Decolonizing the Indian Mind
On January 15, 2014, I attended a discussion session organized by the India Foundation at the India International Centre Annexe, New Delhi on the topic ‘Decolonizing the Indian Mind’. The discussants were Dr.Koenraad Elst, and Prof.Makarand Paranjape (a rare non-Leftist voice from JNU).
A good part of Dr.Elst’s talk was about dispelling cultivated myths about the supposed/alleged political goals of Oriental scholars during the reign of colonial powers. Dr.Elst emphatically called for debunking Edward Said’s cynical take on ‘Orientalism’ in Said’s eponymous book and said that Indian Leftists, in particular Leftist Hindus, who parrot Said’s take on Orientalism in all seriousness, were making fools of themselves and others.
According to Dr.Elst, not every Oriental scholar was an instrumentality of imperial powers employed to ‘exoticize’ native cultures to make them look bizarre and regressive, and to render them psychologically and politically servile to their colonial masters. On the contrary, he said that the term ‘Orientalist’ had often been pejoratively used by colonial powers to describe anyone who, in the process of studying Asian cultures and societies, had ‘gone native’ i.e. westerners who had developed a deep respect and affection for native cultures much to the chagrin and disgust of colonial powers. In other words, according to Dr.Elst, Indic studies by westerners during the colonial period must not always be viewed through a jaundiced political prism.
Critically, he urged Hindus to put a moratorium on chest-beating about distortion of our history during the colonial period, and instead positively focus on the 5000 years before it to understand our culture better. To an extent, I understand where Dr.Elst is coming from since my own misconceptions about the intentions of Orientalists such as Friedrich Max Mueller need revisiting after reading his lectures titled ‘India: What It Can teach Us?’ Sample these lines from his lectures:
On Page 25:
“You will now understand why I have chosen as the title of my lectures, “What can India teach us?” True, there are many things which India has to learn from us; but there are other things, and, in one sense, very important things, which we too may learn from India.
If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power and beauty that nature can bestow-in some parts a very paradise on earth-I should point to India. If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant-I should point to India.
And if I were to ask myself from what literature we, here in Europe, we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw that corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human, a life, not for this life only, but a transfigured and eternal life-again I should point to India.”
I shall review this book at length in the near future, but the point to be noted and which is pertinent to the one Dr.Elst was making is that, almost every sentence of Max Mueller’s lecture is an ode to Bharat and Hindus (although I shall reserve my comment on Max Mueller until I read his other works, in particular his autobiography). Therefore, to an extent I do agree with Dr.Elst when he says that there were quite a few Indic scholars who had truly gone native and whose views on Hindus and Hinduism were far from being uncharitable.
After Dr.Elst, Prof.Makarand Paranjape took over, and opined that Hindus must evolve an identity of our own which is based on a non-antagonistic concept such as ‘Swaraj’, which is also the basis for Indian nationalism. According to Prof.Paranjape, Swaraj is neither an imitation of the West nor does it cling to the past. Going against the popular grain of conservative thought, Prof.Paranjape said that the past was not entirely self-sufficient since political unity was found wanting. Had India been politically united, it would have resisted the onslaught of invaders with greater vigour as a unitary entity instead of putting up isolated resistances. Therefore, the solution according to him is to fashion a new way forward which:
(A) Identifies and takes critical elements from our rich past;
(B) Lays emphasis on and strengthens political oneness; and
(C) is nimble enough to keep pace with the times to chart a confident future.
Prof.Paranjape said that de-colonization is not needed to protect Hinduism since it has gone beyond India, and is in safe hands. However, it is needed to prevent the country’s disintegration at the hands of Leftists whose ‘intellectualism’ and ‘liberalism’ always seem to fuel secessionist tendencies. Considering the sheer cultural diversity of India and the diversity of challenges each region faces, Prof.Paranjape said that a uniform de-colonization strategy cannot be employed across the country.
