Decolonise. “Tradition” Based on a Colonial, Romatic-era Framework is Just a Neo-Fascist Illusion

2013/08/26 § Leave a comment

First of all, it’s strange to come back to a blog you’ve long since stopped checking the stats for every day to see you’ve gotten linked from Buzzfeed, and that one of their lists has included several quotes from your very blog. I knew a number of those quotes sounded familiar when the post circulated Facebook a couple months ago.

Being in the business I’m in (yoga), I often have people remarking how easy it must be to look backwards at India’s history, traditions, etc., without having to wade through Christian “white”-washing and destruction.
This always makes me laugh.

Why? Because it’s so detached from reality. What people seem to forget (or ignore) is hundreds of years of recent colonial rule at the hands of the British Empire. While India may not have been christianised en masse like some (most) other places of the world, the impact of colonialism on India’s traditions and Indian society in general, is undeniable.

One needs to merely look at the medicinal science of ayurveda (which isn’t really my area of expertise anyway. Perhaps there is someone reading that could shed more concrete light on the subject). The constant attempt to place ayurveda within a Western biomedical framework has led to it being labelled as “quackery”, the attempt to canonise ayurveda into a singular, all-encompassing framework of understanding with rights-and-wrongs, etc. (which is funny in a Western medical context anyway, because it seems to misunderstand the concept of “diagnosis”).

Never mind the actual, real effects of Western colonialism on the people of India. I could easily write a thesis on that, but I’m not going to. One need not look much further than the effect White Colonialism has had on people of colour the world over.

So I’m not sure why India is often perceived as making it out of this whole decolonisation process relatively unscathed, especially when Indians will have to start putting up bond money in order to entire the United Kingdom shortly. The nation by which they were colonised. When their spiritual beliefs are referred to as “Hindu” – a name which stems from colonisation – and are oversimplified in a Christian, colonial framework by White People the world over.

Indeed, the idea that India, Indian beliefs and traditions, and Indian people as a whole, had made it through decolonisation with all the aforementioned intact, everything as it was previously, is a fallacy. And a big one, at that. The canonisation of Indian spirituality and philosophy by the West could easily been seen as an 18th and 19th Century attempt at what hippies and New Age spiritualists the world over are doing right now, i.e. cultural appropriation. It was canonised in order to be seen as of similar standing to Christianity and to be looked at within a Christian framework. And many people see it through that lens.
While the caste system wasn’t invented during British Colonial rule, they certainly utilised and shaped it. When our lives for a time have been dictated and shaped by the concept of the “Nation-State”, it’s difficult to look and things such as the caste system outside of that framework, and it’s relation to pre-colonial Indian society. What have colonisers done for centuries (besides systematically murder untold numbers of people, etc.)? Pitted people against each other in order to serve their own ambitions and needs. Once one group is given a shred of socio-political power over another one, what tends to happen?

In some ways India’s colonial history and the “nation” and “people” have somehow made it through without systemic destruction, appropriation, white-washing and delegitimising, is connected to both Romanticism and Orientalism.

I am a historian by trade. I’ve spent a hefty portion of my short life studying history, even if what I call “history” isn’t often seen as such by the old school pseudo-academics grounded in some kind of warped pseudo-Romantic understanding of history and it’s so-called connection to one’s historical, or rather, “traditional”, past. I don’t study dates, Kings, conquests, and national myths based on someone’s attempt to exert superiority over whoever seemed to be deemed inferior at that point in time. I’m not interested in what 19th Century Romantics considered to be “traditional living” and what the intelligentsia 200 years ago decided their underlings believed in at some point in the past, or still believed in at the time without actually endeavouring to speak to them (and indeed, subjugating many of them through a colonial-capitalist system that forced them to forgo these so-called “traditional” practices in order to build the nation and be productive). I’m not interested in myths and stories disguised as pre-Christian “fables” with Christian morality rife throughout. It’s boring.

It’s easy to look at things within this framework. This is the same framework that dictates how we live, interact and impact even now. Looking at traditional systems, for example, whether spiritual or otherwise, becomes increasingly more difficult if we’re to even attempt to see them from a different framework. This requires a measure of deconstruction and decolonisation at a personal level, in addition to a structural one. At the same time, it’s also quite easy to state that one sees things through a decolonised lens without actually committing to deconstructing. Self-reflection and deconstructing the grandiose myths one has grown up with and/or built one’s life around isn’t easy or done quickly, nor is it something one can say one has “completed” successful. The nature of the act relies on it’s inherent incompletion – it never will be fully realised.
We have a hierarchy in how we approach, see and interact with things. When dealing with so-called “heathen” spirituality, and/or the histories and traditions of so-called “heathen” peoples, individuals within certain structural systems of understanding, such as the Romantics, wrote their histories with a specific purpose, goal and aim. The mystics of the 19th and early 20th Century did much of the same. The need for comparison to systems that share little in common in order to legitimise systems they didn’t clearly understand because they didn’t fit into their framework of understanding is an indication of this, see the previous example of “Hinduism” and it’s placement alongside the Abrahamic religions, and being presented within that framework in order to “legitimise” it. Even if that presentation is misrepresenting things. I’ve read Blavatsky, for example, and while things of interest can be taken from her writings, I feel similarly towards her works (which I’m sure I’ll get neverending shit for, but I don’t really care) – the same can be applied to Castenada, Tolle, and others, for that matter.

An example: I’ve studied the indigenous peoples of the arctic regions* a bit. Depending on who you read, and in what language, the material can differ widely. Though I can’t read Russian, and clearly need to take this information with some measure of critique in that I am not privy to actually referring to source material, I’ve read about the problematic nature of trying to canonise even just one group’s belief systems, as they were not seen as being static and unchanging. That one group could have a different understanding of the world than another, within the same indigenous community. That one “shaman” could, while still basing his worldview to some extent on that of the previous one’s, see things slightly different, and have different experiences than another. And therein lies one of the many problems with trying to canonise. But not only that, problems with trying to understand, describe, give life and importance to systems and structures, you, the storyteller, the one with the voice, can’t fully understand within your framework. And if you’re unwilling to decolonise yourself, your mind, your perspectives, etc., and continually work on, and reflect on, that, you’ll never even come close.

When we oversimplify and try to misrepresent systems to present them as fitting within our framework of understanding, we lose so much, and we have lost so much from traditions and spiritualities that have been destroyed through colonialism’s misrepresentation and attempt to legitimise traditions within it’s framework of understanding. It’s lazy and dishonest.

This is why I’ll never be interested in the Romantic ideal of what “traditional living” and “‘Heathen’ spirituality” is. Why the concept of the “nation-state” in conjunction with the vast majority of pre-Christian belief systems and structures is non-workable in my mind. And this is why I’ll keep raising an eyebrow at people who have declared themselves as somehow free from a framework that has for centuries dictated how they perceive and accept things.

*I realise the problems with grouping them as such, and am not doing it to insinuate a collective belief system, social structures or anything of the like. In this case, it’s a matter of convenience, though a problematic one. For the sake of brevity, it’ll have to do, I suppose.


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