S N Balagangadhara Interview Part II: Brahminism And Other 'Isms' Are Inventions Of Western Indology

by R Jagannathan - Apr 15, 2022 11:47 AM +05:30 IST
S N Balagangadhara Interview Part II: Brahminism And Other 'Isms' Are Inventions Of Western IndologyS N Balagangadhara and the cover of his book.
  • Brahminism is a creation of western Indology which is fond of ‘-isms’ like Vedism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on.

What Does It Mean To Be Indian? S N Balagangadhara and Sarika Rao. Notion Press. 2021. Pages 214. Rs 349.

This is the second part of Swarajya’s conversation with S N Balagangadhara.

Swarajya: You say that there is no such thing as Hinduism, but we can accept that there are Hindus of various kinds. In short, we are Hindus in a geographical-cultural sense, but there is no religion called Hinduism, which was the result of colonial understanding and interventions. Is this what you want to say?

Balagangadhara: Science develops because it tries to understand phenomena in the world. Scientific progress happens when old theories are superseded by better theories. That is how we gain knowledge. Just because new scientific theories develop, it doesn’t mean that the phenomenon that they are talking about disappears. For example, the miasma theory of disease which was believed to be true for more than a millennium was superseded by the germ theory of disease. This does not mean that diseases or their causes disappeared. We just developed a better understanding of the phenomenon.

‘India has a native religion, and that religion is called Hinduism’ is one story about India and her culture. This story is 400 years old. I challenge that claim and show through scientific research that it is not correct. But because one hypothesis about India is replaced by another, it does not mean that Indians don’t exist or that Indian culture disappears.

Do Hindus (as cultural groups) exist? Yes, and they are not geographical groups: Hindus exist as a group in many geographies and not only in what we call India. This is not a modern-day phenomenon: Hindus were known to exist in Jambudweepa, Gandhara, Khambhoja,etc, for instance. Are they Hindus because they are a part of Hinduism as a religion? My answer is no. This answer has nothing to do with how the Semitic religions ‘define’ religion. The question is: does Hinduism as a religion exist as a phenomenon in the world? My answer is no. However, whether Hinduism is a phenomenon in the world or not, this ‘fact’ is independent of the question what the word ‘religion’ means in our languages.

Q: So, similarly, we can say that castes (or jatis) exist, but not a caste system. That there may be Brahmins, but Brahminism is a concoction.

A. Absolutely. Jatis are social groups in Indian society. Social groups exist in all societies and in India these social groups are called ‘jatis’. Similar social groups that exist in societies are called differently in different parts of the world. It is as sensible to speak of ‘the caste system’ in India as it is to say that there is ‘the social group system’ in societies. Further, yes, Brahminism is an invention of western Indology. Indology which is fond of ‘-isms’ has created quite a few: Brahminism, Vedism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on.

Q: Religion is difficult to define, but traditions, rituals and practices are clearer to acknowledge. Tradition needs no justification, unless it offends basic human good sense in this day and age. But is there a danger in reducing all of Indian knowledge, metaphysics, philosophy, spiritualism, even science, to just tradition and not call it a religion? After all, isn’t Hinduism partly a religion even as defined by the West?

A. I will start with the simplest point first. As far the West is concerned, Hinduism is not ‘partly’ a religion: according to them, Hinduism is fully a religion. Period. The West is not denying that Hinduism is a religion. In fact, they have always claimed that it is. So, when Indians jump up and down and claim that they too have religion and that it is called ‘Hinduism’, Western commonsense and academia are in complete agreement. They don’t understand why Indians are proclaiming this very old consensus as though it is a revolutionary new discovery.

Now, the second part of the answer. You say that “there is a danger of reducing” everything to “just tradition”. And that, surely, Hinduism is “at least partly a religion”. This issue is worth focussing on.

The first thing to notice is that there is an anxiety involved in trying to identify Hinduism as a ‘religion’. The anxiety is not about understanding religion. The concern is also not to understand what ‘Hinduism’ is. The anxiety is in gaining agreement with the opinion that ‘Hinduism’ is a ‘religion’— at least ‘partly’. People don’t know why, but they are convinced that it is bad if someone says Hinduism is not a religion. Why? Where did this conviction come from that all human cultures must have religion, whether in primitive or in an advanced form, whether as a ‘natural religion’ or as ‘sophisticated spirituality’? One might tweak the definitions in any which way, but one wants to make sure that the result is that ‘all human cultures have religion’. This is something we must pause and look at.

The idea that ‘religion is a cultural universal’ is a belief in Christianity and Islam. With the process of secularisation, this belief has spread into commonsense and social science. This belief has become so ‘obvious’ that we have an entire cottage industry studying the ‘evolutionary biological explanation for religion’. Therefore, I say that many social scientific insights are simply universalisations of the experiences of one culture, namely that of the West.

The idea that ‘religion is universal’ is not only an obvious unquestioned ‘fact’ but to question it is also considered offensive. My first book (1994) looks at European culture, and the phenomenon of religion, and I develop a theory of religion. I show that what we do not have is a definitional problem. It is about developing a scientific theory of a phenomenon X and seeing whether other phenomena like H or P are also the same or not. The book also explains why the West thinks that religion is a cultural universal.

The other thing to notice is that by identifying one phenomenon, we do not ‘reduce’anyother thing. Just because I say that the water you see in a desert is a ‘mirage’ and ‘not photosynthesis’, it does not mean that all kinds of other things ‘get reduced’ to mirage. Why would they? Likewise, just because I say that we have ‘tradition’ and ‘not religion’, everything cannot ‘get reduced’ to tradition. Philosophy, linguistics, grammar, psychology, science, medicine, etc are other things and they don’t get reduced to religion or tradition.

Religion is difficult to define as a word only when there is no theory of religion. The word is defined satisfactorily in a scientific theory of religion. Recognising some practices as ‘traditions’ (or as belonging to a tradition) does not make defining ‘tradition’ any less difficult. For that too, we need a good theory.

Q: Would you call Buddhism or Jainism or Sikhism also traditions? Or do they pass muster as religions since they do have founders and a set of holy texts like Abrahamic religions? Is it the lack of a founder or “fundamentals” that provides a line separating a religion from just a tradition?

A. I do not say that any phenomenon that has a founder and a set of holy texts is a religion. I do not say this because it is a bad argument: when we say that ‘Hinduism’ does not have holy books, a founder, etc, the only thing we can say is that ‘Hinduism’ is different from the Semitic religions in this respect. We cannot say that, therefore, it is not a religion. I have a hypothesis on what religion is (as a phenomenon in the world) and that is explained in my first book, The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion’. In one sentence, which is difficult to understand in such a brief form, “religion is an ‘explanatory intelligible account’ of the Cosmos and itself”. (This sentence can be read as a definition of religion, but it does not speak about churches, holy books, founders, dogmas, beliefs, etc)

‘Buddhism’ was a discovery (actually, an invention) of the British. Sikhism is an emergence from the interaction of Indian traditions with Islam. Neither exists in the world as religions. These are Indian traditions.

I have written on the difference between religion and tradition in my writings. One must understand these two phenomena separately to understand their relationship with each other.

Q: You seem to want to give our colonisers the benefit of the doubt in terms of intentions. You broadly suggest that they defined us based on their own experiences with the way European Christian history evolved. So, it was natural for them to analyse us in the way they understood reality. But is this the whole story? Didn’t coloniality need them to actively promote internal antagonisms and widen the fault-lines inside India, so that they could rule us with very few people? Didn’t Pakistan, and the widening of the jati divide, serve their interests?

A. The first sentence in the question captures a prevalent misunderstanding. It says that I speak of the ‘intentions’ of the colonisers. That is not the case. I am not interested in the intentions or the motivations of individual or even groups of Europeans. The reason I do not do that is because: (1) it is not correct to say intentions guide actions. Take the incessant excuse that people give of intended actions and their unintended consequences. I have different ideas about that, but I won’t go into that now. I tackle this issue a bit deeper in chapter 4 of the book Cultures Differ Differently (2022) or in the book ‘The Heathen...’. (2) It is very difficult to find out the reasons for an action by a person. Most of the time, individuals themselves don’t know what their reasons are, or why they act the way they do. (3) One of the problems in tightly linking intentions to action is the fact that one and the same action (even a trivial action like opening a door) can be the result of many kinds of intentions (maybe the room is too cold or too warm, maybe I thought someone is standing at the door, maybe I think spies are listening in to my conversation, maybe there is too much cigarette smoke in the room…)

Like with any person or group, multiple motivations and intentions in a mixed form are present at any given time. To try to crawl into the heads of earlier generations, especially centuries later, to find that which is inscrutable to themselves is to set myself to fail. Or worse, that is to present ignorance as knowledge which I call ‘bullshit’.