At this point, Dr.Elst weighed in to say that had India adopted Sanskrit as its national language instead of English when the issue was first debated in the Constituent Assembly, it would have gone a long way to serve the cause of greater cultural and political integration. In this regard, I invite our readers to read the Constituent Assembly debate of September 13, 1949, portions of which are extracted below:
"Lakshmi Kanta Maitra (West Bengal: General): ...Sir, I must confess that I am the sponsor of an amendment which has caused considerable surprise to many an honourable Member of this House and to many people outside. It has been received, if I may say so, with mixed feelings in the country. One set of reports that I have so far received and the shoals of letters and congratulations seem to indicate that I have hit upon a right and honourable course. The other set seems to suggest that I am trying to take India several centuries back by proposing that Sanskrit should be the official and national language of India. Let me tell you at once that I am sincerely convinced that if on the attainment of freedom, this country is to have at all anything like an official language which is also to be the national language of the country, it is undoubtedly Sanskrit.
Balkrishna Sharma (United Provinces : General) : Numerals also in Sanskrit ?
Lakshmi Kanta Maitra: I am coming to that. Besides that, I have got another substantial amendment, namely the addition of Sanskrit in the list of the languages of the Union. It is surprising that before my amendment was tabled, none even considered the desirability of recognising Sanskrit as one of the languages of India. That is the depth to which we have fallen. I make absolutely no apology for asking you seriously to accept Sanskrit. Who is there in this country who will deny that Sanskrit is the language of India?
I am surprised that an argument was trotted out that it is not an Indian language, that it is an international language. Yes, it is an international or rather a world language in the sense that its importance, its wealth, its position, its grandeur have made it transcend the frontiers of India and travel far beyond India, and it is because of the Sanskrit language and all the rich heritage of Indian culture that is enshrined in it that outside India we are held in deep esteem by all countries. Is there any soul in this House who can challenge this proposition?
Is India admired and respected all the world over for her geographical size or for the multitude of her population? Our land has been characterised by uncharitable foreigners as a country hopelessly heterogeneous and bewilderingly polyglot. Yet, notwithstanding all that, they have earnestly sought for the message of the East which lies enshrined in the Sanskrit language.
Lakshmi Kanta Maitra: .........Sir, Sanskrit has the oldest and the most respectable pedigree of all the language in the world. I have got here a collection of opinions of some of the biggest Orientalists that the world has ever produced; the consensus of opinion of men like Professor Maxmuller, Keith, Taylor, Sir William Hunter, Sir William Golebuk, Seleigman, Schopenhauer, Goether, not to speak of numerous other people like Macdonell and Dubois. All have accorded to Sanskrit the highest place, not to please us, because when these opinions were expressedwe were a subject race under a foreign power on whose behalf adverse propaganda was conducted against us by personages like Miss Mayo whose 'Mother India' was characterised by Mahatma Gandhi of hallowed memory as a "drain inspector's report". Notwithstanding all such adverse propaganda carried on against India by the interested agencies in foreign countries, the world came to know the real India, gradually through these great orientalists who had devoted their lives to the study of the Sanskrit language and literature that is contained in it. These great servants unhesitatingly declared that Sanskrit was "the oldest and the richest language of the world," "the one language of the world," "the mother of all languages of the world."
If today India has got an opportunity after thousand years to shape her own destiny, I ask in all seriousness if she is going to feel ashamed to recognise the Sanskrit language-the revered grandmother of languages of the world, still alive with full vigour, full vitality? Are we going to deny here her rightful place in Free India? That is a question which I solemnly ask....
In the same vein, I would also urge our readers to read this brilliant article titled ‘A Historical Sense: What Sanskrit has meant to me” by Aatish Taseer. Despite the impassioned arguments of Shri Lakshmi Kanta Maitra, I am not sure Sanskrit would have been accepted in States like Tamil Nadu given that the Dravidian movement was at the height of its powers and adoption of Sanskrit, much like the anti-Hindi agitation, would have been portrayed as imposition of ‘Aryan/Brahminical hegemony’, and hence fiercely resisted.
