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Being Different
An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism

By Rajiv Malhotra

Book Excerpt: Introduction

I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.

This book is about how India differs from the West. It aims to challenge certain cherished notions, such as the assumptions that Western paradigms are universal and that the dharmic traditions teach 'the same thing' as Jewish and Christian ones. For while the Vedas say, 'truth is one, paths are many', the differences among those paths are not inconsequential. I will argue that the dharmic traditions, while not perfect, offer perspectives and techniques for a genuinely pluralistic social order and a full integration of many different faiths, including atheism and science. They also offer models for environmental sustainability and education for the whole being that are invaluable to our emerging world. The book hopes to set the terms for a deeper and more informed engagement between dharmic and Western civilizations.

In making these arguments, I may be accused of using broad definitions, generalizations and extreme contrasts. When I speak of 'the West' vs 'India', or the 'Judeo—Christian religions' vs the 'dharma traditions', I am well aware that I may be indulging in the kind of essentialism that postmodern thinkers have correctly challenged. I am also aware that such large categories comprise multiple traditions which are separate and often opposed.1 I view these terms as family resemblances and guides, not as reified or immutable entities. Furthermore, most people do understand them as pointing to actual entities with distinct spiritual and cosmological orientations, even if they can only be defined in opposition to one another. The terms can thus be used as entry points for debate and as foils to contrast both sides, which may help deepen our understanding.

To be more precise, 'the West' is used in this book to refer to the cultures and civilizations stemming from a rather forced fusion of the biblical traditions of ancient Israel and the classical ones of Greece and Rome. My focus here is on American history and culture, because they are most exemplary of the Western identity today. I investigate European history primarily to uncover the roots of the West's self—understanding and approach to India, and I give special attention to the role of Germany in shaping the Western approach to dharma.

'India' here refers both to the modern nation and to the civilization from which it emerged. For reasons to be discussed at length, I do not follow the current fashion for 'deconstructing' Indian identity into its constituent parts, or for 'breaking India', as I have called the process in my previous book.

As for the term 'Judeo—Christian', it is a hybrid which does make some Jews and Christians uncomfortable, because it lumps together very different and often sharply opposed religions. I try to avoid using this hybrid where a distinction is important. Nevertheless, this term is useful in designating a religious paradigm that is common to both, particularly with regard to the central importance given to historical revelation. (This paradigm is also found in a different form in Islam, but I do not deal with Islam in this volume.)