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Book Review: Rajiv Malhotra's "Being Different"

By: for ISKCON News on March 22, 2012
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Being different

Civilizations endure because, from time to time, they are able to repair the deterioration that age and complacency bring to them. In a religious context such repair is often called a revival; in a cultural context it is called a renaissance. Though most Western readers are hardly familiar with the long history of renaissances within the Indic civilization (and there have been many) a new renaissance in Indic thought and culture is gathering force. Rajiv Malhotra’s latest book, Being Different, is at this the forefront of this renaissance.

Being Different speaks to us about a revolutionary change in thought that is in motion within Indic civilization, because it demonstrates how some of its most thoughtful members are breaking with a deep-seated tradition of Western colonialist thought and scholarship. The objective of this revolution in thought is to understand Indic civilization and culture on its own terms. As the word renaissance implies, a civilization’s “re-birth” begins when its most thoughtful members re-examine the history of their culture for clues that might bring about such a revival. European Renaissance humanist scholars, for example, re-discovered the value of Latin and Greek classics and, inspired by their re-discovery, embarked not only upon an ambitious effort to recover all that could be found from monasteries and private collections, they also made those classics the basis of a new, reformed system of education. From art, to education, to science, much in Renaissance Europe was influenced by the attempted revival of ancient Greek and Latin literature.

In a similar way, Malhotra early on in his book introduces his readers to the concept of purva paksha, the “traditional dharmic approach” that ancient, rival schools of Indic thought have used to establish their own conclusions (siddhanta) in defiance of all other opposing schools. Malhotra’s proposition, which he also informally dubs “reversing the gaze,” is that this method of purva paksha should be used as a corrective measure against the efforts of the Western people to continue being the arbiters of what is considered universally true about the Indic civilization. Indeed, the concept of purva paksha runs through the book to connect many other ideas, as a sutra, a thread, might hold together a string of pearls.

Some other original ideas that are unmistakably Indic in character include Malhotra’s Gandhian-esque notion of “mutual respect” as a replacement for “religious tolerance.” His point is that one would be offended if one were merely tolerated by one’s colleagues instead being offered mutual respect. Tolerance is insufficient; nothing less than mutual respect will do. Malhotra thus argues that “religious tolerance” is a subterfuge for condescending, derisive, and destructive behavior by the members of one religion towards the members of another religion. Malhotra’s anecdotes about how he has promoted this idea, and the reactions his proposal has received, add a colorful, human dimension to his narrative and underscores the need for a proposal like his. One of the most memorable anecdotes in the book narrates how the idea of mutual respect instead of tolerance was tabled at a high-level, UN summit on religion and provoked much hesitation and hand-wringing from a Roman Catholic delegation led by none other than Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

Other ideas developed at length by Malhotra include what he calls “embodied knowing,” the Indic tradition’s “extensive range of inner science,” versus what he calls the Judeo-Christian tradition’s “history-centrism,” a concept that he offers in explaining what he sees as that tradition’s pursuit of unity by way of religious, cultural, and economic homogenization, which engenders a corresponding hostility toward difference. “Integral unity,” an underlying notion of oneness that Malhotra ascribes to dharmic traditions and contrasts to what he calls the West’s “synthetic unity,” which he treats as a pragmatic coming-together of individuals and groups who are thought to be by nature disunited. Malhotra argues that Western synthetic unity (and non-Western ones like Confucianism’s) will remain an ongoing source of internal strife for the West and external belligerence towards the rest. The chapter on the Indian comfort with “chaos” and the corresponding Western anxiety with it elaborates themes and concepts developed earlier in the book. The chapter on Sanskrit is Malhotra’s rebuttal to attempts by Christian missionaries and secular Western scholars to resignify its word-meanings and categories for their own purposes. Malhotra ends his book with a chapter on Western universalism and a final chapter on how purva paksha might succeed where other approaches have failed in constraining Western universalism.

Being Different is likely to be faulted for Malhotra’s highly discursive, “follow-the-money” approach to researching the issues he addresses. For example, it is surprising that in developing his concept of synthetic unity there is no mention of nominalism and the Schoolmen like William of Ockham who fathered it. This omission is non-trivial because of the deep influence Western thinkers themselves ascribe to nominalism in terms of undermining any kind of strong notion of civic or philosophical unity the West might have otherwise had. Catholic theologian and public intellectual George Weigel, in his book The Cube and the Cathedral, spares no criticism for nominalism. “Pinakaers,” notes Weigel, “the disciple of Aquinas, writes that Ockham’s work was ‘the first atomic explosion of the modern era.’ ‘The atom he split,’ though, ‘was . . . not physical but psychic,’ for Ockham shattered our concept of the world and thereby created a new, atomized vision of the human person and ultimately of society” (83). Richard Weaver’s political classic, Ideas Have Consequences, is itself a polemic against nominalism. At the outset of the book, Weaver describes Western man’s embrace of nominalism as an “evil decision,” which was the “crucial event in the history of Western culture” (3). References as strong as these would have lent considerable support to Malhotra’s thesis (and perhaps grudging agreement from critics). Missing them also marks Malhotra as a non-specialist in some of the fields he is critiquing.

But to get back to our idea of renaissance and why Breaking India is an example of emerging renaissance thought within the Indic civilizational context, Malhotra’s lack of specialization in some subjects relevant to his thesis is by no means a disqualification of his work, because a gifted outsider to academic specialties like Malhotra is a more likely candidate to produce such a work than is an academic insider, however gifted. One reason is that academics substantially draw their livelihoods and reputations from these institutions, which have real power to coerce their members in non-trivial ways. Thus there are far-reaching consequences for those who step out of line. Malhotra, however, is not subject to such retaliation for speaking his mind. Academics also belong to a community of peers who are likely to heap opprobrium on a colleague who speaks against their shared values and shibboleths.

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