Decolonizing the Humanities
Humanities are the foundation of any society. National leaders and thinkers must be schooled in the humanities, with deep roots in the nation and the society they seek to lead.
And Indian humanities have deep spiritual roots.
While India is politically free, it remains spiritually colonized. The problem lies in the failure of humanities educations. Science and technology have no political or cultural boundaries.
[pullquote]To attain spiritual freedom, education must follow the vision of sages like Swami Vivekananda.[/pullquote]
The humanities on the other hand are intimately tied to a particular culture and civilization. Imposing an alien set of values and measures on Indian culture lies at the heart of the failure of the humanities in India: it is essentially a borrowing from India’s most recent colonial experience—the Islamic and the European.
The Indian elite is applying largely materialistic values and measures borrowed from these alien civilizations to study Indian history and culture. This can be compared to applying European music theory to the study of Indian music. The result is grotesque.
India is a unique civilization founded on spirituality. Freedom therefore means spiritual freedom. To attain spiritual freedom, education must follow the vision of sages like Swami Vivekananda.
In 1891, speaking to a group of young men, Swami Vivekananda said:
“Study Sanskrit, but along with it study Western sciences as well. Learn accuracy, my boys, study and labor so that the time will come when you can put our history on a scientific basis… The histories of our country written by English writers cannot but be weakening to our minds, for they talk only of our downfall. How can foreigners, who understand very little of our manners and customs, or our religion and philosophy, write faithful and unbiased histories of India? Naturally many false notions and wrong inferences have found their way into them. Nevertheless they have shown us how to proceed making researches into our ancient history. Now it is for us to strike out an independent path of historical research for ourselves, to study the Vedas and Puranas and the ancient annals (Itihasas) of India, and from them make it your sadhana (disciplined endeavor) to write accurate, sympathetic and soul-inspiring history of India. It is for Indians to write Indian history.”
He then went on to observe:
“… you never cease to labor until you have revived the glorious past of India in the consciousness of the people. That will be the true national education, and with its advancement, a true national spirit will be awakened.”
This is more relevant today than ever, when we are in the midst of what is virtually a cultural war with rising Indian nationalism on one side and residual colonial, anti-national interests and their foreign allies on the other.
These anti-national forces are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival—to preserve their perks and privileged positions gifted to them by their former colonial masters, and their successors.
Thanks to the Congress party which now virtually the estate of a foreign woman with no record of service to India and without any sensitivity to Indian education and culture. To see this in the proper perspective, it is useful to have some background.
Scientific Brilliance, but Dismal Humanities
It is now nearly seven decades since India achieved independence from colonial rule. More significantly, after several centuries of alien domination, during which the ancient civilization of India was struggling for survival, it is last coming into its own.
Its first intellectual manifestations are already here— in the brilliance that Indian scientists and technologists have begun to display in a wide range of subjects in science and technology.
But in the field in which India has the greatest to contribute — in spirituality and the humanities — she has yet to break free of her colonial past. India continues to be portrayed by colonial stereotypes by her own intellectuals.
This is mainly because the education system established during the colonial period was allowed to flourish even after independence. This has given rise to an intellectual elite in India that has failed to make its mark in the world today.
In Western academia, Indian humanities scholars are contributing little more than footnotes faithful to the stereotypes shaped by colonial (‘White Man’s Burden’) and Marxist ideologies. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that is the only path to academic recognition. They have no roots in India.
Sri Aurobindo had foreseen this long ago. He wrote,
“That Indian scholars have not been able to form themselves into a great and independent school of learning is due to two causes: the miserable scantiness of the mastery in Sanskrit provided by our universities, crippling to all but born scholars, and our lack of sturdy independence which makes us over-ready to defer to European [and Western] authority.”
Failure of English Education
What lurks behind this strange dichotomy—of excellence in technical fields accompanied by near paralysis in the humanities?
To understand this, we need to look closely at India’s experience with English education in the years and decades following Independence.
I suggest that the educational choices partly responsible for India’s technical excellence have contributed also to her failure in the humanities. What is needed then is a robust alternative that retains technological strength while providing a foundation for the flowering of independent schools of thought in the humanities.
Although much heralded, English education in India has not been a major success. After nearly fifty years of government support, supplemented by massive infusion of money from outside sources like the Christian missions and private schools, all it has done is to create a small self-serving urban elite that for the most part is committed only to careerism and personal advancement.
No benefits have accrued at the grassroots level, where educational opportunities remain as limited as ever. If anything, the situation is even worse, for this self-serving elite, while capturing the lion’s share of the resources, has contributed little to the cause of educating our children.
[pullquote]Fostering anti-Indian (and anti-Hindu) stereotypes has become an established part of this ‘education’ imparted in convents and madrasas.[/pullquote]
This is not to suggest that English should be rejected. The proper place for English is for it to be taught as a technical subject, not made the most important part of the curriculum. English is useful in technical disciplines and as a medium of international communication.
It is not suitable, and has in fact failed dismally, when it comes to the humanities. Overemphasis on English in humanities has made India little more than a minor satellite of Western scholarship. Many if not most Indian historians, sociologists and others know Indian tradition only through English translations. In addition, it has created an unhealthy social divide.
Those that attend English schools tend to come from urban affluent and upper middle class backgrounds. For the most part, they couldn’t care less about the common people. They have their faces turned to the West from which they copy mainly the worst elements. By and large, they detest and fear everything about India, especially Hinduism. This is a hangover from the colonial era — no different from the state of affairs described by Sir Charles Trevelyan as far back as 1838:
Educated in the same way, interested in the same objects, engaged in the same pursuits with ourselves, they become more English than Hindus … The young men brought up in our seminaries, turn with contempt from the barbarous despotism under which their ancestors groaned, … Instead of regarding us with dislike, they court our society, … the summit of their ambition is, to resemble us.
Dr. Ananda Coomaaraswamy described the result as follows:
“A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and create a non-descript and superficial being deprived of all roots— an intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or to the West, the past or the future. Of all Indian problems, the educational is the most difficult and the most tragic.”
One can only call this spiritual emasculation. India’s misfortune is that this alienated elite — created by the rulers of a bygone age — still dominates and controls India’s education and intellectual life.
It is a worse kind of domination than any caste domination that ever existed. In fact, it is a new caste— the super-caste of the English educated elite.
But unlike the caste leaders of yore, it is incapable of shouldering responsibility or leadership. It only dominates resources and craves privilege and status, while offering servility to alien values and even individuals.
The Grip of Alienation
The British have left but the system put in place during their rule — of spiritual emasculation in the name of education — is still with us. Its products are brought up to disregard everything Indian — especially Hindu — but uncritically accept anything coming from the West — like Marxism.
With the end of European imperialism, Marxism became the shelter of these intellectuals. Surveying the scene a century and half later, Ram Swarup commented on the continued existence of this anachronistic state of mind:
… the Euro-Colonial-Missionary forces triumphed, represented by soldier-scholars like J.S. Mill, Hegel, Macaulay, Marx and many others. They were thoroughly Eurocentric and they looked at India and other countries of the East with contempt and condescension. … They taught several generations of Indians how and what to think of themselves. They even borrowed the West’s contempt for their own people. Traditional India, during its recovery and reaffirmation, finds itself most fiercely opposed by these elite forces at home. …
This anti-Hinduism of the Hindus, their Missionary-Macaulayite-Marxist view of themselves, their culture, religion and their history, is the most powerful legacy the European contact has left behind.
This is not very different from the sense of alienation that many Muslims, not only of India, but all non-Arab societies feel towards their ancestral cultures. They reject their own cultures and copy Arab mores and manners of a thousand years ago; and this despite the fact that the major Arab states themselves today are little more than the protected flock of Western interests, terrified of enemies from within and without.
