Negative portrayals of non-Western Cultures like Indian: Secularization of Christianity – S.N. Balagangadhara

I want to raise three issues: (a) how to analyze what Rajiv portrays about Wendy and her children in the field of religious studies; (b) depending on that, what an adequate response consists of. Before we do either (this is one of the things I have discovered through my own research during the last two decades), we need to be clear about (c) how we should not analyze this situation. Given that all three (in their general form) have been my obsessions, I have been reflecting on them deeply, seriously and systematically for some time now. I would like to share some of the results of this reflection. In the first part, I will take a (rather slow) run up to tackling the third issue first. And even here, I look at RISA lila as an exemplification of a more general issue or as an expression of a much broader tendency.

I. How not to analyze?


Perhaps, it is best to begin in an autobiographical mode. I came to (continental) Europe some 25 years ago, naively thinking that ‘cultural difference’ is something that ‘cosmopolitan’ Indians would not experience: after all, I had studied natural sciences in India; knew English rather well; was more familiar with the British and European history than I was with that of India (I once had plans to join the IAS by doing exams on these subjects); felt right at home with the Western philosophy … It took me about 4 years of living in Europe, without relating to any Indian (or even Asian) community because I did not want to land up in an emotional and social ghetto, to realize that I was wrong: ‘cultural differences’ were no fictitious invention of anthropologists; it involved more than being a vegetarian or being barefoot at home when the weather was not too cold. This realization was instrumental in shaping my research project: what makes the Indian culture different from that of the West? (I never felt anything other than an Indian amongst the Europeans.)


I began to research this issue with some vague hunches and intuitions as my reference points: there was no literature to guide me in my endeavor. Of course, the first fields I went into were Indology and Anthropology. Pretty soon I discovered that neither was of any use. Not only did they fail to provide me with any insights, but they also succeeded in merely enraging me: the kind of rage you feel when you read the analyses of Wendy Doniger or Kripal. Indology is full of ‘insights’ like those you have read in Rajiv’s article. What has varied over time is the intellectual jargon that clothes these ‘analyses’. Going deeper into the history of these disciplines (with respect to India) drove home some lessons very deeply: in both form and content, there was pretty little to differentiate between the Christian missionary reports of the 18th to 20th centuries and the Indological tracts. And that between a Herder and a Goethe on the one hand (the German Romantics who ‘praised’ India while being derogatory about it at the same time) and a James Mill and an Abbé Dubois on the other, there was not much of a space to draw a dividing line. Researching further, I discovered that these ‘Indological truths’ were enshrined in the ‘modern’ social sciences: whether you read along with a Max Weber on ‘ The Religions of India’ or thought along with a Karl Marx on the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ or even disagreed with the omnipresent ‘Oriental Despotism’ of a Karl Wittfogel. Modern psychoanalysis of India, beginning with Carstair’s ‘The Twice Born’ through ‘The Oceanic Feeling’ of Mussaief-Masson (another Indologist using psychoanalysis to understand Indian religions), had already told our tale: Indian culture was ‘narcissistic’ (in the sense of ‘secondary narcissism’) and thus pathological in nature.


My initial reactions to these discoveries were: horror, rage and a conviction that ‘racism’ is inherent in these writings. Pretty soon, this conviction about ‘racism’ of European authors gave way to doubts: Is it possible to convict all European authors of racism? Are we to assume that, in the last 400 years or so, all writers who wrote on India were racists? If yes, how to understand the powerful impact these writers and their theories have had on the Indian authors and Indian social sciences? If no, why did they say pretty similar things? Is one to say that the ‘respected’ Indian social scientists are no better than brown sahibs? Is Indian social science merely a disguised variant of Indology? So on and so forth.


Today, many of us are familiar with Edward Said and his book ‘Orientalism’. In his wake, many buzz-words like ‘essentialism’, ‘Eurocentrism’ (though interesting, Blaut is not theoretically well-equipped), ‘Orientalist discourse’, the ‘us-them dichotomy’ etc. whiz around. I would be the last to detract from the merits of Said’s book: he was one of the earliest writers to have drawn attention to the systematic nature of the western way of talking about the Orient. Despite this, the concept ‘Orientalism’ is totally inadequate to analyze the situation underlying RISA lila. Surely, the question is: Why is the West Orientalist? Said’s plea ends up denying any possibility of understanding cultural differences or indeed why Orientalism came into being, or what sustains it. To say, as the ‘post-colonials’ do, that the relation between ‘power/knowledge’ answers this question is to make a mystique of the dyad of Foucault as though it ‘explains’ anything. If this buzzword does anything at all, it helps us ‘explain’ why the ‘post-colonials’ earn a good living in the States: they talk the talk of their employees, and walk the walk of their patrons. (This is not to deny that there are genuine and committed people among them, or even to deny that they want to address themselves to genuine and urgent issues. It is only to draw attention to the phenomenon of ‘post-colonialism’.)

What I am saying is that one should not think that these paintings are ‘racist’, or ‘orientalist’ or a ‘eurocentric’ . These words obfuscate the deeper issue, one which is more insidious than any of the above three. It might or might not be the case that Wendy and her children are ‘racist’; ditto about their ‘eurocentrism’ or ‘orientalism’. But when you realize that they are not saying anything that has not been said in the last three hundred years (despite their fancy jargon), the question becomes: why does the western culture systematically portray India in these terms? To say that western culture is, in toto, racist or ‘eurocentric’ is to say pretty little: even assuming, counterfactually, that the western culture is all these things (and that all the westerners are ‘racist’, etc), why do these attitudes persist, reproduce themselves and infect the Indians?

There is a weightier reason not to tread this path. In fact, it has been a typical characteristic of western writings on other cultures (including India) to characterize the latter using terms that are only appropriate to describe individual psychologies: X culture is stupid, degenerate, and irrational; Y culture is childish, immature, intuitive, feminine, etc. To simply repeat these mantras after them is to achieve very little understanding.


Many say repeatedly that these writings ‘deny agency to the Indian subjects’. I am familiar with this phrase through ‘post-colonial’ writings. This too is a mantra; like many of them, without having the desired effect. And why is that? It might appear to make sense if we merely restrict ourselves to Wendy and her children’s analyses of Ganesha, Shiva or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. However, it loses all plausibility when we realize that, for instance, social sciences use one and the same ‘epistemology’ to analyze both the west and India and that despite this, their claims about India reproduce the ‘Indological truths.’ (Those who do not believe me are invited to dip, for example, into those multiple theories of ‘the Indian Caste System’: from the sociobiological theories of a Van den Berghe – a sociologist – through the social choice theories of an Olson jr. – an economist-cum-political scientist. Even a book that wants to criticize the writings that ‘deny agency’ to the Indians, ‘Castes of Mind’ of Nicholas Dirks, ends up doing nothing else than ‘deny agency to the Indians’.) Quite clearly, ‘the problem’ cannot be solved by ‘discovering’ some or another pet epistemology (like Ronald Inden does, in appealing to Collingwood).


In a way, one could say, we need to do to the west what it has done to us, namely, study it anthropologically. But how to go about doing this and not simply reproduce what generations of thinkers (from the west) have already said about the West? It is amusing to use Freud to analyze their Freudian analyses of Indian religions; or use Patanjali’s Chakras to typify their personalities. But at the end of the day, we are still left with the task of studying and understanding why the western culture talks about us the way it does.


In other words, it would be a conceptual blunder to look either at Wendy or her children as exponents of racism, eurocentrism or even Orientalism alone. (They might be any or all the three. But that does not really matter.) We need to realize that they are doing two things simultaneously: drawing upon the existing social sciences and also contributing to their further ‘development’.


I will explain the significance of the last sentence later. For the present, let me just say this: our problems do not either begin or end in religious studies or Indology. They are deeper. Much, much deeper. To tackle RISA lila as a separate phenomenon, i.e., to focus either on Wendy or her parampara alone, would be to compound tragedy with conceptual blunder. Not only that. It would prevent us from understanding RISA lila for what it is: a phenomenon that is typical of the western culture.

II. How to analyze social sciences: Secularization

Earlier, I drew attention to the fact that Wendy and her children draw from the existing social sciences, while contributing at the same time to their further ‘development’. In this post, I will elaborate what this statement means, what it implies, and what it says about the ‘western culture’. Let me see how far I can go in this post with respect to the objective without being inordinately long. However, it is only fair that I warn you beforehand: I will only be able to isolate an important thread; within the confines of this post, I cannot prove my claims. (To those interested in ‘proofs’, I refer them to my book.)


1. Not many would challenge the claim that Christianity has been highly influential in the development of the western culture. We need to take this statement utterly seriously. It means that many things we ‘take for granted’, whether in the West or in India, come from the influence that Christianity has exerted.


