Colonial Consciousness: M.N. Srinivas and Sanskritization

1. M. N. Srinivas (MNS) claims that “a caste was able, in a generation or two, to rise to a higher position in the hierarchy by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism and by changing its rituals and deities.” The first basic problem here is how one can establish the position of a jati in the supposed hierarchy and measure it in such detail that one can see over two generations that the jati has attained a higher position. Which standard does one use to establish the position of jati x? What members of jati x say about its position relative to other jatis? What members of other jatis say about the position of x relative to their own jatis? As our fieldwork in Karnataka has already shown, it is impossible to infer any hierarchy from such empirical data, because all one gets is a series of inconsistent statements with regard to the relative positions of jatis. This basic problem becomes even more intractable when we take into account the history of assigning positions to jatis in the so-called “caste hierarchy”. When the British had their caste census in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many jatis classified as shudras or untouchables sent in petitions arguing that they held higher positions; they were kshatriyas, they said. Today, the same jatis insist that they are really shudras or untouchables and should be classified as OBCs or SCs. When jatis can radically revise their ‘position in the hierarchy’ according to the status or benefits they win by doing so, what could one ever conclude about their position and how it changes over generations?

Should one calculate the average socio-economic level of jati x and compare it to the average level of other jatis? Apart from difficulties in calculating this socio-economic level, one faces an even more difficult problem: how does one circumscribe jati x? Are two groups with the same name both sub-divisions of jati x? What if they claim they are different jatis? What geographical or social unit should one begin with to establish the (socio-economic) position of jati x in the hierarchy? Let us say one takes the village as the relevant unit. How does the socio-economic level that jati x enjoys in some village tell us anything about its position in the hierarchy? If the socio-economic welfare of jati x increases markedly over two generations in this village, does this mean it has attained a higher position? What if the same jati in the surrounding villages has declined? In terms of empirical data, then, it becomes impossible to say (a) what the position is of a jati in the supposed hierarchy and (b) when it has attained a higher position. In other words, MNS can never have inferred his conclusions about Sanskritization and castes rising to higher positions from his ‘fieldwork data’.

2. Of course, some jati may adopt practices from another jati. Let us even admit that some jatis regularly adopted practices from certain groups of Brahmins. What does this show? It certainly does not show that ‘a low caste’ “took over, as far as possible, the customs, rites, and beliefs of the Brahmins” and adopted “the Brahminic way of life.” By observing all the different groups of Brahmins and their different customs and rites or by collecting the beliefs of Brahmin individuals, one cannot through some process of induction come to “the Brahminic way of life” or “the customs, rites and beliefs of the Brahmins” (unless one means the set of all customs, rites and beliefs ever held or engaged in by all Brahmins who ever lived). So it does not make sense to claim that low castes took over the Brahminic way of life. Maximally, some practices of some Brahmin jatis were adopted by some other jatis. Does this demonstrate that these other jatis attributed a higher position to the Brahmin jatis in question? One may suggest that this is self-evident or at least very plausible, but this is a kind of half-baked social psychology that does not result from theorizing or research.

Take a few instances from European history. In nineteenth-century Western Europe, it was very common for the up and coming bourgeoisie (industrialists, entrepreneurs) to imitate the nobility. For instance, they began to imitate eating with cutlery and cutting one’s bread with a knife. (There is a story that the nobility in France one day decided collectively to start breaking the bread with one’s hands instead of cutting it, so as to humiliate the bourgeoisie and show that it could never become like the nobility.) Did this practice of imitating the nobility show that the bourgeoisie attributed a higher position to the nobility? In one sense, the bourgeoisie did so: culturally, the nobility was considered ‘noble'; in another sense, they did not: the bourgeoisie often were more affluent and socio-economically more important. Another instance comes from medieval Europe: when Christian monasteries flourished in the middle ages, lay groups began to imitate the monks, adopt all kinds of practices from them and live ascetically like them. Did this show that the monks were given a higher position in ‘the hierarchy’? Not really. The churchly hierarchy of priests and bishops held more power; many knights looked down upon the monks; some laymen admired them and thought that the monks were working for the collective salvation of the Christian ecclesia. From such examples and from social psychology in general, we cannot infer some general law that “if one social group adopts practices from another social group or imitates it, this shows that the latter has a higher position than the former.”

So MNS cannot have inferred his account about Sanskritization and castes rising to higher positions from social psychology or the general laws of social psychology across cultures and societies.


3. If neither empirical data nor social-scientific theorizing could ever bring one to the story about Sanskritization, how then can we explain that MNS found it cogent and many Indians and westerners until this day find it extremely plausible? One part of the story is that he presupposed the existence of the caste hierarchy with Brahmins at the top and untouchables at the bottom and a flexible range of “middle regions of the hierarchy.” This is not to say that he started out with a well-formulated hypothesis about the caste hierarchy and tried to test it empirically, but that he presupposed the fairly vague classical account on the caste hierarchy as the background framework that structured every description of the ‘facts’ he encountered in his fieldwork. This is clear from his statement that “adoption of the Brahminic way of life by a low caste” is “theoretically forbidden.” Which theory is MNS referring to here? The theory of the caste system as it was and is held by different jatis in India or by the Brahmins or the so-called “upper castes”? There is no such theory to be found. Such a “theory” was developed by European scholars reflecting on their experience of Indian society: they linked some fragments of texts like the Manusmriti to certain descriptions of practices and groups in Indian society and constructed the “theory” of the caste system, which projects a hierarchy with certain ‘rules’.

It is only when one presupposes this caste hierarchy that it becomes self-evident that castes could climb on the hierarchical ladder by adopting the “Brahminic way of life” and “Sanskritizing” themselves. In fact, Srinivas’ story about Sanskritization merely inverts the old Orientalist story about the way in which Brahmanism spread and the ‘Aryan people’ subjugated the aboriginal inhabitants of the subcontinent. This nineteenth-century story claims that the ‘Aryan’ or ‘Brahmanical people’ used the caste system to absorb all aboriginal and Dravidian peoples into the basic structure of Brahmanism, while allowing these groups to retain their old beliefs. Thus, the ‘Aryan Brahmins’ established their authority and superiority in Indian society. In this process, the aboriginal and Dravidian groups are supposed to have adopted the basic beliefs of Brahmanism and thus accepted the lower positions in the caste system. It would take us too far to go into the development and background assumptions of this European story about India, but it does raise some questions about MNS’ often-lauded creativity in developing the notion of Sanskritization. His creativity consisted of inverting an old Orientalist story and selecting and interpreting his empirical data in such a way that they seemed to provide foundations for this story.

The Secular State and Religious Conflict: Liberal Neutrality and the Indian Case of Pluralism

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Journal of Political Philosophy. Authored by SN Balagangadhara and Jakob De Roover. For an alternative paradigm for studying India, Indian culture and Indian culture, study Balagangadhara’s Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, published by OUP, India.

There are few places in the contemporary world where the problems of cultural pluralism are as acute as they are in India. The Indian case poses fundamental challenges to the political theory of toleration. By tackling the problem of religious conversion, our analysis shows that the dominant way of conceiving state neutrality becomes untenable in the Indian context. The Indian state, modelled after the liberal democracies in the West, is the harbinger of religious conflict in India because of its conception of toleration and state neutrality. More of ‘secularism’ in India will end up feeding what it fights: the so-called ‘Hindu fundamentalism’.

The Participants and the Issues

In the Indian debate on the Hindu-Muslim conflict, three parties claim to offer a solution. The secularists argue the need for a secular state in India; the Hindu nationalists or advocates of Hindutva plead the case for a Hindu state; and the anti-secular Gandhians claim that the Indian culture has the resources to handle the question of religious pluralism. For the sake of argument and convenience, we will divide these parties into two groups, viz. secularists and anti-secularists.

On the one hand, there are the proponents of secularism: they propose that the Hindus and the Muslims (and the other communities) should accept a common framework of secular law. This framework claims neutrality with respect to all religions. The position of secularism in India is generally associated with the ideas of her first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who once said that “no state can be civilised except a secular state.”[1] The Indian secularists defend a position well-known to political theory: the obligation of religious neutrality of a liberal state.

On the other hand, there are the opponents of secularism: they refuse to accept the western theories about the religiously neutral state and offer an alternate system of traditional values. The different communities, they feel, should accept this system as the common framework. Its fundamental principle is the equality of religions: since all religions are incomplete manifestations of a supreme truth, all of them are equal. This group consists of the advocates of Hindutva on the one side and the Gandhian anti-secularists on the other. Although significant differences exist between these two parties, they agree on one issue: in India, politics should not be separated from religion because Hinduism yields a more tolerant politics than western secularism. One of the Hindutva spokesmen voices a widespread opinion when he says that ‘Hindu secularism’ is superior to western secularism:

… [A]ll through the history, the Hindu state has been secular. All Hindu rulers were expected to live up to the ideal of ‘Sarva Panth Sama Bhava‘ in their dealings with the people. This concept of ‘equal respect for all panths or ways of worship’ is a positive concept with a much wider and broader meaning than what is conveyed by the concept of secularism as accepted in the West.[2]

Or, to let the most distinguished among the Gandhian anti-secularists, Ashis Nandy, explain the moral of his story:

…[I]t is time to recognize that, instead of trying to build religious tolerance on the good faith or the conscience of a small group of de-ethnicized, middle-class politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals, a far more serious venture would be to explore the philosophy, the symbolism, and the theology of tolerance in the faiths of the citizens and hope that the state systems in South Asia may learn something about religious tolerance from everyday Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, or Sikhism rather than wish that ordinary Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs will learn tolerance from the various fashionable secular theories of statecraft.[3]

The anti-secularists challenge the belief that different religious communities can live together in a society only within the framework of a religiously neutral state. Thus, the debate revolves around one of the basic tenets of the contemporary theories of toleration, viz. the belief that state neutrality is necessary for a peaceful and viable plural society.

One should not reduce the clash between secularism and anti-secularism to a clash between a tolerant, progressive left and an intolerant, conservative right. Instead, it is a clash between two frameworks both claiming to provide a solution to the problem of conflicts between the different communities in Indian society. Both parties agree on the objective of a peacefully diverse society. Both allow people to worship in whichever way they prefer and to whatever god(s) they prefer. Both allow the followers of the various religions to visit their mosques, churches, gurudwaras, temples, or stay home. Both allow people to believe in one God, or in three or five thousand gods or claim that there is no God. If there is agreement on these issues, what then is the clash about?

We would like to address this question by taking up the issue of religious conversion. Hindutva wants a ban on conversion in India. It feels that the state should enact a law constraining the proselytising drive of Christianity and Islam. This proposal is anathema to the secularists, who insist that the state should protect the religious liberty of the individual. Why does Hindutva feel such strong aversion towards religious conversion? One suggestion is that the movement consists of religious fanatics. However, this fails to take into account that many Hindus, hardly illiberal fanatics, hold similar views. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, said at one point that if he had the power to legislate, he would ban all proselytising: “If I had the power and could legislate, I would stop all proselytizing…In Hindu households the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink…”[4] This view is still prevalent among contemporary Gandhians. As Manikam Ramaswami puts it:

In a pluralistic society if people have to live in harmony, one group that believes its assumed form of God is superior and tries to convert the thinking of others will not certainly help. One group trying to impose its views on others based on its unconfirmable assumptions will certainly cause social tension and should not be permitted in a secular society. The pseudo seculars who call it religious freedom to convert, if they apply their mind will understand banning conversion, forced or otherwise, is not a Hindutva agenda; on the other hand not banning conversion is the agenda of the aggressive religions.[5]

While the secularists agree with the Muslim and Christian minorities that the latter must be free to proselytise, most of the anti-secularists intend to defend the interests of the Hindus. Hindutva backs a Hindu state; the secularists strive for a secular state, which is neutral towards all religions. As noted, the secularists defend a normative principle of state neutrality. They say that one ought to separate politics from religion because without such a separation, the state cannot treat all religions in a neutral or symmetric manner. The secularists offer several rationales and, together, these bring them to the belief “that secularism in India, as elsewhere, is indispensable.”[6] Our questions are these: Could the Indian state remain neutral on the issue of religious conversion? If yes, what would neutrality mean in the Indian context?

1. The Four Premises of a Secular State

Religious conversion is a problem in India when Islam or Christianity tries to convert people from Hinduism. That is to say, it is not an issue of converting Muslims into Christianity or the other way round, but one of converting Hindus into either of the two. If the secular state has to be religiously neutral, it must have a symmetrical attitude toward all religious conversions and not favour one type of conversion above another. That is, it must treat conversions between the Semitic religions and from Hinduism to the Semitic religions in the same way, namely, as conversions between different religions. In that case, it confronts the following problem. Are the Semitic religions and the Hindu traditions phenomena of the same kind? A religiously neutral state has to assume a positive answer to this question, if it has to treat Hinduism and the Semitic religions symmetrically. However, this assumption has no warrant. If anything, the prima facie evidence points to the falsity of this assumption. A random selection of claims put across by the students of the Hindu traditions ought to suffice in this context.

In the second of the multi-volume Historia Religionum, an Indian, talking about Hinduism, says that

Hinduism can hardly be called a religion in the popularly understood sense of the term. Unlike most religions, Hinduism does not regard the concept of god as being central to it…Hinduism does not venerate any particular person as its sole prophet or as its founder. It does not…recognize any particular book as its absolutely authoritative scripture.[7]

Similar thoughts occur in a handbook written by experts in the area, aimed at a more general public:

Hinduism displays few of the characteristics that are generally expected of a religion. It has no founder, nor is it prophetic. It is not credal, nor is any particular doctrine, dogma or practice held to be essential to it. It is not a system of theology, nor a single moral code, and the concept of god is not central to it. There is no specific scripture or work regarded as being uniquely authoritative and, finally, it is not sustained by an ecclesiastical organization. Thus it is difficult to categorize Hinduism as ‘religion’ using normally accepted criteria.[8]

Indeed. The problem is not confined to Hinduism. Collins, a Buddhologist, is not sanguine about Buddhism either. Speaking of the mistake of using emic categories of Christian thought, as though they were etic categories of description and analysis in the academic study of religions, Collins adds in parentheses, “perhaps the most pervasive example of this is the concept of ‘religion’ itself.”[9]

Citations like the above could be multiplied indefinitely, but we trust the point is made. There are prima facie grounds to suspect that the Hindu traditions and the Semitic religions are phenomena of different kinds. Nevertheless, without providing arguments to the contrary, the secular state assumes that the Semitic religions and the Hindu traditions are instances of the same kind. Students of religion almost routinely make such remarks as the above and go on to study the Hindu and Buddhist traditions as ‘religions’ of a different kind. We need not discuss here whether their attempts are satisfactory or not.[10] The point is that no student of religion is willing or able to argue that Hinduism and the Semitic religions are phenomena of the same kind. Consequently, the onus is on those who want to argue that these two phenomena are instances of the same kind. In other words, the secular state cannot assume the opposite of ‘scientific wisdom’ without compelling arguments.

However, there is one story or one compelling argument that opposes ‘scientific wisdom’. It comes from the theologies of the Semitic religions. Let us recount the simplest version of that story. There was once a religion, the true and universal one, which was the divine gift to humankind. The (Biblical) God installs a sense or spark of divinity in all races (and individuals). During the course of human history, this sense is corrupted. Idolatry, worship of the Devil (viz., the false god and his minions) was to be the lot of humankind until (the Biblical) God spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and led their tribe back onto the true path. Of course, it is possible that this story is true; after all, those who follow these religions do believe in its truth. Is this enough for a secular state to accept the truth of this claim? In answering this question, the secular state cannot be neutral. The choices are but two: (a) the state accepts some variant of the above theological story and treats Hinduism and the Semitic religions as phenomena of the same kind; or (b) it gives in to the prima facie difference, and (in the absence of better arguments) treats the Semitic religions and the Hindu traditions as phenomena of a different kind.

