& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Being Different

John Kenneth Galbraith (who was an Ontarian by birth) called India a functioning anarchyA characterisation had seemed apt when first coined – and now half a century later.  

To the Western eye, and increasingly even to many Indians (especially those who live in the West), India’s chaos is dismally mind-numbing and frightening, even.

And yet, India resolutely refuses to change.  There is a sense of inner serenity, peace and balance that transcends the outward turmoil as India moves slowly ahead with the grace of a Gaj Gamini (walk with the gait of a female pachyderm), oblivious of Western expectations. To many that is infuriating, and to many others that’s India's innate strength.

In his important book Being Different Rajiv Malhotra explains this phenomenon thus:
“In the West, chaos is seen as a ceaseless threat both psychologically and socially – something to be overcome by control or elimination. Psychologically, it drives the ego to become all-powerful and controlling. Socially, it creates a hegemonic impulse over those who are different. A cosmology based on unity that is synthetic and not innate is riddled with anxieties. Therefore, order must be imposed to resolve differences relating to culture, race, gender, sexual orientation and so on."

On the other hand, he asserts, “Dharmic civilizations are more relaxed and comfortable with multiplicity and ambiguity than the West. Chaos is seen as a source of creativity and dynamism. Since the ultimate reality is an integrally unified coherence, chaos is a relative phenomenon that cannot threaten or disrupt the underlying coherence of the cosmos.”

In Being Different Malhotra succeeds in walking on the razor’s edge. He discusses what are generally considered taboo ideas (especially in the West), and does so without being a chauvinist. 

He challenges the generally accepted notions that western universalism is the finest way of life for human beings globally, and argues for a radically different methodology to comprehend the unique position that India occupies.

He says, “India is...(a) distinct and unified civilization with a proven ability to manage profound differences, engage creatively with various cultures, religions and philosophies, and peacefully integrate many diverse streams of humanity. These values are based on ideas about divinity, the cosmos, and humanity that stand in contrast to the fundamental assumption of Western civilisation. “

Malhotra delineates the differences between the Dharmic traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism) and the Judeo-Christian traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) into four distinct categories.
  • Embodied Knowing versus History-centrism
  • Integral Unity versus Synthetic Unity
  • Anxiety over Chaos versus Comfort with Complexity and Ambiguity
  • Cultural Digestion versus Sanskrit Non-Translatables

It is the last argument – about cultural digestion versus Sanskrit Non-Translatables is sure to raise heckles especially among Indians living in the West because he strongly advocates for the retention of the distinctions between the two traditions. In the recent past, similar issues have generated serious and ceaseless debates, for instance (Aseem Shukla versus Deepak Chopra on Yoga that continues to rage; Malhotra, too, has contributed to it: Christian Yoga).

Malhotra says, “Western scholars and westernized Indians are accustomed to translating and mapping dharmic concepts and perspectives onto Western frameworks, thereby enriching and perhaps even renewing the Western ‘host’ culture into which they are assimilated. One does not say of a tiger’s kill that both tiger and prey are ‘changed for the better’ by digestion, or that the two kinds of animals have ‘flowed into one another’ to produce a better one. Rather, the food of the tiger becomes a part of the tiger’s body, breaking down and obliterating, in the process, the digested animal.”


  1. Very well reviewed. Thanks.

  2. This is great stuff. You have distilled the essence of this magnum opus from Rajiv Malhotra in such a lucid manner. Dhanyavaad!

  3. Crisp and pointed.