Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language

Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language

by Srinivas Aravamudan

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Guru English is a bold reconceptualization of the scope and meaning of cosmopolitanism, examining the language of South Asian religiosity as it has flourished both inside and outside of its original context for the past two hundred years. The book surveys a specific set of religious vocabularies from South Asia that, Aravamudan argues, launches


Guru English is a bold reconceptualization of the scope and meaning of cosmopolitanism, examining the language of South Asian religiosity as it has flourished both inside and outside of its original context for the past two hundred years. The book surveys a specific set of religious vocabularies from South Asia that, Aravamudan argues, launches a different kind of cosmopolitanism into global use.

Using "Guru English" as a tagline for the globalizing idiom that has grown up around these religions, Aravamudan traces the diffusion and transformation of South Asian religious discourses as they shuttled between East and West through English-language use. The book demonstrates that cosmopolitanism is not just a secular Western "discourse that results from a disenchantment with religion, but something that can also be refashioned from South Asian religion when these materials are put into dialogue with contemporary social move-ments and literary texts. Aravamudan looks at "religious forms of neoclassicism, nationalism, Romanticism, postmodernism, and nuclear millenarianism, bringing together figures such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, and Deepak Chopra with Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, Robert Oppenheimer, and Salman Rushdie.

Guru English analyzes writers and gurus, literary texts and religious movements, and the political uses of religion alongside the literary expressions of religious teachers, showing the cosmopolitan interconnections between the Indian subcontinent, the British Empire, and the American New Age.

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Guru English

South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language
By Srinivas Aravamudan

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11828-4


Imbued with a knowledge of objective sciences by English education, our people will be able to comprehend subjective truths. -Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Anandamath

IT IS A TRUISM, universally acknowledged, that English dominates the globe today as no language ever has in the recorded history of humanity. Despite the linguistic diversity of a world that features more than five thousand natural languages by some counts, a mere one hundred languages account for the mother tongue of 95 percent of the world's population, twenty-five languages for about 75 percent, and just twelve languages for about 60 percent. Second in terms of total number of speakers, English dominates by virtue of its stranglehold on global organizations as an international auxiliary or link language. Barring theories of the monolinguistic origin of the species that can never be proven, the observer can only look at existing examples of linguistic globalization in recorded history in order to glean the evidence.

A comparison of the current dominance of English with that of other languages at different times leads to the discovery that empires and religions have been the two most obvious vehicles of linguisticuniversalism. Sometimes a universalizing religion inherited a language-vehicle from a successful empire, as the Catholic Church did from the Romans, thereby establishing Latin as an administrative and scholarly medium of communication across Europe for a millennium and a half. In the case of Arabic, the situation developed the other way around, whereby the political ambitions of the caliphs spread it around the Mediterranean and West Asia from Spain to Persia and India for at least half a millennium, even though various political empires had actually inherited the language from Islam's humble origins as an iconoclastic desert religion. Pan-Arabism has still kept modern Arabic alive as a viable lingua franca throughout western Asia and northern Africa, and to a limited extent in other places where Islam is a presence. Mandarin Chinese, demonstrably the tongue with the greatest number of speakers today, remains one of the stable legacies of Han imperial suzerainty, even if there is no significant religious impulse to spread it beyond familiar ethnic confines. The case of Sanskrit reveals a pattern of survival that is exactly opposite to that of Chinese. A largely sacerdotal language with only sporadic instances of political backup, Sanskrit has nevertheless survived for well over three millennia. Although still very much in use for ritual and religious instruction throughout South Asia and wherever Hinduism has a foothold, from Bali to Trinidad, Sanskrit is now largely a dead, classical language imbued with symbolic meaning. Hindi and Bengali, two of Sanskrit's many descendants, are counted among the top ten spoken languages in the world, but there is considerable resistance in India to Hindi as a national language. German and Russian had correspondingly greater and lesser roles-now vastly diminishing-because of their histories of joint political dominance in central and eastern Europe, and for the latter, also in central Asia. Japanese is important in east and southeast Asia, but is becoming less so with the importance of English as an international auxiliary language. The role of Swahili, initially promoted by Pan-Africanists, has declined along with the other political goals of the movement. All the same, francophone Africa and the hispanophone Americas continue to sound their different imperial and postcolonial legacies. Spanish is certainly one plausible transcontinental alternative still competing with English.

Turning to the case of English, it is obvious that events have conspired (although by no means as irreversibly as some might assume) to give it its current status. That the world has moved from the dominance of the British Empire in the late nineteenth century to the United States as unilateralist hyperpower by the twenty-first century without having to change the language of imperial dominance (save dialectal differences from British to American English) is perhaps a fortunate (depending on already acquired English proficiency) or unfortunate turn of events for the new rulers as well as the ruled. It is not merely the political dispensation at hand that ensures English supremacy at this point: the cultural and technical vocabularies of science and technology, capitalist business economics, and television and media have instituted an even more important role for English to play as the ultimate knowledge base from which other languages can be launched or situated in relation to each other. English is still a minority elite language in the world, as any imperial or religious language always has been, to a lesser or greater extent. But English's strong connection with computers, medicine, business, media, higher education, and communications-well before all these areas exploded globally-makes its dominance even greater than did the twentieth century's handover of global political supremacy to the Americans. It is arguable whether a future Chinese domination of the globe (as some futurologists predict) would, if it did occur, nonetheless maintain the highly differentiated and specialized functions that English has already come to play, with ramifications that are legal, technical, and communicational.

