Rajiv Malhotra: Q&A on his book Being Different

1.      Why did you write Being Different?

To explicate some of the fundamental differences between the Western worldview and the Indian one and to demonstrate that there are original and alternate paradigms that might be effective in resolving the problems and dilemmas that plague our complex world. An assumption of  “sameness” of all cultures clouds originality and contributes to a loss of the diversity in human intelligence. This assumption also privileges the cultural voices of the most dominant, vocal and aggressive cultures. Being Different hopes to preserve the diversity of human intellectual and spiritual traditions, in particular the Indian one, and offer these on the world table as a viable resource for an increasingly connected world.

2.      How do you anticipate the West to respond to an Indian challenge to Western universalism?

We expect different response from different Westerners. Chauvinistic and fundamentalist groups might be lukewarm or even hostile to the ideas that are put forth in the book. However, from the early feedback that we are receiving, serious scholars and thinkers and even the international business community seem to welcome the revival and fresh interpretation of Indian knowledge. For example, Professor John Hobson of the University of Sheffield has this to say:

“This remarkable and highly original book is itself an exercise in being different, insofar as it constitutes not a nihilistic critique of all that is wrong with the West but offers constructive – dare I say `healing’ – powers that can offer ways out of the impasse concerning one of the defining features of Western civilization – its self-belief that what is Western is truly and inherently universal. It is this very existential conflation, Malhotra argues, that lies at the heart of the world’s problems today. The solution lies not with the denial or destruction of Western civilization, but rather with the need for it to humbly transcend this great conflation and learn not to `tolerate’ other civilizations and cultures but to embrace a mutual respect for them”.

3.      How do you define “Western Universalism”?

Universalism cannot be Western or Chinese or French – that would not be universal but a particular culture’s own view of it. So Western Universalism is an oxymoron idea. It assumes that the knowledge systems, epistemologies, history, myths and religions of the West are either the norm or should be the norm for all the world’s people. This mindset neglects the unique trajectories of other civilizations which in turn have been affected by their own geographies, histories (in many cases dating far beyond Western history), religious and spiritual traditions. The unique experiences of different cultures are not always inter-changeable yet “Western Universalism” views the Western historical and cultural narrative as normative and desirable for all people, rather than one that is simply particular to only one group of people in the North-Western hemisphere of the globe, a group that comprises less than 20% of humanity and that until the conquest of the Americas was on the peripheries of world dynamics.  Yet it tends to superimpose it’s own cultural paradigms, often through force, upon other cultures, destroying or at the very least maiming the world’s cultural diversity.

4.      What do Americans need to understand about Indian culture and history, in order to feel less anxious about a nation that represents almost 1 in 6 world citizens?

That India has and continues to manage enormous diversity of religion, language, culture within its own boundaries and quite successfully at that. India is one of the few countries of the world that has never set out to conquer other countries by force or in the name of religion. For example the spread of Buddhism emanated from India and did not involve colonizing the local cultures or other lands. Dharmic traditions, while not perfect, offer perspectives and techniques for a genuinely pluralistic social order and full integration of many different faiths including atheism. In Indian culture, there has never been the rift between science and the sacred such as we see in the West. The idea of unity in diversity is fundamental to Indian thinking and diversity rather than becoming a reason for discomfort or anxiety is viewed as normal and indeed desirable as the true manifestation of reality.

5.      Where do Indians fall short of fully understanding or appreciating America?

There is very little that most Indians do not like about America. For the most part, Indians, unabashedly embrace and favor America and its people and culture. The resistance to airing differences comes not only from Westerners but also from Indians. Perhaps it’s the legacy of our colonial past, but as I explain in the book, many Indians have internalized the fears that difference causes violence and feel guilty about their own differences from the West.  The Indian elite especially feels comfortable with the “clean” Westernized version of Hinduism which presents “sameness” or the dilution of identities. Indians are far more likely to embrace all aspects of America than critically examine it as I have done in my book. Indeed, many critics of my work thus far have been the Westernized Indians whereas many open-minded Americans have encouraged it.

