The land of desire

Reading Hegel is always challenging. But an anthology of his work on India highlights how, even in his most prejudiced criticism, he could shine a light on unusual questions.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: February 11, 2017 1:08 am
Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts, Akash Singh Rathore, Riminia Mohapatra, Oxford University Press, book review, indian express book review The introduction gives a tour d’horizon of the sources Hegel consulted and the interpretive controversies surrounding his work on India.

Book-Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts
Edited by: Akash Singh Rathore and Riminia Mohapatra
Publication: Oxford University Press
Pages: 310
Price: Rs 950

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s sustained engagement with India has always been something of a puzzle. His views on India, “the land of desire,” cannot, despite interpretive acrobatics, be described as anything but hostile. Yet, there is a seriousness of purpose in his engagement. From 1817 onwards, he wrote extensively on the subject and argued about it with an intensity that displayed more seriousness of purpose than most superficial admirers of Indian philosophy manage to muster.

There are many explanations for this. Hegel was, in essence, writing the biography of the Geist (Spirit) as it came to greater self-consciousness. His project was a kind of theodicy, an attempt at an existential reconciliation with history. Like many others, Indian civilisation represented a Spirit in a moment of arrested development, which worked as a nice foil with which to contrast Western modernity. Hegel had, most notoriously, written Africa out of history. By contrast, India and China provided examples of the principles of social organisation taken to an extreme form and pathologised. So, India was a society where the principle of difference was carried to two extremes: it allowed civil society to overwhelm the state; and because its social expression was caste, civil society prevented the formation of a genuinely free subjectivity. In China, by contrast, the principle of unity was carried to an extreme: it swallowed up civil society; and law governed freedom externally. India was all civil society and no state; China was all state and no civil society, and only in the modern Western state were state and civil society institutionalised in a way that objective freedom was possible.

The second explanation is Hegel’s critique of German Romanticism. It had elevated Indophilia to new heights, and his attack on India was really an attack on German Romantics like Schlegel who, rather than understanding the processes of modernity, were retreating into flights of fantasy. The useful introduction by Akash Singh Rathore and Rimina Mohapatra to their usable anthology of Hegel’s writings on India does not dissent from this explanation, but hints that there must be something more to the matter. After all, Hegel is constantly revising the material he incorporates on India, whether it is in his lecture cycles on history and religion or the material in his encyclopaedia.

Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts, Akash Singh Rathore, Riminia Mohapatra, Oxford University Press, book review, indian express book review Mahatma Gandhi in Madras in 1933 during his nationwide tour to campaign against
untouchability

There is also the palpable intensity of engagement that comes through in all the writings collected in this volume. His long essay on Humboldt’s translation of the Gita, for all its datedness, is still worth a close reading. It is still an interesting reflection on the challenges of translating philosophical concepts; how much that activity involves what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls the “fusion of horizons,” a dialogue between our preconceptions and the material at hand. For Hegel, Indian philosophy and religious practice, for all its versatility and imaginative power, are reflections of the fact that the realisation of freedom is not possible in society. The only way in which an individual can attain unity with divinity is, in the final analysis, by depriving oneself of both activity and a sense of subjectivity. We may baulk at this characterisation but it does throw up a challenge for all Indian intellectual history. What is the relationship between Indian ideals of freedom and rational perfection and modes of social organisation? In the end, are the high ideals of India culture a form of displacement, to be realised outside of the forms of social organisation, while social and political life continues in its freedom-denying vein?

This was also behind Hegel’s characterisation of Indian art: as he says in the Philosophy of World History, we find a beauty “in its loveliest form in the Indian World: a beauty of enervation in which all that is rough, rigid and contradictory is dissolved, and we have only the soul in a state of emotion — a Soul in which the death of free Self-Reliant Sprit is perceptible.” For all of Hegel’s manifest racial privilege, essentialism, orientalism and every lazy indictment that post-colonial theory can lay at his door, the haunting question that emerges from this writing is this: how could a civilisation, in a way capable of such intellectual and aesthetic radicalism, produce a stultifying social order? For Hegel, the stultifying social order is an explanation of this radicalism and excess; but it also renders this radicalism meaningless because, ultimately, all thought becomes a matter of escaping. No reconciliation between thought and reality here.

It is wonderful to have access to these writings in one volume. The introduction gives a tour d’horizon of the sources Hegel consulted and the interpretive controversies surrounding his work on India. It will not be easy going for those unfamiliar with Hegel. But reading Hegel is always challenging. If the difficulties are great, so are the stakes. Even in his most prejudiced criticism, he could shine a light on unusual questions.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president, Centre For Policy Research, New Delhi and contributing editor to The Indian Express