In 1888, Sir R. G. Bhandarkar, the father of Indian Orientalism, penned an article on the “scientific” study of Indian texts titled “The Critical, Comparative, and Historical Method of Inquiry.” In it, he addressed the colonized people of India thus:
Let us … sitting at the feet of the English, French, and German Ṛṣis, imbibe the knowledge that they have to give, and at least keep pace with them, if not go beyond them. Let us learn, let us reform. If we do not do so, fifteen centuries hence, the antiquarian of the period will, unlike Weber, say, “the English placed before the Indian Aryas the highest civilization which Europe had reached by the end of the nineteenth century; but in the hot plains of India, the Indian Aryas had grown so degenerate, that it produced no influence whatever on them, and their degeneracy deepening, they eventually became hewers of wood and drawers of water, or were swept off the face of the earth by the inexorable law of the survival of the fittest.”
R. G. Bhandarkar gives us a view of Indian history that has become pervasive. Over the past two centuries, it has percolated down into our history textbooks. It is a view found in Indian thinkers and leaders from Ram Mohan Roy to Nehru.
According to this view –India’s history is essentially a history of degeneration. India and Indians remain trapped in the past; their traditions, however glorious they may once have been, now act to prevent them from joining the ranks of the “civilized” nations. In fact, the more they insist on the glory of their past, the harder it becomes for them to undertake the reforms necessary to enable social, economic, and scientific progress.
James Mill famously began the section titled “On the Hindus” of his History of British India thus:
Rude nations seem to derive a peculiar gratification from pretensions to remote antiquity. As a boastful and turgid vanity distinguishes remarkably the oriental nations, they have in most instances carried their claims extravagantly high.
This history fundamentally shapes Indians’ perceptions of themselves. Most political discussion and certainly all cultural debates in India revolve around the question of what our proper relationship to our past ought to be.
On the left, many advocate a revolution that will finally overthrow the power of a reactionary “Brahmanism” and usher in the promised utopia of a secular, materialist society. Many in the right likewise hold out the promise of a fulfillment of history— after the travails of conquest and colonization, the idea of national progress requires all Indians to work towards realizing a vision of the ideal society drawn from the past.
Doesn't this fixation on history force us into a discourse of identities, replacing essential questions of dharma? Can history provide us with guidelines for living today? Is history sufficient to explain the humanity of Indians without remainder? When did an unthinking historicism replace ethical, philosophical, and pragmatic considerations?
The idea of history as a space where the salvation of individuals as members of a “nation,” a “race,” or a “faith” manifests is alien to Indian thought. It has its roots in Christianity. The narrative of religious decline itself was manufactured in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe and exported to India as a justification for colonization. Besides James Mill, German Indologists in the nineteenth century played a key role in shaping this narrative. Using a tendentious method called the “historical-critical” method, they read Sanskrit texts like the Mahābhārata to demonstrate how ancient Indians, once free and proud “Aryans,” had become decadent and corrupt.
Drawing on Protestant criticisms of Judaism and especially of the rabbis, these scholars portrayed Brahmans as mendacious priests, who had corrupted the texts and enslaved the Indian people. They offered their scholarship, optimistically called “Indology,” as an antidote to the Indian tradition, and provided intellectual foundations and suitable “historical” evidence for the work of Christian missionaries, religious reformers, colonial administrators, race theorists, and, later, Marxist revolutionaries.
Overcoming this narrative, which has seeped into the entire Indian intellectual establishment and forms the bedrock of the Indian social sciences, takes years of work and dedicated study of the German-language sources. A new way of looking at history is needed, one that emphasizes the fate of the individual and teaches us to become suspicious of grand narratives, and which overcomes the left-right dichotomy and the violence it generates.
Among the new generation of scholars that has risen to this challenge, Professor Vishwa Adluri of Hunter College, New York has emerged as one of the foremost critics of historicism.
A student of Reiner Schürmann and Seth Benardete, Dr. Adluri studied Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Homer and Greek tragedy at the New School for Social Research in New York. Deeply fascinated by Nietzsche’s criticisms of history, he undertook a profound critique of modernity’s relationship to ancient thought. His first book Parmenides, Plato and Mortal Philosophy: Return from Transcendence addressed the problems with the modern reception of Parmenides and Plato. In this book, Dr. Adluri contrasted the fate of the “singular,” who can never be subsumed to a historical narrative, with the humanities’ fascination with giving historical accounts. Turning away from the seductions of history for “the life-story of the singular,” his book returned the Socratic question of true knowledge as self-knowledge to the heart of the philosophical enterprise.
Later, Dr. Adluri applied the same insights to the study of Indian thought. Arguing that the crisis of Indology reflects a deeper crisis in the humanities, he showed how Orientalism both presupposes the narrative of progress from a state of darkness to a state of light and simultaneously contributes to this narrative. Dr. Adluri showed how this narrative had been imposed on the Indians, forcing them to turn away from their own traditions and share, instead, in the Indologists’ “eschatological” hope.
By turning to the Mahābhārata, he showed how a different notion of time was available to Indians—individual rather than collective, circular rather than linear, and cosmological rather than anthropocentric. Together with his student Dr. Joydeep Bagchee, Dr. Adluri mapped the Western reception of the Mahābhārata, showing how a pseudoscience called “Indology” was created to replace Indian notions of time, history, and personhood with concepts borrowed from Christianity.
On behalf of Swarajya, I had the pleasure of asking them about their path-breaking new book The Nay Science: A History of German Indology.
Srinivas Udumudi: The Nay Science: A History of German Indology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) is being hailed as the most devastating criticism of German Indology to date. Can you tell our readers what is German Indology? What is the gist of your criticism of German Indology? And what is the relevance of your criticism to the passionate debates taking place in India today?
Vishwa Adluri & Joydeep Bagchee (Authors): German Indology is an approach to Indian texts. It originated in specific intellectual-historical conditions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany. Its salient features are an emphasis on literal meaning, attention to the historical conditions (the so-called realia) assumed to exist at the time and considered decisive for the texts’ composition, and a rejection of traditional reception. Obviously, this is all quite problematic: first, how do we know what the texts mean if not for the exegetic, commentarial tradition that hands them down to us? German Indology presumes there is such a thing as an unmediated, purely “scientific” access to texts but at least since Gadamer we know this is naïve. Second, German Indology did not just see historical data as supplementing and perhaps refining our understanding of texts; rather, it saw historical information as replacing the task of understanding. Ultimately, it set up an antithetical relationship to the tradition that proved unsustainable: German Indology was “scientific,” trustworthy because it was not the tradition. Third, there is something reductive about reading historical conditions out of the texts and then using those inferred conditions in turn to interpret them. In the case of the texts we studied, the Mahābhārata and the Bhagavad Gītā, we found this led to manifest circularity. An entire discipline was constituted based on a few uncritical principles —for example, the assumption of an Aryan invasion or that Brahmans corrupted the “original” texts.
SU: What is the historical-critical method? How is it used by Indologists?
Authors: The historical-critical method is an innovation within Protestant theology. In the eighteenth century, neo-Protestant theologians like Johann Salomo Semler found they could no longer defend the Bible as revelation in the face of the Enlightenment. Their solution was to concede that parts of it were historical; but nonetheless hold on to the idea of the kerygma (the apostolic proclamation of salvation through Christ). Unsurprisingly, the parts they rejected were the Jewish histories and stories of the Old Testament. This same method was later applied to the New Testament. The method’s most striking feature is that what is essentially a theological and, above all, an apologetic argument is not recognized as such because it is framed as a textual strategy. The method pretends it is merely interested in the texts’ form rather than their content, even though under the guise of “form criticism” (Formkritik) it often removes and thus invalidates specific doctrines. German Indologists similarly used this method to undercut the Indian canon. They denied or, rather, shattered the literary unity of works like the Mahābhārata and the Bhagavad Gītā. They privileged historical questions—above all, questions of authenticity, of the historically correct meaning, and of whether narrated events actually, that is to say, historically occurred—thus interrupting the texts’ ability to speak to their readers. Like Luther, they rejected the texts’ gnoseological, philosophical, and theological dimensions, which they, again like Luther, ascribed to the priestly desire for power. Ironically, while they intoned antisemitic narratives of “priestly” corruption, the Indologists themselves became an entrenched elite: high priests of academia, who inserted themselves between the texts and their readers, developed ritualistic and fetishistic methods, and drew high salaries. They betrayed the spirit of Luther’s Reformation. That is why, in this Lutherjahr, the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, we repeated his seminal gesture by posting the “Theses on Indology” to Academia.edu.
SU: Beyond conspiratorial allegations in Indian circles (for instance, about Max Müller’s private letters to his wife), so far no one has demonstrated the Christian Protestant theological basis of the work of so many Indologists. What you are asserting goes beyond that. You are asserting that the historical-critical method itself is Christian Neo-Protestant in origin and all Indological work using this method is just Christian Protestant theology in disguise of objective secular philological work?
