How Indian Culture Colonized Western Thought / An examination of intellectuals who turned East for guidance
How Encounters With an Ancient Culture Transformed the Modern West By Jeffery Paine HarperCollins ; 324 pages; $25 Jeffery Paine's "Father India" is a groundbreaking work. It changes our understanding of India's role in the spiritual and intellectual rebuilding of a Europe shattered by the Great War.
All too often, Western scholarship has "orientalized" India's impact on "mainstream" Western values (confining it to philology and comparative myths). Popular literature, notably Katherine Mayo's influential 1927 indictment, "Mother India," demonized its civilization in trite images of widow burnings, untouchability and cow-worship.
Small wonder that the first wave of avid appreciators in Europe were thought of as an odd lot indeed: spiritualists such as Madame Blavatsky, Fabians such as George Bernard Shaw and poets such as Yeats. They lounged in Madame Blavatsky's London salon, holding forth on tantric sex rituals and metempsychosis. Easily caricatured as self-indulgent if harmless crackpots, for Paine they were serious- minded questers who felt liberated by a religion that substituted (in C.G. Jung's words) "both/and" for Christianity's "either/or."
Paine provides a corrective lens for viewing Blavatsky and Annie Besant as early saboteurs of what today's scholars call "the Enlightenment project." The undermining succeeded, Paine explains, because the West didn't recognize the potentially seditious consequences of a religion that replaced (or seemed to replace) rigid categories of right and wrong with guiltless tolerance and looser permissions. By collapsing the traditional European distinctions, revolutionaries such as Besant and nation-builders such as Mahatma Gandhi (whom Paine sees, perversely perhaps, as more a Westernized activist with a clear independence agenda than a miraculously sprouting son of the native soil) were able to couple spirituality with political action and social reform.
Paine's chapter on Gandhi's transformation by, and later transformation of, the West is subtle: "Gandhi redefined spiritual faith . . . to include even atheists who make Truth of their atheism, and so widened religion to include the whole secular realm, which challenged the British who claimed to rule through a disinterested, neutral logic." Paine's Gandhi comes off as a media-savvy politician in a whatever-sells loincloth, a pragmatist who shakes together Hindu and Christian concepts of salvation and comes up with a secular cocktail of nonviolent civil disobedience. He is simultaneously a harsh disciplinarian and supple guide, a worldly ascetic and secular saint.
Biographical sketches and historical vignettes are used to dramatize the personalities and events leading to India's intellectual undermining of Enlightenment imperatives (and with them, of course, the West's sense of virtuous mission). The biographies are of an extraordinarily varied group. They present with fresh clarity the spiritually restless, such as Christopher Isherwood, and the intellectually rebellious, such as Jung.
Scattered among such familiar figures as theosophist Besant, novelist E.M. Forster, viceroy Lord George Curzon, philosopher G.L. Dickinson and the peripatetic author V.S. Naipaul, one encounters portraits of little known but fascinating figures like Mirra Richard, the Egyptian-born, Sephardic Frenchwoman who reinvented herself as "The Mother" and co-founded, with Sri Aurobindo, a utopian community in the French enclave of Pondicherry. This community remains self- sustaining to this day, and its ashrams are visited by thousands of Western and Indian pilgrims annually.
Western readers with more than a casual interest in India will be surprised to learn the full story of Sri Aurobindo. (I knew from childhood that Sri Aurobindo had been a heroic Bengali freedom-fighter -- those are the things Bengali children learn -- but no one had told me, nor would I have believed, that his given name, thanks to an Anglophilic father, was Akroyd Ghose.)
Paine's spiritual vagabonds are described as "a new kind of traveler, who voyaged out not for profit or preaching but rather to spill his innards all over the map -- a voyage outward and inward simultaneously." Paine's "travelers" are people with European educations, brought up to think of the cultural incompatibility of the East and West in Kiplingesque terms. Somehow, through scholarship, meditation or some sort of psychosexual itch, they transcend Western cultural prohibitions.
They choose India -- the West's fantasy of the ultimate Other -- as a destination, because they are willing to risk the dissolution of all that their societies expect them to believe in. Paine likens their encounters with India to scientific experiments: "(P)ut the random ingredients of Western cultural history in a test tube, and over them pour a different catalyst, India, and see what change in coloration or chemical combination then occurs."
It would be misleading to leave the impression that "Father India" is merely a collection of biographical sketches. Indeed, it is the achievement of this book to funnel an encyclopedia of knowledge into the biographical format. Thus, what might appear as dry scholarship is always contextualized in scenes and human drama. In his knowledge, and in the passion he brings to the subject, Paine becomes the latest of the voyagers he describes.
Bharati Mukherjee shuttles between California and Calcutta. Her latest novel, ``Leave It to Me,'' has just appeared in paperback.