The One Thing Needful
(April 25, 1908, On Nationalism, pp.317-320)

A SORT of atavism is at work in the Indian consciousness at the present moment which is drawing it back into the spirit of the fathers of the race who laid the foundations of our being thousands of years ago. Perhaps as a reaction from the excessively outward direction which our life had taken since the European invasion, the spirit of the race has taken refuge in the sources of its past and begun to bathe in the fountains of its being. A reversion such as this is the sole cure for national decay. Every nation has certain sources of vitality which have made it what it is and can always, if drawn upon in time, protect it from disintegration. The secret of its life is to be found in the recesses of its own being.

The root of the past is the source from which the future draws its sap and if the tree is to be saved it must constantly draw from that source for sustenance. The root may be fed from outside, but that food will have to be assimilated and turned to sap in the root before it can nourish the trunk. All nations therefore when they receive anything from outside steep it first in their own individuality before it can form part of their culture and national life. India has always done this with all outside forces which sought to find entry into her silent and meditative being. She has suffused them with her peculiar individuality so completely that their foreign origin is no longer recognisable. If she had done the same with European civilisation, she would have been the first Asiatic nation to rise and show the way to her congeners. But at the time when Europe forced itself upon her, her political life was at its nadir. Exhausted by the long struggle to substitute a new centre of national life for the effete Mogul, she was too weak and void of energy to bring her once robust individuality to bear upon the alien thought of the West. She allowed it to enter her being whole and undigested. The result was a rapid disintegration of her own individuality and a hastening of the process of decay which had set in as a result of the prolonged anarchy of the post-Mogul period. If there had been no reaction, the process would have been soon over and, whatever race finally occupied India, it would not have been the Indian race. For that race would have slowly perished as the Greek, when he parted with the springs of his life, perished and gave way to the Slav, or as the Egyptian perished and gave way to the Berber. This fate has been averted because a great wave of reaction passed over the country and sent a stream of the old life and thought of India beating into the veins of the country and brought it to bear on the foreign matter which was eating up the body of the nation. That process of assimilation has just begun and its effects will not be palpable for many years to come. It will first effect its purpose on the political life of the people then on its society, last on its literature, thought and speech. The effect on the political life is already visible, but it cannot fulfil itself until the political power is in the hands of the people. No political change can work itself out until the forces of change have taken possession of the government, because it is through the government that the functions of political life work. This is their organ and there can be no other. The possession of the government by the people is therefore the first condition of Indian regeneration. Until this is attained, nothing else can be attained. The new forces will no doubt work quietly on society and on literature, but in an imperfect fashion from which no great results can be anticipated.

Society lives by the proper harmony of its parts and bases that harmony on the centre of power in which the whole community is summed up, the State. If the State is diseased, the community cannot be healthy. If the State is foreign and inorganic, the community cannot live an organic life. If the State be hostile, the community is doomed. The first want of a subject people is the possession of the State, without which it can neither be socially sound nor intellectually great. It was for this reason that Mazzini whose natural tendencies were literary and poetic, turned away from literature and denied his abilities their natural expression with the memorable words, "The art of Italy will flourish on our graves." No great work can be done by a community which is diseased at the centre or deprived of a centre. The hope of social reform divorced from political freedom, unless by social ideas, is an illogical hope which ignores the nature of social life and the conditions of its well-being. All expectation of moral regeneration which leaves freedom out of the count is a dream. First freedom, then regeneration. This is a truism which we have been obliged to dwell on because there are still remnants of the first delusive teachings which have done so much harm to India by trying to realise social reform without providing the element in which alone any reform is possible.

To recover possession of the State is therefore the first business of the awakened Indian consciousness. If this is so, then it is obvious that the political liberation of India cannot be put off to a distant date as a thing which can be worked out at leisure, with the slow pace of the snail, by creeping degrees of senile caution. It must be done now. It is the first condition of life which must be satisfied if the nation is to survive. On this the whole energies of the people must be concentrated and no other will-o'-the-wisp of social reform, moral regeneration, educational improvement ought to be allowed to interfere with the stupendous, single souled effort which can alone effect the political salvation of the country. No reasonable reformer ought to be put out by the demand for the precedence being given to political salvation, because it is obvious that the political resurgence of the nation involves and necessitates a regeneration of the society by the great change of spirit and environment which it will bring about. When the whole life of the nation is full of the spirit of freedom and it lives in the great life of the world, then only can the work of the reformer be successful. The preoccupation with politics which seized Bengal after the Partition was a healthy symptom. Recently there has been a tendency in some quarters to revive the old dissipation of energies, to put social reform first, education first or moral regeneration first, and leave freedom to result from these. The mistake should be checked before it gains ground. Whatever reform, social, moral or educational, is necessary to bring about freedom, the effort of the whole people to bring about freedom will automatically effect. More is impossible until freedom itself is attained. No attempt to effect social reform for its own sake has any chance of success, because it will at once reawaken the old bitter struggle between the past and the present which baffled the efforts of the reformers. What the nation needs, it will carry out by the force of its necessity; but it is vain to expect it to dissipate its energies on what is for the moment superfluous. First we must live, afterwards we can learn to live well. The effort to survive must for some years command all our energies and absorb all our time.