Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I first heard of Nelson Mandela in 1983 when, on a five-month long trip to Australia where I was traveling as a Thomas Watson Fellow, I encountered an Australian peace activist who had the audacity, as I then thought, to mention him alongside Gandhi as a heroic figure in the fight against oppression.   There was a time, though the present generation has no awareness of this fact except as an abstraction that concerns them little, when there was no internet; and, in the Australian outback, though I hungered for more information, stunned by my interlocutor’s invocation of Mandela’s now famous speech at Rivonia, I had no recourse to a library.

Several months later, back in India, I was distracted by other thoughts and it was not until I commenced my graduate work at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1984 that Mandela once again came to my attention.  The anti-apartheid movement was then in full swing; on university campuses in the United States, the call for sanctions and divestment from corporations that traded with South Africa’s apartheid regime was loud and clear, though it is my impression that university administrations remained largely indifferent to student-led demands that universities disengage in every respect with the brutal system of apartheid.  At the University of Chicago, the public face of the anti-apartheid movement was an Indian graduate student, Sahotra Sarkar, who now holds a professorship in the philosophy of physics and biology at the University of Texas, Austin.  At the end of every rally, invariably accompanied by shouts of ‘Free Mandela’, the motley crowd of radicals and activists would raise their fists to the chorus of ‘Amandla’, the Zulu word for ‘power’ that had become the rallying cry of the African National Congress (ANC).  On one occasion, sometime around 1986, Sahotra announced a 48-hour hunger-strike in an effort to make the university administration more responsive to student demands.  A handful of supporters, myself included, joined him in a sympathetic fast.  This was my most substantive initiation into activist politics.  It will be for the historians to judge how far thousands of such actions, carried out across the world, contributed to Mandela’s release from prison, the eventual dismantling of apartheid, and the birth of a free South Africa.

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison.  Photograph: AP

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison. Photograph: AP

Mandela is no more; yet, as Obama put it in his public pronouncement hours after Mandela’s death, echoing the words said to have been uttered by Secretary of War Stanton upon being told of Lincoln’s assassination, ‘now he belongs to the ages’.  Still, however apposite this thought, there are many critical questions that linger on, and some are called to mind by the deafening noise with which Mandela’s life is now being celebrated even as the last vestiges of everything he stood for have disappeared from our moral compass.  Mandela himself always recognized, even if the American media with its obsessive addiction to the ‘Great Man of History’ theory is too dim-witted to allow for any such admission, that the movement was much greater than him, and that he alone was not called to sacrifice:  countless others, some named, an equal or greater number unnamed, were lost in the struggle against apartheid and its supporters, among them the so-called leaders of the Western world (nowhere more so than in the US) who continued to offer unstinting support to the white despots of South Africa. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Yusuf Dadoo, Steve Biko, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo: the names—and there are many more—roll off the tongue, one after another, each incessantly engaged in a principled struggle to recover the dignity of human beings.

MandelaSisulu

Nelson Mandela (left) with Walter Sisulu at Robben Island. Photo: Robben Island Museum

All this was known to me by my own reading of South African history, but I was brought to a visceral awareness of the ugly facts of apartheid—and the repertoire of creative and extraordinarily responses to such forms of dehumanization—by a chance meeting with the artist Ronald Harrison on my only visit to South Africa in 2006.  Harrison recognized Albert Luthuli, the greatest exponent of the idea of nonviolent resistance in South African history, as his political and spiritual mentor.  Harrison, who passed away virtually unheralded in 2011, has related in his memoirs that he was struck by an epiphany shortly after he embarked upon his career as an artist:  what if he were to signify the suffering of South Africa’s black people by recalling the crucifixion of Christ, rendering Luthuli as a modern-day Christ and apartheid’s ideologues, Verwoerd and Vorster, as Roman centurions, “the tormentors of Christ”?  And so came about Harrison’s painting, ‘The Black Christ’:  unable to recognize the living Christs in their midst, apartheid’s ideologues and assassins, who had already claimed the great Luthuli as one of their victims, staging his death as an ‘accident’ on the railway tracks close to his home, would go on to imprison and torture Harrison.  For thirty-five years, Harrison’s painting, which the apartheid state’s censors would not permit to be exhibited, languished in a London basement home.  Yet, when I met Harrison for the first time in 2006, he held no grudge against his oppressors:  much like Mandela, he worried that we might become akin to those we despise.  As he was to write movingly in The Black ChristA Journey to Freedom (2006), “Verwoerd had been a monster; he had been a tormentor.  But he had also been a loving husband, a caring father, someone’s friend, the beloved son of proud parents.”

Ronald Harrison, "The Black Christ," oil on canvas, 1962.  Copyright: Ronald Harrison

Ronald Harrison, “The Black Christ,” oil on canvas, 1962. Copyright: Ronald Harrison

It is, of course, these very qualities of generosity, forgiveness, and compassion that have endeared Mandela to people around the world.  It is also precisely these qualities that were never even remotely on display among the political leaders and elites of the West, when the African National Congress called for a worldwide resistance to the apartheid regime, who are now outdoing each other in their craven attempt to be viewed as being on the right side of history.  If this is the time to remember what Mandela stood for, it is also the time to remember that the United States, France, and Britain insistently, repeatedly, and unfailingly vetoed mandatory United Nations resolutions in the Security Council calling for sanctions against South Africa under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.  Many will suggest that such ‘hypocrisy’ is indisputably a part of the game of politics, but why then celebrate Mandela’s life at all?  The African National Congress was, of course, closely allied to the South African Communist Party, and Mandela remained keenly aware, to the end of his life, of the immense price paid by Dadoo, Slovo, and others stalwarts of South African communism.  It is to Mandela’s credit that he never disowned those friends and supporters who stood by him during his difficult years, among them the much reviled Fidel Castro and even Muammar Gaddafi.

BIO-MANDELA-KADHAFI

Nelson Mandela with Muammar Gaddafi in 1997. Photo: AMR NABIL/AFP/Getty Images

There are, for those interested in Mandela’s life and even more so the history of the long struggle against apartheid, many questions that remain to be asked.  While Chief Luthuli, South Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Peace (though this is commonly forgotten), and the principal architect of the ANC’s policy of boycott in 1959, offered nothing but unwavering support to Mandela, notwithstanding his own principled conviction in the power of nonviolent resistance, Mandela’s own part in having contributed to the partial evisceration of Luthuli’s legacy and even the public memory of Luthuli will no doubt be investigated in years to come.  One could also probe whether Mandela’s three-decade long term in prison had, in various ways, the effect of obfuscating his understanding of globalization. But these considerations, and many more, pale before the most pressing question that should be present to those living in the US, Britain, and France, among other countries in the global North.  Why did not these countries do more to offer support to the African National Congress and the movement of resistance to oppression?  Whatever damage apartheid did to Mandela, it surely also caused irreparable damage to the West.  There is perhaps no more glaring evidence of this than the fact that growing inequality strikes at the very root of these societies.  To take cognizance of Mandela’s life is to acknowledge that various forms of apartheid have crept into what are ostensibly free societies.

Part IV of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

[this is the concluding part of a 4-part series; see also parts i-iii, which are the previous entries on this blog]

In the United States, Mohandas Gandhi has long been the most well recognized figure from India.  In the early 1920s, his American admirer John Haynes Holmes, an influential Unitarian Minister and pacifist whose principled opposition to violence led him to oppose American involvement in both World War I and II, thus exposing him to ridicule from the likes of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)—‘If we want to win’, wrote Dr. Seuss, ‘we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not.  We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left’—had already proclaimed Gandhi in a public lecture as the ‘Greatest Man in the World Today’; in another public lecture, he would speak on the ‘World Significance of Mahatma Gandhi’.  It is, of course, the American civil rights movement that again helped to make Gandhi nearly a household name in the United States, though one can also think of such supreme moments in the popular imagination as these lyrics by Cole Porter,

You’re the top!

You’re Mahatma Gandhi.

You’re the top!

You’re Napoleon Brandy.

There is an entire history, rather different from the narratives that presently circulate about Gandhi’s “relevance” or “influence”, to be written on how Gandhi has earned India immense cultural capital.  In this respect, Vivekananda presents something of a contrast:  notwithstanding the fact that Vivekananda has had his share of admirers in the West among intellectuals or those, who have always been a small minority, with an abiding interest in ‘Eastern religions’, he remains an almost entirely unknown figure to the wider non-Indian public in Europe and even the United States.  But it is no exaggeration to suggest that among people of Indian origin throughout the diaspora, and especially the United States, Vivekananda is ever so slowly supplanting Gandhi as the supreme representative of their idea of India.  For all of his status as ‘the Father of the Nation’, Gandhi has never been very attractive to those in the diasporic settings who imagine themselves as the vanguard of a resurgent and modern India.  Vivekananda is also less controversial than Gandhi:  since his writings have received much less scrutiny than those of Gandhi, he is also imagined to be a sterner critic of the caste system and more ‘universal’ in his outlook.  One cannot imagine, for instance, the kind of demonstrations around Vivekananda’s statue in Chicago that have taken place around Gandhi’s statues, such as the demonstration in progress over the last few weeks in Cerritos, a neighborhood in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, where a disaffected crowd of some a few dozen people have, quite preposterously, been describing Gandhi as ‘a friend of Hitler’ or a ‘child molester’.

There is, as well, a more recent history of the appropriation of Vivekananda by Indian organizations in the United States, a history that amply suggests the hugely iconic status that Vivekananda has come to acquire as a preeminent figure of the notion of a resurgent India.  It is no surprise that he is the patron saint of the Hindu Student Council, which rather modestly and cunningly describes itself as ‘an international youth forum providing opportunities to learn about Hindu heritage, spirituality and culture.’  The HSC is, of course, the youth division of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and it has been especially active on American campuses, serving the needs of what are sometimes called ‘heritage students’, or second- and even third-generation Indian Americans, who are keen to learn about Hinduism, ancient India, the modernity of Hinduism, and the affronts to Hindus in countries where they are a minority.  The organizational strengths of the HSC can reasonably be surmised from the fact that in 1993, on the centenary of Vivekananda’s address to the World Parliament of Religions, it held a ‘Vision 2000 Global Youth Conference’ attended by 2000 Hindu students from the US, India, and nearly 20 other foreign countries.

vivekanandaFlyer

A Stanford HSC flyer announces an event celebrating Vivekananda in 2006.  The flyer claims that “Vivekananda is the modern face of Hinduism.”

Vivekananda is the one figure from the relatively recent Indian past who is most admired in HSC circles as someone who not only spoke for the youth of India but unabashedly suggested that India was positioned to achieve conquest over the world with its rich spiritual inheritance.   It is Vivekananda who, from the standpoint of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Students Council, successfully transformed Hinduism from an inward-looking faith to the global religion that it had once aspired to be as it spread through Thailand, Java, Bali, and Indochina.  The Hindu Student Council’s ‘Global Dharma Conference’, held at Edison, New Jersey, in 2003, was thus not only a tribute to Vivekananda’s conception of Hinduism as a global religion but an affirmation of Hinduism’s capacity to organize its devotees and take its place alongside other world religions.  The Hindu American Foundation, an organization of relatively recent vintage set up by young Indian American professionals who have been aggressive in advertising their grievances as the upholders of a faith which they claim has little visibility and respect in the US, just as they proselytize about Hinduism’s uniquely tolerant outlook towards other faiths, has been similarly enthusiastic in pushing forward Vivekananda as the ultimate icon of Hinduism’s ecumenism and uniquely spiritual dispensation.  The Foundation’s 5th Annual ‘Next Generation’ essay contest encourages young Indian American Hindus to reflect on the teachings of Vivekananda on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, and sets them the task of commenting on a quote from Vivekananda keeping in mind that, to quote from a press release from the Foundation, ‘In a mere five word greeting of “Brothers and sisters of America,” he [Vivekananda] relayed Hinduism’s ancient teaching of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, inspiring so many in the audience and countless other Americans to live up to the dharmic understanding of pluralism and mutual respect. His teachings, like Hinduism, continue to stand the test of time and serve as an inspiration to Hindus and non-Hindus alike.’

‘This is the story of a phenomenon.’  Thus Christopher Isherwood commenced his elegant even mesmerizing biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples.  Isherwood tells a great many stories—and tempts me to conclude with one of the many stories, largely apocryphal, that have now become part of the legend that has grown up around Vivekananda and his legacy in the United States.  In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago with a certain attraction to Sri Ramakrishna, I became a frequent visitor to the Vivekananda Center in Hyde Park.  In time I came to find out that, under the leadership of Swami Bhasyananda, land was acquired in 1968 in the township of Ganges, Michigan, and the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat was duly established in the midst of a wonderfully bucolic setting.  Upon inquiring how Ganges had acquired its name, I was told by the residents of the Monastery that the town was founded by an early follower of Vivekananda; others mentioned to me that the disciple in question was the Governor of Michigan, and that in honor of the Indian swami he conferred Indian names on two towns, the other being Nirvana.   At that time I ceased my probe into this matter, inclined to accept the view that the story was worthy to be told to others, whatever its veracity.  In recent years, as Vivekananda’s place in the diasporic imaginary has grown tremendously, I thought it worthwhile to investigate this story further and found not a scrap of evidence to corroborate the view held by members of the Vivekananda Monastery.  Thus Walter Romig, in his reasonably authoritative Michigan Place Names, states that Ganges was settled in 1838, and so ‘named by Dr. Joseph Coates, a member of the legislature from Otsego, after the holy river of India, for reasons unknown’; of Nirvana, he says that it is ‘Buddhist for highest heaven’, and acquired its name from the great admiration that Darwin Knight, the town’s first postmaster, bore for ‘Oriental religions’.  But will this matter at all to Vivekananda’s followers and disciples in America and around the world?  Should it matter at all?  What could be more fun, after all, than to arrive in Nirvana, and then drop a few postcards to friends and family members announcing one’s arrival in (Vivekananda’s) Nirvana?

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

[The four parts were together first published, though in a much abbreviated form, in OUTLOOK, Web edition]

Part III of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

It would be four years before Vivekananda found his way back to India.  One of the stories most frequently recounted about him, no doubt both to convey a sense of his intellectual prowess as well as his unyielding commitment to the idea of service, is that in the aftermath of the World Parliament he was offered a Chaired Professorship in Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University but that, cognizant of the task he had set himself of serving the poor in India and carrying on the mission of Sri Ramakrishna, he declined the invitation.  Harvard maintains no record of such an offer to Vivekananda, nor has anyone been able to furnish an iota of evidence in support of this claim; but like much else that is told of him, this story requires no corroboration from the standpoint of those who view him as a spiritual and intellectual luminary.  The story has received many embellishments:  for instance, according to a version published in no less a place than the Wall Street Journal in 2012, Vivekananda was asked if he would chair Harvard’s philosophy department; allegedly, Columbia University at once made a bid for Vivekananda when the offer from Harvard was brought to their attention.

It may even be that the quest for ‘the truth’ is not altogether germane:  what is certain is that Vivekananda acquired a considerable following, and there are histories of American intellectual and cultural enterprises that are now inextricably intertwined with the name of Vivekananda.  The role played by two New England women, Sarah Farmer and Sara Chapman Bull, in creating a spiritual retreat, Green Acre, where Vivekananda discoursed frequently on Indian philosophy and conducted a class on Raja Yoga over several months is but one of many illustrations of his ability to command a following among some influential and certainly well-placed sectors of American society.  At what came to be known as the Cambridge Conferences, held in December 1894 in the vicinity of Harvard at the instigation of Sara Bull, Vivekananda starred as the main speaker.  The guests in attendance at his lectures included Charles Lanman, Professor of Sanskrit and Editor of the Harvard Oriental James; Ernest Fenellosa, one of the world’s leading authorities on Japanese art; and the philosopher William James.  A Harvard colleague of William James is reported to have remarked that the Indian Swami ‘had swept Professor James off his feet’; but what is unequivocally clear is that James quoted at some length from Vivekananda’s treatise on Raja Yoga in his highly influential work, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Vivekananda with some female supporters in Pasadena, California, in 1900.  Photo: Vedanta Society of Southern California

Vivekananda with some female supporters in Pasadena, California, in 1900. Photo: Vedanta Society of Southern California

Vivekananda established the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894, and another branch in San Francisco in 1900 on his second visit to the United States.   Vivekananda passed away in 1902, but the institutionalization of Vedanta in America was well on its way within a few years after his death.  By 1929, there were Vedanta Centers in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Providence, and three in the Los Angeles area alone—Pasadena, Hollywood, and La Crescenta.  One of the most arresting chapters of the growth of Vedanta in the US—a narrative that calls attention to its enticements to Western intellectuals, especially in the aftermath of World War I, which had taken an extraordinarily large toll of young men and brought home to millions of Europeans the devastatingly frightening idea of a ‘total war’—would be written in Southern California, where the young monk, Swami Prabhavananda, who had been sent from San Francisco to Hollywood by the Ramakrishna Order in 1929, eventually gathered a renowned group of British writers and intellectuals around him, including Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard.   Prabhavananda and Isherwood together produced translations of a number of key Hindu philosophical texts—the Bhagavad Gita, Shankara’s Vivekachudamani, and the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali—published in the Mentor Library series and so played a critical role in popularizing Indian philosophy. We might say that Hollywood’s interest in ‘Eastern spirituality’ was kindled by Isherwood, whose connections with film, art, and literary circles were prolific.  Meanwhile, on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Swami Nikhilananda, who founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York in 1933 and served as its Minister until his death in 1973, gathered around him an equally illustrious band of followers, some present in person and others in spirit.   Swami Nikhilananda’s translation into English of the Sri Sri Ramakrisna Kathamrita, rendered as the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, would win him a large following, and in later years his devotees included George Harrison and the reclusive J. D. Salinger.  In one moving letter addressed to Nikhilananda on 19 January 1972, Salinger wrote:  “I sometimes wish that the East had deigned to concentrate some small part of its immeasurable genius to the petty art or science of keeping the body well and fit.  Between extreme indifference to the body and the most extreme and zealous attention to it (Hatha Yoga), there seems to be no useful middle ground whatever, and that seems to me one more unnecessary sadness in Maya.’  Salinger had an intensely personal relationship with Swami Nikhilananda; as the venerable monk showed signs of aging, Salinger offers him this reassurance:  ‘Your voice sounds the same, though, Swami.  It may be that reading to a devoted group from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is all you do now, as you say, but I imagine the students who are lucky enough to hear you read from the Gospel would put the matter rather differently.  Meaning that I’ve forgotten many worthy and important things in my life, but I have never forgotten the way you used to read from, and interpret, the Upanishads, up at Thousand Island Park.’

