Dialogue  April-June, 2012, Volume 13 No. 4

Western Categories and their limitations

Pawan K. Gupta


Note: This article is being written at the request of Professor B.B. Kumar who encouraged me and almost insisted that I write despite huge reservations on my part to do so. Though the theme is close to my heart and I find it extremely relevant for us in this country, but being no scholar, only a practitioner in the area of education, I felt hesitant to write. Also I must point out that English is not my language. I find it difficult to express myself well in this language, hence the reader will excuse for any lapses and if they find I am not being able to communicate. But Dr. Kumar gave some persuasive arguments challenging the prevalent view about scholarship and the academia in general to which I had no choice but to succumb.

My experience is largely in school education though I also have some experience of teaching and interacting with students and faculty from colleges and Universities here and from other countries; the attempt would be to share my understanding and experiences during these past 20-25 years.

Recently I was invited by the department of Psychology at the University of Allahabad for a seminar. I listened to various speakers before my turn came on the second day of the seminar. I felt sad and concerned observing the students who were present during the seminar because they lacked confidence and were unable to engage with the speakers intelligently, meaningfully and fully because of the constraint of the language. It has almost become an unstated norm to conduct most academic conferences and seminars in English. Unfortunately, though it is rarely stated, but assumed that the language of serious academic work ought to be almost exclusively in English. It was apparent to me that the students were not comfortable in English; that they were laboring hard to formulate their questions; and found it difficult to engage freely with the speakers once the speakers responded to their initial question or remark. The energy of the students was being spent more on being able to communicate in English rather than on the subject of discussion. The frustration of the students would be obvious to anyone even slightly open and sensitive to the issue. The problem is that even the students are reluctant to speak about this as they feel shy of admitting their weakness in English leave alone question the hegemony of this language; they have inadvertently assumed that this is the only language through which knowledge may be gained. I also felt that because of the focus on the English language their reading gets restricted to what is written in that language only and largely by western writers or similar writing by Indian writers. They are brought up feeling that anything worth knowing is restricted to what is written in that language only; that in that language they will get all that is there, worth knowing.

But the problem is even larger. Since our academics do not make any attempt to make the students understand the nature of categories, its power and limitations, the students get caught in western categories and start perceiving everything from the framework of these categories. They are not even aware that there could be different frameworks, different categories to perceive things. In the process most non-western formulations, perceptions and theories seem ‘unscientific’, sometimes full of superstitions and ridiculous to them.

When my turn came I decided to speak in Hindi with the permission of the chair. There were three participants, one of them from the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry who, I was told, did not understand Hindi. I apologized to them and requested others to sit next to them and translate, if necessary. I weighed the two options – the three participants not being able to understand what I was going to say against 30 odd students who would be more comfortable if I spoke in Hindi and decided in favour of the students. At the spur of the moment I decided to raise the question of language and supplemented it with my own experience in the field to speak about the difference between sapeksha and nirapeksha atma-vishwaas. After the talk, to my surprise about 25 students came and congratulated me, among them students from Karnataka and Manipur, on raising this important question of language. The chairperson of the panel came to me and said, "What you said was absolutely right, but it requires courage to say it." I told him, "Sir, more than courage, it requires honesty".

My experience in technical universities is even worse. Students from technical institutes do not even recognize the importance of language. These students are not able to express their innermost thoughts and feelings either in English or in their mother tongue. For them language is merely a tool of giving and receiving instructions and getting a high paying job. But originality and creativity is not about instructions, it has a strong relationship with one’s ability to think and express in a language. When we lose a language we also lose the ability to think in an original manner. In the mad desire to learn English - mostly only a smattering and rudimentary knowledge of English – we are also getting alienated from our own languages, resulting in language deficiency, on a large scale.

After Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Lohia no national leader seems to be really bothered about this important issue. There is a lack of understanding about the issue of language among our political leadership. Even for the so called Gandhians and Lohiaites the issue of language seems no longer an important issue. Yet the problem today appears to me much larger than before. Many intellectuals, even those who claim to be different and not mainstream, have started arguing that we have our own version of English now, hence the issue of English versus Indian languages is no longer valid. But when one closely observes the development - in our academic world, the kind of researches we are doing, and in our student community - one cannot but help being concerned.

Most of our students even those from mega cities, suffer from a huge complex about English. Because they only try to read material written in English language they get caught in American/ European categories and end up quoting mostly western authors and scholars. Sometimes I wonder the manner and frequency with which we quote known and unknown westerners whether the same people are quoted as frequently by westerners themselves. Our scholars start looking at their own people and their samaj with an alien perspective; they get alienated from whatever is their own – be it the language, lifestyle, culture or manners of behaving, doing, thinking and the entire indigenous knowledge systems.

I have been working for the past 23 years in a small area - having about 260 villages with a total population of about 60,000 people – called Jaunpur. It is a tiny part of Tehri Garhwal district. The people of this area speak Jaunpuri (as different but close to Jaunsari) which is distinctly different from the better known Garhwali. Jaunpur also has a distinct culture of its own – different from mainstream Garhwali culture. Young people of this area, those who consider themselves educated and developed are shy of speaking their own language. We have done several projects in our schools on the local language. In the process we have stumbled upon several words in Jaupuri, which have no equivalent in either English or in Hindi. These words have their roots in the culture of the area because when one learns the meaning of such words, one cannot but simultaneously appreciate the local culture and its practices. But the youngsters in this area are rapidly getting alienated from their own culture. They have no appreciation or sense of glory for the beauty that exists in their language and culture.

