Dialogue  July-September,  2010, Volume 12 No.1


India : A Cultural Decline or Revival?*

Reviewer: Michel Danino

Bharat Gupt is noted in scholarly and academic circles as a classicist and an expert on Indian performing arts; his Dramatic Concepts Greek and Indian (1994) was well received and has been reprinted several times. A professor in English at the Delhi University, he has lectured widely in India and abroad. This wide exposure, coupled with an intimate knowledge of the keynotes of Indian culture, can be sensed through this ambitious book painted on a broad canvas.

   Educational, religious and social issues, matters of caste and reservation, burning questions of legislation, governance and misgovernance, are packed in barely over 200 pages, neatly arranged in a framework rooted in Indian categories: Eka, the individual; Kula, the family; Grama, the village or living environment; Janapada, the land or country; and Atma, the soul. The overall pattern thus follows the Mahabharata’s sublime thought (translated by Gupt): “Give up the individual for the family, the family for the habitat, the habitat for the land. But for the Atman, give up the whole earth.”

   The book’s first essay, “The Ritual Universe,” and probably my favourite, starkly contrasts the ancient Indian worldview with the modern. Gupt brings alive the Indian’s connectedness with the universe, a connectedness brought about by sacrifice—that of our little person, for there can be no other sacrifice. Today’s archetypal Indian intellectual seems to exist only in this little person: “While these progressives condemn the rituals of religion, they celebrate the rituals of the secular State like parades, prizes, ceremonies and celebrity parties with untiring addiction.” With this, Gupt defines the paradox of modern India: “Modernity in India, to this day, remains a 19th-century construct weighed down by notions that Nehru imbibed in his days in Eaton and Cambridge [and which] ossified in his adulthood into a Fabian atheism that he foisted upon the Indian educational system.” We know how, from the nineteenth century, this modernity has looked down on Hinduism for its alleged polytheism and idol-worshipping, among other sins; Gupt makes apologies for neither, explaining their spiritual and cosmic foundation and regretting their loss in the ignorant modernist and social reformer who scorns what he can no longer understand.

     Developing this line further, the book lays great stress on issues of art and education—rather, the rootless and mindless system that goes by the name of education: “The biggest prejudice against the arts in India has been generated by its modern educational system. ... Art has come to be looked upon as nothing more than entertainment, whether refined or popular, highbrow or mass-mediatic. It is no longer sacred or liberating, shubham or mokshadaa. We have lost a major cultural faith and the fountainhead of our sustenance.” In the same line, Sanskrit is excluded (and Gupt reminds us that JNU had no Sanskrit department till 2002). Schooling is heavily conditioned by prevailing fashions: “The quiz wiz-kids that every uppish school tries to produce are info-parrots only good for TV shows.” Worse, we have accepted the fragmentization of knowledge into utilitarian categories: “The dichotomy between art and science, ancient and modern is made complete. Tagore and Aurobindo who presented healthy and exploratory methods to bridge this chasm were systematically marginalized and denigrated as too aesthetic or too spiritual by Nehruvian iron-jacket modernity.”

      This sums up the conflict between an India seeking to reconnect to her cultural and spiritual roots, in novel ways if need be, and an India convinced that being modern means doing all that is shown on Western TV channels. This conflict is at the core of Gupt’s essay and he returns to it as he discusses a sampling of India’s social ailments. (He is clearly not anti-Western, but insists that India should be putting her own culture to better use.)

       Examining the issue of conversion, he explodes the myth that it can offer “the shortest, sweetest and surest way of achieving equality”, that is, freedom from caste oppression. If caste did not remain virtually unchanged upon conversion, he argues, we would not find minorities clamouring for reservation on caste basis. There are more contradictions: “It is strange that some Indian liberals approve of the route of Christian assimilation of tribals into urban culture but condemn the Hindu route to urbanisation.” As regards Islam’s claim to egalitarianism, Gupt points to its “severe subjugation of women” and to a strongly hierarchical Muslim society (ashraf vs. ajral, or lord vs. slave). However, it is unclear how he would like the present varna / jati system of Hindu society to evolve, or Hinduism to respond to the challenge of conversion. To suggest, as he does, that “to hold its ground Hinduism can deal with [the proselytizing of Christianity and Islam] only through dialogue and discussion, violent confrontation being the worst way as it shall give proselytizers the status of healers” does not appear sufficient to address those momentous issues.

     The next is that of reservation. Gupt’s stand is not exactly original, but it is well developed: “The legislator class has created a needless conflict between the deserving poor student and the undeserving not at all poor who claims concession on the basis of his caste or religion.” “Religion”, because the misuse of the reservation policy is no longer limited to Hindus: “Seeking to amend the Constitution that does not presently allow reservation on religious ground, politicians are now pushing for Muslims to be included in this category,” which is what we can see today in several States as in the Central government. “Very soon there will be a demand for Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahais and Parsis to be put in the reserved category. Once the religious minorities are included in the reserved category, the category of religious minorities itself will be enlarged. The Congress is already gunning to define the Jains as minorities. Its success shall open the floodgates to many claimants like the Radha Swamis, Lingayaats, Brahmakumaaris, Arya Samaajis, Kabirpanthis, Sai Baba panthis and to a dozen other sects that are today placed in the ambit of Hinduism, to be declared as non-Hindu independent minority religion.”

      Gupt appears to propose a solution on two levels. At ground level, offer “unstinted help (through state, corporate or other charitable funding) to the needy but promising student of whatever caste, creed, gender or religion.” But, aware that such an equalitarian policy is unlikely to happen as long as the current concept of minority prevails, Gupt trains his guns to it. Recalling the Ramakrishna Mission’s famously failed attempt to be recognized as a minority, he views the majority-minority divide as the small end of a wedge being steadily driven into Indian society. A twin wedge, in fact, since a perverse sense of ethnicity has been enforced on the same society by colonial anthropology, turning India’s jatis into as many “ethnic” groups that are now “made to believe in their uniqueness and thus claim separate political identities out of the erstwhile homogenous and interactive regional populations.” A case in point, discussed by Gupt, is the Sikh community, earlier regarded as a sect “within the general umbrella of Hinduism” but now affirming its separate identity. Another is the well-known Shah Bano case, highlighting the perversion of minority enshrined by the Rajiv Gandhi government: “Not only does it make a mockery of the very idea of progress, it also ghettoises the minorities leading to their alienation and profiling in Indian society.” The culture of divisiveness that our politicians have imposed on the country and on which they feed, is Gupt’s principal target, and his intellectual courage in swimming against the tide lends much value to his essay.

     Gupt extends the debate beyond India’s borders in discussing the prevailing globalism in which “cultures are now considered useful only if they provide minor and safe variations of the monotony of mass production.” To him, “the big talk about global culture is totally deceptive.” If we are to ever attain cultural harmony at a global level, “there is no escape from evolving a new cultural anthropology for global harmony, the premises of which would have to come from non-Euro-American cultures.” India’s role, therefore, is clear—provided she can herself build a harmony founded on her values. In a brief treatment (attached to Prithvi) of the Indian diaspora, Gupt hopes for more “emotional links” between it and the Indian state, which has so far been apathetic towards the mass of its expatriates, regarding it as mere “economic milch cows”. The huge potential they offer in building cultural bridges beyond India’s border remains largely unexploited.

       At this point, the book returns to the downward gravitation afflicting our institutions, our laws and, worst of all, our thinking abilities. Gupt has his finger on India’s sickly pulse and makes his views undisguised. Sparing none, he criticizes Gandhi for his Puritanism and excessive austerity (though acknowledging his contribution as an original social thinker), Jai Prakash Narain for his myopic socialism, the Marxists for their “antireligious bias,” the Congress and the BJP alike for playing on caste divisions, and the BJP again for concentrating on a single temple—that at Ayodhya—instead of working to revitalize “Hindu temple complexes across the land.” He exposes our politicians’ skills at subverting the pillars of democracy (notably the judiciary) and at constantly enlarging their powers, and asks, “Is India collapsing into a totalitarian system keeping the showing shell of democracy?” Beyond the political world, “Our artists, thinkers and scientists are repetitive, or at best Euro-intimidated; by and large, universities and schools have not restructured courses and their contents for half a century; the bureaucratic system has stayed perfectly colonial; religious, parochial and linguistic enclosures have tightened; caste barriers have been reaffirmed; caste endogamy is flourishing; every political party in India has arrived at an ideological dead-end as they have little more to offer than a tokenist jargon.”

      Despite such a bleak picture, Gupt appears to keep his faith in India, or at least a hope that she will find solutions to her many social and cultural ailments. He rarely attempts to spell out those solutions in full, probably convinced that the exercise would serve no purpose, but throws hints now and then. He uses the example of the democratic institutions of the Chola kings in tenth-century Tamil Nadu to contrast the then stringent conditions imposed on would-be members of assemblies to possess a minimum learning and integrity, with the incompetence and corruption of today’s legislators. He favours a dialogue with the Muslim world, but “with a pressure on the fundamentalist schools of Islam to recognize that in a pluralistic world, idol-worship is a legitimate and a beautiful way of prayer that needs to be respected.” He would like to see the disappearance of the concepts of minority and reservation, the spread of reforms based on a much more intimate understanding of the workings of our society than most of our reformers have, and a culture of true social service based on dharma. Also, Gupt differs from the “Hindutva dream that Sanskrit can be taught like a workout at the gymnasium” and proposes, instead, a creative use of traditional arts and disciplines with reference to Sanskrit texts. The common denominator in all this is an insistence on the fundamental need for cultural renewal, indeed for “cultural nationalism”.

      The book’s concluding chapters, under the general heading of Atma, consist of two “dialogues of the dead” confronting Indian and ancient Greek thinkers (including Socrates). While they offer interesting insights into the nature of dharma, by taking us to a lofty conceptual level they do not dovetail with the rest of the book and left me hankering for a conclusion to the more mundane issues dissected in the earlier chapters, or perhaps an illustration of how dharma could have been the foundation of India’s Constitution in place of our imported concepts of secularism, equality and justice, none of which have worked or can work in the Indian context, at least in their present maladjusted shapes.

    To a superficial reader, Gupt’s discourse may appear like that of some Hindu “revivalists”. But although he is indeed after a revival, as the book’s title makes clear, the author is his own man and his repeated criticism of the BJP and Hindutva groups is precisely that they have failed to understand the need for and conditions of a true cultural revival. So are we at present seeing “a cultural decline or revival?” Gupt offers no final answer. Perhaps it was wiser to let the readers come up with their own. The book’s greatest merit is that it asks the right questions and, in discussing them, refuses to see which way the intellectual wind of the day blows.


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