The Beginning of a New Movement
How does one interpret the massive attack on Dunkin Jalki’s thesis about the vacanas and the caste system? Let us not forget that no one except Professor Shivaprakash has read the thesis. But of course the target has been the larger research milieu that has come into being through a discussion of the research programme initiated by Balu’s Heathen. I use the term milieu rather than group or collective to indicate the fact that the researchers interact on the basis of the questions they are pursuing; they are otherwise very heterogeneous, if we take their national, political, institutional or social affiliations.And it is research that is the focus of this milieu, not this or that political agenda or social issue. It is important to note these two things right at the outset before we begin to analyse the scale and the vituperative nature of the attack.
So this research milieu is being very harshly criticized for the kind of political position that supposedly follow from its research without the research itself being discussed! I am not by any means suggesting that implications of a research programme should not be discussed, but surely only after some serious substantive discussion of the main arguments and findings of the research! One looks in vain for even one piece that makes an attempt to engage with the research, despite the fact that the claims are novel, counter-intuitive, and intellectually challenging! Take the claim (demonstrated in the Heathen) that so many of us have found compelling: namely, “Hinduism” not only not exist but Europeans went about experiencing Indian culture by assuming that there is such an entity. In making good this claim, the Heathen produced a theory of religion, that is, it told us what religion is and why it couldn’t have existed in India. These are mind-boggling claims and those of us who followed the argument were not only exhilarated by the argument but felt genuinely inspired by the demonstration that theory building is possible in the social sciences, that we can indeed have knowledge of the social world, that the knowledge involved here is different from, but comparable, to the knowledge produced by the natural sciences. Today this activity of theorising is what has crystallised this new intellectual milieu. The kind of work undertaken by this milieu is diverse but by the very nature of the activity of collaborative theorising interlinked. Serious work is underway to a) characterise the nature of law and legal institutions in a religious culture (that is, Europe) b) reformulate Marx’s theory of fetishism on the basis of a new action theory c) elaborate the difference between Indian ethics and Western normative structures of thinking d) reconstruct Indian intellectual traditions e) explain the nature of conceptual distortions in inter-cultural understandings and the role in it of cognitive enslavement, and many more questions having to do with our cultural and political life. The investigations have already opened up new horizons while helping to see why intellectual inheritances such as Marxism or liberalism have been dead-ends. What is helping the new intellectual milieu to crystallise and expand in a vibrant way is the mutual illuminations that these diverse researches into different domains are able to achieve. The intellectual excitement has been palpable and perhaps unprecedented in recent memory.
In stark contrast, the academic world has been stagnating for a while now. The condition is not, of course, specific to India or Karnataka, but it has gone largely unrecognised in both the US and Europe. There seems little awareness of it in the US, which has exercised the most baleful influence on the course of research in the last three or four decades, mainly because the universities there are insulated from the social fabric, the academic debates remaining just “academic.” In Europe the alarming decline of philosophical and social scientific thinking is evident in the desperate attempt to embrace Americanism not only in its academic structures but also in content. And because the metropolitan intelligentsia in India is now integrated into the circuits of American academia, far from recognising the stagnation of research, it is even deluding itself in thinking of this as a dynamic period of intellectual production! This is not to blame the big bad wolf but to simply acknowledge the enormously powerful influence of the US on academics in India and Europe. While it is regrettable that the stagnation in the human sciences has gone unrecognised in the US and Europe, there is a sense in which the refusal to acknowledge the stagnation may have something to do with the fact that there are no cultural resources for rethinking and renewing the enterprise of social understanding. Such a refusal or unwillingness could spell disastrous in India since it not only has the resources for a genuine recreation of the human sciences, it requires such a recreation for its own survival as a culture.
The mainstream intellectuals (which in Karnataka consist of writers and critics) have been either unwilling or unable to engage with this new research. Is it because they think this research, like their own writing perhaps, pure verbiage? That it is a verbal matter whether “Hinduism” exists, what makes something a religion, what must the “caste-system” be in order to be a social structure? May be they think that it’s all discourse anyway (may be their deep knowledge of western theories told them that). Consider the analogy: we know what economy is, that is, we have heard the word, and we know capitalism is an economy, so what’s so great about Marx’s demonstration that in capitalism the economy is a fetish phenomenon. Why should we try to understand it? Let’s instead focus on its implication for secularism and reservation: Is Marx’s theory not for secularism? Is it against reservation? Then banish it. Who is interested in a theory that shows what we see and experience may not be what we confidently believe them to be?
Why have the intellectuals become so intellectually incurious? From where have they received the canonical understanding of our social world, which enables them to ignore any intellectual inquiry, whether undertaken by Marx or Balu, Allama or Shankara, Aristotle or Nagarjuna? Posing the question this way allows us to understand why the mainstream intelligentsia is resorting to abuse and threat instead of reasoning and argument. These intellectuals did not have to work hard to become intellectuals, much like our politicians (many of them) who without caring to understand politics have turned it into a lucrative profession. To be an intellectual meant taking a ready-made stance handed down by colonialism or contemporary intellectual fashions: harangue about caste-system, discrimination, superstition, abuse of rights, lo and behold you put yourself on a pedestal for being an intellectual (if you also manage to write borrowing wholesale from existentialist writers or Marxist critics or post-structuralist guide-books from Europe, then you are a great writer/critic too). This model of the intellectual spawned by colonialism did not require that we understand either the West or India: we simply had to reproduce the frame that the colonisers had put in place. It is this intellectual who is feeling threatened by the new intellectual milieu and the rigorous and fresh inquiry that it is producing. So this intellectual is complaining that we are denying what is right before our eyes.
That is a complaint that not only Marx encountered, but before him, Galileo too. They did indeed deny what their contemporaries thought they knew, that the earth was the centre, that land produced ground-rent, capital produced profit, commodity has exchange value, money intrinsically has the power to establish equivalence between commodities, and so on. So we deny that there exists something called “hinduism,” that it is a religion, that it governs something called the caste-system. Like with Galileo or Marx, the cognitive interest is in the theorisation of a phenomenon that was not understood.
So undeniably there is a stirring and it is being felt by those who have begun obliquely to realise the hollowness of their claim to be intellectuals–they are being challenged on their understanding of Western intellectual tradition which they claim to represent and they are made to realise that they have no comprehension even of the social and cultural world they inhabit.
A movement that is purely intellectual in character is perhaps rather rare. But we need to realise that even the national movement had strands that were purely intellectual. The two giants of modern Indian thought, Gandhi and Tagore both sought intellectual independence as the highest goal. That they had to compromise that goal in order to accommodate the political exigency of fighting the colonial power is surely understandable. Today we are no longer constrained by that exigency, but only by the mentality that colonial institutions bequeathed to us. It is time that we finally free ourselves from the enslavement to the excrement that Europe has bequeathed. The intellectual milieu that has come into being holds out the promise that we can finally begin to say how the world, our own and Western, looks to us.