Rajiv Malhotra – Being Different

Rajiv Malhotra, the Indian-American author and public intellectual
Rajiv Malhotra, the Indian-American author and public intellectual

Rajiv Malhotra, Hinduism, and the Challenge to Western Universalism

or ‘The Importance of Being Non-Western?’

A commentary on Master Rajiv Malhotra’s recent book: ‘Being Different’.- A Hindu Alternative to the Western Dominant System?

“Universalism means self-attribution of world scale importance on a social, economic, political, cultural, and spiritual level.” – Alexander I. Nikitin

BEIJING- ‘Being Different‘ by Master Rajiv Malhotra is a bombshell of a book because of its provocative proposition and its adding hundreds of new Sanskrit terminologies to our English vocabulary. It is well and clearly written and of exceptional clarity. Its content is evident of how diverse, exciting, multi-layered and complex our humanity really is –and should be.

Malhotra wants us, the readers, to perform a mindful Copernican revolution in ‘World History’, to change the gaze, called purva paksha, of the observed (India), into the observer. Suddenly, fromIndia’s perspective, American culture still looks very impressive, but far from universal. Hence the subtitle: “Challenge to Western Universalism”. This revolution kind of worked before, remember, when theUnited States exposed the myth of Europe’s superiority. No one has done that yet for America or the entire West before.

The "Churning of the Ocean" - book cover of 'Being Different'
The “Churning of the Ocean” – book cover of ‘Being Different’

Just as the European historical myth of its own cultural superiority evaporates before our eyes, and just as the American dream loses its credibility in the face of US war crimes and state terrorism, the ancient civilizations of both Greater China and the Indian subcontinent seem predestined (at least so say the pundits) to step into the void and offer to humanity their own wisdoms, perceptions and complexities.

As Tariq Ali, the public intellectual and activist, once said: “You can’t have alternatives which constantly work within the dominant system. No one is going to allow you to.” Yet, this is precisely how many, far too many, Chinese and Indian critics of the West proceeded in the past –they tried to get their voices heard by writing English books and articles and explained China’s and India’s socio-cultural originalities in English to the West. In short: they criticized a system of which they are part of, and of which they are beneficiaries. This was already a mistake of renowned Edward Said in his book “Orientalism” which for all its merits of criticizing the West is precisely this: another Western book. His book ‘Orientalism’ is an American achievement.

At the other side of the spectrum, some Chinese and Hind critics of the West, frustrated by constant rejection, turn radical and self-complacent, even fundamentalist, which then will have exactly the opposite effect of what they intended upon their Western readers –no one is listening seriously.

No, if the Chinese and Indians writers really wanted to challenge the Western-made ‘World History’ (in the Hegelian sense), they would have to create something new, they would have to offer something the West doesn’t already have; and they would have to, in my opinion, use Chinese terminologies and Hindu terminologies to do it.

As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Seeing it that way, the average English person is indeed a very limited Indian thinker. Don’t make him believe otherwise by serving him his own language on a plate.

This is why I particularly like this book ‘Being Different’ by master Rajiv Malhotra, because although he is writing a Western book about non-Western concepts in order to reach out to an international readership, he nevertheless promotes the original Hindu terminologies (instead of Western translations) whenever it is necessary, words like dharma, karma, atman, itisha, yoga, samadhi, avatar and so on, and he explains, very entertaining and in detail, their difference to certain Western terminologies, like for example the pairs “dukkha and suffering”, “Holy spirit vs. Shakti”, or “Jesus vs. Avatar”, etc. He talks about the Vedas and other religious text, but is not restricting himself to the Ancients only. He covers European orientalism, and there is a rich chapter on German Indology and in particular Hegel’s work, too. (Hegel is big in Chinese intellectual circles too, and I wonder why him. Maybe, like ‘Kant’, the main reason is the easily memorable name. Like with all celebrities. His first name, please? Anyone? It’s Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.) In one section entitled ‘Western Joker and Indian Clown’, the author makes reference to popular culture andAmerica’s most beloved superhero Batman, and his villains The Joker and Two Face. That reminds me of the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek and his everything-goes approach to sociology. Mr. Zizek once said that: “The true victory (the true ‘negation the negation’) occurs when your enemy speaks your language”. That makes me think. Do Americans sometimes think of us that way when we learn their language?

Most Indian college graduates speak English, I heard, but how many American college graduates learn Hindi or even Sanskrit? Or study in India? Master Malhotra’s book is an attempt to rescue at least some key Indian terminologies from their obscurity. Who would want to see “rishi, guru, or yogi” being replaced with the all-too-convenient (Christian) term saint? The insistence upon using genuine terminology in the dialogue among culture works out just fine in this book and is, I think, exactly the sort of cultural sovereignty that whole India (and China by the way) needs to aspire to on the world stage.

'Being Different' by Rajiv Malhotra: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism
‘Being Different’ by Rajiv Malhotra: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism

For hundreds of years, the Western powers have made ‘World History’ theirs by simply translating all non-Western concepts, no matter how un-European they really are, into European words, concepts and classifications. Master Malhotra argues that: “Common (Western) translations of many Sanskrit words are seriously misleading.” I studied Sanskrit myself, and I agree. Only unchecked language imperialism (the translation of key foreign terminologies), I think, enabled the Western imperialists to digest Hinduism (and Confucianism, Buddhism etc.) into Western biblical and philosophical frameworks. Master Malhotra now offers a tool to investigate the crime scene, so to speak: to turn around the gaze –purva paksha- and to shift the West from its position of the observer into that of the observed. It’s a bit like the Max Weber ofIndia.

To sum up, Rajiv Malhotra wants genuine Hindu concepts to be accredited by the West, and then to challenge Western universalism with it. It shouldn’t be about religion, but about scholarship. The Indian writers will have to do it all by themselves, because little is known about trueIndiainAmerica. ‘Being Different’ may well be their guiding star.