Authors: All philology is ultimately in service to projects of meaning, be they anti-traditional, historicist, or atheistic. A good example is the German Indologist Paul Hacker, who unambiguously declares: “I wanted to place my science in the service of the church.” Even Pollock, who calls himself “a secular Rankean philologist,” is not free of ideological commitments. Apart from the oxymoron—Ranke was anything but secular—secularism itself embodies an ideology. In the case of German Indology, several other considerations must be borne in mind. First, at a personal level, almost all German Indologists were theologically educated Protestants. All came from deeply pious homes; they were deeply concerned with the nature of the true faith. Second, at an intellectual-historical level, all German philosophy in the modern period is an offspring of theology, as Heidegger rightly notes. Nietzsche is more blunt: “The Protestant pastor is the grandfather of German philosophy.” Third, at a textual level, the debates about Indian texts (for example, whether the Gītā was originally “pantheistic” and then underwent “theistic” interpolation, or vice versa) only make sense in the context of Christian theology. These were intra-Christian debates projected on to Indian texts, as we showed in chapter 3 of The Nay Science. Finally, remember that the historical-critical method is called a method only by equivocation: there is no objective, rule-governed way to apply it. The term itself is quite misleading: the historical-critical method is neither historical nor critical; least of all is it a method. It is, rather, a way of making predictions about the text—predictions that, if unchallenged, will appear true because they are self-confirming. For example, without the supposition that the Brahmans corrupted the “original” texts, the method cannot be applied to Indian texts. Thus whoever applied the method and howsoever they did so, they would end up confirming the narrative of Brahmanic “corruption.” Herein lies the method’s brilliance: its prejudices are built in.
SU: You focused on Mahābhārata and Bhagavad Gītā studies of German Indology up to mid-twentieth century but the historical-critical method you repudiate is commonly used by most Indologists studying any Indian text. With your second book Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism (London: Anthem, 2017) and articles (“Paradigm Lost” and “Bloß Glaube?”), which bring the coverage up to the present, is your criticism not applicable to most other contemporary Indologists, both German and non-German?
Authors: The Mahābhārata and the Bhagavad Gītā offered a privileged locus to study the application of the historical-critical method for several reasons. But in principle our analysis is applicable to almost all contemporary Indologists insofar as they rely on the historical-critical method and share the discipline’s anti-traditional, iconoclastic stance.
SU: The book received many excellent reviews, and also, understandably, harsh attacks from some practicing Indologists. Curiously, the critics restrict themselves to either picking on the definition and applicability of the phrase “German Indology,” or denying the existence of a “single method.” Was there any criticism of the core thesis of the book itself in any of the reviews?
Authors: There was a lot of indignation. But beyond ad hominem attacks and calls to not publish the book, there were no substantive criticisms. The Indologists could not defend Christian Lassen, Adolf Holtzmann Jr., and Richard Garbe. They could not create new criteria for identifying “layers” in the Bhagavad Gītā. Their work is basically speculative: attributing motivations to “Brahmans,” claiming this is what the “interpolator” clearly did, and making up chronologies based on what they consider “early” or “late.” There are neither objective, non-circular criteria nor valid arguments Instead, the Indologists just cite each other’s work, thinking that deferring to the “expert” consensus makes their work scientific. The more interesting responses to The Nay Science came from classicists and scholars concerned about the humanities’ future direction (Butler, Lenz et al.). Eric Kurlander rightly notes that The Nay Science “is more than a history of German Indology.” The Nay Science unfolds an argument for a new philology. It argues for a new pedagogy in the humanities. Its sources range from Plato to Heidegger and Lutheran theology. It is informed by contemporary debates about the purpose and meaning of the humanities (Nietzsche, Arrowsmith, Carne-Ross). The real debate now concerns what happens with the humanities “after Indology.”
SU: With this method becoming autonomous, factories of “philologists” producing editions of Indian texts based on their wild theories proliferated. Worse, in the name of authoritative interpretation, Indologists imposed prejudiced and agenda-driven hypotheses on to the texts. How influential has the historical-critical method been, and how influential is it now? How much literature has this pseudo-scientific method produced and how much does it continue to produce?
Authors: The historical-critical method has been extremely influential. In biblical studies, it is the dominant paradigm, having almost completely replaced earlier ways of thinking about the Bible. Every student entering a program of doctoral study must come to terms with it— no easy task if one was raised in faith! In Indology, it never had a serious competitor. From the beginning, “scientific” study of Indian texts was equated with the application of the historical-critical method. It remains influential long after its motivating causes were forgotten (for instance, in US departments, which had no reason to develop the kind of antisemitic narratives German scholars did). Fortunately, there are signs, not only in Indology, that weariness has set in. Practitioners of the method like Brevard S. Childs have noted its impasses. There is now a movement called post-critical biblical interpretation. We must make a distinction, however, between its application in biblical studies, where it could be said to have attained real albeit limited results, and Indology. Even prior to our critique, Indology was an ersatz tradition that tried to model itself on philology, both classical and biblical. It failed spectacularly. Indologists can continue producing more literature using this pseudo-scientific method but history itself has moved on.
