Reconceptualizing India Studies by S N Balagangadhara Rethinking of Indian Colonial Narratives- IV
Reconceptualizing India Studies by S N Balagangadhara: Rethinking of Indian Colonial Narratives- IV

This book boggles the mind in each chapter and each paragraph. These essays are compulsory reading for every Indian who thinks deeply about his country. There are issues which we never thought about; and there are issues we never thought had solutions.

In the last chapters, SN Balagangadhara takes up the extremely vital contemporary issue of secularism in the Indian context. By taking the example of religious conversion, he shows the amount of stress the state undergoes when applying the principles of liberalism and secularism. It is a historical fact that India handled far greater pluralism than the West has ever seen over hundreds of years. This pluralism was much more peaceful and harmonious than the present secularist philosophy which ironically seems to aggravate religious frictions.

Secularism worked for the European world at a specific time in its history of varied Christian denominations and Enlightenment discourses. Transferring it wholesale by our thinkers like Nehru and Ambedkar, educated in Western values, to the Indian context does not seem to work at all. In fact, the author traces the rise of Hindu ‘revivalism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ to this flawed application of secularism. We have the solutions within us and it would be best to invest time and money to rethink the solutions for dealing with the cultural diversity of India.

In the concluding part, the author has a deep message for the NRIs, equally applicable to the Indians in India too, in dealing with Western questions about Indian traditions. Many of the questions which the West asks tells us more about them and their culture; and it is thus vital to study the West in trying to understand why they ask such questions. In a reversal of gaze, we can perhaps define ourselves better; and understand issues regarding traditions, customs, ethics, religion, and so on transcending the binaries of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.


Contemporary India confronts problems of religious pluralism posing challenges to the existing political theory of religious toleration. As the Indian society consists of both pagan traditions and Semitic religions, the secular state confronts difficulties unknown to the western cultural background from which it originally emerged.

Taking the example of religious conversion, the author suggests that the post-independent Indian state, modelled after the liberal democracies in the West, is the harbinger of religious violence in India because of the way it conceives of toleration and state neutrality.

The Participants and the Issues

In the Indian debate, three parties claim to offer a solution. The secularists arguing the need for a secular state; the Hindu nationalists pleading for a Hindu state; and the anti-secular Gandhians claiming that Indian culture has the resources to handle the question of religious pluralism. For the sake of convenience, the two groups are secularists and anti-secularists.

Secularists propose that all religions should accept a common framework of secular law. This framework claims neutrality with respect to all religions. Following the lead of Nehru, the Indian secularists defend the obligation of religious neutrality of a liberal state. The anti-secularists offer an alternative system of traditional values. Its fundamental principle is the equality of religions: since all religions are incomplete manifestations of a supreme truth, all of them are equal. This group subdivides into advocates of Hindutva on the one side and Gandhian anti-secularists on the other. Despite differences, both agree that politics should separate from religion because the Indian traditions yield a more tolerant politics than Western secularism.

Thus, the debate revolves around one of the basic tenets of contemporary theories of toleration, namely the belief that state neutrality is necessary for a peaceful and viable plural society. It is not a clash between a left (tolerant and progressive) and a right (intolerant and conservative). Instead, it is a clash between two frameworks, both claiming to provide a solution to the problem of community conflicts.

The Issue of Religious Conversion

It is not only religious fanatics in the Hindutva fold who have an aversion to conversion, but many liberal Hindus, including Gandhi, held similar beliefs. While secularists agree with the Muslim and Christian minorities that the latter must be free to proselytise, most of the anti-secularists intend to say no.

A Hindu endorsing that all traditions are part of a human quest for truth; while a Muslim/ Christian believing that their religion is the only true revelation, while all others are false, involves a deep conflict of values. Non-interference is central to the tradition of a Hindu citizen and it is unethical for him to allow Muslims and Christians to interfere in the traditions of human communities. Thus, he opposes conversion. However, the value of proselytization is central to the Semitic religions. They have to propagate the true message and show to the adherents of other ‘traditions’ that they are practicing idolatry, the greatest sin. These aspects of the Semitic religions and the pagan traditions—namely, proselytization and non-interference—are bound to collide in a society where the Semitic religions encounter pagan traditions as a living force. This is exactly what is happening in India today.

