings me to the central focus of this article. A synthesis of seemingly disparate ideologies and traditions that have, by virtue of core ideas and principles, commonalities that can create a truly Indian political philosophy.
Ṛtaniti and Satyashrama: New Age Dharmic Politics
I see the meta-dynamics of the Universe quite clearly, particularly being a student of Physics myself. A set of laws here, a manner of movement and interaction between entities and forces there. The Universe could have been a vast number of possibilities (in the multiverse picture, they all exist independently) but it is what it is. There is a certain order in the Universe, seemingly self-organizing but yet directed. This is what ancient Indian philosophers and seers called Ṛta. That which maintained this order and respected the nuances of this reality was the Truth or Satya. You may start feeling that I will embark on a detour of philosophy and spirituality next. Not quite. After a lot of reflection and meditating on the nuances of these concepts, I feel there are two core ideas and nuances that matter when one speaks of that wisdom that maintains the universal order (Ṛtaniti).
The universe has a relational reality. Modern physics speaks of the Big Bang and the intrinsic unity of all things we see emerging from that one point in the distant past. Over time, these entities and forces and symmetries emerged, giving rise to greater diversity in the Universe. Since then it has been a matter of interactions and relations between entities, coupling and decoupling over time and interactions. Similarly, in society and politics, all that we express and understand is with respect to our perspectives and culturing. What may have seemed like acceptable societal norms in Plantagenet English courts are archaic today. Ideas evolve, concepts evolve. We grow together, we live together.
In Vedic philosophy, the unity in Brahman is expressed at each point in time and space, in the nature and activities of all there is in the Universe. As a result, nothing can survive without the safekeeping and nurturing of the unity itself, the oneness in humanity and the natural and honest compassion that comes from such a realization. Therefore the very first element in a philosophy that maintains Satya is that of compassionate politics. A politics that people speak of in terms of welfare states and benefit schemes. A politics of human oneness. That is what can truly mean a refuge in the Truth (Satyashrama). I espouse a society where basic amenities and tools for not only survival but dignified existence are provided to all. I feel that is crucial for the upholding of Dharma – that which maintains equilibrium in society and the universal order.
However, having said that, I also strongly believe in the idea of Swadharma: the tendencies and capacities of the individual, and a system that provides for opportunities and liberty to the same. Some are born with innate abilities to solve mathematical conundrums. Some are born athletes or singers or artists. Not only at the level of abilities but also comfort in undertaking certain pursuits, every person is distinct. Only when this idea and reality is respected can society remain harmonious and efficient. In today’s age, we have a rush to pursue certain kinds of activities. These are guided by aspects of remuneration and prestige many a times, over and above the comfort and interest of the individual in pursuing them. T
he ancient system of Varnashrama has been cited a number of times when it comes to problems with Hinduism, and the jati-based segregation is definitely not something I would stand for. It has imbibed a classist and hierarchical sense to it, whereas in certain texts like the Chandogya Upanishad, it talks of more fluidity in the manner in which individuals must take up professions as per their Swadharma. An academic’s son may become a farmer or blacksmith and a blacksmith’s son may become an academic if both have the respective tendencies, capacities and interest in those pursuits. An important point to note here is that Swadharmacan evolve. Someone who is good at singing but falls out of practice and does not maintain that talent may no longer be that suited for singing, while someone who may not a born singer may with practice and time and careful selection of a suitable area of music become known for singing.
It is this fluid system, which respects the abilities and interests of the individual, that I would like to stand for without borrowing any terms or references that bring with them a certain baggage (and a lot of debates). I seek to build a society where everyone, in essence, are equal, even though their human differences are evident and acknowledged actively. There is no hierarchy, no class. Just profession based on one’s Swadharma.
So the next question has to be: how do you bring the two strands together? One that respects our relational reality and one that respects our Swadharma. In modern parlance, and looking at contemporary political thought, the question is: how does one balance liberty and equality, the Left and the Right? It is by orienting Swadharma towards the relational reality. That is the true politics of Dharma that I have come upon after reflection. In practical terms, that entails having a basic welfare state that provides for facilities and amenities to all, which includes basic education and universal healthcare. This needs to be using a system of taxation. As Gandhi said, there is enough for everyone’s need but not anyone’s greed.
Therefore, the key aspect of allowing people to pursue that which respects their Swadharma is to: firstly, encourage people to feed back into the system, monetarily and otherwise, and secondly, to reduce the accumulation of excessive (and even obscene amounts) of wealth in some hands. Both of these can be done using a few ways, one of which would involve strict progressive taxation and the other could involve a novel way of incentivising the accumulation of social capital rather than financial capital. The near-perfect solution would probably have to be a combination of both.
