Response to Robert Yelle
India is an amazingly fertile crucible, being the birthplace of the largest number of modern faiths outside the Abrahamic religions. This makes India as important as the Middle East in the study of humankind. And India is no simple place to understand. Just as the Abrahamic religions have immense differences among them, and at the same they share deep rooted common assumptions and historical links, so also the faiths born in India (which I refer to as the dharma traditions) have commonalities as well as differences among them. My project is to look for axiomatic contrasts between the Western and Indian families, keeping in mind that each of these families is vast, old, robust, internally diverse, and philosophically profound. The notion of family is like a statistical cluster of distinct members. Each cluster has enough meaningful commonalities within that separate it from other clusters for the purpose of the given analysis being made.
Robert Yelle is clearly disturbed by Being Different. Ignoring his more polemical reactions let me focus on the following substantive points: 1) my own understanding of the kind of purva paksha needed now, which must be challenging and forceful in order to offer a corrective to what has passed for inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue hitherto; 2) my insistence that his appeals to a “common humanity” as a substrate for this dialogue are all too reminiscent of Western Universalism; 3) my defense against the claim that I am essentializing both the West and the East; 4) Yelle’s evasion of point about history-centrism; and 5) his characterization of my insistence on Sanskrit non-translatables as linguistic chauvinism,
Reversing the Gaze as Corrective
As I have said in BD, and as Yelle has acknowledged, given the preponderance of Western discourse on such comparisons and the relative marginalization of the dharmic perspectives, there is need for an extensive critique of Western religions explicitly through the dharma lens. Where we differ is in how this reversal ought to be pursued. In my view, this gaze should not pretend to be neutral or based on some putative “shared humanity” but come specifically from a stance that is positive with respect to dharma. The dharma based ground often used in such comparisons tends to be its worst flaws and not its best assets. By this I mean that such comparative studies tend to focus on caste and other abuses (which no doubt need to be studied separately as their own topics), in contrast with Western “rationality”, “progress” and the like. Some of these comparisons are valid, but they are not to the point here. My work is deliberately challenging because it is intended to operative as a corrective and a provocation. While as a teacher in class Yelle must give both civilizations a fair shot from whatever neutral posture he is capable of, BD has a different purpose. It seeks to change the discourse, not merely teach the current state of play in the discourse. It opens the door for more scholarship by more scholars, in which the followers of dharma would be able to participate in forums in terms of their own worldviews. We need a mirror of mutual gazing on an equal ground as the starting point for further discussions.
He is right in saying that the Indian postcolonial genre of scholarship does gaze at the West. But it suffers from the fact that these Indian scholars have adopted Western theories and vocabularies, and that they often simply lack adequate knowledge of and sympathy with their own native siddhanta (theories) to use them as an alternative. Their criticisms of the West do not qualify as legitimate purva paksha through dharmic lenses, and should be seen as part of the Western tradition of self-critique, which I appreciate is quite extensive and useful, but is not a substitute for the kind of reversal of the gaze I advocate. Additionally, the West itself gains a great deal from being gazed at by an external lens – just as a psychologist’s external lens can provide the client with insights that his own shadow has kept hidden. Yelle’s visible anger at BD is akin to the “ouch” of a client who hears something from the psychologist that he simply cannot reconcile with his ego’s self-image. The dharma family of worldviews is arguably the most sophisticated one outside the West that could be used for this purpose of external critique. It is at least as valuable as the Islamic and Confucian.
The dialogue I seek is a process of challenge and response in which major civilizations perform purva paksha and uttara paksha with each other, in an atmosphere of equality, but without pulling their punches. I prefer this model to Yelle’s positing of a possible “a shared humanity” as a basis for dialogue.
So, in summary, my reasons for offering a dharma-specific gaze rather than another attempt at a neutral one are as follows:
Given the preponderance of Western discourse on such comparisons and the relative marginalization of the dharmic perspectives, there is need for an extensive critique of Western religions explicitly through the dharma lens. This gaze should not pretend to be neutral but come specifically from a dharmic stance.
The dharma based ground often used in such comparisons tends to be its worst flaws and not its best assets. By this I mean that such comparative studies tend to focus on caste and other abuses (which no doubt need to be studied separately as their own topics), in contrast with Western “rationality”, “progress” and the like. Some of these attributes are valid, but these do not provide the most effective foundation for my purpose explained here.
The benefits from this type of new discourse would also be to churn the creative minds seeking fresh paradigms today.
It is time for the native informant to talk back – in his own terms, no matter how deficient. Such talking back is imperative if we are to evolve towards a multipolar world system in which the present-day West is one of the provinces but not the center.
The Claim of scholarship based on “Shared Humanity”
Yelle appeals to a distant notion of objective scholarship and shared humanity in making his claim that BD is unfair to the west. But the aspiration toward the “neutral” gaze of the scholar is suspect because we are all pre-conditioned unconsciously, and in any case, BD is not engaged in that kind of enterprise. Despite the good intentions, such comparisons use Western hermeneutics and categories. Here and elsewhere, Yelle seems unconscious of his own reliance on these categories to the detriment of understanding what I am really trying to do.
To claim that his heavily conditioned Western gaze is capable of producing a neutral “shared humanity” is suspect, though probably well intended. We know of many similar claims by Westerners in the past: the conquistadors claimed a universal gaze given to them by God in viewing the Native Americans; whites claimed to be the keepers of “a shared humanity” in their theorizing of black slaves, genocided Native Americans and colonized Indians. The fascism that emerged from Hegel (and culminated in Hitler’s Auschwitz) resulted from his “universalism” for the best interest of the “World Spirit”. We have been there before!
Is BD guilty of essentialism of dharma?
When a dharmic lens is offered as a perspective on the current global situation, it seems one faces a massive outrage from parts of the academy that have assumed the role of mediator between dharma and the West. This outrage often takes the form of the charge of essentialism.
If the reader is convinced that there is merit in a dharma-specific gaze at the West, then it follows that we need a coherent place to stand and use for gazing. For, if dharma is a mere random smattering of incoherent exotica, there could be no such respectable place from where reversing the gaze might be feasible. In fact, my response to Larson makes the point that he avoids dealing with the coherence of dharma in a positive sense, and hence seeks to pre-empt the reverse gazing. (In BD, I give the same arguments against the postmodern deconstructions of the West that are in vogue, because they lack any coherent worldview as the source of gazing. This means that the alternative to decentering the West is a narcissistic vacuum. This is why the postmodernist project has all but collapsed.) We must search for coherence that is realistic and useful for the purpose of this project.
Other scholars have tried defining a dharma family, but they have done so in ways that would not serve such a purpose. In many approaches, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are kept separate from each other, so that there is no strong sense of family grounding shared among them. This division means that the comparison with Western religions can at best be made with Hinduism, and hence it falls short of using dharmic family resemblances as the ground for comparison. The “West” as a unified entity has been made very robust (in the popular imagination) over a long time, despite recent attempts by postcolonialists whose influence is limited only to the academic sphere. In other approaches, Hinduism itself is depicted as internally fragmented, divisive and oppressive, to such an extent that it lacks any coherent position. Hence the very ground from which one might offer a dharmic gaze is at best shaky and negative.
I would like to clarify that BD develops a coherence of dharma for the specific purpose of reversing the gaze only. The coherence is not meant to be used for any other purpose such as wanting the diversity to become homogenized.
Two different dharma systems can each have integral unity and yet have different metaphysics and even incompatible metaphysics. In my response to Gier I have given the analogy that various prophetic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) share the characteristic of reliance upon prophets without all the prophetic revelations being homogeneous. The prophetic-family thus shares the common family resemblance of prophets, and yet has immense diversity within the family. In the same manner, I regard integral unity as a shared family attribute of dharma, and Yelle misunderstands this to mean that all dharma systems are being treated as homogeneous. BD goes to great length to explain that different dharma systems disagree on many key points while each has its own separate and distinct kind of integrality.
Yelle is right when he says that, “Every tradition is in fact an amalgam and retains the traces of its composite origins.” But Yelle is simply wrong when he accuses me of essentializing the traditions. He argues against my use of common features such as integral unity and embodied knowing, calling these, “a thoroughly modern and homogenized ideal of Hinduism drawn from certain aspects of Vedanta philosophy and Yoga.”
His concern about homogenization would have been legitimate if BD had proposed an integration of dharma traditions into a single new tradition. This is simply not the case. Looking for commonality as a place to stand and gaze at a different family does not require us to relinquish the internal distinctiveness among family members. BD is against any form of homogenization.
A corollary to Yelle’s allegation of internal homogeneity is his charge that BD is artificially over-stating the differences between the two sides of the comparison. Yelle explains:
“One unstated goal of Malhotra’s project seems to be to identify the so-called Abrahamic traditions—the monotheistic traditions stemming from the Hebrew Bible—as both essentially similar to each other and essentially different from dharmic traditions. […] In hastening to highlight the differences between Western and dharmic traditions, Malhotra frequently exaggerates those differences and neglects the many points of commonality.”
Regarding the quotation above, it is not an “unstated goal of Malhotra’s project” but a very explicitly stated goal that I have. This goal is made necessary in order to achieve the overall purpose – namely, that only by maximizing the distance can we have such a mutual purva paksha and uttara paksha. I would also argue that the points of commonality have been frequently noted, very often on the basis of false analogies and misinterpretations, and that I am trying to offer a corrective to precisely this problem.
Does Yelle succeed in debunking BD’s theory of history centrism?
Yelle never comments on the substantive merits of my history centrism theory, and my claim that this is a major characteristic differentiating the Abrahamic and dharmic traditions. I can see his anxiety over this theory in the ways in which he tries to discredit a few of the examples I have used, even though none of these examples is central to the theory itself.
For instance, BD mentions how history centrism shaped the clash between Christian Zionism and Islam over the Dome of the Rock. Yelle writes that upon reading this, his “jaw literally dropped. It is not possible that Malhotra is unaware of the destruction of Babri Masjid by Hindutva radicals at Ayodhya in 1992.” My response is that I do regard the posture of certain Hindus towards Ayodhya as an attempt to turn dharma into a history- centrism version – the “Westernization” of Hinduism – and this serves to illustrate that my notion of history centrism has broader application.
That said the degree to which history centrism has prevailed upon Hinduism is far less than in the case of Abrahamic religions. Dharma’s central qualities have not been shaped by it, unlike the case of the Abrahamic religions, where God’s separation from humans makes the prophetic lineages the only means through which those religions have received their core texts. Canons are essentially history textbooks. Yelle misses a good opportunity to use history centrism and argue against those strains of Hinduism which seek to remake it in the image of western religions.
Another illustration of history centrism in BD is that the events in Eden have often caused the body to be seen as sinful, a view accepted by most respectable theologians and major churches. Yelle’s rejoinder is that I neglect “the parallel with profound traditions of asceticism and celibacy in Indian traditions.” But this misses the point: Indian celibacy/asceticism is not based on a singular history centric event equivalent to the Fall in Eden. Indeed, there are many similar features in both cultures, but not due to the same axiomatic causes. I am comparing the underlying axioms, not the surface phenomena.
Yelle takes exception to BD’s explanation of the importance given to bloodlines since the Old Testament, and he writes: “Within the Church itself, arguably the notion of ‘race’ did not emerge until the blood purity laws (limpieza de sangre) toward the end of the Reconquista; that is to say, they were part of an internal colonialism linked to a new, external colonialism.” But the issue here is not racial purity, which is indeed in the sense that Yelle uses it a modern construct, but of the passing along of the religious lineage along ethnic lines. I do not think any Old Testament scholar would disagree that this is a major preoccupation of the ancient Israelites, whether honored in the breach or the observance.
BD cites American research on the US government’s suspicion of India during the Cold War, because it saw India’s polytheism, paganism, millions of gods, and chaos in general as signs of its being an unreliable ally. By contrast, the US government sources cited in the declassified US documents regarded Pakistan as more certain about its idea of truth and thus more stable. ] Yelle misses the purport of this point when he writes: “[Malhotra] blames communalist ideologies and associated violence in the subcontinent on the ill effects of an exclusivist ideology imported from monotheistic traditions, and as alien to Indian pluralism.”
Regarding BD’s examination of the position given in Hinduism to what Westerners call “chaos,” Yelle finds it compelling that Victor Turner’s 1977 works on “structure versus anti-structure, liminality, and communitas” show the same to be true of the West. The Carnival in Roman Catholicism is cited as an example of similar postures concerning chaos. But this example is not biblical and is most likely the result of absorption (digestion) of pre-Christian paganism from Greece, Rome and elsewhere. In any case, BD’s extensive treatment given to the nature of “chaos” in Hindu narratives, cosmology and philosophy cannot be trivialized to Catholic pop culture.
Yelle’s arguments against the claim of non-translatability of certain mantras:
Yelle rejects BD’s approach to the question of Sanskrit non-translatables which emanates from the philosophy of mantras explained by classical Indian grammarians and philosophers. He calls it “a nativist ideology” that is “nothing more nor less than ethno-linguistic chauvinism”. Let me first say that at no time do I argue that Sanskrit is “superior” to other language, except in the precision of its terms for certain phenomena, a claim that could be made for many other languages in other domains. Furthermore, Yelle makes no attempt to refer to Indian classical theories of language, sound and grammar that I cite, relying entirely upon western philosophy to say that
“However, one of the key points that distinguishes Western traditions from many others, at least since John Locke, has been the insistence that language is arbitrary. This idea has now been firmly established, with very few exceptions, in modern linguistic science. To repeat claims for a natural (iconic) language now, as if the existence of such were simply a matter of wishing it to be so, is to fall into a kind of nativism or magical thinking.”
It is important to note his axiomatic belief in what he regards as modern linguistic “science” and the “Western traditions” since John Locke. This confident acceptance of received doctrine illustrates why my project has merit, for without the ability to step outside the Western system and reverse the gaze, such views as the above on the nature of language would remain unchallenged.
Yelle’s rejection of the Sanskrit’s own sophisticated theory of mantras does not take into account the theory of four levels of vac that is at the heat of much Kashmir Shaivism, Tantra and other dharma schools, a theory that can accommodate much of modern linguistics but as applied to a restricted domain. The scholarly literature on this is vast.
Furthermore, Yelle fails to appreciate that non-translatability resists reductionism and demands thick descriptions – and hence sustains diversity. Nor does he bother to tackle even one of the numerous examples explained in BD where common translations are shown to be misleading and reductionist. He simply takes positions based on ideological grounds.
Is my concept of embodied knowing undemocratic?
Yelle’s essentialism is evident when he writes that “the Protestant emphasis on universal access to a canon of scripture, is inseparable from democracy in the broadest sense. It establishes, at least in theory, a level playing field.” Surely, he knows of the rigid hierarchical systems of power and oppression erected by Protestantism and the exclusion from the level playing field of slaves, Native Americans and others by the founding fathers of such institutions.
Ironically, Yelle opposes my non-essentialist approach to caste, and would like to see it essentialized. All of a sudden his talk of heterogeneity of views and cultures seems to disappear. BD mentions that traditionally varna-dharma was diverse, contextual, flexible and flowing. He is troubled by my statement that “different communities within the same society were allowed to practice their own codes”, even though this is the exact opposite of homogeneity. Furthermore, Yelle needs to substantiate his position that caste was a matter of “external imposition” by giving evidence of any “external” institution that “imposed” it. To the best of my knowledge, there was never any central church-like institution or headquarters that would qualify for this claim.
Overall, Yelle is correct in observing that BD does not emphasize caste as a central theme. But caste is not a philosophical principle at the foundation of any dharma system. I have already explained that the purpose of the book leads to the criteria for selecting the attributes of relevance. Caste would divert attention away from gazing at the axioms of Western thought, as it would lead to a debate between the social stratification and oppression in each civilization, and the extent to which each system of bias is philosophically rooted as opposed to being the result of historical events. This is a separate topic by itself. It does not lead to comparisons of the philosophical axioms which BD wants to uncover.
New doors BD hopes to open
Many other scholars have done similar exercises in reversing the gaze but these have fallen short. McKim Marriott’s famous work on India through Hindu categories (which I cite in BD) did a good job, but it only looked at India, and not at the West, through these Hindu categories. To only look at oneself through one’s native categories is a good start, but in order to have one’s categories and theories become contenders in global discourse, this is too defensive and inadequate. One’s lens must also be able to offer novel insights as food for thought (be they “right” or “wrong” even if that could be ascertained), so that alternative modes of thinking get inspired to challenge the prevailing ones. A.K. Ramanujan, Marriott, Inden and many others in such endeavors should have proceeded even further (but did not) to use these Hindu categories for addressing the current world challenges.
For examples, scholars should be encouraged to use the dharma lens and address such question as the following:
Why have the many emerging scientific models in physics, biology and neuroscience that show notable and explicit influences from dharmic sources and teachers been reformulated for general consumption without reference to those sources? ” (Examples are the work of Rupert Sheldrake, Herb Benson, Jon-Kabat Zinn, Stephen LaBerge; etc. )
Are the dharma’s notions of panentheism (which are based on the ontologies and epistemologies of integral unity) useful in developing ideas of sustainability – of the environment, humankind, cultural diversity, etc.? (In my response to Gier, I have summarized how dharma sources shaped the works of major “Western pioneers” who are celebrated as the original thinkers of modern panentheism.) Ever since Vandana Shiva helped to bring Hindu environmental philosophies to the West in the 1960s, these inputs have helped launched many ecofeminism movements. But in the process, the new “Western pioneers” of ecofeminism replaced the dharmic sources in a process that BD calls the digestion of one civilization by another.
Is the history centrism that is central to prophetic religions a cause for violence? (That there is indeed violence in other faiths also, including the dharmic ones, is irrelevant to gaining this valuable insight.) In fact, the large-scale appropriation of dharma by Ken Wilber and the further use of his formulations into what is being called “Integral Christianity” is precisely a movement that seeks to dilute the intensity of history centrism in Christianity, at least overtly. Wilber’s early works definitely started out by borrowing a dharmic worldview to critique the West: so why is it considered a problem when an Indian wants to do the same? The only difference is that I do not want to hide the dharma sources in my gazing, whereas Wilber eventually reformulated the dharmic gaze as his own original philosophy.
Such examples are elaborated in my subsequent books on the U-Turn which is the syndrome where Westerners start with the explicitly dharmic gaze (precisely the gaze that upsets Yelle when I adopt it) in order to appropriate from dharma, and then discard this gaze once they have managed to map these ideas on to recognizable Western though and Western history, be they Judeo-Christian templates (as in Christian Yoga) or secular ones (as in neuroscience, healing paradigms, sustainability and other domains). Were we to retain the dharmic sources (including the texts, categories and embodied practices), what further insights might we attain beyond what these “Western pioneers” have been able to harvest? The appropriation from dharma is far from complete, and my project is to excavate the buried sources so that all of humanity can explore them further.
More posts by this author:
- Prominent Academics and Dialogue on Being Different
- Being Different-Book Positioning
- The Clash over Coherence: Rajiv’s Response to Larson
- Rajiv’s Response to Gier
- Gita on Fighting Terrorism-Rajiv Malhotra