Being Different-Book Reviews

Reviewer: Shrinivas Tilak, PhD, history of religions, an independent researcher based in Montreal

In Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism Rajiv Malhotra has set for himself the challenging task of contesting the self-serving universalism that is readily apparent in the ‘grand narrative’ (whether secular or religious) produced by the West in which, argues Malhotra, the West saw itself as the agent or driver of the world’s historical unfolding and set the template for all nations and peoples of the world. Indeed, European colonial expansion to Africa, Asia, and Latin America was rationalized as an expression of divine plan and will that first became apparent (manifest) and inexorable (destiny) in Britain and the rest of Europe in the sixteenth century reaching the United States by the nineteenth century.

Universalism: Western and Christian.

The leitmotif of Western universalism was crystallized in the British patriotic song “Rule, Britannia!” which provided a lasting expression of the colonialist conception of Britain and the British Empire that emerged in the eighteenth century. The phrase “The sun never set on the British Empire,” underscored the height of British Imperialism, when Britain had so many colonies under its control that no matter what time it was, somewhere in the Empire the sun was up. The ‘will to power’ and the ‘urge to dominate the world’ received a philosophical grounding in the hands of what I would call the “Gang of 4 Hs” (i.e. four philosophers of German extraction whose last names begin with the letter H: Georg F. W. Hegel, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Paul Hacker).

The hermeneutics of identity (subsuming the world within the orbit of the West and Christianity) that they proposed and practiced relegated Indian and other philosophies, cultures, and religions to some primitive forms that (as Hegel put it) must evolve toward the telos of One (read Western and Christian) philosophy, culture, and religion. European military conquests of Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the subsequent spin-off of socio-cultural and economic domination of the world led to what Husserl called ‘Europeanization of the Earth,’ i.e. ‘Westernization’ of the Earth since the West was construed as the universalistic claim of Europe (Mohanty 1997: 168).

It is to Malhotra’s credit that he has exposed with consummate skill how and why the ‘will to power and to dominate the world’ is inseparable from and inherent in the very nature of European representational, calculating thought. Not surprisingly, Jacques Derrida adamantly and brazenly declared that only Christianity could produce a concept of universality that has been successfully elaborated into the form which today dominates both philosophy and law globally. Only Britain and the USA have had the potential and power to sustain the “World Order” to assure relative and precarious stability globally. When Derrida makes an allowance for the plurality of religions as ‘world religions’ or ‘religions of the world,’ it is only on the basis of the universalizing and “unifying horizon of paternal-fraternal sameness of religions implicit in Christianity (Derrida 2001: 74).

Being Different persuasively argues that contrary to what Western Christian universalists would want us believe, the Western model of modernity, characterized by the development of rationality and an atomistic individualism, is not the sole way of relating to the world and others. It might have gained currency in the West, but Malhotra is at pains to remind us that even in the West this is far from being the only form of sociality. The West should exist only as part of a multipolar world in equable relation to other political, cultural, and social entities such as exist, for instance, in the model grounded in dharma. Malhotra accordingly makes a fervent plea for instituting equilibrium among regional poles where the differing social, cultural, and religious models for promoting development, democracy, and modernity would be welcome.

Indology: hegemony and asymmetry

India’s military conquest by the British led to the emergence of the discipline of Indology wherein Indian society and culture were (and are today) studied using Western epistemology and social sciences rather than the traditional Indian cognitive categories. This is a sure sign of the socio-cultural hegemony of the West, of what Husserl called the ‘Europeanization of the Earth.’ Indology is also cast in asymmetry—for the West is not studied, expounded, and criticized from the point of view of Indian thought.

Though many recognized the asymmetry of the encounter between the West and India and its outcome (deep cognitive dissonance between lived experience of the Indians and the theorizing about it), only a few academics have had the will to explore the actual feasibility of balancing the terms of the encounter and perhaps reverse the asymmetry of the dialogue. There were some feeble and half-hearted attempts in that direction (India through Hindu categories edited by McKim Marriott, 1989 for instance) but nothing much came out of them. Then, Professor Daya Krishna set up a series of meetings between the pundits and the Western trained Indologists on behalf of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research with a similar objective in mind (Krishna et al 1991). The outcome, however, was not very promising because the set up of the meetings was somewhat artificial and remained embedded in a Westernized context in the absence of prior experience of reaching out for Europe or the West, at least in the recent centuries. Historically, Indians simply have not been prepared for encounters of this type.

