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

In Indian traditions, enlightenment does not require ‘grace’ of any kind of ‘God’: one’s enlightenment is the result of one’s own effort.

SN Balagangadhara now looks at how colonialism of the past generates a disturbing colonial consciousness in the present. Colonial consciousness is a phenomenon of colonial thought deeply permeating in discussions and descriptions of India even in the absence of colonials. This consciousness is the grossest form of violence inflicted on the colonized, preventing an experience of its own world. The colonized world becomes alien to itself.

By focussing on Western writings on Hinduism, SN Balagangadhara shows a deep violence against Hindus at work; and explains much of the anger felt by Hindus. He deals with the diversity of Indian traditions by taking the form of an open letter to Jeffrey Kripal. The latter wrote a highly controversial book where Ramakrishna Paramhansa undergoes Freudian psychoanalysis; and Ramakrishna’s spirituality becomes a dimension of his repressed sexual energies.

This violence is a facet of a continuing colonial narrative in the garb of academic freedom and intellectual rigour. SN Balagangadhra shows that argumentation and dialogues do not work in inter-cultural encounters where there is a gross skew in the arguments densely loaded in favour of the West. Hindus are not able to charter a response to the presumptions of Western authors; and those who do, become ‘fundamentalists’ quickly.


An adequate theory of colonialism has not happened despite being a significant phenomenon in the last three hundred years. Colonialism emerges as a self-clarifying and a self-explaining phenomenon of evil and immorality; but it is not clear how or why that should be the case. Liberal theorists like Mill, and revolutionaries like Marx, found colonialism a positive event; and conservative thinkers like Burke opposed it. Today, liberals, leftists, and radicals uniformly condemn colonialism, and only the extreme Right supports colonialism. Why such shifts?

The Colonizers Versus the Colonized-Did the Thinking Differ?

The British successfully criticized Indian religions, the caste system, the education system, practices like Sati, the dowry system, untouchability, revolt of Buddhism against Hinduism, its Brahmanism, and so on. Past and present Indian intellectuals do not transcend the terms of the debate, making British criticisms their own.

Indian thought of both Gandhi and the Independence movement articulated that colonization expressed the weakness of Indian society and the strength of British society. Many explanations for this weakness float around. A weak Mughal rule; no single nation-state; the caste-ridden and divisive nature of Indian society; the presence of constantly fighting small kingdoms; all of which allowed the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British to be immensely successful.

Both the colonizer and the colonized are morally responsible for the evil of colonialism; the colonizer, for actively initiating the process through force that prevents people from accessing their own experiences; and the colonized, for propagating and perpetuating the same process, but in a different timeframe. Colonial consciousness imbibes a framework of civilizational superiority which filters and articulates the world experience of the colonized.

This perception is not from any scientific study but from the rhetorical force of another statement: if colonization is not an expression of weakness, it is an expression of strength. The strengths of the West are obvious: the scientific, technological, and the military might. SNB shows that this implicit consensus about colonialism is omnipresent in contemporary times too.

An Example-Colonial Consciousness in the Discourse on Corruption

As popular perception goes, corruption in India is ubiquitous. Many individuals and most systems are corrupt to the extent that Commissions to enquire corruption also become corrupt. However, the talk of corruption in India do not involve the deviant actions of some individuals but as a widespread social phenomenon; as if an explanation of homicide is adequate for understanding genocide.

The phenomenal growth of corruption after independence means that the social fabric or structure must be a very conducive soil for it to grow. Corruption appears to be a rational and a successful social strategy in India. This implies that the social structure itself corrupts each of the social groups and puts it as a learning strategy.

The West make the caste system synonymous with the Indian social structure. The caste system epitomizes everything bad and backward. As anecdotal discourses progress without denying the immorality of such practices, it proves that the caste system is virtually synonymous with untouchability, moral discrimination, and the denial of human rights (wells, temples, marriages). The caste system is simply a set of immoral practices, much more than the combined other large-scale phenomena like minorities discrimination in the US, slavery in the colonial times, the apartheid regime, and even Fascism.

The caste system has become an immoral system simply because ‘it is an ordered and a structured system.’ In fact, the caste system is an immoral social order twice over: the practice of caste discrimination violates certain moral norms; and on the top of that, as a social order, it makes immorality obligatory. With this discourse, all Indians become immoral (caste division cuts across all religions).

Hence, if corruption and caste are rational and successful strategies of social survival, Indian ethics generating such strategies, must themselves be corrupt. Ancient Indian texts did not have a term for ‘ethics.’ But that does not prevent previous and contemporary scholars to analyze Indian texts as sources of ethical tracts. Contemporary theorists on virtue ethics place a ladder where Indians are at the bottom; the ancient Greeks above them; and contemporary moral philosophy at the top. That the Indians are intellectually weak and/or immoral has been the consistent message from times colonial to contemporary period; and this is an example of persisting colonial consciousness.

Generations of colonials thought of Indians as intellectual imbeciles, like Charles Grant, Hastings, Buchanan, and so on; some, within a few days of landing in India. The contemporary intellectual voices may change, but the message stays the same. Hence, the discourse on corruption in India ends up in an extensively corrupt social, caste, and ethical systems.

Perverse Phenomenon

Corruption and the caste system as a widespread phenomenon are possible if people choose to obey the immoral obligations in a consistent manner despite knowing that they are immoral. Hence, a perverse ‘ethical integrity’ becomes the source of widespread corruption. This dichotomy does not carry any plausibility; but Western and Indian thinkers endorse them unhesitatingly and unreflectingly. Why? The first descriptions of India and what happened to them subsequently is at the root of this.

Travellers and missionaries provided the earliest descriptions of India within a specific theological framework of Christianity. Indian religions were ‘heathen’ religions; the people worshipped the devil; and the Brahmin priests had a key role in the degeneration of religion. This description about Indian society became a common-sense view over periods of centuries.

Centuries of ethnographic descriptions of India schooled generations of Marxist, liberal, and other Western intellectuals. The civilizational superiority of Western culture thus became their empirical truths and premises. These common-sense notions transformed into facts of our political and social sciences. For missionaries, the truth and superiority were in the Bible; for those who secularized this belief, colonization proved the ‘truth’. The civilizational inferiority of India was not on any scientific or academic study but were presuppositions of either a religious or a secular background. Moral criticisms on caste and corruption logically compels to deny the presence of ‘morality’ in Indian traditions. This is what the British said about India. This is what Indian academics and intellectuals believe to be true unfortunately.

The Immorality of Colonialism: Plenty of Reasons

Colonial consciousness is a belief functioning both as a premise and the logical conclusions of the descriptions of the colonized; a massive exercise of petitio principii (the fallacy of assuming the truth of what one wants to prove). Colonialism creates and sustains such a consciousness; profoundly denying the colonized people and cultures their own experiences. Colonialism prevents descriptions of their own culture except in terms defined by the colonizers. Hence, colonialism is immoral because it creates an immoral consciousness.

Colonialism is a supreme educational project because the belief of civilizational superiority contains the messages of the ignorance and the immorality of the colonized. The imposition of these frameworks uses violence to sustain themselves and that makes colonialism additionally immoral. A displacement of the colonial framework involves a rational scrutiny but one cannot make a naïve return to embrace the native framework. Because we cannot return to the native framework, it is thus a fact that colonialism forever alters the social and cultural world of the colonized.

Colonialism generates a set of attitudes and beliefs-a feeling of shame about their own culture; the conviction of backwardness; and the desire to learn from the colonizer. Colonization functions also as a scientific evidence with plausible explanations for the backwardness of the societies and cultures of the colonized. The differences between different cultures now become lacunae and a deficiency of human achievement in the colonized culture.

Are the Post-Colonial Scholars Doing any Better? No.

Recent scholars on the post-colonial studies suggest the strategy of ‘hybridity’- the colonized mimicking the colonizer- and then challenging the colonizer’s authority from the inside. SNB strongly disagrees. An act of imitation as a subterfuge to resist colonialism makes him a moral coward. Is that not what the colonizer tells about the colonized as an inauthentic being, especially when he tries to imitate his master?

Post-colonials endorse and justify the descriptions of the colonizer about the colonized as immoral and untrustworthy. Post-colonial thinkers go further: colonized people are immoral creatures; but what is immoral about the colonizer is the regime. Colonial consciousness is precisely all this. The post-colonial thinkers of today are simply standing for the heads of yesterday. Hence, this all points to the urgent and vital need to decolonize the social sciences- the unchanged methodology of the post-colonials- which are simply reflections of colonialism and Orientalism.

Colonization was not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It was not a question of us aping Western people and trying to be like them. It was not even about colonizing the imagination of a people by making them ‘dream’ that they, too, would become ‘modern’, developed, and sophisticated. It goes deeper than any of these. It is about denying peoples and cultures their own experiences; of rendering them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonizers. This is the continuous saga of cultures and peoples colonized by Western culture.


The Background

Jeffrey Kripal, a Professor in the US, wrote a book, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, where he employs Freudian psychoanalysis of Ramakrishna as an explanation for latter’s mysticism. Many Indians expressed outrage, but this became ‘blind prejudice’ and ‘Hindu fundamentalism’. This is the background on which SNB writes a letter to Kripal showing why the Hindu reaction makes perfect sense.

Kripal suggests that Ramakrishna’s sexual trauma and unconscious homoerotic tendency ‘somehow’ generated his religious life. Kripal says: ‘For the homoerotic energies themselves, freed from the usual socialized routes by the “shameful” nature of their unacceptable objects, were able to transform themselves, almost alchemically, until their dark natures began to glitter with the gold of the mystical’. Kripal also states that there are two different Ramakrishnas: Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna who is content with the undifferentiated Brahman (the Vedantic); the other, Jeffrey Kripal’s Ramakrishna, who needs the manifold world (the Tantrik).

SN Balagangadhara Answers

SNB says that an expression of moral abhorrence is justifiable for the Indians because Kripal inflicted a violence of the most severe kind, which is but a dimension of colonialism and colonial consciousness. The violence is because, by re-describing Ramakrishna’s religious life in terms of sexual pathology, it trivializes, distorts, and denies the experience his followers have of the saint.

Kripal insists that how his culture experiences the world is also the only possible experience of the world. Ramakrishna’s ‘mysticism’ is all about something because that is the only way his theories allow him to see it. His theories, his explanations, his assumptions deny that we, too, have an experience—a different one perhaps, but one that is as ‘valid and legitimate’ as any human experience can be.

Consequently, it is the experience of another culture denying us access to our experience. This is the root of the feeling of wrongness: someone else’s experience of the world makes our experiences inaccessible to us by trivializing, denying, and distorting them. To go with Kripal’s description of Ramakrishna, there is a compelling obligation to become volunteers in this process; a violence of the highest order.

Thus, some protest because this situation is morally wrong. But these protests face the ever-present threat of being damned as a ‘Hindu fundamentalist’. There is a sense of cognitive wrongness too. But the reaction is in the form of complete silence as one simply does not know how to counter-express this sense of cognitive wrongness.

Poor Understandings and Poor Explanations

Jeffrey reduces Ramakrishna’s religious life to the transformation of the ‘dark natures’ of psychic energies so that they ‘began to glitter with the gold of the mystical’. When one phenomenon, X, explains another phenomenon, Y, then one is reducing the description of Y to the description of X (This is one of the meanings of ‘reduction’). All explanations reduce; hence, the protest of Kripal that he is explaining but not reducing does not stand scrutiny.

Kripal’s account of ‘boring Vedanta’ betrays his poor understanding, says SNB. The Vedantic ideas of Brahman, illusion, maya, enlightenment, and differences between the tantrik and advaitic routes is way beyond the understanding of Jeffrey Kripal. His glib notions are plain false and superficial, as SNB shows elegantly.

