Responsibility in the Moral Imagination


We read of the smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,

        Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,

        He that may never more from me be parted

Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say

        That book was Galleot, Galleot the complying

        Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.”

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, V, ll. 73-142

In Dante’s Inferno, we are greeted with a vignette as familiar to the English writer as Romeo and Juliet – predating it by centuries, the tale of Francesca and Paola. Based on actual events, these are two souls trapped in the depths of hell because of the sin of lust. While the interpretations of Dante regarding hell don’t match wholly those of the Orthodox, the Inferno is often less about theological questions (which are the framework for the series of vignettes) and more about the meaning behind the scenes it permits to be disclosed.

The significance of this scene, like all of those in hell, is less about whether such persons would be condemned (we actually do not know the answer in most cases) but the fact that something gravely wrong, judged by almost any standard conceivable, occurred. Being trapped in hell gives Dante the chance to meet those responsible and ask what error brought them there. In a framework where these tragedies and errors were rendered meaningless or immediately forgotten, there would be no basis for remembering them and letting them stand as witnesses against such behavior. Consider that though the Buddhist would be trying not to be caught up in such things either, would the man reincarnated as a cockroach remember to tell of how he became something worthy of being trodden underfoot?


The Westernization of Hinduism and its alienating consequences

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” -Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

“Sexual pleasure is not pleasure. Sex-pleasure is the most devitalizing and de-moralizing of pleasures. Sexual pleasure is not pleasure at all. It is mental delusion. It is false, utterly worthless, and extremely harmful.”  -Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Kali. Image Source.

An old painting of Kali in Kalighat painting style. This is a blend of traditional Bengali folk styles, and European painting. An in-between version of this scene, not as sexualized as ancient depictions, but not as tame as modern ones either.  Image Source.

Westernized or Anglicized Hinduism describes the religious system which is adhered to by most Hindus living in the United States and Britain, as well as by those in the modern Hindu urban elite, middle class, and urban working class. Essentially, any Hindu population which has experienced the impact of a modern education system for a few generations now subscribes to a Westernized variant of the belief system.

Initially I was planning on titling this piece “The Anglicization of Hinduism,” as that is what the bulk of this article pertains to, but that would entail a slight misnomer. This is because aside from morphing under British pressure, the most ancient substratum belief of the Hindu philosophical tree– namely Tantra– has been under a far longer lasting, but less severe morphing due to the influence of Vedic Brahminical tradition which arose in the Western part of the Indian subcontinent. Then, in the British period orthodox Vedic Brahmins eagerly collaborated with the colonial regime. Using it as their vehicle, both the Brahminical and Victorian worldviews, began to permeate the Hindu cultural landscape in unison.

Thus, Hinduism has been “westernized” in two senses: Recent, and rapid influence from Britain, and ancient, gradual influence from Western India. Anglicization and Sanskritization.

Basic Characteristics of Westernized Hinduism in Hindu terms: Modern, Westernized Hinduism is essentially a modified form of Advaita Vedanta, though ISKON (a dualist sect), the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Gandhian Hinduism, and indeed nearly every major Hindu religious movement since 1800 can be characterized as Westernized Hinduism, Anglicized Hinduism, or Neo-Hinduism. It is normally highly monistic, and places an emphasis on Bhakti and/or Karma Yoga. Tantra, especially left-hand path Tantra is conspicuously absent. Most Neo-Hindus see Hinduism both as a specific religion, and also as a meta-religious framework, which encompasses all religions. The most popular text in this branch of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita.  More on all of this later.

Formation of Westernized Hinduism: That covers the Hindu lineage, but there is of course a Western lineage as well. it is also the product of a violent and rapid change in the Indian social order– namely the advent of British colonialism, and eventually modern capitalism. The British Raj accorded a privileged role to Christian values and Western concepts. Starting in about 1858, when the British East India Company was forced to transfer power to the British monarchy, the British began to more actively inject their civilizational model into the subcontinent. The imposition of British political institutions and laws on Indian society, the state the support of British missionaries, the state encouragement of convent education and other forms of British education, and the selection of conservative, orthodox Brahmins for use in writing and interpreting what became “Anglo-Hindu law,” and the uniform application of that law to all of Hindu society, are all examples of this sudden change in traditional Hindu society.


Nicholas Wade vs. the anthropologists

This sort of thing has a lot to do with why, if I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have bothered with anthropology. Reading a review like Jon Marks on A Troublesome Inheritance, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that refusing to consider the implications of Wade’s argument has everything to do with protecting the academic turf anthropologists have carved out, and nothing to do with scientific inquiry or truth.

It would be one thing if Marks just thought Wade was wrong; he’s a geneticist (as is Greg Cochran, who was also unnerved by some of the sources), Wade isn’t. But he doesn’t even bother to argue with the thing, he just calls it “idiocy,” “fundamentally anti-intellectual,” and “as crassly anti-science as any work of climate-change denial or creationism.”

If you’re paying attention, Marks tells us what this is actually about: “Wade’s book is of a piece with a long tradition of disreputable attempts to rationalize visible class distinctions by recourse to invisible natural properties.”

What really chaps the good professor’s ass is that Wade has violated political dogmas, not scientific ones — because genetics itself, to Marks, is a political dogma. I’m not exaggerating.

Note that the review also appears in a labor rag. And that he once tried to get someone fired over Wade’s invitation to speak at a Leakey Foundation audience on one of his earlier books. And that Savage Minds has declared war on A Troublesome Inheritance, in between unbelievably stupid posts about anthropologists as “scholarly hipsters.”

Further Reading

The AAA debate between Wade and Agustín Fuentes is online, and can be streamed here. It’s worth a watch. More debate here, and here’s Steve Sailer’s old piece on reading Marks’ Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History.

I also can’t resist linking to this epic rant from A.J. West back in January on why he regrets studying socio-cultural anthropology:

I want to emphasise that I am not in any way a political conservative and I don’t oppose the social and political aims that have become entrenched parts of anthropology departments.  But I don’t think those aims are what anthropology is about, I don’t think obscurantist pseudo-philosophy is a good way to achieve them, and I don’t think writing obscure academic texts about how humans are now trans-human feminist cyborgs empowers minority groups or the working class, or achieves any worthwhile aim in any sphere of human activity.