Colonial Experience And the Indian Renaissance

S.N. Balagangadhara

Home                                                        word                                                 PDF       

One of the striking things about the British colonial rule is its success in developing certain ways of talking about the Indian culture and society. The British criticised the Indian 'religions', the Indian 'caste system', the Indian education system, practices like 'sati' and 'untouchability', and so on and so forth. They redrew the outlines of Indian intellectual history as indigenous responses to some of the ills they saw in the Indian society and culture: for example, 'Buddhism', as it emerged out of their reconstruction, was a revolt against 'Brahmanism' and 'the caste system'[i]. Many Indian intellectuals emphasized British criticism by making 'truths' in the latter their own: the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, many Hindu 'reform' movements, and so on exemplify this trend. I say 'truths' and place it in scare quotes because the unbroken line of continuity between the colonial period and the one following the Indian independence raises two kinds of questions. The first is this: would there have been such a line of continuity if there was no 'truth' to the British portrayal of our history, traditions, and culture? This question uses the 'fact' of continuity to suggest that the British descriptions could be 'true'. That is, our current experience of our culture and society appears to lend truth-value to the colonial descriptions of India. The second question transforms our 'current experience' itself into a problem: does such a line of continuity indicate that our experiences themselves are still colonial in nature? This question throws doubts upon the 'facticity' of the British descriptions of India, and suggests that they could be 'untrue'. In the process, it also challenges us to look more closely and investigate our own experiences today. That is, the second question withholds assent to the 'truth' both of the colonial descriptions of India and of some of the claims we make about our experiences of our culture and society today. To some extent, and only to some extent, the so-called 'post-colonial' writings can be seen as attempts to make sense of the second question. Even though I do not fancy the label of being a 'post-colonial' myself, I perceive a shared sense of a quest with them. There is something deeply, deeply wrong with the line of continuity that exists between the colonial period and today's India, and the challenge is to say what it is.

Participants in the Debate

Something more requires to be said about this 'line of continuity' and I will do so by identifying the broad responses to the colonial descriptions of India. Let me begin with the event that colonialism is. To most of us, including the colonizers, this event appears to have taken the status of a historical proof of the cognitive superiority of one culture against the other. That is, for some reason or the other, we look at colonization as though it was a contest between two theories much like, say, the contest between the Aristotelian theory and that of Galileo. Our colonization by the British is seen to express the weakness of our culture and, by the same token, their superiority.

Many explanations of this weakness float around. (a) India was never a nation before the British made us into one; (b) the weakness of the Mogul rule at that stage; (c) the caste-ridden, divisive society that India was; (d) the absence of a centralized state and the presence of multiple small kingdoms, (e) because of which the policy of the British to 'divide and rule' was successful. There are many more than these five, but this list should suffice. “How could a few thousand conquer a nation of millions, if we were not weak?” This is how Gandhi formulated the problem, as did the Indian Independence Movement. Our nationalist thought has crystallized around the certainty that colonization expressed our weakness and the British strength (even if the latter was confined to exploiting this 'weakness').

However, the above perception does not emerge from a scientific study of either colonialism or imperialism but from the rhetorical force of another question: “if colonization is not an expression of our weakness, what else is it? An expression of our 'strength'?” Even though every historian can routinely assure us that 'higher' civilizations can be conquered and overrun by 'barbarians', the so-called 'scientific' studies into our history do not appear to have moved away from this rhetorical question. On the contrary. Such studies try to provide 'insights' into our weakness, and tell us what the latter were. Simply put: the consensus (more or less) of all and sundry is that colonialism expressed the 'weaknesses' of the colonized and the 'strengths' of the colonizer. The industrial revolution in the West that antedates colonialism and the origin of the natural sciences that predates colonialism have somehow become telescoped in the popular consciousness into one state of affairs: the scientific, technological and the military might of the western culture. In short, colonialism expresses the civilizational superiority of the West. And, of course, the obverse of this conviction is: in many ways (in all ways?) we are inferior to the western culture. (The 'we' picks out the Indian culture here.) This conviction expresses itself in a variety of forms: from the rigidly nationalistic framework to its diametrically opposed stance. Provocatively put: colonialism is seen as a contest between two theories; one has won out proving the other as false (or passé) thereby.

