India’s Place in Global Consciousness
by Rajiv Malhotra and David Gray, PhD
In the first part of this essay, we shall challenge the prevailing paradigm in which globalization has been equated with Westernization. Even though nowadays the expansion of the West is framed in a post-colonialist setting in which theoretically all humans are equal, the notion of civilization still remains Western. In other words, everyone is being offered the equal opportunity to become Western. The challenge to this paradigm is presented in this essay on multiple fronts: the moral issues; the lack of practical feasibility; the illegitimacy of the underlying assumptions about the superior West; the deconstruction of the very idea of “West” and the “Western model” as distinct and coherent entities, and the role of the inner sciences that would remain subverted under the Western model. Among these challenges, the last two are the main focus of in this essay, as the first two seem to be well known arguments already.
We are proposing post-Westernism and not mere post-colonialism. The second part of the essay then posits a new paradigm of globalization that would not be the expansion of any particular civilization, be it Western or another, but would be a genuine renaissance
embracing all humanity in all of its diverse cultural manifestations. In the context of this global renaissance, Indic civilization’s potential and essential role is explained as one example of a non-Western civilization with a lot to contribute. This becomes the basis for introducing the notion of the inner sciences and how they are crucial to this renaissance.
- Ethical and Practical Limits to Today’s Globalization:
“Globalization” has gained currency as a term denoting an undeniable trend. Economies are increasingly interdependent, and there is a growing sense that national identity and even national governments are less relevant as transnational forces shape our lives. In many ways, this trend seems quite positive and appears to have great potential to enrich the lives of peoples throughout the world.
Yet there has also been strident and vocal resistance, not to globalization per se, but rather to a particular way in which it has been implemented. This implementation has at times appeared to continue, if not exasperate, the colonialist divide between the haves and the have-nots. Economically advanced countries continue to consume an inordinate percentage of the world’s resources. Poorer countries continue to be exploited both for their natural and human resources, with workers being paid far less than their Western counterparts, and often subjected to far more hazardous working conditions. Globalization, undertaken in this sense, is not far removed from past colonization.
Central to the colonial ideology was the notion that the colonized people were backward and savage, and needed a more advanced civilization to manage their cultural evolution, a process usually understood to involve the abandonment of their tradition and an assumption of the colonizer’s culture. This, of course, was a rather flimsy justification for exploitation. Current resistance to globalization may in fact be a resistance to the assumption still held by many in the West that globalization is essentially the same as Westernization. This manifests in the arrogance that the West has all the answers, and that economically disadvantaged nations must follow the Western model if they wish to better themselves. So strong has been this myth of the superior West that the extinction of other civilizations has often not been taken as seriously as the extinction of species of animals. For the replacement of other civilizations by Western civilization is often held as the route to their progress, and this process is even viewed as the ‘burden’ of the West.
But before eradicating other civilizations, one must do an honest comparative assessment of Western civilization, for once eradicated, if that were possible and ethically allowable, we might never get other civilizations back.
- One fundamental question is whether Western civilization, with its huge dependence on the consumption of natural resources and inequality among people, would be expandable to a global scale since natural resource consumption would need to expand by a factor between five and ten.
- Despite it advantages, there are many ways in which Westernization has failed, and caused more harm than good. The economic benefit to the privileged few is often outweighed by the heightening of poverty of the underprivileged majority, the pernicious use of technology to magnify warfare’s destructiveness, and the widespread ecological devastation, all this particularly in poorer, more vulnerable regions. Is there any basis for claiming that these are avoidable within the Western model of globalization?
During the colonial era, the naïve assumption of Western superiority was given authority by thinkers such as Hegel, who developed a “universal” theory of history, which was, in essence, a theory of European history in which the rest of the World was taken to be objects rather than subjects. For Hegel, as Said has pointed out, Asia and Africa were “static, despotic, and irrelevant to world history.”1
Since Hegel, Ethnocentrism has often blinded the West to the parochialism of its supposed “universals”. But many people of other cultures, seeing things from their perspective, notice this chauvinism, which is naturally the source of non-Western peoples’ resistance to globalization qua Westernization. Samuel Huntington recently made this point:
The West, and especially the United States, which has always been a missionary nation, believes that the non-Western peoples should commit themselves to the Western values of democracy, free markets, limited government, human rights, individualism, the rule of law, and should embody these values in their institutions. Minorities in other civilizations embrace and promote these values, but the dominant attitudes toward them in non-Western cultures range from widespread skepticism to intense opposition. What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest. The West is attempting and will continue to attempt to sustain its preeminent position and defend its interests by defining those interests as the interests of the “world community.2
We agree with Dr. Huntington here, but would like to go a step further. Even within the Western world, there is no consensus regarding exactly what “Western” universal values such as democracy, free markets, etc. mean. Moreover, it is not established that these values are absent from the “Eastern” world, hence their status as “Western”, rather than “human” values remains to be proven. It can be shown, for example, that “democracy” or ideals and institutions closely approaching those developed in Greece existed elsewhere in the world, such as in India. Many of the so-called “Western” values are universal in the real sense of the term, and are not universal simply because they are Western, as some might assume.
However much any one group of people imagines a privileged status for itself, human communities exist in an interdependent fashion. This was true in the ancient and medieval times as well. Ethnocentrism merely functions to obscure these interdependencies, or tries to cast them into a hierarchical relationship. Under the influence of ethnocentrism, interaction among civilizations has tended to be competitive rather than cooperative. Repeatedly, militaristic societies have dominated other, more peaceful societies, and in the process adopted and appropriated many elements from the subverted societies. The ethics of this are in serious doubt.
- Challenging the Presuppositions of Western Superiority:
Traditional accounts of the development of Western thought tend to stress its continuity. Modern philosophy and science, we are told, go back in an unbroken lineage to the ancient Greeks. Some of the more historically accurate versions of this cultural narrative acknowledge that this lineage was not exactly unbroken, and that not everything has its origins in Greece. This narrative, like all myths, is remarkably resilient. It also has what we might call a dark subtext; as a product of cultural chauvinism, it has been used as an excuse to downplay or gloss over the very real contributions of non-European civilizations to European thought and technology.
For an example, we might turn to the Renaissance, that glorious period of awakening and cultural rediscovery as Europe emerged from the somnolence of the Dark Ages. The Renaissance is often portrayed as a rediscovery by Europe of her cultural heritage, the science, art and literature of classical Greece and Rome. It was, of course, that, but not only that. Fortunately, the European Dark Ages did not affect the rest of the world. Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Meso-American civilizations had previously undergone their own “Renaissances”, periods of intense creative and scientific discovery. The Europeans, interwoven as they were in the global web even in the thirteenth century, were the beneficiaries of a great deal of science, art and technology developed elsewhere.
Civilizations do not exist in a vacuum. Humans are social animals who learn from the imitation of others. An isolated discovery is probably a dead-end. Advances in human civilization come when people are interrelated, such that one discovery is rapidly disseminated to others, who may in turn come up with novel uses or improvements. The fate of people such as the Chatham Islanders, a small community located in the South Pacific, is a case in point. Isolated and cut off from their neighbors, they not only failed to develop further cultural or technological advances, but they in fact lost most of the technologies of their Polynesian forebears and reverted to a stone age lifestyle, because their tiny, isolated community was unable to maintain the sophisticated culture which was the product of a more cosmopolitan society.3
It is well known, for example, that Europe’s cultural heritage, the classical knowledge of Greece and Rome, was largely lost to Christian Western Europe, but was preserved by the Islamic world, which itself experienced a Renaissance based, in part, upon that very classical knowledge. What is not as well known is that both the Islamic and European renaissances were in turn indebted to India. India was the origin not only of the “Arabic” numerals, so-called because they were transmitted by the Arabs to Europe, but was also the origin of place value system of enumeration. It was this decimal system of enumeration that made possible the development of abstract mathematics and thus the scientific revolution that transformed Europe following the dissemination of this knowledge to Europe from India in the thirteenth century.
This is not commonly known, perhaps because every civilization imagines itself to be of central importance, and thus tends to downplay the contributions of other civilizations. We hail Gutenberg, for example, as the “inventor” of the printing press, yet fail to acknowledge that both moveable-type printing and papermaking technologies were invented in China. Of course, it is not desirable to downplay Gutenberg’s innovation, but we should acknowledge that many innovations took place standing on the shoulders of giants, including many non-Europeans. The tendency to imagine that Europe’s global dominance arose from Europe sui generis, due to Europe’s intrinsic cultural superiority, is a legacy of the colonial period, during which Europe ignored its cultural debt to the rest of the world to justify violent appropriation of the world’s resources.
One could argue that the promise of the “first” European renaissance was unfulfilled largely because its global nature was not recognized. It is thus instructive to point out that, given the increasing interconnection of the globe, we appear to be on the verge of another renaissance, one that has the potential of being truly global. This potential will only be fulfilled, however, if we relax the façade of the “superior Western paradigm” by both acknowledging the past contributions of non-Western civilizations and well as by exploring the wisdom of these civilizations that has not yet been recognized by the West.
Before this can be achieved, however, it is necessary that we examine the still quite prevalent belief in the superiority of the West. Without doubt, the West has contributed much to human civilization. What we argue against is the notion that any one civilization has a monopoly on any human feature or virtue such as reason, goodness, and so forth, and that any society represents the apex of human evolution with other societies understood to exist further down the evolutionary ladder, and somehow bereft of or deficient in the same virtues.
Particularly egregious are the attempts by thinkers such as Hegel to define as universal features that are, in fact, quite culturally specific. This includes, of course, his “universal history” which saw Europe and America as the pinnacles of human evolution. Hegel wrote, for example, that “universal history goes from East to West. Europe is absolutely the end of universal history. Asia is the beginning.”4 This idea was clearly a justification of Western colonial exploitation. But Hegel took the idea even further. Since his “history” is solely defined in Eurocentric terms, any act committed by the Europeans, no matter how reprehensible, is justifiable as a necessary step in human evolution. Hegel wrote that:
Because history is the configuration of the Spirit in the form of event, the people which receives the Spirit as its natural principle…is the one that dominates in that epoch of world history…Against the absolute right of that people who actually are the carriers of the world Spirit, the spirit of other peoples has no other right.5
Hegel saw the evolution of human history as a unified totality, proceeding via the evolution of the “world spirit”. The “world spirit”, for Hegel, was Western, with other cultures subsumed to the dustbin of history, forced either to adapt to the West or be trampled underfoot by this “world spirit”, which in Hegel’s writing appears as a complex metaphor for the reality of Western aggression.
Hegel applied this “logic” to his analysis of India. He depicted the British colonialization of India as an inevitable stage in his process of “evolution”. He wrote that “The British, or rather the East India Company, are the masters of India because it is the fatal destiny of Asian empires to subject themselves to the Europeans.”6 Reading through Hegel’s works, it is apparent that he based conclusions such as this on the rather remarkable assumption that India has no history. His clearest statement to this effect occurs as follows:
If we had formerly the satisfaction of believing in the antiquity of the Indian wisdom and holding it in respect, we now have ascertained through being acquainted with the great astronomical works of the Indians, the inaccuracy of all figures quoted. Nothing can be more confused, nothing more imperfect than the chronology of the Indians; no people which attained to culture in astronomy, mathematics, &c., is as incapable for history; in it they have neither stability nor coherence. It was believed that such was to be had at the time of Wikramaditya, who was supposed to have lived about 50 B.C., and under whose reign the poet Kalidasa, author of Sakontala, lived. But further research discovered half a dozen Wikramadityas and careful investigation has placed this epoch in our eleventh century. The Indians have lines of kings and an enormous quantity of names, but everything is vague.7
This is an important passage for two reasons. First, this assumption has been very influential, and its consequences continue to be felt today. Secondly, Hegel gives this as the reason why he had lost respect for India’s cultural heritage. Yet his conclusion is baseless, and can be critiqued on several points. Classical Indian astronomy was no more inaccurate than the classical Greek Ptolemaic system, which Europe followed until the seventeenth century, and in many respects the former was more accurate. Regarding the Vikramaditya era, it is true that there were several kings with that name in Europe (just as there were many kings named Louis, Charles, etc. in Europe), but it does not follow from this that the Indians confused them. There in fact never was confusion concerning the Vikramaditya era, starting 57 BCE, and Hegel is absolutely wrong that this era actually begins in the eleventh century. One might argue that there never was a king of that name who lived at that time, but one could also argue that there was no Christ born at the year zero, but such a critique would not “prove” that the West has no history; the history based on such a chronology would still be sound, regardless of the status of the legendary founder of the era. It is interesting that he takes this rather inconsequential reason for dismissal Indian wisdom, as if the contents of a text are negated if it is misdated! Perhaps mistaken views concerning Indian history (or lack thereof) are at the root of much of the dismissal of India and things Indian.
The false perception that India was a stagnant, ahistorical land was perpetuated by Karl Marx. Marx described India in being caught in what he called the “Asiatic Mode of Production”. He posited that India was trapped in a stagnant, unhistorical economic state in which unchanging, stratified villiages were governed by “Oriental despots” who wielded absolute power. His analysis was flawed by a serious ignorance of the actual economic conditions prevailing in India during his time, and of the numerous causes which underlay them. From a certain perspective, the greatest despots in India were not Oriental but Occidental, i.e., the British. During the period of East India Company rule in India, the taxation exacted by the British far exceeded anything exacted by the “oriental despots” who preceeded them. The economist Romesh Dutt, writing during the period when the British were beating their hasty retreat from India, wrote that, at that time,
Agriculture is now virtually the only remaining source of national wealth in India, and four-fifths of the Indian people depend on agriculture. But the Land Tax levied by the British Government is not only excessive, but, what is worse, it is fluctuating and uncertain in many provinces. In England, the Land Tax was between one shilling and four shillings in the pound, i.e., between 5 and 20 per cent. of the rental, during a hundred years before 1798, when it was made perpetual and redeemable by William Pitt. In Bengal the Land Tax was fixed at over 90 per cent. of the rental, and in Northern India at over 80 per cent. of the rental, between 1793 and 1822. It is true that the British Government only followed the precedent of the previous Mahomedan rulers, who also claimed an enormous Land Tax. But the difference was this, that what the Mahomedan rulers claimed they could never fully realise; what the British rulers claimed they realised with rigour. The last Mahomedan ruler of Bengal, in the last year of his administration (1764), realised a land revenue of £817,553; within thirty years the British rulers realised a land revenue of £2,680,000 in the same Province. In 1802 the Nawab of Oudh ceded Allahabad and some other rich districts in Northern India to the British Government. The land revenue which had been claimed by the Nawab in these ceded districts was £1,352,347; the land revenue which was claimed by the British rulers within three years of the cession was £1,682,306. In Madras, the Land Tax first imposed by the East India Company was one-half the gross produce of the land! In Bombay, the land revenue of the territory conquered from the Mahrattas in 1817 was £800,000 in (p. x) the year of the conquest; it was raised to £ 1,500,000 within a few years of British rule; and it has been continuously raised since. “No Native Prince demands the rent which we do,” wrote Bishop Heber in 1826, after travelling all through India, and visiting British and Native States. “A Land Tax like that which now exists in India,” wrote Colonel Briggs in 1830, “professing to absorb the whole of the landlord’s rent, was never known under any Government in Europe or Asia.8
Clearly, it is essential that the true causes of Indian poverty be examined. These causes include the economic policies undertaken by the British. Not only was the high taxation significant relevant, but so too were the uses of this revenue, much of which was not employed to improve the economic status of India, but were drained from India to fill the coffers of the British. India does not operate under a separate economic law, but is subject to the same laws as the rest of the world. As Dutt remarked, “A nation is impoverished if the sources (its wealth are narrowed, and the proceeds of taxation are largely remitted out of the country. These are plain, self-evident economic laws, which operate in India, as in every other country, and the India statesman and administrator must feel that the poverty of India cannot be removed until India] industries are revived, until a fixed and intelligible limit is placed on the Indian Land Tax, and until the, Indian revenues are more largely spent in India.”9
The negation of the other via blindness of the consequences of one’s actions are manifestations of a type of cultural chauvinism. Underlying it is a meta-narrative that we shall refer to as the myth of the West. This myth is absurd not only because it ignores the past and present interdependency of “the West” with the rest of the world, but it also is based upon a contrived notion of Western culture unity, glossing over the remarkable diversity found within Western nations, past and present. The very notion of a distinct West is relatively recent in history, as the English, Irish, Germans, Italians, Greek, Spaniards, etc. each saw themselves as very distinct cultures often in conflict with each other, and not in terms of a cohesive ‘Western’ civilization. It is probably essential that we distinguish the ‘West’ as conceived in “Westernism” or the myth of the West, i.e., as homogeneously dominant, culturally, historically and ideationally triumphalist, from the geographically and culturally porous reality of the ‘West’. We would like dispel the former and shed light on the latter.
This meta-narrative underlies the way in which history is taught in the West. Most modern world history narratives start from roughly 1500, the period when Europe ascended from her dark ages. Educated Westerner fail to appreciate that prior to that time, there pre-existed sophisticated civilizations in Asia that had a high degree of economic and materialistic development. This is particularly well illustrated through the interaction of India and the British. When the British first approached India in the eighteenth century, India actually had a much greater share of the global GNP than did Europe. Europeans raved about India, much like today the world raves about America as the land of opportunity. Until 1750, India’s share of the world’s manufacturing output was 24.5%, while the entire share of the West, including America as well as Europe, was only 18.2%. By 1913, however, the West’s share was over 80%, while India’s was under 2%. As Samuel Huntington points out, “the industrialization of the West led to the de-industrialization of the rest of the world.”10
It has been said that most Europeans do not know their own history since so much of it happened in Asia. The British and other Western powers, while benefiting from the resources and the labor of other peoples, rarely took this debt into account when claiming superiority for their own civilizations over those on whom their greatness so heavily depended. Given the continuation both of this pattern of global interdependency, as well as a general reluctance on the part of many Westerners to acknowledge this debt, one could argue that the current globalization is more akin to British imperial model than different. In many ways, the “post-colonial” world has been replicating the patterns of the colonial world, suggesting perhaps that the world is “post-colonial” in name only.
Hegel, followed by many others, developed a linear theory of history, in which humanity is seen as going from bad to good, from backward to progressive. In the Judeo-Christian variation of this narrative, there is also the God sanctioned and God demanded special status of the Western people to spread the truth to the rest of humanity. Abrahamic religions have posed a view of history as a progress from ‘evil to good’. Hegelian and other extrapolations such as Marxism and Nazism fit neatly into this linear model. The underlying narrative of all these ideologies has been of ‘us’ against ‘them’ on some basis of superiority. The ‘us’ gets redefined periodically as more people get included by subjugation, merger or otherwise, but the fundamental linear trajectory is maintained.
Scholars have enhanced and reinforced this myth, avoiding the facts that do not fit it. For instance, it does not fit this meta-narrative that India had advanced well ahead of the West in medicine, mathematics, psychology and yogic sciences11 (as opposed to mere ‘mysticism’), and in education and economic prosperity. These facts would negate the fundamental premises of this narrative. Not only are such facts of history negated, but also demonizing Indic civilization has served to marginalize its credibility – it is portrayed through a series of stereotypes, including being viewed as ‘world negating’, socially abusive, even immoral, backward, and irrational, as compared to the West. Being the biggest surviving anomaly to this Western superiority narrative, India is therefore often seen as the greatest potential threat to the present Western model.
This narrative begs several questions, such as: Was India chronically poor and hence its civilization may be dismissed as backward, or was it in fact extremely wealthy for most of its history until recent times? Did the West achieve modern scientific progress by itself or was it facilitated by considerable appropriation from others, such as India and China?
Just as commercial brands are ‘created’ by advertising, beliefs in the humanities often get manufactured. Eventually, these new ‘truths’ become part of popular culture and are tough to uproot. These brands in turn influence identity and the myth gets perpetuated. The mythmaking of the superior West has involved demonizing others, while at the same time appropriating their good things and calling them Western. The subverted people have been made to develop a sense of pride in seeing their heritage being appropriated and ‘legitimized’ by the ruling West.
The mythmaking of the West has often been the result of four stages in the West’s encounter with other civilizations, often in a different sequence or with some stages skipped:
- Study the newly discovered culture with respect, including discipleship and acknowledgement of its merits.
- Neutralize the vernacular to remove the source tradition’s identity (such as is now being done by popular new age and by modern psychology’s appropriation from India), often justified as helping simplify and modernize the knowledge.
- Repackage the knowledge into Judeo-Christian language or into Western science.
- Denigrate or demonize the source tradition to cover the tracks, hide the evidence of appropriation, and claim one’s “originality”. This keeps the myth alive.
Variations of the above pattern of appropriation can be seen, for example, in the Christian appropriations of Judaism and Paganism followed by their demonizing, once the appropriation was completed. Many Christian symbols, ideas and practices are in fact appropriations from Paganism. Even when Greek thought was appropriated to create the myth of the modern West, the Greek’s Pagan religion remained demonized. In the case of the Incas and Aztecs, they were demonized as practitioners of human/animal sacrifices and other primitive practices, so as to legitimize the appropriation of their material wealth and the commitment of genocide upon them.
In the past century, Steiner learnt much from the study of Indic traditions through the Theosophy movement, but then he made the U-Turn by distancing from it, then re-labeled it as his own brand of Christianity, and finally demonized the Indic sources. Jung studied yoga, Kundalini and many other Indic sciences, and taught them at first with great respect. But then he declared them as dangerous for Westerners to practice, on the false assumption that Indian thought was world negating and hence not progressive like the West. Contrary to his hypothesis, over ten million Americans now practice various forms of yoga and meditation, and these include many over-achievers from various walks of life who are not backward or world negating. These Indic sources are subverted even when repackaging the ideas into a Christian framework. In this and many other cases, the meta-narrative of the superior West subverted the truths about the non-Western source tradition, as these riches were appropriated and repackaged as Western, while the source tradition was demonized as inferior.
III. Our New Paradigm for Globalization:
In contrast to the current trends, our proposal is that the various cultures and cultural traditions are all intrinsically valuable, as they are all components of a larger humanity. Enmity between cultures, as well the eradication, conversion or subversion of any one by another, are the products of collective stupidity. The way out of this morass is to see beyond the narrow confines of personal or collective ethnic self-interest, and to see instead the collective self-interest of all humanity, via an awareness of our intrinsic and unavoidable interdependency. What the world needs is not the imposition of any ideology, be it Western, Communism, Christianity, etc., upon the globe. Mutual understanding will not be achieved through cultural imposition of ideological and cultural uniformity. Rather, the world needs a respectful interaction of the world’s cultures, one that respects difference, and seeks to appreciate rather than eradicate it. Cultural exchange can and should occur, but with a spirit of generosity and mutual respect.
There is a unity of consciousness, which links all that exists. It manifests variously in the constantly evolving sentient beings and material entities. In this context the previous historical attempts at globalization may be seen as certain parts of this unity consciousness trying to subvert others. When such subversion happens within one individual’s mind, it results in the shadow side, and the repression of the subverted shadow eventually plays out in harmful ways. On the collective consciousness scale, an appropriation into Western civilization and its expansion to subvert all others will result in similar repression and the development of many shadow sides. Therefore, there has to be an explicit and conscious recognition and celebration of the non-Western civilizations as equally valuable aspects of the same consciousness in this collective evolution.
- Why India:
While the web of interrelations between the world’s cultures is complex and beyond facile reduction, in this essay we shall focus on India, due to both space restraints as well as the centrality of India in Eurasia. India has long occupied an important place in the global imagination, as befits its status as one of the most ancient of human civilizations. The positive contributions of Indian civilization to the world are legion, and enumerating them here will definitely not be possible. What is possible, however, is to look into some of the many ways that Indian thought has deepened and enriched Western thought, to a far greater degree than is commonly known.
In order to clear the ground of received prejudices regarding what might be India’s contributions (actual past influences or potential present and future contributions), this conference will begin by analyzing the genesis and effect of various distortions of “the East” (especially India). In this context we will address the strong distorting influence which writers such as Max Weber (in, for example, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) have had on the West’s perception of India and “the East.” Such perceptions include enduring stereotypes that India is “socially apathetic,” “other worldly,” “mystical,” and “world-rejecting.”
Counter to what Weberian stereotypes would suggest, all of the great nations of Asia have historically turned to India for its material, cultural, and knowledge resources. These included Islamic nations, whose rich scientific traditions owed as least as much to India as to the Greeks. This legacy was passed to the Europeans, on the basis of which they were able to forge their own renaissance and scientific revolution, with little awareness of the sources of the knowledge they were appropriating and misattributing to the Greeks.
The influence of India on her neighbors, specifically those in Central, East and South East Asia, have long been recognized, largely because peoples of these other nations went to great lengths to accurately translate and disseminate Indic knowledge and know-how into their own languages and cultural idioms. This resulted in an accurate transmission that maintained respect for the cultural source.
In the West, however, this transmission occurred largely indirectly at first, resulting in ignorance about the ultimate source of the knowledge, as well as in an incomplete and often inaccurate transmission. It is rather unfortunate that when Europe and India directly encountered each other it was under coercive conditions, resulting, ultimately, in the colonization of the latter by the former. Such a grossly inequitable relationship is not conducive to mutual understanding and respect. As a result European portrayals of India were riddled with self-justifying depictions of Indians as irrational savages. Such false portrayals it impossible for them to explore the potential contributions of Indian civilization, and when Europeans did borrow useful facets of Indian thought, it also put pressure on them to deny the source of these findings, since to openly acknowledge that the West had something to learn from India was to implicitly undermine the myth of cultural superiority which was the flimsy justification for colonial exploitation.
We need not resort to the distant past to find examples of Indian influence on Western thought. In fact, some of the most interesting examples are modern, given the fact that it wasn’t until the past two hundred years that the Indian classics have been translated in European languages. Once the masterpieces of Indian literature and philosophy were translated, however, they rapidly received a great deal of attention. The great German poet Goethe, for example, was greatly affected by reading Georg Foster’s 1791 translation of the Sanskrit play Shakuntala, written by the great fourth century poet Kalidasa. Regarding the play, he wrote “Sakuntala: here the Poet appears in his highest function. As a representative of the most natural condition, the finest way of life, the purest moral endeavor, the most dignified majesty, and the most solemn reverence of God, he ventures into base and ridiculous contradictions.”12
We do not need to be literary critics to discern the influence of Kalidasa on Goethe; we need only compare the first few pages of the former’s Shakuntala with the latter’s Faust to see that Kalidasa was the source of Goethe idea to begin Faust with the “Prelude in the Theatre,” which represents a conversation between the play’s director and author. It is thus clear that there was pronounced Indian influence on one of the greatest works of modern Western literature.
India’s influence on Western literature increased during the nineteenth and twentieth century as Europeans and Americans became increasingly aware of Indian thought and literature. Emerson and Thoreau, for example, were quite explicit in their admiration for the Hindu classics, namely the Upanishads and the Bhagvad Gita. The “oversoul” of the Transcendentalists is clearly a rephrasing of the Upanishad doctrine of the impersonal absolute, Brahman. These ideas also provided an intellectual foundation for the poets Walt Whitman and W. B. Yeats. The latter was as familiar with Indian thought as he was with neo-Platonic thought, although his philosophy is usually identified with the latter.
The influence became stronger still during the early twentieth century, as modernist authors looked to non-Western cultures for inspiration in the development of new literary models in an effort to free themselves from the constraints of tired Western genres. While authors such as Ezra Pound turned to Chinese and Japanese poetry, T. S. Eliot turned to Indian sources, particularly the Upanishads, Buddhist Sutras, and Patañjali’s Yogasutras, the influence of which is most pronounced in his seminal poem, The Waste Land.
There is probably no need to do more than mention here the Beat authors, such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder. The influence of Buddhism on their writing is both obvious and profound. This was the product of the transmission of Zen and Tibetan schools of Buddhism to the United States, which achieved a cultural “critical mass” during the 1960s, when interest in these traditions broke out of the counter-culture and into the mainstream.
The translations of a few Indian texts drew the attention of scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and had a significant influence on Enlightenment era thinkers such as Voltaire,13 as well as on the Romantic era philosophers who shaped Continental Philosophy in particular. One of the most striking examples is that of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose subtle, psychologically oriented philosophy played a significant role in the development of psychoanalysis and existentialism in the early twentieth century, and post-modern thought at the end of that century. Schopenhauer unabashedly admired the wisdom of Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and adopted ideas from these sources into his own thought. Most notably, he went against the dominant colonial attitude, which saw the European and Asian cultural exchange as being a one-way street, with European ideas and technologies and Christianity inevitably destined to supplant Asian cultural traditions. Schopenhauer, however, predicted that the reverse would be true, arguing that “In India our religions will never take root; the ancient wisdom of the human race will not be supplanted by the events in Galilee. On the contrary, Indian wisdom flows back to Europe, and will produce fundamental changes in our knowledge and thought.”14
Indic thought also played a major role in the life of Erwin Schrödinger, who developed the theory of quantum mechanics, which in turn has ushered in a new era in modern electronics. A curious feature of quantum mechanics is its deconstruction of the naïve conception of individual, independent existence, at least on the atomic and subatomic levels. Rather, such “particles” can only be understood as existing not in any definite and identifiable way, but as a superposition of possibilities; the ultimate status of entities, when taken individually, is indeterminate; their existence is only ultimately characterized in terms of a spectrum of quantum states.
Schrödinger had studied with some interest the Upanishads and Vedanta teachings, and explicitly connected the doctrines of these scriptures with the insights behind his quantum mechanics. In his book What is Life? he wrote that
From the early great Upanishads the recognition ATHMAN=BRAHMAN (the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemous, to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world. The striving of all the scholars of Vedanta was, after having learnt to pronounce with their lips, really to assimilate in their minds this grandest of all thoughts.15
It is curious that one of the most profound developments of twentieth-century science owes a debt to one of the oldest of the world’s spiritual traditions. This should not be a surprise, however, when we consider the interdependency of humanity, and the fact that all innovations, however profound, are based upon earlier discoveries.