Religions as Rivals

Abstractly speaking, the freedom to convert people into some religion or the other might indicate the presence of a ‘desirable’ value in a society, namely, the value of the freedom of religious expression. What such a value logically presupposes, in any case, is the truth of the assumption that these religions are rival movements. This is a factual assumption, whose factual nature can be brought to light by noticing that no logical difficulties are created if we assume the existence of multiple religions without postulating that they also compete with each other. However, this factual assumption requires justification because history tells us the opposite.

It is a matter of historical fact that Christianity and Islam have been rivals, wherever and whenever they met each other. Could we say the same about the contact between the Hindu traditions and these religions? A Protestant writer from the late eighteenth century, drawing upon the work of François Bernier, the seventeenth-century French merchant and explorer, reports the following:

When the Brahmins have been pressed by the arguments of the Christians, that their law could only be observed in their own country, on account of its peculiar ordinances, their answer has been uniform, ‘that God had only made it for them, and therefore they did not admit into it strangers; that they pretended not that Christianity was false; and since God could make many roads to heaven, it was not thence to be presumed that their religion was mere fable and invention’.[11]

Or as a Hindu Brahmin of coastal Tamil Nadu assured Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, a Lutheran missionary, during the early eighteenth century:

I believe all you say of God’s Dealings with you White Europeans, to be true; but his Appearances and Revelations among us Black Malabarians, have been quite otherwise: And the Revelations he made of himself in this Land are as firmly believ’d here to be true, as you believe those made in your Country: For as Christ in Europe was made Man; so here our God Wischtnu was born among us Malabarians; And as you hope for Salvation through Christ; so we hope for Salvation through Wischtnu; and to save you one way, and us another, is one of the Pastimes and Diversions of Almighty God.[12]

The famous Muslim traveller to India, Alberuni, also noted the absence of religious rivalry among the Hindus in the eleventh century: “On the whole, there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves; at the utmost, they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy.”[13] Although Alberuni continued to say that the Hindus directed their fanaticism against foreigners, it was clear that the Hindus did not do so because they considered the latter to be propagators of false religion. In fact, an analysis of Hindu Sanskrit sources on the Muslims from the eighth to the fourteenth century reveals that “the construction of the other is made neither in religious nor in territorial terms; in other words, although the term dharma is used in the sense of religion, the Muslims are not projected as a community practising a religion which is the antithesis of recognized religious practices.”[14] Thus, traditionally, the Hindus did not even identify the Muslims along religious lines, let alone consider them as religious rivals.

In other words, the Hindu traditions refused to accept that theirs was false ‘religion’ and that Christianity or Islam was the true one. Nor were they willing to say that Christianity or Islam was false. They merely maintained that these traditions could co-exist without competing with each other as rivals. This is the Hindu view of the matter. The Semitic religions, on the other hand, advance the claim that they and the Hindu traditions are competing or rival movements. Between these two positions, again, there is no neutral ground: (a) the Semitic religions and the Hindu traditions are competitors with respect to each other, or (b) they are not. The secular state has to choose between these two logically exclusive premises as well.

Religion and the Question of Truth

Consider the following two propositions about religious truth: (a) religion revolves around the truth of its doctrine; (b) the predicates ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ do not apply to human traditions. These views have been held by two different kinds of groups: the Semitic religions that Christianity and Islam are; and the ‘pagan’ traditions of the Antiquity and the Hindu Indians.

On the one hand, Christianity and Islam claim that because they are the unique revelations of (the Biblical) God to humankind, they are true. They believe that there is one true God, who is the creator and sovereign of the universe. Everything that happens in the universe expresses His will or purpose. In other words, (this Biblical) God has a plan, and the universe is the embodiment of this plan. According to each of these religions, their respective doctrine is the true self-disclosure in which (this Biblical) God reveals His will or plan to humankind. Only through a genuine belief in this doctrine and in a total surrender to this Divine Will can human beings hope for salvation.

A random citation, from an epistle said to have been composed around 124 C.E., the period of the Apostolic Fathers, illustrates how Christians described their religion from the very beginning. In The Epistle to Diognetus, purporting to be a “reply to an inquiring heathen’s desire for information about the beliefs and customs of Christians,” an anonymous writer explains:

The doctrines they (the Christians) profess is not the invention of busy human minds and brains, nor are they, like some, adherents of this or that school of human thought. As I said before, it is not an earthly discovery that has been entrusted to them. The thing they guard so jealously is no product of mortal thinking, and what has been committed to them is the stewardship of no human mysteries. The Almighty Himself, the Creator of the universe, the God whom no eye can discern, has sent down His very own Truth from heaven, His own holy and incomprehensible Word, to plant it among men and ground it in their hearts.[15]

Naturally, this self-description also carries with it a description of the other. Other religions are heresies, false religions, or idolatry and the worship of the devil. After living thirty years among the Hindus in the ‘headquarters’ of Hinduism, viz., Benares, this is how Reverend M. A. Sherring formulated the issue in the nineteenth century:

(Here) idolatry is a charm, a fascination, to the Hindu. It is, so to speak, the air he breathes. It is the food of his soul. He is subdued, enslaved, befooled by it. The nature of the Hindu partakes of the supposed nature of the gods whom he worships. And what is that nature? According to the traditions handed about amongst the natives, and constantly dwelt upon in their conversation, and referred to in their popular songs – which perhaps would be sufficient proof – yet more especially according to the numberless statements and narratives found in their sacred writings, on which these traditions are based, it is, in many instances, vile and abominable to the last degree. Idolatry is a word denoting all that is wicked in imagination and impure in practice. Idolatry is a demon – an incarnation of all evil – but nevertheless bewitching and seductive as a siren. It ensnares the depraved heart, coils around it like a serpent, transfixes it with its deadly fangs, and finally stings it to death.[16]

All these traditions are nothing but the attempts of the false god to deceive the gullible and to corrupt the true religion.[17] Thus, the Semitic view has it that religion revolves around the crucial question of the truth and falsity of a set of doctrines.

On the other hand, there is the pagan self-description, as evidenced both in the Hindu traditions and in the religio of the Ancient Romans. These self-descriptions see the various traditions as a human search for ‘truth’, and they see the different religions as paths in this ongoing quest. As Gandhi writes: “Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?”[18] Or in the famous words of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, the last pagan prefect of Rome: “Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices…What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.”[19]Though there are many differences between the Ancient Roman pagans and today’s Hindus, they share a common attitude which distinguishes them from Christians and Muslims alike. They do not approach the diversity of human traditions in terms of doctrinal truth.

In the pagan view, there is no one true God opposing whom stand many false gods. There are different ‘deities'; there are different stories about them; different traditions differentiate communities from one another. Although this view might countenance the belief of the followers of the Semitic religions, it cannot but see this as the story of some particular traditions. That is, it inevitably transforms the revelation of the Biblical God into another human avenue. Let us assume that both the pagans and the Christians are in agreement with the premise that ‘all things in human affairs are doubtful, uncertain, and unsettled’. By virtue of this, religions also share this attribute, say the pagans. Their religion does not, say the Christians, because it is the truth itself, as revealed by the Divine mind. Better put: the religions of Antiquity were false religions because they were inventions of “busy human minds,” whereas Christianity was the Truth because none other than (the Biblical) God entrusted stewardship of His truth to the Christians. In other words, Christians opposed their true religion to the false religiones of the Roman period and later to the ‘pagan idolatry’ of the Hindus.

To most Hindus, on the contrary, the question of ‘truth’ in tradition does not even make sense. The Hindu practices generally revolve around a series of puja rituals and traditional stories about Shiva, Krishna, Rama, Kali, Durga and other devatas or ‘deities’. In the same way as it does not make sense to inquire whether the western practice for men to wear trousers is true or false, so is it a category mistake to pose truth questions about human traditions in general, from the Hindu perspective. This incomprehension towards the notion of ‘religious truth’ has given rise to the claim that Hindus look at the truth of religions in a different way. The Hindu view does involve the ascription of truth-predicates to religions, it is said, but in a ‘pluralist’ manner: ‘all religions are true’. However, it is unclear what it means for truth to be conceived pluralistically.[20] More importantly, this attribution of a pluralistic notion of religious truth to the Hindus threatens to turn them into beings who lack the basic capacity of consistent reasoning. If all religions are true, both Christian and Islamic doctrine have to be true at the same time. This claim then entails that Hindus fail to see that one religious doctrine which claims that God is both Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that Jesus Christ is the son of God stands in contradiction to another which asserts that God is one and cannot have a son who is both divine and human.

In contrast, our explanation avoids transforming Hindus into logical cretins. It agrees that, today, English-educated Hindus have learnt to talk in terms of ‘religion’ and ‘truth’. Historically, the pagan traditions have generally tried to make sense of the Judeo-Christian claims about ‘religious truth’ from their traditional perspective. The result is the often-repeated claim that ‘all religions are true’. This does not reflect a peculiar notion of religious truth, but an attempt to translate the attitude of one culture into the language of another. Even though Hindus have discussed ‘truth’ in Indian languages also, this ‘truth’ appears to be of a completely different kind than the doctrinal truth claimed by the Semitic religions. Until we have a clear insight into its nature, it is best to stress that the Hindu view does not see the different traditions of humanity as either true or false.

Conversion is possible from the false to the true only if one assumes that both the traditions of Antiquity and Christianity opposed each other with respect to truth and falsity. This holds not only regarding the traditions from the Antiquity but also with respect to the Hindu traditions of today. Consequently, the secular state that allows for the possibility of conversion is compelled to choose between the following: (a) both the Hindu traditions and the Semitic religions are epistemic candidates with respect to truth and falsity; (b) or they are not.

Proselytisation versus Non-Interference

The Semitic self-description contains a universal truth claim, which gives rise to a dynamic of proselytisation. When (the Biblical) God reveals His plan, it covers the whole of humankind. Those who receive this revelation should try to convert the others into accepting the message in this divine self-disclosure. That is, proselytizing is an intrinsic drive of Islam and Christianity. The pagan view, on the contrary, implies that every ‘religion’ is a tradition – i.e., a specific set of ancestral practices – characterising a human community. The traditions are upheld not because they contain some exclusive truth binding the believer to God, but because they make some community into a community. Any attempt at interfering with the tradition of a community from the outside will be seen as illegitimate, since all traditions are part of the human quest for truth. We can again turn to the pagan prefect Symmachus’s justly famous letter to the Christian Emperor Valentinian II:

Grant, I beg you, that what in our youth we took over from our fathers, we may in our old age hand on to posterity. The love of established practice is a powerful sentiment…Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians…If long passage of time lends validity to religious observances, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, we ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing. …And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same.[21]

Given this opposition between proselytisation and non-interference, consider the situation in India. Here, citizen is a Hindu who endorses the pagan claim that all traditions are part of a human quest for truth; while citizens y and z are a Muslim and a Christian respectively, who believe that their religion is the true revelation of (the Biblical) God, while all other ‘traditions’ are false religions. This situation involves a deep conflict of values. The value of non-interference is central to the tradition of citizen x and it is unethical for him to allow Muslims and Christians to interfere in the traditions of human communities. Thus, he opposes conversion. At the same time, the value of proselytisation is central to the religions of citizen y and z. They have to propagate the true message and show to the adherents of other ‘traditions’ that they are practicing idolatry, the greatest sin according to these religions. Since non-compliance implies that they disobey (the Biblical) God’s will, it would be profoundly immoral not to spread this message and try to save the heathens or the kafirs from eternal damnation. Thus, they strongly feel conversion ought to be allowed.

How can the Indian state be neutral with respect to the attitudes of the citizens xy and z? Either the state agrees with citizen x that ‘religion’ is a human quest, no ‘religion’ could be false, and, therefore, ban conversion; or it will have to agree with citizens y and z that religions could be the revelation of (the Biblical) God, therefore, some ‘religions’ could be false, and thus allow for conversion. In other words, the secular state has to choose between the following two premises: (a) no religion could be false or (b) some religion(s) could be false. There is no neutral ground between these two logically exclusive premises.

These aspects of the Semitic religions and the pagan traditions—namely, proselytisation and non-interference—are bound to collide in a society where the Semitic religions encounter pagan traditions as a living force. This is exactly what is happening in India today. Though a growing number of Hindus speaks in such terms, the widespread discontent about conversion is not generally caused by the fear that the whole of India will become Christian or Muslim. Some groups may take this scenario seriously, but it does not explain the equally strong aversion towards conversion among those who do not. Many reasonable minds, who do not see an imminent threat of India becoming an Islamic country, still consider religious conversion to be a violation of the social fabric, for it goes straight against the traditional Hindu stance of non-interference.

The anti-secularist movement has adopted the pagan view of the Hindu traditions, and this implies that one community should not interfere in the tradition of another. Naturally, the proselytizing drive and the exclusive truth-claims of Islam and Christianity become extremely problematic in a society where non-interference has the force of self-evidence. The pagan view about the traditions of human communities explains why the Hindutva movement and the Gandhians argue for a ban on conversion. The secularists reply that such a measure would simply make a principle of the Hindus into a ‘religious rule’ to be followed by all others, while a truly neutral framework should allow the Muslim and Christian minorities to propagate and spread their religion. The secularists are not as neutral as they think they are. Their plea for conversion indicates that they have made their choice.

Let us now summarise the four choices the Indian secular state has to make. (a) The ‘Hindu traditions’ and the ‘Semitic religions’ are phenomena of the same kind, or they are not. (b) As such, they are religious rivals, or they are not. (c) As rivals, they compete with each other regarding truth or falsity, or they do not. (d) They can do that because some religion is false, or they cannot because no religion is false. In each of the four cases, these claims are those of the Semitic religions and the Hindu traditions respectively. Each of these assumptions carves the universe up into two exhaustive partitions, because, in each case, one statement is the logical negation of the other. So, what should a liberal state do in such a situation? What choices are open to it, if it wants to remain neutral and secular?

2. The Liberal Choices

In the context of ethics and normative political theory, one could conceivably [22] endorse Kant’s famous dictum “ought implies can.” That is, if a normative system prescribes some moral rule or another, this implies that human beings or institutions are able to follow that particular rule. If we accept this principle while framing our account of state neutrality, the proposition that the state ought to be neutral implies that the state can be neutral. Thus, on this construal, liberal neutrality is obligatory only if the state can be neutral toward the different religious and cultural traditions in a society. However, the choices that the Indian state confronts are logically exclusive. Furthermore, each term in the different choices represents a different point of view: the Semitic or the pagan, which means to say that the state cannot choose between these alternatives without sacrificing the very principle of state neutrality. However, the Kantian dictum, that the ‘ought’ logically implies the ‘can’, generates the following valid theorem: the ‘cannot’ logically implies the ‘ought not’. This means that the Indian state ought not to be neutral with respect to religious conversion in India because it cannot be neutral.

The above statement is odd, to put it mildly. We can bring the ‘oddness’ to light by formulating it as a logical statement: with respect to religious conversions, if a liberal state ought to remain neutral, and if the Indian state ought to be a liberal and neutral state, then the Indian state can be neutral. However, the Indian state cannot be neutral on this issue. Therefore, either (a) a liberal state ought not to remain neutral or (b) the Indian state ought not to be liberal and neutral or (c) both. We can eliminate the choices (a) and (c) rather quickly: the obligation of state neutrality with respect to religious conversion is a cornerstone of liberal political theory. Consequently, there is only one choice left: with respect to religious conversions, theories of state neutrality oblige the Indian state not to be liberal and neutral.

The validity of the above argument requires that at least one of the following is true. (a) The relation between ‘ought’ and ‘can’ is one of logical implication; (b) some particular interpretation of the notions ‘liberal’ and ‘neutral’ leads us to the above conclusion. Some logicians differentiate between ‘logical’ and ‘deontological’ implications, and suggest that the Kantian dictum is about deontological implication.[23] Consequently, one reason for the ‘oddness’ might have to do with the confusion between logical and deontological implications. Nevertheless, it is an empirical truth that theories of state neutrality have hitherto obliged the Indian state not to be neutral. The post-independent Indian state implemented a series of reforms to ‘the Hindu religion and its law’, while it did not interfere with Islam and Christianity.[24] This suggests that some interpretation of ‘neutrality’ and ‘liberalism’ is at stake here. We think this to be the case. Theories of state neutrality that interpret this notion to mean neutrality of justification force us to compromise the notion of a neutral and liberal state. Such interpretations either generate odd conclusions or try to defend indefensible positions.

Neutrality of Justification

Andrew Mason formulates an often made distinction between two kinds of state neutrality as follows:

Neutrality of justification requires that the state should not include the idea that one conception of the good is superior to another as part of its justification for pursuing a policy. Neutrality of effect, in contrast, requires that the state should not do anything which promotes one conception of the good more than another, or if it does so, that it must seek to cancel or compensate for these differential effects.[25]

Is it possible for the Indian state to have a neutral justification of its policy towards conversion, if we assume that it permits religious conversion as a part of the freedom of religious expression? Could it justify this choice in a neutral manner? As we have seen, in order to decide about conversion, the Indian state has to make four choices. If it chooses between them, it chooses for some specific conception of the good, whether pagan or Semitic. Then there is no possibility of neutrality of justification. However, if there is a possibility for the state to suspend its judgement about the truth-value of the statements, then it can play the agnostic with respect to the choices and remain neutral. In other words, could the state plead truth-indeterminacy with respect to these choices?

In a very trivial sense, it is possible to play the agnostic because one could plead ignorance with respect to the truth-value of any knowledge-claim. However, if the state pleads ignorance on some issue, it cannot legislate about the same issue. It cannot play the agnostic and feign ignorance about the question as to whether or not religion revolves around truth, for this would imply it cannot even begin to legislate about the phenomenon of religious conversion. Ignorance about a phenomenon can never be a grounds for legislation, since one would not even know what to legislate about. Any legislation regarding religion presupposes some knowledge about this phenomenon. Where it concerns the issue of religious conversion, the knowledge on the basis of which one legislates will inevitably contain either a denial or a confirmation of the claim that religion is a matter of truth.

The Indian state has made provisions in its constitution about the freedom of religion that includes the issue of conversion: Article 25 of the Indian Constitution states that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.” This has generally been interpreted to mean the following: “…[I]n the context of secularism and religious pluralism conversions are legitimate, well within the Constitutional provisions, and entirely a personal affair of the citizens…”[26] From this, it follows that the Indian state has taken a stance on these issues. It endorses the belief that religion revolves around doctrinal truth.

More proof is available. The secular state in India and elsewhere puts certain legal restrictions on religious conversion. Most importantly, it prohibits all forms of coercion in conversion. It says that religious conversion can take place by means of persuasion alone. But if one takes conversion from one religion to another to be a matter of persuasion, one must presuppose that religion involves the question of doctrinal truth. One can be persuaded to convert only in so far as one accepts the truth of one religion as opposed to the falsity of another. Therefore, the secular state’s restriction on religious conversion again reveals it has taken a position on the question whether or not religion is a matter of truth. It may not accept the truth claims of any one particular religion, but it does assume that religion revolves around truth claims. This conclusion shows that the failure to be neutral towards the issue of conversion is not specific to the Indian secularists. It is a general malfunction of the neutrality of the model of liberal secularism. Even when its theorists take a critical attitude towards proselytisation, they reproduce the theological assumption that religion revolves around truth and therefore support a principle of religious freedom that entails the freedom to convert.

The Liberal State and Religious Truth

Admittedly, not all forms of liberalism—e.g. John Stuart Mill’s advocacy of liberty—emphasise the necessity of state neutrality. Therefore, one cannot conflate liberalism and neutrality. But all forms of liberalism do agree that a state should not base its policies in any one religion, because this would violate principles such as religious liberty and the equal rights of all citizens. In the case of conversion, it appears the liberal state cannot but implement a policy which either presupposes Semitic theology or the pagan stance towards religion and tradition. Hence, it will fail to grant equal rights to all citizens, since the notion of religious liberty itself is disputed. To one group, it implies the freedom to convert; to the other, freedom from conversion. Could not the Indian state merely subscribe to the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and follow the examples of the western democracies? Surely, one could argue, what works for the western democracies should also work for the Indian polity.

Looking at the theory and practice of state neutrality in the European democracies, we can say the following. In principle, a state can be atheistic, theistic or agnostic, and yet remain liberal and neutral. As long as people enjoy the freedom of religious expression (used in the broadest sense here), and all religious groups are treated symmetrically, it does not matter much what the sovereign or the constitution declares the state to be. Of course, one might prefer an agnostic state to an openly atheistic or theistic state, but that cannot automatically lead us to question the neutrality of the state. Therefore, one could say that a symmetric treatment of all religions and the freedom of religious expression of the citizens are necessary conditions for the existence and functioning of a liberal state.[27]

More important for our purposes is the prevailing agreement. While a theist admittedly believes in the truth of his religion, the atheist believes that no religious claim is true. The agnostic suspends judgement about the truth-value of specific religious claims because of a confessed epistemic inability to ascertain their truth. Despite their differences, they share the premise that religion involves the question of truth. This is a factual premise of the liberal state. That is to say, the very possibility of a state being neutral with respect to religions hinges on the issue of whether or not religions involve the question of truth. In other words, although the liberal state ought not to make decisions about the truth of religions, it must decide whether religion itself is a matter of truth. We claim that the western liberal, neutral states have historically so decided.

When Christianity underwent divisions (to speak only of western Christianity), the Catholics and the Protestants came up with competing truth claims. They defined the terms of the debate as a discussion about true and false religions. Islam and Judaism do the same as well. Whether they accuse each other of being false religions or merely that the others are deficient in worshipping (the Biblical) God, the point is that each of them advances the claim that their beliefs are true. Further, as histories tell us, this way of framing the issue retained its stability when they met with traditions elsewhere: Judaism and Christianity called the Roman religiones false; Islam and Christianity did the same with respect to the Hindu traditions many years later. A liberal state can remain neutral with respect to the competing truth claims of each and every of these religions. That is, the notion of state neutrality can be made sense of by saying that where there are competing ‘truth claims’, one does not assume a pro-stance with respect to any one of them. However, this does not preclude the liberal state from accepting that religion is a matter of truth. The western democracies have accepted this position, as history testifies.

The claim that religion is a matter of truth is not an epistemological thesis about the beliefs present in different religions. Instead, it is a theological meta-claim advanced by each of the Semitic religions about itself. When each is convinced that it is the truth and the rest are false, and each of them explicitly states that the difference between truth and falsity constitutes the difference between salvation and damnation, then each one of them is asserting not only that its beliefs are true but should also be so believed. And, therefore, that religion is a matter of either truth or falsity. The liberal state in the West has accepted a Semitic theological meta-claim as its factual assumption. It is able to play the agnostic with respect to the truth-value of religious claims because it shares the Semitic beliefs about religions.

Could not a liberal state be ‘agnostic’ with respect to the issue of truth itself? At first blush, it seems as though such a possibility exists. However, what does it mean to say that a liberal state ought to be an agnostic with respect to the issue of truth? It could mean that the state is unable to say which of the competing religions is true. Such an attitude presupposes that the state believes that ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ are sensible predicates with respect to religion. As we have said, this is Semitic theology and there is nothing neutral about it. Alternately, it could mean that the state does not take a stance with respect to the issue whether religion itself is a question of truth. In that case, how does the state respond to the issue of conversion, and the ‘freedom’ to proselytise? The only option, if the state wants to play the agnostic, is to remove the entire issue from the sphere of legislation and let the communities decide about it. But then the state can neither interfere with religious violence nor strive to reduce religious conflict. Such a state will have to remain ‘neutral’ with respect to religious violence and religious freedom. Because the western liberal democracies endorse religious toleration and legislate about the issue, quite obviously, they are not playing the agnostic. As we said, they cannot be playing the agnostic because they have presumed that religious truth is cognitive in nature, and that, for example, coercion is not the way for a religion to persuade people of its truth.

Consequently, the Indian state cannot merely follow the example of western democracies and hope to remain ‘neutral’. It cannot play the agnostic and yet legislate about religious freedom. It confronts choices, which the western democracies never had to face.

The Secular State and Religious Violence

The framers of the Indian constitution took over the theory of liberal state as it emerged in the West and tried to transplant it into the Indian soil. In the process, they also endorsed the theological claim that religion is an issue of truth. While such a stance makes sense in a culture where the problem of religious tolerance arises because of the competing truth claims of the Semitic religions, it does not do the same in another cultural milieu where the pagan traditions are a living force. Consequently, the Indian state is subject to contradictory demands. It must look at the Hindu traditions the way the Semitic religions do, as we have argued, while simultaneously playing the ‘agnostic’ with respect to the issue whether religion itself is a matter of truth. The first impels it to legislate on the issue of conversion; the second compels it to remain ‘neutral’ and let the communities decide. The first stance results in violence generated and sustained by the state; the second stance forces the involved communities to solve this problem on their own. The first attitude results in forcing the interaction between the Semitic religions and the pagan traditions to take the form of religious rivalry; the second forces the state to withdraw.

Let us begin with the colonial state, whose foundations are also those of the modern Indian state. An unremitting hostility towards the Hindu traditions sustained the colonial state. Its legislations were meant to curb the superstitions and the cruelty ‘inherent’ in Indian heathendom. Spinning the state policy around the Protestant-Christian criticisms of the Indian religions, the colonial state created stories about the ‘priests’ of the Indian religions, the nature of Hindu temples, the reactionary role that Indian ‘religions’ played in the evolution of Indian society and such like. The colonial representation of India, which was fundamentally a Protestant description of India, became the guiding mantra of the ‘secular’ politicians of India. Nehru’s withering contempt for the Hindu traditions does not come from his “discovery of India” but from the textbook stories of the colonial power. As he said himself, he came to India via the West to some extent, and therefore he approached her “almost as an alien critic, full of dislike for the present as well as for many of the relics of the past that [he] saw.”[28] The intention and effects of his description could be summarised as systematic attempts to uphold the claim that the Hindu traditions are degenerate, corrupt and in need of transformation. In other words, it upheld the Semitic claim about the inferiority of false religion and therefore wanted “to scrap much of [India’s] past heritage.”[29] The secularism of Nehru and his followers was, quite simply, a negative attitude towards the Hindu traditions. There is nothing ‘neutral’, in any sense of the word, about the Nehruvian ‘secular’ state.

When pursued systematically, such policies are bound to have their impact on society. Eventually, once the seduction of this ‘secularism’ wore off, the representatives of the Hindu traditions began to articulate defence of their own traditions. However, this defence did not take the form of reflections on Hindu traditions and their ability to address the problems of modern society. Instead, it took the inevitable form of defence against attacks, i.e., a militant defence of the Hindu traditions against the ‘secular’ state of the Nehruvian variety.

When looked at from a pagan perspective, there is no religious rivalry between the Hindu traditions and the Semitic religions. However, the opposite is the case when viewed from the perspective of the Semitic religions. When the Indian state assumes the truth of a Semitic theological claim, and further accepts this claim as its own epistemological position, then it actively creates and promotes the religious rivalry between the majority (i.e. those who belong to the Hindu traditions) and the minority (i.e. those who are Muslims and Christians). That is to say, the state creates religious rivalry where there is none (if viewed from the majority perspective). As a matter of state policy, it creates and sustains opposition between religions and traditions. Consequently, it transforms the conflict between different groups into a religious conflict.

In his introduction to an important collection of articles on secularism in India, Rajeev Bhargava writes that many critics of the secular state have reached the following conclusion:

There is perhaps as much, if not greater religious bigotry today than before. Religious minorities continue to feel disadvantaged and often face discrimination. The scale and intensity of religious conflict does not seem to have declined: if anything it has proliferated, touching people who have never known it before. The verdict against secularism appears unequivocal: it failed to realize the objectives for which it was devised.[30]

We disagree with this verdict. The secular state provides a ready-made dress into which social tensions between groups in a society can legitimately fit. The secular state in modern India assumes the truth of a religious perception (even if the perception is that of the minority) without submitting such a perception to any kind of scrutiny. The exacerbation of religious violence does not tell us that secularism failed in India. Its intensity tells us that secularism has been entirely successful in India. The secular state, which the secularists continue to wish for, does not prevent religious conflicts: it actively promotes them.

By forcing the framework of the Semitic religions on the Hindu traditions, the ‘liberal’ state in India is also coercing the communities to solve their internal conflict in a religious manner. That is to say, it is forcing the pagan traditions in India to mould themselves along the lines of the Semitic religions. The growth of the so-called Hindu fundamentalism is a direct result of this coercive straitjacket. Traditions, which never systematically persecuted the other on grounds of religious truth, are forced into a systematic persecution of religions precisely on this basis. When secularists fight ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ by appealing to liberal theory, they feed and strengthen what they intend to fight. It is precisely a liberal ‘secular’ conception that generates the phenomenon of ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ in the pagan Indian culture.

Toleration as a Harbinger of Conflict

Naturally, this theoretical claim requires empirical support also. We will develop an empirical argument in the near future; within the confines of this article we can only sketch its outlines. The British colonial state in India saw religious toleration as one of its basic duties. In 1858, the Queen of England proclaimed the following:

Firmly relying ourselves on the truth of Christianity, and acknowledging with gratitude the solace of religion, we disclaim alike the right and the desire to impose our convictions on any of our subjects. We declare it to be our royal will and pleasure, that none be in anywise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances; but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law.[31]

Inspired by the values of toleration and religious liberty, the colonial state argued that Hindus ought to be left free in the spiritual realm of religion, in the same way as the believers in Europe. No human being, said the principle of Christian freedom, could arrogate the authority of God over human souls and consciences.

The resulting policy, however, systematically compelled the Hindus to prove that a particular practice was founded in ‘the true religious doctrines of Hinduism’. This was the case, because the liberal colonial state would tolerate a practice only if it had been demonstrated to belong to the realm of religion. Thus, in the nineteenth-century controversy over the practice of sati or ‘widow-burning’, the Governor-General in Council decided in 1812 that “The practice…being…recognized and encouraged by the doctrines of the Hindoo religion, it appears evident that he course which the British government should follow, according to the principle of religious toleration…is to allow the practice in those cases in which it is countenanced by their religion…”[32] In the same controversy, a British observer commented that “the true interpretation of the religious law…will no doubt diminish, if not extinguish the desire for self-immolation. The safest way of coming to a right understanding on a point so interesting to humanity, is a rigid investigation of the rules of conduct laid down in the books which are considered sacred by the Hindoos.”[33]Consequently, the orthodox Hindu community began to aggressively defend the practice of self-immolation by demonstrating its foundation in the ‘religious doctrines’ and ‘sacred texts’ of the ‘Hindu religion’.[34]

Following this route, the policy of religious toleration gradually transformed the self-confidence and vibrancy of the Hindu traditions into a fanatical defence of their alleged ‘religious doctrines’. Before the early nineteenth century, the Hindu spokesmen had protected their traditions from the missionary onslaught by pointing to the antiquity of their ancestral practices. Or they insisted that “every one may be saved by his own Religion, if he does what is Good, and shuns Evil,” as a Malabar Brahmin told Ziegenbalg in the early eighteenth century.[35] This changed once the liberal colonial state implemented its policy of religious toleration: now these traditions had to prove that they were proper religions, with their own sacred doctrines, in order to be legitimate. In the same way as its colonial precursor, the secular state of post-independence India has forced the Hindu traditions to identify and stand up for themselves as religious doctrines—variants of Islam and Christianity. The result is the Hindutva movement: a militant attempt to establish the doctrines of ‘Hinduism’ as the superior and dominant form of religion in the Indian society.

Even though it is incomplete, this argument points to a common mistake in the current analysis of ‘the world-wide phenomenon of religious fundamentalism’. As argued in the above, the contemporary liberal framework assumes that the Hindu and other Asian traditions are variants of the same phenomenon as Islam and Christianity, viz. religion. In the same way, the current analysis presupposes that all cultural movements in the contemporary world can be classified into two basic categories: the liberal tolerant movements and their counterparts of religious fundamentalism. When one assumes that all the movements in question—Islamic fanaticism in the Arab world, Christian fundamentalism in the United States, the Hindutva movement in India, violent Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka—are variants of one and the same phenomenon, one’s analysis and research projects will indeed confirm that we confront a worldwide threat of ‘religious fundamentalism’ or ‘religious violence’.[36] However, this does not give us a fruitful understanding of these various movements. It merely shows how the fallacy of petitio principii allows one to uphold a crude conceptual framework, which reduces all cultural movements into variants of either liberal pluralism or religious fundamentalism.

We propose a first step towards an alternative understanding of the so-called ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ in India. When the Indian liberal state accepts the Semitic notion of human traditions as so many competing religious doctrines (which enables it to grant the freedom to convert), and does nothing more, the pagan traditions are forced to defend their value of non-interference by reacting to those who interfere with them. That is to say, when the state actively promotes only the Semitic conception of the good and the pagan communities want to strengthen their conceptions of the good, a conflict between the two is inevitable. This conflict is not only between the pagan communities and the state but also among the communities in society. To the extent that some one particular type of community—namely, those belonging to the Semitic religions—is perceived to enjoy the protection of the state, the conflict could only take the form of opposing the state violence with civic violence. That is to say, the so-called religious violence between communities and the cry to ban religious conversion arise from the ‘neutral’ ‘secular’ policies of the Indian state during the last fifty years or more. The seeds of religious violence are sown by the liberal state; however, it is the communities that harvest them.

3. Can the Indian State be Neutral?

Does all of this mean that state neutrality is impossible in the Indian society? This depends on the kind of neutrality one strives for. It has become clear that a neutrality of justification is logically impossible for the Indian state. This option is not available because (a) the choices of the state are logically exclusive and (b) the state cannot play the agnostic. However, other conceptions of state neutrality exist: neutrality of effect and neutrality of aim, for example. Drawing on Joseph Raz’s formulations of state neutrality, the foremost liberal political theorist of the twentieth century, John Rawls, suggests that neutrality might mean any of the following:

(1) that the state is to ensure for all citizens equal opportunity to advance any conception of the good they freely affirm; (2) that the state is not to do anything intended to favour or promote any particular comprehensive doctrine rather than another, or to give greater assistance to those who pursue it; (3) that the state is not to do anything that makes it more likely that individuals will accept any particular conception rather than another unless steps are taken to cancel, or to compensate for, the effects of policies that do this.[37]

When it legislates in favour of religious conversion, the Indian state cannot live up to the first two principles of neutrality of aim. This policy promotes ‘the comprehensive doctrine’ or ‘conception of the good’ of the Semitic religions at the expense of the Hindu traditions by making the four choices that correspond to the Semitic view. This leaves the third option of neutrality of effect. But this, Rawls claims, is “an impracticable aim,” because

it is surely impossible for the basic structure of a just constitutional regime not to have important effects and influences on which comprehensive doctrines endure and gain adherents over time, and it is futile to try to counteract these effects and influences, or even to ascertain for political purposes how deep and pervasive they are. We must accept the facts of common-sense political sociology.[38]

Thus, the effects of state policy in a liberal regime may well bring about the decline of some religions and their conceptions of the good. We may indeed lament the limited space of social worlds, Rawls continues, but “No society can include within itself all forms of life.”[39] Rawls has in mind cases of minority religions that go against his conception of political justice: e.g. conceptions of the good that require the repression or degradation of certain persons on racial or ethnic grounds or religions that need the control of the state apparatus in order to survive. The predicament becomes somewhat more dramatic in the Indian case. Here, if we accept “the facts of common-sense political sociology” (whatever these may be) and abandon neutrality of effect as “impracticable,” then it simply becomes impossible for the Indian state to be neutral. Neutrality of effect is the only option left for the liberal state in India in the face of the predicament of religious conversion. If it continues its current policy without trying to neutralise the effects, the cultural traditions that do not conceive of religious diversity as a rivalry over truth will continue to decline.

How could the Indian state neutralise the effects of its policy towards religion and conversion? Such a strategy becomes conceivable when we consider a common description of the co-existence among different religious and cultural traditions in the Indian society. Many authors have claimed that a reasonably stable and plural society existed in India, which far surpassed the cultural diversity of the West at any point during its history. This phenomenon of pluralism, it is said, took a shape different from anything known to modern western culture. There were violent clashes, but these never developed into the systematic persecution of some particular tradition or the other. Alongside these clashes, there was a tendency in each of the religious traditions to absorb or adopt elements from the other traditions. Certain saints, festivals and artistic traditions were shared by Hindus, Muslims and Christians. In many parts of India, scholars point out, this kind of positive interaction lives on today.[40]

It remains to be seen how far this picture of traditional Indian pluralism will correspond to a social-scientific theorizing of the same phenomena. It could be pure nostalgia or a naïve conception of societies where Hindus really set the basic rules and compelled others to comply. That is what research will have to show us. Anyway, our contemporary ignorance of the nature of—and the mechanisms behind—this pluralist social structure is tragic, given the fact that it is in fast decline. Social-scientific research should examine the successes and failures of stable diversity in the Indian culture. This research can reveal the mechanisms behind the traditional forms of pluralism and show how they could be stimulated. One thing the Indian state could do in order to neutralise the effects of its policy towards religion is to promote such research projects. It could help create a fertile soil for innovative research into the Indian cultural traditions, including Indian Islam and Indian Christianity, so as to disclose the mechanisms and dynamics that could be stimulated in order to have the Indian pluralism flourish.

In other words, only by actively generating the neutrality of effects could the Indian state hope to become neutral. To give up religious freedom and ban religious conversions is both undesirable and retrograde. It would deny freedom to those groups in India who follow the Semitic religions. Instead of doing this, the Indian state could look elsewhere to become neutral. In response to the economic exigencies of the global market, it has actively stimulated the growth of engineering and allied disciplines. It could do the same with respect to stimulating explorations into the histories and theories of the Indian cultural traditions. The state could make career prospects in such areas exciting, and entice intelligent minds to explore the possibilities of cultural rejuvenation.

At this point, a common misunderstanding may emerge. Let it be clear that we are not in any way suggesting that political structures and processes in India should become ‘faith-based’, ‘theocratic’, or ‘religious’. This understanding of our argument commits a fallacy: it assumes that because we criticise the notion of a liberal secular state in India, we intend to defend its mirror image of a religious or faith-based state. This is neither a logical implication nor a hidden agenda of our argument. Rather we wish to challenge the entire framework of liberal political theory on conceptual grounds. This framework first makes all cultural traditions into variants of a common phenomenon of religion. Then it tends to reduce all political models to an opposition between the impartial and secular versus the partial and religious ones. We contest the framework at two levels. Firstly, in spite of its pretention of neutrality, the liberal model of toleration and state neutrality is itself not a secular, impartial model. In reality, it is a Semitic theological entity which has been dressed up in ‘secular’ philosophical garb.[41] Secondly, the prima facie evidence indicates that the Hindu traditions cannot be variants of the same phenomenon as Islam and Christianity. Hence, the suggestion that an attempt to examine the traditional pluralism of the Indian culture as the source of a potential alternative to the liberal model of toleration is equivalent to the advocacy of faith-based politics misses the point. We do not intend to study the Hindu traditions as a religious doctrine or faith, because this approach captures neither their basic nature nor their distinct structure.[42]

Ultimately, it is not the aim of our argument to prescribe to the Indian state what it should or should not do. We do not even propose that the Indian state is under a moral obligation of neutrality towards the various cultural and religious communities in its society. What we have argued is that the dominant notion of state neutrality of liberal political theory threatens to collapse once it is confronted by a case like the Indian, where pagan traditions and Semitic religions co-exist. The issue of religious conversion shows that neutrality of justification and aim are logically impossible in such a case. Naturally, neutrality could still be possible with regards to different issues. But the fact that the liberal secular state fails to be neutral in an issue as crucial as that of religious conversion indicates that we should re-examine its success while dealing with other problems of the Indian society also—e.g. its controversy about a uniform civil code.

In so far as the normative theory of the liberal state intends to provide a universal model to solve the problem of diversity in society, it is bound to fail, for it suffers from a profound ignorance of the structure of plural societies other than those of the Christian West. Moreover, our analysis has revealed that the dominant conception of the liberal state—’neutral’ and ‘secular’—does not allow space to pagan traditions, which do not conceive of religious diversity as a rivalry of truth claims. Perhaps, as Rawls says, no society can include within itself all forms of life. But when the epistemic premises of the liberal state prevent it from accommodating cultural traditions that form the majority in many Asian countries, it is high time to re-examine the cultural roots and limitations of this particular form of life.


Apffel-Marglin, Frederique. 1999. Secularism, Unicity and Diversity: The Case of Haracandi’s Grove. Pp. 75-93 in V. Das, D. Gupta and P. Uberoi (eds), Tradition, Pluralism and Identity: In Honour of T.N. Madan. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Appleby, R. Scott. 2000. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. New York: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers.

Balagangadhara, S. N. 1994. ‘The Heathen in His Blindness…': Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion. New Delhi: Manohar, 2005.

Balagangadhara, S. N. 2005. ‘How to Speak for the Indian Traditions: An Agenda for the Future.’ Journal of the AmericanAcademy of Religion, 73(4), 987-1013.

Barrow, R.H. (ed & trans). 1973. Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, A.D. 384. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bernier, François. 1671. A Continuation of the Memoires of Monsieur Bernier concerning the Empire of the Great Mogol, Tome III & IV. London.

Bhargava, Rajeev. 1998. Introduction. Pp. 1-28 in R. Bhargava (ed), Secularism and Its Critics. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Burman, J.J. Roy. 2002. Hindu-Muslim Syncretic Shrines and Communities. New Delhi: Mittal.

Chandra, Bipan. 1994. Ideology and Politics in Modern India. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications.

Chatfield, Robert. [1808]1984. Social, Political, Historical & Commercial Review of Hindoostan, From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. New Delhi: Bimla Publishing House.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1998. Secularism and Tolerance. Pp. 345-379 in R. Bhargava (ed), Secularism and Its Critics. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Chattopadhyaya, Brajadulal. 1998. Representing the Other? Sanskrit Sources and the Muslims (Eighth to Fourteenth Century). New Delhi: Manohar.

Collins, Steven. 1988. Monasticism, Utopias and Comparative Social Theory.Religion, 18, 101-135.

Dandekar, R.N. 1971. Hinduism. Pp. 237-345 in E. J. Bleeker and G. Widengren (eds), Historia Religionum: Handbook for the History of Religions, Vol. 2, Religions of the Present. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. 1942. To the Hindus and Muslims. Karachi: Hingorani.

Hasan, Mushirul. 1993. Competing Symbols and Shared Codes: Inter-community Relations in Modern India. Pp. 99-121 in S. Gopal (ed), Anatomy of a Confrontation: Ayodhya and the Rise of Communal Politics in India. London & New Jersey: Zed Books.

Hilpinen, Risto (ed). 1981. Deontic Logic: Introductory and Systematic Readings.Dordrecht: Kluwer Publishers.

Hintikka, Jaakko. 1969. Models for Modalities. Dordrecht: Kluwer Publishers.

Juergensmeyer, M. 2000. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lynch, Michael P. (ed.). 2001. The Nature of Truth: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Madhok, Balraj. 1995. “Secularism: Genesis and Development.” Pp. 110-122 in M. M. Sankhdher (ed), Secularism in India: Dilemmas and Challenges. New Delhi: Deep & Deep Publications.

Majumdar, Jatindra Kumar (ed.). 1988. Raja Rammohun Roy and Progressive Movements in India. Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Mani, Lata. 1986. Production of an Official Discourse on Sati in Early Nineteenth Century Bengal. Economic and Political Weekly, 33 (Review of Women Studies), 32-40.

Mani, Lata. 1989. “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in ColonialIndia.” Pp. 88-126 in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (eds.), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Mason, Andrew D. 1990. Autonomy, Liberalism and State Neutrality. The Philosophical Quarterly, 40(160), 433-452.

Nandy, Ashis. 1998. The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance. Pp. 321-344 in R. Bhargava (ed), Secularism and Its Critics. New Delhi:Oxford University Press.

Narayanan, Vasudha. 2001. The Strains of Hindu-Muslim Relations: Babri Masjid, Music, and Other Areas where the Traditions Cleave. Pp. 159-202 in A. Sharma (ed), Hinduism and Secularism After Ayodhya. Basingstoke: Palgrace.

Nehru, Jawaharlal. [1946]1988. The Discovery of India. New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund & Oxford University Press.

Radhakrishnan, P. 2002. Conversion Politics I & II. The Hindu November 6-7, 2002.

Ramaswami, Manikar. 2002. Is there God and whose God is He? The Hindu October 29, 2002.

Rawls, John. [1988]1999. The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good. Pp. 449-472 in his Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press.

Rawls, John. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sachau, Edward (ed). 2002. Alberuni’s India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws, and Astrology of India about A.D. 1030. New Delhi: Rupa & Co.

Spinner-Halev, Jeff. 2005. Hinduism, Christianity and Liberal Religious Toleration. Political Theory, 33, 28-57.

Staniforth, Maxwell (ed and trans). 1968. Early Christian Writers: The Apostolic Fathers. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Thomas, Terence. 1988. The Impact of Other Religions. Pp. 281-298 in Gerald Parsons (ed.) Religion in Victorian Britain, Vol. 3, Controversies. Manchester:Manchester University Press.

Urwick, W. [1885]1985. India 100 years Ago: The Beauty of Old India Illustrated. London: Bracken Books.

Weightman, Simon. 1984. Hinduism. Pp. 191-236 in J. R. Hinnells (ed), A Handbook of Living Religions. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Ziegenbalg, Bartholomeus. 1719. Thirty Four Conferences Between the Danish Missionaries and the Malabarian Bramans…in the East Indies, Concerning the Truth of the Christian Religion. London.


[1] Cited in Chandra 1994, p. 75.

[2] Madhok 1995, p. 116.

[3] Nandy 1998, p. 338.

[4] Harijan, November 5, 1935.

[5] Ramaswami 2002.

[6] Bhargava 1998, p. 2.

[7] Dandekar 1971, p. 237.

[8] Weightman 1984, p. 191-2.

[9] Collins 1988, p. 103.

[10] See Balagangadhara 1994 for an exhaustive analysis.

[11] Chatfield [1808]1984, p. 324.

[12] Ziegenbalg 1719, p. 14.

[13] Sachau (ed) 2002, p. 3.

[14] Chattopadhyaya 1998, p. 90

[15] In Staniforth 1968, p. 176-8; italics added.

[16] In Urwick [1885]1985, p. 133.

[17] This Christian understanding of the Hindu traditions lives on today. During an oral evidence given before the members of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Religious offences in November 2002, Ramesh Kallidai, speaking on behalf of the Hindu Community, pointed out an article by the Christian Medical Fellowship’s Pastor Juge Ram: ‘There is another example which I recently came upon which may not be incitement to religious hatred, but in our opinion it is vilification and ridiculing the Hindu belief system. This is an article published in July 2000 by the Christian Medical Fellowship and the article was written by Juge Ram who is a convert from Hinduism to Christianity and I quote from his article which was published July 2000 and is at present on their web site. The article says as follows: ‘Hindus are lost and spiritually blind. They are without hope in this world and in the next. Only Christ can release them. Hinduism is a false religion‘. So in our humble opinion we think this is definitely vilification and ridiculing one billion Hindus worldwide who are established in a particular religious system’ (italics added).

Responding to this statement, the Earl of Mar and Kellie, a member of the Select Committee, said ‘Following on the question about the Christian Medical Fellowship, it struck me from what you read out was that they were just making unpleasant statements, to put it mildly, but they were not actually telling any lies about the Hindu religion in the sense that they were not actually putting out any false remarks which were possibly going to distort people and mis-educate them.’ The Minutes of the Select Committee of The House of Lords on Religious Offences in England and Wales – First Report, ( 2112706.htm; italics added; consulted August 8, 2004).

[18] Gandhi 1942, p. 2.

[19] In Barrow 1973, p. 37-41.

[20] See Lynch 2001 for a helpful collection of articles.

[21] In Barrow 1973, 37-41; italics added.

[22] ‘Conceivably’, because not all deontic theories accept this principle.

[23] See, for instance, Jaakko Hintikka’s ‘Deontic Logic and its Philosophical Morals’ in his 1969. See also the articles of Hintikka and several others on the nature of deontic logics in Risto Hilpinen (ed) 1981.

[24] See Chatterjee 1998.

[25] Mason 1990, p. 434.

[26] Radhakrishnan 2002.

[27] No attempt will be made to formulate the necessary conditions more precisely because nothing in our argument revolves around them.

[28] Nehru [1946]1988, p. 50.

[29] Nehru [1946]1988, p. 50.

[30] Bhargava 1998, p. 2; italics added.

[31] Cited in Thomas 1988, p. 287

[32] This statement occurs in a reply from the Governor General in Council to a letter requesting clarity on the official colonial policy towards the practice of self-immolation by widows, in Majumdar (ed), 102.

[33] From an “appreciative notice of Raja Rammohun Roy’s first Tract on Suttee” in the Calcutta Gazette of December 24, 1818.

[34] See Lata Mani’s interesting work on this issue in her 1986 and 1989.

[35] Ziegenbalg 1719, 15.

[36] See Appleby 2000 and Juergensmeyer 2000 for two recent examples.

[37] Rawls [1988]1999, p. 459.

[38] Rawls [1988]1999, pp. 460-1; see also his 1993, pp. 193-4.

[39] Rawls [1988]1999, p. 462.

[40] On this traditional Indian form of pluralism see Apffel-Marglin 1999; Burman 2002; Hasan 1993; Narayanan 2001.

[41] See Jeff Spinner-Halev’s interesting piece on ‘Hinduism, Christianity and Liberal Religious Toleration’ which presents a related argument.

[42] For theoretical proof for this claim see Balagangadhara 1994, pp. 340-446 and Balagangadhara 2005.

How to speak for the Indian traditions: an agenda for the future–SN Balagangadhara

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the Journal of American Academy of Religion


The paper attempts a contrast between the process and the structure of the Christian and the Indian spirituality. Drawing attention to their dissimilarities, it attempts to reformulate the differences among the Indian traditions in a novel way. It argues that cultures and traditions are not just different; but that they differ from each other in different ways as well. The future of religious studies, it is suggested, is dependent on developing the ability to develop new ways of describing the differences between cultures and traditions. This is the agenda for the future. As a correlate to this task, the paper suggests that we replace the question “who speaks ‘for’ and ‘about’ a religion?” with a more pregnant and a more accurate reformulation: “how to speak for a religion in the Academy?”

In the course of the last decade or so, an increasing disquiet seems to reign in the discipline of religious studies. The conference on Contested Religions and Religions Contested is both recognition of and an attempt to address the issues, if not to redress the situation. In the overview to the project that has led to the present conference, the organizers formulate one of their concerns as follows:

Questions are … being raised that concern the role of scholarship and scholars themselves in the attempt to understand religions today. Increasingly it is clear that notions of religion developed in the colonial context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are being challenged both by those interpreted through those ideas and by scholars from around the world who are calling for new descriptive and analytical categories …. What and who have been neglected and distorted by scholars’ ideas of religion?

Hailing from such interpreted traditions, viz., the Indian traditions, I do believe there is an urgent need for developing new descriptive and analytical categories. In fact, it will be the primary burden of this paper to suggest that the Indian traditions have been hitherto presented in a distorted form and that more adequate theoretical tools than what we possess today need to be fashioned. However, the organizers of the conference are not likely to give their assent to this proposal without asking searching questions about who should undertake such a task. Indeed, as they formulate the issue explicitly, who has the authority to speak for or about religions? A workshop panel on the ‘The Politics of Representation’ sharpens this question further: “Are there legitimate and illegitimate ways of speaking ‘for’ and ‘about’ a religious tradition or religions? Who determines these, and how?” In other words, it appears as though one cannot simply argue for developing new ways of describing different religions and traditions without, at the same time, tackling the issue of who does any of these things. Consequently, in this paper, I will try to do both and here is how I plan to do it. In the first section, I will very briefly locate the multiple sources of this double question and confine myself to making some general remarks. In the second, third and fourth sections, I provide thumbnail sketches of an alternative description of the Indian traditions. This enables me to make clear what has been distorted by the scholars’ notion of religion. In the concluding section, I reflect upon the agenda for the future of religious studies.


Let me begin with the ‘who speaks for…’ question in rather general terms first. Quite obviously, this issue has preoccupied many people in the field of religious studies. The discussions about the ‘insider/outsider’ problem are familiar to most of us. Equally familiar is the urgency, which the post-colonial writers have brought to the theme by underwriting the relation between knowledge and power in such discussions. While one can resonate to the concerns behind the ‘who speaks for…’ question, it is with disfavor that I look upon such a general formulation.

Three threads have coalesced here. First, there is the issue whether one has to be religious in order to speak about religion. Second, there is the correlate to this issue with respect to specific religions. Third, there is the problem about the relation between representation and power.

Does one have to be religious in order to study religion? Many people have answered this question in the affirmative. This has invited rejoinders to the effect that in order to study neurosis, one does not have to be a neurotic any more than one has to be a stone in order to describe its fall. While true, these facile analogies miss the central difference: religion includes what it says about itself. The Bible is a book, to be sure. However, if one studies it for what that book is to the believers, one cannot overlook the claim it makes about itself, viz., it is the word of God. One cannot bracket this claim away and still study the Bible in order to understand Christianity as a religion. If one does this, one does not have religion as the object of study anymore. To accept the claim, however, is to accept theology as the ‘science’ of religion. While this dilemma cannot be discussed any further here (see Balagangadhara 1994 for an exhaustive argument), the point remains: if one wants to study religion, one has to accept what religion says about itself because it incorporates what it says about itself.

Does one have to be, say, a Christian in order to study Christianity? To the extent we study Christianity as a religion, the above point holds. Christianity, however, is more than merely a religion: it is also an ecclesiastical organization, a movement of people, a set of theological claims, and so on. To study or criticize any of these aspects, one does not need a party card. In this sense, belonging to a religion is not like having the right to attend the shareholder’s meeting of an organization or like being a member of the Central Committee of a Communist Party, which entitles you to speak for the political party.

It is true to point out that the so-called world religions have been historically associated with centers of political, economic and social power. Do these collusions tell us something fundamental about religions? They do not; unless, that is, one has a theory that can spell out what relations, if any, exist between the properties that make some phenomenon into a religion and these centers of power. Of course, we might learn much by studying religion also as a sociological, political and economic phenomenon. However, surely, that does not tell us why we would want to call, say, the Catholic Church a religious organization and not a civil or a political association. Studying the complicity between the Pope and an authoritarian regime could tell us much about the Pope or even the Catholic Church as a power center. Nevertheless, it does not tell us what Catholicism is, any more than it tells us why Catholic Christianity is a religion. In other words, no matter how interesting such empirical studies might be, in the absence of a theory about religion and, say, politics, there is not much mileage in the claims about the relation between knowledge and power. Currently, we do not even have the vague promise of such a theory.

Do these general remarks suffice to write off the concerns behind the question ‘who speaks for…?’ They do not. The underlying worry is also about the nature of portrayals of non-western religions and cultures. Scholars of religions have failed to provide us with adequate accounts of traditions and religions from other cultures. In fact, one of the reasons for the ‘who speaks for…’ issue has to do with the flawed representations we have today.

    At the least, that is what I think. Speaking from within my area of expertise, it is my conviction that the Indian traditions have not been adequately described and that there are fundamental flaws in the current descriptions. The agenda for the future, as I see it, is to begin the process of developing different ways of describing the differences between cultures and traditions. However, I want to make this general point by focusing on the Indian traditions and organizing the next three sections around two reference points: a problem often identified as the ‘Aristotelian’ question; and an imagery of routes and their description.


On an Aristotelian Question

Let me begin with the following question: ‘how should I live?’ Depending upon who is raising this question, whether a teenager or a middle-aged man, it is susceptible to at least two interpretations and, as a consequence, allows of at least two possible answers. To the teenager, it would be an answer to say, ‘live as an ethical being’. At this stage, it is irrelevant what force the word ‘ethics’ carries – whether ‘normative’ or ‘non-normative’. The same answer would probably infuriate the middle-aged person: his question lies ‘beyond’ the ethical. Probably, he is saying something like this: “To the extent possible, I have tried to lead an ethical life. I have undergone many experiences in life. I am now struggling to ‘make sense’ of these experiences. I am increasingly at a loss to cope with all my projects, ambitions, dreams, desires, success and frustrations. How should I live from now so that I may reconcile these forces, passions, attitudes etc. with each other?”

As a matter of fact, the real Aristotelian question is the one the middle-aged man asks. For Aristotle, the answer to this question constitutes the ‘ethical domain’. A search of eudaimonia (loosely translated as ‘happiness’) is undertaken only after undergoing some experiences in life. That is why, to Aristotle, a moral agent is an ‘experienced’ person:

… (A) young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend upon time, but on his living and pursuing each successive object as passion directs. For such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.1

There are three of points worth noting in the above citation. The opposition is not between ‘reason’ and ‘passion': one can pursue any passion (fame, wealth, power, etc.) in a ‘rational’ way. After all, modern-day industries use market research, advertising campaigns, and theories of management to pursue their goal of making profit in a ‘rational’ way. So can an individual. Rather, it is a contrast between directing all one’s abilities in order to acquire an object and ‘thoughtfully acting’ or ‘thinkingly-doing-something’, where action is brought under the scope of thoughtful considerations.2 The second point is that even those ‘who are old in years, but young in spirit’ (a compliment these days, which has the status of a norm about how one ought to grow old!) are not considered ‘fit’ to receive instructions in ethics. Their ‘defect’ is that they too pursue objects as ‘passion’ dictates. That is to say, they too cannot pose (or understand) the question of Aristotle, viz., how one should live. The third point is that ethical discussions begin with ‘actions in life'; they are reflections about these actions; the goal lies in the acquisition of an ability to act (thoughtfully). Modern philosophers have attributed the notion of ‘contemplative life’ to such a conception that has action as the end product! ‘Living a life thoughtfully’ glosses such a notion more accurately than ‘vita contemplativa‘.

Our middle-aged man is, thus, raising the question of Aristotle. “I have pursued many things in life. I have acquired wealth and status, and aimed with varying degrees of success to become powerful and famous. I have been successful in some of my endeavors, while failing in yet others. I thought these things would make me happy, but I discover that, apart from moments when I felt ‘good’, these projects have only made me unhappy. What should I do? How should I live?” Today, these questions are not a part of ethical enquiry, any more than a quest for eudaimonia is: at best, these are the ‘esoteric’ questions and quests of ‘exotic’ religions;3 at worst, one raises them with one’s psychoanalyst during a ‘mid-life crisis’. This situation should already indicate the distance between what is called an ‘ethical enquiry’ today, and what Aristotle thought was the subject of all such enquiries. But that is not the focus of this piece now. However, there is no need to confuse matters by continually drawing the distinction between ‘modern’ ethics and ‘Aristotelian’ ethics. So, let us follow the contemporary consensus and call the quest of our middle-aged man ‘spiritual’ (from now on without scare quotes). Seeking spirituality, and not having found it in those objects that he once so passionately pursued, he is now raising a spiritual question: in fact, he is undergoing a spiritual crisis.

Could one outline the structure of such a crisis? Using a terminology quasi-accepted by most of us, I would like to do that regarding two traditions: the western Christian religion and the Indian traditions. The terminology should indicate both the similarity and the difference between the ways the traditions from the West and India structure such a crisis. Let me begin with the Christian religion.

A problem confronts us straight-away. What is the relation between Christian ‘religiosity’ and the Christian ‘spirituality’? The question involves many things. On the one hand, it asks for a clarification of the terms ‘spirituality’ and ‘religiosity’ within the context of the Christian religions. On the other hand, it also involves a normative discussion about religion: are today’s religions adequate to meet the ‘spiritual’ needs of the modern man? Has the (Catholic) Church today lost the ‘spirituality’ it once had and become a mere organized religion instead? And so on. I am not interested in the normative discussion. But I will (partially) tackle the question of the relation between ‘spirituality’ and ‘religiosity’ within Christianity.

A Christian Religious Loop

Let me begin with a medieval monk. There are several reasons for this choice as a starting point. Firstly, there are quite a few works dealing with medieval religiosity (including autobiographies and hagiographies) that can be fruitfully used in this context. Secondly, one can contrast my outline with the processes that such works portray in order to identify deficiencies in my sketch. Thirdly, one can extend such a sketch to the modern-day world as well: many people (like Söderblom, for instance) have left enough material behind them for us to pursue this line of enquiry without getting caught in the normative discussion about what a religion ought to be. Fourthly, thereafter, we can see whether the modern man has ‘spiritual needs’ too, the way he is alleged to have ‘religious needs’ as well. For all these reasons, let me begin with the medieval monk.

As a deeply religious person, this monk believes that man is a sinner but God loves him nonetheless. He believes too that one could experience the infinite love of God if only one opens up one’s heart to God’s grace. In a way, you could say, he believes them as ‘true propositions’. He does not yet appreciate their depth, or their true meaning, because he has not quite experienced what they seem to say. This is how he embarks on his quest: because he knows them to be true (this is his faith), he wants to experience this love ‘first hand’. So, he begins a process of fasting, prayer, study of the scriptures, and whatever else his monastery prescribes. After some suitable length of time, he discovers that no matter how hard he tries, he does not experience God’s love for him. Anxiety begins to gnaw: why does he not have this experience when the scriptures, the saints, some fellow-brethren, all assure him that it is real? Is he not sincere enough? Does he not try hard enough? Is he approaching it the wrong way? Are his sins too great for God to forgive them? The soothing words of the Abbott, that the monk too shall experience this love if only he ‘opens himself up authentically’, instead of comforting him, transform his anxiety into downright panic: because no matter what he does, he does not have that experience.

