Oprah’s India: Through the lens of Western Universalism

By Rajiv Malhotra and Kaajal Ahuja

In the past week, Indian media circles have been buzzing about the two-part India special aired on television – Oprah’s Next Chapter. Although Oprah herself was received warmly in India, the TV episodes have been met with mounting criticism -  that the episodes, complete with snake charmers, slums and slumdogs, maharajas, joint families and eating with hands, were cliché ridden and reminiscent of the images of exotic India that saturate Western media.

Oprah’s defenders claim that there was no malice intended. On this we agree. But the lazy two-part production demonstrated an unsettling truth about the insidious nature of stereotypes – that they can be implicit and unconscious, occurring even without intention.


The ramifications for any stereotyped group are that they are robbed of their complexity and heterogeneity. Indians have suffered the deleterious effects of distorted views of their country and culture for far too long.  Ultimately, the clichés preserve the widespread disparaging attitudes toward India and may even influence policies toward it.

Oprah’s unwitting stereotypical portrait of India begs the question: what are the origins of such stereotypes? In my recent book, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism (HarperCollins India, 2011), I’ve explained how these stereotypes have deep roots in Western religion, philosophy and history, shaped by countless influential Western writers.

The history of the West is replete with assertions of supremacy over the non-West on account of religious, racial, cultural and economic factors. The result of what I call “difference anxiety”, entire nations such as India, alive, vibrant and with much to offer global culture, are patronisingly portrayed as old-fashioned, traditional, quaint, banal or off-putting.

It is worth reminding those like Deepak Chopra, who scold Indians asking that they “adapt to international scrutiny,” that such depictions are hardly new or unique. Indians have usually endured silently, far worse. From Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential Western philosophers of the 18th century, who attacked Indians for their “dominating taste for the grotesque”, “their religion (one of) grotesqueries, idols of monstrous form,” to American philosopher and post-modernist Richard Rorty, who considered a study of Indian thought irrelevant to Westerners, one which would make “no difference at all” to “what we do”, such attitudes have ranged from condescension to outright racism.

A book by Katherine Mayo, The Face of Mother India, became immensely influential in shaping American ideas about India in the previous century. Her conclusions, among others, that “Hinduism was a debased, hopeless kind of religion”, producing “naked ascetics and scrawny fakirs on nails”, “stupid taboos” and an “altogether complicated, alien mess”, led to a scathing criticism by Mahatma Gandhi who called it a “drain inspector’s report”.

Andrew Rotter, an American historian at Colgate University, who spent many years researching cultural assumptions and beliefs related to US policies toward South Asia during the Cold War, found after analysing declassified writings of American officials, that overall, Indians were seen as difficult to comprehend. They were described variously as grotesque, smelly, disorderly, unsanitary, promiscuous and primitive. At the foundation of all American perceptions, Rotter found, was the view that “India was a land of mystery, exotic and inscrutable”.

The insistence upon viewing Indians through those very lenses even today, many decades and achievements later, as evident in the Oprah special, may be driven by the fear, as explained by Lloyd and Susan Rudolph of the University of Chicago, that “we (the West) would be less ourselves, less this-worldly, masterful, egalitarian and individualistic if Indians were less what they are”.

No less influential on Western impressions of India was the German philosopher and thinker, Hegel. His India was a realm of “phantasy and sensibility” that had something “pusillanimous and effeminate” about it. To Hegel, India was stuck in infancy, arrested in development and incapable of maturing on its own, while Europe was the penultimate end in the evolution of nations. Only the West had been endowed with reason and thus entitled to be in the driver’s seat as part of God’s plan, the central agent of world (universal) history.

The profound assumption of Western Universalism is that the shape and direction of world history and culture are leading to, or should lead to, Western defined objectives – be it Christian salvation or secular progress. This view is deeply entrenched in the consciousness of Europeans and Americans and forms a core part of their identities. This assumption then sets the terms and nature of the encounter of the West with India. It drives what aspects of India are selected as “interesting” for viewers, how the information is filtered and framed for presentation.

One of the most important objectives of Being Different is to refute such Western claims of universalism. As a form of resistance, the backlash to the Oprah special by Indians is both healthy and necessary. Even if occasionally overwrought, it demonstrates the willingness and ability of Indians to challenge the Western view of their culture. The Western gaze has always given the Western perspective a de facto status as arbiter of what is considered universally kosher.

This has been and remains the basis and justification for various campaigns of domination of the non-West by the West. When another culture, such as India, becomes the object of such a gaze, it is rendered relative (to a certain geography or ethnicity) but not universal in the way that the West sees itself. Indeed its depiction as the alien is precisely what makes it interesting because it is particular and not universal.

As long as one remains in the privileged position of subject, looking at others and not being gazed at oneself, one can assume that one’s positions and assumptions represent the universal norm and hence remain blind to one’s own limitations, failures, idiosyncrasies, peculiarities and exotica.

Being Different offers a challenge to Western Universalism. It reverses the analytic gaze that normally goes from West to East by utilising Indian categories rather than Western ones.  It aims to challenge the assumptions that Western paradigms are universal and hopes to set the terms for a deeper and more informed engagement between Indian and Western civilisations.

Rajiv Malhotra is the author of Being Different, and a regular blogger on The Huffington Post

Updated Date: Jul 31, 2012 19:17 PM

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