SU: An understanding of concepts like redaction, recensions, stemmata, and so on was present in India from ancient times. The śākhas of the Veda or the works of commentators like Nīlakaṇṭha Caturdhara show a keen awareness of these concepts. How is textual criticism different from the historical-critical method? Can biases and prejudices be introduced using this?
Authors: Any method can be susceptible to bias. We are talking about something different: an institution, a discipline where bias was not the exception but the norm. In fact, bias was expected of its practitioners and students because only shared biases provided the intersubjective validity necessary to sustain the illusion of a discipline, of method, of binding procedures and empirically verifiable results. In textual criticism, the critic attempts to bracket his biases: the method is intentionally made as mechanical as possible to reduce the scope for subjective judgment. This contrasts with historical criticism (a.k.a. “higher” criticism) where, far from bracketing biases, the critic is supposed to bring them into play, only he should do so in agreement with his peers or, at most, differ from them only in matters of detail. An education in Indology is thus an education in having the correct biases, towards the correct people, at the correct time and in the correct way. It neither answers to the four goals of dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa nor provides a cogent method, rigorous scientific training, and philosophical edification. It does not even address as basic a need as aesthetic pleasure from reading because it replaces literary appreciation with mindless dissection of texts.
SU: Your paper “Pride and Prejudice” provided a critique of German Indology in 2011. In that paper, you mention Pollock’s chapter “Deep Orientalism?” (1993) as having first identified a connection between National Socialism and German Indology. Pollock expands the Saidian concept of Orientalism to include “pre-colonial forms of domination”—specifically, what he calls “high Brahminism.” In their anxiety to negate Pollock’s anti-Brahmanism, several Indians quoted Grünendahl’s response to your 2011 paper approvingly, and denied German Indology’s complicity with National Socialism. What is your analysis of Pollock’s anti-Brahmanism?
Authors: Frankly, there is something quite pernicious about comparing National Socialism with Brahmanism, as though both could be subordinated under the rubric of “forms of domination.” Along with Lacoue-Labarthe, we must remember that what happened with National Socialism, above all the Holocaust, defies comparison. It is even more pernicious to suggest something intrinsic to Sanskrit was responsible for the domination in both cases. Pollock transfers responsibility away from where it properly belongs—the men and women who participated in National Socialism—to an abstract entity like language, which—allegedly—has the power to make people behave badly. Hannah Arendt, who wrote “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” would be horrified. Not just “Deep Orientalism?” but all of Pollock’s work thereafter plays this double game. On one hand, Pollock appears to affirm the liberal political consensus; on the other, he functions as an advocate exonerating Indologists, philologists, and Orientalists. In his latest work (World Philology [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016]), he affirms his role as an Indologist. Once again, the Indologist is called upon to explain and to induct Indian texts “in this new philological discipline”; once again, the Indologist sets himself up as an authority figure controlling admission of natives to the “temple of disciplinarity.” Pollock’s work is anti-Saidian not only in intent; he has also never taken the critical step of questioning the source of his own authority.
SU: Critics of The Nay Science claim there is no single method used by German Indologists. In your 2016 article “How We Should Approach the Phenomenon of Studying Hinduism” in Swarajya, you asserted something similar to deny existence of a peculiarly American Indology. Wendy Doniger, however, notes in the preface to the edited volume Authority, Anxiety and Canon (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994): “A fight has been raging over the ownership of the sacred relic of the body of the Ṛg-Veda (and over the question of whether it is, in fact, a corpse) for over a century. There have been two main warring camps […]: on this side, German (and British) philologists, in their obsessively neat ranks of scholarship, and on that side, Brahmins, in their equally (but separately) obsessive ranks of ritual. […] But now a third party has entered the ranks, academicus ex machina, to rescue the Veda from the depth of the Ocean of Obfuscation to which those twin demons, European and Brahminical, had abducted it. Now it appears that […] the Veda belongs neither to the anal-retentive nor to the sanctimonious, but to the methodological. More precisely, the Veda has attracted the attention of a group of historians of religions in North America […],” (vii, emphasis added). Is not Doniger positing an American Indology based on a method? What “method” is being referred to here when the word “methodological” is used?
Authors: For specific historical reasons (its innate diversity, its educational structures, its lack of a single government ministry, its plurality of confessions, etc.), the United States never developed a single state-sponsored Indology pursuing a consistent project (like Christian or Protestant exceptionalism) as in Germany. In fact, insofar as American Indology has recognizable principles, these are borrowed from German Indology, as we pointed out in The Nay Science. The discipline of history of religions or comparative religion is itself indebted to German Indologists like Rudolf von Roth, Max Müller, and Rudolf Otto. Mircea Eliade worked in the intersection between the two disciplines. At institutional and intellectual levels, history of religions is unthinkable without Indian or, as they are now called, “South Asian” religions. Methodologically, it shares Indology’s concerns and aims. Historically, Indologists provided much of the textual basis and “historical” data for the comparative religionists. Chapter four of The Nay Science clarified the link between Indology and history of religions. It showed how the discipline we call history of religions originated with the Indologist Rudolf von Roth. J. Z. Smith observes that the entire study of religion in American academia is grounded in the conceptual language of the German Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. The Nay Science went further by showing how, mediated via the evangelical theologian Heinrich Ewald and his student Roth, Protestant biases informed history of religions from the start. Insofar as American Indology shares these biases, especially the focus on history, teleological conceptions of religion, and anti-Brahmanism, it remains embedded in German Indology. If American scholars cannot develop a new paradigm that addresses historical criticism’s errors and overcomes its religious and cultural biases, their work remains vulnerable to The Nay Science’s criticisms. Ataḥ pradhānamallanibarhaṇanyāyenātidiśati. A separate criticism is unnecessary.
SU: In the fascinating and most important chapter of The Nay Science, “Problems with the Critical Method,” you dwell on the philosophical presuppositions of the critical method, trace its genealogy to Comte’s historicism, and analyze it using Gadamer’s critique of the Enlightenment. You show that German Indology’s theoretical foundations were completely eroded, and that it was out of step with philosophical currents in Europe, which culminated in a severe criticism of the Enlightenment, and how the Indologists are unaware of this and proudly declare alignment with the Enlightenment based on their scientism. But is Indology not like all other humanities in this respect, which model themselves after the physical sciences? What is your specific philosophical criticism of German Indology?
Authors: You are absolutely right. Indeed, one way to look at The Nay Science is that the discussion of Indology leads to a critique of the contemporary humanities. German Indology presented a useful case study for understanding what happens to the humanities once they forget their essential nature and start imitating or, rather, aping the natural sciences. That said, there are specific problems with German Indology—for example, its racism, antisemitism, colonialism, and Orientalism—that are not applicable to other disciplines.
SU: In your recent lecture at IIC, New Delhi in December 2016, talking about the rise of historiography in the West, you said: “it is only in 19th century Germany that history displaces all other subjects from the humanities ... And there is nothing that transcends history ... What explains the rise of history to occlude all other human concerns?” Can you please explain to our readers your analysis of this phenomenon?
Authors: The fact that everything transpires in history and can therefore be arranged temporally is a relatively banal insight. As a taxonomic principle it is no more compelling than those Foucault discovered on reading Borges in The Order of Things. So the distinguishing feature of the contemporary view is neither the insight into the historical nature of all existence (a discovery variously attributed to Vico, Herder, Humboldt, Hegel, and Ranke) nor the relating of events and discoveries to historical time. Rather, what is distinctive about historicism is the significance attached to history—a significance that, as Löwith rightly notes, originates with the Jewish and Christian experience of awaiting the Messiah. The Greek concept of time is cyclical: historical narratives exist but history itself insofar as it is chance and accidental cannot be the subject of an episteme (science). The proper object of knowledge is the eternal laws and customs that uphold the cosmos and ensure its orderly functioning. As Löwith notes, “In this intellectual climate, dominated by the rationality of the natural cosmos, there was no room for the universal significance of a unique, incomparable historical event.” Contrast this with the Jewish and Christian experience, for which “history was primarily a history of salvation and, as such, the proper concern of prophets, preachers, and philosophers.” There is now a tremendous interest in studying history. As the sphere where man’s salvation plays itself out, history acquires a new significance. To the extent that they regard themselves as Geschichtswissenschaften (historical sciences), the contemporary humanities also stand in this tradition. They have replaced philosophical understanding and ethical self-cultivation with reading the historical tea-leaves.
SU: The “historiography epidemic” has hit India too. Hindus have started historicizing the Itihāsas in reaction to the Western characterization of them as “myths.” S. N. Balagangadhara says, “Instead of asking questions about the nature of ‘historical truth’; instead of studying the religious culture where such questions originate from; instead [...] of understanding the relationship between stories about the past and human communities ... attempts to establish the historicity of the epics destroy the epics and Indian culture,” (“What Do Indians Need, a History or the Past? A Challenge or Two to Indian Historians,” ICHR, November 2014). It appears that no one has gone further in grasping this philosophically than you when you say: “Itihāsa provides us with a new way of thinking about what to expect from history, how to theorize history, what history’s proper place is, and what kinds of narratives should guide history.” What is the nature of Indian Itihāsas that supposedly lack “historical consciousness”?