I claim that Christianity expands in two ways. (This is not just typical of Christianity but of all religions. I will talk only of Christianity because I want to talk about the western culture.) Both of these have been present ever since the inception of Christianity and have mutually reinforced each other. The first is familiar to all of us: direct conversion. People from other cultures and ‘religions’ are explicitly converted to Christianity and thus the community of Christian believers grows. This is the ‘surface’ or explicit expansion of Christianity. In India, both in the colonial and modern times, this has been a theme of intense controversy but, according to me, not of very great consequence when compared to the second way Christianity also expands.


2. Funnily enough, the second way in which Christianity expands is also familiar to us: the process secularization. I claim that Christianity ‘secularizes’ itself in the form of, as it were, ‘dechristianised Christainity’. What this word means is: typically Christian doc trines spread wide and deep (beyond the confines of the community of Christian believers) in the society dressed up in ‘secular’ (that is, not in recognizably ‘Christian’) clothes. We need a very small bit of Western history here in order to understand this point better.


2.1. Usually, the ‘enlightenment period’, which is identified as ‘the Age of Reason’, is alleged to be the apotheosis (or the ‘high point’) of the process of ‘secularization’. What people normally mean by ‘secularization’ here is the following: the enlightenment thinkers are supposed to have successfully ‘fought’ against the dominance that religion (i.e. Christianity) had until then exercised over social, political, and economic life. From then on, so goes the standard text book story, human kind began to look to ‘reason’ instead of, say, the Church in all matters social, civic, political etc. The spirit of scientific thinking, which dominated that age, has continued to gain ascendancy. As heirs to this period, which put a definitive end to all forms of ‘irrational’ subservience, we are proud citizens of the modern day world. We are against all forms of despotism and we are believers in democracy; we believe in the role of reason in social life; we recognize the value of human rights; and we should understand that ‘religion’ is not a matter for state intervention, but a ‘private’ and personal affair of the individual in question. This, as I say, is the standard text book story.


2.2. The problem with this story is simply this: the enlightenment thinkers have built their formidable reputation (as opponents of ‘all organized religion’ or even ‘religion’ tout court) by selling ideas from Protestant Christianity as though they were ‘neutral’ and ‘rational’. Take for example the claim that ‘religion’ is not a matter for state intervention and that it is a ‘private’ affair of the individual in question. (Indian ‘secularists’ agitatedly jump and down to ‘defend’ this idea.) Who thought, do you think, that ‘religion’ was not a ‘private’ affair? The Catholic Church, of course. Even to this day, it believes that you should believe what the Church says, and that because the Church mediates between Man and God, what you believe in (as a Christian) is decided by the Catholic Church. The Protestants fought a battle with the Catholics on theological grounds: they argued that ‘being a Christian believer’ (or what the Christian believes in) is matter between the Maker (i.e. God) and the Individual. It was God (i.e. the Christian God), who judged man; and men could not judge each other in matters of Christian faith. The Church, they argued, could not mediate between Man and God (according to their interpretation of the Bible); the Catholic Church argued that men could not, using only their reasoning and interpretative abilities, interpret the Word of God (i.e. the Bible). To think so is to be seduced by the Devil, and the only guarantee against the seduction by the Devil and eternal damnation was the Church itself and its interpretation of the Bible. (There is a famous doctrine of the Catholic Church, which says, ‘Extra ecclesiam nulla salus’: there is no salvation – i.e. being saved from the clutches of the Devil – outside the Church.) To cut the long story short, the Protestants won this theological battle. The enlightenment thinkers repeated this Protestant story, and this has become our ‘secularism’.


2.3. The same story applies with respect to what is enshrined in the UN charter. The doctrine of Human Rights (as we know them today) arose in the Middle Ages, when the Franciscans and the Dominicans fought each other. (Both are religious orders within the Catholic Church.) All theories of human rights we know today were elaborated in this struggle that continued nearly for two hundred years. They were theological debates, to understand which one needs to understand Christian theology. (Just take my word for it for now.) When John Locke (a British philosopher) started talking about ‘Natural Rights’ in the 18th century, he was simply regurgitating a theological debate within Christianity.


2.4. I am not merely making the point that these ideas had their origin in religious contexts. My point is much more than that: I claim that we cannot accept these theories without, at the same time, accepting Christian theology as true. What the western thinkers have done over the centuries (the Enlightenment period is the best known for being the ‘high point’ of this process) is to dress up Christian theological ideas (I am blurring the distinction between the divisions within Christianity) in a secular mantle. Not just this or that isolated idea, but theological theories themselves.


2.5. I am not in the least suggesting that this is some kind of a conspiracy. I am merely explicating what I mean when I say that Christianity spreads also through the process of secularization. What have been secularized are whole sets of ideas about Man and Society which I call ‘Biblical themes’. They are Biblical themes because to accept them is to accept the truth of the Bible. Most of our so-called ‘social sciences’ assume the truth of these Biblical themes.


2.6. I know this sounds unbelievable; but I have started to prove them. I have already shown, for example, that the so-called religious studies presuppose the truth of Christian theology. That is why, when they study the so-called ‘religions’ from other cultures, their results do not fundamentally differ from a theological treatment of the same religions. In the book I am now writing on ethics, I am able to show the same: the so-called secular ethics are ‘secularizations’ of Christian ethics. That is why, according to the modern ‘secular’ ethics, we are either ‘immoral’ or ‘moral cretins’. According to the Christianity, only the ‘true’ religion can provide a foundation for ethical behavior: the Heathens and the Pagans, because they worship the Devil, are either immoral or intellectually weak. Even in psychology, the notion of the development of ‘person’ (or ‘self’) is a non-trivial secularization of the Christian notion of ‘soul’. So I can go on, but I will not. Instead of convincing you, such a list might end up generating disbelief.


3. To begin to appreciate the plausibility (if not the truth) of my claim, ask yourselves the following question: why are the so-called ‘social sciences’ different from the natural sciences? I mean to say, why have the social sciences not developed the way natural sciences have? There must have been many geniuses in the social sciences; the mathematical and logical sophistication in some of the social sciences is simply mind-bending; we have computers and we can simulate almost anything. Comparatively speaking, it is not as though the social sciences are starved of funding or personnel. Despite all this, the social sciences are not progressing. Why is this? (When you have, say, a problem in a love-relationship, you do not open a text book on psychology; you look for a wise friend or an understanding uncle.) There are many answers provided in the history of philosophy and many of you may have your own ‘favorite’ explanation. Here is my answer: you cannot build a scientific theory based on theological assumptions. What you will get then is not a scientific theory, but an embroidering of theology. I put to you that this is what has happened. Most of our so-called social sciences are not ‘sciences’ in any sense of the term: they are merely bad Christian theologies.


4. If this is true, it also helps us understand why both ‘conversion’ and the notion of ‘secularism’ jar Indian sensibilities. Somehow or the other, Nehruvian ‘secularism’ always connotes a denigration of Indian traditions; if you look at the debates in the EPW and SEMINAR and journals like that, one thing is very clear: none of the participants really understands what ‘secularism’ means. In India, ‘secularism’ is counter posed to ‘communalism’; whereas ‘the secular’, in European languages, has only one contrast: ‘the sacred’. Now, of course, I do not want to make much out of this; but I thought that it would be interesting to draw your attention to this interesting fact.


5. To summarize what I have said so far. Christianity spreads in two ways: through conversion and through secularization. The modern day social sciences embody the assumptions of Christian theology, albeit in a ‘secularized’ form. That is why when Wendy and her children draw upon the resources of the existing social sciences, they are drawing upon Christian theology. In this Christian theology, we are worshippers of the Devil. Our gods are demons (followers of the devil). As such, amongst other things, they are perverts: sexually, morally and intellectually. The worshippers of the Devil (which is what we are) are also perverts: why otherwise would we follow the Devil or his minions? Even if Wendy and her children oppose a straightforward Christian understanding openly (because of their genuine conviction), their conclusions are no different from the simplistic story I have just sketched. How can they be driven to embrace Christian theology, even when they either openly reject it or when they know nothing of it? This will be one of the questions I will take up in my future posts, assuming that people remain interested.


6. This is the insidious process I talked about earlier: the process of secularization of Christian ideas. I have not been able to do justice to the richness of this process: an inevitable price one pays for condensing complex analyses into short posts. Let the ‘simplistic’ presentation not lead you to think that the ideas I am proposing are ‘simplistic’. They are not.


7. Why do we, the Indian intellectuals, not see this secularization straight away? Why is the process of secularization not visible to the western intellectuals? These are some of the obvious questions I will tackle.


III. Why Secularization not ‘visible’ to the Western intellectuals?


In a way, the answer can be provided in a single sentence: the research questions and the research framework of many-a-social science were set up explicitly by Christian theologians using the resources of Christian theology. (I am using ‘theology’ as a general term here.) Both the questions and answers have retained their intelligibility, even though the ‘explicit’ theology has faded into the background. A theological question does not cease to be theological just because the one who answers it does not know much about theology. The very fact that such questions make sense at all (and do not appear nonsensical) is the proof of the fact that the questioner remains within the ambit of a religious framework. (If you have no clue about Physics, the question ‘when does some stellar object become a quasar?’ will not make much sense. To answer it, if you can answer it at all, you need to draw upon the resources of theories in Physics.) However, this single sentence answer fails to capture the complexity and diversity of the process. Therefore, let me just illustrate what this process really means, or has meant. (I will be taking random examples, and of different kinds just to indicate the depth of the process. If one intends doing more than this, one will have to write umpteen books!)


1. Consider, to begin with, the very notion ‘the west’ or ‘the western culture’. During the first 800 years (after the year 300 C.E. – ‘Common Era’, which replaces AD that meant the year of the Lord, Anno Domini), it was ‘Eastern Christianity’ (i.e. the Christianity of the Byzantine Empire with its centre in Constantinople) that dominated the Christian communities. The Church in Rome was merely one of the churches within Christianity. The ‘evangelization’ of Europe really begins in earnest after 900 C.E. This was a process launched by the Church in Rome, and it occurred in areas to ‘the west’ of Rome. For this reason, this Christianity came to be called ‘Western Christianity’ and the emergence of this Christendom to the west of Rome is the emergence of ‘the West’.


2. Consider these two famous research questions about the ‘transition’ in history (of both the ‘leftist’ and the ‘rightist’ variety): when and how did transition from ‘slavery’ to ‘feudalism’ occur in Europe? This issue was discussed by theologians and theological historians for a long time in the following form: how did Christianity put an end to the Pagan Rome? The historians discussed precisely this issue, and in this form, till the end of the eighteenth century as well. The division they made between ‘epochs’ (a word coined by a French Christian Priest called Bossuet during the 18th century) was the one between pre-Christian (pagan) Rome and the post-Christian Rome. The very same issue, with the very same division has now become a ‘scientific’ question in the guise of: how did feudalism put paid to slavery? The same can be said about another transition question that bothers Marxist historians: how did feudalism (an ‘epoch’ of social production) give way to Capitalism in ‘the West’? Do you know what this question is a complex translation of? ‘Why did the Protestant reformation against the Catholic Church gain foothold?’


3. Consider the emergence of the Legal System in the western culture. Its origin does not lie in the Roman Law but in the Church. The theologians of the Roman Catholic Church turned to the Roman jurists in their attempts to build a legal structure for the Church. (This is called the famous ‘Gregorian reformation’ of the Catholic Church.) Thus a complex system of laws and their justifications (including terms that are fundamental to the modern jurisprudence) arose, called ‘The Canon Law’. The ‘Civil Law’ (using this as a general term) was built by the theologians by modeling it after the Canon Law. Till the 18th century, ‘the faculty of law’ was a part of the ‘faculty of theology’ in the western universities and taught only by theologians. To this day, in many universities in Europe this theological heritage is still maintained in the way the law faculties are called: ‘Rechtenfaculteit’ (‘Rechten’ is the plural of ‘Das Recht’), referring to the two laws – the canon law and civil law.


4. Consider too, for example, one of the notions fundamental to Modern Jurisprudence: ‘will’. There have been umpteen discussions about this notion in Philosophy, Law, Psychology, etc. Clearly, or so we think, human beings have a will and exercise it as well. What is the origin of this picture of human beings? Till 300 B.C.E. this notion was ‘absent’ in what we call the western culture today. Neither the Greek thinkers (like Plato or Aristotle), nor the Roman jurists (who wrote their law digests) had such a notion or such a picture of human beings. The first person to struggle with this notion and write tracts about it was Saint Augustine, one of the most influential Fathers of the Christian Church. Why did the Christians find this notion important? Because, they think, the universe exemplifies the Will of God and human beings should subordinate themselves to this Will. That is to say, the human will must subordinate itself to the divine will. What is human ‘will’ then? What does this subordination consist of? These and many similar questions arose within the ambit of Christian theology, presupposing a Christian picture of Man. (A picture that was neither Greek nor Roman, and is definitely not Indian.) Yet, how many of us do not practice Law, read and write about human will and even assume as an empirical fact that it is in the nature of being human that we have will? (This is no fact, but a Christian theological picture of man.)


5. Take, as another kind of an example, the issue of ‘freedom’. This issue is a central one in Philosophy, in moral theories, in political theories (about Stat e and society), in legal theories, and psychological theories, etc. If you were to blandly state this issue in a single sentence: it is a good thing that people are ‘free’ and that every one ‘ought’ to be ‘free’. In ethical theories, for instance, a moral action is an action of choice, made freely without coercion. In fact, in the absence of ‘freedom’ morality is not possible. Let me just draw a contrast between this way of thinking (which appears to be true on the basis of ‘universal consent’) and our ideas about ‘karma’ and ‘rebirth’. (You need not assume the ‘truth’ of punarjanma in order to follow my point.) If the fruits of one’s action do not track (very strictly) the agent across several lives, the idea of both ‘Karma’ and ‘rebirth’ become senseless. Somehow or the other, these notions are parts of our (i.e. Indian) understanding of morality. That means to say, if there was no binding and strict determinism, ethics is impossible. Here, then, the contrast: according to the western culture, moral action is impossible if it is not ‘free’; according to us, without strict determinism, moral action is impossible. Yet, how many of us do not act as though ‘freedom’ is a ‘self-explanatory’ concept? Do you know what the origins (it has multiple theological loci) of this problem are? God created Man and gave him the ‘freedom’ to choose between God and the Devil. (In secularized terms, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.) The possibility of ‘salvation’ (i.e. of being ‘saved’ from the clutches of the Devil) depended on this ‘free choice’. Therefore, theological issues arose: What then does ‘human freedom’ mean? Why did God give ‘freedom’ to man? Are we ‘condemned’ to be ‘free’? etc. etc. Our svatantra does not mean ‘freedom’ as its contrast term paratantra indicates. Our ‘gods’ are sarva tantra svatantara, i.e. beings for whom all tantras are their ‘own’ (sva). What exactly are we doing then, when we discuss about a ‘free society’, ‘freedom’ of individuals, etc, etc?


6. Instead of carrying on in this vein let me round off in a different way. Fundamental to Christianity is its belief that there ‘ought’ to be scriptural sanction for actions in the world. In other words, this religion makes one seek scriptural foundations for one’s actions (whether for ‘sacred’ ones like ‘worshipping’ or to ‘secular’ ones like the attitude one should take regarding ‘strangers’ ). The scripture is one kind of ‘revelation’ of God’s will; the Nature also reveals God’s Will. One studies both in order to find out what God Wills so that one may become a part of God’s purposes (for human kind) on earth. The Church, as a social organism, confronted many social and political problems during its history. Whether it was a revolt of the peasants, or a fight with the monarchs about the nature of political authority, these phenomena were conceptualized as problems within theology. That is to say, both the way the Church formulated the problem and its responses were founded on the scriptures (and the writings of t he church fathers). The problem of state and society, the limits of political power, etc. were actual issues that the Church confronted. The way it formulated these issues and the kind of answers it sought, etc. were theological in nature. These very same questions and answers (and the underlying framework) have been taken over by the so-called social sciences. So, when they further go on along this track, all they are doing is further embroider Christian theology. No matter what they think they are doing, they are not doing science. Even when they speak of things that become totally nonsensical, if and when explicit theology is left out, they continue to talk as though it makes sense.


For an example of this sort, take the notion of ‘polytheism’ that anthropology of religion, practitioners of ‘religious studies’, sociologists, etc. use. This notion is contradictio in terminis, that is to say, it is internally contradictory. ‘Polytheism’ refers to a doctrine that countenances multiple ‘gods’. What does it mean to speak of multiple ‘gods’? It is to say that there is more than one ‘God’. (There must be at least two). However, who or what is ‘God’ that there may be more than one? If, in order to answer this question, one refers to the meaning of this word, unsurprisingly it turns out, the dictionary meaning is also the meaning of Christian religion. Amongst other things, ‘God’ is the creator of the universe. If this is what God means, there cannot be more than one ‘God’. (How can one make sense of the statement that there are multiple ‘creators’, when ‘God’ refers to that being which created the Universe?) How, then, can one speak of ‘polytheism’? Only if one assumes that there is one ‘God’ and some several other creatures who are other than this ‘God’ and yet claim the status of ‘godhood’. The claim of such creatures must be false: because the very definition of ‘God’ attributes this status to only one entity. Or, there must be one ‘true’ God, and many ‘false’ gods, who are different from and other than the True One. This is precisely what Christian theology says: there is but one ‘true’ God, and there are many ‘false’ gods (the Devil and his minions). A ‘Polytheist’, then, worships these multiple ‘gods’ (and not the True One). That is to say, a polytheist is a ‘heathen’ who worships the devil. This is what Christianity said of the Roman religions, the Greek religions, the Indian ‘religions’, etc. How is it possible that ‘scientific’ studies take over the word ‘polytheism’ and blithely use it without recognizing that it is senseless to do so without assuming the truth of Christian theology?


7. What I am saying, in other words, is that the western intellectuals are blind to secularized theology, because that is all they know. This is their tool, and they have no other. Only when we develop alternate manners of theorizing about Man and Society will they too be able to see the theological nature of their thinking. Until such stage, all they can do is to ridicule the suggestion that they are merely embroidering theology.


8. The process of secularization of Christianity is complex, rich and varied. In each of the domains I have researched, the form of secularization of theology has been different. The routes travelled have been varied: but the results have been the same. But this should not transform my suggestion into a mantra. We need to plot out the rich and varied contours of the process of secularizing of Christianity. When we do so, we will truly be initiating a revolution in human thinking: at last, one can begin to speak in terms of the sciences of the social. Until such stage, all we have are bad Christian theologies masquerading as ‘social sciences’.

IV. What should be done?

Thus far we have seen that the western representations of India do not so much express the perfidious intentions (or subconscious desires) of the writers as much as the secularized Christian theology that guides research. If this is true, there arise other questions that beg clarification: what, then, could we say about the Indian writings in Indology, sociology, etc? Are the Indian writers too not influenced, whether directly or indirectly, by the very same ‘theories’ that incorporate the secularized Christian theology? If they are, surely, there will be but a thin dividing line between the Indian representations of India and the western ones. If they are not, how could they be impervious to and unaffected by secularized Christian theories, while their western colleagues are? Despite the enormous importance of this theme, I shall leave it aside for now.


In explaining the obliviousness of western thinkers to their acceptance of secularized theology, I suggested that only when we present alternate ways of describing the world could they gain insight to the theological nature of their endeavor. If this diagnosis stands up to scrutiny, our task is also clear: start working towards the goal of building such theories. In the last two decades, I have come to the realization that there is far more to this task than is apparent at first sight. My ideas on this matter have evolved not only by studying histories and sociologies of science (about how theories grow, get propagated and get accepted) but also by appreciating the complexity of the task while trying to carry it out. Here, I want to share some of my thoughts on this subject.


1. Let me begin by picking up an obvious question: Why should we be bothered to carry this task out (and all that it entails) at all? Of course, no one is or can ever be compelled to carry this task out. Yet, there is a partial answer that can go some way in meeting the real concern behind this problem. Because of reasons of space, let me make talk about Indian culture as an entity and about its experiments to provide some semblance of an answer.


2. Imagine, if you will, that Indian culture is an entity and that all Indians are its members. Imagine too that one day, it realized that it was not sure any more about the nature of the world it inhabited: What should it be doing? What is its place? How should it adapt? What does adaptation consist of? The only way it can ever find answers to these questions is through experimentation: trying out this or that strategy, growing new things as and when needed. Only its members can help of help; they are the ones to experiment with. Let us agree not to ask further questions about how this culture came to this realization and that we do not dispute about dating this event: India’s independence from the British. Thus, this entity, the Indian culture, takes to massive experimentation telescoping, in this process, events of many decades elsewhere into a single decade (and sometimes even less) in its history. Let us chronicle these experiments.


First, it takes to ‘socialism’: ‘Nehruvian’ socialism, the socialism of Lohia, the socialist attempts of the communist parties of India. Just as these experiments take-off, this culture starts exploring their limits even before a new generation is born: the Naxalites and the ML movement in Bengal impact India’s youth in different parts of India and both socialisms (of Lohia and of Nehru) begin to crack under the pressure of events even as, in the late 60’s, people elsewhere in the world begin to discover ‘student power’. Many activist youth groups emerge in different parts of India, born outside the existing left, but already radicalized. Just as these groups appeared to run out of steam, the Indian culture paused, and as though considering, plunges into another massive experimentation: ‘Dalit’ movement, ‘secessionist’ movements, which pits not the bourgeoisies against the proletariat but groups against each other. Even as these impact the culture, through ‘reservation policies’ and contraction of the living space for some of India’s children, a new experimentation begins: it is time for ratha yatra and Babri Masjid. This experimentation still continues and as it does, this entity launches yet another with no parallels in human history: the Indian culture sends two or more millions of its members to America. This is no exodus, much less of an exile, even if these members insist on speaking of the ‘Diaspora’.


