The Problem with Western Universalism (long read)

The Problem with Western Universalism (long read)

Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

The Problem with Western Universalism (long read)

“in the spread of modern western civilisations throughout the world something of the spirit of ‘Christianity incognito’ is at work.” Arend Theodoor van Leeuwen

Part 1. The Sabarimala Temple Controversy

In January 2019, I read two related articles in the media that immediately caught my attention, being a regular visitor to India. The first was in The Guardian. The headline read: “Indian Women Form 620 km Human Chain in Support of Lifting of Temple Ban”, accompanied by an image of a long line of women standing like a human wall on a road outside a Hindu temple in the state of Kerala, in India.

The article focused on opposing demonstrations sparked as a result of two women entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, a Hindu temple that for centuries has banned entrance to women of a reproductive age (between the ages of 9-50). The two women had entered the temple following a ruling by the Supreme Court of India in September 2018. The ruling was the subject of the second article on an Indian website. Its headline read: “Social Exclusion Of Women Based On Menstrual Status, Is A Form Of Untouchability”. This had overturned the centuries old ban on women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala temple, claiming it to be gender discrimination based on notions of impurity and pollution associated with menstruation. The Justice interpreted this as a form of untouchability. Two demonstrations had erupted since the ruling, one supporting the ban and one opposing it.

My immediate reaction to the first article was that banning women of reproductive age from the temple was simply gender discrimination, in what is still a deeply patriarchal society. As for the ruling reported in the second article, it seemed to me a victory for women’s rights. So after reading both articles, I posted them to my Facebook timeline. It wasn’t long before friends liked the post or commented with shocked emojis at the ban. However, one of my friends, an Indian, had a different reaction. He commented that the first article was a “malicious misstatement of the issues at stake…with numerous factual errors” and that the ruling was, “a flawed judgement that betrays practically no understanding of the Subarimala rituals or indeed that of any Hindu temple.”

Conflicting thoughts crossed my mind. Why was my Indian friend responding so strongly? Had I reacted too quickly? Had my friend become an overtly conservative Hindu? I left the issue for sometime. I didn’t want to start a polemic on Facebook, and I realised I really didn’t know enough about the facts to take a strong position either way. But a month later, when I was in India myself, the issue came up again and I decided to explore it further.

The Sabarimala temple, one of the most famous in India, is a denominational temple of a stream of Hindu religious worship, belonging to the deity Ayyappa, of which there are many such temples in India. But in this particular Ayyappa temple, Ayyappa takes the form of a deity that is permanently celibate and in meditation. For this reason, ever since the temple was constructed millennia ago, women devotees of reproductive age have been asked not to enter the temple, so as not to disturb the deity. 

Since the Supreme Court Ruling, for months, two large, opposing demonstrations were being waged. One supported the ruling and the right of women to enter the temple, encouraged by the Kerala communist government, while the other wished to uphold the tradition of the temple, and was supported by the BJP, the ruling national party. Leaving the politics aside, what I didn’t find out until later—something interestingly not mentioned in The Guardian article—was that most of the local female worshippers of the Sabarimala temple, respected the traditions of the temple and the reasons for them. They were the ones protesting the ruling, and were in greater numbers than those actively supporting it. 

I discovered that the case had originally been taken up by the Supreme Court as a result of pressure from a small group of female lawyers, who considered that “banning women from visiting a public place of worship was a violation of ideals of equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom.” The Supreme Court, using the Constitution of India as its justification, cited the same principles in reaching its verdict. However, as an Indian colleague of mine, a woman, pointed out, to what extent were the actual worshippers of the temple themselves consulted about their opinion on the matter? I thought it was a good question. It struck me that the group of lawyers who had originally taken up the cause of the temple ban, as far as I could gather, had no personal stake themselves in the affairs of the temple, and of course, neither did the Supreme Court. From the outset, it was an ideological argument.

The issue then took a more personal turn. I reflected on how instantly the articles I had read had triggered my own liberalist sensibilities. With scant knowledge of the facts, it was a rush of righteous indignation that had prompted me to post them. I began to wonder if this was not the same righteous indignation that had motivated the group of female lawyers to take up the case against the ban, and the western media to pick up on the story without making the attempt, like myself, to research all the facts. If the actual worshippers of the temple were accepting of the ban as a result of their devotion to the deity, why should anyone interfere, at least without understanding the realities of the temple practices and rituals, and their significance for those involved? 