While the simple abstraction of English-in-general has potentially a very long history ahead of it, there are also differentiations that occur within the language as it spreads itself. Languages do not always remain unified, as the history of Latin's or Sanskrit's multiple offspring demonstrates. This book focuses on the global impact of Indian English in the spirit of identifying a discrepant cosmopolitanism within it. Much has already been made of the peculiarities of English in South Asia, as a dialect and lingua franca with considerable cosmopolitan appeal. In terms of the total numbers of English speakers, India now ranks third in the world, after the United States and Great Britain. In India, maybe 3 to 5 percent of the population speaks English fluently (approximately 30 million to 50 million speakers), an especially significant minority constituting most of the elite and a section of the urban upper middle classes. If passive comprehension of English vocabulary were included, the figures would increase considerably. While such class parameters suggest that the language remains an acrolect-or a language spoken largely by elites-studying this language's iterations and performances leads to new and interesting discoveries. Before positing a historical essence (whether postcolonial, bureaucratic, or technological) bound up with English's role, significance, and global outcome, it would be best to track the many anomalous refashionings of the language and reflect on their variety.

First introduced in South Asia by Christian missionaries in the seventeenth century, English made few inroads until the expansion of the activities of the East India Company. While Western colonialism and Christian evangelism often went hand in hand around the globe in the last few centuries, it is well known that the record in South Asia is especially complicated; from the outset, important conflicts arose between missionary and commercial agendas. The English Bible was one of the first texts to be translated into a number of South Asian vernaculars. Several outstanding discussions of the impact of the Bible in colonial South Asia have transformed our understanding of the consolidation of national identities as well as the elaboration of transcultural differences. By 1823, learned natives such as Raja Rammohun Roy were petitioning the company's authorities to make English education, especially of the scientific and secular variety, more widely available. The culmination of this process was the much-discussed Macaulay Minute that was approved on March 7, 1835, a document that declared in the voice of the British rulers that they needed "a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern-a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect." The same document also disparages native learning with the phrase that "a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia." British imperial rule therefore unapologetically replaced Persian, the prestige language under the Mughals, with a new one, English.

An Indian form of English-and therefore its development as a new South Asian vernacular rather than just as an imperial echo-first acquired recognition, paradoxically, when representatives of high Victorian imperialism dismissed it as a bureaucratic cant of the native functionaries and interpreters of the Raj, a "Baboo English" or "Cheechee English," to be literally ridiculed and disparaged. Even lesser variants began to be recognized, such as Butler English, Bearer English, Box-Wallah English, Kitchen English, and Hinglish (Hindi-English). By February 1830, the first issue of an English-language journal in Calcutta entitled The Parthenon called itself the voice of people who were "Hindu by birth, yet European by education"-in other words, the voice of those multilingual and bicultural intermediaries of imperial governance. While educational qualifications in the many vernacular languages conferred much less prestige, being a colonial functionary, or baboo, engendered considerable frustration and intellectual alienation from both the Anglo-Indian elite and indigenous traditions. The baboo began to be satirized as a volatile mixture of the dregs of imperialist culture and the heights of philosophical absurdity. The baboo stereotype-from Rudyard Kipling to Peter Sellars-features a singsong accent, clownish head-nodding, pretensions to erudition, credentializing anxieties, a moralistic tone, a liberal use of clichés and mixed metaphors, and incongruous literal translations into English from the vernacular. Baboo English (as Indian English) is also subject to interferences from typical features of South Asian languages that are uncommon in English-such as the function of word reduplication as an intensifier ("little little children"; "very very nice"). Recognizing this hybrid and ridiculous subject as an anomaly several decades later, in 1874 a writer in Mukherjee's Magazine would metaphorically wring his hands in an article entitled "Where Shall the Baboo Go?" Baboo (or Babu) English eventually became the butt of Victorian satire and the prized linguistic object of colonial lexicographies such as Colonel Henry Yule's and A. C. Burnell's famous Hobson-Jobson.

