Revisiting “Crippled Minds” after 40 years | Sunday Observer

Revisiting “Crippled Minds” after 40 years

25 June, 2023

The writings critiquing Western knowledge and the West’s depiction of Asia often receive a higher admiration from the academia in the Global South as profound attempts that try to question the currents. Thus, criticising the Western domination in sciences and cultures seems to have become a kind of a populist way of gaining a scholarly baptism as a Southern intellectual, who challenges the Western hegemony.

But, ironically since the publication of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” in 1977 to this day, majority of the works critiquing the Western portrayal of the East has taken a parochial path of reinterpreting the Asian cultures through the lenses of the Western epistemology, which inherently distorts the real understanding of Asian sciences and cultures. It is the same drawback visible from Gananath Obeyesekere’s “Protestant Buddhism” to Capra’s “Tao of Physics” as both works try to grasp the Eastern values under the constructive frameworks inherited from the West.

It is in this background, one should revisit Susnatha Goonatilake’s first book titled “Crippled Minds: An Exploration Into Colonial Culture” as it stands as a text that differs from many of the post-colonial textual narratives that intended to challenge Eurocentrism, but eventually ended up in the acolyte version of the later. Goonatilake’s work was published in 1982 at a time when the world was divided into two major power fronts and the major arguments stemming from the “Crippled Minds” relate to the neo-colonial culture, mapping of colonial cultures and the knowledge transformation.

Colonial history and sciences

It is indeed a tedious work to read as the book is divided into 12 chapters exploring many issues that can be a bit of a complex task for an amateur reader, who has not been exposed to colonial history and sciences. Despite this minor drawback of its vastness and lengthy analysis written in a language filled with academic jargon, Susnatha Goonatilake’s work deserves its due place in history as an authentic work devoted to unfolding colonial cultures.

The 10th Chapter titled “The search for revitalisation: Foragers and legitimisers” is an eye opener in revealing how modern writers, particularly those who emerged from the post-colonial societies have used Western materials to legitimise the East, perhaps the unconscious motto, “Eastern thought is timeless and modern”.

In this Chapter, Goonatilake vehemently critiques two scholars namely F. Capra and K.N. Jayathilake for the attempts made by them in harmonising the Eastern wisdom with Western knowledge. In the case of Capra, the one who published the much celebrated work “The Tao of Physics” (1975), Goonatilake points out Capra’s ignorance of the Buddhist and Jain traditions regarding the concept of the atom.

While enunciating his ideas on the collapse of the Cartesian worldview which made a sharp division between the spirit and the matter, Capra touches on some Eastern mystical writings here and there, mainly from some passages from Veda and Upanishads. In Goonatilake’s opinion, this abstract reading of Eastern thought as an attempt at legitimising Western physics, is a sheer absurdity.

Goonatilake states: “Capra’s view of modern physics and the underlying parallels he finds with Eastern philosophy has to be seen in perspective as that of a Westerner facing a strong crisis of epistemology in his science and his searching for solutions for it.” (p.145)

Structural path

His criticism of K.N Jayathilake, the world-renowned authority on Buddhism takes a structural path by scrutinising the method that Jayathilake used based on British positivist tradition, in which he had undergone his philosophical training as a student of Wittgenstein.

The observation made by Susantha Goonatilake is a pertinent one on Jayathilake as his masterpiece “The Early Theory of Buddhist Knowledge” is a compendium that tries to claim Buddhism as a whole is verifiable, just as another Popperian science. Goonatilake aptly unfolds the structural lacunae visible from Jayathilake’s writings, which are mere reflections of his own intellectual upbringing from the West.

In Chapter 6, Goonatilake takes us to another significant dimension in the post-colonial state building of Sri Lanka; academia, which has been subjected to his caustic criticism of Goonatilake as a stagnant place where no serious research has been conducted except emulating the traditions imposed by the Western social scientists. The names of social scientists that Goonatilake mentions such as Gananath Obeyesekere, Stanley Tambiah and Indraratna are stalwarts in their fields, but the focal point of the author’s criticism in their work relates to their parochial approach of isolating the serious micro problems of the society.

Despite his well-known bent towards Marxism in the 80s, Goonatilake’s view on the Marxist approach to Buddhism is another notable observation in this work as he tries to refute certain arguments brought by Indian Marxist theorists such as Rahul Sankritiyayan on Buddhism. On the other hand, he has not forgotten in questioning the whole gamut of Marxist theory derived from European thinking as Marx himself was ignorant of the modes of production in non-European countries.

Fodder for the future

In the last Chapter, Susantha Goonatilake invokes the need to rejuvenate South Asia by not clinging to the past as many reformers like Gandhi and Ananda Coomaraswamy attempted to do. The message that the author strived to convey in his book can be epitomised in his own words in the following sentence.

“The past is seen in this book largely as fodder for the future, fodder that should provide a continuity of identity, as well as a vast storehouse of culture and knowledge that could enrich the entire world system.” (p.234)

Indeed, it is a pity that this work has not received either local or international recognition that it duly deserves as a work that seriously questions the very nature of colonial culture from different aspects.

Even after 40 years of its first publication, some of the remarks made by Goonatilake remain valid for the sociocultural space in South Asia. Therefore, anyone who wants to explore the Eurocentrism floating across South Asian intellectual circles should read this book. 

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated to the Institute of Law, Politics and Development at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa