“What Does it Mean to be ‘Indian’?” – A Review

“What Does it Mean to be ‘Indian’?” – A Review

Who do you think you are?

Ask this question of the ordinary small town or rural vernacular-schooled Indian and they instinctively point to traditions, rituals, and way of living. In contrast, the liberal arts English educated intellectual looks no further than Western accounts beaten into shape in the white-hot forge of Indology and the Social Sciences. While the experiential voices of the former remain drowned, the latter continues to dominate the narrative as it has done for two centuries: an Indian intellectual mindset in a quagmire; devoid of thinking authentic/grounded in lived experience thoughts and ill-equipped to imagine solutions to contingent contemporary problems that might merit application of ideas situated in their own cultural ontology.

This deep intellectual void requires radical upheaval, and it must come from scholars rooted in Indian culture but at home with Western intellectualism, says, Prof. SN Balagangadhara (SNB), emeritus professor at the University of Ghent, Belgium in his new book, “What does it mean to be ‘Indian’?” (Indica Publications, 2021). Founder of the Comparative Science of Cultures Group at Ghent, SNB and his team have for over three decades been researching Western culture and intellectual thought through their representations of other cultures, with a focus on Western representations of India and translating knowledge embodied by Indian traditions into Western conceptual frameworks (1).

Social Science and History

Despite centuries of Western social science scholarship, there is little clarity much less progress in understanding non-Western societies. The issue is especially acute in the case of India where, founded upon Enlightenment ideals and looking through a Christian theological prism, scholarly tracts on “Hinduism”, “Hindutva”, “cults”, and “caste” abound but fail to truly explain what exists in India.

For example, take Advaita. What equivalent does it have in European languages? By which German word would Luther be able to make sense of Shankara’s thoughts on Advaita?

Looking at it the other way, consider the idea of God. What is its cognate in Sanskrit, Pali, or Tamil? How would the notions of “God” as explained by Aquinas make sense to Ramanuja?

This illustrates some of the problems in a nutshell. The subtleties embedded in this example go beyond what the social sciences nutcracker has been designed for.

Indian society and culture are experiential, driven by stories where the primacy of knowledge trumps truth claims and helps to create, modify, and shape human experience that is then used to solve problems and live in the natural and social environment.

It is said that the best way to destroy a people and their culture is to give them history. History negates stories or reduces them to myths which in turn destroy native intellectual traditions that embody the cultural resources for socialisation, learning, and knowledge transmission. Unlike religion with its truth claims, moral rules do not apply to stories. Being products of the human imagination akin to art, literature and science, they are neither false nor true: they function at multiple levels of context, they serve as carriers of culture, and they help humans to develop configurations of learning and socialisation.

SNB thus argues that the question: “What does it mean to be ‘Indian’?” must be addressed fundamentally differently from identarian questions around ethnicity, race, or religion. The only way one can understand what exists in India is to begin at the level of culture – Indian culture.

So, what is Indian Culture?

To answer this question clearly and honestly requires objective study of Indian culture’s story about human beings. This is premised on the notion that in Indian culture, the individual thinks about what one shares with fellow human beings. Knowledge of self is knowledge about other human beings. In thinking about the self, one thinks of other human beings and the psychology that is shared with them. The more one understands the latter, the more one understands “self”. Therefore, any tenable accounts of India, Indians, and their “religion”, or the “Indian experience” must be based on observation and thought, and scientifically explained so that they are coherent to those that live it.

The methodology must be appraised, and the data corroborated – do the observations make sense of the experience of those who express and live their culture, or in other words, are the observations and explanations proffered objective and verifiable? Only through such study of lived experience is it possible to reframe understanding of Indian society, culture, customs, and traditions.

To put it bluntly, an Indian must recognise her/himself in scholarly narratives about them.

Moving beyond the “Who” and the “What,” academic study about Indians must also address the “How” and “Why”.

The observer must understand what makes for Indian culture and how it is configured and what mechanisms Indian society uses to access, reproduce, and transmit it. A historical perspective must explore the role that knowledge created by earlier generations plays in accessing traditions and experiences today. Integral to this is the part played by institutions such as family, kinship, marriage, rituals, educational institutions, and legal structures in shaping and transforming individuals’ experiences to enable them to relate to others and interact with the environment. In short, how did and does the Indian learn to be in the world?

