What has the insight of a seemingly obscure agglomeration of religions (obscure to us in the West) that reside under the umbrella term known as the ‘dharmic tradition’ got to do with the major problems that haunt world politics today? And what has any of this got to do with us here in the West? Everything.
Just over three decades ago Edward Said’s challenging text, Orientalism, burst onto the scene and delivered a revolutionary impact on much of the social sciences. But what the book did not do is tell us is how the ‘Orient’ thinks. The downside of the legacy of Said’s book is that the Orient appears as a passive region that cannot represent itself. What was missing from that great work was something that could tell us not only something about how the conglomerate known as the Orient thinks, but how its own philosophy and weltanschauungs could tell us new things about the ideational self-conception of the West and of the accompanying conceptions of the world that flow from this. Said’s great lacuna, I believe, has been overcome in magnificent and equally challenging form by Rajiv Malhotra’s epic intellectual journey into the world of dharmic thought. As Malhotra puts it, in exploring the world of dharmic religious thought we can ‘reverse the gaze’ and look deeply into the very structures of thought that define Western civilization. Malhotra also adds a crucial dimension concerning the identity of the West – namely its Christian religion.
This remarkable and highly original book is itself an exercise in being different, insofar as it constitutes not a nihilistic critique of all that is wrong with the West but offers constructive – dare I say ‘healing’ – powers that can offer ways out of the impasse concerning one of the defining features of Western civilization – its self-belief that what is Western is truly and inherently universal. It is this very existential conflation, Malhotra argues, that lies at the heart of the world’s problems today. The solution lies not with the denial or destruction of Western civilization, but rather with the need for it to humbly transcend this great conflation and learn not to ‘tolerate’ other civilizations and cultures but to embrace a mutual respect for them. It could also benefit from a healthy dose of humility by recognising the many debts that the West owes the East in general, and India in particular, concerning various pioneering inventions that found their way across to help nurture the rise of the West (Indian mathematical break-throughs is a case in point).
Being Different is written in a refreshingly direct and highly accessible form that is so often not the case with works located in this genre. Its effectiveness is also marvelously portrayed by ideas that are sometimes so simple that one wonders why many of us had not come up with them before. The example of his fascinating story concerning his critique of the word ‘tolerance’ is a marvelous case in point. His argument here is disarmingly simple but is a product of his poignant analysis of the exclusivist tendencies that lie at the base of Western civilization; tendencies that are not always recognised as such by Westerners given that they are camouflaged in ‘nice-sounding’ but ultimately self-deluding rhetoric. Whether his message is ultimately capable of transcending this exclusivism is, of course, another matter. But the challenge lies surely with those of us in the West who dress such exclusivism up in the ideational garments of human rights, tolerance, and the central notion of making the world a better place through culturally converting Others to Western civilization.
This is a big book on a massive topic that speaks directly to the central concerns of us in the West as well as how we think and act in the world, as much as it does to the many more people who reside outside of the West. All in all, Being Different is a fitting and major response to Samuel Huntington’s position on ‘who are we?’ as the West; one that can perhaps best be provided by someone reversing the gaze on the West through a non-Western lens. This could, and in my view deserves to, be one of the defining books of the age.