Of ‘Idols’ and ‘Subalterns’: Western Narratives of India and Essentializing Tropes

March 16, 2021 Authored by: Saumya Dey

What is a ‘Narrative’?

‘Narrative’ is a term that we use often, in our conversations, or when writing. Do not we? That is because we apprehend ourselves surrounded by narratives, or amid them. If not, we build them as we try to derive sense out of events, situations, and substantial durations. We refer to the political or social narratives that are apparently unfolding around us. Garrulous experts sitting in the commentary box analyze a game of cricket threadbare once it has wound to a (preferably exciting) denouement and make a narrative out of it. In our nostalgic moments, we sometimes wistfully reflect on the course of our lives and wonder what all we could have done better. While at it, we make ourselves the principal protagonists of a narrative that is yet unfolding. One might say that ‘narrativization’ is as innate to our species, the homo sapiens, as the faculty of making tools and machines. As a matter of fact, that is the fundamental argument that Yuval Noah Harari makes in his bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Indeed, as the philosopher-historian Hayden White writes, narrative is “a metacode, a human universal….” [1] Humanity comprises countless cultures which often differ vastly. But consistent through all of them is the ‘narrative tendency.’ But what exactly is a ‘narrative’? And what does it mean to ‘narrativize’?

I think, it is possible to define a ‘narrative’ and the ‘narrativizing’ function by identifying certain of their elemental characteristics and tendencies. Generally, narratives contain a plot which White terms a “structure of relationships.” This, he says, provides the events contained in an account a meaning by identifying them as “parts of an integrated whole.” [2] Paraphrasing and building on White, one might add that a plot establishes a similar ‘structure of relationships’ between a number of characters or protagonists as well, lending them relative value and meaning. Narratives, thus, we may further argue, possess the quality of ‘teleology’, that is, the events and characters contained in them serve certain ends by existing in relationships with each other. What might be these ends? Let us, once again, turn to White as we attempt to answer this question. Another characteristic of a narrative, we learn from White, is that it bears the “notion of a social center”. This, writes White, helps us “locate” the events related by a narrative “with respect to one another” and charge them with “ethical or moral significance.” [3] I think, what he is saying here is that narratives are built or revolve around socially derived ethics and morality (and presuppose the datums of a social formation). These help us evaluate the events constituting a narrative from the ethical and moral standpoint. I suppose, the same could be said about the characters populating a narrative. The events and characters that further a narrative thus signify morals and ethics, they are good or bad. Or, one could simply say that they help us identify good and bad. Hence, we find White arguing that ‘narrativity’ “is intimately related to…the impulse to moralize reality….” [4] A narrative helps us tell the Pandavas from the Kauravas and determine who are the better lot of people. We, thus, moralize the reality of the difference that separates them. 

Let us now, based on the foregoing, give ourselves the following working definition of a narrative – it is a structure of relationships established between several events or characters which serves a moralizing function. To narrativize, that is, create narratives, by extension, would mean identifying this structure to discharge a moralizing function. Intrinsic to narratives, and the act of constructing them, it seems, is the aspect of delivering value judgements (which need not necessarily be overt). Come to think of it, when academics or journalists are commenting on some social or political narrative, do not they discuss the connectedness of several developments and the desirability or otherwise of the outcome that these might be tending towards? Similarly, when a game of cricket is analyzed by experts after its conclusion, they essentially establish relationships between the performances (the equivalents of ‘events’) delivered by individuals in each team (the ‘protagonists’). This is how they ‘narrativize’ the game that was and judge for our benefit how exactly the victorious team did better. Finally, when we slouch in a chair and reflect on the lives we have had, we often contemplate a sequence of situations we have been in and the people who comprised them. We ascribe to this sequence the telos of our current lot which we might or might not consider satisfactory. 

What is ‘Essentialization’?

Narratives communicate a teleology of events and characters to deliver value judgements. But how might they ‘essentialize’? We shall now resort to R.G. Collingwood, along with White, as we seek to answer this question. 

Collingwood, another philosopher-historian like White, discusses an interesting tendency in classical age historiography in his book The Idea of History. He does this as he brings up the historian Livy who assembled “the traditional records of early Roman history…into a single continuous narrative, the history of Rome.” [5] According to Collingwood, this history suffers from a major defect, namely, ‘substantialism’. It does not examine “the process which brought into existence the characteristic Roman institutions and molded the typical Roman character.” [6] Instead, Livy writes as though Rome “is a substance, changeless and eternal”. At the very start of Livy’s narrative Rome is already “ready-made and complete”, and till its very end she undergoes “no spiritual change”. [7]

Following Collingwood’s criticism of Livy, I suggest that one of the ways that narratives might essentialize is by succumbing to substantialism. As they ‘moralize’ reality, or arrive at value judgments, narratives might treat events and characters as manifestations of some seemingly changeless ‘substance’ and thus impute them an ‘essence’. As we shall see below, this is done very commonly in the western narratives of India.   

