ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Foundation of a Nation

The Metaphysical Heritage of India

Rajan Gurukkal ( is vice chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council and visiting professor at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

India and the Unthinkable: Backwaters Collective on Metaphysics and Politics edited by Vinay Lal and Roby Rajan, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016; pp xlvii+228,₹850.

The book under review is the outcome of deliberations by a group of academics, self-named the Backwaters Collective, who met at the captivating landscapes of Maharashtra, Kerala and Sri Lanka for an exercise in thinking differently about the “unthinkable India.” How to transcend the hackneyed binaries like the traditional versus modern, religious versus secular, materialistic versus spiritual, and precolonial versus colonial, while still representing the Indic civilisation, is what the Backwaters Collective explores.

An anthology consisting of eight essays, with a fairly long preface by Vinay Lal on the politics of the Backwaters Collective and an introduction by Roby Rajan on post-metaphysics, the volume begins with Lal’s reflections on “unthinkable” issues, like those of the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lanka of peace-loving Buddhists; and the assimilating, acculturating Hindus (presumably never having anything to do with state power or corporate interests), who happened to lead one of the most ferocious civil wars of recent times. He observes the tendencies of intellectuals to move towards secularised versions of Buddhism and Hinduism, such as Zen and Advaita, respectively. A recently invented religious order, namely the Hindu without a scripture and a prophet—but representing, and inescapably implicating the subcontinental people of multiple faiths and cosmologies as Hindus—is at militancy in its relationship with organised religions, especially Islam. How these seemingly intractable conflicts ought to be resolved by using the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual resources of the Indian civilisation is what the Backwaters Collective reflects upon, with a special attention to Mahatma Gandhi and Narayana Guru.

A Civilisational Dialogue

Rajan’s introduction which deals with the politics of metaphysics, is appropriately titled “Post-metaphysics and the Future of an Illusion,” much warranted, due to more relevant expressions having become stale and antiquated. A defining characteristic of the post-metaphysical era is its diffusive and pervasive reach, encompassing all kinds of exotic sites. Egalitarianism is perhaps its fundamental axiom, and anti-totalitarianism, the guiding spirit of praxis of what the post-metaphysics of Derrida carries as its embedded politics. How communities have been sites of various insurrections, revolts and rebellions against external forces such as colonialism, imperialism, landlordism, capitalism and the state, is raised in conjunction with the politics of post-metaphysics. Implicitly, it signifies the Collective’s highbrow reservation against the causality that critical theory offers. 

A concern that binds the Collective is the need to safeguard and foster the plurality of knowledge systems within the country, enabling different practices, ideas and norms in everyday life to occur spontaneously, without being self-conscious of their contradictions which represent the Indic civilisation. India and the Unthinkable is, thus, a collective cognitive enterprise incited under critical, ethical pressures to expose—through use of the intellectual and cultural resources of Indic civilisation—the epistemic violence involved in the homogenisation process of the dominant global knowledge system. Although straggling in diverse directions, the deliberations of the Collective engage with questions of injustice, and contemplate a future of a superior form of human coexistence with higher values and passions. This is explicit in the generalisation that “we know next to nothing about the dynamics of autonomous transformation from within and across communities” (p xxxiii). In historiography, the dimension from below is recognised as an antagonism introduced into the very heart of the idea of the nation, around which separate pantheons emerged, with Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore forming their core. Other major figures of the pantheon are Jyotiba Phule, B R Ambedkar and E V Ramasamy Periyar. All of them, struggling in different ways against the exclusionary practices of the caste system, reached the common conclusion that caste discrimination was so integral to Hinduism that it could not be ended through socio-religious reform. Nevertheless, their alternatives too, Periyar’s atheistic rationalism and Ambedkar’s Buddhist refuge, were precluded by the cult of bhakti, another inescapable curse of Brahminism.

Sundar Sarukkai’s is the first formal essay that beautifully sets philosophical limits to the fascinating reflections of the academics of the Collective, which dabble around metaphysics and politics. Defining metaphysics as the foundation of the fundamental structures of reality, and that which renders physics plausible, Sarukkai lucidly analyses the fundamental philosophical structures of politics, to see how the political is ordered as the political, and what exists as the metaphysics thereof. He goes into the historical process of the enduring suspicions around metaphysics, and the different trajectories, along with reactions to metaphysics over time, including what it means and how it works within Indian philosophical traditions. As a part of the exercise he draws on a more fundamental problem that distinguishes the Indian metaphysical system from the modern European one, and argues that this distinction has much to do with the autonomy and primacy of the individual.

Next is Ashis Nandy’s insightful essay on the life of V D Savarkar. With rare insights, Nandy probes into the politico-culturally contingent milieu that produced Savarkar as the architect of Hindutva, a form of political Hinduism. It is done in four sections, and begins with the context of the essay, the contemporary consciousness, scarce data on Savarkar’s personal life, a vague biography in the language of hagiography, and his self-righteous autobiographical writings (fearful of all human subjectivities, and hoping to be scientific). In the subsequent sections the essay unveils the beginnings of the still incomplete process of pan-Indian Hindu nation-building, the eventful life of Savarkar as a revolutionary nationalist until his death in 1966, a critical review of the subsequent political processes, and a weighty analytical comprehension of Savarkar as,

the name of a blown up, grotesque temptation inherent in the Southern world’s encounter with the global nation-state system and with religious traditions that facilitate the internalisation of the motive force of Western nationalism. That temptation is a part of everyone dreaming of working with tamed versions of nationalism and nation states armed with ideas of rationality, secularism, progress, and the so-called lessons of history, careful not to be ensnared by empathy, compassion, and

Heideggerian Perspective

Rajan’s essay on the ontological politics and the dialectics of intercommunality begins with a mention of Martin Heidegger, the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, to whom the world of philosophy owes its understanding of metaphysics and its pitfalls. How most fundamental thinkers could go so spectacularly wrong is shown as a question least amenable to be sidestepped today, by anyone choosing to locate themselves in the lineage of Western philosophy. Then, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s use of Heideggerian metaphysics supplements

the inadequacy of the indispensable universal abstraction with the requisite quantum of concreteness that enables particular communities caught up in the throes of a non-European modernity to make a world out of this earth. (p 58)

He observes that it is the contrast between the “ready-to-hand” stance designating a pre-analytical everyday relationship to one’s surroundings, and the “present-at-hand” stance for which these surroundings turn into an objects of analysis and manipulation, both Heideggerian neologisms borrowed by Chakrabarty. Further, the question of whether politics ever roots itself in an ontological foundation, or whether it necessarily implies an opacity, is addressed. Is there a proto-fascist danger lurking in the very subordination of the political to the ontological? Should one abandon Heidegger’s distinction between being and beings? Chakrabarty believes that the answers to these questions depend crucially on how the relationship between ontology and politics is conceived.

A delightfully critical and creative piece in the volume is the dialogue between Nandy and U R Ananthamurthy on the politics of religion and the metaphysics of intellectual practices. Ananthamurthy begins the dialogue with a discussion on the personality of Narayana Guru, which combines the characteristics of a sage with those of an activist, who is not actually political at all, but at the same time more political than anyone else. Nandy responds by remembering the short-term experience of being sensitive to the issue of metaphysics of politics and public life. Ananthamurthy further sees religion like politics, in eternity; reflects on Sankara (Shiva) and his duality between the spiritual and the worldly; and finally seeks refuge in Guru.

Julius Lipner’s beautiful essay examines how metaphysics transforms politics within the Indian nationalist narrative, and explores a distinctive, accommodative, mentalité fundamental. It seems to him quite promising for the ongoing transnational discourse about the formation and transformation of democratic polity. Another feature that attracts Lipner is the unique Hindu conceptual flexibility, indicative of a cultural paradigm of continuing viability and adaptability, which represents “an oscillatory dialectic between spiritual and empirical elements” (p 136). N Manu Chakravarthy’s essay, a contextualised critical enquiry into literary references to metaphysics, is avowedly committed to dealing with the transmutation of metaphysics and politics in Indian literature. He says that one has only to consider a few crucial Indian literary texts, in order to discern the profound convergence of epistemological, philosophical, and ethical issues that unfold the multiple dimensions of metaphysics and politics. According to Chakravarthy, we have to recognise the fact that

discussions of metaphysics and politics move from epistemological planes to ethical realms and, hence, quite often, one recognises a conflation of these apparently different fields. (p 144)

D Venkat Rao’s insightful essay wonders what could be considered the Indian cultural difference. It starts with the discontinuity between Indic scribal cultures and the archival institutions of the colonial empire. Examining the epistemic status of what the performative modes of speech, gestures, music, and theatre have retained as privileged status in Indian cultural formations over millennia, Rao creates “a sketch of the nurtured dispersals through which these modes sustained and flourished historically and the rupture they suffered in European epistemic violence” (p 162). Describing the epistemic implications of these embodied modes, he puts forward a critical self-reflective teaching and research project that will hopefully “contribute to re-kindle and reorient thinking about our singular inheritances in the intellectually destitute postcolonial Indian context” (p 162).

Reinventing Narayana Guru

At the end M C Dinakaran and Anish Damodaran reflect on the poetic factor in metaphysics and politics at the instance of the poetic dialogue between Chattampi Swamikal and Guru, two accomplished poets among sages of the time. In fact, most fascinating about several essays in the volume is the rediscovery of Guru (1854–1928), well known in the history of Kerala as a great leader of the anti-caste movement, and hailed by E M S Namboodiripad (the veteran Communist Party of India [Marxist] leader), as the navodhana rajashilpi, the chief architect of Kerala’s renaissance. The Backwaters Collective rediscovers him with novelty and surprise, as a unique social reformer of profound philosophical insight, administering prescriptions and practices not usually expected from a sage. He is viewed as a micro-dynamics of autonomous social transformation in community-based societies, and an alternative universality in which all the dominant stands of Indian metaphysics, the vaidika (Vedic), the bauddha (Buddhist), the bhakti (Devotional), and the tantrika (Tantric), converge.

There are inappropriate representations of Guru, like viewing him as the principal agent of sanskritisation of the Ezhava caste, or as a figure located at “the most orthodox school of Indian metaphysics.” Some of the questions such as why he did not launch a political programme for fighting caste oppression, or why he never viewed Brahminism as a foe, are factually wrong. Other questions, such as what saved Guru from being symbolic of a nationalist pantheon, or why was he indifferent to colonialism, or why unlike Gandhi, he evinced no interest either in resisting colonialism or in carrying on a civilisational dialogue with the coloniser—even in picking up the rudiments of the English language—are extraneous and anachronistic.

While some in the Backwaters Collective seek to place Guru within the national context (if not the global), others are centrally concerned with Gandhian thought. In doing either of these, the collective consciousness of them is to transcend both Gandhi and Guru through civilisational dialogues, evaluate the radical transformation in social relations, assess models of inter-culturality, expose the epistemic injustice of the homogenising dominant knowledge system, and probe into the politics of metaphysics. Despite some obsessive reflections, inspired by the Heideggerian metaphysics in a few essays, and a purposeful tryst with Guru, the volume is eminently readable.


Updated On : 15th Jan, 2018


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top