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WESTERN INDOLOGY VS INDIC TRADITION

 The ongoing academic and media battle over the Aryan invasion and the Vedic-Harappan convergence is part of the de-colonization process.

 

David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)

 

Record of failure

            The sad fact is that after nearly two hundred years Western Indology has still failed to understand India, her culture, her soul or her history. It has progressed little beyond Eurocentric and missionary stereotypes, only adding Marxist, Freudian and other modern stereotypes to these, naively believing that these Western ideologies are somehow dramatically enlightening to India and its ancient and profound spiritual culture, when they are usually irrelevant or inferior and have failed in the West. Meanwhile it has discovered little more in the vast treasures of Vedic culture than any primitive culture.

            Western Indology does not understand the philosophy of India, its emphasis on dharma and karma, liberation and enlightenment, or its great traditions of yoga and meditation. It does not acknowledge the value of its rishi/yogi culture and its Vedic origin. Nor does it recognize any such higher yogic spiritual tradition as behind any ancient civilizations or behind humanity as a whole. From its perspective, Indian spirituality is a self-serving fantasy hiding what is unscientific, inhumane or archaic.

Yet even more sadly Western Indology does not want to recognize that India as a unique civilization really exists. It fails to see any real identity to Indic civilization prior to British rule or any real continuity to it from ancient times. Rather it views India as a melting pot of invading cultures with no overriding political or cultural background or unity. It was in fact stated by Marx that India has no history, and what is called history “is the record of successive intruders.” This is the position still taken by Western Indologists and their counterparts in India. They fiercely resist any suggestion of an indigenous civilization in India.

Western thought reads the type of political and psychological motives into Indic schools of thought that are the norm for its own history. It tries to understand the Indic tradition according to Marxism, Freud, Deconstructionism or whatever the latest trend in Western thought happens to be, as if these characteristic preoccupations of the outward looking Western mind could unlock the keys to a very different spiritual and yogic culture. In fact, they usually tell us more about the Western mind than anything really of India’s traditional culture. In short, the West has never really questioned the appropriateness of its means of knowledge for understanding Indic civilization. Not surprisingly, Indic civilization remains a mystery for it and the West does not even suspect the riches of the higher mind that it contains. Westernintellectual culture is generally quite critical of the Indic tradition and rejects most of it as unscientific or erroneous. It styles Indic thought as mystical, irrational, superstitious or even absurd.

The main approach of Western Indology has been one of negationism, denial and denigration. This failure of Western Indology is nowhere more evident as in its treatment of the Vedas. The monumental literature of the Vedas—the largest of the ancient world and given a reverence throughout India throughout its history—is reduced to the record of invading hordes or pastoral nomads that should have left no real literary record anyway. Vedic literature is not examined in depth but simply explained away by such negationist theories, as something of no consequence that need not be taken seriously.

 

Negation of Vedic Literature

            According to Western Indology the Vedic is a literature that should not exist, that if it does exist is primitive, distorted or deceptive. Whatever is sophisticated in the Vedas that Indologists might be able to perceive becomes an interpolation or a cynical borrowing from indigenous people that the Vedic people supplanted and denigrated. Western Indology first viewed Vedic literature as the record of invading/militant Aryan hordes from Central Asia as they destroyed the sophisticated Dravidian urban culture of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Now that the Harappan culture has been shown to have not ended in violence but in geological and river changes, they haven’t given up their old views but simply modified them, without even acknowledging their previous distortions. They now see the Vedas as the record of a pastoral culture that gradually infiltrated its way into India after 1500 BCE and, in some unknown way, subverted the language and literature of the land, though no real evidence for this or record of it has remained.

Such views do not explain the Vedic literature, its extent, sophistication or continuity. Ruthless hordes would not produce such a literature or be able to continue it through the centuries. Pastoral infiltrators would be less able to do so. No subcontinent would carry on such a vast literature as a great spiritual legacy that represents small groups of intrusive peoples that had no real civilization! To carry on such a vast literature, particularly one that requires very elaborate and expensive rituals, would require a royal patronage and from an early period.

            There is a similar negationism about Harappan civilization, which is also left in the dark. Harappan civilization is viewed as a mysterious civilization that came and went leaving no real trace in the later culture. That it was the largest and most sophisticated urban culture of the ancient world at the time is similarly downplayed. Rather the impression is given that it was only a sidelight to much smaller Near Eastern cultures that were the real center of civilization at the time. Its obvious connections to Vedic thought found in artifacts and symbols like the swastika, the ‘om’, and others are stubbornly ignored. In making the Harappan a so-called Dravidian culture, the fact that there is no archaeological record, history or trace of a movement of Dravidians south to confirm this change is similarly ignored.

