Positions: Essays on Indian Literature

A form of cultural nationalism, turned into revivalism, stifles the pluralism native to India. In truth, Indian culture defies standardization, comprising diverse languages, religions and traditions. Yet the struggle for Indian intellectuals and counterculture movements is to break through the context-boundedness that defines so much of India and to strive to grasp the universal.
Positions Essays on Indian Literature

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May 04, 2024 06:34 EDT

Do you still love this land? …

… But not this India, not this valley of Skeletons.

—K. Satchidanandan (Fever)

A.K. Ramanujan concludes his informal essay, ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?’ by narrating a parable told by the Buddha: ‘Once a man was drowning in a sudden flood. Just as he was about to drown, he found a raft. He clung to it and it carried him safely to dry land. And he was so grateful to the raft that he carried it on his back for the rest of his life.

The concept of a cultural Indianness that transcends the contexts of language, caste, class and gender is not unlike this raft: it has saved us from drowning on many an occasion in the past, the last one being during our struggle against British colonialism. But cultural nationalism today has become synonymous with a carnivorous revivalism that seeks to recreate the past in its own image and impose its oppressive authority over the present whose truth and strength lie in its cultural pluralism. India is a republic of languages, literatures, religions and ethnicities, each of which is authentically Indian and not ‘regional’ as they are often dubbed; any attempt to standardise Indian culture is more than likely to invite the disaster of Balkanisation. Constructing an India over the tomb of cultural differences that constitute the mosaic of its culture is certain to please the Orientalist with his perceptions of a homogeneous Indian culture, the globaliser who seeks to hand India packaged in a comprehensible and easy format over to the alien consumer awed by its inaccessible plurality, and the obscurantist who seeks political hegemony through biased cultural representations that entirely marginalise the women, Dalits, tribals and entire linguistic and religious minorities of India with their different, often subaltern if not subversive, traditions and perceptions of Indian culture. The construction of a monolithic Indian culture, character or literature is thus an act of civilisational violence that inevitably involves a negation of heteroglossia, a silencing of ethnic diversity and religious pluralism and a bulldozing of diverse cosmologies and world views that together constitute the federation of Indian culture. This is not to deny certain shared patterns of literary evolution, linguistic kinships and intercultural ties developed over centuries of co-existence. The foreign observer looking from a distance does find a semblance of cultural unity in India, but coming closer one begins to see hundreds of Ramayanas and Mahabharatas, dozens of philosophical systems and religious cults, which were never called Hindu until the 19th century, as many modernisms as there are languages, as many different ways of negotiating foreign influences and as many ways of ethnic and linguistic expression that reflect the genius of the Indian people. ‘Indian culture’ and ‘Indian Literature’ are no more than convenient umbrella terms that embrace diverse cultures and literatures, whose historical and geographical co-existence has led to certain exchanges and at times produced examples of multilingual creativity. The raft that saved us is gradually, imperceptibly, turning into the old man in the Sindbad story pressing us down, suffocating our cultures and silencing our many voices, reducing them all to a mere stammer.

We are not unfamiliar with the European stereotypes of India, both positive (e.g. Max Muller) and negative (e.g. Hegel). The salient features of this characterisation are: the denial of empirical reality, the inability to distinguish the self from the non-self and interior from exterior, a neglect of universal human nature, a refusal to create synoptic systems, and the consequent construction of an illogical bricolage of tools and systems, the theories of karma or of samsara, the hierarchies of caste, the hegemony of vedanta in philosophy or of dhvani in literature or rasa in theatre: but each one of these has not merely exceptions but parallels and alternatives. A.K. Ramanujan in the essay cited earlier, labours hard to discover and define a certain movement in Indian thought from the context-sensitive to the context-free. He points out how the Indian concept of dharma has always been particular, bound as it is to region and caste. No Indian literary text, even the dateless and anonymous ones, until the 19th century comes without a context or a frame and that every story within the epics is encased in a meta-story like the tale of Nala told by a sage to a dependent Yudhishtira in his exile in the woods, which itself is part of the macrotale called Mahabharata. The taxonomy of landscapes in Tamil cankam poetry is another example of intense contextualisation, where the character and mood are related to the patterns of landscape, labour and food. Again, Ramanujan points to the collapsing of nature and culture as against the Levi-Straussian opposition, a metonymic view of man in nature or an expression of culture that is enclosed in nature. Such a pattern of concentric containments, like when the little Krishna swallows the three worlds and his mother sees herself and her son also within his open mouth, is then supposed endemic to Indian cultural representations. Even space and time are particularised and each kind of soil, each type of house, each season, each hour of the day has its special mood and character. Thus from the caste-system in society to the raga system in music, everything seems to reflect context-sensitivity. Hence all counter-movements in India according to Ramanujan are attempts to be context-free: rasa in aesthetics, moksa in the purusharthas (or the aims of life), sannyasa in the asramas (or the stages of life), sphota in semantics and bhakti in religion define themselves against a background of inexorable contextuality. They are universal and generalised and betoken a liberation from the context—let it be from relational social roles as in moksa, from worldly ties as in sannyasa, from the particularity of bhavas as in rasa, from the sequence and time as in sphota or from caste, ritual, gender and custom as in bhakti. If in the West, the revolt is against a status-quo that is abstract, universal and context-free, in India, the rebellion is against the context-bound, to create universals.

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Positions: Essays on Indian Literature, K. Satchidanandan, Niyogi Books, 2019.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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