Translations or Travesty of Traditions? –S.N.Balagangadhara

In one sense, the title of the piece captures the nature of the tasks facing the contemporary generation, whether in India or in the Diaspora. This generation, unlike many from mine, is confident and self-assured; perhaps, it is proud too about the strength of its culture and traditions. Rightly so. However, personal convictions about the value of our traditions and culture do not automatically guarantee the truth of such convictions. Not only that. It is also the case that the history of India, and that of the entire humankind, requires of us that we are able to say and show what is valuable and what is not in our traditions. This history is the history of colonialism, subservience, and is further weighed down by the scientific, technological, economic and the military weight of the western culture. Today, we need more than a mere practice and a further continuation of our traditions; we need also to examine them honestly and critically in order that we may transmit what we found valuable in them.

In the past, the Indians chose multiple ways of undertaking such a task: from the one extreme of a wholesale rejection of everything Indian to the other extreme of a total endorsement of everything Indian. There were reasons both for the extremes and for the varieties that lay in-between. Though understandable, none of these attempts brought us much by way of understanding the Indian traditions. For all their answers, we remain where they were too: trapped in the framework that refuses to budge or go away. What is the nature of this framework? Why does it entrap? How to get out of it? Where should we be going when we get out of the framework? In a series of articles, I would like to reflect on these questions.

With respect to us Indians, there is one thing we need to constantly keep in mind. We are the products of two colonialisms: the Islamic and the British. True, we were overrun by many other conquerors, but they did not colonize us. Colonialism is not merely about conquering territories, ruling over people and extracting revenues. It is a far more inhuman process, involving violence of all sorts: from the purely physical to the purely psychic. Colonialism alters the way we look at the world and it displaces native ways of experiencing the world through sheer violence. To the colonized, there is no simple or naive return to the lost world possible. Colonization forever changes the world of the colonized. Though tragic and reprehensible, this is what colonialism does and we need to understand this truth about ourselves in the first place.

If Islamic colonialism damaged the transmission of our culture, British colonialism, building further on this result, introduced a new framework for experiencing the world. More than that, it also introduced a new way of talking about our experience of the world. This framework told us many new things about ourselves: we were backward and primitive, steeped in superstition, and dominated by antiquated structures. The British taught us too what these structures were: the caste system was the Indian social structure and ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’, ‘Sikhism’ etc. were our religious structures. For reasons I cannot go into here, Indians took to this way of talking about themselves the way ducks take to water. In the colonized field that the Indian mind had become, many Indians set up tents to sell their merchandise: an attack on the Indian caste system; an instant mixture of reform that could cure the ills of the Indian ‘religions’; tracts and books that told tales of the tyranny of the Brahmin ‘priests’; and, of course, the sale of the seductive siren songs of modernization and progress. On the other side of the Ganges, so to speak, rival merchants set up their tents as well: to sell the waters of the Ganges in cheap plastic bottles so that the Indians could wash away all their ‘sins’. Is it not amazing that this picture (which crystallized around the middle of the eighteenth century) remains true and accurate today, more than sixty years after our independence from the colonial rule? In the bustle of the market place and the excitement of selling exotic goods, Indians ‘forgot’ to ask that one question which they should have: did the tales of the British describe the Indian culture and her traditions or do they indicate how the British experienced India?

You see, there lies the rub. The British descriptions had more to do with their experiences of an alien culture than with the truth about India and her people. Yet, they spoke as though their experience of India were synonymous with the facts about India. When we took over the reins of our country from them, we did not just inherit colonial buildings and the colonial bureaucracy. We also actively took over their descriptions as though the experiences of the British are also uncontestable facts about India. So convinced are we about these ‘facts’ that challenging their status today provokes the ire of most well-intentioned and educated Indians. Yet, perhaps, the strangest of all is this: those who defend the factual status of British descriptions hardly know or understand what they are defending. Let me mention just two of these. One: the caste system dominates the Indian society and that it must be abolished; two: ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’ etc. are the religions of India.

