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Being Different:
An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism

by rajiv malhotra
harpercollins, 488 pages, $26.99

Following the Brexit referendum, The Economist wrote, “Farewell, left versus right. The contest that matters now is open against closed.” Rajiv Malhotra’s Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism was not written in an attempt to provide an answer to today’s anxieties about “open” and “closed.” But his book brings the right approach—even if the wrong answers—to the discussions that are taking place today.

Rajiv Malhotra occupies an ambiguous position between credibility and disrepute, academic respectability and populist vulgarity. To the credentialed periti in the American academy, he is an amateur and dilettante who skirts commonly accepted standards of scholarship. To conservative Hindus and his 182,000 Twitter followers, he is a hero, fighting not just against a Hinduphobic fake news and fake scholarship establishment, but also against the forces of ­Adharma waging war on Dharmic civilization, his term for Hindu culture.

After studying physics at St. ­Stephen’s College in Delhi and computer science at Syracuse University, Malhotra had a successful entrepreneurial career in software development, consulting, and information technology. He retired early at age forty-four and founded the Infinity Foundation, based in Princeton, New Jersey, to promote research on and understanding of Dharmic religion. He chairs the board of the Center for Indic Studies at UMass, Dartmouth and has provided grants for visiting professorships, classes, and scholarship at Harvard, Rutgers, Columbia, and UPenn, among other universities. One of his main causes is Swadeshi Indology. The academic study of India has for too long been carried out from a Eurocentric point of view and needs to be carried out from an Indian point of view (Swadeshi, from the Sanskrit for “of one’s own country”). He is a politically incorrect champion of Indian heritage who picks public fights with Western scholars of Hinduism, calls attention to Muslim aggression against Hindus, and insults “Moron Hindus” who misinterpret their tradition. A regular in Twitter wars, he comes off as a Hindu reincarnation of Donald Trump with an inclination toward book learning and a Bannonite flair for high-stakes civilizational conflict. He has described himself on Twitter as “Driven by Devi’s shakti. Protected by Hanuman. Awakened by Shiva. Loved by Sri Krishna. Guided by gurus. Serving the Dharma.”

Being Different explains the problem of Western universalism. Prophetic religion (Judaism and Christianity) has created irresolvable instability in Western culture. Prophetic claims are exclusive: God has mediated his message to humanity solely through one particular set of prophets, invalidating all other religions. Because there is only one true path, followers of prophetic religion become aggressive toward outsiders. They deride other traditions as pagan. They either threaten heathen unbelievers with violence and extermination or pressure them to disown their false religions and convert to the one, true belief.

Because prophetic religions make historical truth claims, their followers obsess over the veracity of the stories in their holy books. But as soon as scientific, archaeological, and historical discoveries lay waste to the literal interpretation of their narratives, an insurmountable conflict between faith and reason arises, leading to a permanent crisis of faith. The West slowly loses faith in prophetic religion, but it maintains its focus on history, remains aggressive and violent, and continues to claim exclusivity and superiority. In place of Christianity, the West finds new universal ideologies to impose on the whole world, whether colonialism, communism, or globalist consumerism. This stands in stark contrast to peaceful Dharmic religions, argues Malhotra, which approach the divine through spiritual practices and techniques like yoga rather than exclusivist and falsifiable historical claims.

The West’s universalist aggression is compounded by an inadequate metaphysics. In the Dharmic worldview, all is one. There is an “integral unity” between God, the universe, and ourselves. In contrast, Western metaphysics posits duality, an infinite chasm between creature and Creator. Western morality, too, is problematic. Whereas Westerners insist on a clear distinction between good and evil, Indians are comfortable with complexity, nuance, and uncertainty. The lack of integral unity and obsession with moral order lead to restlessness in the Western soul. It seeks outwardly the unity and order it lacks interiorly and attempts to subdue multiplicity and chaos in the world around it. It becomes hostile and violent toward cultures different from itself. In an attempt to find integral unity, and to achieve the unequivocal triumph of a simple, clear “good,” it conquers, exterminates, and assimilates the difference that it encounters in foreign cultures. By contrast, Malhotra tells us, Dharmic religion has always spread peacefully through persuasion and been comfortable with adaptation to diverse cultures.

Does Malhotra offer an accurate account of today’s situation? Is our tension between “open” and “closed,” universal and particular, primarily characterized by a conflict between the history-centric, colonial West and particular cultures struggling to avoid absorption into its universalist designs? Malhotra is right that there is something wrong with today’s Western universalism. The Western drive to impose an ever-evolving program of secular human rights upon the world can be seen all over Africa, the Middle East, India, and Eastern Europe. These efforts have become increasingly coercive and presump­tuous. Malhotra also rightly intuits that the defense and renewal of a particular cultural heritage is an essential aspect of the resistance to this Western universalism. The best way to avoid absorption into a foreign way of life is to consciously reflect on and embrace traditional ways of being.

Unlike many voices discussing the questions of open and closed or universal and particular today, Malhotra barely discusses politics and economics. He keeps his discussion at the levels of metaphysics and culture. He draws our attention to the fact that metaphysical and cultural questions are at the root of social realities. ­India under monarchy or democracy, a free or more socialist economy, would still be India. Take away Sanskrit, the Mahabharata, or classical Indian music, and it would lose its soul.

Malhotra promises an Indian challenge to Western universalism. What we get is not particularly Indian. Much of what he argues is a lightly Orientalized repackaging of Kant, Gibbon, and the talking points of postmodernists, post-colonial theorists, and atheistic philosophers of science. Many of his quotes are from a familiar type: the academic descendant of Rousseau who longs to escape the oppressive confines of Western civilization and find the state of nature in the East. If we are to judge his Indianness by his arguments, Malhotra, who lives in Princeton, is more a son of the post-Enlightenment West than he cares to admit. Perhaps this is why he posits a duality between West and East, even as he decries supposedly Western dualism.

Malhotra believes in a clash of civilizations. He admits as much on his Twitter page: “Mahabharata never ended; it is now the global clash of civilizations.” He calls for “Intellectual Kshatriyas [members of the warrior caste] to join our Home Team.” Tensions between universal and particular claims do not have a harmonious solution—one side, preferably his side, must simply win. The truth of our common humanity is subordinated to the truth of our cultural difference. He is a civilizational partisan.

This approach endangers the ­Indian heritage Malhotra seeks to preserve. The particular receives its dignity because it is a unique, unrepeatable instantiation of the universal human experience. If a particular nation cuts itself off from those questions that are common to the whole human family or from the constant search for ultimate truth, its fate will not be preservation but decay. If it were to follow Malhotra’s paradigm, India might avoid the external threat but it would quite possibly collapse from within. It is a paradox that making the preservation of one’s particular culture the highest good ends up undermining the very culture one seeks to protect. The vitality of a culture rests in its aspiration to universal truths.

Christianity proposes that God unites all mankind into one family in the Church. In the process of becoming a Christian, God does not ask us to leave behind our cultural identity. A Christian never says “I am no longer Indian” or “I am no longer American” upon converting. Grace perfects nature; it does not replace it. All that is good in our native culture is not destroyed but elevated by the gospel. For all of its supposed problems, prophetic religion does propose a way of synthesizing the universal and particular aspects of our human nature. Malhotra has not yet offered a better proposal. 

Eduardo Andino is director of development for the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Photo by Indian Institute of Science via Creative Commons. Image cropped.