            Vedic literature does represent the Indic tradition from ancient times. It is the most ancient literature that India as a culture chose to perpetuate and which nearly all later literatures in the country refer to, including non-Vedic groups or thinkers. We cannot ignore Vedic literature or place it in Central Asia. We cannot pretend that it has no connection or origin in India by ignoring references to Indian geography flora and fauna. Even today many great Indian thinkers draw inspiration from the Rigveda itself, including such great figures as Sri Aurobindo, who established an entire new modern school of Vedic interpretation.

Harappan urban culture similarly represents the urban aspect of Indic civilization since ancient time. We cannot pretend that it had no literature and no continuity of its culture and peoples in the region. Nor can we pretend that it could have been entirely forgotten by the existent Vedic literature. The literature record and urban ruins—though very different sources of information that will give different points of view—cannot be kept apart. The continuity of Indic civilization and its literature cannot be negated away. We cannot place the ancient literature of India outside of India and understand the development of Indian civilization.

            The other aspect of Western Indology that is yet more questionable is its holding on to wrong views even after they have been disproved. To date the most common impression people have about ancient India—from textbooks and depictions all over the world—is Wheeler’s massacre at Mohenjodaro and the image of the invading Aryan hordes like the later Huns and Mongols. (See for example the entry on Mohenjo Daro in the Encyclopedia Britannica.) Though Western Indologists if pressed acknowledge that this view is wrong and that Harappan culture declined and fell without such outside invasion and violence, they have done nothing significant to change these distortions. They seem to absolve themselves of any responsibility for them or the political and social problems that their misinterpretations have caused or aggravated. However, they are outraged if Hindus should question their record or their motives.

 

Wholesale Negation of Indic Civilization

            This negationism of Indian civilization is not just a matter of the Vedas or the Aryan Invasion Theory. That merely sets the precedent for a negation of the India’s civilization as a whole. The same predictable pattern repeats itself in other areas of culture. It is not only ancient India but all aspects of Indic civilization that are questionable. The logic is simple. Everything in Indian civilization came from migrants from the West (like the Aryan Invasion), borrowings from the West (like from the Greeks in ancient times), is inferior to that of the West (Hindu monism being at best a crude approach to Christian monotheism), or is simply not of any value at all (fantasy, mythology, error or superstition). Whatever limited indigenous tradition there might have been is reduced to some mysterious Harappan, Dravidian culture that was erased by the intrusive Aryans or taken over by them without giving any credit in the process. This means that Indian civilization if it is indigenous to any significant degree remains fraudulent!

Puranic records of a hundred kings before the time of Krishna are dismissed as fanciful, even though names and for one major dynasty, that of the Ikshvakus, and years of reign going back well over a thousand years prior to the Buddha, are recorded. For reconstructing any authentic history of India, Western Indologists rely on happenstance Greek, Chinese and Islamic travelers (who had their own religious and political motives), refusing to accept anything from Indians themselves. That such visitors are often quite unreliable is ignored. Ancient travelers were prone to exaggerations and misinterpretations, like the Spanish in later times when they first visited America. Even Greek records are selectively used or distorted, like failing to mention Megasthenes’s statement that Indians possessed records that went back hundreds of generations before Alexander.

Relative to the culture of ancient India, its negation by WesternI ndologists is almost total. For sculpture, which was particularly important for the iconic temple worship in India, we are also told that what was of any value in it came from the Greeks after the time of Alexander. That Harappan statues are quite sophisticated and realistic and could represent indigenous influences is ignored. Later sculpture like that of South Indian temples is dismissed as quite inferior to that of Europe.

With regard to theatre, which was quite important in India, we are also told that it came from a Greek influence because the Greeks had great dramas (though lacking in the spiritual and yogic style of the Indians), again though there is no Indian recollection to such a Greek influence. For poetry, we are told that the classical Sanskrit poetry of such as Kalidasa is artificial, sterile and unrealistic, though it is highly spiritual, very musical and quite sophisticated. We are told that it can’t compare with that of the Greeks and Romans, much less Shakespeare! Great Indian traditions of music and dance, said to go back to the Sama Veda, are generally ignored as not of much value in world music, at most meriting a short footnote!

Relative to science, most of Indian science, including astronomy, is reduced to a borrowing from the Greeks, though Indian astronomy and mathematics follows different lines. Indians did not need the Greeks to bring them Babylonian astronomy, as many such scholars state, as they had contact with that region long before Alexander and generally influenced the Middle East more than it did India. Ayurvedic medicine is similarly thought to owe a lot to the Greeks, though Ayurveda has clear Vedic roots.