6.      How do you explain Dharma to a Western audience?

Dharma is not the same as religion. Dharma has the Sanskrit root dhri, which means “that which upholds” or “that without which nothing can stand” or “that which maintains the stability and harmony of the universe.” Dharma encompasses the natural, innate behavior of things, duty, law, ethics, virtue, etc. Every entity in the cosmos has its particular dharma — from the electron, which has the dharma to move in a certain manner, to the clouds, galaxies, plants, insects, and of course, man. Man’s understanding of the dharma of non-living things (i.e. “matter”) is what we now call physics.

The common translation into religion is misleading since, to most Westerners, a genuine religion must:

1) be based on a single canon of scripture given by God in a precisely defined historical event;
2) involve worship of the divine who is distinct from ourselves and the cosmos;
3) be governed by some human authority such as the church;
4) consist of formal members;
5) be presided over by an ordained clergyman; and
6) use a standard set of rituals.

But dharma is not limited to a particular creed or specific form of worship. Dharma provides the principles for the harmonious fulfillment of all aspects of life, namely, the acquisition of wealth and power (artha), fulfillment of desires (kama), and liberation (moksha).

Religion, then, is only one subset of dharma’s scope. Religion applies only to human beings and not to the entire cosmos; there is no religion of electrons, monkeys, plants and galaxies, whereas all of them have their dharma even if they carry it out without intention. In dharmic traditions, the word a-dharma applies to humans who fail to perform righteously; it does not mean refusal to embrace a given set of propositions as a belief system or disobedience to a set of commandments or canons.

For much more on Dharma and the critical difference between Dharma & Religion please see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rajiv-malhotra/dharma-religion_b_875314.html

7.      What type of assimilation will need to take place?

This book is not about the Indian immigrant story or the record of Indian assimilation into American society. Rather it compares and contrasts the civilizational worldviews of the West and India and hopes to ignite a true dialogue between the two.  Indeed in this book, I decry the widespread dismantling, rearrangement and “digestion” of India’s distinct cultural and spiritual matrix into Western frameworks that result in giving the Western perspective a de facto status as arbiter of what is considered universally true. Such “assimilation” tends to deplete and exhaust the cultures which it draws upon. Rather, I propose that real differences between cultures are studied, aired and that all sides be willing to embrace the shifts in thinking that result from this process, risky and controversial as they may be. My idea of America is one of hyphenated identities, and hence Indians need not shed their Indianness in order to be fully American – just as in the case of Irish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and so forth.

8.      Some Americans accept Buddhism, yoga and their Eastern philosophies, but do Americans really understand Hinduism, Jainism, and other facets of Indian religions?

The irony in the question is that many specifically Hindu ideas and practices have entered and become a part of American life – through the journeys of several Americans from the Ralph Waldo Emerson to the Beatles. Yet these are not being seen as Hindu per se, but as some exotic mixture of “eastern influence” or as “spirituality without religion” or as “new age”. Many Westerners are attracted to Hindu philosophies,  yoga and other popularized spiritual practices. However, there is a limited understanding of the roots of these, a gap which this book tries to fill.

Yoga in the States is a good example of the distortion and “digestion” that I have referred to earlier. It is very popular in the US and it’s spiritual benefits are available to anyone regardless of faith. However, the assumptions and consequences of yoga do run counter to much of Judeo-Christian theology. The incompatibility between yoga and Christianity for example are rarely tackled and worked out. Yoga’s metaphysics centers around the quest to attain liberation from one’s conditioning caused by past karma. Karma includes the baggage from prior lives, underscoring the importance of reincarnation. While it is fashionable for many Westerners to say they believe in karma and reincarnation, they have seldom worked out the contradictions with core Biblical doctrines. For instance, according to karma theory, Adam and Eve’s deeds would produce effects only on their individual future reincarnations, but not on all their progeny ad infinitum. Karma is not a sexually transmitted problem flowing from ancestors or bloodlines in the same sense as the Christian notion of sin is. This view obviates the doctrine of original sin and eternal damnation. An individual’s karmic debts accrue by personal action alone, in a separate and self-contained “account”. The view of an individual having multiple births also contradicts Christian ideas of eternal heaven and hell seen as a system of rewards and punishments in an afterlife. Yogic liberation is here and now, in the bodily state referred to and celebrated as jivanmukti, a concept unavailable in Christianity and in an afterlife somewhere else. Ironically, the very same Christians who practice Yoga and espouse reincarnation also long to have family reunions in heaven.

