Decolonizing Thought – Beyond Indian/ Hindu Exceptionalism

A Decolonization mural in Oakland, USA, photo HiMYSYeD, Oakland Wiki

This post is prompted by a discussion that followed some remarks I had made on social media regarding the way in which a certain common sense that we may call ‘Hindu Nationalist’, had come to dominate the sensibilities of even those intellectuals in the Hindi world who otherwise might stand opposed to the Hindu Right. ‘Decolonizing’ has lately become a banner of the Hindu Right and for many otherwise secular Hindi intellectuals too, an occasion for an often strident anti-West rhetoric. Such a common sense assumes, simply by default, that the only “authentic” position of critique of the West is one framed by Hindu/ Indian exceptionalism. Needless to say, as I have argued at length in my recent book (Decolonizing Theory), the narrative that structures the imaginative world of many such modern Hindus is already a narrative produced by colonialism.

What Decolonizing Does Not Mean

I want to underline here that I see this imaginative world as produced by colonialism in a dual sense: (a) it was enabled by a whole new world that opened up before the defeated and despondent Hindu intelligentsia of the late 18th and early 19th century, when the work of Orientalist scholars of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and others like Max Muller started becoming available to them. The discovery of striking similarities between Sanskrit and Greek and Latin (in terms of syntax and vocabulary) added to fantasies about Vedic peoples and their language being possible ancestors of Indo-European peoples. The discovery of a full-fledged Indus Valley civilization by the early twentieth century (once again under the aegis of colonial archaeology institutions) sent the nascent Hindu nationalist imagination into a spin, deluding it into believing that it was the vishva guru – the fount of all wisdom! Every argument of ‘Hindu glory’ in the arsenal of the Hindutva propagandists can be traced back to these exciting new discoveries that the despondent intelligentsia of those times seized upon. (b) The Hindu nationalist imagination was produced by colonialism in another sense – the sense in which every colonialism has produced xenophobic nationalisms across the world, including monstrosities like Pol Pot’s, who sought to re-establish ancient Khmer glory in the name of anti-colonialism. This point, it should be emphasized, is linked to the larger critiques of nationalism made, say by Tagore and underlined in recent times by Ashis Nandy drawing from Tagore, that the nationalists’ desire for homogeneity mindlessly mimics the modern West’s institution “Nations” with homogeneous cultures as normative ideals. (Our reference point here is obviously not the more contemporary multicultural West).

Parenthetically, it may also be interesting to note here that while the fires of Hindu nationalist imagination were being stoked by new colonial/modern knowledge and way of being among the former upper caste ruling elites, especially in North India, their ire was also conveniently being displaced from colonialism on to the “Muslim” rulers of the past. In a move that perhaps acknowledged their immense ideological debt to colonial knowledge, ideologues of the Hindu Right thus turned the spotlight away from the British to the Muslims.

Even though one can easily trace the beginnings of Hindu nationalist discourse in Bengal, it was in the so-called “Aryavarta” (the Hindi heartland) and Maharashtra where the inferiority complex of this defeated Brahminical intelligentsia assumed its most virulent form. In Maharashtra, it was the threat faced by the Brahmins from the lower caste reform movements like that of Jyotiba Phule’s that might have added to their insecurity as they seem to have trooped to the Hindutva fold very early. Even though some of the earliest Hindu nationalists starting with Chandranath Basu who coined the term ‘Hindutva’, to Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay and the later Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay who transformed it into a militant anti-Muslim creed, hailed from Bengal, the province in general presented a more complicated picture. This can easily be seen from the very different presence of Swami Vivekananda who Hindutva ideologues claim as their spiritual guru in the North. Vivekananda (and the Ramakrishna Mission) never became the kind of Hindu ideologue in Bengal that he is often made out to be in North Indian Hindutva discourse. Then there was the the towering figure of Rabindranath Tagore, who with his own brand of Upanishadic humanism queered the pitch for Hindutva nationalism in a very significant way. Added to this was also the emergent, powerful left-wing sensibility in the literary and political domain.

Elsewhere in the country, the vernacular world had its own, very different dynamic – especially in what constitute the present Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu where Dalitbahujan/ Non-Brahmin counter-narratives had a prominent political presence. That may be one reason why, despite a strong Hindu Right orientation among Maharashtrian Brahmins, Hindutva never quite became the hegemonic common sense in the state. States like Punjab with a sizeable Sikh population too obviously presented obstacles, unlike the Hindi-speaking states of the North. It is interesting – and a question to be explored at greater length – that while Dalitbahujan and Non-Brahmin discourses may have gained by the presence of the colonial power and the discourse of rights and equality that became available with it, unlike Hindu nationalists they were not talking about some fictive oppressions in some distant past but of very concrete ones in the present – all of which had roots in indigenous modes of Brahmincal domination.

It is easy to point to the obvious Western orientation of both the Left/communist and Dalitbahujan/ Non-Brahmin discourses, not to speak of the Muslims as the ‘foreign’ Other, as if that is what the project of decolonization is all about. The real challenge of decolonizing our thinking, I want to underline, lies not in the search for some authentic, exceptionalist narrative of past Hindu glory but in thinking our present outside of the frames set up by colonial knowledge and nationalisms.

Decolonizing is also an imperative because of the dead-end that we find ourselves in large parts of the world today: Non-Western states attempting to mimic Western capitalism in a world where all possibilities of further “development” stand exhausted and a planetary crisis stares us in the face. We increasingly recognize today that our job in Asia, Africa and Latin America is not simply to strive to recast our societies in the image of the West; it is an imperative because we, in the three continents (and the Native populations in America and elsewhere), reject the idea that everything has already been thought in advance for us by Grand Old Men of the West and that our task is to merely execute their thought. It is important then, to underline, once again, that from my point of view, decolonization is not and cannot be discussed as an exclusively Indian problem.

The Challenge of Decolonizing

The very first – and obvious – point to underline here is that anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism in their political form as nationalism/s do not add up to what we understand by decolonization today, which is much more than a political project. As political projects, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial nationalisms could very well replicate all the pathologies of modern nationalisms, like xenophobia and ethnic cleansing. Lest we forget, we need to keep reminding ourselves that while the fear of the Other (the stranger) was certainly there in premodern cultures, it acquires the specific political form of ethnic cleansing and mass expulsion of “non-citizens” only in the world of nation-states, and search for majorities (in a perversion of the democratic principle) mainly in the 20th century. The 20th century has seen the endless production of “refugees”, “boat people” and “stateless people” as the excrement of the production of citizenship – the Rohingyas in the 21st are the most recent example nearer home. In other words, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism that merely mimics the nation-state’s drive towards homogeneity and wants to become like the West obviously has little to do with decolonizing in our sense.

The demand for decolonization in thought and knowledge today – the decolonial moment of epistemic reconstitution as it were – arises, not from a desire to return to some exclusive or pristine, uncontaminated past but from continuing exclusions and “ontological depletion” (the phrase, courtesy Sudipta Kaviraj) of the non-West that is reinforced every moment of our being. When we learn for instance, that all problems of the non-West in the present arise from its incomplete modernity, corrupted secularism or deformed democracy – in other words, from its inability to mold itself in the frame of the modern West, that’s when the demand for decolonizing comes up. When a native intellectual like Ngugi wa Thiong’o raises the demand for the “decolonization of the mind” decades ago, he does so because he realizes how the language of the colonizer becomes the instrument of continued exclusion of the colonized and even the postcolonial subject – and her modes of thinking and being.

The edge of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s critique was of course, not directed only against the colonial oppressors but also against what has been called the “coloniality of being” (N. Maldonado-Torres) in the language of decolonial theory – that is to say, against the ways in which colonialism permanently transforms the colonized’s ways of knowing and being. This however, is something that is experienced not just by the colonized subject individually but also as a society that is internally split between strata that are schooled in the colonizers’ ways, in their institutions and those who remain outside them.

The situation becomes extremely complex, especially in societies like India’s, where the educated modern secular subject is ever so often, so completely sold to the idea that everything associated with the past is worthy of rejection and ridicule. Not only is such an attitude politically disastrous, it is in fact historically incorrect and bespeaks of a certain kind of illiteracy.

So if the Hindu Right revels in a ridiculously fantastic discourse of ancient Hindu glory, it finds its mirror image in the secular-modern that has (with some important exceptions) only specialized in dismissing everything associated with the past, thus unwittingly giving in to the Right’s claim that the entire Indian past was all only about Brahmanism and spiritualism. This is something that obviously exists more at the level of the secular-modern common sense often retailed by academic scholars well but is not quite true of the huge body of work produced by Indian historians and thinkers, including those of Marxist persuasion. One only has to read Debi Prasad Chattopadhyay’s Science and Society in Ancient India or his works on Indian materialism and the Charvaka tradition, or the more recent studies by Ramkrishna Bhattacharya on Lokayata/ Charvaka to get a sense of the scientific and rationalist traditions in ancient India. One has to simply dip into the scholarly historical investigations of a DD Kosambi, Romila Thapar, DN Jha, RS Sharma, Harbans Mukhia, Irfan Habib or more recently Nayanjot Lahiri and Upinder Singh to name just a few random names to realize how complex and variegated that “Indian” past has been, which is so often just dismissed as Brahmanical and spiritual. No less important is the work of many Western Sanskrit scholars or historians who have added to our knowledge of ancient and medieval India. We may have our own critiques of these historians’ work today as more and more new vantage points and new research surfaces but we can only dismiss them at our own peril.

The point is more than strategic – as it concerns our ability to grasp different aspects of the Indian social formation. Today, from a decolonizing perspective, we might want to interrogate, re-read and critique all these works in terms of their assumptions but we cannot fail to recognize that they tell us a story of “Indian pasts” that are far more complex than what the Hindu Right and secular-modern common sense would have us believe.

What Might Decolonization Mean?

I want to conclude by offering some tentative reflections on some more specific questions that pertain to the larger philosophical issues that we might need to confront. Since I referred to indigenous traditions of science, rationalism and atheism above, it is necessary to clarify right away that the task of decolonizing cannot be achieved by simply asserting that everything that the colonizers have, we too have or had in the past. Science, rationalism and atheism happen to be very prominent parts of our legacy – they constitute important parts of the counter-tradition that has fueled attempts at a radical re-interpretation/ reconstruction of Indian tradition. This, however, is the simpler task, given the kind of work already done by scholars of the kind mentioned above.

The more difficult task concerns areas on which there is not much evidence of the sort we have with respect to rationalism and science. For one thing, even with respect to reason, logic and science the specific ways in which Indian philosophers have dealt with or explicated them are very different from the way in which we have learnt Aristotlean logic. As Jonardon Ganeri has shown, the structure of the syllogism in the Nyaya tradition is very different and includes, aside from derivation, drishtanta or instance. Science too, in ancient times need not have been entirely free of a lot of spiritual overlay but there can be little doubt that disciplines like medicine (susruta, caraka), mathematics (discovery of ‘zero’, decimal system and trigonometry), astronomy and so on were primarily empirical and/or logical disciplines. Our task certainly cannot end with just invoking these traditions but calls for a detailed examination of their principles.

The matter becomes far more complex when we move on to domains of history and social formation, where a lot of work that has been done by modern historians and scholars is based on the assumption of certain supposedly universal principles. One of these, which has been very contentious in Indian scholarly debates relates to the problem of history itself and ‘historical consciousness’: did Indians, especially Hindus, have any conception of history in the sense in which we understand the term today? That is to say, did the ancient Hindus organize their relationship to something that they called the past, in the same way as say the more historically oriented religions like Christianity, Islam or even Buddhism did? Why is it that we have a tradition of writing and preservation of texts in Buddhism but not in Hinduism, where the production of Puranas becomes the way of narrating and performing being, identifying villains (e.g. Buddhists, asuras) and celebrating heroes? These are not trivial questions but the modern urge to claim that “we too had history” (without history, you could not be civilized) has seen to it that the question was never even properly posed despite the fact that most ancient historians routinely use the Puranas as a source of “historical information”. I have often felt that there is a parallel between the Hindu attitude to the body of the dead and the business of archiving memory in textual form: Just as the body must go back to the elements after cremation, leaving no trace (panch tattvon men vileen), so must events and happenings in life not be preserved in texts and documents, though repeatedly performed and narrated. Both kinds of preservations have to do with ways of organizing and valuing memory.

In a sense, our difficulty is compounded further because, not being able to understand principles of organization of any society has further consequences. We start applying principles abstracted from other contexts to our history, often leading to misrecognition. To just take one example, ideas of dialectics, class conflict and resolution of conflict (whether in the Hegelian modality of sublation/aufhebung or otherwise), seem to me to be principles abstracted from a long tradition of philosophical reflection on history. Do all societies follow the same logic?

Let me end with an instance that I believe calls for far greater research and philosophical reflection. The instance in question comes from anthropologist Gregory Bateson via Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari namely the concept of the “plateau” in A Thousand Plateaus. I can do no better here than cite the following from Brian Massumi’s Translator’s Foreward to A Thousand Plateaus:

“The word ‘plateau’ comes from an essay by Gregory Bateson on Balinese culture, in which he found a libidinal economy quite different from the West’s orgasmic orientation. In Deleuze and Guattari, a plateau is reached when circumstances combine to bring an activity to a pitch of intensity that is not automatically dissipated in a climax.” (p. x)

And here is how Deleuze and Guattari put it themselves, where the meaning of the term extends beyond the sexual experience:

“Bateson cites Balinese culture as an example: mother-child sexual games, and even quarrels among men, undergo this bizarre intensive stabilization. ‘Some sort of continuing plateau of intensity is substituted for [sexual] climax,’ war, or a culmination point. It is a regrettable characteristic of the Western mind to relate expressions and actions to exterior or transcendent ends, instead of evaluating them on a plane of consistency on the basis of their intrinsic value.” (p. 22)

This reading of Balinese culture is quite suggestive. Scholars have often noticed the virtual absence of significant revolts in Indian history but we do not really have a satisfactory theoretical explanation or account for the phenomenon. However, Vijay Nath’s significant studies (e.g. “From ‘Brahminism’ to ‘Hinduism'”, Social Scientist, Vol. 29, Nos 3-4) on what she calls the transition from “Brahminism” to “Puranic Hinduism” suggest that over a long period of high (Vedic) Brahminism’s contact with the peripheries inhabited by tribes and other “lowly” peoples, and in order to deal with the challenges posed by Buddhism, a different idiom of interaction evolved.

“Whereas Brahmanism had represented more or less a single religious strand drawing mainly upon Vedic ideology and manifesting an elitist outlook Puranic Hinduism proved to be a multiplex belief-system which grew and expanded as it absorbed and synthesized polaristic religious ideas and cultic traditions.” (p. 20)

In fact, what many modern Hindus and ideologues of the Hindu Right routinely refer to as the great traditions of “toleration” supposedly intrinsic to Hinduism, actually refers to this mode of interaction where Brahminism extended its power by completely transforming itself. In the process there seems to have evolved a mode of interaction that, qua Bateson (and Deleuze and Guattari) remained at the level of a plateau, that is to say, never became a fight to the finish. This may be an interesting hypothesis to pursue and may tell us more about certain aspects of the social formations in these parts of Asia. Following up such leads do not mean taking recourse to any kind of essentialism or exceptionalism.

3 thoughts on “Decolonizing Thought – Beyond Indian/ Hindu Exceptionalism”

  1. Found the piece to be thoughtful and timely. There are three points that need rethinking, though.

    1. The assertion that ethnic cleansing and mass expulsion of ‘non-citizens’ took specific political form only in the world of nation-states needs empirical evidence. Such an understanding has been made famous amongst scholars who use anti-Enlightenment rhetoric as their central plank of building a knowledge system. The familiar figure in India, for instance, is Ashis Nandy, who would throw a few numbers to ‘prove’ that the 20th century has seen the most number of deaths in comparison to earlier historical moments. In addition to the methodological questions, the more important one is – where does this anti-Enlightenment thought take us? It is more productive to leave the question of whether or not genocide should be thought of as a purely modern phenomenon. If it was a distinction in the modern period, especially with the rise of the nation-states, what is this novelty?

    2. There is a contrast posited between the Hindu Right based on the idea of a glorious Hindu past and the secular-modernists who specialize in “dismissing everything associated with the past”. Isn’t it the case that they have relied too much on a specific interpretation of the past rather than a complete rejection? Think of Romila Thapar’s understanding of India’s past, especially her early works, as an illustrative case amongst the left-leaning intellectuals. Or, take Nehru’s Discovery. Or, Rahul Gandhi/ Shashi Tharoor’s public assertion of their Hinduness. Given these, I wonder who these secular modernists, who dismiss everything associated with the past, especially the Hindu past, are. Do they even exist? This belief that the secular, educated elite do not care for the Hindu past, or the Hindu way of life, indicates the success that the Hindu nationalists have been able to propagate.

    3. It is fortunate that certain kinds of knowledge systems compatible with Europe’s past were found amongst a few communities in India. I am more interested in the question – what happens to those who cannot trace such a lineage of achievements? Are we forever doomed between an imperialist Europe and a dominant non-European culture? Do we not have a decolonized future to be free from both of these hegemonic forces?


    1. Thanks for your detailed comments Jila. Let me answer some of the points you have raised. Some others, esp point 3, can only be rhetorically responded to so I will let it be for now. Though, even with respect to that, I would strongly recommend the recent book The Dawn of Everyhing by David Graeber and David Wengrow if one wants to understand how for instance Enlightenment thought crucial elements of its fundamental beliefs like freedom and equality from North American and Canadian indigenous thinkers’ critiques of Europe. The flow of thought was always from Europe to the rest of the world. I have also dealt with some of it at length in my recent book so I will leave it that for now.
      As for point 1, there is by now libraries of empirial evidence available which I cannot list here. But that empirical evidence apart, even theoretically phenomena like ethnic cleansing make no sense in a world without nation-states, with porous borders. Before the 19th century but more before the 20th, populations simply migrated out to safer areas when faced with persecution. On this too, empirical abundance is abundant. The novelty lies in three things, at the very least. First, territoriality, which confined populations or expelled them as stateless people (just as our CAA seeks to do). Second, the search for a homogeneous national culture that leads straightaway to what Golwalkar called “unassimilated minorities”. Communities that lived over larger geographical areas now divided into minorities everywhere – like the Kurds for instance, Muslims in various parts of South Asia, Tamils between Sri Lanka and India etc. Third, the arrival of democracy that, in a perverse transformation, leads to a search for permanent majorities and therefore identification of “problematic minorities”. This mode of democratic politics is tied inextricably to the rise of nationalism and mass politics.
      And of course, I completely disagree with you suggestion of not pursuing a philosophical question because it ostensibly upsets the Enlightenment apple cart. Try saying that in Africa or to the indigenous people of the Americas and other places.
      Your point 2, actually only cherry-picks names from most our present times. I should clarify that in making that claim I was not so much referring to historians of India who have to write histories of India and willy nilly end up with a different appreciation of its past. However, even there the attitude was of “proving” that we we like the Europeans: we too had private property, we too had feudalism, we had “history”. We barely talked seriously about caste without reducing it into some larger – with a handful of exceptions. But this was the state of our education system after independence till about the 1990s. In our political science departments, till the 1990s, we were doing theses on Marx or Hannah Arendt or Benjamin in the name of political thought. People like me and of my generation have grown up without much of an awareness suggestion that India might have had more than just the Vedic civilization and spirituality in its past (like mathematics, medicine, astronomy and so on). So my point about debunking Indian past was a very compressed expression of how exactly we relate/d to the past.


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