Home Review Cultural difference as epistemic difference: A review of two books by S.N. Balagangadhara

Cultural difference as epistemic difference: A review of two books by S.N. Balagangadhara

by Dr. Prakash Shah

“The Heathen in his Blindness”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion.

S.N. Balagangadhara 2nd ed.

Manohar, New Delhi, 2005 (1994), pp. xii + 503, Rs. 595.00

Reconceptualizing India Studies

S.N. Balagangadhara

Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. ix + 270, Rs. 750.00

Balagangadhara’s primary target is the unpacking of the ‘how’ of knowledge production consequent to the interaction between India and the West over the last few centuries. However, the range and implications of his work are far wider and yet hardly exploited for their potential. Much of The Heathen and Reconceptualizing, as well as his other writing, are devoted to uncovering how the West produces knowledge of the world in general and about India in particular. This has disappointed those who have not understood his work or prematurely expected to find more knowledge about India. My own exposure to its reception indicates that Western scholars, outside of his own research programme at the University of Ghent, in Belgium, and a group of committed researchers in India, have almost unanimously side-stepped his work, even if they pretend to have a passing acquaintance with it. It may well be the case, as Balagangadhara himself indicates in Reconceptualizing, that India is where most of the energy required to extend the programme will be found and, indeed, that it is Asian scholars who will be asking new questions about human beings in the coming century.

Balagangadhara is unapologetic about dissecting how the West experiences the world. His argument is that this task is necessary in order to clear the ground before the contribution of Indian culture can be assessed. It is made necessary because, over the last few hundred years, systems of knowledge worldwide, certainly in academic contexts, have been dominated by questions that Europe has asked of itself and about the rest of the world. This particular way of asking questions means that academia has not asked questions in other ways. The conditions for this way of inquiring about the world are shaped and constrained by the Western culture. Such constrained inquiring has spread worldwide, with intellectuals from other parts of the world having adopted a way of asking questions the West considers appropriate. Whether adopted by Western or non-Western intellectuals, who parasitically formulate problems according to it, that way is tied to Western culture. So, for example, questions asked about India, by both Western and Indian intellectuals, are framed by how the Western culture looks at the world. Only if that process is understood, by first generating theories about Western culture, can the ground be cleared to discover how Indians could ask different questions about the world, thus leading to an understanding of what Indian culture is and what its contribution to the world may be. Balagangadhara’s work explicitly notices and establishes how little we have understood Western culture. Just because Indians speak a Western language does not mean that they understand what Western culture is.

A central part of Balagangadhara’s research programme, reflected in the books under review, is devoted to developing how a comparative science of cultures can be conceived of. For him, a culture is how a particular social group, as it goes about in the world, generates a process of learning as well as a process of learning to learn (meta-learning). While other such processes may be present in a particular culture, what distinguishes and gives shape to a culture are the ways of learning and meta-learning that dominate and crystallise to structure its way of going about in the world. Conversely, these learning processes dovetail into teaching processes so that they can be transmitted to future generations. The structuring of processes of learning and teaching, leading to configurations of learning, occurs and stabilizes over a period of centuries, and cultural differences are tied to these configurations of learning. As The Heathen discusses, for the West, religion lends structure to its way of going about in the world. Religion generates the dominance of theoretical knowledge and it creates a way of going-about predominantly guided by knowing-about. For Indian culture, ritual lends identity to its configuration of learning, this culture imparts practical knowledge, and performative knowledge dominates there.

In Reconceptualizing, Balagangadhara defends the use of ‘culture’ in the sense of a configuration of learning for a comparative science of cultures. In doing so, he dismisses some standard objections to its use as articulated in anthropological theorizing, and he enables us to see how a derivative instance of it proves useful. Elaborating on what it means to be ‘cultural’, he shows how this adjectival use allows us to individuate culture when considering how a person uses the resources of his socialization. Important for comparative studies is Balagangadhara’s question regarding the work that cultural differences do. In other words: what kind of difference is cultural difference and what difference does it make? “Some difference between individuals is a cultural difference if it entails a specific way of using the resources of socialization.” This deceptively simple formulation carries enormous potential because it allows Balagangadhara to isolate what is a cultural as opposed to a psychological or social difference in any set of anthropological accounts. In Reconceptualizing, this provides the opening for Balagangadhara to embark on a series of case studies evaluating how the encounter between Western and Indian cultures tells us something important about both.

Produced nearly two decades earlier, The Heathen is a sustained meditation on the same question but studied through the problem of religion and, specifically, the claim that religion is a cultural universal. The Heathen furnishes a major set of insights, yet to be exploited by the academic world. That should not be that surprising, considering that Balagangadhara has sustained a research programme despite the context of Western dominance, with its in-built proclivities for dismissing certain kinds of questions as being unimportant. Yet Balagangadhara has identified key components of Western culture through his study of religion and has been able to demonstrate their importance in structuring the Western experience of the world. The Heathen is where we find the basis of the argument that there is a discontinuity of epistemology between Western and the pagan settings of Greece, Rome and India. It is the kind of epistemological discontinuity that depends on very different configurations of learning. In The Heathen we find an explanation for why accounts generated about other cultures by the West cannot provide a factual description of those cultures. This is also where we find substantiated why Western culture finds it necessary to think of other cultures as being its variants. This is where we find the basis for the claim that India is a corrupt culture, which is where the variation bites. All themes find further elaboration and deepening in Reconceptualizing.

The key is religion. Religion is an explanatory intelligible account of itself and the cosmos. As such religion fuses a causal and an intentional account. The reason why the universe came about is because God intended it to be so. The reason why religion came about lies in the same source: God’s intention. Judaism, Christianity and Islam share such a claim, which is why they are the only instances of religion we have. They are also the best instance of what a worldview is; it seems that only religions have worldviews. Multiple things follow from Balagangadhara’s identification of the West as a culture constituted by religion. Having religion means that other cultures are also seen as having rival religions, whether or not they have religion at all. It is the fulfilment of a theological claim in Christianity that all cultures have religion. As the West explored, colonized and expanded, religions were found elsewhere. This did not depend on empirical investigation; Westerners found what they already expected to find. The dominant configuration of learning to which religion gave rise led to the suppression of contrary evidence. No society was permitted to be without religion, although different kinds of religion could be admitted. When Westerners accumulated evidence about India, the heathenism their theology spoke of Indians practising was further developed into the different religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. This claim has now been secularized because this is also what the social sciences tell us today about India. Theological claims have become the ‘facts’ of contemporary theories.

In this way religions were ‘constructed’ in India and other parts of the pagan world. But what is the ontological status of such constructions? This is where we can start to unpack the epistemological discontinuities between the West and pagan cultures. If members of one culture consistently claim that another culture has religion, namely, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, does that give rise to the existence of religions in that culture? Prior to contact with the Semitic religions, Indian culture possessed neither explanatory intelligible accounts nor worldviews. The multiplicity and inconsistency of stories of ‘creation’ in Indian culture is testament to that. How does the experience of one culture, the West, which says that another culture, the Indian, which the former experiences as having religion somehow endow Indians with religion? Balagangadhara tackles this basic problem by showing that while the West must experience other cultures as having religion, because that is entailed by how the West structures its experience of them, it does not follow that those cultures are somehow endowed with it. He saves our experience of Asian cultures as having religion by showing why we need to think that, even though it is not so. This is fatal to the claims of those who proclaim the existence of Hinduism. It also undermines the claim of those who might accept that there was nothing like Hinduism prior to colonialism, but still insist that there is something like that now. Those Indians and Westerners who say that Hinduism always existed, perhaps in the form of dharma, have a problem because they need to show how dharma is identical to an entity imagined by the West. These claims about Hinduism are hallucinatory because they require that the imagination of one culture have the effect of constituting religion in another. Many Indians, including those in the diaspora today, talk as though Hinduism exists and is a religion, but they do not know what this means to Westerners.

Constructing religions in Asia is merely a part of what Orientalism is. As Balagangadhara elaborates in Reconceptualizing, Orientalism is the structuring in the experience of one culture, the West, of the Orient, which is the experiential entity. As such, while it may be full of rich and elaborate accounts, it is also an imaginative and structuring exercise on the part of the West. It tells us something about how the Western culture structures its experience. This is how Balagangadhara offers a re-reading of Said’s Orientalism, observing that Said provides an Archimedean point from which to reorient the way the world appears to a former colonial because it makes the familiar unfamiliar. It forces us to reckon with the realization that Orientalist accounts do not provide a factual description of Oriental societies and cultures at all, but a representation of how the West brings together certain phenomena, according to how it structures its experience of the world. Just as the Western accounts brought unrelated items and put them together to constitute something now known as Hinduism, so the West has performed a similar operation with so many other dimensions of knowledge. Differing from Said, however, Balagangadhara argues that the social sciences as currently practiced cannot correct Orientalism by the furnishing of new evidence as they are completely tied to Orientalism, just as Orientalism is supported by the social sciences. It cannot be corrected by adducing factual evidence because the basis of its structuring enterprise lies elsewhere. Decorating Orientalism more elaborately does not disrupt its basic structure. According to the same logic, doing better studies of Hinduism will not disrupt the imaginative entity that it is; they will simply decorate it.

An important dimension of this structuring process takes us back to the religion that Christianity is. It lends identity to the Western culture and acts as its root model of order. The explanatory intelligible account which religion is acts as the model of learning and thus teaches that humans are intentional beings and that beliefs lie behind human practices. In The Heathen, Balagangadhara locates this manoeuvre in Christianity’s early encounter with the Roman pagan milieu in which it found itself, when it had to defend itself against pagan criticism. Christianity, it was said, was novel, and not like the ancestral practices of the pagan traditions, which went back to the ancient past. Christians responded by claiming that their doctrines were ancient, representing a move by religion against tradition which has played a crucial role ever since. In so defending themselves, Christians had completely transformed the pagan question regarding tradition. The pagans argued on the basis of the antiquity of their practices. Christians took a stand on the antiquity of their doctrines on which, they claimed, their practices were based. The reference for religio, which for pagans was traditio, was thereby transformed by Christians. Belief and doctrine dominates, explains and justifies practices, a way of knowing about human beings that expanded and became rooted as Christianity did.

It is important to observe here that religion requires practices to be justified, founded and defended by reference to doctrines. The ancient pagan traditions and the Indian traditions that Christians encountered did not justify or ground practices in that way. Behind their traditions lay ancestral practices. They were part of ordinary human knowledge passed on from generation to generation, naturally changing in the process. This could refer to knowledge of a slice of the world. They did not claim the kind of knowledge that religion did, which was not ordinary human knowledge at all, but the truth revealed by God. Because it presented itself as God’s revelation, religion could also claim to possess an all-encompassing view of the world, rather than partial knowledge of slices of the world. When cultures that have religion speak of human practices they refer to something different from those who do not have religion. Again, there is a discontinuity. Given that descriptions about human practices are framed around the configuration of learning of a religious culture, an asymmetrical relationship between Western and Indian cultures arises. The Heathen goes on to show that when Christians encountered India, they also sought foundations for Indian practices in their doctrines. They sought out the content of Indian beliefs in their scriptures. A study of these lay behind the identification of the different religions, which sprang out of the earlier framework which had merely told of the heathenism and rank idolatry of the Indians. Paying attention to the scriptures allowed the identification of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as distinct, albeit false religions. Hinduism in particular became identified as the false religion of India. Brahmins got identified as the ‘priests’ of this religion. They kept people in ignorance of the true religion, which the Indians once had. Christian theology had said that all peoples were given the revelation; the Vedas were the Indian version. Brahmins corrupted it by fooling people into following idolatrous practices. These involved worshipping Satan and his minions, the false gods of Hinduism. Not worshipping the true God, but the devil, is what made Hinduism a false religion.

Christians also had another problem with the Brahmins. Hinduism was a corrupt religion and the Brahmins, its false priests. They were also identified as preventing people from converting to Christianity. The caste system, believed to have been instituted by the Brahmins, was part of the problem. That system only served to underline the corruption of Indian society and culture, even though this corruption was not to do with any socio-economic assessment of caste, which was never made. To be sure India has jatis until today. However, as indicated in Reconceptualizing, it remains a mystery what made the caste system into a system and what kept such a system in place. Alongside these mysteries, however, there is also the conviction in the West, and shared by many an Indian since the colonial period, that such a thing as the caste system exists, it is an evil, and it underlies the corrupt social structure of Indian society, such that the immoral practice of caste discrimination is made obligatory. From this framework sprang explanations of the necessity of Buddhism, which was a protest against Hinduism and its caste system. In The Heathen, Balagangadhara shows how this could not have been the case as dialogues attributed to the Buddha concerning the nature of Brahminhood point to how ‘caste’ was presupposed in them as part of the background framework. Still the version of Buddhism as a protest movement is the frame according to which it is widely understood. This applies equally to the various bhakti movements, which tend to be viewed as protest movements against ‘Brahmanism’ of one sort or another. This again underscores how accounts infused with Christian theological assumptions have gained widespread currency in the social sciences and elsewhere.

At various points so far, we have had occasion to notice that much of the Orientalist account of Indian society was and is accepted by Indians. This is often proclaimed as evidence of the continuity between Western and Indian cultures. There is no rupture of understanding and, where the Orientalist or colonial accounts have been wrong, as post-colonial scholars tend to claim, facts need to be supplied to correct them. However, we have also noticed that theological assumptions are part and parcel of Orientalism as well as theorizing in the social sciences. The Christian-Orientalist story about non-Western cultures on its own was never actually convincing on cognitive grounds. For instance, both The Heathen and Reconceptualizing show how Christian accounts of Indian society were often resisted by Indian interlocutors who argued, from within their framework, that it was not necessary for them to accept the Christian story or to convert. That religion suited Westerners just as the Indian traditions suited Indians. At some point, however, the Christian-Orientalist account did become acceptable to Indian intellectuals. They accepted the terms on which Westerners described their societies, including accounts of its backwardness, its corruption, its deficient religions, its caste system, and so on. This phenomenon extends to intellectuals of independent India. How can we explain this? 

To do so, Balagangadhara deploys the concept of ‘colonial consciousness’ in Reconceptualizing. This refers to the effect of colonialism upon the colonized. He shows that colonialism is not just a political and economic enterprise, but also an educational project. Colonialism forces the colonized to accept the Western experience of his culture as his own. It is not convincing on rational or cognitive grounds, so the Western experience is made acceptable to the colonized by force or violence. This is why the colonial project is an educational project and why it succeeds to the extent that it survives formal decolonization. The colonial regime’s attempted substitution of the colonizer’s experience for that of the colonized, using violence, also makes it an immoral project. However, although the colonized accepts the colonizer’s experience as his own, neither his own experience of the world nor that of the colonizer is truly accessible to him. Both the Indian and Western cultures are alien to him. Balagangadhara exhorts Indians to first accept the fact of being colonized in this sense rather than jumping to ‘explain’, in distorted ways, the nature of Indian culture. Indians have to mount a critique of colonial consciousness before they can move to the next level. Simply mimicking the West, as post-colonials might argue for, is also immoral because it accepts, justifies and celebrates what the colonizer said: that the colonized is untrustworthy. Mimicry merely underwrites the inauthenticity of the colonized.

The asymmetrical relationship between the Indian and Western cultures, already noted, is concretized further in Reconceptualizing through a series of case studies from contemporary descriptions of Indian culture. These accounts also speak of dialogues in the context of asymmetry and violence. The kinds of violence spoken of are exemplified in the psychoanalytical accounts given in books by American academics, Courtright on Ganesha and Kripal on Ramakrishna. The violence ascribed to such books is considered psychic in nature because it surfaces in dialogical moves within asymmetrical conditions. On the surface, the accounts provided by the writers portray their subjects as exhibiting some sort of repressed sexuality. It also provokes reactions in terms of threats of or actual violence and criticism, not only on the part of Hindutvavadins. They feel there is something wrong in the accounts provided by the authors but are, at the same time, forced into a position of having to come up with rival theories to account for why the authors are wrong to write in the way they do. That Courtright’s and Kripal’s accounts of their subjects are based on the ad hoc attribution of certain psychological states is easily demonstrated by Balagangadhara. But he goes further to explain why the kind of dialogical moves they engage in silence Hindus even as they are provoked into outrage. He shows that the argumentation involves a number of moves that also prove why the burden on the Hindus is asymmetrical. The authors attribute implicit premises to the Hindus; these attributed premises are transformed into explanatory schemes of which the scholar assumes the truth; the explanations also place the phenomena discussed within a structure; the Hindus are logically compelled to defend the moves by the scholars. In such dialogical manoeuvres lie a number of unproven assumptions of which the protagonist does not have to demonstrate the truth, thus underwriting the skewed nature of the dialogue. Yet the Hindus are forced to take a pre-dialogical position by having to take stand on the explanatory adequacy of the psychoanalytical theories. In such contexts, dialogues may not be antidotes to violence; in asymmetrical situations, they may actually provoke it.

The constraints of a review do not allow the sharing of much more in the contents of both books. Balagangadhara discusses the twin dynamic of Christianity of proselytization and secularization; how the West remains a religious culture; how the secular state may provoke religious conflict in a predominantly pagan milieu like India; how Indians lack normative thinking; and how the criterion of reasonableness in normative political theory is only accessible to those who share a common Western history. The Heathen tells us how a comparative science of cultures would look like by plotting the differences between the Western and an Asian culture, the Indian. Reconceptualizing takes that agenda further through a number of contemporary problems on which further light is shed when they are recast as part of a larger comparative science of cultures. The promise of the first is partly fulfilled in the second, although much more clearly remains to be done. The books under review should constitute a serious challenge, but they are also an inspiration. One hopes that Asian scholars are listening.


  • Dr. Prakash Shah

    Dr Prakash Shah specializes in cultural diversity and law, religion and law, caste and law, immigration, refugee and nationality law, and comparative law. He has published widely and lectured internationally in these fields. Dr Shah joined Queen Mary, University of London in 2002, where he is now a Reader of Culture and Law.

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