This edited volume brings together theoretical concerns and persons who intervened to mutate Indian civilization. Sri Narayana Guru, Ranade, Sankrityayan and Ambedkar, Gandhi and Tagore feature as leaders showing the way to a new phase of human civilisation, from within the Indic matrix. These mutation personalities negotiate east and west occupying an ‘indigenous global space’. The Backwaters Collective is on a trajectory to trace potential futures for an ‘India without Caste’, taking to heart the call of Sri Narayana Guru of Kerala. The persistence of caste system despite its volatility and susceptibility to change on behalf of the powerful (shudra kings given kshatriyahood) continues to exclude women from upanayana, and the ‘untouchables’ relegated to menial works. The caste phenomenon and its persistence despite millennium long attempt by both Islam and Christianity in the Indian subcontinent, not to forget the Buddhist challenge to the structure even earlier, forms the background to the book.
Vinay Lal in his opening chapter ‘India and the Challenge of the Global South’ foresees, taking on from what happened in the 1950s, in Bandung, the possibility of an alternative voice emerging from Asia and Africa to challenge the dominance of modernity holding roost for more than half a millennia the world over. He calls it the possibility of ‘a civilizational dialogue’ (p. 18). He sees Bollywood playing the role it did in recreating the assertion of a cultural difference and uniqueness through the syncretism of Buddhism and Hinduism and the varieties of Islam available in India and Indonesia as against the rest of the Islamic world.
This uniqueness and alterity of the Asian civilisational force making a comeback to re-inject new hopes into the western worldview and modernity at its fag end, as it were, is taken on by Vivek Dhareshwar more forcefully. That the Western categories of thought have ‘insulated’ the eastern mind from creative internal reflection is the ardent claim with which he begins. He goes on to assert that what is common to all Indian intellectual traditions is the relationship between learning and happiness (as a meta-training path).
What raises caution about his head-on attack on the modern knowledge system is an apparent reluctance to own up: first, that if the pre-modern knowledge system was something that was inclusive and liberating, it need not necessarily have suffered the loss of the ‘golden era/first spring/millennium of Buddhist egalitarianism’ (Abraham Eraly, The First Spring); secondly, that the alternative (traditional) knowledge system being (re-)foisted on modern knowledge was itself debilitating for a vast section of population who were not producers of the literary kind of knowledge.
Vivek then goes on to highlight the patriarchal matrix within which meta-learning as a knowledge production of anubhava or self consciousness, as realising of atman or ‘stating one’s awareness’ is common to all. His notion of ‘parasitism’ is an elaboration of the deficiency in appropriation of the western knowledge system, rather than an inherent contestation of the same.
One could revive a live argument that the pre-colonial knowledge system itself created the burden of deficient assimilation as the ‘practitional matrix’ and the theoretical knowledge structures built on them were different for hierarchically different groups of people in society (and therefore not equally accessible for all).
This deficiency is not a flaw of the modern knowledge system but rather its deficient assimilation due to cultural constraints. There is a misplaced and erroneous conceptualisation of experience vis-a-vis anubhava by Vivek when he accuses colonialism as having undermined ‘the very integrity of experience’ (p.37). Experience, can be falsely reported and/or not acknowledged.
Unearthing this truth is the power of Dalit narrations, factual and fictional, in poetry and novels that have captured national and international acclaim in vernacular and in translations. One could present as the opposite side of the spectrum a narration like Samskara by none other than UR Ananthamurthy. The knowledge frame is what gives the name, the possibility of reading, defining, understanding and articulating – all of which can be honest and true or concocted.
Ashis Nandy’s piece ‘Another Cosmopolis’ draws on the anthropological work he did on Cochin — that there have been ways and means in which pluralism and diversity have been accommodated and lived through by peoples even before the nomenclatures and theories of pluralism and homogenisation arrived on the scene.
He carries this notion forward drawing from the stories unearthed and brought to limelight by the scholars of Partition, recalling the nostalgia vividly communicated by the victims and at times even perpetrators of violence.
In the aftermath of partition, these narratives recalled the idyllic times of harmonious coexistence with the other. These ways of negotiating differences and accommodating the other was effected despite haziness and oppositions, operated in non-rational and yet internally intelligent mode of transactions across communities. Into this trope Nandy wants to throw in a doubt as to the clearly defined, researched outcome of the caste system as the villain that brought the majoritarian logic, relegating to the margins and periphery the minorities, tribals, Dalits and women.
He is consistent with his stand for the pre-modern intelligence and conceptualisation of the reality of South Asia overrun by the technocratic knowledge structures of the systematised disciplines making one almost forget the ‘accommodation of the other within their own indigenous rationality’ that operated in keeping alive the civilisation.
Taking forward the discourse, Roby Rajan’s recourse to TRV Murthy’s reliance on Madhyamika as the ideal Indian philosophical stance grants ‘experience’/anubhava the rightfully normative status. If there is no atman, as against, an atman, for the adhyatma on which Vivek is grounding the critique to colonial/western knowledge, where would it take us.
This of course keep alive again the disappearance of the Buddhist/Madhyamika ‘anatma’ logic of experience from the scene and the need now to resuscitate it only against a denunciation of the western knowledge as well as a non-spiritual appropriation of the atmavada (p.98-99).
Roby also takes on Nandy’s ontologisation of community and avowal that the communal substance is kept alive entirely by the activity of individuals comprising the community. The question as to why the substance is minimally ‘objectivized’ and cannot therefore be rid of in the classical Marxist style of ‘individuals recognizing behind it the product of their own activity’ is highly pertinent to be posed to the formation of practitional matrix elaborated by Vivek’(p.103).
Roby’s question to Vivek is whether the co-destiny is a project for which he is game or not and if so, from where did the diverse pasts emerge?
What colonialism did to India needs a reconsideration if the journey forward is not to be yet another mistake. Vivek draws on Gandhian and Tagorean criticisms of the arrival of modernity with a new scientific knowledge base onto the Indian shores, but draws a conclusion probably they themselves were less sure about, going by their engagement with it, having nourished and energised them.
While forgetting the catalytic role it played for them in bearing their doubts and denunciations, the continued possibility of a mutually fecundating cross cultural engagement and future of a people are being denied.
The core argument runs into a Foucauldian discourse of ‘sexuality’ as a key defining feature that truncated pre-Christian worldview for the Christian. The same is being applied to ‘caste system’ as the outcome of a western reading of the pre-modern ‘sociality’ of India. It therefore needs to be divested of this superimposition for the non-western or the indigenous rationality to emerge.
It sounds radical and explosive for it leads to dumping a whole history of 200 years of enculturation on Indian soil and the reversal of that process with a ‘return to the past’.
The question, however, is whether this exercise is to unleash more creative potential, or, bring back the demons of the past? This is the wager of modern India.
Venkat’s claim that ‘no other alien invasion in the common era has ruptured and displaced traditions of learning of India as decisively as the one initiated at the hands of Europeans” (p.145) needs a deconstruction: firstly, it was not an uninvited invasion, going by how the battle of Plassey was schemed to give away to Clive where Indian rulers mistrusted one another and looked on the foreigner as their saviour (think of Tipu’s claim to have ousted British had Marathas stood by him); secondly, the knowledge system would not have given way to Anglicisation had not the elite of the time saw through the future of India and the World coming in the shape of present day globalisation of the English language and (therefore the choice for English over Sanskrit or Persian which was the language of governance for the British for the first 150 years; thirdly, the local governance of the British needed collaborators and they were Indian, who bore with it, and gained from it, and when the opportunities for greater gain arrived on the scene created the move to shove the Europeans.
This battle for the land and its culture already fought and lost earlier,(think of Buddhism and its decimation, or Islam and its mitigation) for which the newer entrant plays the mediatory welcome role, which later becomes a targeted one; finally, the knowledge being recovered from the embers deserves to be investigated (especially because, if it was a vibrant knowledge system that engaged all equally, it would have had the power to withstand the onslaught of an alternative knowledge system); the modern industrial complex that continues with the post colonial, dominations favouring some and degrading the others are not anymore Europeans, but at best the neo capitalists and the brown sahibs of an indigenous variety.
India needed a knowledge system outside of its hegemonic structure, which came to happen with the modernity to provide the possible critique to what the mnemopraxial knowledge had entailed and as to who controlled its production (p.145)
As he himself observes a little later, precisely that mnemopraxial learning is not dependent upon surrogate bodies (scriptoria, library, museum etc): these heinous things written in Manusmriti too were the structures of the learning (146).
Precisely for that reason, despite a modern constitution and two hundred years of partially successful and partially failed modern education these practices survive and even more are transported to London and New Jersey and have reached the level of raising aspiration to reintroduce as a world saving new mantra against the eco-destructive modern scientific establishment to which the new subscribers are the proponents of these mnemopraxial leaning originating from the wisdom traditions of the Hindu (Pagan) scholarship.
Milind Wakankar’s excursus into Indian civilisational mergers of the Buddhist-Hindu Puranic tales giving way to mystic Sufi and Hindu puranic stories and narrations taking on from the Bhagawat story of Prahlada and making a case for the contemporary trajectory of the Hindu-historiography vs modern history, myth-making and the implications for the ongoing attempt to create an egalitarian society — be it through Buddhist, Islamic or the Puranic — apparently seems to be a restitution of the Vedantic Brahminism and yet not without space for the Dalit critique being contained.