An Economy of Social Capital, Personal Social Responsibility and e-Democracy
Since the industrial revolution, capital and resources feeding into and from the market have played a primary role in human existence and society. A role much more prominent than probably ever in the past. In fact, so much so that all aspects of society and politics revolves only around the generation, transfer and maintenance of capital and resources. I propose a slight variation, wherein the relation one has with society is made important too. Much like corporate bodies have the whole culture of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), wherein Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) makes corporates look good on paper to market forces and society at large, one needs to actively bring this down to the individual level, with what I would like to simply call as Personal Social Responsibility (PSR).
A system wherein social capital is the bedrock of society as much as financial capital is. This could be with a way in social capital, if there could be a formal and physical way of assessing that, is transferred between individuals and actively endorsed in the process. I know that people will speak of the subjectivity involved but here I am not highlighting the nitty-gritties as much as I am seeking a cultural change that makes it good, fashionable even, to be truly and honestly compassionate, caring and altruistic. If we can have social media and the use of technology for everything from taking ridiculous selfies on falling ocean waves to bitcoining away to glory, why can we not use technology to also facilitate this idea of an ‘economy of social capita’.
An economy where social capital fundamentally defines the way in which a person is perceived and engaged with, when it comes to interactions or transactions, much like corporates have in their CSR culture. Some may say that this may take away from the selflessness of altruism or care for society. I do not think so, till there are checks and balances to keep endorsements (on a certain charitable act or initiative) measured and anonymous, and that the largely picture and importance of the social capital is highlighted.
I feel that this system will go quite well with what I see as the most Dharmic form of government: collaborative e-governance and democracy. A system that mixes elements of representative and direct democracy. That allows the common man to propose, formulate and stand by ideas for the welfare of society. A system that involves the common man in the decision making process, without compromising on the quality of the policies and decisions made. This is done through a tiered system that involves all the stakeholders: representatives, private sector, independent organizations and think-tanks, and the common man, coming together on a virtual platform. Under this system, proposals for policy or law can be put forth by individuals or groups, vetted by experts (who also inform the masses and the representatives of the nuances of a suggested policy), and then voted in. In a direct democracy, each citizen would be required to vote on each policy issue each time.
This could overburden most people and not allow for the pursuit of activities and interests as per their Swadharma, and therefore in a truly Dharmic system, the citizens should be able to delegate responsibility to trusted representatives to vote on their behalf on those issues where they lack time and/or interest and/or knowledge and understanding. Though these representatives vote on the individual’s behalf, the final voting power must remain with the voter at the ground level. In this system, if the economy of social capital may be integrated, then we move towards a system of governance and politics that is not only Dharmic but highly efficient and representative. In this section, I have looked at the practicalities and possibilities of such a system, while in the previous section I looked at the broader framework for such a political philosophy.
In this essay, I have looked at some core ideas of ancient Indian philosophy and tried to synthesize by reasoning and reflection a truly Indian political philosophy – Satyashrama. Today people speak of Hindu nationalism and communal politicking in the same breath. Today people talk of fascism and a culture that has always believed in tolerance and dignity of the individual since times immemorial, again, in the same breath. It is shameful that this is the case, and this has happened due to a combination of lack of proper representation of fundamentally Indian values and ideals today, as well as convenient veiling of these values and ideals for political gain. It is time for change. For meaningful change. Change that respects the roots of Indian life, culture and society, and at the same time is at the very frontier of the modern age, in its conception and application. A politics that is not just saffron but also every tinge of ochre and human-realities.
Satyashrama is not capitalist in that it has a fundamental aspect in its compassion for all. It is not communist for liberty of the individual is maintained and respected. It is not even a social market economy, since the private sector need not be forced to pay the welfare state. It relies on the belief in the innate humanity of the individual, taken to a level where practically it becomes good and useful to feed back into the system. It relies on the belief that every person must have the dignity to life and opportunities to live a good life, a life based on their Swadharma. One key issue that may emerge is the accumulation of interest and talent in a generation on one profession, which has to be pre-empted by a slow cultural change where all livelihoods and professions are fundamentally respected and promoted.
All in all, the details and nuances may need more work over time, but with this essay and these words I present what has emerged from years of thought and reflection – a system of life, politics and society for a sustainable today and tomorrow, which respects universal and fundamental truths of society.
 Anon., A Monograph on Dyes and Dyeing, pp. 12, 62, 84.
 Taylor, The Princely Armory, p. 5
 Jha, S. Challenges in the history of colours: The case of saffron. The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 51, 2 (2014): 199–229.
 Gandhi, ‘The National Flag’, Young India, 13 April 1921, CWMG, Vol. 19, p. 561
 Report of the Flag Committee. ‘Sikh Colour’, 4 August 1921, CWMG, Vol. 20, 1921, p. 462
 Nehru to Pattabhi Sitaramayya, 12 April 1931, AICC, file no. G-57/1931/53-55, NMML; also in Gopal, Nehru: Selected Works, Vol. 5, p. 242.
 Chatterji, The National Flag, p. 8
a student of Physics in the University of Cambridge