The Immateriality of India



by Sebastian Normandin

In the twenty-first century, with all its stops and starts, it is India’s rise that will make a mark on world events. It will do so not only because of the hard power assets it will accumulate as it becomes affluent but also because of the living example it will provide — in both its achievements and failures — of how to think about prosperity, power and history.

—Maya Chadda, Why India Matters (New Delhi: Viva Books, 2015), 264. 

I’m in India. Or at least that’s what my perceptual experience, consciousness, and mind are telling me. It’s hard to know for sure. The reason I have doubts surrounds the immateriality of my being here, and moreover, the immateriality of India itself.

I feel like everything should be different. I am convinced that my senses should leave me powerfully transformed by this inherently chaotic, dynamic and utterly exotic place. And yet that’s not my initial sense of things. Quite the opposite. My perceptions of the particularities of Delhi feel mediated, like I am watching everything through a screen. If I didn’t know any better I would say that I am actually in some sort of simulation — a virtual reality representation of India, complete with all the subtle details of “everyday” Delhi; endless hazy horizons of haphazard building blocks; ever-present dirt and dust; and an endless crush of solemn souls staring — somewhat sullenly at times — at my foreign form.

Everything is just as it should be, the details honed to a fine point. Like some perfect pixillation that would remain solvent even as it dissolved into pointillism. I “see” the host of lavishly customized and painted trucks that ply their trade along the Grand Trunk Road north of Delhi — the US 1 of India — running from Calcutta all the way north and across the border to Pakistan and Lahore. And, at least superficially, nothing seems out of place.

But this can’t be an actual highway, can it? Highways don’t have people riding bicycles on them, do they? Can that woman riding sidesaddle on a motorbike really not be wearing a helmet and carrying a swaddled child in her spare arm? Are there actually upwards of a dozen men packed into and sprawling all over that auto-rickshaw? And was I just passed by a motorbike with a family of five on it? Were those a couple of carts pulled by camels? Did I just pass a herd of a hundred regally horned cattle — archetypal Brahmin bulls— plodding along dutifully in the slow lane? Is there a macaque sitting sulkily beside that roadside coconut milk stand?

These are the delusions of doubt assaulting me along the road from northern Delhi to Sonipat, a town far enough from the city to be in the state of Haryana. Perhaps the bizarre broken down theme parks lining the road — odd, half vacant, disorienting set pieces, one complete with a giant smiling Buddha waterfall sculpture, the water weirdly pouring out of a bowl under his arm — are really there. Maybe that mall, four stories high and empty but for a strange tower-like structure in front of it housing a KFC, is actually there, and not just some ephemeral emanation of my electro-encephalic imagination. But maybe it is also just a figment of some post-modern absurdity of the developing world. A colleague of mine suggested to me not long ago that Haryana is “the New Jersey of India”, so maybe this is all as it should be. I wonder…

Part of India’s immateriality involves its unimaginable contrasts. Like in much of the rest of the world, income disparities in India are increasing. India’s richest 1% have gone from holding about a third to almost half of the country’s wealth in the last fifteen years. And the contrasts between the richest and poorest within a given country are perhaps nowhere more apparent. In Delhi they can be seen in a few blocks, from the palatial homes of Lodhi gardens and the golf course area to the beggars and their hardscrabble, bloated dogs sleeping in the alcoves of the otherwise whitewashed Connaught Place. That such opulent, ostentatious displays of wealth can exist in the same space as the most disheartening poverty and squalor further points to India’s unbelievable, unreal nature. Surely, I think, I must be imagining things. This cannot be real, I again assert. I must be experiencing this place — ephemerally, perhaps even virtually — in order to gain some slight insight into the terrifyingly transcendental totality of existence.

