Colonial Consciousness as a process and as an event

It is an event because the colonial consciousness that I am talking about comprises of multiplicity of actions executed by indefinitely many Indians over a long period. It is a process because colonial consciousness reproduces itself, colonial consciousness is transmitted from generation to generation and it is learnt. Consequently, we need to understand the mechanisms of this process and the structure of that event.

At the minimum, this process has to be cognitive in nature. It must be cognitive because a cognitive framework (and theories within that framework) denies access to our experience and makes us reproduce some sets of descriptions as though they are descriptions of our experience. It has to be cognitive at the minimum because in reproducing some sets of descriptions and in embellishing them with details, we act as though we understand such descriptions. In other words, the growth and spread of colonial consciousness requires some kind of a cognitive explanation.

When we talk about colonial consciousness, we face four kinds of issues, none of which should be lost sight of. The first issue is about the nature of that experience which we do talk about, when we use colonial descriptions. In some articles, I have called it “the colonial experience”. What is this “colonial experience”?

For the time being, the word ‘colonial experience’ picks out the experience of the colonial masters and their subjects. The colonial masters described their experience but in the belief that they were describing the world (and the colonized).They described their experience in terms of the features of the world that generated such an experience. How could a description of some features of the world be the same as a description of the experience of some aspects of the world? Under some (unspecified and at the moment unspecifiable) assumptions about human psychology, we need to add the premise that unless we are hallucinating, our experience of the world is veridical. (That is, unless we are hallucinating, our senses tell us what there is in the world.) This is a premise that all human beings normally accept. Therefore, in and of itself, there is nothing surprising that the colonial masters should describe their experience in terms of the nature of colonial subjects. (They experienced Indians as lazy, corrupt, dishonest, backward, immoral, etc. This was their experience but they formulated it in terms of the features of the world.) In this sense, the descriptions of their experience were not subjective but wholly objective. In fact, we can show that the colonial masters are wrong only because they have provided us with objective (and not subjective) descriptions of the world. My research programme, unlike the others, does not deny objectivity to these descriptions by suggesting that such descriptions are not describing some features of the world and that they have to be explained by appealing to ‘racism’, ‘white superiority’ or any number of such assumptions. Instead, I guarantee objectivity to these descriptions by anchoring them in the culture of the colonial masters. This is required because the belief that such descriptions are objective descriptions was very much part of the colonial experience.

For their part, the colonized accepted such descriptions as descriptions of their experience of the world. (There is also another way of saying the same, which does not appear very productive: the colonized accepted the claims of the colonizers as objective descriptions of the world as well.) There arises a crucial question now: if the Indian culture differs from the western culture, there will have to be a mismatch between the way the west described its experience of the Indian culture and the way Indians experienced themselves. Assuming this, what made Indians even think that the British experience of India was also the Indian experience of their own culture? This question becomes even more acute because of another claim I am developing in the course of my research: one of the characteristic aspects of the Indian culture has been its continuous emphasis on reflecting on experience. Consequently, what made the Indian intellectuals blind to the nature of their own experience?

As of now, I have answered this general question with three sub-hypotheses. Each of these hypotheses corresponds to the three other issues that we should not lose sight of when speaking about colonial consciousness.

The first is the hypothesis about the Islamic rule. I believe that it was not a mere rule but a colonization of India instead. Islamic colonization did what any and every colonialism does: it denies access to experience. By destroying (and thus arresting) the learning and teaching processes of reflecting on experience, Islamic colonialism created a vacuum. By the time the British colonized India, by and large, the intellectuals had already ‘forgotten’ how to reflect on their own experiences. Islamic colonialism created a class of pundits, who were mostly divorced from the activity of producing knowledge, which, in India, was strictly tied to reflections on experience. Not that such pundits did not exist in India before the Islamic colonization. They did. However, Islamic colonization transformed them into the only guardians of the Indian intellectual tradition. British colonialism marginalized these pundits even more by creating a new class of intellectuals who were even further divorced (than these pundits) from the activity of producing knowledge that is characteristic of our culture. In destroying the class of Indian intellectuals, Islamic colonization damaged the Indian culture but did not destroy it. What was destroyed (in the process of damaging the culture) was both the production of and the capacity to produce our ‘equivalent’ of the western theories. Such damage is equivalent to destroying the institutions of learning in the west: it cripples the culture for a time, but the configuration of learning will (sooner or later) allow the reemergence of theoretical knowledge. This is the first sub-hypothesis.

The second sub-hypothesis follows upon the heels of the first. The framework that the British introduced did two things. Firstly, that framework secularized the Christian framework. For instance, it recast the nature of Indian traditions in terms of religions; it described Hinduism as a variant of Catholic Christianity and Buddhism as a variant of Protestant reformation. The tyranny of priesthood was as prevalent in India as it was in all heathen religions (including the heathen Catholicism). Entry into the temples became an important slogan because, the British thought, the power of the Brahminical ‘priests’ was located in their temples and the concomitant priestly powers. Breaking the powers of the ‘priest craft’ would be accomplished by insisting upon ‘universal entry’ into the ‘Hindu’ temples. And so on. Much of what they said and did can be shown to derive from this process of secularization. Secondly, this framework attached itself to reference points of the daily life and transformed them into elements of experience of the Indian culture itself. That is to say, this framework filled the vacuum that the Islamic colonization had created and began to function the way Indian theories had done before.

The last sentence requires some further explication. While Islamic colonization destroyed the centres of learning and arrested the process of reflections on experience, it did not provide the Indian culture either with an alternate way of reflecting on experience or with an alternate framework for reflecting on experience. It merely created a vacuum without putting anything else in the place of what it destroyed. The British colonialism did not destroy any centre of learning (partly because there were no such centres left to destroy) but, instead, filled the vacuum created by Islam. (When the British colonized us, the regeneration was already taking place in the Indian culture. This is evidenced in the way the Indian culture had begun to grow new traditions arising out of its contact with Islam. However, this process of regeneration was just in its early phases.) Its framework identified reference points (the massive ‘illiteracy’ of the Brahmins in their own ‘shastras’, for instance) and began to function as an explanation of (and thus a reflection about) of these reference points. Indians took to these explanations the way ducks take to water because they saw in this framework and its explanations something they were already familiar with: reflections and theorizing about experience. By identifying these reference points with the Indian culture, the British created a class of intellectuals who accepted the claims of the British (about the caste system, about ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’, and so on.).

However, it is one thing to believe that the description of the colonizer’s experience of the world is also the experience of the colonized but it is quite another thing altogether to ‘discover’ that it is also the same. When the two are not the same, there are only two ways to make them the same. The first is to deny oneself the access to one’s experience; the second, to the extent the mismatch keeps intruding, is to transform the description of the colonizer until it rhymes with the experience. I have already spoken of the first way in the above paragraph; therefore, let me look at the second way.

This, then, is the third hypothesis. We will have taken over the descriptions of the British and transformed them in such a way that they make surfacial sense to us (because they pick out the reference points the British identified). In the process, we will have created a demonstrable distance between the meanings and references contained in the colonial descriptions and our use of the same words. Given my research project, this distance can be ‘predicted’: the words we borrow will have no semantic connection with their meanings in the discourse used by the British and we will not be able to provide any reference to such words.

If the above sounds abstract, let me make it concrete. For instance, the British said that Hinduism is in need of a reformation. When they made such or similar statements, they had a very specific set of ideas in mind: Catholicism (and heathendom generally) is the sway of the priests who rule over the gullible. They do so by pretending that the prescriptions and the laws they, the priests, formulate are also the laws and prescriptions of God following which is necessary to salvation. Such additions corrupt the true religion not only because such laws are immoral but also because any human addition to the revelation of God is a corruption of the true religion. They saw such a priestcraft in Hinduism, such a protestant reformation in Buddhism. Of course, they merely said that Buddhism was the protestant reformation of India and not that following Buddhism allows one to seek salvation.

Given the absence of religion in India, there is no way on earth we could have understood the claims of the British (let alone the nuances in their claims). However, we would twist and distort them until it makes sense to us: we would have interpreted ‘reformation’ as the ‘process of introducing reforms’ (the way one reforms ‘laws’ and ‘education system’). To us, there would be no difference between ‘social reform’ and ‘religious reform’: human beings in quest of a ‘better’ system would undertake both. The clarion calls of the Indian ‘religious reformers’ of yesteryears or of the Yahoo internet group ‘Navya Shastra’ of today would be to ‘reform Hinduism’ so that it suits our modern day sensibilities. Not only that. Even the ‘rejection’ of ‘Hinduism’ will have followed the same lines: the belief that ‘Hinduism’ is too corrupt to be ‘reformed’ (because, say, of the caste system) and one should leave its folds and seek something ‘better’ elsewhere (Buddhism or Christianity because, say, they do not support a ‘caste system’). That means to say, both the ‘religious’ reformers and the ‘rebels’ against the caste system would share the same conviction: ‘Hinduism’ is in need of ‘reform’. It is antiquated, backward and a hindrance to everything that we believe in: equality of human beings, of widows, of the need for progress and change…

In the process of understanding ‘reform’ this way, we would completely fail to understand what the British said or what they could possibly mean. What makes a religion corrupt, to repeat, is the fact that human beings add to God’s revelation. Reformation rebelled against these additions (like the canon laws, the practice of indulgences, and so on). The Indian ‘reformers’, in the name of the same reformation, want to ‘delete’ things from ‘original revelation’ and ‘add’ new things, all of which are the results of human deliberations! In short, they look at ‘Hinduism’ as a creation of human beings (the way laws and education systems are) and want to ‘modernize’ it. In the eyes of the Protestants, it would be an abomination to put them in the same league as the Indian ‘religious’ or ‘social’ reformers. However, the Indian ‘reformers’ are totally oblivious to the situation. They repeat the British and, in doing so, they act as though they understand the British claims. Yet, when they ask the opposite of what the British could ever have asked for, they show us that they have no understanding of the British criticisms. This is an example of what I call colonial consciousness.

Such a consciousness is characterized by a double impotency. It is impotent to access its cultural experience. Where it does read the ‘shastras’ or uses ‘technical terms’ from them that have become a part of the daily language-use (‘atman’, ‘chitta’, ‘kosha’, Buddhi’, etc), it has no understanding of their meaning or reference. It is equally impotent to access the outlines of the experience of the western culture. Such impotent consciousness constitutes the class of Indian intellectuals today. Is there any wonder that they fail to produce any interesting reflections on either ‘secularism’ or political or cultural theory? Is there any wonder they are also incapable of bringing about any regeneration of the Indian culture? Most Pundits in India, the fossils created by Islam, reproduce Indian ‘shatsras’ mantrically without making any original contribution. The modern Indian intellectuals, another fossil created by the British, reproduce western claims equally mantrically without being able to make any original contribution to the regeneration of the Indian culture. Neither the children of the mullahs nor the children of Macaulay should belong anywhere other than in a Jurassic Park. I hope we can build such parks soon.