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Caste An European Phenomenon

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Caste An European Phenomenon
#45
This could perhaps belong to multiple threads..

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TheHeathenIn...ss/message/2978

<!--QuoteBegin-->QUOTE<!--QuoteEBegin-->REPORT ON THE SECOND DHARMA AND ETHICS CONFERENCE
CASTE DISCRIMINATION: HINDUISM, BUDDHISM OR LIBERALISM?

Organized by
Centre for the Study of Local Cultures, Kuvempu University
and Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap, Ghent University

December 6-7, 2006 at Kuvempu University, Shimoga, India


For the second time, we organized the yearly Dharma and Ethics
conference at Kuvempu University during the first week of December
2006. What follows is a report of the proceedings, which shall focus
on some general impressions and conclusions, rather than giving a
detailed description of every paper and session. At the end of last
year's conference, one of the speakers, Valerian Rodrigues of
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, promised us that he would
convince some of the leading Delhi intellectuals to attend the
conference in 2006. He lived up to his word and invited D. L. Sheth
and Rajeev Bhargava (now both at the Centre for the Study of
Developing Societies in Delhi) as speakers for the conference. Along
with Rajeev Bhargava came the well-known Canadian philosopher Charles
Taylor. The other speakers were to be Valerian Rodrigues of JNU,
Rajaram Hegde and J. S. Sadananda of the Centre for the Study of
Local Cultures at Kuvempu University and S. N. Balagangadhara (Balu)
of the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap. The
discussants included Vivek Dhareshwar of the Centre for the Study of
Culture and Society, Bangalore, Rajaram Tholpade of Mangalore
University, and me. All participants to the conference had been asked
to read a series of texts: B. R. Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste,
Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, two articles by D. L. Sheth,
and Balu's article on re-conceptualizing the postcolonial project.
The discussions during the conference presupposed familiarity with
the arguments of these texts.

1. Unfortunately, the conference started on a very similar note
as it had last year. Balu had taken ill the day before and was unable
to attend the entire first day. Consequently, after the introduction
to the conference by Sadananda, Vivek Dhareshwar and I had to give
the general introduction to the theme instead of Balu. First I
presented one aspect of our research programme as it relates to the
theme of caste: the hypothesis that the dominant view of Indian
society and the caste system is a description of the western cultural
experience of India, rather than a description of Indian society. I
summed up a number of key elements in the historical development of
Christianity in Europe and showed how these have shaped the image of
the Indian caste system as it still exists today. Then Vivek took up
the issue of the relation between the Indian cultural experience and
the social sciences. He argued that the social-scientific
descriptions of Indian culture and society deny access to the Indian
experience instead of reflecting upon it. The western cultural
experience has become the framework of description, which generates a
rift between the experiences of Indians and the theorizing of the
social sciences. Therefore, the social sciences require reflection
upon the Indian cultural experience today, instead of reproduction of
the descriptions of the western cultural experience, which are
unintelligible and inaccessible to the Indian intellectuals.

2. In the first session, Rajaram Hegde and J. S. Sadananda
presented a paper which confronted a number of central theories about
the caste system with the results of a fieldwork project on `Caste,
Community and Tradition in Karnataka'. This project has been carried
out during the last four years by the research team at the Centre for
the Study of Local Cultures at Kuvempu University under Balu's
guidance. The empirical results and their conceptual analysis were
devastating to the dominant social-scientific accounts about the
caste system. They showed that each of the supposedly constitutive
elements of the Indian caste system is refuted by the tentative
fieldwork results: it is impossible to classify the jatis in
Karnataka into a social structure, let alone an all-India caste
system; the so-called `sub-castes' cannot be understood as divisions
of higher social entities called `castes'; there is no fixed
hierarchy with Brahmins at the top and `untouchables' at the bottom;
the link between texts such as Manusmrti or the jatipuranas and the
social realities of the jatis is non-existent; it is impossible to
trace the functioning of jatis to any `hegemonic ideology'
or `ideologies'. Simply put, `the caste system' does not exist as an
experiential entity of the respondents in Karnataka. Therefore, the
accounts of the caste system cannot be descriptions of the Indian
society as it prevails in Karnataka.