SNB asks JK whether he is really qualified to recognize enlightenment, differentiate between the states of enlightenment, and assess the quality of these paths independent of their value to the practitioners who followed them? The main issue with Jeffrey Kripal is when he trivializes to understand. He trivializes the Vedantins when speaking of their ‘boring Brahman’; he trivializes the tantriks when he sees in them an infringement of middle-class morality; he trivializes both when trying to contrast them with each other. In trivializing the phenomena that Kripal wants to explain; unfortunately, it renders his explanation trivial.

Is Freudian Psychoanalysis in terms of Sexual Repressions Acceptable?

Kripal’s account has several consistency problems, including the use of psychoanalysis. Apart from consistency problems, Kripal ends up begging the question. If the explanation of religious life (visions of Kali, and ecstatic trances) is by using his religious life (visions of Kali and ecstatic trances), Kripal will have simply begged the question. In his varied explanations, ‘somehow’ and the ‘almost alchemically’ merely function as place-holders for a currently non-existent, but possible future explanation. And the price for such a hypothesis is that the explanation becomes both ad hoc and trivial.

Kripal goes to great lengths to hide this ‘trivialization process’ himself and his readers. One strategy is the continuous use of the word ‘secret’. SNB says that Kripal has very little understanding of what ‘secrecy’ could possibly mean in Indian traditions, or why Indians talk of secrets. The Mahavakyas (for example, statements like ‘thou art that’, ‘I am Brahma’) and the Gayatri Mantra are prototypical ‘secrets’ in Indian traditions. Kripal fails to make a distinction between what Indians consider secret and his own Freudian construction of events as secrets.

Kripal uses Freud merely to show the possibility of Ramakrishna as a pathological person. He thus indulges in mischief and malicious gossip. Jeffrey Kripal is blind to the existence of Indian traditions as alternatives to Freud.Kripal does something more to characterize a rival research tradition. It yields a caricatured, distorted version of the competitor. To use the stories of Freud to understand Ramakrishna is like using creationism to portray Darwin’s theory.

The descriptions of our experiences are doubly caricatured. First, what we ‘see’ is not what we see: the linga is not the linga but symbolizes something else. Second, what we ‘do’ is something else: it transpires that we are not ‘worshipping’ the linga or falling in love with Shiva. We do not ‘worship’ at all (one can only ‘worship’ either God or the devil) and Shiva is but an ‘erotic ascetic’.

Atheism in Indian Traditions

In Indian traditions, enlightenment does not require ‘grace’ of any kind of ‘God’: one’s enlightenment is the result of one’s own effort. The discovery that all there is to life is the life one has—or the body one has—does not rob an Indian of anything. Very sharply put: in Indian traditions, ‘atheism’ can also be a way of reaching enlightenment. This claim is not even remotely like the shock of ‘discovering’ that ‘God is dead’.

What is this kind of ‘atheism’? Not the Western atheism that makes no sense to the many Indian traditions because the road to ‘enlightenment’ does not require a ‘belief in God’. Consequently, most of these Indian traditions are not ‘theistic’ the way Judaism, Christianity and Islam are. Our asuras are not like the devil or his minions in the Bible. Not only do they seek ‘enlightenment’, but some of them are also the biggest bhaktas of our devatas, like a Ravana or a Bali. Our ‘atheisms’, our ‘asuras’, the ‘immorality’ of our devas do not rob us of our traditions the way atheism robs a believer in the West. Consequently, without rejecting any piece of knowledge ever learnt, we can access our traditions and our experience in a very profound way.

To conclude, Kripal inflicts violence on those fellow human beings whose experiences he talks about. SNB sums up his reaction to the effort of Jeffrey Kripal, ‘I am ashamed and upset by the trivialization; I feel disgust and loathing at the gossip; I react with horror to the violence you inflict.’ Strong stuff while summing up! Wonder if Kripal ever answered the letter.

Featured Image: DailyO

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