– Jayati Gupta
What constitutes a civilization? A civilization is defined by Samuel P. Huntington In the 1990s as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have… defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self- identification of people.” 1 There are cultural fault lines separating one civilization from another and these differences are both real and basic and he predicted a post-Cold War world order that was likely to be a ‘clash of civilizations.’
I would like to suggest in my paper that an ‘encounter’ of civilizations creates a ‘contact zone’ a neutral space that is an opportunity for interaction, for understanding and mutual exchange of knowledge. This ‘encounter’ is most likely to happen through a range of travel-acts — exploration, trade, migration and settlement in early times and displacement, tourism, professional interests or intellectual exchange in more contemporary ages.
It is one of the curious accidents of history that the destinies of India and America were entwined with each other. The story of how Christopher Columbus mistook the land mass for India or the Indies in 1492 is well-known. This was not uninhabited territory, the indigenous peoples who had lived there for thousands of years, the ‘natives’ came to be called Red Indians and those who were the outsiders were the pilgrims, settlers, colonisers, immigrants, exiles. What followed were years of colonisation by the Dutch,Spanish, French and English. America became the melting pot of peoples and cultures, languages and customs, diverse race and ethnic identities that made the United States of America a truly plural federation. It was a fledgling nation, barely a century old in the 1890s, a nation that had asserted itself after it broke away from England, the mother country, to strike out on its own. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Civil Wars, a violent move to shape the nation into a more equitable and more just society (1861-1865) was still part of living memory. I shall be talking of a context that takes us roughly a hundred years back from the time that the ‘clash of civilizations’ was predicted and I would like to focus on an ‘encounter’ of civilizations.
I shall be talking of two Indian travellers to the USA in the late 1880s and 1890s: Pandita Ramabai from Maharashtra and Swami Vivekananda from Bengal , both social reformists with a mission to transform society in colonised India. It is pertinent to point out here that India’s encounter with the West, with England and Europe was basically in the context of paradigms of power and superiority and in terms of hegemonic structures of exchange. America like Australia, both settler colonies, figured differently via-a-vis India, outside this scheme of colonial authority over colonised subjects. Far more fundamental than differences among political ideologies and political regimes is the consciousness of alterity as well as commonalities among and within civilizations. If Huntington thought of this interaction as enhancing ‘civilization consciousness’ that led to animosities, I would like to establish that it nurtured change and modernization that enabled our travellers to stand apart from their longstanding local identities. Paradoxically the encounter with a free multicultural civilization was an opportunity for Ramabai and Vivekananda to turn their gaze inward, to shed inhibitions and explore resources to shape their country/ the world in non-Saxon ways.
In the early nineteenth century, England, the land of the masters seemed to offer India a model for modernisation and growth. It was commonly believed by a sizeable section of the educated elite that India could become progressive by imbibing social practices and political institutions that made England the imperial power that it had become. So despite the orthodox Hindu injunction of not crossing the vast oceans, the Kalapani, for fear of being ostracized by society, many upper class Hindus travelled abroad. The interaction of the colony versus the metropole, tensions between the periphery and the centre, issues of loyalty as subjects and responsibilities as ruler hinged on changing political necessities through the nineteenth century and especially after 1857 — the First War of Indian Independence that England reductively termed the Sepoy Mutiny.
What were the compulsions that drew Ramabai and Vivekananda to America and did this promised land offer an alternative dream of progress and modernity? America in the last three decades of the nineteenth century was itself a nation in turmoil, a nation in the making, a nation with a futuristic dream. Walt Whitman in “A Song of Myself” (1855), celebrates the free individual and the self, not merely a corporeal self, but the soul or atman.
