Pankaj Mishra, one of my favorite writers and intellectuals, has written a fascinating essay for The National newspaper title Beyond Boundaries that speaks about India’s long and resilient syncretic traditions.
I have featured his piece, thanks to his kind permission, on my The Idea of India project website. For those who may not know, this is a long-term project I am working on documenting India’s heritage of pluralism and syncretism.
Mishra’s essay could just as well have been the project description!
Mishra’s essay, as most of his essays, is precise in its historical details and vivid in its descriptions. He reminds us that despite nearly 70 years of assaults by fundamentalists Hindus and Muslims, India’s vernacular and popular traditions survive and thrive. As he points out:
Early in its millennia-long presence in the subcontinent, Islam lost its Arabian austerity, mingling with local religious traditions to become something that Wahhabis would abhor. Incredibly, much of the subcontinent’s “composite culture” has survived both the divide-and-rule strategies of British colonialism and the rivalry between the nation-states of India and Pakistan, which has produced three major wars since 1947. This enduring pluralism is rooted in the traditional diversity of religious practice across the subcontinent – marking a contrast to the more recent state-guaranteed multiculturalism of Europe and America. Here the pluralism preceded the establishment of the modern state, and it is often at odds with the state’s insistence on singular identities for its citizens.
A determined refusal to bow to the dogmatic and ideological dictates of the fundamentalist simpletons is a very basic motivation for my own work in India. And learning more about our popular traditions and their foundation of love, tolerance, acceptance and compromise is an important weapon in our struggle against the extremists.
This heritage, beautiful and strong, is also an important lesson for the citizens of Europe and America. We do not turn to South Asia to learn and understand, but we would do well to do so now. As a hideous and inhumane Islamophobia and Muslim-bashing consumes an insecure and paranoid Europe/America, they would do well to examine how India has managed to produce a complex and magnificent society whose very nature respect and celebrates diversity, complexity, difference and syncretism. As Pankaj Mishra himself points out:
It may be useful to contrast India’s lived experience of pluralism with contemporary Europe, especially as the latter tries to renovate its faded ideals of secular citizenship while longing for its old cultural uniformity. The secular liberalism of the nation-state has demanded conformity and obedience from Europe’s citizens. Upholding an abstract idea of the individual citizen divested of his religious and ethnic identity, this liberalism has not had an easy relationship with Europe’s ethnic and religious minorities, to put it mildly; the current obsession with Muslims, for instance, betrays a deep unease with expressions of cultural distinctiveness (previously exemplified in Western Europe by Jews). The rise of right-wing parties across Europe shows that masses as well as elites are embracing majoritarian nationalism, recoiling from what, by Indian standards, seems a very limited experience of immigration, social diversity and political extremism.
Indeed, it is useful. And it is needed.