"The essential insight of postmodernism and social constructivism is perfectly valid, namely, entities, ideas, institutions do not come with fixed timeless essences, but their meanings change with the context and culturally condoned usage. But when made into a dogma, this anti-essentialism runs the risk of denying legitimate distinctions, and giving extant cultures the right to give any meaning to any idea..."
—Meera Nanda, 2006. (1)
(Swans - September 10, 2012) The rise of postmodernism has been the subject of a number of well argued critiques from Marxist commentators, who have provided robust challenges to the propensity of ostensibly left-leaning scholars to propound such reactionary ideas. Nevertheless, with socialist ideas finding little echo within the corporate confines of the neoliberal mainstream, nonsensical postmodern theories continue to spread their antidemocratic roots, irrespective of, or perhaps because of, their lack of coherency. This presents a serious problem, with one-sided ideological warfare being fought against the very means by which our society's frameworks of knowledge are defined and constructed. Enlightenment principles are easily discarded under this theoretical onslaught, and extreme forms of cultural relativism offer themselves up as the "progressive" and "tolerant" alternative.
In the West, such theoretical concerns appear to be largely confined to academic circuits of power, but elsewhere "postmodern themes in many parts of the so-called Third World are at the cutting edge of new social movements -- mobilizing large masses of people from a cross-section of classes for alternative development, environmental protection, anti-imperialism, antiglobalization, and even feminism." According to Meera Nanda, in her important book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science, and Hindu Nationalism (Permanent Black, 2006), this problem is particularly rife in India, with "intellectuals of Indian origin hav[ing] taken a lead in the development of postmodern and/or postcolonial critiques of science and modernity in the Western academy." (2) Even more concerning is that this postmodern turn (most evident in the new social movements on the left) has provided unwitting cover for a Hindu nationalist revivalism, a reactionary movement which claims that modern science merely verifies their own Hindu supremacist metaphysics. This revivalism is, however, quite sophisticated, such that:
Re-traditionalization in India means not a rejection of the modern ideals of democracy or scientific reason, or even secularism: India has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only society in the world where religious fanatics claim to be the 'true' defenders of 'genuine secularism'! (p.xiii)
The postmodern political assumption unpinning this "Hindu-style re-traditionalization of modern ideas" is that "each culture has an obligation to be true to itself and cultivate a 'modernity' in keeping with the 'ways of knowing' ingrained in its own culture." In this way, postmodern theories of the left have served Hindu nationalists well, allowing them to bring the benefits of modern technology behind their "fundamentally authoritarian and hierarchal social values." (3) In India, the adoption of such beliefs has particularly serious consequences given that their commitment to liberalism and the principles of the Enlightenment are already weak. This highly dangerous political development promoting modernity without liberalism, can be described as reactionary modernism -- which following Nazi Germany's example, is a political framework that is quite able to lend itself to the evolution of fascist solutions. One should recall that "prior to the current wave of postmodernism, relativization of scientific reason to culture was limited to the right-wing fringes..." (4)
Arguably this problem owes much to the widespread phenomena that has seen "radical intellectuals... cut off from the real struggles of ordinary people." One early influential text that provided fuel for such detached and upwardly mobile intellectuals (especially from developing countries) was Edward Said's classic Orientalism (1978), a book whose guiding ideas meshed well with the rising postmodern zeitgeist that railed not only against cultural imperialism but the very nature of Western knowledge. Yet in stark contrast to lesser known (Marxist) works that critically interrogated the political implications of the Western canon -- like for example, Jonah Raskin's The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age (1971) -- Said, taking a lead from Michel Foucault, used Orientalism to denunciate the whole of Western civilization, a move which Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad suggests gained "further authority from the way it panders to the most sentimental, the most extreme forms of Third-Worldist nationalism." (5) But if in recent decades such postmodern arguments have helped stoke the chauvinistic fires of Hindu nationalism, it is important in the first place to trace the early evolution of such nationalist ideas.
