S N Balagangadhara Interview Part III: “Gandhi’s 'Experiments With Truth' Are Linked To His Colonial And Christian Experiential Background”
"Gandhi titles his book without knowing what he was talking about. We must understand his educational and experiential backgrounds, both of which were colonial and Christian, to understand his obsession with ‘the’ truth."
What Does It Mean To Be Indian? S N Balagangadhara and Sarika Rao. Notion Press. 2021. Pages 214. Rs 349.
This is the third part of Swarajya’s conversation with S N Balagangadhara.
Q: You make a very bold — even controversial — claim about truth and knowledge. That “knowledge trumps truth” in our culture. We have a goddess for knowledge, but not truth. For the Abrahamics, truth is revealed by their one and only ‘true god;, and hence they are more obsessed by truth than us. But our national motto says, “Satyamev Jayate” and Gandhi said his whole life was about experiments with truth. How do you explain this contradiction between what we really revere (knowledge) and what we have adopted as national mottos?
A. My answer is colonial consciousness. We learn a way of talking and we use it. This way of talking is unconnected to our experience. We have adopted many things in the formation of the Indian nation-state which are strange. The entire Indian Constitution is an expression of that strangeness.
A couple of other things. In Christianity, god is the truth; He does not merely reveal something called ‘the truth’. This truth is an ontological notion (ie, it is about what there is or exists in the world), whereas the ‘truth’ as we use the word in India is semantic in nature. It is a linguistic property of sentences, mostly. I do not say that the true sentences that we talk and write are unimportant to us; I say that this truth-telling is subordinated to knowledge.
Gandhi titles his book without knowing what he was talking about. (We must understand his educational and experiential backgrounds, both of which were colonial and Christian, to understand his obsession with ‘the’ truth.) How does one experiment with truth, or how many kinds of experiments can we do with it? What does such a formulation or such an activity mean? What kind of experiments can we indulge in? For instance, is lying an ‘experiment with truth’ or is it the opposite of truth-telling? Silly slogans should not replace serious thinking. About ‘Satyamev Jayate’: what does the ‘victory’ of truth mean? Against what? Lies? Why should truth-telling and lying be each other’s enemies? Have we not been taught by our mothers, grandparents, and friends to know how and when to lie? Are we ‘experimenting’ with ‘truth’ in such cases?
If we were members of Semitic religions, we could make sense of the victory of ‘the truth’, viz, of god. If ‘satya’ were to mean ‘the good’, we can understand the victory of ‘the good’ against evil. What would this mean if truth is a linguistic property of sentences? Of course, ‘Satyamev Jayate’ is a native Indian motto. Here and there, Indian writings hint at the existence of an ontological notion of truth but they became popular only during the British colonialism and under the influence of Protestant Christianity. (“Ekam Sat…” is about Sat but not about satya, whereas “bahudavadanti” is about truth-telling.) Thus, the point is that we cannot explain or understand what the victory of satya is without appealing to Semitic religions today. Do we really need to have a national motto incomprehensible to most of us Indians?
Q: You define “culture” as combining two things, language and actions. These exist not only as resources for enabling socialisation, but contain knowledge on how to use and experience these resources. You also say that in Western culture, religion plays an important role and in Indian culture it is rituals and practices. Can you expand on this idea with examples?
A. I have put this across as a possible hypothesis of a phenomenon in chapter 3 of the book ‘What does it mean to be Indian?’ I have said more in ‘The Heathen…’, and in ‘Reconceptualizing India Studies’, and in many other articles. I suggest reading them to know more.
Q: I wonder why you say that Islam and Christianity have adapted to the Indian configurations of learning despite differing belief systems. But you also state that madrassas and evangelical groups resist this adaptation to Indian cultural configurations. Can you explain this conflict, and why it is so important to understand in the Indian context?
A. All things are influenced by the environment of which they are a part. Religion is no exception. The way Semitic religions evolved in a religious environment like Europe or in the Middle East is different from how the Semitic religions evolved in a non-religious environment like India. Europe or America today are ‘secular’ worlds; a ‘secular’ world in a religious culture is a secularised religious environment.
Both religions and traditions face different challenges in different environments. Take, for example, the kind of problems faced by NRI Hindus: they are suddenly confronted with new questions and novel situations. So, they adapt to survive in that environment. Or take the Jews: European and Middle Eastern Jews who were victims of relentless persecution evolved differently compared to the Jews who lived peacefully in a non-religious environment like India.
