Sundays with The Modern Review: Sister Nivedita

(Note: The Modern Review archives run from 1907, when it was founded by Ramananda Babu, to the 1960s. Since this volume was intended to commemorate Ramananda Chatterjee, we looked only at volumes published between 1907 to 1943, the year of his death, and included a few articles from the August 1947 issue as well. Patriots, Poets & Prisoners was published in 2016 and edited by two of Ramananda Chatterjee’s descendants, Devangshu Datta and Anikendra Sen, and me.

By bringing out this volume and sharing excerpts from Patriots, Poets & Prisoners on this blog, we hope to draw attention to the fact that much of India’s true, and often stirring, history lies in the archives of little magazines and turn-of-the-century journals.

These periodicals, if curated and reissued, allow readers today to listen in to history as it was being made, with few filters between them and the leaders or brightest minds from the past. In some cases, I had to face my own disagreement or discomfort with the views stated by Modern Review contributors, but we made a decision as editors not to censor or change the original text, since it is part of the historical record. This heritage belongs, properly, to the next generation of Indians, but it cannot be so easily claimed until it is brought out of our archives and libraries. )



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The Modern Review, like many other periodicals of the day, had a far higher proportion of men than women among its contributors. The balance only began to be restored in the 1940s, when more women were writing on politics, art, architecture, history and the like.

But the magazine was progressive for its time, commissioning women contributors unselfconsciously from the first issue onwards, and including a regular section subsequently on prominent women and on gender issues of the day. The Anglo-Irish social worker, Sister Nivedita, friend to JC Bose, Sri Aurobindo, disciple of Swami Vivekananda, wrote this for one of the earliest issues of The Modern Review in 1907.





By Sister Nivedita


To an interviewer of the Madras Mail a certain distinguished person of Western descent is reported, among other things, to have said: “English democracy cannot be planted in India. India is not fitted for it.” This pronouncement chiefly shows that foreigners do not usually take the trouble to grasp the Indian national point of view. Just as the Japanese did not plant the “English” or any other exactly Western type of democracy in Japan, but a national democracy of their own with such personal loyalty to the sovereign as certainly does not exist in England at any rate ; so we are trying to have our own national Swaraj.


Swaraj does not mean an attempt to plant ‘English democracy’ in India, it means the human right of Indian democracy to find self-expression in its own country and amongst its own people in its own way. Speaking of democracy, however, English people may be startled to hear that in the Indian opinion India has been from ancient times immensely more skilled in the mode and habit of democratic self-government than England has ever cared to know or believe. Were not our wonderful self-contained village-communities democratic ? Are not our caste panchayats and biradaris, which still maintain a vigorous existence in most provinces, run on democratic lines ? Is not each caste in its internal economy a democracy, in which the richest, most powerful and most learned member is but equal in social position and rights to the humblest ? Is not the undivided Indian family a democracy ? In a joint family, when a point of family conduct or policy is to be settled, it is not un often seen that all the sons are gathered and the matter in question decided after due consideration of the opinions of all. It is because democracy existed and exists in our villages, castes, and families, that it is easy to explain at once why the Congress and Western political methods generally have been such a success in India.


In one sense, the causes of dissension and the difficulty of preserving unity are greater in the home than in the city, greater in the city than in the nation; for with enlarging area, impersonal considerations become increasingly determinative. To a people, therefore, who are accustomed to this democratic self-government in the most difficult of all spheres, viz., the home or the family, the work of running the country, as our friends the Americans would put it, would not be a very difficult affair. The only difficulty in India has been that the people have not realised the all-of- the-country, so to speak, as the proper function of the all-of-the-people. Consequently they have not yet gained experience as to the things that are the function of Home or Family, or social class on the one hand, and of village, city, province, and nation on the other. But the people are now in increasing measure and rapidly grasping the idea that all the affairs of their country are the concern of all of them, — and the gaining of experience is only a question of time. It is because India has been so profoundly democratic in her separate or individual social units, that she has in the past manifested so little power of resistance and so little political acumen. This is a fault which at present, however, bids fair to be corrected, and, once really corrected, under such conditions, will remain so for all time.


But it may be argued that granting that socially India has been used to the democratic mode and habit, where is the proof that politically she has been so accustomed, or is likely to appreciate and effectively use democratic methods ? We shall now give such a proof. Ancient India has no history in the usually accepted sense of the word ; but she has a history clearly legible in her ancient literature. In her epics and dramas we find abundant proofs of the fact that her rulers respected and acted according to the opinions of the people and the people in their turn freely expressed their opinion and demanded its recognition ;– which we may say is the essence of democracy, the monarchical or republican forms of government being mere separable accidents. In the Ramayana it is related in the Uttarakanda (Chap, XLXIII), that on his return to Ayodhya from Lanka after rescuing Sita, Rama asked the spy Bhadra to communicate to him both good and evil reports ; “hearing [which] I shall do what is good and eschew what is evil.” Here is a distinct promise made by Rama to respect public opinion, and he kept his promise, too. For when he heard that his subjects entertained suspicions regarding the character of Sita, who had dwelt so long in Ravana’s capital separated from her husband, he exiled her, though his heart almost broke to do so.


