Home > 2016 > India’s Cost of Evading ‘Western Enlightenment’

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 17 New Delhi April 16, 2016

India’s Cost of Evading ‘Western Enlightenment’

Friday 15 April 2016

by Arup Maharatna

In this essay we seek to posit that many of the major ills that presently afflict Indian politics, society, and culture are attributable, in a large measure, to its resolute escape from the core ideational and attitudinal influences of the Western enlightenment, the mainspring of the modern industrial democratic civilisational world. We use the term ‘escape’, because India has neither wholeheartedly rejected, nor sincerely embraced, the basic insights, wisdoms and messages of the epoch-making Enlighten-ment movement across the West.

No doubt, due to a deformed developmental trajectory, shaped largely by British imperial interests (until independence), India had to miss out the historic opportunity of sharing or experiencing the classic Enlightenment move-ment and its progressive aftermath since the early 19th century. For instance, Japan, having been free from colonial subjugation, did witness a progressive socio-cultural and economic trans-formation at the behest of its native emperors of the Meiji dynasty with its inspired programme for infusing modern ideas and values through rapid expansion of elementary education, culmi-nating into a glorious phase of all-round Japanese progress since the mid-nineteenth century. Arguably, therefore, just after independence, India could have embarked on a prioritised bunch of initiatives/programmes toward inculcating, on a countrywide scale, an unwavering admiration and appreciation of the universal power of reason and rationality, particularly through mass public school education with suitably designed curriculum (which emphasises the fundamental value of reason, rationality and secular attitudes). This could well have made the masses intrinsically or ideationally ‘enligh-tened’, but not exactly ‘Westernised’ in terms of socio-cultural ethos, spiritualism, lifestyles and so on. This was broadly the conviction with which a sort of ‘renaissance’ project was spearheaded by the intellectually enlightened thinkers and reformers—albeit on an elitist scale—in a few pockets of nineteenth-century colonial India.

But as Amartya Sen aptly argues, India’s renaissance intelligentsia’s self-characterisation and pride in spiritual and philosophical supe-riority were substantially influenced by the contemporary dominant Western perceptions of India full of exotic praise for her old literature, philosophy and spirituality. In the words of the historian Sumit Sarkar, ‘[d]epen-dence on the foreign rulers and alienation from the masses were to remain for long the two cardinal limitations of our entire “renaissance” intelligentsia’. Accordingly, the Swadeshi move-ment was plagued by an ideological conflict between modernism (reason-based attitude/rationality) and traditionalism (existing social mores based on a glorious past). In contrast, the entire Western enlightenment experience shows how ideational modernism won over traditiona-lism by affording centrality and key instrumen-tality to the mass public elementary education.

In his bid to mobilise the native masses for the freedom movement, Mahatma Gandhi utilised a rugged sentimental stance of glorifying traditional India’s indigenous lines of thinking, spiritualism, life-styles, and many religious-cultural attributes and norms.Thus, the prime necessity of people’s awakening to the profound significance of enlightenment values, objective reasoning and pragmatic rationality was easily overlooked. While the Gandhian project worked well in achieving political independence, it was of little help in enlightening the citizens’ minds with rationalistic, scientific and secular spirits and outlook instrumental to ensuring social and political stability, coherence and hence broad-based economic development.

Many Indian authors and political leaders often made explicit the necessity of bringing scientific attitude and objectivity to people’s minds, but they typically bypassed the key question of how best could we bring these attitudinal or ideational changes on a mass scale or the question of detailed practicalities of meeting this necessity by redesigning the content of the school curriculum. Pandit Nehru was appreciative of the fruits of modern science and technological advances (and he heralded within a relatively short span several high-profiled institutions for scientific, technological, and nuclear research). But he showed little urgency over the needs and means for inculcating scientific, pragmatic, and reason-based attitudes and mental make-up among the entire populace. This was largely because of Nehru’s misper-ception (as time proved it) that rapid industriali-sation along with modern science, technology and techniques of production would almost inevitably perform the job of modernising (and secularising) people’s minds and mentalities.

Thus, the Indian leadership chose to leave unstirred or unreformed the peoples’uncritical, unquestioning beliefs in fate, faiths, rituals, caste-based aberrations, superstitions, religious communalities, tribal distinctions and diversities and myriad divisive socio-cultural ethos and religious practices, thereby creating wide room for their great combined potential for invoking deep complexities in course of modern economic development. Even the most influential political and intellectual personality devoted little attention to the question of how best such practical/potential socio-cultural and political anomalies and eccentricities could be tamed in a vast diverse democratic polity like India. As testified amply by now, the politically nurtured sentiment of nationalism/patriotism per se could be of little avail in mitigating endemic internal quandaries, deep-seated perceptual or attitudinal irrationalities or prejudices linked to blind religious faith and related identity-centred bigotry and conflicts and social differentiations. The latter, if one goes by historical experience in the West, have most durably been dampened by the growing grip of reason, spirit of scientific enquiry, and rising influence of humanistic rationality in people’s outlook and attitude. It is of much interest as to why India’s political leadership failed to prioritise the need for ideational and attitudinal modernisation and secularisation, which could serve as long-lasting antidotes to religious conflicts, eruptions of socio-cultural and political strife, complexities and chaos ahead.

In their sequel, the seeds of fathomless contra-dictions got sown quite early into the post-independence India’s vision and strategy of development. On the one hand, the acclaimed nationalist leaders’ rhetoric and recapitulations abound both in the Constitution, official reports, speeches, and other forms of media that exalt the dynamic role of Western science and technology in the country’s post-independence development schemes and programmes. On the other hand, there has been a stubborn political compulsion to cling consciously to populist glorification of India’s past cultural, religious and spiritual traditions.

This envisaged scheme of India’s develop-ment, from the standpoint of world history, sounds akin to choosing a short-cut route to arriving at the modern industrial age of capitalist and democratic growth by bypassing the classical phase of ‘enlightenment’. It is true that within a few decades of the twentieth century the death rate of several poor countries, including India, did decline via large-scale application of inexpensive vaccines and antibiotics invented in the West by a gigantic magnitude which the West itself took about a century to achieve. But this experience of abrupt mortality declines through application of cheap vaccines and antibiotics can hardly be a promising analogy insofar as a programme and necessity for making the Indian populace enlightened, rational, prag-matic, and secular is concerned. There has thus been a distinct legacy of India’s stubborn ambi-valence toward the critical need as much for appropriate curriculum reform designed to inculcate the primacy of objective reason, secular humanistic values and attitudes as for rapid expansion of school education per se.

In the Indian process of embracing Western commodities, scientific and technological advancements and material standard of living, the fundamental task of enlightening ‘minds’ and ‘mentalities’ to the Western tune of enlightenment has been perennially bypassed by the national leadership. This, in turn, has left a trail of stagnant piles of ‘unenlightened’ minds, irrationally parochial outlooks and pre-modern socio-cultural-religious beliefs, practices, and superstitions across the entire polity and its populace. This culminates into a muddling metamorphosis between incessant flows of new commodities, machinery and sophisticated gadgets or nuclear missiles and a stubborn pre-modern faith-oriented other-worldly frame of mind. Pervasive remnants of puzzling irrationa-lities in almost every walk of Indian life and society are tellingly testified in the pages of daily newspapers and numerous round-the-clock realty channels on television.

In the Indian compulsions of electoral demo-cracy tilting the balance of outlook in favour of (pre-modern) native majoritarian variety of rationality, values and perceptions, the agenda of achieving mass enlightenment continues to remain unfinished. No surprise, therefore, that issues and causes with which large majoritarian populations are sought be mobilised by political parties are rarely in tune with the Western enlightenment values and secular attitudes, but often in consonance with sterile, tradition-bound, parochial temperament, irrational emotions and sentiments. Little wonder, unlike in the West, the rise of Indian capitalism and its spirit could never represent ‘an assault on pre-existing systems of ideas and socioeconomic relations’. The upshot is a state best summarised by the expression ‘plus ca change’. More we change in terms of the outer look, décor, fad, and fashions, more we remain the same (ideationally) in terms of our distance from Western enlightenment values and the rule of reason. The remedy seems to lie inter alia in reformulation of school curriculum on the classical enlightenment lines of the West, notwithstanding angst-ridden attacks on the latter due to several instances of its deviations or aberrations through stark Western imperialism, colonialism and fascism.

Arup Maharatna is a Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS-Pilani, Hyderabad Campus, Hyderabad. He can be contacted at e-mail: arupmaha@yahoo.com