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Traditional vs Colonial: Navigating Dichotomies of Philosophy in India

Ankita Kushwaha and Megha Kapoor

PhD scholars, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University (respectively) and Teaching Fellows, Sai University

Dec 14, 2023

The realm of philosophy in India has diverse thinking traditions reflecting a blend of orthodox, heterodox, and various local cultural ideologies. Contemporary scholars find themselves caught in a pronounced dichotomy in the engagement with traditions, primarily shaped by historical forces. They are either charged for aligning with glorifying traditional concepts or critiqued for viewing the tradition through a colonial lens.

Here, we seek to explore the challenges faced by contemporary philosophers of India while engaging with the philosophical concepts embedded in various traditional sources. We argue that in engaging with these concepts, philosophers are required to address the challenges posed by the above-mentioned dichotomous relationship. Moreover, as we navigate this dichotomy, our primary purpose is to stress the importance of thoroughly looking into traditional ideas. Noteworthily, in many instances, scholars accept the text without critical analysis and provide justifications that contribute to the glorification. In light of this, our primary objective is to emphasise an urgent need for a more rigorous and discerning philosophical inquiry that furthers the development of a more detailed understanding of the traditional ways of thinking. 

The Importance of Engaging with Traditional Ideologies

How we perceive ourselves individually and socially is impacted by the environment in which we are born and grow. Any theorisation, therefore, cannot be in isolation. The theorisation must have an understanding of our traditions and local norms; at the same time, it must encompass our present lived experiences (Guru and Sarukkai 2012).

Understanding various traditional sources is essential because they encompass the lived experiences of the past, which continue to shape our present experiences. The term "traditional" is often used to describe generational practices, values, and customs. These sources manifest in classical texts, typically composed in dominant languages like Sanskrit and Persian (Chandhoke 2019, 80), offering well-structured and organised insights into tradition. These local thoughts are embedded in diverse forms such as stories, folklore, fables, songs, and other cultural expressions. They not only provide a window into the historical aspects of a particular geographical location and community but also incorporate contemporary elements unique to their context.

The recent discussion regarding the decolonisation of philosophy in India operates under the assumption that the colonisers have influenced the philosophical perspective. It necessitates a decolonisation effort to address the burden of Western thought that hinders the accurate representation of Indian intellectual traditions. However, the blame on colonisation from the perspective of Brahminism needs to be revisited. When colonisation occurred, Brahmins, well-versed in Sanskrit and holding higher positions, assisted the colonisers in shaping a new understanding of India, which led to the emergence of a form of Hindu philosophy that was dominantly Sanskritised, further resulting in the under-representation of thoughts from other traditions. Interestingly, despite being practised by a small portion of the population, Brahmanism managed to establish a subcontinental identity. Its popularity can be attributed to its ritual functions, ceremonies, and the adoption of Sanskrit as a common language (Thapar 1989, 209–231).

The Dichotomy of Traditional vs Colonial

The texts and ideologies of India represent various philosophical thoughts that provide insight into the intricate fabric of Indian society. Engaging with these texts and ideologies in a contemporary context allows for a deeper understanding of cultural heritage, providing a platform for critical dialogue. While acknowledging their historical roots, scholars must avoid absolutism to promote further an evaluative approach accommodating evolving perspectives. Therefore, in contemporary times, a conscious effort exists to critique colonial impact on philosophy in India by reviving and re-evaluating indigenous thought systems. However, the challenge lies in avoiding oversimplification and essentialisation. This task becomes even more complex, considering that many Indian intellectuals predominantly come from upper-caste backgrounds. This background gives them a privilege that does not necessitate them to critically examine their inherited traditions (Nanda 2010, 185). Consequently, this lack of critical examination from a segment of the intellectual elite further complicates the nuanced process of re-evaluating and revitalising philosophical traditions in India in the post-colonial context.

This issue can be explored more closely by delving into the Mahabharata scholarship. When scholars discuss Mahabharata[1] as a foundational text for the Indian subcontinent, their use of terminologies and explanations may suggest that it is the greatest epic of all time for India. However, it is crucial to ask for whom it holds this esteemed position. Edward Dimock describes Mahabharata as the "founding library of Brahmin-Indian civilization," emphasising its role as an encyclopedia covering history, legend, edification, religion, art, drama, and morality specific to that civilisation (Dimock 1974, 53). Janaky adds another layer to this perspective, highlighting how the Bhrgus or Brahmins asserted authority over social, political, and moral realms not by controlling princes but through their influence on Mahabharata scholarship (Janaky 1992, 1997–1999). Overlooking this aspect universalises Mahabharata as a text for all, whereas, as Ambedkar points out, sacred texts of India contain a social philosophy responsible for the degradation of non-Brahmins (Ambedkar 2019, 393-395).

Ambedkar further criticises the insufficient critical engagement with sacred literature, emphasising the detrimental impact of two contrasting attitudes: the uncritical commendation by a Brahmin scholar and the unsparing condemnation by a non-Brahmin. Both approaches, according to Ambedkar, hinder the progress of historical research (ibid, 393). The disadvantage of such an approach is that either they miss the regressive ideas or articulate them in an oversimplified manner that ultimately glorifies the regressive Brahminical ideas. Therefore, there is a need for a more nuanced and critical examination of sacred texts to understand their implications on social history in the true sense.

Moreover, another aspect of evaluation exists where scholars discard or appropriate various conceptions of Mahabharata because of evaluating certain aspects of the text from a colonial lens. For instance, German Indoligists interpreted Mahabharata as "framing Brahmans as 'priests,' and presenting themselves as reformers and liberators, while they collaborated with the Prussian (and later, Nazi) state" (Adluri 2016).

As a response, a group of scholars in contemporary philosophy in India talk about the need for the revival of Indian traditional and religious thought. They hold that the modern liberal framework for conceptualising Indian society is the product of colonialism, as that has constantly undermined the significance of Indian traditional and religious thoughts. De Roover argues that even though liberalism "presents itself as a freestanding conception independent from any comprehensive doctrines or substantive conceptions of the good… [but] it continues to depend on a conception of the person and human social life that secularises protestant Christian ideas by transforming them into the topoi of political thought" (De Roover 2015, 237). Thus, he emphasises that Western liberal categories of thinking are not fruitful in conceptualising Indian society and polity as they are from different historical and political contexts. Even though the revival is significant and decolonisation requires discarding the underlying colonial mindset, the problem arose because of a similar pattern. There has been a constant effort to derive the themes or subjects of political thought from traditional ideas.[2] This pattern constrains critical engagement that further ends in accusing all liberal concepts as irrelevant to the Indian context (Nandy 1988, 189) merely because they are the products of Western civilisation (De Roover 2015, 234-239).

Contrary to this, Patel says there is a need to engage with tradition without romanticising the past. She also emphasises that it should not also be a denial of all modern concepts. Thus, Patel emphasises a decolonial approach, which is "not a retrieval of premodern assessments that would consist of a folkloric affirmation of the past, nor an antimodern project of the kind put forward by conservative, right-wing, populist or fascist groups, nor a postmodern project that would deny modernity and would critique all reason" (Patel 2020, 10-11). Further, she suggests that there is a need for a new approach to social theorisation that critiques the Western conceptual framework through the inclusion of the experiences of the people.

Additionally, the problem in reviving the traditional ideas is that India today no longer has the same structure as it used to have earlier. Various traditional concepts are not relevant in the theorisation of contemporary society. It is crucial today to theorise the contemporary issues along with the lived experiences of the ordinary masses. At the same time, we cannot accept the colonial framework without analysing its relevance to the lived experiences of the masses. When accepted without critical analysis, a philosophical inquiry may result in the glorification of either of the categories (traditional or liberal). The need is to not unquestioningly accept or discredit the traditional norms as well as the liberal frameworks of thinking altogether.


Navigating the dichotomies of glorification of tradition vs colonial mindsets presents a challenge for contemporary scholars. The revival of philosophy in India should not be limited to a mere glorification of tradition but should involve critical analysis that engages with the complexity and dynamism of the philosophical heritage. Therefore, a few critical questions arise in the discourse of philosophy today: what approach is suitable for philosophy in India? How can we decolonise philosophy without glorifying the past? What are its challenges? How will these challenges be resolved? Answering these questions necessitates a deep understanding of the challenges posed by the dichotomy. Hence, further research is imperative to engage with these intricate philosophical inquiries, offering a more comprehensive approach to the decolonisation of philosophy in India.

[1] In reference to the Mahabharata, it’s important to note that there are multiple versions. Here, we specifically refer to the ancient Mahabharata of Krishna Dvaipayana, also known as Veda Vyasa. Our focus, in this context, pertains solely to the philosophical aspects of the text.

[2] As de Roover argues that liberal ideas are the topoi of Protestant Christian ideas, various Indian political concepts are also topoi of Indian Tradition. For instance, in Gandhi’s thought, secularism refers to sarvadhrama sambhava. The idea of sarvadharma sambhava is rooted in the idea that the truth has many sides and cannot be grasped by human beings completely. Therefore, according to Gandhi, we should respect all conceptions of the good (see Gandhi 1995).


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  • Patel, Sujata. 2020. “Social Theory Today: Eurocentrism and Decolonial Theory.” Madras Institute of Development Studies. Accessed November 8, 2023.

  • Thapar, Romila. 1989. “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity.” Modern Asian Studies 23 (2): 209–231.

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