Carl Jung, one of the fathers of modern psychology, was also deeply influenced by Indic traditions of thought and meditative technology. India had long been particularly preoccupied with what might be called the “inner sciences”, the speculative and empirical exploration of the self and consciousness, a field that was almost entirely neglected in the West until the beginning of the last century. Jung was particularly innovative here, but again his innovation was based upon the intensive study of the world’s spiritual traditions. Jung found Indian traditions, particularly the traditions of yoga, most helpful in this regard. Jung made a careful study of Patañjali’s Yogasutra and employed many of the concepts therein in the composition of his seminal work Psychological Types. His concept of the “collective unconscious” also bears great similarity to ideas found in Hinduism and Buddhism, such as the buddhitattvaor “Universal Mind” of Sankhya philosophy or the alayavijnana or “store-house consciousness” of the Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy. Jung was aware of quite sophisticated psychological theories of these schools of thought, and made explicit mention of them in his text.
Jung was open about his utilization of Indic sources, although he went to pains to distinguish himself from the traditional practitioner of Indic arts such as yoga, in part because he was being criticized for doing exactly that. Jung did argue that Eastern contemplative traditions such as yoga were inappropriate for Westerners. Clearly, his facile bifurcation of “East” and “West” as culturally incompatible regions is absurd, but given the time period in which he lived and worked it is understandable that he would such a view. Indeed, it is remarkable that he took Asian speculative and contemplative traditions as seriously as he did. In this day and age, however, there is no excuse for us to fail to go far beyond Jung and explore in depth the insight and applicability of Indic traditions.
India has also long served as a source of spiritual inspiration for many people throughout the world, and not surprisingly gave birth to several of the world’s major religions. Indian monks and mystics inspired peoples as far flung as the Greeks in the West and the Chinese in the East, beginning well before the time of Christ. This influence continues to this day, and not only in obvious ways. For example, it is not commonly known that an important Vedanta scholar Ramanuja, who lived in South India during the eleventh century CE, influenced the theology of Teilhard de Chardin, which was quite innovative in the Christian context. A recent book by Anne Hunt Overzee, The Body Divine: The Symbol of the Body in the Works of Teilhard de Chardin and Ramanuja, details the similarities between their theologies.16
These similarities may not be due to mere chance, to “great minds thinking alike”. Great minds may often think alike, but very often due to direct or indirect influence. In the case of de Chardin, in appears to be rather direct.17 In 1935, de Chardin traveled extensively throughout India. He also studied a scholarly monograph on Ramanuja’s theology, at which time he wrote in his notebook that Ramanuja’s view on the relationship between God and the world was “identical to his own view of things except that it is ‘static’ and without ‘center-complexity’.”18
The genius of de Chardin nurtured in the West and expanded during his long years in Asia, lies in his recognition that the “evolution” of humankind would never and could never involve the global spread and adoption of the supposedly “advanced” Western culture. Rather, this evolution could only be achieved through a process of what he called convergence, in which difference is not eradicated but preserved and celebrated. He wrote, in his The Coming Convergence of World Religions, that
As with general cultural convergence, religious convergence is unitive yet diversified. It excludes reduction and substitution as emerging from the unitive process, expecting, rather, some form of unitive pluralism. Religious convergence is not syncretism … [nor does it] consist in the emergence of one tradition as simply dominant and absorbing the others…
…the religious traditions have developed separately and now will continue their development together. They have a further meaning together which we had not even suspected. It is not that we will discover that all along they really were all the same. On the contrary, we must expect to find that their differences … are actually meaningful together, contribute to each other and constitute the new unity out of their diversity.19
It is this spirit of humble celebration of diversity, rather than Hegel’s triumphalist tone of the subsuming of all other cultures within the totalizing embrace of the West, that must be the dominant spirit of the emerging worldview, if we are to escape the mistakes of the past and forge a truly lasting basis for peace and wisdom within the world.
These thinkers are not anomalous, but in fact represent a trend that appears to be culminating now in the development of what might be termed the “emerging worldview”, a worldview that must be truly global to live up to such a lofty title. This worldview is particularly well represented in thinkers who are conversant with more than one cultural tradition. Examples of this phenomenon would include Nishitani Keiji and other members of the Kyoto school of philosophy, which have integrated Buddhist and Continental philosophies. Nishitani, in his book Religion and Nothingness,20 integrated the perspectives of Buddhist philosophy with the thought of Western mystics and scholars such as Meister Eckhard and Martin Heidegger. This integration is not casual or based upon a superficial understanding of another system, or the desire to subsume one tradition within the totalizing embraces of another. Rather, it is based on the intensive study of both cultural traditions, and is thus nuanced and respectful with regard to both.
Also among Western thinkers who have studied Asian philosophies in depth and who have incorporated aspects of the latter into their own thought, a notable modern example is Ken Wilber, whose “Integral Psychology” openly draws upon the work of the Indian thinker Sri Aurobindo. In his early book, The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977),21 Wilber pointed out the similarities between Asian traditions and various schools of psychology current at the time. He drew attention to the real and valuable contributions to be made by non-Western schools of thought, and in particular those of India.
In this book, as well as in later works such as Transformations of Consciousness,22 Wilber expanded the scope of modern Western psychology by also including within his schema the supra normal or “transpersonal” states of consciousness described and cultivated by practitioners of India’s meditators and yogis. He showed that Western psychology couldn’t afford to ignore the thousands of years of empirical experimentation in the field of consciousness studies and psychology that has been conducted by these practitioners, albeit under different names. Wilber’s debt to these traditions is particular notable with regard to Sri Aurobindo, who created a schema of states of consciousness. Not fearing to acknowledge his debt to Sri Aurobindo and the Indic traditions, Wilber has generally been quite up front with regard to his use and remodeling of the insights of the Indic traditions. Hopefully, Wilber and many others like him will continue to explore the very fruitful potential for East-West dialogue and exchange, in a respectful and intellectually honest fashion.
To challenge the Western view of globalization, one needs a strong and compelling argument that there exists value outside of the West. It is critical to bring to light and evaluate the cultural traditions hitherto unknown or unappreciated in the West. For this, Indian civilization offers an especially interesting opportunity. Essentially, there are at least five different ways in which India defies the meta-narrative of linear history:
- Many advances happened in India long before the West, and these seem to confound many Westerners’ assumptions of their place in history, so they seek to deny or downplay these.
