K Murali (Ajith) and K.P Sethunath in conversation. (Part 6)

Local knowledge systems and colonialism

Q. In the context of what we’re speaking about there is another thing that I would like to ask you. We see a lack of insight into the local knowledge systems or our history on the part of the Indian Communist Party. It is rather dry or lacks in rigour. If you look at Lenin’s and Mao’s writings, most of the theoretical conclusions are emphasising the particularities of their countries. But if you look at our history we do not see this. This is true about the ML movement also. So how do you understand this matter?

K.M: This certainly is a major lack, it is a fact. So far as the Indian communist movement is concerned, there is a lack of a beginning from our own basis, our own roots, and our own traditions. Rather, there is an absence of an effort to discover its own roots here. The examples used by Lenin and Mao are usually relied on to explain things. This certainly is a lack. An understanding about this has been gradually developing within the Maoist movement over the past few years, but that is not sufficient. It has to be further developed. There is a question of why this has happened. The influence of mechanical thinking certainly was a factor. That is beyond doubt. That surely was a factor. There is also the influence of Gandhism, which was apparent at the level of reformism.

Because revolutionary radical thinking gradually takes us to our own traditions and to our roots. It is in this sense that I say that reformist ideas became a barrier. And if you look at the history of the undivided Communist Party, reformism was dominant within it for quite a long period. It was revisionism and reformism with a Gandhian tinge. Later it shifted to worship of Nehru. If you look at the history of the ML movement, which came after that, we can see that it used to make China the model, instead of starting from our own reality. It used to depend upon this. There is another factor, which has been a reason. And this I think is the impact of colonialism. So far as we are concerned, colonial rule was not a short period. We are people who have gone through a colonial domination, covering a considerably long period. There has been a situation where our traditions and all that have been completely wiped away. This is an additional problem here. So you should examine the extent to which this has blocked the development of a local knowledge system. We must examine the influence exerted by leadership and intellectuals that emerged, trained in Western education, literature and such things. Quite naturally Western models are taken as the guide in discussions and enquiries they are involved in.

Q. Has there been an approach that our past is too ancient, and there is no point in now taking it under consideration?

K.M: Yes, that too is there but that is not the only matter. There is the matter of its having been made ancient. This is not just a matter of our awareness. In other words, it is not just a matter of a lot of people blindly worshipping all that is Western. There is also the matter that our past, our traditions have been made ancient. There has been a situation where it has been pushed aside under the plea that it has got no relevance today. This is particularly visible at the level of philosophy. So far as South Asia is concerned, it had a very lively philosophical tradition. There used to be philosophical probings from various angles and lively debate among them. Just as you see in the historical development of Western philosophy, there was a philosophical history, a tradition, over here also. And it too had developed through interaction and controversies among the different schools. For example, the Mimamsakaras used to criticise the Vedantins and the Vedantins used to criticise those following Sankhya. And in this mutual criticism, one section would take the arguments from another section and use it against a third. So this active debate and discourse used to exist here. This is something we can see all the way up to the 17th century. Even in the 17th century new research was taking place in philosophical schools like Nyaya-Vaisheshika .

People like Jonardan Ganeri have argued that these new developments can even be characterised as the beginning of the modern. But later, that was totally cut short. It never had any further role or continuity. Here the Chinese experience is different because China did not go through such a colonial domination. And therefore, so far as China is concerned, many of its traditions continued to remain active in life, at the level of education and all that. When Mao describes his own education, initially his schooling is in the old tradition. It is only when he reaches the level of university that he is able to understand new things. So the other, the old thing, remains as a base and the new also comes in. That is, the old is not completely excluded. And it is not an education which is solely and wholly Western. But that was the condition here. We cannot ignore the impact that it created. What is interesting is that, in the midst of this blocking, at the philosophical level, it is only Advaita that got further sustenance.

Q. This is something that you pointed out in one of your essays. In the Indian philosophical world Advaita has been dominant only for a short period. Compared to the Jaina, Bauddha philosophies, the period of Advaita is very short. But Advaita has been upheld as the height of India’s philosophical achievements and as a model in the later period.

K.M: In truth, so far as I’ve been able to understand from my reading, this is a product of colonialism. As I pointed out earlier, in the the period leading to colonialism’s tightening its grip, the main topic of discussion in the South Asian philosophical realm was not Advaita, but rather Nyaya-Vaisheshika. New developments were taking place in that school, and philosophers from various regions of this sub-continent would go to Varanasi to learn about that. That was the centre of philosophical debate in that period. They were not going there to learn Advaita. Then how is it that Advaita reached a position of prominence? I think colonialism has a role in that. The concepts of orientalism and all are a factor in this. And it is also to be examined to what extent the influence of Hegelian philosophy has played a role in this. Because it’s possible to see some similarity between the Hegelian concept of absolute and that of Advaita, discounting some basic differences. Another matter is that colonialism opened up a new possibility before Brahmanism. This happened in two or three senses. First, when the British tried to learn about this society, they convened Brahmin intellectuals. So naturally, their ideas were presented as some Hindu ideas. The emergence of the Hindu concept, explanations in terms of Hindu world outlook, Hindu religion, its theories etc. comes up in this period.

Q. Even the collation was done by Brahmins.

K.M: Along with that, the encouragement given to Sanskrit, and the initial advantage gained by Brahmanism because of this is also there. Advaita is a core philosophy for Brahminism. It is acceptable to it in all senses. In that sense also it has been a factor of impetus for it. Though Advaita has been celebrated as the highest, most noble, achievement of Indian philosophy, though it has been presented as THE Indian philosophy by S. Radhakrishnan and others, one does not see any new study or inquiry based on it. Apart from repeating what was said, there is no attempt to apply it to understand or handle the issues we are facing, resolve social issues, or put forward a new interpretation for that. In other words, it is seen to be stagnant. There is an artificiality in this. When we examine Western philosophical schools, we see Plato and Aristotle are live topics even in the latest philosophical debates. This is not something artificially done by them. They are not saying there was a Plato, an Aristotle. Rather it’s about some of the ideas put forward by Plato or Aristotle, where is the continuity, where is the rupture, how should it be interpreted today, these are coming up as topics of debate. New understanding, insights, and attempts to resolve issues that have come up in the philosophical field are taken up. That is not what we see here. We see no role being played by Advaita other than existing as some sort of a thing to be worshipped/idolised. Regarding the impact created by colonialism, the sort of ideas it gave rise to, we can see that our traditional, or rather, conservative, spokespersons of Marxism have accepted all of this as such, without criticism. We see, for example, the absurdity of EMS describing Adi Sankara as the Indian Hegel. There is no attempt to examine what it actually is. Actually, unlike this, in the Bhakti period Basava, and Baudha, Jaina philosophies even before that, had put forward radically different views.

Q. The Bhakti movement was in another sense a reflection or manifestation of the internal democratisation process that took place in india.

K.M: Yes, but not just that. Particularly at the level of philosophy there were different conceptualisations. In Basava, we see dialectical views, for example, the concept that all that moves will remain and that which stands will wither away. It was based on this understanding that Lingayat priests and preachers were instructed that they should not stay permanently in one place. They were not just putting out a philosophical position. They were opposed to building temples, because the land concentration existing then was connected to temples. The philosophy was related to social changes also. Retaining an organic monism and at the same time synthesising it with a dialectical viewpoint, this is what we see there. So this is a region where a lot of such developments have taken place. Without seeing all this, if we simply say that Advaita is the greatest philosophy, that its concept is similar to Hegel’s absolute, such arguments reflect a very superficial understanding.

Q. Among those who have come to the ML movement, you are a person who has shown great interest in philosophical issues. Could you explain the background of this?

K.M: I doubt if I am the only one.

Q. No, there were others, certainly. But in Indian spirituality and similar issues, you have been more keen than others

K.M: All that is a recent development. It is only after the 1980s that I took up such a study, particularly after the rise of the Sangh Parivar and the revival of Brahmanism. In those days, it was described as Hindu revivalism, becoming more and more explicit in Indira Gandhi’s period. At the same time, we also had the Bhindranwale phenomena, there was a question whether revivalism and fundamentalism are the same. Also, how one should compare that with liberation theology. This is the context of my study of the matter. It is in this period that I started studying the Upanishads, Qu’ran, Bible, etc. in the mid 80s. I thought this would come up as a major issue. Before that I wasn’t interested in all this. Later there was a continuity of that reading and in the 1990s I started to read and understand Narayana Guru and similar people.

Q. But in Narayana Guru, one sees a different thing. In his concepts, Advaita was important.

K.M: Yes, but in the social reform ideas that Narayana Guru put forward, in poetry and all that, he does not argue against caste by putting arguments based on Advaita. Rather, his arguments are completely based on the material. When he says that just as cows have cow-ism, humans have their human-ism, those who embrace and give birth are of one species, the other of another etc. These are biological traits. Though in the end, he mentions Advaita, the main argument is not based on Advaita. He does not start from that. Everything is one and therefore there is no caste, that is not how he begins. He starts from biological reality and he goes on to say that there are no such caste differences among humans, only individual differences. Therefore, what is that Advaita he is speaking about? And there is another issue -the Vedanta during Bhakti period, to what extent is it related to Sankara’s Advaita, and to what extent to Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita? This has to be further studied. Though Narayana Guru cannot be characterised as a Bhakti poet, it is also a fact that he has written a lot of prayers along with his philosophical works. So then, there is a question of how we have to understand this.

Q. The studies about all these schools and gaining awareness about them, what role would they play in the liberation politics of the present day?

K.M: The insights we get from our traditions, helping us to analyse and explain contemporary society, this is the most important thing. That is beyond doubt. As I pointed out in one interview, take the case of Guru’s idea that whatever one does for one’s own happiness should also be of use for the other. This is definitely a communist concept, a communist can completely agree with it. But what is required to make that a reality? It is not something that can happen because I desire for it. Here we have to address our material reality. They open up the doors to that recognition, give us direction to understand and explain this reality.

Continued in Part 7

Youtube link to the interview:

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