|The Axis of Neocolonialism|
|Sunday, 12 February 2006 15:00|
This essay argues that intellectual svaraj (self-rule) is as fundamental to the long term success of a civilization as is svaraj in the political and financial areas. Therefore, it is important to ask: whose way of representing knowledge will be in control? It is the representation system that defines the metaphors and terminology, interprets what they mean in various situations, influences what issues are selected to focus on, and, most importantly, grants privileges by determining who is to control this marketplace of ideas.
The Axis of Neocolonialism
"In the modern planetary situation, Eastern and Western 'cultures' can no longer meet one another as equal partners. They meet in a westernized world, under conditions shaped by western ways of thinking." --- W. Halbfass
As an implicit body of standards, a representation system disguises a meta-ideology – the substratum of contexts on which specific ideologies emerge and interact. It includes the language used and the unstated frames of reference, and acts as the subliminal filter through which positions are constructed and their fate negotiated.
A people without their own representation system, in a worst case scenario, get reduced to being intellectual consumers looking up to the dominant culture. In the best case scenario, they could become intellectual producers, but only within the representation system as defined and controlled by the dominant culture, such as has happened recently with many Indian writers in English.
Ashis Nandy summarizes how this mental colonialism was brought about:
The structure of the essay is as follows: (1) Explaining the origins of neocolonialism. (2) Showing that many Indians are themselves perpetuating neocolonialism today. (3) Linking this with Western control from above the glass ceiling.
The hallmark of a good education in an American liberal arts college is based on what is called the “Western Classics.” A study of Western Civilization starts with the study of ancient Greek and Semitic thought, before moving on to Classical Roman, modern European, and finally, American thought. Such an intellectual foundation is deemed important for one to be considered a well educated person in the humanities, regardless of one's religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and regardless of one's specific academic major. By way of illustration only, the following is what one liberal arts college advertises very proudly about its Classics program.
Classics and Classical Civilization at a Typical American Liberal Arts College:
Marginalization of Indian Classics in India's Higher Education:
It is important to carefully read the above rationale for the Western Classics program, so as to appreciate why this is deemed so relevant today in Western technologically advanced secular democracies, such as the United States.
Compare this to the tragic state of Indian Classics in India's own higher education. The equivalent to the Greek Classics would be India's Vedas, Puranas and other Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil texts. In a comparable education system, students would learn about Pannini, Patanjali, Buddha, Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti, Bharthrhari, Shankara, Abhinavgupta, Bharata Muni, Gangesh, Kalidasa, Aryabhata and dozens of other great classical thinkers produced by India.
Unfortunately, in the name of progress, modernity, and political correctness, Indian Classics have been virtually banished from India's higher education – a continuation of the policy on Indian education started by the famous Lord Macaulay over 150 years ago.. While India supplies information technology, biotechnology, corporate management, medical and other professionals to the most prestigious organizations of the world, it is unable to supply world-class scholars in the disciplines of its own traditions.
The reason is that the nexus of Indology studies remains in Western universities, almost as though decolonization had never happened. The top rated academic journals and conferences on Indology and India related fields are in the West, run largely by Western scholars, and funded by Western private, church and governmental interests. The best research libraries in the Indian Classics are in the West. Religious Studies is the hottest academic field in the humanities in the US, and is growing at a very fast rate, but is non-existent as a discipline in Indian universities.
Therefore, to get an internationally competitive PhD in Sanskrit, Indian Classics, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism Studies, with the highest rigor in methods and theory, such that one may get an academic job in this specialty in a leading international university, a student is forced to go to a US, UK or German university.
Hence, one cannot find qualified experts of Indian religions in India, in order to debate Western scholars. The few Indian scholars within the Western academy who are educated in the Indian Classics, are either below the glass ceiling, or else are politically cautious given the risks to their career ambitions.
Furthermore, the marginalization of India's heritage in its education system, particularly in the English medium system that produces most of the leaders of modern Indian society, has resulted in the leaders of industry, civil service, media and education becoming a culturally lost generation. The result is today's self-alienated, cynical youth prevalent in many places, especially in elite positions.
The justification given for the study of Greek Classics in the West is not that they are considered 100% “true” today (whatever that might mean), or that better thought has not superceded them. Rather, the purpose is to understand the history of the Western mind, so that students may lay a sound and strong foundation for their thinking in order to move this civilization further into the future. The Western Classics provide the Western intellectual with the resources to be a serious thinker for today.
It is also about the identity of Westerners and their culture. Great emphasis is placed on the integrity of an old “Western Civilization” traced back to Greece (although the massive inputs received from non-Western sources are carefully suppressed – see Part 3). This (re)construction of Western Civilization is an ongoing project, and is considered very critical for the survival and prosperity of what is known as the “West”.
One should apply this logic to Classical Indian thought and see parallel benefits for India's renaissance. Unfortunately, a great disservice has been done to Indian Classics by equating them with religion. Arguably, the most comprehensive and challenging knowledge representation systems available outside the West are contained in the Indian Classics. The sheer magnitude of India's Classics is over one hundred times as large as that of the Greek Classics. For a brief glimpse into some of the potentials based on the recovery of Indian Classics, see the web site for an academic Colloquium on this very subject. Yet, whatever little is taught about Indian Classics tends to suffer from its ghetto like positioning as “South Asian,” whereas Greek thought is positioned as being “universal.” The dominant (European) culture, into which Greek thought became assimilated, claims to own the logos (the rational principle that governs and develops the universe), while non-Western peoples' indigenous ideas are mythos and exotica. Greek Classics are taught in mainstream academia and are not relegated to a particular ethnicity or “area” of the world. Indian Classics, on the other hand, are considered relevant mainly as a way to understand what is unique (i.e. peculiar) about Indian ethnicity.
