This highly original book leads its reader on an epic journey of self-discovery especially for those of us in the West. A ﬁtting and major response to Samuel Huntington’s position on “who are we” as the West; one that can perhaps best be provided by someone reversing the gaze on the West through a non-Western lens. This deserves to be one of the deﬁning books of the age.
This is a memorable book asking us to put aside modernity’s tired categories and lazy comparisons, and at last to take seriously the Indian perspective on history and our world today. Being Different is here a necessary virtue, essential to understanding our neighbours and ourselves. Much reﬂection and many a good argument should follow upon Malhotra’s unique achievement.
This is the ﬁrst book of its kind looking at the West from India’s dharmic standpoint, and is certain to provoke a major debate for years to come. Rajiv Malhotra’s writings have established him as a “different”, extremely original and robust thinker of our times. In the present volume, he forcefully challenges what he terms the West’s “self-serving universalism” which has been superimposed as a “template” for all nations and peoples. He succeeds in stimulating the mind, stirring the thinking and making readers sit up and join him in his alternative approaches.
Being Different is a provocative and important book for two distinct reasons. First, the book is one of the few attempts by an Indian intellectual to challenge seriously the assumptions and presuppositions of the field of India and/or South Asian studies tout ensemble, including not only the work of European and American scholarship but as well the neocolonialist, postmodernist and subaltern ressentiment so typical of contemporary Indian intellectuals. Second, and perhaps of greater significance, is Malhotra’s attempt to analyse the meaning and significance of Indic culture from within the indigenous presuppositions of India’s own intellectual traditions, including the ontological claims of Indic cosmology, the epistemology of yogic experience, the unique Indic appreciation for complexity, and the nuances of Sanskritic expression. The book will be controversial on many different levels and will undoubtedly elicit rigorous critical response.
Malhotra writes with passion from within an avowedly dharmic stance, undermining the attempts to domesticate and expropriate Indian traditions in a process of interreligious dialogue that is ultimately based on a Western cosmological framework. This book is essential reading for Western scholars. It espouses an “audacity of difference” that defends the distinctiveness of Indian thought and reveals the chauvinism of much Western thought in its encounters with other cultures.
Honest, provocative and wide-ranging, this book gives us (westerners) a rare opportunity to see ourselves through the lens of another worldview. It cuts to the heart of the problems created by Christian beliefs about unique historical revelation, and by the West’s consistent investment in a set of linear historical narratives purporting to offer universal salvation but fuelled by particular western needs and anxieties. Informed by postmodernism, but moving beyond it, the book levels the playing field for a genuine encounter between East and West and raises issues that any serious revision of Christian theology must address.
Rajiv Malhotra’s insistence on preserving difference with mutual respect – not with mere “tolerance” – is even more pertinent today because the notion of a single universalism is being propounded. There can be no single universalism, even if it assimilates or, in the author’s words, “digests”, elements from other civilizations.
Many Indian spiritual leaders, lacking a profound knowledge of their own culture, and feeling inferior to the West, try to respond to the Western challenge by showing how Indian and Western religions are the same. Rajiv Malhotra’s work is a kind of yajna that reverses the gaze upon the West through the lens of Indian categories. This process is traditionally called purva paksha, and in Rajiv’s work it is given a new mission. Rajiv has devised the very interesting metaphor of digestion to explain how the dharmic traditions are being disassembled into parts for digestion into the belly of Western culture. Being Different shows how the West’s history-centrism drives it into claims of exclusiveness; this causes anxiety over differences which it seeks to resolve through projects of digestion in order to obliterate whatever seems challenging.
What I found particularly informative and original in Being Different is the discussion on the positive role of chaos in the Indic world as compared to the West’s abhorrence of it. The book explains Hegel’s deep-rooted fear of chaos and uncertainty. He privileged order in Western aesthetics, ethics, religions, society, and politics and classified Oriental traditions into “pantheism”, “polytheism”, and “monotheism” as “world historical categories”. Hegel developed a system of equivalences to assign relative meaning and value to each culture, thereby defining the contours of the “West” and the “Rest.’ These became the conceptual tools for epistemic subjugation of the non-West in the name of order. The dharmic worldview is more relaxed about chaos, seeing it as a creative catalyst built into the cosmos to balance out order that could otherwise become stultifying.
With stunning honesty, Being Different alerts the reader to the grave dangers of a difference-negating “sameness” that is marketed worldwide by secular and religious streams in Western culture. This is a very important and highly accessible book in the discourse on the interaction between civilizations.