Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The lost honour of India studies


S.N. Balagangadhara, better known as Balu, is Professor of Comparative Culture Studies in Ghent University, Belgium. Balu is a Kannadiga Brahmin by birth, a former Marxist, and his discourse has a very in-your-face quality. In his latest book, Reconceptualizing India Studies (Oxford University Press 2012), the attentive reader will see a critique of the Indological establishment in the West and the political and cultural establishment in India. Like Rajiv Malhotra’s recent works, it questions their legitimacy. The reigning Indologists and India-watchers would do well to read it.



Two of the eight papers that make up the book deal with Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism (1977). Although Balu was very critical of Said in an article reacting to his uncritical obituaries, here he is quite generous with his praise: “He has provided us with the ‘Archimedean point’ to move the world.” (p.48) Not a word about the books refuting Said on numerous points of fact and on his interpretative framework, which has the character of a conspiracy theory: all those scholars were only pretending their many viewpoints (often identifying with the culture studied) and were in fact agents of colonialism.
Anyway, to the extent that Said is right, and that the colonial-age Orientalists were being unfair to Asia, we must see the mental constraints on all scholars of that period. The Orientalists were determined by the thinking of their societies: “Consider the possibility of Albert Einstein’s being born as a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas’s. Would he have been able to formulate the theory of relativity? Given what we know about human knowledge today, our answer can only be in the negative: he would not have had access to the experimental data and the theoretical concepts required to frame his theories. In this sense, even a genius is limited by his time.” (p.46)
Orientalism is a useful notion at least in analyzing Western attitudes to India and Indians in the present. Analyzing the examples of Jeffrey Kripal’s and Paul Courtright’s writings on the Hindu saint Ramakrishna and on the Hindu deity Ganesha, he shows how Western scholarship is marked by fundamental logical and conceptual flaws (such as circular reasoning, proving what has first been assumed) and by the tendency to talk about rather than with Indians. Their trivializing theses are characterized as “violence” (p.135) and “blind” (p.139). Scholarship should advance knowledge, but these academics are only fostering colonial-originated prejudices.

The concept of Orientalism has two roots, one of which was important to understand Said’s personal stake in it, the other to appreciate the concept’s enormous popularity. Like all Middle-Eastern Christians, he was wary of the imperialist designs of Latin Christianity, which he saw as the origin of its secularized expression, the science of Orientalism (which did indeed start with the late-medieval outreach of Rome to the Middle-Eastern Christians). At the same time, his strongly pro-Muslim sympathy, which took the form of culpabilizing any scholarly critique of Islam as a Western imperialist project, was due to the Christians’ centuries of living as Dhimmi-s (“charter people”, protected ones), used to bending before and singing the praises of Islam. Said’s defence of Islam, over 90% of his book and the topic of several other publications of his, together with his sowing suspicions against Western scholarship, were exactly what trendy Western and westernized intellectuals needed, and what the Islamic world has gainfully instrumentalized since.
                Balu does not go into the autonomous precolonial imperialism of Islam, a factor of religious riots in South Asia quite independent of colonial rule and its heir, the secular state. But in several other chapters, he identifies a more contemporary factor of communal violence: the worldview underlying that same “secular” state.



Look at the secularists, who for decades now have gone gaga over Said’s concept of Orientalism: “Orientalism is reproduced in the name of a critique of Orientalism. It is completely irrelevant whether one uses a Marx, a Weber or a Max Müller to do so. (…) the result is the same: uninteresting trivia, as far as the growth of human knowledge is concerned; but pernicious in its effect as far as Indian intellectuals are concerned.” (p.47) India has produced intellectual giants like (limiting ourselves to the 20th century:) R.C. Majumdar, P.V. Kane or A.K. Coomaraswamy, but the Indian secularists are intellectually very poor copies of their Western role models.
The most acute case of “Orientalism” in the Saidian sense in precisely Nehruvian secularism, the consensus viewpoint shared by most established academics and media. Thus, about caste, “Nehru used Orientalist descriptions of the Indian society of his day and made their facts his own.” (p.74) Citing as example a Western India-watcher, Balu notes that the latter “is not accounting for the Indian caste system by using the notion of fossilized coalitions in India; he is trying to establish the truth of Nehru’s observations (that is, the truth of the Orientalist descriptions of India)”, because the social sciences “where uncontested, (…) presuppose the truth of the Orientalist descriptions of non-Western cultures.” (p.74) That is the problem of the existing “South Asia Studies” in a nutshell. It underscores the need for more serious comparative studies, a field in which Balu has been a pioneer.

This critique applies especially to the dominant treatment of India’s “communal” problem: “When Indian intellectuals use existing theories about religion and its history – for example, to analyse ‘Hindu-Muslim’ strife – they reproduce, both directly and indirectly, what the West has been saying so far. (…) the ‘secularist’ discourse about this issue can hardly be distinguished – both in terms of the contents or the vocabulary – from Orientalist writings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (p.47) Secularism is the direct heir of the colonial dispensation.
Balu’s explanation of intercommunal relations in India and the state’s role therein is original and clear. In his opinion, the secular state is not there to curb religious violence, but is in fact the cause of this violence. He focuses on its position in the question of religious conversion, which is forbidden in some neighbouring countries and demanded to be forbidden by many Hindus (both Mahatma Gandhi and the Hindu nationalists). But it is upheld as a right by the Muslims and especially by the Christian missionaries -- and by the “secular” state. The latter clearly takes a partisan stand in doing so; and it would also be partisan if it did the opposite. It is impossible to be impartisan.
                The whole “secular” discourse on “religion” and intercommunal relations is borrowed from Christianity. The basic framework to think about religion is informed by Western experiences and fails to see the radical difference between these and the native traditions: “the secular state assumes that the Semitic religions and the Hindu traditions are instances of the same kind” (p.203). In realities, Hindus and Parsis don’t missionize and refrain from basing their religions on a defining truth claim. By contrast, Christianity and Islam believe they offer the truth, and consequently want everyone to accept it.

Secularists decry as cheap Hindu propaganda the assertion that Hinduism is naturally pluralistic and innocent of religious strife and exclusivism, which is considered to be typical of the converting religions. But in fact, Christian missionaries and Muslim observers noted the absence of sectarian violence among the Hindus: “The famous Muslim traveler to India, Alberuni, also noted the absence of religious rivalry among the Hindus”. (p.205) This Hindu phenomenon even affects Alberuni’s own community: there is much more violence between rivaling Muslim sects in Islamic Pakistan than in Hindu-populated India. If the secularists want to promote religious harmony, as they claim, they had better promote traditional Indian values rather than side with Christianity and Islam.



Balu’s theses are uncomfortable and sure to provoke debate. So far, the attitude of the India-watching class and of the elites in India has been to ignore any criticism of their worldview. But this man’s stature as a leading professor who heads a very active research department in a major secularist university in the West will make many of them sit up and notice.
On the whole, Balu’s thesis is optimistic. He offers solutions to the problems he analyzes, mostly solutions that he himself has already worked out or has been practising for years. It is not as if any fate condemns Indian policy and academic India-watching to their present prejudices. He also believes in the promise of the age of globalization, and thinks Indians and Europeans genuinely have something to offer each other.


ysv_rao said...

Im not a fan of Edward Said, the main reason being that he was a super dhimmi.He didnt wish for his Christian brethren in Europe and America criticize Arab Muslims for their harsh treatment of Christians because he considered it colonial thinking.

Having said that, I agree that some of his arguments are not without merit.
Specifically that Europeans due to their innate feelings of superiority and position of power(at the time) were unable to present a objective and fair assessment of Oriental cultures.And that trend to a small level persists today even among-st liberal academics.

However Hinduism has suffered more due to "Orientalism" than Arabs as Hinduism was far more bewildering to Western people than Islam.
And seeing Hindus in a defeated state and 19th century Hinduism as a collection of retrograde superstitions led to assume that Hindus were always conquered and rule and Hinduism despite some math and medicine was eternally cruel,caste ridden and chaotic.

