The Choice Between Western Intellectualism and Darshanic Timelessness

Commentary on the Western tradition of intellectualism and the philosophical traditions of Sanatana Dharma with an examination of the record of Indian intellectuals in the Western mould.
The Choice Between Western Intellectualism and Darshanic Timelessness

AMONG ALL THE UNREADABLE books I’ve read, Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indian occupies the bottommost spot both because of its content and even more because of its author. The fact that I had actually eviscerated it on my old blog is also a belated self-realization of the folly of my younger days: that I had dignified it by writing about it. It can most charitably be described as a bible of senility.

Lest I be accused of singling out Amartya Sen, I’ll also include that other kindred intellectual sheep, Sunil Khilnani, the contemporary originator of the infamous phrase: idea of India, which is short form for Nehruvian secularism. It must take an order of infinite magnitude of intellectual dishonesty for Khilnani to bracket Buddha, Panini, Kautilya, Adi Sankara and Swami Vivekananda with Akbar, E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, Allama Iqbal, Jinnah, V.K. Krishna Menon, Sheikh Abdullah and M.F. Hussain.

Which is why Sheep best describes these worthies. Sheep as signifying meekness. But then, their past-shelf-life careers show them also to be the lifelong votaries of that ultimate, sacred dictum of all: the meek shall inherit the earth. A career of meekness has indeed served them well. Amartya Sen, Khilnani, et al have enjoyed cushioned lives notching up all sorts of awards and honours. Seven-star careers in every sense of the word because a seven-star stay, howsoever long it may be, is merely a vacation. It can never be home. And there will inevitably come a time when they have to vacate. But the real dirty work begins after they vacate: somebody else will have to clean up the mess they have made.

This is the briefest history of the alleged Indian intellectuals of the last century. It is also a preface for what follows.

Every major city in India has its underbelly of cheap imitations. For the longest time, USA was a moniker for third-grade imitation-products churned out at Ullasnagar in Mumbai. Available at throwaway prices, these products ranged from clothing to electronic gadgets, all of which brazenly sported authentic-looking branded labels: Panasonic, Sony, and the rest. Likewise, there were the infamous “Bellary jeans,” or denims available for as little as ₹ 150 in the late 1980s and the mid-90s, manufactured on the outskirts of Bellary and Hosapete. After you paid the money, the tailor at these ramshackle clothing factories would openly ask you: “sir, what label would you like?”, and scatter on his table metallic and canvas logos of Levis, Lee, Wrangler, etc. You paid an extra ₹ 20 rupees for getting them stitched on the hip of the denim. The same thing was true for Compaq (remember?), HP, and Dell computers “manufactured” in S.P. Road.

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In the realm of what the West defines as intellectualism or intellectual tradition, Amartya Sen, Sunil Khilnani, et al, are the Ullasnagar, Bellary and S.P. Road equivalents. The West loves and patronizes them precisely because of this. But today, the scene has shifted in a substantial manner: poverty and racial victimhood porn of Africans is the glamour de jure. In the colonial and postcolonial era, the Amartya Sen and Salman Rushdie types were the real deal: they were Indian Exotica, much in demand. And they made the most out of this extended vacation.

But an honest study of this so-called Western intellectual tradition shows that it is not older than five hundred years, a relatively short span in the history of humankind. Indeed, the whole breed of something called an “intellectual” (or that contemporary weasel word, “public intellectual”) can at best be traced to the period of something called “enlightenment.” But the manner in which this Western phenomenon of intellectualism and more pointedly, intellectuals, attained global domination is the subject of a profound exploration that should necessarily be undertaken from the Bharatiya perspective. Better now than never. Undeniably, this domination was enabled and abetted by European colonialism whose military might gave cover fire to these svayambhu intellectuals. In a related area, it is doubtful whether determined cultural vandals like Max Mueller, Pargiter, Kielhorn, Breloer, Jolly, et al., would have attained such cult-like status sans the encouragement, sponsorship and protection offered by their respective colonial patrons.

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The history of the same period also reveals that the attempt to examine the Western intellectual tradition from the Bharatiya standpoint was initiated by the luminaires of the modern Hindu Renaissance but it was tragically short-circuited by the destructive copper wire of Nehruvian secularism. Much unexplored literature on this subject beckons the interested researcher. Here is just the tiniest sample, a model of how such comparative analyses must be made.

If Socrates and Plato, Wordsworth and Carlyle, Goethe and Emerson…represent [Western] civilization, it is not, then, very different from our own. BUT THEY ARE NOT ITS EXPONENTS. IT HAS GROWN IN SPITE OF THEM. THEIR TEACHINGS HAVE MOSTLY BEEN CRIES IN THE WILDERNESS. BIGOTRY, INTOLERANCE, JEALOUSY, COMPETITION, AGGRESSION, AND SELFISHNESS ARE AMONG THE MOST SALIENT FEATURES OF THE CIVILIZATION OF THE WEST. Therefore, while assimilating it, we should beware of its evils.

Capitalisation Added

This was the iconic DVG speaking in 1908 at the Chennai Jana Sangham, when he was a mere boy of twenty-one. That he gave this lecture at the height of British colonial rule in the lucrative Madras Presidency shows the strength of the iron that throbbed within him. Other stalwarts of his generation were also made of the same iron. A hundred and thirteen years later, where is that contemporary Hindu “intellectual” who can speak the same truth about the West even in a diluted version? In “independent” India. What is also notable in DVG’s speech is the natural flow of this assessment: shorn of pedantry, devoid of bush-beating, it is plain truth stated plainly, a candour emanating from irrepressible cultural self-confidence.

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But even as DVG spoke these words, two and half generations of Macaulayite Hindus were slowly beginning to assert themselves. Amartya Sen & Co are their generational spawn. The history of the same period also reveals another ugly, tragic reality: for the most part, a good number of Hindus were Macaulayized; we will be hard-pressed to find Macaulayized Muslims.

A major consequence of the Macaulayization of Hindus was the creation of a new Hindu elite, which became indifferent to its own society, and this class was created from the scratch. It was a class that never existed at any point in Bharatavarsha’s millennia-long history including under oppressive Muslim rule. This imported phenomenon should have died in India after 1947 and its justified demise should have been lessons in our textbooks, describing it along these lines: “the valorous story of how Hindus defeated and overcame cultural colonization.” What should have remained in museums became India’s unofficial political religion.

To turn to DVG once more, this is how he outlines the contours of the Macaulayite class:

How could I fall into the error of making a missionary of myself? It is only people wanting in modesty that conceive great ideas of themselves and their so-called missions here.

He wrote this in a letter to his friend, Narasimha Murthy in a different context but the description is apt. The “mission” that he alludes to is symptomatic of the incurable malaise of the so-called Indian intellectuals: self-righteousness and a notion of self-infallibility in their illusive quest to “correct” the wrongs of society. In reality, it is not a quest but a crusade of the worst sort.

Indian intellectuals of the sort described so far are perversions in human form of everything that Bharatavarsha’s cultural genius and Darshanic Kailasa regards as profound and exalted. If Shiva’s Third Eye—in itself a profound metaphor—has to burn anything to ashes today, it is this class of intellectuals.

Bharatavarsha Before Intellectuals

The following is a slice of the panorama of Bharatavarsha’s cultural ambience before it was infected by this class of intellectuals.

तर्कोऽप्रतिष्ट्टः श्रुतयो विभिन्ना
नैको ॠषिर्यस्य मतं प्रमाणम् ।
धर्मस्य तत्वं निहितं गुहायां
महाजनो येन गतः स पन्थाः ॥
tarko'pratiṣṭṭaḥ śrutayo vibhinnā
naiko ṝṣiryasya mataṃ pramāṇam ।
dharmasya tatvaṃ nihitaṃ guhāyāṃ
mahājano yena gataḥ sa panthāḥ ॥

Reason is unstable; the srutis are various; there is not a sage whose word may be taken as authoritative; the inmost principle of Dharma is hidden in the cavity of man's heart; that path therefore is the right path by which the enlightened savants at large has thought fit to travel.

The Choice Between Western Intellectualism and Darshanic Timelessness
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mahājano yena gataḥ sa panthāḥ--the road always taken by these savants is the most important precept here. In other words, unless Sastra culminates in righteous living—a living which has been demonstrated by real people with verifiable righteous consequences, Sastra merely remains a theory. Theories can be duplicated or recast or refuted. The virtuous life can only be realized by living it via the guidance or imitation of savants and sages. This imitation is the path that leads to the destruction of ego. It is not imitation in the Emersonian sense that imitation is suicide.

Exalted stories like that of the butcher Dharmavyadha, illustrate precisely this precept. In this story, the Rishi was not humbled but enlightened by Dharmavyadha. We also find a sublime echo of the same precept in Sureshvaracharya’s immortal verse:

na khyāti-lābhapūjārthaṃ granthosmābhirudīryate |
svabodha-pariṣuddhyarthaṃ brahmavinnikaṣāsmasu ||

Not for the desire of fame, profit, or honour has this work been composed by me, but for the purpose of purifying my own understanding by testing it on the touchstone of the knowers of Brahman.

The Santana intellectual tradition—if it can be called that—has always been Darshanic in the sense that it not only transcends the intellect but ennobles it. We notice precisely this spirit pulsating in the veins of the giants of the modern Sanatana Renaissance. They are the inheritors of the tradition of say, Adi Sankara and Sureshvaracharya. Even on the mundane plane, their attitude towards life itself determined their work which is why they have remained solid. This attitude can best be described as an august yearning for the transcendence of the eons, for something bigger and beyond themselves. None of these luminaries had what is today celebrated as a “goal of life” or whatever is meant by that. It is this spirit of yearning that built our extraordinary temples and chiselled our immortal sculptures and manifested itself as classical music. This yearning is also a pursuit of beauty, and the pursuit of beauty is an invitation to transcendence. None of these are within the grasp of the mere intellect.

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In all these senses, the aspiration to become an intellectual is an aspiration to become a dwarf, and it springs from the same myopic vision that reads only newspapers and magazines and crime thrillers, and watches only television or even worse, is addicted to mobile phones.

As we mentioned, the foregoing is a miniature of the Sanatana philosophical tradition as manifested in various realms. Indeed, none of our luminaries from the Vedic era up to the modern Santana Renaissance made any “final pronouncements” or spun grand theories about how things ought to function, to say the least. Completely contrary to the contemporary fad of “newness” and “innovation,” they were scrupulously reverential towards past masters. Even the aforementioned stalwarts of the Sanatana Renaissance, after weighing any issue, would typically conclude by saying, “subject to correction” or “this may be further investigated,” etc.

In a tangential fashion, we can also cite the lived instances where the ubiquitous village Purohita or Acharya was also an “intellectual” and thus, every village was a self-contained Sanatana cultural cosmos.

How these masters worked also has a bearing on what into making them. Here is a magnificent picture of Jadunath Sarkar’s method of working.

For Jadunath Sarkar, it was essential for a certain cultivation of self-denying ethics in the personhood of the historian, a practice of a sense of ascesis, for without that, the historian could not receive the truths the facts told…it was a way of preparing oneself for a truth that was beyond partisan interests. A self-denying quality he willingly imposed on himself…It was an inextricable part of his historical method; the man was the method.

Indeed, our ancient greats spent an entire lifetime learning just one Sastra, and today, we have social media “experts” waxing pompously on everything from quantum physics to the “secret” of the Bhagavad Gita and Nasadiya Sukta with a self-arrogated haughtiness that is breathtaking in not its ignorance but folly. This happens because deep study and profound learning is confounded with making Twitter threads, the byte-sized equivalent of ammonia-coated beauty pageants.

Which brings us back to the same challenge that confronts us: do Hindus want to be the…hmmm…”right wing” version of Amartya Sen or can they infuse the courage within themselves to remain rooted in Bharatiyata and examine the claims of other traditions from that standpoint? There is no neutral ground. The choice is between an invitation to Darshanic timelessness and the allurement of the ephemerality of intellectualism.

|| Om Tat Sat ||

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