Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

(To be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.)


There are very few books that can completely challenge our beliefs, instilled by decades of modern education and colonial conditioning. The first encounter with the writings of Dharampal could do this to anyone. I definitely went through that transformative experience, when I first read The Beautiful Tree, a few years ago. It helped me understand the historical background to the disillusionment of Gandhi with the modern education system, which I share with him, and his subsequent conception of the Nai Talim system. Later, during my interactions with Ramasubramaniam of Samanvaya, who has worked closely with Dharampal during his last years, I heard a good deal about his work and his personality. Ever since, I’d been thirsting to read more of Dharampal, and was collecting and going through his books available online (primarily from the wonderful website of Arvind Gupta). That thirst has now been quenched to a fuller extent by the ‘Essential Writings of Dharampal’, compiled by his daughter, Gita Dharampal, and published by Publications Division of India (and at Rs.135, quite an appealing price).

The book covers many of the major works of Dharampal: The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteen Century (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), India’s Polity, its Characteristics and Current Problems (1992), Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and their Relevance to the Present (1986), The Madras Panchayat (1972), Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala (1991), and Reconsidering Gandhiji (1984).

[Though I set out to write a review for this book, the essay has grown to be an overall introduction to Dharampal, covering texts outside this book too.]


Poring through the archives, in India and Britain, of the various written accounts of the early British administrators of India, Dharampal vividly brings to life, the eighteen century India. This pre-colonial India of Dharampal is in complete contrast with the pre-colonial India of the history books, which is entrenched in popular imagination. Not many Indians doubt the glory of ancient India, its achievements in philosophy, literature and science. But most Indians also believe that the glory belonged to a distant past, and that when the British came, they met a civilisation in shambles, waiting to be pulled out of dark ages into the modern era: a region of famines, poverty, illiteracy, infighting, sati and untouchability. The eighteenth century India was, of course, a region deeply wounded by many centuries of foreign invasions; but despite those repeated invasions, Dharampal establishes that India was a ‘functioning and relatively prosperous society’ in the eighteenth century. It was not the British who pulled India out of destitution, but it was their colonial rule that pushed India deeper into destitution and decay.


A distant history is not difficult to come to terms with: it can be glorified or dismissed with ease. What we did or didn’t do during the Indus Valley period, or the Vedic ages or the Sangam age, may have no immediate implications on policy making. The distance of time allows us to view those with pragmatic detachment, though strongly tinged with nostalgic euphoria. But the history of our recent past is much more crucial, and ineluctable. The awareness about the efficacy of the social and political structures that existed just before the advent of the British could have huge ramifications on our present and future policies. It is this efficacy of the Indian system that the educated Indians question. Our colonised and corporatised minds are unable to comprehend the viability of any system that has not been tried and tested in the West. As Jayaprakash Narayan, wrote in his foreword (not part of this book) to Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition,

“After the first few years of euphoria since Independence, a period of self-denigration set in during which educated Indians, particularly those educated in the West, took the lead. Whether in the name of modernisation, science or ideology, they ran down most, if not all, things Indian. We are not yet out of this period. I am not suggesting that what is wrong and evil in Indian society or history should be glossed over. But breast-beating and self- flagellation are not conducive to the development of those psychological drives that are so essential for nation-building, nor so is slavish imitation of others.”


Dharampal does not merely succeed in showing what India possessed prior to the debilitating rule of the British; he brings to light how much Britain owed India, both financially and intellectually, for the giant leap it made in the nineteenth century.

For instance, when Dharampal maps the history of British education in The Beautiful Tree, he finds that formal schooling was extended to a vast majority of the British children only in the first half of the nineteenth century. Contrary to the mainstream commentary on education, Indian primary education was in a far better shape than the British system. In fact, in Britain, ‘the major impetus came from the Peel’s Act of 1802’, but was propelled by the monitorial method of teaching used by Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell, ‘supposedly borrowed from India.’ This passing reference, contained in parenthesis, is provoking enough to arouse one’s curiosity, and on further research, we can find that other authors have also written about it. Major B.D. Basu, in his History of Education in India under the rule of the East India Company, writes,

“Very few in India know that the system of “mutual tuition” which has been practised by Indian school-masters since time immemorial, has been borrowed by the Christian countries of the West from India. The man who first introduced it into Great Britain was a native of Scotland by the name of Dr. Andrew Bell.”

In ‘A Short History of Education’ (1919), J.W.Adamson writes about the Monitorial System, which he calls as the ‘Madras System’:

“It was first introduced to the British public by Andrew Bell (1753-1832) in a pamphlet published in 1797, An Experiment in Education made at the Male Asylum of Madras, suggesting a System by which a School or Family may teach itself under the superintendence of the Master or Parent. Bell had been the first superintendent of the Madras orphanage for Eurasian boys, but had now retired and was resident in England.”

Dharampal himself gives one more reference in a footnote elsewhere:

“Further, in the Public Despatch to Bengal from London dated 3 June 1814, it was observed, “The mode of instruction from time immemorial has been practised under the masters has received the highest tributes of praise by its adoption in this country, under the direction of the Reverend Dr.Bell, formerly chaplain at Madras; and it has now become the mode by which education is conducted in our national establishments, from a conviction of the facility it affords in the acquisition of language by simplifying the process of instruction.”

In another instance, Dharampal cites the ‘curious example of the transfer of technology from Pune to London in the 1790s is provided by the Indian practice of plastic surgery’ and goes on to ‘describe it in the words of a founder of modern British plastic surgery, J.C. Carpue, FRS,’ about how he learnt to do the nasal operation from India (in the essay, Indigenous Indian Technological Talent and the Need for its Mobilisation [not part of this book].) However, interestingly, J.C.Carpue, even while admiringly learning the art from Indians, is dismissive about the science behind it: “If we fancy that we are entitled to refuse to the Orientals the reputation of science, this makes no alteration in the case; for no depth of science, but involuntary observation, was all that was wanted here.” But, Dharampal points out that ‘such an operation has been described in detail in Susruta’.

In the light of the vehement sparring over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks about plastic surgery and the god, Ganesha, a couple of years ago, one has to rue the lack of recognition for Dharampal: had he been read more widely, we wouldn’t be seeing the spectacle of one side irrationally advancing mythology as history, and the other side irresponsibly dismissing history as mythology.

The invention of small pox vaccine and the near total eradication of small pox is believed to be one of the most significant achievements of modern medicine. It does come come as a surprise to us, that small pox inoculation was practised in India, in the early eighteenth century, and much before. In fact, it has been recorded that smallpox inoculation has been practised in China in the eleventh century, and it ‘apparently came from India’. It was prevalent in certain parts of India, especially Bengal and the Gangetic plains, if not the entire region. The British beneficiaries of the inoculation had propagated its benefits in Britain, since 1720. An early practitioner of naturopathy, Lakshmana Sarma, in his book, Practical Nature Cure, writes, rather disapprovingly, that Lady Worley Montagu introduced the idea of small pox inoculation in Britain from the Middle East in 1720, and that it led to the invention of the cowpox-based vaccine. However, Dharampal, while also citing the same incident from the memoirs of Lady Montagu, traces the roots of small pox inoculation to India.

“Till 1720, when the wife of the then British Ambassador in Turkey, having got her children successfully inoculated, began to advocate its introduction into Britain, the practice of inoculation was unknown to the British medical and scientific world. Proving relatively successful, though for a considerable period vehemently opposed by large sections of the medical profession and the theologians of Oxford, etc., an awareness grew about its value and various medical men engaged themselves in enquiries concerning it in different lands. The two accounts of inoculation reproduced here are a result of this post-1720 quest.”

Dr.J.Z.Holwell, in a note addressed to the President and members of the College of Physicians in London, in 1767, gives a detailed account of the practice in Bengal. It involves application of variolous matter from a cloth charged with inoculated pustules of the previous year, on a wound made with a sharp needle. By modern standards, it may look crude, some parts of it (like application of Ganges water and uttering of mantras) even superstitious, but the core idea behind the practice is the same used in most vaccines even today. In India, wherever it was present, the coverage was universal, which was the basis on which its efficacy rested. The orthodox beliefs of many of the Europeans, made them resist the inoculation; the breakdown in the local administration, the banning of the indigenous system by the British, and the subsequent introduction of the British-made cowpox-based vaccine (the origin of the word vaccine is the Latin vacca, meaning cow), pioneered by the British physician, Edward Jenner, in 1798, all eventually, led to the waning away of the system. It will not be too far-fetched to conjecture that much of the science behind modern inoculation originated from this ancient practice of the East. The history of the origin of vaccination is a point that needs to be noted by both the opponents and proponents of vaccination: there may be merits and demerits to vaccination but the core idea was no conspiracy of the West and, may well have germinated in India.

Dharampal, even while he establishes the high points of the Indian civilisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their specific contribution to the British system, makes a clear-sighted and honest assessment of the overall nature of the exchange between India and Europe:

“The above does not necessarily imply that post-1800 British and European technology owes a great deal to the information and knowledge which it received from India. From about the 13th century, there was much flow of ideas, knowledge, and technologies to Europe particularly from Asia. All this took time to be absorbed and internalised. By stages, Europe seems to have been able to integrate or graft what it felt important on to its own technological frame, and its stock of knowledge. By about 1820, or 1830, Europe had far surpassed in matters which interested it, all those who had contributed to its scientific and technological growth; and had, therefore, no need to remember details of the sources from which the borrowings had been made.”


A repeatedly lamented theme in Dharampal’s writings is how the systematic destruction of the village economy and administration destroyed the Indian indigenous systems in all fields. Because of the organic nature in which all streams of life were integrated by the rural economy, stifling it cut down the lifeline of the entire system.

Prior to the British rule, many of the British writers themselves have recorded that the Indian villages had authority and autonomy. The village economy was relatively thriving.

