Posted on: 5 March 2017

Comparing India and the West
By S.N. Balagangadhara
Universiteit Gent

During the last two decades, I have been pursuing an unorthodox way of studying cultural differences, focusing mainly on the Indian and the western cultures. Because I believe that one can answer questions about the circumscription of the words ‘Indian’ and ‘western’ cultures satisfactorily (Balangangadhara, 1994), I will assume their intelligibility in what follows. In this paper, I want to raise a rather intriguing problem about comparing these two cultures. I shall do that without looking at other approaches to the issue and in the form of an argument. In order to come to the point quickly, let me make use of Said’s Orientalism.

The Challenge of Orientalism

How best should we look at Orientalist discourse? One way: it as a description of the Orient. The second way: it is a description of the western experience of the Orient. I believe the latter to be the case. If we accept that ‘Orientalism’ is how the western culture came to terms with the reality that the East is, then, ‘Orientalism’ refers not only to the discourse about experience but also to the way of reflecting about and structuring this experience. In this sense, even though Orientalism is a discourse about western cultural experience, it is oblique. It is oblique because it appears to be about other cultures. It is ‘western’ in the sense that it refers to the experiences of the members from a particular culture. Orientalism is the western way of thinking about its experience of non-western cultures. However, it takes the form of an apparent discourse about the Orient.

In this process, western culture built and elaborated conceptual frameworks using resources available from its own culture. These descriptions helped in Europe’s description and understanding of itself. That is to say, Europe’s description of other cultures is fundamentally entwined in many untold ways with the way it has experienced the world. The challenge of Orientalism, thus, is a challenge to understand the western culture. That is, to understand the self-description of the West and the way it has described the others is to begin understanding western culture itself.

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