Rethinking America

Rethinking America:
A Trans-Civilizational Approach
by Makarand Paranjape
Centre of Linguistics and English,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

What this Essay Proposes to Do

This essay proposes a different way of conducting American Studies in India than what has been prevalent for the last several decades. I do so not in the manner of a “position paper” that strives to be “objective and empirical,” but of a rather subjective, informed narrative of my own encounter with the discipline of American Studies in India.

I began thinking about this topic seriously after I was invited to spend a month at the American Studies Research Centre 1, Hyderabad, in June 1997. The best part of this time at the ASRC was occupied in trying to understand how American Studies were conducted in India. I looked at Ph.D. Dissertations, at books written by Indian scholars on American authors, and also at the history of the discipline in India. 2 In the vast amount of material I collected and examined, I found that there were very few essays on the philosophy and methodology of American Studies in India. Instead, throughout, I encountered the facile assumption that American Studies was a stable area whose aims and methods are to be taken for granted. Such an attitude was in stark contrast with the lively and interminable debates on the nature of American Studies within the U.S. academy itself. 3 Very little, if any, of this excitement carried over to the discipline in India. On the contrary, what seemed prevalent was a sort of (un)healthy careerism to the whole issue of studying the U.S. There is nothing the matter with such pragmatism if it produces decent scholarship. But, I am afraid, that despite the volume of work done by Indians on topics American, there is very little of lasting value or merit. A simple indication of this is that work by Indian scholars of American Studies is rarely cited in research by Americans themselves, nor have we produced any standard work of reference or a “classic” secondary text in the field. 4

This whole issue, I realized, was deeply entangled with some of my perennial preoccupations: Swaraj and the decolonizing of the Indian mind; the dignity and selfhood of the Indian intellectual enterprise; and, ultimately, the struggle between civilizations and ways of apprehending the world in this global environment. That is why I have taken a more active interest in how American Studies are done–or ought to be done–in India and by Indians. My concern is thus with the politics of cultural exchange and the methodology that I employ to critique American Studies in India might be described loosely as the history of ideas and institutions.

But before I outline my own approach, which I have tentatively called “trans-civilizational,” I should like to go to the very inception of American Studies in this country. I shall do this to show that the sorts of concerns that I bring to bear on this area are by no means my impositions upon the discipline; instead, they are a part of the original debates about the shape and content of American Studies in India.

The American Studies Debate in India

The very first issue (July 1969) of The Indian Journal of American Studies (IJAS) carries a fascinating debate on how American Studies should be conducted in India. Those were heady days for the discipline, still so young in India. It was only a few years back, in the first Mussoorie workshop of 1962, organized by the United States Educational Foundation in India (USEFI), that the idea of the American Studies Research Centre (ASRC) had been mooted. There were thirty-seven Indian “Americanists” present for the deliberations, which went on from the 29th of May to the 14th of June at the Savoy Hotel. Twenty of them were teachers of American History and seventeen were teachers of literature. A follow-up workshop was held at the same venue and time, 29th May to 13th June, a year later, this time with fourteen teachers of American history and twenty of literature. In September of the following year, 1963, the ASRC was formally registered, with Fulbright House, Hailey Road, New Delhi, as its official address. And it was on 4th April 1964, that it was inaugurated from the Library Building of the Osmania University, Hyderabad, and began functioning as an independent entity, with a binational Board of Directors. American Studies in India was thus at the take-off stage. Prior to this, activities in American Studies were largely limited to the annual Seminar in American History and Culture, which the USEFI had started as early as in 1953, and a few lectures by visiting American scholars. 5 No Indian University offered any courses in American literature and the teaching of American history too was limited to one or two places. But with the founding and, should I say, funding of the ASRC, all this was about to change. American Studies began properly to be institutionalized in India, growing from strength to strength until they are now present, in some form or the other, in the curricula of most Indian universities and colleges.

Even in those early days, the connection between politics and academics was evident. As William Mulder, one of the most influential directors of the ASRC, remarked: “Scholarship, like trade … follows the flag” (“Point Counterpoint” 74). As numerous historians and critics of the discipline have shown, American Studies began to be exported only after the end of World War II and the recognition of the U.S. as a global superpower. The Fulbright Act of 1 August 1946 greatly facilitated the promotion of American Studies abroad. Under the idea of exchanging guns for (cultural?) plowshares, a number of binational foundations were set up in various countries which owed USA money. Further acts of Congress such as U.S. Information and Education Exchange Act of 1948 (also known as the Smith-Mundt Act) and the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 strengthened bilateral cultural exchanges between the US and other countries by offering scholarships to scholars who specialized in American Studies. Soon enough the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation also joined the US government and its agencies in the propagation of American Studies overseas. For example, in 1960, the Ford Foundation gave a grant of $ 2.5 million to the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to promote American Studies in Western Europe for a five-year period. In 1965, an additional $ 3.5 million were given to the ACLS to continue the programme in Europe and to extend it to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan (see Henke, vol I: 31-34). In the mounting tensions of the Cold War years, the spread of American culture was seen as a strong anti-dote to the Russian propaganda machine. Indeed, Exporting America a collection of essays on American Studies abroad edited by Richard P. Horwitz, conclusively shows that barring a few exceptions like the former USSR, Canada, and U.K, American Studies in most other countries was an outcome of direct intervention by US governmental and allied agencies. In other words, American Studies were sponsored, encouraged, and directed by US interests. Almost nowhere did they have a chance to develop independently of such sponsorship or direction. It would not be difficult to argue, than, that the spread of American Studies is linked to US cultural imperialism. What happened in India was no exception. First, the USEFI 6 was set up on 2nd February 1950, with the signing of an agreement between Jawaharal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, and Loy Henderson, the US ambassador to India. Then, as I’ve already reported, the ASRC was started in 1963; followed by the IJAS, which I referred to at the beginning.