Now, it might be argued that the local worshippers’ acceptance of the ban was the result of their ‘unknowing’ acquiescence to patriarchy. But this seems an assumption at best, and also one that entirely disregards the religious, faith-based nature of the ritual practice under which this particular temple was constructed: namely the honouring of the celibacy of the deity, and the value this ritual practice might offer to all its devotees. 

The annual pilgrimage to the temple attracts 17-50 million devotees, and involves a vratham (a 41-day austerity period) prior to the pilgrimage to the shrine. The pilgrimage itself is rigorous, involving a 48-mile trek through dense forest and hills. Devotees wear only a simple single black cloth ‘dhoti’ (sarong) with a mala (bead necklace), they refrain from shaving, and remain vegetarian and celibate both in action and thought, throughout.

The ordeal of the pilgrimage and the spiritual intensity of the temple are designed to give men in particular, the opportunity to reflect on and share in an experience of the potential of manhood. It is the whole family, however, who must agree to any person’s involvement in the pilgrimage. This particular Sabarimala temple is the only Sabarimala temple in India that precludes access to women of reproductive age, based on the ritual significance on which it is founded. There is no restriction on the basis of caste or religion. Both Christians and Moslems join the pilgrimage. Similarly, there are temples in India where only women are allowed, and where men are excluded from certain rituals specifically designed for women. 

It was interesting to learn that the sole dissenting voice in the judiciary to the ruling to dismiss the ban was Justice Indu Malhotra—a woman, and the only woman on the board of judges. She concluded from the evidence that the restriction was not based on misogyny or menstrual impurity, but on the celibate nature of the Ayyappa deity. She argued, “What constitutes an essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide.” She warned that in a plural and diverse country, judges must be careful before labelling a practice as discriminatory on the basis of personal morality. She claimed, “Issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment must not ordinarily be interfered with by the courts. In fact, courts should not interfere unless a practice is pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil.” At another point she noted: “It is irrelevant whether the practice is rational or logical. Notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion by courts.”

Part 2. The Problem with Western Universalism

The issue of the Sabarimala temple ruling evoked questions I have had for a long time about the nature of western universalism. The concept of universal human rights has been and remains a powerful and significant tool in countering oppression, tyranny and inequality in the world. This is especially the case for those who have no recourse to other forms of justice. Concern about human rights abuses and the negative effects of patriarchy on the human rights of women, are developing as never before around the world. This is one of the most significant developments to have come out of globalisation. Yet, this is not always a straightforward matter; especially when it comes to cultures, like India, that are far more pluralistic than the West. The conception of universal human rights can become its own form of tyranny when it is promoted without consideration of the actual nature of local traditions and religious practices, and within their own context, their potential value

The fact is that an often unconscious categorisation of meaning takes place in western universalist discourse. The discourse tends to create myopia to local realities, especially of other cultures, with their own particular locus of meaning, in preference for an abstract conception that is not rooted at all in locality and place.

What gets silently erased in this process are those forms of meaning that are not allowed for in such a discourse; that are the result of a complex web of interconnections that often lie through, and beyond, historical time; that contain dimensions of meaning often of a different ontological, but equally valid nature.

Modern liberal universalism has arisen as a result of several hundred years of specifically European knowledge development, which has its roots in the scientific revolution of the European Enlightenment, and in the Christian tradition. The establishment of law, education, free press, and free trade, under the banner of scientific rationalism, was originally an evolutionary response to a particularly European predicament: the domination of the church. However, such was the unquestioned championing of this worldview and its perceived universal application, that as an outcome of western imperialism, we now live in a world where the modern, secular, progressive, liberal narrative, has been successfully exported to every part of the world, through politics, language, education, the social sciences, and the media.


The birth of modernity – From Martin Luther, to Immanuel Kant, to John Stewart Mill

This discourse is inseparable from its purely rational and scientific, roots. Enlightenment thinkers considered it imperative to free ‘less developed’ countries from what it saw as despotic rule, superstition and myth. This in turn became the justification for colonialism. It is a form of understanding that externalises and objectifies according to its own laws; which is also its strength. It is why human rights now play a crucial role in exacting global justice. 


John Stewart Mill, the english philosopher and champion of liberalism

This essay is not an advocacy for cultural relativism as opposed to universalism. This is a binary that stems from the same form of reductionism. But as Boaventura de Sousa Santos has pointed out, “Is there global social justice without global cognitive justice?” There are many ways of understanding and interpreting the world, not just one. When human rights discourse is appropriated by the state, which it often is, ordinary people easily become, as Santos has pointed out, the ‘objects’ of human rights discourse, rather than the ‘subjects’ of human rights. Without careful consideration of local realities and meanings, universalist discourse in the hands of the state and the media, veers toward becoming a subtler and more insidious continuation of imperialism; one that seeks out what imperialism has always has sought out: uniformity, power and control. As Dipesh Chakrabarty has pointed out, in a civilisation like India, in the state/citizen bind, other narratives of the self and community, untranslatable within European epistemology, are left unrepresented.

How is the state, in a modern, secular, neoliberal society, governed by a narrative of scientific materialism, in practice going to utilise human rights in a truly democratic fashion? The modern state, as we well know, has been one of the worst perpetrators of human rights abuse itself. The continuing sale of arms to Saudi Arabia by the US and Britain, in spite of the war in Yemen, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, are obvious very recent examples. In India, Adivasis*, and other forest dwellers will soon be evicted in their thousands by the state, from large areas of land they have lived on for millennia.

There is a direct relationship between the universalism of the modern secular state, of which human rights discourse is an intrinsic part, and the loss of cultural diversity. The modern state, and capitalism itself, is a homogenising machine that draws everything into itself. It becomes very difficult for the ordinary person to even think outside of its influence. This is particularly the case in the highly centralised west. There are echoes of a reaction to this in the growing resentment toward the elite political class in the west, as being out of touch with the needs of the people it has been elected to serve. When we lose pluralism in any culture, we are losing the true scope of subjectivity. With the loss of pluralism, we lose epistemological enrichment, local creative initiative, and most importantly, community. Aseem Srivastava reminded me recently of Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement in 1987, “There is no such thing as society.”

A blind adherence to universalism, at least how it has been articulated by the secular liberalist state, sets a dangerous precedent, especially in a civilisation like India, which is, by its nature, extraordinarily pluralistic. Some Indians today, voice concern that as a result of colonialism and the influence of the modern secular state, the Indian middle-class, ‘brainwashed’ by modern global values, have lost almost any connection to the value of their own civilisational heritage, and the potential relevance of its knowledge systems to the contemporary world. The same scenario is playing out in other civilisations around the world.

As an arm of the modern secular state, the liberal media itself presents a strange paradox. On one hand, at its best, it can and does highlight the transgressions of the underbelly of modern state capitalism, and human rights abuse. At the same time, it can be one of the worst offenders of promoting and enforcing a discourse that is incapable of understanding events beyond its own particular lens. Often, it only sees what it wants to see, not what is actually there. Its treatment of the Sabarimala issue, and my own response to it, is an illustration of this.

How the secular, liberal, human rights agenda is being interpreted, especially in civilisations that have an entirely different historical and epistemological genealogy than Europe, requires an enormous degree of understanding, sensitivity and, above all, respect for local realities. This is especially the case in areas of religious, or cultural tradition, where human rights discourse otherwise risks becoming its own form of abuse. How much do we have this respect? How much do we assume that anything that cannot be understood in purely rational and objective terms is part of an age of repression that we are thankfully leaving behind?

Without careful consideration, that is, giving equal representation to both the local and the universal, it’s so easy to become, without even realising it, the unconscious homogenising agents of an ideology, that insists, ‘this and only this, is the way the world must be understood.’



* Advasis are the original, indigenous inhabitants of India

** Forms of religious fundamentalism, such as Hindutva and Sharia law are not representative of this.



1.Indian Women Form 620 km Human Chain in Support of Lifting of Temple Ban, Amrit Dhillon. The Guardian, 2ndJan 2019

2.Social Exclusion Of Women Based On Menstrual Status Is A Form Of Untouchability, Ashok Kini., 28thSept 2018

3.The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & Ayyappan Cultus, Radhika Sekar, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi 1992

4.Viewing the Sabarimala issue through a Yogic Lens, Jan-Feb 2019.

5.Entry of Women in Sabarimala Temple, A Right or a Right in Disguise, International Journal of Trend in Scientific Research and Development, July-Aug 2018

6. Justice Indu Malhotra’s dissent resonates deeply with the silent majority, Pramod Kumar, MyIndMakers, Sept 29, 2018

7. Cognitive Justice in a Global World, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Lexington Books, 2007

8. Spaces of Transformation—Epistemologies of the South, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, video on Youtube 2012

9. Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts? Dipesh Chakrabarty, Representations No 37, 1992. University of California.

10. Interview with Margaret Thatcher, Woman’s Own. 1987

11. The arrogance of the ignorant, Abhinav Gupta, Aseem Srivastava, The Hindu, April 1st2019

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Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

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