Many of the 20 million American yoga practitioners do encounter these issues and find them troubling. Some have responded by distorting yogic principles in order to “domesticate” it into a Christian framework, i.e. the oxymoron, ‘Christian Yoga.’ Others simply avoid the issues or deny the differences. Likewise, many Hindu gurus obscure differences, characterizing Jesus as a great yogi and/or as one of several incarnations of God. These views belie the principles stated in the Nicene Creed, to which members of mainstream Christian denominations must adhere. They don’t address the above underlying contradictions that might undermine their popularity with Judeo-Christian Americans. This is reductionist and unhelpful both to yoga and Christianity.

In other words, there is reluctance even by some of the most ardent yoga aficionados to tackle and engage with the differing underlying assumptions of dharma. In this book, I unearth those very irreconcilable differences, with the hope that future inter-faith dialogues will acknowledge rather than simply gloss over them.

9.      You want to make a point that India differs from the West by challenging certain cherished notions or assumptions. But which is more helpful to global relations – highlighting differences or finding common ground?

It is not an either/or situation. Sure, there are similarities. But these are discussed frequently in the mainstream. However, by not being completely candid about differences we seek to impose one worldview over all others, thus inhibiting the creative power of diversity in culture and points of view. Common ground isn’t really possible to establish unless all sides have a chance to air their distinctiveness without the pressure to become the “same” as the dominant culture. Until that happens any common ground is premature, artificial, and the suppression of differences could be viewed as an act of domination. Common ground that is reached by reflection and through reversing the gaze is likely to result in the true and lasting dialogue that we seek.

10.  You identified four key differences between Indian culture and America’s Judeo – Christian traditions.  How can these differences be nurtured in a way that they don’t continue to divide us?

In this book I propose the Dharmic idea of  “sapekshata,” a Sanskrit word which means unity in diversity to the extent of mutual cooperation and even mutual dependency. It facilitates inter-subjectivity, solidarity and fraternity across paths and identities.

11.  For America to do business with India, what do each of the nations need to understand about the other?

While many academics and business people have wondered whether there is a distinct Indian way of doing business, my research shows that India’s cultural norms and values do bestow upon Indians, the sensibilities and worldview that heighten both India’s competitive advantage and ability to seize global and technological opportunities.

Being Different, while not a business book per se, provides clues to the following questions: What is the philosophical seedbed that shapes India’s distinctiveness? What influences shape the Indian worldview, and what business competencies are enhanced as a result? Being Different demonstrates that India’s natural cultural proclivities are predisposed toward the complex skills of creativity, collaboration, innovation and comfort with ambiguity needed today.  This cultural wealth may be harnessed and studied not only by Indians but also by Americans. Many Indian processes may serve as the template for today’s evolving social media ecology, it’s emerging cooperative structures, decentralized organizations and the peer-production of knowledge.

Professor Vaidyanathan of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore has endorsed the book and has this to say about how Being Different would increase the understanding that business communities of both India and the United States:

“It is trendy to say that we now live in “a flat world” where the global business culture renders the differences between civilizations obsolete. Based on his 20 years of research and experience, Rajiv Malhotra, a successful US-based entrepreneur and public intellectual, argues that this notion is idealistic and premature. Rejecting the dilution of distinctiveness as naive and inappropriate, he advocates that Indian cultural and philosophical capital could be harnessed to imbue Indian businesses with competitive advantages. In his book, Being Different, Malhotra unearths these cultural differences and equips us to lead the efforts in addressing global challenges rather than merely following the failed solutions from Western thinkers. It provides intriguing answers to some of the questions that perplex both Indians and other India watchers. How are Indian businesses able to thrive despite our country’s weak infrastructure?  What accounts for the instinctive environmentalism observed in Indian culture or the prolific and creative outpourings of Bollywood? How have jatis served as a structure of business self-organization and decentralized governance? Are there cultural factors that help our competitiveness in certain industries, such as IT, and that do not apply to other industries? Malhotra provides provocative and original insights This book is incisive, provocative and pithy. It answers the lingering questions pertaining to the India story and provides clues to the required weltanschauung for India experts. I am sure this book will be a tilting point in the India debate and so this book is a must read for both the businessman and the intellectual”. – Dr. R. Vaidyanathan, Professor of Finance, and Chairperson of Centre for Capital Markets and Risk Management, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

12.  Some say that religious differences, racial divides and nationalism are responsible for most of the world’s violence and fragmentation.  So why is it so bad if identity differences come to be seen as tribal fidelities, which must be diluted, and the boundaries that define them, removed?

