Bhartiya History

Reexamining history from a Hindu perspective and exposing the colonial distortion of their Vedic heritage that fails to recognize the spiritual root of Indic civilization.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Western Misinterpretation of Indic Civilization

By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)

Source: Hinduism and the Clash of Civilizations

The problem is that the West has defined civilization in its own image, disregarding other civilizations and their different approaches and values. First, it has defined civilization in terms of science and technology, as a largely materialistic development. Clearly, the West did pioneer most of modern science and technology during the period from 1500-2000 AD. However, prior to that Europe was no more advanced scientifically than the rest of the world, and often behind it. India and China were equal or ahead of Europe in science and technology throughout the medieval period and in the ancient era as well. Today we see scientists from Asia making their mark on modern science, which is no longer an affair that belongs to Europe or America. Indeed, there are more trained scientists in India than in America today. If we define civilization as science and technology, clearly the era of European predominance is coming to an end. It was more an historical phase than any lasting domination of world civilization, which historically has been more dominated by larger and older cultures in Asia.

Second, and more importantly, the West has defined culture in terms of its own approaches to religion, art and philosophy, even though these are rather recent, fragmentary or at odds with each other. It is not that India does not have religion, art or philosophy. In fact, India has had probably more of these than the West, but that the Indic approach to these aspects of culture, being different, causes them to be ignored or denigrated on principle.

In terms of religion and spirituality, India has offered the world a much greater literature, older and larger traditions, and a deeper cosmic knowledge than the West has ever produced. Look at the Vedas, Upanishads, Epics, Puranas, Tantras and Yoga Shastras in the Hindu tradition, and the many Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and other teachings as well. In the modern world, if people are looking to spiritual practices, they employ mainly Indic terms of dharma, karma, dhyana, prana, shakti, kundalini, and chakras. Most of these terms can be found in the Rigveda itself! If we are looking for practical way to develop a higher consciousness and connection with the universal mind, it is in the Indic Yoga tradition that we can find the way, not in the mainstream of western civilization which has not been concerned with such higher realities.

In terms of philosophy, the Indic tradition is similarly older, more continuous and more diverse than that of the West. From the six systems of Vedic philosophy, the Nyaya-Vaisheshika, the Samkhya-Yoga and Purva and Uttara Mimamsa, to the four schools of classical Buddhist philosophy, the Tantric schools like Kashmiri Shaivism, or the materialistic Charavaka school, it has an extraordinary sweep of the human mind and the universe itself. And there is in all of this no mention of the Greek philosophers that the West has emulated as the greatest in this field, who clearly came later than the main traditions of India. As the work of modern philosophers like Sri Aurobindo indicates, it is a living tradition. India maintains a tradition of spiritual, ontological and meditational philosophies that have not yet succumbed to the materialist and scientific paradigms of the West that more or less put an end to such an independent philosophical tradition in the West over a hundred years ago.

One could argue, therefore, that India is not a backwater of civilization but rather that Western Indologists represent a backwater of scholarship. They have so far failed to really study or get to know their subject. They are content with secondhand views, stereotypes, or speculation based upon their Eurocentric mindset. Their knowledge of Sanskrit is often poor. Their direct examination of Vedic texts is limited. In short, their proposed history of India is not deeply researched and has not yet changed from the original colonial views in the nineteenth century. In fact, Western Indology has contributed almost nothing, and certainly nothing significant in recent decades, to the understanding of India or to the unique nature of its civilization.

A more progressive western scholarship exists relative to Africa than to India. What few Indology departments exist in the West are being downsized and are generally dominated by scholars who do not feel any real affinity to the Indic tradition. They use Indology to promote their own political or intellectual views that are often anti-Hindu, if not anti-India. Western Indology remains more defined by Marx, Freud or the Bible than anything authentically Indic. This is very different from departments on China, the Middle East or Christianity and Islam that are dominated by scholars who have a real appreciation of these traditions. With representatives like these, India does not need enemies in the academic world.

Today, the West, except for spiritual seekers, has yet to really confront, much less understand the civilization of India. The civilization of India has different values and different goals. It cannot fit into western models of culture, whether monotheistic religion, western intellectual culture or materialistic science. It is not that the civilization of India is wanting but that the standard used to judge it is insufficient. Its traditions go deep and remain alive, in spite efforts to denigrate them. Note the recent Kumbha Mela in which over thirty million people took a sacred dip in the Ganga on one day. There is no gathering comparable to this in western civilization. Yet while this was the largest gathering in world history and the largest religious and spiritual event, the American media scarcely noticed it (though that in UK did give it some attention).

The West has defined India according to its own vision and an external contact with the region that has seldom been deep or even open-minded. The West defines India according to its contact with the West, which according to its own image. It ignores that the subcontinent of India is a well-defined cultural and geographic sphere, whose main associations historically have been to the east and the south. Its reduction of Indic civilization has caused a similar reduction of the related civilizations of Southeast Asia, Indochina and Indonesia, which are not given much place in world culture either.

Today there needs to be a new examination and definition of Indic civilization, what is traditionally called Bharatiya Samskriti. It must be judged by its own standard, not that of an alien tradition. Indic civilization must be redefined not only for the past, but also for the present and the future. It has a great history and the world’s most ancient and sophisticated literature that the world has preserved. It has not been a borrower of culture but an originator of culture. If we look to Asia, Indic culture and religions have created the dominant tone for the entire region from China to Indonesia to India, and to Central Asia in the pre-Islamic period.

The coming century will see an awakening in Asia on all levels, just as Asiatic religions are spreading to the West. Even Catholicism is seeking to enrich itself spiritually through its encounter with Buddhism and Vedanta. For this a reexamination of Indic civilization is crucial. It is time for the West to give up its cultural arrogance and look to Mother India anew. It is time for Indian intellectuals to give up their cultural alienation and drink deep from the well of their own traditions. While certainly there are superstitions and backward customs in the country that need correction, the core of civilization that has persisted since Vedic times, remains pure. It can generate a new and higher culture if its own if given the chance. May that Rishi culture again come forth for the benefit of all!


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