The achievement of Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has been, over a series of books, to interpret India for Indians, often with the help of other Indians. Jahanbegloo’s works include Talking India, a book-length conversation with scholar Ashis Nandy; The Spirit of India, a study of the thought of 20th century Indian thinkers; and India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India, a set of interviews with Indian politicians, businessmen, artists and sportsmen. In these works, Jahanbegloo presents to Indian readers a set of resources and interpretive frameworks to understand both their history—rich with intellectual ferment and examples of fertile synthesis—and the criss-crossing forces and energies of the present moment. On the occasion of the release of two new books—India Analysed (Oxford University Press), a dialogue with psychoanalyst and historian Sudhir Kakar, and Beyond Violence (Har-Anand), a political manifesto for the 21st century, written in collaboration with Italian ambassador Roberto Toscano— I asked Jahanbegloo some questions about his relationship with India.
You grew up in Iran and were a doctoral student in France. What then are the origins of your intense interest in India?
I think that what I know about India today is the result of 30 years of reading, reflection, conversations with people, and travelling within India. My first links to the thought of India were the books by Gandhi, Tagore, and Radhakrishnan that I found in the library of my parents. Later, for my master’s degree in France, I was working on Carl von Clausewitz and war. Around this time I began to gravitate towards the literature of non-violence, which seemed a very appealing alternative to the Western military tradition. So I actually did my PhD on Gandhi: My thesis was called "Gandhi and the West". Later I also did a book on Tagore in Persian for Unesco. I first came to India 20 years ago and I have been coming back regularly ever since. Sometimes I say to my friends that either I have been an Indian in a previous life or I will be one in my next life.
So many of your books—such as your book with Ashis Nandy, and the new one with Sudhir Kakar—are cast in the form of a dialogue. Could you tell us why you prefer this approach?
The idea of dialogue is central to my world view and the way I work. I think the essence of philosophical work is dual: to engage in dialogue, but also to have the courage to think independently, to think like a dissident. You might call these the two Ds of philosophy. Each of my book-length conversations with Indian scholars has different emphases. With Ashis Nandy it was issues such as religion and secularism; with Kakar I have tried to explore the attitudes of Indian people towards sex, the mystical side of Indian religious life. I have a similar book forthcoming with the intellectual Bhikhu Parekh, where we talk about political philosophy, multiculturalism and diversity in the Indian context.
Even your other new book, Beyond Violence, while not explicitly in a dialogical format, is written in collaboration with the Italian ambassador to India, Roberto Toscano.
The book itself is about how dialogue can be used as a tool to tame the violence in our world today. So it made sense to write it with someone from another religion, another culture, since it is about how we must transcend the idea of an “us” and a “them” and find shared values with others. The idea of shared values is important because, as the first decade of the 21st century is showing us, the world is no longer facing regional issues, but global issues—all our problems are deeply interlinked. The terrorist attacks on Mumbai fall not just into a regional pattern, but a global pattern.
But can humanity really advance “beyond violence”? Isn’t violence a kind of constant throughout human history?
Let me put it this way. If we look at modernity, we can discern two strands to it. One is a narrative of domination and mastery: over nature, over technology, over other human beings. This is a narrative of violence. The other is that of emancipation, of freedom, of individualism. So, although the first principle cannot be eliminated, it can certainly be moderated by the second. The idea of permanent violence does not mean that successful examples of the reverse have not been seen. All the thinkers of non-violence have always emphasized that we cannot just accept the situation that we have—we have to think of ways of transcending it. So I am not a fatalist on the subject of violence.
You take up the idea of the native strengths of Indian culture more specifically in your book The Spirit of India. What is this spirit?
The strength of India is that it is a country of in-betweens. It is a median country. If you look at the 20th century, India was never totally on the side of either traditionalism or modernism. Traditionalists had to learn how to engage with modernists, and modernists in turn were moderated by voices rooted in tradition, as in the relationship between Gandhi and Nehru. The common element in the work of Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and several other thinkers is an attempt to acknowledge the richness of Indian traditions while also trying to root out its uglier aspects, its injustices. Even the intellectual journey of someone like Maulana Azad, for example, is the journey of someone who spoke like a fundamentalist in his youth and like a secularist in his later years. He went from a kind of Islamic revivalism to Islamic humanism.
I was struck by your remark in a lecture that Gandhi’s aim was to “democratize democracy”. What do you mean by that? How does Gandhi approach the idea of democracy and where does he leave it?
By that remark I meant that Gandhi wanted to further democratize the Western idea of democracy that he came across in his reading and in his years in the West. Gandhi is not a pluralist, a democrat, in the liberal sense—that is, he does not just emphasize the rights and freedoms of people, but also their duties. So his is what I call an enlarged pluralism, in which freedoms stand side by side with responsibilities. This leads naturally to the idea that change in society cannot occur in a vertical, top-down way, but only in a horizontal way, through individual empowerment and will. And that is a very relevant idea in today’s world: that individuals assert themselves, and not just allow states to act in their names. As Gandhi used to say, "The spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within."
Finally, you were put in prison, in solitary confinement, without being charged, for over four months by the Iranian government in 2006. What impact did that experience have on you?
Solitary confinement leads to a great increase in self-awareness and self-discipline. You are fighting insanity; you have to learn how to get along with yourself. I had to work very hard to beat back the bitterness that prison creates, the sense of your most basic rights being violated. I had no paper so I would put down my scattered thoughts on biscuit wrappers. Later I published them as a collection of aphorisms called A Mind In Winter.
Is there any one of those aphorisms that you can share?
I can. “The meaning of life is life itself.” In prison you become aware of naked life, stripped of any ideology or dogma. You realize that life cannot be reduced to any system or simple moral framework—it is bigger and stronger than any of these things.