During the late nineteenth century, Western philosophers of the Romantic anti-Enlightenment persuasion became fixated upon the mystical East, and proceeded to mine the Hindu tradition to fortify their attacks against institutionalized Christianity. Here one notable proponent of such "affirmative Orientalism" was Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, with Indian members of the Society taking on a key role in the founding of the Indian National Congress. Consequently as a result of this cross-pollination of divergent philosophy's, secular ideas (like science) were melded with traditional Hindu beliefs to form what is often referred to as 'neo-Hinduism' or 'neo-Vedanta,' -- a belief system that subsequently came "to form the self-understanding of many a middle-class, English-educated Hindu." (6)
Prominent among neo-Hindu thinkers are nearly all the leading lights of the so-called 'Indian Renaissance,' including Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya (1838-94), Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902), Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1947), and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), and to a lesser extent, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). (7)
Instead of rejecting outmoded beliefs that contradicted the aims of the Enlightenment, these neo-Hindu reformers "tended to subsume" the new theories thrown up by modernity into illiberal Hindu traditions. Unwarranted and irrational connections were now established between the new scientific world view and "the high-Brahminical Vedic literature, especially the philosophy of non-dualism contained in the Advaita Vedanta of the eighth-century philosopher Shankaracharya." Of course this troublesome conjoining of ideas was highly influenced by colonialism, such that the "neo-Hindu intellectuals ended up retrofitting Western ideas of reason and liberalism that they admired into the mystical elements of Hindu tradition that Westerners admired." To move to the present briefly: "It is this neo-Hinduism that has now come to constitute the official ideology of the mainstream of the Hindu nationalist movement." (8)
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2. Nanda, p.24. She adds: "Anyone interested in postmodern social theory cannot escape the often verbose writings of Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, or the subaltern historians including Ranajit Guha, Gyan Prakash, and Partha Chatterjee. I can attest from personal experience in science studies that the writings of ecofeminist Vandana Shiva and the proponents of 'alternative science,' like Ashis Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan, and Claude Alvares, are treated as key texts." (pp.24-5) "But despite strong indigenist and small-is-beautiful trends among them," these theorists and their associated movements have failed "to stem the tide of new technology, [although] they have been successful in silencing modernist, Enlightenment-style thought in India." (p.7, p.xiv) (back)
4. Nanda, p.7, p.21. Nanda follows the work of Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge University Press, 1984). Nanda writes: "What makes Hindu nationalism especially susceptible to fascistic tendencies is one simple fact: India has the dubious distinction of having gone the farthest in translating the holist, corporatist vision into reality. " (p.16)
"[W]hile the Western postmodernists could at least take the hegemony of modem, mostly liberal, ideas for granted, the postcolonial critics were condemning modernity even before it had a chance to take root in the lives of their societies. Whereas postmodernism in the West could serve as an internal self-correction of the excesses of capitalist modernity, postmodernism in modernizing societies like India serves to kill the promise of modernity even before it has struck roots." (p.28) (back)
6. Nanda, p.46. Although Nanda does not highlight the Theosophical Society as an example of "affirmative Orientalism," she observed that such foreign intellectuals "did not treat India's spirituality as archaic, but as a necessary complement and a corrective to post-Enlightenment Europe's materialism and secularism." (p.89) Nanda borrows the term "affirmative Orientalism" from Richard Fox, Gandhian Utopia: Experiments with Culture (Beacon Press, 1989), a book which discusses the influence of Orientalist thinking on Gandhi, the one person who is regularly held up as the ostensibly untainted guru of Hindu alternative modernity. As Nanda writes: "All of the numerous European romantic influences on Gandhi -- from the Bible, to Ruskin and Tolstoy -- are conveniently forgotten and Gandhi is made into a genuine son of the soil." (p.169) (back)
7. Nanda, p.46. "As a rough approximation, neo-Hinduism is the brand of Hinduism that is taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Deepak Chopra, and their clones in the countless yoga-meditation-vegetarian ashrams that dot the landscape of North America and Western European countries." (p.46) (back)
8. Nanda, p.46, pp.46-7, p.47. "While traditional Hinduism is itself a construct, neo-Hinduism is a special kind of social construction: it satisfies the nationalistic pride in India's Hindu heritage, but it has no real hold on civil society. While countless neo-Hindu swamis can write books on the 'scientificity of the Vedas' or the 'tolerance' and 'modernity' of Brahminical teachings, the reality is that the ordinary practising Hindu believes in many superstitions, is far from tolerant, and is often modern only in his/her consumption habits. This gap between the rhetoric of 'modernity of traditions' and actual reality has allowed a massive self-deception and doublespeak to become India's official cultural policy. Indians have come to proclaim as their heritage exalted ideals of modernity, which in fact their own traditions do not adequately support. The result has been an extremely shallow and fragile modernity which exhausts itself in the acquisition of technological baubles, without informing the life-world of ordinary people." (p.47)
For an excellent discussion of the history of 'Vedic sciences,' see Nanda, pp.65-122. (back)