Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

Western Indology versus the Indic Tradition: the Intellectual Clash of Cultures

David Frawley*

The sad fact is that after nearly two hundred years Western Indology has still failed to understand India, her culture, her soul or her history. It has progressed little beyond Eurocentric and missionary stereotypes, only adding Marxist, Freudian and other modern stereotypes to these, naively believing that these western ideologies are somehow dramatically enlightening to India and its profound spiritual culture, when they are usually irrelevant or inferior and have already failed in the West. Meanwhile the western academic mind has discovered little more in the vast treasures of Vedic culture than something primitive.

Western Indology does not understand the philosophy of India, its emphasis on dharma and karma, liberation and enlightenment, or its great traditions of Yoga and meditation. It does not acknowledge the value of its rishi/yogi culture and its Vedic origin. Nor does it recognize any such higher yogic spiritual tradition behind other ancient civilizations or behind humanity as a whole. From its perspective, Indian spirituality is a self-serving fantasy hiding what is unscientific, inhumane or archaic.

Yet even more sadly Western Indology does not want to recognize that India as a unique civilization really exists. It fails to see any real identity to Indic civilization prior to British rule or any real continuity to it from ancient times. Rather it views India as a melting pot of invading cultures with no overriding political or cultural background or unity. It was Karl Marx who said that India has no history, and what is called history “is the record of successive intruders.” This is the position still taken by Western Indologists and their counterparts in India, particularly Indian leftists who treat the words of Marx like a scripture. They fiercely resist the suggestion of any advanced indigenous civilization in India.

Western thought reads the same type of political and psychological motives into the Indic school of thought that it does for the history of Europe. It tries to understand the Indic tradition according to Marxism, Freud, Deconstructionism, or whatever may be the latest trend in western thought, as if these characteristic preoccupations of the outward looking western mind could unlock the keys to a very different yogic culture. In fact, these views usually tell us more about the western mind than about India’s traditions. Generally, the current western scholarship about India or about the ancient world as a whole naively follows the shifts of political and social correctness in western thought, as if all of history was to change retrospectively along with the fluctuations of ideology in the West! In short, the West has not adequately questioned its approach for understanding Indic civilization or created a consistent model for viewing it at a spiritual or philosophical level. Not surprisingly, Indic civilization remains a mystery and the West does not appreciate the riches of the higher mind behind it.

Western intellectual culture is quite critical of the Indic tradition and rejects most of its views as unscientific or erroneous. It styles Indic thought as mystical, irrational, superstitious or even absurd. We could, therefore, easily describe the main approach of Western Indology as one of negationism, denying something outright in order dispose of it altogether and not have to deal with it in a real way. This failure of Western Indology is nowhere more evident as in its treatment of the Vedas. The monumental literature of the Vedas—the largest of the ancient world and given a spiritual and cultural reverence throughout India throughout its history—is reduced to the record of illiterate invading hordes or pastoral nomads which really didn’t deserve to be preserved. Vedic literature is not examined in depth but simply explained away by such negationist theories, as something of no consequence that need not be taken seriously.

Negation of Vedic Literature

According to Western Indology the Vedic is a literature that should not exist, that if it does exist is primitive, distorted or deceptive. Whatever appears sophisticated in the Vedas becomes an interpolation or a cynical borrowing from indigenous people that the Vedic people supplanted and denigrated (in other words, blaming the negationism on the Vedic people themselves!). Western Indology first viewed Vedic literature as the record of invading/militant Aryan hordes from Central Asia as they destroyed the sophisticated Dravidian urban culture of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Now that the Harappan culture has been shown to have not ended in violence but in geological and river changes, they haven’t given up their old views but simply modified them, without even acknowledging their previous distortions. They now see the Vedas as the record of a pastoral culture that gradually infiltrated its way into India after 1500 BCE and, in some unknown way, subverted the language and literature of the land, though no real evidence for this or record of it has remained.

Such views do not explain the Vedic literature, its extent, sophistication or continuity. Ruthless hordes would not produce such a literature or be able to continue it through the centuries. Pastoral infiltrators would be less able to do so. No subcontinent would carry on such a vast literature as a great spiritual legacy that represents small groups of intrusive peoples that had no real civilization! To carry on such a vast literature, particularly one that requires very elaborate and expensive rituals, would require a royal patronage and from an early period.

