by Rajiv Malhotra
In my recent book, Being Different - An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism (HarperCollins India, 2011), I discuss the phenomenon of the Western appropriation of the cultural and civilisational fruits of non-Western cultures, plucking these from their context and feeding them into the West’s own grand narrative, strengthening it, while leaving the former uprooted or disabled.
This process, one that I term “digestion,” might start out innocuously enough, but once a cultural artifact has been digested its contours and intent may bear no resemblance to the original. The culture that bears those fruits is denied not just credit but also the potential to produce future harvests. Collectively, the world is denied the diversity of intelligence and the evolution of new paradigms.
Take the example of yoga in American popular culture and its complete severance from its Hindu roots. The insistence on viewing yoga as merely a physical practice with some spiritual/mental benefits by the vast majority of Americans, or even refashioning it into “Christian Yoga”, is the “digestion” that I’m referring to. While all yoga practitioners derive many of its benefits, neglecting the distinct and rich metaphysics that undergirds yoga asanas is a rejection of the real prize – the spiritual union of human consciousness with the divine. To deem yoga as Christian is to miss the point altogether, given how fundamentally at odds mainstream Christian and Hindu philosophies are. (In a previous blog, I’ve described what these differences are).
Attempts to clarify and assert the Hindu roots of yoga in recent blogs have been met with resistance and animosity by many ardent American yoga practitioners. This resistance points to the “Western Universalism” that I also discuss in my book: a deeply ingrained view that the entire world system’s nature and evolution is shaped by the West’s experience and worldview. Along with geographically and historically derived cultural memes, Western Universalism is deeply intertwined with the Judeo-Christian narrative. To embrace yoga’s Hindu roots would fundamentally challenge Western identity. “Digestion” – keeping yoga but dumping Hinduism - is the means of containing that challenge.
If yoga’s Hindu roots create such anxiety by challenging Western religious pre-eminence, then how might Gandhi, who successfully challenged Western Universalism, leading and winning India’s fight for independence non-violently, fare in the West? Already we see attempts to co-opt Gandhi. A recent bizarre incident uncovering Gandhi’s posthumous baptism by the Mormon Church is an example of one such attempt of laying claim to him. (Gandhi himself deplored the practice of conversion by Christian missionaries in India).
Most Western authors on Gandhi will emphasise the influence of the New Testament on Gandhi. Indeed Gandhi spoke favourably of many passages in the New Testament and of Jesus, but never as passionately or as extensively as he did of the faith to which he belonged. In fact, Gandhi was being entirely true to his pluralistic Hindu beliefs in his respect for all faiths and not just his own.
In Peace Education studies in American universities, Gandhi’s success is attributed largely to the “context” – the apparent benevolence of British colonists in providing the fertile field on which he could exercise his non-violent agitation. (Gandhi himself had said that non-violent resistance could work in most situations, albeit with great sacrifice). Gandhi is routinely discussed in virtual isolation from his followers, the large and diverse group of eminent thinkers, and the Indian masses who very early embraced Gandhi’s non-violent practices spontaneously.
If Gandhi led, then millions of Indians, similarly inspired, agreed wholeheartedly and followed. Keeping Gandhi, but dumping his Hindu influences is already being attempted in Western scholarship.
Fortunately, Gandhi, a prolific writer documented his own life and struggles quite extensively. Moreover, as his writings record, he dove deep into Indian culture, drawing upon it to frame the Indian independence struggle in terms that would resonate with his countrymen. His autobiography reveals that his moral life was anchored in his Hindu faith. In my view, Gandhi (and his ideas) resisted digestion because, quite cannily, he used Sanskrit words to give voice to India’s struggle and demands. Words like satyagraha, swadeshi, swaraj, ahimsa, sva-dharma became an integral part of the lexicon of the Indian freedom struggle. By using these words and not their English equivalents, Gandhi preserved the complete range of their complex meanings, their dharmic origins and their cultural context.
Even as the West refers to Gandhi’s methods as non-violent, Gandhi himself used the words ahimsa, and satyagraha as the character of his movement. The term ahimsa is more than non-violence. Himsa translates to “harm” and ahimsa is not just non-violence, a narrow and incomplete translation, but more accurately “non-harming”. "Non-harming," therefore, precluded all forms of harm – cultural genocide, environmental degradation and animal slaughter.
Satya-graha or “truth-struggle” implied that India’s freedom fight would have to be conducted in a manner that befits the bearers of truth. Holding on to the Sanskrit terms became his way of resisting colonisation and safeguarding dharmic knowledge.
2 October being Gandhi’s birthday, it would be worth reflecting on his courageous quest to retain his cultural distinctiveness. How might Western scholarship on Gandhi affect his legacy? How is Gandhi studied in Indian universities? What could be the implications for a multipolar world today? To consider these and other questions is one way of paying tribute to the father of our nation on Gandhi Jayanti.
Rajiv Malhotra's journey started in physics in St Stephens College and went to computer science in the USA, and further on to telecom, corporate strategy, management consulting and entrepreneurship. He took early retirement, and for the past 20 years has reinvented himself as writer, speaker and public intellectual in philosophy, international relations and current affairs.
Edited by Kaajal Ahuja