The responses to this presentation were quite disappointing. Several
respondents said there was nothing new in the paper: M. N. Srinivas
had stated all these points in the 1960s and 1970s. It was said that
the paper addressed a very limited number of caste theorists (Nehru,
Louis Dumont, Dipankar Gupta and Nicholas Dirks) and that other
theorists had given a much more sophisticated account of the caste
system. Most importantly, the general conclusion that the caste
system does not exist was challenged. Srinivas and others, Sheth and
Rodrigues argued, have shown how a contextualized and modified
account of the caste system could accommodate all of these empirical
facts. Vivek and I tried to point out how the respondents had missed
the point. Naturally, all kinds of theorists had tried to save the
account on `the caste system' from refutation by making all kinds of
ad hoc modifications. But this simply happened because they failed to
realize that the entity called `caste system' does not exist in
Indian society. Once one allows this as a possible conclusion, an
entire field of fascinating research questions opens up: What is the
status of `the caste system' as a theoretical entity? How come Indian
intellectuals have succumbed to a description of the western cultural
experience of India as though it were a true description of Indian
society? What has been the impact of this fictitious entity and the
western descriptions on the Indian society during the last three
centuries?

3. This discussion set the tone for the remainder of the first
day. The two Delhi intellectuals who participated, Sheth and
Bhargava, were reluctant to reflect upon the possibility that the
caste system does not exist and that Indian social sciences have
simply reproduced the western cultural experience without being able
to make sense of it. Rodrigues and Taylor were open to this argument,
but wanted to qualify it in different ways. Rodrigues presented a
paper which summed up the argument of Ambedkar's Annihilation of
Caste. Though he has often called Ambedkar an important political
thinker, he immediately admitted that he could not agree to or defend
the argument of this text. Suddenly, all participants seemed to agree
that Amedkar reproduced the stories of the Orientalists and the
Christian missionaries about Indian society. Strikingly, the Delhi
intellectuals called Ambedkar an Orientalist, but at the same time
claimed that there was much of importance in his texts. They did not
reply to the question whether or not Ambedkar's account could in any
way be taken as a description of Indian society or whether it was
intelligible in the first place.

The conflict exacerbated when Sheth began to argue that Ambedkar's
text is at once Orientalism and a vital critique of `the Brahminical
Orientalism' which is indigenous to India. He added that our research
programme, while rightly criticizing the western Orientalism, might
revive the old indigenous `Brahminical Orientalism'. As Orientalism
was `any discourse that legitimizes domination of one group over
another', he said, this indigenous Orientalism should also be
discarded. On the one hand, Vivek and I pointed out that this
trivializes the notion of `Orientalism', since any account which
legitimizes power could now be called so (including the way parents
talk to their children in order to ensure the latter's obedience). On
the other, we showed how Orientalist descriptions of Asia had first
emerged in Germany and France – countries which did not have any
power over the East at that time – and was only later adopted by the
British. Therefore, Orientalism cannot be characterized as a
discourse that legitimizes power of one group over another.

4. Sheth refused to take these points seriously. In his own
paper he elaborated on his characterization of `Brahminical
Orientalism', which turned out to be nothing but the old Protestant
description of `the evil Brahminism of the Hindu priests' under
another name. At this point, a shocking fact became clear to us,
which would be confirmed several times during the conference: the
Delhi intellectuals had simply come unprepared for the conference.
They had not read the texts which were required reading; they had
hardly prepared a presentation but simply produced an `argument' on
the spot; their standards of intellectual rigor were extremely
disappointing. Most of us had been aware that this was the general
stance of Delhi intellectuals towards `the rural backwaters' in the
rest of India: the leading urban thinkers acting as God's gift to
their acolytes in the villages. Still, it was something of a shock to
witness their intellectual poverty in action. They came to a
conference on the link between caste and religion, while being
unaware of any of the intellectual developments in fields like
religious studies or anthropology. They admitted they had gone
through some of Nehru's and Ambedkar's texts several decades before,
but had not touched them since. Given these circumstances, it became
somewhat frustrating to try and have a serious intellectual
discussion with these people.

5. Fortunately, Balu was feeling somewhat better the second day
and the scenario changed. First, Charles Taylor gave a well-argued
presentation, which had many affinities to the argument of `The
Heathen' and our research programme in general. He made the point
that the practices and traditions of the Indian religious life had so
far been understood through the conceptual structures of
Christianity. He added that this included linking practices to
beliefs in a way which was alien to the Hindu traditions. Therefore,
the question about the link between `Hinduism' and `the caste system'
and `caste discrimination' had to be reformulated according to
Taylor: Which practices in the Indian society were harmful and what
had to be changed in order to make these disappear? This argument
allowed for a discussion that could focus on some of the more
interesting issues at stake.

However, the contrast was all the more striking when Bhargava
presented his paper. He first recounted a story from a novel by
Valmiki as though it were a description of common practices of
humiliation all over India. It has to be said that this story (an
untouchable of a `sweeper' jati goes to school and is treated in a
horrible and humiliating way there) has been going around Delhi for
the last few years as an illustration of the horribly immoral nature
of the Indian culture and society. Note that Bhargava and his fellow
Delhi intellectuals thus present a piece of fiction as proof for the
existence of the caste system. Bhargava then made a point that `intra-
religious domination' was rampant in India. Secularism had not
addressed this problem and therefore betrayed the dalits. Hence,
Bhargava invented a new kind of secularism, which combined individual
rights with group rights for the dalits, and which revolved around a
stance of `critical respect' towards religion. A short discussion
followed where Rajaram Tholpade pointed out that Bhargava cannot
simply go on reproducing the old stories about secularism without
taking into account Balu's substantial critique. Other comments added
that the notion of `critical respect' was about as vague as a notion
could be and that the conceptual foundation of rights theory does not
allow for a combination of individual rights and group rights.

6. Then came the turning point of the entire conference. Balu
gave a presentation in which he explained the larger context of his
research programme. He pointed out the growing discontent with the
social sciences all around the world and the impression that they are
not scientific at all. He connected this to the fact that the current
social sciences theorize the experience of one culture, the West.
This culture has been shaped by Christianity. As a consequence, the
social sciences are but a secularized Christian theology. Balu
illustrated this hypothesis with the notion of `self' in
developmental psychology and other branches of psychology, which is a
secularized variant of the notion of `soul' in Christian theology.
Given this theological nature of the social sciences, two options are
open to us. It could be the case that the biblical God really
revealed the truth about human beings to the tribes of the Arabian
desert. Therefore, Christian theology is a true description of human
nature and we should all convert to that truth. Or it could be the
case that this is but the story of one particular religion, which is
not true. From a scientific point of view, we will never be able to
prove whether or not God revealed himself to some part of humanity.
However, if we desire progress in our knowledge about human beings,
it is preferable not to accept this assumption and try to develop
better theories. These will be tentative, hypothetical and refutable
like all human knowledge. If we chose the second route, then the
dominant account about Hinduism and the caste system has to be
rejected, since it reflects the western cultural experience and its
theological framework. The problem today, Balu argued, is that Indian
intellectuals are completely ignorant of the western culture and its
history, while they think this culture has no secrets for them. Since
they approach the Indian culture through the framework of western
experience, they are as ignorant about the Indian culture. Therefore,
all they can do is repeat diluted versions of what thinkers in
Cambridge, Paris and California have said before them about India and
the West.