The above stance (conviction, attitude, call it what you will) generates two antithetical intellectual movements. (It is a kind of a pendulum swing during the course of the last two hundred years we are not rid of yet.) The first is a fiercely 'nationalistic' mode. It claims that the Indian culture had everything: from quantum physics to psychoneuroimmunology, and from the rockets to the nuclear bombs. It further claims that there is nothing wrong either with 'the caste system' or with the Indian 'religions'. The second is its antithesis: it brands any attempt to interrogate the Indian traditions and the Indian culture in order to recover and understand our current experiences as 'obscurantist' if not downright 'fascist'. It believes that the current state of our society clearly shows the need for: 'abolishing' the caste system because it is the cause of social injustice; 'reforming' the Indian 'religions' so that they become more responsive to the needs of the modern day world; 'establishing' more firmly a 'secular state' that guarantees the upholding of the liberal values, etc. Between these two extremes, there are a number of opinions (of various shades) that tell us that we should 'absorb' the best from both cultures. However, these shades have been cognitively uninteresting so far.

There is, however, a third participant in this debate today. Standing outside the spectrum defined by these two antithetical movements, this voice suggests that both the responses are fundamentally colonial in nature. It suggests further that both ways of talking are obfuscating the nature of our experiences. It says that the Indians today have difficulties in accessing their own experiences, and that their learnt ways of talking about their culture and society are responsible for this state of affairs. It tries to argue that one needs to break out of the centuries of descriptive straightjacket that confines our thoughts and distorts our experiences. It is, I believe, a voice of the future which pleads the case for an Indian Renaissance. I hope to make plausible why this voice is believable and is worthy of credence.

The Structure of the Article

On its own, this article cannot realise the hope I have just spoken of. It requires more than even a couple of books to go some way in achieving the objective. Consequently, I will be taking but a step in that direction. And I intend doing it by using an unorthodox literary strategy in a debate that actually involves multiple voices. The strategy is the following: I will deny voice to myself. Or, better put, I will play the ventriloquist: my voice will be lent to one of the strongest opponents in this debate. Who is this opponent and why this strategy?

By way of an answer, let me begin by 'gendering' this voice: it is a he. He is a reasonable person but one who is logically very consistent. He shares the popular perceptions about the two banes of modern India, namely corruption and caste. Being a reasonable man, he wants a transparent government free of corruption and a just society that is rid of the socially unjust caste system. As a consistent person though, he follows his thoughts through to their logical conclusions and talks about the nature of Indian ethics as well. This reasonable and logical person is my opponent to whom I will lend my voice throughout this column and my own, at best, will be heard as interjections.

The readers of this column, I presume, share these popular perceptions as well. Whatever one's sex, my portrayal of the commonsense perception should facilitate the reader in identifying oneself with this reasonable person. How far one goes along with this man depends on how consistent one wishes to be. For my part, I shall strive to make him maximally consistent. Consequently, the challenge the reader faces will be the following: would one like to be consistent and follow my opponent all the way through, or is one willing to interrogate afresh the commonsense perceptions of our society today? This strategy, if you like, is a variant of the famous reductio et absurdum. It is aimed at inducing what once was called 'cognitive dissonance'. The ensuing discussion on the forum will make clear the degree of its success.

The Social Ethics of Corruption

1. According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2002[ii], India ranks behind Columbia, Argentina, and Honduras and occupies the 73rd place in the list of 'corrupt' countries. In India, the newspapers are full of stories about corruption and everybody knows somebody who is 'on the take'. It is almost axiomatic that every politician is corrupt. The same applies to almost everyone in the government services – from the high-ranking officer to the lowest of the doormen. All state-owned enterprises (from electricity to the telephone) appear to suffer the same fate. Banking and Insurance sectors owned by the state seem to join the queue as well. If we simply add the numbers up, my guess is that we are talking about 80-100 million corrupt people (10% of the Indian population).

Of course, this is what is visible in the media. Very little is written about the business-to-business corruption, where an entire hierarchy demands suitable homage from their suppliers, mostly small-scale businesses themselves. If you include 'greasing palms' to get seats in 'fully booked' theatres, private hospitals, or on trains and private airlines, or gain entry into the educational institutions to this list, we are probably talking about 150 million or more. Should the 'black market' be drawn into the picture as well … it is anybody's guess. (In all probability, we are now talking about 20% or more of the Indian population.) In short, corruption is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe in India and that, in most big cities, is much polluted. The media does not stop clamouring, the citizens do not stop complaining, and there is still no solution in sight. Commissions set up to punish the corrupt end up becoming corrupt themselves.

Because the distance between common sense and scholarship on this issue is virtually zero, let me cite a 'netizen' talking about it.[iii]

“Corruption is destroying the innards of our country” (Vinay Sharma)

“Customs officers raided, 29 lakhs recovered from a single officer!” If you've been reading the newspapers about a month back, this was the hottest news item then. It is downright mind boggling, not in the least because you assumed customs too be a squeaky clean department but by the sheer amount of money a low level government officer can make in the right jobs. According to sources in the customs clearing business, the amount of speed money earned by an appraiser is nothing less than Rs.20,000 a day, and what the Asst. Collector takes home is almost Rs. 30,000 a day. Rs. 30,000 a day adds up to, hold your breath, a cool Rs. 1.2 crore per year, tax free!. No wonder a job as an Assistant Collector of Customs is hotter than a job as a Country Head of a high flying MNC. Not that the Assistant Collector of Customs gets to keep it all, part of it must be shared with equally corrupt seniors and powerbrokers who ensure you get the right job in the first place through their contacts in the Ministry. Nowadays you come across young men whose prime ambition in life is to take up a government job. This desire is not fuelled by an urge to do something for the country and it's people but to fill one's own pockets by harassing common people. These people form the first link in a vicious circle that includes government officials at all levels, powerbrokers, members of the legislature and parliament and even ministers. These are a few cogs turning the wheels of the parallel economy. Add to them the unscrupulous businessmen and the process of defrauding the nation is complete. At this junction let me clarify that there are exceptions to this rule albeit rare. Once in a while you come across a officer who is twiddling his thumbs being given a posting where he can do no harm, no harm to the vested interests of the honourable politicians and their flunkies. As far as the businessmen are concerned there are many who may have resisted succumbing to the unjustified demands of these so called officers and have suffered, their good being held up on flimsy grounds, official clearances not being given, the list is endless. The Indian Government has vested so much power in the officers that they can hold you to ransom and you are absolutely helpless. If you decide to approach the courts, be prepared for a wait of at least a decade or so by which time your business is all but closed and your family is out on the streets. The same story is repeated across all government departments. The government has now established the post of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, the person responsible for tacking the menace of corruption in the country. The recent raid on the Customs officers in Mumbai is courtesy the CVC. The appointment of the CVC is a step in the right direction but when you see the sheer number of government departments and the number of government employees across India, you realise the enormity of the task. In my opinion much stronger measures are called for to stop the menace of corruption from destroying the innards of the country. These strong measures have to be taken us, the common people of the country. Can we demand for special courts for speedy trial of corruption cases, can we demand for tougher laws against corruption that lead to life imprisonment for corrupt officers and politicians. Of course no politician in his right mind would pass such a law would he? Should we boycott people known to be corrupt and if so are we prepared to bell the cat? Is there any resort for the common people of this country?

The author is a concerned common citizen of India

2. Our 'concerned common citizen', even if he requires an Internet connection to publish his WebPages, tells us exactly what you hear on the streets, at the press club in Delhi, in the villages about the local Tahasildar's office. Amazingly, the way one talks about fighting it is also identical: “Punish the corrupt severely,” but then who should do so? Quis Custodiet ipsos Custodes? “What we need is a strong entity (an individual or a government) that threatens, and punishes the errant – and then 'they' will learn.” The 'they', of course, are the 'corrupt' – as I say, about 20% or more of the population.

2.1. What is one saying when one says this? The logic of the word 'corruption' tells us that either something or someone is corrupt – it is either a corruption of norms, or of values, or of principles, or of individuals … If we take our contemporary usage, corruption indicates a 'loss of integrity' – whether of individuals or of your database. The same usage also tells us that 'corruption is rampant in India'; that 'corruption is a social phenomenon'; that 'corruption is wide-spread in India' etc.

2.2. If it is our experience that corruption has known a phenomenal growth since Independence, it can only mean that the social fabric or the social structure enables such a rapid growth. Our soil, so to speak, must be very conducive to the growth of a cancer that “eats into the innards of our country”. Indian society hosts this cancer, and its immunological mechanisms must be pretty ineffective in fighting against it. If the people of India constitute the cells of the country and if 'corruption' is the disease, the only possible immunological mechanisms are the social and moral principles, of course. If Indians can so quickly, so easily and so massively be corrupted, what does it say about their morals? They should be pretty well non-existent, I would say. Or such is their morality that it encourages one to be immoral. When is a person a 'fool' not to take bribes? In a situation where everyone else is corrupt. It is a successful social strategy: because everyone else is corrupt, it pays to be corrupt oneself. That is, in today's India, it is rational to be immoral.

2.3. How does one learn to be corrupt? In social groups, of course. If 'being on the take' is a successful social strategy, then it follows that the social group from which an individual learns this must itself embody this strategy. That is, the social group must itself be corrupt. However, because 'corruption' cuts across all empirical groupings in the Indian society, it follows that the 'social group' in question must refer to the society at large. Such must be the nature of this society that the individual learns to be immoral in his going-about with his fellow human beings. In some appropriate sense of the term, the social structure must itself be corrupt.

Caste – the Ethical Corruption

3. If much of the western description makes the caste system synonymous with India, caste also appears as ubiquitous to the Indians as the very air they breathe. From politicians to political pundits, from the pimps to the Prime Minister – all of us seem to belong to the caste system. Most intellectuals, from the extreme right to the extreme left, have firm opinions on the subject. Quite a few theories float around as purported explanations of the caste system. Some see a deformed class-relation in it, others a fossilised coalition of associations. Some see hygienic principles operative in the caste system, yet others some transaction rules. Some call it racial segregation, whereas others see in it the propensity of human beings to maximise fitness through extended nepotism.

Whatever one's thoughts on the subject, most intellectuals appear to agree that the caste system is an obsolete form of social organisation. Its obsolescence is indexed by the hindrance it offers to everything that is desirable: progress, economic development, social equality, and justice … Without exaggeration, it could be said to be the bane of our society and culture. The caste system epitomises everything that is bad and backward.

4. Why does it so stubbornly refuse to disappear? How to eradicate this impediment to progress? The existing answer, in both theory and practice, is surprisingly simple: the caste system persists because of 'prejudice' and that is what one should remove. What kind of prejudice? Let us run through some of them quickly: the prejudice of 'untouchability'; the prejudice that the accident of birth condemns one to servitude; the prejudice that the Brahmins belong to a superior 'caste' because of 'Karma'. … Not only is this a well-known list, so also are the anecdotes that accompany it: horror stories of discrimination against the Harijans by the upper-caste groups, denial of basic human rights to some people, refusal to allow entry into temples or to partake food and water, etc. As this anecdotal discourse progresses, it transpires that the caste system is virtually synonymous with untouchability, moral discrimination, the denial of human rights, and so on. That is, these (and allied) prejudices are instilled in people from their birth, and the caste system is kept alive through practising these prejudices. Very simply put: caste system is a set of immoral practices.

4.1. Let us get some grip on the extent of the immorality of the caste system by comparing it to other large-scale (immoral) phenomena we know. For example, discrimination against the minorities in the US is not a social organisation, even though it is a social phenomenon. The apartheid regime was both the policy of a government and a regime imposed on society, but it was not a social structure. Fascism was a political movement (and a state form) and was unstable. Caste system is, in some sense, all of these but is also much more. It has survived onslaughts from Buddhism, Bhakti movements, colonialism, the Indian reformers, the current Indian legislation, and the western theorists. Clearly, we have a unique, sui generis phenomenon on our hands. It is more evil than colonialism and the concentration camps, more widespread than ethnic discrimination, and has a longer history than slavery.

4.2. However, when we say that the caste system is a set of immoral practices, we are actually saying at least two things: that these practices are immoral and that they are (logically or mathematically) ordered. (Actually we are saying more, but that does not concern us in here.) While one might be willing to grant that the practices (like the ones indicated above) are immoral, it might not be obvious why the caste system becomes an immoral system. The answer is simple: 'caste' is an ordered and structured system. Any social organisation, if anything is a social organisation then the caste system is, is ordered and structured. The immorality of this social organisation consists in the fact that it imposes immoral obligations in an ordered and systematic way. That is to say, caste system is an immoral social order in this double way: not only does the practice of caste discrimination violate certain moral norms but, as a social order, it makes immorality obligatory.

4.3. Let us now shift our attention to those belonging to the system. When is someone, anyone, immoral? Only when one willingly chooses to act in an immoral way. That is, the action has to be voluntary and must be the result of a choice in the presence of relevant alternatives. The caste system might impose immoral obligations, but each individual can choose not to follow them. Buddhism to the Bhakti movements illustrate this. From this, it follows that those who are within the caste system – and remain within it – are immoral (in a systematic way). Under this condition, except for the individual heroes who have opted out, all other Indians become immoral. (After all, there is caste division among the Christians, Harijans, and the schedules of the Indian constitution.)

One could weaken this conclusion by arguing that:

(a) Not all obligations imposed by the caste system are immoral. Quite obviously, it makes no difference whether someone commits one immoral act systematically, or two or three.

(b) The ideology of the caste system 'hides' the immoral nature of its obligations. If you and I see through this cloak, as did the movements from Buddhism through Bhakti, those who do not see through the cloak must be intellectually weak. That is, they are immoral because of their intellectual deficiency.

(c) The caste system is sold as 'the natural law' (karma, for example) and those who accept it believe in rebirth and its rewards, moksha and such like. From this, it follows that all these doctrines justify immorality and are, therefore, immoral as well. In so far as these doctrines have to do with our 'culture' (or 'religions'), it follows too that our culture and its 'religions' are fundamentally immoral as well.

4.4. I do not want to go into all possible (and encountered) arguments. So, let me sum up. The caste system is the embodiment of ethical corruption. Such a stance requires that Indians are either immoral or cretins, and suggests that Indian 'culture' and 'religions' are immoral as well. The way the 'masses' talk about corruption mimics the way the intelligentsia talks about caste and corruption: Indians are immoral and corrupt. Not merely that. In so far as corruption and caste are successful and rational strategies of social survival, the 'norms' that generate such strategies must themselves be immoral. The conclusion is inescapable: Indian ethics must itself be immoral.

The Corrupt Ethics

5. In this part, I shall leave both the intelligentsia and the masses behind me, and focus instead on the intellectuals. To see what they say about the nature of Indian ethics, I need texts. Instead of picking up the Gita (or some such text), I want to focus on an unlikely candidate: The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, with fourth century BCE as its likely date of composition. Considered a tract on erotic love, this compendium has a chapter titled, “Reflections on Intermediaries who assist the lover in his enterprises.” What kind of enterprises is being talked about? At least one among them includes relating to 'those that belong to another' (p.77). The author(s) want to find out whether there are good 'reasons for sleeping with other men's wives'. Consider some of the good reasons for committing adultery that the Kamasutra gives us. (Actually, Vatsyayana often cites authorities, adds his own comments, etc. I shall ignore all these nuances and speak of 'what the Kamasutra says' from now on.)

1. “If the woman who loves me has a rich and powerful husband who is in touch with my enemy, she will arrange for her husband to injure him” (p.78). This is considered as a good reason for committing adultery.

2. “If I am penniless, without any means of livelihood, and thanks to this woman, I can become rich easily, I will make love to her” (ibid) is an acceptable reason to seduce another man's wife as well.

What do you think of the two reasons provided in the next paragraph?

3. “If a girl I desire is a dependent of hers, it is by establishing relations with her that I shall obtain the girl” or, alternately, “without sleeping with her, I shall never manage to obtain the young girl, difficult to approach, rich and beautiful, whom I would like to marry.” (p. 80)

If all of the above constitute good reasons for committing adultery, how about this gem of an argument?

4. “Once she has fallen in love with me, she may murder her husband and, having taken possession of his goods, we shall live together in luxury.” The author's commentary explains: “united by the affection born of their relations, they league together to kill her husband, attacking him treacherously with a stick. Having accomplished his, they seize his goods. Either she or I kill the rest of the family. We can then benefit from everything we have been able to seize and live on the proceeds of what we have thus realized, without anything appearing illegal.” (p. 79)

Apparently, the main worry is whether or not their acts 'appear illegal' and not whether such actions are 'moral'.

Be it as that may, reasons such as these are considered 'good' enough to commit adultery. They are good, in the sense that they are serious and not frivolous, and hence, one assumes, morally acceptable. In fact, one is warned: “However, unless one has serious reasons for doing so, it is better to avoid taking the risk of seducing other men's wives for mere amorous dalliances.” (P. 80; my emphases.)

5.1. You are British and have been educated in the proper schools. You come to India in the 19th century and encounter this text. How would you react? It makes perfect sense to you that such books are not only written, but are also considered 'classic' texts. Why? Because of what you see around you. And what do you see? Here is a random example:

… (C)ould I transplant my reader … to the purely native circle by which I am surrounded … and could he understand the bold and fluent hindostanee which the Hindoo soldier speaks, he would soon distinguish the sources of oriental licentiousness, and how unprincipled is the Hindoo in conduct and character. In nothing is the general want of principle more evident, than in the total disregard to truth which they show; no rank or order among them can be exempted from the implication. The religious teachers set the example, and they are scrupulously followed by all classes. Perjury and fraud are as common as is a suit of law; with protestations of equal sincerity will a witness stand forth who knows the falsehood of his testimony, and he who is ignorant of what he professes to testify. No oath can secure the truth; the water of the Ganges, as they cannot wash away the filth of lying and deceit, so they cannot preserve the court of law from being the scene of gross and impious contradiction. No task is so difficult as is he who would elicit truth from the mouth of a witness. Venality and corruption are universal; they are remarkable, too, for their ingratitude. (Massie, Vol. 1, 1840: 466-467.)

The modern-day intellectual might feel like protesting: Kamasutra is hardly an authoritative ethical treatise. How many have read it in any case? Besides, one could say, its 'popularity' is more due to the British than to its intrinsic merits. A well-taken objection. Let us redress the situation.

5.2. Enter Richard Shweder. A professor in Chicago, he is out to trace the evolution of morality cross-culturally. In the course of conducting a cross-cultural research into the growth of moral awareness, Shweder and his co-workers (Shweder,, 1987) developed a questionnaire supposed to test the presence of several moral notions among their subjects. The contrasting cultures are the Indian and the American; the interviewees are both children and adults. From the list of the cases that Shweder uses, here are the first five – in order of perceived 'seriousness of breach', as judged by Hindu Brahman eight-year-olds:

1. The day after his father's death, the eldest son had a haircut and ate chicken.

2. One of your family members eats beef regularly.

3. One of your family members eats a dog regularly for dinner.

4. A widow in your community eats fish two or three times a week.

5. Six months after the death of her husband, the widow wore jewellery and bright-colored clothes (Ibid. P.40).

It is important to note that, in India, while there was a consensus between the children and the adults regarding the first two cases (p.63), there was a lack of consensus only among children regarding the last three cases. Keeping in mind that they are ordered in terms of the 'perceived seriousness of the breach', we further come across (ibid., P.40):

8. After defecation (making a bowel movement) a woman did not change her clothes before cooking.

13. In a family, a twenty-five-year-old son addresses his father by his first name.

And, as the fifteenth,

a poor man went to the hospital after being seriously hurt in an accident. At the hospital they refused to treat him because he could not afford to pay (ibid).

5.3. We can, I suppose grant the veracity (or the factual truth) of these statements. We can grant too that many Indians (both children and adults) would probably consider such actions not just as 'paap' but as 'mahapaap'. As the sequence of questions in the interview makes it clear, the respondents were asked to motivate (or clarify) their stance. A fragment from such interviews, applied to a hypothetical Brahmin adult should make the point clear.

“1. Is the widow's behavior wrong? (Yes, Widows should not eat fish …)

2. How serious is the violation? (A very serious violation…)

3. Is it a sin? (Yes. It's a “great” sin.) … ” (p.43)

Let us consider a similar fragment from a hypothetical American adult.

“1. Is the widow's behavior wrong? (No. She can eat fish if she wants to.)

2. How serious is the violation? (It's not a violation.)

3. Is it a sin? (No.)” … (p.44)

5.4. Needless to say, the America children do not think like their Indian counterparts. They find that what the widow eats and how she dresses do not belong to the ethical domain. Neither do they find anything objectionable to the father being addressed by his first name. And, of course, they find it highly morally objectionable that the treatment in the hospital should be based on the wealth of the person.

5.5. Well, we must be absolute cretins really. I mean, we seem to think that what the widow eats, what she wears, etc., are ethically more important than whether a poor man gets treated in a hospital or not. How did our culture ever manage to survive a couple of thousand years, when governed by such idiotic 'norms'?

As though to rub salt in the wound, Shweder assures us that it is really not all that pathetic. In fact, he says, he could actually provide 'reasoned defence of family life and social practice', albeit in the form of an “ideal” argument structure. How does it look?

“The body is a temple with a spirit dwelling in it. Therefore the sanctity of the temple must be preserved. Therefore impure things must be kept out of and away from the body.” (pp. 76-77.)

Gee, thanks. You had us worried there for a moment, you know: we really thought that we were a bunch of cretins.

6. Too soon to feel relieved, I think. At least that is how it appears, if we follow Van Den Bossche and Mortier (1997), in their exposé of a Jain text. (The Vajjalaggam, VL for short.) Composed anywhere between 750 and 1337 CE, the author of this text is a Jain poet – a certain Jayavallabha by name. The text itself, Van Den Bossche and Mortier tell us, belongs to the Subhashita literature and thus could be called an 'ethical text' and is a challenge of sorts:

“One problem with the study of Indian ethics is that the ancient Indians themselves did not make a clear-cut distinction between the 'moral' and other spheres. They did not have a word for our term 'ethics' at all.” (p. 85).

It is important to note that Ancient Greek, for example, introduced not only the word 'ethica'. The same culture also gave us many substantial treatises on that subject, the most well-known of which is Aristotle's Ethica Nicomachea. If the Indian text, composed around 650- 1200 years ago, does not even have a word for that phenomenon called 'ethics', how could it be an ethical tract at all? It cannot. Hence the reason why the authors discover that the

“text does not contain one single general rule stated in the prescriptive mode. General rule of conduct may easily be derived from various statements, but it is significant that the rules are not formulated as such. … The statements are written in the evaluative rather than the normative mode” (p.95).

That is to say, in this particular text there are no normative rules to be found. This cannot be construed as a deficiency of this text alone, because, as noted already, the Sanskrit language in which this text is written does not have a word even for the domain, namely, the ethical. Consequently, they study it 'as a socio-ethical document', which gives a “mosaic-like picture of feelings, attitudes and thoughts of different authors of ancient India.” (p. 87, my italics.)

How can one speak about 'ancient' India, when one is talking about a text composed during the 'middle ages'? Here, 'antiquity' does not have a particular time-frame as its reference. Instead, it is civilizational: compared to the 'ancient Greeks' (of about 2500 years ago), the Indian civilization of about 700 years ago is more 'ancient' (i.e. more primitive). Of course, this is not made explicit but it is the only possible interpretation, especially in light of their conclusions.

6.1. Here is their eloquent conclusion about the state of affairs:

“Although VL exemplifies reflective ethical thinking, it contains no explicit propositions that argue for or against one type of virtue theory or another and it even sometimes lacks the terms necessary to formulate them. In this respect, the writings of the Greek and Roman virtue theorists are undoubtedly more reflective than what is found in the VL. Yet, this is a difference of degree, not of kind. The writings of the Greeks and the Romans in turn contain little reasoning about ethical language when compared to modern and contemporary moral philosophy.” (Pp.96-97)

