Haji Mohamed Idris

Claude Alvares

Gustavo Esteva

Anwar Fazal

Ashis Nandy

Vinay Lal

Shilpa Jain

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My Idea of Multiversity

by Ashis Nandy

Excerpts from the Penang meeting of Multiversity, February 2002

I shall like to keep my presentation very brief, I have been requested to focus on what could possibly be the major methodological assumptions of a programme such as this. Let me start with a few preliminary comments.

Have you ever tried to breathe normally and count the number of breaths you take? If you try you will find that it is impossible to count your breath and breathe normally. Self-consciousness has its cost. For a number of years in my early life, I worked on human creativity and potentialities, and any endeavour such as the Multiversity is a design for hope, an attempt to release human potentialities. Unfortunately we are caught in a double bind.

We enter this venture because we want to decolonize knowledge, we want to relieve or release systems of knowledge and people practising them from the hegemony of a global structure. To do so, we need some degree of self-consciousness, a critical awareness. But too much of self-awareness can be self-destructive too. It's like trying to breathe self-consciously, yet normally.

I like to define our venture basically as an effort to unencumber the coming generations. In my mid-sixties, I have the right to talk of the next generation, unlike some of you. This removal of encumbrances, removal of surplus emotional and cognitive burden, requires not only a different way of looking at the global knowledge system, but also a certain healthy scepticism, certain robust doubt about it, at least a suspicion that the dominance is not the sign of finality. I think the thing that holds us back - and I want to emphasize this because it could be the basic point of departure for an enterprise such as this despite all our intellectual and ideological differences - that issue is a growing, continuous fear of people that colours our systems of education, our systems of knowledge, our professions. The documentary THE MANY FACES OF MADNESS we have just seen showed us just now that 80% of Indians still go to the traditional practitioners of medicine. A figure more or less endorsed by a small survey C.V. Seshadri did once in Madras. But if you look at India's plan documents, you will not find any mention of this fact. The planning is conducted as if this 80% do not exist. Now that also is not the whole truth. In fact, that would have been easier to handle because India is still an open system and that 80% in the long run would have mattered. But, these systems of medicine, with which 80% of India lives, these are packaged in the form of three or four major systems of traditional medicine for which there is an all-India council under the ministry of health to which the government dutifully and ritually gives a grant every year, sustains a bureaucracy for the purpose, and feels that it's duty is done. In fact, they will be very unhappy if you take their venture in that area seriously, because everybody knows it's basically a ritual. This is not only the case in medicine, in all spheres of life you see similar attempts to package, enshrine, ritualise and turn into a symbolic gesture all reluctant acknowledgements of popular practices because of the omnipresent fear of the people.

The real task of a group such as this would be to first of all not only identify the systems but recognize that these 80% of Indians who take recourse to traditional systems of medicines do not all go to Ayurvedic, Unani practitioners or Siddha healers. These are the well known schools, the classical systems of traditional medicine. They have texts, they have living traditions, perhaps to some extent they can take care of themselves; they can even become fashionable upto a point. People will be much more uncomfortable - even people who work on traditional systems of medicine, either in India or in the famous universities all over the world - they will be very uncomfortable if you point out to them that there are at least one hundred and fifty different major systems of medicine in India. A huge majority of them are not prestigious, they do not have texts, they are dependant often on small communities and gradually one by one, they are dying out.

It is our fear of that chaos and the anarchy of plurality which often prompts us to opt for the dominant systems. I do not think it is purely the love of the western systems in all cases. We are often looking for something which many of us feel will give some coherence and meaning to an otherwise unmanageable, ungovernable multitude of diverse communities and people.

This then is my second proposition. That apart from the fear of people that we have to master, there is a fear of chaos, a fear of plurality of thought. It is a strange comment from a person coming from a civilization which is often called Brahminic. But I do notice a fear of thought which is covered up with the help of two or three popular slogans. The first one of them is that we talk a lot and do very little. Even if you examine the way Gandhi has been incorporated into the national pantheon and turned into a mascot of modern India, the official slogan is that the old man did not only think, he did. I'm grateful to P.K Mahadevan, the Gandhian scholar, for pointing out in his marvellous little book, Dwija, that Gandhi went out on the streets only twice in his life; the rest of the time he was thinking. When Jawaharlal Nehru in utter desperation once said, "Bapu, you are far greater that your little books", by which he mainly meant Hind Swaraj, he was implying that Gandhi not being a conventional, constructive thinker, he was pluralizing thought too much and even speaking against modernity. I am sorry to admit the Gandhi was very destructive. As Sankaran Nair once said that Gandhi has taken a position on every issue against the greatest sons of 19th century India.

That subversiveness in thought, somehow we shall have to capture and I do believe that a Multiversity, whatever else it might do, it cannot but challenge this built-in fear and anxiety about thinking. The world is increasingly being dominated by categories, not by institutions. It is categories that have won over our children and I hope they won't win over our grandchildren.

My third proposition is that the idea of Multiversity must strongly reaffirm the political and rediscover the political dimension of intellectual and social interventions. Yesterday, Makarand made a comment which disturbed me to no end. If I remember it correctly, he said, Gandhi taught us to ignore power. Makarand, I'm sorry to say that nothing can be further from the truth. I like to quote Arnold Toynbee's Obituary of Gandhi in 1948: "Henceforth, mankind will ask its prophets, are you willing to live in the slum of politics?"

