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Liberty in the sense of spiritual liberation from the cycle of birth and death was a key idea in Indian thought. The liberty of the individual in civil or political society was foreign to classical Indian political thought. The equivalent to the idea of civil rights can be found in the ancient literature of Smritis, but it differed significantly from the Western idea in that the former was considered to belong exclusively to the upper classes (especially the order of the Brahmanas).

The idea of liberty came to the fore of Indian political thinking with the encounter with the modern West, epitomized by the intellectual contributions of Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) and Manabandra Nath Roy (1887–1954). Gandhi's idea of liberty was framed in the idea of swaraj, a multifaced concept of the utmost importance in his thought. Swaraj, literally meaning "self-rule," was also used by Gandhi to signify national independence and the political, economic and spiritual freedom of the individual. As was the case with the "modern" Islam, national independence was closely related to the idea of liberty, meaning collective freedom from alien rule. Gandhi, however, did not conceptualize it negatively. National independence, framed in the idea of swaraj, was not merely freedom from foreign rule but also self-government. Gandhi's commitment to political freedom turned him into a defender of rights, and yet he refused to base the peace and security of collective life on rights. He always placed individual duty (dharma) and social and moral interdependence above rights because, for him, rights were the consequence of the fulfillment of duties. Gandhi considered his celebrated satyagraha (passive resistance) as the performance of his duties and hence also as a method of securing rights by personal suffering. Gandhi's conception of liberty also entailed an economic dimension: it denoted freedom from poverty. He attacked the contemporary reality of poverty by practicing voluntary poverty in order to demonstrate solidarity with the poor, while he criticized technology-oriented industrialization for its imperialistic exploitation of the masses. Although Gandhi located liberty in a political and economic context, his notion of liberty was also spiritual: self-rule through the practice of virtues toward self-realization. Gandhi's novelty lies in the fact that to the notion of spiritual freedom, which was derived from the classical Indian tradition, he added political, economic, and social dimensions. This perspective derived from Gandhi's internal dialogue between the Western Utopian thought represented by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), John Ruskin (1819–1920), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and the classical Indian thought manifested in the Hindu devotional work the Bhagavad Gita.

Whereas Gandhi's leadership of the Hindu masses was enormously influential and successful, Manabendra Nath Roy's gained no popular appeal. Roy's political position changed over time from nationalism, then to communism, and finally to radical humanism. His colorful but unsuccessful commitment to the Indian freedom movement, however, was guided consistently by an ardent desire for individual freedom. The intellectual context of Roy's political and literary activity was, unlike that of Gandhi, distinctively Westernized, markedly severed from the Indian traditions. Roy defined freedom as the "progressive disappearance of all restrictions on the unfolding of the potentialities of individuals," and anchored the desire for freedom in biological nature. His conception of liberty was radically negative to the extent that individual freedom and social responsibility were mutually exclusive. Roy considered liberty to be dependent upon the mind of the individual rather than external conditions, and yet his belief in popular sovereignty as an inalienable right determined his preference for people's direct political participation in parliamentary democracy.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Laser - Background And History to Linear equationLiberty - Ancient Conceptions, Medieval Conceptions, Modern Conceptions, Contemporary Conceptions, Islamic World, India, China