by Arudra Burra
I teach philosophy at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi. My teaching reflects my training, which is in the Western philosophical tradition: I teach PhD seminars on Plato and Rawls, while Bentham and Mill often figure in my undergraduate courses.
What does it mean to teach these canonical figures of the Western philosophical tradition to students in India? I have often asked myself this question. Similar questions are now being asked by philosophers situated in the West: Anglophone philosophy, at least in the analytic tradition, seems to have arrived at a late moment of post-colonial reckoning.
One result has been a project to “decolonize” philosophy. The project has several elements. Some of the leading lights of the Western canon have views which seem indefensible to us today: Aristotle, Hume, and Kant, for instance. Statues of figures whose views are objectionable in similar ways have, after all, been toppled across the world. Should we not at least take these philosophers off their pedestals?
Alongside moves to reassess the Western philosophical canon, there have been several moves to diversify the philosophical curriculum, for instance by including underrepresented or marginalised figures within the West, such as women and racial minorities, or by expanding the philosophical gaze to include non-Western traditions, such as the Indian or the Chinese.
Finally, philosophers such as Charles Mills, Alison Jaggar, and Shelley Tremain have suggested that certain philosophical problems which might be more urgent from non-dominant perspectives – such as the enslaved, the colonized, the disabled – may be rendered invisible because of particular methodologies and problematics which the Western philosophical tradition has taken for granted.
The Indian context generates its own pressures. A focus on the Western philosophical tradition, it is sometimes thought, risks obscuring or marginalising what is of value in the Indian philosophical tradition. Colonial attitudes and practices might give us good grounds for this worry; recall Macaulay’s famous lines, in his “Minute on Education” (1835), that “a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
It has also been argued that an uncritical invocation of Western philosophical categories (such as “secularism”) distorts our understanding and experience of the Indian context. To see Indian experience through the lens of these categories is to operate from a space of “colonial consciousness” which takes us away from ourselves, as S. N. Balagangadhara has argued. At its limit, as K. C. Bhattacharya put it in his famous essay “Swaraj in Ideas” (1928), it may involve a “slavery of the spirit.”
Finally, the dominance of the Hindu right in contemporary India has made it easy to mobilize the rhetoric of anti-colonialism against the figure of the Muslim (as invader) and the liberal (as alien, non-Indian) – both thus suspect members of the (essentially Hindu) Indian nation.
This broader political context casts a pedagogical shadow as well. Take the case of Patricia Sauthoff, an American scholar who taught a course on the “History and Politics of Yoga” at Nalanda University some years ago. An invitation to extend her contract was rescinded at short notice, and the course itself cancelled soon after. While no official grounds were given, statements made by influential political figures at the time make it clear that the issue was that a foreigner was being “allowed” to teach a course about yoga in India.
Where does this leave the teacher of Plato or Mill or Rawls in the Indian classroom? For years I began on an apologetic note, feeling the need to make the case – if not to my students, at least to myself – for why we are engaging with these Western thinkers. Until recently, my strategy has been to place my pedagogy in the context of a long history of Indian intellectual engagement with the West.
There are many examples to choose from, but I have been moved by three in particular. The first is Gandhi’s engagement with Plato, which Phiroze Vasunia has documented: Gandhi reworked the Apology into Gujarati in 1908; it was later banned by the British. Mill’s On Liberty was translated into Hindi in 1912 by the famous Hindi novelist Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi and also banned soon after. In his memoirs, Ruchi Ram Sahni (a distant ancestor) describes the excitement of college students in late 19th c. Lahore reading and debating the works of Bentham and Mill.
I encouraged my students to see themselves as descendants of this tradition. And to myself I said: if their engagement with the West was unproblematic, then, surely, so is ours.
Contemporary Indian liberals sometimes adopt a similar strategy in response to the charge that liberalism is suspect because non-Indian. A line by Gandhi is much quoted in this context:
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.
If it was ok for figures such as Gandhi (whose “Indian-ness” is not in doubt) to engage with the West – the thought goes – surely it is ok for us.
I am no longer enamoured of this approach. For one thing, can I really claim the legacy of Gandhi while engaging with the West? Gandhi read the Apology in prison in South Africa in 1908 while he was still formulating the idea of satyagraha (his reworked title is “The Story of a Soldier of Truth”). It was published in Indian Opinion, a journal addressed to the Indian diaspora in South Africa and the Empire, often concerned with political issues of the day.
My students and I engage with Plato in a very different context. I first read the Apology as an undergraduate in America in the 1990s, and my students do not seem particularly fired up by political ideals. So much has changed in the hundred-plus years since Gandhi first read the Apology – politically, socially, culturally — that it is not clear in what sense my students and I are really part of this tradition.
Suppose we were in fact part of this tradition, what would that show? If my students and I must justify our engagement with the Western canon today by appealing to the practices of earlier generations of Indians, surely the question has simply been pushed back one step? Shouldn’t we then have to ask – what justified Gandhi in engaging with Plato?
There is a further, and deeper, problem with this appeal. Recall Gandhi’s line about wanting to have the cultures of all lands blow about one’s house. It has a pleasingly capaciousness ring, which is no doubt part of its appeal: how mean-spirited (one might say to oneself) of nativists to prefer to wall their houses than keep their windows open! But now consider Gandhi’s next lines:
But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.
One might read this initially as simply a call for equality, as though the problem with the engagement with the West is only when it arises from a position of weakness. But Gandhi’s metaphor is less capacious than it seems – for even if I am an honoured or welcome guest in another’s house, I am after all still a guest.
It is this thought which I find increasingly troubling. Why must I and my students have to participate always, so to speak, at one removed from this thing called ‘the Western philosophical tradition’? Is present-day New Delhi so much further removed from Plato’s Athens than, say, present-day New York?
To suggest that the contemporary New Yorker has more of a claim on Plato than the contemporary New Delhi-ite is to partake of what Anthony Appiah called the “golden nugget” theory of Western civilization – that it is like some treasured possession which belongs, in the first instance, to people who live or were born in the geographical West; and to which ‘outsiders’ have only a secondary claim. And of course, the point goes the other way as well: why should I have a kind of default claim upon Patanjali which, say, Patricia Sauthoff does not?
After all, one belongs to a tradition by engaging with it, extending it, talking back to it, and so forth. But surely I can do this with my students in New Delhi just as much as my counterpart can with her students in New York? Of course we might – and should – extend the tradition in different ways, given our different political and pedagogical contexts.
And if we – my students and I – are not necessarily outsiders to the Western philosophical tradition, why should participating in it necessarily result in us becoming de-racinated or colonized? At least this would have to be demonstrated rather than simply assumed.
My problem with the Gandhian line is thus with its potential to harden the boundaries between insiders and outsiders to a tradition. Talk of decolonizing philosophy makes me nervous to the extent that it reinforces this tendency. But inhabiting a tradition, contra Gandhi, need not be like inhabiting a house: one needn’t leave one in order to enter the other.
Another approach is suggested by Gandhi’s interlocutor, the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Gandhi’s lines occur in the course of a public correspondence between the two men in the 1920s. The context was Tagore’s discomfort with Gandhi’s calls to boycott British goods and British education, part of a broader project to emancipate India from British rule.
In fact, it is Tagore who introduces the metaphor of the house:
Let us be rid of all false pride and rejoice at any lamp being lit at any corner of the world, knowing that it is a part of the common illumination of our house.
I find the metaphor of the lamp congenial. How might it change how one talks and thinks about decolonizing philosophy?
To diversify the canon would be to shed light on a philosophical world of which we occupy a small corner. In the process we might also shed new light on where we stand as well. Geography is not essential to the project: an honest acquaintance with the history of philosophy within a particular tradition might serve the same purpose.
But where we stand also determines where we should look for illumination. Too much light can blind one: if one takes for granted the superiority of a particular philosophical tradition (which might be Western, or Indian, or Chinese, say), the route to wisdom may involve challenging the pieties of the canon in question. This would be so both for the cultural nationalist who identifies with the allegedly superior tradition, or for someone who identifies with a tradition which they regard as inferior in comparison. But dimming the lights, I would hope, is only part of a larger pedagogical strategy. Why not aim to loosen these identifications and light more lamps, so that we can explore more of the house and see it as ours? (We may not like all of what we see!)
Which lamps we choose may also depend upon what we are looking for, or at. In thinking about the nature and value of free speech in India today, I think it is fruitful to reflect upon Mill’s defence of freedom of speech in On Liberty (1859). One might conclude that his arguments don’t work, or that they rest upon assumptions which don’t hold in contemporary India. But they are still a resource to think with, and we can engage with them without worrying about where they come from. In particular, Mill’s defence of colonialism shouldn’t be a hurdle which one must cross before one gets to his arguments.
Accepting that Mill’s arguments on free speech have some purchase on the Indian scene does not require us to adopt the Western philosophical tradition wholesale in thinking about ourselves: it may well be that the concept of secularism, say, distorts rather than illuminates the Indian experience. The usefulness of a concept, thinker, or tradition depends upon how one uses them, and what one uses them to think about.
So the question to ask when deciding to teach Plato, Mill, and Rawls is the question of what they can help us see better, and how. This is a local and contingent matter, depending, among other things, upon one’s pedagogical practice and one’s political context. Or so I now (unapologetically) believe.
Arudra Burra teaches philosophy in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi. His primary research interests are in the areas of moral and political philosophy, as well as Indian constitutional and intellectual history.
This piece was originally written for the inaugural philosophy forum hosted by the Miami Institute of Social Sciences, held in March 2021.