KR BlogBlogChatsUncategorized

“Western” and “Modern”


It is interesting to note that among Indian Hindus, the words “Western” and “modern” are well-nigh interchangeable in usage. That is, a “modern” way of dressing, loving and marrying, political governance, or making music corresponds, in this part of the world, to present-day Western forms and practices—jeans and a T-shirt, dating following by a love marriage, secular democracy, Punjabi rap, or what have you. “Modern” forms and practices are opposed to “traditional” ones, associated with the past—the dhoti, arranged marriages, anything other than secular democracy, classical Hindustani music, etc.

Now it makes some sense to associate the term “traditional” and the past, given that traditions are traditions because they’re handed down. But it should be noted that, for the entire designation to arise, a serious loss of confidence has to take place. You can look at the history of Hindu and Muslim interaction, dating back to military invasions a millennium ago, to the hybridized and settled Mughal societies, to the present day, and at no point (to my knowledge) have Hindu Indians in large numbers considered Islamic forms of dress, social behavior, and music the forms of the present, much less the forms of the future. That is the Islamic way, this is the Hindu way: So the distinction went, and so the distinction continues to go. For a while, the distinction between “Angrezi” or colonial British forms and indigenous Hindu forms had the same character. That is their way; this is our way.

This is the case no longer. When it comes to present-day Indian Hindus (or more accurately, Indians of Hindu descent), a new association has taken place: The label derived from geography (“Western” versus “Indian/Hindu”) has been supplemented by a label implying chronology (“modern” versus “traditional,” because “traditional” implies, as we noted earlier, the past). This bodes well for the Western way of thought, behavior, and belief, at least in that part of the world; to own the sense of the present is to own the future.

That old “traditional Indian” culture was itself, of course, a wildly hybrid culture, constantly taking in foreign influences, from the Hellenistic Buddhas of Gandhara to Rama and Lakshman drawn in profile using the fine nib of Persian miniature. Looking back, one sees a civilization assimilating other civilizations; looking forward, one sees that civilization being transformed by, and into, another. This process is called “globalization”—but only because “Westernization” has fallen out of fashion—and it’s historically different from Indian Hinduism’s interactions with Greece, Islam, or Britain; and the difference is coded in a single, unexamined, telltale conflation of the Western and the modern.