Over the years we learnt many couplets and phrases (in Jaunpuri ) which contain centuries of (traditional) wisdom and knowledge. There is local wisdom in these sayings pertaining to health, weather, plants, trees, behavior of animals, birds and human beings and the relationship between these different elements in existence. For instance in a large part of India the local belief is that if the crow makes the nest (usually in spring, in the month of Feb/ March) in the middle portion of the tree, that year it is likely that there would be good rainfall during monsoons (still three months away - approximately after mid June), but if the crows make the nest in the upper portion of the tree then the chances of a good monsoon are slim. This is traditional (and experiential) knowledge based on centuries of keen observation of behavior of birds and animals and their relationship with other aspects of nature. This is empirical knowledge which is not so bothered about the reason, with the question ‘why’, but is focused on the more important question – the ‘what’. It is based on observation of anything and everything and noticing the relationships between different, apparently unrelated aspects of this existence. Traditional wisdom observes the color of the western sky at the time of sunset and predicts whether it would rain or not rain exactly nine months (according to the Hindu lunar calendar) hence. It says that if we harvest or cut branches of a tree during the waning phase of the moon then the harvested crop and wood is less likely to be infested with insects. It advises on which day of the moon we should plant different crops (e.g. fifth day of the moon for latas). It predicts the weather for the entire year observing the direction of the wind on the day of Holi and visibility of certain constellations. By observing the behavior of ants and other insects it predicts many natural phenomena. There are several other examples of traditional wisdom which may be given and they can be empirically verified if we want to, but we keep on ignoring them because this is not considered ‘scientific’. The modern educated wants to know the why but traditional wisdom does not bother with that. This wisdom is fast disappearing as we are losing our minor languages spoken by small communities and the basis of this knowledge is different from modern scientific paradigm.

This malice of emphasis on only the question ‘why’, at the cost of ‘what’ has seeped into school and university education alike. ‘What’ has a larger field, larger scope, which includes the ‘why’, but under the influence of modern science ‘why’ has taken precedence over ‘what’. Most of traditional wisdom is not really bothered about the question ‘why’, it is concerned with inter-relationships, with the all inclusive question- ‘what’.

The answer to the question why, the explanation, may not be correct, may be incomplete but it can give the illusion that it is complete and correct because it sounds ‘logical’. There can be several explanations, several answers to the question ‘why’ and all of them may be partially correct and logical but that does not necessarily mean they are correct. Why am I writing this piece, may have several equally valid answers, all logical, but all incomplete. It can also have many logical and convincing answers which are absolutely incorrect. Modern medical science is yet to develop a definition of health (absence of disease is called health). The doctor cannot medically certify someone as healthy, at best he can give a certificate – NED i.e. No Evidence of Disease. Modern medical science keeps on inventing new medicines only to ban it after a lapse of time mainly because their study is not focused on a healthy human body but just on the aspect of disease and that part of the body which is directly impacted by the disease. It is not holistic knowledge as it ignores the ‘what’.

The western approach, which has infested the Indian academia, has never been holistic, it is fragmentary. The over-evaluation of ‘why’ and under-evaluation or rather ignoring the ‘what’ is a result of this fragmentary approach. Related to this is the over emphasis on logical understanding and ignoring experiential knowledge. We have started thinking in binary – either/ or terms and always trying to look for a cause, for an effect or phenomena, to understand them. The assumption is that to understand, we must know the cause and that the cause must be separated from the effect in time; the cause coming before the effect. Under the colonial and now the western influence we do not want to learn from our seers who emphasized the simultaneity and inter-changeability of cause and effect at least in the realm of eternal truth/universal reality. We do not distinguish between the eternal and the relative, between the definitive and the provisional. We have accepted the western ways and their categories as true and universal. Categories are relative, to be used for a specific purpose for some time and then to be done away with. Categories are constructed by human beings for a specific purpose only, they are never universal or eternal. They are means to achieve a certain end. They have their uses but they have their limitations too. But we seem to be largely ignoring this understanding and falling into a trap.

Western categories have taken over our categories and now are playing havoc with our languages too. In a way words are categories too. Like categories, words are also means, to indicate the meaning. We seem to have assumed that each word in our languages can have exact translation in the English language. So we translate the Sanskrit word, "sanskriti" into the English word "culture". In English they use culture differently, such as ‘culture of war’, ‘consumerist culture’ etc.. In Sanskrit war and consumerism would not fall under ‘sanskriti’ but ‘vikriti’. Anything which is debasing cannot be sanskriti. So culture is different from sanskriti, but that is how we translate and slowly culture (and the meaning it conveys) starts dominating sanskriti and the meaning it coveys. The meaning conveyed by the word sanskriti, would be lost over a period of time to be replaced by the meaning conveyed by culture. The modern word ‘development’ is another example. We use the word vikaas for development. But vikaas was used as an adjective, always to emphasis the kind of development – physical, mental, psychological, spiritual, economic etc. It was never used exclusively. The word development in English is being used in a very different sense almost exclusively. It conveys a picture without any clear definition. But it has completely distorted the meaning of the word ‘vikaas’.

I will finish by giving another example: we translate philosophy as darshan and vice versa. But while philosophy is a category, a subject, darshan is - to see (reality as it is). They are very different. In our tradition we have the drashta (the seer), the drishti (the perception) and drishya (what is seen). In between the drashta and the drishya, exists the drishti. If we have assumptions and beliefs the drishti is distorted and the drashta is not able to see, the drishya - as it is, but in a distorted fashion. Education is all about removing the assumptions and the beliefs (the ignorance) so that we can see – have Darshan. But under western influence we are confusing between darshan and philosophy. This is the trap that Mahatma Gandhi was pointing towards – he called it ‘shinning chain … that binds us’. All categories have assumptions. Modern education or the kind prevalent in this country is not paying attention to the assumptions and limitations of western categories and ignoring both our categories and knowledge systems.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati