SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra on Reversing the Gaze

by Samir Chopra

ScreenHunter_1378 Sep. 20 18.06On 12 February 2014, Penguin India announced it was withdrawing and destroying—in India—all published copies of historian Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). Penguin's decision came after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which, in 2011, had filed a legal complaint objecting to sections of Doniger's book. Amidst the vocal expressions of concern over the damage done to free speech and academic freedom in India were also thinly-veiled suggestions that justice had been done, that the right outcome—the suppression and quelling of an academic work that supposedly offended Hindu sensibilities—had been reached. A prominent voice in this choir was of one Rajiv Malhotra, who noted on his Twitter account that Doniger was merely the “idol of inferiority complex Indians [sic] in awe that white person studies Hinduism,” that Penguin's withdrawal of her work was justified in a world in which “media bias” in an “intellectual kurukshetra [sic]” had led to a “a retail channel controlled by one side.”

This dispute over Wendy Doniger's work is merely the latest instance of a long-running contestation of how best to study India and all things Indian.

The philosopher and statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan noted in the preface to his two-volume opus Indian Philosophy (1923) that the “modern aesthete” dismissed Indian philosophy and its associated cultures as “chaotic clouds of vapor and verbiage”; he then moved on to provide a sympathetic explication of its central systems and principles that would be both comprehensible to the Western mind and suitably respectful of Indian philosophy's intellectual contributions to philosophical discourse at large. While comparisons with Western philosophy were unavoidable, they did not have to begin with the premise that Indian philosophy needed to merely play catch-up to it. In more recent times, the philosopher Daya Krishna sought to achieve, if not a synthesis, then at least a dialogue between Western and Indian philosophy that would show their mutual relevance, their ability to influence each other's most central debates, all the while emphasising the latter's distinctive formulation of classic philosophical problems.

Such exegeses and analyses—conducted by insiders and directed outwards as a form of resistance—need not be merely academic exercises; they have been used to combat ideologies—such as colonialism, imperialism, and their notorious offspring Orientalism—which rely on the systemic denigration of indigenous intellectual traditions. But these contestations do not always proceed straightforwardly; sometimes the putative pushback might only serve to replace one ideology with another.

For well over a decade, SN Balagangadhara (most recently in Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, Oxford University Press, 2005) and Rajiv Malhotra (most recently in Being Different, Harper Collins, 2013) have been engaged in projects superficially similar to those of Radhakrishnan and Krishna. Malhotra—an Indian-American entrepreneur turned “speaker and public intellectual”, and full-time founder-director of the US-based Infinity Foundation, which funds “Indic studies”—has been a long-term critic of Western academic studies of India, accusing its practitioners of an unrepentant Eurocentrism, of applying irrelevant modes of scholarship to phenomena best studied by indigenous modes of inquiry, of demeaning Indian religions, and, in general, of undermining India politically by fixating on its internal dissensions and crises. Malhotra's polemics have not gone unanswered, most notably in the philosopher Martha Nussbaum's sharp retort that they showed “disregard for the usual canons of argument and scholarship” and were merely “a postmodern power play in the guise of defense of tradition.” Balagangadhara, professor of philosophy at Belgium's Ghent University, has written extensively on the history and philosophy of religion; these studies feature extended critiques of sociological and anthropological studies of India and have acquired considerable notoriety in both the Indian and the Western academy. While the philosopher Vivek Dhareshwar recently claimed he has engendered “a new research milieu” for those studying India, the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam has described his work–as Wiki cited–as “confused.” Balagangadhara's influence has not remained confined to academic boundaries and has made its way into modern Indian political discourse. This is visible in his controversial claims that the caste system and discrimination based on it are non-existent, that the twelfth century Vachana movement—often regarded as an intellectual voice for Dalit struggle—was instead unconcerned about the caste system because of its insignificance; and in his student Dunkin Jalki's suggestion that the victims of the Kambalapalli massacre—seven Dalits who were burnt alive in Karnataka's Kolar district in March 2000—were ill-served by the “misplaced ideology” of Kannada progressives who indicted caste-based discrimination as a motive for the killings. (The high-caste accused in the case were acquitted.)

There is thus a broader, edgier, cultural dimension to the contested scholarship of both these writers, one that makes it more relevant to thinking about modern Indian political life than your garden-variety journal article or academic monograph. Here, the alluring hint of fundamental paradigm subversion is balanced by the possibility of reactionary fulmination disguised as sincere protest.

Both Balagangadhara and Malhotra suggest that the Western gaze is infected with a “colonial consciousness” which has permeated our understanding of Indian culture, philosophy, social modes of being and politics; insofar as those engaged in studying India—whether Indian or otherwise— resist adopting an “Indian perspective,” it is because of this pervasive consciousness. Both claim Western categories and the insistence on their universalism have so shaped discourses surrounding Indian philosophy, thought and culture that these can only offer a critically crippled and weakened alternative to the Western intellectual tradition. The East can, at best, appear as a pale aspirational shadow of the West; philosophical learning and moral edification run only from the West to the East. Balagangadhara and Malhotra seek to reverse the gaze, to turn around the evaluative lens—philosophical, moral, or social-scientific—back towards the West, away from its perennial focus, the East.

Thus, Balagangadhara calls for a “reconceptualization of Indian studies”: to stop using Western intellectual frameworks—like “social science” and its associated paradigms—for studying Indian phenomena, which demand instead, for their understanding and analysis, indigenous categories and concepts. As a result, the disciplines of anthropology, history and sociology—as employed by those who study India—might find the basic methodologies and assumptions used for framing their subjects of study disrupted. Balagangadhara's approach resonates with Malhotra's notion of purv-paksha, a classical dialectical approach to debate wherein its participants understand and adopt their opponents' perspective in order to be able to refute it. To kick-start such a process, Malhotra seeks to establish conceptual distinctions between “dharmic traditions” and the intellectual paradigms of the West so as to eschew a facile universalism. Unless the West views the East on its own terms—and “respects” it rather than merely offering it “tolerance”—the present asymmetrical state of affairs remains in a depressing limbo.

Balagangadhara and Malhotra find common ground in the claim that our understanding of Hinduism is constructed through the Orientalist lens. In his previous book The Heathen in his Blindness (1996), Balagangadhara advanced this argument as part of a broader thesis that religion is not a universal phenomenon but rather a Western—specifically, Christian—construct foisted upon colonial subjects, one resulting in a prejudiced evaluation of Indian culture, mores and morals. Colonial/Orientalist scholars took Christianity to be the archetypal religion—a system of beliefs equipped with theistic doctrines, deities and practices; religion was presumed a cultural universal; and the complex and varied practices observed in the Indian subcontinent were then shoehorned into this mould. Hinduism appeared as but a depraved Christianity mired in idolatrous practices, its followers were indicted of systematic adherence to false beliefs, and a romantic vision emerged of a stagnant, childlike India, caught in the caste system's inexorable vice, a land crying out to be rescued by the West cast as saviour, bringing succour to the heathen.

The critique Balagangadhara and Malhotra mount in their new work builds on these older rejections of Orientalism and centres on the following: how might we conceive India, Indian philosophy, Indian culture and the dharmic traditions, once we have prised ourselves loose from the Orientalist vise that Edward Said eloquently described in his seminal work? In evaluating their work, we might ask in turn: Does a new Indian philosophy, a new paradigm for Indian studies understood broadly, one that educates the West, emerge from these works?

Their analysis—while possibly attractive enough in the abstract—is often found wanting in its concrete details, and at times lines up disconcertingly with reactionary Hindutva fundamentalism. Mere alignment with the theses of a reactionary movement is not enough to indict an argument. But it pays to be cautious when such an alignment does occur. Philosophical arguments can be, unsurprisingly, applied—by those convinced of their plausibility—to political ends.

A Constructed India

Balagangadhara claims that because of the refractive and distorting Orientalist lens, Western scholars saw social ills and targets for reform everywhere: for instance, the evils of the caste system and the pernicious priests who sat atop its hierarchy. Thus, these do not exist but are, rather, “constructions” of Orientalist social science. The term “Dalit”, in this view, only serves to obscure the diversity of those various ethnicities the term describes.

Such claims amount to a milquetoast defence of the caste system. For against such putative rebuttals one must balance the appalling record of caste-based violence in India. Such violence is no fiction—its victims are real, and mourned over on a regular basis. And the best understanding we possess of its causes invariably points us to caste-based animosity. Describing such tangibly real phenomena as mere “constructs” is not benign; as the Dalit activist and writer Devanur Mahadeva has written in response to Balagangadhara, arguing that tools for social justice such as “equal education, democracy and secularism” are merely “constructs of Western/colonial influences” may help implement an agenda of “totally erasing all that from our society.”

Like many in the Hindutva fold, Balagangadhara expresses discomfort with the permissiveness of modern Indian secularism. This is explicit in his claim that secularism permits under its ambit a predatory form of evangelical conversion in India. But the argument against proselytisation—roughly, that because the Hindu does not seek to recruit converts while the Christian does, laissez faire secularism merely sets up the former for indoctrination—is a paternalistic one. Will ignorant, gullible adivasis be taken in by the trinkets of the missionary and be unable to put down the Bible? In any case, a secular state has no business intervening to prevent proselytisation; doing so is a coercive exercise against free speech.

Balagangadhara also blames state secularism for the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. This is a variant of the Hindutva argument that secularism is alien and foreign to India, that its introduction was bound to create a backlash. As Balagangadhara says, “Secularism creates religious violence.” Such conclusions only bolster those who would construct a nation based on a static, preconceived Indian identity grounded in Hinduism rather than letting it dynamically emerge over time through interactions between its varied groupings and cultures.

