The present Indian academic self-understanding of its history and culture is largely Western in origin. This Western intellectual enterprise, however, went hand in hand with a Western political enterprise, i.e. the colonization of Indian. This raises the question: To what extent did West’s cultural presuppositions influence its understanding of Indian civilization?
The central epistemological issue which these question raise is the following: What significance does the fact that the self-understanding of a culture is mediated by that of another culture, over which it was culturally and politically dominant, possess for the votaries of the culture been mediated in this fashion?
This question is not merely of historical but also of contemporary interest, for in an increasingly globalizing world, in which power is unevenly distributed at various levels, the self-understanding of all cultures is likely to be influenced by how they are being presented by other cultures. Furthermore, in such a world, shifting political alliances may generate new intellectual configurations, whose legitimacy may require constant examination. The similar issues.
Arvind Sharma, formerly of the ISA, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University Religion, Canada. He has also taught in Australia and the USA, has published extensively in the fields of Hinduism and Comparative Religion, and is currently engaged in promoting the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions. His recent books include Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) and A Source Book of Classical Hindu Thought (New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2012).
There is a striking fact about the present self-understanding of the Indian regarding their history and culture, which they only discover in due course. It is the fact that the self-understanding, to the extent that it relies on the reconstruction of India’s history and culture over the past few centuries, is largely the work of foreigners and not Indians. This historical fact is echoed rhetorically in the statement attributed to V.S. Naipaul, that India is the only country in the world whose history has been written by foreigners.
There is another fact, which goes hand in hand in with this one: that such reconstruction of India’s history and culture was being colonized, or was a colony of Great Britain.
The papers in this book address this issue and were delivered at a conference which met from 8-10 October 2010. This conference, whose proceedings constitute the book, was organized under the auspices of the Uberoi Foundation, Denver, Colorado USA, for which the edition and the contribution remain grateful.
Some of the actions taken by the new Government of India, after it came to power in 2014, have rendered this book even more relevant. We hope will be welcomed by those interested in those matters.
Central to the present work is the realization that India’s past, as we know it today, was reconstructed by Western Indology. This fact is freely accepted by both Western and Indian scholars. One Indian scholar, the historian K.M. Panikkar, offers the following glowing tribute to Westrn Indologists while recognizing this fact:
All this reconstruction of India’s past and the translation and popularization of great Indian philosophical and religious classical was the work almost exclusively of European scholars: English, German, French, Swedish, Russian, in fact scholars from every part of Europe. It was only in the last decades of the nineteenth century that Indian scholarship began to participate effectively in this work. The foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal by Sir William Jones, poet, scholar and judge, the decipherment of the Asokan inscription, opening up the vista of ancient history from records preserved in stone, metals, and coins, the discovery of Ankor Vat in the overgrown jungles of Cambodia, the exploration of Central Asian caves by Stein, Pelliot and others, and others, and finally the excavation at Mohenjodaro – these are but the most sensational events of a truly thrilling story of the rediscovery of a lost intellectual world through the disinterested work of foreign scholars. Nor should one forget to mention the massive achievements of men in the different Universities of Europe and later of America – Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Heidelberg, Leyden, Harvard – who through love of learning translated, interpreted and published the vast literature which lay buried in Sanskrit and Pali, thereby opening up not only to the West but to the new middle class in India itself an immense and almost unknown realm of religious thought and artistic achievement.
He then goes on to point out this historical debt may possess a political component as well:
The question may legitimately be asked whether there would have been an Indian nationalism if this recovery of India’s past and the consequent creation of an Indian national image had not been achieved through the work of European scholars. The answer to this question is clear. There would undoubtedly have developed national movements in India, but not on the basis of only two nations dominantly Hindu and Muslim but of many regional states, the Marathas, the Andhras, the Bengalis and others. Without a Hindu ideology, picturing the Hindu people as one, which Western scholarship and historiography enabled Hindus to create and develop, the alternative would have been the growth of regional nationalism based on recent and still remembered histories. India in fact would have been balkanized into numerous States each cherishing a nationalism of its own and not recognizing the common nationhood.
The fact, that reconstruction of India’s was basically the work of Western Indologists, is of crucial significance for the contemporary Indian. The contemporary global reality is marked by the presence of difference civilization in different parts of the globe, as exemplified by the Japanese and Chinese civilizations in the East, the Islamic in the Middle-East and elsewhere, the Western in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and so on. The Indic civilization belongs to this club as well.
One salient fact, however, distinguishes the Indic civilization from these. The present self-understanding of each of these major civilizations is based, by and large, on the work of scholars who belonged to these civilization possesses today is largely the work, not of its own scholars but the result of the work of Western scholars. This fact sets Indic civilization apart from other civilizations.
If the self-understanding of one civilization is thus mediated through another civilization, then the question naturally arises: to what extent does the work of the scholars belonging to another civilization correctly reflect the assumption of the civilization they are writing about? For instance, non-Muslims writing about Islam may not accept the Qur’an as the word of God, which is a foundational Islamic belief. To the extent they do not do so, their presentation of the civilization, of which it is a central text, will reflect their own views about Islamic civilization, rather than the civilization’s own view about itself. If, therefore future members of Islamic civilization relied on the work of non-Muslims for their own understanding of Islamic civilization, their self-understanding of their own civilization will have deviated from what it would have been had it not been mediated in this manner.
So a unique question now arises in the case of Indic civilization – in a way it does not arise, to that extent, in the context of other civilizations: to what extent has its foundational self-understanding been affected by the intellectual interventional self-understanding been affected by the intellectual intervention of another civilization? If Indic civilization wants to form a concept of its true identity, there is no escaping this question.
The purpose of this book is to carry out such an exercise and to determine where and when the Western presentation of Indic civilization does not seem to conform to the civilization’s own understanding of itself, based on its own sources and resources. There is no assumption here that Western scholarship in general necessarily misrepresents Indic civilization; there is the assumption, however, that this could have happened in some and even many cases. If it has, then the purpose of the book is to identify where this has happened and to try to figure out why it might have happened. For it is only at the end of such an exercise that the members of Indic civilization can place due confidence in the scholarly representation of their identity.
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