Prof S. N. Balagangadhara’s argument that the Europeans described their experience of India and not India itself is obviously right. It is only from the frame of reference of one’s own culture that anyone can describe what one sees in the world. The observer is intimately connected to the observation. It is only from the frame of reference of their culture that the Europeans saw and talked about Hinduism, the caste system, etc.
I’d like to submit here that the Europeans had another important compulsion over and above their culture: the need to generalize what they saw.
Prof Balagangadhara will agree that words like Hinduism and caste system are huge generalizations. But generalization is inevitable when one is compelled to account for innumerable and diverse phenomena. European colonial writers had to generalize what they saw because their Empire had spread itself recklessly wherever possible. The colonizers didn’t have any reason to stop their conquests at any sort of previously existing boundaries because easy money didn’t stop at those boundaries. How does one talk meaningfully about such a recklessly spread Empire without making generalizations? It’s impossible.
To make matters worse, the list of collective nouns the Europeans used to describe and generalize what they saw has another entry in it which Prof Balagangadhara doesn’t seem to have paid attention to: India. As long as we wish to take this entry seriously, there is no escape from generalization. Every statement about India is a generalization because the very word is the result of European generalization. I’m not saying that we must refrain from making any statement about India. I’m only saying that we must recognize the fact that we’re compelled to generalize when we make one.
I think it’s still possible to make a very good generalization, but we have to be careful. If we aren’t, what we end up calling the Indian way to generalize will continue to have European generalization at the base because European generalization thrives in the very word India. In some sense, we have to remove Europe from India before making our generalization, and it’s not an easy task. (In passing, I have to point out that even European is a generalization, but we can live with it because Europe is quite far away from us and we’re not interested in describing Europe but India here.)
Fortunately, we can talk much more easily about generalization by a Vedantin, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Lingayat, a Shudra, and so on, without including European generalization by default. Similarly, we can also talk about generalization by a Kannadiga, a Tamil, a Telugu, a Gujarati, and so on. These categories were attested before our brush with European colonialism, and continue to exist even today. But we have to be very careful when we talk of an Indian way to generalize because the very category owes its birth to our colonial experience.
Let me end with a few comments on how we could think in order to arrive at an Indian generalization. In some sense, we must arrive at the least common denominator of all the pre-attested categories described and implied in the above paragraph. We must arrive at what is common to all of them and lodge ourselves in that common frame of reference before making our generalization. Most importantly, our generalization must apply to the new India, which is a product of European generalization, and which we also like to call as a democracy.
The task is neither impossible nor simple. Until we come up with such a generalization, there is no option but to use what the Europeans have left us with — Hinduism and caste system. Unfortunately, it is also true that different people will naturally come up with different ways to tinker with these concepts in this interim period. They will infuse them with their own meanings, knowingly or unknowingly retain the European-ness in them to different degrees, and try to explain their version of reality as well as they can.