Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Civilizational Narrative and the Hindu Identity, Part I

So why is all this stuff I've been talking about so important to a nation of 1.2 billion people? What am I trying to achieve by typing relentlessly away until my keyboard rattles like a mouthful of loose teeth?

Something that is rarely addressed in internet discussions on national psyche, is a factor that is perhaps more relevant to determining the course of identity politics than any other. Namely, the quest of all peoples for a civilizational narrative.

What is a "civilizational narrative"? Very simply, it is the story of a people as they would prefer to tell it themselves.

It is their own history from their own point of view. It includes the experiences, insights and wisdom of a people's ancestors, as recorded and interpreted by that people themselves. It is the template upon which a people's present-day thinkers fashion their worldview. It is the basis on which a people determine their own role in the larger context of society, nation (in the modern, political sense) and globe. It is what a people would like to teach their children about themselves, and their aspirations for the future.

And very importantly, in an imperative that grows more urgent as a people experience increasing contact with other peoples and the rest of the world... their civilizational narrative is the one version of their own story that they would want OTHER peoples to hear, believe, and accept as the only authoritative version.

How important is a civilizational narrative? I think it is the fountainhead of all types of identity a people can have... religious, cultural, social and political. Consider the Jews... there are only a handful of them in the world, but they're driven to achieve economic and geopolitical influence out of all proportion to their numbers on the strength of their civilizational narrative alone. Perhaps there is no more successful civilizational narrative in the world... every school child is familiar, at least in broad strokes, with the whole span of Jewish history from the Old Testament to the Holocaust. You had better believe the version almost everyone accepts as the truth is the version the Jews want to tell.

On the dismal end of the spectrum are peoples who have been completely robbed and denuded of their civilizational narrative, so that they see themselves almost entirely in terms of the characterizations of others. Usually these "others" are present or former colonial masters, whose characterizations are designed to inflict feelings of shame and inferiority in the service of ulterior motives. Colonialists knew better than anyone else that hijacking the civilizational narrative of a conquered people the was key to their long-term subjugation. As a result, these peoples' view of themselves consists either of shame and guilt, or of raging, ultra-reactionary bile... both of these attitudes being sides of a single coin minted out of self-loathing. Accordingly, such peoples find themselves unable to cope with the world or achieve any kind of economic or political success.

Consider just about any nation in Africa, for instance. The view we Indians have of these Africans is too-often characterized by a contempt borrowed from the white man. We see an Africa riven by brutal tribal conflicts, where savage warlords are eager to sell mineral resources and slaves alike for profit; an Africa marked more often and widely by instances of famine, disease and disaster than anything else; an Africa hell bent on sabotaging its own potential for development by selling itself short to the highest bidder. And of course, we see white Westerners running relief camps, distributing food and medicine to these helpless Africans out of the goodness of their hearts. That is the story of Africa we hold to be true. And you can bet it’s not the story the Africans would like to tell of themselves.

Clearly, we have accepted the Western narrative of the African peoples’ story as the authoritative version. What is the African version of their own civilizational narrative? Who knows?

Could the term “civilizational narrative” be applied to the words of people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, sanitized and mass-produced for popular consumption by their sanctimonious European publishers? No… that is the merely the narrative of Europeans who style themselves “Liberals”, albeit told in an African accent.

Could we use it to describe rage of the Sierra-Leonese warlord, who turns his enemies into lollipops for the cameras of CNN and BBC to lap up with perverse delectation? No… that is merely a reaction to being deprived of a civilizational narrative… and again, ends up reinforcing stereotypical Western narratives about Africa.

Nor does it fit the cynical self-justification of a Robert Mugabe, who uses different consequences of the lack of an indigenous Zimbabwean civilizational narrative to manipulate the public and maintain his hold on power.

The fact is, most African peoples never had the chance to develop a civilizational narrative of their own, to tell their own story to other peoples of the world and receive a fair hearing as equals. This has damaged them as a people beyond measure. Being that we’ve never heard the civilizational narrative of any African people, we find ourselves unsure about whether they are “civilized” (in any sense that we understand the term) at all.

More importantly, in order to prevent Africans ever achieving their full potential, to ensure that they and the resources under their nominal control shall remain perpetually open to exploitation… any attempts by them to develop a coherent civilizational narrative are deliberately, systematically put down and drowned out with an external version. These external narratives that outsiders have sought to superimpose on the African peoples, for the purpose of rendering them vulnerable to exploitation, are many. They often compete with each other… for instance, the post-colonial narrative of the West and the Marxist narrative of the former Soviet Union. Recently, the Chinese have also got into the act of exploiting Africa… but as a new player on that stage, they have yet to superimpose their own narrative upon the Africans.

Ultimately, the more forgotten and unheard a people’s civilizational narrative, the more powerless they are. The world’s most disempowered and uprooted peoples… native Americans, Australian aborigines and the Gypsies of Europe… have no narrative at all that anyone can remember, least of all themselves.

Where, then, along the continuum of narrative empowerment does today’s Hindu stand?

To answer this question, we must understand where a strong civilizational narrative comes from.

First, it is based on a collective viewpoint that is generally representative of a people. No two individuals within a population have exactly the same story to tell, after all. Thus a civilizational narrative must emerge by either organically, by achieving consensus among several individually disparate narratives… or through mandated artificial synthesis, where one small group is empowered to dictate the story and everyone else agrees with their version as a matter of discipline.

(To be continued...)


Srinivas said...

Excellent article, got me thinking.
Waiting for the rest of your article

Michael said...

good analysis, i have read all your illuminating posts, you must continue with your commentary..

i have a few questions.

for divergent communities such as the monotheist faiths to embrace the civilization and geo-political context of india , should the hindu faith be more welcoming, for eg their are certain hindu temples which do not accept non-hindus into their domain also is their a proper system of conversion and acceptance of community(if conversion is what is asked for by members of other communities )

have you looked at the example of sri lanka they have had a continuous buddhist culture, they had problems with evangalization but they were able to control it by taking control of the education system and spreading it through the country, the nation has the will to fight and to stop being overwhelmed by outside influences while at the same time having an excellent Human development index.


m322bh said...

While browsing I stumbled upon your site.
THe articles were greatly written. I wonder why did you stop it? Please keep on writing, at least for the sake of illuminating the young Indian minds and removing the ignorance in their mind. Jai Hind

Jaidev Jamwal said...

have you stopped updating this blog ?

Jaidev Jamwal said...

have you stopped updating this blog ?