Ornate lintel at entrance of Chennakeshava Temple, Belur, Karnataka, India. Narasimha is seen above Garuda. All of these are typical of Hoysala architecture.

Decoloniality & Contemporary Bharat

My intention here is to investigate indigenous encounters with colonial agendas in the context of Bharat (India) through the lens of coloniality. As indigeneity is often a contentious topic when it comes to Bharat, I will first establish a working definition. For the purpose of this piece, “indigenous” does not reference the genetic lineage of Indian people; this is not an exercise in what is often assumed to be xenophobia. Rather, indigenous refers to the diverse body of pre-colonial knowledge traditions that emerged from Bharatavarsha and the material and non-material stewards of those traditions. Embedded within this is the decision, based upon rigorous and sufficient research, to set aside Aryan Invasion Theory with the understanding that it was likely a racist, colonial invention, despite its popularity in “anti-racist” Western analyses of Bharat. This choice aligns with the conceptual framework of this essay. I would also like to recognize that I am, by no means, pioneering the exploration of decoloniality vis-à-vis Bharat, and that despite my long ancestral and affective connections to Bharat, I am an Indian American.

Part I: The Subtle Manipulation of Coloniality

One of the most conniving strategic moves of the colonizer is to attack and manipulate the nerve center of the indigenous civilization they seek to recreate in their image. This happens across several domains, including material, embodied, epistemological, and ontological.

Colonization

Nalanda University Ruins (more information)

We can think of the first two domains as material and concrete. In Bharat (India), and across the indigenous world, colonizers made it a point to destroy temples, libraries, universities, and schools. Their object was to remove and alter all the sites of knowledge production and storehouses of civilizational blueprints. Human destruction included genocide, decapitation (particularly leaders, scholars, and priests), rape, enslavement, humiliation, and many other forms of human oppression. For most of us, these are the images that come to mind when we imagine colonizers ravaging indigenous civilizations. This is a part of colonization, the brutal, terrorizing, and violent seizure of land, institutions, and people. By extension, popular imaginings of decolonization reference the physical ousting of the colonizer from the colony, leaving it a sovereign land once again. At this point the indigenous people of the land take up the roles left by the colonizers in the institutions that uphold society. This is often described as self-rule.

Modernity/Coloniality/Decoloniality

In my search to name and unpack the metaphysical effects of colonization on Bharat, I knew I needed a lens that was subtler than decolonization. I had previously explored the concept of epistemicide; at the time, I felt like it captured the visceral experience of colonial epistemological violence. However, I began to feel unsettled by the implication that indigenous Sanatana Dharma had been (nearly) killed off and that it did not have contemporary expression. It felt like I was abetting colonization. Rather than honoring our ancestors’ work in ensuring the survival of Sanatana Dharma, I began to recognize that the logic of epistemicide was carving a narrative pathway for victimhood, rather than survival, which didn’t feel authentic or ring historically true.

So, I started digging deeper into the scholarship around decoloniality, beginning with Walter Mignolo and his extension of Anibal Quijano’s work from the late 1980s. As I began to examine decoloniality movements around the planet, a light bulb went off. This gave context and expression to so much of what I was seeing in and about Bharat! What decoloniality offered was the possibility of both revealing the unfinished colonial project of modernity (e.g. Westernization) while also subverting it by reversing the gaze.

Decoloniality seeks to expose and subvert the twin colonial judgements of modern/colonial that animate the subtler, more insidious machinations of the colonial project. Modernity is the positive, aspirational narrative assigned to the epistemological and ontological paradigms of the European Christian colonizer. Coloniality is often described as the dark side of modernity; you cannot have one without the other. Coloniality is that which is colonized; the paradigms and ideas of the indigenous civilization that is being saved from itself. It is important to note that coloniality is of existential importance to modernity — it is the foil against which the logic, civility, and urgency of modernity is argued. In order to serve as the foil, it must both continue to exist, but also be mocked and ridiculed. Monotheism versus polytheism is a classic example of this dichotomy in the context of Bharat, where one defines the other. Coloniality freezes that which is colonized in the past; it is what existed before. On the other hand, while the origin point of modernity is the European Enlightenment, from there modernity continues a linear and unidirectional march of progress. It is against this perpetually moving goalpost that the colonial (frozen in the past) is judged. Notice that even the concept of time — that it is linear and unidirectional — has been modernized to adhere to the colonial epistemology. It is in this manner that Western consciousness is normalized as contemporary, universal consciousness, not only on an esoteric level, but baked into what we might refer to as common sense.