I think a venture such as the Multiversity must at some point of time decide to live, if not in the slum of politics, at least in the slum of the politics of knowledge. At least that is the minimum we can do. After all, half of the intellectuals present here are activists, too. But even those of us who live a life of the mind, at least we can live with some awareness of dominant politics of knowledge today.

I must say that I like the expression of Idris that the Multiversity should be like a banyan tree. But if it is to be a banyan tree, let us at least have adequate political sensitivity to first accommodate under its shade those who have been marginalized and cornered, not only as the third world of knowledge, but as the fourth and fifth worlds of knowledge within the third world too. That is a crucial part of the story of our times.

I'm aware that in the last thirty-five years or so that some of us who have been working in this area, we have attracted only a small stream of intellectuals and activists to these issues. But in recent years, their numbers have increased enormously, I'm therefore not pessimistic. But what in the 1980s we were expecting to be an intellectual movement has become, what can be called, an intellectual school. That is disappointing because an intellectual school is not what we are looking for, we are looking for a movement which will have different kinds of ramification not only in the world of knowledge but also in the outside world. But even a school is not bad because it shows that we have worked, successfully or unsuccessfully, willingly or unwillingly, by design or by accident, as the research secretariat of hundreds of movements going around the world.

I would like the scope of this part of the story to be expanded. I expect the Multiversity to be the unofficial, unacknowledged research secretariat, a clearing house for a new generation of movements, intellectual or otherwise. I know that the best may not still come to us, that our best brains go to Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management - frankly, at one time I used to be troubled that for the kind of work we want, we often didn't get the right people. But perhaps, this is not a loss. The Third World can probably do with second rate brains as long as it gets first rate hearts. Let the best go to the IIT's, the IIM's and find their niches. We can do with the second best, as long as they have commitment and integrity.

It is also not accidental that many of our kind have come out of the deprofessionalised sector, from among those who have disowned their disciplines and training. Probably, after a point, the theory of self education applies there. I'm told that as long as Japan was booming economically, it didn't have any school of business management. Others began to write books like the ones on Z theory of management, on the Japanese style of doing business, and the Japanese increasingly became self-conscious and established a number of schools of business in the 1980's. My unbelievable private theory is, that the Japanese economy began to decline then onwards.

Fourthly, we live in a world where consent is manufactured. This has a moral implication; we must look with some degree of compassion or at least tolerance towards those who find their salvation in the present-day dominant system. I have seen the kind of hunger in the Indian middle classes for even things like Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola because the younger generation did not live through the days when they were banned in India for something like twenty years. That only increased the thirst for the two colas and in retrospect one could say that nobody did so much for the Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola Corporations as Mr. George Fernandes did by banning them. People even brought back bottles of Coca Cola, valued gifts when they went abroad. I think the Indian middle class is now going through a round of consumption explosion because the market is now opening up.

I sometimes suspect that a humane solution to the problem will be to make it compulsory in India to drink half a dozen bottles of Coca Cola every day, and a couple of Hamburgers and Pizza. Maybe after a few years we will be able to talk about other things.

In this manufacturing of consent, there are two modes. One is through socialization and education, and we have talked about it. The other mode, which we have not talked about much, is still relatively open ended. Consent is also manufactured through a systematic occupation of free time. One important feature of the global middle class culture today is that, while working hours might have shrunk, leisure has gradually been taken over by exactly those organizations or institutions which control work. Leisure has become a professionalized, expert-dominated domain of life. You cannot go for a holiday without expert advice, checking it out on the Internet, and without consulting your travel agent. Enormous planning is involved in going for a holiday. Enormous planning is involved in even getting yourself entertained. However, I suspect that the domain of leisure is still relatively less controlled than the domain of work.

One final comment. Idris said yesterday that the reality component of the dominant systems of knowledge is poor. Frankly, if you ask me, the reality component is poor but the fantasy component is poorer. I see very little imagination, very little scope for dreaming. The present day dominant system in fact proscribes dreaming by third world societies. You cannot have a vision of your future. Your future is expected to be no different from the contemporary west. As Yusuf yesterday said, by the time we become contemporary west, the west will be somewhere else and we will always be Johnnies come lately. Presently, that's our vision of the future. Our present is the west's past and our future is the west's present. So in some sense our present and future have both been hijacked.

So, while I am worried about the absence of the reality component, I am also worried about the absence of the component of imagination, dreaming and play. Our children are forgetting to dream, they are forgetting to envision the world for themselves.

At a Glance:
Mulitversity Related

Recapturing Worlds:
The Original Multiversity

Penang 2002: The First Conference on the Deconstruction
of Knowledge

Dissenting Knowledges Pamphlet Series (ed. Vinay Lal)

Radical Essentials Pamphlet Series (ed. Yusef Progler)

Penang 2004: The Second Conference on Redesigning Social Science Curricula

Special issue of Humanscape on Multiversity (April 2005)

Special issue of Third World Resurgence (2005) on Multiversity

The Dissenter's Library
Essays, Articles, Papers
Kamirithu: The Newsletter of Multiversity
Readers in the Disciplines