Besides lending themselves to substantialism, in my view, there is another way that narratives essentialize. This is by being conceptualized in a certain form. Since narratives deliver value judgements, they must, explicitly or implicitly, make certain points. Narratives, thus, explain and argue. In the words of White, a narrative “operation” is “explanation by formal, explicit, or discursive argument.” [8] Thus, according to him, a “mode of argument” [9] is one of the ways a historical narrative is conceptualized. As understood by White, this conceptualization operates in multiple “paradigms.” One of these he identifies as ‘mechanistic’. [10] As a mechanistic mode of argument, a historical narrative tends to be reductive. In simple language, it seeks to ‘reduce’ the phenomena that it is speaking of, be they certain events or actors, to the operation of a set of “causal laws”. When a historian is being a ‘mechanist’, s/he considers an explanation complete only after discovering “the laws that are presumed to govern history in the same way that the laws of physics are presumed to govern nature.” [11] One example of such a ‘mechanist’ (also cited by White) is obviously Karl Marx. His ‘materialist’ conception of history is inherently a mechanistic mode of argument since it reduces historical phenomena (events, motivations of actors) to the laws of class struggle which supposedly animate and transform the regimes of social production (‘modes of production’).

Thus, the second form of essentialization that one might discern in narratives, in my opinion, is the mechanistic or reductive approach. It ascribes to events and actors the ‘essence’ of some apparently infallible laws. From the mechanistic point of view, thus, the course of events and choices of actors occur within a very limited, pre-determined ambit. Once again, western narratives of India are very prone to adopting this point of view. 

‘Idols’, ‘Subalterns’, and Western Narratives of India 

By ‘western’ narratives of India I mean the certain stereotypical ways that Euro-American media and academia write about our country. These narratives tend to be quite predictable in terms of the ‘events’ and ‘protagonists’ they combine to assume a plot structure. The former are various instances of ‘violence’ and ‘oppression’ that apparently plague our country. The latter are their sundry perpetrators. Simply put, what the Euro-American media and academia generally produce about India are atrocity narratives of various sorts. Their moralizing function, or value judgement, thus is very predictable. The Euro-American narrative representations of India assume a condemnatory tone and establish her as the West’s ‘other’. They depict our country as the realm of an atavistic social order that is fundamentally unjust and constraining of human freedom. The ‘social center’ that these atrocity narratives derive from are, of course, western universalist notions of the ‘normal’ and ‘ideal’. These notions are redolent of (ironically) both Judeo-Christian prejudices against non-Abrahamic societies and an aggressively desacralized outlook, or ‘rationality’, that harkens to the enlightenment tradition. The Euro-American atrocity narratives about India also tend to be essentializing in very hackneyed ways. This is because, in my view, they implicitly attribute certain ‘essences’ to the Indian ‘reality’. These atrocity narratives insinuate that the ‘violence’ and ‘oppression’ afflicting India and their protagonists together represent the ‘changeless substance’, or ‘timeless laws’, of caste and the predominant Indian religion, Hinduism. Being apparently averse to reason, they make Indians innately irrational and, consequently, violent, and oppressive of their fellows. As the Indologist Roland Inden writes, there is this western idea of India “as the…land governed by a disorderly imagination instead of a world-ordering rationality….” [12] Caste, “the distinctive social institution attributed to India”, is meant to be the “outer manifestation” of this imagination. [13] It is ‘presupposed’ by Hinduism which the West understood to be inherently imaginative by nature. We learn from Inden that, if western perceptions attributed a “positive essence” to Hinduism at all (despite it being “uncentered” and lacking in “uniformity”), it was in the form of a “feminine imaginativeness” which allowed it to move from “one extreme to the other, and to tolerate inconsistencies.” [14] Thus, Indian social organization and dominant spirituality both, in western narratives, are irrational and contrary to reason. India, by extension, is the domain of the irrational.

The Euro-American narrative representations of India deploy multiple tropes, or nomenclatural devices, to underline and illustrate Indian irrationality. A couple of these are ‘idols’ and ‘subalterns’. The first is of an old vintage. The latter has been in use since the early eighties or so. 

Be it an academic or journalistic western account of Indian religiosity, it must contain ample references to the anthropomorphic representations of the Divine that grace the spires and sanctums of our temples. These are, of course, termed ‘idols’. The commensurate Indic terms, namely, ‘murti’ and ‘vigraha’, are never used. Unfortunately, we Indians ourselves use the word ‘idol’ without any qualms when referring to the representations of our Devatas. Little do we realize that it is loaded with cultural value judgement and evocative of a colonial ‘orientalist’ denigration of India. In case one wishes to grasp the full implications of usages like ‘idols’ and ‘idolatry’, there is this excellent recent monograph by Swagato Ganguly. According to Ganguly, “idolatry became a totalizing figure for Indian society…and its perceived strangeness” in “colonial discourse on India.” [15] In other words, ‘idolatry’ signified the inveterate exoticness of India in the eyes of the British colonialist. It also stood for the ‘primitiveness’ of our country. This is since, ‘idolatry’ was considered “concomitant” to ‘fetishism’ and ‘polytheism’ [16], the two supposedly archaic stages in the evolution of religion. ‘Idols’, Ganguly further writes, indicated for Europeans the Hindus’ “taste for allegory and penchant for outward appearance” and their inability of “positing a radical separation between nature and its creator.” [17] Hindus, thus, ‘orientalist’ discourse assumed, are a delusional people, they are stuck with ‘appearance’ and a false pantheism which keeps them from comprehending the truly transcendental nature of God. ‘Idols’ served as the pretext for this assumption. They also indicated “heteroglossia” – multiple manners of ‘speaking’ the divine – along with a fracturing of Indian subjectivity and perception of truth. Indians, as a result, we learn from Ganguly, were thought to be prone to moral corruption. [18] They were also seen to be overimaginative on account of their veneration of ‘idols’. An ‘orientalist’ such as William Jones seems to have insinuated that ‘idolatry’, since it conceived the Divine in varied forms, was the outcome of a “hyperactive” Asian imagination. He thought that reason is the “grand prerogative” of the European mind. [19] Thus, along with other Indian inadequacies, at long last, ‘idols’ were expressions of a febrile Indian imagination for Europeans. To put it in plain language, as seen by them, ‘idols’ were emblematic of Indian irrationality.  