Coming back to the early debate on American Studies in India, the manner in which it was sparked off is as interesting as its contents. William Mulder, the then Director of the ASRC, wrote an article called “American Studies in India” for the Fulbright Newsletter (April 1967) published by the USEFI. In it he offered a brief outline of the scanty record of American Studies in India prior to the setting up of the ASRC. Mulder considered the ASRC, with justifiable pride, as both a physical reality which provided “material benefits” and as an idea which had given “Indian teachers and scholars in American studies a psychological lift, an identity, an academic refuge, like men lost at sea finding themselves safe on the same island” (“Point Counterpoint” 77). One would have imagined or hoped that some Indian scholar or intellectual might have responded to Mulder to spark off the debate that followed. But, no, that was left to a fellow American to do. Mulder’s article was reprinted in Exchange , a publication of the U.S. Advisory Commission on International, Educational and Cultural Affairs, Washington, D.C. Richard Tyner, who worked for the Centre for International Systems Research of the U.S. State Department read it in Exchange and thought it fit to write a response.

Tyner began by wondering what would happen if the situation was reversed, that is if Indians opened a Centre for Indian Studies in Washington D.C. “Would it,” he asked “give American scholars an identity, a life, a refuge?” (ibid 79). The question was rhetorical, but Tyner answered it with a clear negative, “I think not.” Tyner went on to question the very raison d’être of such U.S. government sponsored American Studies programmes overseas: “Wouldn’t we do better if we helped to train Indians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Colombians, and others to write about their own countries within the context of the present world situation?” (ibid). For Tyner the issue was of self-apprehension or, to use the Gandhian phrase, of Swaraj: “The Indian will find his identity in a new India and not in the refuge offered by an American Studies Centre” (ibid). Perhaps, Tyner’s arguments arose out of some essentialistic ideas of the differences between cultures and civilizations, but he went on to say that such “alienated Indians” as might need refuge at the ASRC “will never master Western culture during their lives….” Instead, “Their salvation lies in becoming first-class Indian scholars and not second-class American scholars; and as first-class Indian scholars then and only then will they have the insights into our society that may give us something of importance” (ibid 80). Mulder wrote back that “a stronger sense of nationality” would emerge if Indians studied America, that “far from uprooting them” it would lead them “deeper into their own history”: “American studies for the Indian scholar are inevitably comparative, enabling him to see both societies in perspective” (ibid 81).

In the comments that followed various interlocutors made relevant arguments. N.S. Subramanyam, for instance, spoke of the dangers of an opportunistic switching over to American Studies for the obvious material advantages that it might confer; Mulder seconded this note of caution. Subramanyan agreed with Tyner by saying “American Literature, or any other aspect of study, becomes meaningful only when the individual goes to it, with a background formed by his knowledge of his country and its position at any moment in history.” M.G. Krishnamurti pleaded that for American Studies to be meaningful it ought to be related to India, but at the end of his response made a startling admission: “Though we have been studying English literature for over a century we have not defined our relation to it.” There were a few other responses but neither these nor Mulder’s rejoinders, to my mind, really apprehend the fundamental importance of Tyner’s point. In fact, after the latter’s first response, the whole debate gets diluted, an observation which applies to even the two Indian responses that I’ve mentioned.

To me this extraordinary debate presages the whole future of American Studies in India. Right from its inception, the discipline had at least two directions in which it could grow. On the one hand, it would follow the Americans whose brainchild it was, or it could try to chart an independent Indian course for itself. That the latter would be next to impossible, given the crippled state of our cultural enterprise, is already obvious. Indeed, the initial exchange between Mulder and Tyner calls to mind the much older exchange between Anglicists and Orientalists, which was mostly conducted between Englishmen, with the Indians standing by, watching from the sidelines as it were, or venturing to add their feeble voices once in a while. Similarly, the future of American Studies in India was debated between two Americans while we Indians were quite oblivious of the stakes. That Tyner could take what I have already referred to as a Swarajist position only confirms that the West is internally divided, not homogenous or monolithic in its application of power overseas. Tyner, in assuming a nativist-nationalist position speaks for all of us who believe that Indian culture should be decolonized and that we should accept the responsibilities conferred upon us by our independence. Alas, over the years, the Americanists have won. American Studies in India, despite all its self-validating bluster, is still largely opportunistic and imitative. Only a thorough revisioning of its agenda will save it from sure perdition, unless it dies a natural death, now that the funding for its promotion is also drying up.

To be fair, there were some Indian scholars, one or two of whom might even be counted among the founding fathers of the discipline, who were not only aware of these problems in cultural politics, but also took a firm position on them. The most consistent and notable of these is C. D. Narasimhaiah. Not only was he in the USEFI sponsored Mussoorie seminars which led to the founding of the ASRC, but was also among the first to advocate an Indianist line. As early as 1967 in his Introduction to Indian Response to American Literature he observed that “a larger problem” in the whole debate on Indo-American cultural relations is “the question of our response” to American literature (11). Narasimhaiah lamented that in much of the work done by Indians, “there is hardly anything … to indicate they are responding from a place and a time,” that, “in other words, our response is hardly our own” (12). He sought “an original critical response” from Indians to American literature but ended on a note of near despair because “The situation has been rendered hopeless by our readiness to accept sub-mediocre propagandist effort as expertise” (14). Five years later, in his Introduction to Asian Response to American Literature, Narasimhaiah again struck a similar note: “instead of receiving opinion [sic] second hand” he called for “a fresh and original response to a work of art, not an echo, echo of an echo” (xix). At the end of the essay, however, again he went so far as to say: “It hurts my self-respect as an Indian and Asian to think that our scholars haven’t so far received the attention we, with our three thousand years of critical tradition, should. Perhaps we are to blame in not working in our own tradition….” (xxii). This, coming at the end of an Introduction to a book on American literature, can only underscore Narasimhaiah’s awareness of the extent of our own colonization. Almost thirty years after Narasimhaiah’s first book on American Studies cited above, he still argues that Indians should have a different way of doing American Studies:

