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Kranti Saran: Sanitising 'Indian culture'

Something needs cleansing, though not Indian culture, because there is no such thing

Kranti Saran 

Kranti Saran

Does Indian culture need sanitising? In addition to introducing a cleaning culture the government promises to cleanse culture, an aspiration that lends itself to violence in its execution, the homogenisation of cultural institutions, and is a confused aspiration to boot. I'll just focus on its confusions.

Something needs cleansing, though not Indian culture, because there is no such thing. That's right, there is no such thing as Indian culture. How can that be? There are Indian cultures, a vast mosaic of them each of which bears a family resemblance to some other Indian cultures (and even that's questionable). But the elements of that mosaic lack any single thread by virtue of which they are Indian, just as a rope lacks any single fibre running through its entirety by virtue of which it's a rope. You can't cleanse Indian culture if it doesn't exist.

Aha, pounce the culture cleansers, you've just identified the problem: actually existing Indian cultures have been polluted, watered down, their essence lost, hence this mosaic. We're not talking about what Indian culture is, they say, we're after what it ought to be. We know what it ought to be: the Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. Apply these liberally to actually existing cultures to reclaim the essence of Indian culture, they say.

Merely asserting that there ought to be a single Indian culture and that it ought to be the Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, doesn't establish these assertions; they require defence. The defence? It ought to be so because it was so in our glorious past. (In the glorious past today's downtrodden cows, upstart Dalits, and assertive women were, respectively, revered, invisible, and pliant.) Historians contest the existence of that glorious past. But the argument shouldn't be about history: that a practice was entrenched in the past is very weak ground for thinking that it ought to be entrenched in the future. Slavery, for instance, was entrenched in the past but nobody thinks we ought to bring it back.

The culture cleansers may smile indulgently: we don't want to bring the Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata back just because that's how things were. We want to bring them back because they are good. That's why we ought to have a single culture centred around them. But why think that culture ought now to coalesce around this conception of the good? There are competing visions of the good: if there ought to be a single Indian culture, why not a Dalit, feminist, queer culture or perhaps there ought not to be any single Indian culture at all.

Where does this leave us? The culture cleansers are just confused if they think that proclaiming their conception of the good suffices to win the argument. Democratic societies work out competing visions of the good through the use of public reason. If you say I cannot eat meat because your holy book forbids it, I may reply that my holy book commands it. In the context of democratic discourse we're both appealing to the wrong kinds of reasons. The right kinds of reasons are public reasons, reasons that appeal to public standards and values that any citizen could accept; for example, legally enforcing vegetarianism is wrong because it is a violation of my liberty. Can the culture cleansers provide public reasons for their conception of the good? Take the caste system. Are there really any public reasons for such a vicious and manifestly unjust system of social control? The question answers itself: no. The elevation of cows and the degradation of women's autonomy fare no better.

What sustains cultures? What weakens them? What is best in any of our many cultures is not corrupted by progressive change, rather as Alasdair MacIntyre once remarked, "Lack of justice, lack of truthfulness, lack of courage, lack of the relevant intellectual virtues - these corrupt traditions." Our mosaic of living cultures demands the robust exercise of all the virtues Professor MacIntyre mentions, in part by the exercise of public reason. Turning to the Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is no solution. If anything needs cleansing, it's our vision of the discourse.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Ashoka University
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First Published: Fri, September 25 2015. 21:44 IST