Cultural differences, variety, and diversity are integral to Indian society, but so is a subliminal, joined up, “felt” community (2) that marks it out as composed of many yet one. So, objectively understanding Indian culture requires study of this and must go beyond superficial classification and cataloguing.

SNB posits that cultures are not merely different from one another, but that they differ in different ways (3). This requires new frameworks to describe differences, their origins, evolutionary trajectories, and configurations. Questions that spring up in this respect include:

• How is culture configured to work in India and what differences are there compared with the West?
• How does Indian culture’s experiential nature or anubhava (anu, meaning apt; bhava: becoming, coming into existence, getting to know) contrast with introspection of the West?
• What contrasting and divergent roles have religion and ritual, and truth and knowledge, respectively played in creating Western and Indian cultures, and how do they differ in terms of variety and diversity of practices?
• Examine the relevance of knowledge produced by figures such as Shankara or Buddha for today. Are these eternal truths or not? What is the distinction between knowledge and truth? How do Indic knowledge systems and traditions look when accessed directly, unmediated through Western Indology?

Colonialisms and Consequences

Indians are twice colonised people, and in the battle to decolonise (4), they face two challenges: first, the vacuum created by Islamic colonisation, and second, what British colonialism filled that vacuum with. The historical impacts of these colonialisms have left deep scars in the Indian psyche in which knowledge is subordinated to truth, and where ignorance is not just absence of knowledge but where falsehood and disinformation are deemed to be truths.

Colonialism has not yet been adequately theorized as an event and a process, and a serious history of this subject is yet to be written. Colonisation is not just conquest of territory, occupation, subjugating people and extracting revenues – its most insidious aspect is colonisation of the mind whose debilitating effects are transmitted from generation to generation, and which normalise what SNB terms a “crippled sense of self”, where self, culture and society are not as experienced, but as defined by colonisers.

Is the experience of the coloniser also the experience of the colonised? Why do Indian intellectuals continue to internalise the colonial experience of India and what impact does that have on decolonisation? The academic literature is replete with glaring examples on Hindu customs and society discussed in ways that bear little or no resemblance to lived experience. Indian intellectuals continue to accept the coloniser’s claims as truth and reproduce them without objective evidence that Indian society is endemically lazy, corrupt, steeped in an “inhuman caste system,” (5) and riddled with repression of “depressed classes” by “upper castes”.

Beyond the social, economic, and political impacts, the cultural and psychological legacy of colonisation also bears forensic examination. Being twice colonised, the distinctive facets about the Indian colonial experience demand scrutiny. Therefore, besides calibrating what Indian culture was before colonisation, their evolutionary impact must be researched.

Topics that arise in studying colonisation and its consequences would include:

• The effects of Islamic colonialism upon Indian society, the mechanisms did it interact with Indians and what were their consequences? What Islamic themes permeated into and displaced Indian culture? What have been the effects of this?
• The impact of Islamic colonialism on Indic knowledge systems, in particular the long-established unity between theories and daily experience and modes for knowledge creation and transmission, the condition of these systems when the British arrived and the resources which Indians had at the time with which to challenge Western theories about them.
• The trajectory of evolution and adaptation of Indian society during the period of colonisation, in particular the nature of institutions and social structures such as legal systems, governance, education, trade, and agriculture, which supported the generation and transmission of knowledge before colonisation and what became of them during each period of colonisation. How, and with what did each of the colonialisms replace these institutions? What happened to the intellectual classes who previously maintained them?

Answers to these questions will lead to objective understanding of the lasting impressions that the two colonisations have had on the fabric of Indian society and help to make sense of how it has adapted and changed, what it has lost, retained, and inherited. This line of research will also offer a critical assessment of colonial consciousness manifest today and open avenues by which barriers to decolonisation may be addressed.

Social Sciences and Secularism

Since the Enlightenment, the Western social sciences academy has maintained its privileged intellectual status globally. Yet, despite its universalising influence and normative, Western values- based thinking, it has made little progress in helping to solve societal problems.