What lesson am I supposed to learn here? What is the meaning? Is there some hidden hermeneutic in all of this? Is it that reality, in its incomprehensible and immense immateriality, will always elude complete comprehension through our rational lenses? That we cannot always see, that sometimes the lens itself becomes insufficient to comprise a total view and that, in many cases, we just have to accept and be. I think of the way a telescope provides the merest window on the totality of a vast panorama — a little snapshot in one direction, isolated in comparison to the overwhelming cosmic overview that we can never fully encompass. Never before has this sense of the limited perception of an isolated, solitary subjectivity been more powerful for me.


As I contemplate the possibilities — the innumerable and potentially infinite personal paradigms that surround me — my focus diminishes to a vanishing point. It is as if I have crossed the event horizon of multitudes and am truly become my own surreal singularity.

Am I really here? Sometimes I feel like I will just wake up and this foggy landscape of inconceivable contrasts will disappear and dissolve into a background of white noise. The sense of the virtual is so strong. Each time the power fades out — which happens a number of times a day — I have the sense that it will reboot and I will find myself in another referential field, one that doesn’t leave me so constantly disoriented. But when the lights come back on I’m still in India, wondering about its dreamy dharma and ineffable immaterialities.

India’s immateriality also appears rooted in its incalculable immensity. It is an immensity the Indians themselves have had to grapple with. No wonder there is the conception of large units of currency, like the crore, derived from the Pankrit word krodi. This is only one of many words that express number. There are Sanskrit words for all the powers of 10 up to 10 to the power of 18 — these are to be found in the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. India’s relationship to number — something that is an immense immateriality in and of itself — is laudable and long lived. Much of the history of mathematics travels through the subcontinent.

In our Eurocentric perspective, westerners overlook the important developments in the history of mathematics that can be traced to India. Around the time of the European renaissance (ca. 1300-1600), there was a renaissance of mathematics in what is now the southern state of Kerala, elements of which anticipated the discovery of the calculus by Newton and Leibniz in the seventeenth century. In fact, there is a fair case to be made that the history of mathematics as we know it has a distinct Eurocentric bias and has undervalued the contributions made to the discipline in south Asia.

Since I have never been there, Kerala’s immateriality is even more convincing than the places in India I already have seen. And yet, it could be argued that all of India remains an immateriality. I have been told by a long-time friend here who comes from the dry, dusty northern city of Chandigarh that Kerala is a virtual paradise, a rich, lush land of tropical bounty that is in every way a convincing inspiration for the Garden of Eden. With only minimal hyperbole he tells me that flowers and fruit bloom on every tree and bush. I try to imagine it.

I reflect on the fact that this is not the only story told to me of a wonderful place in India I must visit. Everywhere I go this happens. Everyone I meet tells me of places I have to see, and in some cases even of places I have been fortunate not to visit. To me, these are all virtuality, whether virtuous or vile. The former, like the jungles of Kerala, the villages of Tamil Nadu and the stark mountain landscapes of Kashmir or Ladakh seem inviting in the extreme. The latter, like Jharia in Jharkhand — where coal field fires have been burning underground continuously for almost a century — seem less appealing, and in fact appear more like the prospect of visiting the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno.

All these disparate regions turn the idea of “India” as a cohesive totality into something of an immateriality. Its materiality becomes relativistic — every “Indian” I meet pledges themselves to a particular sense of identity which sets them apart from their countrymen and women. It is almost as if they aggressively seek to highlight the personalistic nature of a subjective relativity and further want desperately to stake out a “unique” self within a veritable sea of humanity. Understandable, really. But much as the current government seeks to craft a state-sponsored identity from the tattered rags of an unsustainable Hindu nationalism, this fierce sense of devotion to linguistic, regional or religious particularities causes the cohesiveness of the nation-state to shatter into relativistic immateriality. Like the calculus which can partially trace its origins to Kerala in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries — to the country that wasn’t a country — India is an infinite series of immaterialities.

Being here (wherever “here” is) has prompted me to consider the notion of immateriality in its multi-faceted referential frames. Immediately I land on the thought of the father of modern idealism, George Berkeley. A deeply spiritual man, Berkeley proposed a philosophy labeled by his critics as immaterialism (it was also referred to more generously as “subjective idealism”) that theorized there were no material objects, and that “things” were only the result of the perceptions of our minds. In essence he was the most ardent and well-known defender of idealism in the modern era (except Kant, of course, whose idealism represents a more divided legacy). Berkeley’s best known work was the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, published in 1710. His was a metaphysics of idealism rooted in a particular view of perception, and he argued that things don’t exist in and of themselves, rather they are the result of our perceiving them. His famous phrase is “to be is to be perceived” (esse est percipi). Berkeley suggested that all that exists in the world are “spirits” (what he essentially understood as minds or conscious subjects) and “ideas” (sensations or conscious experiences): thus his notion of an idealism — an immaterialism — in which there were no “real” objects in the world, only minds and perceptions.

Perhaps not so immaterially, this idea has much deeper roots in non-western philosophy, and particularly in Indian philosophy. There is a long tradition in Buddhist and Hindu thought of doubting the reality of the objects that impress themselves upon our sense experience, and even of doubting reality itself. The fourth century Indian philosopher Vasubandhu was led, through a rather rigorous process of thought, to conclude that matter doesn’t exist at all. He argued that all material objects were merely wrongly conceived mental objects. A Buddhist monk and scholar of some renown, he used the elaborate permutations of formal logic to arrive at this conclusion.

Employing a stubbornly anti-rationalist epistemology, I arrive at much the same conclusion about my experience (that isn’t experience) in India through a much more intuitive method. Call it a kind of tacit knowledge — a hunch. Perhaps that’s why I am less convinced as to my thought’s veracity. And yet, nonetheless, India remains for me a place whose reality feels very unreal. I wonder if the immateriality is a natural response to an overwhelming enormity, of the sea of sensation that washes over me in this context. This then is a defence mechanism of the mind — necessary armour to insulate me from being overtaken by the absurd juxtapositions and disjunctures. It appears somehow more manageable to consider it as mere appearance; projections of thought rather than hot, messy, unfathomable material realities. Or maybe that’s just my soft western psyche, ill-equipped to fully perceive such a steady stream of dynamic perceptual diversity.

Flying perilously along the road in northern India, at the mercy of a taxi driver I don’t know and can hardly communicate with, there is some solace in considering the immateriality of India. Not only the idea that I myself am akin to a brain in a vat in some complex simulation, but more than this, that I actually don’t exist at all. The idea occurs to me that I am playing a part in a dreamer’s dream — a mere figment in some Borgesian rabbit hole of simulations within simulations. I note that the simulators of this India have decided on an inversion of Henry Ford’s old adage about the Model T being available in any colour, as long as it was black; here all the cars slaloming in and out between trucks, buses, motorcycles and other sundry roadside life are white.

And truly life is what one finds at the roadside. Every manner of rich existence has been reproduced in this intricate set piece — rugged and refined, impoverished and impossibly posh. I wonder about some of the curious absurdities the simulators have selected — a military tank sitting on an elaborately fenced dais; a silver cart — pushed along by several men — covered with tassels and bells; a small white temple (perhaps a gurdwara?) sporting ornate domes and minarets. I also suddenly wonder why the simulators have simulated my thoughts about simulations, or of outdated adages by Henry Ford. Or my doubts as to the religious pedigree of a given holy place. Nonetheless, I am (whatever “I” am) strangely drawn to and comforted by these thoughts. In their totally de-centring nature, I am centred.

Maybe, I think, the immateriality of India is a function of my disconnection from myself. What an odd construct “the self” is! Contemporary psychologists venerate the importance of its integrity, spirituality argues for the necessity of its dissolution, and philosophers, like the great Canadian thinker Charles Taylor, construct a notion of self as an idea with a traceable history, subject to the social, political and economic influences of a given historical context.

