In his new book, “Being Different – An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism” (HarperCollins India, 2011), Indian-American scholar and author Rajiv Malhotra presents both his own lived experiences as well as a “purva-paksha” of Western ideas. “Purva-paksha” is the respectable confrontation of opposite views in a debate whereby a person entering a debate first understands the opponents arguments, then refutes it and finally establishes his or her views or siddhanta. It is both a deep understanding as well as a critique. Being Different is a book of comparative religion where Malhotra has reversed the gaze on the West and made India the adjudicator in our understanding of it. He has lived in the West for over 4 decades and has had to confront both friendly and not-so-friendly (and sometimes harshly unfriendly) opposition to his purva-paksha. Even while he forcefully denounces the oxymoron – “Western Universalism”, remarkably, his book shows no emotional lack of objectivity and is a scholarly examination of the entrenched biases toward India or Indian dharmic traditions.
His use of the term “dharmic tradition” in place of terms like “Hindu religion” or “Hinduism” or “Indian religion” also shows his deep understanding of the Indian ethos which is in fact not a religion but a path of ‘knowing the self’ or aatmanam buddhi. With the help of different embodied approaches like yoga, meditation or bhakti, and commencing with, as Malhotra puts it, “the sublime idea that humankind is divine”, one moves forward on this path of embodied knowing or adhyatma vidya.
In much of the literature generated (primarily by the West) in contrasting Western and Indian views, what is often lost is that Indian and Western philosophies are simply not the same sorts of enterprise. Each has its own standards of logical and rational assessment. Comparative philosophy reveals that both traditions can supply viable alternative answers to certain questions, just as thinkers belonging to one tradition may very well learn from those belonging to the other including how not to make certain mistakes, how to avoid certain conceptual muddles and how to ask certain questions more perspicuously.
Malhotra proposes the use of non-translatable Sanskrit terms like ahimsa, satya, swadharma,satyagrah, swaraj, swadeshi, inspired by Gandhi. (p352). This usage is for Malhotra a strategic way to demonstrate how differences between two cultures can be asserted constructively while retaining respect for one’s opponents at the same time. He does not even use italics for these Sanskrit terms. He coins 'sapekesha dharma' and adapts 'purvapaksha' for his purpose very effectively. In this way, he creates a space for a common discourse in which both India and the West can participate – a conversation of humankind not a conversation of the West or of the East by itself. He calls it an inter-civilizational encounter. But encounters have often taken place to demolish the opponent or to conquer the other. In such debates the focus remains in the establishment of one’s own supremacy. It is in fact a dialogue or samvad which Malhotra recommends, to be held in a spirit of reciprocity, mutual recognition and solidarity.
Further, what I have immensely liked is that it recognizes the methodological necessity of the plurality of thought and does not forcefully contest the idea of ‘heterogeneity’ which would completely subordinate the commonalities of thought and the relationship between the self and the other. It avoids the two extremes of “incoherence of chaotic scattering of flowers” on one hand and “reductionist, homogenized universals” on the other. After all any such intellectual pursuit as the one that Malhotra has embarked on in his book, while highlighting the differences in the thought patterns of the East and the West, must necessarily tend toward moving beyond these confines, toward a world not divided into artificial fragments: first, second, third world and so on.
A multi-faith dialogue should be predicated on mutual trust, respect and confidence among the adherents of different faiths and traditions, showing a vision of the world as a family. Like a garland maker, Malhotra proposes creating a garland with flowers of many colours and forms, and stringing them harmoniously to give a most pleasing effect of diversity in this world. This is his metaphor for dharmic diversity or sapekesta which means equal respect for every religion. Difference and underlying unity are complementary to each other. But if this diversity of religion does not open up the channels of understanding and communication, then this can prove to be calamitous and this is exactly what happened in the colonial period and in our present post colonial times. The West is given to hammering the differences in culture, civilization, literary thought and religions, generally to prove their superior identity. The idea of the East as some shadowy, threatening ‘other’ with which the West is in sharp conflict, and the essentializing of East and West into two simple and contrastive categories has a long history and can be traced back to the time of Herodotus. Sartre’s famous statement ‘hell is the other’ carries a strong echo of Hegel, who defined identity as one always pitted against the “other”. The West suffers from what Malhotra calls ‘difference anxiety’, manifested as the desire to i) destroy the other or ii) isolate the other or else iii) through inculturation dilute the difference and eventually assimilate the other into his own world – one example being that of the American ‘melting pot’.
For India the ‘other’ is never a source of reference to define one’s own identity as it is for the Europeans. The self is always accepted as self referential, the other is never a threat to their identity, nor a source of confirmation of their uniqueness. Sapeksha dharma is consistent with the principle of bandhuta in the sense of inter-subjectivity, solidarity and fraternity across paths and identities or what Malhotra calls ‘positive pluralism’ or ‘unity in diversity’. It is not mere tolerance or indifference emanating from a position of assumed superiority. Understanding should hardly culminate in mere ‘tolerance’. Tolerance smacks of personal ego and a sense of superiority. On the contrary, mutual respect is an intellectual and emotional welcoming—an acceptance of diversity. It is not just nirapekshata or passivity towards others but rather a proactive stance - sapekshata or reciprocity and mutual respect. It facilitates bandhuta or responsiveness to the ‘otherness’ of the other. Sapekshata is more than just paying lip service to the concept of ‘many mansions’ but expresses a willingness to enter into ‘mansions’ other than one’s own.
Malhotra’s proposal is to reverse the gaze which normally goes from West to East, contest western categories and question the West’s de facto status of an arbiter of what is considered universally true. In simple terms it is a challenge to Western universalism and an effort to understand the West on Indian terms or through dharmic categories. At least two meanings of universalism are in currency: one, which is a part of India’s ethos of the continuity of thought and, another, which came into circulation from Europe.
The age old Indian conception of universality, is described by Tagore as the ideal of the spiritual unity of man.’ (‘The way to Unity’, English Writings...vol iii.p. 465) or “vasudhaiva kutumbukam”. Under this concept the whole world (consisting of Universal Self, Nature and the self) is a family and is very different from the cosmopolitan concept of Diogenes of Sinope 412BC, who said: “Asked where he came from, he answered: I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês).” The latter is just a broader view of particularism and does not in any way prove one’s identity as a member of a family but only as a citizen of the world (state). The concept of the “world as a family” is quite different from the West’s notion of a global order or a global village, which is only the relentless process of the westernization of the globe. The terms and conditions for living and participating in the life of such a global village are laid down by the west, for their own benefit and must be adhered to in order to remain in it.
Tagore describes what he sees as the real tradition of India – to achieve real ‘adjustments of races, to acknowledge real differences, between them, and yet seek some basis of unity.’ This tradition has permeated India at a visceral level and not just superficially at a political one. Our saints - Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya and others have been its biggest proponents. It is this solution ─ “unity through acknowledgement of differences─ that India has to offer to the world.’ (Nationalism, 1985 p.64). This conception is the principal element of Tagore’s idea of cosmopolitan universality. Tagore always believed in the confluence of cultures and human unity. India has always found sacredness in confluence whether of ideas or rivers! Tagore neither favored one monolithic culture nor an alchemical unity of many cultures but only the creation of bridges among cultures so that an edifice of human unity could be established without devaluing their local origins, culture and traditions. Tagore’s seminal statement in this respect is: ‘Perfection of unity is not in uniformity, but in harmony' (Creative Unity 171–72). Malhotra echoes this view in explaining Hinduism that tends to conceptualize universals as integral unities pregnant with particulars. He further explains this so eloquently:
“The relationship between universals and particulars never collapses into either pole: neither towards the other worldly emphasis on transcendental universals, nor toward radical materialism of earthly particulars.”
A school of Vedanta philosophy which admits the truth of, or what is known as, the principle of bhedabheda. It may generally be taken to indicate a belief that bheda or ‘distinction’; and abheda or ‘unity’ can co-exist and be in intimate relation with each other. Substance and attribute, universal and particular, whole and parts may seem to be different from, or even opposed to, each other, but really there is no incompatibility between them, for they can be reconciled in a unity which pervades the difference and is its very being. This view is sometimes described also as parinama vada or ‘theory of development’ implying that reality maintains its identity throughout (M. Hiriyanna, Indian Philosophical Studies, 1 (1957), PP.95-96). It is in Malhotra’s term bifocal level of truth not bipolar. Bifocal approach sees both universal and particular simultaneously.
The second conception of universality is related to the European enlightenment. The enlightenment extolled reason and science as the best means of improving society and ending political despotism and the tyranny of ‘blind faith and superstition’.
The enlightenment made many acknowledged contributions. However, even as post- structuralism theory developed an important critique of the coercive aspects of the enlightenment, it did not critically refute the presumption that the sacred is regressive and that secular is progressive. The split of sacred and secular, non-reason and reason, non-modern traditions and forward-looking modernity, spirituality and materialism brought a division between humanity that progressive west is civilized and regressive east is backward. Progressive west is universal and the regressive east is particular. The extended meaning of purvapaksha by Malhotra speaks against this kind of cultural uniqueness that flies in the face of the human unity so assiduously nurtured by India. Tagore says: ‘Oh my mind, awake heroically on the shores of the ocean of universal humanity.’
In order to contest the universalist boasts of Europe, Tagore on February 10, 1937, composed his poem on another continent, “Africa”, toward the end of his long and creative life in literature. It was a searing sarcasm directed at the false universalist claims of an unnamed Europe. The sanctimonious hypocrisy of the colonizer stood in stark opposition to the wretched abjection of the colonized. African writer Chinua Achebe in his essay on ‘Colonialist Criticism’ says that in the nature of things, the work of a western writer is automatically assumed to be informed by universalism. It is only others who must strain to achieve it. Fredric Jameson’s statement which is no doubt inadequate and slanted, describes the third world literary works as national allegories, which have nothing to do with universal cosmopolitanism. And so Chinua Achebe says that he should like the word “universal’ banned altogether from the discussions on African (or to add Indian) literature until such time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe, until their horizon extends to include all the world.
The colonizers, while exalting their own culture, were keen to be players in broad arenas of cosmopolitan thought and wished to contribute to the shaping of a global future. Their universalism flowed from a sense of exclusiveness or exceptionalism – that rationalism, science, equality, freedom, human rights and industrialism were the unique by-products of European civilization. Their homogenized universalism was very different from Tagore’s universalism which grew with a strong basis of particularism, with the help of knowledge and learning of one’s own culture and a humanistic outlook.
Itihasa is another foundational term used by Malhotra which is different from ‘history’ as understood in the West. History is commonly understood as a narrative of past events. Malhotra points out that by claiming many of the Bible’s sacred stories as indisputable historical facts, even when these are simply not verifiable, Judeo-Christian religion is history-centric. Dharmic tradition in contrast is primarily a search for the Self (atmanam biddhi) and is experiential or intuitive.
Itihasa is, no doubt, as Amarkosha says, puravritta (i.e. events of the past); but the emphasis is not on the events themselves, however true they may be, but on some teaching, on some ideal. Therefore itihasa is always coupled with ‘purana’, ‘that which is old and yet new.’ Purana or myth has a self-renewing, eternalizing capacity which appeals to the Indian mind. It has both episodic richness and the glow of the eternal reality (sruti jyotsna). In the Indian context it is the myth-making function of Itihasa which underlies its dynamism and ability to mould the social life, morality and culture of a people. Hence the Mahabharata is ‘itihasapurana’ – fact & myth. The mutable, historical man is a “nara”. When he moves from his physical being alone towards a realization of his eternal self he becomes ‘narottama’ and stands between history and myth. When finally he merges with the deity to become a part of the Universal Self, he is the eternal man or ‘narayana’ and, there and then, history and myth become one and the same. Kalhana, the famous Indian historian, following the tradition of Indian historiography says that the historian resembling prajapati (creator) must possess the divine perception of the past. Here, man moves out from the time bound existence of history to freedom from history or from temporality to eternity.
This approach has been variously received and criticized by the western modernists. They thought that this undue emphasis on search for inner reality and quietude appear to be socially inactive, amoral and excessively world-negating - something that the action-oriented and progress-motivated Western religious ethos finds revolting and wrong.
Malhotra offers ‘Confucian modernity’ as a example to counter the claims of the western modernists who, among other things, forcefully denounce tradition, sacredness and universal humanity as detrimental to progress, globalization or modern development and secularism. Tagore in his lecture at the Private Colleges of Tokyo and the Members of the Indo-Japanese Association, at the Keio Gijuku University in 1916, stated that “true modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European school masters.” Further, in Beijing in 1924, Tagore presented his own definition of the ‘other modernism’ - akin to the dharmic tradition of India where modernity is not created by rejecting the past but is developed as the continuity of a tradition which values both the old and the new and looks at them holistically.
Aranya or vana (forest) in comparison to marubhumi (desert) is very meaningfully used by Malhotra to show the difference between dharmic and Judeo-Christian civilizations. Tapovanas are the forest schools for spiritual training and realization of the Self and harmony between nature and man. Marubhumi or desert is unfriendly, lifeless and harsh and a place of extremes. The desert dweller needs a God from above for relief who inspires awe and worship. Forests represent polycentricism while Deserts have birthed the idea of an austere and even harsh father-God.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that in the 1970s I first read and was inspired by ‘The Speaking Tree’ by R. Lannoy. Now after a gap of almost 40 years, I’ve had the good fortune to read another seminal book on Hindu dharmic tradition - ‘Being Different’ by Rajiv Malhotra.
There are some who might view Malhotra as having taken a slanted position, favoring dharmic traditions rather than playing the role of a critical insider. No doubt, he does not lay bare the detrimental aspects of the dharmic tradition nor offer any proposals on how to change these traditions from within. He does draw great inspiration from Gandhi but does not, as Gandhi did, modify, adapt or reconstruct the tradition that he analyzes. I believe that in this book, Malhotra’s objective was just to show the differences between two religious traditions and challenge the western notion of universalism. In his long stay in America, I can assume, he had to face lots of opposition not unlike Raja Rammohan Roy, who, after his experiences, objected about the ways of missionaries, their abusive language and their support by foreign Governments of their activities. Roy said then, a fact equally true today that truth and virtue do not belong to wealth and power. He told Indians of the criticisms of the Bible by Westerners such as the Unitarians and other free thinkers and hit hard at the doctrine of Trinity. He questioned: why should India’s own saints, their miracles and greatness be disparaged or rejected in favor of those introduced by missionaries. Roy too felt, as Malhotra alludes in his other writings, that religious supremacy is influenced by a sense of Western racial and cultural superiority.
We see everywhere cultural conflicts between the traditional East and the West as well as among the three Abrahmaic traditions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has become all the more necessary to respond with renewed efforts to replace the clash of civilizations with a dialogue among civilizations. In order to enter into a meaningful dialogue aimed at better understanding of the Eastern and the Western civilization, we can appreciate Gandhi’s view that every culture can and should learn from others: “Preservation of one’s own culture does not mean contempt for that of others, but require assimilation of the best that there may be in all the other cultures.” Tagore in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech said, echoing the message of the Isopanishad, that ‘He who sees all beings in his self and his self in all the beings does not hate anyone, and knows the truth.’
This is in no way similar to the notion of digestion of ones culture by another culture (explained in the book) which is a western strategy carried out under the guise of a desire to assimilate, reduce difference, assert sameness, appropriate or homogenize and co-opt. Malhotra wants a dialogue and, by highlighting the differences, in fact created a space to demonstrate that differences can be asserted constructively to retrieve, rediscover and redefine elements of culture in a creative way.
For more details on the book, Being Different, including watching videos and information on how to buy it, visit www.BeingDifferentBook.com