‘With regard to agricultural production and the wages in agriculture, according to the journal Edinburgh Review (A.D.1803–1804), the wages of the Indian agricultural labourer in the Allahabad-Varanasi region around 1800 were in real terms substantially higher than the wages of his British counterpart. The journal at that time wondered that if these wages were so high at this late period of great economic decline, how much higher such wages must have been when they were first established. According to a recent computation by an economist of the University of Madras, the wages of the agricultural labourer in Chengalpattu during the period 1780– 1795 at 1975 prices would have been about Rs.7.50 per day, while in 1975 itself such wages were Rs.2.50 per day only. The productivity of wheat in the Allahabad-Varanasi region was more than double of that in England on similar land. Further, it may be mentioned that Britain, like the rest of Europe, produced only one crop a year, while in India many lands produced more than one crop.’

From establishing and maintaining chatrams and irrigation systems to supporting village schools, doctors and manufacturing units, the public funds allocated by the villages played the primary role. Assessing the data collected through ‘a survey of about 2000 villages of the Chengalpattu district during the 1760s and 1770s,’ Dharampal highlights the critical finding of this survey:

“the details of the deductions from the total agricultural produce of the village, generally called swantantrams, for the maintenance of the various institutions and infrastructure of the village, and for intra-village institutions and offices. The shares of the produce that were allocated for the different functions and different institutions evidently had been determined by ancient custom and usage. This sharing was clearly not merely an economic arrangement, but was a way of defining the role and importance of the various recipients in the village or regional polity.”

He also finds the fund allocations were not just for the internal village institutions but also for intra-village purposes.

“In fact it seems to have contributed to the support of the intra-local systems, and it can reasonably be assumed that the intra-local systems looked after the requirements of systems, which in their own Indian way provided support and integration to much larger areas. In a sense, the polity which such data suggests is the kind of polity that Mahatma Gandhi tried to spell out in his idea of the oceanic circles, where the innermost circle retained the utmost internal autonomy, and only such fiscal, moral and other support was extended by them to the outer circles, essential for performing those residual tasks which could not clearly be performed at any local level.”

Elsewhere, Dharampal observes that what was seen in Chengalpattu in 1760s was largely true of all other parts of India, throughout its history.

“The basic element of this ‘village republic’ was the authority it wielded, the resources it controlled and dispensed, and the manner of such resource utilisation. Notwithstanding all that has been written about empires— Ashokan, Vijayanagar, Mughal, etc., and of ‘oriental despotism’ it is beyond any doubt that throughout its history, Indian society and polity has basically been organised according to non- centralist concepts. This fact is not only brought out in recent research. The eighteenth and early nineteenth century European reports, manuscript as well as published writings also bear evidence to it. That the annual exchequer receipts of Jahangir did not amount to more than 5% of the computed revenue of his empire, and that of Aurangzeb (with all his zeal for maximising such receipts), did not ever exceed 20% is symptomatic of the concepts and arrangements which governed Indian polity.”

With the deepening hold of the British, the village autonomy was lost. This was in a large measure brought about by the monstrous land taxes imposed by them, which drained the life out of the farmers, and consequently, the villages.

“The governmental revenue assessment fixed by the British in India was fixed at 50% of the gross agricultural produce in Bengal as well as in the Madras Presidency. This fixation was made during the years 1760 to 1820, as and when the British became masters of an area. This particular information initially baffled me and later when its implications sank in my mind, I was aghast.”

The rent paid by the cultivators of the lands to the land owners, historically, has also been low.

‘According to Thomas Munro, it was no more than one-fourth of the rate of revenue which the British had imposed; and at times, according to him, the cultivator only paid what he wished.’

The impact of the British tax laws on the Indian economy has previously been written about in detail by Romesh C Dutt, a former ICS officer and Congress President, in his book, Open Letters to Lord Curzon on Famines and Land Assessments in India (1900). He mentions, that the tax assessment in areas where taxes were directly levied by the British, were in the range of 12% to 33%. Though the rate of 50% cited by Dharampal is much higher than the ones provided by RC Dutt, it is evident that the taxes levied, and more importantly, diligently exacted, by the British, were unprecedented in the history of India. RC Dutt went one step further and established the connection between the tax rates and repeated famines in India during the eighteenth and ninetieth centuries.


Dharampal, as we saw, showed how much modern British education owed India. He also breaks the myth that education was a preserve of the elite and the Brahmins, and that it was the British, who bestowed education to the hitherto illiterate masses. In making a detailed analysis of the indigenous education survey conducted in the Madras Presidency and Bengal, in 1820s and 1830s, and an unofficial survey made by G.W.Leitner in 1882 for Punjab, Dharampal challenges our entrenched beliefs about caste and education.

At the macro level, there are comments by William Adam that there were about 1,00,000 village schools in Bengal and Bihar in 1830s; by Thomas Munro that every village had a school (in Madras); and by G.L.Prendergast, that “there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more” (Bombay Presidency).

At another level, drilling down further, Dharampal, establishes that the proportion of those attending institutional school education, was not inferior to what prevailed in England around the same time. He claims that the content also was on par, and at times, superior to what was being studied in England. The school environments were less dingy and more natural. School attendance was far higher; the schooling hours were longer and the duration of schooling was more prolonged. He admits that India ‘seems to have lagged behind with regard to the education of girls’, though, it could be ‘explained by the fact that most of their education took place at home.’

The most revealing data is on the caste composition of those attending school: those from the Soodra communities constituted a significant proportion of the schooled children, and in some areas, formed the majority. For example, in Tamil-speaking areas, the Soodras and other castes (most likely, the scheduled castes), ‘ranged from about 70% in Salem and Tinnevelly to over 84% in South Arcot.’

Overall, over 25% of the boys, and taking into account those schooled at home, nearly 33% of boys were receiving primary education, in Madras Presidency.

While primary education had been accessible to all castes, higher learning, ‘being more in the nature of professional specialisation, seems in the main to have been limited to the Brahmins.’ This was largely the case with subjects such as Metaphysics, Ethics and Law. But other caste students were found to be studying Astronomy and Medicine. For instance, in a survey in Madras Presidency, barbers were found to be practising Medicine and Surgery. Muslims had Persian schools which taught Persian and Arabic texts.

Even as the relatively impressive quantitative data on education was submitted by the Collectors, for the surveys, Dharampal points out that some of them also recorded their skepticism about the quality of the content and the teachers. There were exceptions too, like the Collector of Madras, who observed that before students attain their 13th year of age, “their acquirements in the various branches of learning are uncommonly great.”

What makes this data all the more impressive is the condition of decay that the Indian villages and all institutions had already gotten into by the year of 1820. This decay continued more rapidly, and at the turn of the century, despite the British schools supplanting the indigenous schools, the percentage of the schooled population remained almost unchanged, if not diminished.

Dharampal did not advocate a complete revival of the old system, since ‘many aspects may no longer be apposite,’ but a thorough understanding of the old system and the process that created the current irrelevant system is necessary to devise ‘what best suits India’s requirements and the ethos of its people.’


Dharampal’s work on Indian Science and Technology deserves maximum attention and further elaboration by other scholars in that area. Dharampal brings out the significant achievements of ancient Indians in astronomy and mathematics. While some of the British writers had claimed that the eighteenth century Indian astronomers were not as competent as the ancients who devised the tables and rules, Dharampal points that ‘it was only through intercourse with Indian astronomers and by means of instruction and data received from them that the European knowledge of Indian astronomy could be acquired.’ Dharampal has put together an excellent collection of the writings of British scholars on the Benares Observatory, Algebra and Binomial Theorem. In all these in-depth works, despite admiration for the accuracy and complexity of the Indian knowledge systems, Dharampal finds a certain reluctance on the part of the British writers to admit the antiquity of the achievements, as well as a tendency to suppose an influence of the Greeks, through some unknown and ancient communication, though they found Indian conclusions in these areas to be more advanced than the Greeks of that time.

It is not as if Dharampal was against borrowing of ideas; he was only underlining the prejudices of those times which denied credit where it was due. Also, he felt any borrowing should in line with the ethos of any people; only, then it will lead to further advancement.

“Borrowing of ideas and practices in themselves need not be obstructive to India’s development or creativity. During the centuries, India must have borrowed many ideas and practices from other lands—in the same manner in which Europe received much in the field of science and technology from the Arabs etc., or the Arabs and others did from India. To the extent that such borrowings lead to further innovation and creativity, they are to be greatly welcomed. Unfortunately, so far, the past century’s unthinking transplanting of European sciences and technologies in India has resulted mainly in retarding and blunting of indigenous innovation and creativity.”

Dharampal had also focussed his attention on Indian Agriculture (especially the drill plough), Madras Mortar, the process for making ice in a tropical climate and the manufacture of ‘wootz’ steel, all of which were superior to the contemporary British methods, and still hold potential relevance. He, especially, believed that old smelting furnaces should be revived to stop people from turning ‘into mere labourers where only their muscular power can make any contribution.’ He also adds succinctly,

“It is probable that in today’s circumstances, these furnaces may be found highly wasteful of both ore and fuel; and to start with, the steel that they will produce may be of relatively poor quality. To some an attempt of this kind may seem a great waste. But to the same people, a loss of a few hundred crores here and there because of hasty decisions, or defective technology, etc., may look like the ordinary hazards of modern economy and industry; while a loss of 10 to 20 or 50 crores on a project of this type seems unpardonable.”


Another major contribution of Dharampal was in tracing the Indian antecedents to Civil Disobedience. Gandhi, himself, while he never hid his admiration for, or refer to the inspiration he drew from Thoreau, John Ruskin and Tolstoy, has said that the idea of satyagraha was as old as the mountains. Dharampal points out that there are clear grounds in Hind Swaraj, itself, to infer that Gandhi drew from Indian tradition to arrive at Civil Disobedience.

Dharampal gives a detailed account of a civil disobedience movement in Benares, Patna and other cities against a newly imposed house tax in 1810-11. He also touches briefly on two other movements in Madraspatnam (1680) and Canara(1830-31).

Personally, to me, with so few examples, the work seemed inadequate in establishing a strong tradition of civil disobedience, especially non-violent movements: I still think Gandhi had a very weak foundation laid for him by previous tradition, on which he had to build such a formidable structure. Yet, the correspondence that Dharampal has unearthed and put together has succeeded in exposing the minds of the administrators, when they are faced with public opposition. It serves as an explanation for police behaviour even in free India, and elsewhere, like in the case of the criminal oppression resorted to by the police, right in front of live television camera, towards the end of the jallikattu protests. One of the government correspondence reads thus:

“The Governor-General-in-Council does not discern any substantial grounds for granting a general pardon to the people of Benares for their late unwarrantable and seditious proceedings. On the contrary, His Lordship-in- Council is of opinion, that public justice and obvious expediency of preventing by seasonal examples the recurrence of such evils in future, require that the persons, who have been chiefly instrumental in exciting the late disturbances, should be regularly brought to trial for that offence.”

It is evident that no government wants an entirely peaceful end to any peaceful protests, even if a negotiated settlement is possible – for the sole reason that it sets a bad precedent.

Getting a deep insight into the thinking of the governments through such letters, Dharampal proceeds to build a strong case for civil disobedience, even in free, and democratic, countries.

After freedom, many of the Congress leaders, began to voice the opinion that “general satyagraha against a democratic government cannot be justified”. Dharampal refutes this with characteristic logic and rigour.

Dharampal quotes JB Kripalani in support of civil disobedience:

“I repudiate the view developed by Congress bosses in the government that satyagraha can have no place in a democracy. Satyagraha as commended by Gandhiji was not merely a political weapon. It could be used in the economic and social fields and even against friends and family members. Gandhiji commended it as a principle of life. Therefore, it is absurd to say that it has no place in a democracy, specially of the kind that we now have, bureaucratic centralised.

All questions cannot await the next elections nor can a government be over-thrown on the basis of local grievances, which for sections of the people may be questions of life and death. The denial of the right of satyagraha would mean unresisting submission to tyranny for long stretches of time.”

Dharampal ends his strong case, with these words:

“Non-cooperation and civil disobedience are integral to the healthy functioning and even to the security of a free and democratic society. In a way, they are even more crucial than stratified courts of law; the present forms of periodic local, state- level or national elections, or the rather stilted and constrained debates and considerations within such elected bodies. Those who resort to non-cooperation and civil disobedience against callousness, authoritarianism and injustice are the protectors of their state and societies. Without them, a society will end up at best in some mechanical ritual; or, more often likely, in tyranny, provoking complete anarchy and armed insurrection.”

In his foreword to this book, the most prominent dissenter in free India, Jayaprakash Narayan, has words of appreciation for this part of the book:

“No less interesting and valuable is Shri Dharampal’s discussion of the place of satyagraha in post-independence and democratic India. An oft-repeated criticism of government in free India—and one which has not lost its significance by repetition— is that it adopted without change the bureaucratic machine that had originally been designed by the colonial power for purposes of economic exploitation and suppression of dissent. One of the more malignant features of that machine is its continued adherence to the British imperialist theory that it is the duty of the people to obey first and then to protest. In fact, that view has been further strengthened by the convenient plea that the bureaucracy is no longer an instrument of an alien government but that of a democratically established national government. As a result, whenever there is a fast, a stoppage of work, a withdrawal of cooperation, the official reaction is neither talk, nor settlement until the popular action is withdrawn or put down. The consequence is that more often than not, the people concerned are driven to violent action, after which the government usually surrenders or makes a compromise.”


Dharampal was probably far less judgemental than what I have ended up portraying in this essay. He diligently assembled the various writings from the archives without any bias or agenda, and his inferences were strictly within the boundaries of his source material. But, put together, they magically construct a history: a history that sounds more credible and relevant than what many professional historians manage to tell.

The greatest gap in Dharampal’s writings seems to be the lack of corroboration of the British accounts with contemporary Indian accounts, which may be hidden in the literary works in the Indian languages. He rarely draws reference from other contemporary or the 20th century works of other Indian or non-British authors, if there are any.

For instance, Dharampal talks about 30% of villages (1800 villages in the year 1805) in Thanjavur which were known as samudayam, and were organised as communities. In these villages, the land they cultivated (for those who held manyams, if not everyone) was changed from time to time, based on the assumption fertility varies from land to land and time to time. It is an intriguing observation that Dharampal had drawn from the government archives at Madras, which naturally leads to the questions: Is there any mention of samudayam in Tamil literature? If so, how did these communities really work on ground? Were there any practical difficulties? We do not see these questions raised, nor the answers for them sought in Dharampal’s writings.

When Dharampal presents his stellar findings on astronomy, or medicine, too, we hear only the views of the British. Even if we grant that there are no extant alternative accounts of the eighteen century practices, we could still benefit from material from earlier, or later, works. Apart from the references that the British writers themselves had made in their notes to the works of Aryabhata or Baskara, we rarely see any corroboration from Dharampal in his introductory passages. We only get a glimpse of Susruta, on plastic surgery: ‘As we now well know such an operation is described in detail in Susruta.’ We hardly hear if there is any theoretical basis for small pox inoculation in Ayurveda or Siddha. We do not see any mention of Arab and Persian mathematicians, who drew from Indian astronomy and maths, many centuries ago.

