A relook at modernity

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The connotations of the word “modern” are many and much beyond the simple and straight dictionary (Oxford Concise) meaning that defines it as “of the present and recent times”. In painting and architecture, the word can become a technical classification of styles and thoughts, in literature, philosophy, sociology and history it can carry myriad and indeed radically varying meanings. By and large though, there is a general understanding that envelopes all these entire range of meanings. In one word, this is Westernisation. The politics of the word is obvious, for it seeks to put the West at the apex of a presumed linear progress of society and civilisation, thereby giving the Western man a presumed advantage over all other “non-Westernised” societies, as he is somebody who has long left these stages where other societies and civilisations are struggling in. He was also thus bound by a self-ordained and self-fulfilling prophesy to carry out a mission to civilize the rest of the world. Apart from its exploitative economics, colonialism was also about this civilizing mission, whereby the Western man is given the moral liberty to recreate the world in his own image. Although it was towards the closing chapter of the colonial era, American President Woodrow Wilson’s famous and impassioned speech in 1917, canvassing in a joint session of the US Congress for America to agree to enter the World War I, said just as much. He said America had the mission to make the world safe for democracy. These words might as well have described the energy behind the expansion of Western colonialism in the 19th Century. Democracy is no colonialism, but the arrogance of many Western minds has made it appear so. Some American leaders on a mission of exporting democracy by whatever means, have actually made many want to rephrase President Wilson’s words, as indeed Fareed Zakaria does in his book Future of Freedom. It may not any longer be the world that needed to be made safe for democracy, but democracy which must be made safe for the world. Indeed, a popular cartoon, numerous variations of which have seen print in many countries, depicts President George Bush threatening other world leaders to do as told or he would send “democracy” to them. More than a decade later, things have gone much worse, with America now threatening not just to send democracy to punish those who do not subscribe their brand of democracy, but also lunacy.

The epistemology of the word “Westernisation” hence is well known, so is the tyranny of the understanding of the notion of modernity which is a direct corollary. This realisation notwithstanding, its influences have penetrated so deep into the minds of the former colonised world, that even those who supposedly oppose this hegemony are still prone to its unseen dictates, even if unconsciously. Long after the physical end of colonialism, the mind is not free of its shackles. The introduction of various forms of the idea of monotheism into Hinduism, as was sought by Swami Dayanand and indeed the Ramkrishna Mission, was an attempt to refashion the Hindu mind in the image of Western thinking, making respected Indian scholar Ashis Nandy, call these reformist movements the modern “Churches” of Hinduism, quite contrary to the true nature of Hinduism (Intimate Enemy: Oxford University Press). Progress, knowledge and enlightenment had all come to be seen as a consequence of Westernisation. It was the same mindset that was exhibited in the reported sorry episode a decade ago in which a temple dedicated to traditional forest deities at Kwatha Meitei village in the Chandel district was desecrated as it was overzealously interpreted as un-Hindu, and then sought to be converted to a Durga temple by some mad troopers. The same can be said of the burning of the Meitei Puyas in 1728. Indeed, the drive for conversion and proselytization which mark all Abrahamic religions tell the same story. Hinduism is (or maybe was) marked by formlessness and inclusiveness. It even accepted animal sacrifice. Durga Puja celebration at Assam Rifles itself is proof. Otherwise visit the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati during the same festival for confirmation. Negotiating the issues that define modernity hence is by no means an easy task before us. A lot, if not a majority of what is modern are indeed Western. As for instance, in the last 100 years, the discoveries and inventions that make our life modern, beginning from the simplest objects like the safety pins and Velcro fasteners, to the aeroplanes and nuclear bombs, are almost without exception, Western. The question is, while the contribution of the West in moulding and defining our understanding of modernity is immense, can the two understandings be synonymous?

IFP Editorials

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