Authors: We need to thematize what historical information is and what it is good for. History is ultimately a narrative. It is not even the narrative of me as this singular being, but only of me insofar as I take on, or, rather, subsume myself under a social, political, national, or racial identity. Moreover, if my aim is to know myself as this physical, embodied being, the natural sciences suffice. The humanities have a different purpose. Kant thought all philosophy culminated in three questions: “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” Somehow after Kant, European thought turns away from Enlightenment universalism and takes a historical turn. The consequence, as we all know, was nationalism and racial ideologies which tore Europe apart. Rather than thoughtlessly repeat this experiment, we need to think about history anew. Here we found the Mahābhārata to offer an alternative with its concept of an itihāsa purāṇa. Look at its innovations: the story is not told from the political center of Hāstinapura but from the margins—in the Naimiṣa Forest. Hermann Oldenberg, writing about the Mahābhārata, lamented that India neither developed “monumental” histories nor “historiography in a scientific sense.” But what monumental history does he want? The one Leni Riefenstahl told from Nuremberg? Here we have a history that is deliberately recounted from the margins, after a great holocaust. Does this not answer perfectly to Adorno’s question about whether poetry is possible after Auschwitz? Neither does the Mahābhārata fall into the trap of “scientific” historiography. It knows history is always perspectival. That is why it has so many narrators tell the story: each introduces a modulation. Think of Kurosawa’s Rashomon to understand what we mean. Meanwhile, Indologists want to excise its frames and narrations and arrive at the “truth,” the “real” history of a racial conflict between white Aryans and black aboriginals that the antisemite Christian Lassen first posited! The Mahābhārata is too clever for them. It knows every telling is motivated. The “history” the Indologists tell also serves their desire for power and profit. Itihāsa is thus not simply “history.” It is a special narrative that neither negates the empirical validity of perception (or documentation) nor affirms it absolutely and uncritically. Rather, itihāsa represents the empirical world aesthetically to problematize both being-in-the-world and the relationship of ontology, text, and the world. In other words, itihāsa is history that has overcome historicism: history that has become critical and self-consciousness.
SU: It is often said that Indians conception of time is cyclical, just as it is for the Greeks as well, and probably all other non-Christian “primitive” societies. In The Myth of Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade warns the West of the danger of “provincializing itself” in avoiding an understanding of this. It appears that we as Indians are losing this understanding too. Nietzsche returned to “Eternal Recurrence” in his destruction of Christianity as the Anti-Christ. Is this eternal return the same as cyclic time? Is denying cyclic time a specifically Christian theological device? Why does Christianity do this?
Authors: The question of what Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is has inspired many works. There are three main interpretations: the cosmological (Paul Loeb), the literary (Lawrence Hatab), and the existential. The notion of cyclicality is central to the pre-Socratics. We could cite several examples: Heraclitus DK 20, 29 (cycle of generations); 30, 31 (cosmogony); 21, 26, 36, 62, 63, and 88 (life and death, waking and sleeping); 57 (light and dark); Empedocles DK 17 (change); 26 (birth and death); 35 (cosmogony); 115 (reincarnation); 118, 124, 119, 120, 122, and 126 (misery of cyclical existence); and 410 (release from cycle). Even a thinker like Parmenides, known for his doctrine of unchanging Being, has this cyclicality (Peri Phuseos, fr. 5: “It is a common point from which I start; for there again and again I shall return”). Nietzsche was, of course, a great reader of the pre-Socratics. He understood that cyclicality was not incidental to but the core of ancient thought. For example, if we remove the cyclical structure from Heraclitus, his thought becomes incomprehensible. As Kahn notes, Heraclitus is explicitly an “antithetical” thinker, struggling to hold together opposites in his thought. Plato continues in this tradition: Theaetetus 152e (generation and flux), Phaedrus 249a–b (cycle of lives). In the Republic (620–21), the soul’s reincarnation is linked to the universe’s macrocosmic revolutions. Christianity struggles with cyclical time because it has only ever imperfectly assimilated Greek ontology. While there are certain Christian thinkers (for example, St. Augustine), who understand God as absolutely outside all time rather than as perduring in time, on the whole Christianity opted for a linear understanding of time, with salvation as a future albeit predestined, event. This constitutes the experience of awaiting the parousia (Christ’s second coming), and we see it in secularized or semi-secularized form even in twentieth-century thinkers like Heidegger, Camus, and Agamben. Derrida is a special case: he has the anticipation but wishes to defer the event of arrival infinitely. What is the significance of all this? First, this sense of recursivity and repetition in the universe makes up the proper content of ancient thought. Heraclitus criticizes those who do not see this cyclical structure. In Empedocles also, the ability to see these exchanges distinguishes the wise man from the general run. Second, this cyclicality exists in Indian thought also, where it is linked to cosmology, epistemology, and ethics. There are numerous examples, like Bhagavad Gītā 4.8. If we remove this cyclical structure, all of the Mahābhārata’s theological and soteriological concepts—dharma, avataraṇa, bhārāvataraṇa, and so on—become incomprehensible. Thus the desire to evaluate the Mahābhārata within a linear temporal perspective is not an innocent choice. As the article “Hindu Studies in a Christian, Secular Academy” showed, even an AAR award-winning book like Emily Hudson’s Disorienting Dharma fell into the trap of evaluating the Mahābhārata by a Christian yardstick: do the saved attain heaven and the damned attain hell? If not, the only conclusion is antinomianism (the law is powerless to save) and “existentialism.” We are not against historical investigations but we need to raise three questions: (1) Is the historical framework sufficient to understand the Mahābhārata?; (2) Is it not a prejudicial choice, which prevents the epic from unfolding its effects?; and (3) If we really wish to be historical, should we not also subject our decision to examine the Mahābhārata purely from a historical perspective to an examination? Whence this concept of history? Whose concept of history is it? Whom does it serve? Whom does it “other”?