To draw a contrast, Amartya Sen, in his book, The Argumentative Indian, quotes frequently from Alberuni, an Iranian mathematician, who wrote a book on India, Tar’rikh al-hind, in the eleventh century, and discusses the works of Aryabatta, Bramhagupta and others in it. Amartya Sen presents the views of Alberuni as a counter to what the influential British historian, James Mill, and later Macaulay, wrote dismissively about the authenticity and antiquity of ancient Indian science. But, while reading Dharampal, we have to be contented with other British voices to counter the narratives of Mill and Macaulay.

In a body of work that, so powerfully, builds a history, which is at complete variance with the official history, written by the British, and retained by free India, it is quite ironical that the sources are almost entirely British too.

Perhaps, it is too much to expect from a man who has accomplished so much, single-handedly, with hardly any support from any organisation, or the government.


Dharampal was not merely an academic historian, or an archive-bound chronicler of the nineteenth century India. He had a truly deep understanding of India, especially the Indian village, through direct experience of working in the villages, continuously interacting with the common man, and extensively researching on the panchayat systems. His work on Chengalpattu records gave him a thorough understanding of the workings of the village in the past and the present.

He considered inscriptions like those in Uttaramerur to be more critical than Mahabharatha or Arthasastra for understanding the ground reality in detail. He believed that ‘the concept of the community based on extended kinship and/or on shared locality, region, etc., is of very early origin in India and it will be correct to say that elements of this concept continue to be very powerful even in the India of today.’

Dharampal is stung by the words of the tallest icons of free India – Nehru and Ambedkar – on the Indian villages. He talks about the loss of self-image and identity, quoting Nehru’s letter to Gandhi:

“I do not understand why a village should necessarily embody truth and non-violence. A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment. Narrow-minded people are much more likely to be untruthful and violent.”

He also quotes these controversial remarks of Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly, at a couple of places in his works:

‘The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic,’
“That they have survived through all vicissitudes may be a fact. But mere survival has no value. The question is on what plane they have survived. Surely on a low, on a selfish level. I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India… What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.”

Dharampal compiled all the relevant portions of the Constituent Assembly debates about the village and panchayat raj. Dharampal saw the Indian Constitution as a let-down in according the village its due status. Many members of the Constituent Assembly had held that view and their comments have been produced in this book. A comment made by Dr.Raghu Vira is profound:

“If Sir B.N. Rau our constitutional adviser could go to Ireland, Switzerland or America to find out how the people of those countries are running their governmental system, could you not find a single person in this who was well read in the political lore of this country who could have told you that this country has also something to contribute, that there was a political philosophy in this country which had permeated the entire being of the people of this country and which could be used beneficially in preparing a Constitution for India. It is a matter of deep regret to me that this aspect of thought was not considered at all by us.”

However, as Jayaprakash Narayan put it in his foreword, “the intention of Shri Dharampal in bringing to light the buried bones of past discussions is not to indulge in sterile historical research,” but, “It is to help in this process of re-thinking that this material is being published. It should be found refreshing to be reminded of sentiments and ideals expressed when the glow of a unique revolution still lighted the minds of the people and their leaders.”

Straddling across the history and the present, he goes on to establish the significance of the village in the Indian context. Like Gandhi and JP, he saw the community, and not the individual, as the unit upon which the polity has to rest; and that rights have to flow from responsibilities.

In a significant observation about the criticism on the presence of distinct caste groups, and the dominance of some, in any Indian village community, Dharampal writes:

“The people and localities of 1770 Chengalpattu, however, seem to have concerned themselves with many more things than the distinctiveness of groups, their living spaces, shrines, water sources, etc. While at one level, separate requirements were attended to, at another level the groups seem to have got together to operate in the public domain of a locality or group of localities. The detailed budgetary allocations made for numerous functions, including irrigation, administration, learning and scholarship, police and militia are illustrative of this joint concern. These functions and institutions, however, were often looked after by specific and exclusive groups. The data mention almost a hundred groups, functionaries, and institutions that had a share in the budgetary allocations of one locality or the other. And most localities made such allocations for scores of functionaries and institutions. The arrangements described above, the separateness of groups and communities and their interlinking as well as the interlinking of localities were not unique to Chengalpattu, and seem to have obtained in most other regions and localities of India till around A.D. 1800.

One infers from such data that India’s polity was constituted in a manner peculiar to India or to areas around it. The building blocks of this polity evidently are not individuals but distinct and exclusive groups, who at one point emphasise their separateness almost to the point of sovereignty. Having established their separateness, such groups within every locality come together to form the local polity. The polity then functions through elaborate systems of sharing of resources and responsibilities. It may be mentioned that, in spite of the attitudes of sovereign exclusiveness which these groups seem to exhibit, the nature of the groupings and the occupational specialisation ensured that none of them could have made the polity or the economy functional standing alone. Functioning in any locality or larger region required the coming together of several such groups—at least, seven or eight of them. Working out the arrangements of interaction between such exclusive sovereign groups and between locality and adjoining localities then becomes the major aspect of political functioning.”

Dharampal saw the village as a community that had grown organically, and which existed through a naturally evolved mutual dependence. He grew disillusioned with his own attempts at creating a community village near Rishikesh, since, as Gita Dharampal points out in her introduction, the artificially created community lacked the creative dynamism of an organic structure. It is for the same reason, that the highly regulated communitarian life-style of the Israeli kibbutz too seemed not to have appealed to him as a viable model in Indian conditions, where an organic divergence and convergence coexisted.

