Sanskrit Pundits, Indian texts, Colonial Consciousness

1. When we go-about with our fellow human beings, we need to possess some or another idea about the nature of ourselves and our fellow human beings. (Call it, for the sake of convenience, an ‘intuitive theory’ about human beings.) It is an implicit understanding because each one of us does not have to be a professional philosopher or psychologist to get along with ourselves and fellow human beings. So, in principle, we must possess a vocabulary to talk about human beings; if we do not, we can neither talk about human beings nor could we make sense of their actions in the world.

2. We do seem to possess a vocabulary and the words in these vocabularies appear to have meanings that make sense to the users of the language. Yet, and this the absence I am talking about, we are unable to identify what these words refer to. The user of the word ‘manas’ cannot identify which part of him is the ‘manas’; he wants to get rid of ‘manovikaara’ in himself but he does not know whether that means he should not experience ’emotions’ (anger, sorrow, contentment…) and, if this is what it means, how not to feel the emotions. Should he control his ‘manas’ (how does he control what he does not know?), should he keep is ‘Chitta’ untainted (‘chittashuddhi’, but he does not know what his chitta is or where it is located except that it has something to do with himself)? How does he do either of the two? He knows he has to do ‘sankalpa’ but he knows that no matter how often he tells himself (“is this not what ‘sankalpa’ is?” he asks himself often) not to get angry, he continues to get angry. And so on.

3. Being unhappy in life, he wants to be happy. (He wants, if you know Tamil, ‘Nimmathi’.) He has been told that ‘ahamkaara’ is one of the obstacles to finding what he wants to. He is puzzled: he knows that he is not ‘proud’ of his accomplishments in life. So, does he continue to have ‘ahamkaara’ or has he already got rid of it? If he still has it, what is it and how to get rid of it? He has no clue about any of these things because he really cannot make sense of the words he so fluently knows. Thus, the list can get built.

4. Many of these things have been explained in the tracts of yesteryears, he has been told. So, he goes and tries to read them but he does not understand much. They talk about ‘sapta dhaatu’, ‘pancha vaayu’, and ‘pancha kosha’ and so on, when they talk about human beings; they talk about horses, chariots and the charioteer, when they talk about ‘manas’, ‘buddhi’ and so on. Neither the talk of ‘annamaya kosha’ nor the talk of horses tells him much; his daily language says that humans have ‘kapibuddhi’ (an apish buddhi that is inconstant) and he reads that ‘manas’ is very fickle (‘chanchala’) and flits from one subject to the other. So, is ‘manas’ then what he used to call ‘Budhhi’? If he knows English even a little bit, he is now thoroughly confused: he had thought ‘buddhi’ was ‘intelligence’ and ‘manas’ was ‘mind’. He tries to read some or another translation of a philosophical tract and cannot figure out what they are talking about because they invest terms with meanings he has difficulties in associating them with. They speak of ‘pramaana’ in a way he does not understand (he thought ‘pramaana’ was to take an oath); and speak of ‘anumaana’ (which is what ‘doubt’ is in his daily use) as though it settles issues!

5. In short, such tracts, instead of telling him something that illuminates, end up confusing him. They undercut his belief about his use of language so thoroughly that he just does not want to return to these tracts because he knows reading them is (almost) like learning another language. On top of it, he still has to figure out which his ‘annamaya kosha’ is or what the ‘dhaatus’ (he thought ‘dhaatu’ had something to do with Sanskrit grammar) are!

6. I consider this state of affairs very peculiar and want to draw attention to it by suggesting that this is an ‘absence’. My ideas and hypothesis about colonial consciousness is to take this occurrence out of the realm of the anecdotal and give it a place as a historical result.

7. Objection: Only the enlightened know the meaning of ‘manas’ and ‘buddhi’ .It is not true to say that only those who have attained ‘nirvana’ (and some exceptional people) know the meaning of ‘manas’ and ‘buddhi’ and such like. They are a part of our understanding of human psychology and if people do not have such an understanding, they cannot relate to either themselves or their fellow human beings. (If you cannot understand the actions of human beings — from the most trivial to the more significant — you cannot live amongst human beings. Such an understanding appeals to these concepts.) Thirdly, in order to understand its relative importance in the scheme of things, we first need to develop the hypothesis further. Only then could we specify (even then, approximately at best) what role the ‘loss of vocabulary’ plays in the present Indian culture. Fourthly, it is not a mere loss of words that is at stake: it is about the accessibility or non-accessibility of our daily experience and our abilities to think about the same. For all these reasons, I consider it important to think deeply about the nature of colonial consciousness. (If you have not, perhaps, you should also read the other article of colonial consciousness that.)