Thinking about the idea of self as understood in the eastern tradition, I suspect that perhaps all is as it should be. As it must be. My sense of the immateriality of India is an artificial separation, a glimmer of insight into the false division between Atman (self) and the ultimate reality of Brahman. My disconnection is a failure to recognize advaita (“non-duality”).

Of course, this is only one of a seemingly infinite number of interpretations of the nature of reality and the self. To reflect on even the most basic parameters of eastern spirituality as expressed in Hinduism and Buddhism is to set sail on an unfathomably vast sea filled with innumerable spiritual currents and eddies. Without the sextant of the soul and a charted course to follow, it is easy to get lost — to be set adrift, so to speak — the blessings of Varuna notwithstanding. In the end, perhaps my Buddhist sense of things is prevailing, and India’s immateriality is akin to the idea that all is Maya, the illusion of our perceptions.

Yet still, do not Maya and Brahman coexist?

I suspect one of the reasons my mind keeps fixating on the immateriality of this place is that its materiality, its reality, is too difficult for me to face. This, I must admit, shows a distinct lack of courage. It is a part of my unwillingness to recognize the concrete reality of its obvious pains — its lean, slight, often suffering people; its hardscrabble shanties and sheds; its rivers and streams which are little more than open sewers. The whole just becomes too much. My mind stubbornly refuses to accept that it is real. I would rather focus on the disjunction and break the whole into discrete parts, imagine that it is a figment of my imagination — an immateriality. In this respect I then feel as if I don’t have to face it. And, moreover, I don’t have to face my relationship to it: a relationship born of a privileged (in the sense of being white, male and western) perspective and further, the background of a trained historian, intimately aware of the legacy of colonial injustice. If it all fades into immateriality, even if this means I come to doubt my own existence and become somewhat ephemeral, well maybe that is for the better.

This meagre sense of one’s own existence may be a fairly widespread strategy in this context. To survive in India one must almost cease to exist, become a zephyr in the shade in brief rebellion to the sun’s unrelenting Raj. It is no wonder the spiritual traditions of the east speak of renunciation and transcendence, as the body faces a seemingly constant barrage of intense environmental effects here. To have the discipline to reduce the impact to mere immateriality, to eternally return to the simple rhythm of breath amidst a cacophony of inputs, now there’s the art — the inspiration — of life. Seeking “happiness” in the morass of material excess that is western life is no great challenge. It is a calculus of gluttony. But to survive in the antagonistic anarchy of contemporary India, to find peace and wellbeing within the fray, now there is a success few westerners can appreciate or even understand. I know I don’t.

This again is another immateriality of India. The task of just living is achieved with a surprising degree of dignity and grace by 1.3 billion souls in this often forgotten place. It’s achieved by myriad routes from the traditional to the transcendent to the increasingly technological. It is achieved by stoicism and a slightness of being. One sees an Indian going through the day tackling what seem to be almost unimaginable hardships, and there is a palpable, almost visible presence about the Way it’s done.

It is this experience that further renders India immaterial to me. I am a mere observer of the spectacle of strength and stamina, not knowledgeable enough or practiced enough to be a part of it, merely resigned to document it with a disbelief that brings me to doubt its very existence.

India’s immateriality then is, oddly, also a function of its materiality. Or rather its rapidly increasing materiality. For India, I see, is under construction. It can be witnessed in the hazy, dreamy, unfinished vistas of concrete and rebar — not surprising when one notes the country’s growth rate, which hovers around 7-8% a year. But the fact of this growth, the actuality of it, so piecemeal and partial, evocative of the landscapes in a computer game like Sim City, virtual and in flux, only lends further weight to its lightness.