Furthermore, Greek thought is referenced as being of Greek origin, whereas, when Indian ideas are appropriated, their Indian origin is erased over time: real knowledge is implied to come only from Western sources; all others must wait till they get legitimized by being claimed as Western. This is because the knowledge representation system is under Western control, and hence they are the final arbiters of “what” belongs “where.” Only when something falls under Western control does it become legitimate.
Indic Traditions in the Western Academia:
Interestingly, Western academia hires many Indian scholars in the departments of English Literature, History, Philosophy, Sociology, and Political Science, amongst other humanities. However, while the Western audiences think of them as spokespersons for Indic Traditions, the vast majority of them are unwilling and unqualified to explain Indian Classics seriously. But their Western hosts and colleagues are usually unaware of this shortcoming in most Indian scholars. For this deficiency to become public about an Indian scholar is tantamount to a minor scandal, because they derive much of their clout based on the false perception that they are representatives of Indic thought.
To cover up their ignorance, many elitist Indians resort to a combination of Eurocentric and Marxist rhetoric about Indian civilization – the caste, cows and curry theory of India. They quote Orientalist accounts of India and even base their own scholarship as extensions and derivatives of colonial writings superimposed with Marxism. On the one hand, postcolonial studies are at the very heart of their specialization and career paths. But on the other hand, they are only trained in using Eurocentric hermeneutics and methods. Hence, they can deconstruct Eurocentrism with Western methods, but are completely inept at applying Indic categories and perspectives. They cannot replace the Eurocentric representation model with anything indigenous from India. Postcolonial studies often end up as Orientalism by the neocolonized.
Contrast this with Arab scholars, such as Edward Said and Abu-Lughod, who have led the deconstruction of Eurocentrism, not only generically but also specifically on behalf of Islamic and Arab civilizations. Consequently, it is now becoming fashionable to replace Eurocentric history textbooks with accounts centered around the Middle East, going back to the Middle Ages. Likewise, Nell Painter is amongst the leading critics of Eurocentrism on behalf of Africans. Enrique Dussel is amongst many prominent Latin Americans attacking Eurocentric models.
However, in the case of a specifically Indic deconstruction of Eurocentrism, some of the finest academic challenge is often being delivered by Westerners, such has Ronald Inden and Nicholas Dirks. Many Indian scholars who are entrenched in the Western academe of humanities seem reluctant to risk their loyalty ratings, and in many cases, are simply too ignorant of their own heritage and invested in attacking this heritage.
While pockets of such Indic challenges to Eurocentrism do exist, they are not empowered to revolutionize the fields of religion, history, sociology, anthropology, women's studies, Asian Studies, literature and art. They occasionally get their symbolic 'day in court,' but it is usually not the center court, where it really matters.
Indian Secularism ¹ American Secularism:
One serious misunderstanding amongst this milieu of elitist Indians has been their confused interpretation of secularism. The USA is a good nation with which to compare India in matters of secularism. It does not define secularism as alienation from its traditions. Even though tracing back American civilization to the Greeks is a big stretch, this link and continuity is emphasized. Certainly, the Judeo-Christian foundation of Americanism is made loud and clear. Recently, there is a new movement to rediscover the Native American heritage as being part of the New Americanism. On the other hand, secularism in India has come to mean anti Indic Traditions, especially anti-Hinduism.
To get certified that they are secular, many Indians line up to prove how they hate Hinduism, or at least how distant they are from what they perceive as a denigrated identity. The historian, Ronald Inden explains the root cause of this dis-ease:
This is the result of sheer ignorance about the scope and value of Sanskrit literature. Indologists believe that there are over 30 million distinct manuscripts in Sanskrit, mostly not cataloged, with less than one percent ever translated into a non Indian language. The vast majority of Sanskrit texts is not about “religion,” and covers a diverse territory of subjects – medicine, botany, aesthetics, fiction, jokes, sex, political thought, logic, mathematics, and so forth.
Sanskrit was the language of scholarship for a period of several millennia, in the same manner as English has become over the past century. To demonize and suppress this language and its vast literature, in the name of political correctness, is a tragedy against all humanity. Yet this is precisely what has been done for 50 years after India's independence.
The Hegemony of Language:
One result of all this has been that the colonial mistranslations of Sanskrit words have now become accepted by the majority of Indians educated in the English language, not only the scholars but also the leaders of India's media, higher education, industry and administrative services.
Indic Traditions now have the added burden to legitimize themselves in terms defined by its former colonizers' culture, i.e., using a Eurocentric frame of reference. Nietzsche's prophecy quoted in the opening section of this essay has come true. By controlling their language, one can subjugate a people.
The richness of the meaning of a word is often very deeply embedded in the cultural context, in the history of how that word evolved over time, and in the wide contextual bandwidth of nuances and implied meanings that accompany its usage. To understand all the nuances of a word, then, is to understand the host culture. And to understand a complex culture is to live it and be it. This is why great harm is done when a foreign culture, especially a colonial one, imposes its own simplistic translations of Sanskrit.
Even greater is the harm when the natives of a colonized culture adopt these foreign translations – a process that is often gradual and subtle, and achieved with rewards of upward mobility offered by the dominant culture.
When a word with contextually determined meanings is reduced to merely one of its many meanings, it is like assigning a specific constant value to an algebraic variable, and thereby eliminating its usefulness as a variable. If someone translates “cuisine = McDonalds,” or “x = 5” when x is defined to be any real number between 0 and 10, then the reduction is a violence to the thing being represented.
Following are some examples of common reductions of Indic culture, where the contextual meaning is lost, and a simple and fixed meaning is imposed, so as to map it to the Eurocentric framework.
For openers, Ishwar is not God. Of course, both Hindus and Christians believe in one Supreme Reality, but the conception of each one is rather different. While Hindus celebrate the multiplicity of conceptions (as internal pluralism), the Abrahamic religions demand mono-conception (which they equate with monotheism). Ishvara has countless forms in which he is manifested inside the cosmos affording an individual access via his/her personal choice of form. But God is said to get very pissed off at “graven images” of Him, according to Abrahamic religions.
The Abrahamic Supreme Being is a male, angry and jealous God, with pathological notions such as Eternal Damnation that drive people into terrible obsessions in order to get “saved.” The Abrahamic God intervenes in history very rarely, and hence ends up privileging some tribe or community exclusively over all others.
If “Ishvara = God” were to be valid, then it would have to be an equality in both directions. Lets take the mapping “God à Ishvara.” This would mean that Jesus would be son of Ishvara. But Ishvara does not have such a son, and in order to preserve the integrity of the Indic narrative about Ishvara, we would have to say that Jesus is an Avatara of Ishvara. However, this is unacceptable to the Church, as it would mean the relativization of Jesus as one of many Avataras, and hence, would remove the need for a Hindu to convert to Christianity. Hindus would simply be able to say, “No, thank you. We already have Jesus as an Avatar in our current system.”
Furthermore, where would Mary, as Jesus' mother, and the Virgin Birth be accommodated in the Indic narratives about Ishvara? Also, God has an enemy (i.e. the Devil), requiring the mobilization of humanity against him. Where would God's “other” be accommodated in the Indic system? While God has an enemy on whom all evil gets blamed, Ishvara includes both good and evil internally, and hence, there is nobody external comparable to the Devil.
When Christians talk about these “equalities,” they assume that their Christian myth is sustained intact with the Indic narratives being distorted to fit into the Christian frame of reference. But this would do great violence to the worldview and integrity of Indic Traditions, reducing them to an Indianized Christianity.
My point is not that a merger of Hindu and Christian worldviews and myths is impossible. In fact, I find such possibilities very interesting and promising to pursue. However, I emphasize that this cannot be a simplistic equation in the name of political correctness, as is often the case. It has major ramifications to the relative positioning of the faiths involved. This would have to be a large project, with scholars from both sides working as peers - a friendly merger negotiation, and not a hostile takeover.
Similarly, devas are not gods, and devis are not goddesses. Also, Agni deva is not fire, but is symbolized by it. Murtis are not idols.
Shiva is not destroyer, but more like transformer, moving beings upwards in the evolution of consciousness. This is why Shiva is conceptualized as the lord of dance, yoga, enlightenment, and mysticism. This upward evolution entails “dissolution” of the falsely constructed mental frame of reference (maya), and this dissolution is quite different from everyday “destruction.” Shiva's transformation is a set of deconstruction processes similar to, but going further than, postmodern deconstructions.
Atman is not soul, because of reincarnation and because of atman's identity with Brahman (whereas soul does not reincarnate, and “soul = God” is blasphemy in most Abrahamic religions' interpretations). Moksha and nirvana are not Salvation, because the latter is an escape from Eternal Damnation into Heaven, concepts that are very Abrahamic.
Shakti is not energy, as energy is but one form of shakti. Akash is not the same as space or sky. Rasa is another term with no Western equivalent, and hence untranslatable except via a thick description.
Lingam is not the same as phallus, and has a complex spectrum of meanings. Tantra is not sex.
Prana is not breath. There are many levels of prana, including in the unmanifest levels. Physical breath is a correlate of prana, and hence a way to influence and regulate prana.
There is no Sanskrit word “Aryan” - a noun referring to a race or ethnicity. The Sanskrit word is “arya,” which is an adjective referring to a quality of nobility. What are popularly known as Buddhism's Four Noble Truths are, in the Sanskrit version, called the four arya truths. But this term does not refer to any race, as was misinterpreted by 19th century German Indologists in order to construct an ancient “Aryan” heritage for themselves. Surely there is no race called “tennis champion” or “good singer” - but if Wimbledon were to become controlled by an ethnic group (to stretch the imagination), then in the 30th century they might define themselves as the Tennischamps race.…you have a picture of what happened in 19th century German Indology.
Kshatriya and brahmin are job descriptions, representing duties that roughly correspond to leadership in matters of state and religion, respectively – and hence serve as a built-in balance between socio-political affairs and spiritual quest. The British mistranslations of Sanskrit texts over-emphasized the other worldly aspects, to glorify the world negation amongst the Hindus, and to make it easy for Hindus to accept British rule. Therefore, Orientalist constructions did not focus on the kshatriya dharma, as that is very world engaging and affirming. The British construction of “Brahminism” was to position themselves as masters in charge of India's progress.
“Brahminism” is a pejorative name for Hinduism, similar to using “Pope-ism” or “Bishopism” to refer to Christianity. It implies that Hinduism is simply a belief made up by brahmins, with no legitimacy of its own.
Brahman as the ultimate reality is often confused with a different but similarly sounding word, brahmin, which is a job description for a spiritual leader.
Varna is not caste, and in fact, the European term “caste” and its modern Indian manifestation are not the same as the varna system.