Because this has come up frequently during my years of research, I devote chapter 1 of the book to address it. I have coined the term “difference anxiety” to refer to this mindset that sees differences as a cause for concern – be it differences in gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever else. Rather than treating it symptomatically by artificially suppressing differences (which has led to genocides, slavery, mass religious conversions, etc. as ways to remove difference), I advocate a radical shift in humankind such that differences are respected, even celebrated.

Those who claim exclusivity for themselves or superiority in some sense, especially God given, would regard difference as a source of tensions. One must go deep into the cause if such anxieties and address the problem there rather than superficially. The book offers approaches to have difference with mutual respect.

13.  Why do you feel – or fear – a pretense of sameness when some try to bridge better East-West relations?

As I explain in chapter 1 of the book, the “Audacity of Difference”, the “sameness” is in fact misleading.  While superficial cultural elements from around the world do seem to have coalesced into a common global culture, the deeper structures that support the power and privilege of certain groups are stronger than ever before. Globalization is often framed in terms and structures that emerged under Western domination of the world in the past 500 years or so, and these in turn are founded on the values and beliefs that emerged from the unique historical and religious experience of the peoples of European origin.  When all collective identities are discarded and all boundaries challenged – whether under the rubric of postmodern critique or as a result of a vague and undefined sense that “all is one” and “we’re all fundamentally the same” – the result is not a world free from dominance but one in which the strongest identities along with their versions of history and values prevail as the “universal” or the “gold” standard that others must imitate.

14.  Is the West’s relationship to China similar or different than the one it has with India?

In my book I explain that modern China offers a good counter example to the claim that globalization necessarily means westernization.  China has asserted its distinctiveness while engaging with the world on its own terms. China is not the model for all nations in every respect, but is an example of how a non-Western culture can represent itself successfully and autonomously in global discourse.  In this way China positions itself and its ancient civilization as being on par with the West. Thus the West’s relationship with China is different than the one with India, in that China is demanding and receiving respect on its own terms without having to accept every Western standard. It is easier for Americans to deal with Indian leadership in terms of American ideals, than to do the same with the Chinese who never lost control over their Mandarin language and the discourse about themselves.

15.  Why is it so important for Indians to challenge the West’s view of other civilizations?

By claiming universalism, the West has engaged in the ongoing appropriation of the intellectual and cultural property of various civilizations.  This has led to the denigration of India and its dharmic traditions.  By challenging the West’s self-serving view of other civilizations, this book hopes to level the playing field for a genuine encounter between east & west.

16.  What do Americans and Indians need to understand about the politics of each nation?

Both are democracies. But though America is socially complex, India is far more complex. In fact, a whole chapter in my book deals with what Westerners call “chaos” but that turns out to be complexity of an overwhelming kind. This complexity overload called chaos is often more easily managed by Indians for a variety of reasons, including the metaphysics of complexity as a source of creativity, contrasted to Western views of chaos as something “evil” or somehow to be annihilated. Indian politics, society, street life, etc., therefore, seem “chaotic” to Americans and one finds that focus in many documentaries and media coverage on India. Because of the widespread use of English in India, especially among the elite, they tend to be much better informed about America than the other way around. Also, there are more Indian students in US universities than any other foreign students; these combined with Indian immigrants serve as a bridge that keeps people in India well informed about America in general. The reverse is not true to the same extent.

17.  Do you believe the West misunderstands the East because of some defect in its own ability to see things logically?

This is a very complex issue and central to much of my work. The West coalesced as an entity during the expansion outside Europe to other continents. Prior to that they saw themselves as French, English, Italian, Spanish, etc. rather than as “Westerners” per se. The process of Westernization of Europe and later the USA was itself the result of conquest of others who were “outsiders” to the world system under western control. Hence, the attitude towards the east is of the same type as towards various other non-Western continents. It is not illogical but a natural outcome of feeling superior as the ones who conquer, occupy, colonize others – in the name of “civilizing” them. That requires producing a discourse which shows the West as inherently superior to others. My book spends considerable amount of space critiquing Hegel in this regard – after all, he is considered one of the pre-eminent founding father of the West. The West has not been able to shed its Hegelian assumptions and my book is a response to that. John Hobson’s endorsement to my book called it “A fitting and major response to Samuel Huntington’s position of ‘who we are’ as the West.”

18.  You say that the West sees chaos as a profound threat that needs to be eradicated either by destruction or by complete assimilation.  How does the East deal with chaos?

People from dharmic cultures tend to be more accepting of difference, unpredictability and uncertainty than Westerners. The dharmic view is that so-called “chaos” is natural and normal.  It needs of course to be balanced by order, but there is no compelling need to control or eliminate it entirely nor to force cohesion from the outside. Indians find it natural to engage in non-linear thinking, juxtaposing opposites and tacking complexities that cannot be reduced to simple concepts or terms. In the vast canon of classical writings in Sanskrit, we see many context-sensitive and flexible ways of dealing with so-called chaos and difference. The search is always for balance and equilibrium with the “rights” of chaos acknowledged. The book’s cover depicts a classical story of the tensions and cooperation between two rival forces that could loosely be considered to represent “order” and “chaos”. Neither can ever annihilate the other. They are the classical pair of opposites and yet their mutual tension is the very source of creativity.

19.  Have Americans shown signs of adapting aspects of Indian culture into their own? And if so, is this good or bad?

As explained above, in #8, certain Indian spiritual practices are popular in America, but the fundamental assumptions and philosophies that undergird those traditions – Yoga for instance – are ignored, dismissed or appropriated into acceptable Western frameworks. There is a resistance to embracing the cosmologies and philosophies of the East, when they stand in contrast to the deeply embedded world views and identities of Westerners.

20.  Americans increasingly see India as a threat to jobs and our economy similar to how it sees China.  What can be done to allay this concern?

This question highlights why the claim of Western Universalism is a bogus one. Shouldn’t the West be glad that the poor huddled masses of India and China are finally making relative progress?  This brings to the foreground the essential contradiction within the term “Western Universalism”. For the West never ever has really viewed the world with a universal spirit but only through the prism of its own self-interest and jobs. American jobs, not the concerns of job-seekers everywhere are of the utmost importance even to the most liberal “universalists” in our midst. This self-preoccupation calls their bluff, does it not? Perhaps, the dharmic view, that sees the essential interconnectedness of all, might help Americans to rejoice rather than fear the rise of the rest. A little generosity of spirit would also be in order and should be expected by Americans of themselves don’t you think?

Apart from such ideals of a true humanism that goes beyond mere Americanism, the time has come for Americans to become more pragmatic about others’ place in the world. Having consumed 20 times more than their percentage of world population, American education ought to be explaining that this is simply unsustainable. Why would others live with such an asymmetry of power? If indeed the free market world is “flat”, as has been exported by Americans, why would they mind others benefiting from this?

A different way to see things is that for a few centuries Americans (and Westerners in general) enjoyed a much higher percentage of world resources than they deserved because they were able to suppress others under various schemes. Furthermore, this has been unsustainable ecologically. My books explains how dharma has resources for sustainability that deserves to be examined seriously.

21.  What should India see or want when it gazes at America?

Indians must see the American strengths and weaknesses.  The free market, mobility, competitiveness, individual enterprise – these American qualities fit easily into the Indian civilization template and that is why Indians are rapidly advancing in the world today. But Indians must also learn from American mistakes and not repeat them – such as policing the world, development that is not ecologically sustainable, the abusive culture of credit to borrow from future generations. But in the balance, both are great peoples and civilizations. If they put their strengths together as equal partners, they could co-create a new world for the benefit of all humanity.

Reposted with prior permission from Rajiv Malhotra

Mr. Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American public intellectual and philanthropist. He works full-time with The Infinity Foundation, a non-profit organization in Princeton, New Jersey, which he founded in 1995 with is own funds to foster harmony among the diverse cultures of the world. Prior to this, he worked as a senior executive in several multinational companies, as a management consultant, and as a private entrepreneur, spanning the computer, software, telecom, and media industries.His book “Being Different”  challenges the notions of Western Universalism, and will be released in India on November 1, 2011.

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