Foreword by S.N. Balagangadhara
Non-white and non-Christian cultures will increasingly have a significant impact on the affairs of uhe humankind in this millennium. Here, India will be a global player of considerable political and economic impact. As a result, the need to explicate what it means to be an Indian (and what the ‘Indianness’ of the Indian culture consists of) will soon become the task of the entire intelligentsia in India. In this process, they will confront the challenge of responding to what the West has so far thought and written about India. A response is required because the theoretical and textual study of the Indian culture has been undertaken mostly by the West in the last three hundred years. What is more, it will also be a challenge because the study of India has largely occurred within the cultural framework of America and Europe.
In fulfilling this task, the Indian intelligentsia of tomorrow will have to solve a puzzle: what were the earlier generations of Indian thinkers busy with, in the course of the last two to three thousand years? The standard textbook story, which has schooled multiple generations including mine, goes as follows: caste system dominates India, strange and grotesque deities are worshipped in strange and grotesque ways, women are discriminated against, the practice of widow-burning exists and corruption is rampant.
If these properties characterize India of today and yesterday, the puzzle about what the earlier generation of Indian thinkers were doing turns into a very painful realization: while the intellectuals of European culture were busy challenging and changing the world, most thinkers in Indian culture were apparently busy sustaining and defending undesirable and immoral practices. Of course there is our Buddha and our Gandhi but that is apparently all we have: exactly one Buddha and exactly one Gandhi. If this portrayal is true, the Indians have but one task, to modernize India, and the Indian culture but one goal: to become like the West as quickly as possible.
However, what if this portrayal is false? What if these basically Western descriptions of India are wrong? In that case, the questions about what India has to offer the world and what the Indian thinkers were doing become important. For the first time, the current knowledge of India will be subject to a kind of test that has never occurred before.
Why ‘for the first time’? The answer is obvious: the prevailing knowledge of India among the English-educated elite was generated primarily when India was colonized. Subsequent to the Indian independence, India suffered from poverty and backwardness. In tomorrow’s world, the Indian intellectuals will be able to speak back with a newly found confidence and they will challenge European and American descriptions of India. That is, for the first time, they will test the Western knowledge of India and not just accept it as God’s own truth. This has not happened before; it will happen for the first time.
Generations of Indian intellectuals have accepted these descriptions as more or less true. The future generations will not be so accommodating though: they will test these answers for their truth. I say this with confidence because I find that more and more people in India are gravitating towards this kind of research. These are not of mere academic interest to such people, whose numbers steadily increase. Many of them realize that Western explanations of their religions and culture trivialize their lived experiences; by distorting, such explanations transform these, and this denies Indians access to their own experiences. It can thus be said to rob them of their inner lives. But that is not all. More than most, they realize that answers to these and allied questions about the nature of Indian culture have the potential to ignite an intellectual revolution on a world scale.
The essays and critiques of Western scholarship on India’s religions contained in this book must be seen as the early signs of this awakening, and of this questioning. It is thus an important chronicle of the beginnings of a shift. Some of the essays are critical surveys of what is still being purveyed as factual and veridical knowledge about India and Hinduism. These are often startling and shocking to the Indian reader, but serve the useful purpose of benchmarking the state of current Western ‘knowledge’ about India. Others are critiques of the application of European ideas like psychoanalysis to Indian culture. But all of them, at various levels, must ask the question — is the Western academia producing knowledge about India?
The latter half of the book chronicles how key sections of the academic establishment in America have responded to these challenges, and tries to understand how they processed it as a threat rather than as a long overdue call for a dialog. The book suggests that the answers to some of these questions may lie in American culture and its European roots. In many ways, therefore, the book is an attempt to reverse the gaze on the West, and is sure to make for provocative reading.
University of Ghent,