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Invoking Tradition and Modernity

Vijendra Singh

By Gangeya Mukherji
Routledge, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 240, Rs. 695.00

By Jyotirmaya Sharma
HarperCollins Publishers, India, 2013, pp. 298, Rs. 499.00


During the late-nineteenth and early- twentieth century, many Indian thinkers engaged in articulating their own collective self-identity as a response to colonialism and colonial modernity. They protested against the western mode of thinking, and against the colonial representation of India as an inferior civilization that was divided on the lines of religion, region, language and caste. Conspicuously, in an attempt to articulate an alternative collective self-definition, they interrogated not only the Indian past and tradition but also the categories of modernity. The two books under review illustrate this issue of collective self-identity and their engagement with tradition and modernity in their own distinct ways. However, their reading of Vivekananda’s redefining of the traditional concepts is starkly different. Gangeya Mukherji explains this effort as an attempt to articulate the idea of a socially-committed religion amidst widespread poverty in India. In contrast, Jyotirmaya Sharma argues that Vivekananda’s admiration for the West led him to concoct Hinduism and correlative traditional concepts in consonance with the western model of society.   Mukherji explores the collective self-definition of Tagore and Vivekananda in their articulation of the idea of India. He understands their thought as an alternative to modern chauvinistic nationalism and concerned with the whole of humanity. The distinctness of their thought is seen as lying in their conceptualization of India as a repository of certain ethos and values, rather than as a geographically-specified political entity. Rooted in Indian tradition in the wake of the onslaught of colonial modernity, they insisted on learning from tradition and the past. Accordingly, they outlined the past, selectively invoking texts, concepts, figures and instances from tradition to proffer such an idea of India. Importantly, the author states that such a past was not historical or factual but literal and imaginative; it existed as an ideal in the minds of the thinkers discussed. Hence, while invoking texts, concepts and figures from tradition they reinterpreted and redefined them.   The book unravels Tagore’s idea of India through his trenchant critique of modern nationalism in his prose writings, which the author claims has remained largely unexplored and less translated into English. In Mukherji’s reading, nationalism for Tagore was the embodiment of divisive tendencies which divided people along territorial boundaries, inflated the ego of communities and defined identity in terms of differentiation and confrontation. Indeed, he not only repudiated the aggressive nationalism of the West but also divisive tendencies within the ...

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