Why study the Western culture?

Two substantial questions have been raised in response to what I wrote: (a) why do we need to study and understand the Western culture in order to access our own traditions? (b) Is it my claim that Buddha and Shankara (for example) are irrelevant to us? One other sort of ‘objection’ too has surfaced, albeit disguised as a characterization of what I have said: (c) is not my position itself illustrative of ‘Eurocentrism’? These issues are intertwined.  Hopefully, addressing them together will lend some clarity.

1. The first thing to keep in mind about our own intellectual development (historically speaking) is that most of what we have learnt about ourselves has been the result of what has been said about us by the Western culture. That is to say, we relate to our own traditions and our own cultures the way the West has understood them. A few examples to illustrate what I mean.

1.1. We have learnt that ‘puja’ means worship; ‘devas’ are ‘gods’; ‘atman’ is ‘self’ (not to be confused with the empirical ‘self’); Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Saivism, etc. are ‘religions’; ‘sadhus’ are our ‘holy’ men; ‘tapas’ is doing ‘penance’… This list is virtually endless.

1.2. As we grow up and discover that there is ‘ayudha puja’, ‘gopuja’ and ‘lingapuja’ either we are embarassed to discover their English equivalents or insist that we do not really worship any of these objects like the instruments, cows or the phallus. As Malhotra says, of course, we are not ‘phallic’ worshippers because, we say, ‘lingam’ is not ‘really’ the phallus but … but what? We routinely translate ‘idolatry’ as ‘murthipuja’ but insist that people do not really worship these images but merely … merely what? The idea that one does not worship these ‘images’ but looks at them ‘symbolically’ is an an argument that the Catholic Pope Gregorius launched about 1000 years ago. (We think we are being ‘clever’ when we reinvent the wheel.)

1.3. What are our people doing when they do ‘puja’? Are they worshipping or not? If not, what else are they doing when they do ‘puja’?

2. The point I want to make is this: most of us have learnt English through the mediation of our local languages and the equivalences are not established by us because we know what ‘worship’, ‘God’, ‘religion’ etc mean, but because we have been taught that they are equivalents. This is not a mere question of translation, that is, one of finding the ‘right’ words (from our languages) to translate English (or any other European language). Rather it is one of understanding what these English words mean: not by consulting Oxford English Dictionary but by understanding what religion is, according to the Western intellectual and cultural traditions. To do this is to study and (partially) understand the Western culture.

3. Why do we need to do this at all? Why not simply use only our ‘words’ and be done with it? Apart from any number of other reasons, consider one of the ideas that has surfaced and resurfaced again and again in these discussions: ‘hindutva’, BJP and ‘hindu fundamentalism’. These issues preoccupy the Indian intellectuals and the Indian polity. We simply ‘assume’ that Hinduism exists; that it is some kind of a ‘religion’; and that we too have ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘secularists’, etc. Here are my simple counter-questions: does ‘Hinduism’ exist? If it does, is it a ‘religion’? What is ‘religion’ so that we may say we ‘too’ have it? These are not issues about definitions but those that invite a serious scientific investigation.

4. If people find these questions ridiculous or insulting, my point is proved: we simply assume answers to them; we might even find, perhaps, that raising them is vaguely offensive. And the point is this: these were the answers that (basically) the Western culture gave about us in their attempts to understand a culture different from their own.

5. In short, we do not have access to our own traditions in any direct fashion. We rely upon an understanding that is determined by the Western understanding of our traditions. (Take a look at the Indian philosophical writing of the previous century to understand how deep this influence is.) At the same time, we do not have an understanding of the Western culture either, except what they have said about themselves. (Reflect a bit on my ‘counter-questions’.) How much of what we know about ourselves is due to our culture and how much of it is an ill-understood reproduction of the claims of the Western culture about us?

5. That is why I said, we need to study and understand the Western culture. This is not ‘Eurocentrism’, in any sense of the term. We need to do it, I said as well, against the background of our own culture. How does the West appear to us? How do we appear to ourselves? These two questions are deceptively simple in their appearance. Simple, they certainly are not.

6. We desperately need to understand the Western culture, not by parroting what its intellectuals have said about it but by studying it. We need to do this because our relation to ourselves and our past is determined by what they have said about both.

7. Are Shankara and the Buddha ‘irrelevant’ to us today? I have already touched on one of the presumptions: that we know what they say. This is a demonstrably false presumption; we ‘know’ what the ‘indologists’ have told us about them. However, there is another answer I want to touch upon.

8. This question cannot be cognitively answered today. Their questions, whatever they might have been, are not ours; hence their answers cannot be ours either. (Unless we were to make the assumption that their questions and answers are ‘eternal’ and ‘universally valid’.) What we need to do is to formulate our questions first and then see whether their queries and solutions help us in our quest. If they help us, they are relevant; if they do not, they are irrelevant. It might be the case that they ‘help’ someone living the USA today. I do not doubt this: the gita, the Buddha or the Shankara comfort me and bring solace in my dark moments as well. But this is not the issue. The issue is: why do they do so? How to understand, to give but one example, that the world is ‘maya’ or illusion? Am I to say that the world described by the natural sciences does not exist, or that my daily experience is an illusion? If not, what are they talking about? Surely, the issues are of this nature and not ones to take offence to.

 9. The Indian intellectuals living abroad (whether in the middle east, Europe or the USA, or wherever else) have an opportunity and a responsibility. They have the opportunity of living in another culture and study it first hand. They have the responsibility of seeing to it that they do so and communicate its results. We have the ability to perform both these tasks. The real question is: do we have the will to do it as well? Or are we merely going to recycle and peddle barren ideas of the last few centuries?

Other relevant posts:

A. Does Hinduism exist?

B. Is doing pooja same as ‘worshipping‘?

C. Is maaya an illusion?

D. Why understand the Western culture?

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