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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Purva Paksha: Reversing the gaze

The antidote to Western universalism  that privileges Western gaze and reduces all differences to sameness, lies in the dharmic practice of purva paksha, a deep and respectful  engagement  with divergent perspectives. This study of the “other”  honours and respects differences without homogenising  differences into an amorphous “sameness” that therefore  implicitly  at least justifies Western universalism

At a book discussion that I was leading, one of the participants, a Christian, proclaimed, “The Hindus must have borrowed these ideas from us [Christians.]”

These days  I am so amused when I hear the statement, especially from people who  belong to Hindu dharma, proclaim  matter of factly, “ All religions are the same.”

I disagree with them. All religions are not the same. They are different  but equal. It implies that while I regard all religions with respect, I expect that followers of other religions will also regard Hindu Dharma with  genuine respect and not mere tolerance or  worse, condescension.

What is  this “sameness” and how did it replicate itself in dharmic ideology?  The cultural and spiritual matrix of a dharmic civilization is completely different from  that of the West.  The widespread dismantling,  rearrangement , distortion and misrepresentation  and digestion of dharmic culture into Western frameworks (that are essentially incompatible with each other) that are regarded as universal.

Western universalism then refers to the process of a dominant or hegemonic culture absorbing and assimilating other cultures  on the  supposed basis of overwhelming similarities.

“The process of absorption can take place with the best of intentions and with the co operation of many individuals immersed in dharma.  They ask, ‘Why not assimilate? Aren’t we all really the same? What’s wrong with a universal point of view? Isn’t the large-scale absorption of Indian ideas, arts, sciences, medicine, business practices and letters a good thing? Don’t we live in a post-colonial, post-racial, post-ethnic world? Isn’t it wonderful that millions of Americans and Europeans practice yoga and that Indian cuisine has gone global? And besides, doesn’t the West have something to offer India in  exchange, such as scientific advances, social justice and business and political know how,” writes Rajiv Malhotra in Being Different: An Indian challenge to Western Universalism.

However, he also warns that such a  feel good stance often  creates an erroneous impression that the fusion of dharmic and Western cultures is often deeply mutual and symbiotic.

“The assumption ignores the many distortions and unacknowledged appropriation on the Western side, as well as the highly destructive influence  of fundamentalist Christianity, Marxism, capitalist expansionism and myopic secularism. The arguments that distinct cultures should melt into something universal are expressed in theories which see modern societies as ‘post modern’, ‘post racial’ ‘post religious’ and ‘post nationalist’. These fashionable constructs seem to announce the arrival of a flat secularised world that  is not differentiated by collective histories, identities and religious points of view, writes Malhotra.

Globalisation, which necessarily implies Westernisation, despite its tall claims of a flat world of meritocracy hides more than it reveals. It is obvious that when we use incompatible frames of reference such as Western universalism to study cultures and societies that are non Western, there is a  strong tendency to  adopt the superficial elements of similarity that is fused with a common global culture. However, what remains intact is that power structures and systems that derive from Western hegemony, world views and  values  are the scaffolding of this apparently universal view that  peoples across the world are “fundamentally the same.”

Western universalism thus rests on the assumption that only Western paradigms can serve as templates for the universal. This results in a nexus between knowledge and power. Thus, the Western  world with its political and military hegemony controls  knowledge  production in Western universalism which is the absolute prism through which to view cultures and people  who are therefore made to “fit” a  Euro-Anglo centric perspective.

The notion of Western universalism and the outsider gaze is most evident in the West’s perception of Hindu Dharma texts and practices. The ever increasing popularity of inter-faith dialogues has created two terms that are widely used in such a context: ‘tolerance’ and ‘mutual respect’. According to Shri Malhotra, tolerance implies a patronizing position; whereas mutual respect implies that we consider the other to be equally legitimate, valid and valued.

The United Nations Millennium Religious  Summit  (2000) was widely seen as a platform to promote and foster inter faith harmony. Pujya Shri Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who led the Hindu delegation, advocated  for the replacement of the word tolerance with mutual respect as the latter acknowledged differences but did not regard them as deficient or inferior. This radical shift rattled the  bedrock of Abrahamic faiths as exclusive and superior which also fuels the church’s proselytization efforts.

“The suggestion that differences must be seen as positive and be  examined openly by all sides is often met with resistance from Indians and Westerners alike. I call this resistance ‘difference anxiety’ to refer to the mental uneasiness caused by the perception of difference combined with a clear desire to diminish, conceal or eradicate it. Difference anxiety occurs frequently in cultural and religious contexts,” explains Shri Malhotra.

Differences generate internalised fear and therefore evoke a deep desire to be seen as  being “same.” For instance, most people in Bharat, especially  those who follow Hindu Dharma, feel guilty and uncomfortable about their perceived differences that set them apart from the West. They therefore popularise a sanitised Westernised version  of Hindu Dharma that veers towards ‘sameness’ in a desperate  attempt  to  hide, erase and obliterate their identities.

Since the dawn of time, humanity has been engaged deeply with existential questions such as: Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? Why am I here?  In doing what I am doing, what am I really doing? What is the ultimate reality or Truth and how can we reach it? The approach to these questions varies sharply  on the Abrahamic and Hindu Dharma traditions.

“It is through Western categories and hence the ‘Western’ gaze that the people who constitute the Judeo-Christian traditions see the world. This gives the Western perspective a de facto status as arbiter of what is universally true. When another  civilization is the object of such a gaze, it becomes relative and no longer universal. Indeed, its depiction as the alien makes it particularly interesting precisely  because it is particular and not universal. The universalist pose and  the failure to experience itself through different eyes leaves Westerners themselves blind to their own limitations, failures, idiosyncrasies, peculiarities and exotica. As long as one remains in the privileged position of the subject, looking at others and not being gazed at oneself, one can assume that one’s positions and assumptions represent the universal norm,” explains Shri Malhotra.

According to  Shri Malhotra, the corrective for this  refractive error is the ancient and powerful  practice of Purva Paksha that  is integral to dharmic  traditions and a widely practised strategy to engage with rival schools  within the dharmic traditions  itself such as Mimamsa, Advaita, Dwaita, Vishishtadvaita, Tantra, Samkhya and Buddhism. The dialectical approach, involves taking the thesis  of  the opponent (Purva Pakshin), engaging deeply and respectfully with the premise and then offering a rebuttal (khandanam)  to establish the protagonist’s views (sidhhanta).

The purva paksha tradition requires any debater to first have a through cognitive understanding of the opponent’s point of view. This is done  in a spirit of respectful, direct  and deep engagement and confrontation  and not to undermine the validity of the opponent’s perspective. The underlying belief is that only such a deep engagement would  give the  debater the requisite adhikar or moral authority  that qualifies them to refute. (This is  such a refreshing perspective from the slanging matches  that characterises modern debates!) The process demands flexibility of perspectives, respect for diverse opinions and honesty rather than egoistic chest-thumping and self-aggrandising victory.

“In Purva paksha, one does  not  look away, so to speak, from real differences, but attempts to clarify them, without anxiety  but also without the pretences of sameness. It involves not only a firm intent but considerable self-mastery (a movement beyond the ego) combined with an understanding of the magnitude of the issues at stake. Reversing the gaze in purva paksha is not painless and resistance is to  be expected,” writes Shri Malhotra.

The purva paksha was widely used by all dharmic schools of philosophy and advanced training in various schools of dharmic philosophy requires a long apprenticeship and deep engagement with the purva paksha tradition and a close study of these debates,  as  it was through the purva paksha of the past that each branch of philosophy refined itself and evolved.

Dharma scholars can take a lead from the manner in which other contemporary cultures have shown the way in reversing the colonial gaze and look directly at the West from their respective positions. Edward Said, the well-known Palestinian academic, in his seminal work Orientalism, was practising  a form of purva paksha when he declared that “ the modern West is a fabricated identity  based on its study of ‘others’ and emphasised the encounter with Arabic and Islamic civilisations.”

In the 1950s, during the Algerian War of Independence from colonial rule, Franz Fanon captured the imagination of the colonised people with his book The Wretched of the Earth that spoke of a pan-African consciousness.  He reiterated how “the colonial bourgeoisie… had in fact deeply implanted in the minds of the colonized intellectual [the idea] that the essential qualities remain eternal in spite of all the blunders men may make: the essential qualities of the West, of course.”

Unfortunately, the purva paksha tradition was lost when Islam, Christianity and European Enlightenment invaded Bharat.

“Rather than engaging with Islam and Christianity, or more recently, with Marxism and secularism,  dharmic philosophers simply tended to ignore these foreign entries or defer to them by adopting the attitude that ‘all is one.’ This stance, a misreading of dharmic teachings, became  an excuse for abandoning purva paksha, for if there are no differences, there is nothing important at which to gaze.

The purva paksha method of engagement  can engender sympathy as well as a distance, understanding as well as critique. It must, however, retain several qualities  not often found today: direct confrontation, clarification  of difference and an assumption for equality. Purva paksha should take place with transparency in an open forum as possible and in such a  way as to benefit each party. Acceptance for the need and potential for change should be the baseline from which to work.”

It’s time we  revived the dharmic tradition of purva paksha, wipe it clean of the multiple layers of centuries of gross misrepresentation and  distortion, and use the  lens to examine  and reflect western civilization, particularly the Abrahamic religious  and  metaphysical underpinnings that  exert a stranglehold on dharma tractions; especially through Western Indology.

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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