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The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

Author(s): Gyan Prakash


Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 23, No. 3, Front Lines/Border Posts (Spring, 1997), pp. 536556
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Critical Inquiry

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The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

Gyan Prakash

But, why do nations celebrate their hoariness, not their astonishing


youth?
- BENEDICT ANDERSON 1
In 1895 a bitter dispute broke out in the north Indian town of Vazirabad
between the Arya Samaj, a Hindu revivalist group, and orthodox Hindu
intellectuals. The dispute centered on the rationality and legitimacy of
shraddha, the ritual of ancestor worship. The Arya Samaj, established in

1875, denounced this and other Hindu rituals as manifestations of superstitious beliefs invented by priestcraft and contrary to the scientific wisdom contained in the Vedas, which it considered the authentic source of
Hinduism. The orthodox Hindu intellectuals of Vazirabad took exception to the Arya Samaj's relentless attack on shrdddha as unscientific and
illegitimate, and agreed to a debate. The disputation was held in May
1895 to answer the question, Should the ancestral ritual propitiate only
the living or both the living and the dead? Pandit Ganesh Datta Shastri,
arguing the orthodox case, wrote an essay in Sanskrit defending the ritual
against the Arya Samaj, which was represented by two scholars who

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.


1. BenedictAnderson,"NarratingtheNation," TimesLiterarySupplement, 13June 1986,
p. 659.
Critical Inquity 23 (Spring 1997)

O 1997 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/97/2303-0008$01.00. All rights reserved.

536

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Critical Inquiry

Spring 1997 537

jointly wrote an essay on the subject.2 The two sides disagreed on the
impartiality of the Indian Orientalist judges and forwarded the essays to
Max Muller at Oxford for arbitration. Muller replied in September 1896,
stating that ancestor worship, found among both Aryan and non-Aryan
nations, arose "simply from a very natural human feeling to give up
something that is dear to us, to those who were dear to US."3 No one
asked if the departed came back to eat the offerings made. The shraddha
encompassed both the departed and the living; the ceremony was held
when remaining members of the family partook of a meal offered to both
the living and the dead. Soon, however, superstition took over and people
began to believe that the departed returned in bodily shapes to partake
of the offerings, and "then the scoffers began to say that the Shraddhas
were absurd because the departed spirits were never seen to consume
them or benefit from them."4 Muller then quoted from the Vedas to establish that the ceremony honored both the dead and the living. Apparently the Arya Samajists, stung by Muller's verdict, responded by hiring
drummers who paced up and down the town, drumming the charge that
the letter was forged.

At the center of the dispute over shraddha was its authorization as a


rational and scientific ritual. Such a framing of the authority of Hinduism
may appear peculiar, but it illustrated the extraordinary burst of conviction in the antiquity and authenticity of Hindu science that British India
witnessed during the late nineteenth century. This conviction was shared
by Hindu intellectuals ranging from religious reformers to practicing scientists who spoke repeatedly and obsessively of a forgotten but true religion of the ancient Hindus and contrasted it with the "irrationality" and
"corruption" of contemporary Hinduism. Attributing the contemporary
state of Hinduism to the loss of ancient Hindu science, these intellectuals
seized on such issues as the existence of the caste system, the condition
of women, and the grip of priesthood and rituals to demonstrate that

2. [Ganesh Datta Shastri], ShAstrdtha beech arya Samaj aur Pandit Ganesh Datta Shastri

[The Disputation between the Arya Samaj and Pandit Ganesh Datta Shastri] (Lahore, 1896),
pp. 1-16, provides details leading up to the disputation and the personalities involved.
3.

Quoted

in

ibid.,

p.

19.

4.

Quoted

in

ibid.,

p.

20.

Gyan P>kash is associate professor in the department of history,


Princeton University. He is the author of Bonded Histories: Genealogies of
Labor Servitude in Colonial India (1990) and the editor of After Colonialism:
Imperzal Historzes and Postcolonial Displacements (1995). He is currently pre-

paring a manuscript on science and the imagination of modern India.

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538 Gyan Prakash

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

irrationality and unreason had so overpowered the Hindus as to render


them powerless before the West.

The criticism of indigenous traditions was not new; contrary to British beliefs, Hindu religious practices included lively traditions of critical
thought What was new, however, was the invocation of science's authority
in the critique of religion and society. The beginnings of this authority

can be traced back to the early-nineteenth-century "civilizing mission,"


which identified reason with the West. A sense of awakening to reason
and of a renaissance took hold among the emergent Western-educated
elite, which saw itself as uniquely placed to reform and revive traditions.
Its project of reform expanded and took a new shape after the 1830s,

when colonial policies began to change under the combined influence of


utilitarianism, evangelicalism, and the successful attack against Orientalist learning. As new technologies of governance- geological and land
surveys, census operations, mining, telegraphs, railways, medical and
sanitary establishments- emerged, they became modes of articulating

science's authority. Science came to signify not just scientific research in


laboratories but also new forms of rule and authority; it became a metaphor for rationality, modernity, and power. Thus, even as Indians took
up scientific education and research, the reach of science's authority extended far beyond the laboratory to function as a grammar of social and
cultural transformation. Formed in this milieu, the Hindu educated elite
projected science as the true heritage of its religion and culture and represented itself as the agent for the "recovery" of the nation supposedly
lost to myth and superstition. There appeared powerful movements to

reconfigure the flawed body of contemporary Hinduism in the immaculate shape of ancient Hindu science, and Hindu intellectuals reached

back for the ancient knowledge of the Hindus to recover the space of the
modern nation. Such efforts were reinforced by the findings of European
Orientalists and Indian scholars showing that the ancient Indian culture
could rightfully boast of significant achievements in fields ranging from
mathematics to medicine. Elaborating, substantiating, and seizing on
these findings, Hindu intellectuals claimed that their ancient religion dis-

covered and incorporated scientific truths, that science was Hindu. With
science signifying religion, culture, and the nation, not just laboratory
practices, the representation of the modern nation as the return of ar-

chaic Hindu science became a compelling and enduring trope in the nationalist imagination, a trope that survives powerfully into the present.
What are we to make of the cultural representation of the modern
nation as the return of ancient solidarity? How should we understand the
representation of the signs of the modern nation- science and reasonin the images of the archaic? Benedict Anderson reminds us that to
"think" the nation in the myth of origins is to forge a compelling sense of
contemporary collective belonging that "loom[s] out of an immemorial

