Sunday, March 4, 2012

Imperfect Indocentrism

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 Cambridge classicist 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”).[41] More sophisticated and fruitful is political psychologist Ashis Nandy’s …
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.”[42] […]

The same reactionary historians have tried to appropriate the work of nationalist writers like Aurobindo, Tilak and Gandhi,[107] 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.[108] 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 The approach of the nationalists was a product of their age, and much of it is obsolete.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,[109] 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.[110] 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. PondicherryIndia
Yoga/Yogi (School of Oriental and African Studies)
Myth, History and Theory (from History and Theory)
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)

Read the author's post about the writing of this book on the Columbia University Press blog.
Listen to an interview with the author on the EnlightenNext website. 
Read an article based on an interview with the author on the Auroville Today website.
All of Peter Heehs's books may be viewed and ordered at Books by Peter Heehs.

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