In this talk, I discuss the idea of “Bharatiya Exceptionalism”, what it means and its ramifications in various fields of activity. Drawing upon my experience of having been in the USA, I discuss as to how the understanding of “American Exceptionalism” led me to discover the equivalents of it in the people of other countries. What logically followed was the quest for a definition of “Bharatiya Exceptionalism”.
American Exceptionalism means a unique state of collective consciousness of the Americans about them being exceptional and best. This sense of being exceptional extends to everything ranging from sports to science. This feeling is nurtured in people right from their childhood. It doesn’t mean that the people hold a few people here and there to be exceptional but it is a feeling that their “system” is such that it turns out exceptional people. We often find in Bharat that we extol a few exceptional individuals. But American Exceptionalism is a claim about the American “system”, in this case “system” being equated to culture and therefore a cultural claim that American culture is the best.
People on both sides of the political spectrum in the USA, the left and the right agree that there is an American Exceptionalism. Both of them though, agree for quite different reasons. The Christian Right claims exceptionalism because of the Bible i.e. the narrative of them being the chosen people and America the chosen land. A famous statement by Jesus Christ talks of a “city upon a hill”. This is the ideal city which shines for the whole world (this is similar to the view of many Bharatiyas that Bharat has to be the light for the other cultures). When the Europeans were arriving in America, they saw lights on the land and hence they thought they have reached “the city on the hill”. This, they thought was the land as promised in the Bible. Hence, the right wing idea of American Exceptionalism has its basis in America being “the city on the hill”, being verdant like the garden of Eden and so forth, that in turn are very much rooted in Biblical narrative.
The Left wing doesn’t use biblical metaphors to claim American Exceptionalism however, and their idea of exceptionalism is rooted in America’s supremacy in science, technology, freedom, values among other things. Therefore we see that American Exceptionalism is a claim which is common to both left and right wing, although based on quite different ideas.
In Bharat, there are many kinds of Bharatiyas; they disagree, fight and generally have their own views on anything. But, do they have an understanding of Bharatiya Exceptionalism? There may be a need to define it, discuss it. It is also necessary that people across political divides believe in it just as they do in the US for it is the one story that unifies people across the nation. Every student needs to be taught, every businessman needs to know, every diplomat has to project it and every politician has to talk about it.
American Exceptionalism is propagated using parades, big museums, the American flag and various other symbols. It is seen that the American flag has a status on par with a God, with elaborate rituals concerning its folding, carrying and so on. The same is with their national anthem. It is unfortunate that such symbols are often not respected in Bharat and is accepted to be a right, but they are always respected in the US and that too as normal duty. There are certain aspects of the American Exceptionalism which may sound bizarre to an average Bharatiya in this day and age – for example, their pride in carrying arms. This is guaranteed by the American constitution because the founding fathers of America needed to carry guns. Many of these things become part of the myth of greatness and are cherished as the identity of the nation and its culture. Many of these aspects needn’t be logical, they are just part of a shared myth.
Other cultures / countries with the idea of exceptionalism
Similar things can be found in other cultures / countries too. The Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and various others have these shared myths and do propagate their narratives. The Chinese propagate this through their China Institute which has a hundred branches all over the world. They peddle the narrative that they are modernizing but not westernizing. They say that their modernization is based on their ancient philosopher Confucius. In other words, their modernity is Confucian modernity. It is through the lenses of these exceptional narratives that the Americans, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese evaluate themselves and the wider world. When the Americans study Bharat, it is through the lens of American Exceptionalism. Such studies are quite extensive and large scale and grouped under the head of “South Asian Studies”, the American name for what used to be called Indology in Europe.
Exceptionalism as “lens”
The Church, and foundations such as Ford Foundation study Bharat all the time. They not only fund NGOs in Bharat but also the much touted and in fashion “Think tanks”. There are many think tanks of the US which operate in Bharat. They have opened branches in many places in Bharat and they study Bharat based on their lenses. If we are to reverse the gaze and do purvapaksha on say, China, US or some other country, we have to understand what our lens is going to be, what our logical premises are going to be. Only on these premises will we be able to do purvapaksha.
These logical premises will function as our lenses just like it is for American Exceptionalism. In earlier generations, the Bharatiya narrative was Ramayana. Ram Lila used to be enacted in many villages where everyone would join in and participate, bond together and also enact one’s own version of Ramayana. The personal involvement and stake in the story was because it was a community event. With the advent of TV, the personal involvement of communities declined and it became a spectacle one watched being enacted on TV by someone else. That itself brought in a level of detachment from the Ramayana.
Identity questions confounding even the scholars
The Bharatiya identity doesn’t seem to be clear even to scholars or they choose not to own it. To illustrate the point, on my regular visits to Bharat that have been happening for 45 years, I met Ashish Nandy and asked him about his identity. Ashish replied by saying that he was a Bengali first, then a Christian and then a scholar without even mentioning Bharat as part of his identity. When probed further, he said that the Bharatiya identity is forced upon people by chauvinists. I then asked him what the Bharatiya grand narrative, on the lines of the American one and Chinese one, was, and as to why Bharat should keep together as a nation and why has it stayed together through history in spite of the diversity. He was honest in accepting that he didn’t know the answer to this question.
Some others like John Dayal who was the head of the National Integration Council under the previous government regime holds views that are not conducive to the unity of this country.
Even IFS trainees unaware of “Brand Bharat”
This leads us to the question: What does “Brand Bharat” actually mean? I will elaborate this using an example. I was invited by the Foreign Services institute, Ministry of External Affairs some time ago to give a talk. I told the diplomats, a young batch of students that Bharat is a brand and that they have to represent it and that there is a larger Bharatiya grand narrative, its uniqueness and so on. I also told them about how mathematics, science, philosophy, yoga among other important things were exported from Bharat for a long time. After the talk, there was a Q&A session in which the audience almost split into two groups. The first half was very proud of the Bharatiya grand narrative, they told me that they were never taught about it, neither in school nor in the Foreign Services institute and that they wanted to learn it.
The other half were angry. One of them was from North East Bharat and said that he doesn’t believe in this narrative. Another said that he was from a Dalit caste and that he had been oppressed through his life.
This is concerning because these are the people who will represent Bharat abroad. They are going to be the brand managers, brand ambassadors and they don’t believe in the product (Bharat) they are representing. This is as illogical as a vice-president marketing of a company not even believing in his own brand. The selection process seems quite strange, in that there is no criterion of patriotism or respect for the Bharatiya civilization. It is just a matter of passing a few exams and getting in. It is quite important that these candidates are filtered for ideology and it is puzzling as to why this isn’t the case.
Before understanding the Bharatiya narrative, the anti-narrative which is in vogue these days has to first be disrupted. There is a need to both reason out and eliminate anti narratives. If one wants to plant a flowering plant, it is necessary for one to remove weeds, pests etc. This constitutes disruption. The act of planting useful and flowering plants is construction. We need a combination of both constructive and disruptive thoughts. It is not enough to just talk about positive things. In the absence of disruptive intervention (removing anti narratives), the positives die down.
The left in Bharat is strong in the intellectual circles. I have analyzed and done purvapaksha of western thought. I have also analyzed the leftist ideology. Apart from this, I have analyzed the “Breaking India” forces in the book “Breaking India”. There it has been shown how there is a nexus of these forces with foreign inimical forces, religious multinationals, foundations, think tanks etc. Many Bharatiyas have joined forces with them and therefore are their sepoys. These sepoys work for money. Some of them have similar ideology with the foundations etc. But they are one in their purpose of breaking Bharat.
At talks in the US, when I say I am representing Bharat, or when I claim a certain idea to not be Bharatiya, I am challenged by questions from people like: Whose Bharat? Is it the Dalits’ Bharat, Muslims’ Bharat or the Brahmins’ Bharat or the Bharat where women get murdered? They are clear in their aim of dividing and breaking Bharat. They will not accept that there is one idea of Bharat. The term they use for this is “sub-nationalism”. Sub-nationalism means that there is no larger nation or a national identity at all but many small nations and sectarian identities. They also claim us to be wrong in imposing a single narrative on all those small nations. The studies of this nature are called sub-altern studies and they seek to subdivide and break the grand Bharatiya narrative.
Misrepresentation of Bharat’s History
About the history of the brutal foreign invasions, there is a canard used to justify the invasions. In that, it is claimed that the invaders came to Bharat because there were human rights violations and that the invasions were to emancipate the oppressed people. Many such oppressions are talked about: the Aryans oppressing the Dravidians, the Brahmins oppressing the Dalits, Hindus oppressing Muslims and so on. Separatism is first ideological and then turns physical. Ideological separatism is fanned by funding, providing intellectual inputs fitting the narrative that they want to build, research and training from inimical countries / organizations.
Wrong notions of Spirituality
There is a contribution to this problem by our Gurus. Although their intentions are noble, they cause confusions. Generally Advaita is taught at two levels one at the individual level, another at the Brahman level. There are many levels in between the two such as: family, village community, society, nation and so on. The existence of these levels is not taught. What is taught is that one can bypass all these levels and become Brahman. But we have to worry about the nation, protect it and so forth. They don’t even want to face these problems. For them, it is mere controversy. Even temples never allowed talks such as these in their premises 20 to 25 years ago because the issue for them was controversial. This is unlike the Church, Synagogues, Madrassas and Buddhist temples which allow discussions about social, political, cultural issues concerning society. But the average Hindu is very scared to do the same.
This is changing gradually because of the effect of 9/11. People from other communities and faiths have openly started discussing these issues and hence Hindus have started addressing them. But even now there are many Gurus in Bharat who think discussing these issues to be controversial. The Bhagavad Gita discusses dharma-adharma. Any person who is in the world cannot just be spiritual. He has to make social engagement. Else, what are the classics such as Mahabharata, Gita for?
The Dharmashastra and Arthashastra aren’t taught enough. The emphasis seems to be on Gita, Advaita and so on. Gita, Advaita and so on are indeed important, but we also need to introduce other texts which are practical, social, and political. The Gurus shouldn’t bother about anything being controversial because the world is full of controversies. If we don’t deal with them, how will our future generations face and deal with them?
Most intelligentsia in Bharat want to be part of the western grand narrative. When it comes to confronting issues related to Dharma they become embarrassed. They seem to take pride in playing howsoever a small role in the western grand narrative, while they refuse to touch the Bharatiya grand narrative although they could play a big role here. The inferiority complex that I have alluded to in my book ‘Being Different’ comes into play here.
Inferiority complex leading to identity confusions
There are strong inferiority complexes that need to be confronted when it comes to building the Bharatiya grand narrative. I have seen the effect of inferiority complex on my Muslim friends. They were quite friendly with me in my childhood but went on to adopt the wider Arab narrative because it was more fashionable to do so. They seemed to believe that Arabs were superior and hence the right path for them was to become more Arabicized. The same is true for the Shiites who go with the Persian narratives because of an inferiority complex associated with Bharatiya narrative. This is happening in spite of the fact that one can be a good Muslim anywhere in the world in the local language, customs and culture. There is no need for them to separate from the local milieu but the foreign nexus keeps promoting the idea that being a good Muslim in a local milieu isn’t enough, and that a good Muslim should upgrade to higher levels of Arabicization.
This (inferiority complexes and their effect on people) is a serious matter and breaks the idea of the Bharatiya grand narrative. The Bharatiya grand narrative has to come first and other narratives have to be accommodated in it with respect. I am often asked how I will accommodate minority religions within such a narrative. I would say the following.
Accommodating minority religions in the Bharatiya grand narrative
Minority religions that have their base in foreign lands are the biggest challenges because of their base being abroad and hence the links. We have to address this topic and if we don’t, we will never be able to resolve it. There are three requirements needed to make all people following religions with a base in a foreign land, Bharatiyas. These Bharatiyas will not be second class Bharatiyas:
They should accept the principle of mutual respect. Mutual respect has been defined in the book, “Being Different”. Mutual respect is not the same as tolerance. Tolerance is a principle taught in the west. It is short of respect. Mutual respect means that one respects another for whatever and however another is. One respects the way in which another worships and so on but “mutual” means that the respect is reciprocal. Once there is mutual respect, there won’t be a need for conversion, competition, one-upmanship and so on. It is usually interesting to see the reactions of people from Abrahamic faiths when I propose this concept of mutual respect at inter-faith dialogues. It is very difficult for people from Abrahamic faiths to extend respect to people of other faith, and they must be called out when they reveal this discomfiture.
The second requirement is that the followers of Christian and Islamic religions have to disown the adhikaar and authority of foreign head quarters. This is what China has done. China has one of the largest Christian population in the world, but the Bishop cannot be appointed by the Vatican. He is appointed locally. There is no Head Quarters deciding what is to be done, who is appointed, what is the ideology and so forth. China has imposed that the ideology cannot come from elsewhere because the Church is a Chinese Church. This is not only limited to language. In Bharat, churches use local language but the appointment of the top people is decided by the Vatican authorities for all Catholic Bishops. This raises questions of loyalty and conflicts of interest. Hence the second requirement is that the authority should be taken away from foreign head quarters of these religions and they should become 100 % Bharatiya and not listen to the adhikaar, the interpretation of foreign authorities. The same goes for Koran. Why should it that be allowed that the final authority on interpretation of Koran be outside Bharat? Why can’t we have our own authority to interpret these texts?
Thirdly, Bharatiyas belonging to these Christian and Islamic faith must accept the history of violence and oppression by people of those religions when they came to Bharat and must not deny it. Today’s Muslims are not responsible for the acts of Aurangzeb. Nor is it the fault of today’s Christians that some Christians in history have a bloody record in Bharat. They (the Bharatiya Christians and Muslims) should say that they are Bharatiya first and that they are with their brothers and sisters who are Bharatiyas. They may be Christians or Muslims in accordance with Christianity or Islam, but they will not accept the crimes perpetrated by people of their religion in history.
With the above three principles, we can have a well integrated society. Once we understand the problems in propagating the Bharatiya narrative, it becomes easier for us to project it. The exercise needs good brand ambassadors. To this end, I am working with about 50 chapters of the Hindu Student Council in the US. The idea is to bring the best students and teach them what to project, how to project, what not to project. I also take their most serious questions, questions which they are embarrassed to confront and try to answer those questions that aren’t addressed even by their parents, gurus etc. Such questions may be raised by anyone and I am willing to answer them.
The Bharatiya narrative has to be taught to diplomats, people in armed forces and industrialists. Industrialists find it handy because whenever negotiations take place at the international level, the Americans, Chinese, Japanese, British, French etc. are clear about the exceptionalism of their culture. But Bharatiyas are not very sure. They may have an idea of Bhangra, Bollywood, cricket and so on. But they are not sure about why their culture is exceptional. Finally let me summarize two points briefly:
The constitution of Bharat is not friendly towards the wider Bharatiya narrative. To change it, one has to start the conversation. One has to take up the Artha and Dharma shastras and the basic ideas of Bharatiya narrative as told in them and start holding discussions and conferences.
Talks alone are not good enough and they need to be backed by serious research. The importance of well grounded research cannot be emphasized enough. More and more conferences without genuine research will lead to just copying and recycling of ideas. New scholars who have done rigorous research and who are well versed in Sanskrit, English, with updated knowledge and well versed in debating should be trained. It is a slow process.
Problem of short supply of scholars
If one wants more fruits one has to grow more fruit trees. It will take a few years before they start fruiting. One has to increase knowledge supply and it needs investment of time, money. The idea must be to create more and more scholars who uphold the Bharatiya perspective and the time is now for making that start.
You can get connected with Rajiv in any one of the following ways:
Join Rajiv Malhotra for his FB LIVE Broadcasts. Follow Rajiv on facebook.com/RajivMalhotra.Official
You Tube Video of Rajiv Malhotra: https://www.youtube.com/user/BreakingIndia
Rajiv’s discussion egroup: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RajivMalhotraDiscussion/
Email address : [email protected]
Did you like this article? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.