There are four choices the Indian secular state must make about the ‘Hindu traditions’ and the ‘Semitic religions’: (a) they are phenomena of the same kind, or they are not. (b) they are religious rivals, or they are not. (c) As rivals, they compete regarding truth or falsity; or they do not. (d) they can do that because some religion is false; or they cannot because no religion is false. In each of the four cases, these claims are those of the Semitic religions and the Hindu traditions respectively. In each case, one statement is the logical negation of the other. So, what should a liberal state do in such a situation?

Ironically, with respect to religious conversions, theories of state neutrality oblige the Indian state not to be liberal and neutral in its legislations. Also, the post-independent Indian state implemented a series of reforms to ‘the Hindu religion and its law’, while it did not interfere with Islam and Christianity. This suggests that some interpretation of ‘neutrality’ and ‘liberalism’ is at stake here.


It is possible to play the agnostic because one could plead ignorance with respect to the truth-value of any knowledge-claim. However, if the state pleads ignorance on some issue, it cannot legislate about the same issue. Ignorance about a phenomenon can never be a ground for legislation, since one would not even know what to legislate about.

The Indian state has made provisions in its constitution (Article 25) about the freedom of religion that includes the issue of conversion. From this, it follows that the Indian state has taken a stance on these issues. It endorses the belief that religion revolves around doctrinal truth. The secular state in India and elsewhere puts certain legal restrictions on religious conversion. It says that religious conversion can take place by means of persuasion alone. But, if one takes conversion from one religion to another to be a matter of persuasion, one must presuppose that religion involves the question of doctrinal truth. It accepts the truth of one religion as opposed to the falsity of another.

This failure to be neutral towards the issue of conversion is not specific to the Indian secularists. It is a general malfunction of the neutrality of the model of liberal secularism. Even when its theorists take a critical attitude towards proselytization, they reproduce the theological assumption that religion revolves around truth; and therefore, support a principle of religious freedom that entails the freedom to convert.

The Secular state and Religious Violence

Indian constitution framers took over the theory of liberal state as it emerged in the West and tried to transplant it into Indian soil. In the process, they also endorsed the theological claim that religion is an issue of truth. While such a stance makes sense in a culture where the problem of religious tolerance arises because of the competing truth claims of the Semitic religions, it does not do the same in another cultural milieu where the pagan traditions are a living force.

Consequently, the Indian state must look at the Hindu traditions the way the Semitic religions do, while simultaneously playing the ‘agnostic’ with respect to the issue whether religion itself is a matter of truth. The first stance impels it to legislate on the issue of conversion, resulting in violence generated and sustained by the state. This is by forcing the interaction between the Semitic religions and the pagan traditions as a religious rivalry. The second compels it to remain ‘neutral’ and let the communities solve this problem on their own. It forces the state to withdraw completely.

The colonial state had an unremitting hostility towards the Hindu traditions. The colonial representation of India, fundamentally a Protestant description of India (caste, priests, and social discrimination) became the guiding mantra of the ‘secular’ politicians of India. The secularism of Nehru and his followers was, quite simply, a negative attitude towards Hindu traditions. There is nothing ‘neutral’, in any sense of the word, about the Nehruvian ‘secular’ state.

Such policies are bound to have their impact on society. The defence of Hindu traditionalists took the inevitable form of a militant defence of the Hindu traditions against the ‘secular’ state of the Nehruvian variety. When looked at from a pagan perspective, there is no religious rivalry between the Hindu traditions and the Semitic religions. However, the opposite is the case when viewed from the perspective of the Semitic religions.

When the Indian state assumes the truth of a Semitic theological claim, then it actively creates and promotes the religious rivalry between the majority (that is, those who belong to the Hindu traditions) and the minority (Muslims, Christians, and so on), where there is none. As a matter of state policy, it paradoxically but inevitably creates and sustains opposition between religions and traditions.

The ‘liberal’ state in India is coercing the communities to solve their internal conflict in a religious manner; and forcing the pagan traditions in India to mould themselves like the Semitic religions. The growth of the so-called Hindu fundamentalism is a direct result of this coercive straitjacket. It is precisely a liberal ‘secular’ conception that generates the phenomenon of ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ in the pagan Indian culture. The liberal state sows the seeds of religious violence; however, it is the communities that harvest them.

What is the Solution?