Dharampal makes a strong case for truly functional self-government in villages, in the manner of the pre-British era. The British structure was built with the purpose ‘to enable an alien nation to rule over this country in relative peace and quiet and also to present a facade of fairplay and justice between man and man to the ruled.’ The Indian system cannot merely inherit or ape ‘this badly mauled and disrupted society that they (the British) tried to preserve as some exotic being with their law and administration for over a hundred years.’ If the statutory local bodies are to exist, ‘they have to function as such. They will do all that they choose and which is not specifically prohibited by the basic laws.’ He could not accept the structure where the local bodies were merely an extension of the state or central governments, executing the orders and functioning as an administrative arm for them. He felt that the two roles – that of the Centre and the Panchayats – and the corresponding structures have to be clearly demarcated.


Did Dharampal romanticise the past? Did he present an unrealistic idealistic version of the Indian village, glossing over its inherent flaws? It is true that, unlike Gandhi, Dharampal seems not to have come down hard on caste oppression or untouchability, but he, instead, saw that the cohesion of various communities, despite their individual segregation, drove the self-governance of villages in the pre-British era. He, further, attributes a large share of responsibility for the decadence in the 20th Century villages to the self-serving rule of the British from the eighteenth century, who made no effort to understand the structure of the Indian society; and, also to the continuance of the British methods in free, democratic India. He was convinced by the data and the accounts in the archives that some of the popular Western narratives on India, emanating from James Mill, were plainly wrong and prejudiced: from education of the lower castes to Sati, he held that the situation in the pre-British India wasn’t as bad as was portrayed; he also asserted that the European scholars, including Karl Marx, erred in assuming that the Indian society also went through the same phases of development as Europe, and was at that time, a feudal society in the mould of pre-industrialised Europe.

Given his intensive focus on the richness of the Indian tradition, and his attempt to present an alternative history, could Dharampal be branded as a partisan nationalist? One must say he was a nationalist. But his nationalism was different from the Hindutva brand of nationalism that we witness today. We must notice that he has not yet been appropriated and projected as a major icon of Hindutva. I presume that it is so because of some glaring, inconvenient, fundamental differences, and I think it is important to underscore those differences to be able to place the intent behind the works of Dharampal (or for that matter, Gandhi) in the right light.

Firstly, Dharampal, like Gandhi, was a strong advocate of a decentralised, village-based polity and economy. The idea is stringently put in the words of JP, again, in his foreword for Panchayatraj as the Basis for Indian Polity:

“It is time the protagonists of panchayat raj looked beyond the hackneyed phrases of political and economic decentralisation, fondly hoping that parliamentary democracy plus a large measure of local self-government would perform the trick and usher in people’s democracy of their dreams.”

Dharampal, echoing him, insisted that the responsibility of the panchayats or the local bodies,

“is to the people in their area to whom only they are accountable for everything they do within their unprohibited domain. If they encroach beyond them only, the central authority has a right to intervene.”

Strong local communities with self-rule do not gel well with the idea of a strong centre, which has the power to undermine every aspect of governance – from opening a coal mine or building a nuclear plant or a dam against the wishes of the local community to imposing a language or uniform system of education.

Secondly, Dharampal continued to believe that a revival of local industry, with minor modifications necessitated by time, was a must. His idea of Swaraj and Swadeshi, again mirroring Gandhi, was not to merely transplant Western methods in India. He wanted everything, from education, industry and political system, to be aligned to the ethos of the land and its culture. Making it the Indian way, or more pertinently the local way, is more important to him than making in India. This passage from Dharampal, illustrates his nuanced perspective on these ideas of swaraj, swadeshi and ahimsa:

“Consider the example of Sri Purushottam Das Tandon taking to the habit of wearing rubber chappals because he wanted to avoid the violence involved in leather-working. Sri Tandon was one of the most erudite leaders of India. His contribution to the struggle for swaraj was great. He had deep faith in the concept of ahimsa. And, in pursuance of the practice of ahimsa, he took to wearing rubber chappals bought from Bata, the multinational footwear chain, giving up the ordinary leather chappals made by the local shoemaker. There must have been many others who, like Sri Tandon, chose Bata chappals over the locally made leather footwear in their urge to practise the principle of ahimsa.

It is of course creditable that important leaders of India had become so careful about their personal conduct and apparel, and took such pains to ensure that they did not participate in the killing of animals even indirectly. But ahimsa does not merely imply non-killing. Ahimsa as understood in the Indian tradition and as elaborated by Mahatma Gandhi is a complete way of life.

A major aspect of the ahimsak way of life is to minimise one’s needs and to fulfill these, as far as possible, from within one’s immediate neighbourhood. This practice of relying preferentially on what is available in the immediate neighbourhood and locality is as important a part of the principle of ahimsa as the doctrine of non-killing. That is why for Mahatma Gandhi ahimsa and swadesi were not two different principles. Looked at in this perspective, Sri Tandon’s practice of ignoring the local cobbler and taking to the rubber footwear from Bata would have violated the aesthetic as well as the ethical sensibilities of the ahimsak way of life.”