The monk now enters a loop: the more he tries, the less successful he is. The less successful he is, the harder he tries. Each circuit through this loop increases the stress, and that merely makes the subsequent traversing of the loop even more stressful. Very soon, this loop opens up another loop within itself. The monk begins to doubt whether he will ever find God’s love. However, to entertain this doubt is to doubt the truth of the scriptures. Believing in the scriptures is leading him experientially to doubt the truth of the scriptures. His faith assures him that he too shall experience God’s love; his experience makes him doubt whether he ever will. (This is the second loop.) Now the monk is undergoing what could properly be called a spiritual crisis: he has begun to doubt the words of the Holy Spirit. It is important to note that the monk does not doubt whether the Holy Spirit exists or whether his faith in this entity is misplaced. If he doubted this, he would be undergoing a crisis of faith. As a man of faith, it does not even occur to the monk to doubt the Holy Spirit. On the contrary. His spiritual crisis occurs precisely because of his faith. That is to say, a spiritual crisis occurs within the confines of a faith and within the parameters set by the latter.

The spiritual crisis suggests to the monk that the reason why he does not find God’s love is to be located in his ‘state of mind’. His state of mind assures him that his sins are too great: he has even begun to doubt God’s love for him. His faith tells him that this is his greatest sin and confirms what he knows: the Devil is sowing these seeds of doubt (about God’s Word) in his mind. Thus, he tries harder; prays that God rescues him from the clutches of the Devil. He is filled with self-loathing and self-disgust for not being able to resist the Devil and ‘truly believe’. The intensity of travelling through the loops increases, the stress and tension grows, the pitying looks in the eyes of his brethren become more noticeable, until, one day, the inevitable happens: he suffers an absolute, total and complete nervous breakdown, the price for getting caught up in an unending loop.

The Christian Spirituality

Let us notice the ‘psychological’ transformations he has undergone in the process of suffering the nervous breakdown. Firstly, his sense of agency is shattered. He is unable to do the many things he could do with consummate ease before. Perhaps he is even unable to take care of his personal hygiene; he starts crying for no apparent reason. He flies into uncontrollable rages; perhaps, cannot stop eating or drinking. In short, he realizes that he has no control over himself, while he previously thought he had. Secondly, because of this realization, his vanity is shattered. All his ‘urges’ are sins, and he cannot control them. The Devil can do what he wants with this monk and he is powerless to stop Him, something the scriptures and his religion always proclaimed. Thirdly, his sense of value is shattered: he now realizes that all men are sinners like him, and he is the worst sinner of all. In its wake, his sense of worth is shattered as well: he is more loathsome than the crawling worm and the poisonous insect; at least, they are not tainted by sin the way he is.

In this situation, in the depth of despair and self-disgust, there is still hope for him because he is a man of faith. The monk knows from the scriptures that God has proclaimed His love for the humankind and sent down His only son to save them. This realization is, perhaps, the most shattering of all: how can God love such sinners as this monk, and promise to save them? Such a love cannot simply be conceptualized, and the monk is dumbstruck by it. The monk is not worth it, this he knows in his heart, and yet, in His infinite mercy, God promises to save him. At last, he understands (from the bottom of his heart, so to speak) why God’s grace is incomprehensible and infinite.

It is this realization that opens the floodgates. His heart is filled with what he was looking for: God’s love. God was always present; the monk went through the purgatory in order to emerge purer of spirit and stronger of faith. He starts recovering from his breakdown, and finding God’s love is crucial to this process. He now ‘discovers’ God’s grace, and finds out why it is called the healing grace of God. Indeed, this experience starts to heal him, and in the reconstitution of his personality, these elements are never far away. Our monk has had a spiritual experience, and he will perhaps end up becoming another example of those touched by God. Just for the sake of convenience, and only for its sake, one could also put it this way: if the monk was a religious person before, after his experience he has become a spiritual person as well. In this process, our monk realizes that his earlier ‘failure’ to discover God’s grace was not, strictly speaking, a failure at all. It is only thus, and no other way, could he open himself up to be filled with God’s love.

Perhaps the above picture is a bit too Augustinian, but, as an illustration, it should do. What I want to get at in this picture is the fact that his religion steers the monk in a particular way, sets up a loop, generates a breakdown, and helps him emerge out of it with the means to reconstitute his personality that is more in consonance with itself. Needless to say, the community (that the monk is a part of) plays a significant role both in steering him towards a breakdown as well as help him recover from it. In general terms, the path of the monk is that of ‘conversio‘ but he will truly understand its meaning as he starts recovering and assumes his duties. It is a process of turning himself inside out, an asymptotic process, the completion of which is not possible through human hands and human efforts.

From the above hypothesis it does not follow, firstly, that all monks underwent (or undergo) this entire process. No teaching process can make all the students learn the same thing in exactly the same way. A differential learning is an inescapable fact for all teaching processes. This is ever truer for a teaching process that works upon and (trans)forms the experience of its students. Secondly, it does not follow that this ‘spirituality’ is only to be found among the monastic orders. There is no reason why some of the laity cannot undergo a similar process outside the confines of a monastic order. However, it is highly probable that one finds significantly more ‘spiritual experiences’ within the ambit of the monasteries than outside it.

A Loop in the Indian Traditions

How could we conceptualize such an event (or process) in the Indian culture? I would like to begin with the questions of the middle-aged man, and locate him within the Indian culture.4 Because of his location in the Indian culture, its resources open up to him in his attempts to pursue answers to these questions.

The first and the most important thing about the resources of the Indian traditions is the assurance they give him: what the person seeks, call it eudaimonia (or ‘happiness’) till a more appropriate term is introduced, can be found. Not only has the person heard about the indefinitely many people who have found eudaimonia, but also knows that there exist indefinitely many traditions that claim to teach the path leading to it as well. Perhaps, he even sees people who have sought and found what he himself is looking for. In other words, he knows before he undertakes his quest that his questions have answers and that they can be found. All he has to do is try.

Thus he begins his quest. Very quickly it is obvious to him that what he seeks is not to be found in the outside world, but inside him. A period of ‘introspection’ is initiated and, after a suitable length of time, the person comes to the conclusion that introspection does not help. Not only is such a process equivalent to entering a bottomless pit but his ‘internal life’ is also as varied, rich and complex as the world outside him. The answer, in other words, is not found in the inside either.

Now the loop gets set up: the answer is neither inside nor outside him. But it can only be in one of these two ‘places’. Perhaps, his ‘introspection’ was not done the right way; maybe he did not look hard enough; perhaps he was not sufficiently perceptive. Be it as that may, he starts traversing the loop: from the inside to the outside; from the outside to the inside. Each journey through the loop increases the tension: why does he not find it, when others have? What is he missing? What does he not see? His tradition assures him that he too can find the answer. What should have been a fruitful search seems to culminate in a fruitless movement through the loop.

By now, the tension has become unbearable. He does not know what he is looking for, but he knows that ‘it’ is there to be found. Clearly, he is missing the obvious, but the obvious refuses to ‘reveal’ itself to him. Despair sets in, helplessness overpowers him, and he even wants to stop searching because he has exhausted himself. None of this works; his journey on the loop becomes more intensified, fed further by his day dreams of the answer occurring to him in a ‘flash’ or of a kind ‘guru’ guiding him in this process. Knowing that the answer is ‘obvious’, but not finding that which is apparently so ‘obvious’ deepens the loop. There is one predictable end to this loop as well: a total and complete nervous breakdown.

Experiential knowledge and the Indian Traditions

Much like the medieval monk, this middle-aged person too experiences a shattering of his sense of agency, but here all further similarities cease. The reason lies in how this shattering is further experienced and what it consists of. To the middle-aged man, this experience comes as a ‘revelation': it is as though a cloak is lifted from his eyes and he is looking at the world for the first time. He realizes that he was never an agent, even though he always thought he was one. His breakdown provides him with this knowledge, and he recognizes it as such because of his tradition. He is now enlightened, and if he pursues this path, he pursues the path of enlightenment. He sought eudaimonia, and he has found it in knowledge.5 Even though many people had repeatedly spoken of the same ‘knowledge’ from his tradition, it did not appear to help him before his quest began. That is because this knowledge is of another type: it is an experiential knowledge that involves his situation.

In other words, this person realizes that all his endeavors, projects, dreams, desires and frustrations were never really ‘his’. His unhappiness arose not because these projects were pursued, but because he thought they were ‘his’. He has still to work out many things: whose projects were they, if they were not ‘his’ projects? Why and from where did he have the experience of being an agent? etc. The important point here too is that the Indian tradition steered the middle-aged person in a particular way, helped him set up a loop, and generated a breakdown. The middle-aged man must now emerge out of it, and use his insight to reconstitute his personality in a way that is in consonance with his experience.

Religiosity and Spirituality

Very often, ‘religious experience’ is described in terms of states that are typical of all breakdowns: the ‘feeling’ of insignificance, worthlessness, and such like. What is wrong with these descriptions is that they describe a religious experience as a set of ’emotions’ or ‘feelings': resulting from something else (e.g. gazing up to a starry night in a meadow) or as a state of mind (‘epiphany’, for instance). My story of the medieval monk provides a different picture: a religious experience includes the path travelled and the path to traverse. It is a particular way of experiencing (oneself and the world); the particularity of the way cannot be specified without speaking about how one has come to a particular ‘point’ and where one is going thereafter. What we choose as a significant unit of experience in order to elucidate the religious experience is merely a ‘point’ on this path. It does not, however, provide a description of the religious experience itself and, as such, is arbitrary if taken to stand for religious experience as such. One could take any other ‘point’ on this path as well. A spiritual experience is part of such a religious experience.

In other words, there is a distinction between religiosity and spirituality. The latter is the subset of the former: spirituality is a particular kind of religious experience. While one could be religious without being spiritual, it is not possible to be spiritual without being religious. This distinction requires to be more carefully worked out than I can in the confines of this paper. Because nothing in my argument revolves around this distinction, I will leave this problem aside.

However, there is another distinction that is more crucial to this paper: the difference between the Indian traditions on the one hand, and a religion like Christianity on the other. I have exhaustively argued (see my 1994) that if Christianity, Judaism and Islam are religions, then the Indian culture does not have any native religions. That is to say, entities like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. are not examples of the category ‘religion’ the way the Abrahamic religions are. I am not presupposing these arguments in this paper, but elucidating the differences in yet another way. The goal of Indian traditions is to enable the practitioner to achieve ‘enlightenment’.6 Let us see how this is different from the end result of the Christian Monk.

The experience of enlightenment in the Indian tradition is fundamentally dissimilar to the religious or spiritual experience. The middle-aged person’s insight into the nature of agency breaks radically with the experience of daily life. It tells him that his experience of daily life is something of an illusion and, by doing so, reorganizes the way his experience was structured hitherto. But this restructuring does not tell him how he should go further, or what he has to do next. Enlightenment involves a restructuring of the travelled path, but says nothing about the path to traverse. In so far as the middle-aged man still has a future, all he can do from now on is act thoughtfully, and, in this process of thinkingly-doing-something, try to sustain and develop his insight further. What does this ‘thinkingly-doing-something’ mean? It means constantly attending to his insight in all his future endeavors. In the language of Nichomachean Ethics, the middle-aged man has acquired an ability to act thoughtfully and he has acquired it by gaining an insight (knowledge). In other words, our middle-aged man has found eudaimonia.7

Does it mean that similar quests always require a breakdown of the people who undertake such a journey? After all, nervous breakdowns have nothing heroic or romantic about them; they are always sordid and messy affairs. Besides, the outcome is unpredictable. Yet, with respect to Christianity, my answer is a qualified ‘yes’. It is my impression that the Catholic and the Protestant religions are far more inclined to induce a breakdown than the Indian culture. My impression is based on some reasons. Firstly, it is my belief that my description of ‘religious experience’ closely tracks what is called the religious experience in the Christian tradition. Secondly, I believe that the monastic orders appear to have developed methods to induce a spiritual experience. While it is undeniable that a spiritual quest in the Christian religions could be undertaken successfully without a messy experience, it is my guess that one will find significantly more spiritual persons with such an experience than those without it. Thirdly, perhaps more importantly, there is very little satisfactory reflection about spiritual experience within Christianity. Its nature has not been conceptualized enough.8 In a way, such a situation stands to reason: how do you conceptualize either God’s infinite Grace, or His unbounded love? What can you say about the experience of your heart being filled with His love for you and mankind? One may wax eloquent, or live like a saint; neither helps in reflecting about this experience. The ‘mystics’ in the Christian tradition speak a language that only fellow-mystics can understand, and their reflections are not helpful to the non-mystic. Perhaps, that is the reason why spiritual experiences have something mysterious about them; such people appear to have been ‘touched by God’, as it were.

Do the Indian traditions induce nervous breakdowns in individuals on a quest to enlightenment? The answer is in the negative: they do not. While such breakdowns can and do happen, the energy of the Indian traditions have been focused towards teaching and guiding individuals towards enlightenment without such an experience. Using many different strategies, the Indian traditions mould the experience in such a way that the insight of the middle-aged man can be taught without inducing a nervous breakdown. As we have seen, the middle-aged person’s insight was that he was never an agent. Paraphrasing Aristotle, let me “start with this experience, and discuss about this experience”.

Enlightenment and Plurality in the Indian traditions

One possibility of understanding his experience is to say that he was never an agent (nor could he be one) because there are no agents. This is the answer, for example, of the Buddhist traditions. I say ‘traditions’, because there are several ways of understanding the absence of agency. One could say there is no agency at all and that the experience of agency is totally illusory. (This is the ‘doctrine’ of anatta.) Or one could say that acts give birth to an illusory ‘experience’ of agency. To understand the illusory nature of this experience requires an insight into the relation between the organism and the actions.9 These different accents roughly indicate in the direction of the different traditions in Buddhism.

The second possibility lies in taking the insight in another direction: Who is the ‘he’ who realizes that ‘he’ was never an agent and all agencies are illusions? ‘Whose’ illusion was it, and why did ‘he’ succumb to this illusion? When these questions arise, a new ‘interiority’ opens up that is different from and other than the internal mental life. That is to say, the middle-aged man discovers that there is a difference between his persona and ‘himself’. Here too different possibilities open up. Either the person discovers that the ‘he’ cannot be a particular, because particularity is a property of the organism and the persona. In that case, he is heading towards the Advaita traditions. Or he could experience the particularity of the ‘he’ in a different way than the particularity of the persona: in that case, he could head either towards the Jain traditions or towards the Dvaita traditions.

The third possibility is this: the illusion lay in the fact that the middle-aged person thought that he was the agent, while he never was. Actually, someone else is the Agent and this agent is acting through the middle-aged person all the time. The middle-aged person now sees his role as a conduit, and no more than that. Now, we approach the various Bhakti traditions.

Religions and Traditions

Even though I began the paper by putting both the Christian monk and the middle aged person in an analogous situation, their evolution, as we have seen, diverge in fundamental ways. Even the destinations of their journey appear different. I would like to suggest that this is one of the parameters for outlining the differences between entities like Hinduism; Buddhism, Jainism, etc. on the one hand and religions like Christianity on the other. There is a difference in kind between these two sets of entities. What one needs to do in the field of religious studies, to the extent that one speaks about an agenda for the future, is to not only say more clearly what the differences are but also theorize the implications of these differences. Let me continue to spell out some other differences of import between Indian traditions and religions like Christianity.


Earlier on, when I located the middle-aged man in the Indian tradition, I did so only to provide him with the means to set up a breakdown. What would be the nature of his insight if he belonged to a particular tradition? That is, how would he experientially understand his insight if he was, say, a Buddhist? The reason for this question should be obvious. If Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, the Bhakti traditions, etc. were all to be religions, there would be a great difficulty involved in the migration of ‘doctrines’ across religions.10 To what extent would the Buddhist enlightenment be ‘different’ from the advaitic enlightenment? Given what I have said so far, such a differentiation does not make much sense: because they are experiential insights, it is not possible to differentiate them ‘doctrinally’. However, it might be possible to postulate such a divide when one starts providing further explanations for these experiential insights. Therefore, let me take a ‘Buddhist formulation’ of an explanation: attachment to the worldly things and events is at the root of the illusion that we are agents. Let me look at the several ways in which this ‘explanation’ could be recuperated by the different Indian traditions. I will do that by suggesting that the differences between these entities can be re-described in a different way: it makes no reference to the doctrine, but speaks of the activity instead.

Recuperating the Differences

One way encourages an unremitting reflection and analysis of the experience of being an agent. Who acts? What is acting? In what does the attachment consist of, except the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’? What are these two terms? Is the ‘I’ the same as this body, or this organism, or this persona? Does the sense of ‘I’ undergo change and development as the organism or the persona undergoes change and development? If not, what is the relation between the ‘I’ and the other two? This is the path of knowledge (Gyana) that changes the nature of experience by correcting it.

Another way of reaching the same insight is to go deeper into experience. Any attachment requires constancy: of the object or the event one is attached to, and of the ‘agent’ who is attached. The deeper one delves into locating this constancy in experience, the more one discovers discontinuities and inconstancies. One discovers that neither the ‘structures’ of experience nor their ‘constancy’ are given in experience. Rather, they are provided by the descriptions of the said experience. This would be the meditative path to such an explanation. By relocating the subordinate units of the daily experience, the meditative path (Dhyana) restructures it.

The third way of achieving the same insight is to notice that ‘attachment’ is also a particular human emotion. To be unattached requires an altering of this emotion. One can do that using other kinds of human emotions as ‘meta-emotions’ directed towards emotional attachment. Attachment to objects, events, and persons are seen as situations a person is caught up in. Ironical and humorous descriptions of such situations enable the person to achieve a sense of distance from those situations; compassion and sorrow, directed towards the situation of suffering caused by attachment will help loosen the hold of the emotion of attachment. Music, rhythm, cadence, dance and poetry (in combination) work on generating such sets of ‘meta-emotions’. This is the devotional path (Bhakti) to such an insight. This path restructures experience by altering the force of emotions invested in such experiences.

A fourth way of achieving the same insight is to try and severe the relation between action and its outcome. Attachment can also be seen as the experience of relating action to its outcome and claim that one is the fruit of the other. One decouples actions from human intentions, and such a decoupling can be achieved by building reflexivity regarding action and ‘its’ intention. One acts ‘observantly’, observing both the nature of action and ‘its’ alleged intention, only to discover that ‘intentionality’ is no ‘property’ of the ‘agent’ at all. This is the action path (Karma) to the insight. This path transforms the daily experience by severing the relation between human action and human ‘intentionality’.

Consider how a fifth way would approach this insight. Whatever one experiences, there is but one means through which one experiences: through the organism that one’s body is. Consequently, one can also begin to understand what experience is by experimenting with the experience itself. One way of doing that is to begin manipulating experience, begin assembling and reassembling it. One’s body is not only the means through which experience is possible but it is also the instrument to experiment on experience itself. That is, the focus shifts to the body, its sense organs, and such like in order to understand what the ‘insight’ is. This is the Yoga path to further the insight.

Thus one could go on. But my purpose is served. One could differentiate the Indian traditions on the basis of their ‘doctrines'; equally, one could differentiate them according to the activities they encourage; one could do both and graft doctrines or activities onto each other. All these possibilities indicate that the activity of ‘distinguishing’ the Indian traditions from each other is classificatory in nature: why one chooses one way of doing it and not another way depends upon one’s purposes for wanting to classify them. It also suggests that one’s ability to classify depends upon the categories one brings to bear in the study of these traditions. To suggest that ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Hinduism’ are two different religions and that their doctrinal differences are crucial to this divide is not a claim about the structure of the world. Instead, it is a claim about one’s classificatory scheme.11

The above point is important enough for us to linger a bit longer. When scholars come up with stories about the ‘religions’ that exist in India and the differences between them, mostly the belief is that they are making claims about the nature of Indian culture and her traditions. That is what the intellectual world has believed so far as well. This situation is understandable: one knows that one has merely classified the world in one particular way, only when one comes across alternate methods of classifying the same. Until such time, one believes that one’s classification mirrors the structure of the world. That is the case with the students of Indian traditions as well.

    If so, it is obvious that the debates about ‘who speaks for…?’ question become more than a bit irrelevant. If what one calls ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Jainism’, etc. have more to do with one’s classificatory scheme than with the structure of the Indian culture and the nature of her traditions, what exactly does one ask for, when one raises the question, ‘who speaks for Hinduism?’ or Buddhism, or whatever? What would constitute answers to these questions? This situation should further indicate to us that something is seriously wrong with these kinds of queries.

Multiplicity of Teaching Methods

Be it as that may, let us continue. I have provided thumbnail portrayals of (some of) the paths based on a very summary description of a single insight. The only purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate the heuristic productivity of this approach in capturing the diversity within the Indian tradition. That can be highlighted by further showing that this approach captures disputes among these traditions as well. From the description I have given of these paths, it is obvious that each is present in the other: reflection on experience cannot be undertaken without emotion; poetry and music without thought are impossible; one cannot go deeper into experience without thinking about experience; reflexivity without thought and emotion is impossible, etc. In other words, the practitioners from each of these paths are likely to have disputes with the others that their way is superior because it incorporates other paths as well. Such is the case in India. Such disputes are also productive: they generate newer ways through cross-fertilizations. Techniques and strategies migrate and the diversity in the tradition increases. Such an end-result is both necessary and desirable: no particular teaching process can teach every individual in the same way and to the same extent. The presence of a multiplicity of teaching methods can only increase their total efficacy.

What kind of teaching methods am I talking about? Let me answer this question by looking at how the teaching methods have ‘segmented’ the phases in learning. Because a teaching method can teach only if it dovetails with the process of learning, it is of importance to know how they steer the process of learning. Broadly speaking, there are three phases to this learning process: (a) the process of listening or reading; (b) the process of analysis and achieving insight; (c) the process of contemplation. (Even here, a thumbnail sketch will have to do.)

The first phase appears quite straightforward. To the questions the middle-aged man raises, different traditions provide different answers. One listens to or reads these answers, reflects about them so that one grasps the meaning of what is heard or read.

The second phase involves reflection and analysis of what is understood. It is also the process of making use of the analytical and cognitive skills one has learnt in order to draw inferences, formulate hypothetical answers, and test them out. This phase could also be called ‘internalization’ of answers.

The subsequent phase is one of contemplation. One contemplates the insight achieved and observes its impact on experience. To do so, one has to learn new skills other than the cognitive skills one used in the previous phase. These new skills are achieved only by contemplating the internalized answer. There is nothing ‘circular’ about this: one can ‘skilfully’ do something only by acquiring the said skill; the only way of acquiring that skill is by doing it.

Here too, one could say that the first two phases are really unnecessary. In fact, one might even find them counter-productive because in the third phase one has to think differently than in the previous two phases. As a result, one can develop a teaching process that further sub divides the third phase into successive stages and concentrate on teaching that. Zen Buddhists do precisely that; together with their meditative techniques, their koans are the means of teaching the ability to think without thinking about.

The refinements in these phases and the development of further techniques to successfully negotiate such phases; the inevitable migration and cross-fertilization of strategies; these add to the diversity in an already enriched landscape. By now it must also be clear that there is no need for any kind of a loop or breakdown. What is required is merely the presence of these teaching traditions in the culture.

It requires noting that I have continuously spoken of migration and cross-fertilization. That means to say that the strategies, techniques, and insights can migrate across different traditions and different paths. The Buddhist and the Dvaita are examples of different traditions; they do have their ‘own’ identities. There is a divide between them too, but it is not a doctrinal divide. We need to conceptualize the difference between traditions in a different way than we do that with respect to philosophies or religions. The Buddhist insight about desire being at the root of sorrow is as much Upanishadic as it is Buddhist. It is an experiential insight not confined to specific traditions. Does that mean that such insights are true descriptions of the world, and nomenclatures like ‘Buddhist’, ‘Advaitic‘ etc. simply identify the origin of these truths? Einstein’s theory of relativity merely tells us that he formulated it in the first place. Is an analogous claim being advanced here? Not quite. I want to put across the claim that these insights are primarily guides to action and they are that in a particular way. These insights are rooted in experience and help you in its transformation. Even though such insights do have a descriptive role, they are not (in any straightforward sense) descriptions of the world. Let us see whether it is possible to make sense of this qualified claim.


Consider two kinds of descriptions: a description of a route to a destination and a software manual. Both tell you what to do. One tells you of the routes you need to travel, whereas the other tells you what you can do with the software and how to do it. Both are combinations of instruction and description. The software manual tells you what steps to execute, and you can find out whether you have executed the right steps by recognising the description it provides of what you see on the screen. A similar point holds with respect to the description of a route: it tells you turn left and right, and then go straight. To find out whether you took the correct turns, you are provided with landmarks: ‘follow the road for 100 meters and then turn left at the petrol station’ and such like. It is important to remember that such instruction manuals are useful to us, if we are not familiar with either the software or the route. The insights of the Indian traditions are partially like the software manual or a description of the route: they are guides in orienting ourselves in an unfamiliar territory. In the first place, they tell you what you see. We need remember that the ‘unfamiliar territory’ refers to our individual experiences. In other words, they help us orient ourselves in the unfamiliar world of our own experiences.

What is ‘unfamiliar’ about our own experiences? Well, everything. The very ‘obviousness’ of our experiences is a guarantee for its unfamiliarity. We have a certainty about our emotional states that goes far beyond any other kind of certainty we can imagine. When a person is angry, the person knows he is angry. No one can tell this person that he is confused about his emotions. Without any teaching, he knows what ‘anger’ is, what ‘sorrow’ is, etc. I do not mean that he has a ‘theory’ about these emotions. What I do mean is that he ‘knows’ when he is angry and when he is happy. That is to say, when they occur in him, he has the conscious ability to distinguish these emotions from one another. But how does he know he is angry? How does he know that he is not confusing ‘happiness’ with ‘anger’? The very absurdity of these questions tells us that we are speaking of an entirely different kind of certainty. Not only that. That he is able to know he is ‘angry’ and not ‘happy’ will have something to do with the structure of these emotions. And yet, the person is unable to represent to himself what the alleged structure is. Our emotional worlds may be obvious to each one of us; but familiar, they certainly are not. That is why we need guidance in navigating ourselves in this world.

A Metaphor of Route Description

How do these insights help us orient ourselves? Imagine there is a destination we want to reach. Imagine too that the territory is a circle and we want to reach its center. Let us say that it is a vast territory and indefinitely many descriptions of routes to the center are available. We do not know what is at the center; but we do know that there is a center to this territory. So, let us assume further that we pick up some description of the route at random and proceed. Like all such descriptions it tells us where to go, how to go, identifies what we see so that we may know where we are. Who can make sense of this description of the route? Those who are on that route, because it (partially) describes the landmarks on that particular route. Therefore, we can say that the role that the ‘route description’ plays as a (partial) description of the world is strictly subordinated to its ability to guide you in that route. Its description is ‘true’ only for that route and it is ‘true’ only in so far as you are on that route and not on another.

Two crucial assumptions were made in the above paragraph: we had a place to reach, and we have an idea about the nature of the territory. Under these assumptions, the route descriptions become competitors: consequently, picking a route description at random (our third assumption) becomes an irrational choice. The rational choice would be to pick out the easiest and the most efficient route. We choose a description before we take a route, and we do that using the criteria of ease and efficiency. If we do this, it appears as though we need to forego the claim that route descriptions are ‘true’ only for those on that route. However, one could argue that these criteria are still relativized to the individuals. (What is ‘easy’ for one need not be the same for another and ‘efficiency’ is relative to ‘ease’.)

Let us now observe the following: some route descriptions claim that all other descriptions lead to the camp of the cannibals, and there exists only one route to the ‘palace’, which, they say, is your destination. That is, not only do they tell you what is at the center but also what happens to you if you do not choose the right route. Thus, we are provided with ‘objective’ criteria for choosing between the competing route descriptions. These descriptions specify the nature of the territory, the goal of the journey, provide a complete description of the route, and tell you what happens if you are on the wrong route. Not just that. They specify that there is a time limit: if you do not reach the destination within a particular time (‘before you die’), what awaits you is too horrible even to contemplate. The criterion of ‘efficiency’ cannot now be relativized to the individual ‘ease’ any more, but becomes very objective instead: the need to reach the destination before the time is up. Religions are such route descriptions. They tell you what to do, it is true, but through description and prescription. They too are ‘guides’ to action but not the way the Indian traditions are.

Let us, therefore, drop the assumptions that the territory is a circle, and that we want to reach its center. All we know is that we are on a journey. However, let us retain the assumption that we have route descriptions. Let us observe too that each route description assures us that it will bring us to ‘the’ destination, and that there are no time limits. Now, we have very little to go by: how does one judge which route description to pick? In the first place, it depends on the individual: what ‘ease’ means to him, how fast he wants to travel, how much he wants to enjoy the scenery, how many times he wants to set up camps, how hurried he is, etc. However, it does not mean that there is no reasonable ground for making a choice: in so far as one is already on a path, one chooses a route description that is best able to describe what one has already seen and what one is seeing currently. A route description that describes a mirage (and what to do about it) is of no use to me when I am in lush lands and facing a jungle.12 It is true that my experiences are (partially) moulded by the tradition I am born into; hence also my inclination to look at my own tradition first. Only when such a search fails do I cast around for other descriptions, which are closer to my experiences. In other words, the route description should make sense to the individual and it can do that only if it is a true description of his individual experiences. It is this claim that relativizes the ‘route description’ to the individual and to the route he is on.

On the Nature of Indian Traditions

How is this description a guide to his actions? How does it differ from, say, a route description that a religion is? Just because a route description makes sense of the past and current experiences of an individual, it does not follow that it will continue to do so in the future as well. With respect to any given individual, as route descriptions, the Indian traditions are retrospective in nature: they succeed (or fail) in making sense of your past and current experiences only. They help you orient yourself only by telling you where you have come from and where you are currently. But in doing so, they also function prospectively: they encourage you to proceed thoughtfully on your journey. They continually ask what you see. Because you know you have been wrong in the past about the sights you saw, you are far more attentive to what you see now and what the route description says. Neither the ‘first look’ (at the sight) nor the ‘first reading’ (of the route description) is authoritative: you need to doubt both and test both with respect to each other. In other words, these route descriptions inculcate the ability to go-about the world experimentally. Your experiments involve your experiences of the world in a non-trivial way. The more a route description helps you in this, the more you trust the route description you have. Indian traditions are traditions in this sense. They are guides to action not because they tell you what to do in some circumstance but because they tell you how to go about doing whatever it is you do. You have to do it thoughtfully and experimentally. It is this ability that the Indian traditions teach.

As human beings we are pretty similar; as individuals we are unlike each other. What helps one person may or may not help another, and the experience of the one is definitely not the experience of the other. An individual born into a tradition is analogous to this. While his experience is (partially) moulded by the tradition he is born into, as an individual, his experiences are different from those of the other members. While following some particular route, he suddenly discovers that what he ‘sees’ is not a palace but an oasis. Because nothing in his tradition helps him at that juncture (this is a ‘weakness’ that all traditions share), he looks around for a description that tells him what he sees. He does find one such: but it speaks of a route that included rocky mountains and acres of sand before an oasis is encountered, whereas this individual has travelled only lush lands. A new tradition can now be born, one which also includes a route through the lush lands to the oasis. Traditions are like routes, and their insights are the retrospective route descriptions. There are indefinitely many routes, and the route descriptions can migrate and cross-fertilize as the routes cut across each other, or as individuals encounter ‘similarities’. The routes are divided; that is why they are different routes. Consequently, their route descriptions are also different. But all of them have only one function: to reach ‘the’ destination. There is no way of telling, either beforehand or thereafter, which route is the best. All one can say is that one took this route, and that some (combination of) route descriptions worked for one.

Summarizing: the insights of these traditions are not ‘doctrines’ or even straightforward (partial) descriptions of the world. They are ‘route descriptions’ relativized both to the route and to the individual on that route. Their role as (partial) ‘descriptions’ of the world is strictly subordinated to the role they play as instructions for actions (in the sense I have just explained). Because of this, it is not possible to speak either about the truth or about the falsity of such traditions but only about whether or not some route description taught the individual to go-about the world experimentally.

The Current Situation

Imagine someone doing the following: take the descriptive elements from such ‘route descriptions’, abstract them from the routes, and try to present them ‘coherently’ as a tract.

When one travels 100 meters, one encounters a petrol bunk. A left turn at that corner brings a palace into view. Yet, someone else claims that when one travels 100 meters, one encounters a clump of trees. A left turn at the lake brings a desert into view. Another traveller suggests that a travel of 100 meters brings neither a petrol station nor a clump of trees into view, but a swamp and a bullock cart. Therefore, one cannot turn left there at all. To which, a fourth traveller counters by saying that even travelling 10 meters brings one into an ocean, so how could one travel 100 meters? Besides what is a ‘petrol station’, and who needs it anyway? There are only wooden rafts here …

Such a tract is virtual gibberish and is anything except ‘coherent’. No one has any idea whether it is a route description, where this ‘route’ is, whether they are all about the same route or different routes, or what the ‘reference points’ refer to. Just because these descriptions appear to be about ‘routes’, by virtue of this alone, they do not become sensible route descriptions or rival descriptions of the same route. It is true that both Buddha and Shankara speak about human beings. From this it does not follow that some ‘doctrine’ is ‘Buddhist’ and the other belongs to its ‘rival’, viz., the ‘Advaitic‘ philosophy of Shankara. Buddha is said to have formulated the doctrine of ‘anatman‘, whereas it is indubitable that Shankara speaks of ‘atman‘. However, this does not help us figure out what ‘atman‘ is;13 and even less what ‘anatman‘ is (except that it is supposed to be a negation of ‘atman‘). And yet, the current Indian philosophy is the site of such ‘coherent’ tracts, whether their authors are Indian or western. Why has this situation come about?

It has to do with what happened to the (reflections about) Indian traditions when they encountered the route descriptions that religions are. Instead of being stimulated by encountering such ‘alien’ forms, Indian intellectuals appear simply to have succumbed.14 Was it merely the fact that these encounters with militant religions occurred within the framework of aggressive military conquests (first the Islamic Persia, later the Christian West)? Were there internal reasons (internal, that is, to the traditions and culture of India) for this state of affairs as well? How could the Indian intellectuals so thoughtlessly take over descriptions that could not have made any sense to them? Could it be because these traditions themselves ceased to make sense to the Indian intellectuals? How and when did reflections about these traditions divorce themselves from the inner life of these traditions? Does it make sense to say that living traditions go ‘subterranean’, become implicit as it were, and still remain living traditions? These are only a few of the questions we need to answer today.


This paper has attempted to tackle one of the questions the organizers of this conference raise: what and who have been neglected and distorted by scholars’ ideas of religion? My answer is that there is a fundamental neglect of the differences that differentiate entities like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. from religions like Christianity. Descriptions of the former have been assimilated into the frameworks evolved to describe the latter. Consequently, there is indeed a distortion but that has little to do with who has spoken for the Indian traditions. The distortion and the neglect have to do with a denial of the different kinds of diversities that exist between religions in different cultures and not with who has denied this. In fact, I propose that we replace the question, ‘who speaks for religion in the Academy?’ with a more meaningful one: how to speak for religion in the Academy?

The agenda for the future of religious studies, if this domain is to have a meaningful future at all, will consist of attempts to develop novel ways of understanding religious and cultural diversity. Hitherto, people have hardly reflected on what kinds of diversity exist or on appropriate ways of describing them. In other words, not only do we need to provide different descriptions but also search for adequate ways of doing the same.

This search will not follow familiar roads and well-worn tracks. We need to find new paths because, while treading the old, we have become much like the medieval Naturalists. They catalogued and classified, but did not discover; described but failed to understand. We have catalogued religious (and cultural) diversity, described differences in detail, but have failed to understand what we describe. Common to both efforts is the assumption that diversity can be understood by providing a detailed description of the differences between phenomena. In our context, diversity does not merely mean that there are different religions and cultures, but that they are different in different ways. A failure to realize this will doom us to garnering details till ‘kingdom come’.

Today, we need to think of the ‘otherness’ in entirely different terms. One could even take an extreme position and argue that we communicate not because of a shared humanity but because we are different and thus speak differently. Without diversity, and the ensuing difference and disagreement, what is there to say except, as Wittgenstein put it, “wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen” (whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent).


  1. Nicomachean Ethics, Book I. P. 1730; my italics.
  2. What do the phrases in the scare quotes mean? It will be made clear in the text later on.
  3. In front of me lies a book, The Art of Happiness, a dialogue with Dalai Lama.
  4. That is because, unlike Christianity, there are no ‘priests’ and ‘monks’ as convenient starting points. Not only that. I would like to identify one of the sources for the multiplicity of Indian traditions.
  5. Knowledge is not Eudaimonia but the middle-aged person has an ‘insight’ into what it is. See further.
  6. A literal translation from Sanskrit is ‘the dawning of knowledge’.
  7. Now we can understand why ‘happiness’ is a loose translation of ‘Eudaimonia‘, and in what sense it has to do with knowledge. Here is where Aristotle meets another pagan culture.
  8. Often, spiritual experience is confused with the religious experience as such.
  9. This formulation is a variant of the famous thesis about the ‘dependent co-origination of the acts and the agent’.
  10. For example, the Anatta doctrine of the Buddhists is fundamentally different from the atman doctrine of ‘Hinduism’. Many suggest that this accounts for their difference as religions the way the doctrine about the Messiah distinguishes Christianity from either Islam or Judaism.
  11. In other words, a study of the Indian traditions will also lead to the same point that the study of religion led me to in my 1994.
  12. Assuming, of course, that one recognises a ‘desert’ or a ‘mirage’ solely on the basis of descriptions alone.
  13. Since it is supposed to be ‘self-luminescent’, why bother figuring it out?
  14. This is the observation of the result, not a description of the process.



    The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Balagangadhara, S.N.

  1. “The Heathen in His Blindness …”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion. Leiden: E. J. Brill. Reprinted, Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2005.

How do we understand the concept of Communal Violence?

We all agree that events like the Gujarat riots are tragic and terrible. But what is the role of intellectuals in avoiding similar tragedies in the future?

Why can’t religion be political? 

Obviously, the duty of the intellectual is to try and help us understand the nature of the events and the violence involved. In India and abroad, the concepts of ‘communalism’ and ‘communal violence’ are often used to analyse these riots. These tell us that the main cause behind the Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India is the use of religion for political ends. It is often added that religion itself is not responsible for the riots, but rather its misuse by power-hungry clerics and politicians. The harm of communalism lies in its mixing of political aims and religious identities, which is taken to cause violence. Let us have a closer look at this concept of communal violence.

A first problem is that no theoretical framework is available which allows one to distinguish religion from other human phenomena. This point should not be confused with a demand for clear definitions. One may define the word ‘water’ in any way one chooses; such linguistic reform will not affect our understanding of the world much. The structure of the fluid water remains H2O and chemists are able to distinguish and separate it from other substances because of its composition. On the contrary, no one is able to show what differentiates the religious (as a phenomenon or domain of life) from the political. If that is the case, there is no way to understand the statements about the mixing of politics and religion. Since no tools are available to distinguish secular from religious interests or political from religious aims, the ‘communalism’ analysis becomes trivial: different communities come into conflict in the struggle for political power, because they believe they have divergent interests.

Does political religion spark communal violence? 

A second problem is that the supposed causal link between the use of religion to attain political goals and the occurrence of inter-community violence is absolutely unclear. Imagine a Buddhist leader invoking the ‘religious’ sentiments of her community in this way: she tells them Buddhist selflessness should defeat the egocentric materialism of other communities, so that society will not degenerate into cut-throat capitalism. It could be argued this is to make use of religion to obtain political power over society. One could equally propose the leader in question is spreading an ideology which makes her community believe that its secular interests are opposed to those of other religious communities. But it is both unclear why this should lead to violence between communities and what is immoral about the acts of this leader. If the example is too unreal, one can give similar descriptions of Gandhi’s satyagraha or Ashoka’s rule. These situations fit perfectly in the conception of communalism of the Indian intellectuals. Yet one can only wonder as to why they should generate inter-community riots. Such examples could be multiplied without end. They show it is not in the least clear what is immoral about the use of religion for political ends and how this ‘communalism’ is linked to violent events like the Gujarat riots.

Given these problems in making sense of the concept of communal violence, how to account for the widespread belief that the mixing of politics and religion is wrong and generates violence? After all, many of the analysts who invoke ‘communalism’ as an explanation are not cretins. We should explain how they have come to this belief and why they continue to hold it, in spite of its lack of clarity.

The Christian cliché and corrupt religion 

I would like to submit the following hypothesis for discussion: the claim that the use of religion for political ends is evil and provokes violence is an old cliché from Christianity. Within its theological framework, it makes perfect sense to accuse human beings of corrupting religion by abusing it for the satisfaction of their worldly desires. This corrupted religion then gives rise to conflicts, riots and violence. Such a story was embedded in the European common sense by the sixteenth century. It became especially popular in post-Reformation Britain to make sense of the Wars of Religion. The belief was that there was a pure primitive Christianity untainted by human hands, which is revealed by the biblical God as the one true religion. Reflecting this God’s will for humanity, the true religion can bring only peace, harmony and happiness. However, human beings – sinful as they are and misguided by the devil – corrupt this pure religion and try to use it for their own worldly and political ends. Needless to say, evil priests and crooked politicians are the prime suspects.

Since the British believed that the traditions they encountered in India were instances of false religion, it was obvious to them they would find the same kind of demonic violence here. Hence, they saw all kinds of conflicts in India as the violence that inevitably results from the corruption of religion for worldly ends. In their eyes, traditional leaders became priests of the devil. Stereotypes emerged about cunning Brahmins and deceitful mullahs. Whenever violent riots occurred, the reason was obvious: such priests and politicians had deceived innocent believers into slaughtering each other in the name of religion.

In the process of colonial education, Indian intellectuals adopted this theological story from their colonial masters as an account about the ‘communal violence’ inherent in Indian society. Tragically, this Christian experience of India was mistaken for a valid description of its society. The tragedy continues today. The colonial consciousness of Indian intellectuals prevents them from seeing that they reproduce a silly theological story about the corrupting influence of humanity on religion as though it were scientific truth. If we really want to understand the Gujarat riots and similar horrific events, we first need to get rid of such common-sense clichés from the West.

Neurobiological Theory of Religion

You ask whether ‘in principle’ a neurobiological theory on religion could “account” for the experience of the believers. The answer depends on what kind of an account you are asking for and what you have in mind when you say ‘in principle’. If you mean by ‘account’, whether it could predict or even explain, I do not think so. We know that, at the least, we are made up of atoms. Your question, in terms of the kind of challenge it poses (even though the degree of complexity changes), is identical to the question: could a theory in physics, in principle, ever account for our experiences? What does ‘in principle’ mean here actually? There was a period when one thought, among other things, that it was possible ‘in principle’ to describe mathematics in a purely logical language. That is, many thought that mathematics has a “logical structure” and that, therefore, one could reconstruct mathematics aided by a suitably powerful logic. (It is called the ‘Hilbert program’, named after the originator of this research program.) Then a mathematician called Kurt Gödel proved that, in principle, we cannot even prove the truth of elementary arithmetic on logical grounds: even though we can generate true statements in elementary arithmetic (and know that they are true; they are called “Gödel numbers”), we cannot prove their truth. Nor can we prove their falsity. They belong to the class of “undecidable” statements. In other words, what appears obvious to many of us today, namely, arithmetic is ‘logical’ in nature cannot ever be “proved”. This is an impossibility theorem that Gödel proved in the 1930’s. So, what we think is possible in principle turns out to be impossible ‘in principle’.

The lessons? Many, but here is one: as our knowledge grows, so does our understanding what ‘in principle’ means. Today, we would not know the things that a neurobiological theory has to do; we know even less about what a neurobiological theory of religion has to do. We do not know what it means to account for ‘experience'; we know even less what ‘religious experience’ is and what requires accounting. However, we know enough to say the following: for any time in the foreseeable future, there will be no neurobiological theory that can account for (explain, or whatever else) “beliefs” of any kind. For the next hundred years at least, there will no neurobiological theory of ‘beliefs in superstrings’ any more than there will be a neurobiological theory that explains the belief that “Bible is the true word of God”.

If you are interested in this debate, I suggest you try to read up on the ‘reductionism’ debate in the philosophy of science and philosophy of psychology/philosophy of mind. The matter is far, far more complicated than what I have said in the above two paragraphs.

Profound criticism 1: the logic is different

Many come up with criticisms like ‘Buddhist logics are different’ or ‘one has to follow Indian logics’. These criticisms sound profound! They are damn shallow, unless they answer the following questions.

1. What is their structure?

2. What are their axioms?

3. What are their rules of inferences?
4. What are some some crucial meta-logical theorems (do they all have deduction theorems?) etc.

Reconceptualizing India Studies by Balagangadhara–a new book

Note: if you are in the states or UK, try

What does it mean to be an Indian in this time and age? What does India have to give to the contemporary world? These overarching questions that echo in the mind of the post-colonial Indian cannot be truly answered by Western frameworks instituted at the behest of colonialism.

This book sets the stage for a reconceptualization of India studies. Clearing away intellectual deadwood, it initiates a process of comparative study of cultures. The volume scrutinizes the Western studies on India, including contemporary writings on Hinduism, the nature of inter-cultural dialogues, and their implications for normative political philosophy.

S.N. Balagangadhara puts forth the case to translate Indian traditions to the twenty-first century idiom. He urges the need to analyse and understand Indian contributions to human knowledge.

  • Re-examines postcolonial studies and modern India as a domain of study.
  • Provides new perspective on Hinduism, caste system, and secularism.
  • Discusses foremost contemporary thinkers like Edward Said, Karl Popper, and Amartya Sen.

This book asserts that postcolonial studies and modern India studies are in need of theoretical rejuvenation. Post Said’s Orientalism, postcolonialism, as a discipline, has drifted into the realm of paralysing self-reflection and impenetrable jargon. This volume addresses the original concerns of postcolonial studies and the central problems of modern India studies, and points out a potential direction for the social-scientific study of the Indian culture at a time when it is being challenged from all sides. Stressing the need for an alternative understanding of the Western culture, Balagangadhara argues that Hinduism, caste system, and secularism are not colonial constructs but entities within the Western cultural experience. He believes that the so-called facts about India and her traditions are a result of colonial consciousness. To answer the questions about Indian traditions, we need to understand the Western culture.

This book will be of considerable interest to all those interested in understanding Indian society, culture, and traditions. Scholars and students of history, philosophy, sociology, and postcolonial studies will also find this very useful.

Table of Contents

1: ‘Culture’ and the ‘Cultural': Problems, Pitfalls and a Proposal
2: The Future of the Present: Rethinking the Post-colonial Project
3: Comparative Science of Cultures: A Methodological Reflection
4: Colonialism and Colonial Consciousness
5: India and Her Traditions: An Open Letter to Jeffrey Kripal
6: Are Dialogues an Antidote to Violence?
7: Intercultural Encounters, Reasonable Dialogues, and Normative Political Theory
8: The Secular State and the Religious Conflict