Vivekananda in front of the Pasadena house that is now his namesake.

Vivekananda in front of the house he stayed at during his time in South Pasadena, California. The house is now his namesake.

There is but no question that memories of Vivekananda linger in the American imagination.  A Victorian home in South Pasadena, where Vivekananda stayed for six weeks in 1900, is now under the care of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.  The Trabuco College of Prayer, established by Gerald Heard in 1941 as a quiet retreat for meditation amidst 300 acres of land in the hills of Santa Ana to the south of Los Angeles, was turned over to the Vedanta Society in 1949 and rededicated as the Ramakrishna Monastery.  Two years later, a statue of Vivekananda, modeled after one that had been installed at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York, would be installed at the Trabuco Canyon monastery.  Significantly, the dedication ceremony took place on July 4th:  thus an attempt would be made, one which is to be witnessed repeatedly in the ground-breaking ceremonies that have accompanied the inauguration of new sites for Hindu temples in the United States, to synchronize the notion of political freedom prevailing in the US with the idea of spiritual freedom, an idea that many educated middle-class Hindus believe reached its apogee in Indian civilization. (Swami Prabhavananda, as an aside, passed away on 4 July 1976, the exact bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence.  Was this only a coincidence, or had the Swami willed his death on this day?)  However much America, in this view, may represent the culmination of the idea of freedom of expression and the material freedoms that have to define modern life, Vivekananda, the emissary of an ancient civilization that has long grappled with the notion of spiritual emancipation, was needed in the West to fulfill the very idea of freedom itself.

(The final portion, Part IV, will be posted shortly.)

See also Parts I and II, the preceding posts on this blog.

Part II of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

It is the World Parliament of Religions which first brought Americans face to face with a living emissary of ‘Hinduism’, a circumstance wrought with ironies.  The Parliament was itself one of various congresses convened in 1893 to celebrate the quadricentennial of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas. As Columbus set landfall in the Americas, he imagined he had reached India.  We need not be detained here by a consideration of the far-reaching consequences of that mistake—none as calamitous as the genocide of native Americans—except to suggest that, in a manner of speaking, Vivekananda arrived in the United States in the wake of that mistake.  If what has come to be celebrated as the inclusiveness of American society was predicated on an exclusiveness that called for nothing less than the wholesale extermination of the peoples of the Americas and the subsequent enslavement of Africans, the World’s Columbian Exposition would echo that worldview.  The Parliament billed itself as the world’s largest gathering of the representatives of religions from the world, and so eminent a scholar as Max Muller, one of the pioneers of the comparative study of religion, signified his approbation of the enterprise with the observation that the Parliament ‘stands unique, stands unprecedented in the whole history of the world.’  Yet, American Indian religions were excluded, on the supposition that Native Americans, though not without culture, could not be viewed as possessing something that might be called ‘religion’; likewise, insofar as Africans (and African Americans) received any representation, it was only to the extent that they were members of some Christian denomination.

Ten faiths were conceived by the organizers as the world’s great religions and invited to send their representatives; alongside the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and Zoroastrianism were six religions originating in South Asia and the Far East:  Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.  Some Christian leaders objected to the Parliament on the grounds that it furnished parity to all faiths and thus undermined Christianity, ‘the one religion’ as described by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  ‘I do not understand’, the Archbishop wrote in a letter to the organizers, ‘how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their positions and claims.’  With respect to the Parliament’s proceedings, the greater preponderance of the papers dwelled on Christianity—152 out of 194, to be precise. Virchand Gandhi appeared as the sole spokesperson for Jainism; today his statue stands outside the Jain temple in Chicago, an emblem of a community’s gratefulness for having brought visibility to a faith which had historically been confined to India.

It is on September 11th, now a day of infamy in America, that James Cardinal Gibbons opened the Parliament by leading the delegates in the Lord’s Prayer.  At the Parliament, only two representatives spoke up on behalf of Islam—a rather slim participation, considering the fact that Christianity and Islam had encountered each other repeatedly over the centuries, and not always, notwithstanding the popular understanding of Islam in the West, as hostile faiths.  In retrospect, Islam’s extraordinarily miniscule presence at the World Parliament in 1893 may be read as a premonition of the fact that Islam and Christianity have an extraordinary amount of terrain to cover if they are going to engage in a genuine inter-faith dialogue.  For the worldwide Indian diaspora, September 11th luckily augurs other possibilities.  More than a decade after Vivekananda delivered his rousing address, across the world in Johannesburg Gandhi gathered together with friends, associates, and ‘delegates from various places in the Transvaal’ on the evening of September 11th, 1906, to consider how best South African Indians could resist the injustices imposed on them.  Such was, in Gandhi’s own words, ‘the advent of satyagraha’, the term he coined to signal not only the birth of a new movement of nonviolent resistance but an entire worldview.  But that is another story:  back in Chicago, on the afternoon of September 11th in 1893, Vivekananda mounted the stage and Hinduism was, in the received view, itself propelled on the world stage.  Vivekananda had shared the dais alongside other ‘representatives’ of Hinduism: among others, there were Siddhu Ram, ‘an appeal writer’ from ‘Mooltan, Punjab’; the Reverend B. B. Nagarkar, a minister of the ‘Brahmo-Somaj’ of Bombay; Professor G. N. Chakravarti; Jinda Ram, President of the Temperance Society, Muzzafargarh; and the Reverend P. C. Mozoomdar, Minister and leader of the ‘Brahmo-Somaj’ of Calcutta.  Those other names are now lost to history—whatever they may have said, they appear to have been swept aside by Vivekananda.  And, yet, Virchand Gandhi, speaking on behalf of Jainism, provided a different perspective:  not only Vivekananda, but all the Indian delegates, Virchand Gandhi wrote, were a great draw, and ‘at least a third and sometimes two-thirds of the great audience . . . would make a rush for the exits when a fine orator from India had closed his speech.’

Swami Vivekananda (center-right) with Virchand Gandhi (left) and Anagarika Dharmapala (center-left) at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893.

Swami Vivekananda (center-right) with Virchand Gandhi (left) and Anagarika Dharmapala (center-left) at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893.

By all accounts, and these are not only narratives that have come down to us from his acolytes and other advocates of Hindu nationalism, Vivekananda had an electrifying impact on his audience.  ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, Vivekananda proceeded to say—and with this he brought his audience of 7,000 to its feet.  The Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Henry Barrows, in whose charge the organization of the Parliament had been placed, wrote in his official two-volume history of the Parliament that Vivekananda’s initial words were followed by ‘a peal of applause that lasted for several minutes’; by his own testimony, Vivekananda was the most popular speaker at the Parliament.  Once the din of the applause had subsided, Vivekananda thanked the people present ‘in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world’, ‘in the name of the mother of religions’, and ‘in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.’  Vivekananda declared himself proud ‘to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.’ Vivekananda would drive home what he viewed as the essentially ecumenical character of the Indian, and particularly Hindu, religious sensibility by reminding his audience of a hymn which he remembered repeating in childhood, ‘As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.’

In Vivekananda’s opening address, the first of many he was to deliver at the Parliament, are already present some though by no means all of the characteristic features of the interpretive strategies that he was to deploy to great effect in his public performances in the West.  There is no disputing the fact that India had given shelter to the ‘remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation’, just as it had accorded hospitality to the Jews being hounded in much of the rest of the world.  His immediate audience may not have known all this, but Vivekananda was indisputably on firm ground.  However, there is already a tacit claim, one which would receive fuller expression once Vivekananda went on the lecture circuit in the United States, about the superiority of Hinduism over other religions.  He describes Hinduism as ‘a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance’, but at once appears to be suggesting that this may not be true of other religions.  When he adds, ‘We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true’, there is far more than a hint that Hinduism occupies a unique place in the pantheon on account of the fact that it accepts all religions as true. ‘We’, the adherents of Hinduism, practice ‘universal toleration’; but what of the adherents of other religions?  Addressing his audience briefly on September 20th, Vivekananda advised Christians that they ‘must always be ready for good criticism’:  having arrived in India in large numbers ‘to save the soul of the heathens’, they were yet to understand that ‘the crying evil in the East is not religion—they have religion enough—but it is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats.’

Copy of a poster that was hung up around Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

Copy of a poster that was hung up around Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

It has been argued that as much as his teachings, it was the vast impress of his personality that turned Vivekananda into a sensation.  The Chicago Inter Ocean reported that ‘great crowds of people, the most of whom were women’, would arrive an hour before the afternoon session was to commence, ‘for it had been announced that Swami Vivekananda, the popular Hindu Monk, who looks so much like McCullough’s Othello, was to speak.’  The Boston Evening Transcript was similarly candid in its assessment that ‘the four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus’ were prepared to sit through an hour or two of other speeches with a smiling countenance, ‘to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes.’  Harriet Monroe, a well-known figure in literary circles, was struck by his voice, characterizing it ‘as rich as a bronze bell’.  Vivekananda had arrived in the United States with some hope of procuring funds with which he could carry out his mission in India; in America, on the other hand, he appeared to some as a good business proposition, the proverbial wise man from the East with a charm, poise, good looks, and a command over English.  No sooner was the Parliament over that Vivekananda was signed up on the lecture circuit.

(to be continued)

See also Part I:  Before Vivkekananda

Part I of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

 

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in  Jaipur, 1891.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in Jaipur, 1891.

As India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the paramount place of his sojourns in the United States in giving shape to the most widely accepted views of this ‘son of India’ becomes all too apparent.  Much of what has been said and written about him is nearly akin to the puranic lore that is so deeply encrusted into the fabric of everyday life in India.  What might Vivekananda have been, one wonders, had he not commenced the first of his three speeches at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 with those five words, ‘Brothers and Sisters of America’, which are said to have won him a standing ovation at that unusual gathering and, one hundred twenty years later, still win him the approbation of those who view him as the greatest emissary of Hinduism to the West?  Just what aspects of Vivekananda’s legacy have endured in the United States, and to what effect?

The history of Hinduism’s reception in the West has often been written with the assurance that the beginning is clearly marked by the convocation that is known as the World Parliament of Religions, certainly the first gathering of its kind when representatives of what were deemed, at least by the Parliament’s organizers, as the ten great world religions met to reflect both on the diversity and unity encompassed by ‘religion’.  In India the Parliament is chiefly remembered for the speech that launched Vivekananda on to the world stage, but in the United States it occupies a yet more significant place, though seldom recognized, in the intellectual history of the country.  The notion of ‘religious pluralism’, which in principle serves as the bedrock of American civil culture, was given its first substantive hearing at the World Parliament in 1893; similarly, the academic (and, to some extent, popular) study of comparative religion may, in some respects, be viewed as having originated in the immediate aftermath of the World Parliament.

What is indubitably certain is that when Vivekananda first arrived in the United States, almost nothing was known of Vedanta, Hinduism, or, more broadly conceived, Indian religions.  Perhaps it is apposite that he had to be ‘lost’ before he could be ‘found’–and this itself can be read in several registers–and Hinduism could be received in a country that is generally believed to hold its doors wide open for people of different faiths and beliefs:  arriving in Chicago a couple of days before the Parliament was to open, Vivekananda discovered that he had misplaced the address where he was to report.  It is said that he wandered about and finally fell asleep, hungry and tired, in an empty railway wagon.  On waking up the following morning, Vivekananda, in the manner of a Hindu fakir, started going from door to door in the hope of getting some nourishment for his empty stomach. But the sight of this swarthy and turbaned young man in orange robes alarmed the housewives of the neighborhoods through which he walked; however, a certain Mrs. Ellen Hale, who had read reports on the impending Parliament of Religions, surmised that Vivekananda was one of its delegates and welcomed him to her home.  In time, as many Indians have fondly believed, Vivekananda would repay the debt by furnishing spiritual nourishment to empty souls.