- Archeologists continue to find older civilizations with more sophistication than is permissible in the linear narrative of history, as such findings challenge the logical sequence in which advances are supposed to have occurred.
- India is rich in worldviews built on non-locality and non-reductive ontologies, and this is threatening to the prevailing paradigms of science and philosophy.
- India poses a serious theological challenge by insisting that Abrahamic religions do not have a monopoly on legitimate paths to the ultimate truth, and that its own tapestry of dharmas is rich and most sophisticated.
- The assumption that Western social norms are universal is challenged by Indian culture. For instance, Hindu women have challenged Western Feminism’s claim to be the sole ideal for all womanhood, and have provoked controversy by questioning this hegemony very openly.
We can show that many so-called Western ideas were appropriated from India. We can also show that much more exists in India that has not yet been appreciated. For example, only a small percentage of Sanskrit texts have been studied and translated by Westerners, and there is a wealth of remaining written and oral texts dealing with profound philosophical and psychological subjects. But mere “translation” is not enough, especially if they are done in a spirit of contempt, or treated as exotic. Rather, their translation must be done with a spirit of respect, and this must be conjoined with the development and nurturing of a discourse in which these materials are taken seriously.
We know that many of the modern appropriations by the West have been superficial and sometimes inaccurate, sometimes in the interest of commercial or egotistic pursuits. Thus the wealth of Indic learning is far greater than is commonly understood in the West. To bring this material to light is a task that can no longer wait. There is also great urgency because the roots of Indic traditions are suffering neglect, atrophy, and are exposed to attack both by those who seek to supplant them with Western, materialistic models and those who seek to replace them with Abrahamic religions. Furthermore, given the great contributions Indic traditions have already made to the rest of the world, it would be unethical to fail to acknowledge the Indic traditions. We should help restore and nurture a revival of Indic heritage within India itself to facilitate the global renaissance.
The accomplishments and past and potential contributions of all world civilizations, major and minor, should be studied in depth and brought to the attention of the world community. Since our interest and specialization is in India, we propose to undertake such research with regard to India, but it is our hope and expectation that others will follow suit with regard to the other civilizations of the world.
- Overview of the Inner Sciences:
The inner sciences are empirical sciences involving the mind and all mental, sensory and cognitive powers as well as consciousness in all of its states. They are scientific in the sense that they are based on empirical observation and experimentation with these inner phenomena. From a certain perspective, they are actually more rigorous scientifically for the simple reason that the “outer” sciences, which explore external “objective” realities, are based upon the naïve assumption that the perceptual data, as captured by the sense organs and organized in the brain, accurately correspond to the “reality” they allegedly represent.
The Indic empiricists, at a very early date, did in fact problematize this assumption, and sought to address it by developing increasingly sophisticated models of the cognitive, consciousness and sensory powers. Some might criticize this first-person methodology, and argue that inner phenomena can be analyzed via the same reductionistic methodology as are external phenomena, but it is not at all clear that first-person, subjective experience is reducible to third-person description. The physicist Piet Hut has written that he anticipates that “first-person felt experience and third-person description will both become part of an extended form of scientific method, in a framework that will transcend the current dichotomy.”23
The Indic Inner sciences did not, generally, proceed via blind speculation, but rather proceeded by experimentation. These experiments included, among other things, sophisticated analyses of the mind and mental states, thought experiments designed to remove negative emotions and negative thought and/or behavioral patterns, as well as yogic techniques that employ the interconnectivity of body and mind to achieve mental and physical transformations, as well as states of deep relaxation, deep concentration, and heightened cognitive powers. Many insights resulted from these explorations, as well as practical techniques such as the use of breath control, visualization and other yogic techniques to accelerate healing and overcome infections, including infectious agents that are not susceptible to modern medical treatments. The Inner Sciences have often been dismissed as “magic” or “mysticism”, allowing their startling efficacy to be safely ignored. Such dismissals, however, are the product of close-minded ignorance. As Robert Thurman wrote,
The enlightenment tradition discovered the micro and macro dimensions more than two thousand years ago by using sophisticated contemplative practices to augment the sixth mental sense of inner vision. They discovered the infinite divisibility of the atom. They discovered bacteria and microbes. And, most important to the pursuit of enlightenment, they discovered their own neurons and even the sub-atomic level of their own awareness. This realm is supernatural only in relation to a constricted definition of natural. It is mystical only when its analytic investigation is not completed. It is magic only when the technique involved is not understood.24
Inner science traditions, generally speaking, performed their analysis to an extremely subtle level. The analyses of consciousness, for example, undertaken in the Samkhya-Yoga, Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist traditions, found what we simply call consciousness to be a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, actually consisting of multiple levels of consciousness. These, ranging from coarse to subtle and very subtle levels, serve as the basis both of our sensory experience, our cognition, our sense of self-consciousness, and, ultimately, the sub-conscious substratum that serves as a unifying force in our own sense of continuous experience, and that is also the basis for the common or collective consciousness that appears to link all living beings. The Inner Sciences also envisioned a subtle body that unifies mind and body, avoiding the bifurcation between the two that continues to plague modern Western thought.
The Indic Inner Sciences, however, do not simply offer an alternative way of conceptualizing reality to Western ones. Within the Indic Inner sciences there is a tremendous diversity of views, such that many of the debates present and emerging in the West will all be enriched, on different sides, by consideration of Indic material. To take the example of consciousness studies again, the recent move by some analytic philosophers of consciousness to remove it from objective analysis and engage in phenomenological contemplation, of course would be helped by looking at the views and contemplative practices present in Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist traditions. On the other hand, the strategies to treat the mind as a mental instrument, so prevalent in cognitive science, is hardly a Western invention, being found in the Nyaya tradition as well. Indic material can only be ignored on the basis of its ‘alterneity’ at our peril, for in so doing we risk exposing our ignorance of the richness of Indic discourse on “Inner Science” subjects such as consciousness studies.