In the process of being built, India is also being rebuilt; refashioned into a digitized shadow of its already shadowy and immaterial nature. As I sit on the Delhi metro, my mind frayed with anxieties but struggling to re-center and find the mindfulness of breath, I am surrounded by a sea of souls that somehow become one. They are unified by the ubiquity of modern connectivity — the cell phone. Jostled and jarred in the ever crowded metro cars, their phones become technological saviours — beacons of light — an escape from the reality of commutes, competition and corporate necessity.

This then is the virtual immateriality of a new, global India, one far removed from its timeless origins.

And yet traditional modes stubbornly coexist with the hyper-modern. I recall vividly — the curiosity of the juxtaposition beautifully reproduced as simulacra in my mind — the image of a young boy sitting atop a mountain of muslin bags of rice and grains carried by a horse-drawn cart, in the middle of a north Delhi traffic jam, oblivious to the blaring horns and thick exhaust all around him, engrossed in the pixilated mysteries of his smartphone.

I wonder where the India in all this will remain. And I wonder if it was ever there at all. The layers of cultural influence, at least, are clearly visible; from the architectural wonders of the Mughal era palaces, tombs and meticulously mathematical gardens to the strangely appropriate modernist and neo-classical influences of the late British Raj to the rich, almost Baroquely organic Hindu temples, many of which are incredibly new but look as if they have been in place for millennia. All of this combines, but also often clashes, with the simple practicality of concrete, glass and marble slab thrown together like some do-it-yourself construction kit. This mesmerizing melange of forms also contributes to the sense of immateriality, the sense that the country is a surreal set piece — a film set or soundstage — constantly disorienting and jarring in its quirky collection of things.


Perhaps this is a function of a lack of cultural literacy on my part, and in respect to the linguistic plenitude of India, just a general illiteracy. But none of these diverse sensory inputs combine to make any sense. It is as if India is the ultimate expression of the absurdity of post-post-modern capitalism in the developing world, in overdrive and without any meaningful guideposts. When this gaudy, half-heartedly assembled newness is overlaid on something that is already a result of disjointed layer upon layer of cultural strata, the whole becomes confused and chaotic — immaterial. But as an image of what a savage system has done to the relative harmony of a complex but at least nominally comprehensible culture, it is not inconsequential.

Maybe this is all an idealization of an immateriality, itself the result of immaterial conceptions. I am reminded here of Said and the danger of a westerner engaging in orientalist idealizations. That there was a “golden age” of India is surely an absurd dream, certainly not to be witnessed in any recent historical context. Even the actual acknowledged “golden age of India”, the Gupta Empire of the fourth to sixth century AD, brought a rigid caste system along with its supposedly enlightened administration. Much more recently, the scars of partition have been a trope — a vein of divisiveness — in the country’s history since 1947, and before that it is difficult to idealize any aspect of the British colonial experience. Even if one goes further back to the Mughal empire and its grandiosity, there is a legacy of brutality and oppression underpinning all the grand architectural marvels. Akbar may have been a “great” unifier for a brief time, but much of that imperial success came at the edge of a sword. The idea of a conquering Islamic influence is played up in the contemporary political context, and perhaps the Mughal era should be better appreciated for its syncretism. But even the veneration of this diversity lends credence to a more confused, less concrete historical narrative. The Mughal legacy, like so many other state structures in the Indian subcontinent, dissolves in the end into an immateriality.

As I see more and more of India — from the iconic Taj Mahal to the twisting mountains roads of Shimla — the sense of the country’s immateriality become more muted. After a lifetime of seeing second hand representations, the marbled minarets of the Taj are now a reality to me. Perhaps it is just a simulation, but it is a delicious one. The experiences of India are becoming increasingly vivid, the virtuality increasingly sensuous. How can the feeling of warm worn sandstones under my feet at Fatehpur Sikri be immaterial? Even if his legacy is arguably faded to dust, could anything with the intricate weight of Akbar the Great’s ancient ghost town be more material? If anything, it is I who begin to have a sense of immateriality as measured against this deep and layered Indian landscape.