Surely the cultural matrix of the Indian is different from that of the American, and if criticism of a work of art is a way of looking at it from the point of view of the history and destiny of a whole people, it out to be different. (IJAS 26.1:7) But despite Narasimhaiah’s pleas, no distinctive Indian tradition of American Studies has evolved.

Besides Narasimhaiah, there were a few other scholars who were also thinking of the future of American Studies in India. I shall mention one or two of these. Sisirkumar Ghose published a perceptive piece called “American Literature: Partly an Indian View” as early as 1968 which he called “an Indo-American essay” or rather “an essay towards Indo-American understanding” (in Mukherjee 8). In it he argued that absence of norms and an endemic restlessness where characteristic of the American spirit (ibid 5), that it was “an affluent but anguished society” (ibid 6). Ghose questioned if the American dream was actually the Air-conditioned Nightmare and argued that America was a divided culture whose “real history would have to be written or re-written” (ibid 7). India, with its own traditional culture, was therefore well placed to offer a real critique of the roots of modern American culture which he identified as industrialism and technology (ibid 5). Quoting Kenneth Rexroth, Ghose spoke of how major American writers had rejected its dominant values (ibid 9). And yet, it was difficult to carry an impartial or objective analysis of American society because “America and the American way of life and letters have been escalated into world leadership” (ibid 8). Ghose hoped, humanist that he was, that “Out of the crisis of American conscience, in her society and literature must arise the image of the universal man, l’huomo universale, sarvabhauma” (ibid). Though Ghose did not sketch out a plan for a distinctive Indian way of understanding the US, he did offer an example, even if it was based mostly on America’s self-criticism, of a useful way of reading American culture and literature. Ghose’s paper was published in a book called Indian Essays in American Literature (1968) in honour of Robert E. Spiller by two of the latter’s students, Sujit Mukherjee and D.V.K. Raghavacharyulu, both of whom were beneficiaries of the Smith-Mundt Fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania.

Among the “senior” scholars, I shall mention one more, though his essay on this topic, appeared almost twenty years later. K. Ayyappa Paniker’s pithy and thought-provoking paper “The Traffic of Ideas Between India and America in Literature” published in 1985 identified four metaphors for this interaction: “Interrupted traffic or arrested flow; one-way traffic or unidirectional flow; two-way traffic or give and take; and recycling or recurring overflow” (Crunden 223). Obviously, of these, the fourth, that of “recycling or recurrent overflow” was the most remarkable. As examples, he cites the influence of India on Thoreau and the latter’s influence on Gandhi. But, by and large, Paniker confined himself both to original minds and original texts: the mass of material by Indians, which passes for “research” on American Studies escaped his purview. Otherwise, I am sure he would have consigned it to the first and second of his categories.

Among the “younger” scholars, this concern with the nature of American Studies in India appears to be less urgent. No doubt a few seminars on the topic were held, but these were mostly collections of papers by Indian scholars on American texts or topics, with few new ideas on the nature of the discipline emerging. 7This does not mean that the Swarajist current of thought went dry with the passing years. Mohan G. Ramanan, for instance, has written eloquently about the “usable America,” which may become available to us through “oppositional or contrapunctal” (mis)readings:

This implies that no essentialist formulations are required, that no simple binary oppositions of America as materialistic and of India as spiritual, of Black/White, East/West, Ruler/Ruled, may be entertained. Contrapuntal reading implies recognition of the specificity of a culture, its difference from something else, and a desire for a dialogue and engagement.
“Mr Fulbright, I Presume…” 196 (In Mohanty 193-204)

Ramanan is very conscious of the fact that for much of the time the exchange of ideas between and America is a very unequal one:

When we go to America we are not giving America anything much, only receiving, an academic variation of the economic begging bowl. This must change. An exchange must be equal or nothing. (ibid 195).

Unfortunately, Ramanan’s remarks find few adherents if we are to go by the essays in Ah Columbus! The Indian Discovery of America, which he co-edited with M. Glen Johnson, the then director of the ASRC.

From the foregoing survey it is clear that rather than stray remarks, a more coherent framework for the kind of American Studies that Tyner and Narasimhaiah hoped for would have to be constructed. But to do so, Narasimhaiah and other senior professors like him would have had to read some of their fellow Indian scholars, to take them seriously, to cite them, and to work together with them to create such a tradition of scholarship. Unfortunately, we fail to do this–to read and criticize each other, to create, in short, a interpretative community. There is no use blaming the Americans for our own lack of cooperation and camaraderie. What is needed is the kind of sincere and dedicated struggle that the pioneers in American Studies themselves had to carry out. The best example is, of course, that of Parrington himself, who lost his job, whose application to the PhD programme at Harvard was rejected, and whose manuscript of Main Currents in American Thought was turned down by several publishers (Wise 298-301) Parrington had no institutional support to speak of, no grants from the NEH or the ACLS, no Guggenheim Fellowship. And yet he went on to write a classic text, perhaps the first major text on American Studies. We in India today are, in a sense, much better off. That is why, we ought to continue our efforts to evolve, in howsoever modest a manner, an alternative framework for conducting American Studies in India. Thus, this paper is born out a determination not to give up the struggle for Swaraj in Indian academics. But before ending this section, I must mention an exceptional book, which provides the groundwork for such a thrust. This is R. K. Gupta’s learned survey, Great Encounter: A Study of Indo-American Literary and Cultural Relations (1986). Though Gupta does not offer a framework in which a study such as his will bear fruit, he does tell us about the major contacts between the two cultures from a sort of neutral ground.

A Trans-civilizational Perspective: What Does it Entail?

It is now time to spell out the dynamics of the alternative approach that this paper advocates. At its simplest, a trans-civilizational perspective is one that works across civilizations. That is, it explores how one civilization views another. So, in the present context, it rejects the facile idea that American Studies must be conducted everywhere as the Americans themselves do them. Rather, it believes that it is as Indians that we have a unique contribution to make to American Studies.

I am at once conscious of the dangers and difficulties in such a “trans-civilizational” approach. The first problem is with the definition and study of civilizations. As the Indian philosopher Daya Krishna observed in the Second Fulbright Memorial Lecture delivered at Calcutta, only a few years back it seemed as if “the study of civilizations faded from the historian’s horizon and only micro-history dominated” (New Quest, September-October 1997: 261). Is a civilization too nebulous a notion to convert into a framework of analysis? Many scholars would think so and voice their unease by raising several problems: how is a civilization to be defined? How, furthermore, are its boundaries and borders to be fixed? How are its predominant features to be identified and distinguished from its subsidiary ones? How should a civilization be theorized or a theoretical perspective evolved from the values and traditions that it embodies? Wouldn’t it be all too easy to slip into the fabrication of imagined continuities, essences, and traditions where only historically embattled and contested discontinuities are evident?

That is why, for several decades now there has been little talk of civilizations despite the earlier monumental work of scholars like Spengler or Toynbee. Yet I think it is no accident that at the downward curve of postmodern free play and indeterminacy, the spectre of civilizations continues to haunt us, not only conjuring up visions of ignorant armies clashing at night as in Samuel Huntington’s post-cold war projection of new adversaries for the West, but also in the real recrudescence of ethnic and nationalist affirmations both within advanced capitalist societies, and in what used to be known as the Third World. Civilizations, however vague and difficult to define, are, after all, tenacious and enduring. They have a power to shape lives, to set values, and to determine the outlook of a vast majority of the people in this world. Their power to influence the production of discourse ought not, therefore, to be underestimated. That is why courses in civilizations continue to be taught at most universities, either specifically or in a more indirect fashion. After all, isn’t the discipline of American Studies itself predicated upon the notion of a distinctive American civilization?

Rather than merely deconstructing or undermining the idea of civilizations, I would accept it as a strategic necessity. Once the presence of civilizations is accepted, then there are at least two different ways of studying them: one is from within and the other is from without. The latter simply means that one is, willy-nilly, located in a civilizational framework other than the one that is being studied. There is a third possibility, which has been much discussed–this may be termed an inter-civilizational approach. That is, the whole exchange takes place on a neutral ground between two civilizations. Frankly, I don’t think such a neutral, no-(wo)man’s land exists. The forces of the dominant powers often police neutral territories, either directly or by proxy. There is thus a notion that an international academic discourse prevails, spanning several nations and continents. That such a discourse, like the global market, exists does not mean that it is a neutral territory or even that it allows all players equal access or opportunity. Therefore, from where I am located, an inter-civilizational space does not exist or if it does, to occupy it is to acknowledge the overlord-ship of the prevailing structures of intellectual authority, which are of course controlled by the West.

That is why I term my approach trans-civilizational. In such an approach, the observer is located within his/her own civilization and then studies another civilization. It is an approach that goes across civilizations rather than between them. Differences, consequently, become more important than similarities. It is only from a position of radical alterity that the existing self-perceptions of a civilization can be challenged. Only such a confrontation can produce new knowledge. It is precisely this that happens when the West studies the so-called Orient. The civilization studied is challenged so radically in such an encounter that it perishes, succumbs, reappraises itself in the image of its Other or responds vigorously, renewing or modifying its own value systems and traditions in the process. However, what I propose to do is not merely the obverse of Orientalist scholarship; indeed, that is impossible for someone as bicultural, but more importantly, as powerless as myself. My discourse is instead about the insights that the absence of power or shall I say the presence of limited power produces–what happens when a defeated but not destroyed traditional civilization looks at the triumphant exceptionalism of a technologically advanced superpower such as the USA.

In other words, I tend to see civilizations not so much in terms of unchanging essences, but of continuing priorities. This approach would not go so far as to advocate that each country and culture has a distinct “soul,” as, for instance, Sri Aurobindo, believed, but that they do have certain characteristics, habits of thought, feeling, and expression. 8 These characteristics and tendencies may change with time, but are unlikely to be totally forgotten unless the civilization has suffered a major dislocation or overhauling. Civilizations, thus, function through certain commitments and compacts that they make with themselves, with their neighbours, and with the world at large. These codes determine how they see themselves and others. As long as a civilization can uphold these norms of self-constitution, there is a continuity in its identity. If, however, it is overrun, defeated, or destroyed, it can forget itself, become incorporated into another civilization, or even seek a new or different identity. A cross-civilizational approach, therefore, would involve a radical mapping and confrontation between civilizational identities so as to highlight the similarities, contrasts, and points of contact between them. In this process, no doubt, there are overlaps and inter-civilizational spaces, or even spaces located in a third civilization, from which the encounter between the two can be studied. I, however, wish to occupy not the overlapping, inter-civilizational, or neutral spaces, but see instead what might emerge from viewing another civilization firmly from a location within one’s own. Indeed, this is the manner in which the West has, by and large, viewed India.

What Would Such an Approach Achieve?

An approach such as I propose, at its most ambitious, would attempt to offer a new and meaningful understanding of the United States as a society, culture, nation and civilization. It would have, at once, two opposing, even contradictory impulses. On the one hand, it might turn into a narrative in which key text/events/epochs in the life-story of the United States are highlighted and reinterpreted. Or else, the same end of reinterpretation might better be served by turning the critical spotlight on lesser-known events/texts, again, so as to arrive at a more meaningful understanding of the USA. In the latter case, one might study American dystopias such as Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” Miller’s The Air-conditioned Nightmare, or a recent Hollywood film like Falling Down–to mention three randomly culled examples.

But, at a more modest level, such an approach would offer focussed critiques of American Studies as it is currently practiced, so as to pave the way for an alternative way of understanding the USA. This goal could be served by substantial scholarly essays for which the resources of the ASRC, not to speak of the possibilities of interaction that it affords, might be very useful. Scholars subscribing to this line of thinking could also make a few seminar presentations demonstrating how the trans-civilizational approach yield new insights into both major and minor American texts.

In either case, the project should have a deep impact upon our own self-understanding as a modern Indians and should also be of considerable interest not only to those individuals, whether Indian, American or otherwise, who are interested in the US. At the very least, such an approach ought to fracture the established self-perception of the US as it is reflected through the discipline of American Studies; it should also illumine our own self-conscious location in an alternative civilizational perspective, which for the sake of convenience we might call Indian or Indic. Ultimately, of course, the approach would also offer some unique standards and touchstones for evaluating and understanding any living or dead civilization.

Understanding America: The Para

It is now time to risk a shorthand understanding of the US from such a trans-civilizational ground of interpretation. I have already shown that what goes in the name of American Studies in India is mostly an echo of American self-perceptions. The images that the US manufactures about itself are thus refracted back, even if they must first pass through native minds and mediums. Whatever the other differences between voice and echo, the latter is always feebler. The small or large distortions that such refractions produce might be grist for the mills of postmodernist scholarship; after all, representations are central to this discourse. Yet, such re-presentations as the recipient-producers of American Studies outside the US are likely to generate are bound to have little authority or influence when it comes to American self-understandings. No wonder that apart of de Tocqueville’s classic, there has been little notable contribution to American Studies from outside the USA. Take the case of India. Despite hundreds of books on American literature and culture, not one has achieved the status of a classic that is cited or taught either in the USA or in India. The obvious reason for this is that, despite pleas for a radical reorientation, American Studies in India continues to be a derivative and colonized discipline.

How is this spell to be shattered? I believe that it can only be done by what K. C. Bhattacharya called “Swaraj in Ideas” (1919). The notion of Swaraj in ideas, may actually be traced back to M. K. Gandhi’s famous handbook for nonviolent revolution, Hind Swaraj (1909) and to Sri Aurobindo’s political writings in Bande Mataram of 1907. Swaraj, whose most familiar connotation is independence, actually means much more. Swaraj mean self-rule not just in the political sense, but also in the moral, intellectual, and spiritual sense. Swaraj, therefore, implies much more than the decolonization of the Indian mind, though the latter is the precondition for its efflorescence. Swaraj is, ultimately, selfhood that comes from self-knowledge. It is not just a product, but a process that involves a continuous effort at autocreation. The technologies of self-realization have been perfected in India over a period of thousands of years. These traditions are not merely ossified, confined to sacred texts or esoteric manuals, but are living and vibrant even today. They provide basic orientations on life’s most important questions: who are we? Where do we come from? What is the purpose of life? And where are we going, not only as individuals or groups, nations or cultures, but also as a species.

If we were to understand and evaluate the evolution and growth of not just individuals, but nations and civilizations from such a perspective, very interesting results might emerge. I suspect that the USA will appear to be a society and culture at odds with itself, torn by conflicting tendencies. On the one hand, it is informed by a millennial quest for truth, justice, and, above all, liberty, yet, on the other hand, its obsession with power and authority has, through its entire trajectory as a civilization, vitiated its means and end.

This approach would also lead us to interrogate the very idea of America as a civilization. How can a 200-year old country be a civilization, especially when what defines it is the absence of a coherent goal a consuming sense of restlessness and aimlessness? Moreover, how could one forget that America promoted itself to a civilization and offered itself for the world to study only upon becoming a super-power after its victory in World War II? No wonder that Canadians and the Australians, who have also followed the American model of setting up Canadian and Australian Studies centres at least in India, have not yet had the temerity to call themselves “civilizations.” They are content with the more modest description of “culture.”

This question of whether America is a civilization or no is rarely confronted with any degree of honesty. Even a book such as Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization, which is one of the earliest efforts of its kind, already assumes that American is a civilization rather than proving this point. Lerner assets that “America is at once culture and civilization, and society as well” (60). But the explanation of what he means by civilization is rather inadequate:

When a culture–which is the set of blueprints for a society–has grown highly complex and has cut a wide swath in history and in the minds of men, one looks for a term more highly charged with the overtones of these meanings. “Civilization” is such a term. (60-61).

Most societies are highly complex and many “cut a wide swath in history and the minds of men”–how vague these words are! Are all these civilizations then? To me a civilization implies not just a high standard of social and cultural development, but an enduring geographical and historical spread and penetration. Civilizations subsume several states and nations; they have the capacity of renewing themselves; they spread or contract depending on favourable or adverse conditions, but they have enormous normative and cohesive power. Civilizations embody and evolve distinctive world-views which, in many cases, become identified with dominant ideologies, whether religious or secular. Civilizations are build upon ethnicities, upon large groupings of people who share not just cultural patterns, but belief systems and ways of life. Civilizations can be exported but often flourish in specific geographical and topographical locations.