The knowledge and technical know-how of the traditions of Indic Inner Sciences are not mere cultural curiosities, to be studied as anthropological curios. They are, rather, valuable repositories of understanding into the nature of humanity and reality, and can potentially deepen the self-understanding of us all. This fact was long recognized by peoples all over Asia, who frequently sent their best, brightest and boldest to India to study the inner sciences of meditation and yoga. Unfortunately, while Muslims were to a certain extent interested in the Indic inner sciences, these were not transferred to Europe along with the vast amount of mathematical and outer scientific knowledge and technology transferred during the late medieval and renaissance eras. This, perhaps, was due to a certain degree of resistance on the part of the Europeans, whose religious intolerance made it difficult for them to accept the inner sciences, which were often clothed in the garb of religious practices. Nonetheless, Indic meditative and yogic practices did to a certain degree penetrate the Judeo-Christian traditions, in the guise of Kabbalah and Christian mysticism, which were influenced by Sufism, which in turn was highly influenced by the Indic Inner Science traditions.
The failure of Europeans to appreciate the Inner Sciences has been gradually remedied over the century, as increasingly large numbers of Westerns have come to appreciate their benefits. Included herein are not only serious and casual practitioners of meditation and yoga, but also serious and highly influential scientists. Included among the latter were psychologists such as Jung, whose school of psychology was highly influenced by his study of Asian traditions of meditation, and in particular Patañjali’s Yoga tradition. The impact of the Indic Inner Sciences has already been great on the Western “Inner” cognitive sciences, but as the latter are still in many respects still in their infancy, it would behoove us to seriously explore the Indic Inner Sciences, with our eyes and minds wide open.
India has been at the cutting edge of these fields for the past three millennia at least, and there is still a great deal India can potentially share with the West. It is important that we act quickly however, before more of the riches of this intellectual legacy are lost due to neglect and a loss of self-esteem on the part of their caretakers, some of whom are inexorably drawn to the outer material success of Western culture.
What is needed is not a rejection of either the inner or outer perspective, but rather their integration. Such an integration has the potential to effect a transformation, a transformation which sees a shift from the perspective of an alienated individuality to a spiritual sense of individuality in which we have a sense of being unique and precious beings inextricably connected to all other beings, who are equally unique and precious. Such a perspective might give rise to a global renaissance, or, in other words, to what Robert Thurman calls an “alternative modernity”, which he describes as
an inner, spiritual, individual modernity that requires neither unrelenting materialistic industrial destruction of the planet nor a retreat into an imagined primitivistic utopia, a modernity that calls us to move forward in transforming ourselves and our world to gain a quality of life higher than any we have ever known…The task before us now is to deepen our interconnectedness and free ourselves thoroughly from alienation. Then our unified consciousness can only improve each individual’s sense of inextricable interconnectedness with all others, and we will never be caught in the destructive rampage inevitably unleashed by any form of alienation.25
The global renaissance is perhaps inevitable, and may already be happening. For it to be successful, and for the human race to avoid descending into a new dark age of possibly catastrophic consequences, it is necessary that we get past the idea that any one people is intrinsically superior to any other, and recognize that we are all deeply and profoundly interconnected, such that the apparent wealth of any one group is deeply related to the poverty of another. This new era will need an ethic of global responsibility, which will not be possible with out a development of the inner sciences, based not on any one cultural tradition, but on the collective wisdom of all of humanity.
- Edward Said,Culture and Imperialism(New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 168. Hegel’s view of history was highly influential, on both Marxist and humanist historiography. His rather extreme ethnocentrism should thus not be swept under the rug, but analyzed as a central aspect of his thought.
- Samuel P. Huntington,The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order(New York: Touchstone, 1996), pp. 183-4.
- For more on both the interdependence of human cultures in general and the Chatam Islanders in particular see Jared Diamond’sGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999).
- Hegel,Samtliche Werke. J. Hoffmeister and F. Meiner, eds. (Hamburg, 1955), appendix 2, p. 243; op cit. Enrique Dussel,The Invention of the Americas (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 20.
- Cited in Dussel 1995, p. 24.
- From Hegel’sEinleitung in die Geschichte der Philosophie(J. Hoffmeister, ed., Hamburg: F. Meiner, 1962), op. cit. Roger-Pol Droit, L’Oubli de L’Inde, Une Amnésie Philosophique, Presses Universitaires de France, 1989, p. 189.
- From Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.Lectures on the History of Philosophy. E. S. Haldane, trans. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, vol. 1, pp. 125-126.
- Romesh Dutt,The Economic History of India Under Early British Rule(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950), p. ix.
- Ibid., p. xiv.
- Huntington 1996, pp. 86-7. Huntington drew this data from the following source: Paul Bairoch, “Internationalional Industrialization Levels from 1750 to 1980,”Journal of European Economic History, vol. 11 (Fall 1982), pp. 269-334.
- By this we mean the Indic sciences of introspection and contemplation which we elsewhere term the “Inner Sciences”. See section V below for more information concerning these.
- From Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,Literarische Werkevol. 42 sec. 2, p. 247 (from the 1st Sophien-Ausgabe ed., published in 1887-1919 by Verlag Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger Weimar.
- Concerning Voltaire’s study and favorable impression of Indian philosophy see Wilhelm Halbfass’India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding(Albany: SUNY Press, 1988).
- Arthur Schopenhauer,The World as Will and Representation(New York: Dover, 1969), vol. 1, p. 357.
- Erwin Schrödinger,What is Life? with Mind and Matter & Autobiographical Sketches(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 87.
- Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
- de Chardin’s study of Indian thinkers, especially of Ramanuja, is not widely known, but it is the subject of an interesting book by Ursula King entitledTowards a New Mysticism: Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions(London: Collins, 1980)
- King 1980, p. 244.
- King 1980, op. cit., pp. 158-9.
- Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.
- A second edition of this book, published in 1993 by Quest Books (Wheaton, Illinois), is still in print.
- Written in conjunction with Jack Engler and Daniel P. Brown (Boston: Shambhala, 1986).
- See Piet Hut’s essay “As in a Dream”, located online at:http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/s_es/s_es_hut-p_dream_frameset.htm
- Robert Thurman,Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness(New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), pp. 213-14.
- Inner Revolution, pp. 270-1.