People fail to differentiate between srutis (which are eternal truths), and smritis (which are manmade constructions, such as the Manusmriti that is often used to prosecute Hinduism). Smritis are, therefore, entirely amendable. Srutis are not frozen canons either, as there is no unique or final revelation, in contrast with the Abrahamic revelations – Sri Aurobindo claimed to bring us new srutis in recent times, and so have many others. Therefore, neither category of Indic scripture is frozen, contrary to common misperception.
Karma is not fatalism. On the contrary, it is the only metaphysical system that gives an explanation of each individual's unique predicaments at birth based entirely on the individual's own free choices previously made. It extols free will and individual responsibility.
Hinduism is not Hindutva, because the latter is a modern political construction. Likewise, Indic Traditions are a superset of Hinduism.
Itihasa is neither history nor myth in the Western sense. As explained by Ranajit Guha, Puranetihasa is its own unique genre of text with no western equivalent.
This reduction of Indic concepts is consistent with Western tendencies to homogenize: Christianity asserts one path, one church, one book, and one conception of the divine. Marxism struggles to bring about a homogenous society as its Utopia. White Feminists impose their idea of womanhood upon all other women. Multinationals, in the long run, collapse commerce into fewer brands and choices. Indic culture, on the other hand, did not view life as a zero-sum game.
Besides individual words that are mistranslated, entire Eurocentric models of thinking are superimposed in the study of Indic culture, without critical inquiry as to whether they are applicable. For example:
Meanwhile, the Hindutva movement, while claiming to lead the revival of Hinduism, has been obsessed with the politics of building one particular temple, while abandoning all the intellectual temples to neocolonial forces. Its scholars tend to be mainly from the Hindu orthodox scholastic traditions, with little capability to engage this global age. Its few “modern” scholars have been too narrow, and interested mainly in refuting the “Aryan” theories. Consequently, the Hindutva's overall perspective is very limited and intellectually shallow. It misfired in its attempt to bring Indian Classics into higher education, because of its silly choice of astrology as door opener. Blaming Muslims and Christians for all sorts of problems has often diverted from pressing internal issues facing Hinduism. A complete deconstruction of the ineptness of the “Hindu response” is going to be the subject of a separate essay.
Eurocentrism and Indian History:
My first category of neocolonial brown (mem)sahibs is Romila Thapar and her dozens of former history students, who often guard the India and/or Hindu bashing fortresses at many American university departments, but who lack an education in Sanskrit and Indian Classics. They compensate for this deficiency with an overdose of Marxist and/or Eurocentric historiographies, often camouflaged as Subaltern studies. Ronald Inden explains how postcolonial Indian scholars have fallen into this trap:
Inden explains the colonial origins of the presuppositions of India that are now commonly accepted by Indian scholars. His very important book, from which the following passages are excerpted, should be required reading for every student of India, in order to understand the origins of today's neocolonialism:
Since the colonialists plays the Bad Guy, these scholars locate pre-colonial “real India” in Mughal India. The 10th to 15th century period of pre-Mughal Islamic plunder is quickly glossed over. Anything prior to 10th century Islam is superficially treated, except for what is assumed to have been brought into India by other generous foreigners – the so-called Aryans, the Greeks, and many others. The self-serving meta-theory in which these historians are invested, simply forbids the possibility of positive indigenous developments.
Furthermore, for political correctness, and to keep their “secular” ratings high, the well-documented genocides of Hindus are suppressed. This is in sharp contrast with the way Black slavery, Jewish holocaust and Native American genocide are mainstream topics and emphasized in American school textbooks.
Instead of being suppressed as politically incorrect, a dispassionate treatment of past atrocities would enable today's Indians of all religions to distance themselves from historical genocides, and to forge a common identity as Indians. After all, it was the invading Muslims who plundered the native Indians, and the Indian Muslims today are mainly descendents of the natives and not of the invaders. For Indian Muslims, it would be far better to get rooted in Indian civilization, which is eclectic and flexible enough to include Islamic thought very hospitably, rather than identifying themselves as part of a pan-Persian and/or pan-Arab diaspora. (In a recent discussion with an Iranian scholar, I learnt that one of the key reasons why Iran is Shiite Muslim rather than Sunni Muslim is that Iranians refuse to Arabize their culture and identity. Recently, many Iranian Islamic scholars have renewed their interest in Zoroastrianism and pre-Islamic Iranian civilizations, which have a family resemblance with Vedic civilization. While the Arabs erased pre-Islamic knowledge systems as best as they could, the Iranians have tried to preserve their pre-Islamic language and culture, and have incorporated it into their reinterpretations of Islam. Indian Muslims could revive a similar trend, started by Akbar and Dara Shikoh, to fuse Islam with Indian Classics.)
While the focus by many scholars has been on the negative stereotypes of Indic Traditions, they have failed to adequately treat their many positive contributions, especially those that have been appropriated by the West.
Another serious gap in Indian historiography is the lack of a thorough history of Hinduism. This work would show that Hinduism was developed and constructed over a considerable period of time, and has not been frozen (as some “essences”) in a lofty past. The importance of this to present day Hinduism would be to challenge many Hindus today who locate its perfection in some past era. This backward revival, as opposed to forward construction, is the result of not appreciating that Hinduism has had a long history of change, progress, and development in response to circumstances. A philosophy that has historically progressed can also have future progression, whereas one that has remained fixed is locked in orthodoxy.
Since religion, especially Hinduism, has been explained away as an obsolete need, not only do many historians fail to respect it and to understand its basic tenets, but they rely on socio-political theories according to which modernization would put an end to this scourge of humanity. Therefore, most scholars have failed to interpret the recent events in India and elsewhere in the world concerning the enormous popularity of religions.