Let me begin with the caste system. The British did not just say that there were Jatis in India. No Indian would ever deny this. They and all the subsequent social sciences say something far more than this: the claim is that all the different Jatis in India constitute a coherent totality, such a totality forms the social structure of the Indian society, and that some of the Indian religions (sometimes, it is exclusively ‘Hinduism’) and some of the Jatis (often, it is mostly the Brahmins) provide the ideology supporting such a social structure. This is what it means to say that ‘there is caste system in the Indian society’. That is, both the British and the current social sciences are not making an empirical claim about the presence of Jatis in India; they are putting across theoretical meta-claims about the Jatis.

If we want to assess the truth of these theoretical claims (make no mistake about this; they are through and through theoretical in nature), then the evidence cannot be what we routinely come up with: the horror stories of ‘caste discrimination’, the alleged humiliation of the so-called ‘Dalits’, the phenomenon of ‘untouchability’, the presence of poverty, and such like. None of these can serve as evidence for the claim that the nature of the Indian social structure is identical to ‘the caste system’. Why not?

The phenomenon of discrimination (whether individual or social) knows of many forms: from sexism through racism. They exist in different ways in different parts of the world. If their presence is evidence for the existence of ‘the caste system’, then it is present everywhere in the world. The same applies to poverty and humiliation. Such phenomena do not indicate that a specific social structure is present: they were there in slavery, in feudal societies in Europe, in the capitalist societies of today, and so on. In other words, these phenomena are compatible with multiple social structures: they do not indicate that one kind of a social structure is present in some society or another.

So, we cannot say that these phenomena are evidences for ‘the caste system’. We need some facts to be uniquely present in India, absent elsewhere, and these facts must tell us about the fundamental divisions in society. That is to say, if ‘the caste system’ in India were to be its social structure, then the only significant social groups are the ‘castes’. Are we then to suppose that there are no workers, no middle class, no industrialists, etc. (which are the social groups in our society too) present in India’ If we suggest that ‘the caste system’ is the Indian social structure, then that is exactly what we would be suggesting. This, of course, is sheer nonsense.

One could say that India is a mish-mash of caste, class, social and power groups and so on (or any such combination). In that case, we are not saying interesting or profound except to notice that jatis exist in India. Who has ever denied this trivial fact?

If there is a problem about specification of the social division along the lines of caste, it gets compounded by a further theoretical claim: that ‘the caste system’ is a coherent whole. This is merely an assumption. No one in the world has so far shown how and in what fashion ‘the caste system’ is a coherent system. The British could not even classify the caste divisions let alone demonstrate their coherence. They gave up the attempt after trying for nearly thirty years and introducing all kinds of weird categories (like sub-castes, and sub-sub-castes).

If no one (a) has shown that the caste system is a social structure in India; (b) has shown that it is a coherent whole, then (c) what about the claim that it has a specific ideology? Here sensationalism rules the day: some lines from Manu, some personal anecdotes of the powerful and rich ‘Dalits’, who are courted by the US academia and the NRI populace in the US when such ‘Dalits’ undertake a tour of the United States of America to sell their ‘autobiographies’, is the only evidence. Not one person has laid this alleged ideology bare; not one person knows what the components of this ideology are. How do we even know there is a single ideology? How do we know that there are not exactly 2371 and a half ideologies present? Again, your guess is as good as anybody else’s. Come to think of it, do we even know what an ideology looks like? Is Hitler’s Mein Kampf an example of an ideology?Is Marx’s Das Kapital an example of an ideology? Is Yajur veda or the Kama Sutra an example of an ideology? Is Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian an example of an ideology? Or, is ideology something that people never put down in writing? Coffee-shop talk is no substitute for scientific research; it has never been. Many Indians and most NRI’s indignantly come up with precisely such coffee-shop talk when talking about ‘the caste system’. They are all instant experts on the issue without ever having studied about it.

This expertise stretches itself to grotesque proportions when one talks about ‘religions’. Everybody knows what ‘religion’ is and knows too that ‘Hinduism’ is an ancient religion. It stands to reason: which ‘Hindu’ does not know about ‘Atman’ and ‘Brahman’? After all, some carry both in their back pockets every day. Of course, such a possession is not the prerogative of the everyday ‘Hindus’: it is the special privilege of the illiterate NRI students of religious studies in the American universities. Instead of thoughtfully studying the framework of religious studies, which happens to be Christian theological in nature; instead of trying to understand the theory, practice and the history of Christianity, which requires considerable intellectual labor; instead, that is, of trying to understand how and why ‘Hinduism’ is portrayed the way it is in the western culture (and not merely in the American universities), such people are beginning to tell the rest of us what ‘Hinduism’ is. And what they tell us does not go beyond what the 18th century Jesuits told about our ‘religions’ in terms of its content. The only difference between such people and the Christian missionaries is the valuation: these religious studies people speak ‘positively’ of Hinduism and the missionaries spoke ‘negatively’ of Hinduism.

There is a very deep reason why these people are such experts on ‘the caste system’ and ‘Hinduism’ as a religion. That is because they have simply taken over the European descriptions of their experience of India as though they are facts about India and her traditions. They do not know this fact, which is excusable. What is unforgivable is that they do not want to know it. I call this combination ‘the colonial consciousness’.

Please do not mistake me. I do believe that we need people realizing how the West has been describing us for the last four hundred years or so. We do need organizations like the HAF (the Hindu-American Foundation), which want to do something about this state of affairs in the United States. But my problem is about how they are going about doing it: they are trying to gain recognition and credibility to our traditions and customs by transforming ‘Hinduism’ into a pale variant of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. These three religions do not understand either India or her traditions. Looking through their theological prisms, these religions transform us into false religions. Organizations like the HAF and many ‘Hindu’ NRIs I know, paradoxically enough, accept this judgment. Having accepted this, they want to make us ‘respectable’. How? Our ‘Brahman’ begins take the shape of the Biblical God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Semitic religions ridicule and heap scorn on our traditions because our ‘gods’ are not like the Biblical God: some NRIs and some NRI organizations bow down to this stance and fight for credibility by transforming our ‘gods’ into ‘manifestations’ of the ‘Brahman’, who looks like the Biblical God. I would like to recount an anecdote that should tell you how deep this attitude has sunk into the minds of our Indian intellectuals.

A few years ago, in an international conference in India, we met in plenary sessions in a room. In the corner of the room, two reasonably big statues were present: one of the dancing Durga and the other of a dancing Ganesha. In one of the plenary meetings, the last session if I remember correctly, one of the foreign delegates asked what these statues were and what they were doing. The organizer of the conference, an Indian woman, said they were statues of Durga and Ganesha. ‘What were they doing?’ After some uncomfortable shuffling of feet, this woman (who studied and got her Ph.D. in the US, at the UCB) said that they were ‘aesthetic objects’. Needless to say, I got annoyed and stood up and explained to the other delegates that these statues were no ‘art objects’ of any kind. I told them they were the representations of our devatas and asked the organizer the following question: Since when do the Indians find an elephant headed, fat-bellied clumsy dancer with multiple arms beautiful? Which Indian woman would marry a groom who looked like Ganesha and consider him ‘beautiful’? Since when is a naked dancing woman with eight arms which hold different objects including a human looking head dripping with blood, with a tongue that is at least two feet long, an epitome of female beauty in India?

Because this woman and many like her are embarrassed by the questions which the foreigner asks, they transform us into aesthetic imbeciles who believe that monstrosities exhaust our notions of ‘beauty’. Instead of telling stories about Durga and Ganesha, this woman and others of her kind make us into cretins and morons who have no aesthetic sense at all. Or force us into a mold that resembles the Semitic religions. How far should we travel down this road before realizing that we are on the wrong route?

Today, multiple tasks face us. We need to translate our traditions into the language of the twenty-first century. To do so, we need to shake off our sense of complacency in the first place. Secondly, we need to realize that we ‘talk the talk and walk the walk’ of the colonizers. We need to break out of this. Thirdly, we should recognize that our traditions will not become ours just because we are brought up as Indians: we need to put in the hard intellectual labor of reacquiring these traditions. In the process, we need to take care that we do not make a travesty of our culture and traditions in our hurry to ‘translate’ them.

So far, I have spoken about the first two of the tasks. Let me briefly turn my attention to the third: Why do we need hard labor to reacquire our own traditions? By way of an answer to the question, consider the frequently encountered answer of the NRI’s to the oft-posed problem, ‘what is Hinduism?’: ‘what our swamis tell us’.

Let me begin reflecting on this answer by noticing something about this answer, which Jakob De Roover has gone deeper into: this answer transforms the Swami into a Catholic Priest. The Catholics believe in what the Roman Catholic Church tells them, and this Church is embodied in their priest. So, Catholicism, in this sense, is what the priest tells Christianity is. The Protestants rebelled against this: they said that Christianity is what the Scripture says. We also have our share of such people, who study our ‘scriptures’ and come up with their own ‘interpretations’. So, if we give either of the two answers, we are doing and acting no different than a Christian. We are suggesting that we are also ‘like’ Christianity: we too have our ‘scriptures’, our ‘priests’ and home-grown Protestants in our midst.

Quite apart from acting like Christians, let us notice what else we are doing. Consider the following question: ‘Why do we need the Swami’s to tell us what ‘Hinduism’ is?’ What qualifies them to do this? Is it because of their knowledge of Sanskrit or because they have been studying ‘scriptures’ all their lives? In case you feel like giving a positive answer, reflect on this: is that not what all ‘pundits’ do? Are we saying that there is no difference between a ‘pundit’ and a ‘guru’? Furthermore, notice something else: if these are the reasons, then these swami’s are singularly unqualified for their task today. Our problem, let me repeat, is to ‘translate’ our traditions into the language of the twenty-first century so that our own traditions make sense to us. These ‘swamis’, if this is all they know or can do, know nothing of the modern-day world, know nothing of the progress in natural or social sciences, know very little about modern-day thinking. How, then, can they help us and our children today? They simply cannot.

If we feel like saying that the teaching of ‘Hinduism’ is so profound, eternal and timeless that modern knowledge is irrelevant to understanding its message, ask yourself the following question: in that case, why is it our children (and the younger generation) are so bored by these swami’s? Why is the younger generation so indifferent to these teachings? Why do these swami’s fail to fire the imagination of our children? And where some of these Swami’s try to become relevant to the modern-day world, there observe carefully what psychological ‘theories’ they use in explaining the message of ‘Hinduism’. You will be surprised by their naive endorsement of the third-rate ‘I am OK, you are OK’ psychology, which no self-respecting psychologist would like to be caught dead with.

Again, please do not mistake me. I am neither attacking the swamis nor denigrating the role of Gurus in the Indian traditions. I just want you to start reflecting critically about your own answers and suggest that our problems do not know of easy solutions. We need hard labor today to even make sense of why we need Gurus or who can qualify for this. The Gurus of the twenty-first century world will not be mere ‘Sanyasins’, who know Sanskrit or have studied the Upanishads all their lives. We need a new breed that is at home in the modern world and has used the best scientific theories in the market place to make the Indian traditions their own. Such is the requirement for keeping our traditions alive and vibrant today.

So, if someone asks ‘what is Hinduism?’ tell them that there is no such entity in the world outside the universities in the West. Tell them that when you call yourself a ‘Hindu’ (for the sake of convenience) that is because you continue your ancestral traditions. Tell them that you ‘keep faith with your fathers, who kept faith with their forefathers, and were blessed in so doing’. Tell them too that you need no ‘reason’ to keep your ancestral traditions alive and that the only reason to practice a tradition is the fact that what is practiced is a tradition, and that is what it means to be a ‘Hindu’. Is this answer also adequate?

As a beginning, yes. In the subsequent piece, which I will write soon, I will try and share with you some of my thoughts on this issue. We need to find new ways of answering questions about our identity and that of our traditions. My research is also focused upon questions like these. I would like to emphasize though that it is but one way of answering these and other questions. It is my hope that such a research will stimulate new and better research than I myself can undertake.