By assuming the mantle of the originators and bearers of universal truths – both sacred and secular – the West has often embarked on and justified programs, missions and schemes to bring the rest of mankind around to it’s own worldview. I use the metaphors of “tiger” and “deer” to illustrate the process of what I call the “digestion” of one culture by another, carried out under the guise of a desire to assimilate, reduce differences and assert sameness. The key point being made is that the digested culture disappears. This digestion is analogous to the food consumed by a host, in that what is useful gets reformulated into the host’s body, while that which doesn’t quite fit the host’s structure is eliminated as waste.
Just as the tiger, a predator, would, the West, a dominant and aggressive culture dismembers the weaker one – the deer – into parts from which it picks and chooses pieces that it wants to appropriate; the appropriated elements get mapped onto the language and social structures of the dominant civilization’s own history and paradigms, leaving little if any trace of the links to the source tradition. The civilization that was thus “mined” and consumed gets depleted of its cultural and social capital, because the appropriated elements are then shown to be disconnected from and even in conflict with the source civilization. Finally, the vanquished prey – the deer – enters the proverbial museum as yet another dead creature (i.e. a dead culture), ceasing to pose a threat to the dominant one.
Such cultural appropriation may at first appear as the meeting of equal cultures; however, while at the level of popular culture it may be so, at the deeper levels, where the core assumptions of a civilization reside, the playing field is tilted. After being digested, what is left of a civilization is waste material to be removed and trashed. While the “tiger” or the host (the West) is strengthened, the living identity of the “deer” disappears forever. The prey is thus lost, its generative capacities gone. Eventually, to take the metaphor further, the entire species of “deer” gets rendered extinct, thereby diminishing the diversity of our world.
There are several examples of civilizations becoming digested by some other civilization. Many symbols, rituals and ideas came to Christianity from the so-called pagans (pre-Christian Europeans), but these pagan faiths were demonized and destroyed in the process. Native Americans gave numerous riches to the European colonizers – including potatoes, tomatoes, material wealth, fertile lands – but these original discoverers and citizens of the Americas lost their own way of life, and have ended up in museums as exotic artifacts, or as drunken people living on isolated reservations. Egyptian civilization was digested into Greece, and before that some of the African civilizations had been digested into Egypt. In each case, the side getting digested was compromised, marginalized and eventually ceased to be a living, thriving civilization. Today, before our very eyes, Tibetan civilization is being digested into China by a very aggressive and deliberate strategic plan.
Digestion has often started off as a “romance” for the prey, sometimes with good intentions. This is why one has to develop a wide angle view of history and not limit oneself to a small slice of it. For instance, in the late 1700s, Herder and other Europeans were called Romanticists and they loved everything Indian and considered India as their ancestral homeland. But what happened to that movement? Unfortunately, most scholars have discussed the romantic stage only, and failed to examine why this romance was short lived. The Romanticists served as “good-cops” who (like the enzymes in the digestive tract) loosened the subject matter and made it more user-friendly and generically accessible by the mainstream. This was followed by the “bad-cops” who dismissed dharma rather aggressively. In Herder’s time the chief bad-cop was Hegel who had extensive debates with the Romanticists, using them to deliver translations and interpretations of Indian classics from which he digested selectively and excreted (rejected) what did not fit his new formulations. After Hegel, a whole movement sprang up across Germany, England and France to actively digest from the Sanskrit classics into numerous European fields of knowledge. By the mid 1800s, they felt they had mined dharma enough and started to down-size Sanskrit studies gradually, and by early 20th c. Sanskrit was rapidly declining in European universities. The love affair lasted for roughly a century.
All along, there were European good-cops in India, such as the “White Mughals” described in the book by William Dalrymple with that title. These Englishmen wore Indian clothes, adopted Indian names and lifestyles, married Indian women and often sided with the Indians in their disputes with Europeans. This syndrome was an exact replica of the good-cops of the 1600s in America, who were whites abandoning the European “settlements” to live with the Native Americans in the “frontier” – they, too, married native women, learnt their language and style of hunting and living. The good-cops sometimes even took up arms to help the Native Americans fight against white aggression. But in the end all such good-cops dissipated in front of the much tougher bad-cops: The good-cops of the American frontier either withered away or slipped out of sight when the going got tough, or they were bought off by white Americans to return home, or they made some excuses to convince the natives to accept whatever “deal” was available from the bad-cops because defeat was inevitable. They were simply not as invested as in native culture as the natives were. The romance was a phase in their lives that they could easily leave behind, and many of them became wealthy and popular icons in the Wild West literature – sort of like the Indiana Jones character in the movies today. I am convinced that the experience of Englishmen in the American frontier in the 1600s and 1700s later played out on Indian soil in the colonial era. Many of them spent their entire lives appreciating dharma, eventually to remap it on to Western frameworks in the name of spreading “universalism”.
