Why ‘Westology’ ala Indology doomed to fail?

1.1. The inherent logic of such an enterprise forces one, as it were, to build alternate theories to the existing, ‘western’ theories. Instead of explaining this statement in the abstract, let me take a concrete example to illustrate what I mean.

1.2. In the University of Chicago, there is a certain Richard Shweder. He practices ‘Cultural Psychology’, and is (was?) professor of ‘Human Development’. He is rather well-known for his ‘cross-cultural’ studies: he and his students have published many works comparing psychological developments across the two cultures that India and America are. (In fact, he received a medal from the American Association of the Advancement of Science, if I remember properly, for one of his articles: ‘Does the concept of the Person vary cross-culturally?’ This was a study about the concept of ‘self’ in the USA and Orissa, India.) A few years ago, he published a study on the nature of moral development and the growth of moral awareness cross-culturally: again, India and the USA were the two compared cultures.

1.3. To study this, Shweder and his co-workers developed a questionnaire supposed to test the presence of several moral notions among their subjects. (This article is called “Culture and Moral Development’, by Richard Shweder, Manamohan Mahapatra and Joan G. Miller. A convenient reprint is to be found in “Cultural Psychology: Essays on Comparative Human Development, Eds., James Stigler, Richard Shweder and Gibert Herdt, Cambridge University Press, 1990, Pp.130-204. I will cite from this work.) The interviewees are both children and adults. From the list of the cases that Shweder uses, here are the first five – in order of perceived ‘seriousness of breach’, as judged by Hindu Brahman eight-to ten-year-olds:

1. The day after his father’s death, the eldest son had a haircut and ate chicken.

2. One of your family members eats beef regularly.

3. One of your family members eats a dog regularly for dinner.

4. A widow in your community eats fish two or three times a week.

5. Six months after the death of her husband, the widow wore jewellery and bright-colored clothes (Ibid. p.165).

It is important to note that, in India, while there was a consensus between the children and the adults regarding the first two cases (p.184), there was a lack of consensus only among children regarding the last three cases. Keeping in mind that they are ordered in terms of the ‘perceived seriousness of the breach’, we further come across (ibid., P.165):

8. After defecation (making a bowel movement) a woman did not change her clothes before cooking.

13.In a family, a twenty-five-year-old son addresses his father by his first name.

And, as the fifteenth, “a poor man went to the hospital after being seriously hurt in an accident. At the hospital they refused to treat him because he could not afford to pay (ibid).”

1.4. We can, I suppose, grant the truth of these statements. We can grant too that many Indians (both children and adults) would probably consider such actions not just as paap but as mahapaap. If not ‘sins’, they are at least some kind of ‘ethical transgressions’ and not mere breaches of social etiquette. As the sequence of questions in the interview makes it clear, the respondents were asked to motivate (or clarify) their stance. A fragment from such interviews, applied to a hypothetical

Brahmin adult should make the point clear.

“1. Is the widow’s behavior wrong? (Yes, Widows should not eat fish ¼)

How serious is the violation? (A very serious violation¼)

Is it a sin? (Yes. It’s a “great” sin.) ¼ ” (p.168)

Let us consider a similar fragment from a hypothetical American adult.

“1. Is the widow’s behavior wrong? (No. She can eat fish if she wants to.)

How serious is the violation? (It’s not a violation.)

Is it a sin? (No.)” ¼ (ibid.)

1.5. If Shweder is right in identifying our paap either as ‘sin’ or as ‘immoral’, one conclusion is inescapable: we Indians must be absolute cretins really. I mean, we seem to think that what the widow eats, what she wears, etc. are ethically more important than whether a poor man gets treated in a hospital or not. However did our culture manage to survive for a couple of thousand years, when it is governed by such idiotic ‘norms’?

As though to rub salt in the wound, Shweder assures us that the situation is really not all that pathetic. In fact, he says, one could actually provide ‘reasoned defense of family life and social practice’, albeit in the form of an “ideal” argument structure. How does it look? “The body is a temple with a spirit dwelling in it. Therefore the sanctity of the temple must be preserved. Therefore impure things must be kept out of and away from the body (p. 198).” It is important to note that this ‘reasoned’ defense occurs only to Shweder’s mind: no child ‘argues’ the way Shweder does.

2. During the colonial period, we were described as immoral people. This is one end of the spectrum. At the other end, we have ‘liberals’ like Shweder, who make us into a bunch of moral cretins. So, it appears, we have two choices: either we are immoral or we are moral idiots. Not much of a choice, is it?

3. Why does this situation come about? This is not a translation problem (‘how should we translate paap into English?’), but an empirical and theoretical problem: what is it about the western ethical tradition that makes the Indian culture either immoral or morally senile?

4. To answer this question, we need to develop a theory of ethics, which does two things simultaneously: (a) show how and why there is an ethical domain in the Indian culture and in what ways it differs from the Western ethical domain; and (b) what are the constraints on the western ethical tradition that it is forced to describe us the way it has.

5. This means such a theory of ethics will be a direct competitor to the Western thinking on ethics. That is to say, our ‘westology’ will not remain a mere ‘westology’ but will be forced to provide an alternative and competing way of looking at the ethical phenomenon itself.

6. This is what I discovered when I started working my project out. My theory of religion is an alternate to the current theories of religion: it shows not merely that the western intellectuals are wrong but also explains why they had to be necessarily wrong. Idem for my current work in ethics.

7. It is here that one experiences the humiliation of racism. It is almost inconceivable to the western intellectuals, at least this has been my experience, that an Indian could stand up and prove that three hundred years of western scholarship has been wrong. You are never forgiven for this insult; I mean, it is simply not on. If you reproduce the ‘post-colonial’ verbiage, you will be rewarded with a professorship in Columbia, Chicago or California. But, beware, if you say, let us compete on equal terms scientifically; may the best theory carry the day; and that happens to be your theory!

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