We must remember that India had a history of a great civilization going back three thousand years before the time of Alexander. Alexander’s so-called conquest of India, which was more of a raid, was not even mentioned in historical records of India. Greek rulers in the third and second century BC were mentioned, but were not considered extraordinary. It is extraordinary that the later, minor Greek rulers should find mention but not Alexander! In general, Alexander’s supposed influence on India is exaggerated out of all proportion to reality.  There was certainly no great adulation of Greek culture as superior to that of India, though Greek contributions in the field of astronomy were recognized. On the contrary, the Greeks spoke highly of the civilization of India. Megasthenes, who came to India about the time of Alexander, in the fragments of his Indika that remain records and Indian tradition of 153 kings going back over 6400 years. Clearly, India had a sense of tremendous antiquity for its civilization when the Greeks came. They didn’t see the Greeks as their superiors, as we do, nor did the Greeks themselves.

When it comes to religious literature, we are told that Vedic prayers and metaphors cannot compare with the psalms of the Bible in sensitivity or sophistication. For philosophy, there has been a desire to reduce Upanishadic thought to a Greek influence, even though history does not support that. Still a Greek borrowing is suspected. For spirituality, we are told that Yoga, Vedanta and Buddhism are inferior to Western monotheism and its greater sense of compassion and that their claims of spiritual realization are either religiously or psychologically suspect. This is in spite of the fact that Western mystics like Meister Eckhart sound more like Hindu Vedantists than like Catholics, and though the ancient Greeks looked up to the Indians for their spiritual wisdom. Though devotion is emphasized in Vedic texts and in the Gita itself, we are told that the great Hindu devotional tradition (Bhakti Yoga) owes a lot to the Christians and Muslims, though these religions do not have devotion as a yoga path or as connected with an understanding of yogic states of consciousness!

What we are dealing with, therefore, is an unprecedented and total negation of an entire civilization. We are not presented with India as having its own indigenous civilization comparable to that of China, Europe or the Middle East, but India as having little cultural, religious, historical or political unity of its own. And even this, we are told, was brought by invading people and not an indigenous development. This is in spite of the fact that the vast Sanskrit literature contains extensive related systems of religion, spirituality, philosophy, medicine, art and literature going back to the Roman era, if not long before—something that no other civilization has been able to maintain. India is put on par with Africa or America by way of civilization and religion, as a half tribal culture. It is not regarded as having an equivalent, though different civilization in terms of art, science or religion as the West.

 

Enlightened West

However, there was another view of India that has honored its great and spiritual civilization. Western intellectual of the eighteenth and nineteenth century— including great thinkers like Voltaire, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Emerson and Thoreau, to mention a few—waxed eloquent about the superiority of the spiritual philosophies and traditions of India, even the greatness of the Brahmin class. They were followed the Theosophists in the later nineteenth century, with leaders like Annie Besant in the early twentieth century who was an important leader in the independence movement in India itself. Today the large New Age movement in the West has an important, if not central place for Indian gurus, yoga traditions and healing practices. Indeed, the Westernpopular mind has always been enamored of the image of mystical India, the land of Gods and sages. Thoreau wrote: "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous philosophy of the Bhagavdgita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

In addition, many modern scientists like Oppenheimer and Einstein have noted their philosophical affinity with India and the East for their new models of unity and consciousness behind the universe. So clearly, it is not a deficiency or prejudice of the Western mind as a whole that is the problem, but one in academia and its vested interests.

 

Incapacity of Western Indology

            The real question, therefore, is—why is Western Indology so inherently incapable of understanding India or its traditions? I think that the answer is simple. Western Indologists have not confronted the Indic tradition directly. They look at Indic traditions as fossils or museum pieces and haven’t entered into Indian thoughts and practices, though these are available to them if they wish. Above all, they lack the spiritual and yogic vision to make sense of Indic civilization. They lack the mindset and the tools for the job, which requires some spiritual insight and not mere logic or pottery gathering. Worse yet, they are not even aware of their limitations in this respect.

            The reasons for this incapacity to understand India are quite clear and are reflected in an incapacity to understand many non-Western cultures. Western Indologists still see Western civilization as world civilization. They do not recognize any real independent Indic civilization apart from that of the West. As in their eyes, civilization per se, comes from the West, then any civilization in India must have Western roots or otherwise be questionable as a true culture or real part of progress in the world.

We note that textbooks of world history to the present day are mainly textbooks of Western history, with a few footnotes thrown in to represent the rest of the world. Textbooks of world art are mainly textbooks of Western art, textbooks of world philosophy are mainly textbooks of Western philosophy, and so on with all the different fields of knowledge and culture. The extent to which non-Western cultures are recognized in world civilization is only the extent that they represent Western type cultural aspirations towards science, democracy (self-determination), economic development or monotheism, the characteristics of Western civilization, not for any unique cultures of their own. Because Western historians believe that Western history represents the main trend in world history, they are naturally inclined to see the origins of world history and that of Western history as the same. Not surprisingly, they compulsive reduce or modify historical data to fit into this preconceived package.

There is no doubt that the Greco-Roman culture is the origin of most of Western philosophical, political and scientific thought. There is similarly no doubt that the Near East is the origin of most of Westernreligious thought through the Judeo-Christian tradition and its Egyptian and Mesopotamian connections. But there is a tremendous doubt—in fact a certainty to the contrary—that Greek and Judeo-Christian origins, or Mesopotamian origins can be ascribed to the civilizations of South and East Asia, Africa and America.

At the same time, Western Indologists are offended if their methodology or qualifications to judge the Indic tradition are questioned. This only highlights the issue of their inability to approach it in an appropriate or even objective manner. They see any criticism of their prejudiced views as a denial of their fundamental right to sit in judgment over the rest of the world. They can negate and denigrate an entire civilization but are intolerant of accepting any fundamental criticism of themselves or their culture in turn. That Western Indology might be questioned is only natural in the post-colonial age, which has exposed these old Eurocentric/materialist models as biased.  Presently, Western scholars are resisting the new Hindu historical scholarship, though it has much hard data to support it, because it questions their Western views on a political and philosophical level. This is contrary to how they have handled the challenge of other regions and cultures of former colonial rule.

Black Africans and other indigenous groups have questioned and thrown off such nineteenth century based interpretations of their history. While initially Western scholars denigrated such new indigenous views of Black History, they have now come to accept them or at least give them their place, including creating their own departments in Western universities. The only difference is that anti-African and anti-Black views have been thrown out as politically incorrect, while anti-Hindu views are still regarded largely as politically correct and unquestioned. While Western scholars are sensitive to the charge of racism and critical of colonial views of history in regards to Africa, they are still perpetuating the colonial view of India. This shows that their more circumspect handling of Blacks and African civilizations is only a tactical position brought on by change circumstances and not due to any heartfelt change.

 

Indic View of WesternCivilization

Meanwhile, Western thinkers don’t understand the very different view of culture found in from inside the Indic tradition. Thinkers in the Indic tradition are not always impressed by Western civilization and its supposed greatness, though they might admire the civilization of the West on some points. Modern Indian intellectuals and thinkers of a traditional bent have been equally hard on Western civilization. Vivekananda, Rama Tirtha, Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore—in fact, most modern Indian gurus criticize the West for a lack of true spirituality, and the Western cultural for lack of any real yogic path to develop higher consciousness. Almost every Indian spiritual teacher who has addressed Western civilization has expressed misgivings about the underlying values or lack of values behind it. Certainly, no great spiritual teachers of modern India would equate Western civilization with world civilization. On the contrary, they usually find it to be a deviation, perhaps necessary, from the longer and more enduring spiritual occupations of humanity that were common not only to India but to all ancient cultures.

Indic thinkers find the sages in their own tradition—Vedic rishis, Vedantic sages or great yogis—to be deeper and more aware than the Greek philosophers, modern scientists or monotheistic theologians. For them, a Vasishta, Yajnavalkya or Patanjali represents a higher mind than an Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas or Kant. Indic thinkers aren’t overwhelmed by the greatness of modern science and technology, which they see as limited outer materialistic preoccupations, but look to a greater science of consciousness that does not rely on outer instruments. (This does not mean they reject science but recognize its limitations.) They don’t find Western art, which has a strong ego base and sensate approach, to be superior to Indian art and its spiritual/religious orientation. They don’t find Western consumerism to be an enlightened culture or an enlightened economy but to only hide a deeper spiritual poverty. They don’t find modern democracies and their human rights orientation to be really enlightened or cognizant of the rights and duties of soul or our rights and duties to the universe.

Indic thinkers aren’t impressed by the ability of Western scholars to grasp the Indic tradition, and all their gyrations they do to keep the origin of the Vedas out of India. They find it to be a sign of spiritual ignorance and cultural arrogance. And such thinkers are not bigoted or unintelligent for doing so, nor have they failed to seriously examine Western civilization. They simply have different values and a different sense of culture, consciousness and reality than mainstream Western culture. Yet they are not alone in their views, many Western mystics have expressed similar critiques of Western civilization, and much of the Westerncounterculture has as well.