Thus, Islam and Christianity also changed in India. Today, there is also the growing impact of evangelical Christianity or Wahabism on them. It is a very complex issue with multiple threads, but I think that the increasing hostility and friction between communities in India has to do with the changing nature of these religions. But because we don’t have many intellectuals in India, we don’t have the resources to understand what is happening there. It is one of the biggest tragedies of India: not only do we not have many intellectuals, but we also do not appear to care about producing more of them.
Your main concern is about the modern-day interaction between Indian culture and these two groups of militant evangelising Christians and the equally militant madrassas. Note that they are taking place against an India whose culture is losing its vibrancy. To understand this complex pattern of interaction and make a prognosis requires research of a kind that is totally non-existent in India. A moralising talk about the persecution of minority groups in India is the language of the current crop of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University and Asoka University people. It gives them ‘fame’ but produces no knowledge.
Q: It seems likely that colonisation is not always a well-thought-out conspiracy by the coloniser. It is the product of the colonial powers using their own historical lenses to define or describe the colonised, but, at the same time, it also involves a long-term process whereby the colonised people develop a “colonial consciousness”. Why and how did India’s intellectuals start believing that their rulers understood them better than they themselves did? What could have been the triggers for this process?
A. Colonialism is not a conspiracy: no massive social phenomenon is a conspiracy, well thought-out or otherwise.
I speak about these two questions very briefly in my book, because much of the work on these issues belongs to ongoing research. I am one of the few who have identified and raised this as a question. There is a lot more work to be done before we can answer these questions. In my book, I say:
“So, we can ask: what made Indians think that the British experience of India describes India the way it is? This issue becomes even more acute because of another claim that I have been developing: one of the characteristic aspects of Indian culture has been its continuous emphasis on reflecting on experience. Thus, Indian intellectuals must have been able to see that what the British were saying about them did not match their own experience. Yet, instead of disagreeing, they acquiesced. What made the Indian intellectuals blind to the nature of their own experience? If we assume that events that occurred in the world are responsible for this, what happened in the past that made the intellectuals of India lose their grip on an essential element of their culture? How could Indian culture have failed in accessing its own experience, when its internal focus was precisely on reflecting on experience?"Page 84
The indicative hypothesise is that Indian culture was losing its vibrancy and the nature of her intellectuals must have changed their shape and form during this time. For now, what I say in the book is all I can say. When I die, I can leave behind what I have worked on for 40 years. After all, I am one man (and an old one at that) and the questions are many. There are no easy fruits to pluck, we must plant the trees and tend to them with the hope that our posterity can pluck the fruits.
Our culture has always placed a huge premium on knowledge. Jnana and Saraswati are not easily acquired. You ask for examples of the resources of socialisation: our intuitive relationship to Saraswati, vidya and jnana are excellent examples. In any case, a very brief answer can be given. Indians succumbed to the descriptions of the colonisers because Indians were unable to counter them with their native descriptions. The crises in Indian society that preceded Islamic colonialism had weakened the Indian intellectual traditions. The Muslims damaged this weakened culture so that when the British came, our resources were almost exhausted due to a millennium of lack of use and quite some abuse.
Q: Regarding Islamic colonisation, you say that it enabled the penetration of Islamic themes using Indian terms and concepts. This happened because Indian culture was already losing its vibrancy when Islam came to India… Can you speculate on why we were already losing vibrancy at that time, so that we became easy fodder for Islamic themes to enter our consciousness? How did Islam prevent us from accessing our own experiences?
A. I am still trying to understand this phenomenon fully. This requires research which is still ongoing. It would not be correct to speculate about such serious matters now. As it is, disciplines which claim to study India are full of speculations, conjectures, and pernicious nonsense. I would be very irresponsible (and unethical, to be honest) to add to that.
However, the following can be safely said. There must have been a huge crisis (maybe, there were many crises) in our culture because of which certain kinds of enquiries died. Certain ‘developments’ in Indian culture about 1,000 years ago were probably responses to crises that we could not adequately meet. That is, not everything that emerged in our culture, even centuries before the Islamic colonialism, indexes our strength; some of these developments could well be expressions of weaknesses. This is a call to seriously study the Indian past, not the way JNU and Delhi University scholars have done until now, but in a scientific manner.
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