There is a similar negationism about Harappan civilization, which is also left in the dark. Harappan civilization is viewed as a mysterious civilization that came and went leaving no real trace in the later culture of India. That it was the largest and most sophisticated urban culture of the ancient world at the time is similarly downplayed. Rather the impression is given that it was only a sidelight to smaller Near Eastern cultures that were the real center of civilization at the time. Its obvious connections to Vedic thought found in artifacts and symbols like the swastika, the Om symbol and fire altars are stubbornly ignored. In making the Harappan a so-called Dravidian culture, the fact that there is no archaeological record, history or trace of a movement of Dravidians south to confirm this change is similarly ignored.

Vedic literature does represent the Indic tradition from ancient times. It is the most ancient literature that India as a culture chose to perpetuate and which nearly all later literatures in the country refer to, including non-Vedic groups or thinkers. We cannot ignore Vedic literature or place it in Central Asia. We cannot pretend that it has no connection or origin in India by ignoring references to Indian geography flora and fauna in the Rigveda itself. Even today many great Indian thinkers draw inspiration from the Rigveda itself, including such great figures as Sri Aurobindo, who established an entire new modern school of Vedic interpretation.

Harappan urban culture similarly represents the urban aspect of Indic civilization since ancient times. We cannot pretend that it had no literature and no continuity of its culture and peoples in the region. Nor can we pretend that it could have been entirely forgotten by the existent Vedic literature. The literature record and urban ruins—though very different sources of information that will give different points of view—cannot be kept apart. The continuity of Indic civilization and its literature cannot be negated away. We cannot place the ancient literature of India outside of India and understand the development of Indian civilization.

The other aspect of Western Indology that is yet more questionable is its holding on to wrong views even after they have been disproved. To date the most common impression people have about ancient India—from textbooks and depictions all over the world—is Wheeler’s massacre at Mohenjodaro and the image of the invading Aryan hordes like the later Huns and Mongols. See for example the entry on Mohenjodaro in the Encyclopedia Britannica for the perpetuation of this distortion, which no Western Indologist has complained about. Though Western Indologists if pressed acknowledge that this view is wrong and that Harappan culture declined and fell without such outside invasion and violence, they have done nothing significant to change these distortions. They seem to absolve themselves of any responsibility for them or the political and social problems that their misinterpretations have caused or aggravated. However, they are outraged if Hindus should question their record or their motives.

Wholesale Negation of Indic Civilization

This negationism of Indian civilization is not just a matter of the Vedas or the Aryan Invasion Theory. That merely sets the precedent for a negation of the India’s civilization as a whole. The same predictable pattern repeats itself in other areas of culture. It is not only ancient India but all aspects of Indic civilization that are questionable. The logic is simple. Everything in Indian civilization came from migrants from the West (like the Aryan Invasion), borrowings from the West (like from the Greeks in ancient times), is inferior to that of the West (Hindu monism being at best a crude approach to Christian monotheism), or is simply not of any value at all (Indic spirituality or Puranic occultism as fantasy, mythology, error or superstition). Whatever limited indigenous tradition there might have been gets reduced to some mysterious Harappan, Dravidian culture that was erased by the intrusive Aryans or taken over by them without affording the natives any credit in the process. This means that Indic civilization if it is indigenous to any significant degree remains fraudulent!     

Puranic records of a hundred kings before the time of Buddha are dismissed as fanciful, even though names for one major dynasty, that of the Ikshvakus, and years of reign going back well over a two thousand years prior to the Buddha, are recorded. For reconstructing any authentic history of India, Western Indologists rely on happenstance Greek, Chinese and Islamic travelers (who had their own religious and political motives), refusing to accept anything from Indians themselves. That such visitors are often quite unreliable is ignored (like trusting Spanish accounts of New World cultures). And when the records of these travelers do support the antiquity or sophistication of Indian civilization, they are ignored, like failing to give any credibility to Megasthenes’s statement that India had a tradition that went back six thousand years before Alexander.

Relative to the culture of ancient India, its negation by Western Indologists is almost total. For sculpture, which was particularly important for the iconic temple worship in India, we are told that what was of any value in it came from the Greeks after the time of Alexander. That Harappan statues are quite sophisticated and realistic and could represent indigenous influences is ignored. Later sculpture like that of South Indian temples is dismissed as inferior to that of Europe or as unrealistic in its depictions.

Relative to the tradition of drama, which was quite important in India, we are told that it derives from a Greek influence because the Greeks had great dramas (though lacking in the spiritual and yogic style of the Indians), again though there is no Indian recollection of such a Greek influence. For poetry, we are told that the classical Sanskrit poetry of such as Kalidasa is artificial, sterile and unrealistic, though it is highly spiritual, very musical and quite sophisticated. We are told that it can’t compare with that of the Greeks and Romans, much less Shakespeare! Great Indian traditions of music and dance, said to go back to the Sama Veda, are generally ignored as not of much value in world music and as probably an invention of recent centuries, at most meriting a short footnote!