 

Intellectual Clash of Cultures

The entire issue reflects a clash of civilizations. Western civilization is trying to impose its outer rationality upon the world as the true use of reason, which Indic civilization and its emphasis on higher consciousness differs from in a radical way. The view of civilization that we carry informs and structures our interpretation of history and culture, almost automatically so. Western Indology is part of Western civilization, shares its values and naturally works to expand its frontiers on an intellectual level. Western Indology is an attempt to mold and fit Indic civilization into the terms and values of Western civilization. Western Indology has yet to accept Indic civilization as a spiritual, philosophical and historical tradition of its own value and independence, with its own authenticity and set of values. Basically, Western scholarship simply does not acknowledge spirituality as part of culture. It has not really confronted the Indic tradition, much less acknowledged it as an equal. Western Indology looks down upon the Indic tradition from on high, from its ivory tower, dissecting, fragmenting and denigrating the civilization of India according to its own alien values and views.

            The best thing for Western Indologists to do would be to start over afresh. They should first recognize that Indic civilization is a tradition much older, broader and more spiritual than the Western tradition and independent from it as well. Indic civilization is not necessarily hostile to Western civilization but it does proceed by different values and according to a different perception of humanity, nature and the universe, apart which we cannot make sense of it.

            The best thing for Indians and for those who follow Indic traditions to do—like the many Hindus and Buddhists in the West—is to go directly to their traditions not only on a spiritual level but also relative to culture and history and not give much credence to Western Indology as it is today. We see a renaissance of the Indic tradition in the world today on a spiritual, yogic, philosophical and culture levels. The popularity of Yoga, Vedanta, Buddhism, Ayurveda, and Indian music and dance that is happening all over the world shows this. This in the long run is a more important event with a longer lasting influence on humanity than Western Indology that has so far failed to enter the courtyard, much less the sanctuary of the great temple of Indic civilization. Unfortunately, the views of Indologists still determine textbook accounts in schools, even in India, and influence the global media. Otherwise one could just as well ignore them as irrelevant.

 

Indic Effort to Spiritualize WesternCivilization

The Indic tradition divides up Western civilization into different areas, to which it ascribes different degrees of validity. It largely accepts Western science as valid within its own sphere but regards that sphere as limited. For example, it accepts most of the findings in the field of physics, particularly the discoveries of the relativity of time and space and the underlying reality of energy behind matter. However, it considers that these discoveries should be pursued further to truly get at the reality behind the universe, which is one of intelligence and consciousness.

The Indic tradition accepts Western political ideals of democracy and equality as good ideas but bound by and undermined by a materialistic formulation. What we need first of all as human beings is a spiritual self-determination—the freedom to know ourselves and discover our true nature beyond the body and mind. Spiritual self-determination provides us the ability to stand above external manipulation, to go beyond desire, greed and ego. Modern democracy allows mainly for a material self-determination. This does not bring true freedom but only makes the masses vulnerable to manipulation by commercial, political and religious forces, which cater to their fears and desires. This is what we are seeing in the democratic West which has almost a dictatorship of the media and the corporate world and very little individual or creative thinking, particularly about ultimate reality.

The Indic tradition does not accept that Western views of history, society and spirituality are valid or complete. These are the main areas that it finds Western civilization to be lacking. Above all, it cannot accept the equation of these Western disciplines with science in terms of objectivity, finality or proof. Western social sciences, for example, remain very culturally bound and cannot be given the finality of Western physical sciences, which are also undergoing many changes. Western religions are still mired in medieval and regressive concepts of exclusive truth and the need to convert the world that are yet more questionable.

What the Indic tradition is aiming at is spiritualizing the Western civilization, which means accepting its validity particularly in the realm of science, but integrating it into a deeper spiritual view which accepts the spiritual sciences of Yoga and Vedanta as well. It can also honor the genuinely creative and spiritual aspects of Western civilization and various individual Western thinkers, artists and mystics. The main conflict between the Indic and the Western is their respective approaches to the humanities. The Indic tradition sees nothing of lasting value to humanity to be gained by subordinating itself to current Western civilization or allowing that to define and delimit it, reducing it to a footnote to Western culture. The Indic tradition sees itself more as a representative of true world civilization, which is also cosmic civilization, and is one of spirituality and Self-realization, not of mere mastery of the external world.

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