Sociolinguistics has attempted to separate analytically distinct aspects of Indian English, such as the instrumental function (in establishing prestige and social hierarchy), the regulative function (in law, administration, and business), the interpersonal function (as a link language within modernity), and the innovative function (in literature or cultural production). While the first three aspects have always been very important, in the last two centuries of the reception of English in South Asia-and hence the ubiquity of the baboo stereotype-it is only in recent decades that greater attention is being paid by the literati to the imaginative and innovative function of cultural production supported by dialectal-as well as political-independence. Post-independence writers from G. V. Desani to Salman Rushdie, and Indian cinema and media have since disseminated an Indian English dialect (with regional variants) that has gone global in its quest for new markets and audiences. India is among the ten largest book-producing countries in the world and the third-largest producer of English-language books after the United States and Great Britain. It produces more full-length feature films than any country in the world, in multiple languages, but frequently with significant English content. Even so, a recent comprehensive literary history of anglophone writing in India is scathing in its characterization of the imaginative literature, through its title, as Babu Fictions. Old habits die hard, and older slurs find newer and more persuasive contexts for their justification: while from the British point of view, the indigenous speaker of English could never shed his "Indianness," now it has become fashionable to assert that anglophone Indians can never shed their compromised elite status. To the extent that the English language is seen reductively as the expression of upper-class status and perspective alone, its capacity to represent the larger social whole is found lacking. Appearing to its speakers as a combination of prestige and disparagement, English represents a complicated status for South Asians that linguists have called diglossic differentiation, or the continual awareness of a relationship between high and low variations. Therefore, Probal Dasgupta calls Indian English an "auntie" (as opposed to mother) tongue, because "the meaning of English in India is not an independent referential potential, but a cross-referential or anaphoric meaning." A dependent or diglossic relationship makes English in India refer itself either to non-English speaking natives (with implicit superiority), or non-native metropolitan speakers from Britain or the United States (with implicit inferiority). English nonetheless remains the pathway to modernity, science, and business opportunity. Even though India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other South Asian countries are in the sixth decade after formal independence from British suzerainty, Macaulay, it would appear, continues to have the last laugh.

Following a specific line of inquiry arising from these more generalized literary and linguistic antecedents, this book explores Guru English as a language variant of South Asian origin. There are at least four major aspects of this phenomenon. First of all, in its most literal sense, Guru English is not so much a dialect (even though it might be linked to dialectal variations of Indian English) or a jargon (even though it might frequently possess an esoteric and technical vocabulary), as it is an example of what linguist Michael Halliday has called a register. However, this definition would have to be applied in an expanded sense, as the notion of register is linked to the language of a clearly demarcated socioprofessional group (such as doctors, lawyers, or engineers), whereas Guru English does not function only within such parameters. Anglophone scholars and proselytizers of South Asian religions (especially Hinduism and Buddhism in their revivalist and cosmopolitan versions) use this register in search of audiences who can "only connect" via English. Aspects of free play and innovation within the syntax, vocabulary, and rhetoric of this specific register can be discerned through multiple examples cited by religious practitioners throughout the chapters that follow. As register, Guru English is a theolinguistics, generating new religious meanings. Analyzing religion through language, and language by religion, Guru English is a practice nourished by eighteenth-century orientalists and twenty-first-century gurus alike.


Excerpted from Guru English by Srinivas Aravamudan Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Bruce Robbins
Rich in intelligent readings on a range of topics that are cleverly linked to the resuscitation, re-fashioning, and export of Asian religion.
Bruce Robbins, Columbia University
Dipesh Chakrabarty
Guru English significantly extends the reach of postcolonial criticism by bringing into conversation literary theory and area studies. It presents some of the best analyses to date of the prose through which a colonial construct called 'Indian spiritualism' has found both a market and an afterlife in the contemporary world. Aravamudan's probing examination of the Hindu Right's language of nuclear triumphalism, of Rushdie's writings, and of the promises held out by a long line of transnational gurus—from the Maharishi to Deepak Chopra—will establish him as a major cultural commentator of our times.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, The University of Chicago
Marco Jacquemet
An intellectual tour de force combining literary criticism, archival research, philosophical reflections, and cultural analysis. The elegant merging of various disciplinary fields makes Guru English an important reference tool for a variety of scholars interested in cultural globalization, religious studies, colonial and post-colonial formations, and literary criticism.
Marco Jacquemet, University of San Francisco
Romila Thapar
Guru English is an innovative and insightful analysis of the language used during the last two centuries in the discourse on religion in South Asia. The genes of British English were mutated by Indian requirements and the resulting language was indispensable to the redefining of Hinduism. Processed through orientalism, colonialism, and nationalism, it is now moving towards cosmopolitanism and the diaspora. The new texture of this language bears the heightened imprint of cultural and political concerns.
Romila Thapar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
Bernard Bate
A highly engaging, often brilliant and wide-ranging book with broad scholarly appeal. Aravamudan has produced a novel synthesis that goes beyond other works in the field to articulate a vision of the cosmopolitan range of Indic thought within the metropole. The book is an important contribution to postcolonial studies and to scholars working in comparative literature, anthropology, history, and globalization studies.
Bernard Bate, Yale University

Meet the Author

Srinivas Aravamudan is Associate Professor of English and Director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. He is the author of "Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804".

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