The primary meaning of ‘subaltern’ given in the dictionary I possess is “an officer below the rank of captain, esp. a second lieutenant.” [20] However, there once lived a Marxist in Italy by the name of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) who gave a different spin to this word. He used it to mean those who do not belong to the ruling class and hence have been invisible in history. [21] This Gramscian postulation of the ‘subaltern’ later inspired an entire research project. It had its inception at the Australian National University in the early 1980s and was named ‘subaltern studies’. Its prime architect was Ranajit Guha. The objective of this project was to study colonial Indian history for representative instances of subaltern, or ‘non-elite’, psychology and politics. Now, though initiated by an Indian and executed by many more, I consider the ‘subaltern studies’ project, both in terms of its provenance and the understanding of our country it promotes, a very quintessentially ‘western’ narrative representation of India. To begin with, Australia is very much an outpost of the Euro-American world, both in its dominant ethnic complexion and culture. Secondly, the ‘subaltern studies’ scholars, despite being brown skinned in many instances, simply buttressed the old western notion of India being a place where impulse and irrationality dominate human behavior. In this sense, it would not be wrong to term the Indian participants in the ‘subaltern studies’ project loyal and enthusiastic sepoys subserving the old western perceptions of India. 

Guha and his colleagues worked with the postulate, or alternative “thematization”, that a “structural split” informed the politics of colonial India. [22] It defined two distinct political “domains” which, despite interacting, were mutually “autonomous”. [23] These were, respectively, the politics of the elite and ‘subaltern’, or ‘non-elite’, groups. Guha and the other scholars making up the ‘subaltern studies group’ focused on the latter. They thought that it had been previously neglected on account of ‘elitism’. [24] How did they represent the politics of the hitherto ignored non-elite Indians? In pretty essentialist terms, I would say. A lot of the ‘research’ that the Subaltern Studies volumes published insinuated that Indian ‘subaltern’ politics was characterized by impulse, irrationality, and a susceptibility to rumors. Even Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, a ‘radical’ scholar and contributor, was driven to comment that the “dominant thesis” ‘inhabiting’ the project seemed to be the ‘subaltern’s’ “infantility”. [25] In other words, Spivak seems to have thought that the efforts of Guha and his ilk made the Indian ‘subaltern’ seem unmitigatedly immature. On my part, I would observe that that seems like a very colonial ‘orientalist’ depiction. By constructing a phony quintessence of the Indian ‘subaltern’, it has supplied yet another trope to the western narratives of Indian irrationality. 


  1. See The Content of the Form. Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1990 [paperback edition]), p.1.
  2. Ibid., p.9.
  3. Ibid., p.11.
  4. Ibid., p.14.
  5. The Idea of History (New Delhi: OUP, 2004), p.36. This work by Livy is titled Ab Urbe Condita. He was born at some point in the first century BCE.
  6. Ibid., p.43.
  7. Ibid., p.44.
  8. See Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore & London: he John Hopkins University Press, 1993 [eighth printing]), p.11.
  9. Ibid., p.5.
  10. Ibid., p.13.
  11. Ibid., p.17.
  12. See Imagining India (London: Hurst & Company, 2000), p.48.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., p.88.
  15. Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India. Visions of Horror. Allegories of Enlightenment (London & New York: Routledge, 2018), p.7.
  16. Ibid., p.8.
  17. Ibid., p.18.
  18. Ibid., p.25.
  19. Ibid., p.32.
  20. Della Thompson (ed.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Delhi: OUP, 1999 [ninth impression]), p.1386.
  21. See Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (edited and translated by), Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (Chennai: Orient Longman, 2004), pp.52-55.
  22. Ranajit Guha (ed.), A Subaltern Studies Reader (New Delhi: OUP, 2000). Ranajit Guha, ‘Introduction’, p.xv.
  23. Ibid., p.xvi.
  24. Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies I. Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi: OUP, 1994), p.1.
  25. See ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’ in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies IV. Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi: OUP, 1994), p.346.
Centre For Indic studies