This shared sense alienation is what has brought the Indian Muslim leaders and former (Westernized) Marxists together. The distinguished Pakistani thinker and critic of Islam, Anwar Shaikh, has this to say on the topic:
“This cultural following of the foreigners [Arabs] has assumed slavish mentality because whatever they think or do must conform to the patterns of thinking and doing set by the Arabian soil and culture. As a result the foreign [non-Arab] Muslims have little or no loyalty to their own motherlands for being devoid of any national honour. This is nothing but the miracle of the Prophet who imposed the everlasting hegemony of his own [Arab] people on Muslims of foreign nations.”
As V.S. Naipaul put it, “Only the sands of Arabia are sacred.” And Shaikh goes on to note that several countries, like Egypt for instance, that had great civilizations going back many centuries before the advent of the Prophet and Islam, gave up their identities and now call themselves ‘Arab countries’ after the people who subjugated them.
Somehow they were made to feel a deep sense of shame about their great past and accepted this now defunct imperialist movement as their true identity. As he observed:
“It is amazing how Muslims of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and African origin deny nationality of their own, and claim to be Muslims only. This is the result of the psychological dominance of the Arab culture through Islam.”
From all this, it is clear that the educational policy of post-Independence India has failed dismally to provide a real alternative to alienating educational systems growing out India’s colonial past— Islamic as well as British.
Fostering anti-Indian (and anti-Hindu) stereotypes has become an established part of this ‘education’ imparted in convents and madrasas. It later became ‘official’ educational policy, thanks to the political influence of the intellectual elite and the opportunism and the sense of inferiority of the political leaders that came to dominate Independent India.
The perpetuation of such values has created two alienated classes: a large and backward population of Muslims with a ghetto mentality, and a self-serving pseudo-Westernized elite concerned about its privileges.
Sanskrit is the Foundation of Humanities
This mentality is a great burden on the nation. For India to make any progress at all, it is clear that this grip of alienation must be broken. It is of paramount importance to build an educational infrastructure rooted in Indian values— one that can absorb good ideas from everywhere without becoming a slave to each fleeting fashion coming from the West.
This is particularly the case in the humanities, for it is the humanities that provide thinkers and national leaders. To achieve this, the teaching of Sanskrit holds the key. At least, I fail to see an alternative. And experience suggests that such an education is also practical and much less wasteful of human resources. Above all it has the potential to reach and transform children at the grassroots level and unlock their creativity.
If this happens, I foresee a time when the basic education will be conducted in regional languages, while higher education in the humanities will use Sanskrit as the medium. Sanskrit is also ideally suited for computers. A complete description of Sanskrit exists in the form of Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. This can be used to obtain a computer implementation of a useful subset of Sanskrit, if it has not been done already. This has the potential to open a new line of research in technology also.
Upon any suggestion that Sanskrit be made the common language for Indian students, many ‘experts’ in academia and the English language media will jump up and shout that this will set India back in education, especially in science and technology.
This is entirely unfounded. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Israel and many other countries that use their native languages are far more advanced in science and technology than India. Those countries that remain backward are former European colonies like India that are clinging to their colonial heritage and language.
The main cause of this backwardness is the monopolization of intellectual life and education by an alienated elite that prospered under colonial patronage, which is exactly the situation in India today.
While many Muslims are holding on to an illusion of past glory, the Westernized elite is trying to perpetuate itself as the legitimate successor to its former colonial masters. This has shut out the great majority of young people who are the country’s real resource. Greater emphasis on English will make the situation only worse, by narrowing the talent pool further.
In any event, these ‘experts’ objecting to the use of Sanskrit have absolutely no interest in educating and uplifting children at the grassroots level. They are interested only in monopolizing resources and promoting their own careers while making almost no contribution to the national well-being.
The situation is particularly serious in the humanities at central universities like JNU, dominated by this Westernized elite. It frustrates them that their skills are not in demand in the West that they worship. So they do their damage staying home, through propaganda, by projecting the very anti-Indian — particularly anti-Hindu — stereotypes, which they have acquired during the course of their education.
They pose as experts on Indian history and culture, and yet never miss an opportunity to abuse the civilization into which they were born. They have failed dismally in the last fifty years when they had every opportunity. They are therefore the last people on earth who should be complaining about new educational initiatives.