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Let Us Talk About Your Book:
Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"
Part IX

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Q  This is your first monograph ... a huge work, roughly 530 pages. In the Preface to Religion and the Specter of the West, you say that this is NOT the book that you had originally planned to write. How then did this book project take shape? What did you originally start out to write about?

A  Yes, you are right. I did state in the Preface that the book had a long and unusual development. The central issues with which it grapples -- encounter, religion, secularism, translation, subjectivity, Sikh sovereignty, the politics of knowledge construction, etc. -- first became an issue for me in the mid-to-late 1980’s when sections of the Sikh-Indian community were embroiled in a conflict with the Indian state.

The global media had been manipulated by the Indians to project Sikhs and Sikhism in a deeply damaging light. By the time this conflict had peaked in 1992, it was also routinely driving Sikh community politics in the UK, North America and elsewhere, as Sikh organizations fought for control of newly established parties and institutions.

But it also spawned vigorous intellectual debate as many Sikhs, like myself, tried to come to terms with the events that had transformed them into a rogue community somewhat vilified by the state, media and academic apparatus.

One of the crudest stereotypes being propagated by the media, especially in India but also in the West, was that Sikhs were a violent community and a danger to democratic nation states unless they were contained. The Khalsa element in particular was being grossly misrepresented as a cause of communalism.

These stereotypes were widely projected by the tabloid newspapers and it wasn’t long before ordinary Sikhs in the street, or at work, found themselves having to justify their appearance and their very existence.

My personal response to this situation was quite simple. I delved into Sikh history, undertook detailed readings of Sikh scripture (especially Guru Granth Sahib) and also began to analyze the shortcomings of conventional Sikh institutions and their inability to respond to the world around.

My problem at that time, however, was that I was still working in the chemicals industry and I didn’t have the intellectual tools or training necessary to really respond to such a complex situation. So I decided to embark on a program of retraining in the humanities, focusing on two scholarly disciplines: the history of religions, with an area focus on South Asia, and philosophy of religion.

The topic that I initially undertook was a philosophical examination of Sikh scripture or, simply, Sikh hermeneutics.

For those who aren’t familiar with these terms, Sikh hermeneutics is just a fancy word for interpretation of Sikh scripture or, as we say in Punjabi, gurbani vyaakhya or gurmat vichaar.

Basically I wanted to explore key Sikh concepts in the context of today’s world. More importantly, I wanted to operationalize key Sikh concepts. I wanted these key concepts to be able to circulate in the knowledge domain on an equal footing with other concepts. I wanted to enable these concepts to have a voice and a stake in the world we lived in, not just in the private realm of Sikh piety but in the public sphere.

But to enable Sikh concepts to take root and compete in the real world, it was necessary to contest the way in which the world is organized by nation-states, i.e., in terms of the public-private distinction. Some would just call this ‘Sikh theology’ or ‘Sikh ideology’ but this is a naïve and problematic translation. I prefer to call this endeavor ‘Sikh Philosophy‘.

That was the first book that I wanted to write. In fact the originally planned title of my dissertation was going to be “Philosophy of the Sikh Gurus in Comparative Perspective.”

But as I quickly discovered, any hermeneutic, exegetical, philosophical project needed to acknowledge a crucially important fact. Namely, that for any interpretive project to succeed, it was impossible to ignore two things.

First, that any such work would have to be done in English. Because I worked, lived and thought in the Anglophone Western academy, translation was an ever present issue; otherwise it could not be considered as transparent. Secondly, because our context was one of ever-present translation into the Western frame, it was impossible to ignore the historical encounter between Sikhi(sm) and the West in the 19th century, particularly the ideological consequences of translating Sikh scripture into European languages and the political consequences of ceding the Sikh kingdom to a Western power.

So instead of pursuing the originally planned study of Sikh philosophy, I pursued a project which would help me uncover the hidden mechanisms and ideologies lying behind the work of translating between different cultures (such as Sikhi and the West). As you can see, I was still exploring the process of encounter, but the term ‘encounter’ was temporarily displaced by the term ‘translation’. Hence the dissertation title became: “Metaphysics as Cultural Translation.”

Basically, the argument was that if you want to understand the main mechanism behind the crossing of languages and cultures into the Western cultures, at the very least you need to understand the insidious and almost invisible role played by metaphysics. Metaphysics is the mechanism that gives a false impression that nothing has happened when, say, a Sikh term crosses from its original Punjabi context to the Western context.

Metaphysics is the mechanism that makes us believe that translation is a transparent process, a process of simply exchanging words …

Q  Lat’s pause here for a moment. The term ‘metaphysics’ appears quite a bit in “Religion and the Specter of the West.” I was under the impression that metaphysics simply meant something to do with God, the immortal soul, the ‘spiritual’, or ‘religious’… You seem to be saying something very different. Can you explain what you mean by ‘metaphysics’?

A   No, no, no! That’s what I used to think until I began a detailed study of comparative philosophy (Asian and Western) between 1989 and 1992.

Actually the term metaphysics undergoes a series of major revisions over about 800 years in the history of Western philosophy and especially in the modern period. In antiquity it referred to the ultimate as a super-sensuous realm beyond the time and space of our senses.

In medieval philosophy, in the hands of Catholic thinkers such as Aquinas and Suarez, metaphysics continues to signify the ultimate, but now it becomes entwined with the notion of the Christian God, so that God becomes the super-sensuous in opposition to Man and the World of space and time. To reach the ultimate you have to negate the world we live in, the world of our senses, hence the human world.

In the modern period, with the rise of science and atheistic humanism, metaphysics is once again redefined but in an altogether different way. Now it is the human consciousness, the ‘I’, which replaces God as the ultimate foundation of reality.

Metaphysics in the last 400 years or so has become a concern for absolute certainty – and that which is absolutely certain is no longer God but the human ‘I’ or human consciousness.

This displacement of God by Man is called humanism and it gives rise to modern atheism and secularism.

This conceptual redefinition of metaphysics occurs in tandem with political processes such as the displacement of the Church by the secular democratic Nation State. The Nation State represents the rule of men by men (no need to refer to a God). God and traditional religion is banished to the realm of the Private, and the administrators of the nation State (i.e., politicians) now make the rules for the Public sphere – the sphere that is ruled by the human ‘I’ – or, simply, human reason.

So metaphysics is not something benign, cosy, warm and spiritual. It represents the cold rule of human reason for one single purpose: to dominate other human beings and to use the resources of the planet in the quest for absolute domination.

Once the European administrators had finished restructuring Europe along secular lines, they turned their attention towards the East, and so began the period of European imperialism.

Metaphysics is not something you can snuggle up to. It is a disease designed to afflict and weaken the human mind by weakening our physical senses through which we interact with and construct our world. Metaphysics makes the mind desire an ‘eternal world’ that is beyond the senses.

And so, by devaluing the world we live in, we devalue our own senses. At the spiritual level it represents the displacement of God by human reason even though it continues the pretence of believing in God. In fact, experience of God is replaced by a belief in God and this belief system is nothing but the work of human reason.

Metaphysics also carries a blueprint for the domination of man and world, whether in the name of God or in the name of human reason. This domination does not have to occur through military means. It occurs by exporting metaphysics to other cultures through the process of translation, so that other cultures are duped to believing that we are all the same.

The password of metaphysics is the equalization of languages and cultures. It pretends to place everything on a level playing field, to make everything the same. But this equalization is an illusion. In other words, metaphysics is the soul of the West (especially when the West sets itself in opposition to the non-West).

Or, as I suggest in the title of my book – metaphysics is the specter of the West.

Is it not obvious how this kind of metaphysics (where the role of human reason, the ego that says ‘I’, the role of this ego becomes absolute) is almost the exact opposite of what the Sikh Gurus teach?

The Gurus tell us that the ego left to its own devices becomes a disease. The ego must be contested from within.

That’s the core message of the Sikh Gurus as it is of many other spiritual adepts.

And that’s why metaphysics needs to be contested …

To be Continued Next week …

March 19, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: G Singh (United Kingdom), March 19, 2014, 10:46 AM.

Absolutely fascinating ... some of the previous bits were harder to understand and couched in complex terminology, but it's all coming together now.

2: S. Kaur (USA), March 21, 2014, 7:17 PM.

It's an interesting hypothesis. However, wouldn't translating "haumai" as "ego" be "equalizing" the two?

3: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), March 22, 2014, 5:36 AM.

A human being is an embodyment of God's light [GGS:441 - "munn too(n) jot ..."). There is nothing that we cannot achieve. All that needs to be done involves one's own mental and physical efforts. Referring to the article, this applicability of metaphysics to the human mind with division between East and West is only imaginary.

4: George Matcham (USA), March 22, 2014, 3:38 PM.

So reason and rationality are metaphysical imperialism?

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Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"
Part IX"

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