Commenting on Daya Krishna’s initiative, Wilhelm Halbfass observed that such experiments ought to be encouraged but any significant hermeneutical reversal cannot be expected from them. “For the time being,” he went on to say, “…there seems to be little choice but to continue the (admittedly asymmetrical) dialogue…” (Halbfass 1990: 229). In support, he cited the caution expressed by J. L. Mehta, the noted Indian philosopher, “…there is no other way open to us, in the East, but to go along with this Europeanization and to go through it…”(Wilhelm Halbfass 1990: 442). More recently, Dipesh Chakrabarty set out in search of a different, non-Western modernity but which ended in a ‘politics of despair’ after his realization that such a task was “impossible within the knowledge protocols of academic history, for the globality of academia is not independent of the globality that the European modern has created” (Chakrabarty 2000).

Malhotra regrets that the Indian academia and intelligentsia continue to accept and tolerate this asymmetry and hegemony as a historical contingency over which Indians did not (and as yet do not) hold any sway. Being Different courageously lays out a specific plan to get out of the Western orbit of knowledge protocols which, in the name of the universality of modernity and science, has trapped India (and the non-West in general) inside the cages of Oriental mysticism and the Asiatic mode of production.
Being Different also uncovers and explores major differences between India and the West that exist because of their markedly distinct philosophies and cosmologies. In this well documented, historical, and interpretive study, Malhotra employs the traditional hermeneutical strategy of purva paksha to examine the West from the Indic and dharmic civilizational points of view challenging many hitherto unexamined beliefs that each side holds about the other: the ‘One’ and many and how the two are related, God/s and creation, time and history, mind and world, identity in relation to difference, reality, and phenomenality. In the process he draws attention to the centrality of the fundamental question of metaphysics to all of them: difference.
Chaos and order.

I found particularly informative and instructive Malhotra’s discussion of the role that the notion of chaos plays in the Indic and dharmic world whereas the West absolutely abhors chaos. Hegel, for instance manifested a deep-rooted fear of chaos and uncertainty, privileging instead order in Western aesthetics, ethics, religions, society, and politics. He therefore sought to bring the chaotic diversity of (newly discovered) Oriental cultures, religions, and societies into manageable order by classifying them into ‘pantheism,’ ‘monotheism,’ and ‘polytheism’ as ‘world historical categories’ to provide an intuitive (!) comprehension of the meaning value of each culture. He next came up with a detailed scheme to bring different cultures into a system of equivalences in which relative meaning can be assigned to each culture. Hegel thereby fleshed out the contours of the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest,’ providing conceptual tools for epistemic subjugation of the rest of the world in the name of law and order. The dharmic worldview, on the other hand, has always seen chaos as a creative catalyst built into the cosmos to balance out order that could become stultifying, and hence it adopts a more relaxed attitude towards chaos.

In sum, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism is a meticulously documented piece of work providing an original, constructive, and insightful interpretation of why the West and the rest of the world must recognize and respect the distinct identity of India and its civilization.


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. “Above All, No Journalists!” In Religion and Media edited by Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Halbfass, Wilhelm. 1990. India and Europe: an essay in understanding. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass.
Krishna, Daya et al, eds. 1991. Samvada. Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, in association with Motilal Banarasidass.

Marriott, McKim, ed. 1989. India through Hindu Categories. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Mohanty, Jitendra Nath. 1997. “Between Indology and Indian Philosophy.” In Beyond Orientalism: The Work of Wilhelm Halbfass and its Impact on Indian and Cross-Cultural Studies edited by Eli Franco and Karin Preisendanz, 163-170, Amsterdam-Atlanta,GA: Rodopi.

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