West is East and East is West

Ranald Macaulay

Given our current political and cultural climate it isn’t surprising that the media swamp us with news of Islam. By comparison little if anything is said about Hinduism. Is this because Hinduism is irrelevant to the West today? Is Hinduism, as its name implies, simply a religion of the Indian sub-continent? Could it be equally invasive and no less threatening to the now invisible and eroding cultural backbone of the West given to us from our Christian heritage? Put differently, has the familiar 19th century adage - ‘East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet’- now lost the significance it once had?

One of my recent guided tours of Cambridge illustrates the problem and may also, I hope, explain it a bit.

On the day in question I had about a dozen in the group. Two were Indians, and as we walked between various historic sites through the colleges we got chatting from time to time. They had come to the UK to work and they were on an outing to the famous university. At that stage, however, I couldn’t tell if they were Indian Hindus. What I did know was that they were delightful people to have on a tour: intelligent, eager to talk, full of questions and, interestingly, more familiar with British history than anyone else in the group – including westerners! Then later, through a passing reference to diet in the UK, I discovered that they were in fact Hindus.

We were about to visit the old Cavendish Laboratory where I talk about the key role Christianity played in the rise of modern science. I mentioned, as I usually do, that the philosophic materialism of the contemporary western world could not have provided the formative climate for the rise of modern science that we take for granted, and neither could the eastern monism that stands behind Hindu thought. It was the Judaeo-Christian worldview that was responsible for that.

After this my Indian friends approached me all the more eagerly and an energetic though amicable conversation ensued as we made our way back towards the Round Church. Here the conversation became truly revealing (more penetrating for me in a way than if I’d been reading explanations in a book) and very chilling. ‘The essence of Hinduism,’ one of them was saying, ‘is exploration.’ There are ‘no definite dogmas to be believed, a case of personal discovery only, a system that is infinitely flexible and inclusive.’ Innocent sounding in a way – but sheer poison and, ironically, so western!

Implicit is the idea that Truth, and especially revealed Truth as is given in the Bible, doesn’t exist. So it’s up to the individual: you make up the rules; you discover what works for you; you get by in a puzzling universe by doing this or that, sometimes ‘up,’ frequently ‘down’ - intermittently and haphazardly ‘spiritual’ yet admirably inclusive, flexible, tolerant, amusing, exciting, etc. Or so the story goes. “Exploring” they call it and as such apparently innocent, maybe even benevolent. “Being entertained,” “doing stuff,” “whatever” are the western equivalents.

Walking past the sun-drenched market stalls, Cambridge seemed typically peaceful and normal but the words ‘chaos’ and ‘evil’ leapt to my mind. This was darkness representing itself as light: a blasphemy lying deep within India’s confusions and oppressions over millennia. The Wounded Civilization was V.S. Naipaul’s pointed title as he explored his family’s Indian roots in 1978.

“…the heritage has oppressed. Hinduism hasn’t been
good for the millions. It has exposed them to a thousand
years of defeat and stagnation…It has enslaved one quarter of the population and always left the whole fragmented and
vulnerable…again and again in India, history has repeated itself: vulnerability, defeat, withdrawal…” (p 50)

Of course, differences between East and West remain today as in the past, but the West has changed. That is what struck me that Sunday with the use of the word ‘exploration.’ The new is unlikely ever to carry the name ‘Hinduism,’ but fundamentally that is just what it is: truth unknowable and unknown, intellectual flexibility and moral relativism, in other words ‘unlimited exploration.’ It is the mindset which has ‘wounded’ India, admittedly within a framework of withdrawal. But what sort of whirlwind awaits us, one wonders, within the secular activism of the West?

Ranald Macaulay, 25/09/2006