To avoid misunderstandings that I am blaming all Westerners, I wish to clarify that the syndrome being mentioned does not exist in every single Western scholar or journeyman who ventures into Indian spirituality. Indeed, many have been extremely sincere in their pursuit and been able to transcend the boundaries and identities as Westerners. Some of the finest contributions to Indology and the revival of Indian spiritual traditions has been the work of such Westerners. The dynamics being discussed do not require every Western’s participation or even most Westerners. Like all trends and fashions, a small number of influence leaders can make a big difference.
There have been numerous such periods of “romance” with Indian spirituality, but each time short lived. All this is detailed in my forthcoming uturn book. I show that the same cycle (of romance-digestion-rejection) has repeated many times. The 1960s new age hippie movement was of this kind. It led to numerous parts of dharma getting digested – yoga, meditation, feminine divinity, vegetarianism, animal rights, etc. At first it seemed to be a genuine love for India, but in the long run it was unsustainable. It turned into another large scale mining expedition to hunt and mine for what could be sent back home to the West as original “discoveries” by the Western intermediaries. In the process, the source traditions got erased. For instance, Indian gurus of the 60s were held larger than life in USA, but their clout lasted only for one generation. Today, white gurus, many of who were followers of the Indian gurus, have taken over as the new icons, and are producing new formulations for digestion into Western frameworks. This digested version is more popular because it is seen as part of Western history with the new Western gurus seen as the pioneers. The good-cops found careers as the new gurus.
I want to differentiate between this kind of digestion and the way Greek civilization has been assimilated into “Western” classics without losing track of the sources. While many Indian thinkers, texts and ideas got digested into so-called “European Enlightenment”, and the Indian sources got replaced with Western ones, the same is not true of Greek civilization. It is fashionable in intellectual circles and in the academy to study and cite Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and numerous other great classical thinkers of Greece, who are now regarded as a part and parcel of the “West”. But in classical times, the Greeks did not see themselves as a part of Northern European culture and referred to the northerners as the Occidental “other”, while Europeans referred to the Greeks as part of the “Orient”.
Here lies the difference between Indian and Greek civilizations’ respective relationship with the West: When the modern West was formulated, Greece was included as a part of it. Hence, there has been no need to replace Greek sources with other Western substitutes – the Greeks got reclassified as Western Classics. But when India was mined for source materials, it remained the non-Western other in Western eyes. India was too different, too far, and too massive to be included within the West. Hence, Indian sources of valuable knowledge were mapped on to Western substitutes. This is why the academy today does not teach Kapil, Bharat, Kautilya, Bharthrhari, Panini, Patanjali, Nagarjuna, Shankara, Abhinavagupta, and dozens of other great Indian thinkers on par with Greek thinkers. The Greeks are part of the West’s imagined selfhood while the Indians are not. Therefore, I use the term “assimilation” to describe the experience of appropriating Greece, contrasted with digestion. The assimilation was not destructive of the Greek sources. The book explains this distinction further.
It is important here to appreciate that India as a land and people are to be left behind, while India’s knowledge systems are attractive for digestion. To try and digest a billion Indians into the West would destroy the purity of what it means to be the West. This is how prior digestions of others have worked: the people got genocided (Native Americans) or enslaved (Africans) or colonized (Indians), while at the same time whatever was considered valuable in them was separated (often by good-cops) and digested. Hypothetically, had India been adjacent to Europe and with a small population, the case would have been made to admit them as Westerners and treat their great classics on par with Greek classics. But this would be impractical under the actual circumstances and any attempt would endanger the separate identity of the West as such.
While there is a combination of romance and frenzy to appropriate the “useful” and saleable elements from the prey, what causes the erasure of the source can be a combination of factors. Some of these factors are as follows:
- The source tradition is simply neglected, while resources to research and propagate the knowledge are allocated to spread the Westernized version of the digested knowledge. Here the destruction is a passive process, by atrophy and not by hostility.
- The appropriation results in the claim that the new digested version in the Western framework is superior, and supersedes the source version, thereby making the source redundant and obsolete.
- The next generation of students and scholars gets mis-educated through textbooks and coursework that privileges the new dominant view.
- There can be the explicit rejection of the Indian source as flawed. Common flaws that are cited include: that dharma is world-negating and other worldly, making it incapable of progress and advancement; that the dharma’s DNA is characterized by abuses like caste, male domination, and other social abuses.