Relative to science, most of Indian science, particularly astronomy, is reduced to borrowings from the Greeks, though Indian astronomy and mathematics follow different lines. Indians did not need the Greeks to bring them Babylonian astronomy, as such scholars state. They had contact with that region long before Alexander and generally influenced the Middle East more than it did India. Ayurvedic medicine is similarly thought to owe a lot to the Greeks, though Ayurveda has clear Vedic roots.

We must remember that India archaeologically speaking has a history of a great civilizations going back three thousand years before the time of Alexander. Alexander’s so-called conquest of India, which was more of a raid, was not even mentioned in historical records of India. Greek rulers in the third and second century BC were mentioned, but not considered extraordinary. Clearly, Alexander’s supposed influence on India is exaggerated out of proportion to reality. There was certainly no great adulation of Greek culture as better than that of India, though Greek contributions in the field of astronomy were recognized. On the contrary, the Greeks spoke highly of the civilization of India. Megasthenes, who came to India about the time of Alexander, in the fragments of his Indika that remain records and Indian tradition of 153 kings going back over 6400 years. Clearly, India had a sense of tremendous antiquity for its civilization when the Greeks came. They didn’t see the Greeks as their superiors, as we do, nor did the Greeks themselves.

Relative to religious literature, we are told that Vedic prayers and metaphors cannot compare with the psalms of the Bible in terms of sensitivity or sophistication. For philosophy, there has been a desire to reduce Upanishadic thought to a Greek influence, even though history does not support that. Note that it was the Greek philosophers before the time of Alexander like Parmenides, Heraclitus and Pythagoras that had views more similar to the Upanishads, including ideas of rebirth that suggest an Indian influence on Greek thought, long before his conquest into India.

For spirituality, we are told that Yoga, Vedanta and Buddhism are inferior to western monotheism and its greater sense of compassion and that their claims of spiritual realization are either religiously or psychologically suspect. This is in spite of the fact that western mystics like Meister Eckhart sound more like Hindu Vedantists than like Catholics, and though the ancient Greeks looked up to the Indians for their spiritual wisdom. Though devotion is emphasized in Vedic texts and in the Gita itself, we are told that the Hindu devotional tradition (Bhakti Yoga) owes a lot to Christians and Muslims, though these religions do not have such yogic paths, understand yogic states of consciousness, or practice a similar temple worship as in India! Similarly, we are told that Hatha Yoga postures are an invention of at most a thousand years in India, though the same postures are clearly depicted on Harappan seals!

What we are dealing with, therefore, is an unprecedented and total negation of an entire civilization. Western Indology does not present India as having an indigenous civilization comparable to that of China, Europe or the Middle East, but as having little cultural, religious, historical or political unity of its own. This is in spite of the fact that the vast Sanskrit literature contains extensive related systems of religion, spirituality, philosophy, medicine, art and literature going back to the Roman era, if not long before—something that no other civilization has been able to maintain. India is put on par with Africa or America by way of civilization and religion, as a half tribal culture. It is not regarded as having an equivalent, though different civilization in terms of art, science or religion to the West.

However, there is another view of India that has honored its great and spiritual civilization. Western intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth century—including great thinkers like Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Emerson and Thoreau—waxed eloquently about the spiritual philosophies and traditions of India, even the greatness of the Brahmin class. They were followed the Theosophists in the later nineteenth century, with leaders like Annie Besant in the early twentieth century who was an important leader in the independence movement in India itself. Today the large New Age movement in the West has an important, if not central place for Indian gurus, Yoga traditions and healing practices. Indeed, the western popular mind has always been enamoured of the image of mystical India, the land of Gods and sages. In addition, many modern scientists like Oppenheimer and Einstein have noted their philosophical affinity with India and the East for their new models of unity and consciousness behind the universe. Historians like Toynbee had similar views. The problem is that such groups have been a minority and have not determined the manner in which India and its civilization are usually viewed today.

So clearly, the problem is not a deficiency or prejudice of the western mind as a whole, but one in certain parts of academia and various vested interests. There is a common ground for a new view of India and an integration between East and West, once we move beyond such biases and recognize these other East-West connections that have existed throughout history.

Incapacity of Western Indology

The real question, therefore, is—why is Western Indology, with all its supposed academic rigor, is so inherently incapable of understanding India or its traditions? I think that the answer is simple. Western Indologists have not yet directly confronted the Indic tradition. They look at Indic traditions as fossils or museum pieces and haven’t entered into Indian thoughts and practices, though these are available to them if they wish. Their very academic rigor, which trains them only in an external view of the world, becomes a barrier to the type of interior civilization which India represents. They lack the necessary spiritual and yogic vision to make sense of Indic civilization. They lack the mindset and the tools for the job, which requires spiritual insight and not mere logic or pottery gathering. Worse yet, they are not even aware of their limitations in this respect.

The reasons for this incapacity to understand India are reflected in a general incapacity to understand non-western cultures. Western Indologists still see western civilization as world civilization. They do not recognize any real independent Indic civilization apart from that of the West. As in their eyes, civilization per se comes from the West, any civilization in India must have western roots or otherwise be questionable.

We note that textbooks of world history to the present day are mainly textbooks of western history, with a few footnotes thrown in to represent the rest of the world. Textbooks of world art are mainly textbooks of western art; textbooks of world philosophy are mainly textbooks of western philosophy, and so on with all the different fields of knowledge and culture. Non-western cultures are recognized in world civilization to the extent that they represent western type cultural aspirations towards science, democracy (self-determination), economic development or monotheism, the characteristics of western civilizations, not for any unique cultures of their own. Because western historians believe that western history represents the main trend in world history, they are naturally inclined to see the origins of world history and that of western history as the same. Not surprisingly, they compulsive reduce or modify historical data to fit into this preconceived mold.

There is no doubt that Greco-Roman culture is the origin of most western philosophical, political and scientific thought. There is similarly no doubt that the Near East is the origin of most western religious thought through the Judeo-Christian tradition and its Egyptian and Mesopotamian connections. But Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian or Mesopotamian origins cannot be ascribed to the civilizations of South and East Asia, Africa and America or that of world civilization as a whole. Western civilization may in fact represent a sidelight, not the main stream of world civilization that is more spiritual in nature.

That Western Indologists may be offended if their methodology or qualifications to judge the Indic tradition are questioned only highlights their inability to approach it in an objective manner. They can negate an entire civilization but are intolerant of accepting any fundamental criticism of their approach in turn. That Western Indology might be questioned is only natural in the post-colonial age, which has exposed many Eurocentric/materialist models as biased. Presently, western scholars are resisting the new Hindu historical scholarship, though it has much hard data behind it, because it questions their views on a political and philosophical level. This is contrary to how they have handled the challenge of other regions of former colonial rule.

Black Africans and other indigenous groups have questioned and thrown off such nineteenth century based interpretations of their history. While initially western scholars denigrated these new indigenous views of Black History, they have now come to accept them or at least afford them a place, including creating their own departments in western universities. The difference is that anti-African and anti-Black views have been thrown out as politically incorrect, while anti-Hindu views are still regarded as politically correct and largely unquestioned. While western scholars are sensitive to the charge of racism and critical of colonial views of history in regards to Africa, they are still perpetuating the colonial view of India.

Indic View of Western Civilization

India’s great thinkers are not always impressed by western civilization and its supposed greatness, though they might admire the West on some points. Modern Indian sages have been critical of western civilization. Vivekananda, Rama Tirtha, Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore—in fact, most modern Indian gurus criticize the West for a lack of true spirituality and any real yogic path to develop higher consciousness. Almost every Indian spiritual teacher who has addressed western civilization has expressed misgivings about the underlying values or lack of values behind it. Certainly, no great spiritual teachers of modern India would equate western civilization with world civilization. On the contrary, they usually find it to be a deviation, perhaps necessary, from the longer and more enduring spiritual occupations of humanity that were common not only to India but to all ancient cultures. They look back to the Upanishadic vision that long ago showed the limitations of materialistic culture. “Living in the midst of ignorance, considering themselves to be wise and learned, they wander like the blind led by the blind. The goal does not appear to these heedless children, deluded by the lure of wealth. Thinking there is nothing beyond this world, they fall again and again into the power of Death (Katha Upanishad II.5-6).”

 Indic thinkers find the sages in their own tradition—Vedic rishis, Vedantic sages or great yogis—to be deeper and more profound than the Greek philosophers, modern scientists or monotheistic theologians. From them a Vasishta, Yajnavalkya, Shankara or Patanjali represents a higher mind than an Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas or Kant. Indic thinkers aren’t overwhelmed by the greatness of modern science and technology, which they see as limited outer preoccupations, but look to a greater science of consciousness that does not rely on instruments. They don’t find western art, which has an ego base and sensate approach, to be superior to Indian art and its spiritual/religious orientation. They don’t find western consumerism to be an enlightened economy but to only hide a deeper spiritual poverty. They don’t find modern democracies and their human rights orientation to be really cognizant of the rights and duties of soul or our rights and duties to the universe.

