Editor's note: This is the second part of a paper presented at the National Seminar held in Bengaluru by the Indian Council for Philosophical Research in September 2016.
Read part one here.
We may now briefly examine a few related threads.
Beginning roughly around the industrialisation era, the West began to regard man primarily as an economic being, which is also one of the major underpinnings of contemporary capitalism, most notably when we use the term “human resources” and “productivity” in the context of human beings. It’s true though that this conception of man in purely economic terms has resulted in material prosperity for the West on a scale and extent unprecedented in history. But it has come at enormous human cost in terms of relentless material consumption, emotional loneliness, the breakdown of the family unit and increasing dependence on the state.
And if one examines the Indian scenario, especially, post globalisation, we seem to have unthinkingly emulated the same conceptions leading to similar outcomes. Indians who travelled to prosperous Western nations and even at home, exposed to the Western corporate culture have perhaps unconsciously internalised this notion because it is in human nature to be awed and enamored by material accomplishments on such a scale, and therefore to emulate it. This becomes more apparent given that for most of time post Independence decades, we were a closed, socialist economy with little resources to travel.
More fundamentally, this is also a failure of our education, which looks down upon Sanskrit or classical studies, and has all but banished these disciplines from mainstream learning.
The other thread is the intellectual currents that became influential in the post World War II Europe. Among these, Existentialism, which viewed the world as meaningless and absurd, also gave rise to a discourse on the lines that “man is condemned to exist.” This is in many ways, a throwback to the Christian doctrine[i] where Christ and St. Paul “called upon the people not to resist evil.”
Apart from these poles of absolute materialism and defeatism we may also note in some detail the emergence of what’s now known as the Frankfurt School, which laid the foundation for much of the public discourse we witness in the West and in urban India.
Its origins can be traced back to the World War I where Communists believed that the Communists and workers of various countries would unite and fight in favour of a World Communist revolution. However, they were shocked when these workers fought on behalf of their respective nations, as patriots. This led to the formation of the Institute for Social Research, now known as the Frankfurt School founded in 1923.
The early pioneers like Antonio Gramsci, Geog Lukacs, and Felix Weil concluded that the unit of family with the man as its head had to be undermined and destroyed.
In a definitive turn in Marxist thought, the Frankfurt School became a vehicle that transformed defining Marxism in economic terms to cultural terms.
In the 1930s, the Frankfurt School published its radical work titled Critical Theory. In the words of Prof Martin J[ii] of the University of Berkeley, Critical Theory was “a play on words…one should ask what is the theory? The answer: the theory is to criticise [as an end in itself] … by the unremitting destructive criticism of every institution of Western society, they hope to bring that [traditional] society down.”
Eventually, a breakthrough was achieved by cross-pollinating Karl Marx’s theories with those of Sigmund Freud. The resultant theory was that everyone in traditional societies was in a state of constant psychological repression. This was further developed by Theodor Adorno and Erich Fromm whose work resulted in the “sexual revolution” in the 1960s America, most notably on college campuses.
Critical Theory is also the basis for today’s Black Studies, Gay Studies, Women’s Studies, LGBT, and so on. Every University in the world, including India, has a variant of these studies.
But perhaps the greatest breakthrough for the Frankfurt School came in the form of the highly influential book, The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodore Adorno which basically argued that anyone supporting traditional culture and family unit-based societies was psychologically unbalanced and needed psychiatric treatment. Equally, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilisation condemned all restrictions on sexual behavior and advocated what he termed as “polymorphous perversity,” which normalized sexual deviancy in the name of sexual openness.
The long term consequence has been the creation of lobbies of victim groups, litigating against perceived insults to their lifestyles. Charles J Skyes’ research work[iii], A Nation of Victims shows for example, how a dismissed university employee who was a habitual latecomer successfully sued the university on grounds of “Chronic Lateness Syndrome.”
For India, the effect of this has been pernicious to say the least in the form of rampant and destructive feminism. The most visible instance of this has been the legislation that gave birth to Section 498 (A) of the IPC. It is important to note that this legislation was the result of sustained lobbying by a group of powerful feminists drawn from various walks of life, and did not have popular support from the voting public.
Equally important is the fact that in the Indian context, feminism has been additionally equipped with a denigration of the Hindu view of the feminine, which is rooted in sanctity. As an extreme example, here is an excerpt of a poem by the Feminist-Communist activist, Meena Kandaswamy:
This poem denigrates Hindus.
This poem shows them in poor light.
This poem celebrates Krishna's freedom to perch on a naked woman.
This poem flames with the fires of a woman hungry for sex.
This poem makes the Shiva lingam the male sexual organ.
This poem prides itself in its perverse mindset.
This poem gossips about the sex between Sita and Laxman.
In a line, while the situation is not as rife as it is in Western societies, with the rapid normalisation of such discourse in India, we are surely heading in that direction. Why for instance didn’t we have the now-regular phenomenon of public rallies supporting say, LGBT, White Noise, Slutwalk and so on, even 15 years ago? Or the increasing spurt in divorce rates, and or organisations like “Save Indian Family?”
The Frankfurt School’s discourse has increasingly polarised sections of society against others, and ultimately society against itself. Additionally, by politicising human behavior, it is leading to calls for increasing interference of the State in the lives of private individuals.
This is not to argue that discrimination against say women, sexual minorities or other classes of society did not exist in the West or in India. Indeed, commonsense tells us that as long as human societies exist, discrimination and disparity are bound to exist. The best any age or society can hope for is to minimise these ills.
An unbiased study of Indian history shows how our society responded to alleviate the said ills. This response emanated primarily from the philosophical underpinnings of ancient India. Put another way, the Indian society’s philosophical conception is rooted in the notion of Rta or the Cosmic Order, which is what primarily makes us accommodative of countless Gods, sects, paths, etc. This notion has therefore built a self-correcting mechanism to respond to challenges to Sanatana Dharma both externally and from within.
We can examine just two prominent instances: Buddha and Sri Basavanna who rose as internal corrections to social and religious excesses. But the path both took, and the message they delivered, were rooted in the same ancient Indian philosophy. It is therefore both partially correct and misleading to characterise them as mere social reformers.
Perhaps Swami Vivekananda wouldn’t have met with the same level of adulation and success, and his message wouldn’t have endured but for the solid philosophical base on which it stood.
This then has always been the nature of self-regulatory mechanism in India throughout the ages, manifested in the lives and work of its famous people.
But in an India whose post-Independence elite was largely informed and conditioned in the Western mould, this inbuilt mechanism was lost sight of. And so, in the rush to mitigate and/or reform various social ills, we seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. It is pertinent to recall PV Kane’s caution[iv] in this context: “In these days of growing popular education, when [an ancient] myth becomes exposed, the men who once believed it not only give up that myth but also might give up everything contained in ancient works as unbelievable…the chief catalytic agencies are modern science and Western thought and literature. The old structure…is tottering and laxity in morals has made great headway…whatever happens, we must so regulate society that the family as a social unit is preserved.”
Finally, one can offer a few points by way of what can be done.
For most of the post-Independence period, India has not invested enough in critically studying the West, much less developing an independent cultural and national narrative. As Dr SL Bhyrappa and others have remarked, our universities have remained content in following and developing upon ideas and intellectual currents prevalent in the West at various points in time.
Secondly, in the contemporary period, the West regards both ideas and ideology as a means to a political end, whatever that end might be. But to the inherited cultural and civilisational consciousness of majority of Indians, politics is only one of the means to a loftier spiritual goal. This is perhaps why we have largely been unable to fathom how and why the Western mind can discern politics in say our Gods, festivals, temples, places of pilgrimage, and write thousands of “expert” academic theses.
About two decades ago, China initiated such a study of Western systems, and continues to reap its rewards today. Equally, over a period, it endowed numerous American universities with grants and chairs in the field of Chinese Cultural Studies, broadly speaking. The control of these institutions completely rests in Chinese hands. This among other reasons is why it receives negligible negative coverage by the Western press and other institutions. For instance, when the Western media recently published a long expose of the cruel “dog festival,” in China, it retaliated by publishing a similar report in a British paper covering the shocking state of Britain’s slaughterhouses.
Thirdly, and this has been a refrain for several decades, a complete and thorough reform of Education needs to occur, starting at the primary level. In other words, we must take back control of the narrative about ourselves from alien hands.
I shall close this by quoting Ananda Coomaraswamy[v] again: “An India free in name but subdued by Europe in her…soul would ill justify the price of freedom…we should not rest satisfied until the entire control of Indian education is in Indian hands. No European should have a voice [in it].”
[i] Hobhouse: Morals in Evolution
[ii] Prof Martin J: The History of Political Correctness
[iii] Charles J Skyes: A Nation of Victims. Introduction.
[iv] PV Kane: History of the Dharmashastras Vol 5, Part 2: pp 1710
[v] Ananda Coomaraswamy: “Preface,” Essays in National Idealism