Returning, however, to the question of what was known about Hinduism in the US before the arrival of Swami Vivekananda, a few considerations come to mind.  American periodicals, such as the Christian Disciple and the Theological Review (1813-1823) and the North American Review, which commenced publication in 1815, had begun to carry occasional articles on Hindu customs and mores, and especially ‘Hindu idolatry’, but such pieces were invariably informed by an Orientalist outlook.  The understanding of Hinduism, if one can even call it that, was mediated, on the one hand, by Charles Grant’s highly influential A Poem on the Restoration of Learning in the East (1805) and, on the other hand, by the interest shown in the life and work of Rammohun Roy, the founder of the reformist and theistic movement known as the Brahmo Samaj.  The American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in particular, had more than dabbled in some of the sacred books of the Hindus.  The young Emerson, not yet out of his teens, had made bold to interpret ‘Hindu theology’ in a lengthy poem, now known only to scholars, called Indian Superstition (1821).  Emerson’s then paltry knowledge of Hinduism may be surmised from his invocation of ‘the stern Bramin armed with plagues divine’ (l. 71), or of devotees engaged ‘in wild worship to mysterious powers’ (l. 47).  In time, Emerson would gravitate towards a considerably more complex, indeed sympathetic, view of Hinduism—as is suggested, for instance, by his poem ‘Brahma’, where the impress of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is clearly suggested.  His younger contemporary, Thoreau, entered into a wider engagement with Indian texts, and took copious notes from the Gita, the Upanishads, the Vishnu Purana, and the Manusmriti.  ‘In the morning’, Thoreau wrote of his experiences at Walden Pond, ‘I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.’  The Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is given over to dense quotations from Thoreau’s favorite Hindu writings.

Thoreau was also doubtless the first person in the United States to describe himself as a yogi.  Yet, for all his mental peregrinations, he never travelled outside the United States; indeed, he confined himself to New England.  Thoreau was far from having ever seen an Indian, let alone a Hindu yogi; and many Indians have all but overlooked his remark that ‘no Hindoo tyranny prevailed at the framing of the world, but we are freemen of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste.’  There is nothing to suggest that, in the aftermath of Emerson and Thoreau’s reasonably sustained engagement with Indian philosophy, interest in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Gita, or Hindu myths was kindled among Americans.  To be sure, Sanskrit had made some inroads, howsoever slight, into the curriculum at a few of the principal American institutions of higher education.  Edward Elbridge Salisbury was installed as Professor of Sanskrit and Arabic at Yale University in 1841, and Salisbury would also go on to play a pivotal role in giving shape to the American Oriental Society, founded in 1842 as the first learned organization of its kind in the United States.  Yale would subsequently become home to William Dwight Whitney (1827-94), author of a widely used Sanskrit grammar (1879) and translator of the Atharva Veda.  By the late 1880s, Sanskrit was being taught at more than half a dozen American universities, among them Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.  One might, with due diligence, summon a few other similar nuggets of American interest in India, and especially in Hinduism; but, viewed in totality, one is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that when Vivekananda arrived in Chicago as one of a handful of people charged with representing Hinduism to the American public and the wider world, Hinduism remained an utter novelty to Americans.  Certainly there would have been no one, whether among the public or even in the academy, to contest his readings of Hinduism or of Indian society more generally.

(to be continued)

 

Review of Faisal Devji, The Impossible Indian:  Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2012).  

[First published in The Book Review, Delhi, Vol 37 no. 10 (October 2013).]

 

It was not so long ago that Mohandas Gandhi was, at least to the academic world, a largely forgotten figure.  In the 1980s and 1990s, as postcolonial thought in its various inflections became quite the rage in significant sectors of the Anglo-American (and Indian) academy, and the ‘master narratives’ of the Enlightenment, as they were called, came under sustained interrogation and assault, attention would come to be lavished upon those figures who were viewed as the torchbearers of resistance, critical of deeply embedded frameworks of interpretation that had given succor to elites, and harbingers of a politics of emancipation for those, especially, relegated to the margins.  Curiously, though Gandhi is a critical figure in the histories of struggles against colonialism, racism, and the oppression of women and minorities, he remained singularly unattractive to the most prominent postcolonial theorists and intellectuals of other stripes.  He was seen as a distinctly unsexy figure, dismissed as a ‘doer’ rather than ‘thinker’, scarcely worthy of the company of Aime Cesaire, C.L.R. James, or the much lionized Fanon.  The stately Edward Said was habituated to giving lists of the great figures of anti-colonial resistance, but in the thousands of pages of his writings there is barely any mention of Gandhi’s name.  When at all attention was bestowed on Gandhi by a famous intellectual, it was more for effect than out of any serious consideration of his thought, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s extraordinary and one should say careless attempt, in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), to suggest that sati could be associated with “Mahatma Gandhi’s reinscription of the notion of satyagraha, or hunger strike, as resistance.” As she adds, “I would merely invite the reader to compare the auras of widow sacrifice and Gandhian resistance.  The root in the first part of satyagraha and sati are the same” (p. 298). Since when did satyagraha and “hunger strike” become synonymous?  Fasting is no doubt part of the grammar of satyagraha, but does anyone suppose that satyagraha can be reduced to hunger strike?  And is there no distinction to be made between fasting and hunger strike?  One would have expected a great deal more from someone who has been a relentless advocate of careful and hermeneutic readings of texts.

 

Much, however, has changed in the course of the last decade.  Gandhi has found favour in the most unusual circles, though for reasons that are far from apparent, and scholarship on him is flourishing.  It surely cannot be that the world is in the throes of violence—indeed it is, but not demonstrably more so than in previous decades—and that Gandhi now appears not only eminently sane and reasonable but prophetic in his insistence on nonviolent social and political transformation.  It may be that many of the most widely admired figures of our times, among them Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi, have openly declared themselves as beholden to Gandhi in helping shape their worldview.  Even the Commander in Chief of the greatest military force in the world, Barack Obama, has described Gandhi as his spiritual and political mentor, and he once went so far as to tell American schoolchildren that if there is one figure from the past with whom he could have dinner, it would have to be Gandhi.  (We need not pause here to reflect on how the evening might have shaped up, since Gandhi ate very little and well before sundown—yet Obama’s observation seems to have been offered without any pinch of salt.)  It is certainly possible to entertain the idea that, at least from the scholarly standpoint, other ideologies—liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, constitutionalism—are seen as having run their full course, and that some indulgence towards Gandhi’s ideas is seen as permissible.  All too often, of course, nonviolence has been the last rather than the first option for those who style themselves revolutionaries.

 

Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian is easily both one of the most stimulating and disturbing books in the Gandhian cornucopia.  Devji proposes to set forth ‘a new case’ for Gandhi ‘to be considered one of the greatest political thinkers of our times’ (vii), just as the analytical philosopher Akeel Bilgrami, another relatively recent convert to Gandhi’s ideas, has argued that Gandhi was ‘the greatest anti-imperialist theorist who ever wrote’.[1]  Much has been written on the subject of nationality, but Devji’s reading is altogether fresh:  considering the role of Indians within the empire, he argues that ‘it was neither India nor South Africa that provided Indians with a nationality, but satyagraha, considered as a practice without origin or destination of any territorial sort’ (49).  Gandhi in this fashion also controverted the usual assumptions about ‘minorities’ and ‘majorities’, a language born of modern political arithmetic, and a letter to Jinnah in 1944 reinforces the notion of nationality wrought in the crucible of struggle:  ‘The only real though awful test of our nationhood arises out of our common subjection.  If you and I throw off this subjection by our combined effort, we shall be born a politically free nation out of our travail’ (cited at 64).  Devji writes with considerable elegance and even panache, to be sure, but also with the aim of unsettling conventional readings and what we deem to be ‘common sense’.  One of the more fruitful results of this intellectual exercise is the chapter tellingly entitled, ‘In Praise of Prejudice’—shades here, as throughout this book, though hardly acknowledged, of the impress on Devji of the seminal readings of Gandhi, and more broadly of Indian political culture, advanced by Ashis Nandy.  Gandhi worked to develop ‘the prejudice that remained between Indians there into a basis of friendship’ (70): neither friendship nor prejudice are amenable to a calculus of interests. Though both friendship and brotherhood furnish models of egalitarian relations, Devji argues convincingly that Gandhi was ‘an advocate of the former against the latter’ (71).  Unlike brotherhood, which may be ‘flouted a hundred times without ceasing to remain brotherhood’, friendship rests on a much more fragile foundation, having ‘to remain disinterested to be itself’ (69).  Devji weaves into this discussion a consideration of Gandhi’s stance on the Khilafat Movement and pan-Islamic politics, a subject on which even Gandhi’s most ardent admirers have often found themselves parting company from the Mahatma.  Devji’s complex interpretive moves cannot be rehearsed here, but suffice to say that he does not agree that the ‘Khilafat episode’ must be reckoned as one of Gandhi’s greatest failures.  Quite to the contrary, it is here that Gandhi demonstrated the true meaning of friendship, and it is only a cheap calculus of interests which makes us suppose, quite erroneously, that Gandhi sought reciprocity from Muslims—for example, a promise to refrain from cow slaughter—in exchange for his support of the Khilafat cause.

 

The six chapters that have been patched together to comprise this book thus bristle, to varying degrees, with arresting insights—even if, as is sometimes the case, our understanding of Gandhi is not visibly advanced. A case in point is the chapter entitled ‘Bastard  History’, where Devji tackles the question of Gandhi’s ‘intellectual and political antecedents.’  Brushing aside those conventional histories which invoke the names of Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau, or Raychandbhai and Gokhale, Devji avers that, with the possible exception of the Swadeshi Movement, ‘it is impossible to point to any historical example that might provide a precedent for Gandhi’s use’ of nonviolent practices and his deployment of the ideas of ahimsa, satya, and so on.  If Devji is unfamiliar with the work of, say, Howard Spodek on the antecedents of Gandhian satyagraha in Gujarati political culture, or of Dharampal’s treatise on the history of civil disobedience in Benares, it would be a severe shortcoming; but if he has deliberately chosen to ignore these histories, and many more come to mind, the reader would certainly profit from understanding why they are of no consequence.  But this is scarcely the worst of the matter:  Devji then makes bold to suggest that ‘Gandhi’s ideas and practices emerged instead from a past of conflict and violence’(11), and he suggests that the ‘Indian Mutiny of 1857 . . . provides the only historical precedent for several of the practices by which Gandhi’s politics was known, including  non-cooperation, encouraging native manufactures and the working out of  new moral relationship between Hindus and Muslims’ (11).  The Rebellion of 1857-58 gave rise to Hindu-Muslim fraternal relations, much to the consternation of colonial authorities; Gandhi similarly championed Hindu-Muslim unity.  Muslim soldiers in 1857 were keenly aware of Hindu concerns about ritual pollution without believing in them; and, in a similar vein, Hindus supported the cause of the Caliphate under Gandhi’s leadership (29).  But, apropos Gandhi, the argument borders on the bizarre.  Devji has established absolutely nothing:  he admits that ‘Gandhi’s own references to the Mutiny were invariably negative’ (11), though, in truth, Gandhi scarcely mentioned the Rebellion.  It is not accidental that though elsewhere in the book Devji routinely cites Gandhi, as he must, this chapter does not have a single reference to Gandhi’s writings or pronouncements.  What Devji has to say of the Rebellion is interesting enough, but as an exercise in the genealogy of ideas that informed the worldview of Gandhi, the chapter is utterly unconvincing. 

 

Devji’s book bears the subtitle, ‘Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence’, and it to this that we may finally turn for the centerpiece of Devji’s argument.  There is no gainsaying the fact that the question of violence is central to any assessment of Gandhi’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual outlook, even if the instinct of most people has naturally led them to ahimsa in thinking of Gandhi.  There are some commonplace arguments that are now firmly established in the scholarship, among them Gandhi’s distinction between nonviolence of the strong and the nonviolence of the weak, his avowed preference for violence over cowardice (134), and his frequently voiced claim, especially towards the last several years of his life, that he preferred that India be left to anarchy rather than continue to have the country subjected to British rule.  The notion that the British were there to mediate between the Hindus and Muslims is one for which Gandhi rightfully had absolutely no respect.  Gandhi entertained a suspicion of the ‘third party’ (169), whether the colonial state, the national state, or any other body—an idea first seeded in Hind Swaraj (1909):  the doctor, for example, comes between the patient and her own body.  Here, however, Devji becomes too entranced by his own argument, and cleverness lords it over judiciousness and wisdom.  Thus, we are assured, Gandhi had ‘a desire for civil war’ (161), he was despondent over the refusal of the Congress, the League, and the British ‘to heed his advice about the desirability of internecine warfare’ (164), and that he remained ‘cheerful’ as the violence raged all around him (168).  Indeed, there may have always been the ‘temptation of violence’ for Gandhi, but we might just as well accept Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’

 

