Apart from a few fads such as yoga, vegetarianism, meditation and the now ubiquitous curry house the impact of Indian culture on the West remains minimal. With the emphasis in India itself on rote learning the country has excelled in producing high achievers in the spheres of science and technology. However the fanatical drive in this area has meant a dearth of creative thinking. This is most manifest in the humanities. While a certain amount of rote learning is essential in mathematical based subjects, in the humanities this creates mimicry and intellectual claustrophobia. Hence the only Indian academics one hears of in this sphere are the expat Marxist professors who with their plum positions in western institutions reinforce a colonialist and Orientalist view of India which would be deemed outdated, prescriptive and even downright racist if applied to other parts of the world.
It is this suffocating nexus which ‘Being Different’ seeks to break.The book’s Indian-American writer, Rajiv Malhotra, breaks free from the parrot-style learning and constraints which it has entailed. He challenges the very idea that ‘tolerance’ is even laudable because it inherently entails sufferance. Instead he posits the idea of ‘mutual respect’ between different cultures. That is where the problem begins. Malhotra relates candid instances where this attitude has not gone down well. At best American institutions ‘tolerate’ Hinduism. They do not actually respect it.
The book is aptly titled because in challenging well entrenched western assumptions and prejudices Malhotra invites us to indeed ‘be different’. A new perspective is needed. Western claims at being rational and right are at source grounded in Christian theology and its dependence upon being history-centric. Now this is an important watershed because history is written by the victors. So the colonialist mentality which enforced an inferiority complex onto Hindus has only deepened with time as western values are taken as the only yardstick with which to judge universalism. What the western mind cannot understand it prefers to denigrate or when challenged ignore. This explains the Marxist denigration of traditional India , which as Malhotra explains, is only a revamped idea of Hegel. It is therefore carrying its own superstitious and otherworldly baggage if only the practitioners of ancient Indian culture would realise this and stop being so much in awe of it.
Hence even those versed in Indian tradition are not left off the hook. Malhotra reminds is that while western scholars studied India , very few spiritual masters in India actually took time to study the institutions, traditions and culture of the west. By taking this momentous step he has opened up a whole new perspective leading us all to question the very idea that western universalism is even universal over other cultures, let alone superior to them. It is limited in time and space because it lacks essential concepts such as Dharma, karma and Sanskriti.
‘Being Different’ therefore comes at a very critical juncture in the history of that western civilisation. It offers an alternative perspective but without feeling the need to be otherworldly. While the aim of Indian spirituality has always been moksha, the liberation from an endless cycle of death and rebirth, Malhotra nevertheless explains very real every day concerns which have relevance to our existence on this physical earth. As western civilisation itself asks deep questions as to its once seemingly self-assured purpose and identity, ‘Being Different’ has the enormous potential to be a counter-culture with more constructive pragmatism than the avant-garde bohemianism which is the preserve of ivory tower academics, cocaine-snorting Generation X, or the waste of talent which once drifted onto an untenable existence on hippy communes. Above all the book shows the relevance of the world’s longest surviving civilisation for the modern world. As western universalism gets deeper into the present impasse, ‘Being Different’ will move centre-stage to offer a realistic way forward for humanity.
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