What I do is to make intelligible the consistency and thus the pattern of what the Europeans said about us and how they behaved. My hypothesis is independent of individual psychological differences (because we speak of hundreds of thousands of different people); it does not change with the passage of time (because we speak of a time span of centuries); it does not depend on national borders or geography (after all, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English belong to different countries); it does not depend on their political inclinations (Liberal or Conservative) or religious proclivities (whether Anglican, Protestant, Catholic). That is, I put the constraints and demands of science on the hypotheses that I formulate. If I do not do this, I am simply one more person expressing one more opinion.

Discussing motivations, intentions and opinions is an endless process. Look at the number of books produced on colonialism. They have not helped us gain much of an understanding of the phenomenon of colonialism or its effects.

A scientific hypothesis must make sense of a canonised Catholic priest like (Francis) Xavier and the low-life thugs who made up the mercenaries of the East India Company, as well as bureaucrats like Warren Hastings and Orientalists like William Jones. I find that my hypothesis does it. Whether they abhorred the Savages and wanted to convert them, or whether they were rapine looters who wanted to make money or power-hungry imperialists, their cultural background and their shared Christian framework provided them with certain ideas about human beings, the natural world, and the social world. They used these ideas to make sense of what they went through and encountered in their lives.

This is what all human beings do. We use our repertoire to make sense of and deal with what we encounter. When Europeans landed on the coasts of Malabar and met Indians, their framework (their culture) provided them with ideas (resources) to make sense of what they saw. One example is the idea that ‘all cultures have religion’. This notion is never questioned, but different possible explanations are given to justify it. ‘False religion’, ‘primitive religion’, ‘magical thinking’, ‘a different kind of religion’, etc, are just the different forms that a justification takes depending on the fashions of the time. But the notion that is never questioned is whether ‘all cultures have religion’.

I also don’t use words like coloniality and decoloniality in my book. That is another reason for confusion. These words are obfuscating jargon from post-colonialism and post-modernism. These are the worst intellectual products of the twentieth century. In intellectual circles, post-colonials are described as Jammergemeinschaft (in German): a community of whiners who do not contribute to knowledge. Post-modernism goes further and is openly inimical to knowledge. Unfortunately, both have become very widespread and influential. Thus, it is wise not to speak of ‘coloniality’ and ‘decoloniality’.

To give a short answer: no, I am not giving our colonisers any benefit of doubt, nor am I being soft or apologetic about them. The only focus of my work is to develop scientific knowledge about human beings, culture, and society. A true science of the social.

Of course, colonialism used many strategies to subjugate a people. This includes the ‘divide and rule’ policy, ‘exacerbating existing fault lines’ and so on. To speak of something (Pakistan, the jati divide, etc) as furthering their ‘interests’, we first need to be able to say what those interests are: are we talking about interests (in the plural?) of the British people (of which period?), of the British Anglican Church, of the British Empire, of the East India Company, of the White Race…? Was this plurality of ‘interests’ ever in conflict with one another? If they were, whose or which ‘interests’ did the conflict serve? Which became victorious and why?

You know, ‘interests’ is such a silly all-encompassing word that we can even say that everything the British did was in their ‘interest’. I would suggest that you think of an Indian linguistic equivalent for this word ‘interest’. You will then see how silly it is to speak of ‘interests’. ‘National security interests’, ‘national interests’, etc, are weasel words with no boundaries.

Finally, let me formulate a question. True, the British came“with very few people”. We were servile: there too I agree. No question that we behaved like menial servants. But did the British ever “rule” us? Do we know what either the word means or what it indicates in the real world? This is a teasing question based on the results of my ongoing research. I hope to publish them soon.

Q: Regarding itihasa and history, you clearly warn us not to take itihasa, which is about stories that may or may not have some history attached to them, as history. Itihasa is about our way of passing on cultural information as stories, and may not be history. But why do you suggest that the absence of history writing in India and using itihasa as history are both colonialisms. After all, don’t we try to understand or deduce history from holy texts like the Rg Veda or even epics like the Mahabharata? How is this colonialism?

A. I have written articles on the subject where this question is tackled. (I suggest using my academia.edu website page, which contains most of my writings.) However, I do not say that we can learn nothing about our past by studying the Vedas or Puranas. But I do say that historiography (the graphein of historia) is not our way of talking about the past. Itihasa does this job without being history. Using itihasa to understand our past is not an expression of a colonial attitude. Using itihasa as history is.

Read the first, third and fourth parts of this interview here, here and here.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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