Challenging Western Universalism

One of the most important objectives of my recent book, Being Different, An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism (HarperCollins, 2011) is to refute Western claims of universalism. According to these claims, the West is both the driver of history and the ultimate, desirable destination of the entire world.  The West purportedly provides the ideal template to which all other civilizations and cultures must contort, be pruned, trimmed or reconfigured to fit, or else be eliminated or sidelined by some means.

Of course, universalism cannot be Western, Chinese, French or any other. That wouldn’t really be universal but only a particular culture’s perception and lived experience of the world.  The phrase “Western Universalism” is an oxymoron and I use it to highlight the hubris of this mindset. Rather than view it’s own culture as one that is the product of the unique history, geography, climate, myths, sacred literature, religion, empires and conflicts of ethnic groups and tribes of the North-Western hemisphere of the globe (a group that comprises less than 20% of humanity, and is shrinking), it assumes that it’s knowledge systems, epistemologies, history, myths and religions should be the norm for all of the world’s peoples!

This mindset neglects the unique trajectories and lessons learnt by other civilizations which in turn have been affected by their own geographies, histories (in many cases dating far beyond Western history), religious and spiritual traditions. The unique experiences of different cultures are not always inter-changeable. Yet the West, so certain that the shape and direction of world history should lead to Western goals – be it salvation or secular progress – tends to superimpose it’s own cultural paradigms, often through force, upon other cultures.

Ensconced thus in the drivers seat, with its undeniably ethnocentric blueprint of what the world should look like, the Western collective ego has embarked on scores of missions – religious and secular (colonization), to bring about this Westernization.  When such attempts collide with contrasting and contradictory worldviews, the response has been one of many tactics – acculturation, religious conversion, colonization, isolation, disparagement, genocide and appropriation. What matters most in this process is that Western identity must remain perpetually at the helm of human affairs, it’s own grand narrative further strengthened at each encounter, and the rest of the world only the frontier for it to play out it’s manifest destiny. The cultural fruits of other civilizations are appropriated, seen as useful, destined to fit and enrich the western template, but the cultures themselves are left uprooted and barren, their coherence and fecundity shattered.  When the unity of a culture is thus broken, a select few parts taken, possibly refurbished and plugged into a Western taxonomy, that act is nothing short of systematic dispossession and an act of cultural genocide.

There are many reasons, beyond the scope of this blog but discussed at length in my book, for the grand claims made by the West to justify its pre-eminent place in the world. Both Hebraism (the Judeo-Christian heritage) and Hellenism (the Greek heritage), with their emphasis on duality and binary values, have contributed greatly to Western identity and supremacy. The search to define, fortify and aggrandize identities and legacies was also a result of the conflict and competition among rival European tribes and ethnicities. Until the relatively recent coalescing of all Europeans as “Westerners” (where the “rest” became the other), competition and enmity was fierce among such groups as the French, the Italians, the Germans etc. for cultural and civilizational clout.  In fact, Hegel, the German thinker and philosopher who has had a far reaching impact on Western identity, did so through his attempts to initially construct an identity for the Germans  who had lost out in the pecking order to the French and Italians in the initial rounds of  such nationalistic identity construction. He emerged as one of the most towering figures of European thought and developed a powerful and influential philosophy of history which included the past, present and future of all civilizations represented in a single, linear template. According to Hegel, there is a World Spirit (Weltgeist) that journeys through a series of stages until it reaches the highest form of self-realization.  This spirit evolves from lower to higher forms as nations of the world, placing the various nations at different stages of evolution. He declared his template to be a universal one and on such a universal template, history moved from East to West, with Europe as the penultimate end of universal history. Asia (Near-East) was the beginning and India in his world view had “no history” at all.  According to Hegel, only the West had been endowed with reason and thus entitled to be in the driver’s seat as part of God’s plan, destined to be the central agent of world history.

On such racist and ethnocentric views has been based a good deal of Western identity, leading to later justifications of colonization and conversions. Hegelian views concerning India’s “lack of history” are at the root of much of the past dismissal of India and they shape attitudes toward India even today. Hegel blinded the West to the parochialism of its supposed universals and consolidated the discourse on what was wrong about India. The degree to which Western scholarship has been influenced by his linear theory of history (including many Marxist and humanist accounts of history and the various philosophies built on such accounts) is truly amazing. Hegel’s theory of history has led to liberal Western supremacy, which hides behind the notion of providing the “universals”.  These European Enlightenment presuppositions became embedded in academia, philosophy, social theories and even scientific methodologies. Later on, these influences informed Indology and they haunt South Asian Studies today.

In Being Different, I challenge this Western penchant of universalizing its own norms. I’ve explicated some key differences between the West and Indian civilization, and I offer that these differences, once acknowledged rather than obliterated, could bring new paradigms for solving the pressing issues of our time.


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