Reconceptualizing India Studies by S N Balagangadhara: Rethinking of Indian Colonial Narratives- I

Reconceptualizing India Studies by S N Balagangadhara: Rethinking of Indian Colonial Narratives- I

Every book either written by Dr SN Balagangadhara or inspired by his ideas changes one’s perception of India, the world, and society radically; and this book is no exception. This book deals with many problematic issues in the studies involving India and her past; and shows that the narrative has had an unbroken lineage from the colonial times to the present. The present social sciences simply parrot the colonial discourses, albeit with secularization of previous theological assumptions. This paradigm changing book is a must read for every single Indian in India and abroad to gain a deeper understanding of our country.

Each brilliant essay takes up various aspects of the discourse about Indian society, traditions, and its evils like the ‘caste-system’, ‘religious fundamentalism’, ‘corruption’, ‘poverty’ and so on. Discussing issues like the concept of cultural differences, the role of social sciences, the alleged role of dialogues in reducing religious frictions, the improper transposition of Western secularism on Indian soil, the author shows how the dominant discourse was Western; and completely from their perspective.

The narratives immensely favoured the West; and over centuries, Western scholarship has inflicted a violence of the most severe kind going beyond the physical brutalities of colonialism. A deep ‘colonial consciousness’ is the form of this violence which prevents us from looking at the West from our perspective. More importantly, we look at ourselves from a Western perspective, a fact which we do not know and do not even want to know.

As one reads the book, layers of shame which covered our eyes after decades of education keep falling off; and a sense of pride occurs on realization that we stand as equals to the West. The point of the book is not to denigrate the West and riddle them with guilt-complexes, or promote the East in a rabid fashion. The West and the East are different; but they are equals.

This summary is a humble effort of a layperson to stimulate other laypeople, like myself, desperate for alternative narratives on India. The concluding chapter addresses the problems NRIs in USA face while dealing with uncomfortable questions on Indian traditions; but it has an equally relevant message for Indians in India too as we are getting rapidly ‘Westernized’. I have the permission of the author to make a summary of the book as many lines are directly from the book. A summary is not enough and neither is it perhaps possible, as each paragraph of the book has something relevant in it. Yet, this is a humble effort in the hope of stimulating some to go for the whole book.


For the first time in 500 years, non-Western cultures, including India have a bigger global role in the political and economic fronts. Hence, a reconceptualization of India studies would tell what India can offer to the world of today and tomorrow. It is a challenge to have clarity on what it means to be an Indian because in the last 300 years, the textual and theoretical study of India has emanated from mostly Europe.

As per popular perception, Europe in the last two thousand years had an overwhelming contribution in producing theologies, philosophies, fine arts, natural sciences, social sciences, theories about human beings and cultures, democratic institutions, and courts of law. In contrast, India produced one Gandhi and one Buddha during this long period. Most thinkers in India were, to all purposes, sustaining and defending undesirable and immoral practices like caste, sati, and infanticide. In which case the only goal for India is to become modernized like the West as quickly as possible.

Here SN Balagangadhara asks a very important question, a first by anyone, which becomes the theme of the entire book. What if these descriptions are false and are solely the result of the knowledge of India generated by the colonial rule? In which case, we need to be testing the nature of European knowledge about India.

The Caste Story as an Example

The ‘caste system’ is an example of the firm and solid knowledge which Europe has about India. It is allegedly the origin of all evils and an obstacle to all progress. But what if the understanding of the caste system is unscientific?

As a system arising from antiquity, it survived Buddhism, Bhakti movements, colonization, Indian independence, world capitalism and even globalization rather strongly. Hence, it must be a very stable social organization. There exists no centralized authority for enforcing the caste system across the country. It is an autonomous and decentralized organization and no social/political regulation could eradicate the system. Hence, it must be a self-reproducing social structure. It exists in one form or the other in all religious denominations and in different environments. Hence, it adapts itself to any new environments it finds itself in. New castes have come and gone, and hence, this system is also dynamic. Since it has survived under all political regimes, it must be neutral to political ideologies too.

Would not such an autonomous, decentralized, stable, adaptive, dynamic, self-reproducing social organization, also neutral to all political, economic, and religious doctrines and environments be the most ideal system if one really existed as such? This most ideal caste system derives only from the present descriptions of the caste system and does not require any additional theories or assumptions. Hence, European narrative about the ‘evil caste system’ may not amount to much.

Can Learning from Each Other Happen Across Cultures?

India is learning plenty from Europe, but ironically, Europe does not seem to have learnt anything in return. Does this mean that India has nothing to teach; or it has something to teach which Europeans do not seem to know about? Answers like Yoga, Karma, meditation, and astrology will not do, since there are native traditions in Europe too propagating some of them like meditation and astrology. This is very disturbing. Europe has been studying India for centuries telling us whatever wrongs we have in our culture and country; and the other culture does not even know what to learn, or even if there is anything to learn in the first place from India.

Western intellectuals created specific theories, assumptions, and viewpoints to look at other cultures, which seem to have become benchmarks. They also became the only way of looking at the world, and Indian intellectuals broadly agree to their viewpoint of looking at the world, including our own culture. Generations of Indian intellectuals believe these theories of social sciences and humanities as true which emanate from the European stables. Indian traditions like Advaita, Buddhism, Jaina, Saiva, Vaishnava have also developed their theories of human beings, societies, ethics, morals, ideals, politics, arts, languages as their contribution to human knowledge, but there is a gross ignorance of these. Indian and European cultures differ from each other on views about human beings, but what made one the standard?

European story about human beings had no competition for a long time. Now, in the coming decades, Indians and Asians will come with their own ideas competing with the established discourses as equals. What will be the outcomes? These are the issues for the future, and of course, the theme of the book.


Most anthropologists seem to converge on two points: a negative judgement regarding the notion of ‘culture’; and a positive endorsement of the adjectival use of ‘cultural.’ The negative judgements do not withstand scrutiny, but there is merit in the positive judgements according to SN Balagangadhara.

The concept of culture is controversial with more than 164 definitions of the term. In the mayhem, there is a strong group which denies the concept of culture altogether. The criticisms of the word ‘culture’ are based on linguistic (multiple meanings, failing to address the real issues of the world like social inequality and individual agency) and philosophical considerations (‘reification’, ‘essentialism’, and so on). SNB says that most of the linguistic and philosophical confusions on the term ‘culture’ are pseudo-problems arising from conceptual confusions. They do not require a rejection of the concept.

A definition stipulates how some theorist uses a specific word and lays down its meaning. One may or may not agree with the truth value of the definition, but it does not change the definition of the word itself. To criticise by focussing on ancillary claims to the hypothesis and not to the definition itself is plain wrong. Most authors have no clarity on what a definition is and what it should or can do. SNB says that these so-called defects of the word ‘culture’, based on a casual application of language and philosophy, are properties of any and every word, whether from a natural or an artificial language.

‘Cultural differences’ however has a lot of meaning and value. ‘Differences between cultures’ can be climatological, biological, or psychological in nature, which are clearly different to the notion of ‘cultural differences.’ Hence, what makes a difference specifically into a cultural difference?

Cultural Differences- Different Configurations of Learning

Learning is a way in which an organism makes its environment habitable and is crucial for survival. Coping with groups is as important as coping with nature for survival of our species. The human being living in the group are socialized within the framework of groups. The reservoir of learning are the resources of the group-its customs, traditions, institutions. Child-rearing, schooling, family life and group interactions are the mechanisms of transmission of these learning processes.

Because of great diversity of the environments, human nature, and human achievements, there are different kinds of learning processes in different social groups. One kind build societies and groups; one kind creates poetry, music, and dance; and one kind develops theories and speculations. These kinds of learning processes in different degree and combinations leads to a common adaptive strategy in a specific group.

In a social group, one dominant kind of learning process subordinates other kinds of learning processes. A specific combination of a dominant and subordinate learning processes makes up for a configuration of learning; and cultural differences are because of differences in these configurations. This is the strongest thesis of the author SNB while dealing with cultural differences. The West has a learning configuration rooted in religion where the ‘why’ question is important and the dominant kind of learning allows for theories and speculations. Indian culture is different; its dominant kind of learning roots in rituals and builds societies and groups. The ‘how’ question is important here.

In the process of learning (making a habitat) and ‘learning to learn’ (using the resources of socialization), the group builds its culturality. Culturalization thus becomes the how of both learning and teaching. The variety of mechanisms are wide and immense ranging from family interactions, friendships, religious ceremonies, rituals, schools, clubs, and associations, to name a few. SNB says that finally some difference between individuals is a cultural difference and not social, biological, psychological in nature if it entails a specific way of using the resources of socialization.

Cultural differences are not fiction, but perfectly valid. At an individual level, a person cannot be a typical ‘Indian’ or ‘Turk’ or ‘Westerner’; but it is perfectly fine to describe cultural differences as they are real, observable, and empirically describable. To sum up, these cultural differences emanate from differences in configurations of learning in different societies where there is an interplay between a dominant and secondary modes of learning.


This sets the next stage of ‘comparison of cultures’, a new field of study initiated and promoted by the SN Balagangadhara groupat the University of Ghent in Belgium. What are the need and the aims of such an enterprise?

The existing social sciences- primarily Western initiatives- have a deep symbiotic relationship with Orientalism. They borrow and reinforce from each other in their claims about non-Western cultures, the non-Western man, and his society. Hence, clearly, the present social sciences cannot provide us with alternatives to Orientalism as they continue the legacy of Orientalist writings.

Decolonizing the Social Sciences

Western intellectuals developed methodologies (the social sciences) to understand themselves and other cultural worlds. Unfortunately, we, from other cultures, know the West the way the West looks at itself. We study the East too the way the West studies the East. Our social sciences have been so colonized that a question of asking how the world would look from our viewpoint becomes meaningless.

The problems (‘underdevelopment’, ‘human rights ’, ‘the amorphous nature of Hinduism’, ‘Hindu fundamentalism’, ‘the problem of modernity and nationhood’, ‘the women’s question’, and so on) regarding India and the language tools remain remarkably the same for both Western and Indian intellectuals. When Indian anthropologists, psychologists, or sociologists do their work in the respective fields, it is really the West talking to itself.

We thus need urgently to decolonize the social sciences which should be a comparative exercise, taking off from the previous social science studies. Hence, one should not reject the hard-won previous insights of social sciences. This task of decolonizing should be a transcendence beyond the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary.

Modern sociology describes the ills of the Indian cultural systems presupposing the truth of the Orientalist descriptions of non-Western cultures. Hence, to better study the non-West, there is a need for comparative research into cultures. This is the ‘why’ of comparative studies. ‘What’ is contestation of these comparative studies? Contesting the presuppositions of the theories of colonialism itself.

The Orientalist description is an oblique reflection on Western cultural experience, even though it appears as a description of other cultures. We can study the culture of the describer (in this case-the West) through the medium of his descriptions (Orientalism) and thus reveal the nature of Western culture. This finally is the ‘how’ of comparative studies.

Asymmetries in Dialogues on Religion and Ethics

The following enjoy a quasi-universal consensus: India has many indigenous religions; Brahmins are the priests of Hinduism; the caste system is a hierarchical Indian social structure sanctioned by religion; Indians are immoral. The comparative view transforms the presence of the pattern into questions for research.

How did the Europeans discover religions and what enabled them to conclude that Brahmins were the priests? How did they discover a hierarchical social structure when neither its principles or mechanisms are known to Indians or Europeans? Following a step-wise methodology of a comparative exercise, we can decide whether the claims about Indian religions are true or false based on the relationship between Western culture and religion.

One long-standing idea regarding ethical differences between cultures has been that rules of moral behaviour vary from culture to culture. What is moral in one culture may not be necessarily so in another culture. In classical Chinese of early Confucians there are no language equivalents for ‘ought’, ‘moral’, ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ‘rationality’, ‘choice’, ‘dilemma’, ‘duty’, ‘rights’, and so on. Without using ‘ought’, as a difference between factual and evaluative statements, it is impossible to conceive of a moral culture in Confucianism. Yet, they were involved in the most of profound thoughts about human values and ethical considerations. In India too, the ethical domain constructs differently.

Ethical relations are factual relations; and people act ethically without needing norms of ethical behaviour. The quandaries faced by Western ethical theories (virtues, vices, universal norms, moral life) root deeply in their theological vocabulary. If true, this hypothesis would show that Greeks or Romans would stretch far away from Western ethics; and become radically unintelligible to a culture which calls itself heir to these civilizations.