For instance, it is commonly said by them that: (a) the BJP came to power; (b) this led to the TV Ramayana serial; (c) which, in turn, led to the uprising of popular Hindu sentiments; and (d) this culminated in the Ram Temple controversy at Ayodhya.
However, this chronology is false, made up to fit the theories. The TV Ramayana actually occurred before the BJP came to power. This TV serial's massive success was caused not by the BJP but by the sentiments of Hindus, who had been suppressed for decades by a false notion of secularism. This revival of Hinduism at the grass roots is what led to the rise of the BJP.
For its part, the BJP took political advantage of the opportunity created by this oppression of popular religion. (They frittered it away on misguided causes, in my opinion, but that is another story.) The BJP's rise to power was not the cause of the revival of Hindu sentiments, but the result of it. I witnessed similar religious revivals in Eastern Europe and ex-USSR, after the collapse of communism.
Ranajit Guha's recent call to take the Indian Puranas seriously as a way to excavate an indigenous sense of history, is courageous and loud, and especially important since it comes from the very founder of the Subaltern Movement. Guha is a living legend amongst “secular progressives,” the description under which the former Marxist thinkers of India now operate. He writes (and also says in his talks) that India's itihas needs to be taken very seriously to excavate its sense of indigenous history.
Guha explains how itihas is a unique genre of literature, that cannot be called either Western style “history” or “myth.” Rather than being a history of mainly kings and armies, it is a repository of culture at the grass roots. Nor is itihas a fixed set of archetypal myths, because the audience participates in its unfolding in the present context, interpreting and adapting it over time. One hopes, given the bandwagon effect so important amongst Indian historians, that Guha's U-Turn will also encourage a rethinking by other Indian historians.
Historiography and Nation (Un)building:
History writing has been used both to build nations and to dismantle them.
China's government has championed and funded major programs worldwide to promote a history of China that is constructed as being self-contained and insular, with minimum outside influences discussed. This account starts with Confucianism and Taoism as original pillars of Chinese thought. Even contemporary communist ideology is depicted as a continuation of Confucianism and not entirely as a recent foreign transplant into China.
Modern Germany and Japan are also prominent examples of nation building based on constructing an integrated account of their own civilization, history and identity. The European Union is a major new project in the same direction. All these are examples of backward projection by a contemporary sense of positive cohesiveness.
History has never been an objective reporting of a set of empirical facts. It's a present day (re)conception and filtering of data pertaining to the past, to build a narrative that is consistent with the myths of the dominant culture.
The Saudis invest petrodollars heavily to promote a grand positive narrative of the Arab people and their central place in the destiny of humanity. In fact, the export of Wahhabi Islam is largely a cultural export of Arabism, using religion as a means.
Scholarship is also used in the opposite manner. Imagine a hypothetical scenario, just by way of analogy, in which the USA is colonized by an alien civilization for several centuries. After successfully draining out the massive material and intellectual property, the colonizers finally leave, but a neocolonialism is installed as their control device. Having become immensely wealthier than their former colony, these aliens control the study of Americanology, with a focus on deconstructing the nation's sense of unity. They sponsor chairs, museums and textbook portrayals that separate out various parts of American culture into conflicting entities: Blacks are encouraged to fight Americanism in the same manner as Dalits in India are being encouraged; women are encouraged to follow the footsteps of their alien women; Mormonism is encouraged as anti-Christian; American Muslims (who by them comprise a significant portion of the US population) are not treated as being Americans; and so forth.
This analogy is relevant because the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has removed Indian art of the Mughal period and placed it in a separate section called, “Islamic Art.” Museums in many American cities have separated out Sikhism from the rest of India into its own section for display, and have many cultural programs focusing on it. It is quite fashionable in Asian Studies, Women's Studies, and especially in South Asian Studies, to have separate “Dalitism” scholarship. All this has become wrapped around serious works on India as being mainly about caste, with all other items of civilization being brought in from elsewhere.
The reality of India is that it is both these: an integration of indigenous and assimilations from elsewhere. This process continues till today. It is the same as with any other civilization. The problem is that in the case of India the imported aspects are exaggerated and the indigenous aspects are largely erased.
While each rich and powerful civilization emphasizes its indigenous cohesiveness and continuity, and with scholarship under control of those loyal to it, the reverse is the trend among the economically weak civilizations such as India. In the case of Indian civilization, the scholars' emphasis has been on how there might not even be such a historical entity as India or Hinduism, and how its civilization was entirely brought by foreigners into India.
This intellectual breakup of Indic Traditions into historical layers of cultural imports, each with a nexus in some other part of the world, is the intellectual equivalent of the political breakup of India. That so many Indian have sold out to this project is certainly noteworthy, and is a major untold story of our times. In the long run, it is tempting for the West to assimilate this last remaining non-Western knowledge system, and breaking it into digestible modules facilitates this. However, the havoc that such a potential breakup would unleash would also be of catastrophic global proportions. Furthermore, the future positive harvests that this civilization is capable of giving to the world would end.
By falsely portraying Indic traditions as anti-modern, the West and its Indian sepoys have forced many Indians into the false dichotomy of tradition vs. progress. While the historical, revelation-based Abrahamic religions demand belief in a canonized dogma (placing religion and science in direct conflict), no such dichotomy between Indian dharmas and science occurred. This is because Indic Traditions accept an endless series of discoveries, and not just one unique event, and because the classical Indian role models are very often those of skeptics, free-spirited thinkers, and intense debaters arguing against established ideologies. Given its methodologies of discovering new knowledge, known as pramanas, dharma is progressive, and requires change and reformation as part of its on going process. It has become artificially frozen only in recent centuries, and this needs to be unfrozen so that the indigenous engine of progress and renaissance may resume.
