Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara (aka Balu) is director of the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap(Comparative Science of Cultures) in Ghent University, Belgium. He has authored many pieces, including a book "The Heathen in His Blindness" on the nature of religion. His central area of inquiry is to develop a description of the western culture against the background of the Indian culture. He is currently working on a book about ethics: comparing Indian ethics with the western one.
"Let us rewind a bit and see what happened to the lad between his 18th and 30th year. You see, he wanted to change the world and became a radical. He left home before he was even twenty, lived in the slums, worked in the quarry, went to the villages and even became a Marxist for a period of time. From an ‘orthodox’ Brahmin, he had metamorphosed into a fire-breathing ‘atheist’: India was backward, the ‘caste system’ was a curse, the Indian traditions were outdated, the ‘gods’ (though he still wrote it with a ‘small g’!) did not exist (except that they once walked the lands of Europe!). A run-of-the-mill progressive, in other words. In short, the revolution could not come soon enough for him. However, what brought him to Marxism also brought him out of it: the inability of these stories to make sense of his experience. So, he came to Europe, not in search of the Holy Grail (how could he? He was born a Brahmin after all!) but to study the root-cause of the problems in Marxist theory. You see, in those days it was difficult for us to find books of Hegel, Fichte, Schelling and many other German philosophers in the public libraries. Even as I began to solve my problems with Marx, a new issue was beginning to force itself on me: I had dimly begun to realize that I was an Indian, and that I lived as such in a culture I hardly understood.
This realization turned my world upside down; in doing so, however, it helped me regain access to my own experiences. The world that got turned upside down was the one I thought I lived in all the time. I had thought until then that I knew the western culture like the back of my hand: it was a shock to discover just how far I was from knowing either. I could hold forth on the notions of ‘civil society’, ‘ought’ in ethics, the histories of renaissance and enlightenment and, why, I could even eat meat and drink wine. None of these, I discovered, meant anything: I was and remained an Indian, even if I once thought I was ‘modern’. Thus, I reflected on my experiences (fed by reading and yet more reading) until I could begin to grasp the outlines of the question, What is to be an Indian? Seventeen years ago, I formulated these reflections as a research project, titling it after a poem from T.S. Eliot that goes like this: ‘...We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring shall be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ I had indeed arrived where I had started from: India, Bangalore, a Brahmin family. I began to know the place too for the first time, because, at last, I could begin to access my own cultural experiences in the way they need to be accessed. However, the job is not complete and the process not yet over. During all these years, I have been constructing the tools required to gain access to our experiences because I realized too that my individual biography was but the Indian history writ small..." (Continue to the article)