Thirdly, Dharampal’s views on the universal learning of Sanskrit, in the current context, will be incompatible with the conservative Hindutva view.

“Whenever I speak of the need to arrive at some such rough and ready outline of the Indian view of the world through a study of the ancient Indian literature, my friends advise me to keep out of this business. I am told that ordinary mortals like us can hardly understand this literature. As most of these texts are in Sanskrit, they insist that one must be a serious scholar of Sanskrit in order to have any comprehension of these texts of India. Approaching these texts through Hindi or English, it is said, can only lead to error and confusion. Therefore, if one were bent upon reading this literature, then one must first immerse oneself in a study of the Sanskrit language. […]

If this is the state of Sanskrit learning in the country, if there are hardly any people left who can read, write and speak Sanskrit fluently, then there is no point in insisting that all Indian literature must be approached through Sanskrit. We have to accept the condition to which we have been reduced, and we must start building up from there. If for the time being, Sanskrit has become inaccessible to us, then we must do without Sanskrit, and work with the languages that we are familiar with.
It is of course true that no high scholarly work on Indian literature can be done without knowing the language of that literature. But what is urgently needed is not high scholarship, but a rough and ready comprehension of ourselves and the world. We need a direction, a vision, a conceptual basis, that is in consonance with the Indian chitta and kala, and through which we can proceed to understand the modern world and the modern times. Once such a way is found, there will be time enough to learn Sanskrit, or any other language that we may need, and to undertake detailed high scholarship in our own way, on not only the Indian literature but also perhaps on the literature of other civilisations of the world.”

Fourthly, as we saw earlier, Dharampal emphatically argues for the right of the civil society to engage in non-violent civil disobedience, even in a democratic country. When a strong social consensus is being manufactured today that any form of protest is an anti-national activity, and all protestors are being painted as Maoists or jihadists or foreign funded agencies, the arguments of Dharampal, and the powerful words of Kripalani and Jayaprakash Narayan, whom he cites, gain great significance.

Fifthly, while Dharampal doesn’t write very kindly of Muslim invasion, he is very clear that it was the British rule, and the Westernisation of the Indian mind, that completely destroyed the social and cultural fabric of the land, while the Muslim invaders, despite all the damages that they did, did not disturb the self-governing community-based polity in India. In fact, he even alludes to a stalemate setting in before the advent of Muslims:

“Notwithstanding her social and cultural continuities, India and its people and its polity are in a state of stalemate today. The seeds of such a stalemate may possibly have been sown much before the intrusion of Islam in Sindh in the seventh century A.D. But the extension and deepening of this state of affairs is of fairly recent origin, no older than 100–150 years. The major cause seems to be the mental confusion that has taken over Indian minds, leading to a loss of self-image, and loss of identity with the larger yet still highly diverse Indian society.”

In general, one never sees Dharampal talking the language of hate. He doesn’t indulge in any hyperbole. He, merely, states facts, never in a flowery language, and only claims those heights which are actually ours but has been denied to us by popular history. He does not use history as a tool to arouse fervent nationalism but solely to set in motion, a process to fashion a future that is aligned with the cultural ethos of the nation.


Any review of Dharampal’s writings will be incomplete without properly invoking the name of Gandhi and Hind Swaraj. Hind Swaraj had been the abiding inspiration for Dharampal. The seeds for many of his researches were sowed in the works of Gandhi, especially Hind Swaraj. When Gandhi spoke about the Indian civilisation, for many, including Jayaprakash Narayan, some of “Gandhiji’s sweeping remarks were taken as examples of his ‘usual’ idealisation of the past.” But Dharampal’s research established that “Gandhiji, though not a student of history, had a much deeper insight into it than most historians. Undoubtedly it was this intuitive quality that was one of the secrets of his extraordinary success as a leader of the people.”

Gandhi’s simple statement in the Hind Swaraj that “In India the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to cooperate with our rulers when they displease us,” sparked off Dharampal’s research on Civil Disobedience movements in the early British period.

Gandhi’s unfinished arguments with Sir Philip Hartog, about India being ‘more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out,’ spurred Dharampal to search for and provide conclusive answers in The Beautiful Tree.

Gandhi’s ideas on gram swaraj became the bedrock of Dharampal’s own ideas on the Indian village and the panchayat raj.

If Gandhi was an ‘incomparable general’ without arms, Dharampal remained a steadfast soldier with a pen, following his footsteps, and furthering many of his unfinished business. He concludes:

“To comprehend someone like Mahatma Gandhi, one perhaps needs to structure a theory of man and society constructed on the basis of the data relating to Gandhiji and his time.”

Dharampal ended up structuring not only a theory to comprehend Gandhi, but all of India. Perhaps, they imply the same.



Interesting Links


  1. For Dharampal’s books online: http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/
  2. Joseph Constantine Carpue and the Revival of Rhinoplasty
  3. The origins of inoculation
  4. Open Letters to Lord Curzon on Famines and land assessments in India: R C Dutt



One Response to Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

  1. halley says:

    This is the most comprehensive review of dharampal’s work I have read in a long long time. Thanks!

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