For removal of doubt, I am against homogenized religion or homogenized ideas of nation, because that would run counter to the spirit and reality of dharma. Furthermore, I am against any marginalization of minorities, including Dalits, Indian Muslims and Christians. My contention is that just as Greek thought was appropriated to construct diverse and progressive thinking in Europe, and thereby bring about the Renaissance of Europe, it seems to be a promising project to use Indian Classics as the foundation for a universally applicable Indic worldview and renaissance.
The issues discussed in this essay have caused inner conflicts and schisms in Thapar's Children, that are often written on their faces. This is why their preprogrammed defense mechanisms instinctively flare up - shouting “fundamentalist,” “nationalist,” and so forth - when they are merely questioned on the legitimacy of their qualifications as scholars of India. Inadvertently, and often with good intentions, they continue to feed what might be called Gentooism Studies.
The influence of Thapar's Children in the Western world is considerable. Almost every year, they fly their icon around the world for speaking tours at prestigious campuses, where her cult-like former students are well fed gatekeepers. They make sure that no opposing voice is included on the panels – hardly an academically sound approach. At one of her talks last year, someone from the audience had the courage to ask her whether she knew Sanskrit and whether she had read the original texts, or whether she relied mainly on European sources for her scholarship. Very angry at this “rudeness,” she dismissed the question by saying that she “only answers questions from academically qualified persons.” Clearly, since she did not know the woman in the audience, Thapar had no way of assuming that this person was not an academician, except for the fact that only an outsider to the cult and its sphere of control would dare ask such a question.
The American academe considers her and her former students as the authorities on India. Any challenge to this hegemony of the brown (mem)sahibs is met with fierce personal attacks.
'Brown Shame' in English Literature:
Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry (of Oprah fame), Bharati Mukerji, and others of this new genre of English language Indian writers, are my second category of neocolonial brown (mem)sahibs.
They rake in their money and awards spinning a reinforcement of the caste, cows and curry meta-narratives of India. This is to be contrasted with recent Bollywood blockbusters, such as Lagaan, that have depicted the cross-cultural relationship from the Indian perspective, and hence, catered to popular Indian audiences. These writers, on the other hand, are not read by India's masses, whom they pretend to represent. It is the Western reader, seeking to fortify his/her Eurocentric myth of superiority, who endorses such work. These authors serve as brown-skinned suppliers for the kind of Orientalism previously done by whites such as Kipling. Their work is widely prescribed in American colleges, as insightful approaches into the complexity of exotic India, in a friendly fictionalized manner. It is taken more seriously than it deserves to be, because the publishers are falsely marketing these authors as the real voices of India.
The triumphant myth of the West expands, and these authors get amply rewarded for their contribution to the progressive march of Western civilization. In effect, these are the intellectual equivalents of the sepoys who policed the British Empire with great loyalty and pride, and, in exchange, got rewarded by being upgraded to a tier above the rest of the Indians whom they helped to subjugate.
Noy Thrupkaew, an American feminist reviewer, takes Indian women authors to task for supplying the stereotype of the “hard-bitten, angst-ridden Asian-American protagonists who had ostentatious sex by page 30.” She continues: “But if Asian women weren't screwing, the publishing world wanted them suffering (and maybe bravely triumphing after they got themselves to the United States). The Asian historical memoirs were based on a simple formula: Asia was hell; the United States is a hell of a lot better. ….the Asian-hell-to-Western-heaven motif leaves a U.S. reader in a nicely complacent spot: reclining in a La-Z-Boy and thinking, 'Well, thank god for America!'”
This has become a bandwagon on which many Indian women authors want to hitch a ride to instant success. What used to be the White Woman's Burden has, in many instances, been taken over as the Brown Woman's Burden. But Thrupkaew is suspicious:
While a few manage to climb to the top, the ultimate fate of most of these authors is to remain below the glass ceiling, while their white sisters smile from above. Thrupkaew points to the faddish nature of the American reader, as she writes: “At its worst, South Asian and South Asian-American writing is just like tasty Indian food - to be chewed, digested, and excreted without a lot of thought.” Yet this craving for legitimacy and honorary white status is too attractive and irresistible for many. (“Western” is often a politically correct equivalent of what was previously called “white.”)
Richard Crasta, a Christian from Mangalore, India, explains how the neocolonial process is working here: “In its choice of the Eastern writers it will patronize - or not patronize - Western publishing is only following the traditional strategy of conquerors towards a conquered race: unsex the men, 'liberate' the women, reward and honor the eunuchs or race-traitors, thus letting them keep their untamed brothers in check. If the conquered women and men don't get along as a result, so much the better….”
Many Indians have learnt to play the game, explains Crasta: “[M]ilking the West has become a major Third World industry, art, or con game - one that we must master merely to survive. We are practiced milkers, and we'll do almost anything, say almost anything, act any degrading role that's called for - all for a drop of the gleaming, life-giving, white stuff.”
But Crasta warns his fellow Indian writers of the dangers of trying to cross the glass ceiling: “This Western carrot of acceptance and riches is accompanied by a stick: Do not cross the boundaries. Always remember your place.…[T]he carrot and stick are so discreetly transferred by Third World writers onto their internal censor that they are often unconscious of their own self-censorship.”
The harm this is causing is very serious, says Crasta:
While masters at deconstructing everything pertaining to British colonialism, what can these scholars replace it with? Answer: nothing that is prior to the Muslim invasion of India. Since the British period was cruel, and pre-Mughal India is dismissed as primitive (except for Buddhism which got intellectually moved from India over to East Asian Studies), what is seen as positive Indian culture is Mughal centric! In these minds, India's worthwhile culture starts only when the Muslims colonized it.
The reason is simple: they lack knowledge of Indian Classics, and find it very embarrassing when this is pointed out to their white cohorts, because American liberal education includes a solid foundation in the Western Classics. Imagine telling an American liberal arts college to get rid of the Greek Classics, because the Greeks were primitive, pagan, and slave-owners.
This is the lie that these scholars live behind: the pretence that they are authentic ambassadors and representatives of Indian culture, when, in fact, they represent the West's successful mental colonization of India. Hence, their neurosis and anger, when this contradiction gets exposed.
Their fierce public fight against the dominant culture is a reaction to their shadow side that is unable to become the dominant culture. Hypothetically, if there were a FDA approved gene therapy to change phenotypes into “white,” it is precisely this lot who would make a beeline for this ethnicity-changing procedure.
The frustration from being denied white status often gets an outlet via postcolonial studies. This is the syndrome that Richard Crasta has called “impressing the whites.” It is what Enrique Dussel, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and many others explain as the process by which the dominant culture appropriates a tier of intellectuals from the colonized culture, to serve as proxies in intellectually ruling over the masses. In exchange for this loyalty to the dominant culture, these Uncle Toms receive a considerably enhanced position, various rewards, and a sort of neo-white status.
It is to be remembered that 99% of all bullets fired and all police atrocities committed during the British Empire were done by Indian Sepoys under British command. Interestingly, the Chinese did not make good sepoys, because they refused to sell out. The Blacks had to be physically chained to enslave them. But Indians volunteered with great pride.
Today, the Indian Sepoy archetype, found in the Western academe and journalism, often does the dirty intellectual work. Their role on behalf of the dominant culture is to supply the myth of the "other" in a way that fits into the dominant culture's grand narrative of itself. Rather than glorifying their success, the sooner their readers start to publicly call their lie, the better.
(As an interesting side remark, Lalit Mansingh, India's Ambassador to USA, gave his speech at a major Hindu event in English. He can only give speeches in English.)
The “South Asian” Syndrome:
SAJA (South Asian Journalists Association) has influenced the movement to “South Asianize” young Indian Americans when they leave home and enter American colleges. SAJA runs on a clever marketing scheme: journalists from prestigious American media firms are brought on to the advisory board to give SAJA legitimacy, in exchange for enhancing their personal resumes as being “India experts.” Annual SAJA Awards, sponsored by corporations seeking to impress the Indian diaspora, are given to create role models of young journalists, who have often accomplished little other than championing the ideals of SAJA – Somini Sengupta is one recent example. This mechanism feeds itself. The SAJA internet discussion lists are carefully censored to filter out opposing views, even disallowing responses to direct personal attacks.
Many Indian journalist (mem)sahibs also serve as chowkidars (gatekeepers) for the West, as Crasta explains:
The following quote from a governmental report describes why the US Department of Defense invests in the social sciences to understand and reengineer the “others”: “The Armed Forces are no longer engaged solely in warfare…. For many countries throughout the world, we need more knowledge about their beliefs, values, and motivations; their political, religious, and economic organizations; and the impact of various changes or innovations upon their socio-cultural patterns. ...”
The same report recommends specific kinds of social research and reengineering, and one can find in this list many projects that are being carried out in the US academe and via NGOs in India. Never has the Indian media done an investigative report on why the US Defense Department is to be served by Indian scholars in this manner:
An American academic scholar, who publicly identifies himself as a Hindu, complains about many of his cohorts in South Asian Studies:
NGOs as Foreign Proxies:
Susantha Goonatilake, a Sri Lankan scholar, has completed a comprehensive study of his country's NGOs and plans to publish his findings in a major book soon. His conclusions stated to me may be paraphrased as follows. Sri Lanka has been destroyed largely by the foreign funded NGOs operating there. Local scholars do what the sponsors demand, and hence serve as foreign proxies. This is remote-controlled neocolonialism of sorts. Goonatilake says that the same phenomenon has also happened to a fair extent in Bangladesh. But India, he says, is simply too large and resilient to be taken over, and has managed to survive despite all such activities.
It is this kind of NGO mentality that sends speakers to International conferences and to foreign media, so as to sensationalize and “expose” the internal social problems of India. While many NGO staff members and scholars are immersed into the Hindu and India phobia movement, there are also a large number who are simply sucked into this out of sheer ignorance, or out of the temptation for foreign travel and various grants as rewards. Many NGOs are the fifth column of Stealth Eurocentrism.
While the agenda of neocolonialism is rarely visible in the grant agreements, everyone experienced in this cottage industry knows what reports are “correct” to produce, in order to keep the foreign funds flowing. Those who resist “selling out” are weeded out by the sponsors in a Darwinian game in which fitness is defined in terms of anti Indic Traditions.
This explains why so many internal social problems of India get internationalized with the help of Indians, even though the international forums have no capability or track record in actually resolving these issues. Where domestic mechanisms already exist to resolve these matters, they are simply bypassed and their existence is simply ignored. It is a pitiable sight to see these nouveau and neo Westerners sign up as enthusiastic carriers of exotic gobar (bullshit) on their stupid little heads, from one event to another. Many of the problems mentioned in this essay would not be possible without Indian NGOs aiding and abetting neocolonialism.
The "Sixth International Conference on Dowry, Bride-Burning and Son-Preference" to be held in 2003, is one such example. Its intellectual leadership comes from Western feminists. The group's first conference on the subject was held at Harvard University in 1995, where a "Six Point Program to Eradicate Dowry and Bride-Burning in India" was adopted. This Program was further revised at their subsequent conferences held at Harvard University and University of London. While the sponsors and scholars gained publicity for themselves, and continue to seek to “change mindset” on this issue, they admit that they have made no impact on the ground reality of this problem.
