Postmodernism and India


There are at least three ways of discussing modernity and postmodernism in the present Indian context.  The first involves a lamentation, the second a symptomatic reading, and the third a more conventional scholarly rendering.  I propose to dabble a bit in all three. 

        1:  The Lamentation

         Postmodernism is passe.  The best and simplest proof of its obsolescence is the fact that we are still talking about it. Whatever is current here has to be obsolete over there:  that is the simple logic of postcolonial intellectual production.  This is not to say that it will not persist in discussions in India for quite some time; even recycled ideas have a longer innings on our intellectual playgrounds. Similarly, postmodernism will have a good market in India's cultural Sunday bazaar, especially in what might be termed the vernacular circles.  Of course, I needn't add that whatever language we speak in will automatically become a vernacular--a language of slaves. 

        2:  The Symptomatic Reading

         What I have tried to suggest through this unflattering and summary account of postmodernism in India is a certain opacity, a conspicuous blindness in the manner in which discussions on such topics are conducted here.  Such topics, which invariably come to us from overseas, ought not to be accepted at face value, but to be read symptomatically.  The malaise that they seek to hide is simple and familiar enough:  it is our incapacity to address our own problems independently of the West.

        The second way of dealing with the situation would be to take our intellectual subservience for granted, even to exploit it. Thus, we may assume that when we discuss romanticism, modernism, Marxism, or postmodernism, we are actually talking about something else.  And what is more, we all know this.  So instead of crying over our inability to raise our own questions, we should immediately raise them, whatever be the pretext. This formidable topos, the ground for all our debates and contestations, is simply the condition of India.  To understand the condition of India, to come to terms with it, however, instantateously commits us to our own version of what I would call "Project India." Project India, then, is at once an understanding of the Indian condition and a programme for its transformation.  I shall revert to this towards the end of my paper. 

        3:  The Academic Rendering

         The third approach to such a topic is conventional and academic rather than radical or political.  It involves what scholars and researchers are expected to do. This is to attempt to rethink postmodernism from an Indian perspective. An ambitious Indo-centric approach would try to provide a new account of our intellectual history, explaining in what way we differ from the West in our own process of modernization.  I shall attempt, very briefly, such pointing so as to suggest an alternative method of self-apprehension and thereby to examine how we must deal with postmodernism given the imperatives of our recent history.

        To put my case rather bluntly, I would say that India has tried to modernize itself without fully accepting modernity. Modernity, as I see it, is a particular system fabricated in Europe in the 18th century, but whose origins can be traced back further.  Modernity arose simultaneously with modern science and technology, and with imperialism.  It was fueled by the Enlightenment, which among other things, succeeded in dethroning God and the Church from their hegemonic sway over the European mind.  In place of God, instrumental, secular, scientific rationality became its watchword and mantra.  Thus, modernity became a system of material, moral, and social arrangement which allows maximum exploitation of both nature and Other, non-European people. It seems to me that India has tried to enter into what we might chronologically term the modern period without totally acquiescing to the world view embodied by European modernity.

        At that "first," even "originary" moment of contact between "modern" India and Europe, Rammohun Roy, in his address to Lord Amherst, pleaded for "a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction, embracing mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry and anatomy, with other useful sciences," ( Tradition Modernity & Svaraj 98).  But in the process, Rammohun also denigrated "Byakjurun," "Vedant," "Meemangsa," and "Nyaya Shastra."  Whether such self-ridicule was tactical or serious is not clear.  To all appearances, Indians wished to welcome modernity, even as they wished not to give up their traditions entirely.  The earliest case of this attempted synthesis is Rammohun himself, with his Brahmo Samaj, a sort of modernized version of Vedanta.

        Yet, when Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote his Minute of 2 February 1835 in favour of English education, he made ample use of Rammohun's address to Lord Amherst:  "I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves.  I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia" (ibid 101).  In places, his text echoes the very words of Rammohun, as when he cites the procedures laid down for expiating the sin of killing a goat (106), as an example of the uselessness of traditional Indian knowledge.

        Today, though no one would take Macaulay's dismissal of Indian civilization seriously, the education system whose foundations he laid, has produced a type of Europeanised Indian intellectual.  This is how Swami Vivekananda's describes such a creature:

        the Europeanised man has no backbone, he is a mass of

       heterogeneous ideas picked up at random from every

       source--and these ideas are unassimilated, undigested,

       unharmonised.  He does not stand on his own feet, and his

       head is turning round and round. Where is the motive power of

       his work? In a few patronising pats from the English people.

       His schemes of reforms, his vehement vituperations against

       the evils of certain social customs have, as the mainspring,

       some European patronage. Why are some of our customs called

       evils?  Because the Europeans say so.  That is about the

       reason he gives.  ... These unbalanced creatures are not yet

       formed into distinct personalities; what are we to call

       them--men, women, or animals? 

       Swami Vivekananda on India and Her Problems , 83.  What is rather poignant about such a denunciation is that Narendranath Dutta was probably himself such a Europeanised Indian before he came into contact with Sri Ramakrishna.

        The creation of such a class of Europeanised Indians was what Macaulay, as a far-sighted Colonial administrator, had intended the first place:

        We must at present do our best to form ... a class of

       persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in

       opinions, in morals, and in intellect. 

       Tradition Modernity & Svaraj  107  It was against the after-effects of such an education system that Mahatma Gandhi raised his voice:

        It is my considered opinion that English education in the

       manner in which it has been given has emasculated the

       English-educated Indian.... The process of replacing the

       vernacular has been one of the saddest chapters in the

       British connection. ... No country can become a nation by

       producing a race of imitators. 

       It [the system of English education] was born in

       error, for the British rulers honesty believed the indigenous

       system to be worse than useless.  It has been nurtured in

       sin, for the tendency has been to dwarf the Indian body, mind

       and soul. 

      Young India  27 April 1921

        The most sustained attack on Western modernity is of course found in Gandhi's  Hind Svaraj  (1909).  He accuses modern civilization of being concerned only with "bodily welfare," on account of which it takes note "neither of morality nor of religion." It enslaves men and women to machines, making them labour  "for the sake of a pittance," losing a large portion of their wages in intoxication.  The conditions of these workers and wage earners is "worse than that of beasts."  Modern civilization, Gandhi adds, which "seeks to increase bodily comforts ... fails miserably even in doing so." It is therefore a "Satanic civilization" or "the Black Age," not to be imitated by Indians at any cost (see Chapter VI:  Civilization). Explaining his position in "A Word of Explanation" at the beginning of the text, Gandhi says, "I feel that if India will discard `modern civilization', she can only gain by doing so" (17). Elsewhere, Gandhi offers further criticism of modernity, of its potential to destroy the environment:  "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West.  The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts," ( Young India , October 7, 1926).

        In contrast, in Chapter XIII, "What is True Civilization," Gandhi says, "Civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. ... The Gujarati equivalent for civilization means `good conduct'.  If this definition be correct," he adds, "then India ... has nothing to learn from anybody else...." (61). Gandhi sums up the differences between traditional India and Western modernity by declaring, "The tendency of Indian civilization is to elevate the moral being, that of the Western civilization is to propagate immorality.  The latter is godless, the former is based on a belief in God," (63). Finally, says, Gandhi, "So understanding and so believing, it behoves every lover of India to cling to the old Indian civilization even as a child clings to the mother's breast" (63).

        Of the other important Indian thinkers of this century, I shall refer to two more.  First, Sri Aurobindo, the 125th anniversary of whose birth we are now observing, and finally, and very briefly, Jawaharlal Nehru.

        In  Foundations of Indian Culture , Sri Aurobindo offers a vigorous and detailed defence of Indian culture from colonialist attacks.  Aurobindo's model of "selective assimilation" implies not an eclectic synthesis, but "subordination and transformation of external elements" so as to harmonise  "the new element with the spirit" of our own culture" (392).  This is not very different from Gandhi's famous statement:

        I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my

       house as freely as possible.  But I refuse to be blown off my

       feet by any.  I refuse to live in other people's houses as an

       interloper, a beggar or a slave.

       ( Young India  1 June 1921)  Even Jawaharlal Nehru, otherwise considered a proponent of secular modernity, was aware of its limits:

        secular philosophy itself must have some background, some

       objective, other than merely material well-being.  It must

       essentially have spiritual values and certain standards of

       behaviour, and, when we consider these, immediately we enter

       into the realm of what has been called religion.

        ( Nehru: An Anthology for Young Readers  193)

         What we thus see is a broad band of attitudes to Western modernity, each of which conceptualises India and its civilization in its own way.  In Rammohun's address, India is conceived of as insufficient in itself and sorely in need of modern, Western knowledge to invigorate it.  As opposed to this, Gandhi advances the notion that Indian civilization is self-sufficient because of the Dharmic framework it provides to the individual and to society.  Between these two, there are several shades of opinion, all of which allow for cultural interaction and growth.  Yet, as is clear time and again, such interaction and growth is considered fruitful and worthwhile only if it involves the subordination and assimilation of the foreign elements to native systems and structures.  The only one who sees India as totally deficient is Macaulay, but that, as I have suggested, is perfectly understandable in the colonizer.

        Though the strongest denunciation of modernity come, of course, from Gandhi, I have tried to show that none of the other thinkers accepted modernity unquestioningly.  Each offered his own corrective or complaint.  It would thus be tempting, even eminently fashionable, to argue that postmodernism begins in India, in the colonies. However, such an arguments would miss the point, if not be entirely mistaken.  Gandhi is not postmodern, he is anti-modern.  In fact, Gandhi is using pre-modern, traditional ideas and values to decry modernity.  As such, he cannot be considered to be postmodern.  He belongs, rather more comfortably, with those within Europe who resisted modernity on moral, spiritual, and humanitarian grounds--the likes of Ruskin, Thoreau, and Tolstoy, whom he cites as authorities.

        How, then, do we understand the present postmodern turn in the West?  For this we shall have to backtrack a bit to understand the broad patterns of intellectual evolution in postEnlightenment Europe.  Sri Aurobindo provides a perceptive account.  With the growing power of reason, he says, "A blank and tepid Theism remained or a rationalised Christianity without either the name of Christ or his presence." After this, even God was dispensed with because "The reason and the senses by themselves give no witness to God."  Finally, he says, "Thus by an inevitable process we reach the atheistic or agnostic cult of secularism, the acme of denial, the zenith of the positive intelligence," ( Foundations of Indian Culture  84).

        So, when God and the Church became oppressive, they were dethroned.  In their place was enshrined positive reason.  Sri Aurobindo sums this up in the following manner:

        modern Europe separated religion from life, from philosophy,

       from art and science, from politics, from the greater part of

       social action and social existence.  And it secularised and

       rationalised too the ethical demand so that it might stand in

       itself on its own basis and have no need of any aid from

       religious sanction or mystic insistence.  But what happens when reason itself becomes tyrannical? After the shift from a religious to a secular outlook in the West, there have been periodic lapses into irrationality. Sri Aurobindo says:

        At the end of this turn is an antinomian tendency, constantly

       recurring in the life-history of Europe and now again in

       evidence.  This force seeks to annul ethics also, not by

       rising above into the absolute purity of the spirit, as

       mystic experience claims to do, but by breaking out of its

       barriers below into an exultant freedom of vital play.

        ( Foundations  83)  The descent into irrationality is the fate of a Europe trapped in the prison-house of secular rationality.

        The various expressions of the postmodern condition, in their very poignant cry for total emancipation, actually result in legitimating various kinds of irresponsibility.  Postmodernist freeplay, we know is possible only in the most modern nation states of the world, not in Bosnia or Rwanda.  In less privileged parts of the world people are still dying and killing in the name of God, nation, race, or ethnicity which postmodernists have already proved to be illusory.  Postmodernism, thus, rides piggy-back on modernity; it requires modern protocols for its survival.

        Even as boundaries are erased and the logic of globalization spreads, the regimes of modernity become more rigid and oppressive. The  raison d'etre  of globalisation is to simplify the process of economic exploitation.  There is no need any longer to actually colonize the country to be exploited; all the extraction of surpluses can be effected by remote control, as it were.  The transnational corporation is now a more stable and economically viable an entity than the nation state.  A banana republic here, a sub-tropical dictatorship there may easily disappear from the face of the earth, but Coca-Cola and MacDonald's will go on forever.

        If its easy movement is a sign of postmodernism, the fierceness with which capital is protected and safeguarded shows that modern systems of governance are very much in place. Capital continues to be policed by nuclear missiles and Star Wars defence programmes in advanced countries and by private armies and sophisticated security systems in the developing world. The culture of postmodernism is thus supported and shepherded by modern economic pragmatism: nations may be turned into markets, space and time shrunk into the virtual reality of miscellaneous websites, but capital itself is never deconstructed or disavowed. Making money continues to be the prevailing obsession.

        Postmodernity frees the subject from rationality, but does not really offer anything else instead.  Its anti-foundationalism, thus, willy-nilly, itself becomes an oppressive "pseudo-foundation." This is the deeper problem with the metaphysics that informs much of postmodern theory.  The reduction of all of reality into wordplay is just one example of this deeper philosophical self-negation.  Identities can be theorised only if we accept that selves, societies, cultures, and civilizations have primary and secondary features, not necessarily in a dichotomous and binary fashion, but in heuristic and provisional ways.  Without assuming and identifying such "centres," no demarcation is possible.

        Anti-foundationalism cannot, obviously, assume the place the foundations; that would be self-contradictory.  Yet, that is, willy-nilly, how language functions to create meaning. It follows that as long as we seek to communicate, even asserting the impossibility of communication, becomes a demonstration of its opposite, that is, of the inevitability of communication. There is, thus, no escape from centres, from foundations, from essences, from presences, from, in fact, identities, in some form or another.  What is required, however, is to posit a larger ground of Being to which the individual self is aligned and from which it derives its significance.

        Only one fringe of the postmodernist West seems to signal a way out of the crisis of rationality.  This fringe is not even recognized by the highbrow academic culture which conducts debates on issues like postmodernism, but it has a mixed, somewhat dubious presence in Western society.  I am referring to the recent upsurge in New Age philosophies and movements all over the West.  There was such an anti-materialistc wave in the 1960s too, when the counter culture was at its height.  But this wave subsided, lost in the foam and froth of drug-abuse and free-sex, leaving behind little but the refuse and debris of many shattered lives.  Yet, this turn must not be dismissed because it represented a cry of anguish from the heart of an affluent civilization tired of its materialism.

         The New Age too runs the danger of never coming into being, mired as it is quite hopelessly in a consumeristic culture. There is every danger that it will be lost too, this time in a plethora of self-deluding fads and fetishes, never living up to its professed aim or promise of transforming Western society completely.  New Age ideologues believe that the West made a false choice when it moved away from dogmatic religion during the renaissance to humanistic rationality.  Instead of veering towards spirituality, it went astray in its pursuit of materialism.  Aided by imperialism and science, the modern West lost its chance to go higher in the spiritual spiral.  Now, by realigning itself with wisdom from the East, the West can save itself again.

        The first coherent formulation of such an idea can be found more than a hundred years back, in the writings of that intrepid and original genius, Madame H.P.Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society.  Theosophy, the mother of all West to East movements, in recent times, unfortunately found the climate in Europe and America too hostile and inhospitable; with what might be termed a Karmic inevitability, it moved its permanent headquarters to Adyar, Madras, and thereby lost its chance to save the West.

        Throughout this paper, I have been arguing from a trans-civilizational perspective.  I believe that civilizations are profoundly deep, empowering, and enduring.  As modern Indians, it is imperative for us to reestablish our civilizational moorings, without which we will be lost.  This is a truth which all modernists in Indian literature, from Ajneya to Anantha Murthy have realized.  They are thus "critical insiders" rather than outsiders. The loss and recovery of the self, to invoke the perceptive title of Ashis Nandy's book, is thus a recurrent trope in our colonial and postcolonial history. Yet, it is important to not forget that the loss of self is not always necessary before a recovery takes place.  A renewal and fuller self-apprehension may be more natural and profitable.

        Both modernity and postmodernity, if taken seriously, will reveal themselves to be quite at variance with our civilizational disposition.  To accept them totally would tantamount to self-denial.  At the most they can supply us with some interesting new gimmicks, some new styles, fashions, and figures of speech.  We can dabble in them as one does in imported cosmetics and fineries.  Or keep them in the suburbs of our pleasure as we do rock music and Hollywood movies.  We may even sport them loosely on our skins as we do denim jeans and jackets, or more suffocatingly as we do suits ties.  As all these examples imply, any amount of eclecticism is possible as long as it is superficial.  As Raj Kapoor said with such perceptivity, "Mera joota hai Japani,/Ye patloon Englishtani/Sar pe lal topi roosi/Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani." 

       4:  Conclusion--Svaraj not Postmodernism

         Earlier in the paper I had suggested that all discussions on derived academic topics actually hide deeper concerns and obsessions.  These have to do with the condition of India or, if I may put it in a more programmatic manner, with Project India. Perhaps, the only thing that all shades of political opinion from the extreme Left to the extreme Right are agreed upon is that Project India is still unfinished. The Left thinks that Independence was partial and incomplete because it was a bourgeois not a proletarian revolution.  The Hindutvavadis believe that the dream of the Hindu Rashtra has not yet been fulfilled. We often forget that the frail, old Mahatama also thought that our "Tryst with destiny" was not all that glorious. While Nehru was taking his oath of office in a glittering ceremony in the Viceroy's palace, the stubborn apostle of love and non-violence was trudging bare-foot through the blood-drenched paths of Noakhali.  Obviously, the coming of independence was not as momentous to him as the wrenching reality that Svaraj was still a distant dream.

        That which embodies and harmonises our personal and political aspirations is the Svaraj that Gandhi was after.  In that constitutes our true sovereignty as individuals and as a people. That is our  yugadharma  because that is what we are all seeking, albeit by different names.  Svaraj does not mean political independence alone, but a certain vision of society which is free from exploitation, oppression, and violence.  Such a society would consist of self-regulating individuals of high moral character cooperating with one another in a free and non-coercive manner. It will not be a society of the haves living at the expense of the have-nots or a society wherein the individual is dwarfed and crushed by the Government, nor will it be a society in which making money and indulging in sense-pleasures are the be all and end all of life. Just as each individual seeks Svaraj so does each nation, society, or country.  I shall sum up in Mahatma Gandhi's words, "I submit that  swaraj  is an all-satisfying goal for all time. ...  It is infinitely greater than and includes independence," ( Young India  12 January 1928).

        If debates on globalisation, sovereignty, and culture, are ultimately, debates about which way we want India to go, it is clear to me that both modernity and postmodernity represent paths which should not be taken.  At best, they provide convenient points of entry to the real questions that shape our lives. Because these paths have made inroads into our own life and consciousness, they need to be examined, understood, possibly appreciated from a distance, but ultimately negated and abandoned.  I am convinced that our anxiety over how to cope with the latest mental assault from the West will be mitigated once we understand who we are better.  This requires a radical dislocation of our subservient fixation upon the West, and a realignment of our intellectual energies to serve our own civilizational enterprises. 

       -End- ..

      Presented at the National Seminar on "Beyond Creativity: Problems facing the Cultural Life of India at the Turn of the Century," in the panel "Globalisation, Sovereignty and Culture," India International Centre, New Delhi, 21-23 February 1997.


  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape