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

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

It is a facet of colonial attitude which persistently generates literature, mainly from the West, causing violence to Indian culture and traditions. Colonialism in the form of physical usurping and material plunder may have ended in the first half of the twentieth century; but the violence of the non-physical type continues as a grim reminder of colonial attitudes. A violence which assumes the superiority of Western narratives and tries to explain Indian traditions by using Western frameworks and methodologies. Indians soaked in colonial consciousness accept these discourses; however, some feel wronged, and either remain silent or react violently. This violence on the part of the Hindu makes him quickly a ‘fundamentalist’ or a ‘Sanghi.’ There is a possibility of a dialogue, but this gets highly skewed in favour of the Western intellectuals.

Intercultural and inter-religious debates seem to generate plenty of hostility, ill-well and even violence. Violence in a generic sense implies an ‘injury (an act that damages or hurts physically and mentally) by distortion, infringement, or profanation’. One conviction in religious studies is the role of ‘dialogues’ in increasing mutual understanding between people and thus reducing violence. But does this happen? SN Balagangadhara answers in the negative. In fact, it seems to increase hostility and violence by the very nature of these dialogues.

Similarly, political liberalism with its notions of ‘reasonableness’ and ‘rational dialogues’ based on fairness and justice fails to decrease violence in intercultural encounters. The author shows that by a tremendous skew in the dialogues- immensely favouring the West- violence, in fact, is a necessary outcome of such philosophy. It turns out that the solution is the problem itself.

SNB uses ‘argumentation’ instead of ‘dialogue’ in his discussion, which is ‘studying a phenomenon of verbal communication as a specific mode of discourse for resolving a difference of opinion. ‘Verbal’ includes both ‘oral’ and ‘written’ modes of discourse.


SNB shows that precisely the opposite is true: dialogue about a religion is often the harbinger of violence. In the Indian context, this happens not because ‘outsiders’ have studied Hinduism or because the Hindu participants in the dialogue are religious ‘fundamentalists’, but because of the requirements of reason as embodied in such dialogues.

The call for ‘dialogue’ overlooks the prima facie evidence that intense religious dialogue has often gone hand in hand with much violence. The evidence for violence simultaneously occurring alongside dialogue lies in the history of ancient Christianity and its struggle with the Roman religio; the religious wars; the periods of Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe; and so on.

What should people of different religious persuasions do when they disagree and want to solve their disagreement? The famous philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper says: ‘critical reason and rational discussion are the only alternatives to violence so far discovered’. SNB refutes by claiming that in some kinds of encounters, rational discussion generates violence.

Courtright’s Ganesha and Kripal’s Ramakrishna

SNB explains his stand by looking at the controversy generated by two books, both authored by professors at American universities. The first book is by Paul Courtright on Ganesha; the second is by Jeffrey Kripal on Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, which we saw previously. In response to these books, several Hindu groups called for public apologies from the authors and withdrawal of their books.

SNB focusses on the use of Freudian psychoanalysis to understand Indian gods, instead of the individual offensive passages. Assuming one could use Freudian theories to understand cultures, and that Courtright provides us with a justifiable interpretation of Freud and/or psychoanalysis, such interpretations transform Ganesha and Shiva into symbols. To whom are these figures symbols? It is most plausibly, the psyche of the Indians who perform puja rituals to Ganesha and Shiva in these forms.

 An interpretation of psychoanalysis functions as an explanation of the Indian psyche: Indians offer puja to Shiva linga because …; Indians cook sweets while performing puja to Ganesha because the desire for sweets is an expression of …; and so on. (The blanks fill in by a suitable interpretation of psychoanalysis). In other words, Freudian psychoanalysis functions as an explanation of the psyche of a people.

This move from interpretation to explanation is logically necessary because psychoanalysis is an explanation of the psychology of individuals. One does not have the freedom to choose a psychoanalytical interpretation of the psyche; and deny that one is providing an explanation of a psyche. Such an explanation of the Indian psyche, in that case, requires compelling evidence before considering it true. None of the authors do this, of course.

Generation of Violence and Hostility

The important question is, why do attempts at scholarship bring forth invectives, death threats, and engender violence? Some Hindus as a group challenges the status of psychoanalysis or its ability to understand Hinduism; Western scholars argues in its defence that scholars have used psychoanalysis in understanding other religions too, including Christianity. In between, slogans of ‘academic freedom’, ‘mob violence’, ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ float around. One is supposed to believe that all the incensed ‘Hindus’ are brainwashed by the Hindutva movement, too stupid to understand the virtues of academic freedom, and, of course, delivered to the mercy of base emotions. All scholars, of course, take to the moral high ground: the blemish is on the side of the Hindus. This is one reading of the situation in response to these kinds of Western scholarship on Hinduism.

There is an alternative reading of the situation according to SNB. He says that Kripal and Courtright might have initiated a dialogue with the Hindus about their religion. They make the first dialogical move by writing their books. They have studied Hinduism the way a physicist studies the refraction of light, and communicated the results to Hindus. They are explaining to Hindu practitioners the nature and structure of their practices, whether these involve doing puja rituals to Ganesha or listening to the teachings of Ramakrishna. Now, it is for the Indian Hindus to have a dialogue with them on these contentious issues. What would now be the structural results of a rational dialogue?  

