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Debating the ‘Post’ Condition in India by Makaranand Paranjape


Beyond the ‘Post’ Condition in India: Hailing a New Rashtra

Svaraj leads to Sarvodaya, the augmenting of all. Svaraj, is a non-dual way of seeking & finding self-rule resulting from self-illumination.
-Makarand Paranjape

Power is a narcotic gradually controlling those who seek it,
till they become habitual abusers. p. 49.

Tradition is the repository of truth, but it does not restrict truth’s domain, p. 38.

India’s unauthorized modernity subverts mainstream western narratives. p. 14.

For those of us who made a shift from sciences and semi-sciences to cultural studies in our academic trajectory, the concept of post-modernity remained near unfathomable. Were there no rules? Were we to disregard all tradition? But didn’t the world work under certain rules and nature with its own hierarchy that the fiercest of egalitarians among us could not overlook?  In that context, what did the categories provided by (old) traditions imply? What was to happen to modern-traditionalists?

‘Debating the Post Condition in India’ is distilled wisdom of a lifetime of effort to understand east-west ideologies, which even though not always in harmony with each other should not be examined in isolation, but instead, studied in juxtaposition and context.

The book applies an Indic ‘drishtikone’ (lens) to the concept of post-modernism and explores how India should view itself as a post-colonial state.  While Paranjape inspects a range of theories and concepts, he does so not just in the context of India but also, as a corollary, the world.

At the outset, it might seem as if Paranjape is rejecting post-modernism and several theories that originated in the West, but a closer look shows that he is asking academics, both in India and abroad, and Indians living abroad (Non-resident Indians, NRI) to re-examine the Indian case, even as he acknowledges the need for (a) theory to test any ideas-

While we cannot afford theory for the sake of theory—we still require theory for the sake of criticism, criticism for the sake of literature and literature for the sake of society and so on. (P. 64)

Even to resist theory we need theory, p. 64

Divided into three sections of four chapters, the book explores some taboo topics in secular India. Even the chapter titles use ‘untouchables and outcasts’ in academic vocabulary -e.g. Parampara & Desivad. The book establishes the value of tradition in the first section, traces the fault lines in modernity as experienced in India in the second, and deals with how India emerges as a post-colonial state defining her place in the world in the last section.

Section 1: Parampara, Gunas, Desivad & Criticism.

In the first section, Paranjape applies his ‘critical-traditionalist’ (p.31) position, which makes him critical both towards modernity and tradition, to examine two of the sacred questions to postmodern theory: Individual vs. society, modernity vs. tradition while reminding the readers that parampara (tradition) in India was regulated by the concept of four purusharthas which never separated spirit from matter, dharma from moksha or secular from sacred, because despite the surface differences each was approached as a continuum and not as dichotomous. Viewing through an Indic ‘drishtikone’ (lens), the author asks if tradition (smriti) is that which has survived, how could it be irrelevant? After all, even ‘Eliot, a modernist, considered tradition to be timeless, and attributed good poetry to the support of tradition
(p. 30).’To think of (our) past as a period of ‘darkness’ is counterintuitive, and counter-productive (critical thinking has been an integral part of Indian thought. p. 31).

Though upholding Nationalism and Devy’s understanding of theory, Paranjape is against cultural exclusivism. Like Tagore, he knows that cultures are kinetic. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that criticism for the sake of criticism is unconstructive, so the term must be “reappropriated to render it more productive in the Indian context’.  And so he coins the term ‘sattvic criticism’ which, unlike ‘rajasic criticism’ is neither self-serving nor intends to dominate or conquer; e.g., can unregulated freedom, which may turn us into thoughtless consumers (of products & ideas) be ultimately freeing? Such questions are important to ask in a culture of ‘my choice’ when that choice is not examined on its sustainability in a collective culture, which anyone living in a ‘society’ must consider.

The first section establishes the need for tradition by clarifying that despite the primacy of Sruti over Smriti, as indicated by Krishnamurti, who saw tradition (Smriti) as the veil that prevented directed experience (Sruti), the former is required for guidance in a world where not everyone is predisposed to direct experience.  For, how would Krishnamurti’s followers know his teachings today – through Smriti (direct experience) or sruti (reading/listening to the recorded talks)? (p. 36).  Therefore, Smriti (tradition), inspired by Sruti, informs the present, as propounded in Krishna’s Song (The Bhagwad Gita) (Smriti – is savior not sinner, p. 36).

Since parampara (uninterrupted continuation), regulated by the purusharthas (The four life goals, :Dharma (righteousness, morality); Artha (prosperity, economic values); Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values); and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values) is self-renewing and has no ‘Other,’ it cannot be equated to the concept of tradition as understood in the Western sense where modernity is founded on negation of the past (the other) (p. 37). However, Paranjape argues that though he supports nativism, there is an urgent need to change how we view parampara. Merely replacing English vocabulary with words in Indian languages will not suffice.

Section 2: Invasion of theory, Svaraj, Three States, Duality

In this most personal section, Paranjape narrates the challenges faced by academics who choose to explore Indian scholars and theorists (yes, they exist).  He shares dilemmas in his own journey and outlines the self-imposed colonized (thought) cage within which Indian scholars (in India/abroad) function. He does not regret the path he took–to work in and for India, to develop as a scholar well-versed in Indian and Western scholarship. And we are thankful, for this book is a gift of that tapasya.

Paranjape questions the relevance of imported theories and highlights the universality of some homegrown ideas.  If criticism in India (or any country) is supposed to lead to welfare of all (Sarvodaya) then its ultimate goal should be Svaraj, in language, concepts, terms, and purvpaksha (Is it not possible to give an Indic-centric reading of Derrida? p. 67).  He critiques, post-modernism’s lack of providing any solution except ‘notional freedom’ which is ‘restricted to the initiated’ (Its anti-foundationalism thus inevitably becomes a pseudo–foundation, which itself may be hegemonic .p. 141).

He questions the one-way relationship that Indian academy has with its western counterpart (We read & quote them while they ignore us. p. 122), and asks why the Indian academics are content with being consumers rather than generators of theory? (It embarrasses us to say that we have not read Marx, Gramsci, Derrida, Focault,…whereas it is a matter of pride to confess that we have not even heard of — Buddadev Bose, Shantinath Desai, G.N. Devy, Dharampal, K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Kapil Kapoor. p 122.)

Paranjape critiques those who build careers by overlooking the Indian context when superimposing theories generated in the West. The seeds of contempt towards our own tradition were possibly laid when Rammohun Roy, in his address to Lord Amherst, requested for a “more liberal system of instruction, embracing mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry and anatomy. (Useful indeed, however, ‘Roy forgot, Byakjuurn, Vedant, Meemangsa, and NatyaShastra-or grammar, philosophy, ritual and logic, all of which were then cornerstones of the traditional knowledge system of India’ p. 135). Until Indian academy gives up its desire for validation by the West, and invests in Indic ideas, it will not be taken seriously (We neither read nor cite each other. p. 122; As Indian intellectuals we do not inspire trust. p. 130).

Paranjape urges India to know itself – before choosing her path. Instead of responding to ‘Invasion of theory’ from the West, which has its own ‘capitalistic logic’, with silence or novels (p. 123), Paranjape urges Indian academy to embrace Svaraj, as used by Gandhi, and be fearless in their counter-response rooted in an understanding of native traditions (Radical response to the West is the response from a different, non-European Centre. p. 121).

One who masters his/her senses is svarat.  Antonym for svarat would then be anyarat – someone ruled by others (i.e. British, Americans, Chinese, dominant/upper classes, those who own and control capital, our bosses, superiors, fathers, mothers, lovers or even our own internal Demons, since, addictions, habits, propensities, errors, whether we are Brahmans or Dalits p. 144).  Svaraj (the state of self-mastery)–India’s gift to the world should be the north-star for intellectuals of the global south (how to face superior physical and material power without losing one’s dignity or self-esteem. p. 121).  Svaraj should replace the word, ‘decolonization’ because while it guides our conduct towards freedom and independence, it does so without any intention to colonize (If we are self-governing, the state as we know it, will wither away–because each citizen would look out for the welfare of his fellows. p. 145).

Tradition, reminds Paranjape, cannot be eliminated; post-modernity (science) and post-modernity (process), both have a tradition (p.155). However, Svaraj, cannot be attained if we continue to consume only Western thought.  Where is the (sva)dharma if criticism is used only for attainting power and forwarding careers? Indian academy should chart a new path where criticism comes from understanding first the home, and then the world.  If Indian academics do not speak for Indian knowledge, who will? Rather than give in to the pressure of ‘theory commodification’ (p.119), Indian academy should take a lead in understanding non-western countries (– such as the Arab world, Iran and Central Asia, and China, which form a part of our neighborhood, not to mention Africa and South America? History will show how different we are from Europe. p. 121).

Paranjape insists that to find our place in the three mindsets—the regionalists, the nationalists and the globalists. We must decide who we are before joining the hegemonic globalization club, ‘Being national does not deny the possibility of being international, but if we start off wanting to be international – we may end up being denationalized instead. (p.153).

Section 3: Discontents, Alterities, Ends & Prospects

The last section details how modernity in India is non-western (alter-modern) and dances to its own Indic tune (India has tried to modernize without fully internalizing the worldview of modernity—resulting in a variety of Indian views and approaches to Western modernity.
p. 134-5).  Here, Paranjape synthesizes many of his arguments put forward in earlier chapters and poses some options and solutions.  Considering ‘theory-commodification’, the global south is subjected to new theories every few years. (The dethroning of authority, means reinstation of new authorities. Move over Derrida, Foucault – welcome Levinas, Zizek, Butler.) The clear message is that looking outside for redemption is unwise.

Because Western modern civilization, as Gandhi alleged in Hind swaraj, is a quest for power and pleasure, not virtue and truth, it remains violent and usurpatory. The more it progresses materially, the more destructive it can be because it’s wisdom quotient, worked out through substitution rather than evolution, has remained more or less static. p. 119

One complete chapter is dedicated to the concept of alter-modernity, introduced earlier (Bourriaud’s term, ‘alter modern” is described as a “reloading” process involving four features:  The end of post-modernism, cultural hybridization, travelling as the new way to produce forms, and the expanding formats of art p. 134). India is ancient enough (my emphasis) to juggle tradition, modernity, and post-modernity, without displacing and destroying the other. A major way in which the West departs from Indian way of thinking is a ‘cyclical descent into rationality’ and a denial of higher consciousness, because it smacks of religion (p.140). An example of dangers of ignoring ‘higher-consciousness’ and concepts such as bhakti and shraddha is the anti-materialist wave of 1960s that swept the West but ended in drug abuse and free sex, leaving refuse & debris of some shattered & many more disoriented lives. (p. 141), even though it was an honest attempt of search for an alternatives by an affluent civilization tired of its materialism (p. 141).

Paranjape points out the cover of complicated language in post-modern ‘writing’ (verbal froth, p. 151), which prevents the very folks it claims to give voice to from reading it (when the verbal froth is settled, the poverty of the ideas lay exposed p. 151.)  In this section, he identifies gaps in post-colonial theories by alluding to their performance as a crime scene. Under a subsection titled ‘Wanted Post Colonialism’ he identifies its many failings.  Between its idea and practice, postcolonialism is a contradiction: Postcolonial studies become academically viable only through a series of exclusions that belie its professed inclusiveness; it may be a euphemism for ‘neo’– to extend –if not territorial at in least language; since English studies programs, the world over,have an almost proprietary interest in postcolonial studies that can never free themselves from the stranglehold of ‘imperial world language’; its origins and headquarters are in a monolingual-largely mono-cultural world but it is incapable of addressing disciplines, trying to understand multilingual and multicultural cultures and societies; is incapable of coping with the totality of Indian civilization. The literature alone would overrun and overwhelm the limited spaces that post colonialism offers to it– What then to speak of the full range of Indian history, society & culture; Trapped in modernity it has no way of dealing with the pre-modernity i.e. Islamic (Even Edward Said did not comment on Ottoman Empire’s takeover of Egypt), forms of colonialism, &aggression; postcolonial academics in the third world are not in sync with the socio-cultural-economic realities of their own countries. p. 202-3).

Paranjape cautions against confusing neo-colonization for decolonization. Since it was our lack of understanding of the self (atmabodh) and shatrubodh (knowledge of your adversary) that contributed to our ideological-enslavement in the first place, we must make knowing the self an end goal (prayojan).  In addition, end of post-colonialism (in India) should also be a prayojan, as should be establishing Indic studies rooted in atma and shatrubodh.  Therefore he proposes the use of Svaraj rather than postcolonialism since the former intends rule of over self and not others. In the last chapter, the most contentious contemporary issue – language – is discussed using examples from Indian texts and movies.  He compares writings of  R.K. Narayan who wrote in English and Tagore who translated his own work into English to that of directors such as Deepa Mehta whose movies are primarily made in English for a foreign audience.  While Narayan and Tagore express the Indianness, Mehta on the other hand uses a post-colonial brush to imply that her work speaks for or represents all of India.

If post-colonial studies are about decolonization, why does it not include Indian literature, originally written in Indian languages to understand India? How can a mono-lingual, mono-cultural discipline even begin to fathom the depths of a multilingual, multi-religious, multicultural and multi-ethnic–India? The closing chapter discusses in detail the need for vernacularization of not just English, but also modernity and nationalism, rather than anglicization of vernaculars. After all, it is in the Indian languages that diversity and multiplicity of Indianness can be truly experienced.

Conclusion:

The book is as much about post-colonialism as it is about the personal journey of a scholar who dared to examine western thought without relinquishing its eastern counterpart. In parts, the book reads like a novel – as Paranjape (re)creates scenes describing his choice between authenticity and complicity. Each sentence is beautifully crafted, at times reading like poetry.

I thoroughly enjoyed Paranjape’s use of words from Indian languages. He combines words that may never have been read in one book before, e.g. postmodernism, purushuratha, Derrida, parampara, Foucault vyakarana, Vivekananda, gunas, Gandhi, and Hegel.  It is a rare scholar who commands expertise in both eastern and western literature.  References to Indian authors, ideas, and concepts appear almost on every page. The book could have benefitted from a glossary to increase its international appeal.  Or was it done on purpose? Was using Indian (mostly Sanskrit) words a strategy to urge Indians and non-Indians to learn some Indian concepts? (Paranjape shares that his question ‘Why did Post-Colonial studies not consider texts that were written in pre-colonial times in native Indian languages remains unanswered.’- like Trishanku, a mythological king suspended between earth and heaven.
p. 207.)

Although non-academics will find the book educational, a prior knowledge of post-colonialism and its history will aid in understanding the critique and solutions provided. A word of advice to those who wish to read the book – if you are looking to turn towards your Indic roots, this book is a fun-but-tedious-ride because of the subject and academic vocabulary.  Keep a pen and paper by your side, as you traverse through the mind of an erudite professor who has dedicated his life to understanding his position as an Indian in the world academy.  He was sustained by our parampara.  The real source of sanskars or cultural codes of the land—and he proudly states that not only has he produced better work in India, but also feels freer in India than he would have anywhere else.

One of the most delightful aspect of the book (there were so many) was learning about Indian authors and their work. Reading the book was a homa – a purifying experience to read Indic words such as ‘sattvic’ juxtaposed with ‘criticism’.  Sattvic criticism will remain my academic and personal goal from now on. To summarize or even touch upon the essence of this book in 2-3000-word review is simply not possible.  One suggestion I have is to gift this book to every child that turns 18, with a note, “For you to unpack for the next half-century of your life”.  The book should be mandatory for all civil services aspirants and recruits.

This book is available for purchase here.


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