Thursday, 22 November 2018

Dear Pratap Bhanu Mehta, If The RSS Cannot Lead The Indic Knowledge Tradition, Who Will?

Huffington Post published my rejoinder to Pratap Bhanu Mehta's article on Bhartiyata
You can read a version of it below:

A gathering of around 700 academics last month in Delhi raised many hackles. The academics had reportedly come to attend a workshop aimed at discussing ways to create an ecosystem for the Indic knowledge tradition. The objective of the workshop and the fact that it was being organised by RSS, was criticised.
Among its fiercest critics was Pratap Bhanu Mehta (PBM).
In his article "Yes, Bring on Bhartiyata" on 29 March, PBM wondered if those looking for Bhartiyata would be able to stomach the results of their search at all. He also indicted that discovery of Bhartiyata should lead to autonomy of educational institutions as seen in ancient gurukuls. It is ironic, though, that something similar was voiced at this workshop by a senior RSS functionary, "As per history of Bharat, the education system was completely independent of government control. The society was taking care of education system."

My contention, however, is simple. If the RSS cannot lead the Indic knowledge tradition, who will?
Indic traditions in the past have been carried forward like a relay race, with torchbearers through the centuries such as Buddha, Shankaracharya, Tulsi, Kabir Vivekananda, Dayananda and many more. Moreover, there was never a single torch—many ideas cut through the darkness at the same time. Sadly, all that is passé. No one wants to carry that light of Indic ideas now and the curious few are left in the dark fumbling over different limbs of the elephant. The efforts of the RSS are to reignite these lights and others too can do the same.

Why Pratap Bhanu Mehta?

To put things in perspective, PBM is one of the leading intellectual lights of our times. He fiercely writes on current issues and his nuanced views set him apart from others. Besides bringing his uniquely positioned views to everyday issues, PBM's writings include subjects that are not part of the collective sub-consciousness of left-liberals, like Varanasi, Vivekananda, Abhinavagupta and Bharityata. It seems he believes that along with "foreign" theory and ideas, there should be a thriving "Indic" or Bharatiya intellectual tradition. It's very rare to find a parallel of PBM's thoughts in the writings of those who are considered mainstream intellectuals and academics.
He once wrote on Vivekananda, "Vivekananda was central to many of the intellectual undercurrents that made modern India possible. He was the progenitor of projects central to modern Indian identity."
On Abhinavagupta he wrote:"There are moments of intellectual achievement that are beyond measure. They deserve recognition and engagement. In any reckoning of Indian intellectual history, one figure whose achievement is almost unparalleled is Abhinavagupta... He lies at the centre of so many currents of intellectual thinking: Aesthetics, literary criticism, dramaturgy, music, tantra, yoga, devotional poetry, cognitive science, emotions, philosophy of mind, language."
PBM advocates an Indic tradition but on many occasions, he has also criticised the present establishment and its affiliated organisations that profess commitment to Indianness. Besides PBM, there is not one scholar from an academic institution or outside who regularly writes on these issues in the mainstream media. This also accounts for the complete absence of these subjects from popular discourse.
Hence, I don't care about the arguments of the left-liberals from academics, media and NGOs whose outrage is selective and opinions warped. But I do care when one of the most acclaimed "liberal" public intellectuals trashes the intellectual efforts of the RSS and its ideological affiliates including BJP.

Why the RSS?

In the current scenario, the Vivekanandas and Abhinavaguptas do not find a place in our syllabus. There is no Indian philosophy centre in JNU and while all major religions exist in India, there are no centres of comparative religions in Indian universities.
In this light, the RSS emerges as the only organisation that has been making concerted efforts to keep the Indic tradition alive. It is another matter that with the BJP government in power, we get to hear more and more of it, and mostly in the words of the reporter who has been taught to see the organisation as a band of fanatics. The event, Gyan Sangam, too came to the fore like this. It was yet another attempt to "saffronise" education. Period. The words "national values", "colonial ways" and "burnt libraries" in the event's concept note were red flagged. And yet, there were other parts of it that no one wanted to read:
"We need to develop a Bharatiya Drishti—an 'Indian Way' or Indic tradition to look at all the perpetuating problems of the world. Before that we need to understand ourselves - develop a vantage point of our knowledge tradition, study when and how it got weak and how it could be revived. We can reform only when we know the form. Indic comprises anything that originates from this land, blossoms in this atmosphere and prospers in this geo-cultural territory. An Indic tradition can lead to assimilative points of view, nuanced solutions and the creation of truly 'new'. An Indic ecosystem can provide the adequate environment to discuss our civilisation background, its legacy and relevance as well as its lessons."
In his critique of the meet, PBM admits that colonialism and leftist influence on intellectual society of India spelt doom for Indic thought. He, however, asks us to wonder why a worthy rival of Western educational centres like Oxford could not come up in India. He also questions the intent and credibility of the RSS for organising such events.

For the last 70 years, we had governments at the helm those did not want any truck with Indic tradition. But the denudation of trust in Indianness had started centuries ago. However, PBM says we must not fall prey to truisms, and I will listen to him. My contention, therefore, is of the present.
In my view, the RSS is an organisation which believes that Indic tradition should find a place in our modern knowledge system and is working towards it. One could argue that the RSS does not enjoy the sort of intellectual credibility that comes out of having engaged with institutional academic tradition for years. However, this insinuation primarily stems from lack of knowledge about the RSS and its institutions. Moreover, the RSS does not claim to have become the source point for such an intellectual exercise. In fact, its aim is merely to ensure that some of the solutions for the challenges that the world faces today, should come from this soil.
In our country, most of the liberal space in India is occupied by those who called themselves left-liberals. PBM is one of the rare liberal sightings to emerge with new thoughts and propositions and feel no shame in raising subjects like Abhinavagupta and Natyashastra. The blatant lack of intellectuals willing to be identified with such academic pursuits, even if for the sake of sheer intellectual curiosity, makes me wonder: Why shouldn't the RSS organise such a conference? Why did our academic institutions never think of doing it themselves? Why did a thesis appendix full of Western references become an academic insignia? Why are Plato, Aristotle and Marx still more important in our classrooms than Chanakya, Shanti Parva and Vivekananda?
As far as the intent of the RSS in organising the event is concerned, an idea of it can be drawn by taking a look at the resolutions passed by the organisation's supreme body in the past few years. Leftist ideologues have, for years, pinned their aversion of the RSS to a 1939 pamphlet which they claim was written by Golwalkar. I think liberals like PBM should not fall in this trap and try to understand the RSS in today's context. Like any organisation that lives past nine decades, the RSS must have had a journey and it is important to see the organisation for what it intends to be today.
From the threat of imposing the Hindutva agenda, to backing saffron-gamcha-clad lumpen elements on the streets—one gets the feeling that the RSS is behind it all. The truth, however, is far from this. The RSS believes in a "Samarth Bharat" which has a place for everyone; there is need for people like Pratap Bhanu Mehta to interact with the RSS and then form an opinion.
One thing is for sure—you cannot ignore the activities of the RSS on the ground even if you trash their intellectual efforts. They are not the alternative discourse but the main discourse of this country today. Deal with them. Honest research into RSS and its activities has the potential to throw up astounding facts; the RSS too can learn from the intellectuals like PBM. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

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