By Makarand Paranjape
Every nation celebrates its Independence Day. But why is India’s 75th birthday also being flagged as “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav”? To understand this, we must consider, first of all, the meaning of the slogan itself. “Azadi” is a Persian word, which is now part of the daily vocabulary of one of the most widely spoken language-systems in the world.
For lack of a better word, we might call Hindi-Urdu-Hinglish, whose estimated users number over a billion in the subcontinent and across the world. “Azadi” is rich in significance and connotation, ranging from freedom, liberty, and independence, to progressive, liberal, emancipatory ideas, to amplitude, capacity, space, and openness, to a more technical sense of manumission, enfranchisement, release from slavery. In the medieval Indo-Islamic ecumene, “azadi” frequently had that last sense in which a born or acquired slave could be set free by his or her master for services rendered or as an act of supreme generosity. “Amrit” means elixir, ambrosia, or nectar. Its secondary denotations include substances traditionally considered highly beneficial, ranging from water, ghee, boiled rice, gold, buttermilk, milk, sweets, to anything agreeable, desirable, beautiful, and life-enhancing. But the literal meaning of the word is simply “not dead.” “Amrit,” thus, is that which makes us immortal, indestructible, eternal. The commonly understood meaning of “utsav” is celebration, festival, jubilee, or fete. But its more literal sense is elevation, rising, height, enterprise, undertaking, beginning, or blossoming. So, “maha + utsav” would be great or magnificent, as an additional and amplificatory, prefix to all the above. Putting them together, we have the fuller sense of the phrase “Azadi ka Amrit Mahautsav” as India’s great freedom festival.
Union of diverse cultures
The Persian-Sanskrit combination of “azadi” with “amrit mahotsav” should not cause discomfort to purists. Not only does it acknowledge the linguistic union of diverse cultures in our past, but also serves to remind us that Sanskrit and Persian are, after all, sister tongues, with common roots going back to ancient close connections between Sanskrit and Avesta. More importantly, one might ask what does freedom have to do with immortality? Such a question can be addressed fruitfully only if we remember that India is not only a modern nation but an ancient civilization. However, unlike other civilizations, despite its great material prosperity and scientific progress, classical India set the highest store by liberation. Variously called Moksha, Mukti, Nirvana, Kaivalya or Svatantrya, freedom also implied cessation of suffering, release from repeated cycles of birth and death, and deliverance from the bondage of samsara, the ceaseless flow and circuit of worldly life. The ideal of freedom was thus considered the highest aim of human existence in almost all systems of Indian philosophy and religious endeavor. From times immemorial, freedom has been thought as the prerequisite and precondition for human flourishing, excellence, and self-realization.
In other words, it is in freedom that we find the true meaning and purpose of human striving and in finding it overcome the fear of suffering and death. That is why freedom was believed to be elixir of higher consciousness. Immortality, in the Indian way of life, was not confined to physical or bodily existence. Nor was it trans-substantial, to be found only in the afterlife, in some heavenly hereafter. But immortality was the living, embodied experience, awareness, and actualization of our oneness with the cosmos. Such a union, which is the original meaning of yoga, made individuality redundant rather than irreducible. On August 15, India completed 74 years as an independent country. After a long, sometimes violent but hard-fought struggle against the greatest empire known to humankind, it won its freedom from British imperialism in 1947. That moment, etched forever in time in the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous phrase, “tryst with destiny,” in his freedom at midnight inaugural speech, was also marked by the conspicuous absence from the capital of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was away in Calcutta, dousing the flames of communal hatred and internecine violence. For Aug. 14 was also the day of the bloody Partition and dismemberment of India.
Aurobindo’s August 15 dream
Sri Aurobindo (1872-1947), whose sesquicentennial celebrations also begin this year on Aug. 15, in his independence-eve broadcast from All India Radio, Thiruchirapalli, spoke of his five dreams for India and the world. The first of these was “a revolutionary movement which would create a free and united India.” Sri Aurobindo acknowledged that though India was free, she had not achieved unity. He regretted that “the old communal division into Hindus and Muslims seems now to have hardened into a permanent political division of the country.”
But he hoped that would not remain “anything more than a temporary expedient.” He warned that “if it lasts, India may be seriously weakened, even crippled: civil strife may remain always possible, possible even a new invasion and foreign conquest.” He declared “Partition must go,” adding “Let us hope that that may come about naturally, by an increasing recognition of the necessity not only of peace and concord but of common action….” After 75 years of independence, it is time, once again, to dream of new possibilities of realizing freedom, not in division but in unity. As Sri Aurobindo said, “unity may finally come about under whatever form — the exact form may have a pragmatic but not a fundamental importance. But … the division must go; unity must and will be achieved, for it is necessary for the greatness of India’s future.” For without such unity, in whatever form or manner, the true potential of India as a harbinger of planetary higher consciousness will be seriously inhibited, if not altogether unfulfilled.
Makarand R. Paranjape is an Indian academic, novelist, poet and literary critic. He has been the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, since 2018.