Epistemological and Ontological Coloniality

So now we arrive at the second two domains — epistemology and ontology — which manifest on a subtler (sukshma) plane. Epistemology refers to theories of knowledge. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being. Already, we can see that these domains are more metaphysical, engaging the intellect, emotion, memory, ego, even consciousness and the Self. (Note: these domains exist abstractly within the two previous domains.)

Epistemological coloniality is, of course, measured against a modern yardstick. You can hear it when indigenous epistemologies are referred to as traditional, orthodox, or regressive, which connote historical stuckness. (Note that the Western scientific method, for example, is not popularly given the same accusations of being traditional or imposing its own orthodoxy). The subtext of this propaganda is, of course, that indigenous epistemologies exist only in the past. Moreover, they belong there, because their dimensions and constructions are less evolved, barbaric, and therefore oppressive. Thus, they must be abandoned in order for that (post)colonial society to join the march of progress towards salvation that is the hallmark of modern society. This is, of course, nothing but epistemological bullying disguised as liberation.

Ontological coloniality includes categorizing indigenous holistic ontologies as eccentric, barbaric animal and nature worship, while casting the modern European anthropocentrism as normal and correct. It also includes the recasting of indigenous spaces in the modern, colonizing ontology. A temple, for example, becomes a building rather than a living space that embodies and channels the divine energy of the deity. Even without destroying the physical space, the temple has been attacked. This reorientation of the temple’s metaphysical being has a profound impact on the people who worship the deity, even if they do not step foot in the temple.

The modern colonial project includes the assertion and common sense logic that the concept of secularism is a universal reality and a universal good. But secularism arose from an inner battle within the Christian civilization, separating the divine from humans from animals. This is not neutral, not ontologically universal, and is certainly not considered universally good. Notably, it is from this ontological plane that the Western concept of human rights arises, which is now nearly unquestionably asserted as a universal construction and, therefore, a common sense, global good. At the same time, upon closer inspection, you can see that the very premise of secularism creates the need for animal rights and environmentalism. Moreover, when Christian colonizers compare some of their fellow human beings to animals (for the purpose of enslavement, for instance), the secular ontological paradigm is activated for the purpose of oppression. Secularism is by no means neutral.

The legacy of modernity/ coloniality is that Indians are taught — through generations of curriculum and pedagogy, through the vestigial institutions and structures left by colonizers, and in the hidden curriculum of media — to not only be ashamed of it indigeneity, but to blame all of the ills of of contemporary society on the pesky and tenacious remnants of those traditions. Sanatana Dharma is the foil. You will notice that the epistemes used in these criticisms emerge from modern (e.g. Western, Abrahamic) consciousness and common sense.

Comments made by an Indian who could not see beyond the “common sense” fairness of secularism.

Moreover, many people assume that decolonization — or embracing indigenous civilizational design — implies “going back to the past to before the time of colonizers”. This aptly illustrates the historicity of the colonial foil, the assumption that the indigenous ontology and epistemology live and belong in the past and have no contemporary purchase. Moreover, because they have not yet bent to the “universal and neutral modern” (which we have established is Christian in its origin), they are necessarily barbaric and in need of salvation. By extension, those who are living by the indigenous epistemologies and ontologies are called old-fashioned, superstitious, and backwards (i.e. not facing forward, towards the more liberated future). Now, coloniality/modernity are reinscribed not by the original colonizers, but by those who subscribe to the colonial rationale.

You can see the script of modernity/coloniality play out in everyday discourse and conceptualizations about what it means to live in contemporary Bharat and aspirational “modern” Indian culture. In fact, once you recognize it, you can’t stop recognizing it — it is everywhere. This is helpful, because in order to take up decoloniality, you must be able to name modernity and coloniality.