Argumentation and Violence because of an Asymmetrical Burden

Attempts like those of Courtright and Kripal inflict violence by denying the experience of people whose religions they talk about, as is true for many more works in the West that study Hinduism. Unfortunately, it is mainly the West that studies Hinduism. 

A rational dialogue becomes skewed because the party which makes the maximum number of unproven assumptions does not have to demonstrate the truth of these assumptions. The protagonist (the Hindu) cannot even ask the antagonist (the scholar) to prove this truth because he is unaware of all the assumptions the latter is making.

In all such encounters, any further argumentation becomes tilted or loaded in favour of the scholar because the structure of argumentation compels the authors to indulge in a series of inter-related cognitive moves, whose combined effect skews the argumentation against the Hindu. These cognitive moves are: (1) the scholar attributes some implicit premises to the Hindu; (2) these premises appear to explain Hindu practices; (3) these explanations presuppose the truth of a specific psychological theory (Freud here); (4) this theory structures the nature of the phenomena requiring explanation; (5) there is a logical compelling of the Hindu to defend the moves of the scholar.

The Hindu unfortunately cannot simply say that he does not entertain the premises imputed to him; unless he has an alternative explanation. Such an alternative explanation will have to be about what ‘religion’ is, what the relation is between beliefs and human practices, what it means to do puja to the Hindu deities, how this is a justifiable explanation, and so on and so forth. In other words, they must be intellectual experts, who have explanations about many facets of their culture.

It is here that we see the skew in the dialogue in its sharpest form: the onus of proof distributes unevenly between the participants in the dialogue. The only way the non-Western peoples can show they are not ‘stupid’ is by explicitly providing alternate explanations that make them appear intelligent. These moves of Western scholars inflict violence on the experiential world of the Hindus. The latter, for their part, react violently because a violation has occurred. Of course, this situation does not justify violence, but it teaches us not to go around allocating moral blame on the participants with nonchalance.

Explanations of these authors thus engenders violence in dialogical situations involving intercultural encounters. Reasonableness, it appears, is not an antidote to violence; in certain kinds of encounters, this reasonableness breeds violence. Hindutva movement is tapping into this experience. The issue of ‘representation of Hinduism’ is a lightning rod that draws well-educated Hindus into the folds of Hindutva because it can attach itself to this sense of violation.

A Methodological Problem at the Root of Hostility

The scholar, by contrast, can challenge the ‘interpretation’ of the Hindu by dismissing it as mere minority opinion, or as the ravings of a ‘Hindu fundamentalist’, or by assuming an explanatory stance. The scholar can switch between interpretative and explanatory stances, whereas the Hindu can only assume an explanatory stance.

This asymmetric relationship is cognitive in nature: even though Courtright or Kripal use explanatory theories, only their ‘interpretation’, is the subject matter of the argumentation. To challenge their interpretation, one must challenge the status of psychoanalytical explanation; doing the latter, however, enables these scholars to defend it as their opinion. TheHindu is a loser all the way! Because the Hindu can only challenge the explanatory adequacy of the theory provided, he has an alternative route of coming out of the dialogue itself. For the Hindu, this asymmetric argumentation leads to a deep anger ending up either in silence or the kind of violence we see.

We should not simply go around issuing clarion calls for ‘more dialogue’ with and between religions—which is what the common-sense, the media, and the politicians advocate. At the minimum, some of these ‘dialogues’ exacerbate violence; they do not reduce it. 


The author examines whether ‘normative liberal political philosophy’ reduces violence in inter-cultural encounters. The problem with liberal philosophy is that it fails to critically look at the notion of ‘rational dialogue’ and hence unable to develop a notion of justice, says SNB.

Political liberals nonetheless neglect the notion of rational dialogue, despite its importance. Either it could be due to familiarity of the notion despite an ill-understanding; or maybe the concept of rational dialogue is another intellectual domain. ‘Argumentation theories’ says about ‘rational dialogue’: it is reasonable, the rules of discussion are transparent and they are neutral with respect to the participants in a discussion. However, when we apply this apparently reasonable set of rules to actual discussions between members of different cultures, peculiar results emerge that undermine the claims of political liberalism.

Examples of Some Inter-Cultural Dialogues Based on Principles of Liberalism

The goal of most dialogues is that the scholar from the West is trying to understand people from other cultures. The ancient Roman priests like Cicero wrote books questioning the nature of gods and religion. In Roman culture, there was no dearth of books and philosophical schools decrying, denigrating, and dismissing the importance of gods, or even denying their existence, written surprisingly many times, by priests and officials in temples. In a ‘dialogue’ with them, Western intellectuals like Montesquieu, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, and Peter Gay either transformed them into inauthentic intellectuals (‘they do not believe in what they themselves say’) or attributed some or another reason for their outward behaviour (‘fear of persecution’ or ‘prudence’ or ‘expediency’). The skew in the dialogue is clear: it favours the scholar from the West.

