Sifting Modern India’s Present Through Its Deepest Past

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By Chandrahas Choudhury

The words "modern India" are used today to describe a vast nation-state of more than a billion people, but they also imply a particular trajectory of history.

They refer to an ancient, ethnically and culturally diverse civilization that was colonized from the 18th century onward, that developed a native intelligentsia that eventually deployed against British colonialism ideas of nationhood and liberty adapted from thought currents in the West, and that in 1947 won independence and became a nation-state ambitiously committed to democracy and secularism.

But if much has been gained by the ascent, over three centuries, of modern political ideals and global thought-systems in India, much, too, about the precolonial Indian past has become obscure, or entirely fallen from view. In the new beginnings either forced upon the country in recent centuries or else self-consciously fashioned at home, these older knowledge-systems seem to have no place. To put it another way, in the 21st century's speeded-up time and vast platter of choices, the past seems to have become shorter. What might we do to prevent ourselves from completely becoming the prisoners of our own categories of time and place?

The Indian intellectual D.R. Nagaraj, a dazzling and eclectic thinker who taught briefly at the University of Chicago in the 1990s before he died tragically young at the age of 44, is best-known for his book of essays on Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, two intellectual titans of the 20th century who often took opposing positions on the great issues of their day, such as the caste system and untouchability. Nagaraj was also possessed by a desire not just to see the Indian past through the lenses of the present, but also to turn history around and inspect the present through the lenses of the past. “If the methods and philosophical positions of present times are fit and useful to analyse the formulations of several kinds of pre-modern eras, the reverse should also be true,” he writes. Genuinely bilingual -- he wrote in both Kannada, one of the major languages of the Indian south, and in English -- he possessed the resources to carry this project through. Many of Nagaraj's ideas about how the dozens of distant Indian pasts could be brought to bear productively upon the present have just become available in a posthumously published book of essays, put together by his friends, colleagues and students, called "Listening To The Loom."

Although the book is often difficult going, reading it is like being taken on a whirlwind tour of Indian intellectual history, the kind of journey that nobody seriously interested in India should deny himself. I stayed up late into the night with it for several days, stimulated by the contact with a mind that seemed to be living in several centuries at the same time. The effect of reading Nagaraj has been described very well by the Indian historian Ananya Vajpeyi, who was briefly his student at Chicago:

DR could teach us about Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru, in many ways India’s archetypal modernists, all the while speaking in a style that suggested that even today, the Buddha was delivering sermons in Sarnath, and the classical doctrines of Nayyayikas and Buddhists, Mimansakas and Advaitins, Carvakas and Jainas, Sufis and Sikhs, were creating the pleasant hum and hubbub of an Indic intellectual world. My hunch is that DR identified, in a personal way, with the protagonists he constantly returned to: the Buddha, who walked away from worldly attachments, only to find it supremely difficult to actually detach himself; Nagarjuna, a Brahmin who turned Buddhist, the South Indian from Andhra whose texts brought Buddhism to Tibet and China; Ambedkar, the modernist obsessed with premodernity; Gandhi, who had to wrestle as hard with his own indefatigable appetites as he did with the mighty British Empire.

DR’s catholicity, his capacious hunger to master Pali and Sanskrit, old Kannada and classical Tamil, Continental philosophy and postmodern literary theory, challenged every stereotype about radical intellectual politics ....

I don't know about you, but I'd certainly like to know what it's like to be a Mimansaka or an Advaitin.

Nagaraj’s painstaking and perceptive editor, Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, who teaches at San Francisco State University, compares Nagaraj to the ancient Indian pauranika: “the storyteller who organises the knowledge and wisdom of a culture,” and guards against the slide into intellectual amnesia. But what exactly did Nagaraj think Indians were losing sight of?

For Nagaraj, as for several other prominent modern Indian thinkers working in different modes (whether Jawaharlal Nehru in his book "The Discovery of India," or the framers of the Indian Constitution) the first fact of Indian history was its pluralism, its diversity of viewpoints and knowledge systems -- some exceedingly arcane, but nevertheless philosophically rigorous and linguistically rich -- humming in dialogue or tension with one another. This history meant that no one religion, ethnic group or language could enjoy a specially privileged place in the new nation.

But at the same time, the modern nation-state, with its vast hunger for centralization and homogenization, invariably tilts toward a public sphere composed of majorities and minorities, insiders and outsiders, us and them -- or what Nagaraj calls “identity narratives of the religious-nationalist kind.” Almost every nation-state that has emerged from the shadow of colonialism continues to wrestle with this problem.

This majoritarian tendency is seen in modern India in the right-wing Hindu project that wishes to pummel Hinduism into a unified field and to represent minorities (Muslims, tribal members, agitating lower-caste groups) as misguided, unpatriotic or aberrant. (Both aspects of this tendency can be found in a rant by the Indian politician Subramanian Swamy last year.) Nagaraj’s brief, trenchant critique of the Hindu right-wing movement’s use of the figure of Rama -- the hero of the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana -- as a symbol will have to serve here as a representative instance of his own method. The movement reached its apotheosis in 1992, when Hindu agitators destroyed a mosque, the Babri Masjid, in the northern town of Ayodhya, since the site was considered the birthplace of the historical Rama. (An excellent eyewitness account of the sacking of the Babri Masjid and a meditation on its fallout in Indian life can be found in "Inhaling The Mahatma," by the Australian foreign correspondent Christopher Kremmer.")

But this fixing of Rama in both history and geography, argues Nagaraj, elides the hundreds of other “sightings” of Ram and the other major protagonists of the Ramayana reported in legends across India. The power of Rama in Indian history, as expressed in its art and its legends, was that he was not “there,” speaking from remote Ayodhya, but always “here,” somewhere close to home. (Diana Eck’s magisterial recent book "India: A Sacred Geography" illuminates Hinduism’s persistent instinct for duplication of global stories in local contexts).

But with Hindu nationalism, says Nagaraj, “history and faith are being made to share the same bed” -- somewhat like with creationism in America. What might be an antidote to such divisive readings of the Ramayana? For Nagaraj, the answer lay in not just a scolding based on the ideals of the Indian Constitution (a point of view that sounds patronizing to many right-wing Hindus), but in turning instead to the many “folk” Ramayanas of India, which often poke fun at the central characters of the epic, and see their stories as aesthetically malleable structures to be continuously reinterpreted. For Nagaraj, “the recovery of difference is an effective way of overcoming those threats posed by the essentialist use of symbols.” The pluralism of the Indian Constitution might be seen as just the codification, in the modern language of rights, secularism and democracy, of the natural pluralism of Indian history.

In a tribute to Nagaraj shortly after his death, the scholars Sheldon Pollock and Carol Appadurai Breckinbridge offered an assessment of the range of his intellectual gifts and of the diverse, and sometimes disquieting, life experiences he brought to his work. Just as Charles Dickens as a boy had done time in a blacking factory, so, too, had Nagaraj, born in a notionally free India, spent some time weaving in bonded labor as a boy. Pollock and Breckinbridge wrote:

When D.R. became a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 1996, he had gained a reputation as one of the leading cultural critics in India, and perhaps the foremost thinker of the politics of cultural choice among those he would refer to as historically humiliated communities, including dalits (those formerly called untouchables) and artisanal castes known as shudras. If this were all DR had to give, it would have been gift enough. But D.R. approached the problem of subaltern cultural choice from a perspective broadened not only by familiarity with contemporary metropolitan thought but also by profound study of the living cultures of rural India and of the precolonial past. It was especially in that past -- the fact that so many South Asian intellectuals no longer had access to it was for D.R. an enduring catastrophe of colonialism -- that he found important resources to recover and theorize. And he did this in a spirit neither of antiquarianism nor indigenism. D.R. understood that social and political justice cannot be secured without reasoned critique, and that the instruments of critique in postcolonial India had to be forged anew from an alloy that included precolonial Indian thought and culture -- but only after being subjected themselves to critical inspection. In exploring these resources he showed the remarkable intellectual reach and curiosity that enabled him to speak across every disciplinary boundary and to explore an astonishing range of conceptual and ethical possibilities.

To put it another way, while many prominent modern Indian thinkers have sought to expand Indian pluralism from above, in dialogue with ideas from the West, Nagaraj sought to expand it from below by sifting through the best native traditions and recovering their vocabulary and concepts. The Clay Sanskrit Library (now the Murty Classical Library), an ambitious new Indic publishing project aiming "to make available the great literary works of India from the past two millennia in scholarly yet accessible translations," would have excited Nagaraj greatly as just the kind of gateway to the past that he tried to supply in his essays. One of the things that we most closely associate with the condition of being modern is the range of choices guaranteed to us in relationships, vocations and consumer goods. Through a book like "Listening To The Loom," we see that we also are given an unprecedented ability to transcend our historical moment and inhabit the pasts from which our world has emerged.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at

-0- Sep/06/2012 20:20 GMT