Of ‘Lightless’ Enlightenments : Is India’s Modernity ‘in the Dark’ ?


Part 2

Centuries from now, when the monopoly of post-Enlightenment western values, imaginations and institutions will have shied away before what will have become, hopefully, multi-centered global cultures, we will probably remember the Enlightenment project as a serpent that ended up biting its own tail. Its final demise would not be credited to internal critiques, commendable but still too attached to the Enlightenment subconscious, but to its invalidation in and through other cultures. It is still the serpent biting its tail, because through reason, the Enlightenment trully aimed at a universalistic philosophy, and the diplomatico-economic context of colonisation permitted a spread of this doctrine over the five continents. After being fooled by the illusion of a demised Christianity, the Enlightenment would succumb to its other dream, the fantasy of a homogenous and predictable humanity.

This counter process has started. It takes numerous forms today, across the disciplines of knowledge, naturally, but also in the more ‘worldly’ events of the everydayness of societies. While we shall leave the latter for another discussion, one may remark that the best disciplinary responses to massive ideological projects such as the Enlightenment are not to be found where  they are expected, in the field of philosophy, where they could have logically offered a frontal critique of the hegemonic doctrine in question, in its own terms. We find it, more efficiently, in other fields. Historians, archivists and language experts on ancient India, for instance, have been compiling particularly persuasive evidences during the last few decades. It is often visible, from the very opening words of their studies, that their larger argument goes against the Enlightenment framework, and its pre-modern/modern assumption. Introducing a study of the theory and praxis of imagination in medieval South India, David Shulman presents a hypothesis that contests the role of the Enlightenment as having the universal onus for the world’s turn to the so-called modern features:

“In the [fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth] centuries in the south, we can observe a far-reaching thematizing of the imagination as a distinctive, largely autonomous human faculty, one of the defining features of the human as such. … I will argue that the appearance of a strong concept of the personal imagination from the fifteen century on is an index of major civilizational change. If this is so, then south India, on the verge of a “modern” revolution in sensibility, may share something with Renaissance Italy and with the slightly earlier extended moment of creative innovation in Seljuk Anatolia and pre-Timurid Iran.” 1

A decade earlier, Shulman had signed with Velcheru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmanyam a study arguing for the existence of historical consciousness in South India, before the ‘official’ entry of the ‘modern’ history through the British Raj. They trace back to an old tradition the convenient narrative of a typically pre-modern history-less India :

“Did history and historical consciousness exist in South India before the conquest of the region by the British in the closing decades of the eighteenth century? Clearly, the region had a past of some kind, even an ancient one. Nonetheless, several generations of historians, anthropologists and philologists have wondered whether or not South Indians of the centuries that preceded colonial rule were in fact indifferent to the empirical character of this past. … This view, often repeated by colonial-period authors, became, with little variation, the received wisdom on the question. 2

As their argument unfolds, it appears that a non-mythical, factual practice of history not only existed in South India before the arrival of European rulers, but also that the historiographical traditions of the area were far more creative, alternative and pluralistic than the restricted norm à la Herodotus in European history. A colleague of Shulman, Narayana Rao and Subrahmanyam in the field of Indian historiography, Sheldon Pollock, also felt the need to address the pre-modern/modern doctrine in the first pages of his masterwork, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. Contending that “much of the work on modernity … offers little in the way of a convincing account of the nature of the “premodern,” at least in the case of South Asia,” 3 Pollock goes on mentioning the features which, according to him, ‘make the cut’, or not, of the modern:

“Some are probably modern beyond dispute: commodities that incorporate abstract labor as a unit of value, the sovereign state, the abstract individual. But consider the following criteria: the preponderance of formal over substantive rationality (in, say, the organization of work or systems of accounting), the division of manual and mental labor, the abstraction of the social as a totality that can be acted upon, the economy conceivable as an independent domain, “embedded affinity to place,” a reflexive appropriation of knowledge, the rise of expert systems that remove social relations from particular contexts, the questioning of moral frameworks that had once been accepted unhesitatingly, a new worry about the meaninglessness of life, loneliness. These have all been posited as elements of modernity but none has been shown to be unequivocally so, or to be entirely unknown to premodernity.” 4

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The critique by Pollock et al of the Enlightenment is thus not coincidental : it could perhaps become the reference to be followed, to radicalise the falsification of the Enlightenment’s assumptions. It is possible that only history can unpack the unsaid of philosophy.