Why, then, the ‘impossible’ Indian?  Each reader will make her own interpretive moves, and some will no doubt gravitate towards the view, held among others by Ambedkar, that Gandhi was one ‘impossible’ person, cunning, disingenuous, and a master of manipulation.  Others will surely embrace the view that stands at the other extreme, and is best typified by Einstein’s admission that it was nearly impossible to believe that someone such as Gandhi ‘ever in flesh and blood had walked upon this earth’.  The Gandhians are likely to suggest that the Mahatma made no impossible demands upon others that he did not first impose upon himself.  Yet what Devji has in mind in describing Gandhi as ‘the impossible Indian’ seems to be far removed from all of this, and may even extend well beyond the reading that he himself explicitly puts forth, namely that an impossible tension exists between Gandhi’s stern advocacy of nonviolence and his keen sense that the most genuine embrace of nonviolence resided in the confrontation with, rather than mere repudiation of, violence.  In invoking Gandhi as ‘the impossible Indian’, Devji appears to be gesturing at the kind of possibilities suggested by Derrida in his essay, ‘Avowing—the Impossible: “Returns”, Repentance, and Reconciliation’.  The impossible enhances the potential of what exists; or, put differently, the possible only revels in its full potential in the face of the impossible.  There is no wise and ethical politics without the impossible.  Whatever its other limitations, Devji’s The Impossible Indian suggests as much about Gandhi and in this respect has opened up new avenues of exploration into the rich politics and inner life of a person whose contribution to contemporary political and ethical life by any measure was sui generis.


[1] Akeel Bilgrami, ‘Gandhi’s religion and its relation to his politics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi, eds. Judith M. Brown & Anthony Parel (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 107.

 

For close to four decades, Ashis Nandy has occupied a liminal presence on the Indian intellectual scene.  In nearly every respect, whether from the standpoint of the intellectual positions he has adopted, the trajectory of his professional life, his stance towards religious faith, or the politics that he embraces, Nandy has carved out a worldview that is distinct even singular.  Though he is viewed in the public domain as an academic, he has always kept a distance from university life as such and has spent his entire career as a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.  There are few scholars who have subjected the very idea of ‘development’, and the certitude with which experts speak of ‘developing societies’, to such rigorous scrutiny as has Nandy.  For all his immense learning, he has little use for the pedantry that often passes for scholarship –– one reason, among others, why some people characterize him as a maverick, gadfly, or contrarian.

 

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Nandy has disavowed the profession of psychology.  Some of his readers grumble at his propensity for psychoanalytical readings of personalities, but his use of Freud is, so to speak, homegrown.  There was a time, though this is much less so the case now, when left intellectuals routinely branded Nandy, born into a Christian family, as a Hindu fundamentalist.  I doubt very much that he can at all be described as a man of faith, but he has kept faith with the idea that non-believers have no higher duty than to defend the right of each person to his or her faith.  One could continue in this vein, almost ad infinitum:  thus, to take one last illustration, though one can hardly describe Nandy as a biographer, it is striking that much of his work pivots around individual lives, whether it be Gandhi, Tagore, Rammohan Roy, Jagdish Chandra Bose, the mathematician Ramanujan, the ‘first modern Indian environmentalist’ Kapilprasad Bhattacharjee, the ‘first non-western psychoanalyst’ Girindrasekhar Bose, the jurist Radha Binod Pal, and many others.  These lives provide the frame around which Nandy has spun complex narratives, though some will call them yarns, about the culture of politics, the politics of culture, and the manner in which knowledge systems insinuate themselves into the praxis of everyday life.

 

The highly anomalous mold within which his thoughts are wrought lead Nandy to some extraordinary insights but also make him unusually vulnerable to attack. His writings on communalism and secularism provide a case in point.  Though scarcely all the nuances of his position can be enunciated here, one might begin with his firm view that communal riots in India are largely an urban phenomenon.  There may be many reasons for this, among them, to use Gandhi’s phrase from an interview he gave to the Reverend Mott in the mid-1930s, ‘the hard heartedness of the educated’.  This was in response to the query, ‘What filled Gandhi with the greatest despair’.  The educated in India are also prone to deploy the idioms of historical thinking, and one cannot begin to understand the conflict over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmasthan until one has an awareness of how middle-class Hindus, much like nationalists elsewhere, have mobilized history, with consequences that were to be seen in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, in the service of the nation-state.  Though myth is one of the ugliest words in the lexicon of Marxists, positivists, liberals, and modernizers alike, Nandy has argued eloquently that myths are a more reliable and humane guide to the past –– and link to the future.  One of the many hidden transcripts in his recent comments on corruption among OBCs, SCs, and STs, which have enraged some people, is the implicit suggestion that the liberation of the Dalits will be better achieved by their use of creative myth-making than by attentiveness to the history of their oppression.

 

In an essay that Nandy penned on ‘the alternative cosmopolitanism of Cochin’, he demonstrates amply the radical tenor of his thinking.  He set out to inquire why Cochin, which has large numbers of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, has been free of communal riots for 500 years.  The people he met from these ‘communities’ do not even remotely describe themselves as secular; indeed, shocking as this might be to the liberal sensibility, which insists upon the ‘caring’ ethic, an anodyne form of good neighborliness, the elimination of prejudices, even (as in the United States) diversity workshops, nearly everyone Nandy met admitted to holding rather severe stereotypes about members of the other communities.  Nandy concludes that it is, in a manner of speaking, a healthy balance of prejudices that has sustained Cochin’s religious pluralism.

 

Cochin’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ has not been imposed from above, as a diktat of the liberal state, nor does it stem from the Enlightenment’s putative idea of the fellowship of liberated rational subjects thinking beyond themselves and invested in the fate of the earth.  While the vast bulk of liberal and left scholarship has been concerned with exposing the pathology of irrationality, Nandy has spent the better part of his life zeroing in on the pathology of rationality and its most characteristic outcomes ––development, the nation-state, vivisectionist science, an (aggrieved) sense of history, to name a few.  This has entailed immense risk-taking, even hazardous remarks on more than one occasion, but where is the ethical intellectual life without such provocations?

(Published under the same title in The Times of India – The Crest Edition, 9 February 2013, p. 9.)

See the related post:  From the Ludic to the Ludicrous:  The Affair of Ashis Nandy on this site.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 250 other followers