Decolonising Indology: Rajiv Malhotra on why he won't follow rules set by the West
Rajiv Malhotra, target of a campaign over inadequate attribution to western Indologists in his book Indra's Net, explains that he is not here to play by the rules set by western academicians for their own purposes.
By Rajiv Malhotra
Some 20 years back, I announced publicly that I was starting a satyagraha to decolonise Indology and bring balance into it. I adopted the term ‘satyagraha’ from Mohandas Gandhi along with many of his methods. Like him, I was dealing with an opponent who has overwhelming advantages of power. Like him, I have had the experience of living amidst Western culture and understanding it well. Like him, I have worked on their side, seeing the good intentions of many of their individuals whom I admire.
In fact, Gandhi had started out wanting to address grievances within the framework of the empire, but concluded that this was impossible, and then turned against the empire. The same is also true of my story, as I came to realise that decolonising could not be left to the very institutions which colonised us in the first place. Claiming one’s swaraj cannot be outsourced.
My satyagraha, like Gandhi’s, has been a non-violent disobedience of the rules set by the opposing side which we are being required to follow. I adopted Gandhi’s method of being audacious in order to become ‘non-ignorable’ and disrupt the status quo. This means I must pay the price just as he did. But if I stay true (‘satya’) to my cause, eventually the public will rally behind me. Each time the British beat him up, Gandhi’s supporters made sure the public came to know, and the public spoke back in greater numbers. In my case, the public response has taken 20 years, but it has finally begun.
Westerners have made the rules of the game by which Indology is supposed to function. It is not seen through the traditional siddhantas (theories) of our great thinkers, but through various Western theories alien to our traditional experts. We are relegated to being importers and consumers of knowledge about our civilisation, whereas at the time of Nalanda (and scores of other viharas), we were the world-class producers and exporters of knowledge. Sadly, too many Indian intellectuals are largely parroting Western sources, often in awe and gratitude for studying us. They are simply programmed to obey ideas downloaded into them, unable to think much for themselves. Like Gandhi, I see this as a deep inferiority complex that we still carry. Modi’s idea of ‘Make in India’ must also be applied to Indology.
Toppling such a mighty fortress is not easy or free of pain and sacrifice. I started my yajna 20-plus years back on a full-time basis, by putting a large portion of my life-savings into a new foundation set up to fund such projects. I left all for-profit activities forever and have lived on the pension I funded with my resources. For the first decade of this satyagraha, I heavily funded Western academicians because of their promise to help achieve my goals. However, after considerable effort I realised that often they spoke with forked tongues, or they were well-meaning individuals who were trapped in a system they could not change from within. The same was also true of Gandhi’s experience, as many Westerners were genuinely wanted to help, but were unable to do because of the system.
My experiment to fund a radical change of their system from within has taught me many lessons, because I penetrated deeply into the internal politics of academics, understood the sources and nexuses of biases, and their well-planned strategies. Churchill had famously told Harvard students after the Second World War that the empire of the future will be ‘the empire of the mind’. He passed the baton for Western domination to the USA.
I wanted to learn from various examples of civilisations that were reclaiming their intellectual discourse. Hence, I investigated how the study of non-Western civilisations operates, who funds what and why, where the centres of power lie, and what the main themes and purposes are. Then I researched how certain other cultures had successfully mobilised their own responses. I spent several days each at Japan Foundation, Korea Foundation, Council on Islamic Education, China Institute, and Tibet House to name just a few.
Based on this, I changed my approach on how to engage Western academicians. I was most impressed by the example of China as a civilisation protecting its discourse. The international discourse on Chinese civilisation is tightly controlled by them using their institutions based in China. These organisations are invariably run by patriotic Chinese intellectuals. Many of the prestigious China Studies journals are written in Mandarin, not English. The standards, style, idiom and rules of writing scholarship are determined by China’s own traditions and are not a blind copies of Western academic standards. The editors of such journals as well as the committees and boards of major conferences on Chinese civilisation are dominated by Chinese intellectuals. This is the hallmark of a proud civilisation.
Despite all its assertiveness, China has won the USA’s respect and is regarded as the foremost ally in economic affairs. This relationship is largely on China’s terms, and it has persistently demanded a ‘hands off’ attitude with respect to its human rights and civilisational matters. The US is periodically reminded in harsh language to ‘mind its own business’ when it tries to pass judgment on China’s culture or domestic politics. Clearly, it is possible to deftly manage relations with the USA in a manner that keeps different domains separate, but this requires supreme self-confidence which China clearly demonstrates.
Unfortunately, the exact opposite is the case with studies of Indian civilisation. The field known as Indology, or South Asian Studies, is still controlled by Western Indologists and Indians trained by them and/or supervised by them. This allows the Western intellectual lens to disqualify most of the traditional Indian writings as unworthy of being considered ‘academic writing’. It gives Westerners a great opportunity to rewrite and reinterpret the Indian material according to Western norms, and thereby turn the Indian materials into what gets seen as academic scholarship. The scholar who publishes such repackaged Indian material is considered to have done ‘original’ work. Many Western PhDs consist mostly of such repackaging work using academic-grade English as a technology for control.
Once the West has certified this repackaged work as ‘academic scholarship’, then Indians must cite this as the reference point in all future work on that topic. Otherwise they run the risk of being accused of plagiarising and/or distorting the Western scholar. In other words, the ownership and adhikara for academic representation of the Indian tradition on a given topic is thus transferred to Western institutions. The implications of this are very serious: not only are outsiders claiming to become the adhikaris by using their own rules of the game, they are also denying our experts from having adhikara.
Many reasons are being cited for disqualifying Indian writings, such as the following:
Western criteria to be a scholar: The Indian writer is considered to lack the ‘academic credentials’ for being a bona fide scholar of his own tradition. This filter implies that none of the following would be considered legitimate scholars: from Patanjali to Adi Shankara, from Swami Vivekananda to Veer Sarvarkar, from Gandhi to Sri Aurobindo, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, none of our living gurus and acharyas today have Western academic credentials. My question is: Why should they have to be certified when our tradition upholds adhikara on very different criteria? We recognise many different kinds of adhikaris. Some are shastris who have expertise in texts. Some are pandits who are expert in yajnas. Some are great yogis with adhyatmic experience based on which they teach others to attain the same experience. None of these are required (or ought to be required) to be certified according to Western methods. Putting them through a process of ‘Westernisation’ of their adhikara would be a big tragedy as the very process is designed to destroy the shraddha of the person.
Mandated use of Western theories and lenses: The methodologies allowable are those sanctioned by the West. For example, the anubhava of an enlightened yogi or jnani is not considered legitimate access to knowledge, whereas an analysis using Marxism is valid. They have chopped up our knowledge into separate disciplines, each in an independent compartment, whereas our tradition sees them as holistic and organically unified. This means a scholar must get extensively trained in the latest systems of thought that the West has approved. Those few Indians who have gone through this training have invariably turned into brown-skinned Westerners, i.e., Indians wearing Western lenses and alienated from their own culture.
The style of writing, idiom, rules of citation are governed by the West: There are Western academic norms of writing in English that are different from the way English is written for ordinary readers. This training requires one to submit to Western adhikara. Most Indian writers do not conform to these norms as they are alien to our way of thinking. Hence, most Indian writings are not considered ‘academic grade’. For instance, Westerners have mastered the game of copying ‘under the radar’ without being charged with violation, whereas an Indian can be accused on pedantic, technical grounds even if his good intentions are abundantly clear. Western scholars routinely copy Indian ideas but in such a way that their new wording gives the appearance that the ideas are original. They have the advantage in playing the game whose rules they made, just like the English team in the movie, Lagaan, had the advantage of making the rules of cricket and appointing the umpires.
To implement the dream of India becoming the ‘vishva guru’, we must develop and use our own lens, frameworks, and appoint traditional and modern authorities on various domains of knowledge. There was a time when technology was imported into India as ‘knock down kits’, and simply assembled using what was pejoratively called ‘screwdriver technology’, meaning that Indians could merely put their name and distribute what the West gave us. Today, it’s the other way around in many fields where India is a world-class producer and exporter. Why can’t we do the same for the study of our civilisation?
I have never called for banning ideas or books. Nor do I ever say that all Western scholars are bad, or that only Indians can study Indology. That would be wrong as per our tradition of an open architecture of knowledge. As Gandhi said, we want the breeze to flow freely from all sides to inform us, but we should not be blown away by it. We must stand firm on our foundations and invite all voices to participate with mutual respect.
With this background of where I am coming from, one can better evaluate the latest controversy about my writings. It seems that both sides are winning as per their respective criteria. Western Indologists and their supporting Indians feel they win by smearing me and thereby diverting attention away from my critiques of their work. Gandhi faced this all the time as well. At the same time, my side is getting galvanised in larger numbers than ever before. So both sides are winning as per their own goals. This polarisation will eventually make my issues non-ignorable. The light will eventually shine on the merits of the points I raise, rather than on me personally.
Creative disruptions usually come from outside the prevailing system, and the incumbent side always fights to protect the status quo. In industry, we see this in technology disruptions and new media disruptions. In religion, Jesus Christ became a disruptive outsider both against the Jewish establishment and the Roman rulers. Centuries later, the Church faced dual disruptions from those choosing to undermine it from the outside: the Protestant revolution and the rise of empirical science. Gandhi refused to play by the rules of the British system. The dominant system tries to co-opt (or ‘domesticate’) the external threat by bringing it under its management.
It is naïve for people to ask that I must play by the rules of the system of Indology. However, I do not write by the rules of Western academicians; my target readers are mostly non-academicians who are interested to join my ‘home team’ for this satyagraha. Why would I conform to the very system I consider to be a control mechanism? It is unimportant whether my writings meet the standards set by institutional mechanisms I consider biased and in need of radical reform; their norms do not apply to me.
Of course, I believe in honesty and fair acknowledgment of sources and I work very hard to achieve this. I have already given ample evidence to show that I did not plagiarise, and in fact I over-referenced a mediocre work because I had not fully decolonised my mind. This is articulated along with my immediate plans for a second edition of Indra’s Net at a recent blog. I hope readers will look at that compelling evidence, and think for themselves rather than being influenced by a cacophony of parrots. I might have violated someone’s convention in trivial ways but nobody I showed this evidence had any doubt that I credited my sources (more than) enough.
I am simply offering my humble service to an important cause. I do not think I am the best qualified person to do this satyagraha, and certainly cannot do it all by myself. However, I embarked on this journey simply because others were not doing this kind of work with adequate intensity and single-pointed commitment. Therefore, when people attack me personally and point out my limitations, it does not discourage me. The whole idea is to draw in more people with better capabilities than I have.
The genie is out of the bottle and will not go back. I have developed and spread several compelling new ideas and ways of thinking; these have achieved sufficient currency to be unstoppable. As far as my unfinished work goes, I have made sure it will continue regardless of what might happen to me.
I call upon supporters to take up the substantive issues strictly on merit, without becoming dependent on any personality. The intellectual dharma yuddha has to become everyone’s yajna.
(Rajiv Malhotra has authored Being Different, Breaking India, and Indra's Net, the last being the target of a concerted campaign alleging plagiarism).