The smoother alternative according to Dr.Elst, which I agree with, could have been to adopt Sanskrit as a compulsory second language so that regional aspirations did not feel altogether sidelined. Had this alternative been adopted, in the last 65 years both Sanskrit and regional languages would have linguistically benefitted from each other, and Indians would have had a common lingua franca which was Indian.
Importantly, citing examples like Japan, Taiwan and China, Dr.Elst was of the view that India does not need English to make its presence felt. Drawing from my own experience from my days as an undergrad student of engineering, at the risk of generalization I am of the opinion that students who had been schooled in Tamil medium seemed to understand concepts better and were better engineers since English medium students fell back on their ‘communication skills’ to compensate for lack of depth in the subject.
In this regard, I think it would help to have an objective discussion on this issue in light of the principle of linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) which, in a nutshell, states that the language in which we understand the world around us has a bearing on our worldview. Consequently, people not only understand their cultures better in their own tongues as opposed to a foreign tongue, but also learn better. Unfortunately, any such talk of introducing Sanskrit compulsorily in schools as a second language or even education in a non-English medium attracts accusations of ‘Saffronization’ or of being a ‘dinosaur’.
Coming back to the discussion, one of the things that Prof.Paranjape said, and which I think is critical, is to massively invest in increasing the scale and quality of indigenous scholarship which reinterprets Indian history through an Indian lens. This is important according to Prof.Paranjape because the most authoritative or at least the most widely read and recommended books on Indian history and languages seem to be authored by people on either sides of the Atlantic, and not Indians. Even if a work is authored by an Indian, he or she turns out to be an academic from a university in the US or the UK. Therefore, there is an urgent need to commit vast resources in this direction as part of the decolonization exercise. Also, I couldn’t help but agree with Prof.Paranjape when he said that it wasn’t enough to have our hearts in the right place. It is equally important to set high qualitative benchmarks for the scholarship produced to counter Marxist/Leftist historians.
The other realistic observation by Prof.Paranjape was that it is utopian to expect Indian students of history and languages to take an active interest in anything related to India without providing adequate incentives (read scholarships/fellowships) for doing so. After all, study of foreign languages and cultures opens up prestigious and lucrative avenues, which is largely responsible for students taking it up in droves. In other words, according to Prof.Paranjape, it isn’t true that Indian students are completely averse to studying Indian or South Asian history; it is only a question of whether the effort is worth their while.
Prof.Paranjape ended his comments by saying that a stable government and a strong economy are absolutely imperative for people to have a sense of pride and accomplishment, which would significantly contribute to the process of decolonization of the Indian psyche.
There were some interesting comments made and questions asked post the discussion. For instance, a retired gentleman from the armed forces said that it would help to undertake rigorous analysis of Indian military history before and during the colonial period to draw lessons from our failures, and to also dispel the myth that most invaders had a walk in the park. He also informed the audience that such an initiative was being undertaken at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.
Yet another gentleman, who sounded German, observed that foreign scholarship on Indian texts may be technically rigorous, but was spiritually deficient because foreign scholars simply could not comprehend, leave alone internalize or appreciate, Indian value systems and way of life which was important to make sense of ancient Indian texts.
There were two other questions which weren’t answered due to paucity of time. The first was an interesting one by Sandeep Balakrishna who too attended the event. His question was- what explains the success of writers like William Dalrymple in India and their inability to make a mark before Western audiences? I leave it for our readers to answer this question.
The second was by me. My question was this, and I leave this one too for the readers to answer- the first step in decolonizing the Indian mind is to first lay a clear ideological foundation to achieve decolonization (not xenophobia or a false superiority complex) at all levels- personal, social, cultural, spiritual and importantly political. This must then translate to lucid implementable/workable grassroots strategies which do not succumb to self-indulgent esotericism in the name of lending depth to it. Are we even close to achieving the first step?