In the Mahabharata it is related that when Sakuntala, whom Dushyanta had married according to the Gandharva or mutual-choice form, went to his capital with her son, that king at first would not recognise or accept her, being evidently afraid of the opinion of his subjects. But when a celestial voice declared her in the hearing of all his court to be his lawfully wedded wife and the son to be his, he agreed to accept both mother and son.


King Yayati nominated his fifth and youngest son as his heir, passing over the claims of the first four. “When this became knowm to his subjects, they remonstrated with him. He had to satisfy them as to the righteousness of the step that he had taken.


“Having heard these words of the dwellers of heaven, the king of the Puru race was much pleased, and addressing his priests and ministers, he said : “Hear all of you the words of the messenger of heaven. I myself know that this boy is my son. If 1 had accepted him as my son at Sakuutala’s words, my people would have been suspicious, and my son also would not have been considered to be pure (of pure birth).” Sambhava Parva, Ch. 74.


We wish next to recall the sayings of the people when Yudhisthira was installed as Yuva-raja or heir-apparent. With evident consciousness of the possession of political power, they said, “We shall, therefore, install the eldest Pandava.”


When again the sons of Pandu, Yudhishthira and his four brothers, went to Varanavata as the result of the machinations of the wicked Kauravas, the people gave vent to their almost rebellious feelings in an unmistakable manner, and they did so with impunity. This could never have been possible if the absolute autocracy of tyrants had been the rule in India.


If democracy of a certain kind was possible then, it is also possible now, even after the lapse of ages. It is being slowly introduced in Baroda, Travancore, Bikaner, Mysore, etc. It will not be pretended that the Indian statesmen who rule these States know the people and their past less than foreigners.


We have shown that India is not unacquainted with the spirit of democracy. But even the form of democracy was not entirely absent from India. Let us give only one example. Dr. Hoernle in the address on Jainism that he delivered in 1898, as President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, stated that Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, was born in a State which was an oligarchic republic, which is a half-way house between monarchy and a pure democracy. Said he : —


“Vaisali is the modern Besarb, about 27 miles north of Patna. Anciently it consisted of three distinct portions, called Vaisali, Kundagama and Vaniyagama, and forming, in the main, the quarters inhabited by the Brahman, Kshatriya and Bania castes respectively While it existed, it had a curious political constitution ; it was an oligarchic republic ; its government was vested in a Senate, composed of the heads of the resident Kshatriya clans, and presided over by an officer who had the title of King and was assisted by a Viceroy and a Commander-in- Chief.” — Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, No. II, February, 1898, page 40.


On abstract grounds also we take exception to the statement that India, or for that matter, any country, is not fit for any popular system of Government. No doubt everywhere it has been and is a question of training-. And this training can be given to any nation. Were all countries where democracy now prevails fitted for democracy from the beginning of time ? Did not the divine right of Kings, — even to misgovern, — claim a large number, if not the majority, of Englishmen as its followers, in England itself ? Was Japan considered by foreigners fit for democracy half a century ago ? Was Persia considered fit a 3’ear ago ? Is China now considered fit?


After all human nature is everywhere more similar than dissimilar and it is a superficial philosophy that says that a certain country or nation is immutably unfit for or incapable of a certain thing.


Emerson made a profoundly true observation when in his essay on History he said that, “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same.What Plato has thought he may think : what a saint has felt he may feel ; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.”


“The Congress is trying to introduce a foreign system, and it won’t work.” But the fact is that it is already at work and working successfully; and we have shown above that democracy is not a foreign thing in India. Can our critics not see that if what they say had really been the case, the Congress would not have succeeded as it has ? Our National Parliament-without-a- Permit is thoroughly an expression of the Indian genius. It is in the political field, what we have been long accustomed to in the religious mela or conference and fair combined, in the caste panchayat and in the family conference.


We sincerely agree that national education is necessary ; but we do not feel honoured by being prescribed the attitude of trying by our good behaviour to bring strong arguments to bear on “the hard-headed Englishman.” Although we are quite willing to settle matters amicably with the Englishman, if the latter has that good sense, we do not admit that any foreigner has the right to demand that the Indian nation must prove its “capacity” for “political freedom” before it gets it; — as if such proof were ever possible to give, to the complete satisfaction of the foreign exploiter.


Political freedom is the birthright of every nation; and even a bad and inefficient swadesi government is much better than the most angelic government by absentee rulers and their irresponsible servants.


Does it show great capacity to grasp the drift of the national movement in India to represent “the hard- headed Englishman” as the master of the situation and the arbiter of her destiny? Circumstances are as much beyond his control as they are of ours.


March, 1907.

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Copyright: The Modern Review is out of copyright and in the public domain; however, the editors request that articles should be reproduced in their entirety wherever possible.








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