The main damage done to India was not material(looted treasuries, destroyed industries and closed economies) or even human(14 million dead in semi engineered famines and 100s of k more in cannon fodder for wars in which Indians had no stake). We can always become rich again or breed new people.
No the main damage was psychological and spiritual.
Being called non martial, losers,weak,poor,illiterate,backward,superstitious,dirty and slavish does take its toll.
The British disarmed initially South Indians and Bengalis and later the great bulk of Indians thereby rendering them defenceless and called them non martial.
They took over political and cultural levers of power in Bharat and forbade Indians from retrieving or even participating in exercise of authority. And they called Indians weak.
They destroyed industries and forbade exports and forced imports onto the Indian masses.All the while stealing treasuries of various kings which created a cycle of poverty. They then accused us of being poor.
They destroyed our traditional schools and called us illiterate
They uprooted a sophisticated drainage infrastructure and called us dirty
They reinterpreted Vedas , Puranas and the Epics as fantastic stories about Aryan invaders at best and theological circus at worst and called us superstitious barbarians.

Again we can reacquire to Lakshmi and to Kama.
But what of other damage?
Its never even acknowledged.
I look at the average Indian youth today and his(or her) eyes are like that of goat. Vaccuous and culturally void.
This is not good for Hinduism/India whether he becomes the CEO of Deutsche Bank , Pepsi or acquire another luxury British car company.

Anonymous said...


Very well put. But why did we allow them to do it?

We were a wounded civilization, and that was due to the earlier Dhimmitude of a 1000 years. Basic flaw being lack of interest in the material world. Therefore lack of attention to statecraft, war and outsiders.

This infected even the Muslim rulers, like Muhammed Shah during Nadir Shah's invasion, the Nawab of Oudh during the Company period, and Bahaddur Shah Zafar, who was unfit to be a ruler. It must have been something in the Hindu soil :-).

It was interesting to read a mysticism-oriented writer trace it back to the Maayavad and the Love of Ahimsa! Shankara, Ramanuja and Maharshi RamaNa had the same divine indifference to this world! They may have been right about illusions, but we face consequences. To paraphrase ysv_rao, you may be not interested in Maaya, but Maaya is interested in you ;-)

I find this quote from Rajneesh quite insightful.

"We would not have been so impotent if our country had understood Krishna rightly. But we have covered our ugliness with beautiful words. Our cowardice is hiding behind our talk of non-violence; our fear of death is disguised by our opposition to war. But war is not going to end because we refuse to go to war. Our refusal becomes an invitation to others to wage war on us. War will not disappear because we refuse to fight; our refusal will only result in our slavery. And this is what has actually happened.

It is so ironic that, despite our opposition to war, we have been dragged into war again and again. First we refused to fight, then some external power attacked and occupied our country and made us into slaves, and then we were made to join our masters’ armies and fight in our masters’ wars. Wars were continuously waged, and we were continuously dragged into them. Sometimes we fought as soldiers of the Huns, then as soldiers to the Turks and Moghals and finally as soldiers for the British. Instead of fighting for for our own life and liberty we fought for the sake of our alien rulers and oppressors. We really fought for the sake of our slavery; we fought to prolong our enslavement. We spilled our blood and gave our lives only to defend our bondage, to continue to live in servitude. This has been the painful consequence of all our opposition to violence and war."

ysv_rao said...


Thanks DC! I see your point about holding Indians accountable. To be clear, I am not letting Indians/Hindus(I use these terms interchangeably-in this context ,its appropriate) off the hook.
I just wanted to emphasize that the net contribution of British to India was negative.
I say this due to an increasingly revisionist attitude amongst Indians and other that the British rule was a net good.
Tragically this trend is in full swing among Americans of all political stripes.Americans of that era were staunchly against British rule and imperialism in India and their pressure on Churchill and later the Attle administration was a strong motive for the British to pack it up.
I suspect their new projects in Iraq and Afghanistan may have something to do with a fondness for past imperialism.

Anyway back to India. Yes I think there is something in the soil LOL that infected the Muslims,but it may not neccesarily be Maya but simply defeat and despair at the hands of Marathas,Jats and Sikhs.
The nawabs,Mughals and Nizams were bon vivants who lived the good life and were uninterested in the hardy ,warlike lifestyle of their ancestors who bequeathed them their prosperity.
It is no coincidence our most celebrated cuisine comes from the kitchens of those rulers, they spent centuries doing little else but eating!

" To paraphrase ysv_rao, you may be not interested in Maaya, but Maaya is interested in you ;-)"

Haha! I like that quote but its not mine truth be told. I think it was Tolstoy who said it about the Russians and war-"Russians may not be interested in war but war is interested in them" a statement that is at once hilarious,insightful and terrifying!

Wow I didnt expect the decadent Rajneesh to such strong views on maya!

His inclusion of Huns is especially indicative.
We really lost much our culture due to the Huns
Theologically inclined Hindus may see them as the fulfillment of mleccha havoc in Kaliyuga

Much also has to do with the Buddhist Hindu dynamics of that era.
There was no Buddhism Hindu dichotomy back then as such.
The most brilliant Brahmins and Kshatriyas of that era were Buddhist
In other words,Buddhists had come to encompass the best of Hinduism.
And when it was destroyed by political minded Hindus with the help of Huns,we lost the best of Hinduism
All the leftover riff raff of beliefs is the nonsense and chaos for what passes for Hinduism today.

So VS Naipaul is right we were wounded civilization even before Islamic invasions.

In a way we have never really escaped our former conquerors.
THe descendents of Huns dominate the cultural,economic and political levers of power. Marwari industrialists,Gandhis,Nehrus,BJP and RSS head honchos all the Punjabi and Gujarati business magnates,our nepotism prone film personalities, top generals in the the military are for the most part descendents of Gujjar tribesmen.

The descendents of Turks and Mughals are also prominent in sports,entertainment and politics(by secularism and block voting)

The British influence pervades in the Anglicized elite from schools such as Doons,St Stephens and the invisible corridor which leads to Oxford and Cambridge.

It is our Maya that forbids from seeing all this
And our current tamasic nature that prevents us from doing anything about it.

A far cry from the time we gave the world Arthashastra.
Its another matter that it pales in comparision to the Art of War which is far more elegant and sophisticated.
To be fair the point of Arthashastra is about war but the art of governance of which war is but an extension which anticipated Clausewitz 2000 years later.

Karthikrajan said...

Good to hear about people like balu holding key positions which can reverse the trend of flawed western scholarship vis-a-vis india studies. But i beg to differ a bit regarding Said type orientalists. A person may be a product of his/her times, but he/she can always think ahead of time. This is how renaissance was born, during which period scientific temper permeated all fields fueling enormous growth through inventions and discoveries. The colonial west kept bragging that it was their scientific genius which made them superior to all other nations and hence only they are fit to rule the entire world. It is this penchant for critical analysis that exposed Christianity and brought it down. Then what prevented them from extending it to analyse all religions in detail to get a good understanding about religion itself ? why did the academic establishment tolerate such sloppy work by these orientalists ? This is in fact betrayal of science. So, these orientalists were never constrained by the thinking of their societies. Indeed they simply worked as colonial agents for their own personal gains. Geniuses are not limited by time either. Even if Einstein had been born as contemporary of Aquinas, he would still have laid the foundation for relativity theory , like Galileo laying the foundation for motion theory which was later picked up and completed by newton. Indian scholars aping Said type characters is probably because they were over-awed by the rapid growth of science in the west. So, anything said by the west on any topic should be very scientific and logical. Further compounded by the india’s left leaning establishment kick started by Nehru which has seriously damaged the meaning of secularism. Scholars like balu should close ranks to expose this treachery.