Peter Heehs - Shades of Orientalism: Paradoxes & Problems in Indian Historiography Peter Heehs [published in History and Theory 42 (May 2003), pp.169-195 © Wesleyan University 2003 ISSN: 0018-2656] Such scholars stress Aurobindo’s nationalistic premises but miss the broader thrust of his arguments. The value of his work and the work of other scholars of the Orient depends more on the quality their scholarship than on their political or religious assumptions…
Struck by Aurobindo’s passage from
to Sanskrit scholar to revolutionary publicist to philosophical yogin, many
writers have sought clues [p.179>] in his early life, scripting
selected biographical data into explanatory narratives. His disciples find evidences
of the future yogi almost from his birth and the stamp of divine election on
all his actions. The historian Leonard Gordon condemns this
hagiographical approach, offering instead a jejune pop psychology (“Aurobindo’s
lifelong obsession with mother figures dates from his childhood”, “It seems to
have been the fear of failure rather than God’s call or nationalist speeches
that kept him out of the ICS”). More
sophisticated and fruitful is political psychologist Ashis Nandy’s … Cambridge
Nandy is weakest when dealing with Aurobindo’s spiritual life, falling back, like Gordon, on unsubstantiated guesswork... But his working assumption is both applicable to Aurobindo and germane to the Orientalism debate: “Colonized Indians did not always try to correct or extend the Orientalists; in their own diffused way, they tried to create an alternative language of discourse.” […]
The same reactionary historians have tried to appropriate the work of nationalist writers like Aurobindo, Tilak and Gandhi, and critical historians have let this go unchallenged or even helped it along by writing of the nationalists as proto-reactionaries in scholarship as well as in politics. This is unfortunate both because it misrepresents the positions of the nationalists and because it fails to make use of those parts of their work that are of lasting scholarly value and that might be of help in establishing the dialogue that is needed to arrive at a viable reinterpretation of Indian history.
A return to nationalist orientalism is hardly the way to resolve the outstanding problems in Indian historiography. The approach of the nationalists was a product of their age, and much of it is obsolete. Their essentializing of the Indian soul, for instance, is unjustifiable on historical or anthropological grounds, and politically dangerous. On the other hand, the dissolution of all cultural distinctiveness in the name of political stability, which Said seems sometimes to propose, would also be bad social science and would not provide a solution to our political problems. Writers like Chatterji, Tagore and Aurobindo laid stress on
India’s distinctiveness because it seemed
threatened by absorption into a universalized Europe.
But they were also internationalists who knew and respected Europe and
worked for intercultural understanding. Their
defenders and detractors lay stress on their essentialism, but they themselves
went beyond it, contesting the validity of Eurocentrism without promoting an
equally imperfect Indocentrism. Pondicherry, India
Myth, History and Theory (from History and Theory)
Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography -- and Hagiography Too (posted on the CUP blog)
Religious Nationalism and Beyond (from Auroville Today)
Idea of India (from Life Positive)
In Naipaul's Wake (from Outlook)
To be a Mystic (from The Hindu)
Prophecies of Nostradamus (from The Hindu)
The Bomb that Shook an Empire (from The Pioneer)
Listen to an interview with the author on the EnlightenNext website.
All of Peter Heehs's books may be viewed and ordered at Books by Peter Heehs.