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Saturday, November 16, 2013

* Countering a Biased and Hostile Book Review!

In the November 2013 issue of the Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture (ISSN 09712755, Vol. LXIV, No. 11) I read a review of Dr. Santanu Majumdar’s book titled Dazzled by a Thousand Suns: The Impact of Western Philosophy on Indian Interpretations of The Gita. The reviewer, Swarup Puri, takes a biased view and a rather hostile tone towards the book. The reviewer starts by saying that this book is “neither a monograph on religion nor Indian philosophy” but the author does not claim it to be so. The monograph is on a specific and narrow area of research as defined by the title. The reviewer writes that the author has used “incoherent quotations and excerpts from different writings”, which raises the question whether the quotations and excerpts are themselves incoherent or are used incoherently. Then the reviewer goes on to claim that the author is trying to attribute that the “dazzling sun” is Occidental wisdom, whereas on the contrary, the author explicitly states in the book that the title is taken Chapter 11 of The Gita, where Krishna favours Arjuna with “biswaroop darshan”and it is more than apparent what the dazzling sun represents.

It seems that the reviewer has read a very different book than what I have read or if the same book then perhaps with a sinister motive. Moreover, he reads selectively. For example, he reads in the book that Western education opened the eyes of the Indian students but he does not read in that same book that sometimes Western education was beguiling and misleading. The title of the review, “Playing a colonial tune”, is ironical since the reviewer seems to suggest that instead of taking balanced view the author should have taken a prejudiced view against Western philosophy and thereby promote “colonialism” in the reverse. There is no justification that, since many colonial writers were biased against Indian texts, Indian writers should be biased against Western texts especially when the era of decolonisation and revanchism is over.

The reviewer states that the author “bravely puts forward a thesis that Swami Vivekananda was a ‘proselytizing missionary’ and a ‘ferocious propagandist of Hinduism’ (p. 65)”, which seems to suggest pejorative connotations to the words “proselytizing” and “propagandist” in the given context. Whereas when we read the full sentence from where these excerpts are taken then if appears just the opposite: "Disciple of the saint Ramakrishna, proselytizing missionary and founder of the Ramakrishna Mission, a fierce and perhaps even ferocious propagandist of Hinduism abroad, especially in the United States, where he took the Parliament of Religions in Chicago by storm in 1893, Vivekananda shows with the most ancient and most important Indian commentator of The Gita, Shankara, a genius for organization and founding of religious orders" (p. 65). This is how the reviewer has interpreted positive words into negative meanings by being selective and biased. It is perhaps his inferiority complex that he thinks that Swami Vivekananda’s co-religionists have to be apologetic about him being a Hindu missionary and hide the fact about this part of his life and work. I wonder now whose mind is beset with colonial hangover!

The reviewer also says that there is no distinction between interpretation and commentary in Indian philosophy and the author makes unnecessary fuss about it. The author states that the distinction is not about being profound or shallow but rather that the interpreter sees the text as a philosophical document and the commentator sees it as a religious document i.e. God’s words to man. It is in this sense only that Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva and Sridhar Swami are categorized as commentators and Bankim Chandra, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi, Tagore, Tilak, Swami Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan are categorized as interpreters. But the reviewer takes affront at this categorization according to approach and go on to say that the author’s understanding of The Gita and Indian thinkers is poor and the monograph is just an intellectual exercise without genuine desire to appreciate the importance of our great thinkers. If the reviewer was looking for a discussion on the impact of Indian philosophy on Indian interpretations of The Gita  in a book with the given title then he was certainly looking in the wrong place. Or perhaps no one cared to explain the title of the book to him.