Native Indian traditions have produced very little about other cultures, on ethics, and on the caste system. But peculiarly, modern Indian intelligentsia appears to reproduce Western descriptions of India and Western self-descriptions. No Indian can perhaps tell the principles of the caste system which generations of scholars in Indology, sociology, anthropology, political theory has been putting forward.

To understand a culture, we need to see what it says about others and the cultural world. India does not meet with this condition unfortunately. Colonialism, power, and violence established a clear asymmetry in the narratives. The Western culture became the ‘norm’ and other cultures are simply deviations from this norm. The only framework today to study Indian culture would either come from Orientalism or the social sciences. Using these we are merely adding to Western descriptions.

The West, based on theology, raised issues of Buddhism fighting Brahmanism, corruption of pure Vedic religion into Brahmanism, Jainism and Sikhism fighting Hinduism, clash of various sects of Shiva or Vishnu, clash of the Bhakti movement against Brahmanism, and so on and so forth. It is surprising that to this day, neither a scholar or a layperson can answer these questions or even to say what makes Hinduism a religion; and what was it for which Buddhism fought against Brahmanism.

Restoring Symmetries by Comparative Sciences

Today, there are no alternatives to Western culture. Comparative sciences seek to restore the symmetry. Here, there is a serious rejecting of a developmental ordering of history with the benchmark Western culture at the peak of cultural development. The only way is to study non-Western cultures (or, at least their intellectual productions) as alternatives to the Western modes of life. Comparative studies want to prove that different cultures are different forms of life, and they confront each other as alternatives to one another.

This comparative study of the Western culture becomes objective, non-arbitrary and scientific. The post-colonial studies lack this kind of comparative research. They short-circuit the process by wrongly believing that self-representation of Western culture is derivable as the antonym of Western descriptions of other cultures. If India is feminine according to Western descriptions, the post-colonials would incorrectly construct this to say that the self-description of the West was masculine.

Comparative studies seek to replace ad-hoc hypotheses with alternate universally applicable theories. For example, why did the earlier generations of scholars think of Indians as immoral? An ad hoc hypothesis would be: the scholars were racists, imperialist, and xenophobes. This implausible answer transforms entire generations into unauthentic bigots. A comparative answer, in contrast, seeks to investigate what ethics is; and into the nature of Western and Indian ethical thought. Such an answer leads to an alternative theory of ethics; an alternative, which explains the failures and mistakes of earlier generations of scholars as necessary mistakes. This would be the correct ‘critique’ of proper understanding.


Edward Said’s orientalism

Said’s ‘Orientalism’ was an important book which says that the Orient’s concept as a place and an idea is a reality in and for the West. Orientalism perhaps does not carry any meaning to the people in the Orient themselves. Thus, in Western descriptions of other cultures, the ‘otherness’ of the latter disappears. The West is the great original; the others are its pale imitations.

However, Edward Said is criticised by many, mainly for his inability to say what falsity in the Orientalist image means. SNB says that however, if we talk in terms of cultural differences then we can make sense of Edward Said’s work. Orientalism is not a description of the Orient, but a culturally specific way of expressing the difference between the Orient and the Occident. If seen as a description of the differences, it is clear to understand that while describing the Orient, the Occident is describing itself. To study Orientalism, is to study the Occident or Western Culture.

What Should a Study of Orientalism Do?

When European merchants, missionaries, or bureaucrats wrote reports about India, their secondary readings and later analysis lent structure to the experiences. Those descriptions became the Orient and the discourse about it is the Orientalist discourse. These patterns underwent modifications and filtering of data till a stable and satisfactory pattern emerged. Such texts became ‘ethnological data’ or the ‘anthropological fieldwork’ that theories would later try to explain.

Orientalism is how Western culture came to terms with the reality of the East. Thus, Orientalism is not a discourse, but an experience. However, it has a status of paranoid knowledge where the knower thinks that his or her beliefs are true descriptions and not as an experience. And the information about the Orient seems morally neutral and objectively valid. The problem comes when Indians and Easterners assume the same experiences. In the process of colonization, the colonized took portrayals of Orientalist descriptions as true descriptions of themselves.

The post-colonial thinkers attempt to provide or negotiate a better place for the Orient in the experiential world of the West. But these too continue to share the naïve belief that the experiential entity of another culture is accessible to them. In this sense, the post-colonial predicament refers to the persistence of colonial consciousness after colonization has ended.

The difference between the colonial and the post-colonial intellectual would have to lie in the type of questions asked and the kind of answers sought. Orientalism should become the raw material to understand how Orientalism was possible at all. And Orientalism should tell us more about the West than the East.

Orientalism, Social Sciences, and Cultures

In building up Orientalism, Western culture built and elaborated on conceptual frameworks, using resources available to its own culture. It is a knowledge truism that descriptions of the world are by the concepts of the describer. What is the form of ‘self-image’ of Western cultures while describing itself? It is the form of social sciences.

Hence, social sciences constrain Orientalist discourse; Orientalism constrains social sciences. It follows that using the social sciences is to reproduce Orientalism. Hence, in post-colonial world; in the secularist world; in the intellectual debates on Hindu-Muslim strife; in transforming the previous Indians or Hindus into today’s ‘Sanghis’ or ‘Hindu fundamentalists’, the same language of Orientalism persists in the new voice of social sciences.

Orientalism and social sciences clarify each other’s questions. The former constrains the latter to ask specific questions. A critique of Orientalism is a requirement not because to help affirm our dignity or to saddle the West with guilt complexes. A critique of Orientalism helps fundamentally in the growth of human knowledge and to understand a specific culture’s way of understanding itself, other cultures, and the world. Such alternate descriptions will force us to provide alternate descriptions of the world that are richer and fuller than those we have today.

Ethical domain, Religion, and Caste

The author substantiates the claim of the relationship between Orientalism and social sciences by using some examples. In the ethical domain, the Orientalist descriptions of India made immorality of the Indians an integral part of its stories. The author looks at the modern ‘scientific’ researches of cultural psychologist Richard Shweder, where the latter looks to relate culture to moral development. The result is pretty much the same, as the author shows. It transforms Indians into moral cretins. The era might be different; but the conceptual language and framework stays the same.

That there is Hinduism or other religions and that there is a caste system is a description of Indians common to the Orientalists and the present-day social sciences. The descriptions of India have continued in the same manner consistently. The facts provided by the Orientalists became a point of departures for the writing in the social sciences.

The puja and evening rituals of Brahmins became organic parts of Indian religion; Purushasukta was the cosmogony of the caste system with ‘untouchability’ as its outward manifestation; Dharma and Adharma were Sanskrit terms for good and evil respectively; Indian deities were like the Greek counterparts; Indians were idolaters according to missionaries and polytheists according to contemporary liberals; and so on and so forth. Europeans thus created Hinduism and other religions of India as their experiential entities. Similarly, by creating the ‘caste-system’ the British lent stability and coherence to a multitude of social groupings and customs in India. This had nothing to do with the reality and has again no existence outside the Western experience in the real world.

They did not describe what existed in Indian culture per se but constructed a pattern and a structure lending coherence to their cultural experiences. The Western compulsion rooted in their own religion forced them to see and construct a religion from their experience of a foreign culture, in our case, India. As a concept, both ‘Hinduism’ and the ‘caste-system’ provided the Westerners with a coherent and unifying experience. Hence Hinduism is both a false description of the Indian reality and imaginary. It is false, because it falsely assumed that the experiential entity was a real entity in the world; and it is imaginary in that it does not have an existence outside the experience of Western culture.

Present social sciences simply continue these narratives and discourses on Hinduism and other religions of India and the caste system. Hence, a critique of Orientalism involves also in developing alternatives in the field of humanities and social sciences. The grand goal of critique of Orientalism is to decolonize the social sciences. Unless we do that, the colonial and Oriental discourses on India and its so-called evils and problems would continue unabated. We must look at India through a different set of lenses. A critique of Orientalism is coterminous with the task of developing alternate theories in many domains. This is the task of non-western intellectuals. There is no future for the present parrot-like reproduction of western theories, whether Marxist, feminist, or post-modern.

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.