Part II: The Audacity of Decoloniality

To vigorously take up decoloniality, the indigenous steward must question every common sense, “normal” idea she has about how the world works and how it ought to be by assuming (1) that these concepts have sprung from the premise of modernity and (2) the normalcy and centrality of the indigenous epistemology and ontology. This is an enormous, recursive project, made even more complex in a context like Bharat, as we are not considering a singular epistemology or ontology, but a body of epistemologies and ontologies. The argument can be made that a unique civilizational consciousness threads throughout this body. For the purpose of this essay, we’ll assume that that this is true and set that aside.

A proper and rigorous exploration of the application of decoloniality in the context of Bharat is obviously well beyond the scope of one essay. It would comprise an entire scholarly canon, which will hopefully begin to emerge more robustly in the coming years. I will simply provide a few situated illustrative examples below.

Temples

I am inspired to begin with the onto-epistemological site of temples, as it was only after hearing the unapologetically indigenous arguments laid out by the brilliant advocate J. Sai Deepak that a dynamic connection between decoloniality and Bharat sprang to life in my awareness. The act of representing Lord Ayyappa, the deity of the Sabarimala temple, and two groups of devotee women, centered and normalized indigenous epistemology; it was decoloniality in action. I should point out that, living in the United States, the only place I learned about this argument was through Indian media and YouTube that I actively sought. A decolonial representation of these arguments did not appear in the mainstream Western press.

It was then that I came to learn how significant strands of the contemporary legal discourse about Hindu temples provide brilliant and clear illustrations of onto-epistemological decoloniality disrupting and even unseating the modernity/coloniality narrative. As I dove into this world, I began to understand that there is a lineage of decolonial lawyers in Bharat.

Look at the language used to describe the two sides. Modernity/coloniality in action. (Full article linked here.)

Education

A foundational step in taking up decoloniality is, obviously, in education. Here are just a few ideas to consider. First, in order to be able to take up the indigenous Dharmic lens and reveal the coloniality/modernity maya, we need a large body of experts in these epistemologies and ontologies across all disciplines and social institutions. Second, since the very premise of decoloniality is that all of the vestigial institutions left by the colonizer are imbued with modernity/coloniality, we assume that education is as well. A prime example of this is Aryan Invasion Theory, which sat inside the mandated Indian curriculum in the form of history, even thought it was a theory and despite archaeological, linguistic, and genetic counterevidence. AIT is a fantastic example of ontological coloniality. Third, despite the fact that Dharmic civilization is steeped in reverence for learning and inquiry, teaching is yet to be honored and respected as an aspirational profession, outside of teaching being described as virtuous. (The same is true in the United States.) This is an enormous red flag that coloniality/modernity is at play. It bears mentioning that the National Education Policy released last week has some encouraging decolonial undertones, and that the pushback against it has been very revealing when observed through the coloniality/modernity lens.

Scholarship & Research

From Open The Magazine

In an effort to enliven what was suppressed, misrepresented, and hidden throughout the colonial era, much of the research done on indigenous Indic epistemologies is archival and text or scriptural-based. This is powerful and necessary work, of course, but it inadvertently reaffirms the impression that indigenous Indic knowledge lives in the past, and does not belong in modern social institutions or in the contemporary psyche. This is despite the fact that in the past those ideas were living, breathing ideas that were certainly not fixed. (This is an important aspect of indigenous Indic knowledge that cannot be stressed enough.) Animating this research for contemporary society is possible, of course, but it means going beyond “this is how it used to be”; it means enlivening it within a contemporary imaginary. For instance, from the modernist lens, Smrtis are taken up as scripture, in the sense that they were fixed instructions on how a society should be designed. Epistemological decoloniality reveals that smrtis were actually more like what we might now call ethnographic research; in other words, observations on how society was taking up different aspects of culture. Smrtis were not normative — they were not making a case for how society ought to be, as is often argued — they were descriptive.

Meanwhile, much of the ethnographic research that I have seen done on contemporary practitioners of Sanatana Dharma is premised upon the colonial notion (and colonial theories) that it was the indigenous framework that was oppressive, and the modern ontologies and epistemes that are libertory. In other words, much of the research done on contemporary Hindus and Hinduism is heavily burdened by coloniality/modernity confirmation bias. An unfortunate byproduct of this is that I see many Hindus dismissing this kind of qualitative research itself as bunk, rather than parsing the methodologies and the theoretical and conceptual frameworks and examining each of those rigorously through the lens of decoloniality.

Activism

As I have mentioned, decoloniality illuminates the fact that civilizations that have different epistemological and ontological paradigms are cast as backwards, barbaric and dark and that they need to modernize in order to become more to take up allegedly universal just concepts like human rights and activism. The unspoken assumption, of course, is that the indigenous onto-epistemologies, despite animating and emerging from living, breathing civilizations for thousands of years, are not equipped to enter those conversations on their own terms. Decoloniality might question, for example, the very premise of human rights as separate from the earth and from animal rights. Vandana Shiva is, of course, a pioneer and a powerhouse in asserting environmentalism that pushes against modern, common sense paradigms, and re-enlivening the indigenous consciousness. The Bhumi Project (soon to be relaunching as Bhumi Global) is another great example, making the links between the indigenous paradigms of Bhumi and contemporary youth. In the United States, we see indigenous communities enlivening decoloniality in powerful ways in the Americas.

I often wonder if, when some Indian Hindus or Hindu Americans see conversations about systemic racism in the United States and the current struggle against it, they are conflating this with the continued, chronic, contemporary Coloniality/ Modernity War raging against Sanatana Dharma and the relentless attack on its nerve center. I wonder about this habit of coloniality/modernity, and if folks recognize that the United States is a settler colonial nation, that white America is the colonizer, and that calling out racism by design and asking for radical change is not the same thing as reinscribing the modernity/coloniality narrative onto indigenous Indic civilizational design.

Media

Professor Vamsee Juluri is, arguably, the most prolific, rigorous, and articulate scholar of critical Hindu media analysis. His work spans across news media, social media, and entertainment media, taking up the lens of Hinduphobia to deconstruct everyday bias that has become normed. Media is a generous and easily accessible site to connect the dots between Hinduphobia and coloniality/decoloniality, particularly given how platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime provide a bountiful stream of content that reinforces the binary.

Searching for the word “tradition” in tweets about the new Netflix show “Indian Matchmaking” yielded some powerful examples within seconds.

Simultaneously, it’s important to note that indigenous media, like The Mahabharata television series, continues to have a powerful grasp on large swathes of the population (excluding, perhaps, the “ultra-modern”, educated elite). Even without the expensive production values and high-tech finishes offered by other, more “modern” offerings, the experience of the series is captivating, moving, relevant, and personal. Itihāsas continue to be a part of the collective consciousness across the arts; perhaps this is a signal to the dialogical nature of our indigenous knowledge, scriptures, and culture. There is rich, vibrant, eternal, contemporary meaning to our stories that resonate deep within, even when they are thousands of years old.

Conclusion

Decoloniality is a struggle, perhaps a kind of tapas, to move beneath the illusions. It involves delinking modernization and the alleged universality and inevitability of Westernization with the attainment of liberation and justice. Decoloniality means remembering and reawakening — at the individual and collective level — that the original civilizational framework and consciousness of Bharat held those principles as central, not only for people but with an ecocentric heart. I will end with these words from Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh’s book, On Decoloniality.

Decoloniality of knowledge demands changing the terms of the conversations and making visible the tricks and the designs of the puppeteer: it aims at altering the principles and assumptions of knowledge creation, transformation, and dissemination. (p. 144)

The decolonial — in contradistinction to Christianity, liberalism, Marxism, and neoliberalism — is not another option for global design led by States, economic, financial, technological, and military institutions, but it is an option to delink from all global designs promoting local resurgences and reemergences confronting and rejecting, unmasking their fundamentalism and pretense of “chosen” people to arrogate themselves the right to run the world. (p. 147)

References

  • Grosfoguel, Ramón (2013) “The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge: Vol. 11: Iss. 1, Article 8.
  • Maldonado-Torres, N. (2017). On the Coloniality of Human Rights. Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, 114, 117–136.
  • Mignolo, W. D. (2011). The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Duke University Press.
  • Mignolo, W.D. & Walsh, C. E. (2018). On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Duke University Press.

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