It offers a new revelatory route to the amalgamation of tradition and modernity and the way modernity itself may be superseded into a part of the very history making process itself.
Maya Joshi attempts to reclaim a rightful place for a forgotten figure of Indian intellectual history in Rahul Sankrityayan. DD Kosambi and Rahul were vernacular writers of prominence who attempted to resurrect Buddhist critique to Indian society in the wake of the Marxist critique to social class dissonance.
Marxian kind of nihilistic and dialectical critical thinking has been part of Indian Buddhist heritage is what both Sankrityayan and Ambedkar found as seminal to the intellectual history of India.
The revival of Buddhism in the early twentieth century is attributed by Joshi to the skewed interest in it by the foreign scholars especially Russian to begin with and their German and British successors. Though from differing cultural background and educational upbringing both agreed on the creation of ‘nontheistic, nonritualistic, egalitarian, and rationally scientific philosophical system that could offer social, economic and political liberation for the downtrodden’ (p.195). Conversion is untouchable’s swaraj (p.199).
For Joshi, Ambedkar and Sankrityayan, influenced by and attracted to Buddhism continues the Marxist critique. Critical spirit arrives into public sphere and political visioning through both Marxist and Buddhist traditions.
From Ranade and Roy, Sankrtyayan and Ambedkar, the attempt to reform Indian culture of its pitfalls opens up the ‘either/or’ thinking. Aparna Devare portrays Mr Ranade the leading figure of Prarthana Samaj as paving the way for Gandhian middle ground: Between the ‘Western/Christian’ take on Hinduism and its cultural tradition as the debilitating factor, and, the traditionalists who viewed everything about the tradition as good whereas the exploitative judgmental dominant character of colonialism being the only problem to eliminate.
Ranade draws on resources of the Bhakti tradition, first as antidote to anti-colonialists to show how aspiration for reform were already there from the Bhakti saints onwards and therefore not an all together new coming from an outside western source alone; and second, as having injected seeds of purification of the ritualism of Hinduism through the poetry, prayers and singing of Bhakti (which he initiates in the prayer proceedings of Prarthana Samaj).
Thirdly, as a counter to the masculinisation of Hinduism to be made robust like European religion he draws on the individualism and egalitarianism of Bhakti as arising from tradition and as a resource to rejuvenate India as achievable rather than by aping the west, a project Gandhi would take forward.
The last two chapters of the book enters the heartland of the Backwaters and into the realm of negotiating metaphysics and politics. The significance of Sri Narayana Guru (1854-1928) around whose ideological rigor the very collective got the inspiration to journey for nearly a decade, is to be gauged, as George Thadathil avers: first, from the background of over 1000 years of harmonious inter-religious coexistence of four major faith communities; second, in his refreshing denunciation of ‘narrow boundaries’ and daring appropriation of the ‘new horizons’, in his dictum, ‘one God, one Religion, one Caste for Humankind’ — a notion that takes one to contemplate the very nature of the Being as transcending the human, material, divine dimensions. It opens up freedom and happiness as indwelling in an awareness of the ‘Self’ defined as atmasukham (soul-happiness).
The action that flows from the arrived status of calm and self disposition of compassion for the other gives rise to a politics that cannot but transform society. Sujit Sivanand hailing from the management background, with an artistic flavour, has recourse to the imageries of the Guru and uses them to promote his philosophical vision of a one world where there is humanity at its best incorporating the nature and the divine for an amicable journey into the future.
This journey is recorded in the iconography of photographs, statues and art objects or physical spaces associated with his life as much as in the word-wisdom, the compendium of his writings, into each of which the seeker/disciple can have access and draw inspiration for his or her own times, to engage with politics in the true vein of a metaphysics that hinges on mysticism.
The book indeed is a resource for philosophers, social scientists and cultural historians and aids map the sociology of knowledge within the Indian civilisational matrix. Especially, at a time when the world over there is an upsurge of the rights of indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems overridden by the colonial rationale having taken the world to the brink of an ecological disaster.
It is therefore, timely that a rethinking of the traditional knowledge system of Indian civilisational matrix and its contribution to the future of a ‘possible world’ is correctly evaluated: both from the perspective of the victims of the traditional knowledge systems, as well as from those who foresee in the traditional, a liberative future. Following upon India Unthinkable (2016), one could expect more from this group of creative intellectuals’ annual gatherings.
(The writer is an eminent academic)