In sharp contrast with this are the many successful social reform movements from within the Indic Traditions. Madhu Kishwar describes in her talks how Western funded NGO feminists failed to make any dent in reforming rural property ownership biases against women, but that different movements run entirely using Indic principles and metaphors were very successful. The Swadhyaya movement is another great example of large scale reform, from within the culture, that is strengthening the indigenous knowledge systems rather than strengthening neocolonialism. There are also numerous successful examples of the practical use of traditional knowledge systems in areas such as water harvesting.
Colonial Style of Governance in India Today:
Hinduism and Christianity each comprise over 80% of the populations of India and USA, respectively. Therefore, it is appropriate to compare the status of each of these in its respective country, in relation to other minority religions. Following are some comparisons that are seldom mentioned by scholars and journalists who analyze India's religions:
Sitharam, a journalist in a major local vernacular publication in Bangalore, reflects on the ridiculous positions taken by many Indian “intellectuals” in the name of secularism and political correctness:
My previous Sulekha column, titled, “The Asymmetric Dialog of Civilizations,” based on a talk presented at the American Academy of Religion (2001) gives an overview of the role of the dominant culture, from above the glass ceiling. in creating and sustaining neocolonialism. Therefore, I shall not replicate that information here.
Inden is quoted in Part 2 above explaining that the West used the “other,” and especially India, to define and construct itself. This happened both at physical and intellectual planes. The intellectual appropriation continues to this day.
The U-Turn process is my model for describing this appropriation, by which the West has been intellectually constructing itself, and it consists of the following stages:
Not all stages take place in every case, and these stages might not happen in this exact sequence every time. Often, one scholar ends his/her career at a certain stage of this U-Turn process, and the successors continue further along this process. It is important to note that Eurocentrism is most often unintentional and unconscious, because the person is so immersed in the myths of Westernism, that it is simply assumed to be the right thing to do.
This U-Turn has served as a way to plunder with one hand and denigrate the victim with the other. In earlier times, the Greeks appropriated much of “their” civilization from Egyptians. Christianity was built on Greek pagan ideas, but the pagans got condemned.
Therefore, subverting India's Classics, while appropriating from them via a series of U-Turning scholars, is an important process for the sustenance of the myth of the West.
Some academic organizations, such as RISA (Religions In South Asia), remain as bastions of blatant Eurocentrism. See my “Asymmetric Dialog…” essay referenced above for details. Also, see my essay, “Who Speaks for Hinduism?” These scholars control classrooms as forums, in which the students are often naïve and are not given viewpoints that challenge the scholars.
For instance, HCS (Hindu Christian Studies) was set up by academic scholars specifically to have a dialog between these two religions. But the discussions were centered mainly on Christian perspectives of Hinduism, along the lines of the “caste, cows and curry” themes. However, once a few Hindus tried to discuss information on caste in Indian Christianity, social abuses in Christian majority countries, etc., they were severely reprimanded by Lance Nelson, the scholar in charge of HCS. When this did not succeed, they threw out the Hindus, except for those who work under the Christians' control, and even blocked public access to the discussion archive.
Likewise, RISA membership is closed to practicing Hindus, to Hindu pandits, gurus and swamis, even though it is the official scholarly body about religions of South Asia.
Both HCS and RISA give various excuses for behaving like the proverbial brahmins and treating the Hindus like shudras. For instance, they claim: (1) Practicing Hindus are not qualified to know about their own traditions. (2) Most Hindus lack the critical thinking and/or the right "style" of presentation skills to merit entry amidst such lofty audiences. (3) It is for the Hindus' own “good” to leave the controls with the Christians, so as to protect the Hindus from the Marxists. And so forth.
These “restricted” (and sometimes “secret”) societies use abusive language against those Hindus who try to bypassing the hegemony. The archive of these Hindu-bashing discussions is in the process of being researched for a series of future articles. Since their intended audience is not the well informed and self confident Hindu, they often get very embarrassed, afraid and/or angry when such Hindus discover their writings and start to read them publicly in front of large Hindu audiences.
Hindus' loss of control over their own scholarship for centuries led to the “freezing” of a very vibrant tradition. While Christianity has progressed with constructive theologies (for instance, liberation theology), Hinduism scholarship has been under the trusteeship mainly of non-Hindus. Today, when Hindus re-interpret their texts to make them current with the times, they are dismissed as quacks, when all other major religions enjoy this privilege.
While literal Biblical interpretations are well respected, and this literalism is the belief of roughly half of all American Christians, when Hindus base their scholarship on literal interpretations of Puranas, they are condemned as “fascists”, “fundamentalists”, and so forth.
The academy does not encourage the use of Hindu categories to deconstruct and criticize Christianity, in the same manner as Christian hermeneutics are routinely used to deconstruct Hinduism.
It is simply expected of Hindus in the Western academic world to acknowledge acceptance of their servile place and be thankful for it. They are not entitled to the same rights to protest; nor is routine respect accorded - facts at variance with the rights and respect extended to Muslims and other minority religions in USA on their perseverance and demand. It is not surprising, therefore, that most Indian American Hindus confine their religious expression inside the walls of the 800 Hindu temples in North America, and “white Hindus” often prefer to hide their practice behind the new-age cover.
“India and Europe,” by Wilhelm Halbfass. First edition, Delhi: MLBD, 1990, p. 44.
|Last Updated on Sunday, 12 February 2006 15:20|