Anupama Rao | The Global Nietzsche (précis)

by Anupama Rao

As someone who works in South Asia, on questions of caste and political subjectivity, I am interested in what we can learn from thinking about South Asia through Nietzsche, and vice versa. Especially because the latter question, what Nietzsche ‘learned’ from South Asia is not so persuasive, and requires unlearning if anything. Two lines of inquiry will frame my intervention.

The first has to do with geo-historical links between West and South Asia in the interwar, when the break up of imperial formations also shaped ongoing concerns with political “becoming.” I’ll be interested to think about how Global Nietzsche intersects with the genealogy of two interconnected figures, Dalit and Muslim, whose discrepant genealogies allow a glimpse into the connected worlds of Islam, revolution, conversion, and (radical) humanism.[1]

The second has to do with the stakes of the reception history with which we are tasked. I address the issue below briefly by asking whether/how the commitment of postcolonial scholars to provincializing Europe can work vice versa, to deprovincialize thought.


Nietzsche’s engagement with old Iran (Zarathustra), on the one hand, and his understanding of caste Hinduism (and the figure of the Chandala) as a precursor to Judeo-Christian slave morality is an important geo-conceptual link that bridges West and South Asia.

That link is animated, albeit in a rather different manner, by the entangled itineraries of interwar thought and activism, and their political afterlives. (This is especially the case with regard to accounts of political Islam.) The interwar was an important moment of connection and affinity, which was later occluded by the shape of decolonization itself.

One such connection is Ali Shariati channeling Muhammed Iqbal (1877-1938), commonly described as the poet-philosopher of Muslim nationalism on the subcontinent, as the inspiration for his [Shariati’s] distinctive position on Islam and revolution as co-constitutive events in human history. Iqbal’s position on the key centrality of the subcontinent for the full elaboration of Islam as idea and historical force makes the subcontinent central rather than supplemental to Shariati’s engagement with Islam as political theology, especially his interest in revivifying the archive of Shi’ism.

Shariati’s engagement with Nietzsche and Heidegger, which is refracted through the engagement with Frantz Fanon in particular, and via the French intellectual scene of the time more generally, led to his efforts to link Marx with Nietzsche, and the emphasis on Shi’sm as a process of becoming, rather than a stale ritual of mourning and martyrdom. In the process, Shariati poses other important questions: Who is the political subject? How to conceive the project of emancipation?

It might be worth returning to the subcontinent with these questions in mind, to another scene of becoming. The issue is caste and religion as these are addressed by the so-called modern Manu,[2] Dalit leader, political thinker and constitutional lawyer B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) who thought about Constitution and conversion as two routes to the annihilation of caste.[3]

Ambedkar had compared the relative merits of Islam and Sikhism before his eventual conversion to Buddhism in 1956. (Ambedkar’s Buddhist conversion marked the final break with Marx, and is the focus of the posthumously published Buddha or Karl Marx.) The issue is an interesting one with regard to the two sets of oppositions around which Hinduism is organized. The first is the invisible divide between “touchable” and “untouchable” Hindus, which produced a crisis of reform; the other was the idea of an external enemy, e.g., Christians, Communists, secularists, but especially Muslims.[4] Thus one could argue that that the history of Hinduism could be told through Muslim and Dalit minority histories.

To think about subcontinental history through the figure of the minority subject, of Dalit and Muslim, and Buddhism and Islam begins to suggest a broader field in which the complex reception of Nietzsche must also be pegged to the rather divergent stakes of Nietzsche’s reception by Arab intellectuals (Hanssen, précis), on the one hand, and Hindu thinkers (Aurobindo, Tilak, S. R. Rajwade, etc.) on the other. Nietzsche’s position on the transvaluation of Aryan values, and his enthusiasm for caste, poses rather fundamental problems for understanding history from the Chandala’s perspective, so to speak.

Ambedkar’s understanding of Buddhism as eternal recurrence was a response to the historic violence of caste. Ambedkar’s reclamation of Buddhism as an agonistic historical force reverberates well beyond the immediate event of conversion where six hundred thousand Dalits converted en masse in a public ceremony in Nagpur less than two months before his death. Buddhism was coeval in status with Hinduism itself, and superior to it in both form and substance. Its absence in India was not only proof of Brahmanical Hinduism’s violence, but also an Indic religion whose authority no one could dare to challenge. The epistemic space Ambedkar claimed was thus ingenious and unassailable, but the Navayana Buddhism Ambedkar established was in effect a new religion, not legible to extant traditions.

Ambedkar’s answer was not only to offer a more intensively conceived form of universality in the ethical universe of his Buddhism. It was also to underscore the singular circumstances of his response. For what he managed to do was to restage caste difference as a religious difference that was both familiar and new, that is, as a conversation that one assumed had already occurred, but the contents of which were in fact yet to be decided.

Like Shari’ati’s Alavid Islam, Buddist conversion is both radically new and it is a “return.” More important its political theology confounds normative accounts of (secular) subject formation. Exploring it alongside the Iqbal-Shari’ati trajectory might be instructive.

provincializing Europe

Perhaps the question is not about provincializing Europe, so much as how to de-provincialize thought.

Provincializing Europe could be viewed as aligning Dipesh Chakrabarty’s concerns with the critique of Orientalism. However Chakrabarty’s injunction to “put thought in its place,” and to recognize the historical provenance (and therefore parochialism) of democratic liberalism is predicated on its impossibility: Chakrabarty acknowledges even as he resists European thought as a geohistorical universal. Ultimately Chakrabarty acknowledges the poison in the “gift” of enlightenment thought, which consigns the colonized to the social experience of incommensurable orders of abstraction; of navigating between universal categories, and resolutely stubborn practices of daily life and lived belief.

Rather than the retreat into ethnographic alterity, however, we might look at figurations of dispossession that go under the name “Jew,” “Muslims,” “Dalit,” and “Negro,” as terms which are potent reminders of radical humanist aspirations that work through efforts at analogy, connection, and political commensuration.[5]

We should note that the relationship between social marginality and political enfranchisement/visibility drives these philosophies of “the political,” and that this already posits an awkward, if not agonistic relationship between social theory and intellectual history/the history of ideas: the latter traditionally considers questions of freedom, liberty, sovereignty, and morality without attending to material conditions, relations of production (as also social relations).

It might be interesting to think about figures whose concrete particularity troubles the constitution of the social whole, and whose politicality, that is the conditions by which their actions might be viewed as properly “political,” must be established rather than assumed.



[1] Dalit means “ground down,” “crushed,” “broken” in Sanskrit and Marathi, and began to be used by B. R. Ambedkar in the late 1920s to describe the untouchables. The term’s links with ideas of dispossession, deprivation, and human wretchedness are clear. As a form of selfnaming, it resignifies conditions of historic exclusion as the grounds for militant demands for self-respect. The term must be contrasted with M. K. Gandhi’s renaming of the untouchable as Harijan [lit. person of God] in 1933, when he also started a journal by that name.

[2] Nietzsche’s reliance on Manu’s commentary on the Dharmashastra is well known. He reads it approvingly as a text that justifies the fourfold order of caste, emphasizing the place of the outcaste, or the Chandala, the product of caste miscegenation, the sexual union of a Brahmin woman with a Sudra [laboring caste] or untouchable, as a figure who suffers terrible ostracism. The biopolitical logic of caste, its focus on purity, means that the Chandala is an abjected figure, who suffers a permanent excision from the body politic. Christianity, ‘sprung from Jewish roots,’ marks the victory of ‘chandala values,’ the revolt of the downtrodden and the wretched, their hatred of the oppressor now transvalued as ‘love.’

[3] Ambedkar was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee for India’s postcolonial Constitution.

[4] Arvind Rajagopal, “A Public Sphere of Combat: Hindu Populism in India,” Current History: A Journal of Contemporary World Affairs, April 2016.

[5] I draw here on Saba Mahmood’s insight that the idea of minority “congeals within itself different forms of marginalization and precarity that are historically distinct, which in turn determines the kind of political struggles a minority can pursue in order to ensure its collective survival and well being.” (Religious Difference in A Secular Age, 65)

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