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Critical Inquiry

Spring 1997 539

past, and, still more important, glide[s] into a limitless future."5 From this
point of view, the composition of modern India with the artifice of an
archaic Hindu science was an attempt to create an undivided origin for
the contemporary nation, to authorize it as the recovery of an original
unity and purity. Science became an instrument of this project because
its authority permitted the Hindu intellectuals to reshape and resituate
religion as the embodiment of eternal and universal laws. As Hindu reviv-

alism expressed and became the instrument of science's status as objective


knowledge, that revivalism gained an extraordinary force. With the help
of science, Hindu elites could represent the contemporary division of
Hinduism into different sects and cults as illegitimate or superficial differences introduced by the passage of time. In place of these divisions,
they invoked the image of a universal and singular archaic religion, validated by science, to forge difference into unity, multiplicity into singular-

ity. Thus, the idea of ancient Hindu science functioned as a project to


constitute a modern national subject-homogenous, whole, and pure.
While Arlderson helps us to understand that the evocation of a
mythic past functions as a claim to homogerleity, we still have to explain
why the language of impossible holism never manages to erase uncertainty and contention in the modertl nation's representation and why the
atavism of origins and organicity remains haunted by alienating otherness. We can identify this indeterminacy and unease in the Hindu intellectuals' representation of the national subject in its "recovery" from
divisions, defeat, and loss; we find the image of cohesion and synchronicity cracked, the solidity of the Hindu past hollowed out, when the "nationness" of modern India appears in the restoration of archaic unity
from contemporary difference.6 To recognize this instability in discourse
is to reopen for examination the authority of the homogeneity and solidity of the modern nation asserted in the claim to hoariness; it is to ask

how the recounting of the nation's defeat and divisions punctuates the
continuistic narrative of progress and evolution.
Homi Bhabha suggests that the divided practice of cultural representation is intrinsic to the narration of the nation.7 Pointing to a tension
5. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Refections on the Origan and Spread of Nationalism

(London, 1983), p. 19.

6. Drawing on Walter Benjamin, Anderson calls this sense of cohesion and simultaneity

"homogenous, empty time" a form of temporality that replaces the medieval conception of simultaneity-along-time. It permits people who do not know each other
to imagine that they and their actions are linked together by synchronicity, that they
form a nation because they are temporally coincident-they occupy the "homogenous empty time." [Ibid., pp. 30-31]
7. See Homi K. Bhabha, "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the
Modern Nation," in Nation anzl Narration, ed. Bhabha (London, 1990), pp. 291-322; hereaf-

ter abbreviated "D."

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540 Gyan Prakash

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

that arises in the imagination of the nation as it moves betwee-n co


ing the people as a pedagogical object and signifying them as subjects of
the nation's performance, he suggests that the narration of the nation
assumes and represents the foundational fiction of national unity and
self-generation at the same time as it remains "obsessively fixed upon, and
uncertain of, the boundaries of society, and margins of the text" ("D," p.
296). The narrative moves between these two positions because while the
notion of the nation as an a priori, preconstituted unity empowers its
functioning, the nation's authority is performed, using Ernest RenaSs
terms, in a "daily plebiscite."8 Compelled to produce the epochal existence of the nation in the precariousness of the everyday, the discourse
seeks to reproduce national unity from difference; it tries to repeatedly
represent the nation as "out of many one" ("D," p. 294). In this double
movement, the undivided, organic subject of enunciation the nation,
the people is split as it is crossed by the signification of a nation formed
out of"contentious, unequal interests and identities within the population" ("D," p. 297).9

Just such a loss of homogeneity and holism is entailed in the representation of modern India as the return of the archaic. For, how can the
modern nation emerge continuous with the past when it is evoked as a
form of return, as a repetition of the past? The notion of an organic nation, developing harmoniously and continuously in accordance with its
tradition, is necessarily alienated when the present appears as a palimpsest of the past, when the modern nation is expressed as a belated realization of the "before." In such a representation the past appears not as an
origin but as an anteriority. Unlike the organicist notion, which draws an
unbroken line between the origin and the present, the idea of the modern
nation as the return of the archaic introduces a sharp break between the
past and the present; the past irrupts, it does not evolve, into the present.
As the contemporary national self emerges in the differential sign of the
"return," as its time is expressed in the repetition of another time, an
alienating otherness becomes the necessary mode of enunciating the filllness of the nation. In this sense, the representation of the modern nation
as the return of the archaic disrupts the language of origins and organicity and invokes the past as anteriority, as an otherness in which the identification of the national self occurs.
The representation of the modern nation as the return of the archaic, then, constitutes a profoundly disjunctive process a process that
entails the evocation and displacement of the mythic past, a linear history,
8. Renan writes, "a nation's existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life" (quoted in "D," p.
310). Renan's essay, "What Is a Nation?" from which this quotation is cited, is reprinted in
the same volume; see Ernest Renan, "What Is a Nation?" trans. Martin Thom, in Nation and
Narration, pp. 8-22.

9. Bhabha terms these simultaneous movements pedagogical and performative.

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Critical Inquirw Spring 1997

541

and a homogeneous people. This is not to restate the familiar refrain that
origins are never undivided but always split. Nor is it to cotlclude that
the "reality" of heterogeneous cults and sects explodes the "myth" of the

homogeneous nation rooted in archaic science. Rather, it is to set


the stage for exploring the disjunction of the myth of homogeneity as
the most productive and precarious moment in cultural representation.
I regard the disjunction as productive because the representation of the

present as the double and repetition of the past rather than as its growth
and fulfillment readied the discourse to invade every contemporary context and every facet of people's life; the contemporary arena of divided
and contending cultural traditions and social forces became available for
the recuperation of the nation, for the project to "recover" it in the image

of the archaic. In this sense, the evocation of the past as an anteriority,


not an origin, was a productive moment in the performance of the modern nation. By the same token, the emergence of the past as an anteriority
was the discourse's precarious moment. It was then that the irruption,
not progression, of ancient Hindu science into the present estranged the
modern nation. The cotltemporary nation, reflected in the mirror of the
archaic, could not but emerge disfigured and distorted. It was from this

estrangement and distortion, from an experience of loss, that modern


India had to be refigured and recovered.
To identify the disjunctive mode of the representation of the nation,
then, is to mark it as a point of stress and struggle; it is to outline openings
for criticism, contention, and revision intrinsic to the performance of the
modern nation. It is with this aim of highlighting the space for critical

revisions and interventions immanent in the imagination of the modern


nation that I turn to the representation of modern India in the image of

ancient Hirldu science during the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries.

Hindu Revival and Hindu Science


The cultural representation of the modern nation in its past gathered powerful momentum during the second half of the nineteenth century and was expressed in the rise of Hindu revivalism. This revival,
drawing to its fold the educated elite ranging from religious reformers to

practicing scientists, entailed the "discovery" and valorization of ancient


Hindu texts as authentic and authoritative. Shaping and shaped by this

Hindu revivalism, the expression of the modernity of the Irldian nation


in the science of the ancient Hindus became a pervasive and enduring
feature of the nationalist imagination.
No leader exemplified Hindu revivalism better than Swami Day-

anand Saraswati, the charismatic and audacious preacher and reformer


whose program of reviviIlg the Vedic Hinduism of the ancient Aryas

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542 Gyan Prakash

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

(Aryans) spread across northern India during the late nineteenth century.

His teachings and magnetic influence led to the establishment of the Arya
Samaj, which quickly made its mark among educated Hindus, particularly in Punjab.l Asserting the superiority of Vedic Hinduism over all
religions, the Arya Samaj's mission was to restore a pristine and classical
Vedic religion cleansed of such "corrupt" accretions as priesthood, the
caste system, idol worship, child marriage, and prohibitions on widow
remarriage and female education. This vision of a pure, scientific Hinduism of the Vedas was based on the authority and originality that Dayanand claimed for the Vedas as science. Dayanand advanced this claim
relentlessly in his writings, speeches, sermons, and in several debates he
staged with orthodox Hindu pundits, Christian missionaries, and Muslim
theologians.ll Brazenly charging his opponents with ignorance and superstition, he claimed that whereas modern science confirmed the Vedic
understanding of the universe, other religions violated the elementary
principles of reason. The Vedas were superior to other texts and traditions not only on this account, but also because they were the oldest.
The historians of all nations on the earth unanimously attest that

formerly knowledge travelled from India to Egypt, thence to Greece,


thence to Europe, and so forth. It is [for] this reason that no religion
can have the genuine history of this country. The Aryas possess the
knowledge of the creation and destruction of the world from the
Veda and other sacred scientific books, acknowledged even by their
opponents to be the most ancient records of knowledge. [Quoted in
26 p. 171]
Because the Vedas embodied the earliest science, only the Aryas, the most
ancient people and the possessors of "the most ancient records of knowledge," could answer questions about creation and offer their country's

"genuine history." Such a claim on behalf of the Vedas and for the Aryas'
right to represent their nation's history could not be confined to philosophical matters but had to extend to the daily practice of Vedic religion

if the modern Hindus were to be refashioned in the image of their scientific forebears. This meant that the Vedic rituals- of which homa, or the
sacrificial fire, was the most important-had to be represented as scien-

tific in inspiration and purpose. This was important because Dayanand's


reinterpretation of the Vedas was formed in opposition to popular Hindu
rituals of worship and devotion. Anticipating that the Vedic sacrificial fire
and the recitation of hymns might be subjected to the same critique that
he had directed at popular Hinduism, Dayanand offered explanations
10. See Kenneth W. Jones, Arya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century Punjab
(Berkeley, 1976), pp. 13-29, 36-66.
11. For an account of some of these debates, see Durga Prasad, A Trtumph of Truth
(Lahore, 1889), pp. 29-33, 36-41, 70-78; hereafter abbreviated T

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Critical Inquiry Spring 1997

543

that invoked the authority of science. In Satyartha Prakdsh, the canonic


text of the Arya Samaj, Dayanand first recommends homa, the sacrifici
fire, and then poses questions that he answers:
(Question) What is the use of homa?
(Answer) Everyone knows that foul air and water breed disease,

diseases cause unhappiness in human beings, whereas fragrant air


and water promote health and the destruction of disease provides
happiness.

(Question) It is useful to apply the sandalwood paste on some-

one's person and to offer clarified butter in a meal. The knowledgeable do not destroy and waste them in fire.
(Answer) If you knew the laws of matter which state that a sub-

stance is indestructible, you would never say such a thing. Look,


when homa is conducted, men living in places far away from its site
breathe the fragrant air just as surely as they take in the foul air. This

is because fire breaks matter into fine particles which mix with and
are carried by air to great distances, and negate pollution.'2
To suggest that the Vedic homa purified the atmosphere by fragment-

ing matter into fine, light particles was to throw science the sign of the
modern nation into the ordeal of the Vedic fire. Science emerged from
this sacrificial fire with an ancient Hindu rationality, staging the practice
of Vedic rituals as the performance of the modern Indian nation. Such a
performance of the nation appealed to educated Hindus, who flocked to
the Arya Samaj and found the subjectivity of modern India signified in
its Vedic rituals.

The authority of the Vedas as science and as a sign of the nation was
part of a general revaluation and positioning of the Hindu past as an
expression of the nation. The idea of Hindu science, developed initially
by Orientalist research, became pervasive in elite Hindu culture by the
late nineteenth century, extending beyond the circle of religious reformers. Widely circulated by middle-class journals and pamphlets, the authority of Hindu science was endorsed by philosophers and scientists.
Consider, for example, the writings of P. C. Ray, the well-known Bengali
chemist and influential teacher at Presidency College, Calcutta, where he
12. Dayanand Saraswati, Satydrtha PrakAh [The Light of Truth], 2d ed. (1882; Delhi,
1963), pp. 55-56. So firm was the belief in the efficacy of the sacrificial fire that when an
editor of a newspaper suggested that McDugall's powder, instead of butter, be used as a
disinfectant, the Arya Samaj responded,

We pity this knowledge of the Editor with respect to the Hom philosophy of the
Aryas.... We will simply ask the learned Editor to state what obnoxious gases there
are in the atmosphere and how does McDugall's powder clean the atmosphere of
them. The truth is that he believes this powder to be a disinfectant at the most because it is so regarded by English Science. The ancient Scientific world with him has
no existence. ["Editorial Notes," The Arya Patrika, Lahore, 7 Dec. 1886, p. 6]

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544 Gyan Prakash

The JfIodern Nation's Return in the Archaic

taught from 1889 to 1916. His two-volume A Historw of Hindu Chem


(1902-9) was an example of sober and academic classicism and commanded notice as it painstakingly reconstructed the history of the ancient
chemical theories and practices.l3 Ray's accomplishment in establishing a
Hindu scientific heritage attracted a favorable response from scientists
and nonscientists alike. Lauded in the most prestigious scientific journal
in India at the time,l4 his meticulous reconstruction of a Hindu scientific
heritage was also hailed as "epoch-making" by a general periodical and
produced calls for pursuing modern science by resuscitating archaic
knowledge: "Let us imitate the example of the ancient Hindus, let us
follow the foot-steps of modern Hindus like Dr. Ray." 15
Ray became something of a cult figure and was invited frequently to
deliver public lectures. These lectures drew on his A H^story of Hindu
Chemzstry and concerned, not surprisingly, the theme of the Hindu scientific heritage. Thus, in a lecture delivered in 1918, Ray declared that the
Hindus had developed their chemistry long before the Arabs or the West
and that their achievements in chemistry formed a part of their general
scientific accomplishments.l6 These accomplishments extended to several
other sciences, proving that Hindu chemists, "far from being mythical,
existed in real flesh and blood," although their attainments had remained
unrecognized.l7 These forgotten Hindu chemists could be heard speaking again, demanding our attention, Ray announced to his audience in
another lecture he delivered in Madras:
Thus it is that even after a lapse of 7, 8, or 10 centuries, Govinda,
Somadeva, Nagarjuna, Ramachandra, Svachchanda Bhairava and
others appeal to modern India in eloquent terms from dust-laden
shelves and worm-eaten tomes and manuscripts not to give up the
pursuit of the Science they so dearly professed. As I find gathered
round me the flower of youth in MadrasS may I join in the appeal so
eloquently given utterance to by the chemist Nagarjuna some 1000
years ago: "For 12 years I have worshipped in thy temple, O Goddess; if I have been able to propitiate thee, vouchsafe to me, thy devotee, the rare knowledge of Chemistry." 18

13. See P. C. Ray, A Htstory of Hindt4 Chemistry from the Earliest Times to the Miile of the
S?:cteenth Century A.D., rev. ed., 2 vols. (Calcutta, 1904-25).

14. See Manindranath Banerjea, "On Ancient Hindu Conception of Ether," Proceedings of the Indian Association for the C?lltivation of Science 1 ( l 915): 62.
15. Review of A History of Hindu Chem2stry from the Earliest Ti7nes to the MidWle of the Six-

teenth Centurys.D., by Ray, Kayastha Samachar [Kayastha News] 6 (Nov. 1902): 431.

16. See Ray, Antiquity of Hindu Chemistry bA Lecture Delivered by Dr. P C. Ray, D.Sc.] (Calcutta, 1918), p. 3.
17.

18.

Ibid.,

Ray,

p.

12.

Pursuit

(Calcutta, 1918), p. 15; hereafter abbreviated P

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Crztical Inquiry

Spring 1997 545

While Ray made an eloquent plea on behalf of Hindu chemistry, others rose to the defense of Ayurveda, a system of medical ideas and practices first set out in the Vedas and elaborated subsequently in other
treatises, most notably in Caraka-sanhita and Susr7lta-sanhita. Ayurveda
had come under increasing attack as quackery by the practitioners of
Western medicine, but it was defended spiritedly as science not only by
Ayurvedic practitioners but also by those who regarded it as Hindu science.l9 One such able and influential defender was G. Srinivasa Murti, a
Tamil Brahmin Sanskrit scholar and a doctor trained in Western medicine. Srinivasa Murti's combination of classical Sanskritic erudition and
modern Western education drew him to theosophy.20 The Theosophical
Society, since the establishment of its headquarters in Madras in 1882,
was quick to win influence among the Tamil upper-caste elite, first under
Madam Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, and then under Annie
Besant's leadership, because its heady mixture of the occult, mesmerism,
and positivism authorized its strong Flefense of ancient Brahminical wisdom. Functioning in this milieu, Srinivasa Murti was well positioned to
provide a scientific justification for Ayurveda when he was appointed in
1921 by the Madras government as the secretary of a committee charged
to study indigenous medicine. In the report he submitted in 1923, Srinivasa Murti defended Ayurveda and the Hindu scientific method.2l His
purpose, however, was not to render Ayurveda identical to Western science. Thus, as he showed resemblance and convergence, he also asserted
the irreducible difference of Hindu science. He did so not only by claiming that Hindu methods were superior to Western methods but, more
interestingly, by refuting the charge that Ayurveda's intimacy with religion and philosophy crippled its scientific status. Srinivasa Muri wrote,
To understand this position, we must first realize that, to the Hindu,
"Philosophy" was not a matter for mere speculation or intellectual

19. Accounts of these attacks and a vigorous defense of Ayurveda appear in Kaviraj
T. S. Ram. Bhishagratna, In Defence of Ayurveds (An Answer to ffie Attack of A?lrueds by Dr. 77 M.

Nadir, M.D.) (Cachinnate, 1909). The author was a senior physician at the Vivekananda
Ayurvedic Hospital, Cachinnate. See also Shaukat Rai Chaudhary, Aytlrveda Ka Vaagyanik
Swaroop [The Scientific Structure of Ayurveda] (Kangri, 1918), pp. 2-3, for an account of
criticisms levelled against Ayurveda.

20. Srinivasa Murti went on to head the Government School of Indian Medicine, established in 1925, and served in that capacity until 1942. For biographical details on Srinivasa Murti, see "Doctor G. Srinivasamurti A Memoir," in The Doctor G. S"nivasamurti Birth
Centenswy, ed. the Doctor G. Srinivasamurti Foundation (Madras, 1987), pp. 1-10, esp. pp.
2-4.

21. See G. Srinivasa Murti, "Secretary's Minute," Report of the Commattee on Indtgenous
Systems of Medicine (Madras, 1923). This was resubmittedS in a slightly revised form, as a
report to the Committee on Indigenous Systems of Medicine, Government of India, and
published as Srinivasa Murti, Science a7uS the Art of Indun Medicine (Madras, 1948); hereafter
abbreviated S.

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546 Gyan Prakush

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

edification; from his standpoint, no subject of inquiry was worthy


study, unless it helped the student to so regulate his life as to lead
him to that state of perfection called Moksha. The modern Western
conception of Philosophy as a pure speculative, theoretical study dissociated, as it were, from the actual problems of life had no place in
his scheme of life; his justification of philosophy was not merely its
excellence as a theory of speculation, but its intense practical value
in regulating one's daily life; in other words, the great value to him
of philosophy was that it served as the basis of certain ethical rules
and physical practices, broadly included under the term "Religion,"
although modern Westerners would label some portions of it as
"Ethics" and others as "Science." [S, pp. 39-40]
Although the Hindu scientific method resembled Western reasoning, its
theories and concepts were different and could not be made to correspond to Western knowledge without violating their integrity: "We
should not torture Ayurvedic Texts to read into them modern Allopathic
teachings through forced comparisons and fanciful interpretations" (S, p.
85). Based on its own principles and premises, Hindu science was ineluctably different.

