Friday, 6 May 2011

Postcolonialism and Perennialism


Colonialism is ingrained in modern Western metaphysical project. The Western worldview which may be characterized as rationalist, masculine or androcentric, subject centred or egoistic, logical, dualist, outward looking or extrovert, aggressive scientific capitalist secularist humanistic and individualistic creates an environment, a worldview that is congenial to colonialist enterprise. It is logical corollary of certain of its philosophical assumptions. Perennialist traditionalist perspective provides a trenchant critique of colonialism and its background ideological framework of Western modernity.  The traditional grounds for legitimating colonialist enterprise are forcefully critiqued.  Everything for which the colonialist West stands for is rejected in favour of the marginalized voice of the traditional cultures and civilizations.  Perennialists provide alternative cognitive and epistemic universe of their own to replace modernist colonialist epistemic and cognitive universe.
          Colonialism is primarily a Western phenomenon – all the traditional religious or premodern non secular worldviews excluding this aberration, this monstrosity on a priori grounds.  Colonialist enterprise is linked with the libidinal or desiring economy that sustains a “colonialist” self or ego.  It is nothing but desireism plain and simple.  Modern Western man, the colonialist man is a desiring machine, to use Deluzian jargon.  Practically his metaphysics translates into odyssey of desire.  He identifies himself with the Ego – Ego whose concrete manifestations are circumscribed in this world of space and time. Modern man is in a state of total disequilibrium, or dukhha, to use Buddhist term, and colonialism has succeeded in perpetuating and universalizing or diffusing it. In this paper the following points will be argued for:
1.       Colonialism is ingrained in modern Western metaphysical project.  It is a logical corollary of certain of its metaphysical assumptions.
2.       Traditional modern and postmodern critiques of colonialism aren’t traditional enough for the task as they are unable to transcend background colonialist ideological framework or paradigm.  They share fundamental assumptions of modernist secularist (or colonialist) weltanschauung and thus can’t provide alternative to dominant colonialist metanarrative.
3.       Perennialist traditionalist perspective provides a trenchant critique of colonialism and its background ideological framework of Western modernity.  The traditional grounds for legitimating colonialist enterprise are forcefully critiqued.  Everything for which colonialist West stands for is rejected in favour of the marginalized voice of the traditional cultures and civilizations.  Perennialists provide alternative cognitive and epistemic universe of their own to replace modernist colonialist epistemic and cognitive universe.
4.       Islamic and Buddhist traditions are best geared to challenge the hegemony of colonialist worldview.
Deconstructionist insights are also juxtaposed with perennialist framework in our critique of modernist humanist Western philosophical tradition and its classical antecedents.  This paper is a contrubut6ion in Islamic and Buddhist studies vis-à-vis postcolonial theory.  It is also a postcolonial reading of our traditional religious heritage and thus a contribution in the philosophy of religion as well.
            Modern  Western thought or the project of Enlightenment and Modernity  is what has sustained  colonialist metanarrative. Perennialist authors subject this background ideology to a searching criticism and provide alternative way of looking at things. They contrast it with tradition and traditional perspective. The traditionalist perennialist perspective began to be enunciated in the West at the beginning of the twentieth century by the French metaphysician Rene Guenon, although its precepts are considered to be timeless and to be found in all authentic traditions. It is also known as Perennialism, the Perennial Philosophy, or Sophia Perennis. The term Philosophia Perennis goes back to the Renaissance, while the Hindu expression Sanatana Dharma - Eternal Doctrine - has precisely the same signification.The other founding figures of the Traditionalist School were the German metaphysician and mystic Frithjof Schuon and the Ceylonese scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy. To these were added over time such imposing figures as Titus Burckhardt, Huston Smith, Martin Lings, Marco Pallis, Whitall N. Perry, Michel Vâlsân, William Stoddart, Charles le Gai Eaton, Tage Lindbom and Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr.Other major figures of the twentieth century have been profoundly influenced by the school, including T.S. Eliot, the Romanian historian of religions and Mircea Eliade, British author Aldous Huxley. Thus it has respectable though restricted following among the academic and intellectual elite in the modern West and   it is the present paper’s contention that there is an urgent need to reckon with its claims and explore its resources for providing a solution to certain nagging problems that modern and postmodern  Western man faces  and for providing the marginalized Orient much needed strategy of resistance  by way of solid critique of imperialistic colonialist ideology that Western man has been exploiting for East’s colonization.
By philosophia perennis is meant a knowledge which has always been and will always be and which is of universal character both in the sense of existing among peoples of different climes and epochs and of dealing with universal principles.This knowledge which is available to the intellect is, moreover, contained in the heart of all religions or traditions. It alone opens the channels of grace and shows the way towards transcendence without which man descends to infra human status. “The philosophia perennis possesses branches and ramifications pertaining to cosmology, anthropology, art and other disciplines, but at its heart lies pure metaphysics, if this later term is understood as the science of Ultimate Reality, as a scientia sacra not to be confused with the subject bearing the name metaphysics in postmedieval Western philosophy.”1 The perennialist school believes that “there is  a Primordial Tradition which constituted original or archetypal man’s primal spiritual and intellectual heritage received through direct revelation when Heaven and Earth were stull ‘united.’ This Primordial Tradition is reflected in all later traditions, but the later traditions are not simply its historical and horizontal continuation.”2 Traditionalists accord a high value to the intellectual activities of the pre-modern world and where they venture into such realms as social criticism it is clearly from a Traditionalist perspective which turns the Progressivist/Evolutionist assumptions of modernist theorists and of post-modernists alike on their heads.
 According to perennialists the Western world, unlike other cultures, has lost its connection to the Primordial Tradition. This took place first in the Classical era, was rectified by Christianity, which re-introduced a modified form of the Primordial Tradition, but the severance began again at the time of the Renaissance. The Renaissance has been dubbed as the second fall of man. Like Eliot, they criticize Renaissance as devil inspired movement. According to perennialists knowledge of the tradition provides us the metaperspective or critical lever and vantage point of universal orthodoxy that receives its legitimation from God Himself by virtue of which one could evaluate all grand narratives, philosophies and ideologies that are heterodox and claim our allegiance  and shows us the way to proceed beyond postmodern skepticism and relativism and grounds us in the Truth that is Absolute Itself. This concept of tradition is key concept of this perennialist school  that has arisen as a response to modernism and humanism, which they dub as ideology of colonialism. What is tradition?  It is knowledge of First Principles or Universal Principles, the metaphysical core or kernel of all traditional religious and wisdom traditions which are the prerogative of so-called primitive men (and that ancient age is the Age of Gold, in contrast to which modern age being the most degenerate age signalling the end of the world-Kali Yuga-Iron Age)   and “barbaric” Africans and Asians – in short the third world, the premodern world or non European or colonized world. Tradition means “truths or principles of a divine origin revealed  or unveiled to mankind and, in fact, a whole cosmic centre through various figures envisaged as messengers, prophets, avatars, the Logos or other transmitting agencies, along with all the ramifications and applications of these principles in different realms including law and social structure, art, symbolism, the sciences, and embracing of course Supreme Knowledge along with the means of its attainmennt. In its more universal sense tradition can be considered to include the principles which bind man to Heaven. Lord Northbourne defines it as the chain that joins civilization to Revelation.”3 Rene Guenon thus  spells out the essence of tradition “…those institutions are traditional which find their ultimate juistification in their more or less direct, but always intentional and conscious, dependence upon a doctrine which, as regards its fundamental nature, is in every case of an intellectual order; but this intellectuality may be found either in a pure state, in cases where one is dealing with an entirely metaphysical docrtreine, or else it may be found mingled with other heteropgenous elements, as in the case of religious or other sopecial modes which a traditional doctrine is capable of assuming.”4  It isn’t to be confused with theosophy, spiritism, occultism, revivalism, fundamentalism, sentimental religion, moralism and the like.  It demands intelligence and intuition both of which are absent in modern world.  Scientist neither possesses objective intelligence not intellective intuition.  Modern philosophy and literary theory and also the so-called higher criticism along with proliferation of so many “isms” such as scientism, rationalism, relativism, materialism, positivism, empiricism, secularism, psychologism, individualism, biologism, evolutionism, existentialism, are seen as some of the prime follies of modernist thought.  Postmodernism fears no better. Modernism which forms the ideological background of colonialism is characterized as antitraditional and thus such derogatory epithets as progressive, humanist, rationalist, materialist, experimental, individualist, free thinking and intensely sentimental ideology.  Marxism, the religion of the 20th C.E. shares many, though not all of these commitments although it was precisely to defeat some of the forms of colonialism that it was originally launched.  Modern Western man is cut off from the vertical dimension or the sense of transcendence and lacks knowledge of metaphysical principles.  The quantitative dimension of reality which science treats isn’t deepening of knowledge but ‘dispersion in detail.’  Natural sciences are concerned primarily with practical applications and in many cases this  is combined with a will to power and thus  many modernists confuse science with technology.  Westerners in general don’t cultivate science for knowledge, even of an inferior order but for application, manipulation, appropriation, objectivation and desecration of environment.  Science thus technologized has fuelled colonialist engine.
Tradition is opposed to modernism because it considers the premise upon whch modernism is based to be wrong and false in principle. Nasr, one of the major figures in perennialist school states in this connection: “What tradition criticizes in the modern world is the total world view, the premises, the foundations which, from its point of view, are false so that any good which appears in the world is accidental rather than essential.…It wishes to slay the modern world in order to create a normal one .…From this pioint of view the history of Western man during the past five centuries is an anamoly in the long history of human race in both East and West.” It is the idea of progress and evolution that are vehementally rejected by traditionalists. Renaissance humanism bound man to earthly level and in doing so imprisoned his aspirations for perfection by limiting them to the world.  The traditional idea of perfection and progress of the soul from its upward vertical dimension towards God is reduced to a purely this worldly and temporal one. It directed men towards conquring the other – the nature, the neigbour or the other nations rather than the inner territory of the self.
Colonialist enterprise is ultimately linked with certain Western philosophical and theological assumptions.  All the defining characteristics of Post-Renaissance and Enlightenment Western modernity - rationalist, masculine or androcentric, subject centred or egoistic, logical, dualist, outward looking or extrovert, aggressive, scientific, capitalist, desacralizing or secularist, humanistic, individualistic – create an environment, a worldview that is congenial to colonialist enterprise. Modern sensibility is colonialist sensibility.  It isn’t accidental that colonialism as a monstrosity, a full fledged movement arose only in modern West.  Colonialism which continues even today in so many guises is linked with the background assumptions of colonizer’s superiority on this or that ground. The West has constructed the colonized world as the other and legitimated its rule on the assumptions of its superiorly in religious, philosophical, scientific and other spheres. (Perennialists reverse this hierarchy).  It has constructed the orient in an image, which would justify its rape of it.  Said has tried to deconstruct these othering and marginalizing strategies of the West.  Other postcolonialists have also worked in this direction.  But their perspective remains largely Western and they are unable to extricate themselves from what may be referred to as colonialist metaphysical and theological worldview.  All the defining characteristics of Post-Renaissance and Enlightenment Western modernity that back the colonialist enterprise are rejected by perennialists.  Perennialists reject the whole edifice of western Enlightenment Modernity and its value system that colonialist Eurocentrism had used to legitimize itself.  They expose and ruthlessly deconstruct Western colonialist weltanschauung, its elaborate structure or system of binaries that privilege one term over the other to sustain an asymmetrical hierarchy, its ethic and its background humanist (anti)metaphysics.
            The modern West has privileged the first term in following binaries:
Reason                                    Unreason
Man                             God
Self                              Other
Anthropocentrism       Theocentrism
being                           Being
This world                   Other world
Becoming                    Being
Kingdom of earth       Kingdom of Heaven
Thinking                      Meditation
Masculine                    Feminine
Science (Positivism) Metaphysics
Scientist                      Mystic
Modernity                   Tradition
Body                           Soul
Matter                         Spirit
Time                            Space
White                          Non-white
Speech                         Silence
Head                           Heart
Activism                      Quietism
Modern                       Primitive

            This privileging of one term over the other and consequent marginalization of the other as “Other” in all these binaries is what has sustained the grand narrative of colonialism . Perennialists reverse all these hierarchies and argue for God-centric or Reality-centric, suprarational, space centric, archaic or “primitivist” or traditional, contemplative, quietist, metaphysico-mystical, otherworldly worldview in which ideas of progress, evolution, change, becoming, utopianism, domination, aggression etc have no place. The nineteenth century’s pseudo-religion of nationalism, the positivistic belief in science, racism and evolutionism served to legitimize unbridled imperialism. Perennialists, against these promethean enterprises, hold out the suprahuman authority of primordial revelation, divine gnosis adapted providentially to different circumstances in the form of religions, and a devolutionistic view of history that sees modernity as a debased and demonic revolt against reality. Contrary to the modern idea of progress the world is in a state of intellectual and spiritual decline, inevitable from the very start of an historical cycle. We are at present in what the Classical West called the Iron Age, and the Hindus Kali Yuga.
            Perennialist critique converges with postmodern critique of colonialist narrative.  It also exposes historically and culturally constituted nature of bourgeois or Eurocentric or  colonialist norms. The rationale of scientific discourses Foucault identified with the transformation of human beings into knowable – that is, controllable “subjects.”  It is the self- other binary representing the exclusionary relationship between subjects who occupy opposite positions on centre/margin model of political and other power relations which is the basis of colonialist ideology.  The binary relationship between self and other suggests that the “I” of the self can’t exist without the “non-I” or the other.  The proponents of post colonial theory rightly view the relationship of self to other as one of domination and exclusion that maintains unequal power relations in support of racist imperialistic colonialist enterprise.  Theorists such as Gayatri Spivak have suggested the deployment of a strategic “otherness” or identity politics levelling unequal power relations and disabling this binary opposition.  Perennialists would principally agree with all this but point out that self-other dichotomy is too deeply entrenched in Western thought and one needs radical deconstructive strategy to problematize this binary and postcolonialist theorists can’t provide it being insufficiently radical for the purpose and being rooted in the modernist humanist Western (as against the traditional nondualist Eastern) framework.  It is Buddhism and in fact all mysticism (which is the kernel of religion) that cuts at the root of the problem.  The self – other dichotomy can’t be challenged without rejecting the whole tradition of Western philosophy or its metaphysics of presence and the cogito principle of Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, which establishes human self and its material reality independent of human thought.  The absolutization of subject-object duality is the very foundation of modern western philosophy and colonialist project would claim legitimacy from this basic metaphysical position. All fundamental antagonisms and dualisms of the West stems from the great cleavage between form and matter.  This split is predicated upon that peculiarly Western relation between the subject and the non-subject, in which the two stand in opposition to each other.  This is true both chronologically and ontologically.  For in establishing this opposition, the mind detached itself from the world and initiated the theme of Western thought and civilization which is objectivation of the given, its controls by the human subject, I – it relationship with it and all this necessitating and culminating in outwardly directed war against Nature and against the Other as other appears as hell to it.  The history of colonialism is so to speak mirrored in the history of Western thought and civilization which is more interested in via active than in via contemplativa, in domination or mastery over the object, the other.  By virtue of the incessant urge or the will to posit objects, the subject itself creates its own antagonists.  It is the same will which also constitutes the means of mastering them.  The modern science with its profound interest in the outer world (rather than the inner one) and its very methodology of objectivation is the logical development or illustration of this mind structure and attitude of the West.  Even Absolute is conceived as an object in the West.  All this is alien to Eastern mystical spirit – the entire construction with its schism between the logos and the empirical world and the ensuing pairs of irreconcilable opposites.  The Eastern mind isn’t interested in shaping the non-subject as the other and encounters this other in almost Levinasian ethical sense. The Eastern  framework of juxtaposition and identity and its  both/and logic of polarities or logic of “contradictions”  is to be contrasted to Western either/or logic and  its vain attempt at unity in variety as the genuine – otherness of the other is subsumed in some abstract higher category.
            All this is palpably reflected in the history of the East.  As long as it has conformed to its own ideal principles it has struck to the ideal of non-violence.  It has been  like a dove, meek passive and ever receiving rather than active aggressive masculinist in its political history.  India offers the best example.  It has also been colonized rather than the colonizer in its history.  It has been the soft prey for all imperialists.  Gandhi incarnated this ethics of non-violence.  It is only the modern secular India that behaves nationalistically, capitalistically and thus imperialistically.  Jainism is inconceivable in the Western framework. Its renunciatory ethic and its advocacy of ideal of non-violence have hardly any counterpart in the Western history.  St. Francis is an exception and exceptions only prove the rule. The rape of environment, both natural and human is peculiarly Western contribution and thus we could say that colonialism isn’t something anachronistic or something of an aberration in the western history but rather the necessary effect or logical corollary of its cultural and philosophical assumptions.  Bush and Bush’s America are quite understandable phenomena from the perspective of oppositional, capitalist, materialist, egotist or subject centred modern Western mindset.  All traditional civilizations being essentially mystical in approach as perennialist authors show have nurtured I – thou relationship with the Other – with the neighbour and with Nature. Nasr has cogently argued this point in his various writings especially in Man and Nature. The mystic is essentially a lover, he has no ego or his “ego” boundaries extend to infinity (Self is Brahman or God). There is no other for him in the sense that marginalizes  the latter.  The following lines of Rumi’s Diwani Shams-i- Tabriz (and in the history of America Walt Whitman would have agreed with it especially, although he has been appropriated in the imperialist cause) are representative of sulhi-kul attitude of mysticism.  (This is extreme statement of postcolonial poetry also):

My track I trackless, my path is pathless…/I have expelled duality from myself./  I have seen two worlds as one
      At another place he says
Let me seek One say One, know One and desire One…/ I am drunk with the soul of love and the two worlds have passed from my hands.
            This Unitarian consciousness is the antithesis of dualist Western theological (exoteric) and philosophical tradition that alone could produce colonialism.  Mysticism rejects the very framework, the very ab initio of dualist separative thought.  It proposes to destroy the very mind that could think colonialistically.  The doctrines of fana, Nirvana and Unity lead to the negation of the very conquering manipulative aggressive Other directed time centric becoming oriented desiring self or ego.  It destroys the “I” that owns, that appropriates, that separates, that fights and that enslaves.  There could be no individualism and thus capitalism and the divisive ideology of nationalism in religio-mystical perspective.  The transcendental identity subtends and subsumes all separative identities.  As there is no autonomous authoritarian self-legitimating and separate will (separate or antagonistic to Cosmic Will, the Tao, The Will of God) so there is no question of will to power as the be all and end all of life.  Eternity and immortality is to be won by denying human will, by renouncing the self or surrendering it, by giving up the illusion of permanent egohood, by transcending the realm of time and the realm of thought or mind or conceptual intellect, by surrendering all knowledge claims and seeing bliss in ignorance.  The will to know is linked to the will to power as Foucault has demonstrated.  So the mystic disowns all knowledge claims.  He celebrates the mystery and unknowability of life.  He believes in the Unseen, Al-Gayyib, to use Quranic phrase.  Religion refuses to demystify and thus to desacralize existence.  It rejects the very dichotomy of knowing subject and knowable object.  There can be no seeker of Truth as there is no separate desiring subject.  According to it words distort, logic kills, reason limits and imprisons and thus knowledge of the Reality is impossible in rationalist logical scientific perspective.  It is precisely the naïve belief in the opposite that has been used to legitimate the claims of post-Enlightenment West and its right to teach or enlighten the “barbarian” the “primitive,” the “superstitious” East – the colonized.  For the mystic all arguments on ultimate questions are seen as sharing of ignorance, one can never pinpoint transcendental signified.  Nothing is known.  Reality, as long as one chooses to remain at a purely rational plane, is Kant’s noumneon-unknowable.  There is no humanly discoverable ultimate truth.  All representations of the Real are provisional.  Reality or God is deep deep darkness, impenetrable, the inscrutable Other.  Mysticism seeks to make audible that primordial silence that was othered by the word, by speech.  Buddha’s silence and celebration of suchness cuts at the root of grand narrative of  modern science and rational philosophy. Our knowledge and our judgements  consist of exclusions and marginalizations as Foucault says and is always guilty of meaning closure as Lyotard emphasizes.  All ideologies pretend to be based on knowledge and Will to know is murderous, cruel as Foucault tries to show. Revelation comes the moment knowledge ceases. The known must cease for the unknown to be”1 as one post-modern mystic says. “A person who claims knowledge may be a theologian, a philosopher, a scientist but never a religious person.  A religious man accepts the ultimate mystery, the ultimate unknowlblensss, the ultimate ecstasy of ignorance, the ultimate bliss of ignorance”7 and paradoxically omniscience is got in this ignorance.  Promethean spirit is essentially irreverent towards the sacred mystery of life and universe.  Modern science and the consequent disenchantment of the world is the fruit of Western colonialist mindset.  Mysticism was relegated to the realm of Unreason and then alone the hegemony of Reason and empirical spirit established.  The East or the colonized represent the sacred space and modernity consists in profanation of the same.  The realms of the intuitive, the feminine, the mystical, the “mad” have been the sacred possession of the traditional man. But these realms were marginalized as the other of Knowledge and Reason by the scientific rationalist Occident.  The resulting disasters are known to everyone. The British couldn’t colonize India if they were convinced of its greatness in spiritual and intellectual spheres.  Macaulay’s claim that all the books of India couldn’t match even one shelf of his own library is this colonialist pride at its worst.  The perennialist school’s contribution to postcolonial thought lies precisely in demonstrating that secular humanist West’s claims are all hollow.  If the postcolonialist enterprise is decentring of the imperialist privileging of western epistemology and culture and the promotion of other formerly denigrated forms of knowledge and cultures, it is perennialist approach that best books the bill as it also provides an alternative epistemology, a fully developed cognitive discourse against the Western or modern cognitive (colonialist)discourse. Some powerful objections have emerged against the deployment of deconstructionist and postmodernist thought and methodology in postcolonial  theory. Some critics have pointed to Fredrik Jameson’s identification of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism to advance their case.  Lenin had argued nearly a century ago that imperialism itself represents the latest form of capitalism.  This places both imperialist culture and postmodernism within the same history and fundamentally at odds with any practical resistance to the consequences of colonialism. Opponents of poststructuralist inflected theory have pointed to another tradition of anticolonial theory which considerably predated the work of Said, Bhaba and Spivak – the trinity of postcolonial theorists – and reaches back to certain African American writers (such as W.E.B Du Bios or the South African Sol Plaatje) anticolonial independence fighters and thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi and authors such as Chinua Achebe.  Burden of this chapter is to situate perennialist critique of Western epistemology and culture in this tradition of anticolonial theory and provides metaphysical ground to anticolonialism.  It is my contention that perennialist metaphysical approach provides systematic refutation of all the important assumptions and grand claims of Occidental thought and civilization – its rationalism, humanism, nationalism, scientism, tenchnocracy, progressivism and the like.  Perennialists have dismantled the base of Western epistemology and culture and shown how the marginalized terms of such binaries as primitive/progressive, traditional science/modern science, tradition/modernity, nature/culture, traditional crafts/modern technology, unreason/reason etc. need to be evaluated differently and even privileged.  They aren’t arguing for just neutralizing or crossing these binaries as some postmodernist would like to but clear reversal of these privileging terms. Colonization should be understood as the human condition itself and not a mere socio-politico economic historical process.  It is Freudian Nietzschean intertext of Drive for aggression and the Will to Power and is the originary violence
1    Nasr, S. H., The Need for a Sacred Science, SU N Y,1993 p.54.
2   Ibid., p.54.
3  Quoted by Shahzad Qaisar in Of Intellect and Reason, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore,1990, p.46.
4   Guenon, Rene, Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines trans. Marco Pallis, Rpt. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 2000 p.89-90.
5  Nasr,S.H.,Knowledge and the Sacred Suhail Academy, Lahore,1988,pp. 84-85.
6 Osho, Psychology of the Esoteric: New Evolution of Man, Orient Paper                          Backs, New Delhi,p147.
7 Ibid., p151.

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