Balagangadhara on the biblical underpinnings of 'secular' social sciences - chapter 12

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Soon after RISA Lila-1 appeared, Prof. Balagangadhara, from the Department of the Comparative Science of Cultures in Ghent University, Belgium, posted extensive comments on the Sulekha website. Thus began his prominent role as a key scholar in this debate ever since. Below are excerpts from his remarks made in three parts spread over a few days.

To Rajiv Malhotra and all other seekers, by S.N. Balagangadhara

Deservedly, Rajiv’s article has appalled the readers: horror, indignation, anger and bewilderment at the RISA ‘lila’ . . . I want to raise three issues: (a) how to analyze what Rajiv portrays; (b) depending on that, what an adequate response consists of. Before we do either (this is one
of the things I have discovered through my own research during the last two decades), we need to be clear about (c) how we ‘should not’ analyze the situation that Rajiv has sketched. Given that all three (in their general form) have been my obsessions, I have been reflecting on them deeply, seriously and systematically for some time now. I would like to share some of the results of this reflection with you.

Perhaps, it is best to begin in an autobiographical mode. I came to (continental) Europe some 25 years ago, naively thinking that ‘cultural difference’ is something that ‘cosmopolitan’ Indians would not experience: after all, I had studied Natural Sciences in India; knew English rather well; was more familiar with the British and European history than I was with that of India; felt right at home with the Western philosophy … It took me about four years of living in Europe, without relating to any Indian (or even Asian) community because I did not want to land up in an emotional and social ghetto, to realize that I was wrong: ‘cultural differences’ were no fictitious invention of anthropologists; it involved more than being a vegetarian or being barefoot at home when the weather was not too cold. This realization was instrumental in shaping my research project: what makes the Indian culture different from that of the West? Of course, the first fields I went into were Indology and Anthropology. Pretty soon I discovered that neither was of any use. Not only did they fail to provide me with any insights, but they also succeeded in merely enraging me: the kind of rage you feel when you read the analyses of Wendy Doniger or Kripal.

Indology is full of ‘insights’ like those you have read in Rajiv’s article. What has varied over time is the intellectual jargon that clothes these ‘analyses’. (For more on this, please read page 124, chapter 12)

My initial reactions to these discoveries [discussed in preceding paragraphs] parallel the response of many a post on this e-board: horror, rage and a conviction that ‘racism’ is inherent in these writings. Pretty soon, this conviction about ‘racism’ of European authors gave way to doubts: Is it possible to convict all European authors of racism? Are we to assume that, in the last 400
years or so, all writers who wrote on India were racists? If yes, how to understand the powerful impact these writers and their theories have had on the Indian authors and Indian social sciences? If no, why did they say pretty similar things? Is one to say that the ‘respected’ Indian social scientists are no better than brown sahibs? Is Indian social science merely a disguised variant of Indology? So on and so forth.

Today, many of us are familiar with Edward Said and his book ‘Orientalism’. In his wake, many buzzwords like ‘essentialism’, ‘Eurocentrism’ (though interesting, Blaut is not theoretically well equipped), ‘Orientalist discourse’, the ‘us-them dichotomy’ etc. whiz around. I would be the last to detract from the merits of Said’s book: he was one of the earliest writers to have drawn attention to the systematic nature of the Western way of talking about the Orient. Despite this, the concept ‘Orientalism’ is totally inadequate to analyze the situation underlying RISA lila. Surely, the question is: ‘Why is the West Orientalist?’ Said’s plea ends up denying any possibility of understanding cultural differences or indeed why Orientalism came into being, or what sustains it. (For more on this, please read page 125, chapter 12)

What I am saying is that one should not think that Rajiv paints a ‘racist’, or ‘orientalist’ or a ‘eurocentric’ picture. These words obfuscate the deeper issue, one which is more insidious than any of the above three. It might or might not be the case that Wendy and her children are ‘racist’; ditto about their ‘eurocentrism’ or ‘orientalism’. But when you realize that they are not saying anything that has not been said in the last three hundred years (despite their fancy jargon), the question becomes: ‘why does the western culture systematically portray India in these terms?’

To say that Western culture is, in toto, racist or ‘eurocentric’ is to say pretty little: even assuming, counterfactually, that the Western culture is all these things (and that all the Westerners are ‘racist’, etc), why do these attitudes persist, reproduce themselves and infect the Indians? There is a weightier reason not to tread this path. In fact, it has been a typical characteristic of Western writings on other cultures (including India) to characterize the latter using terms that are only appropriate to describe individual psychologies: X culture is stupid, degenerate, and irrational; Y culture is childish, immature, intuitive, feminine, etc. To simply repeat these mantras after them is to achieve very little understanding.

Rajiv says repeatedly that these writings ‘deny agency to the Indian subjects’. I am familiar with this phrase through ‘post-colonial’ writings. This too is a mantra like many of them, without having the desired effect. And why is that? It might appear to make sense if we merely restrict ourselves to Wendy and her Children’s analyses of Ganesha, Shiva or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. However, it loses all plausibility when we realize that, for instance, social sciences use one and the same ‘epistemology’ to analyze both the West and India and that despite this, their claims about India reproduce the ‘Indological truths.’ (For more on this, please read page 126, chapter 12)

In a way, you could say, we need to do to the West what it has done to us, namely, study it
anthropologically. But how to go about doing this and not simply reproduce what generations of thinkers (from the West) have already said about the West?

It is amusing to use Freud to analyze their Freudian analyses of Indian religions; or use Patanjali’s Chakras to typify their personalities. But at the end of the day, we are still left with the task of studying and understanding why the Western culture talks about us the way it does. Let me just say this: our problems do not either begin or end in religious studies or Indology. They are deeper. Much, much deeper. To tackle RISA lila as a separate phenomenon, i.e., to focus either on Wendy or her ‘parampara’ alone, would be to compound tragedy with conceptual blunder. Not only that. It would prevent us from understanding RISA lila for what it is: a phenomenon that is typical of the Western culture.

In the [above] . . . I drew attention to the fact that Wendy and her Children draw from the existing social sciences, while contributing at the same time to their further ‘development’. In this post, I will elaborate what this statement means, what it implies, and what it says about the ‘Western culture’

1. Not many would challenge the claim that Christianity has been highly influential in the development of the Western culture. We need to take this statement utterly seriously. It means that many things we ‘take for granted’, whether in the West or in India, come from the influence that Christianity has exerted. I claim that Christianity expands in two ways. (This is not just typical of Christianity but of all religions. I will talk only of Christianity because I want to talk about the Western culture.) Both of these have been present ever since the inception of Christianity and have mutually reinforced each other. The first is familiar to all of us: ‘direct conversion.’ People from other cultures and ‘religions’ are explicitly converted to Christianity and thus the community of Christian believers grows.

2. Funnily enough, the second way in which Christianity expands is also familiar to us: the process of secularization. I claim that Christianity ‘secularizes’ itself in the form of, as it were, ‘de-de-Christianized Christianity’. What this word means is: typically Christian doctrines spread wide and deep (beyond the confines of the community of Christian believers) in the society dressed up in ‘secular’ (that is, not in recognizably ‘Christian’) clothes. We need a very small bit of Western history here in order to understand this point better.

Usually, the ‘enlightenment period’, which is identified as ‘the Age of Reason’, is alleged to be the apotheosis (or the ‘high point’) of the process of ‘secularization’: the enlightenment thinkers are supposed to have successfully ‘fought’ against the dominance that religion (i.e. Christianity) had until then exercised over social, political, and economic life. From then on, so goes the standard textbook story, human kind began to look to ‘reason’ instead of, say, the Church in all matters social, civic, political etc. The spirit of scientific thinking, which dominated that age, has continued to gain ascendancy. As heirs to this period, which put a definitive end to all forms of ‘irrational’ subservience, we are proud citizens of the modern day world. We are against all forms of despotism and we are believers in democracy; we believe in the role of reason in social life; we recognize the value of human rights; and we should understand that ‘religion’ is not a matter for state intervention, but a ‘private’ and personal affair of the individual in question. This, as I say, is the standard textbook story.

4. The problem with this story is simply this: the enlightenment thinkers have built their formidable reputation (as opponents of ‘all organized religion’ or even ‘religion’ tout court) by ‘selling’ ideas from Protestant Christianity as though they were ‘neutral’ and ‘rational’. Take for example the claim that ‘religion’ is not a matter for state intervention and that it is a ‘private’ affair of the individual in question. (Indian ‘secularists’ agitatedly jump up and down to ‘defend’ this idea.) Who thought, do you think, that ‘religion’ was not a ‘private’ affair? The Catholic Church, of course. The Protestants [on the other hand] fought a battle with the Catholics on ‘theological’ grounds: they argued that ‘being a Christian believer’ (or what the Christian believes in) is matter between the Maker (i.e. God) and the Individual. It was ‘God’ (i.e. the Christian God), who judged man; and men ‘could not’ judge each other in matters of Christian faith. The Church, they argued, could not mediate between Man and God (according to their interpretation of the Bible); (For more on this, please read page 129, chapter 12)

5. The same story applies with respect to what is enshrined in the UN charter. The doctrine of Human Rights (as we know them today) arose in the Middle Ages, when the Franciscans and the Dominicans fought each other. (Both are religious orders within the Catholic Church.) All theories of human rights we know today were elaborated in this struggle that continued nearly for two hundred years. These were ‘theological’ debates, to understand which one
needs to understand Christian theology.

6. I am not merely making the point that these ideas had their origin in religious contexts. My point is much more than that: I claim that ‘we cannot accept these theories without, at the same time, accepting Christian theology as true.’ What the Western thinkers have done over the centuries (the Enlightenment period is the best known for being the ‘high point’ of this process) is to ‘dress up’ Christian theological ideas (I am blurring the distinction between the divisions within Christianity) in a secular mantle. Not just this or that isolated idea, but theological theories themselves.

7. I am not in the least suggesting that this is some kind of a ‘conspiracy’. I am merely explicating what I mean when I say that Christianity spreads also through the process of ‘secularization’. What has been secularized are whole sets of ideas about Man and Society which I call ‘Biblical themes’. They are Biblical themes because to accept them is to accept the truth of the Bible. Most of our so-called ‘social sciences’ assume the truth of these Biblical themes.

8. I know this sounds unbelievable; but I have started to prove them. I have already shown, for example, that the so-called religious studies presuppose the truth of Christian theology. That is why, when they study the so-called ‘religions’ from other cultures, their results do not fundamentally differ from a theological treatment of the same religions. (For more on this, please read page 130, chapter 12)

9. To begin appreciating the plausibility (if not the truth) of my claim, ask yourselves the following question: why are the so-called ‘social sciences’ different from the natural sciences? I mean to say, why have the social sciences not developed the way natural sciences have? Comparatively speaking, it is not as though the social sciences are starved of funding or personnel. Despite all this, the social sciences are not progressing. Why is this? I put to you that this is what has happened. Most of our so-called social sciences are not ‘sciences’ in any sense of the term: they are merely bad Christian theologies.

10. If this is true, it also helps us understand why both ‘conversion’ and the notion of ‘secularism’ jars Indian sensibilities. Somehow or the other, Nehruvian ‘secularism’ always connotes a denigration of Indian traditions; if you look at the debates in the EPW and SEMINAR and journals like that, one thing is very clear: none of the participants really understands what ‘secularism’ means. In India, ‘secularism’ is counter posed to ‘communalism’ whereas ‘the
secular’, in European languages, has only one contrast—‘the sacred’.

11. To summarize what I have said so far. Christianity spreads in two ways: through conversion and through secularization. The modern day social sciences embody the assumptions of Christian theology, albeit in a ‘secularized’ form. That is why when Wendy and her Children draw upon the resources of the existing social sciences, they are drawing upon Christian theology. In this Christian theology, we are worshippers of the Devil. Our gods are demons (followers of the devil). As such, amongst other things, they are perverts: sexually, morally and intellectually.

This is the insidious process I talked about: the process of secularization of Christian ideas. Let the ‘simplistic’ presentation not lead you to think that the ideas I am proposing are ‘simplistic’. They are not.

Read entire chapter 12 from page 123 to 131

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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