What enabled the claim for the ineluctable difference of Hindu science was the prior existence of a modern Indian nation; at work was a
national subject that asserted the right to represent India in Vedic science. And yet, it was Hindu chemistry that produced and legitimated the
subjectivity of the modern nation; modern India came into being as it
listened to the appeal of Govinda and Somadeva "after a lapse of 7, 8, or
10 centuries," to the utterance of"the chemist Nagarjuna some 1000
years ago." Thus, even as Dayanand, Ray, and Srinivasa Murti gave themselves the right to represent India, it was their pronouncements that authorized this right through a "fabulous retroactivity."22

Recovering the Lost Nation


This tension in the a priori right to represent that, in turn, is produced retroactively in representations brings to light the strain Bhabha
identifies in pedagogical and performative representations of the nation
(see "D," pp. 298-99).23 Under this strain, the national subject revealed a
22. This phrase is Derrida's, speaking of the "the people" in whose name the American Declaration of Independence was signed. He writes that this people did not exist prior
to the Declaration: "The signature invents the signer. This signer can only authorize himor herself to sign once he or she has come to the end [parsenu au voutl, if one can say this,
of his or her own signature, in a sort of fabulous retroactivity" (Jacques Derrida, "Declarations of Independence," New Political Science, no. 15 [Summer 1986]: 10).

23. Derrida evokes something similar in writing of the undecidability in the constative
and performative structures of utterance. See ibid., pp. 8-12.

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Critical Inquiry

Spring 1997 547

trace of inadequacy as its retroactive authorization deferred its presence,


as the present of the nation was relocated in the past. We can identify
this inadequacy in the evocation of loss and defeat that characterized the
Indian nationalist representation of their present. In this sense, the nationalist celebration of India's hoariness, its evocation of a compelling
sense of homogeneity, solidity, and unity, could not but produce a powerful experience of loss, degeneration, and difference. The glory of ancient
Hinduism, far from projecting an origin evolving harmoniously into the
present, made the ignominy of India's contemporary subjection to British
rule all too evident. Therefore, Hindu science, functioning as the anteriority rather than the origin of modern India, had to be experienced as
lost in the present so that it could be rediscovered.24 Just as surely as
the nationalist intellectuals returned to the past to find India in ancient
Hinduism, so also did they go over the same ground to find the archaic
nation lost to superstition, priestcraft, the medieval "dark ages," and Muslim invasions. The experience of loss, however, became the fertile ground
for the proliferation of strategies designed to regain and renegotiate the
nation. Several different visions of modern India emerged from the
breakup of the solidity of the archaic nation.

The loss of Hindu greatness formed a staple of the Orientalist diet,


but its powerful function in the nationalist discourse was to bring the
modern nation to life. Highlighting this function of the notion of loss,
the Arya Samaj stated: "The main purpose of the Arya Samaj is to diffuse,
to the best of its powers, those sublime truths which are contained in the
Vedas, and thus regenerate the Hindu nation."25 The idea of regeneration
derived force from the belief that India was the cradle of civilization. All
the sciences and arts and religions, Dayanand asserted, originated in
Vedic India.26 But then came the Great War in India, the Mahabharata,
when learned men and philosophers were slain on the battlefield. Knowledge declined; the religion of the Vedas disappeared or was perverted by
the Brahmins, who had become ignorant; fraud, superstition, and irreligion flourished; and numerous religious sects were born. An Indian
priesthood took root, convinced the Kshatriya warriors and kings that
their word was the pronouncement of god himself, and flourished in the
lap of luxury. It invented idol worship, temples, and the idea of incarnations to ensnare the masses and prevent them from accepting Jainism.
Thus arose Puranic Hinduism, a system of false beliefs and idolatry.27
24. Anderson captures something of this ambivalent imagination of the nation when
he asks, "why are untold sums of money spent each year to teach the young to 'remember'
certain things that they are simultaneously taught to 'have already forgotten'?" (Anderson,
"Narrating the Nation," p. 659).

25. "Some Suggestions in Connection with Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College," Arya Patr7ks, Lahore, 3 May 1887, p. 3; emphasis mine.
26. See Dayanand, Satydrtha Prakdshn pp. 368-69.
27.

See

ibid.,

pp.

369-406.

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548 Gyan Prakash

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

How could such false beliefs overpower the true knowledge of the Vedas?
According to Dayanand, Puranic Hinduism was victorious because
people, "naturally prone to indulgences of imagination and ignorance,"
were unable to live the difEcult life imposed by the science of the Vedas.
As people succumbed to the bewitching charms of poetry, "science gave
way to the spell of mythology, which soon spread over the world with the
speed of electricity" (quoted in W p. 235). Ridiculing the Puranic mythology, Dayanand wrote, "for instance, Baly, a monkey king of Mysore, wrestled with Ravan, the ten-headed giant king of Ceylon, and, having got
the monster under the armpit, forgot to take him out for six months.
They don't tell us if he was given regular rations all the while" (quoted in
X p. 239). Such stories told by the Puranas were more likely to appeal to
our "degenerate sense" than the dry, abstract truths of the Vedas and
produced idolatry and fanciful notions of incarnation. As a result, wrote
Guru Datta Vidyarthi, the militant Arya Samaj leader,

The broad and universal distinction of all training into professional


and liberal has been altogether lost sight of in the Puranic mythology,
and like everything else has been contracted into a narrow, superstitious sphere of shallow thought. The Vedas, instead of being regarded as universal text-books of liberal and professional sciences,
are now regarded as simply codes of religious thought. Religion, instead of being grasped as the guiding principle of all active propensities of human nature, is regarded as an equivalent of certain creeds
and dogmas.28

In the cold light of reason and science of the Vedas, Puranic Hinduism,
whose myths, legends, and deities formed the stuff of the daily popular
religion, appeared childish. Puranic Hinduism had managed to pervert
even the meaning of Vedic philosophy; "instead of being regarded as universal text-books" of science, the Vedas became a religion-a body of
"certain creeds and dogmas."

This sense of the decay and loss of the science of the Vedas animated
the Arya Samaj's powerful reformist critique of Puranic Hinduism and
plunged it into numerous controversies. These critiques and controversies were not inconsequential debates on arcane theological matters but
vital contests concerned with the project to create a new national subject
in the regenerated Arya. Aimed at renewing the Aryan personality by
refashioning daily life, this project drew inspiration from Dayanand's
Satyartha Prakash, much of which was devoted to outlining rules of daily
living. Dayanand's bitter denunciation of astrology as superstition, for example, was animated by the concern to diminish the influence of priest-

28. Pandita Guru Datta Vidyarthi, Wisdom of the Rish2s, or Complete Works of Pandita Guru
Datta Vidyarthi, ed. Swami Vedananda Tirtha (Lahore, n.d.), p. 99.

