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Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism Review


The West has a series of binaries: its original cultural milieu stems from the marriage of Greek rationalism and intellectualism and Israeli/Christian religion and fervor, it tends to divide the world into itself and others, and it both has a unique, inherent culture and yet has also given rise to a universal world culture. The West from its perspective made the world: it was it which defines world history, the discovery of other civilizations, and it tends to see them through its own lens. These are crucial elements behind Rajiv Malhotra's book Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, which focuses on India's own unique civilization and Hinduism, and focuses on deconstruction (from an Indian perspective), Western universalism and its inherent biases. Malhotra's book manages to show that Hindu (Brahmic) and Western/Christian civilization really are based on fundamentally different principles, and does so in a well written, comprehensible, and elegant book, but Malhotra seems in his own way like the fanatical defender who has been for so long focused on defending his faith that it rings with more than a little of the single-mindedness that he accuses the Abrahamic faiths of upholding.

Dharmic and Abrahamic faiths have a fundamental distinction, in that the former is an intellectual exercise based upon the inherent unity of everything, an internal and private quest, timeless, without a mission to convert and proselytize, while the latter is structured around a deeply historical mission which revolves around prophets or Jesus who was sent by an external God, with inherent distinctions between individual components of the universe, structured around a linear time starting with a creation by God and which will end in the End Times, and which has an in-built drive to proselytize and convert the entire Earth to its faith (at least for Christianity and Islam, since Judaism has no such mandate). Malhotra lays out a whole host of further spiritual difference and ideas which differ dramatically between the two faiths, and his rendering of Hindu terminology and concepts into English, even as he insists that they cannot inherently be translated in a single word (such as a yogi not being translatable simply as a saint, or "aum in yoga not being equivalent to "amen) is excellently done.

There is also a brilliant deconstruction of some of the elements of the Western tradition, such as Hegel with his belief in world history and the idea of the West, and the West alone, possessing the "spirit," which animates and drives forward history. Hegel claimed that India lacked a sense of history and science like the West, that in fact all other civilizations lacked a true sense of freedom, balance, and high philosophy, and that therefore it was the duty of the West to uplift and push forward other civilizations to the next stages of historical existence. As Malhotra notes, there is an inherent drive in the Abrahamic faiths for domination and expansion, based upon their external validation of their faith and their proselytization, and Hegel's version, theoretically based upon universalist concepts, secularized, is in fact very much still based upon Western religious principles which are just secularized and presented in a different garb.

Other elements of the cherished canon of the Western liberal tradition, such as the ideal of secularism, are also things which are decisively drawn from the Western context. Secularism and tolerance is a requirement for religions to coexist when they are based upon the ideal of expansion and proselytization, when they actively conflict and fight with each other. It makes less sense outside of a Western context, and Malhotra notes that the attempts at translating it into the Indian context are not entirely suitable.

But Malhotra starts his work with a lengthy call for mutual respect between Brahmic faiths and other religions, and yet then most of his work is based around declaring, in almost every way, that Brahmic faiths are superior. They are more individualistic. They are not prone to hate and intolerance. They are more scientific. They have an inherently greater spirituality, and where Christianity approaches Indian faiths in this spirituality, such as in their chants or hymns, these are credited as being imports of Indian influence. And above all Brahmic faiths are lauded as being scientific, based upon rigorous and continuous investigation of the workings of the mind, in contrast to Christianity which is decried as being inherently less scientific and instead based upon historical principles. Malhotra of course never claims that there is no right of the Abrahamic faiths to exist: he tolerates them. But what reads as a position of superiority seems to be quite different indeed from the way that he outlines respect: as being willing to accept entirely the religious practices of another faith. Malhotra Sets an extraordinarily high bar for what he constitutes as respect: it isn't merely the ability to tolerate and to acknowledge the existence of another faith, but rather to confirm and to present their religious practices as equal to your own.

Can this truly be adopted without undermining the basis of what religion is? After all, if another faith is completely equal, just as completely valid as your own, then why worship your own and not this one? Most notably, Malhotra has what I think of as a natural development of the ardent defender of a cause: that he only sees its weakness and much less of its strength. This strikes me particularly with the depiction he has of the third world being hollowed out by Western ideologies of deconstructionism, foisted on it by a hypocritical civilization which doesn't practice it on itself.

Perhaps the age of the book is showing, since in a time of tremendous cultural changes the years are long. Malhotra wrote Being Different in 2013, largely before the current round of dramatic upheavals in the Western cultural milieu and internal self-questioning that have become apparent over the past several years. This can be vividly seen by the intense battle over things like critical race theory, black lives matter, focus on the inherent racism and various other isms present in Western institutions and theories, etc.

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But it is extremely difficult to believe that the West is confident in itself and not engaged in internal revisionism and deep self-questioning, in a period where most major newspapers, news sites, academic journals, and political institutions either publish or engage in extensive commentary upon their own problematic structures and historical legacies. If you read conservative or right wing opinions, you will find little of this great confidence, optimism, and triumphalism which Malhotra claims the West possesses while at the same time attempting to drain the nationalism and self pride of other regions.In fact, these sites widely believe the exact opposite. Malhotra's native India is an excellent example of this in of itself, in a period where it is known for a right wing Hindu revivalism and patriotism which has swept the country.

Malhotra has a cogent and very telling analysis of Western vs. Indian spirituality and religion, and he makes a real case for the importance of respecting India's heritage. It gives an excellent overview of Hindu beliefs and serves as a good, readable, introduction to Indian spiritual practices and concepts, much more approachable than many other books. But at the same time he becomes so caught up in defending it that he seems to draw away from his own principles of respect and mutual difference in equality: in a certain sense, the two are irreconcilable in of themselves, since he claims both that religions should mutually respect each other as equals, and yet that the differences between them are not simply paper differences: they are real and significant. They cannot both be on the same plane and yet also inherently, structurally, in very different positions.

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