6.2. At the risk of emphasising the obvious, some remarks are in order here. Firstly, even though VL embodies ethical thinking, it does not argue for any kind of ethical theory. In fact, it lacks the words necessary to conduct an ethical discussion. This absence of the terminology to talk about ethics differentiates the Indian traditions from the Greek culture. That is to say, there is a difference in kind between the Greek ethics and the Indian ethics: one had the words to talk about it, whereas the other does not. Secondly, this difference has some significance regarding the 'reflective' thinking that VL is supposed to exemplify. How is it possible to reason and think about ethics, when you do not even have the words in which to do so? Obviously, you cannot. That is, there is a second kind of difference too, a consequence of the first: the Indian culture did not have the ability to reason and think about ethics. (That is why VL provides “a mosaic-like picture of feelings, attitudes and thoughts”.) Thirdly, if this is the difference that separates Indians from their Greek (or Roman) counterparts, even though coming after the Greeks by almost by a thousand years, the Indian thinkers are at the lower rung of the moral ladder: the Indians (of about a thousand years ago), followed by the Greeks (more than two thousand five hundred years ago), and then the contemporary moral philosophy. There is, however, a degree of difference between the Greeks and the contemporary moral philosophy: the latter is 'more' reflective than the former. The Indians had little ideas about how to think about ethics and how to develop theories and arguments about them. How could they? Not only did the Indian culture not have the terms in which to think about ethics but their intellectuals did not also feel the need to create such terms (as late as the thirteenth or fourteenth century).

This is being written in 1997 in a journal on Asian Philosophy. Any further commentary, I take it, is superfluous.

7. I can now be short, if not sweet. From the point of view of contemporary virtue ethics, we are basically intellectual imbeciles. In the hands of Van Den Bossche and Mortier, a Subhashita text becomes a 'socio-ethical document' that belongs to 'Ancient' India (even if it is composed after 750 CE). Shweder has no clue what 'paap' is or about the practices that embed it, but simply transforms us into moral cretins. If, on the other hand, you are schooled in 'normative ethics', I challenge you not to call the Kamasutra immoral.

Intellectually weak, morally moronic and, therefore, absolutely immoral. As we well know, these have been the Orientalist descriptions of India for the last couple of hundred years. However, they also appear as parts of our daily experience: whether of the caste system or of corruption. When the intellectuals pontificates or the intelligentsia moralizes, it is the voice that changes and not the message: we are cretins, imbeciles and immoral.

Reclaiming my Voice

Let me now cease being the ventriloquist and speak in my own voice. The above three examples suggest what I mean by colonial experience. The criticism of the kind we read in Sulekha and elsewhere, whether on caste or on corruption, are moral in nature. Without exception, they make use of the western normative ethics for their moral criticisms. But to do so necessarily involves making factual claims about the absence of ethical thinking in the Indian traditions. One cannot escape this necessity by any kind of protest because the kind of necessity involved is logical in nature. Anyone who formulates moral criticisms of caste and corruption is logically compelled to deny the presence of 'morality' in the Indian traditions.

This is what the British said about us. This is what we believe to be true. This is how we experience ourselves and our culture.

Let me repeat what I said in my earlier column: colonialism is not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It is not a question of encouraging us to ape the western countries in trying to be like them. It is not even about colonising the imaginations of a people by making them dream that they too will become 'modern', developed and sophisticated. It goes deeper than any of these. It is about denying the colonised peoples and cultures their own experiences; of making them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonisers.

The European culture mapped on to itself aspects from the Indian culture so as to understand the latter. These mappings, in the form of explanations, have taken the status of frameworks to us. Liberalism, Marxism, secularism, etc. have become our mantras: we chant these without understanding them in the hope that if we do so long enough and sufficiently loud, the fruits will be ours to enjoy. However, in this process, we have assumed (without quite realising what we are doing) that the European cultural experience is the 'scientific' framework for us to understand our own culture. However, this very assumption prevents us from accessing our own culture and experience. We are busy denying our experiences while futilely busy trying to make alien experiences our own.
The Indian Renaissance

Today, when we read about the lynching of five people in India, we need to ask ourselves what we see, what we experience and how we describe them. Do we see an injustice or even a paapa, or do we see 'the caste system and its injustice'? Do we experience a 'social injustice' when some person is not admitted to a temple? If it is, do we see the 'same' when the same thing happens in a mosque or a synagogue? When we condemn a particular discrimination as 'immoral' using the western ethical terminology, do we understand what it means? Or are we merely assuming we know? When a Pinky and Rajesh commit suicide near the railway tracks, what do we see or experience? And what do we say? Is there a tragedy involving 'svavarna' and 'Harijan', or something analogous to what happened with Romeo and Juliet? Is what we see determined by what is said? Or do we simply not say what we see and not see what we say? It is in the process of answering these kinds of questions that we will pave the way for the Indian Renaissance.