SU: Dr. Adluri, I recently read your brilliant paper “Heidegger, Luther, and Aristotle: A Theological Deconstruction of Metaphysics,” in which you uncover what is unsaid in Heidegger’s works—infiltration of a Lutheran theology in his philosophy through his attempt to recover time as experienced in early Christianity: “Heidegger focuses on Aristotle because Aristotle, in rejecting Plato’s doctrine of transmigration, prepares the way for a different kind of eschatology by defining time as linear [...] Aristotle’s interpretation of the soul would disallow the possibility of an immortal, transmigrating, or cyclically reincarnating soul.” You also published a book on Greek soteriological ideas—Parmenides, Plato and Mortal Philosophy: Return from Transcendence (London: Continuum, 2010). Can you tell us about your journeys into the world of Greeks, and the importance of Aristotle for Christianity?
Dr. Adluri: My philosophical journey began with explorations of the Greeks in dialogue with Seth Benardete, who was Leo Strauss’s student. I studied the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, the Middle and Late Platonists, and Christian theology from Augustine to the Reformation. My teacher Reiner Schürmann was a Dominican monk, an outstanding philosopher, and a critic of modernity. With him, I read all the works of German philosophy from Kant through German Idealism, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. It is ultimately my reading of Greek tragedy, especially Aeschylus, that gave me the confidence to approach the Mahābhārata. Without the ontological distinction between Being and Becoming, without the tragic worldview, without becoming aware of the implied theology of the contemporary historical sciences, and without overthrowing the optimism of modernity, we cannot read the ancients. In a sense, then, my thought retraces Nietzsche’s path. Heidegger is also influential but for the contrary reason. In contrast to Nietzsche, Heidegger is deeply Pauline: he tries to reclaim the Greek heritage for Christianity after Nietzsche showed that classical philology is subservient to Christianity. The Nay Science does something similar to this Nietzschean project for Indology. It is a critique of modernity as exemplified in what is basically a form of Rassenkunde (racial anthropology) masquerading as an Enlightenment science. The Nay Science continues the trajectory I mapped out in Parmenides, Plato and Mortal Philosophy when I rejected history—indeed, all forms of logos-based immortality—for the fate of the tragic singular. Aristotle, of course, is very influential for Christian theology, especially through St. Aquinas’s rediscovery. Heidegger also attributed his interest in philosophy to an early reading of Aristotle (via Brentano’s On the Manifold Senses of Being in Aristotle). The question of whether Aristotle already represents a deviation from Platonic thought, and whether this facilitates his reception in Christianity is a complex one. On the one hand, classicists like Lloyd P. Gerson and my friend Arbogast Schmitt read him sympathetically. This is in keeping with the neo-Platonic reading. On the other hand, we cannot deny differences like the criticisms Proclus raises of Aristotle’s notion of four causes.
SU: You have been exploring the Mahābhārata using philosophical hermeneutics for several years. Can you explain what Vyāsa sets out to do in the Mahābhārata from a Western philosophical perspective, and what Nietzsche and Heidegger are doing in Western philosophy from a Mahābhārata perspective?
Authors: Today we are far from appreciating what “Vyāsa” represents. The standard view is that the Mahābhārata is traditionally attributed to a single author, the legendary Sage Vyāsa, but “of course” we know this cannot be true. But before we create such stereotypes of the “critical” scholar and the simple-minded natives, let us first ask: What is historical reality? What is narrative? What does it mean to say someone is the author? What does it mean to create anything? The Mahābhārata, as I read it, is the first self-consciously mimetic work, which creates a textual universe precisely to reveal the narrative nature of our experience of the universe. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Nietzsche laid the foundation for appreciating such a work. He made art central to philosophy. In the case of the Mahābhārata, we have not yet made the turn to evaluating the entire “Vyāsa project” as a work of art in this sense.
SU: In your lecture on the Mahābhārata at IIC, New Delhi, you said something intriguing: “We should not be asking if the Mahābhārata is relevant today. What we should be asking is whether we still have the intellectual courage, after nineteenth-century philology, to still read the Mahābhārata. Now, do we have that intellectual power still or not—that’s the question.” What did you mean?
Authors: Whenever the question of the Mahābhārata’s relevance is raised, there is a presumption that we know what is needed. For example, the Mahābhārata is relevant if it gives us clues to ancient Indian history, if it gives us practical guidelines for living, and so on. It is as though we have lost sight of the fundamental function of literature, of philosophy: to make us know differently, to become otherwise. Foucault expresses this beautifully in his essays and in the introduction to Volume Two of The History of Sexuality. Great literature, whether Kafka or Philip K. Dick, plays with our notions of time and reality; it plays with the known world to reveal that it perhaps is not known after all. The real danger of nineteenth-century philology is not its scholarly productions, which are hardly read anymore: it is that it may blunt our sense for literature. Nietzsche was right when he called the philologists “filthy pedants, quibblers and scarecrows.” The courage it takes to read the Mahābhārata is the courage to stand alone on the Kurukṣetra after the war. Can we read a work like this without giving up on ethics and meaning? This is the question now….
SU: Is a revival of socio-political thinking based on Indian thought still possible? Can we build a new humanities that answers questions specific to India, and furthers the peculiarly Indian line of questioning? Can a revival of Indian thought reinvigorate humanities worldwide? How can Indians overcome “self-alienation, self-policing, and loss of social cohesion”?
Authors: The danger is that, turned off by the Indologists, Indians will turn away from Western thought itself. We must remember, however, that the Indologists never rose above obscurity even at the German university. They were parasitic on a few developments in Western thought—developments they neither authored nor understood. They presented themselves to Indians as the face of Western rationality but Western thought is so much more: it is Foucault and Nietzsche; it is Plato, Kant, Arendt, and Schürmann. It would be a shame if Indians turned away from this richness. The only reason for critiquing the Indologists was that they stood in the way of philosophical thinking. Na hi nindā nindyaṃ nindituṃ pravartate api tu vidheyaṃ stotum. We hope that, in the wake of Indology’s diremption, a genuine intellectual dialogue between traditions can now unfold. As for the question how can Indians overcome “self-alienation, self-policing, and loss of social cohesion,” you are referring, of course, to the paper “Jews and Hindus in Indology.” The simple answer is that all this happened in relation to, under the hegemony of a normative referent. Western culture was posited as the norm, and measured by this norm Indian culture could only appear deficient. Indians became particularized under this regime as less advanced, less intelligent, less enlightened individuals. At least some of them participated in this narrative. You mentioned Bhandarkar’s statement from “The Critical, Comparative, and Historical Method of Inquiry,” but in the same essay Bhandarkar also wrote: “And here I feel myself in duty bound, even at the risk of displeasing some of you, to make a passing allusion to the most uncritical spirit that has come over us of praising ourselves and our ancestors indiscriminately, seeing nothing but good in our institutions and in our ancient literature, asserting that the ancient Hindus had made very great progress in all the sciences, physical, moral, and social, and the arts,—greater even by far than Europe has made hitherto—and denying even the most obvious deficiencies in our literature, such as the absence of satisfactory historical records, and our most obvious defects. As long as this spirit exists in us, we can never hope to be able to throw light on our ancient history, and on the excellences and defects of our race, and never hope to rise.” You see how Mill’s narrative has now entered the Indian self-consciousness, and has led to internalized racism. To escape “self-alienation, self-policing, and loss of social cohesion,” Indians will have to unlearn how to live under the hegemony of the norm; they must see that the norm binds them only insofar as they think of themselves as particulars. In sum, they will have to re-learn how to think of themselves as singulars instead of particulars. There is no political program for this. In fact, Schürmann taught, “as for the incantations [that is, prescriptions and interventions] of the right and the left, according to which ‘we need norms’ in order to understand, judge, and act, the response of the phenomenologist has always been and should be that to learn how to think and do Einsicht (perspicacity, inspection, circumspection…) suffices.” It is cultivation of Einsicht that we need. Arendt liked to ask: “Where are we when we think?” In thinking, we experience instantaneous freedom from all normative referents; in thinking, the phantasmic quality of every hegemony is revealed. This, once again, evokes a parallel with the Mahābhārata, which reveals not only the Kuru patriarchy as a phantasm but also the entire universe, up to and including the Creator, as an aesthetic construction.