What We Lost Under Islamic And British Colonialism: A Conversation With S N Balagangadhara

What We Lost Under Islamic And British Colonialism: A Conversation With S N Balagangadhara

by R Jagannathan - Friday, April 15, 2022 11:44 AM IST
What We Lost Under Islamic And British Colonialism: A Conversation With S N BalagangadharaS N Balagangadhara and the cover of his book.
  • The book explores the impact of Islamic and British colonialisms on our understanding of the world and experiences, and what it means to be a part of Indian culture in the twenty-first century.

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

S N Balagangadhara, emeritus professor at Ghent University, Belgium, has spent more than 40 years studying the science of cultures, especially Western culture, which was deeply influenced by Christianity, and how this framework was used to understand Indian culture, where it was a colonising power. In the process, our British colonial masters’ understanding of Indian traditions, religion and the 'caste system' impacted how we, the colonised, began to see ourselves even after 1947.

His latest book, What Does It Mean To Be Indian?, written in collaboration with Sarika Rao, examines how the Islamic and British colonialisms interfered with our understanding of the world and experiences, thus leaving us with several unanswered questions on what it really means to be Indian in the twenty-first century.

Dr Balagangadhara’s books and essays include Cultures Differ Differently, Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, Do All Roads Lead To Jerusalem? The Making of Indian Religions (co-authored with Divya Jhingran), and The Heathen In His Blindness: Asia, The West, And The Dynamic of Religion. His students have explored his themes in another book, Western Foundations of The Caste System (edited by Martin Farek, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan, and Prakash Shah).

In a conversation with Dr Balagangadhara, both over email and in a face-to-face discussion over Zoom, Swarajya’s R Jagannathan discussed his book What It Means To Be Indian?, including the ideas contained in it, and areas for future research. The following is the first part of the Q&A with Dr Balagangadhara.

Swarajya: Does your book ‘What Does It mean to Be Indian?’ seek answers to the question “Who were we as a people before Islamic and British colonialism entered the picture?”

S N Balagangadhara: No. What Does It Mean To Be Indian? does not speak of some pre-colonial, ‘pristine’ Indian culture. What Does It Mean To Be Indian’? is about what it means to be a part of Indian culture in the twenty-first century. The two colonialisms are parts of our past; they cannot be undone or erased. Colonialisms happened and they impacted us. The goal is to understand how they did so and find ways of dealing with them. That is the reason I spend much time on issues like colonialism, culture, and experience.

However, what the impacts of colonialisms were and how we responded to them are dependent on how we were as a culture. How the two colonialisms changed us depended on who we were (as a culture) before they colonised us. What Islam did to us is partially how we were before that event and British colonialism’s impact depended on what we had become before they colonised us. We were never passive victims; our culture defined (partially) what the colonisers were able to do.

There is more research to be done, but thus far we know that colonialism creates colonial consciousness which impedes our access to experiences — not at a generic, abstract level but at an individual level. It is something that you and I, our parents, and our children have.

It is important to reiterate that this book is not peddling cheap identity politics. As I explicitly say:

“I do not plot cultural differences along geographical, or linguistic or religious lines. Thus, belonging to Indian culture is how we use or deal with the resources of socialization in India. This would mean that belonging to this or that religion does not differentiate people as members of a culture: one could belong to Indian culture whether a Jain, Buddhist or a Hindu in exactly the same way a Christian or a Muslim is Indian. This accords with what we see in India: a Konkani-speaking Muslim in Mumbai is as much an Indian as a Kannada-speaking Christian in Mangalore, and as a Tamil-speaking Brahmin in Bangalore.”
(Page 41)

Q: You state that colonialism, apart from violence and subjugation, does things to your mind whereby you no longer have access to your own way of experiencing life through your own learnt cultural interpretations. You see everything through the lens provided by the coloniser. My question is: this seems to matter only if the process of colonisation is incomplete, that is we have been outwardly colonised and alienated from our culturally-embedded instincts, but still know that something is amiss about ourselves. But what if we were, say, fully colonised like the pagans of Europe by Christianity? Today’s Christians are all descendants of those early pagan communities, who now fully see their identities as Christian, not pagan. I mean: does colonisation and self-alienation matter only if we are half-colonised, where we still have memories of what we were earlier?

A. The claim is not that we are not accessing our own way of experience. Rather, we are not accessing our experience. Period. (Read the chapter “India and her Tradition: An Open letter to Jeffrey Kripal”, in my 2012 book, Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, to understand in an abbreviated form what it means to speak of accessing our experience.)

Also, it is not true to say that we “see everything through the lens provided by the coloniser”. The lens that Indians use(d) is different from what the Africans or the Native Americans use(d), even though these people were also colonised. The lens we ‘use’ is ‘made in India’, even if the ‘technology’ is western.

Further, the two processes, Christianisation and colonisation, should not get mixed up. Christianisation is the process of converting populations into Christianity. It is a massive socio-cultural process. The British colonised us but did not Christianise us. In fact, though some missionaries wanted it, the British did not even try to do this. According to some estimates, the Christianisation of Europe itself was only completed by the fifteenth century. In fact, according to me, the Protestant Reformation signalled that the Christianisation of Europe was completed by then.

And we still don’t know why the Roman Empire fell, what happened to the pagans in Rome when Christianity emerged. I develop a partial hypothesis in the second chapter of my first book The Heathen in his Blindness… (1994).

Other than that, here are some further thoughts: I think India was already a mature culture when it was colonised. Perhaps, a passing thought is required to say what I mean by a ‘mature’ culture here. The successful and complete Christianisation of (western) Europe can at least partially be connected to the native cultures that Christianity encountered when it went west of Rome to proselytise. In India, there was very little Semitic religions could offer that would trump what was already present: from the abstract Parabrahma to sophisticated literature, arts, and philosophy; from various types of rituals and traditions to a plurality of routes to ‘spirituality’. Such a culture could tame and absorb some of the tendencies of Semitic religions without being overwhelmed.

Colonialism damaged our culture in the sense that it damaged the transmission of Indian culture and the formation of our intellectuals. Even in this process, Indian culture didn’t passively undergo the damage. In turn, it also impacted and changed those that entered it. Indian Islam and Indian Christianity are different from what they are in their native soil. Evangelical Christians and madrassas are trying to change this Christianity and Islam in India into something which they believe is ‘the template’ for these religions.

Finally. At the stage our knowledge is in, we cannot speak of complete or incomplete colonialism because we have no metric using which we can measure either the degrees or the extent of colonialism. Conversion to Christianity did not make Indians either partially or completely colonial: The Church of South India (including the other dioceses that are conglomerated there) is not a colonising institution, even if colonialism established it (in some sense). Madras Christians are not really all that different culturally from Mudaliyars or other similar groups in Tamil Nadu.

Q: Can you explain your statement that India was colonised first by a religion (Islam) and later by the British (but not Christianity). The latter is easily understood, since it involved subjugation and direct intervention in our civil and social lives, but how does one explain colonisation by a religion? Or is it that Islam first colonises the minds of its own faithful and then they do the rest?

A. I have not gone into this question in the book because it requires that one understands my theory of religion and how a religion secularises itself. This is a very long topic. Thus, I can only say in this answer that the claim that Islam colonised us can be made intelligible and is defensible. It is not ‘easy’ to understand it because religion is not an easy phenomenon for us to understand. All you need to know at this stage is that while it is true that people subjugate people, so does a religion. The latter’s colonisation is an entirely different process from conversion into a religion.

Colonising India is the secularising moment of Islam as a religion, but not in its phase of religious conversion. The British colonised us but not their Christianity (ie, British colonialism was not a process of Christianisation), whereas it was not the Arabs or Persians who colonised us but Islam. The process of Islamification was carried out by a very weakly secularised religion. (Or) Islam secularises itself through Islamification whereas Christianity secularises itself in a de-Christianised form. These two processes, Christianisation and Islamification, are different in kind and these do not qualify as a process of religious conversion into these religions.

Superficially speaking, Islamification looks very much like religious conversion, but it is not. The violent subduing of socio-cultural phenomena and attempts to deform them make this phase (or aspect) of Islam different from religious conversion. Conversion is an individual religious process, whereas Islamification is a secularisation process at a social scale driven by violence. (I cannot explain these distinctions and thoughts here, in this answer, because it requires a very long explanation).

Q: My own hunch is that British colonisation was built on top of Islam’s brutal and contemptuous regard for Indian culture. Thus, when the British came, many Indians were willing to see them as saviours from Islam’s brutalities. This made it easy for us to think that the way forward is to think like them. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, for example, wanted to model his Brahmo Samaj more or less like a Hindu version of Christianity…Your comment.

A. My previous answer hints at a possible explanation of your hunch, viz., “Islam’s brutal and contemptuous regard for Indian culture”. Surely, we must explain this phenomenon: why should Islam, or any religion for that matter, regard a culture (any culture) brutally and contemptuously? Even the most ‘other-worldly’ orientation seeks music, hymns, and ennobling visualisations. That being the case, how to understand your hunch? Since you are not alone in thinking this, as scientists, we must come up with a plausible (and hopefully true) solution to the problem. Currently, I think I am very close to a satisfactory solution, which I have only hinted at in my previous answer.

Many things emerge at the crossover points where religion and tradition meet and impact each other. Movements such as the Arya Samaj or Prarthana Samaj are some such. They modelled themselves on the Protestant Reformation (as Indians understood ‘reformation’, of course) with a goal to ‘reform’ Hinduism. The nature and tenor of the Protestant theologies which they encountered defined their themes and determined their responses. However, I do not think that Raja Ram Mohan Roy (and others) wanted to be like the Protestants because the British fought Islamic rulers. The reasons must be sought elsewhere and not in their possible individual psychologies, because it fails to explain why many other and different psychologies followed these movements. Surely, we cannot explain or understand the ‘popularity’ of Arya Samaj today by appealing to this psychological explanation.

No matter how Indians looked at the British (as saviours or whatever), this attitude does not explain colonialism. In the South, for instance, Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, is praised because he fought the British. Tipu was known as a very cruel king, but he is celebrated as the hero who resisted the British invasion. There is a ‘Tipu Sultan’ day, a festival day, that the Congress party introduced into the state.

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

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