8. What intellectuals say percolates in a hundred different ways to the daily life of everyone, including those who are not intellectuals. Their insights are reformulated in several different ways and these help us in many more ways. Music, dance, poetry, cinema, harikatha, yakshagaana (in some areas of Karnataka)… rework these insights in their own ways as well. However, this must be a continuous process because the world we are living in changes in so many different ways. Insights must be retold in the new idioms, new insights developed and new ways of reformulating them have to be discovered. I am not claiming that only a group of people called ‘intellectuals’ (something like the pundits or university professors) do this: anyone who reflects on life is an ‘intellectual’

9. Colonialism affected this process drastically. Our insights are frozen at many different levels. (This does not mean that nobody in India understands these insights.) So, what should have been a continuous process of interaction has now frozen at multiple levels. In the process, a colonial consciousness has come into being.

10. Perhaps it is true that, as you say, we do not talk much about emotions,. But that is not an explanation of why the concepts about human psychology do not make sense to us anymore. One has to look for an explanation of this state of affairs elsewhere. That is what I am trying to do.

11. I get the impression that the expression about us “not having access to our experience” is creating a lot of confusion. Let us see if we can localize the confusion by seeing where it arises.

11.1. The first time I formulate this idea is in my reply to Jeffrey Kripal which I published on Sulekha. In it, I spoke about a process of trivializing, transforming, distorting, denying and thus preventing access to our experience of the world. Do people have problems with the way I describe these processes? If yes, let us first discuss the issue at that level itself and not do more than that.

11.2. The second time I take up this idea is in my article on “Intercultural dialogue”. I show how these processes engender violence. Are there any problems with either the examples or my discussion of the same?

11.3. In my article on colonialism, I touch on this issue in a different way. I say now two extra things that are of relevance. One is that ‘education’ also comes between us and our experience in some particular way but that it is not violence. While this sheds light on why people in the Metropolis saw colonialism as an educational project, I suggest that Colonialism (unlike educational process) foists a framework (not just this or that theory) in a violent way and that this framework denies us access to our experience. (Whenever I say something denies “access to experience”, I have all the five processes I speak about in my article with Kripal in mind.) Are there problems here?

11.4. In “Some theses on Colonial Consciousness”, I bring all these ideas together as they are relevant to the creation of a consciousness in India over hundreds of years. And I add something more that is of relevance to this issue: I speak about Islamic colonialism (for the first time; until now I spoke either about ‘mogul rule’ or of ‘Islamic invasion’) because it appears to me that one could also bring the above five processes by destroying access to descriptions and strategies using which one had hitherto accessed one’s experience of the world. Just as my notion of colonialism becomes sharper and broader, so too does my language: now, I am talking about the “experience of the world”.

If there are no problems with the previous three steps, and yet problems persist with this set of notes, then it could be because this broad use of ‘experience of the world’ signals that my notion of experience is tracking my use of that word in my notes “On Ignorance” and in my article “How to speak for the Indian Traditions”.

11.5. If this is the case, it shows the need for coining new words and giving them more precise meaning (i.e. coin a ‘technical term’). However, I am not convinced of that need yet partly because I am not sure what the relationship precisely is between my uses of the word ‘experience’ in these different articles and notes. So, assuming no deep conflict in my uses, I shall try to state as simply as possible some ideas that might be of some help.

12. I am not saying that we do not have any access to our experience of our world because of colonialism. I am saying that our access to experience is partially denied to us by colonialism. Which part is denied and which is not denied requires research before answering.

13. I am not saying that before colonialism we were experiencing X as X but that we experience it as Y now. We do not know what we are experiencing in order to say whether we experience it as X or Y or Z. In and of itself, that we experience as Y what we experienced as X before is not a critique of colonialism. Thanks to the educational system set up by colonialism, we are now experiencing ‘gravitational force’ (say), when we were experiencing the same thing as something else in the 5th century. That does not mean we should reject the theory of gravitation, does it?

The point is that we have no access to parts of our experience. So, we do not know what we are experiencing. Do we ‘experience’ the ‘caste system’ today? Do we experience ‘Hinduism as a religion’ today? If no, what are we experiencing? If yes, what do we experience by these terms? These are the questions I raise.

14. Did ‘Buddhism’ contribute to the misunderstandings to the words we use? No, that question does not arise in the context of this set of notes. My question is not about some ‘original’ meanings of the words, but what we understand by using them today. Without doubt, much of what ‘Buddhism’ said also contributed to the development of the meaning of many of these words; undoubtedly, these contributions had their impact upon what was said subsequently. However, these are not issues that concern us.

15. Does not the very notion of relational self trivialize our experience of ourselves, because the relational self is what others say about us? The answer is actually a counter-question: which is the self whose experience is being trivialized? If ‘relational self’ is all there is to our selves, there cannot be yet another ‘real self’ whose experience is being trivialized. As I said in one of my recent posts, I speak of a number (five) of processes involved in denying access to our experience. They have a pattern and structure and the construction of self, as I speak about it in my 1985 paper, does not follow these steps.

16. About Tamas, Rajas, and so on. At the moment, these gunas function more like names: ‘why does he get angry so easily?’, ‘Oh, that is because there is too much Tamoguna in him’. The answer does not explain anything. It is like the saying that Opium puts people to sleep because it has sleep inducing properties.

17. Yes, Ramana would exemplify the type of the person who accessed his experience. I have been told that the learned pundits came to him with interpretative questions about various Indian texts. This possibility of an illiterate man functioning as a guide to pundits strengthens my hypothesis about the nature of the Indian ‘texts’.


1. Many things, above all the configuration of learning, form the psychology of the Indians. Because what is lost is not the transmission of culture (but merely its adaptation in a particular manner to the surroundings that colonialism was), I am inclined to suggest that colonial consciousness is not a part of the cultural psychology of the Indians, even though it has an impact on our cultural psychology. Otherwise, one would be more inclined to say that a consciousness that is retained and transmitted in a culture for nearly a thousand years should be, properly speaking, considered a part of the cultural psychology of the people in question.

2. However, what is lost is not merely some theory or another but one which helps us make sense of our experience. It is a reflection on experience and something that forms our experience. It is a ‘theory’ in a peculiar sense of the term: it is a description of the world (that is why it has the form of a theory) but one which subordinates this role to one of guiding us in our endeavors in the world. If a heuristic (or action rule) has to be comprehensible (and become less complex than it otherwise would be), some or another descriptive element has to play an important role.

3. Consequently, what we have lost (in losing the transmission of these theories as a part of our experience of the world) is (a) not merely the meaning or the sense of these words but also (b) an ability to use them the way they have to be used if they have to succeed in making sense of our experience. The transmission of these abilities is a part of the transmission of these theories. That is why, reading the Gita (or any text) is of little use on its own: the Guru, I think, is indispensable to the transmission process; because he would tell us how to read these texts as instructions for action. The problem of the colonial consciousness is to be partly located here: we have the theories (the books of Shankara, Abhinavagupta,…etc are available to us, but this availability does not seem to help us much) but we have difficulties in doing much with them unless it is to write ‘learned’ tracts. It is important to notice that I am not merely saying that some or another ‘textual interpretative tradition’ is lost in transmission. If that was all there is to it, the existing set of Sanskrit pundits could solve the problem.

4. In fact, what I am saying is that the existence of Sanskrit pundits is an index of the nature of the problem of colonial consciousness. They have transformed the problem of understanding Indian texts into a ‘hermeneutic problem’ as well: the process and procedure of ‘recovering’ the meaning of the texts. So, what I am saying is that the how of going about with these texts was a part of the culture that produced these texts that made sense of our experience and transformed the latter. This is what we lost in losing the centers of intellectual activity as well.

5. However, so long as the culture gets transmitted, we will have to sooner or later confront the questions that our culture threw up: to make sense of experience. Why?

6.  If I were to sum up the nature of the Indian (or Asian) culture in one sentence (as it relates to the goal or purpose of human life), here is how I would do it: “Given that we are born, how can we be happy?” Our traditions assure us that every human being can be happy and that the happiness of one is not antagonistic to the happiness of the other. There are no qualifications to be happy: one could be rich or poor; stupid or intelligent; literate or illiterate; man or woman;  There are no requirements except that one tries to be happy. This attitude is so deeply ingrained in us that we hardly notice that it is our basic ‘goal’ in life. This venture to be happy (have ananda) forces us to reflect on experience. That is why our traditions keep on throwing up Gurus (even if they take the form of contemporary swamijis) and we keep on searching. For historical reasons, this quest has also become the quest of generations to recover their traditions. People like us are present all over India; they are searching the way we are searching too. One day, all our paths will meet.

In ‘Some theses on Colonial Consciousness’ I am signaling an absence. If it is the case that there is such an absence, it is a very disturbing absence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *