Of Niti, Nyaya, Bhagavad-Gita and Misrepresentations
Thanks to Sh Ashok Chowgule-ji for alerting me to this excerpt from an interview of Prof Amartya Sen in a recent issue of Outlook (emphasis added):
Question: In your new book, The Idea of Justice, you speak a lot about the difference between niti (institutional justice) and nyaya (realised justice). Do you think we have too much niti in India and too little nyaya?
Prof Amrtya Sen: The short answer is yes. Niti has huge appeal and this applies to the great as well as to the non-great. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna’s position has much to commend it. I am not saying he should not have fought the war, but his doubts were not dismissable, in the way that Krishna dismissed them. Krishna is clearly a niti person.
How peculiar it is that someone as non-violent as Gandhiji, who was very inspired by the Gita, was on the side of Krishna, who is making Arjuna fight a war and kill people, when Arjuna is saying maybe I shouldn’t kill! The Mahabharata ends with success, but also with grief, desolation, with women weeping for their lost men and funeral pyres burning in unison.
As Sh Chowgule mentioned in his email, this response perhaps came from a flawed understanding of the Bhagwad-Gita.
Bhagwaan Shri Krishna DID NOT make Arjun fight a war and kill people. The war was thrust on the Pandavas because justice was being denied to them. Shri Krishna answered the doubts of Arjun in a logical and spiritual way. (The doubts of Arjun were not on the issue of whether to fight or not. It was how he would feel when, in the process, he would be killing people whom he grew up with, people who taught him so much in his life, etc.)
Shri Krishna pointed out to Arjun that it was the latter’s duty to fight for justice, otherwise bullies would have had a field day in terrorising the people.
Gandhiji understood this and that is why he was on the side of Shri Krishna.
Prof Sen’s understanding of the Gita is no different from what many American ‘scholars’ of Hinduism propagate. The Queen Bee in this field, Prof Wendy Doniger, has been quoted by Philadelphia Inquirer (November 19, 1999) as follows:
“The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata … Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviours such as war…. The Gita is
a dishonest book; it justifies war. ..I’m a pacifist. I don’t believe in ‘good’ wars.”
Though she denies this quote, without saying what she actually said, eight years later she wrote:
“The Bhagavad Gita, one of the major texts of Hinduism today, is a conversation in which the incarnate god Krishna persuades the hero Arjuna to fight in a war against his friends and cousins, a war from which Arjuna had recoiled.
This tendency to rush in with opinions and judgements on the subtle (and not so subtle) aspects of Hinduism without understanding their deeper socio-cultural context is hardly limited to Prof Doniger.
And yet, sadly – in spite of their biases (and in some cases, ignorance) – western academicians who speak on Hinduism are usually considered to be more authoritative than Indians themselves…Part of this can be explained by an inferiority complex I feel we (as Indians) still harbour…and one other (possibly major) reason could be that they have set the tone and defined the idiom when it comes to studies on Indology.
Not surprisingly (as a recent example), India Today’s Independence Day special issue which I chanced upon recently, has Prof Doniger waxing eloquent on Hinduism (“Why the Gods Can’t Fail” under “Politics of Hinduism”, Pg 32, Issue dt Aug 24, ’09). You will rarely find Rajiv Malhotra receiving the same *star* treatment – in spite of the enormous work he has done in helping promote a better understanding of Hinduism.
I was actually prompted to publish this post after reading one of Rajiv’s old blog posts (thanks to Sanjay Anandaram for alerting me to it). The post was written in 2004 but has all the crispness of a contemporary discussion. Excerpts from Dialog on Whiteness Studies below (emphasis mine):
This column is a conversation with Jeff Hitchcock, a liberal white American who specializes in studying white culture. I hope to bring Indians and Indianness into this vibrant debate, and to use whiteness as the context in which to re-examine various issues concerning Indian identity and culture.
…For years, I have wanted to start a new discipline, which I had tentatively called Westology, to study the West in the same manner as Indology was started in the 19th century by outsiders to study India.
But luckily, I came across an exciting new academic field that already does much of what I had envisioned in Westology. This field is called Whiteness Studies (or White Studies), and is taught in over 30 US colleges. For instance, in Princeton University, an undergraduate course on Whiteness is among the most popular courses in the entire university, and the vast majority of students taking it are whites who want to better understand themselves.
…A central concept of this discipline is white privilege, which has been defined as “a package of benefits, granted to people in our society who have white skin, which allows them certain free passes to certain things in our society that are not easily available to people of color.
In his speech, The New Abolitionism, Noel Ignatiev said, “Race is not a biological but a social category. The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of white skin. The most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system…Just as the capitalist system is not a capitalist plot, racial oppression is not the work of racists.”
…The goal of White Studies is to neither demonize nor glorify whiteness, but to understand it, and to give white culture its rightful place among the various cultures of the world. The idea is to show that though whiteness dominates by occupying the central spot today, it is neither intrinsically superior nor inferior to other cultures, and that its dominant position is the result of history. (See endnotes for some references on Whiteness Studies.
Rajiv: You have mentioned that the main power of whiteness is silence. Could you explain this?
Jeff: There is a concerted effort to keep discussion of whiteness out of public discourse. This begins with mis-education in our primary and secondary schools, and to a lesser extent, even in higher education. Mainstream media engages in a studied ignorance and selective forgetting. This makes it seem like whiteness is not really an issue, so innocent looking is the lack of attention paid to it. But raise the topic and you will witness a sudden flurry of repair work brought forth by self-appointed guardians of the status quo. Whiteness is a powerful, unseen, and sometimes vengeful force that permeates every part of our lives. White Americans enjoy the privileges of whiteness without having to accept the identity of white.
…Rajiv: Why is white privilege a problem?
Jeff: White American culture was created with a frontier mentality that encouraged a nearly ravenous exploitation and consumption of newly appropriated natural resources, and a disregard of those defined as not white. In our contemporary world, these elements of white culture are clearly becoming dysfunctional.
We need to accept that white culture cannot deliver multiracial comfort. It can only deliver white comfort. White culture cannot deliver multiracial safety. It can only deliver white safety. White culture cannot deliver multiracial community. It can only deliver white community. White culture cannot deliver multiracial justice. It can only deliver white justice. White culture must give up the center if multiracial justice, multiracial community, multiracial safety and multiracial comfort are ever to become central to our society.
Jeff: The invisibility of whiteness behind the claim of neutrality has enabled it to hide from scrutiny, and this has been misused by whites to speak for universal humanity. Ani explains it as follows:
“The Roman self-image as “world conqueror” and “savior” issues from an ego that does not confine itself to the limitations of a culture, a nation, or even a continent, but from an ego that views its boundaries as ultra universal. This is the counterpart of the intellectual self-image of the European as “universal man”…he, therefore, has the right to spread himself universally in order to “enlighten” the world.” (Ani, p. 253)
“According to European nationalism, other traditions and earlier ones were expressions of mythological beliefs only: Christianity was an expression of historical fact. To this day, the most threatening appositional phrase that an avowed Christian can be presented with is ‘Christian Mythology.’ To accept its validity is to shake the ground of her/his belief.” (Ani, p. 141)
Rajiv: This is very interesting. Blacks had to fight so hard to take control over black studies, for instance. White culture wants to control the representation of others. Richard Crasta (an Indian Christian) writes (in “Impressing the Whites,” by Richard Crasta, Invisible Man Books, Bangalore, India. 2000) that despite all other kinds of intellectual freedom today, an Indian may not assert beyond a point if that would threaten white control. Crasta states his First Commandment for Indians wishing to impress whites as: “Thou shalt not have any other-colored gods before us.” His Fourth Commandment is: “Thou shalt be unthreateningly short.” His Seventh Commandment is: “Thou shalt be exotic.” The Ninth Commandment says: “As Austin Powers might have said, ‘Behave!’”
Whites appoint Indian proxies to let them pull strings from behind the scenes, but through such intermediaries, they impose their epistemologies, institutional controls, awards and rewards, all in the name of universal thought. Making fun of such Indians, Crasta lists his Tenth Commandment as: “Thou shalt kiss white ass.” His Eleventh and final Commandment is: “Thou shalt monkey around for our [i.e. whites'] amusement and pleasure.” It is amazing how many Indians are lined up to oblige and try to become members of the whiteness narrative in whatever capacity available.
One white Prof. Jack Hawley in the academic study of Hinduism appears to thrive on being “the white man in charge.”
It is important for many whites to make sure they run the show, especially when it is about other cultures, perhaps because it is a sort of voyeurism or subliminal conquest of the other. Those Hindus who accept white authority in Hinduism Studies are rewarded generously. …
As a powerfully placed scholar in control of Hinduism Studies, Prof. Hawley wrote the following statement to introduce Hinduism as an illegitimate child of white people:
“Hinduism – the word and perhaps the reality too – was born in the 19th century, a notorious illegitimate child. The father was middle-class British, and the mother, of course, was India. The circumstances of conception are not altogether clear.”
[Jack Hawley, "Naming Hinduism," in The Wilson Quarterly, summer 1991. p. 21.]
One must wonder if this could be psychoanalyzed as a form of voyeurism, similar to the way white men liked to “conquer” black women and Native American women. Many black scholars have explained how whites portrayed their own culture as being masculine and the others as feminine waiting to be conquered as trophies, with the “illegitimate” children raised under white dominance. This could explain the obsession of certain whites to control the intellectual discourse on Hinduism in the academy.
…Imagine what would happen in mainstream Religious Studies if this imagery was reversed, and someone used Marimba Ani’s thesis to make the following definition: White people are the notorious illegitimate children fathered by Roman Imperialism and mothered by Christianity. The circumstances of conception remain mysterious.
*** End of Excerpts ***
Do read in full
Have a safe and relaxing weekend.