Balagangadhara's critique of supposedly Orientalist scholarship appears least plausible in the chapter ‘Open Letter to Jeffrey Kripal' and in his reactions to Paul Courtright in the chapter ‘Are Dialogues an Antidote to Violence?' These scholars had carried out imaginative reconstructions through a psychoanalytical lens of, respectively, the mysticism of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the legend of Ganesha, thus earning them the considerable ire of many Hindu organisations and academics, who found the invocation of sexual repression and trauma in their analysis offensive and disrespectful to Hindu sensibilities. Balagangadhara attempts to justify the chorus of ire by means of a pair of tortured arguments that such treatments are essentially caricaturing and trivializing and that cross-cultural dialogues—between cultures separated by the systematic misunderstanding directed by one at the other—promote violence rather than ameliorate it. Balagangadhara concludes that Kripal and Courtright are “indulging in mischief” and doing “violence” to “the experiential world of the Hindus.”

These critiques are fundamentally misguided. The kinds of analyses conducted by Kripal and Courtright are common in literary theory; applying psychoanalysis to canonical texts, whether fictional or not, can provide illuminating alternative readings. We might ask: Can their narratives and characters' actions be understood as manifestations of unconscious, repressed desires and traumas? Scholars and teachers of Freud and psychoanalytic theory often emphasise its creative aspects without necessarily claiming that psychoanalysis is an exact science seeking to uncover the truth about a text. With that ecumenical perspective in mind, one takes its claims as fuel for the imagination. Indian myths and religious texts are not immune from such open-ended investigation and exploration, the very hallmark of the freewheeling inquiry encouraged academic freedom. To imagine malice and disrespect in these invocations and employments of sexual themes—as Balagangadhara and Malhotra do—seems revelatory of deep-rooted insecurities.

An Indian Way of Thinking?

We might take Balagangadhara and Malhotra to be engaged in providing an affirmative answer to AK Ramanujan's memorable question of whether there is an Indian way of thinking. (Ramanujan thought this emphasis provided one of several possible formulations of his original question; we could, after all, concern ourselves instead, with wondering whether there was an Indian way of thinking, or an Indian way of thinking.) Insofar as they point out the existence of the Orientalist lens, note the possible distortions it may induce, and highlight the distinctive worldviews present in the diverse theories and practices subsumed under the diverse body of thought that contemporary Western scholarship labels “Indian philosophy and culture”, they continue Ramanujan's investigative project and deserve our attention. Where they deviate from this project—by relying on dubious premises or philosophically untenable claims or because they do not possess the latitudinarian vision embodied in Ramanujan's work or in that of other scholars of Indian philosophy such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Daya Krishna or Ramchandra Gandhi—their work is internally incoherent and has unpleasant political ramifications. At such junctures, we have to seek our answers to Ramanujan's questions elsewhere, perhaps in arguments that what we consider “Indian” or “Western” are hybrids undergoing recontestation and reconfiguration on an ongoing basis. We could then understand such terms as already outmoded by the modern world, already revelatory of older frameworks.

Turning now to Malhotra, one notices that while he advocate greater respect of Indian dharmic traditions in the work of Western academics, he sometimes does not seem similarly inclined toward the subjects of his reversed gaze. Malhotra, all too often, relies on a narrowly conceived history of the West as consisting solely of bouts of colonial and imperial conquest, and on implausible claims about the achievements and sophistication of Indian philosophies and cultures. (A “knowledge byte” on his website proclaims: “Cultures originating in desert [sic] lack fertility of soil & mind. Not industrious. Spread by looting others, cultural colonialism & genocide.” This unsubtle reference to the cultural traditions of the three great monotheistic religions is reductive in the extreme.) Moreover, Malhotra's plea for genuine respect as opposed to mere tolerance is sullied by his tirades against Indian-American academics and South Asian studies scholars—as in his terming them “useful pets,” ostensibly faithfully parroting Orientalist talking points. During a public debate in 2004 with historian Vijay Prashad in Outlook magazine, where Malhotra interrogated a varied set of theses of the so-called “Indian Left”—such as its conception of the Indian nation-state and its understanding of Indian history—similar rhetorical missteps had made an appearance.

By contrasting the principles of dharmic traditions with those of Western intellectual tradition—the marriage of Greco-Hellenistic thought with Christianity, and the modern philosophy that emerged from the Enlightenment—Malhotra does provide some useful distinctions between Eastern and Western philosophies. While emphasising these differences, Malhotra also insists that certain key Sanskrit terms defy comparison with or incorporation into Western categories because they are essentially untranslatable. There is no acknowledgment, however, of a prominent debate in twentieth-century philosophy of language: the possibility of untranslatability. WVO Quine suggested translations between languages were always indeterminate; Donald Davidson suggested in turn translations were always possible and indeed, if one was not forthcoming, we would suspect we were not dealing with a language at all. How do these claims affect Malhotra's? We do not know, for he does not consider them. Moreover, this untranslatability, if granted, creates a problem for Malhotra's project: if such is the case, then what hope for communicating Indian philosophical concepts to the West? There is little chance, after all, that Sanskrit will become the medium of global philosophical discourse.

We might also wonder why the sophisticated culture associated with the dharmic traditions was so easily colonised by a Western culture that Malhotra sees as far inferior. Malhotra, after all, does not speak of “dharmic philosophies” but rather of “dharmic traditions”—that is, actual practices rather than abstract principles. An explanation couched in the bloody histories of colonialism and imperialism and their aggressive and intolerant attitudes is an incomplete one; the intellectual traditions and practices associated with particular cultures should ensure their survival in the face of external adversity. Malhotra's analysis emerges as a highly idealised, theoretical one, only superficially applicable to its actual socio-empirical manifestations.

At times, the opposition Malhotra sets up is a tenuous one. In his exegesis, the dharmic traditions include all Indian schools of philosophical thought, but he does not take a similarly broad approach to Western thought, which has ranged from idealism to radical empiricism and pragmatism. Instead, the picture painted of the Western philosophical tradition—almost exclusively positivist and reductionist—is a traditional caricature. Such descriptions have been outmoded for a long time now, thanks to that tradition's vigorous self-examination and critique over the past century or so, if not since earlier. Similarly, the all-too-quick dismissal of post-modernism as vacuous nihilism fails to account for the sharp critique it may provide of ideologies Malhotra is opposed to. Malhotra thus misses out on an opportunity to enlist philosophical allies in his endeavor. And in insisting on such sharp distinctions, Malhotra misses another point: those who choose to engage with both Western and Eastern thought are not necessarily seeking a synthesis of the two into a new intellectual paradigm, but rather looking for commonalities and intersections that might illuminate both.

As such, Malhotra foregoes opportunities for serious philosophical engagement with either Eastern or Western thought. This brings us to the central problems with the intellectual projects at hand.

The Point of it All

As the historian Satadru Sen pointed out to me in conversation, there are two broad points that run counter to the kind of gaze reversal Balagangadhara and Malhotra attempt. First, their attempt founders on some ineluctable facts. Orientalist gazes reflect uncomfortable historical realities of power; the East is scrutinised by this gaze because the West, to put it bluntly, conquered it. The philosophical and theoretical apparatus of its gaze was that of a civilization that had asserted its will over another. No such conquest underwrites this attempt to examine the West through an Indian lens, especially when Indian scholars themselves by and large do not rely on Indian philosophical or theoretical analyses to study the world or their own societies. Indeed, there is at this point in time, no unconquered, un-Orientalised Orient to deploy against the West. The fact of conquest does not grant the West the right to objectify. But still, whatever came before its encounter with the East has been transformed at a very fundamental level by this fact. So again, there is now no authentically Indian or indigenous lens that can be brought to bear on the West. The contexts within which our discourses take place are those largely constituted by the Western intellectual tradition; Balagangadhara's and Malhotra's philosophical idioms—couched in English—belong to it. The contemporary exercise of reversing the gaze—in particular, in the manner sought by Balagangadhara and Malhotra—seems like a thought experiment destined to fail.

Second, the “Indian culture,” “Hinduism,” and “dharmic traditions” referred to by Balagangadhara and Malhotra are left mysteriously unspecified. We might wonder how inclusive these terms are. Those who assume the existence of these broad and abstract categories can all too easily marginalise others who might not share their unspoken definitions of them. The group Balagangadhara claims to be speaking for—the “majority of Indians”, the “men and women” who “protest” the “violence” done to them by academic studies of “Hinduism”—enjoys hegemonic status. Those who suffer under that hegemony— women, adivasis, Dalits—might put forward very different understandings of what they would consider acts of “violence” directed against them, and might not, for instance, mind the inducements of conversion.

Here is a challenge for “Indian studies” as advocated by Balagangadhara and Malhotra: to not take refuge in imagined glories of systems understood in the abstract, independent of their actual historical application and manifestations, or indulge in implausible apologia for manifestly real social ills. Rather it must reckon with the history of this nation, one in which English has emerged as a language in which Balagangadhara and Malhotra seek to communicate and one whose study requires a more inclusive view than they seem to exercise.

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Samir Chopra is Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His academic interests include pragmatism, Nietzsche, the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence, philosophy of law, the legal theory of artificial agents, and the politics and ethics of technology. Samir blogs at The Cordon, ESPN-Cricinfo, and at He can be found on Twitter as @EyeOnThePitch.