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The historian, guardian of the facts, tendencies and events of history, skims through the reductive models of the philosopher, and realises that behind the motifs lay very questionable postulations, born out of ideological agendas more than from confirmed historical data. The Enlightenment, as a primordially conceptual and philosophical movement, needs a thorough project of fact-checking, precisely from historians. The critique by Pollock et al of the Enlightenment is thus not coincidental : it could perhaps become the reference to be followed, to radicalise the falsification of the Enlightenment’s assumptions. It is possible that only history can unpack the unsaid of philosophy. And here, Pollock could have even been more radical, and also mention the authorities who have suggested a non-modern nature for those very features which Pollock is eager to leave as “probably modern beyond dispute.” Economies based on abstract commodities, for instance, have been shown to be prevalent since at least the late medieval Europe, and thus well before the modern, early capitalist ages discussed by Marx. 5

Pollock does not use this rhetorical argument, but he rightly addresses the reversed process, or how pre-modernity, in its turn, is constructed. He argues that most of the aspects we assign to pre-modernity are not fact-based ; they only emerge through a mechanical inversion of the supposed modern values. Pollock concludes: “European modernity and South Asian premodernity are obviously uneven and not absolute categories; the former displays premodern features, the latter modern ones, and this is borne out no matter what definitions we invoke.” 6 More or less explicitly, this generation of historians specialised on ancient India, seems to agree on the irrelevance of the pre-modern/modern distinction, at least for the Indian terrain. But implicit is the generalisation of their doubt around this value in general. Truly, their works insist only on the cohabitation of so-called modern and pre-modern features in various time eras of India 7 – the so-called modern in the pre-modern, but also the pre-modern in the modern – and this cohabitation is discussed for the very particular case of a non-European space. But they also express doubts on the very validity of the terms for Europe itself. Nonetheless, their work is historical in nature, focusing on the interpretations of archives, and, these authors, in the above mentioned works at least, do not engage or indulge in larger theoretical speculations to finally prove the pre-modern/modern doctrine as generally irrelevant. 8

These scholarly works could serve as the basis for a more effective counter-rhetoric that would operate a stronger rejection certain aspects of the Enlightenment’s project. While very impressive for the amount and quality of scholarship involved, their literature would probably seem abstruse and too particularist if used directly for this purpose. It is particularist, since these scholars stop the critical process at the enumeration of persuasive evidences, but they do not draw its theoretical, conceptual or philosophical implications. But their approach is in itself revelatory : the methods of Pollock, Shulman, etc. as well as the depth of their discoveries, remind of how much India’s past is still vastly unexplored by contemporary historians. The contrast is particularly marked vis-à-vis the profusion of scholarship on ancient European history. As the scholarship of ancient Indian history grows and unveils the strata of its past, the conceptual or philosophical argument will only become more convincing. But we could attempt, here, to draw its tentative shape. What could it be ? What could India and the particularity of its history, bring to facilitate the deconstruction of the Enlightenment’s dreams ?

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While the British brought a material apparatus associated today with ‘Indian modernity’ – in particular the state and its law – the lack of a corresponding, indigenous ‘revolutionary’ philosophy would refrain anyone from speculating an equivalent ‘Indian Enlightenment’. Indian modernity would be a modernity that lacks its own Enlightenment ; it would be a ‘darkened’ modernity.

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From the outset, the modern/pre-modern distinction seems irrelevant in India for a very simple reason : in spite of its universalist pretensions, the historical narrative underlying the Enlightenment century was first and foremost applicable to Europe only. As we have argued, the artificiality of this narrative is visible in today’s tensions in Europe’s own identity, but this artificiality is even more evident in India, where the model was simply exported. Nearly nothing of the structure of a European-like Enlightenment, with its major improvements in the scientific, political and philosophical fields in the 17th century onwards, could be found in India. What one finds around the same period, at best, is the arrival of the British. While the British brought a material apparatus associated today with ‘Indian modernity’ – in particular the state and its law – the lack of a corresponding, indigenous ‘revolutionary’ philosophy would refrain anyone from speculating an equivalent ‘Indian Enlightenment’. Indian modernity would be a modernity that lacks its own Enlightenment ; it would be a ‘darkened’ modernity. If Enlightenment is the criterion of the pre-modern/modern transition, then Indian modernity, but also its pre-modernity, are only cosmetic speculations, the broad and broadly reductive applications of the hegemonic European categories onto the Indian terrain.


Image courtesy: SB



  1. David Shulman, More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 3.
  2. Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Textures of Time: Writing History in South India 1600-1800 (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001), 1.
  3. Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 2009), 8.
  4. Pollock, The Language of the Gods, 8-9.
  5. Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th century, Volume 2: The Wheels of Commerce, translated by Sian Reynold (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
  6. Pollock, The Language of the Gods, 9.
  7. For a conceptual construction of the idea of a pre-modern/modern cohabitation, see for instance A. Raghuramaraju, Philosophy and India: Ancestors, Outsiders, and Predecessors (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  8. Pollock approaches this conceptual critique at the end of his study; see Pollock, The Language of the Gods, 497-580.