When the modern Western mind tries to ‘understand’ members from other cultures- like a Nietzsche trying to make sense of  ‘Ayudhapuja’ (professionals offering puja to their instruments), or a modern intellectual trying to understand an African rain dance- the dialogue again becomes skewed in favour of the former. The only way they understood was in denying the other any conception of natural causality.

A reasonable dialogue with an African or an Indian transform them into irrational and superstitious creatures. Invariably, people from other cultures emerge as inferior specimens. The process of understanding and exploring how ‘reasonable people’ could come to different ‘reasonable’ conceptions is compelling the modern Western mind to deny an entire culture and its people even elementary understanding of social and natural events. Even though we have set up a ‘reasonable’ dialogue, the results of this process are anything but fair.

The Skew in the Dialogues

Why are these dialogues skewed? It has to do with the cognitive mechanisms involved in the process. To understand the others, the Western mind must make a series of dialogical moves. In doing so, a systematic distortion occurs as an inevitable result. One can have a dialogue it only if one attributes some specific beliefs to the protagonists, like an African believing that it is his dance that causes rain.

The disagreements arise precisely due to the attribution of such beliefs. On the one hand, by attributing premises to people from other cultures, one renders them unfit for being dialogue partners; on the other hand, the only way to have a dialogue is by attributing such premises and by transforming them into idiots.

If a person from the non-West is unwilling to accept the imputed assumptions, they must come up with alternate assumptions that justify their beliefs. In other words, he needs to be an intellectual expert, who has explanations about many facets of his own culture. Hence, inter-cultural dialogues itself are not about human practices, but regarding the beliefs that the protagonists allegedly hold about these practices.

What appears a logically consistent set of rules generates some kinds of inconsistencies, when used in situations involving intercultural encounters. Instead of clearing up misunderstandings, intercultural dialogue generates them.

The Implications of this Skew

The nature of these dialogues entails a violation of the rules of dialogue; but without such violations, dialogue cannot proceed. Rational dialogue compels one to accept a specific conception of human psychology as true. This psychology postulates a kind of relation between reasons and actions; beliefs and behaviour. This notion is rooted in the history of western culture, which is also the history of Christianity and its secularization. Theorists of political liberalism assume that their theories are independent of specific philosophical and metaphysical doctrines. It is clearly not, says SNB.

An intercultural dialogue brings to the fore an assumption of political liberalism: it assumes the truth of the western cultural folk psychology. This folk psychology has crystallized in the course of the history of one specific comprehensive doctrine, namely, Christianity. Consequently, political liberalism must derivatively assume the truth of one particular ‘comprehensive doctrine’. The skew distributes the burden of proof unevenly between the participants in the dialogue. This is a consequence of using a set of rules in a dialogue which does not, prima facie, seem to imply such an uneven distribution

Political Liberalism Also Leads to Violence in Intercultural Encounters

A reasonable discussion can take place only between people who share the implicit common-sense conceptions or the same folk psychology. To put it very explicitly: only those members sharing a common Western history are competent to enter a reasonable discussion. It appears the theory of political liberalism is intolerant to the point of being arbitrarily tyrannical. The notions of cultural differences that exist today are those that come from the western culture.

These fair terms of dialogue entail that the West makes assumptions about the truth of its cultural common-sense and hence about the falsity of alternate folk psychologies. Thus, if we allow a ‘reasonable’ dialogue to unfold by following the transparent and fair rules of the dialogical structure, such a rational dialogue not only inflicts violence but also becomes unfair. Its unfairness consists of the fact that such a dialogue distributes the onus of proof unequally between the dialogue partners and brings about a skewed (thus, prima facie unjust) consequence. A reasonable and just structure built on fair and transparent rules of dialogue eventuates in a skewed, unfair, and unreasonable structure. That means to say, we have no logical grounds to suggest that, when left to itself, a just structure cannot have unjust consequences.

‘Reasonable discussion’ or ‘rational dialogue’ is not a neutral mechanism to settle disputes but, instead, is dependent on specific philosophical and metaphysical conceptions about a host of other issues. Political theories must make factual assumptions about many facets of human psychology, if they are to get off the ground. Surely, one of the flaws of political liberalism is precisely the assumptions it makes about human psychology.

By implicitly calling its own cultural folk psychology, as a reasonable ‘comprehensive doctrine’ and assuming its truth, one merely transforms different cultural folk psychologies into false and hence ‘unreasonable’ exemplars. Reasonable pluralism, which assumes the inevitability of reasonable people coming to different reasonable judgments, forcibly bows to the logic of its cognitive mechanisms and deny pluralism. It too affirms the familiar theme of western superiority. So, what makes this liberalism any different from the nineteenth-century liberalism, which explicitly stated that all other cultures in the world are inferior to Western culture? One of its advocates states that ‘political liberalism remains humanity’s best hope in a world where cultural diversity is not only a fact, but a joy of living’. If this is true, humanity should perhaps realize that this situation reflects despair rather than hope.

Featured Image: Columbia (“The Kalee-poojah [feast] of the Thugs,” from Harper’s Weekly, 1858)

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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.