Ashis Nandy - Towards a Dialogue of Asian Civilisations

First published as "Defining a New Cosmopolitanism: Towards a Dialogue of Asian Civilisations", in Kuan-Hsing Chen, ed., Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 142-9.]

Asia has known the West for about two millennia and has interacted with the West seriously for over six hundred years. But it began to have a third kind of close encounter with the West starting from the eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution and the discovery and colonisation of the Americas gave the West a new self confidence vis-à-vis its eastern neighbour.(2) Asia no longer remained a depository of ancient riches-philosophies, sciences or religions that had crucially shaped the European civilisation, including its two core constituents: Christianity and modern science. Nor did it remain solely the depository of the exotic and the esoteric-rare spices, perfumes, silks and particularly potent mystics and shamans. Asia was now redefined as another arena where the fates of the competing nation-states of Europe were going to be decided.

It is at the fag end of this phase of Europe's world domination that we stand today, ready to pick up the fragments of our lives and cultures that have survived two centuries of European hegemony and intrusion. For while some Asians have become rich and others powerful during these two hundred years, none has emerged from the experience culturally unscathed.(3)

Asian cultures never responded to the European encroachment passively, even though many Asian nationalists of earlier generations felt that that was exactly what their cultures had done.(4) While that sentiment is not absent today among Asia's ruling élite and young Asians charged with nationalist fervour, it is now pretty obvious that Asian civilisations, whatever else they may or may not have done, have certainly not been passive spectators of their own humiliation and subjugation. They coped with the West in diverse ways--sometimes aggressively resisting its intrusiveness, sometimes trying to neutralise it by giving it indigenous meanings, sometimes even incorporating the West as an insulated module within their traditional cultural selves.(5)

However, all Asian cultures have gradually found out during the last two hundred years that--unlike the European Christendom or the traditional West--the modern West finds it difficult to coexist with other cultures. It may have a well-developed language of coexistence and tolerance and well-honed tools for conversing with other civilisations. It may even have the cognitive riches to study, understand or decode the non-West. But, culturally, it has an exceeding poor capacity to live with strangers. It has to try to either overwhelm or proselytise them. Is this a trait derived from the urban-industrial vision and global capitalism which, not satiated even after winning over every major country in the world, have to penetrate the smallest of villages and the most private areas of our personal lives? Is it a contribution of the ideologues of development, who after all their successes, still feel defeated if some remote community somewhere does not fall in line or some eccentric individual attacks them? I do not know, but I do find that even most dissenting westerners, who have genuinely identified with the colonised societies and fought for their cause, sometimes at some personal cost, have usually supported the `right' causes without any empathy with native categories or languages of dissent, without even a semblance of respect for the indigenous modes of resistance, philosophical or practical. It will not too uncharitable to say that they, too, have struggled to retain the capital of dissent in the West and to remain flamboyant spokespersons of the oppressed of the world-whether the oppressed are the proverbial proletariat or the not-so-proverbial women, working children or victims of environmental depredations. Even decolonisation demands western texts and academic leadership, they believe. And many Asians, especially the expatriate Asians in the first world, enthusiastically agree.

As the West has been partly internalised during the colonial period, its cultural stratarchy and arrogance, too, have been introjected by important sections of the colonised societies and by societies not colonised but living with fears of being colonised. They all have learnt to live with this internalised West-the feared intimate enemy, simultaneously a target of love and hate--as I have elsewhere described it.(6) Psychoanalysts should be happy to identify the process as a copybook instance of the ego defence called `identification with the aggressor.' For this adored enemy is a silent spectator in even our most intimate moments and the uninvited guest at our most culturally typical events and behaviour. For even our religions and festivities, our birth, marriage and death rituals, our food and clothing, our concepts of traditional learning and wisdom have all been deeply affected by the modern West. Even return to traditions in Asia often means a return to traditions as they have been redefined under western hegemony. Even our pasts do not belong to us entirely.

This is not an unmitigated disaster. It is possible to argue that Asia, Africa and South America are the only cultural regions that are truly multi-cultural today. Because in these parts of the world, living simultaneously in two cultures-the modern western and the vernacular-is no longer a matter of cognitive choice, but a matter of day-to-day survival for the humble, the unexposed and the ill-educated. Compared to that multicultural sensitivity, the fashionable contemporary ideologies of multiculturalism and post-coloniality in our times look both shallow and provincial.

One of the most damaging legacies of colonialism, however, lies in a domain that attracts little attention. The West's centrality in all intercultural dialogues of our times has been ensured by its dominance of the cultural language in which dialogue among nonwestern cultures takes place. Even when we talk to our neighbours, it is mediated by western categories, western assumptions and western frameworks. We have learnt to talk to even our closest neighbours through the West.

This inner demon that haunts us has managed to subvert most forms of cultural dialogue among the non-western cultures. All such dialogues today are mediated by the West as an unrecognised third participant. For each culture in Asia today, while trying to talk to another Asian culture, uses as its reference point not merely the West outside, but also its own version of an ahistorical, internalised West, which may or may not have anything to do with the empirical or geographical West. One can no longer converse with one's neighbour without conversing with its alienated self, its internalised West, and without involving one's own internalised West.

Is another model of cultural exchange--I almost said multiculturalism--possible? In the space available to me I cannot hope to give a complete answer to this question. Nor can I hope to fully defend any tentative answer that I give. Instead, I shall offer you, as a part-answer to the question, a few propositions, hoping that at least some of them you will find sensible.

First, all dialogues of civilisations and cultures today constitute a new politics of knowledge and politics of cultures. For, whether we recognize it or not, there is a major, powerful, ongoing, official dialogue of cultures in the world. The format of that ongoing dialogue has been standardized, incorporated within the dominant global structure of awareness, and institutionalized through international organizations. It can be even seen as a format that has been refined and enshrined as part of commonsense in the global mass culture. In this dialogue, the key player naturally is the modern West, but it also has a series of translators in the form of persons and institutions whose primary function is to either interpret the modern West for the benefit of other cultures or interpret other cultures for the benefit of the modern West, both under the auspices of the West. The dominant dialogue is woven around these twin sets of translations.

As a result, all proposals for alternative forms of dialogue are both a defiance of the dominant mode of dialogue and an attempt to question its hegemony, legitimacy, format or organizing principles. Even a symposium or scholarly volume on the possibilities of such a dialogue can be read as a form of dissent.

Second, the presently dominant mode of dialogue is hierarchical, unequal and oppressive because it disowns or negates the organizing principles of the self-definitions of all cultures except the modern West; it is designed to specially protect the popularized versions of the western self-definition in the global mass culture. The mode ensures that only those parts of self of other cultures are considered valuable or noteworthy in the global citadels of knowledge which conform to the ideals of western modernity and the values of the European Enlightenment. As if the Enlightenment in seventeenth-century Europe said the last word on all problems of the humanity for all times to come and subsequent generations had been left only with the right to reinterpret or update the Enlightenment vision! The other parts of nonwestern selves are seen as disposable superstitions or useless encumbrances.

The European Enlightenment's concept of history has been complicit with this process.(7) That history has as its goal nothing less than the decomposition of all uncomfortable pasts either into sanitized texts meant for academic historians and archeologists or into a set of tamed trivia or ethnic chic meant for the tourists. In countries like China, Japan and India, it is likely that the coming generations will know Chinese, Japanese or Indian pasts mainly in terms of processes that have led to the modernization of these countries. The rest of their pasts will look like useless esoterica meant for the practitioners of disciplines such as anthropology, history of religions, fine arts or literature. The process is analogous to the way the global pharmaceutical industry systematically scans the ingredients of many traditional healing systems, to extract their active principles and, after dis-embedding them from their earlier context, incorporate them in the modern knowledge system as commercially viable constituents.

My argument is that, however apparently open and non-hierarchical the dominant mode of dialogue might look, its very organisation ensures that, within its format, all other cultures are set up to lose. They cannot bring to the dialogue their entire selves. They have to hide parts of their selves not only from others but also from their own westernised or modernised selves. These hidden or repressed part-selves have increasingly become recessive and many cultures are now defined not by the voices or lifestyles of a majority of those living in the culture but by the authoritative voices of the anthropologists, cultural historians and other area specialists speaking about these cultures in global fora. These hidden or disowned selves can now usually re-enter the public domain only in pathological forms--as ultra-nationalism, fundamentalism and defensive ethnic chauvinism.(8) They have become the nucleus of the paradigmatic contradiction in our public life, the one between democratic participation and democratic values. Democratic participation is valued but not the conventions, world-images and philosophies of life the participants bring into public life.

Third, the dominant mode of dialogue also excludes the dissenting or the repressed West. Over the last four hundred years, the western society in its mad rush for total modernisation and total development, has lost track of its own pre-modern or non-modern traditions, at least as far as public affairs are concerned. Hans-Georg Gadamer, I am told, believes that Europe's main contribution to the world civilisation is, contrary to what Europeans now think, its rich cultural plurality.(9) Gadamer may well be right, but any such formulation has a very short shelf life in contemporary European public life itself. In practice, Europe and North America have been re-defined as cultures of hyper-consumption and mega-technology which have nothing to learn from the rest of the world.

Fortunately, the dissenting Europe and North America I am talking about, however small and powerless, are not dead. And they do sense what their cultural dominance is doing to them. They sense that the dominance, apart from the devastation it has brought to other parts of the world, has increasingly reduced the western imperium to a provincial, monocultural existence. European and North American cultures have increasingly lost their cosmopolitanism, paradoxically because of a concept of cosmopolitanism that declares the western culture to be definitionally universal and therefore automatically cosmopolitan. Believe it or not, there is a cost of dominance, and that cost can sometimes be heavy.

Any alternative form of dialogue between cultures cannot but try to rediscover the subjugated West and make it an ally. I consider the effort to do so an important marker of the new cosmopolitanism that uses as its base the experience of suffering in Asia, Africa and South America during last two hundred years. These parts of the world can claim today that they have learnt to live with two sets of truly internalised cultural codes--their own and, for the sake of sheer survival, that of the West. From colonialism and large-scale deculturation we may have learnt something about what is authentic dissent even in the West and what is merely a well-intentioned but narcissistic effort to ensure that the worldview of the modern West does not collapse. The first identifier of a post-colonial consciousness cannot but be an attempt to develop a language of dissent which will not make much sense-and will not try to make any sense-in the capitals of the global knowledge industry. Such a language cannot be fitted in the available moulds of dissent as an Asian, African or South American subsidiary of a grand, multinational venture in radical dissent.

A dialogue of civilisations in the coming century will, I suspect, demand adherence to at least four cardinal methodological principles: First, it will demand for the participating cultures equal rights to interpretation. If elaborate hermeneutic strategies are brought to bear upon the writings of Thomas Jefferson on democracy and Karl Marx on equality, to suggest that Jefferson's ownership of slaves did not really contaminate his commitment to human freedom or to explain away Marx's blatantly Eurocentric, often racist interpretations of Africa and Asia, the least one can do is to grant at least some consideration to Afro-Asian thinkers and social activists who were as much shaped by the loves and hates of their times. We do not have to gulp the prejudices and stereotypes of their times, but we can certainly show them the consideration we show to Plato when we discuss his thought independently of his comments on the beauties of homosexuality.

Second, the new dialogue we are envisioning will insist that we jettison the nineteenth-century evangelist legacy of comparative studies which offset the practices of one civilisation against the philosophical or normative concerns of another. Colonial literature is full of comparisons between the obscenities of the caste system in practice in South Asia and the superior humanistic values of Europe articulated in the Biblical texts or, for that matter, even in the rules of cricket. In reaction, many defensive Indians compared the moral universe of the Vedas and the Upanishads with the violence, greed and ruthless statecraft practised by the Europeans in the Southern world, to establish the moral bankruptcy of the West. The time has come for us to take a less reactive position, one that will allow us to enrich ourselves through a cultural conversation of equals. Cultures, I have argued elsewhere, do not learn from each other directly; they use new insights to reprioritise their own selves, revaluing some cultural elements and devaluing others. Every such conversation is also an invitation to self-confrontation.(10) It allows us to arrive at new insights into the management of social pathologies to which we have become culturally inure.

Third, an authentic conversation of cultures presumes that the participants have the inner resources to own up the pathologies of their cultures and bear witness to them on behalf of other particpants in the dialogue. Such a frame of dialogue cannot but reject any explanation of such pathologies as the handiwork of marginal persons and groups who have misused their own cultures. A dialogue is no guarantee against future aberrations, but it at least ensures self-reflexivity and self-criticism. It thus keeps open the possibility of resistance. This is particularly important in our times, when entire communities, states or cultures have sometimes gone rabid. If Europe has produced Nazism and Stalinism in our times, Asia has also produced much militarism and blood-thirsty sadism in the name of revolution, nationalism and social engineering. Not long ago, Cambodia lost one-third of its people, killed by their own leaders, who believed that only thus could they ensure prosperity, freedom and justice to the remaining two-third. The birth of India and Pakistan was accompanied by the murder of a million people and the displacement of another ten million.

Finally, a conversation of cultures subverts itself when its goal becomes a culturally integrated world, not a pluricultural universe where each culture can hope to live in dignity with its own distinctiveness. The nineteenth-century dream of one world and global governance has made this century the most violent in human experience and the coming century is likely to be very sceptical towards all ideas of cultural co-existence and tolerance that seek to cope with mutual hostilities and intolerance through further homogenisation of an increasingly uniform world or within the format of nineteenth-century theories of progress or social evolutionism.

The idea of Asia carries an ambivalent load in our times. It was for two centuries converted artificially into a backyard of Europe, where the fate of the world's first super-powers were determined. It is for our generation to negotiate the responsibility of redefining Asia where some of the greatest cultural experiments of the coming century may take place. For by chance or by default, Asia has now a place for even the West. Asia once held in trusteeship even Hellenic philosophy and for a few hundred years European scholars went to the Arab world to study Plato and Aristotle. We might be holding as part of a cultural gene bank even aspects of traditional western concepts of nature (as in St Francis of Assissi or William Blake) and social relationships (as in Ralph Emerson and Henry David Thoreau) to which the West itself might some day have to return through Asia.


1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the international symposium on `Mutual Understanding in Asia', organised by the Japan Foundation at Tokyo, 30 October 1995.

2 On the meaning of the discovery of the Americas, see Ziauddin Sardar, Ashis Nandy, Claude Alvares and Merryl Win Davies, The Blinded Eye: 500 Years of Christopher Columbus (Goa, India: The Other India Press; New York: Apex Press, 1993).

3 Chinweizu, The West and the Rest of Us (London: NOK, 1980).

4 On the technology of resistance to such hegemony, see James Scott, Weapons of the Weak (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1989); also Erik H. Erikson, Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (New York: Norton, 1969).

5 See Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

6 Ibid.

7 Ashis Nandy, `History's Forgotten Doubles', Opening Address at the World History Conference, Wesleyan University, 25 March 1994, published in History and Theory, 1995, Theme Issue 34: World Historians and Their Critics.

8 Ramchandra Gandhi, Sita's Kitchen: A Testimony of Faith and Inquiry (New Delhi: Penguin, 1992). See also Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and `the Politics of Recognition' (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); and Ashis Nandy, `Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance', Alternatives, 1988, 13(3), 177-94.

9 Thomas Pantham, `Some Dimensions of the Universalilty of Philosophical Hermeneutics: A Conversation with Hans-George Gadamer', Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, May-August 1992, 9(3), pp. 124-35.

10 Ashis Nandy, Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias: Essays in the Politics of Awareness (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987).



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