A reasonably stable and plural society existed in India, which far surpassed the cultural diversity of the West at any point during its history. This phenomenon of pluralism took a shape different from anything known to modern western culture. There were violent clashes, but these never developed into the systematic persecution of some tradition or the other. Alongside these clashes, there was a tendency in each of the religious traditions to absorb or adopt elements from the other traditions. For reasons we do not understand fully yet, even Christianity and Islam took the form of traditions in India. In many parts of India, scholars point out, a positive interaction between different religions and traditions lives on today.

This picture of traditional Indian pluralism may lead to more harmony. It could be pure nostalgia, or a naïve conception of societies where Hindus set the basic rules, and compelled others to comply. That is what research will have to show us. Innovative research into the Indian cultural traditions, including Indian Islam and Indian Christianity may generate a far better solution than the ‘secularism’ of today. The discovery of these mechanisms and dynamics could be a stimulation for Indian pluralism to flourish better.

The dominant conception of the liberal state— ‘neutral’ and ‘secular’—does not allow space to pagan traditions, which do not conceive of religious diversity as a rivalry of truth claims. When the epistemic premises of the liberal state prevent it from accommodating cultural traditions that form the majority in many Asian countries, it is time to re-examine the limitations of the mantra of secularism.


We are the products of colonialism, and that is a tragic fact to realize first. It involves violence of all sorts: from the purely physical to the purely psychic. British colonialism introduced a new framework for experiencing the world which told us many new things about ourselves: that we were backward and primitive, steeped in superstition, and dominated by antiquated structures. The caste system was the Indian social structure, and ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’, ‘Sikhism’ were our religious structures.

The colonized post-Independent Indian intellectuals actively took over their descriptions as incontestable facts. The trend continued: an attack on the Indian caste system; an instant mixture of reform that could cure the ills of Indian ‘religions’; tales of the tyrannical Brahmin ‘priests’; and, the songs of modernization and progress. Challenging their status today provokes the ire of the most well-intentioned and educated among us.

The Caste System

The British—like the current social sciences—did not make an empirical claim about the presence of jatis in India; they put across meta-theoretical claims about the jatis in the form of a coherent structure called the ‘caste system’. The evidence we routinely come up with? The horror stories of ‘caste discrimination’; the social humiliation of groups; the phenomenon of ‘untouchability’; the presence of poverty, and such like. This phenomenon of discrimination is neither unitary nor monolithic. If its presence is evidence of the existence of ‘the caste system’, then the latter is present everywhere in the world. Discrimination, poverty, and social humiliation of groups are in slavery, in the feudal societies of Europe, in the capitalist societies of today, and so on. These phenomena are compatible with multiple social structures. On their own, these phenomena are not evidence of one specific social structure, namely, ‘the caste system’.

No one in the world has so far shown how and in what fashion ‘the caste system’ is a coherent system. It is only an assumption. The British could not even classify the caste divisions, let alone demonstrate their coherence. They gave up the attempt after trying for nearly thirty years and introducing all kinds of weird categories (like sub-castes, and sub-sub-castes).

Sensationalism is the answer to the claim of a specific ideology. Some lines from Manu and some anecdotes of a few people constitute the evidence. Not one person has laid this alleged ideology bare; not one person knows what the components of this ideology are. How do we even know there is a single ideology?


Most ‘religious experts’ do not go beyond what eighteenth-century Jesuits descriptions about our ‘religions’ in terms of its content. The only difference is the valuation: these religious-studies people speak ‘positively’ of Hinduism and the missionaries spoke ‘negatively’ of Hinduism. Experts on ‘the caste system’ and ‘Hinduism’, soaked in colonial consciousness, have simply taken over the European descriptions of their experience as facts. They do not know this fact, which is excusable. What is inexcusable is that they do not want to know it.

Organizations trying for a counter-narrative sadly try to gain recognition for our traditions and customs by transforming ‘Hinduism’ into a pale variant of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These three religions understand neither India nor her traditions. Looking through their theological prisms, they transform our religions into false religions. Some Indians accept this stance and transform our ‘gods’ into ‘manifestations’ of ‘Brahman’ who looks like the biblical God.

A search for a solitary scripture (like the Vedas), a unitary God (the Brahman), a unitary prophet (like a Lord Krishna) is the constant endeavour of the reformists or the apologists who want to convert pagan traditional systems into a Semitic form of religion. The cause of all the friction in the country; whether between the government and the people, or between different groups of people is this- the attempt to convert traditions into religions.

Setting the Context

The British East India Company as rulers were hostile towards Indian traditions. In ‘Hinduism’, they found everything that was reprehensible and repugnant. Their repulsion had a deeper root: their understanding of religion taught them that such perversions were integral and necessary to false religions. However, the notion of false religion does not make sense to us.

The followers of the Semitic religions, have one ‘true God’ and multitudes of ‘false gods’. Because religion is the worship of God, we get two kinds of religions: the ‘true’ religion that worships the ‘true God’, and false religions that worship the ‘false gods’. The ‘priests’ immensely help in perpetuating a ‘false god.’ To the British Christians (and to the Islamic rulers before them), the ‘religion’ of the Hindus could only be false religion, intrinsically immoral.

Consequently, any phenomenon—whether sati or child marriage—had to do with the immorality of ‘Hinduism’ and the wickedness of the priests of this false religion. How did these priests gain and maintain their power? The ‘caste system’, of course. Somehow or the other, the Brahmin priests invented the ‘caste system’ and imposed this immoral system on the larger society. Thus, this ‘caste system’ became an integral part of the false religion. The foundation and the framework of these ‘discoveries’ were not empirical investigations but their theological beliefs.

Upanishads and the Buddhist (and the Jain) traditions later allowed the theory of the three stages of the decay and degeneration of the ‘Indian religion’: Vedic religion, Brahminism, and Hinduism. The Vedic religion retained the intimations of (the biblical) God and His original message; the latter two were progressive corruptions because of Brahmin priests. The Buddha fought the ‘Brahmin priests’ and, because of this, in the eyes of the Protestants, ‘Buddhism’ was less ‘corrupt’ than Brahminism. But ‘Hinduism’ was the most degenerate and corrupt ‘false religion’, which, unfortunately, majority of the gullible in India embraced. A lie, if repeated often enough, becomes the truth; nonsense, when propagated widely, begins to make sense.

The response of Indian Intellectuals Yesterday and Today

The Indian intellectuals of yesteryear swallowed this story hook, line, and sinker. One reaction wanted ‘reform’ and going back to pure religion of Vedas and the Upanishads. Another extreme reaction allowed rabid defenders of ‘Hinduism’ to come into existence. Intermediate positions between these two extremes also crystallized. The ‘reformers’ agreed with the British about almost everything they said, and began the process of constructing a pure religion called ‘Hinduism’ modelled upon their understanding of Protestant Christianity. Could the ‘Indian religion’ made to resemble some or the other respectable variant of Christianity or not?

The Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj, began to create ‘respectable’ versions of ‘Hinduism’ that would not overly shock the sensibilities of Protestant Christians. They identified their codified ‘scriptures’, ‘Nirguna Brahma’, ‘God’ at the centre of their ‘doctrines’, ‘ethical commandments’, and ‘vocation’ of service to fellow human beings. And, much like their Protestant brethren, they wanted to ‘reform’ Hinduism, abolish ‘the caste system’ (and all such ills). They looked down upon the ‘ignorant’ mass of Indians sunk in superstitious practices. Thus, in many ways, these reformers failed colossally to understand the culture of the British and the nature of their religiously inspired criticisms.

This portrayal of Indian culture and of the nature of her traditions, which Western culture has provided over the centuries, has become the standard textbook trivia today. The picture which the West has painted is incomprehensible without presupposing the truth of Christian doctrines. Yet, the claims about the so-called ‘religions’ and ‘the caste-systems’ of India appear comprehensible even to those who do not know anything about Christianity. This is the process of secularization. Intellectuals in the West and in India today believe in the truth of Western descriptions of Indian culture. Our ‘reservation policy’ and the ‘conversion’ of Dalits to Buddhism, are examples of our commitment to the truth of these Western stories about India.

More Problems for Indians Going to the West

There are multiple problems for Indians going to the West when they confront their ignorance of ‘Hinduism’. The Indian ways (schools, grandparents, friends) of transmitting traditions and culture appear to break down when Indians come and settle down in the West. Unfortunately, Indians seem to feel a compulsion to codify their traditions in some form or another because of the pressure exerted by the cultural milieu in which they live. Such codifications and explanations of their traditions—while they seem to satisfy the needs of the parents—do not seem to help the children in their daily interactions with their peers and society at large. Finally, such codifications tend to downplay both the importance and the necessity of the diversity and pluralism that the Indian traditions have.

Questions on ‘bindi’, ‘beef’, ‘sati’, ‘phallus worship’, ‘caste’, ‘six arms of gods’, and so on routinely come up in the West about our culture. What does one do when one faces these questions? The standard response would be to try answering by assuming that the questions are intrinsically intelligible and understandable. That is the route chosen by most of us and by Indian reformers. Unlike the reformers of yesteryear, our milieu is a mix of Indian and Western culture. This situation is ironically true in India too as we become increasingly westernised.

We need to come up with satisfactory answers. However, satisfactory for whom? The first-generation Indians in the West, or the second-generation Indians, or the questioner? Consider, for example, the oft-heard answers to the question about not eating beef. ‘Cow is our reverent mother’ (‘but look at the cows beaten on the streets’), ‘for religious reasons’ (‘but look at this textual evidence’). These answers are satisfying neither to the questioner nor to most second-generation Indian children. One gets well and truly stuck with Western responses to our answers. The presence of such multiplicity of answers is itself an occasion for embarrassment.

An attempt of standardization of answers, which works for some issues like the ‘bindi’, seeks to impose uniformity across the variety that characterizes Indian traditions. Such answers not only codify but also strengthen the tendency to accentuate their practices and beliefs. One become a super-orthodox ‘Hindu’ consequently. The codification of beliefs and a rigid attempt to transplant, into a different milieu, a set of local practices, encourage the fossilization of human practices. Instead of an expression of the dynamic adaptation of human beings to their environments, human practices become rigid and require justifications. Such justifications come by a highly dogmatic set of beliefs formulated by an institution or a swami. Thus, a ‘Hinduism’ that resembles the Semitic religions comes into existence.

‘Hinduism’ in the cultural milieu of the West would be even worse than that created by the reformers of yesteryear. It would resemble their ‘Hinduism’ because of the attempts to codify beliefs, but it would be worse than that because we would also end up rigidly adhering to some sets of practices. We would end up sacrificing the very vitality that characterizes Indian traditions and which allowed them to survive over the millennia, and in different environments.

The Solution for Indians Abroad, Applicable in India Too

How can we avoid these problems and yet continue our traditions? Why are most of these questions not by our fellow ‘Hindus’? We learn not to ask such questions about our traditions, and this learning is a part of learning to become a follower of Indian traditions. Thus, when we confront such questions in Western culture, we need to understand two things about such questions: (a) they force and compel us to provide a particular kind of answers; (b) such questions do not make sense in Indian culture but are eminently sensible in Western culture. We should not assume that these questions are intelligible to us; they are not. It is Western culture to raise such questions.

The author’s strongest claim is that when Western culture quizzes us about the nature of Indian traditions, that culture is telling us about itself. To provide satisfactory answers to our interlocutors about our traditions does not require us to read the Upanishads or Patanjali; it does not require us to come up with our own ‘Ten Commandments’ or a poorly spun theology. We need to understand the nature of Western culture. Simply put: to answer questions about Indian traditions, we need to understand Western culture.

That is what the reformers did not understand; that is what we do not understand either. The questions that the West raises are rooted in its culture. Consequently, if we want our children to confront their milieu with confidence, we need, more than anything else, to teach them about Western culture. We need to make them understand why the West raises such questions and what those questions mean. We need to make them understand what Western culture ‘means’ when its members ask us whether ‘Hindus believe in God’; ‘what the religious symbol of the Hindus is’; and why ‘Hindus worship lifeless statues’.

We force ourselves into creating a rigid and codified ‘Hinduism as a religion’, especially in the West. However, while such constructions surely have their place in the variety and diversity that characterizes Indian traditions, they neither solve nor address the problem that our children face. This situation defines our basic task: to teach our children about the West while we pass on our traditions to them. How successful have we been in doing either?


This book boggles the mind in each chapter and each paragraph. These essays are compulsory reading for every Indian who thinks deeply about his country. There are issues which we never thought about; and there are issues we never thought had solutions. SN Balagangadhara shows a great hope for Indians unable to counter the questions raised by intellectuals here and abroad. The book does not have any light moments. At some places, Balagangadhara writes with the rage of a thousand wild buffaloes, but the control of a ballet dancer. The book needs reading very, very, and very slowly. The only urgency perhaps should be in buying the book!

Featured Image: The Times

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