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Critical Inquiry Spring 1997

549

hood on the daily life of the Hindus. He argued that once people gained
the true knowledge of the physical world contained in the Vedas, they
would cease to depend on the priests and astrologers who hoodwinked
the ignorant by attributing diseases and misfortunes to planetary influences.29

The Arya Samaj carried Dayanand's legacy forward by conducting


pamphlet wars on Hindu rituals and beliefs. In these wars, the Arya Samaj constructed the Hindu nation by laying it open, exposing it to the
contagion of difference-a difference that it then proceeded to remove.
Such a strategy of reviving the modern Indian nation by expelling the
admitted difference can be observed in a Hindi pamphlet that the Arya
Samaj published in 1893 to refute the ancestral ritual of shraddha attributed to the Puranas. Consisting of a fictional disputation between an Arya
and a Pauranik (a Puranic believer), the text rigs the discussion in favor
of the Arya Samaj, demanding that the efficacy of the shraddha ritual be
proved and demonstrated with evidence. The Arya commands that the
Pauranik explain how his ancestors return from the world of the dead to
consume food offered in the ritual, and then disputes the explanation
offered.

Arya: Okay, let us assume that they shed their gross bodies to
reenter this world, as they did earlier to depart from it upon their
death. I assume that just as we cremate a lifeless body, so do they in
the world, or else the blood would cause the body to rot. If this is the
case, then it seems you have committed a murder by performing a
shraddha, because now they are neither in the other world nor here.
Where will they go now?
Pauranik: No, my view is that they live in fine, spiritual bodies.
They do not need gross bodies. Therefore, they can travel as they
please.
Arya: This is impossible because, if they did not leave this world
of their own will, how can they now travel as they please? Besides,
you believe in rebirth. If they left their bodies here, who will be
reborn?30

Admitting his error, the Pauranik amends his argument, stating that ancestors do not reenter this world to accept the offerings made in the ritual; rather, the food offered to the Brahmin in the shraddha ceremony is
carried across to the ancestors. The Arya then moves to clinch the argument:
Arya: This is very doubtful. If the fluid from the food consumed
by the Brahmin is sent across, then it will not turn into blood, and
29. See Dayanand, Satydrtha Prakash, pp. 23-24.

30. The Arya Samaj, Mritak Shrdddha Khandan [An Analysis of the Propitiation of the
Dead] (Lahore, 1893), p. 3.

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.
550 Gyan Prakash

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

the Brahmin will die. If it transforms into blood and reaches your
ancestors, then they are guilty of drinking the blood of the Brahmins, committing their murder. Besides, the Brahmins should become weak from the lack of blood, but we observe instead that the
Brahmins fed during the shraddha become strong and healthy from
the fifteen days of feasting. So, your argument does not make sense.
Nor can you say that your ancestors consume the food offered them
by inhaling the Brahmin's breath, because they could not possibly
survive breathing the foul air, that is, "carbonic acid gas," that we
exhale.3l

The dialogue is set up to establish the authority of science and rea-

son, but the Arya's refutation of the Pauranik's beliefs is strained. An uncertainty surrounds the authority of the Arya Samaj's knowledge, as it

loses itself in a reverie of explanations for the means of communication


between this and the other worlds. Even as the Arya institutes the authority of science, he is forced to dislocate it in the Pauranik's explanations.
He must ask, How do the ancestors travel? Do they shed their gross bod-

ies? How can they be reborn? Does food turn into blood before its consumption by the ancestors? Such questions are rigged with the intent to
establish the power of the Arya Samaj, but to fulfill this intent the Arya
first had to allow the Pauranik to cut into the discourse, permitting his
ancestors to gnaw at its authoritative core. Only then, after the Arya had
expIored and exhausted every one of the Pauranik's explanations, contorting his discourse to follow the mythic meandering of the bloodthirsty
and Brahmin-murdering ancestors, could the Arya display the sign of his
authority. Distortion and vulgarization of the opponents' explanations"it seems you have committed a murder by performing a shraddhaS' were
practiced in order to recover, to renarrate the Aryan nation lost in differ-

ence. This strategy turned the Puranas into the enemy of the Vedic nation
and accused them of having caused its loss through myths and
tantasles.

The renegotiation of the nation from a structure that both produced

and attempted to assimilate difference not only characterized the Arya


Samaj but also shaped the project to regenerate Hindu science. This project, like Hindu revivalism, rested on the idea of a loss. Thus, Ray believed
that the ancient sciences of the Hindus had declined as Manu (or Manusmriti, the ancient text of law and jurisprudence) and the later Puranas
drifted in the direction of glorifying the priestly class. The caste system
became rigid, and the scientific procedures of observation and experimentation suffered as Brahmins began to view as contaminating any
physical contact with a corpse. The intellectual classes withdrew from the
active participation in science, the spirit of inquiry died among "a nation,

31. Ibid., pp. 3-4.

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Critical Inquiry

Spr?ng 1997 551

naturally prone to speculation and metaphysical subtleties, and India


bade adieu to experimental and inductive sciences."32

The reference to "a nation, naturally prone to speculation" points to


the uncertain emergence and functioning of the concept of the rupture
in Ray's thought. On the one hand, his conviction in the antiquity of
Hindu science was evident in his scholarly A History of Hindu Chemastry
and in his other writings and lectures. He spoke movingly about the pride
and satisfaction he felt when "old, worm-eaten Chemical Manuscripts"
began to "pour in from every quarter of India" during the twelve years
of his research in the history of Hindu chemistry (E p. 4). These showed,
he suggested, not only that the ancient Hindu theories and practices of
chemistry and medicine were guided strictly by observation and experimentation but also that the communication of the original insights of
Hindu science sparked the development of the Arab and European
knowledge of physical sciences. On the other hand, in an earlier lecture
at Calcutta University in 1916, Ray had asserted just the opposite: "India
has been a tabula rasa so far as the cultivation of physical sciences is concerned for the last 1000 years or perhaps more."33 The Hindu traditions,
content for so long with metaphysical speculations, could offer little inspi-

ration for the development of the physical sciences. He reminded his


audience that James Mill, and even Rammohun Roy, the famous
early-nineteenth-century Bengali reformer and the great believer in the
Vedanta (the body of philosophy that arose at the end of the Vedas and
comprises the Upanzshads), had warned that Sanskritic education
and training bred ecstatic meditation, not science.34 Calling Bengal "the
land par excellence of scholasticism and logic-chopping," Ray declared that
physical science was an "exotic plant" in the province (PCB, pp. 9, 15).
But, having proclaimed that the Hindu heritage was metaphysical
and inimical to scientific inquiry, Ray changed gears abruptly, closing his
lecture by denying that science was alien to Indian soil.

I spoke of Physical Science as an exotic plant in India. Perhaps, I


should modit or qualit that expression. Ancient India was the
32. Ray, A History of Hindu Chemastry from the Earliest Times to the Middle of the Sixteenth
Centurys.D., 1:195.

33. Ray, Pursuit of Chemistrw in Bengal [Calcutta University Extension Lecture, Delivered on

I Oth January, 19161 (Calcutta, 1916), p. 4; hereafter abbreviated PCB.


34. Here, Ray drew on ideas that were well established. James Mill was only the most
eminent exponent of the view, later espoused by many intellectuals at the close of the nineteenth century, that Hindu philosophy, particularly Vedanta, was inimical to the investigation of the physical world. "The Vedantist was most imperatively enjoined to abstract his
attention from the delusive appearances that were around him, and to concentrate on the
reality that underlay them," wrote an anonymous author, adding that a "school of philosophy so obnoxious to material prosperity, so repressive of the habit of observation, took away
at once the motive and means for the growth of physical science" ("Hindu Mind in Its
Relation to Science and Religion," Calcutta Review 98, no. 195 [1894]: 71-72).

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552 Gyan Prakash

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

cradle of mathematical and chemical Sciences.... Remember, it is


to India that the place of honour has been assigned by the illustrious
French chemist, Jean Baptiste Dumas. I hope it will be hers once
more to hold aloft the torch of Science and assert her true place in
the comity of nations. [PCB, pp. 15-16]
Ray elaborated on this amendment two years later in another lecture:
It is generally taken for granted that the Hindus were a dreamy, mystical people given to metaphysical speculation and spiritual contemplation.... But the fact that the Hindus had a very large hand in
the cultivation of the experimental sciences is hardly known in these
days.[Ep.l]
The awkwardness of the discourse, as it oscillated abruptly between the
acknowledgement and the denial of the effect of Hindu metaphysics,
points to the ambivalence of producing modern India as the reemergence
of the ancient Hindu nation. The structure of emergence as reemergence
required that the great Hindu past decay and degenerate, not evolve and
progress, in the tragic unfolding of history so that it could be regenerated. To accomplish this narrative requirement, Ray, like other nationalists, painted a picture of the decline of Hindu science brought about by
the Puranas. But Ray went further. He incorporated in his recounting of
the story of the nation the formulaic statement that "Hindus were a
dreamy, mystical people given to metaphysical speculation and spiritual
contemplation." This was a bold attempt to place the stereotyped other
within the nationalist discourse and to rescue the Hindus "naturally
prone to speculation." Recuperation worked through repetition- this is
a profoundly unstable structure that requires that the truth of a general
statement emerge in its repetition in specific acts and contexts that, in
turn, can rearrange the general proposition. Thus, the general trope that
the Hindus were given to "scholasticism and logic-chopping" was repeated in Ray's nationalist text. Repetition, however, opened this general
statement to the influence of its specific context. It is thus that the Hindu
mind became "equally propitious for the cultivation of Physical Science,"
as the India that was the "cradle of mathematical and chemical Sciences"
crossed and re-marked the stereotype of the India where physical science
was "an exotic plant."
It is in these movements and shifting relations of statements, not in
their specific content, that Ray's text acted as the work of the nationalist
imagination. The content of one statement did not negate the other; the
propensity for physical science did not deny the metaphysical predisposition of the Hindus. Ray juxtaposed and interpellated these contrary evaluations of India to reach far into the Hindu mind "naturally prone to

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Critical Inquiry

Spring 1997 553

speculation" and extract a mind capable of scientific inquiry:

If I could for a moment command the organ voice of Milton I would


exclaim that we are a Nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest human
capacity can soar to. [E pp. 15-16]
Ray's text was inconsistent and moved awkwardly between contrary positions because its nationalist project sought to recuperate Indians from
the Vedantic predilection for "logic-chopping." Not content with recovering the archaic kernel of the modern nation lost to Manu and the Puranas, Ray recovered and transformed every sign of India's nationness,
including the Hindus' spiritual disposition. Such an enactment of the nation was undoubtedly uncertain, but so was the whole project to produce
the modern nation in the remembrance and the recovery of a past that
could only appear as lost and forgotten. This uncertainty, however, was
the source and the site of the nationalist imagination. Ray himself exemplified the productivity of such an ambivalent restaging of the nation. His
writings established the rise and decline of the archaic Hindu science as
the enabling plot for the nation's coming into being. His Bengal Chemical
and Pharmaceutical Works, established modestly in 1893 to manufacture
indigenous drugs with modern scientific precision, was a concrete effect
of the effort to restage the nation as a form of recovery.35
The liberal vision of self-help and the complex program of cultural
recuperation and renegotiation of the Hindu nation can also be witnessed in Srinivasa Murti's 1923 memorandum to the Madras government on Ayurveda. His memorandum, while outlining a program of
health education, proposed a scheme for the revival of Ayurveda based
on the recognition that the "palmy and progressive [days]" of Ayurveda
were followed by "dark and decadent days for Indian Medicine as for
many other branches of the learning and wisdom of India" (S, p. 166).
The loss of state recognition and the patronage of Western medicine in
recent times, he argued, had worsened the state of Ayurveda. But it constituted the cultural heritage of India and a science that still benefited
the poor. Therefore, Ayurveda deserved revival, though in a different
form. At this point we witness the reemergence of archaic knowledge under the authority of modern science becoming an occasion for renegotiation and translation. Srinivasa Murti suggests that Ayurveda needed the
language of modern instrumentation. The Hindu method, which was
based on the perfection of the senses of observation to a degree that only
35. Ray describes the early history and his motivations in establishing the Bengal
Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works as a national enterprise in his Life and Experzences of a
Bengali Chemist, 2 vols. (Calcutta, 1932-35), 1:92-11 1.

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554 Gyan Prakash

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

a few could achieve, could benefit greatly from the external aids to observation developed by Western science. This scheme constituted, in his
view, the statement of ancient wisdom in the language of modern science.
He illustrated his view with the example of Jagdish Chandra Bose, the
Bengali scientist whose research in plant physiology had won much acclaim.

With the aid of his marvellous instruments of great delicacy and precision he demonstrated to an astonished world that the response to
stimuli of both the so-called living, (e.g., animals) and the so-called
non-living (e.g., plants) were so strikingly similar as to suggest one
common Life animating both Kingdoms of Nature; but, he was never
tired of proclaiming from the house-tops that what he demonstrated
was nothing new but was only part of that Ancient Wisdom which
our great forefathers taught many millennia ago on the banks of the
Ganga. This is certainly true. [S, p. 81]
Srinivasa Murti then described the ancient Hindu theories that converged with Bose's demonstration, concluding that Bose's instruments

functioned as a language appropriate for our time. Poetry, which had


once expressed Ayurveda so effectively, was no longer appropriate; now,
Hindu medicine required the rhetoric of modern instruments to communicate its science to the modern world.

If Ayurveda could now be expressed effectively only in translation,


in the language of modern Western instruments, then what remained of
its function as the sign of the Indian nation? Srinivasa Murti faced this
question squarely, arguing that Ayurveda was ultimately untranslatable.
He pointed out that "while we may attempt some sort of equating at the
level of physical matter known both to Ayurveda and Allopathy, there is
as yet nothing in the latter in terms of which things at the levels of vitality
and psychic principles could be explained" (S, p. 61). The process of
translation ("some sort of equating") thus became the source for the expression of its untranslatability, its irreducible difference. This, then, was
the split mode of the emergence of Hindu science. On the one hand,
its emergence and communication needed the authoritative rhetoric of
modern science; on the other hand, it was precisely the modern translation that enabled the claim for its untranslatability. Srinivasa Murti could

not acknowledge the double movement he performed; he remained unaware that translation produced the signification of Ayurveda as the untranslatable sign of the Indian nation.

The Modern Nation as the Image of the Archaic


While the Indian National Congress met annually to draft petitions
demanding political and administrative reform, there developed beside

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C7atical Inquiry

spr7ng 1997 555

it a powerfill cultural project to constitute the modern nation. Surf


initially in the late nineteenth century, this project to "recover" th
chaic nation introduced an otherness into the cultural representati
modern India. For, as the fable of Hindu science came to guarantee
modern subject and its right to represent India, the present of m
India was fissured by the irruption of a "fabulous retroactivity." T
obliged the Hindu intellectuals to experience their present as a loss
was the performance of the nation in this lost, liminal space that int
lated the projects of individuals with such different backgrounds an

looks as Dayanand, Ray, and Srinivasa Murti and lent a certain

and texture to the cultural representation of India that has nourish


political nationalism well into the present.
To appreciate the enduring force of the representation of the n
as a form of "return" one has only to recall the 1992 destruction
sixteenth-century mosque by Hindu supremacists, who also repres
their violent act as a form of"recovering" the Hindu nation. This
to deny important differences between the Hindu supremacists in
l990s and the Hindu nationalists of the 1890s. Far from it. There c
very little doubt that contemporary Hindu supremacists harbor d

for Indian Muslims that even Dayanand's aggressive Vedic reviv

never quite entertained. And yet the contemporary supremacist f


of recovering a nation from the alleged fall into "minorityism" intr
a lack, an inadequacy in the nation's present that recalls the structu
earlier nationalist representations. Such a structure of deficiency
nation's present is observable even in The Discovery of India (1946

canonical text of modern Indian nationalism by Jawaharlal Neh

the architect of independent, secular India. His text begins as a que


India that identifies the nation in its ancient culture and polity but
that the end of the first millennium witnessed the loss of its scie
spirit to formalism and sterile logic: "as the millennium approach
end, all this appears to be the afternoon of the civilization; the gl
the morning had long faded away, high noon was past."36 Nehru go
to document the arrival of Muslims on the subcontinent, the "India
tion" of Mughal rule, the technological "backwardness" of India, a

36. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Divscovery of India (New York, 1946), p. 218. Nehru wr

During the first thousand years of the Christian era, there are many ups and
in India, many conflicts with invading elements and internal troubles. Yet

period of vigorous national life, bubbling over with energy and spreading

all directions....

Yet even before that Golden Age [the period of the Gupta empire, fou
through seventh centuries A.D.] had come to a close, signs of weakness and
become visible.... In the south there was still vitality and vigor, and this last
some centuries more; in the Indian colonies abroad there was aggressive an
blooded life right up to the middle of the next millennium. But the heart see
petrify, its beats are slower, and gradually this petrifaction and decay spread

limbs. [Pp. 216, 217, 219]

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556 Gyan Prakash

The Modern Nation's Return in the Archaic

subjection to British rule, which he defines as the "last phase" in the


emergence of India as a nation as it struggles to overthrow colonial subjection. This representation of India coming into being in the fullness of
time, however, is as much authorized as undercut by the image of ancient
sciences and polity that are seen as decayed and lost, by the heart that
"seems to petrify, its beats . . . slower."

The persistence of India's representation as a "return" of the archaic,

as a heart "that seems to petrify, its beats . . . slower," speaks eloquently


of the uncertain construction of the nation as a modern, rational form
of cultural and political affiliation. With its "homogenous, empty time"
interrupted by another temporality, the modern nation does not evolve
out of the past but emerges with its wholeness unsettled, its seamlessness
frayed. In such an enactment of the nation's authority, the "enemy" appears within the discourse but is stereotyped and externalized as foreign,

antinational, superstitious, and divisive. The images of loss and defeat


arise because of the irruption of the archaic into the present, but are
attributed to the Puranic "spell of mythology," the descent into the "dark
ages," the defeat at the hands of invaders, the draining effect of "minorityism." At the center of the Hindu supremacists' India there is a gaping
hole, an acknowledgement of a rift signified by the stereotype of the fanatical and antinational Muslim, by the caricatured figure of the denationalized Indian. To "recover" the nation from this liminal space, to
repeat the archaic in the contemporary, demands that science- the sign
of modernity undergo the baptism of the Vedic fire; that an untranslatable Ayurveda emerge in translation; that the rational subjects of the

modern nation arise from an ancient "logic-chopping" people; that a secular polity spring from the religious. Such an ambivalent form of the
nation's composition dissolves the dichotomies of modernity and tradition, science and superstition, rationality and irrationality, and enables
the project to constitute an expansive and encompassing national subject;
it impels the swamis and the scientists alike to deliver thundering sermons and to pen sober scholarly treatises that represent the modern nation in the image of the archaic.

The production of difference is the medium of a nation's identifica-

tion, not its denial. It is there, in the disturbing intimacy with myths and
metaphysics, that the modern nation looms out of nowhere in the conditional and uncertain image of archaic Hindu science. But the contingency
and belatedness of the nation's arrival also opens a space for the return
of other knowledges, other untimely pasts. It is interventions in such a
space of representation that hold the possibility of redirecting the nation's
authority away from authoritarian constructions.

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