3. What has Indian culture found out through all these experiments? Some of India’s children still continue with these experiments; some have ceased doing so. This means either some answers are no answers at all or at best, partial ones. Is India ‘socialist’? Or is she the proletariat? Or, perhaps, the landless peasant? Is she the ‘Dalit’, or merely the ‘woman’? Has she always been a Sikh, a Tamil or a Marathi, and never a single entity? Is she a ‘Hindu’, a Muslim or merely ‘secular’?


India, it appears, has been interrogating herself through all these experiments: who is she? This is no third-rate ‘identity politics’ of the post-colonials taught in Chicago or Columbia, but the strivings of a culture. We, her children, express this striving as well. Whatever our individual motives, whatever our individual biographies, today, on this thread, we too are asking the same question: what is it to be an Indian?


4. Much like her, we cannot reject the past: without it, we are not who we are any more. Nor could we turn our back to the present: that is where we have to live. Our cultural past must be made to talk in the language of the present: that, I have discovered, is the task for the future. At this moment, however, we need to become aware that we are asking this question and that the answer matters to each one of us. That is why we should be bothered about carrying out the task I spoke of.


What is involved in accomplishing this task? Here too the answer is simple: a collective effort. What does such an effort entail? I can share the results of my reflections on my experience in pursuing this task for nearly two decades now.


5. The first step, quite obviously, calls for spreading awareness about the nature of western representations of India. This entails that we find (a) people willing not only to challenge the western ‘scholars’, where and when they give talks in public forums about India etc. but also (b) speakers from the Indian community in the US, who try actively to supplant these ‘scholars’.


This requires that such speakers are continuously fed with literature of two sorts: (a) a debunking kind; and (b) the sort which provides new and novel conceptualizations of many aspects of the Indian culture itself.


This suggests that a serious and systematic research must be undertaken by many different people on many different themes. My knowledge of the intellectual scene tells me that there are very few such people. So, one has to look at recruiting younger, gifted people into doing research.


For this to happen, we need three things: (a) an intellectual visibility and respectability for this kind of research so that fine, younger minds are attracted: (b) a reward system that makes it worthwhile for them to pursue such a research for a decade at least; (c) a training in not only doing such research, but also help in publishing them in highly visible journals so that they can then go on to populate chairs in the academia.


6. Parallel to doing all these, there is also the mammoth task of planting these seeds in the Indian soil itself. In order to appreciate the complexity of this task, we need to have some answers I raised in the first paragraph. Let us, therefore, leave this aspect of the enterprise out of this post for the moment.


7. If these things are to happen at all, it is obvious that we need an organization. Only such an entity can formulate such long term plans, translate them into viable strategies, and pursue them systematically.


8. Can this be done? I personally believe so. We have the kind of brains we need: people who can strategize; those can build organizations: those who can raise finances; those who can go straight to the heart of a problem and represent it in simple terms; based on little material, those who anticipate and formulate central questions for enquiry; and, above all, an interested and concerned audience.


9. India, today, is at a cross-road: she has been in many such cross-roads in the past, and she will be in many more in the future. Neither is relevant to us, because we can make a difference only to this one. We have the persons. We have the brains. We have the talents. We have the energy. We have the money. We have the instruments, the knowledge and the abilities. We have the capacity to create the know-how as we work on the project. What more do we need?

I think our culture is going to see a renaissance. Such a renaissance will be of importance not just to us, Indians, but to the entire humankind. Because it is going to lay the real foundations for the sciences of the social and thus give a surprising answer to the question, ‘what is to be an Indian?’ This process is going to take place: sooner, if we can accelerate the pace; later, if we do nothing about it. In the latter case, that event may not happen in your lifetime or mine; but happen it shall. Of this, I am utterly convinced. It is this conviction that has kept me going all these years; it is the same conviction that has made me want to reach out to those of you who have followed this discussion about RISA lila.



  • Gayathri

    Could you please give the reference of ‘Rajiv’ in the article?