When Balu concluded his brief presentation, some members of the
audience started making sarcastic remarks such as "spoken like true
Brahmin…" Taylor was the first to react: he also became sarcastic and
attempted to ridicule Balu's claim that the social sciences were
secularized theology. He pointed out that Aristotle and Plato had a
notion of `psyche', which preceded the Christian notion of soul,
while it influenced the psychological notion of `self'. He added that
B. F. Skinner and his behaviorism did not share such a notion
of `self' or `person'. Basically, he intended to show that Balu
didn't know what he was talking about. Balu replied that the
statement about `soul' and `self' was but an illustration of his
claim that social sciences were secularized theology. Besides, he had
mentioned only a few branches within western psychology, excluding
Skinner's behaviorism. The Greek notion of `psyche', he added, had
nothing to do with the Christian `soul' and the western `self'. This
could be easily seen if one compared the properties attributed to
the `soul' by Augustine and those attributed to the `psyche' by Plato
or Aristotle.

At this point, the debate became heated and polemical. Bhargava and
Sheth were insulted by the claim that Indian intellectuals know
neither the West nor their own culture. They complained that such a
prejudice prevented them from contributing to the discussion.
Meanwhile, some individual in the audience kept making nasty remarks.
Balu became angry and raised his voice. He explained what he meant
when he referred to the ignorance of Indian intellectuals and took
some of Bhargava's and Sheth's claims as illustrations. At this
point, Rodrigues, who was the chair of this session, interfered
calmly and refocused the discussion on specific points of
disagreement between the two positions which had now crystallized in
the conference. He asked Balu to explain his research programme in
greater detail and summed up some of its basic theses. At this point,
the session ended and it was decided we would have the last session
of the conference late in the afternoon.

7. The purpose of the last session was to go deeper into the
future prospects of our research programme. As he had in the morning
session, Valerian Rodrigues again proved to be an excellent
moderator. He clearly understood what was happening and stated so
explicitly: this was a clash of two fundamental frameworks or
paradigms in the social sciences. The polemics of the morning session
disappeared completely however, since Sheth and Bhargava had
retreated into silence. Balu was asked to explain what he meant by
the task of Indian intellectuals to reflect on their own experience.
Did it mean that there was an original authentic experience which had
to be accessed? Who was to say which was the true Indian experience
and which was a reproduction of descriptions of the western cultural
experience? While replying to such questions, Balu took the audience
on a journey through the fascinating routes which the social sciences
could today take in India. A peculiar atmosphere emerged in the
conference room, since nightfall and a power cut had compelled the
organizers to lit candles all around the room. The comments and
questions from the audience showed that the task to reflect on one's
own experience appeals to the intelligentsia of Karnataka. This last
session confirmed the impression which we had built up during the
last few years: a tremendous hunger for knowledge and an urge to
understand both the Indian and the western cultures in a new light
exist in Karnataka.

8. All things considered, this year's Dharma and Ethics
conference at Kuvempu University was a great success. It confirmed
our belief that there is a growing discontent about the condition of
the social sciences in India and about the dominant accounts
on `Hinduism' and `the caste system'. It also proved that the Delhi
intellectuals, who have dominated the scene during the last 50 years,
do not possess the means to address this discontent. The impact of
the conference in Karnataka is already becoming clear today: scholars
from different universities in the state have requested affiliation
to the Centre for the Study of Local Cultures at Kuvempu University.
In the next few years, this Centre will develop in a close
interaction with the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap
at Ghent University, Belgium. Meanwhile, the success of this year's
visit to Karnataka has led to the crystallization of plans to build a
Karnataka Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities and a Karnataka
Institute for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and Humanities.
The first responses to these initiatives from academics, bureaucrats
and politicians in Karnataka and in Delhi have been extremely
positive. Together these institutions would hopefully work towards a
revival of the social sciences in Karnataka, India and elsewhere.



Jakob De Roover
December 18, 2006<!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->
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