Ravi Dev column
February 25, 2007
In this ongoing dialogue with Mr. Clarence Ellis, I would like to address another of the claims he made: “Dr. Kimani Nehusi and many others have inscribed in our lexicon the concept of mental enslavement which Indians and Chinese escaped.” I disagree with the last part of the statement: all the peoples dumped into Guyana were subjected to mental enslavement by the colonial power.
Utilising the problematic of “hegemony” from Antonio Gramsci, I published in SN a series of articles not long after the 1992 elections to highlight the issue and to offer some proposals for addressing the debilitations produced, which hindered our development. I summarise my argument below in referring to Hindus.
One method of maintaining dominance over a conquered people is to utilise the same type of force and violence by which they were conquered – garrisons, executions, torture, prisons etc. to keep them in line. This has been the tried and true method used by all conquerors of the past- and quite a few of the present. African Slavery in the New World was undoubtedly the nadir of this methodology. This method has proven to be quite costly however, especially in terms of manpower and material, since the oppressed has a visible reminder – even a red flag - of his oppression, against which he can be aroused to rebel. This was the European experience during African slavery: remember Cuffy?
I pointed out that the abolition of slavery was primarily an acknowledgement that the economics did not make sense anymore for the Europeans: I had never been convinced by the moral argument.
The brutalities and barbarities of slavery may have clashed with the British's public desire to posture as “civilised” but it certainly was never the major cause for abolition.
But Capital still needed cheap labour both at “home” and in the colonies. They devised a new methodology for securing that labour – through the imposition of a mental slavery - a hegemony - over the minds of the subaltern classes.
The British were going to put into effect Rousseau's aphorism of a few decades earlier, “The strongest man is never so strong enough to be master all the time, unless he transforms force into right and obedience into duty.”
Interestingly the new technology for domination was worked out and codified by the British in India just before the abolition of slavery. It started out in the field of “education”. The British invited Indian comment in a public debate between 1823 and 1835 centered on what was to be the language and curriculum of schools, which were to be funded by the government.
The parties to the debate were the ‘Orientalists' and ‘Anglicans'. The former group, led by Governor Warren Hasting, proposed that the native forms and content of education such as Sanskrit Schools and Madrassas, be retained. The “Anglicans”, who were ultimately successful, contemptuously dismissed such suggestions and proposed an “Education” such that the Hindus would “become more English than Hindus, just as the Roman Provincials became more Roman than Greeks or Italians'. [Trevelyan]
One of the most incredible aspects of the imposition of the Hegemony in India was that the British stated their objectives very clearly from the inception of their programme.
In a Minute delivered by their leader Thomas Babbington Macaulay (later Lord Macaulay), in 1835, he declared that the model Indian was, “the effete, effeminate vaporous, swooning Bengali” - the ‘Bengali Babu', which had been a work in progress since 1757.
The graduates of the new schools, Macaulay insisted, would be “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” He neglected to mention that the “Indian blood and colour” would ensure that the Indians could never be “real” British, but a dark imitation.
The selected medium of instruction was English, the language of the conquerors, since, as one of the Anglican supporter Grant said, “its acquisition was expected to undermine and subvert the fabric of error that was Hinduism.”
After the success of the Anglicans, there was a rush to establish English schools in India , The Christian Missionaries took the lead but there were quite a few other Europeans and some Indians who went into business of producing “Brown Englishmen”.
The Government established Colleges in the three major urban centres of Calcutta , Bombay and Madras . These institutions increased exponentially as, especially the upper class Hindus rushed to be civilized. These schools were established all over the empire: our own Queen's College was founded in 1847 and Guyanese ever since have been its “beneficiaries”. Africans were to receive the hegemonising treatment on top of the stripping of their culture during slavery.
As I pointed out in 1993, we can use Gramsci's problematic to better understand why the technique was so successful.
Hegemony, he proposed, was the seizure of the moral and philosophical leadership by one group in society, through their creation and imposition of a new and complete world view or paradigm in such a thorough fashion, that the remainder of society (or at least, the overwhelming majority) accepts as “common sense” or givens, the ideas, social structures and systems that just happen to privilege the hegemony.
These ideas form a coherent, internalised word view which creates in the mind of the hegemonised group, the feeling that their oppression and inferiority to the hegemon as “just the way things are” or “that's life”. There appears to be an inevitability and eternality to their subjugation: the latter becomes a plight – part of the unchangeable, universal order, and not a problem – part of the man-made order, which can be changed by man.
One of the most effective tools in the creation of the hegemony was the school system, which transmits knowledge” and education – universalised from the British particular. It was now “Education” and Knowledge”, all else were “superstitions”.
Returning to the effect on Hindus, I pointed out that the process thus started even while they were still in India : Hinduism, in contrast to Christianity, was a mass of depravity, idolatry and superstitions such as suttee or wife-burning and “cow worship”.
Its underlying philosophy was “other-worldly” and unscientific. The Hindu was labelled “spiritual” and this essentialist tag has remained the most enduring purported Hindu characteristic. Even revolutionary thinkers like Swami Vivekanand accepted this tag.
The British thus defined “spiritual” as specifically apposed to “physical”. “Spiritual” connoted ethereal, wispy and feminine qualities. Mr. Ellis betrays this bias when he ends his letter and refers to the Hindu posture as, “ethereal states of being”.
The irony was that in the Hindu definition of “spirituality”…Yoga, there was never any dichotomy between bodily and mental techniques in one's Sadhana or spiritual path. Hatha Yoga, which focuses on physical conditioning, is a perquisite for Raj yoga, which delves into meditative techniques.
In the spread of Hinduism across Bharat it was more often the spiritual Rishis rather than the warrior Kshatriyas who led the way into the virgin jungles.
In Guyana , having been gradually stripped of their language, most Hindus are forced to use English to both study and preach their faith. The hegemonisation of Hindu beliefs begun with the words they now had to use to conceptualise their beliefs and practices. Two problems arise out of this.
Firstly, and sadly, most of the translations of Hindu sacred texts [Shastras not “scriptures”], and compilations of dictionaries were done by Christian missionaries, or those imbued by the ethos of Christianity. Consciously or unconsciously, their biases infuse their works. Secondly, as we have mentioned before, all languages, including English, have their own history and their words reflect and project that history.
We have already spoken of the problem of equating “religion” with “dharma” and caste with “ varna ”. Similarly, “Rakshas” are not “demons”. "Idol" rather than the Hindu word "murti" is another problem word.
Christians and Jews use it in the sense of a "false god" because in their history, their people actually worshipped specific images as Gods. Their conception of a "one God", came out of a long and tortuous road as among other things, one tribe arose victorious over the other tribes and their god was made supreme. Hinduism never had this problem since in its earliest conceptions of God, images were never used.
In their earliest text, Rig Veda, there is no mention of images used in worship. It is only used much later, when in an effort to explain the lofty Vedic conception, that stylised images were utilised for the masses. These images were always seen as representations of a deeper reality, never as the reality. The map was never confused with the territory.
For example, to convey the concept that God was infinite, Vishnu, whose name means "pervader of the universe" is always painted blue to symbolise infinity because the common man could analogise the blue sky which he saw every day and knew was infinite. In their minds many Hindus, accepting the word "idols" are a bit sheepish about their faith's "strange murtis".
I am writing this on Republic Day. I know that I have spent some time on this point but I do believe that it is important for all of us in Guyana to understand that we all have some mental baggage to jettison if we are ever to become really independent.