“I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal
and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)”
In the “Preface” to Leaves of Grass he writes:
“The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth, have probably fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. In the history of the earth hitherto the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler largeness and stir. Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses.” 2
To colonised India, during the years of resistance to slavery under foreign rule, America offered a model of democratic rights and free enterprise, of women’s emancipation and social equity. The conclusion to Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions at Chicago on 19 September 1893 held out this vision of liberation :
“Hail Columbia, motherland of liberty! It has been given to thee, who never dipped her hand in her neighbour’s blood, who never found out that the shortest way of becoming rich was by robbing one’s neighbours, it has been given to thee to march at the vanguard of civilization with the flag of harmony.” 3
Ramabai was equally convinced that USA had “become more advanced and prosperous than all other countries on earth, on the strength of a system of government whose greatness is indescribable! The creator of this system of government, the source of all happiness and the real life force of humankind, is Liberty, whose statue stands in New York Harbour …” (93)
The formation of the Indian National Congress in December 1885 had marked a defining moment in the political trajectory of a heterogeneous mass of people, the ‘imagined communities’ seeking to constitute themselves into a nation. In a letter dated 20 June 1894 from Chicago, Vivekananda wrote to the Dewan of Junagad, “The whole difference between the West and the East is in this: They are nations, we are not, i.e. civilization, education here is general, it penetrates into the masses. The higher classes in India and America are the same, but the distance is infinite between the lower classes of the two countries.” (113)
Significantly, political activism and resistance to foreign rule in India was not separated from religio-social reform and human upliftment. In this envisaged social transformation it was America rather that Britain that inspired the reformers. Even before Pandita Ramabai or Swami Vivekananda we have Jotirao Phule from Maharashtra who published his pioneering book Gulamgiri or Slavery in 1873, critiquing British policy through the irony embedded in the subtitle “In the Civilized British Govt under the Cloak of Brahminism.”
The dedication in the original book reads:
“Dedicated to the good people of the United States as token of admiration for their sublime disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro slavery and with an earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra Brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thraldom.” 4
Vivekananda echoes this when in a letter dated 2 November 1893 he refers to caste as “simply a crystallized social institution, which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench, and it can only be removed by giving back to the people their lost social individuality….Now, freedom is the only condition of growth; take that off, the result is degeneration.” (55)
Religio-Social reform movements in the nineteenth century actively addressed issues like freedom from caste stigma and release from the tyranny of priests — the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj pioneered this movement.
Ramabai’s religious conversion and travels, her social activism including her writing were part of this discourse of transgressive social change. She was born (1858) into an orthodox Brahmin family with a liberal patriarch who taught her Sanskrit and she learnt to read and recite the Hindu Scriptures and the Puranas. The death of her parents in the famine (1876), her travels to sacred Hindu shrines, her marriage to a lower caste man and early widowhood with a daughter to look after, gave her an insight into the travails of Indian womanhood. She realised that basic education and economic independence were necessary for women to be able to assert their rights.
Ramabai was called to speak before India’s Education Commission in 1883, where she made an impassioned case that “it is evident that women, being one half of the people of this country, are oppressed and cruelly treated by the other half.”
Her social work brought her into contact with Christian missionaries and in 1883 she travelled to England to study medicine. She converted to Christianity but was conscious that this should not distance her from her cultural roots. Her split identity was uncomfortable — Hindus and Indians thought she had betrayed them, while the colonial British subjected her to racist condescension.
In 1885, the dean of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania invited Ramabai to America for the graduation ceremony in March 1886, of one of her distant cousins, Anandibai Joshee, the first Indian woman to receive a degree in medicine. Ramabai was touched by Dr Rachel Bodley’s “concern for Hindu women, although she herself belongs to another race and religion.” (55) Ramabai placed this in the context of popular opinion in India that “did not favour even general education for women” and was “violently opposed to giving women medical education.” (59) Some, she writes, “oppose women’s medical education through ignorance, some through selfishness.” (60) In fact the college in Philadelphia was the very first in the world to be established especially for women (1850) and the founders and teachers had faced several hardships — lack of funds and public censure.
Ramabai’s meticulous observations about American women and society, commerce and government is recorded in her Marathi book translated as The Peoples of the United States (1889), which she completed writing after her return to Bombay in November 1888. In the Marathi title it is presented as a travelogue — Pravasavritta. The narration is meant to be not merely a eulogy of life in America but an inspirational patriotic discourse that “increases in some measure the diligence and desire to serve our Mother India…” (54)
The text is an attempt to “grasp, little by little, the greatness of the nation.” What she is able to capture is the progress in several fields linked to the secret dynamics of being a free nation. It is this vitality and youthfulness of the nation that seemed so attractive to Ramabai and to Vivekananda who travelled to America about seven years later. Vivekananda was aware of the help by certain organisations like the Ladies’ Club in Boston (where he was invited to lecture) to Ramabai. There was a fraternal feeling that both travellers shared with the American people. Vivekananda’s opening address at the Parliament of Religions called on the “Sisters and Brothers of America” while Ramabai spoke at the commemoration and ended her speech by appealing to her American sisters. This distanced the travellers from the superiority of a master race, gave them the self confidence to address Western audiences and a sense of camaraderie.
The critique of British colonialism drew both Ramabai and Vivekananda into a comparative analysis of English and American society and government. Ramabai contrasts the class disparities entrenched by imperial governance against democratic principles:
“The most distinctive aspect of American society is the public-spiritedness (concern for the good of all) of the people’s thinking, government, and everything else of importance. In India, England, or other old nations all facilities and conveniences are intended for a chosen class, and are not available to the general mass of people…no one here believes that King is The Lord and master of the subjects, and that the subjects and all other things have been created on earth for his benefit; for here the subjects themselves are the rulers and everyone believes that only what is good for the people should be incorporated into the government.” (95)
In a letter written (from Yokohama dated 10 July, 1893) to Alasinga Perumal (from Yokohama dated 10 July, 1893) and his friends in Madras, Vivekananda admonishes the youth of India and the colonial education that turned them into cogs in the wheel of empire:
“A race of dotards, you lose your caste if you come out! Sitting down these hundreds of years with an ever-increasing load of crystallised superstition on your heads, for hundreds of years spending all your energy upon discussing the touchableness or untouchableness of this food or that, with all humanity crushed out of you by the continuous social tyranny of ages — what are you? And what are you doing now? . . . promenading the sea-shores with books in your hands — repeating undigested stray bits of European brainwork, and the whole soul bent upon getting a thirty-rupee clerkship, or at best becoming a lawyer — the height of young India’s ambition — Come out of your narrow holes and have a look abroad. See how nations are on the march! Do you love man? Do you love your country? Then come, let us struggle for higher and better things; look not back, no, not even if you see the dearest and nearest cry. Look not back, but forward!” (37)
Vivekananda was single minded about the purpose of his American sojourn:
“I came to this country not to satisfy my curiosity, nor for name or fame, but to see if I could find any means for the support of the poor in India. If God helps me, you will know gradually what those means are.” ( letter to Haripada Mitra from the house of George W. Hale, Chicago 28 December, 1893, p 62)
Literally broadening one’s outlook is to become a traveller — a paribrajak. चरैवेती “charaiveti” = chara + eva + iti (From the Aitareya Upanishad 7.15) is the refrain that urges one to move on, to change, to transform in the journey of life. He says that the Pundits did not realize that ‘ India is a very small part of the world….’ From Chicago on 15 November 1894 (3) Vivekananda writes :
” The fact of our isolation from all the other nations of the world is the cause of our degeneration and it’s only remedy is getting back into the current of the rest of the world. Motion is the sign of life. America is a grand country. It is a paradise of the poor and women. There is almost no poor in the country, and nowhere else in the world women are so free, so educated, so cultured.” (57)
Ramabai came to America in March 1886 and stayed on till November 1888. She traversed the country and gathered insights that could help her in her single agenda to free Indian women from oppressive patriarchal domination and release them from enslavement. The call was to emulate American feminism that bid for sexual equality in the domestic sphere and participation in public life. Through invitations to speak at several American women’s organizations, Ramabai developed partnerships with feminist leaders like Frances Willard, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Tubman. With the help of Willard and her Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Ramabai published her second full-length book in 1887, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, the first Indian feminist manifesto. 5
The social and cultural mobility of Ramabai and Vivekananda within their own societies and abroad made them into icons — revolutionary figures in their own country and oriental stereotypes on foreign shores. In a Letter written to Alasinga Perumal, the Vedanta scholar (2 November 1893) Vivekananda speaks of his American encounter and the experience of speaking at the World Parliament: “Never before did an Oriental make such an impression on American society.” (54) He had made a spiritual impression on his audience through his exposition on Hinduism that won him respect. When he had first arrived in Chicago he was aware of the ‘curiosity’ that he aroused by his ‘quaint dress’ and difference. Ramabai in her Hindu widow’s weeds attracted the attention and sympathy of American Evangelists who competed with the English to bring ‘sweetness and light’ to benighted populations of India.
Yet this very assumption is challenged by Vivekananda’s observation that the Americans ‘require more spiritual civilization, and we more material’. Vivekananda’s exposition on Hinduism at Chicago renewed the ties of American transcendentalism with Vedantism.
In a letter to the Maharaja of Mysore dated 23 June 1894 from Chicago, Vivekananda wrote:
“On the whole our poor Hindu people are infinitely more moral than any of the Westerners. In religion they practice either hypocrisy or fanaticism. Sober-minded men have become disgusted with their superstitious religions and are looking forward to India for new light. Your Highness cannot realise without seeing, how eagerly they take in any little bit of the grand thoughts of the holy Vedas, which resist and are unharmed by the terrible onslaughts of modern science. The theories of creation out of nothing of a created soul, and of the big tyrant of a God sitting on a throne in a place called heaven and of the eternal hell fires have disgusted all the educated; and the noble thoughts of the Vedas about the eternity of creation and of the soul, and about the God in our own soul, they are imbibing fast in one shape or other…” (117)
Vivekananda lingered on in America after the Parliament as he wanted to set up the Vedanta Societies as “America is the best field in the world to carry on any idea.” Ramabai extended her stay to garner sympathy for deprived Indian womanhood and at the same time to reiterate her culturally shared and intellectually independent status in the context of Indian women.
On these various levels of encounter and cross cultural exchange America and India contributed to the shaping of one another’s social and cultural perceptions. In terms of their education Ramabai and Vivekananda belonged to the elite group in a non-Western society; yet they represented to American peoples the timeless India of an ancient civilization and to the downtrodden peoples of India immense possibilities of a new order. Vivekananda in his letter dated 2 November 1893 wrote:
“Asia laid the germs of civilization, Europe developed man, and America is developing the woman and the masses…the Americans are fast becoming liberal. Judge them not by the specimens of hard-shelled Christians (it is their own phrase) that you see in India….this great nation is progressing fast towards that spirituality which is the standard boast of the Hindu.” (55)
I would like to conclude by saying that the values of democracy and liberalism remain universal values that cut through forms of cultural fundamentalism like language, ethnicity and religion that define the ethos of a civilization. Enlightened travellers like Ramabai and Vivekananda encapsulate the positive value of the encounter of civilizations that mediates violence and promotes mutual tolerance and understanding in the context of a global environment.
1 Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Volume 72, No,3, Summer, 1993. <hks.harvard.edu> Web. Accessed on 15 January 2014, p 24.
2 Whitman, Walt. Prefaces and Prologues. Vol. XXXIX. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. <www.bartleby.com/39/>. Web. Accessed 18 January 2014.
3 Swami Vivekananda’s Addresses At The World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893. Calcutta : Advaita Ashrama, 1993, p 50. Print.
4 Phule, Jyotirao. Gulamgiri, 1873. <https://archive.org/details/Slavery-Gulamgiri> Web. Accessed on 5 January 2014.
5 Ramabai, Pandita. The High-Caste Hindu Woman. Philadelphia: 1887. <https://archive.org/details/highcastehinduwo00ramaiala> Web. Accessed on 5 January 2014.
All references to Vivekananda’s letters are from the following publication:
Vivekananda, Swami. Letters of Swami Vivekananda. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1998. Print.
All references to Ramabai’s text are from the following publication:
Ramabai, Pandita. “The Peoples of the United States” (1899). Returning the American Gaze.
Translated and edited by Meera Kosambi. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003. Print.