The question therefore arises: Where is the Science in the Social Sciences?

Fundamental ideas, assumptions, and axioms about self and society upon which the Western social sciences are based, come into question: is the social sciences’ understanding of their axioms without flaw, and is there any intrinsic integrity to these axioms?

Within the Indian context, these axioms are under scrutiny. Investigations of secularism, society and decolonialisation are challenging received wisdom internalized by mainstream Indology academia. Among this, there is now an increasing body of methodically researched evidence that liberal secularism (6) is itself a Western invention, rooted in Christian theology and thus cannot be exported to define and shape other cultures.

This raises various lines of enquiry which demand attention:

• Critically assess the axioms of the Social Sciences and their connection with and even adoption of Christian theology. Why do scholars adopt them into their subjects even when they either reject or know nothing of religion?
• Scrutinise secularisation as a process: what is it if it is not just a de-Christianised Christianity? How do “Secular” Social Science and Christian theology reach the same conclusions about Indian society?
• Examine the extent to which Western societies have truly become free of religion and question claims that they are secular; assess the roles of religious institutions and their theology in the public “secular” spheres — how do church and state intersect in contemporary Western societies in matters of personal conduct, shaping social “norms”, and in education, law, and government?
• Contrast the findings about secularism in the West with how secularism is understood and practiced in India: Why do Indian intellectuals not see the dominance of Christian themes embedded in secularism? How is Indian secularism reconciled with legislated inequities in “rights” based on “religion” and incidences of skewed judicial interference?
• Investigate and critique the “truth claims” of colonial consciousness: How real are communal strife, caste system, bribery, corruption, dishonesty, laziness, and lower caste exploitation in India? On what empirical evidence and scientific theories are they tenable?
• Formulate theories on secularism and colonial consciousness: How does “hybrid” Indian secularism impact upon Indian society in the way it perceives itself? What challenges does it pose in the path of decolonisation?

Given the influence of secularism on so much of the discourse and representation of non-Western societies, a deeper examination of it, which goes beyond the work of De Roover is thus integral to the broader challenge of decolonising the Social Sciences.

Colonialism and Language

Colonisation, as stated earlier, goes beyond the physical; it subjugates and colonises the mind, and it uses language to capture the thought process.

Words retain their meanings only when the ideas and theories that make sense of them exist and are experienced. Unless precise, exact and the same meanings are carried in context, as they are in the Natural Sciences with words like gene, atom, and quark, words end up being misused, which adversely impacts communicability and research, and impedes the formation of coherent theories.

When the British arrived, Indians had lost much of the essence and original, experiential meanings of many of their words such as rasa, gyana, bhavana, manas, punya. Today, even though these words remain, Indian intellectuals, not fully understanding their meanings, map them into English which lacks both vocabulary and theory to make sense of the Indian experience. Additionally, these intellectuals are not Westernised and do not always understand the meanings of English words either. Then, presupposing the West’s civilizational supremacy, they mimic the West’s narrative of India and fail to produce original contributions or intellectually interesting reflections on political or cultural theory, much less able to provide any input for a vision of cultural regeneration.

In developing this critical theme, SNB discusses several words which expose the depths to which colonial consciousness is embedded in language. The original Protestant meaning of the word “Reformation” signifies reverting to fundamentals and purity of scripture and removing man-made Catholic rituals. In colonial narratives of Hindu practices its use is inverted; an inversion that is faithfully copied by Indian intellectuals, taking it to mean a “civilizing” mission where reform seeks to delete things in the original Hindu scriptures and replace them with man-made things. This double whammy of a colonial consciousness, combining inability to access and experience one’s own culture with ignorance of the other, constitutes a valuable subject for research in cultural psychology.

To further illustrate this point, SNB discusses other words, also drawn from Semitic theology, but which are also germane to the study of non-Western cultures by the Social Sciences.

Taking polytheism as an example, SNB brilliantly exposes the inadequacy of much that passes for scholarly translation. By deductive and inductive steps, he logically shows how polytheism is only possible if and only if polytheism is impossible. And yet, polytheism, like idol, both terms in Semitic theology, are applied by Indologists as descriptors of Hindu practices. In the case of “idol”, matters are dire: it proliferates English medium Indian mass media, and English educated Hindus have internalised it to such an extent that this mistranslation for vigraha or murthi is how Indians routinely describe their Deities, little appreciating its deeply offensive meaning in Semitic theology.

It is reasonable to also question the validity of European words specifically coined by the Social Sciences to describe perceived phenomena about India. What is “caste”? (7). What exactly is Brahminism, and would any native Indian, living and experiencing the traditions of their ancestors recognise it or supposed meanings ascribed to it?

Without firm, decolonised foundations of language, it is impossible to study Indian culture, its traditions, its meanings, and the sense of self. This calls for specialists to study and develop this vital discipline to accurately explain words and give meaning to intuitive Indic concepts about which scientifically based theories can be formulated.

What Exists in India? Is it Hinduism?

Science seeks to identify phenomena, the relationships between them, and then knit together a theory of how they might belong together. Therefore, to the question, what exists in India, several follow up questions arise: is there a phenomenon called Hinduism, is it a religion, does it exist in India as described in the Indology literature, and does it share any phenomena with Christianity? Further, does it exist outside the colonial experiences of India and how do its practices and beliefs deem to qualify it as a religion?

These questions are fundamental to understanding Indian culture and therefore augment the section on culture above. Offering prompts as stimuli for this strand of research, SNB wittily yet incisively dismantles typical claims for the existence of Hinduism as a religion. His penetrating arguments unpack a long internalised “Hinduism” which has no existence outside the colonial experience of India and provides pointers which demand further investigation to build a robust scientific theory.

Among the arguments SNB offers, here are some essential ones:

• Just because Hinduism is believed to exist does not make it so, since scientifically, belief is weak evidence for existence claims, and nor is existence of a phenomenon dependent on belief in its existence. Use of words as descriptors of phenomena does not constitute proof of their existence: presence of description is not evidence of presence, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and nor is the absence of description evidence of absence.
• There is no proof that Hinduism is a man-made phenomenon, nor any proof that Semitic religions are God-made, and if the latter are what religions are, namely God-made, then Hinduism, even if it existed could not be a religion. It is illogical to use Semitic theology as evidence of the existence of Hinduism as a “false” religion as it would suggest that Semitic religions have a right to define Hinduism. Even if Indians use the word Hinduism, who is then to define a minimal list of what “Hinduism” is, and what formal agreement is there of such a list? How does this list make “Hinduism” into a unified phenomenon? How can items in such a list, many of whose very existence as phenomena are themselves contested, be associated with, and used to define Hinduism, a phenomenon, which is claimed to exist?
• Hinduism unifies Indian culture and Hindu people together and Hindutva would not exist but for Hinduism. What does the word “Hindu,” used by and about Indians, designate? Is it a people, a place or something else? How does the word Hindu bring into existence a religion called Hinduism? These assertions are fallacies of petitio principii – they presuppose that Hinduism exists to prove it exists. In any case, Hindu-ness, which is what Hindutva means, is not evidence for a religion called Hinduism, nor belonging to it.

Freed from the prism of Western scholarship to establish answers to “What exists in India?” the researcher will find that in place of religion, there are Indian culture and traditions.

Elaborating on this, SNB re-states the definition of ‘traditions’ to help respond to this question afresh: Traditions get transmitted as well-integrated wholes. Unlike religions, no arbitrating authorities determine what practices belong to a tradition or get transmitted. Traditions may be followed by individuals or groups; they are dynamic and flexible, adaptable, and changing; they are not antithetical to modernity; they get modified in transmission so they cannot be “anti-progressive”. Traditions are multifarious, they are many but one, and while each is distinct, “belonging” is not a black or white thing: it has gradations, and anyone not born into it can be inducted so there is no Hindu analogue of “religious conversion”.

Only by establishing what exists in India is it possible to investigate how the various aspects found relate to each other. Only then can there be congruence between scientific observation and the reality of how Indians see themselves in the cultural sense, freed from a straitjacket which fits Hindu practices into a religion through manufactured doctrines, theologies, and moral injunctions. Only by such means will it be possible to understand what exactly Indians do when they think about themselves.

Understanding Western Culture

Concurrent with a study of what exists in India, is the need to objectively understand Western culture. Neither the Western lenses of humanitarianism, religion, socialism, nationalism, nor post-colonial discourse and identity politics have helped Indians to understand their own society and its problems much less point to possible solutions.

Indians must recognise that they must understand Western culture as it appears from the context of their own, Indian culture without recourse to Western theories. Study the West and its society, investigate this objectively by scientific means. Examine “normative assumptions” from an Indian perspective. So, for instance, explore Western concepts such as religion, truth, heresy, morality, discrimination, rights, choice, and contrast them with Indic ideas about tradition, knowledge, polemic:

• Semitic religions are “religions” — defined in the sense that they are true and believed to be true by their followers. So, what is the distinction between “religion” and “tradition”? How does “religion” look when viewed from the vantage point of Indian culture?
• In Hindu tradition, Advaita and Dwaita are fundamentally different, yet Madhva and Shankara do not call each other heretic or “false”. There is fierce debate, they call each other wrong, but without accusations of spreading falsehood. So, how do concepts like heresy and truth look when viewed from the vantage of Indian traditions?
• Hindus do not ascribe sole custodianship of truth: the Gita, Buddha’s dialogues, the Upanishads, and other teachings which all arise from the same roots, are interpreted in a multitude of ways. Individuals and sampradayas freely follow their individual traditions, considering their own to be right, knowing full well that others follow their own traditions, but unlike Semitic religions, polemics remain persistent and robust without enmity. Why?
• Discrimination, rights, choice, and morality are dominant concepts in the West. Why should renunciate Swaminarayan Hindu sadhus not making themselves accessible to everyone be considered discriminatory? Why should traditions such as at Sabarimala where devotees, among whom count women, follow the practice of women of childbearing age abstain from entry into their celibate Deity’s sanctum become a matter of “rights” to those outside the tradition? Where does “choice” fit in this, and who decides? Are similar “normative assumptions” made about discrimination, rights, and choice as to who gets treated in an American hospital or the genders permitted to join a convent?
• Even if those who carry out traditional practices were wrong, they cannot be called “not right” or morally wrong. Morality is a theological concept; an act can only be morally wrong if there are moral assumptions made in the argument against it. In any case, what about the “rights” and “choice” of these people? Don’t they matter?

The Challenges Ahead

SNB argues that hitherto, in the discourse on “What it means to be Indian,” received Western “wisdom” still drives Indology. It is time to redefine the terms of the debate and set an agenda to decolonise the social sciences and inject science into them.

To do this, SNB advocates scientific scrutiny to advance an integrated understanding of the various components: Indian culture, colonial consciousness, colonisation of language, what really exists in India, and Western culture and theology, upon which theories can be based.

Despite colonial damage inflicted upon Indian society over centuries, there is hope: Indian culture is still alive and accessible, with much in the toolkit: languages, literary sources, and the lived experience of millions. Clues transmitted over generations persist within the fabric of society. These artefacts combined with Indian intellect can be used to reflect, experiment and work things out. Indian culture is notable for producing knowledge through systematic reflection and human practice providing multiple avenues for learning and exploring diverse perspectives while deploying various intellectual skills.

This is a scientific quest, not an attack on any culture; indeed, it is vital that cultures are defended; for who is to say that the idea of sole, creator God is wrong, if a culture thinks so? Equally, one should not justify one’s own traditions in the language of others, for e.g., made-up symbolism of Shiva puja and conflating puja with worship only lead to confusion.

It is vital that Indians rediscover and understand their own culture and way of living as it was before the two colonialisms and how it has been shaped by them. They need to understand the practices and the associated words, which in turn can only make sense if there are established or even intuitive theories and models for this body of knowledge.

This is not about restitutions, reparations, or recriminations, nor is it about reverting to a fictional glorious past, but about changing the way Indians think of themselves and re-establish the connection to their own traditions and how they mould, change, and transform them so they become a way of learning and teaching to reflect on human experience. Think, speak, and develop the first systematic “sciences of the social” – which teaches to reflect on experiences, learning from them and then teaching them to support accumulation and transmission of knowledge of how to exist in the world.

Resuscitate words in Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil, but do not stop there. Reflecting on the Indian cultural experience must be focused and constant, it must create new terms as they are needed that help to explore the past, understand the present, and imagine and create a future.

Reimagine Indian knowledge creators of the past and repurpose the accumulated wealth of knowledge, by not letting what Buddha, Shankara, or Ramanuja, taught be restricted to “philosophy” or “spirituality”, but as theories that help Indians to understand themselves well enough to define themselves cognitively and logically, their culture, how they organise their way of living.

So: What Would it then Mean to be Indian?

The words of Hrundi V Bakshi, with Peter Sellers playing a browed-up Indian in a 1960s Hollywood movie (8), might then ring true.

For, when asked by CS Divot, a pushy producer, “Who do you think you are?” Bakshi, an otherwise pathetic Indian caricature, not unlike what exists in much of Indology literature, replied with probably the wisest words spoken by an Indian character on celluloid:

“In India, we don’t (just) think (about) who we are. We know who we are”.


1. Edited by Jakob De Roover and Sarika Rao, the forthcoming book, “Cultures Differ Differently – Selected Essays of S.N. Balagangadhara,” Routledge (2022) which offers a spectrum of Prof. Balagangadhara’s contribution to developing an alternative theoretical framework for a comparative study of Western and Asian cultures. This more work is an excellent academic companion to the book under review in this article.

2. Rajat Kanta Ray in, “The Felt Community: Commonality and Mentality Before the Emergence of Indian Nationalism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), gets to the deep-rooted links between emotion, mental outlook and culture; how they connect past and present; saying, “The prehistory of every national movement lies in emotions, identities, and notions. These constitute the mentality and culture of the body of people who are or have been seized by the idea of becoming a sovereign national state. That idea may be new, but the mentality and emotions are rooted in the past.”

3. See Jakob De Roover and Sarika Rao, the forthcoming book, “Cultures Differ Differently – Selected Essays of S.N. Balagangadhara,” Routledge (2022)

4. J Sai Deepak’s “India that is Bharat,” (Bloomsbury, 2021) is a path-breaking work, pointing the decolonisation lens directly upon India, that is Bharat. Taking a ‘learner’s approach,’ the author offers penetrating insights that are sure to be part of meaningful progress towards decolonisation that goes beyond mere reparations and recriminations.

5. Western Foundations of the Caste System,” edited by Martin Fárek, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan, and Prakash Shah, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) is one of the few works that systematically challenges and refutes centuries-old narratives of Indian history, culture and society that are bereft of rationality or evidence-based scientific enquiry. This work begins to address specific questions on “caste” and therefore falls into a broad umbrella of areas of research that the present book under review is proposing.

6. Jakob De Roover, in “Europe, India and the limits of secularism (Oxford, 2015) in a wide-ranging study of the subject, examines among other things, whether the Enlightenment really did succeed in emancipating the European mind from its religious moorings or whether secularism merely adopted the theological toleration of the “other”.

7. As the title suggests, “Western Foundations of the Caste System,” edited by Martin Fárek, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan, and Prakash Shah, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) firmly locates the origins of ‘caste’ and the imposition of its Western constructed definitions upon Indian society.

8. Blake Edwards wrote, directed, and produced “The Party,” (1968) starring Peter Sellers. The film is a series of set pieces that display Sellers’s comedy talents, in which he plays Bakshi, a bumbling Indian actor. Fired after he ruins a Hollywood filmset during a shoot, he somehow ends up getting invited to a grand party. Once there, mixed with buffoonery, he offers fleeting glimpses of native wisdom including the quote. Though his antics cause chaos, he still walks away with the girl while all around him have gone utterly mad.

Jay Jina

Jay Jina is a UK-based third generation NRI. After a business career, most recently as a European IT Director with a multinational, Jay is now an independent consultant and a part time university academic in Technology Management, Business and Mathematics. Jay's interests span history, current affairs, the Indian Diaspora and the history and politics of Science.