Indian Academia and its Colonized Self

Indian Academia and its Colonized Self

The Self is Brahman, Speech is Brahman

The Upanishads, some of the foundational texts of the Indic religious-ethical tradition, are replete with a profound humanism. They do not conceive the Divine as something (or someone) remote and immeasurably transcendent. They do not think of the Deity as a haughty sovereign up in the sky before whose majesty we puny humans must helplessly genuflect and whose revealed writ we ought to blindly obey. No, not at all; instead, these lyrically beautiful philosophical treatises imagine a Deity who is manifest as the human Self. This is done in various episodes in the Upanishads. One of the most well-known of these (to those who are familiar with the Upanishads) is the dialogue between the priest Gargya and Ajatashatru, the King of Kashi. It occurs at a point in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the oldest texts of the Upanishadic corpus. Proud of his learning, Gargya calls on Ajatashatru at his court and seeks to teach him the nature of the Supreme – he calls it Brahman. We find that Gargya’s understanding of Brahman is rather animistic and anthropomorphic. He seems to understand Brahman as someone who generally dwells in the elements of nature. Addressing the king, Gargya says that Brahman is “the person who is yonder in lightning.” He follows up this assertion with more of the nature. He says that Brahman is also “the person who is here in air” and that he is “the person who is here in fire.”[1] Perhaps as an afterthought, Gargya ends his expositions by saying that Brahman is the “person who is here in the self.”[2] Ajatashatru, listening and briefly interjecting all this while, now begins a detailed retort. He tells Gargya that Brahman is nothing but the Self and is, in turn, the source of All that Is. “As a spider moves along the thread,” Ajatashatru tells Gargya, “as small sparks come forth from the fire, even so from this Self come forth all breaths, all worlds, all divinities, all beings.”[3]

This Deity, who is the Self, realizes itself, or can be realized, through a peculiarly human faculty – speech. We learn this from another conversation between a king and a sage. It takes place in a later portion of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, when the text describes a great yajna organized by the King of Videha – Janaka. Janaka has invited many scores of learned sages to his yajna to learn of the true nature of Brahman. One of these is the silver-tongued Yajnavalkya who tells the knowledge seeking king that Brahman’s “abode is just speech, its support space. One should worship it as intelligence.” “By speech alone,” goes on Yajnavalkya, “Your Majesty, are the Rg Veda (sic.), The Yajur Veda, The Sama Veda, the Atharvangirasa, history, ancient lore, arts the Upanishads (sic.), verses, aphorisms, explanations, commentaries, (the effects of) sacrifices, oblations food and drink, this world and the other and all beings are known.” Thus, he concludes that the “higher Brahman, is, in truth, speech.”[4]

When the Self and Speech are Colonized

Indian civilization, in its remarkably precocious youth, had realized that the Deity, as also the way we witness and understand the world and the knowledge we derive therefrom, have their source in our self and speech. We had understood that the Divine, along with the reality that is manifest around us, are attained and understood through our articulation of them. We knew how potent is the human self and how powerful is human speech. We knew that our experience of the sacred and the reality of the world are not external to us. They both stem from us; that we imagine and speak them into existence. These are ideas that have become current in the west only recently. We were a supremely self-confident civilization. The sublime humanism of the Upanishads issued from that self-confidence. But, unfortunately, that was a long time ago. Three thousand years have lapsed since the earliest Upanishads were composed. We are no more the poised civilization that produced those supremely humanistic philosophical texts. Today, a lot of us possess colonized collective selves and speech. This is despite the fact that colonialism ended as a political reality in our country in 1947.

How could colonialism be so insidious as to work upon even the most intimate recesses of our civilization? Well, it is because goose-stepping armies and gun boats alone were not the agents of colonialism. Nor did it cease when these agents returned home. Colonialism was not just about white men planting the flags of their nations upon territories inhabited by the brown, black and yellow races. It was a great deal more than that. Along with the subjugation of territory, colonialism was, writes the celebrated sociologist Ashish Nandy, “a game of categories and politics of knowledge.”[5] In other words, colonialism was a purveyor of components and structures of thought and ways of looking at the world. Through these sophisticated means it legitimized the west as the site of the only valid mores, knowledge and history. It convinced the elite in many non-western societies, including our own, that the west is not one of the many provinces of tradition, history and knowledge, but the metropolis. That is how colonialism has survived its political demise. That is why a civilization as vast, complex and ancient as our still bears the imprint of colonialism in its thought and language. That is why, in other words, the selves and speech of many of us are still colonized. Let me try and sketch below the exact form of this colonization.

India as ‘South Asia’, Ravana as a Hero, and Krishna as an Abrahamic Deity

The social science disciplines (history, political science, economics, sociology, et. al) as we know them today originated in the west. Unsurprisingly, the ‘legitimate’ nomenclature and frames of analysis in all of these also issue from the west. This makes it impossible for a social scientist in a non-western society to speak with reference to traditions of knowledge indigenous to it. As Dipesh Chakrabarty, professor of history at the University of Chicago, writes in his book Provincializing Europe, when analyzing developments or social practices

“in modern India, few if any Indian social scientists…would argue seriously with, say, the, thirteenth century logician Gangesa or with the grammarian and linguistic philosopher Bartrihari (fifth to sixth centuries), or with the tenth- or eleventh-century aesthetician Abhinavagupta…They treat these traditions as truly dead, as history…And yet past European thinkers and their categories are never truly dead for us.”[6]

The implications of our academics viewing the Indian traditions of knowledge as being ‘truly dead’ are indeed serious. Since they have no scope of taking recourse to a language that is their own, they end up, instead of describing their country, articulating and legitimizing the west’s description of it. They speak with a voice lent to them by the west. The result of this is that they become the willing collaborators of the specter of a colonialism which, according to Ashish Nandy, had sought to consign the “self-description” of the non-western societies to the “dustbin of history.”[7] The most glaring instance of this is our academics’ avoidance of the name ‘India’ in their writings. Yes, that is right! The typical Indian historian, sociologist or political scientist these days prefers to call his country ‘South Asia’ instead, for no greater reason than that the western academia does so. Every time our academics do this, they validate an old western prejudice that our country is a mere fact of geography – Winston Churchill, for example, had once famously remarked that India is “no more a united nation than the equator.”[8] It was, and still is, largely immaterial to the ‘informed’, academic western gaze that we Indians describe ourselves, despite the myriad diversities of our manners, as a nation and a civilization. As far as they are concerned, our self-description can be damned.

Besides (ignominiously) reducing their country to a mere fact of geography, the great majority of Indian academics also interpret artifacts of Indian belief and thought in western terms with a slavish alacrity. For example, they routinely translate dharma as ‘religion’ when there is hardly a correspondence between the two ideas. Dharma is a far more expansive an idea than religion. The former includes ethics, morality and suggests the possibility of the variedness of spiritual paths and choices, while the latter only indicates set dogma and ritual. Again, the word murti is translated as ‘idol’ when it is not quite that. The English word idol is redolent of a certain amount of value judgment. Since English is the language of Judeo-Christian societies which associate the worship of idols with ‘false-belief’, it seems to suggest something ‘totemic’. A murti is not a totem. I will clumsily explain it as an ‘anthropomorphic ideograph’ – it is a representation of the (humanly understood) attributes of the Divine in a human form. Further, individuals associated with the Indian academia gather with placards bearing the inscription ‘cow is food’ before the India Gate (one may recall the ‘not in my name protests’) since, being a westernized demographic, they must tell us ignorant Indians that a ‘mere animal’ can’t serve as a living motif of the sacred. They can’t accept this idea as it is incomprehensible to the west. The cow must be food since it is so in the western hemisphere.

Our top academics, barring rare exceptions, come from the elite (having studied both at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University I can vouch for this) and they seem to be only too eager to adapt their speech and describe their country in terms supplied by the west. How old is this tendency among the Indian elite? It appears that it is quite old indeed. They have long been acquiescing and adapting to the ‘colonial game of categories.’ Take for instance the elite in nineteenth century Bengal. Ashish Nandy suggests that they made significant attempts of molding the Indian ethical and religious imagination in accordance with western categories in their intellectual output. He forms this opinion after studying two texts produced in colonial Bengal, authored by a couple of the most towering literary figures of the times. The first is Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Meghnavadh Kavya (published in 1861) and the second is Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Krishnachartira (published in 1886). Both came from the upper crust of nineteenth century Bengali society. Dutt was the son was a very well-to-do pleader while Chatterjee’s father had risen to be a Deputy Collector in the colonial administration.

Madhusudan Dutt’s epic poem Meghnadvadh revisited the Ramayana and overturned its hero-villain duality. The poem depicted Rama and Lakshmana as “week-kneed, passive-aggressive, feminine villains” and turned the “demons Ravana and his son Meghnad into majestic, masculine, modern heroes.”[9] Why did Dutt do this? According to Ashish Nandy, Dutt’s “was a direct response to the colonial situation. He admired Ravana for his masculine vigor.”[10] Precisely what was there in this colonial situation that Dutt could not help but respond to and which drove him to admire Ravana? It was a category that we may term ‘colonial masculinity’. Contemporary Europe, says Nandy, had “delegitimized” femininity and had come to view only the adult male as reflecting “a reasonable approximation of the human being.”[11] Presumably because Europe then was a colonizing force and colonialism was such a ‘macho’ project which frequently involved the industrial scale slaughter of the non-European peoples. Europe, according to Nandy, exported this “ideology of male-adulthood” to its colonies[12] and elicited, it appears, a response from a gifted poet like Dutt. He perhaps found the figure of Rama insufficiently ‘masculine’ in the then European sense – this incarnation of Vishnu is, after all, as much an embodiment of karuna (compassion) as righteousness and valor. By urging the reader of the Meghnadvadh to identify with Ravana and his son, Nandy argues, Dutt was validating the emerging, colonially derived, concepts of “masculinity and adulthood.”[13]

Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Krishnacharitra is a long exposition of the character of the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. It is also an attempt to extract the true, historical Krishna from what Chatterjee saw to be ahistorical myths accreted around his memory. This text too, we learn from Nandy, is a response to the reality of colonialism. The colonizers of India, the British, practiced an Abrahamic religion – Christianity – and Chatterjee, seemingly, tried to bring Krishna in line with the colonizer’s idea of the divine. He removed from Krishna’s character, says Nandy, the “soft, childlike” features and obscured his “philosophically sensitive” side.[14] Chatterjee made him a “‘hard’ god.” Though Nandy does not say as much, it does clearly seem that Chatterjee was attempting to make an Abrahamic deity out of Krishna. That even a nationalist like Chatterjee, the author of a sublimely beautiful ode to his motherland, felt the need to do this is a testimony to the psychological potency of colonialism.

It is not that our elite are always unconscious of their semantic servitude to the west. Someone like Dipesh Chakrabarty, for example, does understand that he has to produce ‘knowledge’ and ‘meanings’ in western terms to be legitimate. But even he, though conscious of his travail, shows no desire of militating against it. In fact, he appears to regard this travail a wholly legitimate one. His views on Indian labor, expressed at a point in Provincializing Europe, apparently indicate his estimate of the task he has at hand. Referring to the Indian workers’ practice of worshipping their tools he asks as to how might he “handle this problem of the presence of the divine or the supernatural in the history of [Indian] labor as we render this enchanted world into our disenchanted prose”?[15] I find this question both condescending and superfluous – Indian labor does not inhabit an ‘enchanted world’, that suggests belief in magic and totemism. In my eyes, Indian labor still possesses religious-ethical moorings (due to the plain reason that Indians mostly do) and is capable of seeking the sacred through its work. Their life world cannot be described in the ‘disenchanted’ prose of Prof. Chakrabarty, since his prose issues from the western social sciences. More than being ‘disenchanted’, it is just plain incompetent when it comes to representing Indian realities. To be equal to the task Prof. Chakrabarty must imagine and devise his own language, an emancipated language. Only then will he genuinely ‘provincialize’ Europe. He, indeed we all, must understand, as our ancestors who composed the Upanishads did, that the reality we create is rooted in our own selves and is realized through the language we speak. A servile self will inevitably utter a servile language and generate a reality of servitude to the western schemas of thought. The ghost of colonialism will smugly haunt this reality.


[1] See S. Radhakrishnan, The Principal Upanisads, Harper Collins Publishers India, 2009 (Twentieth Edition), pp.185-186.

[2] The Principal Upanisads, p.188.

[3] The Principal Upanisads, p.190.

[4] The Principal Upanisads, p.247. Italics in original.

[5] The Intimate Enemy. Loss and recovery of Self under Colonialism, OUP, New Delhi, p.117.

[6] Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp.5-6.

[7] The Intimate Enemy, p.117.

[8] When addressing the Constitutional Club in London on 26 March 1931.

[9] The Intimate Enemy, p.19.

[10] The Intimate Enemy, p.20.

[11] The Intimate Enemy, p.16.

[12] The Intimate Enemy, p.17.

[13] The Intimate Enemy, p.21.

[14] The Intimate Enemy, pp.21-22.

[15] Provincializing Europe, p.77.

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Saumya Dey

Saumya Dey is an associate professor of history at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. His primary research interests are intellectual and cultural history. He has, till date, authored one monograph and a collection of essays - Becoming Hindus and Muslims. Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2015) and The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva and other Essays. Historical Legitimacy of an Idea (Shubhi Publications, 2019). He earned his PhD at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.