- Repeated negative “branding” is used systematically to instill a fear of guilt by association with such a damned culture. Consequently, Indian youth want to shun any links with such an identity. This further causes a drop in funding of Indian traditions, and in the quality/quantity of students available to pursue careers in such a classical tradition.
I also want to point out that Indian civilization did spread across much of Asia, but in a manner that is different than imperialism, colonialism or conquest. While many Asian nations sent their brightest students to places like Nalanda university in India to bring back knowledge (in the same manner as students today are sent to the US Ivy Leagues), this knowledge transfer was never imposed or pushed from the Indian side. At a time when India had the material resources and power to do so, it never tried to appoint governors or tax collectors in another country, or to replace their names, language and identity with its own. In other words, there was no attempt to digest others or harm their own national identity.
I will now address the issue that is commonly raised, namely, that every culture has borrowed from others, and hence the same kind of digestion is being done by everyone. Why am I making a big deal out of the digestion of Indian civilization into the West, some people ask? My response is that there is a difference between digestion and assimilation. Most examples that people cite are about assimilation, not digestion, because the source tradition does not get destroyed during the process. When there is an asymmetry of power between the parties involved in the exchange, the implications of exchange are shaped by this power equation. For instance:
- Native Americans also borrowed many things from the white settlers – horses, liquor, guns, for instance. But the natives lacked the power to destroy the white culture. The borrowings in the reverse direction had an entirely different implication.
- One can cite examples of Indians learning from Westerners and assimilating these ideas as part of Indian thought. However, India did not take over the global language, institutional apparatus, discourse and grand narrative of history. Indian siddhantas (philosophical theories) did not assume the status of universalism in the same manner as European thought did. Hence the implications of Indian assimilations are not the same as those of digestion by the West.
- When women entered the American workforce in the 1960s, men had the power, and the women’s imitation of men at work was not because women were digesting men. Women did not have the power to do so. Hence, while there was women’s mimicry of men, it was not a case of digestion. In fact, one could argue that for a certain period of time, the women were the ones being digested into the man’s world.
Secondly, it is incorrect to say that I oppose all the other kinds of assimilation from being the subject of scholarship. The fact is that the history of ideas as written by Western historians is filled with how the West influenced others, rarely the other way around. In fact, even since Hegel, world history has largely been depicted as the story of what the West did to itself and to others, as though the non-West lacked agency. Therefore, it should not be seen as a problem if some works like mine focus on the flow of influence in the opposite direction. I do not oppose works that bring out assimilations (and even digestions) in which the West is not the predator. Let many directions of research flourish and interact. I cannot imagine trying to dominate the discourse on the history of ideas, but merely wish to add one more dimension to it, and my work should not be over interpreted or over generalized. In other words, there is no implication in my theory of digestion of India into the West that other trajectories and flows of influence have not existed or that those trajectories do not matter.
Writers of African, Native American, European Pagan, and Tibetan traditions have written on their respective experiences in a similar fashion. Modern Islamic and Chinese scholars have been writing on their traditions’ unacknowledged contributions to the West and to the world. I see nothing wrong with an Indian wanting to do the same for India.
In Being Different, I discuss that large aspects of today’s global culture are in fact founded on the values and beliefs that emerged under Western domination of the world in the past 500 years, and these in turn are founded on the values and beliefs that emerged from the unique historical and religious experience of the peoples of European origin. This is why the popular view that the world is flat is only partially correct, for much of this “flatness” is in fact the result of the West digesting other civilizations.
The motive for my writings is not to oppose cross-cultural interactions and exchanges, but quite the opposite. The mutual borrowings are desirable and inevitable. My hope is that by examining the processes in greater depth than they have been examined, my work shall help in the following ways:
- Westerners contemplating a journey into Indian traditions would benefit from knowing upfront the tradeoffs that they are likely to face – such as the challenge to Judeo-Christian history centrism and claims of exclusivity.
- Gurus as suppliers of knowledge would become more savvy and responsible to counsel their Western followers on such matters. They would deal with the Western sense of historical identity that is installed through education and mass culture. In other words, gurus should stop assuming that their Western students come like a clean slate free of collective identity fixations. They must do purva paksha (gazing at the West) to better understand their client base’s pre-conditioning that would have to be addressed.
- Writers and thinkers on both sides of the exchange would be able to better differentiate between two ways of harvesting the fruits of another civilization: (a) by nurturing the roots, or (b) by trashing the roots.
- The upside of all this would be that more and better quality of cross-cultural exchange would take place in an atmosphere of inter-cultural ahimsa, non-harming. Being Different is the cultural equivalent of biodiversity. It seeks to stop the atrophy of any endangered civilization.