From Lerner’s definition we see that he uses civilization more as a grand and emotive term than as a precise category. No one would have dreamt of calling America a civilization during its colonial period. The people who lived there, a few million of the, were merely British subjects, who saw themselves mostly as Englishmen or women. It was only after the Declaration of Independence of 1775 and the revolutionary war that followed that American began to see itself as a nation. Cultural nationhood took another hundred years to be achieved. And yet, within another hundred years, there is already in America a move to confer on itself the grander title of civilization.

Yet, even granting the Americans their somewhat self-flattering assessment, one recognizes quite quickly that though it prides itself as an independent civilization, America is really little more than an extension of Europe, with some special features super-added to it. And it is this American civilization that sees itself today as the vanguard of humanity. Gathering unto itself all the genetic and environmental advantages of the various populations, attracting talent and genius from all corners of the globe, promising rewards and riches beyond those offered by any society in the past, proudly maintaining its military and technological dominance in a unipolar world, it thus arrogates to itself a unique position in forward march of the human race. Positioning itself in fact at the very cutting edge of evolution, it is this America with its powerful self-images exported the world over, with its pop culture and creed of consumerism, with its unequalled power over mass media and the proliferating communications-technologies, that one is compelled to contend with.

So, whatever be its discontents, we will have to regard America, at least to begin with, as essentially: 1) Western and 2) Modern. It is Western in that it shares with Western Europe, especially with England, a certain common heritage, which is a mixture of Judeo-Christian religion and Classical thought. Super added to this is its embrace of modernity, a way of life which came into prominence after the Industrial Revolution, and which enshrined an instrumental rationality as the chief method of altering its environment and constructing its world. This type of rationality, of course, gave supremacy to a scientific-technological outlook, making the multiplication of material comforts the end of life. We need not forget that in both its Westernity and modernity, America is sharer in the shameful history of imperialism, genocide, environmental degradation, and ruthless rapacity of the Western Europe. This expansive and aggressive phase of European history, which began some time in the 15th century has still not reached its end, though its decline is everywhere evident.

Even as I paint America in these somewhat lurid and threatening colours, I am aware that it is not the only America that exists. There are many other Americas that are simultaneously clamouring for attention, struggling for survival. At the least, there is also an America that is neither hegemonic nor imperialistic. I am not only referring to the America of the oppressed, the all but destroyed America of the Native American, the anguished and tormented America of the Negro slave, the America of the waves upon waves of impoverished immigrants, the America of the urban poor, the America of the homeless, the America of single mothers on welfare, the America of inner-city violence and urban crime, the America of psychiatric hospitals and prisons, the America of bums, dropouts, beatniks, hippies, and counter-culture freaks, in short the America dreaming and praying for the New Age. Surely, this America has no interest in conquering the world, in policing the planet, in making the world safe for democracy; it has no interest in world-dominance. It does not care for consumerism or commerce; it has no interest in globalization or Americanization. Itself a victim of American greed, violence, and oppression, this America seeks emancipation; it seeks freedom from suffering; it seeks release; it seeks solace–or, to invoke the slogan of the 1960s–it seeks peace and love.

Not just this wretched America of the oppressed and the damned or of the dissenters and rejects of society, but another America closer to the mainstream, which perhaps once led the mainstream–the America of conquerors, statesmen, philosophers, and poets–has also upheld the highest and goals that human beings could aspire for. This is the America of Paine and Washington, of Jefferson and Franklin, of Lincoln and King, of Emerson and Thoreau, of Whitman and Eliot, of Einstein and Chomsky. At least in principle it has always upheld and fought for human liberty and dignity. This is the America that has believed that the purpose of life is not the pursuit of pleasure but the pursuit of virtue. In other words, America has today become something quite different from what its founding fathers, leading thinkers, and literary geniuses ever intended. In fact, it might not be inaccurate to say that in no other culture do we see the leading writers so consistently opposing the dominant cultural trends of their times and also that no other culture has produced an auto-critique as thorough-going, incisive, and unflinching as that of the Americans. However we might choose to criticize them, we may be sure that the Americans have already said worse about themselves.

What, then, can we offer such a culture or, if you will, civilization? This, indeed, is the fundamental question that lurks behind a project such as mine. Because the answer to such a question is at best uncertain–perhaps, India really has nothing to offer to America–that one may ask the obverse question: what can such an America offer to India? These, it seems to me, ought to be the central questions in any cross-civilization encounter and therefore the questions that inform our approach to American Studies.

Understanding Ourselves: The Sva

But before we begin to explore such questions, we will find ourselves bedeviled by the all-too-familiar and even more urgent question that assails us: what is India? How is it to be defined? Which India are we talking about? Whose India? Just as there are many Americas, obviously there are many Indias contending for acceptance and supremacy. It was in trying to find answers such questions that I have spent the better part of my time as an Indianist. What can the India of the dispossessed and threatened adivasis learn from and offer to America? What can rural India, where the majority of Indians live, learn from and offer to America? And what can the quasi-industrialized, quasi-capitalistic, quasi-urban, quasi-consumerist, quasi-modern India learn from and offer to America? But, more importantly, was there an India that included all these Indias, which gave rise to them, which explained their dynamics? Was there an India that could allow us to comprehend and configure the entire movement of our rich and diverse past, the ebb and flow of the life on this subcontinent, its triumphs and tragedies, its endless variations and transformations? In other words, did India have a soul? And if so, where did it lie? What was it like? How are we to recognize it? Was that soul, moreover, lost like the American soul? Or was it still shining clearly through all the turmoil and turbulence of our national life? What was India? How was I to understand it?

As I pursued this inquiry, I gradually understood what was not India. Surely, India was not to be equated with its geographical boundaries, just as we ought not to equate our Self with our bodies. Just as the body has its birth, growth, and death in time, the body of India grows or diminishes, expands or contracts, unites or breaks-up. If India was not just its geography, surely it could not be confined only to its history. The slogan “Always historicize,” therefore, would not yield much. The rise and fall of dynasties, the changing colour the ruling elite, the tedious saga of invasions and conquests–none of these could really reveal the meaning of India. I understood this one day when I walked in the ruins of Mehrauli, once a great city, the seat of imperial power. The tomb of one of the greatest rulers of Delhi, the feared and all-powerful slave sultan Balban, was nothing but a burnt and broken ruin. But not very far, the last resting-place of a contemporary saint, the pious and revered Khwaja Qutbuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki, continued to be a live centre of worship, spiritual growth and pilgrimage. All around the Darga are graves, not just of holy men, but of princes and princesses, of nobility and gentry, of the leading men and women of several centuries who begged for the privilege of being buried in that unsullied precinct so that their bones might be sanctified by the tread of devotees. The Delhi of Emperors and Kings, of Princes and Potentates, of Prime Ministers and business barons has been reduced time and again to rubble, but sacred India lives on.

So I came to the conclusion that the “soul” of India is not its geography and history, not its politics and economics, not its civic life or its science and technology, and certainly not its state and polity. But the soul of India is in its sacred traditions, in its religious places, in its aspiration for, and realization of, the Divine. From the very earliest of times, the people who lived and come to India have pursued this Divinity within and around themselves with single-minded devotion, according to such a pursuit the highest stature in human endeavour. That is why the arts and crafts, the architecture and painting, the dance and music, the literature and philosophy, the pure and applied sciences, even the politics and economics of traditional India were all religious. This is, to paraphrase Sri Aurobindo, a religio-spiritual, psycho-spiritual, a philosophico-spiritual civilization. No aspect of Indian life, no aspect of its geography, no aspect of its history or politics or social life has been left untouched by the spiritual. That then was the soul, the key to India and its culture. As Raja Rao put it in The Meaning of India, India was not a “desa” but a “darsana“-a metaphysic. That is to say that the idea of India was as important and powerful as the reality of India.

In India, regardless of which religion we belong to, which community, which caste, which linguistic or regional group–all of us have our own available spiritual traditions. No indigenous religion is free from the stamp of spirituality, nor has any religion that has come to our shores escaped its influence. Even Indian modernity, which ought to have been by its very nature antithetical to the spiritual, actually had religious origins. Why, even our great march to freedom and nationhood was inspired by men and women of wisdom and spirituality. All sectors of Indian life–the tribal, the agricultural, the semi-urban and the pseudo-urban come under the ambit and sway of our spiritual traditions. India, then, is nothing if its is not spiritual. If we are unable to understand this keynote, we will have missed the significance of the whole symphony of Indian civilization. I must hasten to add that I do not suggest here that India’s material culture, its history and geography, its politics and sociology do not exist or do not matter. But, from a spiritual point of view, they exist and matter only so far as they reveal or augment some aspect of the underlying spirit quest of India.

Therefore the conclusion that I reached is that the India of colonized urban intellectuals, the India of college and university education, the India of pseudo-modern academics was totally uninteresting and incapacitated. How could this India, a hopelessly inadequate, beleaguered, poor, corrupted India, an India of mercenary scholars and sycophants understand or even meaningfully interact with America? This India doesn’t know whether it is coming or going, doesn’t know who or what it is, is itself a creature of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Completely lacking in self-knowledge or self-confidence, used to living on the leftovers, hand-outs, and discarded garments of the West, how could this pseudo-intellectual India of which I myself am a part hope to make an original contribution to American Studies?

There was, it seemed to me, only one way. Only when this academic India, the India of universities and research institutions, the India of modern scholarship and research, this 150-year-old, spineless, utterly colonized India could align itself with the native civilizational genius of this sub-continent, only when it cleansed itself of its confusions and distortions, of its misapprehensions and misunderstandings, only then, with some sense of direction and purpose, with some degree of integrity and candour, with some minimum of responsibility and patriotism–only then could a transformed and renascent academic India respond to the real challenges of our times and confront the supremacist West in a serious encounter. Only an India aware of itself as a different civilization could understand and respond to America as a civilization. Otherwise, all that we would do is to replicate the self-images of America, refracted through our own expediencies and opportunisims–his master’s voice, dutifully played back, with local variations and embellishments.

Advantages of A Trans-Civilizational Approach

Before I end, I should like to enumerate some of the benefits of a trans-civilizational approach. If taken seriously, it would free us from the grip of American self-images, it would contribute to Swaraj, it would make our thinking and understanding about American more creative, and it would bring about a greater coherence between our actual lives and our pursuit of the profession of academics.

But in addition to these advantages, it would also result in enriching literary studies, per se, in India. To begin with, it would give a new life and orientation to conventional source and influence studies. There is considerable work on the Indian sources of American texts, but this work remains at the level of words, ideas, even texts, but seldom goes deeper into more profound civilizational aspects. 9 Then there is the possibility of a very special kind of critique of American materialism, consumerism, individualism, and so on, which can come out of the so-called spiritual civilization of India. Finally, one would need to work out the possibilities of cooperation and collaboration between these two civilizations from the point of view of the future of humanity–what sort of world civilization do we see to create? 10 What role can the USA and/or India play in it?

Finally, if the civilizational encounter between America and India has to be fruitful from the point of view of the future of humanity, it can only be so if the highest ideals of each are combined and cross-fertilized. From such a perspective, the America that stands for Liberty must cooperate with the India that stands of Divinity. Because both are needed if the human race is to be saved from self-extinction. 11

Conclusion: The Struggle for Survival

When we examine the history of the last five hundred years, we notice that it has been characterized by unprecedented movements of peoples, clashes of nations, encounters between cultures and civilizations, and transfers of populations. Are all of these upheavals and interactions accidental or is there a deeper meaning and purpose that informs them? Whether accidental or purposeful, these cataclysmic changes suggest that human communities are not meant to live and evolve in isolation. It is our fate to conflict or cooperate with each other, to rise or fall together as a human race.

But in the process of such encounters, we also see that many communities, races, nations, and peoples have been overrun, subdued, colonized or even annihilated, It might be safe to say that in general the non-European, especially the aboriginal and traditional societies, have been overwhelmed by the modern European nations. The birth and growth of the United States of America is itself also a result and outcome of this phenomenal expansion of Europe onto the other parts of the world. And though the US is today the unquestioned global superpower, the clash of civilizations, the use the title of famous book, which gave rise to modern Europe and America, is not yet over.

Is it the destiny of an ancient civilization like India to lose its distinctive identity in this ongoing struggle between civilizations, to modernize, secularize, even Americanize itself faced with the overpowering superiority of an America-dominated West, or do we have another, even if more difficult destiny, that of helping even the victorious West better understand itself? Broadly speaking, it is questions such as these that inform my project. As Edward Said, during a recent visit to India, remarked, it was more important for Indians to study America than to go to the USA to study India: “I sometimes ask my Indian students in New York, why come to America and study about India? Why not study America?” (quoted in Outlook magazine December 29, 1997: 83). The real question, however, is how should an Indian study America? As the Americans study themselves? Or in a totally different way which, at the same time, retains a dialogic relationship with American self-perceptions?

While I agree that the real power and influence of the USA needs to be acknowledged before we can come to terms with it, I think it would be suicidal for other cultures to be so brainwashed by America’s cognitive dynamism as to lose their intellectual independence altogether. The necessity to theorize America from a variety of locations is, therefore as much America’s need as it the need of its Others. As an Indian(ist), then, I must study US society because, in some ways, the future of my own world depends on it. But before a truly enabling and path breaking understanding of the USA is possible, I would have to break free from the received paradigms of American Studies that, ordinarily, would determine how such an inquiry might be conducted. And this is precisely what I think a trans-civilizational approach, such as I have outlined briefly, will enable.


1. Now the Indo-American Centre for International Studies (IACIS).

2. See, for instance, IDEAS: Indian Doctoral Engagements in American Studies, for a record of some of these Ph.D. dissertations.

3. I am thinking of the kind of debates we find in books like Tate’s The Search for a Method in American Studies, or essays such as Smith’s “Can American Studies Develop a Method?” Syke’s “American Studies and the Concept of Culture: A Theory and Method,” Wise’s “`Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies,” or Jones’s “American Studies: The Myth of Methodology.”

4. No Indian, for instance, has produced a book that can compare with those of, say, Van Wyck Brook, Vernon Louis Parrington, F.O. Matthiessen, Robert E. Spiller, or R.W.B. Lewis. I shall not seem entirely unreasonable when we notice how many Americans, including Milton Singer, Robert Redfield, and Wendy Donniger O’Flaherty, have produced “classic” studies on Indian culture.

5. It is true that the Watumulls of Honolulu wished to start US studies in India as early as 1946, when the Watumull Foundation funded the lecture tour of Professor Merle Curti in India. But American Studies really took off much later, with heavy U.S. investments. Even the School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University was established with a start-up grant of $200,000 by the Ford Foundation (see Venkataramani 21-33). Also see Mohamed Taher’s “American Studies in India.”

6. See Sachidananda Mohanty’s In Search of Wonder: Understanding Cultural Exchange-The Fulbright Programme in India.. I must clarify here that Senator Fulbright’s dynamism and vision in creating this educational exchange programme is not to be faulted. He, more than most, was aware of the pitfalls of “The Arrogance of Power,” which is the title of his first book on the subject.. He followed this up with another book, The Price of Empire, in he warned Americans against the follies of “cultural imperialism”: “There is no greater human vanity than the belief that one’s own values have universal validity, no greater folly than the attempt to impose the preference of a single society on an unwilling world” (127-128).

7. For instance, in 1998 and 1999 seminars on this topic were organized by the Indian Association of American Studies. The Proceedings, edited by Yuvraj Prasad, are available.

8. See Sri Aurobindo’s The Foundations of Indian Culture are, which is a good example of such a trans-civilizational approach. Throughout the essays collected in this book, Sri Aurobindo argues that spirituality is the essence of Indian civilization.

9. An example would be special issue of IJAS (24.1 Winter 1994) edited by Mohan G. Ramanan on “Indo-American Transactions.”

10. The seeds of this cooperation are already present in the growing volume of comparative work on Indo-Us relations. See for instance a compilation of the books in this area published by the USIS, “50 Years of Indo-U.S. Relations: A Selective Bibliography.”

11. See, for instance, Sri Aurobindo’s message of 11 August 1949 for America.


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—–. IDEAS: Indian Doctoral Engagements in American Studies.

Aurobindo, Sri. Foundations of Indian Culture. 1953; The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo. Vol. 20. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1998.

—–. “A Message for America.” Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library. Vol. 26. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972.

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—–. The Price of Empire. With Seth P. Tillman. New York: Pantheon, 1989.

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