Reflections on Rajiv Malhotra’s Being Different

Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism  is a scholarly book from the keyboard of Mr. Rajiv Malhotra. Malhotra has had an unusually rich and influential career: With a background in science and after a successful business venture, he turned his interests to culture, history, and the power of knowledge manipulation in the politics of the world. In less than a decade and a half he has risen to prominence among Hindu intellectuals, Indian thinkers, and Western commentators on India. An activist-scholar, he has fought successfully against the distortions, intentional or inadvertent, of Hindu worldviews in English-based schools, colleges, and presentations of India in Western media. The internet has contributed immensely to the propagation of his name and fame. Thanks to his relentless dedication, authors in the West have begun to take greater care in what and how they write about Hindu history and culture: No small achievement for a self-made scholar. Malhotra is a passionate writer, original thinker, and powerful propagator of perspectives. He articulates his views fearlessly and with clarity.

In this substantial work Malhotra explores a variety of topics inherent to Indic culture and worldviews. He reflects on many aspects of the Hindu world. His goal is not only to dismantle misconceptions, but also to formulate a new paradigm for intercultural discourse. His book presents Indic concepts often, if not always, in contrast to Western modes.

The themes that are ably explored in the volume are the following:

1. It is a naïve and mistaken view to regard, as some  well-meaning Hindu liberals do, that all cultures and religions as saying the same truths. No, religions and cultures are fundamentally different in attitudes and outlook. It is far more important to be consciously aware of these differences than to trumpet their commonalty to tackle the problems of this world.

2. India with her rich and ancient culture has been subdued and manipulated by Western (and other) intruders, to the point that even Hindu thinkers are unconsciously adopting Western paradigms in the evaluation and critique of their own culture. Worse still, many so-called educated Hindus treat their own culture with indifference or disrespect, and whole-heartedly embrace all that is Western, from pizzas to movies. As a result, there is not a level playing field when India and the rest of the world (mainly the West) are engaged in debates and discussions.

3. The hegemonic Christian West has been marginalizing and diminishing the wisdom and worth of Indic visions for many centuries now, not only out of ignorance of the deeper meanings of Indic terms, symbols and practices, but also in scheming ways to achieve its sinister ends.

4.  The so-called universalism of European Enlightenment which has been a dominant and aggressive global force in recent centuries must be challenged and halted.  The book argues with reason that the  West has no business, let alone the moral authority or the legal right, to impose its worldviews and values on the rest of the world. Indeed, on this issue,

5. Finally, and most importantly, Malhotra’s goal is to provide a dhármic framework for handing social, religious, and political problems, based on Indic views and worldviews. This will be more fruitful, more tolerant, and more meaningful in today’s world.

None of these points may be new to Hindu/Indian readers, but Malhotra’s book is an erudite and powerful elaboration of these points.

Malhotra begins by referring to a number of his own personal encounters with Western scholars and individuals  in conferences and elsewhere to let the reader know how, through means subtle and overt, Christianity and the West have been encroaching into the sacredness and integrity of Indic culture. The book gives it all raw and ruthless exposure. It unveils  aspects of what it sees as Western  hegemonic intercultural ruses that may not be as obvious to superficial observers. These revelations are sure to jolt both unwitting Indians who may have held Western civilization in high regard, as well as scheming Westerners who may feel awkward on being caught.

The chapter entitled Yoga: freedom from history is one of the best and most informative. Here one finds interesting discussions of ithihasa, adhyatma-vidya, and what the author calls embodied knowing which is contrasted with the history-centrism of Western thought.. The compartmentalized contrast between the dhármic and the Judeo-Christian visions that are presented throughout the book, can be very useful in courses on comparative religion.

In the next chapter, the book explores further the deep conceptual and doctrinal divide between the dhármic and the Abrahamic views on the relationship between the human and the Divine. The notion of integral unity is explained in this context, as also its compatibility with some of the findings of modern physics. In this context one recalls the relevant quotes from Schrödinger et al. to show Vedantic inspirations for quantum mechanics. In this chapter we also find an etic (outsider’s perspective) analysis of the birth and growth of Western civilization: perhaps the first of its kind by a well-informed Hindu scholar. This chapter alone is a weighty contribution to the literature, and will most likely be appreciated by many enlightened Western scholars as well.

It is no secret that the Hindu spirit is more receptive to and generous towards Non-Hindu religious traditions than most other world systems are towards that which is not their own. This fact is explained in the chapter on Order and Chaos. Here the reader will also find discussions on sacred stories, Biblical and Greek mythologies, as well as comments on ethics and aesthetics. It offers fresh perspectives on time-honored doctrines.

The chapter on Non-translatable Sanskrit versus Digestion brings in two important ideas. First, that certain terms are culture-specific. English renderings of words like dharma, tapas, dukkha, and Kundalini can at best be approximate, at worst misleading. Moreover, the use of original Sanskrit terms not only preserve their original meaning, but also help one in “resisting colonization and safeguarding dhármic knowledge.” This chapter contains some excellent information on Sanskrit. It also refers to Western universities which give positions to Indian scholars within their portals as redeeming their white-guilt.

The sixth and last chapter of the book, aside from the extensive and researched notes at the end, is a dynamic call for a new worldview in the context of our current multicultural and multinational planetary predicament. That the West must not and should not be allowed to enforce its worldviews and values on others is a slow awakening that is occurring within the matrix of Western civilization also. Irrespective of whether one agrees with the details in this book or not, this concluding essay is penetrating in its depth, thought-provoking as a thesis, and powerful in its arguments. The chapter marks Malhotra as a sharp thinker in the arena of culture, history, ideas and ideologies.  His invocation of the Gita and the Mahabharata in this context makes him a legitimate heir to and a traditional spokesperson for the Hindu dhármic tradition: a true áryaputra, as one used to say. His homage to Gandhi is a welcome gesture at a time when Gandhiji is the target of invectives from a great many Neo-Hindus. 

Many Western scholars have delved deeply into and analyzed freely countless dimensions of Non-Western cultures in fair and unfair, legitimate and in illegitimate ways.  Perhaps for the first time, a Hindu scholar has reciprocated that gesture. This book is the work with its profound reflections is bound to change the tenor of the intercultural debates of our times. Malhotra’s lucid expositions and intelligent interpretations of Indic culture are scholalrly contributions to India studies.

Prejudices and misinformation still persist in the West. The exclusivist and effective penetration of Christian missionaries, overt and subtle,  into India does pose a  threat to India’s Hindu cultural roots, let alone other challenges to India’s cultural roots.  In this context too Malhotra’s book is profound and provocative, The great strength of this book lies in that it brings out, as few other books have done, the complex and sophisticated framework of Indic visions with ample historical allusions, intelligent commentaries, and incisive rebuttals. It is an appropriate and timely reflection on civilizations for the twenty first century.

The tone of the book is perhaps necessary to shake up the long-persisting cultural asymmetries and injustices. Yet,  Mr. Malhotra could have added a short chapter on some of the positive contributions of the West in the fields of international science and mathematics which have advanced human knowledge and insights enormously, modern technology which has facilitated life on earth in unimagined ways, modern medicine which has eradicated many diseases and improved human health, and wealth-creation techniques which have raised the quality of life of millions all over the world; and he could have recognized that the Western mindset regarding the Non-West has been gradually evolving  for the better. These could have been mentioned not only in the interest of fairness  – giving the devil his due – but also because it is by recognizing something positive even in our enemies that peace, harmony and goodwill can be fostered in this our wounded world of confusions, conflicts, and confrontations.

But the merits of what is contained in the book far outweigh what is not.  The world of scholarship and the voices of cultural affirmation must be grateful to Mr. Malhotra for presenting us with this most interesting book. I am persuaded that this is a book of enormous import which will contribute to the construction of a world culture in which misunderstandings and convictions of superiority and mutual distrust and contempt will give place to greater understanding among cultures.

I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in the rich traditions and religions of India, and also in becoming aware of the global tensions in our multicultural world.

October 26, 2011

Three Kinds of Propostions

Propositions may be put under three categories:

1. Provable statements. These are propositions whose actual or probable truth value may be ascertained through logic, observation, experiments, etc. The sciences and a good deal of normal discourse consist mostly of provable propositions.

2. Disprovable absurdities. These are trivial or imaginary assertions which can be disproved by simple logic and observational evidence. Some examples would be: the number of letters in your name will affect the course of your life, tall people are more intelligent than short ones, one race is superior to another, Obama is a good president because he is African-American, etc.

3. Trans-rational convictions. These are non-trivial statements about dimensions of life and the world. One may argue about them endlessly, but  they cannot be proved or disproved by the methodology of science or by pure logic. Yet, many people, for various reasons, are convinced of their validity. Examples of trans-rational convictions: statements on the persistence of consciousness after death, eventual punishment or reward for our actions, re-incarnation, the divinity of certain historical personages, the existence of entities beyond the natural world, etc. Debates on their validity or otherwise, though not unusual, and often entertaining, tend to be futile. There are at least three reasons for the persistence of  trans-rational propositions: Some of them add meaning to the lives of millions of people. Many of them add to the enrichment of cultures. Sometimes they are provoked by an inner voice. Most of them are endopotent: they contribute to our inner well being. They are non-trivial.

Most aesthetic judgments belong to this category. Statements like Shakespeare is better than Kalidasa, Picasso is better than Chagall, Thyagaraja is better than Bach, are also trans-rational convictions. Arguments can be made to persuade others for or against such propositions, but they can never be established through logic.

October 4, 2011