Indic thinkers aren’t impressed by the ability of western scholars to grasp the Indic tradition, or all the gyrations they do to keep the origin of the Vedas out of India. And such thinkers are not bigoted or unintelligent for doing so, nor have they failed to seriously examine western civilization. They simply have different values and a different sense of culture, consciousness and reality than mainstream western culture. Yet they are not alone in their views, many western mystics have expressed similar critiques of western civilization, and much of the western counterculture has as well.

Intellectual Clash of Cultures

This entire issue reflects a clash of civilizations. Western Indology is part of western civilization, shares its values and naturally works to expand its frontiers on an intellectual level. Western Indology is an attempt to mold and fit Indic civilization into the terms and values of western civilization. Western Indology has yet to accept Indic civilization as a spiritual, philosophical and historical tradition of its own value and independence, with its own authenticity. It has not really confronted the Indic tradition, much less acknowledged it as an equal. Western Indology looks down upon the Indic tradition from on high, from its ivory tower, dissecting, fragmenting and denigrating the civilization of India according to its own alien values and views.

The best thing for Western Indologists to do would be to start over afresh. They should first recognize that Indic civilization is a tradition much older, broader and more spiritual than the western tradition and independent from it as well. Indic civilization is not necessarily hostile to western civilization but it does proceed by different values and according to a different perception of humanity, nature and the universe, apart which we cannot make sense of it.

The best thing for Indians and those who follow Indic traditions is to go directly to their own traditions not only on a spiritual level but also relative to culture and history and not give much credence to Western Indology as it is today. We see a renaissance of the Indic tradition in the world today on a spiritual, yogic, philosophical and culture levels. The popularity of Yoga, Vedanta, Buddhism, Ayurveda and Indian music all over the world shows this. This in the long run is a more important event with a longer lasting influence than Western Indology that has so far failed to enter the courtyard, much less the sanctuary of the great temple of Indic civilization. Unfortunately, the views of Indologists still determine textbook accounts in schools, even in India, and influence the global media. Otherwise one could just as well ignore them as irrelevant.

Indic Effort to Spiritualize Western Civilization

The Indic tradition divides up western civilization into different areas, to which it ascribes different degrees of validity. It largely accepts western science as valid within its own sphere but regards that sphere  limited. For example, it accepts the findings of physics, particularly the discoveries of the relativity of time and space and the underlying reality of energy behind matter. However, it considers that these discoveries should be pursued further to get at the reality behind the universe, which is one of intelligence and consciousness.

The Indic tradition accepts western political ideals of democracy and equality as good ideas but undermined by a materialistic formulation. Our first need as human beings is a spiritual self-determination—the freedom to know ourselves and discover our true nature beyond the body and mind, free from political, commercial or economic constraints. Spiritual self-determination provides us the ability to stand above external manipulation, to go beyond desire, greed and ego. Modern democracy allows mainly for a material self-determination. This does not bring true freedom but makes the masses vulnerable to manipulation by commercial, political and religious forces, which cater to their fears and desires. This is what we are seeing in the democratic West, which has almost a dictatorship of the media and the corporate world and very little individual or creative thinking about ultimate reality.

The Indic tradition does not accept that western views of history, society and spirituality are valid or complete. These are the main areas that it finds western civilization to be lacking. Above all, it cannot accept the equation of these western disciplines with science in terms of objectivity, finality or proof. Western social sciences, for example, remain culturally bound and cannot be given the finality of the physical sciences, which are also undergoing many changes. Western religions are still mired in medieval and regressive concepts of exclusive truth and the need to convert the world and are yet more questionable.             The Indic tradition is aiming at spiritualizing western civilization, which means accepting its validity particularly in the realm of science, but integrating that into a deeper spiritual view which accepts the spiritual sciences of Yoga and Vedanta as well. It can also honor the genuinely creative and spiritual aspects of western civilization and various individual western thinkers, artists and mystics. The main conflict between the Indic and the western is their respective approaches to the humanities (history, social sciences and religion). The Indic tradition sees nothing of lasting value to be gained by subordinating itself to current western civilization or allowing that to define and delimit it, reducing it to a mere sidelight to western culture. The Indic tradition sees itself as closer to true world civilization, which is also cosmic civilization, and is one of spirituality and Self-realization, not of mere mastery of the external world.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati