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Historicism Has Collapsed, Mahabharata the Way Forward: Bagchee and Vishwa Adluri

In an interview with News18, scholars like Joydeep Bagchee and Vishwa Adluri talk about historicism. They also drew links between secularism and anti-semitism.

Eram Agha | News18.comEramAgha

Updated:August 16, 2017, 4:24 PM IST
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Historicism Has Collapsed, Mahabharata the Way Forward: Bagchee and Vishwa Adluri
File photo of Joydeep Bagchee and Vishwa Adluri.
Last week Indian Council for Historical Research organised a lecture on ‘History of History’, a critique of historicism. Speakers — Joydeep Bagchee, post-doctoral fellow Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich and Vishwa Adluri, professor of Religion and Philosophy Hunter College, New York — questioned German Indology for authoring “anti-Brahmanic polemic”.

In an interview with News18’s Eram Agha they said historicism has collapsed. Hence, time for Mahabharata has come. The scholars also drew links between secularism and anti-semitism.

Edited excerpts:

How do you define historicism and what are the deficiencies you see in it?

The term historicism has many meanings. Minimally, it is the view that all phenomena are historically determined. Beyond this, historicism is associated with an epistemological and ethical relativism — the view that all knowledge is a product of its time (and hence can only be understood out of its social conditions) and that no absolute, eternal, or transcendent values exist. As a movement, historicism traces its origins to figures like Wilhelm von Humboldt and Leopold von Ranke. It emerged in the late eighteenth century as a reaction to Enlightenment Universalism.

By the nineteenth and twentieth century, it was the centerpiece of the German belief in the uniqueness and superiority of German culture. As a tradition of historical writing, historicism’s distinctive feature is the central role it accords the state. Essentially, historicism is a political theory masquerading as historical research or, rather, it is a tradition of scholarship that subsumes historical research to the needs of political rationality.

Historicism is deficient because, by denying the natural law tradition, it makes an ethical grounding impossible. The consequences are visible from recent German history. But despite its professed agnosticism towards transcendent, “metaphysical” truths, historicism has a highly determinate anthropology and a theology. It takes its departure from Luther’s view of man as hopelessly fallen and privileges an irrational faith over a rational soteriology. From the Indian perspective, one must know that historicism will always work against traditional cultures, whether Hindu or Jewish.

You have said that historicism collapsed in post war-Germany. What is the way forward?

Historicism collapsed in post-war Germany. In the 1960s several historians argued that historicism was implicated in the German intellectual and moral debacle. There is much in favor of this argument.

If we see historicism as the central concept uniting many elements of the specific course Germany pursued after the eighteenth century (including the peculiar form its academic life took), then we are only now experiencing the aftershocks of this collapse. The way forward will require a reconfiguration of academic and intellectual life given that the modern research university is a German invention.

Scholars today talk about the humanities’ decline but few see that this decline is not just related to its institutional causes. Rather, an entire approach to the humanities has ended. The way forward requires us to rethink the role of history in human life. This is where the Mahabharata becomes relevant.

How relevant are Nietzsche and Foucault in questioning historicism?

Nietzsche was the first to draw attention to historicism’s problems. He diagnosed the European and, especially, German obsession with history as a sickness. For him, the purpose of studying history ought to be life, affirmation of life, and the creation of new values rather than anodyne fact-gathering. Nietzsche was also aware of historicism’s theological dimension: he linked it with philology, and showed how historicist philology served Christianity by burying the ancients.

As Nietzsche’s greatest student after Bataille, Foucault provides a succinct distillation of Nietzsche’s critique: “The historian is insensitive to the most disgusting things; or rather, he especially enjoys those things that should be repugnant to him. His apparent serenity follows from his concerted avoidance of the exceptional and his reduction of all things to the lowest common denominator. Nothing is allowed to stand above him; and underlying his desire for total knowledge is his search for the secrets that belittle everything: ‘base curiosity’.”

While talking about the history of German Indology, you made a point about secularism and said that Secularism is the source of anti-semitism. Please explain.

No, what we said is that Secularism is linked with anti-semitism and that it has an anti-semitic component that cannot be ignored. As scholars now recognize (Anidjar, Yelle, Mufti), secular discourse often targeted Judaism as the paradigmatically “non-modern” tradition.

Hobbes, for example, combines a defense of a secular republic with explicit anti-Judaic statements in Leviathan. These criticisms were later also extended to other non-Christian traditions, especially insofar as they were thought to replicate features of rabbinic Judaism (e.g., Hinduism which had priests “just like” Judaism).

If there is one thing lacking in debates on secularism in India today, it is recognition that secularism in its inception had a strong anti-Judaic bias. When individuals in India today attack “Brahmanism” they implicitly draw on these remote German sources. As the paper “Jews and Hindus in Indology” argued we must be careful not to delegitimize, wittingly or unwittingly, entire segments of society in our pursuit of a grand narrative of progress.

Does that mean in the Indian context secularism is a misfit? If yes, then what is the alternative for a pluralistic Indian society’?

It depends on the vision. If the vision is nineteenth-century Prussia, where the state expanded to absorb the religious, communal, and pedagogic functions the church previously exercised, then secularism is an essential component, though we should be under no illusion that secularism is really secular. But this vision, besides being nostalgic, is also anachronistic. After World War II, no one seriously contemplates a return to nineteenth-century forms of government.

Philosophers and intellectual historians have critiqued the architects of nineteenth-century Prussia (e.g., Hegel). Incidentally, the real problem with secularism is not the ones usually advanced — it conflicts with people’s religious beliefs, it is a European import, it does not provide a lasting solution to the problem of religious tolerance, Indian society has always had a tradition of religious pluralism. Rather, secularism is problematic because it does not address questions of ultimate meaning, or, rather, it transfers those questions or those expectations to the state. The state now takes the place of religious visions of paradise; it becomes the center around which “religious” forms of life are organized.

Basically, a new idol. Rather than reduce violence, secularism exacerbates it. José Casanova did an interesting study, where he showed that when people blame religion for violence they are reporting not from their own experience but a seventeenth-century experience, actually, in the terms in which the Enlightenment saw the previous century when it looked back and saw “wars of religion.”

What are your views on German Indology? Could you please also talk about your book The Nay Science?

As we showed in The Nay Science, German Indology was far from secular. Most German Indologists were theologically trained Protestants. Several were pronounced anti-semites (Christian Lassen, Rudolf von Roth, Otto von Böhtlingk, Albrecht Weber, Jakob Wilhelm Hauer, Johannes Hertel). Yet others are complicit in the cover-up of the Indologists’ anti-semitism (Klaus Mylius, Eli Franco). The number is larger if we recognize that, in the Indologists’ writings, “Brahmans” was a code for “Jews.” Almost every leading German Indologist of the past two centuries authored an anti-Brahmanic polemic. Besides making explicit comparisons between “Brahmanic” Hinduism and Jewish tradition, the Indologists explicitly advocated a program of reform, entailing breaking the Brahmans’ social status, taking away their authority, and transferring custody of Sanskrit texts to the new priesthood-professoriate.

A prejudice against traditional hermeneutics and textual transmission was inscribed at the very level of the method. Consequently, regardless of whether they originally shared these prejudices, once students graduated from Indology programs they emerged as critics of Brahmanism. These students now also had a vested interest in attacking Brahmanism, since their livelihood was parasitic on replacing the Brahmans as educators. But if German Indology’s credibility is shot today, it is not merely because it pretended to be an objective, non-confessional science, when, in reality, it was a sub-discipline of Protestant theology. Rather, its credibility is shot because, other than espouse a naïve historicism, German Indologists could never explain what made their discipline scientific.

Thus, although they claim to represent the heights of European consciousness, their work has become anachronistic within the German university itself. Little wonder that their programs are in decline. From twenty-two and a half chairs in 1997, only sixteen survive. More closures are inevitable.

How do you see German Indology vis-à-vis American Indology?

American Indology is a stepchild of German Indology. Almost every leading American program at some point imported German expertise, in the form of either German professors (U. Penn, Harvard) or German-trained returnees (Yale, Bryn Mawr) or German models and ideals of study (almost every Sanskrit doctoral program in the US). Many principles of American Indology (a suspicion of traditional hermeneutics, criticism of the Brahmans, restricting works’ meaning to their sociological context, historicism and a so-called critical philology) are borrowed from German Indology. If American Indology is to survive it will have to learn from German Indology’s demise. We are hopeful American universities will grasp The Nay Science as an historic opportunity to rethink the goals of Sanskrit education. The student numbers are there; the interest is there. The only thing lacking is professors who can engage students and teach the texts with passion, rather than bait Indians and seek to justify their salaries through petitioning, provoking controversy, and inflaming an already volatile political situation.

What initiatives should be taken to promote Indology among Indians?

We are skeptical of institutional solutions. If the Indian state suddenly entered, offering to create an indigenous Indology, this would lead to similar problems as the Prussian experiment. You would suddenly get people willing to prostitute themselves to a state ideology — people disinterested in the texts except as they served them as a means to power and a fat salary. Our work is therefore fundamentally apolitical.

The texts have always survived and will survive because of individuals who care about them. That said, programs are needed to replace those that have collapsed or been discredited. A resurgence of the Indian tradition is underway as people rediscover the texts and are willing to read them with a hermeneutics of respect. The old model of suspicion, a jejune “criticism for criticism’s sake,” has exhausted itself. Forthcoming dissertations and books will be the better for it.
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