John Gray enjoys Pankaj Mishra’s thought-provoking account of European influence, Temptations of the West
Saturday June 10, 2006
Copyright – The Guardian
Temptations of the West by Pankaj Mishra
Buy Temptations of the West at the Guardian bookshop
Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond
by Pankaj Mishra
247pp, Picador, Â£16.99
When the divisions of the cold war were still in place, communist regimes were seen as belonging to an eastern bloc that stood apart from the main body of western civilisation. Given that they were attempts to implement a quintessentially western dream, this was a curious view. Far from being anti-western, communism was hyper-western. Stalinism and Maoism were not versions of oriental despotism – as generations of western scholars have maintained. They were the result of a utopian experiment that aimed to realise the most radical ideals of the European enlightenment. The current view of Islam as being somehow anti-western is just as unreal. In terms of its basic picture of the world Islam belongs in the western tradition of monotheism, and radical Islam is in many ways a hybrid offshoot of Leninism and anarchism – also western ideologies. Like Soviet Russia and Maoist China, Islamist movements owe more to the modern west than we – or they – care to admit.
“The west” is a ramshackle construction that changes shape along with the shifts of geopolitics, and in cultural terms it is just as unsettled. In his previous book, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, Pankaj Mishra showed that the milieu in which the Buddha emerged resembled our own in many ways. Intellectual disorientation and a pervasive mood of nihilism provided fertile ground for the Buddha’s teaching, which offered a remedy for spiritual distress and acted as a catalyst of cultural renewal. In what is now Afghanistan, it created a Greco-Buddhist civilisation whose traces survived a succession of kingdoms and empires until the Taliban set about destroying them. The wheel continues to turn today, with Buddhist philosophy having a stronger resonance in the modern west than that of the ancient Greeks.
The fluidity of cultural frontiers is a recurring theme of Mishra’s work, and it is central to Temptations of the West. Like his study of the Buddha this is a genre-bending book. It begins autobiographically with an account of Mishra’s time as an unofficial student, reading voraciously in the decaying libraries of a run-down Indian university, and continues with his adventurous travels throughout India, Kashmir, Pakistan and Tibet. Today he spends part of the year in India and part in Britain, and his view of both societies is in some ways that of an outsider. His portraits of politicians and officials, business and media people struggling to make sense of their rapidly mutating and sometimes collapsing societies are sharply observed and often poignant. Deeply immersed in the history of the region, he tells the reader more about the true condition of much of Asia today than can be gleaned from any number of weighty academic tomes.
Many of the personalities and landscapes Mishra describes are richly exotic. Bollywood entrepreneurs and their mafia financiers, Kashmiri independence fighters and Tibetan nationalists are only some of the figures who stalk its pages, and his description of the lakes of Kashmir and the Himalayas is vivid and lyrical. Yet there is nothing here that smacks of romantic orientalism. The people he describes are no different from any others in their basic needs, and they have all the usual virtues and vices. Mishra is unflinchingly realistic in his account of the flaws of the societies through which he has travelled. The picture he presents is of societies whose new self-assertion conceals intractable problems. Temptations of the West will make uncomfortable reading for some in India and Pakistan.
What distinguishes this from other accounts of the problems of Asia is Mishra’s sceptical view of the west. He takes it as given that the era in which the world could look to western models is now definitively over. While American neo-conservatives and their followers in Britain dream of crusades for “western values”, the world’s centre of gravity is shifting to countries that reject the west’s universal claims. China and India differ in many ways, but they are at one in insisting on modernising on their own terms. However, as Mishra shows, there is an irony in the rise of Asia. If India and China are now able to challenge western hegemony – in the realm of culture as much as in geopolitics – it is partly because, despite themselves, they have emulated some of the west’s more dubious achievements.
In a brilliant chapter Mishra observes that one of the central aims of India’s 19th-century anti-colonial movements was to invent Hinduism as a religion. As part of building a modern Indian nation that could resist and overthrow British rule, the Hindu elite simplified and remoulded India’s unfathomably rich inheritance of beliefs and practices into something resembling a western creed. Like Shinto in Japan, Hinduism as it figures in Indian politics today is a byproduct of an encounter with the west. In order to resist western domination, Asian peoples have found themselves compelled to copy them. As Mishra observes, India’s anti-colonial elites “denounced British imperialism as exploitative, but even they welcomed its redeeming modernity, and, above all, the European idea of the nation – a cohesive community with a common history, culture, values and sense of purpose – which for many other colonised peoples appeared a way of duplicating the success of the powerful, all-conquering west.” The result has been to exacerbate sectarian divisions, and create them where they did not exist before.
Writing of Benares as he knew it when he lived there in the 1980s, Mishra tells us that he did not know that the ancient Hindu city was also holy for Muslims as well and was unaware of the 17th-century Sufi shrine to be found behind the tea-shack where he spent his mornings reading. In late Mogul times a tolerant Indo-Persian culture flourished in which Islamic and Hindu traditions could coexist and develop without needing clear boundaries between them, but as India has become more like a western state this easy-going hybridity has been compromised. Religion has come to be a tool of the state which is used to homogenise society – just as it was in early modern Europe, and remains in parts of Europe today. In forging themselves into modern states capable of holding their own against western power, Asian countries have found themselves reproducing some of the west’s ugliest features.
Mishra sees India and Pakistan as striving for a modernity they have only partly framed for themselves, and which is still deformed by the inheritance of western colonialism. Strikingly, he is more positive about Tibet – a culture that, more than almost any other, has suffered the ravages of brutal modernisation. Since the Chinese invaded in 1950, about one million Tibetans have died by torture, execution and starvation – a fact that western opinion, anxious not to glamorise the medieval country that existed before the invasion and fearful of jeopardising trade with China, prefers to forget. Despite all the assaults on it, Tibet’s unique culture remains alive, and the Tibetan cause has some vigorous western defenders. Yet Rupert Murdoch voiced a common view when he declared: “The main problem in Tibet is that half the population still thinks the Dalai Lama is ‘the son of God’.” For Murdoch as for Mao, the enduring attachment of Tibetans to their religion only shows how backward they are. If genocide has been done in Tibet, it is all in the cause of progress.
Temptations of the West concludes with the thought that “a freer Tibet, whenever it comes about, may be better prepared for its state of freedom than most societies”. This may seem a remote prospect, but it is not as far-fetched as the idea that the west is the supreme embodiment of human progress. In the end, this subtle, vivid and inexhaustibly thought-provoking book is as much about the illusions that rule the west as it is about lands that lie beyond its frontiers.
âˆ‘ John Gray’s Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern is published by Faber. To order Temptations of the West for Â£15.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.