Book Review: The Indian Conservative by Jaithirth Rao

Book Review: The Indian Conservative by Jaithirth Rao

Jerry Rao is a successful businessperson and entrepreneur with sterling academic credentials. In this wonderful book written in a lucid language, he explores the philosophical roots of modern Indian conservatism and its stance in five distinct spheres: economic, cultural, social, political, and aesthetic. Indian Left takes its inspiration from Western countries directly. The right-wing in the West takes an aggressive position against the Left. To most Indians, this strident Western conservatism is a bit unsettling. Many Indians are uncomfortable with Western right-wing thought; but even more so with the Indian Left. Hence, we do need articulation of an indigenous conservative thought based on our traditions and culture. Our practices, all throughout history, confirm our philosophy of conservatism based on traditions. Jerry Rao manages to express well what it means to be an Indian conservative in a thought-provoking book. He writes in a gentle language, yet fights spiritedly the extremely caricatured view of Indian conservatism of the opponents. The best way to shut up any conservative thought in India today is mainly by shouting ‘Sanghi’ or ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘Hindu revivalist’. Most educated Indians do not go further, and that is unfortunate. To have this book in the armamentarium is important for defense, at the least. Indian conservatism has perhaps the best solutions for India’s pluralism. It is extremely antique by way of the traditional Indic knowledge systems. In the modern Western traditions, the philosophy of Edmund Burke has parallels to the Indian conservative thought. The author shows his fondness for Burke throughout the book.

Modern social sciences in India still have a great colonial hangover despite indulging in all the modern theories. The antipathy for traditional systems of India stays intact. Unfortunately, post-Independent India has seen a stranglehold of this dominant narrative in academia, media, and politics. The intelligentsia emanating from the schools and universities have thoroughly internalised most of the narratives, and there is extreme resistance to even look at any counter-narrative.

Conservative philosophy believes that human beings as individuals and as communities evolved over time in an organic fashion, developing their laws, institutions, cultures, norms, and associations. It is not a perfect society, but the process is of gradual improvement through trial and error, and preferably peaceful. Violence and revolution are always suspect in the conservative scheme of things. The individual is important, but in harmony with the state. That the state-sponsored collectives are inimical to individual interests is one of the key elements in conservative philosophy.

The key to conservatism is evolution and not revolution. Conservatives do not advocate anarchist or extreme libertarian positions. Modern conservatism draws on the works of Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Hume. The idea that conservative thinking is frozen in time and always in terms of a Utopian golden past is a caricature presented by the opponents, says Jerry Rao. The conservative idea of a ‘band of brothers’ does not imply a levelling mediocre equality which socialists love, but it refers to ‘shared solidarity across different, distinct persons, bound by mutual loyalty.’ For religious conservatives, equality is in the eyes of God; for the non-religious, it is in the eyes of the law. Shared loyalty to anything, including the nation, never implies restriction of individual freedom, but gives more meaning to freedom.

The antecedents of Indian conservatism are both universal and Indian. Two of our civilization’s foundational texts, the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata and the Tirukkural of Tiruvalluvar, provide the enduring basis of Indian conservatism, says the author. Kautilya and Telugu poet Allasami Peddanna also embody conservative philosophy in the best of Indian traditions. Peddanna dealt with the core concern of the challenge between the relationship of the individual to inherited traditions, and at the same time to be able to change them in a sober manner.

Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha are the four core purusharthas emphasized by almost all major Indian texts. The pursuits of Kama (beauty or passion or desires, loosely translated) and Artha (political or economic wellness) are always acceptable if based on dharmic values of harmony of the individual with the society. The final goal in all human endeavours according to Indian philosophy is always moksha, the final release from all ignorance and bondage to birth and death.


Dharma focusses on three important ideas: Charitra (or character traits), Raja Dharma and Sukshma Dharma. Charitra refers to character – of individuals, of groups and of the sovereign. The focus for individuals is on duties rather than rights. Peace, harmony, and trust are the focus of groups of individuals. Raja Dharma, or the appropriate virtuous conduct of a king, is that which promotes the happiness of the subjects. Raja Dharma predates Magna Carta by many hundreds of years in suggesting that the sovereign is not above the law. Raja Dharma abhors Matsya Nyaya, a situation where the big fish eat the small. A state that protects is the key, and this implies that the state itself is not predatory. Isavasya Upanishad forbids the coveting of another’s wealth, applicable equally to kings and commoners.

Sukshma Dharma comes into play when there is tension between conflicting actions that appear equally virtuous. The answers are not easy, but that is never a reason to avoid these situations. Jerry Rao talks about another concept called Yuga Dharma, which suggests that correct conduct changes with time. Each time-period requires different responses from the virtuous. This concept goes back some 2500 years to the Apastamba Sutra of the Yajur Veda. While the pursuit of dharma as virtue retains its importance eternally, the form of dharma must change with the times. The author says that as Burke would proclaim “we need to change and reform to conserve.” He gives an example of caste in this regard and calls for almost totally disbanding caste as a dharma for the present yuga. But, can that happen?

The Atharva Veda and the Isavasya Upanishad anticipate the English common law idea of trusteeship, particularly as it deals with land. We are trustees with a responsibility to ensure that the land we inherit from our ancestors passes on as is or in a better state to our descendants. It is equally appropriate that we pass on the ideas, culture, arts, thoughts, and philosophies that we possess, either intact or in a better form.

Modern Indian Conservatism

The two founders of modern Indian conservatism are undoubtedly Rammohun Roy and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, according to the author. Rammohun Roy always looked at the traditional doctrines to accept or reject cultural practices. His Sati movement was an example of looking at the scriptures and proving that nothing like sati existed in the scriptures or doctrines. It is another matter that the practice of doctrinal searching for traditional practices was a colonial imposition. As SN Balagangadhara says, the pressure to look for doctrinal evidence converted Indian traditions into religions. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee is perhaps the founder of the Hindu nationalist school of conservatism. His conservatism was perhaps more aggressive and laid the foundation for unity on shared symbols and ideas. His ideas of Mother India were influential in forging a national identity. He seriously questioned the British that if religion covers every aspect of Indian life, then perhaps there is no meaning to the word religion. It may not even exist. Again, SN Balagangadhara takes this idea powerfully forward in his classic book, ‘The Heathen in His Blindness,’ and says that there are no religions in India, but only traditions. The conversion of traditions to religions by the Europeans, and we Indians accepting it wholesale, is the root of all problems related to religion in this country. This includes the rise of the so-called ‘Hindu fundamentalism’. The latter, in fact, is an outcome of an inappropriate application of secularism in the Indian context. Our traditional systems, probably Hindu-driven, have dealt with pluralism far better than any country at any time in history.

Economics, Culture, and the Hindutva Phenomenon 

In the economic field, Indian economic conservatives have been defenders of the market, in line with their intellectual affiliation not only to Burke and Adam Smith, but also to the ideals of the Tirukkural and persistent Indian institutions like the mandi and the bazaar. The colonials, and unfortunately, the successive governments of free India, have had the common feature of not protecting free markets, says the author. This has left Indians poorer and less free than we would have otherwise been. The self-imposed ailments are recently under a partial correction. There is a scope for improvement, however. Statism and welfare policies have always driven political parties in India, but the conservative philosophy is not revolution and change, but an organic evolution and change. This, perhaps, could be the difference in the anti-statism ideas of both the conservatives and the Marxists.

In the cultural sphere, Indian conservatives are vociferous defenders of an overarching Indian culture imagined in antiquity and evolving over time, says Rao emphatically. There is a complete rejection of the idea of a ‘Brahmanical patriarchal Hindu hegemonical’ construct. Despite its Hindu flavour, Indian conservatism transcends religions as well as ethnicities, languages, and regions. ‘Bahuratna Vasundhara’, suggesting that many gems stud the earth of India, implies the spirit of diversity, unity, and paradox in Indic civilization.

“Hindutva is bad; Hinduism is good,” proclaim our liberal narratives. Hindutva is the ‘dynamic of the Hindu tradition’ – the kinetic component, according to Gurumurthy. Saumya Dey, in his book, ‘The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva and Other Essays,’ perhaps gives a good idea of the Indian conservative definition of Hindutva. The latter is a genuine and vital expanse of the Indic civilizational mode encompassing history (a continuous civilization of at least 5000 years), geography (Bharatvarsha from the ocean to the mountains), and civics (the state). Hindutva, when treated as a totality of ideas, is an ethical continuum that binds Dharma with dharā (the land of India) and rājya (state). ‘Hindutva is not a word but history’, says Savarkar. The Hindus are a united people since they inhabit a naturally delimited geographical space – the land that lies between ‘Sindhu and Sindhu’ – from the Indus to the Seas. This is an inclusion of all, irrespective of religion, caste, and creed. Unfortunately, Hindutva has become the shrill weapon to badger Hindus into silence by the opponents when it gets a connotation of violence. The uniquely Indic consciousness is a philosophical means to order the world and lend it an ethical sense. This philosophy of Hindutva is thus a dynamic, fulfilling the three ideals of dharma, dharā and rājya.

Jerry Rao reiterates that the Indian conservative never shies from abandoning the worst while preserving the best. The Hindu has always been aggressive to correct the social evils without any great resistance from the priesthood or the ‘tyranny’ of the scriptures. Sati, widow rehabilitation, child marriages, social inequalities in the social sphere, and gender issues have always occupied the best minds, and reforms always had a priority. Most of these happened on a voluntary, gradual, and an organic basis. At no point in time did reforms mean going against the temples or the priests; and this is indeed a uniquely Indian conservative character. The gentleness of the Indian conservative contrasts with the radical nature of the Western counterpart.

Cricket, Music, and Cinema

Jerry Rao says that we have a reason to be proud of our achievements in the aesthetic sphere. This, again, happened gradually and organically. Cinema, music, cricket, and other sports have an overarching celebration of the concept of unity in diversity. The country appreciates talent irrespective of religious or caste affiliations to a great extent; and the politics involved in these areas may not have concerned divergent personal philosophies or religions. The love for Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan, or Shah Rukh Khan crosses all personal identities in the country perhaps. Hence, Azharuddin as a captain was as popular as anybody else; and when he fell from grace, people showed anger on him, but not because of his religion. It hurt many fans like myself when he made a statement that his persecution was a result of his religious faith. That was in poor taste for most of my generation who loved his game. In Pakistan, there is hardly a Hindu player in the cricket team, and one Christian had to convert to Islam due to many pressures involved while playing in the team. Such things would be unheard of in our country. 

Music unites the country like nothing else, and the fights whether Kishore is better or Rafi is better goes beyond any religious attachment. To me, Rafi is god. When an accomplished Muslim or Christian singer sings or plays music displaying the highest form of devotion to Hindu gods and goddesses, there is never a threat to his personal identity and his faith. At a more popular level of cinema, the most stunning Hindu devotional songs are the combined efforts of Naushad, Rafi, and Shakeel Badayuni. This is an enduring symbol of Indic philosophy.     

Education, Environment, and Politics

The state, however, has suffocated areas such as education and public architecture, rues Rao. It is ironic that the government teachers are much better paid than the private teachers; and yet, most educated people and even people with challenged finances would still prefer education in private schools. Our public education system is nothing to be proud of. The colonials destroyed our education system, and we continued to do so in the post-Independence period with a matching thoughtlessness. Our performance on guarding our environment as trustees in the conservative fashion has been very spotty. The Great Indian Desert threatens to swamp us in the future if we do not take enough precautions and corrections.

In the political sphere, both the Right and the Left have been critical of the conservative ideology of being sympathetic to the cause of the Raj. When the stand comes to preserve some of the finer legacies of the Raj, the left-wing and right-wing shout accusations on the Conservatives of being colonial agents or rootless ‘Macaulay-putras’ respectively. The author says, ‘Indian ground realities ignore criticisms from both the left and the right. Our Supreme Court continues to quote the Magna Carta and the English principles of equity; our armed forces refuse to undertake coups; we change governments at the polls and not by firing whiffs of grapeshot. Above all, Indian parents in every corner of the country keep trying their best to send their children to English-medium schools. The real world of the swain or the common people, as Burke would have referred to it, trumps the cant of the ideologues.’

Outright political success is difficult; hence, conservatism involves influencing political parties from the outside through debate and dialogue, but more importantly through influencing members inside the parties who are sympathetic to different aspects of conservatism. A free market is the core of conservative philosophy because it represents the highest and most sophisticated form of free, civilized human intercourse. The acceptance of an ancient Indic culture as a great civilization forms the basis for understanding Indian or Hindu conservatism. Religious and social evolution needs to occur in a gradual manner through consensus, legislation, and non-violence. Revolution is not the key-word, but evolution, as the author repeatedly stresses. The conservative recognizes moderate Hindu nationalism as a legitimate movement inside the tent. It is more market-friendly than other dispensations, and can defend our culture against Marxist and Freudian attacks. Extremism is never acceptable because that harms everyone eventually.

Unfortunately, post-independent Marxist, Freudian, and postmodernist descriptions of a non-existent but apparently malign upper-caste male Hindu tradition – hegemonic, reactionary, oppressive and patriarchal – has gained sanction. These sinister ideas are far worse, if not equal to, the colonial ideas of India. Aggressive Left discourse over the decades has left the generations only ashamed of being Indians, which is sad. Marx genuinely believed that India was unfit for self-rule and needed the European hand to move forward. Colonialism was bad, but for India it was good, said Marx. I wonder how the Marxists would answer or defend him. 

Concluding Remarks

The book is a gentle discourse on the conservative philosophy of the Indians. Maybe, it is more appropriate to call it the Hindu conservative. He calls to disband caste altogether in one of the reform ideas, but in the present state of heavy politics involved, it looks unlikely. Balagangadhara’s group suggests discarding the word ‘caste’ altogether since there are no Indic equivalents of the word. We should perhaps go back to the varna and jati concepts based on guna (nature), adhikara (qualifications), and svabhava (character) concepts. But with so many rewards in the political, educational, and employment fields by way of caste, the idea to discard caste remains utopian at present. The book is slimly packed, not very expensive, and gives a wonderful and overarching view of the conservative philosophy. This book is certainly an important weapon to fight the noxious discourses and arguments of the opposing camps.   

Europe today is decrepit, says the author. The guilt of its colonial past, falling birth rates, rising old age population, isolation of the old, falling attendances in Churches, children born out of wedlock, etc. are problems we are not facing presently. We are still young, fresh, energized, with familial ties going strong. The conservatism of India tries to preserve this in the best sense. The author packs it all in the closing statements: It is to our individual and national character that we need to remain faithful. That will provide the temperament and attitude that our ancestors have given us as their gift, and which we need to pass on to our descendants. Action, while important, is almost secondary. It is to the preservation of our intellectual legacy, a legacy touched by the sacred, that we need to stay committed, and to turn to its timeless wisdom for guidance, both as individuals and as a nation. We would then live to the most important of conservative ideals – the ideal that we are part of a contract both with our ancestors and with our descendants.

Featured Image: The Asian Age

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.