Reviewer: V.V. Raman

Some Reflections on
Rajiv Malhotra’s Being Difference: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism

This is a scholarly book from the keyboard of Mr. Rajiv Malhotra. Malhotra has had an unusually rich and influential career: With a background in science and after a very successful business venture, he turned his interests to culture, history, and the power of knowledge manipulation in the politics of the world. In less than a decade and a half he has risen to prominence among Hindu intellectuals, Indian thinkers, and Western commentators on India. An activist-scholar, he has fought successfully against the distortions, intentional or inadvertent, of Hindu worldviews in English-based schools, colleges writings, and media beyond the shores of India. The internet has contributed immensely to the propagation of his name and fame. Thanks to his relentless dedication, authors in the West have begun to take greater care in what and how they write about Hindu history and culture. No small achievement for a self-made scholar. This is because Malhotra is a passionate writer, original thinker, and powerful propagator of perspectives. He articulates his views fearlessly and with clarity.

 In this substantial work Malhotra explores a variety of topics inherent to Indic culture and worldviews. He reflects on many aspects of the Hindu world. His goal is not only to dismantle misconceptions, but also to formulate a new paradigm for intercultural discourse. He presents Indic concepts often, if not always, in contrast to Western modes.
The themes that are ably and persuasively explored in the volume are the following:

1. It is a naïve and mistaken view to regard, as some well-meaning Hindu liberals do, that all cultures and religions as saying the same truths. No, religions and cultures are fundamentally different. Moreover it is far more important to be consciously aware of these differences than to trumpet their commonalty to tackle the confusions in this world.
2. India with her rich and ancient culture has been subdued and manipulated by Western intruders, to the point that even Hindu thinkers are unconsciously adopting Western paradigms in the evaluation and critique of their own culture. Worse still, many so-called educated Hindus treat their own culture with indifference or disrespect, and whole-heartedly embrace all that is Western. As a result, there is not a level playing field when India and the rest of the world (mainly the West) are engaged in debates and discussions.
3. The hegemonic Christian West has been marginalizing and diminishing the wisdom and worth of Indic visions for many centuries now, not only out of ignorance of the deeper meanings of Indic terms, symbols and practices, but also in scheming ways to achieve its sinister ends.
4. The so-called universalism of European Enlightenment which has been a dominant and aggressive global force in recent centuries must be challenged and halted. The book argues with reason that the West has no business, let alone the moral authority or the legal right, to impose its worldviews and values on the rest of the world. Indeed, on this issue,
5. Finally, and most importantly, Malhotra’s goal is to provide a dhármic framework for handing social, religious, and political problems, based on Indic views and worldviews, which will be more fruitful, more tolerant, and more meaningful in today’s world.

The book is an erudite elaboration of these points.

Malhotra begins by referring to a number of his own personal encounters with Western scholars and individuals in conferences and elsewhere to let the reader know how, through means subtle and overt, Christianity and the West have been intruding into the sacredness and integrity of Indic culture. Not that many Indians are not aware of this, but this book gives it all raw and ruthless exposure. It unveils aspects of what it sees as Western hegemonic intercultural ruses that may not be as obvious to superficial observers. These revelations are sure to jolt both unwitting Indians who may have held Western civilization in high regard, as well as scheming Westerners who may feel awkward being caught.

The chapter entitled Yoga: freedom from history is one of the best and most informative. Here one finds interesting discussions of ithihasa, adhyatma-vidya, and what the author calls embodied knowing which is contrasted with the history-centrism of Western thought.. The compartmentalized contrast between the dhármic and the Judeo-Christian visions that are presented throughout the book, can be very useful in courses on comparative religion.

In the next chapter, the book explores further the deep conceptual and doctrinal divide between the dhármic and the Abrahamic views on the relationship between the human and the Divine. The notion of integral unity is explained in this context, as also its compatibility with some of the findings of modern physics. In this context one recalls the relevant quotes from Schrödinger et al. to show the Vedantic inspirations for quantum mechanics.

In this chapter we also find an etic (outsider’s perspective) analysis of the birth and growth of Western civilization: perhaps the first of its kind by a Hindu scholar. A great many Western scholars have delved deeply into and analyzed freely countless dimensions of Non-Western cultures in legitimate and in illegitimate ways. Perhaps for the first time, a Hindu scholar has reciprocated that gesture. This chapter alone deserves to be regarded as a weighty contribution to the literature, and will most likely be appreciated by many enlightened Western scholars as well.

It is no secret that the Hindu spirit is more receptive to and generous towards Non-Hindu religious traditions than most other world systems. This fact is explained in the chapter on Order and Chaos. Here the reader will also find discussions on sacred stories, Biblical and Greek mythologies, as well as comments on ethics and aesthetics. It iffers fresh perspectives on time-honored doctrines.

The chapter on Non-translatable Sanskrit versus Digestion brings in two important ideas. First, that certain terms are culture-specific. English renderings of words like dharma, tapas, dukkha, and Kundalini can at best be approximate, at worst misleading. Moreover, the use of original Sanskrit terms not only preserves their original meaning, but also helps one in “resisting colonization and safeguarding dhármic knowledge.” This chapter contains some excellent information on Sanskrit.

The sixth and last chapter of the book, aside from the extensive and erudite notes at the end, is a dynamic call for a new worldview in the context of our current multicultural and multinational planetary predicament. That the West must not and should not be allowed to enforce its worldviews and values on others is a slow awakening that is occurring within the matrix of Western civilization also. This concluding essay is penetrating in its depth, thought-provoking as a thesis, and powerful in its arguments. The chapter marks Malhotra as a fearless thinker in the arena of culture, history, ideas and ideologies. His invocation of the Gita and the Mahabharata in this context makes him a legitimate heir to and a traditional spokesperson for the Hindu dhármic tradition: a true áryaputra, as one used to say. His homage to Gandhi is a welcome gesture at a time when Gandhiji is the target of invectives from a great many Neo-Hindus.

Prejudices and misinformation still persist in the West. The exclusivist and effective penetration of Christian missionaries, overt and subtle, into India does pose a threat to India’s Hindu cultural roots.

Malhotra’s book is profound and provocative, The tone of the book is necessary to shake up the long-persisting cultural asymmetries and injustices. But the great strength of this book lies in that it brings out, as few other books have done, the complex and sophisticated framework of Indic visions with ample historical allusions, intelligent commentaries, and incisive rebuttals. It is an appropriate and timely reflection on civilizations for the twenty first century.

This book is the work of a keen thinker whose profound reflections are bound to change the tenor of the intercultural debates of our times. Malhotra’s lucid and clarifying expositions of Indic culture are in themselves solid contributions to India studies. I am persuaded that this is a book of enormous import which will contribute to the construction of a world culture in which misunderstandings and convictions of superiority and mutual distrust and contempt will give place to greater understanding, harmony, and peace.
The world of scholarship and the voices of cultural affirmation must be grateful to Mr. Malhotra for presenting us with this most interesting book. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in understanding in some depth the rich traditions and religions of India, and also in becoming aware of the global tensions that characterize our multicultural world.

V. V. Raman
October 17, 2011

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