Is India Civilized? Some Personal Reflections On Prevailing Views Of Indian Culture
by Don Salmon, PhD
The Infinity Foundation has as one of its primary aims the promotion of a deeper and more accurate understanding of Indian culture and spirituality. During the past two years, through my association with the Infinity Foundation, I've learned a great deal about Indian cultural and philosophic traditions. I've also learned much about the numerous ways in which these traditions have been misrepresented. I'm grateful for what I've learned, as the varied and often contradictory portrayals of Indian culture have puzzled me for many years. In this personal essay, I reflect on some of the major mistaken and misleading stereotypes of Indian culture.
In the early 20th century, Sir John Woodroffe, a scholar and writer on Indian philosophy, published a book entitled, Is India Civilized? He wrote it in answer to negative criticism of Indian culture by the English drama critic William Archer. Indian philosopher-yogi Sri Aurobindo, in harmony with Woodroffe's point of view, used that book as the starting point for a series of inspiring reflections on Indian art, architecture, history, literature, and philosophy, which have been published under the title, The Foundations of Indian Culture. I recently looked again at Sri Aurobindo's essays, and was struck by the persistence, to this day, of many of the negative ideas and images of Indian culture which he addressed over 80 years ago. In this article, I will describe my efforts to discover the underlying reasons for the endurance of these negative portrayals...
Sri Aurobindo, in stark contrast to this typical scholarly construal, sees the Vedic texts as presenting, in a symbolic manner, profound psychological and spiritual truths. For example, he sees "Nature" in the Vedic sense as referring to more than that which we perceive with our physical senses. Rather, it is the expression of the infinite Spirit, something which imbues every flower, rock and stream with the glory of the Divine. I find it not surprising that a yogi whose consciousness is united with the Infinite, would see inner truths expressed through symbolic language in the pages of a sacred text such as the Vedas. Nor should I be surprised to find scholars – who are trained to actively ignore intuitive promptings from within – seeing in those same pages the musings of "man in his uncultured and innocent state". But this inability (or unwillingness) of modern thinkers to enter into the worldview of a sacred text has unfortunately also biased many who look to these thinkers to shed light on such texts – people who might otherwise be sympathetic to the subtler aspects of Indian spiritual writing and are thus deprived of its deeper significance and impact.
I remember reading the comments of historian William Irwin Thompson on Sri Aurobindo's interpretation of the Vedas. So convinced was he of Sri Aurobindo's stance as a mere 'apologist" for Indian texts, that he didn't even think it necessary to support his contention that there was no basis for a psycho-spiritual interpretation of the Vedas...
Sri Aurobindo here identifies several of the attitudes which underlie the difficulties of Western scholars in attempting to understand Indian texts. He notes several times that the focus on egolessness, transcendent love, infinite calm, etc. appears somehow "effeminate." I would suggest that the term "effeminate" here stands not only for the quality of being inappropriately feminine, but carries with it as well the sense of being primitive, infantile and naïve. We've seen above how Gier characterized Ramakrishna as being stuck in a state of premodern innocence, still bound to a kind of "infantile sexuality".
But lack of virility is not the worst accusation thrown at the Indian yogi apparently lost to the world in his meditative trance. Sri Aurobindo suggests that anyone who takes the Spirit to be a reality – particularly one more real than the banks and shopping malls which sprout like weeds across the American landscape – must have taken leave of his senses, perhaps suffered a full-blown psychotic break.
At the end of the passage, Sri Aurobindo refers to the "inwardness of the difference between the West and India". Now we start to see some of the reason for the incapacity of so many scholars to understand the point of view of the Vedas, to grasp the meaning of the "soul-power" which inspires Indian civilization. It is an inner, psychological difficulty having its roots in the disparity between intellectual and intuitive ways of knowing. For one attached to the rigid boundaries of the intellect, the experiences of the yogi might well seem indicative of a loss of sanity...Over the years, I've encountered many critics who believe that Indian spirituality is essentially pessimistic and world-negating. While, as Sri Aurobindo acknowledges, there are certain schools of Indian philosophy that might be characterized as such, they represent only a small portion of the vast spiritual tradition of India. Some of these criticisms seem based more on ignorance of the facts than an aversion to mystical experience. In the next passage, Sri Aurobindo counters the criticism that the best India has to offer is in the more "effete" realm of literature, art and philosophy, but nothing of any practical consequence.