Or maybe it is all individuality in the face of such a dense cultural matrix that becomes an immateriality. Perhaps this is what makes larger social structures and movements so much more powerful in the Indian context, whatever that word “context” means in this setting. It is almost as if they are more real. In the west we celebrate — or at least idealize — the triumph of the individual over the collectivity in the long history of humanism, reformation, revolution, and finally, personal self-creation. But often this has happened in a cozy, somewhat quaint manner. Kierkegaard’s existentialism and its origin is a critique of authenticity set against the backdrop of a parochial, almost familial, struggle. The individualistic paradigm seems like a trope — the archetype of Socrates ranting and raving in the agora repeated in a kind of Nietzschean eternal recurrence of dialogic challenges to the socially sanctioned status quo.

With apologies to the brilliant stories elaborated in contemporary subaltern fiction, of individual engagement with the immense gravitational force of cultural and social norms, this individualistic expression seems very difficult, even something of an impossibility, here in India— something that only occurs in fiction, not fact. More pointedly, something that only occurs through fiction.

Rather, the fact of India, and here this may be the ultimate liminal point of unreality I face in the context of this place (that isn’t a place), is the immateriality of individuality. Against the backdrop of an immense and unrelenting mass of humanity, what is the meaning of an individual human life?

This is also the problem of freedom in the Indian context. India and the Indians are crushed between two geological forces — the force of tradition and the force of modernity. Caste and culture still shape one’s character to such a significant degree in this context. And yet at the same time even Indians of modest means have at their disposal knowledge and technology that could provide a path to emancipation.

Alas, this is truly a false god. No nirvana will come about through these instruments of modernity. Rather they will allow an increasingly accelerated path to imprisonment in technological dystopias. India’s satanic looms will be virtual — immaterial. These will bring with them a set of epistemologies and ontologies that will be equally imprisoning. A strengthening of the “iron cage” of instrumental rationality — elaborated by the critical theorists and those, like the above mentioned Charles Taylor, who were engaged in a similar philosophical exercise — seems like an inevitability.

And still the matter remains. The endless horizons of dust, dirt and flesh will not dissolve. Perhaps this is the hope. The materiality that isn’t quite so immaterial. The continuing inevitable force of culture and, moreover, of a culture that is rooted in myth and spirituality. This is the power of Hinduism and the power of India: a religion that transcends the religious to become a story — more than a story — a history, a grand narrative that in the Vedas weaves through thousands of years. But also a story that continues to be told, a story that remains vital in the language and in the minds of the people. It is, ironically, in this immateriality of spirit that India is constituted. Not in the structures and strictures of the state with an imagined immaterial past, or the current state of economic relations, but in the continuing vitality of the spiritual realm that isn’t even spiritual. It is the richness of this Husserlian “lifeworld” that animates. It is the richness of this lifeworld that can also be an antidote (or perhaps more of an antipode) to the looming scientism and technocracy which threaten to level everything into a lifeless sameness.

One can even hear the sound of this spirit. As I sit in my temporary home within earshot of the Grand Trunk Road and hear the mellifluous and unique musical horns coming from those brightly coloured trucks I spoke of in the beginning, I think that it is as simple as this quaint immateriality.

If it is anything, India will come to matter through its inevitable balance between knowledge and wisdom, between reason and passion, between science and art, between collective and individual, between absolute and relative, between Brahman and Atman. It will come to matter through advaita through the natural expression of a universal spirit. In the balance between material and immaterial, India, if it even exists, will come to show us the Way.

Photographs by Gaurav Wadhawan.


About the Authors:

Sebastian Normandin received his Ph.D. from McGill University in 2006. His research focuses on the history and philosophy of biology and medicine, particularly vitalism, a concept he has written about in a recent co-edited volume, Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800-2010 (Springer, 2013). He is currently Assistant Professor of Science at Ashoka University. You can find him on Twitter @weirdhistorian.