“All men are intellectuals, but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.”

~ Antonio Gramsci

When Antonio Gramsci was describing ‘intellectuals’ in his famous ‘Prison Notebooks’, he appears to be representing the views of Yaska, the 7th century BCE Indian grammarian-linguist. I am not sure if there is a direct link between the two, but Yaska made a similar statement in his Nirukta while defending his view on how objects are named.

Yaska is known for his pioneering work on the science of etymology, the Nirukta. Yaska was the first scholar to treat etymology as an independent science. He was also a great Sanskrit grammarian and he believed that all nouns are derived from verbs (dhatuj/akhyataj). This assertion, however, considering the great tradition of disputation and argumentation in the Indic Knowledge Tradition (IKT) wasn’t without controversy. Many grammarians, including Gargya, argued that if all nouns were derived from verbs, every person who performs a particular action should have the same name. To counter this argument Yaska writes that everybody who cuts woods is not called a carpenter. Similarly, a carpenter performs many other actions besides cutting wood. Therefore, objects are named for one specific important action. 

When Antonio Gramsci describes ‘intellectual’, he considers all men to have the potential of being an intellectual because all have the potential of using the innately available faculty of intellect. However, all are not intellectuals. Julian Brenda describes intellectuals as a tiny band of super gifted and morally endowed philosopher-kings who constitute the conscience of mankind.

Chomsky in his famous 1967 essay ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ ascribes three primary responsibilities of intellectuals. Firstly, intellectuals are supposed to speak the truth and expose lies. Secondly, Chomsky argued that “if it is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective.” Finally, he suggests that the intellectual should lift the veil of ideology, which is the underlying framework of ideas that limits the boundaries of debate.

The notion of an intellectual, however, is quite different in the IKT. In the Indian tradition, the intellectual is a knowledge creator. From Panini to Patanjali, from Bhartrihari to Bhaskaracharya, from Chanakya to Aryabhatta, from Shankaracharya to Ramanujacharya, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Ramana Maharishi, Guru Gorakhnath, Guru Nanak, Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, and David Frawley – India has a long unbroken tradition of scholars and thinkers stretching over 5,000 years. 

Linguist and Indologist Kapil Kapoor in his now famous presentation ‘Obsessions of Indian Intellectuals’ lists four ‘lakshanas’, or characteristics, of an IKT intellectual. An IKT intellectual is a ‘rishi’. The ‘rishis’, as the composer of the Vedas, are those who possess outworldly experience-perception. They were the poets, authors of the sacred hymns. They also taught the highest wisdom (Rama, Buddha) and were called Raj Rishis

Prof. Kapil Kapoor

They were also Sanyasins, the renuciators and the ascetics. Derived from the word sanyasa, the name for one of the four ashramas (stages of life) —  namely BrahmacharyaGrihasthaVanaprastha, and Sanyasa — Sanyasins are those who renunciate worldly possessions, material desires and prejudices.

The IKT intellectuals are considered ‘shishta’ – the cultured and learned one. One of the prerequisites of being ‘shishta’ is to have mastery of over vyakarana (grammar). A ‘shishta’ is well disciplined and exhibits the right demeanor and attitude. 

Finally, an IKT intellectual is Parivrajaka – one who doesn’t stay at one place for one or two days at a time. They are the traveling mendicants and have strict norms for staying at a place for a specific duration. According to the Parivrajaka Upanishad the Parivrajaka “is a man of the Vedas, whose mind is one with Brahman, he is always satisfied with what he gets…”

When it comes to modern Indian intellectuals, the story however appears quite different. A modern Indian intellectual is usually someone who is trained in the Western (English speaking) system of education. They seem to not only lack the understanding of the IKT, they seldom make any genuine attempt to understand it. As a result, most Wesnter trained Indian intellectuals end up being ignorant and contemptuous towards Indian tradition.

Another salient feature of Indian intellectuals is that they suffer from an abject ‘heen bhavna’ (Kapoor), the inferiority complex. Owing to India’s colonial past, both Islamic and European, as well as its education system post independence, Indian Intellectuals usually have a very low opinion of India, Indians, and themselves. 

Indian intellectuals keep finding reasons to whine about India. Kapoor calls them ‘Rudalis’, the professional mourners. For example, they feel bad about India’s ‘poverty’. They don’t think India is ‘modern’ enough. They don’t find Indian literature at par with Western or foreign literature. They also find India’s science backward. From weather to food habits, from social structure to polity and economy, Indian intellectuals pretty much don’t find anything positive about India. If this wasn’t enough, they are always looking for both approval and answers from the West. 

Most Indian intellectuals have an undying faith in their own (leftist) ideology and extreme intolerance towards any other. However, the most important tenet of all is their fervent rejection of anything and everything Hindu. The past 70 odd years of Leftist-Maxist hegemony over Indian education system has given rise to a powerful, insular intellectual elite, a self-perpetuating intellectual caste of sort with its own preferences and prejudices. 

Indian intellectuals are rarely invested in India. Their loyalties seem to lie with whoever provides their funding. This has never been more evident than in the last 5 years or so. Most Indian intellectuals would rather see, seek, highlight, and cheer any negative aspect of Indian culture, society, economy, polity, etc., to superimpose it on the entire population. They would also do anything just to show India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a bad light. I remember many intellectuals almost wishing for a bad Monsoon which might derail India’s economy. 

If India’s intellectuals are not able decolonize their minds and start formulating their own independent opinion, an opinion that is not force-fit on India just to adhere to a template, they are only doing injustice and harm to the Indian society. DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

(The article first appeared in TOI Blogs)

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