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International Journal of Social Sciences

and Humanities
(A Peer-Reviewed Interdisciplinary Biannual International Journal)

Volume 2, Issue 1
June 2013

Tumkur University
B H Road, Tumkur 572103
Karnataka, India

International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities

(A Peer-Reviewed Interdisciplinary Biannual International Journal)

Volume 2, Issue 1
June 2013
Prof. D Shivalingaiah
Registrar, Tumkur University
Ashwin Kumar A P
Assistant Professor,
Department of Studies and Research in English,
Tumkur University
Coordinator of the Editorial Office
Dr. Priya Thakur
Assistant Professor,
Department of Studies and Research in History and Archaeology,
Tumkur University
Patron and Advisor
Prof. A H Rajasab
Vice Chancellor, Tumkur University
Honorary Advisors
Prof. K.M. Chander, Mysore
Prof. Alok Tripathi, Assam University.
Dr. A.V. Prasanna, Bangalore
Dr. P. Subrahmanya Yadapadithaya, Mangalore
Dr. Ravindra Gadkar, Shivamogga
Dr. Sanjeeb Kumar Singh, Indian Museum, Kolkata.

ISSN: 2277-7997
Tumkur University
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About the Journal

International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities is a peer reviewed biannual international
journal published by Tumkur University, Tumkur, Karnataka.
Original articles my be empirical and qualitative studies, review articles, methodological articles, brief
reports, case studies and letters to the Editor.
The purpose of this Journal is to provide a forum to share knowledge related to broad range of topics
including Political Science, Sociology, History, Archaeology, Economics, Literature, Subaltern Studies,
Social Work, Geography, International Studies, Women Studies, Childrens Learning and Health,
Economics, Business Ethics, Language Acquisition, Technology in Aboriginal Communities, ICT,
Library Science, Dispute Resolution, Environmental issues, Sustainable Development and any subject
related to Commerce and Management. Original Literary works or translations are beyond the
purview of this Journal. The scope of the Journal also encompasses critiques and analytical essays on
literary and philosophical theories/ ideas. No single subject is favored over others.

To give voice to the new-comers or alternative opinions (guided by the visions of Tumkur
To encourage new researches/ ideas focusing on theories, methods and applications;
To ensure promotion and circulation of researches at the National as well as International level.

International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities

ISSN 2277 7997

In Search of a Concept of Education:
Liberal Education and the Case of India
Shashikala Srinivasan

Understanding the Semblance of Objectivity:

Critique, Genealogy and Ethical Action
Vivek Dhareshwar


Reform Discourse and Bhakti Literature

Polly Hazarika


A Fight For Harmony:

Secularism and Its Problems in the Bababudangiri Hill
Rajaram Hegde and Sadanand J.S.


On the Streedharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan

Sushumna Kannan


The Power of Our Words:

Historical, Cultural and Political Observations
on the Concept of National Language
Margaret Lundberg


The Circuits and Politics of Sound Technology in India

Olympia Bhatt


Colonialism and its Impact on India:

A Critique of Pollocks Hypothesis
Dunkin Jalki


Communities in Conflict:
Fighting for the Sacred Cow
Elizabeth Thomas


Rethinking a Humboldtian Vision for the Twenty-First Century

S.N. Balagangadhara


International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities

ISSN 2277 7997


With this issue we have overhauled the Journal on two fronts: we have brought in a new layout and
design to enable easy reading. We have attempted to bring it closer to the format of a book that can be
easily carried around. The second aspect of the change is we have tried to introduce a thematic focus
to the issue. Although not explicitly stated, most articles in this issue deal with the question of culture
and conceptuality. Interrogating several disciplines like education, literature, politics, feminist theory,
history and cinema studies, the articles here try to understand the salience of culture and cultural
difference more sharply.
In the last two decades the human sciences have taken a veritable cultural turn. However, and
happily at that, there seems to be no consensus on what constitutes such a cultural turn. In the AngloAmerican world it is largely understood as referring to the extra-material and extra-economic forces
that determine human behaviour and social arrangements. In large parts of the Non-Western world,
the cultural turn is seen as a recognition of the Western bias in our contemporary knowledge systems.
Consequently, the importance of culture is in providing a rallying point to reinsert narratives from
outside the dominant systems of thought; this dominant system being the broadly historicalmaterialist model of explanation for social phenomena and normative political principles for
evaluation of political and social action.
The criticism against historical-materialist conception of culture was that such a conception reduces
culture to another ideological aspect of society, alongside religion and dogma. Alternatives to such
rigidly historical-materialist approaches have tried to show the relative autonomy of the domain of
culture and in some instances, how this relatively autonomous domain has the capacity to influence
the material conditions in turn. In some senses, the idea of the relative autonomy of culture is what is
at the heart of contemporary Anglo-American and much of Indian, Cultural Studies.
On another front, anthropological approaches have been concerned with describing other cultures. A
lot has been written on the problem of otherness and the tendency of anthropology to create exotic
descriptions of other cultures using concepts from the disciplinary practices of Western knowledge
systems. In response to this attack, anthropological approaches have tried to be more reflexive and
engaged deeply with the question of fit between other cultures, and specific categories and concepts
that are used to describe such cultures.
However, a nagging doubt remains: in all these attempts, cultures, that is specific cultures, have not
been taken as experientially significant units.
What is it to treat cultures as experientially significant units? How is this different from treating
culture as a domain which is relatively autonomous from the domain of material conditions? How is
the task of treating cultures as experientially significant units different from formulating better
descriptions of cultures at the object-level?
These and such questions animate the articles appearing in the present issue of IJSSH. While there is
no readymade solution to this question, we can appreciate the emphasis of these articles: examining
the category habits of specific cultures, giving articulation to our life with concepts and engaging with
existing descriptions of cultures with new tools and perspectives are some of the ways in which these
articles have attempted to forge a new understanding about the cultural turn in the human sciences.

International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 1- 30

ISSN 2277 7997

In Search of a Concept of Education: Liberal Education and the Case of India1

Shashikala Srinivasan
Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, India.
Despite the centrality of the institution of the university to liberalism, the trajectory of
the institution in non-western, postcolonial democracies like India has scarcely
received attention. The subject has rarely generated the kind of scholarly enquiry and
reflection that liberal political institutions like the state and other institutions of the
civil society have. Indeed, the dominant framework has been to think of education
(higher or otherwise) and its attendant institutions as concomitant with the nationstate, often thought of as serving no other purpose than the states developmental
Keywords: Liberal education, university, bildung, self-formation, Humboldt
A perusal of the existing scholarship on the institution of the university and higher learning in
India in the last few years makes two points abundantly clear:
a) Much of the literature that exists on the institution of university in India is replete with the rhetoric
of crisis, often envisaging both the problem and the solution in largely bureaucratic terms, dwelling
more on structural, financial and administrative aspects on the one hand and on issues of social justice
on the other. This lack of depth to discussions around education is in strange contrast to the West 2
where one finds that any articulation of crisis is accompanied by serious reflections on the institution
of the university and the idea of liberal education it embodies, a body of literature that has developed
into a flourishing genre. Indeed, as has been pointed out by scholars on the subject, few ideas have had
as clear a historiography as does the idea of the university in the West and although other institutions
have at times been examined for their underlying idea, and conceptual foundations, none of them has
inspired a literature that constantly builds on itself and is itself an inextricable part of the institution
that it constantly refers to (Rothblatt and Wittrock 1993; Rothblatt 1997).3
This prolific body of literature provides us a way of organizing our thoughts about the activity
and practice of higher learning. The university, in the absence of the idea, would be utterly shapeless,
possessing no means of distinguishing itself from other institutions and corporate bodies. In nonwestern postcolonial contexts such as ours, it is precisely the absence of this genre that is particularly
b) A second point of contrast is that despite the Marxist, feminist and postcolonial criticism of liberal
education that we have witnessed in the last two decades, liberal education continues to be of
significance in the West. The recent criticism of liberal education that it has been in the service of
particular class, caste, gender or imperial interests rather than foster the realization of a genuine
freedom as it was originally meant to, can be seen as an attempt to uphold the ideal even more
purely4. Interestingly, this criticism has been interpreted as a plea to include more and more texts


and viewpoints from marginalized groups but not as a challenge to the very idea of liberal education
itself. On the contrary, in the Western academia, liberal education and liberal arts education continue
to generate much passion either as something one needs to assert in these global times in the wake of
increasing utilitarianism or as the decline of something precious, the loss of which we need to note and
In short, we could conclude that the crisis in the Western university is articulated in terms of
the decline of the University of Culture (Readings 19966; Pelikan 1992; Readings 1996) and the
corresponding idea of liberal education, as a crisis in the very idea of education or in terms of a loss
of concept of education (the presumption being that there did/does exist something worthy of being
preserved but now faces disintegration). However, in India, the crisis is expressed in terms of liberal
education and its corresponding notion of liberal knowledge, learning and selfhood not taking root, of
the inadequacy of a borrowed structure, sometimes characterized as a lack, incompleteness,
failure on part of Indians to acquire certain critical normative goals or more recently in terms of
alienness of liberal institutions and concepts 7(Altbach and Selvaratnam 1989; Singh 2003; Nandy
2000; Shah 2005). The two kinds of narratives of crisis make it clear that the crisis in higher education
is experienced differently in the two contexts and for analytical purposes, it is necessary to separate
the two strands in order to contextualize the experience of the crises and gain a better handle on what
is at stake in these debates.
In the first section, I examine a debate around liberal education and the concept of the
university in India that took place in 2008 in order to demonstrate that there is an intelligibility issue
when we discuss the idea of liberal education in the Indian context. In the second section, I revisit
some of the early twentieth century debates around the Indian student in order to show how these
anxieties are not new but marked the contours of the early nineteenth century debate around
university education as well. This section shows how the learning goals posited by the institution of
the university was constantly frustrated and considers the explanations forwarded in order to
understand the problem. In the third section, I argue that any attempt to recast the problem of
unintelligibility of learning goals and understand the way liberal knowledge and learning is received in
India requires us to relocate liberal education back in its specific cultural and historical context and
revisit the very conception of education, knowledge, self-formation and learning it involves. This will
enable us to provide a more accurate characterization of the crisis in higher education in a nonwestern, postcolonial context such as ours.
Section 1
The Debate around the Idea of University and Liberal Education in India
In a rather striking manner, the much discussed Yashpal Report (2009), regarded as a
blueprint of the reform initiated in higher education in India in last few years, turns around the
idea/concept of the university, often evoking the concept as some kind of a standard against which to
benchmark other institutions of higher education. This is evident in several of its recommendations:
The IITs and IIMs, though bright spots in the otherwise dismal scenario of higher education in India,
need to strive to be models of all-round excellence like MIT and CALTECH and transform themselves
from mere undergraduate factories into full-fledged universities (14-5), private and commercial
institutions which have only profit as motive without being comprehensive universities, must be only
diploma and certificate awarding institutions and not degree conferring ones (35), deemed
universities should be rigorously evaluated to see if they fulfil the holistic and universal concept of
university outlined in the report and be stripped of their status as universities if they do not meet the
required standards (37), single-disciplined institutions must offer a broad range of courses before
they qualify as a university (7) and so on.


Interestingly, the IITs, in response to some of the recommendations of the Yashpal committee
went on a formal protest against the proposed change in their identity which required them to change
in their status and form into universities, arguing that if offering a wide range of courses was the
criterion for evaluation, they were already doing so. Two of the IIT directors reacted by saying that the
proposal was shocking and the state of Indias university system is appalling. The IITs are better
only because we are different (The Telegraph, September 13, 2008). Arguing that unlike most other
universities, the IITs allowed undergraduate engineering students the option of taking courses in
humanities, management or from any other department alongside their principal course, to convert
IITs from such a liberal education system, into rigid universities would be a retrograde step (The
Telegraph, November 22, 2008). It was also pointed out that it was ironical that when other technical
schools and universities were aiming to be more like IITs, the IITs were being asked to be more like
universities, which had the reputation of being moribund institutions in India.
The above debate foregrounds a contradiction that runs through the Yashpal report. On the
one hand, the report, like much of the scholarship on higher education, identifies the IITs, IIMs and IISc
as institutions that excel, and our universities as being in deep crisis, having lost their primacy in the
higher educational sector. On the other hand, it suggests that the solution lies in transforming these
spots of excellence into universities. How does one understand this contradiction? One could of
course argue that the Yashpal report works with the normative Western model represented by the
likes of MIT and CALTECH, many of them considered as embodiments of liberal education, and seen as
eminently worthy of being emulated world over. However, in the absence of a diagnosis of why Indian
universities are not considered as great embodiments of liberal education, despite many of them
having a history of two centuries, there is little guarantee that converting IITs to the university model
will make them yield the desired results. This anxiety is what appears to be at the back of the protest
by IITs8. However, interestingly, both sides seem to agree that liberal education is desirable and
without it the status of the institution as a centre for higher learning is seriously under question.
If in the Yashpal report, the mismatch between our current universities and the nineteenthcentury ideal of the university of culture is one way to evaluate the crisis, Dhruv Raina in his Reimagining the University: After the Yashpal Committee Report, (2009, 87-9) questions the very idea
of the nineteenth-century university of culture as an ideal for contemporary times. Pointing out that
the era of the Humboldtian University or the University of Culture was the result of simultaneous
revolutions in the cognitive, intellectual and institutional realms, he observes that today the modes of
knowledge production have changed drastically necessitating the re-imagining of the university as an
institution. Thus, the crisis for Raina is the mismatch between an old idea of the university and a new
cognitive revolution which the old idea is unable to accommodate. However, Raina says little about
what these new forms are and in what sense they constitute a cognitive revolution, for any such
revolution can be recognized as such only when it is mapped against the background of the cognitive
breakthrough made possible by what is referred to as the Humboldtian moment. Also puzzlingly, no
such need to re-imagine the university anew is articulated in the case of well-known universities like
MIT, Cornell, Harvard or any of the Ivy League universities in the West. Moreover, in the same article,
Raina himself points out that one of the primary tasks that needs to be undertaken is to understand
why post-independent Indian universities failed to cultivate research, thereby drawing attention to
the failure of the old idea much before we entered post-industrial times of cognitive revolution as
well. This takes us back to the question of why the older idea of the University of Culture and liberal
education and learning associated with it fails to take root in our context. What kind of learning is
higher learning in universities all about and why is liberal education considered as a touchstone which
measures the health of this form of learning and knowledge?


Liberal Education: Cause and Solution of the Crisis?
The idea of liberal education has come to occupy a peculiar space in the Indian imagination.
The mainstream scholarly literature on higher education, mainly those examining the rapid growth of
the private sector in higher education in India, identifies liberal education as the cause for the crisis in
higher education where liberal education is largely associated with the basic Arts and Sciences in
which maximum number of students are enrolled, producing students with minimal linkages to the
world of work. Thus, Pawan Agarwal points out that the expansion of higher education was largely
confined to undergraduate programmes in Arts, Science and Commerce till about the 1980s (2006, 478) without much connection to the professional lives of students. However, he observes that, after the
1980s there has been a shift from liberal education which had inner development of the student as
the primary focus to professional training, a world-wide trend whose effects are still being observed.
Similarly, Devesh Kapur (2008, 669) evaluating the arguments of the partisans of liberal education
that it produces students who are more open to diversity, have stronger humanitarian values,
adaptable analytical and critical thinking skills and plays an important role in shaping the moral values
of the student, notes that there is little by way of research to support these claims and produces
counter claims which argue that liberal education may not only fail to produce open-minded citizens
but may even increase political and societal divisions. Thus, according to some, we have had too much
of liberal education.
If for some liberal education is the cause of the crisis, for certain others it is the solution. More
concerned about the lack of internal dynamism of universities and the nature of the educated subject
in our context when compared to the West, the proponents of this view see liberal education as what
needs to be adopted from more successful models (Yashpal 2009). Here, by liberal education they do
not mean just the presence of universities or basic Liberal Arts and Sciences, but a certain mode of
thinking which one brings to the study of different kinds of subjects, whatever they may be.
However, some scholars argue that the liberal model of education which upholds the idealist
conception of education according to which knowledge has to be acquired for its own end, despite the
rhetorical value that it had in State policy or Supreme Court related judgments, was never really
actualized in real terms in the Indian case at any point in its history. It has been pointed out that
English education was basically seen as useful education even when it dealt with literary texts and
the Bible, an education whose use was mainly to get into administrative service and the contradictions
between the educational goal of knowledge for its own sake and useful knowledge had little purchase
in the Indian context even during nationalist times (Sebastian 2007).
When people refer to liberal education, they have different referents in mind some refer to
the institution of the university, some to Liberal Arts education specifically, some to English education
and some to an abstract ideal or a mode of thinking cultivated by exposure to a broad range of courses.
It is simultaneously posed as a cause for the crisis and as a solution. Paradoxically, we have too much
of liberal education according to some, and too little of it or an incomplete version of it, according to
others. For some, it liberates one from the oppressive forces of tradition leading students to freedom
and for certain others liberal education is the most illiberal because it produced consent for colonial
rule or because it deligitimizes community truths. 9
This lack of consensus and incoherence in the debate is puzzling given that liberal education is
the only theory of education that we have, the only frame through which we can organize or even
begin thinking about the complex space of higher education. Thus, when we people say liberal
education has not taken root in India, it should be a cause for worry because it is the only evaluative
frame we have through which we understand the activity of higher education, providing both State


policy and institutional practices a certain conception of institutional goals for higher education. Or we
should be able to provide an alternative conception of education through which we can begin to think
about and theorize the activity/practice. We cannot maintain a casual agnosticism regarding this issue.
One way of even beginning this task is to account for this incoherence in the debate around higher
education today. The lack of a stable referent in our context is more than a mere terminological or a
semantic quibble, indicative of some kind of unintelligibility in our context, of the learning goals
posited by the very idea of liberal education. What is the nature of the knowledge and learning goals
posed by liberal education? Why are these learning goals unintelligible in our context? When people
say that liberal education does not take root here, what indeed is it that does not take root? are
questions that need to be answered even before we begin to conceptualize what is happening under
the rubric of liberal education.
A quick examination of the debates on education in India makes it evident that these anxieties
around university education that I have detailed above are not new. What is striking and relevant for
our purposes is that while the specific details of the case may vary, the larger concerns of the debate
have remained more or less the same since the late nineteenth century. In the next section, I would
like to revisit the late nineteenth and early twentieth century debates around the learning abilities of
the Indian student in order to show the points of similarities and consider the explanations that have
been forwarded to understand the problem.
Section 2
Revisiting the Early-Twentieth Century Debates on University Education, Knowledge and
If in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the British expressed great optimism that the
introduction of Western education would infuse in the Indian student a desire and sensibility for
Science and Arts, this optimism was slowly replaced by the anxiety that Indian students did not
understand the value, purpose and principles of modern knowledge and instead largely learnt it by
rote, often swallowing large chunks of information without digesting them. While nobody disputed the
growing popularity of Western education among the natives, it was observed that the popularity was
more due to modern knowledge being an essential pre-requisite for employment, with a vast majority
of the university students aiming to secure employment in one or the other form of Government
service. It increasingly came to be lamented that Indian students largely pursued knowledge for
instrumentalist reasons and that modern knowledge was valued as a means to an end rather than
valued as an end in itself.10
Thus, by the turn of the century, close to almost a century after the first college was set up in
India,11 an overwhelming concern emerged about the purported failure in the dissemination of
modern knowledge. The pass-man and the crammer almost became synonymous with the Indian
student, with the peculiar ways of the student emerging sometimes as a source of frustration and
sometimes as a target of ridicule. For example, a professor who deposed as a witness in the tenth
sitting of the Universities Commission in 1902 to discuss the various problems confronting university
education in the country, lamented about the undergraduate student thus: the duty of an examiner is
depressing in the extreme, not only on account of the excessive percentages of candidates who fail but
much more on account of the character of the work of those who pass. In a large proportion of the
cases, the books are not really understood, and the candidate passes because he has amassed a
sufficient quantity of various information to secure him the required marks. (Educational Review,
1902, 278) Some complained that a large class of candidates do not care for knowledge but care for
only that piece of paper which has acquired in India a market value never dreamt of by the founders of
the universities. (278) A few also forwarded explanations for this dismal scenario: the cause for this,


according to one of the witnesses was the present character of the people of this country and as long
as young men themselves and their fathers and guardians held a purely utilitarian conception of
education, it would be impossible to make education what it ought to be. (282)
Certain others identified the abundance of inferior faculties like the precocious ability to
memorize in Indian students as a cause: Cram is a name for special effort in committing to
memoryIt is true that the faculties of acquisition and retention are far inferior to the power of
philosophic discussion and original investigation. But the inferior faculties are abundant and the
superior are rare. Students must exercise what they possess. (179) Acknowledging that the
possession of a powerful memory was desirable in itself, some pointed out that the evil consists in
committing to memory things imperfectly understood which cannot become a part of the students
permanent mental furniture. (178) The Indian student, some rued, memorizes, passes, and forgets
and is entirely content. (348)
Observations of Dr. Stein
Some accounts went a step ahead and tried to understand cramming as not only an undue
exercise of memory but as the lack of (or the insufficient exercise of) the higher faculties of reason. An
interesting conversation between Dr. Stein, PhD, Inspector of Schools, who himself was an educational
officer and an Indologist by training and Mr. Bannerjee, one of the Commission members is revealing
in this regard and worthy of being quoted at length (343-5)12. Dr. Stein, observing that the European
science and culture which the Indian universities are called upon to diffuse is in reality as foreign to
the Indian mind as to the Chinese, located the greatest obstacle in the deep-rooted difference in
inherited notions and manners of thought which separated the Indian mind and the Western. Stein
argued that a form of academic control and reform that confined itself to a mere fixing of courses and
conducting exams was grossly insufficient to secure either thoroughness of knowledge or the wide
spread of the methods of thought which was more important than the bare knowledge itself. The
weakest aspect of the Indian educational system, Dr. Stein pointed out, was the complete absence of
anything resembling original research, which in his opinion was the only real academic work. Quoting
fellow-scholars who occupied Sanskrit chairs in European universities and who expressed surprise at
the fact that despite the spread of higher learning in India, there should be such a rarity of
contributions by Indian scholars, indicating some measure of original research in the closely allied
fields of Indian philology, archaeology and history, Dr. Stein argues that for oriental scholars like him
who had closely observed the working of the educational system in India, this was not surprising at all.
The main reason was the failure to develop in the student the faculty of historical reasoning, which in
itself was rather foreign to the Indian student and without which no research in any field was possible.
Contrasting the case of India with Japan which in a short span of time had managed to achieve
greater success than India in building up the Imperial University of Tokyo and had managed to do
more original research in Sanskrit in twenty years than India in the previous hundred years, Dr. Stein
attributed the reasons to the difference in the reasoning faculty between the Indian, Japanese and
European mind. When asked by Mr. Bannerjee if the methods and processes of human reasoning were
not fundamental in their nature and same across all races of mankind, Dr Stein replied that they were
not and that human brains worked differently in different orders of civilization.
When pressed for evidence for his hypothesis about the nature of the Indian students mind,
Stein mentions three points from his own experience as a teacher as the Principal of the Oriental
College, Lahore: a) Unlike the European student who seeks to prove chronology almost as one would
prove a proposition of Euclid and he collects and coordinates the innumerable detached evidences
with tireless industry and patience, the Indian mind has an utter disregard for proving anything,
uncritically accepts the indigenous chronology taught by ancient books and is not even sensible of the


logical force of evidences when they are produced before him. As instances that demonstrate the
above claims, he notes that when an Indian student is shown that when one authors alludes to
another, the author who makes the allusion must have lived in a period subsequent to the author who
is alluded to, the student is quite unable to see that this reasoning is persuasive and if the indigenous
chronology reverses the respective periods of the two authors, the students faith in indigenous
chronology is not the least bit shaken. b) This does not mean that a European teacher who argues
against an inherited doctrine, however convincingly, fails to drive the conclusions into the Indian
students head. It only meant that the student usually accepts anything from the instructor, not
because the force of the argument convinces him but because it is part of his nature to offer least
critical resistance. Even when he tried to ignite sparks of reason by putting forth difficult questions
and a variety of conflicting opinions and asking them which particular opinion they prefer to adopt,
the answer would inevitably be, What is your opinion, Sir or What do you wish us to believe about it
Sir? In short, he clarifies, it is not that the Indian student cannot exercise the reasoning faculty on
logical and critical lines but that he does not ; (Italics mine) c) the Indian student does not even think it
necessary to give a reason for the faith that is in him. As an example, he points that no Indian student
can give you any reason as to why he believes in the transmigration of souls and the doctrine is
accepted uncritically, without reflection. It is this, I maintain, that marks the essential difference
between the Indian boy and the European boy. In this country boys do not start life with the same
splendid mental inheritance which gives European boys the advantage. The European habit of coolly
and confidently referring to every point to the ultimate arbitrament of the inner judgment is utterly
wanting in the Indian.
When asked for an explanation for why the Indian students mind was so, Stein attributes the
cause to the intellectual self-suppression that resulted from the unfortunate indigenous system
which passed on the blind veneration of dogmatic teaching, deeply inculcating in the Indian student an
absolute trust in the Guru. The only reform worth attempting according to him was not to tinker with
courses and attempt minor reforms, but work towards the supplantation of the indigenous methods of
teaching which are essentially dogmatic and non-logical by western methods which are essentially
inquisitive and reasoning. He would not want this transformation accomplished in a moment even if
such a thing were possible, for As an archaeologist and an Indologist, it is part of my work to study the
surviving relics of ancient civilization, and if the existing system of higher education in India were to
pass away very quickly, I should be deprived of some very interesting specimens for my mental
One can, on the face of it, observe an apparent contradiction in Steins arguments: on the one
hand, he observes that the Indian student accepts easily and uncritically, whatever the instructor says.
But at the same time, he also notes that no evidence shakes the Indian students faith in indigenous
chronology. This indicates that the modern methods and indigenous systems do not seem to collide in
some direct manner and the Indian student processes the two as knowledges of different kinds.
Explanation for the Indian students attitude
One could argue that we have come a long way from 1902 and that today it is no longer
possible to make a distinction between modern knowledge and indigenous systems since modern,
western methods of knowing the world have come to dominate the mainstream educational
institutions. It is precisely this cluster of concerns that Sanjay Seth attempts to forward an explanation
for, in his book Subject Lessons (Seth 2007). Posing the question of how western knowledge acquired
the current status of being the only mode of knowledge from being one of the many modes of knowing,
Seth in his book examines the consumption and reception of this modern, Western knowledge in the
Indian context. Locating his analysis along the lines of a Foucauldian project of the history of


knowledge (which) constitutes a privileged point of view for the genealogy of the subject (4), Seth
points out that new knowledges do not just enter the heads of people to permeate it with new ideas
but also serve to produce a new subject. Arguing that modern knowledge creates a knowing subject
who is set apart from the objects to be known, he points out that the subject, in this once-novel
conception of knowledge, was not already present but had to be created through new pedagogic
practices and disciplines created by industrialization, capitalism, modern armies and the modern
novel. While the process was complex enough even in the West, he argues that it was more so in the
Indian context where the instruments for creating the new subjects were not slowly working away
through the centuries of industrialization and the emergence of new disciplinary mechanism of family,
prison, school and factory, but were heavily dependent on the violent and coercive agency of colonial
rule (5). Thus, western modern knowledge in India served to create a particular subject but failed to
do so fully in the Indian context.
The burden of my argument is that while India was transformed and Western knowledge was an
important agent in this transformation, this transformation did not principally occur because
education modernized those Indians who were subject to it. Even as they engaged with modern
institutions, engaged in modern practices, and acquired Western knowledge, Indians often seemed to
do so in ways that did not render them modern and that did not accord with the core presumptions of
this knowledge (12-3).

In delineating his conception of subjectivity, Seth borrows from Heideggers The Age of the
World Picture. In the essay Heidegger reflects on the essence of modern science in order to
apprehend the metaphysical foundation of the modern age and observes that crucial to apprehending
this foundation is the emergence of Man as the new subject in which Man becomes a relational centre
of the world. It is possible for man to become the relational centre of that which is, Heidegger marks,
only when the comprehension of the whole changes. This change manifests itself in the world
emerging as an object that is now available for study and man emerging as a subject, and grasping the
world as a picture - as a system. Heidegger notes that the world picture does not change from an old
one into a new, modern one, but rather the fact that the world is conceived as a picture, becomes a
picture at all, is what distinguishes the modern age.
Drawing from Heideggers insight, Seth poses the question what if modern knowledge failed
to produce a subject and the world as picture failed to emerge in India. Seth indeed suggests that it
did not and at points even suggests that this was because another subjectivity, corresponding to
indigenous modes of relating to knowledge, was diverting and frustrating the impact of modern
education. Seth interprets the long standing complaint against Indian students that they regard
western education more from a utilitarian point of view, often learning by rote, thereby defeating the
very purpose of modern education which is premised on the idea that knowledge, for it to be so, must
be truly understood, as reflecting the anxiety of the failure of modern western education to produce
the subject it posited in the first place. He thus reads the discourses and debates in education in India
which, he points out, came to be haunted by a spectre of nominalism, as perturbations on the surface
of this knowledge, half-acknowledgements that the foundational assumptions underpinning and
enabling modern knowledge could not in fact be assumed (195). This failure, he warns, is not to be
read as another argument of lack, or incompleteness of modernity but as exposing the limits of
modern, western knowledge and the presuppositions it makes. In other words, he claims, his is an
attempt to problematize the very knowledge by which we judge absence and incompleteness. Thus,
according to Seth, to the extent that modern knowledge did not remake Indians, it proved to be
inadequate in knowing India.
At a glance, the statement bears a close resemblance to the narrative of lack which has by
now been rehearsed several times in our context and which Seth clearly wants to distance himself


from. In the arguments that do make such a claim, the modern subject is marked as the rational,
secular, scientific self who is capable of intellectual and moral autonomy and Europe is envisaged as
the site and image of modernity where such a subject is produced. Consequently, the history of the
non-west typically gets read as lack or incompleteness since it is measured against this normative
notion of modernity and then a claim is made for a version of our modernity. However, to ascribe the
rise of the modern subject to Europe, the subject who is the embodiment of scientific rationality,
individualism and secularism is to take the self-descriptions of modernity as self-evident, universal
truths. In other words, first we misread what goes under the name of European modernity and against
this misreading, measure the modernity of the non-west and produce a narrative of lack or a version of
our modernity.
Thus, we could ask - was such a subject produced in Europe? Seth does well to anticipate this
question and draws from Taylor and Latour, to suggest that perhaps, the West is not modern either
and that while modern thought has played an important role in constituting modernity, it is not
thereby a privileged medium for comprehending it (194). Thus, Seth steers clear of the lament
narrative by making the lack a product of modern knowledge which cannot adequately know India
rather than the property of the non-west or its people. This raises an important question - What is the
nature of these normative goals posed by Western knowledge and education such that they are
difficult to be acquired, with the ultimate goal always evading us? Any attempt to answer the question
requires us to revisit the emergence of the idea of the modern university which was tied intrinsically
to the creation of the liberal knowledge and learning.
Secondly, an explanation that holds that because certain sociological conditions that existed in
the West did not chronologically exist in the same way in India and therefore the subject did not
emerge in India is reminiscent of older theories of failed modernity. Though Seth is eager to distance
himself from such narratives, underlying his explanation is a similar assumption an assumption of
symmetrical development, which is to expect that all of the functionally inter-related processes within
modernity should emerge simultaneously (Kaviraj 2005, 497526). Though Seth realizes the
insufficiency of this explanation and turns his gaze onto the West, it remains a half-hearted exercise.
Indeed, by offering a sociological explanation, Seth confuses the subject to be a sociological, empirical
entity, an object that emerged in the Western society as a result of a certain sequence of sociologicalhistorical conditions than see it as a theoretical entity that comes into being in the matrix of
intellectual ideas. What is the conceptual field in which the subject emerges? What is the nature of
the modern subject such that to be a modern subject constantly eludes Indians? - These are
questions Seth fails to answer.
Thirdly, according to Seth, Indians acquired Western knowledge without becoming modern
subjects. If in Seths account, the interdependence of modern knowledge and the modern subject is an
essential condition for acquiring modern knowledge, Seth leaves unexplained how indeed it was
possible for Indians to sever this essential link.
However, Seth is acutely aware of the limitations of his own frame. Thus, though he reads the
growing concern with the problems of cram and instrumentalism as signifying the failure of
modern knowledge to produce the corresponding form of knowing subject and argues that this could
indicate the presence of another subjectivity which is frustrating the emergence of the modern subject,
he points out that his analysis is both made possible and obscured by the concept of subjectivity. He
is aware that because he is posing the question within already available categories, the conclusion can
only be presented as a different sort of subject which can only be represented as an inadequate or
unrealized version of the first. As Seth puts it, the different subject can only be a partially realized
form of the normative subject, such that all forms of subjectivity ultimately culminate in modern forms


of selfhood, thereby bringing it under a category which erases with one hand the difference which it
writes with the other. The challenge, as he points out, is to search for forms of thought which allow
us to recognize that there have been and are ways of thinking the world other than modern, occidental
ones; but also ways of thinking difference without invoking the Subject. (Seth 2007, 45)
In-so-far as we try to account for how modern knowledge is received in non-western contexts
from within the frame of liberal education, employing the categories it makes available, we are
unlikely to come up with anything more than a lack narrative, however rich and nuanced the
analysis might be. How then do we make the various observations about the Indian student made by
the likes of Dr. Stein intelligible, without attributing ill-intention or bad motives to the authors of
these statements? To simply dismiss Dr. Steins anthropological observations as another instance of
the negative evaluation of the Orient characteristic of Orientalist descriptions or as serving the
interests of the imperial power does not explain as much as explain away the issue at hand. Instead,
it is fruitful to ask why the Europeans saw what they did, such that their own experience of the Indian
student is illuminated.13 Simultaneously, how do we understand the Indian students attitudes and
dealings with modern knowledge, such that they are not rendered merely stupid or dull-headed,
without slipping into some form of biological determinism? While the answer to these questions lies
beyond the scope of this paper I will gesture, in the next section, towards where we are likely to find
the answer to the questions posed above.
Section 3
Inescapable Frameworks?
The answer to the questions raised above, I would like to argue, lies in a genealogical
diagnosis which requires us to revisit an earlier moment in European intellectual history, a return to
what is famously referred to as the Humboldtian moment. 14 We see here that the roots to the
conception of education underlying the university run deep, providing the institution with its selfunderstanding. It is here that a theory of self-formation is woven with a theory of science, leading to a
specific conception of education that results in the emergence of the modern university. What is the
model of education represented by Bildung as self-formation which emerges as central to the idea of
the modern university and liberal education? What was the nature of knowledge pursued and the kind
of self-formation involved15? If Bildung is second nature, involving the creation of the moral subject
through initiation into the space of reasons, what were the necessary conditions under which it
could take place?
The Humboldtian Moment: Bildung and the European Model of Education
In the history of the idea of the European university, the Humboldtian moment, is often
regarded as the most revolutionary moments, giving birth to the idea of the modern university. If, as
Sir Isaiah Berlin points out, the history not only of thought, but of consciousness, opinion,
actionmorals, politics, aesthetics, is to a large degree a history of dominant models (Berlin 1999, 2),
then we could conclude with a fair degree of certainty that in the history of institutions of higher
education and learning, the Humboldtian model sets the terms of reference. One could of course argue
that this emphasis on the Humboldtian moment is rather unwarranted in our context, given that India
has a history of British colonialism because of which we inherited the British models of higher
learning rather than the German. This observation would indeed be true if one were looking at what
differentiates various national systems of higher education within Europe. However, if one wishes to
extract the conceptual framework that is common to these different systems of higher education, then
it is the famous Humboldtian moment we must turn to a moment that resulted in giving birth to a



model that went on to become a universal model, though with innumerable variations, with deep
resonances throughout Europe and elsewhere, including North America in the late nineteenth century.
Early stages in the self-understanding of the modern university coincide with a rhetoric of
crisis in the already existing universities (in hindsight labelled medieval). The modern, university
as inaugurated by the Humboldtian conception acquires its sharpness as a concept because it
constitutes itself vis--vis three kinds of institutions of higher learning that existed then the
traditional, medieval university tied to the church where received knowledge was interpreted, the
specialist, higher vocational institutions that had erupted in huge numbers to meet the demands of
industrialisation and the lower secondary schools. Thus, higher in higher education as embodied in
the university, gets its substantive content from defining itself both against the utilitarian ideology
embodied by the specialist, technical institutions and the pre-existing universities which operated
with a closed conception of knowledge16as well as the schools which trained pupils to acquire
lower faculties and capabilities alongside inculcating in them the desire to pursue university
education. The Humboldtian moment inaugurated a broader conception of knowledge as necessarily
open and unfinished.
Even though the term pursuing knowledge for its own sake has come under much disrepute
today, it must be noted that in the Humboldtian conception, the pursuit of objective knowledge
Wissenschaft (science)17 was tied to Bildung, the development of the person where the idea of
education as self-formation was tied to the pursuits of the self (Humboldt 1970). In other words,
Wissenschaft was the source of Bildung, thereby resulting in an internal, integrated merger of pursuit
of objective scholarship with subjective transformation. Indeed, the concept of Bildung or selfformation, one of the central concepts on which the idea of liberal education rests, was crucial to the
Humboldtian moment of revival of the universities, with Bildung developing as an extremely
influential apolitical18 educational theory, centring on individual self-formation through the pursuit of
The Centrality of the Concept of Bildung
The debate around education in the late-eighteenth century Europe, as noted earlier, brings
into play the central concept of Bildung, a particular ideal of self-formation that captured the cultural
imagination of Europe. Scholars have noted that the primacy of the concept did not lag far behind the
central concepts of man and humanity (Dumont 1994; Gadamer 2004; Koselleck 2002). Gadamer, who
notes the importance of the concept during this period, points out that the concept of self-formation,
education or cultivation (Bildung), which became supremely important at the time, was perhaps the
greatest idea of the eighteenth century and it is this concept which is the atmosphere breathed by the
human sciences of the nineteenth century, even if they are unable to offer any epistemological
justification for it and that philosophy and the human sciences (GeistWissenschaften or moral
sciences) has in Bildung, the condition for its existence. (Gadamer 2004, 11) Similarly, Louis Dumont,
in his remarkable study of the concept and its influence on Wilhelm Von Humboldt in the German
ideology draws attention to the almost institutional status that the concept came to enjoy in the late
eighteenth century European debates:
A conceptual transformation takes place at the end of the eighteenth century in Germany: it is nothing
less than the birth of a value-idea, expressed by the word BildungLet us say, to begin with, that the
word designates here education, especially and preeminently self-education.Let us beware, for it
(Bildung) is a genuine institutionwe do not have to reserve the word institution for political
constitutions or main juridical organizations. For what is an institution if not a set of actions and
ideas, already in place, that individuals encounter, and that more or less imposes itself on them?
(Dumont 1994, 815)



That a concept which emerged in late eighteenth century Europe continues to frame contemporary
educational debates is made evident in the frequent evocation of Bildung in current discussions on
higher education, especially in response to the Bologna process underway in Europe with the aim of
turning Europe into a knowledge society. (Lovlie, Mortensen, and Nordenbo 2003; Siljander, Kivel,
and Sutinen 2012; Wimmer 2003) However, contemporary discussions focusing on the theory and
practice of education have often posed the question along the axis of value of Bildung or the lack of it in
present times. Thus, in recent times, scholars have either lamented the loss of Bildung as a concept,
often attempting to reinstate it to provide meaning and direction to our practice of higher education,
alternatively have pointed out the impossibility of its use for contemporary times or sometimes even
argued for refashioning it in the context of increasing talk about the future of Bildung in knowledge
society (Readings 1996; Wimmer 2003; Thomson 2001; Biesta 2002). They mostly see Bildung either
as an ideal to be still aspired to or as a theory of pedagogy or self-formation which has to be
refashioned to suit current needs. However, what is this normative ideal of Bildung that continues to
organize reflections around higher education in the West and why does it continue to organize
reflection on education and knowledge in current times?
While most scholars seem to agree that Bildung is a key cultural concept in modern
educational theory and is crucial to understanding both the idea of the university and liberal
education, an attempt to answer a simple question like what exactly is Bildung19 seems to be almost
an impossible task. Variously translated as self-cultivation, culture, education, self-education, selfformation, civilization and higher education, it has recently been made famous by John Mcdowell as
second nature that education initiates one into (McDowell 1998, 16797), even if this association did
exist since Hegels times. 20 For some, the concept of Bildung seems to carry echoes of the Arnoldian
sense of culture as cultivation that has come under severe criticism after the 1980s for its European
bias and its links with the values of the middle class elite. However, Koselleck points out that there is
enough substantial empirical evidence to prove that Bildung was not limited to the bourgeois
(burgertum) strata, with both the nobility and the non-bourgeois, being bearers of Bildung21 and that it
is important to analytically separate the compound concept of Bildungsburgertum which arose only
retrospectively in the 1920s. Indeed, a probe into the cultural concept of Bildung reveals a much more
complicated conceptual history, with the concept carrying a wide range of connotations and a complex
semantic structure and history.
The concept Bildung, as already pointed out, is widely accepted to be associated with the neohumanist educational theory of Humboldt who holds a central place among the early proponents of
German liberalism22. That Humboldts central concept of Bildung in the sense of self-formation or selfcultivation which formed the core of Humboldtian political philosophy had resonances beyond
Germany and was highly influential in England is made evident by John Stuart Mills reference to
Humboldt both in his famous essay On Liberty and in his Autobiography where he acknowledges
that Humboldts conception of self-cultivation or Bildung was one of the primary influences on his
conception of the individual while writing On Liberty (Valls 1999). Curiously, the Humboldtian idea
of Bildung in turn is seen to be inflected by and sometimes coming closest to Shaftesburys idea of self
formation and inward form which was made accessible through the first German translation of the
latters Characteristics in 1738 and which is regarded as influencing the German idea of Bildung in the
eighteenth century23. While these cross-references are indicative of a rapid flow of ideas between
England and Germany and the centrality of self-formation and inward form in the emergent thought
of the time, Bildung that crucially shaped the educational debates has a history that can be traced back
before the eighteenth century.



Bildung and its links to Theology
The tracking of the journey of the concept indicates that the word has its origins in medieval
mysticism and is not conceived in terms of the bourgeoisie or politics but primarily in terms of
theology where ones self-perfection was directed towards the image of God. Dumont points out:
From Bild, picture, and Bilden, to represent or form, the idea of form has always been essential to
the word. Bildung had meant form or formation in a religious sense since the mystics of the late
Middle Ages. The two moments of this formation were the opening to the divine grace, followed by its
action on the worshipper, whose one and only model, Vorbild, Jesus Christ. We note that pietism
strongly stresses subjectivity, although essentially in order to destroy it (Entselbstung). There is a
blatant discontinuity between this religious idea of Bildung and the one that is our concern here.
(Dumont 1994, 82)

The German word bilden which originally referred to Gods creation of human beings in His
image is given a more active content by German mystics like Meister Eckhardt and others who
believed that the Universal Spirit that emanated from the creator and was present in every being
became impure through its contact with bodily matter and thus had to be purified before it could be
reintegrated with the creator. The process itself was described as an "odyssey," during which an
individual must "sculpt away impurities" until the soul becomes a "work of art," or virtuous by
attaining self-recognition (gnothi seauton). Referring to this sculpting metaphor, the mystics called
such introspection bilden (Cocalis 1978). Thus, from the doctrine that God created human beings in
his image followed the possibility of imitatio Christi or the imago dei where man carries within his
soul the image of God after whom he fashions and cultivates himself, with his highest aim being to
become an image of God.
However, from being confined to medieval Christian mystic traditions, the concept of Bildung
becomes dislodged from its theological frame and is laiticized in the eighteenth century, becoming
available to all. Thus, the active process of self-fashioning and moulding that the copy, through
constant self-creation, is engaged in, in order to approach the original becomes with secularization of
the concept, rising up to humanity through culture, the basic definition that Herder initially gives
Bildung. This normative aspect that is built into the idea of modern education as articulated through
Bildung is best captured later by Heidegger who dismisses the current understandings of Bildung as a
cultivation of subjective qualities as a result of nineteenth century misinterpretations and instead
holds that once given back its original power as a word, it is the word that comes closest to capturing
the Greek paideia.
The German word Bildung ["education," literally "formation"] comes closest to capturing the word
(paidia), but not entirely. In this case, of course, we need to restore to Bildung its original power as
a word, and we have to forget the misinterpretation to which it fell victim in the late nineteenth
century. Bildung ["formation"] means two things. On the one hand formation means forming people in
the sense of impressing on them a character that unfolds. But at the same time this "forming" of people
"forms" (or impresses a character on) people by antecedently taking measure in terms of some
paradigmatic image, which for that reason is called the proto-type [Vor-bild]. Thus at one and the same
time "formation" means impressing a character on people and guiding people by a paradigm. The
contrary of paidia is (apaideusia), lack of formation, where no fundamental bearing is awakened and
unfolded, and where no normative proto-type is put forth. (Heidegger 1998, 1667)

We see here that Bildung is understood actively as a kind of forming that is supposed to direct
humans towards pre-given goals which constitute humanity. What is the normative prototype (the
pre-given goal) that constitutes the fundamental bearing which needs to be unfolded and which
Heidegger identifies as essential to the idea of formation? Here, the theological origins of the concept



and the religious ideas and meanings associated with the concept that we have detailed earlier provide
us some clue. If one were to go by the concepts theological origin and its use in medieval mysticism,
one can conclude that it is fairly clear that the prototype is that of Christ and the idea of selfcultivation/formation involved would be the set of spiritual practices, meditations, abstinence,
renunciations and introspection, certain techniques of the self (Foucault 2005; Asad 1993) practiced
by Christian mystics or monks in medieval monasteries with the aim of purifying the soul in order to
attain salvation. These techniques of the self were oriented towards the same goal: The revelation of
truth about oneself could not be disassociated from the obligation to renounce oneself, wishing to be
no longer the subject of will. As Foucault puts it, in these practices truth about oneself and sacrifice of
oneself were closely related: We have to sacrifice the self in order to discover the truth about ourself,
and we have to discover the truth about ourself in order to sacrifice ourself. (1999)
However, with the secularization of the concept, the concept breaks loose from the theological
frame and Bildung acquires a fresh life, emerging as a rallying point around which the idea of
education and self-formation are debated. In this process, a peculiar shift happens in the way
formation is now understood. If in Christian mysticism, formation implied sacrifice of self and
surrender of ones will, in the subsequent debates around Bildung, formation now implies actualizing
the self and cultivating of ones will. Drawing upon the Pietistic belief of the sanctity of individual and
pre-supposing an elusive notion of soul/self that is in its germination stage and needs to be actualized
through the process of education, Bildung now represented an ideal of self-cultivation through culture,
of inner worldly living which would go on to serve as the ideal for the new conception of scholarly
research through Humboldt. However, the idea of cultivation continued to retain some of its
theological and religious associations which proved decisive in the manner the concept was received
and used to promote the culture of the inward man, fuelling the idea of scholarship as more than just
a form of productive labour is effectively brought out by Koselleck:
If Herder, someone who helped the humanistic concept of Bildung achieve its breakthrough in its
historico-philosophical and cosmological dimension, could still write, Every man has an image (ein
Bild) of himself, of what he shall be and become; as long as he is not yet that, in his bones he is still
unsatisfied, then the religious definition of religion clearly and audibly rings through. Even in the
young Humboldt, who resolutely liberated himself from every foreign, authoritarian definition of
religion in order to advocate spiritual and moral determination, did not escape a ChristianNeoplatonic stereotype: For all Bildung has its origins in the interior of the soul alone, and can be
induced by outer events, never produced. The moral man forms himself (bildet sich) in the image
(im Bilde) of divinity through the intuition of the highest idealistic perfection. (Koselleck 2002, 177)

Previously restricted to Christian theology and medieval mysticism, where Bildung was the
part of the knowledge of redemption and the sharing in Gods grace, now the concept re-emerges as
an active device for the eighteenth century Europeans to think through, work out and arrive at the
idea of the secular, autonomous individual. How is the concept crafted, reworked and fleshed out and
used as a device to express the intellectual and pedagogic articulations of self-formation for newly
secularizing times? Understanding this process will tell us why the modern research university as an
institution was thought about in a particular light in this period and took the shape it did. In the next
section, I explore the relation between Bildung and the idea of education that developed with the
active usage of the concept during this period. We see here that in the debates that follow Bildung is
both a pre-supposition even while it is freshly reworked, crafted and given shape to suit newer needs.
Bildung and the Idea of Education: A Theory of Self-formation
Whatever the differences among individual figures, eighteenth century Western thinkers on
Bildung who drew their educational ideal from the Greek Paideia, explicitly formulated education in



terms of the formation of the subject of education. In other words, the concept of Bildung always
primarily referred to the individual human being who must form himself or herself, irrespective of the
circumstances and yet in a dynamic relation to it. Thus it is characterized by a certain kind of
reflexivity between ones own actions and the circumstances one finds oneself in, with the relation
between the exterior and interior being central to the personal process of Bildung. Thus, education
came to be distinguished from training which prepared subjects from the point of view of a
particular job or from the point of view of usefulness external to themselves, or from the notion of
expertise which was seen as robbing human beings of holistic, harmonious growth of faculties and
from the idea of mastering encyclopaedic knowledge or technical reconstruction - all of which were
concerned with the external and the immediate and not with the self-formation of the individual and
therefore not considered education at all. Bildung was necessarily a self-directed activity which
necessarily resulted in self-transformation and was a never-ending process. Thus, Bildung, Gadamer
states, has no goals outside itself (2004, 10).
The goal of education, instead, was the formation of the whole human being, involving a
particular kind of formation, articulated in terms of a concern for individuality, the cultivation of the
individuals humanity. This was often represented as a movement from formlessness to form and
immaturity to maturity, involving an unfolding of the form already imprinted in the formless, the
development of a certain natural capacity seen as inherent to human nature. Every being is
imprinted with an incipient form and the purpose of education is to help the individual realize this
pre-given form, conceived as a process of self-actualization. The idea of self-actualization would not
just be a fulfilment of a pre-given form or essence, but also realizing in a determinate way what the
form is, the unique form that each one is to realize.
Thus if one dominant idea of education is to regard it as a form of socialization where
succeeding generations are inserted into the existing social order or a domain of practices to ensure
the full participation in specific forms of life and continuity of a particular social organization, in this
tradition of Bildung, education was not socialization understood in the usual sense of term (Biesta
2007). For, the cultivation of individuals humanity necessarily constituted a movement away from
ones tradition to the exercise of ones autonomy and freedom. This movement, as Biesta points out,
cannot be seen as going beyond tradition but as a particular form of enculturation or socialization
within a particular tradition. This idea of self-formation, captured in terms of the movement from
immaturity to maturity of the individual is first fleshed out by Kant in his famous text What is
Enlightenment, (1784), a text that has generated memorable reading by Michel Foucault (2010).
Kant, in his answer to What is Enlightenment? defines Enlightenment as Mans emergence
from self-incurred immaturity. Kant defines immaturity in the very beginning as an inability to use
ones own understanding without the guidance of the other, a certain state of our will, which makes
us accept others as authority in areas where we need to use our reason. This immaturity is selfincurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without
the guidance of another. Thus, Kant argues that human beings should have the courage to use their
own understanding. This Kantian demand for self-determination expressed in the motto have the
courage to use your own understanding, as Koselleck points out, is a call directed at the whole
person and his self-formation: The aim was the Bildung of the whole human being as his own
purpose. (2002, 180)
The condition of tutelage or immaturity, as Foucault in his reading of Kant makes clear, is not
a state of natural powerlessness or the natural childhood of a humanity which has not yet acquired
the means and possibilities of autonomy, nor a deprivation of right, nor violence by those who take
upon themselves the task of directing you but simply a result of a certain relationship to ourselvesa



sort of deficit in the relationship of autonomy to oneself, where cowardice, laziness and fear
keep us, paradoxically, in that condition of tutelage and at the same time prevent us from coming out
of it (Foucault 2010, 33). Thus, it is mans own laziness and cowardice are obstacles in the process and
not anything external that keeps him in tutelage.
So how does one exit out of this condition and come into freedom? According to Kant, in the
condition of immaturity, one only obeys and does not reason. One has exited this condition of
immaturity/tutelage and attained majority when one has reinstituted the right connection between
obedience and private use of our faculties, on the one hand, and between reasoning and public use of
our faculties on the other. In other words, we obey when we are in a professional capacity or involved
in a public activity as functionaries where we are parts of a machine with a specific role to play
(because in this private use of faculties, obedience is unconditionally good), while we act as universal
subjects who can exercise full freedom of reasoning in public use of our faculties, where as rational
beings, we make full use of our faculty of reason and address others as rational beings like ourselves.
Even today such a use of public reason is the hallmark of the real university and a genuinely
democratic society.
Kant lays out the regulative end of self-formation which is the attainment of a certain form of
governing the self to cultivate the faculty of reason in public use, a capacity, which is already
present in each human being but only needs to be developed as a duty to oneself, involving a
movement from passivity to a morally cultivated human being who can reason, thereby developing
the capacity for self-determination or rational autonomy, the normative goal of Bildung. In other
words, learning to reason is an important means through which one derives ones actions in the world.
In this scheme, rational beings are those who ought to have reasons for their actions and ought to act
in ways such that they have reason to act in the ways they do. One cannot act in the dark of reason. 24
Thus, here the formation of character involved in the cultivation of mind requires cultivation of ones
will and reason in order to develop the relation of autonomy to ourselves, thereby emerging as selfdetermining, moral individuals.
For Kant, the development of inherent capacity to exercise the faculty of reason so that the
subject could emerge as autonomous, capable of exercising ones own intentional agency is made
possible only through the process of education. Thus, in his later treatise On Education, (Kant 2003)
brought out to the reading public in 1803, Kant would emphasize that Man is the only being who
needs education and that he can acquire this capacity to reason only through education: Animals are
by their instincts all that they can be ever be; some other reason has provided everything for them at
the outset. But man needs reason of his own. Having no instinct he has to work out a plan of conduct
for himself. Since, however, he is not able to do it all at once, but comes into the world
underdeveloped, others have to do it for him. (11)
However, Kant casts this capacity or potential for autonomous reasoning not as a contingent,
historical possibility or one particular way of relating to the domain of practices and actions nor as a
culturally specific way of enculturing subjects, but as something that is an inherent part of human
nature (Biesta 2007, 28). We see that Kant makes freedom understood in the sense of rational
autonomy as central, almost essential to the idea of education, a feature peculiar to modern education,
a connection unavailable before this period.25 However, what is the nature of this freedom? It must be
noted that freedom here is not understood in terms of freedom from earthly existence, or freedom
from specific determinations like ones oppressive status in society but specifically in terms of the free
exercise of faculty of reason to enable one to self-determine and act without surrendering to any form
of external authority, a certain kind of cultivation of will necessary for the formation of a moral



If public reasoning is the faculty that needs to be developed for self-formation, which no State
should hinder, what must be the kind of institution that would be ideal for its development and
pursuit? Though in his What is Enlightenment, Kant gives us no clue about how best this faculty
could be developed and what kind of an institution would serve the required purpose, he puts
forward a model, in his later work. In The Conflict of faculties (Kant 1992), which came to be regarded
as the blue print of the modern research university and one of the foundational texts of the
Humboldtian model, Kant rigorously traces the architecture of the new university through the lens of
conflict and argues that the faculty of Philosophy would be the one to enjoy this privilege of
unrestricted use of reason.
In The Conflict of faculties, Kant discusses the conflict between the lower faculty of
Philosophy26 and higher faculties of law, theology and medicine, a contradiction which is constitutive
of the university, formed at its very core. While the higher faculties of Law, Medicine and Theology,
promise utility to the government and train public servants (lawyers, doctors and priests
respectively), and therefore are subject to the Governments command and control, Philosophy,
which has public presentation of truth as its function, (55) has to remain independent of the
governments command with respect to its teaching.
By its very distance from State power, Philosophy would, in Kants scheme possess a higher
degree of freedom and would be limited by reason alone, free to evaluate everything and concerning
itself only with truth, in the interest of Wissenschaft. For Kant, Truth is the result of reasons free
judgement and is by nature rational and reason by nature free and admit(ting) of no command to
hold something as true (no imperative believe but only a free I believe, says Kant) (29). Thus, the
faculty of Philosophy, embodying the self-legislating exercise of reason in the service of Wissenschaft
(whose interest/goal is truth), may not be able to command the higher faculties but can control them
by evaluating, judging and validating the output of higher faculties, thereby helping them perfect
themselves. In other words, it is the duty of the faculty of Philosophy to put to scrutiny the teaching of
higher faculty and rigorously examine it both for the benefit of the Government and the higher
faculties, both of which are obliged to submit to the faculty of Philosophy in matters concerning truth.
It is only through such a constantly self-reflective activity, that Philosophy uses its freedom to critique,
which is not to be construed as an attack on the State or higher faculties but as being indispensible for
their benefit. In case of a conflict between higher and lower faculty, (given the propensity of higher
faculties to rule and give into peoples need for short cuts), conflict cannot, and according to Kant,
should not, be settled amicably. In other words, such a situation does not call for a settlement but a
verdict. This conflict is irresolvable, and can never end, and it is task of Philosophy faculty to keep it
going. In case of a situation where the public dismisses Philosophy as inadequate and useless,
preferring to seek answers and short-cuts from the businessmen and theologians of higher faculty,
Philosophy is powerless and solution can come only from the State. If the State refuses to recognize
the value of Philosophy, then it has condemned Philosophy, the very soul or essence of the university
to death.
Thus, we see that Kant absolves higher faculty of questions of truth since they are directly
involved with the State and therefore act in obedience of statutes on which their teaching is based.
Instead, as Timothy Bahti observes, Kant makes truth purely Philosophys end and extends this
notion of reasoning towards truth to the whole of the university:
Truth is the first and fundamental condition of the university's knowledges and doctrines. As for "the
uses of the university," its essential utility is the judgment of truth. All other utilitarianisms are
secondary. (Bahti 1987)



We see here that Kant makes Philosophy as a theoretical activity as essential to the idea of the
new research university and central to the acquiring of Bildung. Bildung, for Kant, clearly could not be
acquired through training oneself to be public servants or through the service of utility. Bildung,
instead, moves in the element of Wissenschaft, reason and truth and the process of formation that
occurs in the individual through the process of pursuing Wissenschaft. Through this move, Kant,
institutes a new understanding of what higher learning is not only does higher education now
distinguish itself from training oneself in one or the other practical domain, but it subordinates the
practical domain itself to the operations of reason. The demand of founding practical knowledge in
reason now becomes a universal requirement.
It is interesting to note that in neither of these tracts does Kant directly use the word
Bildung, (he would use it only in his later tract On education, by 1800, when it had become virtually
impossible to talk about education without employing the concept in overt ways, (Liedman 1993). Yet
we see that in his description, there is an active sense of the concept in the way he fleshes out the
nature of formation involved.
If in Kant, Bildung is still defined in terms of cultivating a capacity or talent that inheres in all
human beings, providing the broad contours of the process of self-formation, in Humboldt, the
theological content and the association of the concept with the ancient mystic tradition (according to
which man carries in his soul the image of God and must cultivate himself in that light) rings through
more explicitly:
but when in our language we say Bildung, we mean something both higher and more inward, namely
the disposition of mind which, from the knowledge and the feeling of the total intellectual and moral
endeavor, flows harmoniously into sensibility and character (Gadamer 2004, 31).

Declaring that all education originates from the inner soul of man, all external arrangements
or events can only initiate but not cause education, thereby distinguishing Bildung from any other
model of formation which was for external reasons and therefore served as a means to an end,
Humboldt did more to canonize and institutionalize the concept of Bildung than anybody else.
Between 1790 and 1810, Humboldt sought to lay the conditions under which Bildung could flourish,
unhindered by any external interference even if self-formation could only take place in a dynamic
relation to the external world of action. How does the concept of Bildung undergo transformation
through Humboldt, such that it can now create an institutional space for itself, becoming the driving
force of pedagogy and defining the purpose of the university?
In his essay Limits of State Action (1993), which greatly influenced John Stuart Mill, Humboldt
attempts to work out the limits of the State such that Bildung of the person could take place without
any obstacles. Humboldt was writing at a time when the universities in Germany (like in France and
England), were mostly tied to the Church and regarded as notorious for festering unscholarly activities
and as a social ill. Since the universities were seen as completely unsuited to the demands of the
prevailing times, the Prussian state encouraged several schools, emphasizing practical and technical
training for utilitarian purposes. 27 It is against these utilitarian institutions on the one hand and the
State and Church on the other that Humboldt fleshes out the ideal of Bildung and the idea of the
Stating that The true end of Man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal and immutable
dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most
harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole, Humboldt argues that
the pre-condition for different faculties to develop in spontaneous cooperation is freedom and
diversity of situations. How does one achieve this without any hindrance and interference from
various institutional bodies? In order to ensure the first condition of freedom necessary for individual



self-cultivation, Humboldt proposes the curtailment of state power to the barest minimum possible,
restricted to providing internal and external security. The State must only perform the negative
function of providing the outward conditions of freedom because, by interfering too much and by
attending to the well-being of its citizen, the State suppresses the energies of its people thereby
constricting the personal growth in favour of generating productive and obedient citizens. Thus,
Humboldt has a strong critique of the very idea of National education:
National education or that which is organized and imposed by the State is at least in many respects
very questionable. The grand leading principle, towards which every argument hitherto unfolded in
these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its
richest diversity. But national education, since it presupposes the selection and appointment of
someone instructor, must always promote a definite form of development, however careful to avoid
such an errorNow all systems of National education, in as much as they afford room for the
manifestation of a government spirit, tend to impose a definite form of civic development, and
therefore to repress the vital energies of a nation. (Humboldt 1993, 657)

Humboldts primary concern here, as Sorkin (1983) points out, is to assert the political
sovereignty of man in which the inward development of man, the development of the capabilities of
the person, his self-education, is given a priority over man as citizen, for, the person, Humboldt argues,
is always more than a citizen. Such a person whose capacities have been allowed to develop to the
fullest and capable of self-expression and self-determination would be more than a mere subject of the
State, even while being most useful to the State. when required and perhaps, ultimately concern
himself/herself with the activity of the State.
Thus, by paring down the States power, Humboldt delineates a programme that will help
meet the first condition for self-formation the freedom of the individual. The second condition which
requires the presence of diversity of situations can be made possible only through social interplay
since forming oneself requires developing social bonds. It is in fulfilling this second condition of
forming social bonds that Humboldt recognizes the importance of intermediate institutions which
stand between the State and citizens, thereby recognizing the institutional setting where true
exchange and development of individuals could happen, without interference from State, leading to
the formation of the modern university embodied in the University of Berlin.
Humboldt not only lays out the conditions for Bildung, but in a fragment written in 1793-94,
titled Theory of Bildung, (Humboldt 2000) sketchily works out a theory of Bildung that at a
rudimentary level tries to conceptualize how the linking of the self to the world through which selfformation occurs, would take place. Emphasizing the relation between the external and internal,
between the self and the world, Humboldt notes that man is naturally driven to move beyond himself
to external objects and that it is crucial that he should not lose himself in this alienation but rather
reflect back into his inner being the clarifying light and comforting warmth of everything he
undertakes outside himself. He must, thus, bring objects/matter closer to himself and impress his
mind on them, bringing the two into close resemblance.
The impetus to link the self/mind to the world and the constant reworking of the relationship
between the internal and external, with movement directed outwards towards the world only to be
directed back to oneself such that ones own powers are honed, runs throughout the fragment.
Pointing out that within man there are several faculties to represent the same object - as a concept of
reason, as an image of imagination and as an intuition the senses, Humboldt argues that these are
different tools to grasp Nature, but the purpose is not to be acquainted with nature from all sides but
to hone his own innate powers of which these diverse views are differently shaped effects brought
into unity in the concept of the world: It is precisely this unity that determines the concept of the



world, a concept that encompasses both the diversity of ways in which the external objects touch our
senses and the independent existence through which these objects influence our feelings. (59)
Humboldt therefore concludes that for self-formation to occur, what man needs most is
simply an object that makes possible the interplay between his receptivity and his self-activity.
However, if this object is to occupy his full being, the ultimate object must be nothing less than the
world itself:
Man seeks unity only to escape from dissipating and confusing diversity. In order not to become lost in
infinity, empty and unfruitful, he creates a single circle, visible at a glance from any point. In order to
attach the image of the ultimate goal to every step forward he takes, he seeks to transform scattered
knowledge and action into a closed system, mere scholarship into scholarly Bildung, merely restless
endeavor into judicious activity. (60)

Kant lays out the contours of the process of self-formation and its end, necessary to which is a
theoretical orientation to the domain of actions and practices. Humboldt lays down the rudimentary
theory of Bildung, emphasizing the importance of the objectual world in self-formation and draws the
limits of the state by laying down the external constraints such that Bildung of the individual could
take place unhindered. However, it is Hegel who astutely works out what Bildung is in terms of the
experience of the individual consciousness, represented as the historical development of the Spirit in
various stages. If, as Gadamer says, what constitutes the essence of Bildung is not alienation as such
but a return to oneself which presupposes alienation to be sure, then it is in Hegel this it is most
explicitly brought to surface, though th e theme runs through in Kant and Humboldt too.
One of the central problems to which Hegel and other German Idealists were responding to is
the problem of alienation. The nature of alienation is what is often seen as the ultimate problem in
Western philosophical tradition: the subject-object duality (or the disconnection between
knowledge and truth).28 In other words, for consciousness, its object (world) is other than itself. This
gulf/split between the subject and object is a precondition of the possibility of human knowledge and
the arrival of knowledge is the erasure of this gulf.
Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1977), conceptualizes the education of individual
consciousness to science as an erasure of this duality. This stage is reached through the dissolution of
internal contradiction which takes the form of negative determination and is resolved at a higher
level of comprehension, resulting in a new shape which appears one step closer to the truth29. Thus
the dualities which begin as oppositions, the consciousness realizes are linked at their very base and
are mutually constitutive. However, the dualities are erased but not by going back into some innocent
unity of subject and object but through the negative dialectics between consciousness and selfconsciousness which unites the oppositions at a higher level of comprehension. This process of
Bildung, or negative dialectic, which involves a particular form of reflexivity, for Hegel, leads to
genuine science. Hegel shows how at the core of formation lies the concept of self-consciousness, a
necessary condition for Bildung to take place.
Conclusion: Observations, Findings and Further Questions
What does my elaborate rendering of the model of education as represented by Bildung
attempt to do? When we say liberal education and the university of culture does not take root in
postcolonial contexts such as ours, what we seem to be saying is that a there is a thick notion of
education which is not taking root. That this thick notion of education finds it difficult to take root in
non-western contexts like ours does not imply that there is something wrong with our social fabric.
What it does indicate is that when we try to understand the reasons for the articulation of crisis in our
centres of higher learning, we need to go beyond locating it in terms of social and institutional failure



in our context and instead turn to the intellectual and cultural milieu that gave rise to a certain
conception of education that informs the institution of the university, giving the institution its specific
character. What is this thick notion of education and the idea of formation which seems to be absent in
contexts such as ours? Thus, I turned to the Humboldtian moment and the debate around Bildung in
order to obtain a better grasp of the generative moment which also sets the limits on what is
generated. It is against this horizon that we must make sense of our crisis in higher education.
1. The idea of the modern university of culture emerged out of the conceptual matrix of Bildung. I
tried to historically reconstruct the conception of education that emerged as a result. One of the tasks
attempted here is to capture the debates internal to the tradition of Bildung how was education
problematized, why was the institution of the university thought about in a particular light and what
was the conception of education that emerged from it. The other task I have attempted is to ask a
question external to the tradition. I posed the question: What is Bildung a response to? Here, I tried to
show that Bildung is a conceptual tool through which the idea of self-formation is envisaged for newly
secularizing times and draw attention to the depth of these debates.
2. In the secular definition of education that emerges with the Humboldtian idea, we see that the
assumption that human beings have a pre-given form which they have to realize is a pre-theoretical
supposition, thereby providing a normative dimension to the notion of education. Thus, secular
education comes to presuppose an elusive notion of an incipient self that is germinative and needs to
be actualized through education. However, one also witnesses a radical shift in the way formation is
now conceptualized. A positive conception of self which involves cultivating ones will to emerge as
self-determining in freedom replaces the earlier idea of formation as the sacrifice of the self which
requires a surrender of ones will to the will of God. What thus emerges is a view of the secular,
autonomous self, individual defined in abstraction from any order or matrix of practices and actions.
While this shift may have been captured by Foucault and Taylor, its implications for modern education
remain unexplored. I would like to argue that what indeed happens here is a genealogical shift in the
very conception of education: Before this historical point, education is sacrifice of the self. In the
debates around Bildung, education is the actualization of the self in freedom of self-determination.
3. Freedom in this tradition is conceived as freedom of self-determination of the individual, promoting
a dynamic sense of agency, where actions are derived from reasons which further have their basis in
principles. Freedom emerges here as a species essence. Thus even feminist and Marxist critiques of
liberal education, can be seen as drawing sustenance from Bildung where the idea of a self-unfolding
subject or fulfillment in freedom of self-determination continues to be an ideal to be realized. Why
does the idea of freedom as self-determination become so central to modern education? What kind of
relation does it generate between the knowing subject and the domain of actions? And why is the
University the best place to foster this link? are questions to be probed.
4. Bildung is often seen as a theory of pedagogy or self-formation, culture as self-cultivation. However,
I have tried to relocate it back to its context and see it more as a cultural phenomenon, specific to
Europe which then gets characterised as a universal theory of education. It appears that Bildung is a
concept around which the Western tradition organizes its reflection around knowledge, subject and
truth. If as Foucault points out, the Cartesian moment results in a break where the fundamental link
between access to truth, which becomes the autonomous development of knowledge (connaissance),
and the requirement of the subjects transformation of himself and his being is broken with the
Cartesian moment, thereby reconfiguring the relation between truth and subjectivity, then we could
say that in the history of Western thinking on education, the debate around Bildung is an attempt to
rethink and suture this break. However, the attempt remains difficult, forcing Foucault to reflect on the
impossibility of constituting an ethic of the self in modern times.



5. The return to the Humboldtian moment might help us answer the questions regarding the
conceptual and foundational underpinnings of the modern university. It might also give us a glimpse
into the limits of the structures of Western thought itself and help us understand why the Europeans
provided certain kind of descriptions of the Indian student. That Dr. Stein should condemn the Indian
student as a curious specimen for his mental museum because he sees in him the failure of modern
education to create a mature, self-determining individual who can provide reasons for his beliefs,
practices and actions seems to be an obvious conclusion when viewed from his framework. What Dr.
Stein and the debates around the crisis in the Indian university get at is the absence of the thick
conception of education and the remarkably different nature of educated selves. The third section then
gives us a glimpse of what it is that does not travel even when the institution of university and its
attendant structures do get transplanted.
How then do we understand the Indian students experience of and dealings with modern
education? How do we hypothetically characterize the system of education in which the learning
strategies of Indian students is rendered intelligible rather than as merely outmoded and backward?
What kind of knowledge is this system of education an initiation into, why is the role of the teacher
and the exercise of memory so central to the scheme and how do these ways of learning impact our
ability to deal with the protocols of modern knowledge?- These are the questions which this paper
throws up.
This paper is part of my ongoing doctoral research titled Locations of Knowledge: The University,
Liberal Education and the Case of India currently being pursued at the Centre for the Study of Culture
at Society (CSCS), Bangalore. A version of the paper was presented at the conference on Global
Conclave of Young Scholars of Indian Education, held at National University of Educational Planning
and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi, January 27-29, 2011.

The scholarship on the university and higher education in India works with the categories of the
Western model of the university and the non-western one, where Western universities are cast as
models worthy of being emulated. By the West, the scholarship largely refers to European, English
and American. I retain this use.

The history of the idea and institution of the university is a rich body of study in the West. Rothblatt
(1997) points out that the question is not whether the university requires an idea or not but that
historically, it has been assigned one and for two centuries a particular kind of debate has gone on,
revived in every generation, concerning the role and purpose of a university and the education it
provides (1). The list of works that engage with the idea of the university and liberal education is too
long to mention here but among the more recent works, one can immediately recall Nussbaum 1997;
Derrida 2004; Pelikan 1992; Bloom 1987; Readings 1996; Kweik 2006; Lovlie, Mortensen, and
Nordenbo 2003; Hancock 1999. Newmans The Idea of the University, Martin Heideggers Rectorial
Address, Jaspers The Idea of the University continue to inspire though I have not referred to them
here. I have dealt specifically with the German idea of the university which was articulated with much
passion towards the end of the eighteenth century, in the last section.

See Robert Pippins eloquent and incisive speech on Liberation and Liberal Arts: The Aims of
Education, given to an incoming class in 2000 at the University of Chicago (Pippin 2000). Liberal
education, unlike the utilitarian theory of education, conceives of goals as intrinsic to itself and to the
development of the idea of personhood. Marxist and feminists accounts of liberal education, despite
their critique, presuppose the theoretical concept of the free individual whose potential for self4



activity and self-fashioning is of supreme importance, with capitalism and patriarchy robbing the
individual of such potential. Hence, Robert Pippins point that these critiques only seem to be arguing
for pursuing liberal education even more purely, by drawing attention to the various obstacles that
come in the way of the actualization of freedom is very perceptive.
The narrative of crisis in the University in the West often maps the decline vis--vis the Humbodtian
university. As noted by many scholars, each nation produced its own institutional arrangements for
pursuing the Humboldtian conception of advanced learning (Readings 1996). Rothblatt and Wittrock
(1993, 115) point out that the problem of defining the university has long preoccupied politicians,
planners, reformers, academics, theologians, philosophers, historians and litterateurs and they have
often found the task difficult. So much has this been the case, especially since the eighteenth century
that universities are now subsumed under a broader if less romantic category of higher education.
And yet the idea of the university and liberal education, Bildung, they argue have existed and continue
to exist, drawing attention to a particular moral order of which the university is a part, comprising the
cultural or emotional barrier separating the university from higher education.

Readings observes that the university ceases to be the producer and preserver of national culture,
with the central idea of culture being replaced by excellence, an empty vacuous word with no
referent. Thus, with a lack of any serious role, Reading observes, the University of Culture (as he calls
the modern, Humboldtian university) has given way to the University of Excellence, tilted towards a
market-oriented model, with the older ideals of a unifying national culture, Bildung, the liberal subjectcitizen and the nation-state no longer relevant and asks how best to reside in the ruins of reason and
culture, post the critique of Enlightenment values and modernity (Readings 1996). However, the
problem in postcolonial contexts such as ours is not that the University of Culture is giving way to the
University of Excellence as Readings frames it, but that the University of Culture and the
corresponding idea of liberal education never takes root, except in some minimal, nominal form.

See for example, the prolific literature around the crisis in the university in the Indian context. A
quick glance at various media articles, reports, reviews and scholarly writings on the subject reveals a
rather depressing and gloomy picture of our university system it is always in decline, disarray,
decay crisis, shambles, mortgaged or a system in atrophy and is acutely in need of reform,
rejuvenation and transformation. The former HRD Minister Arjun Singh, in the Times of India
described higher education in India as a sick child,(Higher Education Is a Sick Child, 2007) The
National Knowledge Commission note on higher education refers to the quiet crisis in the
universities that is not discernible because there are pockets of excellence, and scholars point out that
the success of a few professional and technical institutions is masking the crisis that runs deep in our
universities (The National Knowledge Commission Note on Education 2006). That we dont have real
universities, our universities have failed to be centres of knowledge production, our students prefer
going abroad for higher education in huge numbers, our universities neither produce employable
students nor train students to pursue higher studies in basic sciences, our students take up higher
education largely for utilitarian reasons and do not understand the protocols of knowledge are only
some of the anxieties around the institution of the university in India. See Kapur and Mehta 2004;
Kapur 2008; Agarwal 2006; Vaidyanathan 2008. Refer to Deshpande 2008; Chatterjee 2002, for a
different, more cautious response to the perception of crisis, especially in social science research. For a
more recent debate on the quality of college education in India, see Thane Richards article (Thane
2013) and the interesting responses to it in

Indeed, when the National Knowledge Commission recommends 1500 universities by 2015 in India,
it is not clear what exactly they are reproducing, especially when under their own admission our



existing universities, are in deep crisis. This contradiction is highlighted by Jandhyala B. G. Tilak
(2007) who points out that though the average enrolment size of universities in India is around 6000,
there are several existing universities which have a very small level of enrolment, much below
Liberal Education hardly evokes any passion in non-western contexts. However, when used, it
remains vague, without any substantial content.

See in particular Seth 2007, 1845, where he examines the growing concern with cramming and
instrumentalism in late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Interestingly, more or less similar
complaints can be heard against the undergraduate student today. However, the explanation
forwarded today is that the students are from disadvantaged castes and therefore are not motivated
enough, are less bright and pursue higher education only in order to gain employment. The fact that
these concerns were expressed in the beginning of the twentieth century when it was likely that the
Indian students referred to were largely upper caste makes it clear that caste is immaterial to the

The Beginning of modern higher education is traced back to the establishment of Hindu College in
1817 in Calcutta by Raja Rammohan Roy. By 1853, the number of colleges had risen to 25. Post the
recommendation of Wood Education Dispatch in 1854, three universities in the Presidency towns of
Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were set up in 1857. The main function of these universities was to
conduct examinations and award degrees, while teaching work was to be done in the affiliated
colleges. This was an adoption of the London University model. With the rapid rise in enrolment,
Punjab University at Lahore (1882) and the University of Allahabad (1887) were also established.
After this, no new university was set up in the Nineteenth Century. By 1902, there were five
universities and 191 affiliated colleges with a total enrolment of 17,650 students. See (Kuppusamy
2009, 518).

This is a paradigmatic case. I have chosen this because it best represents in one conversation the
kind of concerns that dominated the debate around university education, knowledge and learning at
that time.

Said (1978) notes that Orientalism should be seen as imposing a limit on European thinking about
the Orient. Thus rather than reduce Orientalism to a body of knowledge that crudely serves some
imperial interests, one should ask what makes Europeans perceive the Orient the way they do and
what are the elements structuring the cultural experience of the West such that its self-description and
other-description have certain features (Dhareshwar 2005, 194206).

Modern academia and scholarship trace the origin of the modern university to the idea of the
Humboldtian University in the early nineteenth century. Many scholars emphasize the importance of
the Humboldtian idea all over the continent in the nineteenth century, with the idea eventually
crossing the Atlantic to have a tremendous influence on the Anglo-American world as well. The idea of
the university is seen to have caused a fundamental transformation in the very structure of academic
knowledge, resulting in the creation of modern disciplines as the new social and intellectual forms
through which knowledge would be classified and produced. See Howard (2006); Readings (1996);
Kweik (2006) among several others who emphasize this point. In the Indian context, we have
combined the liberal arts college idea from British universities like Oxford and Cambridge, with the
idea of the Humbodtian research university, pioneered in Germany in the early nineteenth century, as
it is in most postcolonial nations, including the United States.



Bildung emerged as a central concept around which education, knowledge and the university was
debated, with the leading thinkers of the times Kant, Humboldt, Schelling, Hegel, Fichte among
others - participating in the debate. Eventually this intellectual milieu gave birth to the idea of the
modern university.

R. W. Southern (Southern 1995,11) points out that the theory of knowledge on which the scholastic
system was based that is to say, the idea that knowledge was a reconquest of that which had been
freely available to mankind in a pre-lapsarian state encouraged the expectation of a slowly enlarging
body of authoritative doctrine growing from century to century, and needing in this stage of the world
only to be harvested and organized. If this was a true account of the function of the schools, it would be
equally applicable to natural sciences as to the science of theology, law, logic and grammar. They all
exemplified the slow recovery of that intuitive knowledge of all things with which the human race had
been endowed with at creation, and which - despite the ravages of sin it was slowly recovering and
combining in a single system the knowledge lost by Adam and Eve. It is this closed conception that is
contrasted with the idea of knowledge as open and unfinished and in the future.

Wissenschaft, though normally translated as science, referred to the systematic pursuit of any body
of knowledge organized on definite principles, including history and philology. Thus, it included not
just the natural sciences like physics but also what we would call human sciences today.

When I say Bildung developed as an apolitical theory, I mean that it provided a theory of education
which was education of the self, not subordinate to either the state (education for citizenship) or
market (education for the industry). Thus, the question was how to create conditions such that
Bildung could take place, without the state or market being obstacles in the process. Hence, the
centrality of Humboldts Limits of State Action [1792].

My account of Bildung largely draws from Humboldts Limits of State Action, (1993); Kants What is
Enlightenment (1784) and Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit (1977), besides several secondary sources
on Bildung, mainly Kosellecks On the Anthropological and Semantic Structure of Bildung in
Koselleck 2002; Kweik 2006; Sorkin 1983; Dumont 1994; Gadamer 2004.

Mcdowell sees Bildung as a central process through which innate potentialities in human beings is
transformed into second nature, into habits of thought and action. It is through this one acquires
conceptual capacities, thereby becoming responsible to space of reasons.


Free self-formation for all was the slogan of the times! (Koselleck 2002, 181)

Raymond Geuss (2001, 71) points out that Humboldts The Limits of State Action is one of the most
influential (yet most neglected) texts on the history of liberalism. This is despite the fact, he admits,
that there was no liberalism as a political movement and no concept of liberalism when Humboldt
wrote his work. However, he points out that this anachronism is useful to capture the early moments
of liberalism. One could argue that though antecedents of liberal education predate liberalism, what is
common to both of them is the theoretical presupposition that the essence of human nature is

Indeed, some of Humboldts ideas are pre-figured in Adam Smith whose idea of education as public
good does not derive from the argument that education should be for national prosperity, economic
self-interest or for increasing economic productivity, as is commonly thought today. He instead makes
an argument for why education is the only effective remedy for the ills of a modern commercial
society and is essential for introducing one to a variety of situations and to help hone ones
intellectual activities, to counter the mutilation and deformation caused due to uniform, repetitive



tasks introduced by industrial revolution. See Rothschild (1998). One can find a similar argument in
Gramsci (2001) who argues against the rise of the vocational institutions on somewhat similar
Hence, Robert Pippin, in his inaugural lecture on Aims of Education to the incoming class of 2000
at University of Chicago, remarks that if one does not the reason for ones action, they are not ones
own: Unless you have some idea of why it is better for you to be here (at the university of Chicago)
rather than anywhere else or at any other university or whatever, then you did not come here freely.
There is an element of alienation or strangeness to you in your presence here. Some crucial part of
your life, while it was in fact produced by you, does not truly reflect the you that you understand
yourself to be and identify with, and so this decision cannot in the deepest sense be yours (Pippin

Perhaps implicit in Beistas observation that Kant makes freedom central to the idea of modern
education, is that the connection between education and freedom is not available before Kant.

Kant makes it clear that the nomenclature higher and lower is adopted with reference to the
Government rather than the learned professions. Philosophy (the lower faculty) is further divided into
historical sciences comprising history, geography, linguistics, humanities and pure rational sciences
comprising pure mathematics, pure Philosophy, metaphysics of nature and of morals. Currently we
could take Philosophy to mean Human and Natural Sciences, all of which are under Philosophy at the
time Kant is writing. (Kant 1992, 45). Here, Philosophy refers to a certain theoretical orientation that
characterizes the Sciences

By the last decade of the century, intellectual endeavors had shifted to scientific academies and
there was call from various sides demanding the abolition of universities. The numbers of universities
were seen as too many in number, and an unnecessary burden on state finances, especially since with
secularization, the financial support to these universities which originally came from the church had
reduced. Public support to these universities had weakened to such an extent that during the
Napoleonic era, twenty two universities disappeared, in what has been termed as a mass death of
universities (Ziolkowski 1990, 218308).

The concept of alienation itself needs to be unpacked. Here alienation could mean two things a)
self-alienation where human beings are alienated from God. b) alienation between mind and World /
subject and object. Does alienation happen when consciousness develops self-consciousness, a certain
form of reflexivity? Thus, Pippin (1989) points out, modern philosophy is animated by the activity of
reflection, a turning around the mind to examine itself. This form of reflexivity is integral to the
process of Bildung.

Hegel works with the assumption that the world is rational and hence is intelligible to us. Thus any
intelligibility or tension is not part of the world but is generated by our conceptual lenses/tensions.

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International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 31-49

ISSN 2277 7997

Understanding the Semblance of Objectivity: Critique, Genealogy and Ethical

Vivek Dhareshwar
Scholar-in-Residence, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore. India
Diagnosing the source of the formidable difficulties we face in understanding the
practical form of life has been the central concern of both critique and genealogy. If
Marxian critique sought to plot the limit of theoretical understanding, genealogy
showed how to grasp the cultural transformation of the practical form of life in the
West. Both fetishism/reification and normativized domains that create ontologically
peculiar entities such as sexuality are products of these transformations. Yet neither
critique nor genealogy succeeds in articulating how to conceive ethical action as the
core of practical form of life. Gandhis insight into ethical action not only enables us to
reformulate the theory of fetishism and resist the normativization of action domains, it
helps us to radically reconceive politics as setting up of sites of learning.
Keywords: Objectivity, Marxism, experience, critique, genealogy, practical knowledge
One must know the nature of action,
The nature of wrong action,
And also the nature of inaction.
The way of action is profound.
The Gita

This paper continues my attempt to understand our life with concepts (Dhareshwar 2010;
2012): not only the concepts that have come to us from the west, but indirectly the conceptual
capacities that we have not paid much attention to but which bear the imprint of a form of life, whose
actuality, feasibility and accessibility are all questions that we have had neither the courage nor the
epistemic resources to formulate and confront. So although my reflections will target critique,
genealogy and ethical action, we will find ourselves entangled in a few more concepts: life-form, form
of life, social, theoretical, practical, but also the concept of concept and action; leaning on them
alternately to illumine each and in the process clarify the trajectory embodied in my title. But it will
turn out (I hope) that the trajectory is to be thought less in term of temporal phases than as theoretical
and practical possibilities in our conceptual or, to introduce a term which will be explained later, our
practitional space, thinking through whose deep nexus is the task facing our present.
I want to propose that the kind of Marxism that gained dominance in India was at odds with
(perhaps even destructive of) our practical and non-discursive ways of going about in the world. So is
perhaps the more diffuse formation called liberalism. But let me focus on Marxism both because it
presents a more structured target and because it still holds out intellectual potential of a certain sort
that has a bearing on our life with concepts. This is what we need to think through. Marxism, as a



theory embodying a cluster of concepts, rather than providing understanding, as we expect concepts
to do, was instead what I would call (following Foucault) a deployment. Let me use the term
deployment for a certain kind of rationality that develops after reflection is insulated from
experience and that uses discourses from different sources (thus: deployment of nationalism, of
liberalism, of feminism and so forth). This will become clear after we have discussed genealogy. For
now it is enough to get the contrast in terms of employing a concept that brings understanding and
deploying a concept that perhaps does many things except provide understanding. There are two
reasons why Marxism became a deployment in India (elsewhere too, but we will not take up that story
here): Marxian politics, which is, in an essential sense, the deployment of his philosophy of history, fed
into and intensified the liberal-reform onslaught on Indian customs, traditions, religious
superstitions and so on. I am putting these words under scare-quotes to designate them as targets of
the assault; we will need to look into the form of life that makes them, under a different description,
into bearers of a form of knowledge, practical knowledge. Marxism as critique was never even
glimpsed and has not made its appearance even now.
Did Marxism as critique ever appear anywhere? Well, yes, in Marxs Capital, whose subtitle as
we know is A Critique of Political Economy. It is now commonplace to say that the object of critique
is ideology, but this, even if very partially correct, does not provide us with the right characterization
of critique.1 I would like to claim that it is the social which is the indirect object of Marxs critique. We
need to undertake some conceptual labor to say why the social appears as the indirect object of
critique. Marxs idea of critique echoes the critique that inaugurated the tradition of German Idealism,
namely, Kants Critique of Pure Reason. Kant sought to determine the limit and scope of pure reason,
the forms of thinking of the metaphysical tradition. If the limits of pure reason are not drawn, it will
produce antinomies of reason. That critique was not something optional in the task of producing a
philosophical account of how theoretical (scientific) understanding was possible and how objective
knowledge was possible. Marx too saw critique as an essential prerequisite to understanding the
entity that had just then emerged as the object of theoretical understanding, namely the social. The
common currency partly, ironically, due to the history of Marxist thought of this word conceals
how little we understand of it. In fact, it can be argued that Marx is the theorist of the social (in that
sense the first social scientist or social philosopher, whichever one prefers). From the Manuscripts of
1844 (written in his twenties) to Capital, Marx is struggling to find ways to conceptualize the social. In
the former, we find extraordinarily brilliant, if often obscurely formulated, insight into how the nexus
of nature and the social species essence and social essence could be thought in the face of the
estrangements of the practical spheres that capitalism was producing. Whether as a species being or
as a social being, Marx grasps man as bearer of both a life-form and a practice or form of life: the selfmediated being of nature and of man (Marx 1975, 356). While some of the formulations he uses to
express that unity seem purely verbal, there is no denying either the effort to think through what is
theoretical and what is practical or the straining for a stance that grasps the social in the midst of all
the diremptions caused by private property. Thus: The human essence of nature exists only for social
man; for only here does nature exist for him as a bond with other menOnly here does it exist as the
basis of his own human existence (Marx 1975, 349). But the social is as yet available to universal
consciousness only in my theoretical existence as a social being (Marx 1975, 350). As long as there is
possession, even the senses cannot flourish since their use and enjoyment is egoistic and their
relationship to their respective mode of disclosing their objects is utility. Although, already along with
this profound insight into the deeply deforming effect of private property, the productivist,
teleologizing aspect of Marx makes its first appearance, there is also astonishingly the hint of a
conception of communism as what is conceivable as an ever present possibility of the social. What is
important for our purposes, however, is that all through his struggle to conceptualize the nexus
between nature and the social, Marx is in fact also working out his idea of the critique. That is to say,



he is attempting to grasp the social through the different forms of thought political economy,
philosophy, political theory that is trying to understand the different estranged spheres. The
question for Marx, the question that propelled him toward formulating the idea of critique is: When
does understanding achieved by an inquiry or discipline (such as political economy) cease to be
Marxs philosophical struggle to articulate the idea of critique through his discussion of the
social and his conception of the theoretical and practical attitude culminates in the famous Theses on
Feuerbach (Marx 1975, 421-23). I have selected for discussion those theses that express, admittedly in
a very condensed and often cryptic formulation, the result of a new, properly materialist conception of
thought, action and practice:
I) The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism that of Feuerbach included is that the
thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but
not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to
materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism which, of course, does not
know real, sensuous activity as such.
Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does
not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence, in The Essence of Christianity, he
regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived
and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation. Hence he does not grasp the significance of
revolutionary, of practical-critical, activity.
II) The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of
theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth i.e. the reality and power, the thissidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is
isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.
III) Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no
abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social
relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently
compelled: 1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as
something by itself and to presuppose an abstract isolated human individual. 2. Essence,
therefore, can be comprehended only as genus, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally
unites the many individuals2.
These three are undoubtedly the most complex of Marxs theses, not only because of his
attempt to harness the active side of idealism to formulate a conception of action that is in itself critical
and reflective, practical-critical or simply praxis, but because he is almost unwittingly putting his
finger on a transformation in thought that is, thought undergoing a fundamental modification that
is underway in Europe just then. With Hegels radical reformulation of the philosophical task,
theoretical attitude had attained a new intellectual dimension precisely by attempting to secure the
objectivity of different spheres of the Geist nature, mind, art, ethics, the state through their logical
forms (in the distinctive sense Hegel gives to logic). Marx obviously acknowledges the novelty and
scope of this project the active side of which he wishes to bring to the new conception of action and
practice he is trying to articulate.
Without analyzing each thesis in detail, we can nonetheless notice that the new materialism
must combine a reconstituted idealism the active, constitutive dimension of thought must shape how
practice is conceived with a materialism that sheds its narrow conception of activity and practice to
conceive of thought itself as bearer of action and practice. The new materialism cannot think of



essence as a dumb generality that externally unites individuals. How else to think the genus and
species of thought and action, individual and social, nature and human nature? How to unite, in the
1844 language, the human science of nature and natural science of the human? When we think of a
living thing, we already think it as a bearer of a life-form and this thought, the predications I use to
describe the living thing, show that it is an active, practical and a priori thought, not based on
abstracting from the teaming multitude of life. 3 Similarly action and practice and the expressions and
predication that are part of them too cannot be thought of as deriving from my needs, desires and
interests the dirty-judaical conception of practice; they too are bearers of forms of life. They are a
unity of infinite ends, where the ends inform the action in a way that is not instrumental (Rodl 2007).
The categorial structures we use, the modes of predication we employ testify that our understanding
of life forms or Nature and the form of life or the social is active, practical and a priori (actually
what is practical appears a priori if looked from the theoretical standpoint, which as Marx reminds us
is not the only standpoint). The concepts we use imply a category of being, but being and practice are
not only categorial or propositional, they are sensuous too. How to capture the sensuous action of
thought? While it seems less difficult to conceive of the being of categorials, it seems particularly
difficult to grasp the intelligence and intelligibility of practices. How to think of action-knowledge
other than as knowledge about actions? And how to unite the two reworked sides: idealist and
materialist? Marx is straining toward a notion of the social that can deliver that nexus (the new
materialism which could equally well be thought of as the new idealism). Does Marx succeed? I dont
think he does and he never again achieves or even attempts the kind of taut, gnomic, sweepingly
visionary and yet deeply insightful meta-theoretical or even meta-philosophical reflection. In fact,
even in the Theses, the tension we observe in the first few theses which are striving self-consciously to
articulate a powerful new insight collapses in a formulation that again makes the social into an inert
and dumb generality when he says that the religious sentiment is a product of the social. In this
formulation, which a little later becomes his theory of ideology, even the active side of thought that the
old idealism had achieved is given up, let alone the reconstituted idealism that the first thesis was
calling for. Thus the next thesis leaves us ambivalent: that all social life is essentially practical is
expressing a great insight and yet the next sentence about how practice and the comprehension of
practice provides rational solution to theoretical mysteries leaves it indeterminate how we are to see
the relationship between the two (the remark in thesis IV about the real family being the secret of the
holy family and the need for abolishing the former in theory and practice leaves one feeling a bit
uneasy). So thought and action, concepts and practices fall back into their former one-sided existence.
Let me draw out the implication of my remarks above for understanding the idea of critique in
Marx. We can characterize it as a critique of theoretical reason/ attitude/ knowledge. As our
discussion of Kant should have made clear, what this entails is not a negation or rejection of
theoretical knowledge, but precisely a way to develop an account of what a theoretical understanding
of the social would be like, and when that understanding cease to be understanding and turns into
something else. This is the hardest part to get hold of. Our temptation here would be to ask, when
does understanding turn into ideology, such that we can characterize the task of critique as
specifying, in any given situation, the conditions which turn a theory into ideology. This is correct, as
far as it goes, but it does not go very far or deep. Lets work with Marxs most developed and at least
partially successful example, namely his critique of political economy. The discourse of political
economy (moral science, political philosophy) could be regarded as theorizing the practical domain of
activities that we call economic (actions: peasants tilling land, miners in tunnels, women in
sweatshops, artist before a canvass?).
Thus we have Adam Smiths division of labour and Ricardos theory of value contributing to
our understanding of how the economy works. But at the same time political economy has never once



asked how objects assume the commodity form and hence take for granted money and capital, which,
as Marx teaches us, are already hidden in the commodity form itself. That an apparently simple thing
like a commodity displays metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties has to do with what
Marx called the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced
as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. Why inseparable?
Because it arises from the peculiar social character of the labor which produces them. (Marx 1976,
165, emphasis added). Sociality begins to appear as material (dinglich) relations between persons
and social relations between things (Marx 1976, 166). Now political economy not only does not
penetrate this semblance of objectivity (Marx 1976, 167), it reflects this state of affairs. But that itself
does not make it ideology. It is just a theoretical failure and we surely do not want to consider all failed
theories as ideologies! The problem here is that Marxs own treatment of the thought-structures and
material practices remain separate, only externally joined, like the old idealism and old materialism
simply opposed or juxtaposed. It is as though Marxs own thought succumbs to the fetishism he is
theorizing. Here is what he says about one of the thought structures that most fit the relations of
For a society of producers, whose general social relations of production consists in the fact that they
treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material form bring their individual,
private labors into relation with each other as homogeneous human labor, Christianity with its
religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e., in
Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion. (Marx 1976, 172)

This fitting is entirely obscure. Now, various elements of what we have been calling thought
structures had to be part of the practice of independent producers meeting to exchange their products
as value, for example, the idea of contract. It would be odd to describe the idea of contract or the idea
of equal exchange without which there would not have been the phenomenon of fetishism as most
fitting. My point is not that therefore these are ideologies. Rather these thought structures cannot be
separated from the material phenomenon that renders the social opaque or oblique (they together
form the explanandum). If the analysis of the secret of the value-form is a successful instance of Marxs
theory of the social tracking or conceptualizing the nexus of the natural and the social in its most
oblique existence there is a counter-part to that task that Marx needs to undertake in order to give us
an adequate and new materialist understanding of the reified form of life (if it is one) we find
ourselves in. In the same way as reification is objective or has a semblance of objectivity and yet
subsists on the social that it renders opaque and oblique, a conjoined account of the subject-form that
similarly subsists on practical form of life that it nevertheless renders invisible has to be produced to
complete our understanding of the reified or fetishized semblance of a form of life that capitalism is.
The subject as the bearer of rights and interests, the social as the fetishised object-mediated
relationships, nature as utility go together to form this semblance as a form of life. The place for
understanding ideology would be within this conjoined picture of commodity form and subject form.
No thought structure philosophical, literary or law is by itself ideological.
In Thesis X, Marx had asserted: The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the
standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity4 (emphasis added). Standpoint is the right
term, since what is involved is the theoretical ability to conceptualize the social. But the social as Marx
so emphatically and insightfully insisted in the Theses is practical: All social life is essentially
practical, says Thesis VIII (emphasis original). The domain of economics is eminently a practical
domain. In fact, the practical is, as it were, the genus of which ethics, economics, erotics, dietetics, etc.,
could be seen as species. How is it then that one domain, oekonomia, attained such dominance, even
perhaps subordinating or colonizing the others? Marxs theory of the social elaborated as a critique
of political economy, gives a logical reconstruction of the process that makes possible the emergence



of the value-form or commodity/money/capital. Marxs critique evolves through his early concern to
validate and reanimate the practical, actional dimension of the social in the face of what the young
Marx regards as the distortion it is undergoing as a result of the generalized theoretical attitude under
the reign of private property to his demonstration in Capital of the semblance of objectivity and the
necromancy that the social is forced to generate under capitalism. The social, therefore, is the
indirect object of Marxs critique. The critique seeks to explain the semblance in order to access the
true objectivity, the practice that the Theses had sought. As Marx makes clear the critique would not
make the semblance vanish; it would, however, enable us to grasp the genuine practical critical
activity that capitalist sociality nevertheless prevents us from experiencing. But Marx has no account
of how the domain of economy with its necromancy emerges. That Marx does not even raise this
question has to do in part with his philosophy of history (the dialectic of social relations and
productive forces) and his theory of ideology. In fact, his theory of ideology could be seen as
contributing to the generalized theoretical attitude the young Marx was critical of: seeing all discursive
or linguistic expressions as potential ideologies has the effect of returning practice to its degraded
status that the Thesis had accused Feuerbach of doing. So if capitalism deprives practical activity its
reflectiveness, unity and objectivity, Marxs theory of ideology (when conjoined with his philosophy of
history) deprives itself of the resources to raise questions about the transformation of the practical
The central claim I wish to advance here is that even when damaged, even when it is framed
out and is not generating its own reflections to nurture and elaborate the practices, even then, the
practical form of life is what sustains objectivity. The young Marx glimpsed that when he spoke of
species essence and sociality. As he movingly put it, even our senses do not flourish under private
property because it denies the deep unity between nature and the social that makes possible the
practical form of life. The later Marx elaborated that insight when he theorized fetishism of
commodities (reification/ personification). His theorization, however, had accepted the categories of
political economy at a deeper level than his own critique had managed to grasp. If we take the
theoretical attitude that the early Marx is so concerned to delimit as the search for properties in the
world, political economy as a newly emergent theoretical inquiry turns action into labour which
becomes a property of human beings. Or, rather, human beings become carriers or embodiments of
abstract human labour. Critique, therefore, needs genealogy to map how the practical domains have
got transformed in the West. If labour as a category of political economy already frames out action, 5
we could hypothesize that this is a pattern involving action and practice that we are likely to
encounter in other domains too.
Marxs near contemporary Nietzsche set up Christian morality as the target of genealogy. Like
Marx identified the social as what needed theoretical understanding through a critique of political
economy and other bourgeois discourses of quasi-theoretical nature, Nietzche identified morality as a
genuinely new phenomenon, except that he found it to be the most invidious, corrosive, ressentiment
generating force that was destroying anything that was life-giving or life-enhancing. A kind of will to
know (the theoretical attitude that Marx criticized) that was indeed proving destructive of experience
itself. This destructiveness and ressentiment, Nietzsche traces to the strange paradox of Christian
morality: From the standpoint of morality, the world is false. But to the extent that morality itself is a
part of the world, morality is false (Nietzsche 1968, 298). This paradox unleashes a movement that
both disowns and reclaims (perhaps both successively and simultaneously) domains of practical life,
such as ethics, erotics, art, family, the state and the army (Nietzsche 1968, 125). While in Nietzsche
this insight does not always attain full clarity in the vast and often very unsystematic aphorisms,
Michel Foucault has turned that insight into a productive hypothesis for his genealogical investigations



into how normativization6 transforms different domains of sexuality. Starting with his genealogy of
sexuality and going on to politics, history and governmentality, Foucault at the time of his premature
death and it is one death one wishes had occurred a little later was trying to find a genealogical
route to the very domain Marx had theorized, namely the economy. Of interest to us is Foucaults
detailed and brilliantly lucid reconstruction of the domains of the practical form of life that he calls
the care of the self that had stretched from 4BCE to 4CE. The four domains dietetics, erotics,
economy, wisdom that had provided the matrix of this Greco-roman model of the care of the self
enables us to grasp more concretely what I have been calling the practical form of life. Earlier on I had
offered a perhaps mystifying characterization of practical life form as a unity of in inite ends (Rodl
2007). Now I can concretely say that each domain offers as it were a matrix of knowledge, action and
predication. Take dietetics whose end would be health, but my participation in that matrix involves
self-knowledge, relationship to nature and action with others. Let me use Foucaults own beautiful
illustration which gets hold of the lineaments of the form of life so vividly. It is Marcus Aurelius letter
to his friend, teacher and perhaps lover, Fronto:
We are well. I slept little due to being a bit feverish, which now seems to have subsided. So I spent the
time, from eleven at night until five in the morning, reading some Catos Agriculture and also in
writing: happily less than yesterday. After paying my respects to my father, I relieved my throat, I will
not say by gargling though the word gargarisso is, I believe, found in Novius and elsewhere but by
swallowing honey water as far as the gullet and ejecting it again. After easing my throat I went off to
my father and attended him at a sacrifice. Then we went to luncheon. What do you think I ate? A little
bread, though I saw others devouring oysters, beans, onions and fat sardines. We then worked on the
grape harvest, building up a good sweat and shouting out loudAfter six o clock we came home. I
studied a little and that to no purpose. Then I had a long chat with my little mother as she sat on the
bedWhile we were chatting in this way and disputing which of us two loved one or other of you two
the better [whether Marcus Aurelius loved Fronto more than his mother loved Gratia, Frontos
daughter; M.F.], the gong sounded, announcing that my father had gone to his bath. So we had supper
after we had bathed in the oil press roomand enjoyed hearing the cheerful banter of the villagers.
After coming back, before turning on my side to sleep, I go through my task and give my dearest of
masters an account of the days doings. This master whom I would like, even at the cost of my health
and physical well being, desire and miss even more than I do. Good health, dear Fronto, you who are
my love, my delight. I love you. (cited in Foucault 2005, 158)

So we find, as though the letter was written to exemplify them, the three domains: dietetics,
economics and erotics, three major domains, as Foucault puts it, in which the practice of the self is
actualized in this period with, as we see, constant cross-referencing from one to the other (Foucault
2005, 161) One inhabits the domains successively or simultaneously or even overlappingly. That is to
say, there is a kind of integratedness to them that is a result of the fact that they appear as domains of
application for the practice of the self (Foucault 2005, 162) Ethics as problematization takes shape in
these domains. Another way of putting it would be to see how action in these domains are supported
and clarified by reflection in an integrated way: problematization completes action into experience.
According to Foucaults later works, the care of the self form of life is characterized by such
problematizations, whether that takes place in the sociality elaborated by the philosophical schools
that are so central to the Greek culture or in the sociality structured by the reflective familial milieu
that we find in the Roman period.
But these domains, these problematizations and these actions begin to be broken down,
rebundled or transformed in a peculiar way with the emergence and spread of Christianity. The
extraordinarily detailed genealogical picture of the ancient world that Foucault draws is meant to
highlight the later emergence of domains such as sexuality, economy and politics that are ontologically



peculiar in that they distort experience by insulating it from reflection. Normativization begins to
supplant problematization. What does normativization involve? What happens when experience is
brought under a norm? In his The Uses of Pleasure, which should be considered the first significant
work on the norming of experience, Foucault begins by noting that sexuality the term or its
equivalent, the thing and the discourse did not exist in pre-Christian Europe (or in non-European
cultures). Foucault then proceeds to show how sexuality is what emerges when diverse and distinct
domains of practice and reflection about them dietetics (diet and regimen), economy (the household
and the relationship between husband and wife) erotics (reflections on the relationship with boys)
and finally wisdom in relation to erotic love when these areas or domains are clubbed together or
unified by norming or moralizing them. The transformation as much historical as it is discursive
results in the ontologically peculiar entity called sexuality. This thing does not exist in India or China;
it however seems to exist for the West. They experience it, talk about it incessantly; its scope is ever
expanding, though in a repetitious, monotonous way. It is the introduction of (a distinctive notion of)
truth and norm by Christianity in the pagan milieu that drives this historical and cultural
transformation that is still incomplete.
The practical domains that Foucault reconstructs had not known of norm or the notion of
truth that Christianity brings in. The latter, however, begins to corrode the practices in these domains
by insinuating or demanding that they fail to meet a norm. The next question is, why do these
practices fail to meet the norm? The answer that begins to take shape is: sexuality. (Why is he a
sinner? Its his sexuality.) But what is sexuality? the proliferation begins, from confession, to
theology to psychoanalysis and later to a whole variety of discourses that Foucault calls scientia
sexualis. The properties these theories find or extract are supposed to provide the truth. Sexuality,
therefore, becomes the vehicle of truth, which yields more and more discourse. So action is refracted,
reified in properties, and made to produce discourse, which expresses truth. So sex becomes a
vehicle of truth, resulting in sexuality. In contrast, the erotic domain, in Ars Erotica, has, let us say,
the Tantric teacher initiate or teach the disciple with the process ending in experience (truth, in
another sense). So the action in this domain could lean on many other domains for enhancing
experience or attaining wisdom. So schematically: Scientia Sexualis: Truth Sex Discourse. In Ars
Erotica: Acts Initiation Experience (Foucault 1978).7
What about economy? How does oikos and oekonomia get transformed? The process is
similar to what we observed in sexuality: if the latter involved veridiction of desire, the economy as a
separate reality, a field of intervention, emerges as through the veridiction of interest. Is there a
Scientia Governmentalis that enables the veridiction? Preeminently political economy, but the
literature on arts of government too which concerns itself with how to deal with the imbrication of
men with things, how to dispose of things (Foucault 1991). The result is that: Politics and Economy
are not things that exist, or errors or illusions, or ideologies. They are things that do not exist and yet
which are inscribed in reality and fall under a regime of truth dividing the true and false (Foucault
2008: 20)8.
In the same way as sexuality and scientia sexualis had both a distinctly theological and a
secularized phases or dimensions the concupiscence of the flesh, confession, prohibitions of this and
that governamentality too had discourses which came from theology, (Christian pastoral, lawsovereignty model), advice to the prince literature, police material (cf. Omnes et Singulatim), and, of
course, economics and liberalism. If sexuality becomes the site of veridiction of desire, the
veridiction of interest and utility takes place in the market. Oikos or family is transformed from
being a model into an instrument. The target of this re-centered economy is the population. The new
domain of economy and politics use the earlier entities such as law as tactics. We always had a sense
that economics is not a science, but Foucaults work (especially when properly combined with Marxs



critique of political economy) shows why it cannot be a science, or can only be a science like scientia
sexualis. It is really a technology to manipulate the imbrication of men and things. There is an
interesting parallel to be drawn: after discussing the contrast between scientia sexualis and ars erotica,
Foucault raises the disturbingly ironic question about whether we might consider the former as the
contemporary Wests ars erotics. We can ask, far sharply and ironically, whether pornography is the
ars erotica of the domain populated by scientia sexaulis? Correspondingly, Foucault makes a deliberate
attempt to read liberalism as a practice of governmenality. He is forcing us to confront the question:
What kind of practice is that which has, as it were, scientized the practical domain? We can draw out
the parallel: does liberalism stand to the practical domain of politics (the government of self and
others elaborated in the care of the self model) as pornography stands to the domain of erotics?
With normativization, then, what is transformed, driven underground and rendered
opaque is the whole practical domain of practices and the reflections that support and nourish them.
This raises many theoretical and historical questions, in particular about the nature of Christianity as
religion and its relationship to truth and norm and about the kind of inquiry that genealogy claims to
be. My central claim would be that Christianity as a religion secularizes itself through normativizing
domains of practical life. That is really the only way to understand the process of secularization in the
West. Seen in this light, Foucaults work has a great deal to tell us about the secularization of Western
culture. Thus my interpretation of Foucaults work is aimed at showing how he manages to demarcate
domains of normativity for genealogical analysis. The seemingly disparate inquires he was pursuing
into governmentality in early modern Europe and into truth telling and spiritual knowledge themes
of self-government in another sense (the sense in which Swaraj is used in Gandhi) in ancient Greek
and Roman cultures were united by his concern to show that the domain of modern politics and
economy too are normativized.
My claim has been that genealogy is the appropriate mode of inquiry when we are confronted
with a normativized domain. At a very abstract level: a domain gets normativized when theoretical
knowledge seeks to submerge, subjugate and even, at the limit, substitute itself for, practical
knowledge. What theory is involved? The ur-theory: theology9. The early Marx had sensed the
peculiarity of this theoretical attitude, and the later Marx had given us a conceptualization of the
domain that resulted from that attitude, namely, fetishism of commodities. If we combine the early
Marxs portrayal of secularization10 civil society as embodying the base interest of commodity
owners, the secular state (which is the truly Christian state) as embodying the higher and nobler
aspirations of the citizens with the later Marxs theory of reification, we obtain a picture where the
diremption of the practical spheres are complemented by the generalized theoretical attitude directed
at both the social and the natural life. So, what Marx perceives are isolated subjectivities Human
subjects whose reflections take the form of subjectivized expression of interests, fears, hopes and
anxieties: what modern philosophy and the novel have made familiar to us as experience. As we saw
above, Marxs Theses on Feuerbach explicitly laments this predicament and sees sensuous practical
life as the element in which true human life flourishes. The story in the later works of Foucault is no
less poignant but it sketches a powerful genealogical story for understanding how one cognitive
attitude and form of knowledge becomes dominant. His reconstruction of the practical form of life
that he calls care of the self aims to foreground the reflective elaboration of sociality and the spiritual
knowledge sought by the flourishing philosophical schools in the Greek culture and by the more
diffuse familial milieu in the Roman period (of which the letter cited above is representative). Even
though these forms of sociality begin to be transformed and framed out (20 th century historiography
does not even notice the distinctiveness of this form of life that had reigned for a millennium), the
spiritual concerns that animated that form of life resurface in the 19 th century, both in philosophical
problematics of the kind we find in Hegel about the subjects access to truth and in the social



movements of that period. They are of course transposed and hard to recognize and yet there is a
kinship of a kind.
Marx unwittingly recognizes that change and inherits that kinship. With the exception of
Hegel, all the other thinkers who struggle to give voice to the spiritual/practical knowledge do so
against philosophy Wittgenstein and Heidegger, after Nietzsche and Marx. It is as though philosophy
can no longer harbor what sustained it; if philosophy was essentially the care of the self and a therapy
in that deep sense, now it is philosophy that is seen to require therapy. That movement testifies to the
difficulty of the task that both critique and genealogy are confronted with: they have to sustain their
task in elements that are not hospitable to them. Although what genealogy is after is the forms of
knowledge implicit in the care of the self model rather than the historical picture of the period, so
that it can legitimately seek the subjugated knowledges11 in the normed domains, since after all the
latter cannot not be linked to domains they insulate, genealogy seems unable to dig deep to reanimate
So now to a question that cannot be evaded (which, I am sure, some readers would be longing
to press): even granting you your long-winded epochal stories and the conceptual challenge of
articulating spiritual or practical knowledge, what bearing do they have for us today given our reified
world, our governmentalized or normativized domains of sexuality, economics and politics? After all,
what we need is more than a glimpse of a form of life we need the actional frame to be active,
generating reflective action, action that has true objectivity. In response, let me turn to Gandhis
ethical action which will enable me to close the circle while resituating both critique and genealogy,
for Gandhi had found a way to restore the integrity of the actional frame through Satyagraha. He had
learnt from the Gita the profound ways of action.
While outlining Marxs theory of fetishism, whenever I spoke of the semblance of objectivity
possessed by the reified form of life that capitalism is, I entered the qualification if it is one. Of
course, Marxs very expression semblance of objectivity conveys something of that qualification too
insofar as it is deprived of real objectivity (or, for that matter, real subjectivity) that only a true unity
of the nature and the social can have. Now, Nietzsche and Foucault entertain similar doubts about the
integrity of the normed domains in the West. Sexuality may have triumphed but how can it hope to
survive without needing, in some form, erotics; politics may have become governmentalized, but
somewhere the practical relation must subsist. So, even if the world now is dominated by the
semblance, by the commodity-form as bearer of value, subject-form as bearer of
rights/interests/desires, political and economical-form of governmentalization, the only genuine
politics or ethics today is to think the possibility of critical practical activity as part of a (new?) matrix
of self-knowledge, action and predication.
Ethical Action
If miraculously Marxism as critique had appeared in India, it would have got busy looking for
concepts to articulate the practical forms of life that colonialism was bent on destroying (instead of
ratifying colonialism). That unfortunately did not happen (and if it is any consolation, Marxism as
critique did not appear anywhere else either). What did happen was Gandhi, who grasped that point
theoretically and, more importantly, practically, set about articulating and reshaping the lineaments
and the salience of practical knowledge, under unimaginably adverse conditions (hostile colonial
power, extreme poverty and a highly colonized Congress intelligentsia). His activity (as I have argued
elsewhere) involved setting up multiple ethical sites of learning (nature, body, family, temple, school
and village). Satyagraha can only be offered in very different domains if reflective action could be
incorporated in daily life. He was convinced that unless the practical form of life acquires the stability
to integrate the order or matrix of self-knowledge, action and problematization, we are condemned to



lead a life that has already been lived out elsewhere. The order that he sought would unite swadharma,
swadeshi and swaraj as the horizon of action, an order in which spiritual laws, like natures lawsare
self-action (Gandhi 1968: 256).
If the Marx of critique were living today, I have a feeling that he would have drastically
reformulated the famous (or infamous) Thesis XI. He would have perhaps offered the following: The
philosophers have only tried to change the world, the point is to understand/experience it, for,
genuine understanding /experience is itself transformative. Or, better still, he might have borrowed
these paraphrases from Gandhis commentary on the Gita: Only the ignorant speak of wisdom and
action as different, not the learned He who sees them as one sees truly" (Gandhi 1968: 284). This is
the insight that Gandhi uses consistently, and particularly in his experiments in the Ashram. But to
understand it in any depth we will have to extend the reach of our conceptual capacities to include the
ways of action (as Marx was demanding in the Theses).
Action concepts in a practical life form function differently than as gatherers of elements that
fall under them. To understand how they function we need to figure out how a matrix functions. Let us
take Dietetics as one such matrix. One is in this matrix when one pays attention to food or substances
that nourish, and to actions that help nourishment, help the end of nourishment, which may be health
(in the sense of well-being). It can be a simple matrix of diet pathya or it can be an elaborate matrix
comprising diet, exercise.meditation. The presence of the latter in this matrix does not mean that it
cannot be part of another matrix. Indeed, criss-crossing matrices or nested and iterated practitions are
the rule, but the point is that a matrix is an identifiable, individuable unit. Yoga could be a matrix on
its own, or it could be part of the Dietetics matrix or the Erotics matrix. I need to say a lot more about
this matrix, but for now I hope a clear-enough shape has emerged for me to take up the task of
clarifying its relationship with understanding action and action-explanation.12
There is a powerful philosophical picture of how action is explained that has attained the
status of self-evidence, namely the desire/belief model of explaining action. If this picture has attained
the status of common-sense or folk theory, as philosophers claim or imply, then we can understand
why action in general and ethical action in particular has retreated so far that philosophical
understanding does not even sense that there is something deeper to explore. However, Marxs
sensuous practice or Wittgensteins language-game/form of life have been such poignant presence in
our intellectual landscape precisely because experiential knowledge and happiness are possible only
in the practitional matrix. Thus, though the emergence of the naturalistic inquiry as a stable form of
matrix to study nature made possible discoveries for anyone participating in it, by the very nature of
the case, such participation is not possible for everyone; whereas the practitional matrix invites
practically everyones commitment and engagement.
The core idea is this: any element, what in adhyatmic thinking gets termed as an upadhi, is
refined, purified (parishkritah), elaborated in a matrix and it has its truth or objectivity or beauty in
that matrix. So what are these elements? They are as diverse as the elements that fall under the
category, upadhi! Thus sound, sight, relations, gesture, body, time, seasons, all can be, and have been,
elaborated into a dynamic matrix which can only be understood action-theoretically (not statedescriptionally). So we have gayanshastra, natyashastra, kamashastra, jyothisshastra. Criss-crossing
matrices are not only not exceptional, but their dynamic presence and functioning is also a testimony
to the health of this form of life. The ends of ethical life (purusharthas, for example) are ways of
organizing the matrices in order to reflect on them. As a result, the matrices are the best examples of
what (following Rodl) we have termed the unity of infinite ends. The ends, however, are discovered in
the unfolding of the practitional matrices.



Practical teaching, teaching how to act, makes sense only when you are standing in the
practitional matrix of action. Otherwise action-knowledge cannot have much sense. To purify action,
to improve an action, to refine an action, are expressions that pertain to the practional matrix. To
ritualize an action then is not quite to strip it of meaning (conception), but to find a place for it in a
matrix. This is the core picture of the practical form of life which we logically reach on the other side
of the human life form.13 How to situate and clarify experience in this framework? First an analogy:
being in tune is all important in raga music. Raga, in the terminology attempted here, is a matrix
elaborated on sound/voice. Not any sound, even pleasant sounding, is being in Raga. So in anu-bhava,
being in accord with bhava, is like being in raga. But the accord involves the same kind of elaboration
(or its equivalent) as in the raga case. Being in raga then is like experiencing. So not everything that
happens to me or that I suffer is experience. This latter notion is the product of Western modernity.
Whether it is the exquisite interiority that modern Western literature depicts the memories, the
longings, the refinements of taste and emotion or the anthropological givens that philosophy
discovers self-interest (preference, desire, utility) that is the real springs of action or the rights that
are the foundation of all entitlements, this is a picture of the agent and his properties (his experience)
that is a product of specific history, the result of a transformation (secularization) that frames out the
practitional matrix. What happens, of course, is more than the latter getting framed out. But since real
objectivity of our form of life derives from the practitional matrix, we are left with the semblance of
objectivity that Marx speaks about.
The link between inquiry and experience is extraordinarily crucial for understanding what I
am setting out here. To fall back on my analogy (which as we will see is more than an analogy): any
sound that I emit, even pleasant sounding ones, is not raga until through practice, learning and
reflection, I knead the sound into raga, or achieve such mastery that I am able to stream the voice into
different ragas (or even create new raga). Of course, the practice, learning, and reflection involved
here is of a peculiar kind. We only need the idea here and not the content or the details of that
reflection. We want to focus on the equivalent of that practice/learning/reflection when we explore
the link between inquiry and experience. The tendency to think of emotions and feelings as experience
will not do since these are noise, the equivalents of the sound/voice that is not articulated into raga.
The cluster of emotions are a given. Undergoing them, for example, being angry, is not experience, but
understanding how these swirls of emotions look for a hook, and the subtlety with which they find
one, that would be experience. So it is not the self-known character of these emotions that are of
interest (being angry is knowing that you are angry), but what inquiry into them yields. Perhaps, in the
case of anger, the inquiry notices how these structures are in place no matter what the content and the
effort is, to not let those structures or their content form or de-form the I. But unlike in the case of
music (or other such branches of shastra or practical knowledge) there are no set guidelines about
turning sound into raga. In a more general sense, there are guidelines and experienced teachers too 14,
except that they are present in the culture in a more complex ways than a gharana and its teacher.
More complex, more variegated, more difficult to describe, but not essentially different. The different
intellectual or philosophical schools, the Bhakti traditions, the variety of Tantric or Siddha pursuits
that have flourished and multiplied testify to a sociality that is dense and richly articulated. That is the
reason for saying that the analogy with raga that I have been using is more than an analogy. Looked at
this way, we get a deep insight into the elaboration of many shastras not only yoga, natya, etc., but
also ayurveda. It is my contention that these disciplines/practices have the objective of establishing or
facilitating inquiry into the body by inserting the latter into different matrices. The inquiry forms or
precipitates experience, if we could put it that way. Neither yoga nor ayurveda treat the bare body, as
the contemporary medical science would. Instead health or cure must follow from understanding,
from the removal of the obstacles (the structures which at this level act as occluders). Extending these
reflections further to natyashastra or music, we obtain the insight that beauty or the aesthetic sphere



is only a further refinement or stylization of experience, not something transcendent to experience;
(as aesthetics essentially is in the West. The so-called avant-garde movements are really attempts
violently to negate what is transcendent).
My exploration so far has suggested that the disciplines of practical knowledge present to us
a picture in which there is an intrinsic relationship between experience and inquiry, and therefore the
analogy they provide for understanding the link between inquiry, experience and living is something
far more than mere analogy. The pattern they reveal is the pattern we will find in a more complex way
in the general social life if only we know how to look. Indeed, my claim is that sociality itself is to be
conceptualized as a product of that link between inquiry, experience and living. It is neither a dumb
generality nor an entity that gets its meaning solely as a contrast term to the individual. The shastras
embodying practical knowledge the ability to create new practitions are developed that way
because sociality is shaped by experience. Ethical action is action that completes an experience. Or in
Gandhis free translation/paraphrase of the words of the Gita: It begins with faith and ends in
experience (Gandhi 1968: 283)15. (The domain of morality centred on norms has little in common
with ethics.)
Returning now to experience and the practitional matrix, only if we accept the frame through
which action appears as labour, can we even think of the featurelessness of abstract human labour that
the market brings about. But the oneness or unity, if these are the terms we have to use, that Advaita,
for example, speaks about is not a view of featurelessness like the featurelessness of abstract labour.
The practical learning or the experiential learning that the practitional matrix makes possible, also
makes possible a reflection at a higher level to enable one to exit the matrices, not in order to embrace
what remains outside but precisely as a result of the realization that matrices are the sites of learning,
and that this is so is to overcome the ignorance embodied in the bodily I, in the separation and
So if critique brings to sharp relief the semblance of objectivity, and genealogy makes visible
the objectivity of the practical form of life that has been transformed and framed out, truth-action aims
at action that reinstates the true objectivity of actional frame. Can we speak of transformations that
keep alive or intact in some fashion what is transformed? The answer: how else can we make sense of
the semblance of objectivity? Experience must still be possible despite the experience-occluding
structures. There is, then, a profound, deeply illuminating, mutually clarifying and transformative
relationship between three ways of understanding and engaging with the social world: Gandhis
ethical action as elaborated practically in his satyagraha, the genealogical understanding that
Nietzsche and Foucault sought of the transformation in the domains of practical life, and the critique of
political economy through which Marx sought to understand the phenomenon of fetishism, the
semblance of objectivity, that the social structure of capitalism creates.
We are in a position now to restate Marxs critique of political economy and to reformulate his
idea of reification. When Marx spoke of the semblance of objectivity generated by capitalism, he had
in mind what he had called the dumb generality of the social. The personification and reification
the two sides of fetishism that capitalism brings about is because of the stripping down of the social,
its reduction to the semblance of objectivity. Marxs critique (whether one thinks of it as a critique of
political economy or of fetishism or of capitalism), however, takes the category of labour as given. Its
scientificity or theoretical validity is not in question for him. So if the early Marx uses labour to
understand the alienation or estrangement as the alienation of the product of ones labour, the later
Marx formulates the labour theory of value to understand the abstract human labour that gives rise to
the fetish character of commodities. What Marx misses is the reification that has already turned action
into labour. To put it in the language I employed above, the alienation consists in the fact that actions



in the field, in production cannot be elaborated into a matrix, cannot generate practitions; actions
cannot yield experience anymore. To start with labour as a theoretical category is to already miss the
profound transformation taking place within various domains in which actions are alienated in this
way; alienated in a way that actions are not allowed to form into experience. What happens to action
in economy is homologous to what happens to action in other practical domains like erotics and
politics. Labour in the domain of economy (and the discipline of political economy), sex in the domain
of sexuality (and in disciplines such as psychiatry, psychoanalysis), citizenship in political theory, all
these categories belong in the same order, with a common genealogy. What escapes Marxs critique of
the semblance of objectivity is the genealogy of how in different domain of practical life, action is
semblance of action, not, if you like, praxis. As the early Marx would have put it, we only have dirtyjudaical conception of practice in these domains.
Action to labour is already a transformation of the kind that I have been mapping through
genealogy. It is a matter of figuring out how to designate that process, not only in terms of
nomenclature, but more deeply by getting the characterization right. One obvious line of
transformation is from oikos to economy. But that is just about as illuminating as talking about the
transformation from polis to politics. Since action is pretty much common to all domains, there is no
question of a separate treatment of action to labour as a domain. So action to labour in, lets say,
political economy, alerts us to a more difficult and larger problem of what happens to action in many
domains in the process of secularization (not in capitalism, as Marx would have it).
What allowed us this insight into the transformation of practical domains into the alienating
structures is the homological structures we observe in these domains. Mapping or investigating such
transformation gives us a clear sense of what genealogy does. If Nietzsche could be seen as grappling
to understand the more general transformation of ethics into morality, Foucault gives us a factual
account of the creation of such domains as sexuality and governmentality (strictly speaking politics
and economy, though he uses the term governmentality in two different ways, as a mechanism and
as a domain). I have been arguing that we should see the caste-system in the same way too. It is the
result of the transformation of the elaborate practitional matrix of sociality. (Not surprisingly, all the
domains are the creation of the West.) It is the Indian case that compels us to ask the most difficult,
and at the same time, the most productive question: can we speak of transformation in which what is
apparently transformed still remains accessible and the resultant entity has the most peculiar
ontological status in that what presumably exists has distorting effects but is not experiential?
Hardly has this question found its appropriate conceptual level and locale, it immediately
reveals the semblance of objectivity in a different light. When we transpose this cognitively and
ethically urgent and explosive question back to the other transformed domains sexuality, economy
and politics the reverberations are overwhelming. The implications are both terrifying and
exhilarating. The former, because in what the West (and us) regards as the crucial dimensions of life,
we have to conclude that there is no experience where ontologically peculiar entities have established
their domains; the latter because the transformed entity must remain accessible to experience,
however one needs to access it. The two frames idea is one way to formulate this problem, both for us
and the West (Dhareshwar 2012). Foucault indeed does this when he offers a genealogy of the care of
the self that has simply dropped out of the frame that dominates the Western intellectual world. It
would be important also to see if the transformation that I am delineating through the works of Marx,
Nietzsche, Gandhi, Foucault and Balagangadhara converges, overlaps or is co-terminus with the four
transformations nature to natural resource; human being into citizen; people into population,
knowledge to live by into expertise to rule that Bilgrami has been mapping (Bilgrami 2012). If there
are convergences or overlaps, as there clearly are, then, what about the stories we tell about these
transformations? What about the implications of these stories?



The transformations that we are talking about are extraordinarily complex and epochal. It will
be a while before we are able to delineate the terms and scope of the transformations and their social
and cognitive significance. To start with, although I have been talking about transformation of x to y
(erotics to sexuality, or in Bilgramis scheme, nature to natural resource), it is not necessary and not
always the case that there is a term or a concept that has been naturally given. Indeed, when Foucault
gives us a genealogical reconstruction of the domains that were broken up, bundled together, and
normed to create sexuality, it is not simply erotics that gets transformed. In his masterly account that
serves us as a paradigm for the kind of transformation we want to frame, he reconstructs four domains
erotics, dietetics, oikonomia, wisdom that gets subjected to normativization. Similarly, innumerable
practices, rituals and knowledge (discipline) were fractured, homogenized and bundled together to
give rise to the domain called the caste-system. So when one designates the domain that got
transformed with a concept or term erotics, oikos, polis these terms are place-holders for the
genealogical work of outlining or conceptualizing the domains that get framed out or transformed. (I
imagine that this is how Bilgrami too would view the matter in the case of his terms, human being,
nature, people, knowledge to live by.) In any case, as we are dealing with the practical domain, it
should not be surprising if a term or a concept does not stand out as expressive of the domain we are
seeking to reframe or understand or genealogically reconstruct. The Indian case would present a
different situation altogether since what we see down the millennia is the diverse elaborations and
repetitions of the practitional matrices.16
The conceptual apparatus (and the new terminology) that I have put in place aims to bring
into frame the practical domain that got framed out or transformed by colonialism. My theoretical
reconstruction of the practical domain is not historical, though the hope is that it could be so used.
What it hopes to do is to give a conceptual sense of the objectivity that Indian thought sought. The
inspiration here is Gandhis Hind Swaraj which had done exactly that in preparation for realizing
satyagraha (a version of what I have been calling ethical action). Once we have the structures of that
thought, it has deep explanatory uses. If we can conceptually understand the functioning of the
practical domain and the kind of problematics it characteristically gives rise to we have a handle on
the actional frame. We can raise questions about how it could be operant even though its thought
milieu and collection of heuristics is fractured. The model, then, can not only be fleshed out historically
and genealogically, but doing so would deliver the kind of understanding we are seeking of our
present. We are in essence reanimating the Marxian project of overcoming the semblance of
objectivity that envelopes us. We are, however, giving it an entirely different basis, a basis in a
practical domain. The basis is inspired by Gandhis Hind Swaraj rather than political economy. While
critique is incomplete without the understanding of the practical domain provided by genealogy,
neither addresses the question of the action that can overcome false objectivity; that is, the action that
completes experience. So the Gandhian basis for understanding the semblance of objectivity is
crucial because Gandhian ethical action seeks ways to overcome the semblance of objectivity in
order to achieve true objectivity.
Rather than the labour theory of value to explain the semblance of objectivity of
capitalism, we need to develop an action theory and an action-theoretical account of practice to
explain, to properly understand reification (the semblance of objectivity). After all, what is labour? A
theoretical category to understand specific kinds of action. But doing so runs into the same problem
that our model case, erotics to sexuality, demonstrates, postulating a property we cannot access,
turning action-theoretic concepts into objects (concepts becoming objects). So political economy
brings in talk of agricultural labour, domestic labour, industrial labour, intellectual labour, manual
labour, etc. This is already a homogenization and a transformation of practitions (action in a matrix);
already a reification. The idealized picture we often conjure up of village life harvest, festival, web of



relationships should not be taken in the wrong sense of idealization (think of Aurelius letter)! As
Gandhi himself often says it is idealization in the scientific sense. In the transformation effected by
normativization, the focus is on agent and its property rather than on agency and actions generated. In
the other perspective, which is now rendered obscure, even thought is action. The idea of sacrifice in
Gandhi (taken from the Gita) is this: how to see action and learn from it. So even nature or cosmos is
seen as action, from which one can learn. That sacrifice has nothing to do with the (possibly)
supererogatory notion of personal sacrifice.
The Gandhian reformulation of the basis of Marxs critique is also, equally, a reformulation of
the way genealogy is understood. I have been seeing genealogy as an investigation of how practical
domains get transformed into domains that generate ontologically peculiar entities (such as sexuality,
caste-system and citizen, to use three different examples taken from three different accounts that, as I
have already noted, converge). It is the radical Gandhian insight into action (inspired in turn by the
Gita) that enables us to see that despite the transformations, the possibility of experience is intact: the
actional frame that has gone underground can be brought back into salience, reframed to allow
reflection and inquiry in such a way that ethical action is made possible. Whereas both Marx (and his
politics such as it was) and Foucault were apt to leave us with the ontologically peculiar entities and
the quasi-actions they generate in the fetish domains of economy and politics, Gandhi helps us rethink
politics as setting up of sites of ethical learning.
Moreover, ideology has become an intractable notion. Eventually it will perhaps be possible to
rescue it, once we have greater clarity regarding critique.

Here are the theses that lay stress on the practical and the social.

VIII) All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their
rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.
IX) The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not
comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil
X) The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or
social humanity.
3 On the sense of the a priori involved see (Thompson 2008, 6, 19; Rdl 2007, 20-48). As Thompson
convincingly argues, the predications we learn to make about life-forms (bobcats breed in spring)
are a priori (Thompson 2008). It seems to me that the point carries over to the predications we
understand or use in practical form of life too (a delicate late cut; he asked for teertha).
Ideology is an ability that in the reified form of life (if it is a form of life) can raid any thought
structure to open up anythingnature, self, whateverfor justification. It is not that a particular piece
of discourse borrowed from here or there does this; first, the marking out or opening of an area as
needing justification, then comes grafting from whatever discursive resources (theories, philosophies)
onto that space. It is interesting to figure out how all the familiar entities and sites--the state, market,
family, and many more-- that got opened up this way. It is by now such a ubiquitous and natural
phenomenon that it is hard even to come up with a startling example that reveals how odd this
operation of ideability really is. A good example would be nature seen through environmentalism.
Another example would be the self and the folk psychology that come in with it, drawn from all sorts
of sources (philosophy, psychology, economics, pop existentialism and pop psychoanalysis, spiritual
mysticism). I need to get in touch with my deeper self. She is guilt-tripping me. You need to look



out for yourself. I need my space. He is weak-willed. Think, finally, of the fate of Marxism itself in
many regimes or movements that call themselves socialist.
Marx was too historicist in his characterization of Aristotles cognitive limitation caused by his social
world. So in way he did not pay attention to the way Aristotle was trying to understand actional frame
through his concepts of poesies, techne, and praxis.

Although Foucault does use norm and normative quite frequently, the sense in which I am using this
term is not captured by them. His governmentalization comes closest, but he is not consistent with
that usage. Although normativization is the mechanism underlying the many domains he is doing a
genealogy of, he never explicitly theorizes it. Nor does Nietzshe even though he had developed a nose
for hunting out normativity from the strangest nooks of European culture. While Nietzsche did use
fiction (made up philology, for example), his target was the real moralization that Western culture was
undergoing. Thus it is wrong to see him, as Bernard Williams does (Williams 2002), as offering just so
stories like the state of nature story.

When Foucault proposed this in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, there was much outrage,
some even calling Foucault an essentialist (of the orientalist type). Whereas I believe this was the
insight that allowed Foucault to diagnose the experience-insulating structures of normativized
domains (see the next note), which for him included the positive or liberatory discourse of

That Foucault was trying to get hold of these ontologically peculiar domains and entities was
completely obscured by the vapid and anodyne doctrine of constructivism to which it got assimilated
in the Anglophone academia. To a small extent, Foucault himself contributed to this by the emphasis in
his early work on discourse and the incantation about power/knowledge. Thus the radically new
question about normativity he was trying to pose never quite saw the day.

The theio-practical project, as Remy Brague puts it (approvingly), of theology was to transform the
practical domain of politics and economics (Brague: 2007, pp. 6-7). Like many of the concepts and
terms of Greek intellectual life, economy too was theologized (see Agamben, 2011). Brague explicitly
and Agamben more confusingly seem interested in renewing theology. Unlike in Heidegger and
Foucault (and to a lesser extent the early Derrida), who were trying to overcome theology and its
pernicious secular manifestations in intellectual life, the recent interest in theology, inspired by
Schmitts political theology, seems rather shallow. The waters of theology are deep and murky and the
post-colonial scholars who, drawn perhaps by the eclectic writings of Agamben, Badiou, and even
Zizek (all of whom have been rediscovering Biblical themes and figures), have wandered into it seem
unaware of what theology is, leave alone the implication of doing theology.


I am of course referring to On the Jewish Question, (Marx 1975).

To use a phrase from his power/knowledge days, where it wasnt clear what it was referring to. It
was therefore interpreted in all sorts of ways, as, for example, knowledge produced by the
marginalized groups.

First step toward gaining a deeper insight into how a form of life that has practical knowledge as its
integrating matrix is to see action as a unit like a predicate, embedded in what we might call practition,
in the same way as concepts are seen as embedded in propositions or judgments. Consequently,
action-explanation is a primitive unit of a life-form like (Fregean) predication. That is to say, acting
(action, doing or carrying out of an action), action-understanding and action-explanation need to be
understood in the same way as Frege made us understand predication. There is a distinct yet related



area to look into, which may throw light on action forms, namely, the grammar (in the Wittgensteinian
sense) of action verbs, action-theoretic concepts and what might be called the logic of practitions.

In the way Michael Thompson (2008) understands life form and form of life.

Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations (1958, 227) Correct prognoses will generally issue
from the judgment of those with better knowledge of mankind. Can one learn this knowledge? Yes;
some can. Not, however, by taking a course in it, but through experience.Can someone else be a
mans teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tipThis is what learning
and teaching are like here.

A word needs to be said about Gandhis English terminology which for understandable reason
seems seeped in theology. Like in the sentence he translates from the Gita he uses faith to translate
shraddha. Similarly, when he is elaborating the path of karma-yoga, the phrases he often uses
service and dignity of labourseem like ideas of protestant doctrine. This is a terminological
overlay rather than the actual theologization, if you like, of the concepts. As I hope this section brings
out, Gandhis idea of ethical action has little in common with morality, notwithstanding his often
careless use of the language of morality.

Reading the action-theoretic concepts of those matrices as properties of the world, as orientalist
scholarship did and the current social sciences continue to do, is a cognitive mistake of a serious kind
with disastrous consequences. The cognitive blindness to a different form of knowledge mars much of
the current scholarship on Indias past. Sheldon Pollocks much hailed work (Pollock 2006) provides a
perfect illustration. He keeps noting the kavya-prashasti (poetry, inscriptional announcements)
phenomenon and the repetition of puranic place names across what he calls the Sanskrit cosmopolis.
His focus is apparently the spread of Sanskrit (and its replacement later with vernaculars). It is
unclear what his question is. Is he asking why Sanskrit spread the way it did (in contrast to the spread
of Latin in Europe)? Or is it a how question? And what exactly is the relationship between the
phenomenon he notes and the spread of language? The more difficult but central question, as we have
seen, has to do with the practical form of life. Once we have a grasp of that it would not be difficult to
understand the replication, nesting, elaboration and creation of practitional matrix. The kavyaprashasti phenomenon and the repetition of place names are simply a fall out of this process. Even the
distinction between Sanskrit and vernacular cosmopolis would seem ill-motivated when the cultural
salience is provided by the practitional matrix. So, for example, the vacanakaras of 12 th c were both
replicating and elaborating a matrix. What they were doing is no different from what the Dasas did
later or what the philosophers like Shankara did earlier. Language drops out as a factor. Incidentally, I
am very tempted to argue that anubhava mantapa is not a place name. It is a metaphor of the same
kind as my practitional matrix. That it has been turned into a place name is now understandable!

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religion. Leiden, New York & Cologne: EJ Brill.
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Harvard University Press.



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International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 50 65

ISSN 2277 7997

Reform Discourse and Bhakti Literature

Polly Hazarika
Assistant Professor, Department of English, S. N. D. T. Womens University, Mumbai.. India.
This article argues that a specific branch of colonial discourse, which is the discourse
of Social Reform, guides our reading of tradition, even in 21st century India. I will
explore the domain of Bhakti and specifically the poetry and the commentary around
16th century bhakta Mira, in order to demonstrate that the academic language within
which such figures are discussed distort rather than illuminate these figures.
Keywords: Bhakti, social reform, Orientalism, discourse, Kabir, Mira.
In India today, we have two ways of using the word bhakti. Used in any of the Indian
languages it describes an attitude indicating the way one feels - roughly she has a lot of bhaki for so
and so or she served him with sincere bhakti this is distinctly different from the use of the word in
academic discourse, where Bhakti is used to indicate a particular kind of literature and style of
writing- typically she is a Bhakti poet or this is a Bhakti poem. The same person speaking at
different times makes these two uses of the word; it is not about the individual who understands the
word differently, but about the discourse, which allows such use of concepts. 1
This is not a problem related to a particular language, in this case the use of vernacular
languages over English, rather it is related to the concept clusters within a discourse which give
meaning to experience.2 The primary function of language is to render experience meaningful. Words,
concepts and concept clusters are evolved which render experience into discourse. If a word is used in
one sense at one moment in time and in some other sense (contradictory or otherwise) at some other
moment, it can only mean that the concept, which guides the use of the word has expanded or evolved
in ways that allow such a change. Such a change must be traceable and by tracing this change one
retains the coherence of the discourse and can continue to employ it to make meaning.
If one looks at the two uses of the term bhakti, it becomes clear that the use of the word as an
attitude is embedded within the literature that is later referred to using the same term. That is to say
that Kabir and Meera often speak about their attitudes of Bhakti but never refer to their songs as
Bhakti literature. The second use of the word Bhakti gains currency much later, within a different kind
of discourse. The middle stage of colonialism, often spoken of as the period of social reform,
introduced the natives to western discourse which the colonial intellectual had already been using to
describe his experience of the colonies, or as Said terms it, the Orient. Colonial discourse, as Said
points out in his Orientalism, renders the experience of the Westerner who experiences social and
cultural diversity when he travels away from Europe. The concepts within this discourse are
structured to render the colonials experience of unfamiliarity with the diversity of the East. Thus the
particular use of concepts within colonial discourse may not render the experience of the native at all.



In the case of the term Bhakti, it becomes an object of interest within the framework of
Hinduism, as another mode of expression of the natives religiosity. 3 Within reform discourse, which is
a specific kind of colonial discourse, 4 the native is taught to reject polytheism and idol worship. The
conflicts with the native during the legal ban on practices like Sati and female infanticide were
articulated within colonial discourse which rendered the native immoral and uncivilised. 5 This
discourse employed an evaluative framework, which directly traces back to a Christian morality, albeit
in a secularised guise.6 The framework of Christianity could not accommodate the natives relationship
to practices, which were independent of any scriptural sanctions. In the natives experience, practices
were worth preserving for their antiquity rather than for their sanction in the scriptures. Thus the
reform discourse, which argued against certain practices as false practice because they were not
sanctioned by the scriptures, did not accommodate the natives relationship to practices.
However, during the colonial negotiations, individual natives gained proximity to the
powerful and influential colonial government by imitating this evaluative discourse. They soon gained
visibility as native reformers who were intelligent or enlightened natives. It was with the help of
these figures that the colonial government overcame the first struggle in social reform, which was to
engage the native in a discussion about his immoral practices. The enlightened reformers became
the first interlocutors of the colonial enterprise and overcame the initial native reaction that the
colonial had no right to interfere in their practices since he was an outsider to their customs.
The reformer took over the colonial discourse and spoke about the native religion as a mix of
good and bad practices, highlighting the good and seeking to correct the bad. The first among such
reformers, Raja Rammohun Roy, a Bengali businessman, wrote and translated many Hindu scriptures
highlighting the monotheistic nature of Hinduism, while culling out several criticisms of polytheism,
employing the basic fallacy that native practices required Scriptural sanction in the same way that
Christianity did.
As a result of this inter-cultural negotiation between the colonial and the native, a body of
discourse on native practices came into being which addressed facets of native cultural life within an
evaluative framework of Christianity. It developed into the central discourse on India as the pressures
of colonialism ensured that those participating in this discourse would find proximity and reward
from the colonial machinery. Within this discourse the Indian past was recounted as a series of
struggles against the immorality, or the consequences of the immorality of the native religions. Thus
the Islamic conquests were understood as the just consequences of cultural dissoluteness on the part
of the Hindus,7 and the Bhakti movement was understood as the struggle of early reformers against
the evils of Hindu caste practices. It is from here that we begin to find the second kind of use of the
term Bhakti. Bhakti, within colonial discourse becomes the index of a period where enlightened
natives correct their fellow natives of their false practices. 8
Of the two uses of bhakti we have noted, one emerges within the discourse of the individual
bhakta and the other emerges much later during an inter-cultural interaction. In the next section we
will take a closer look at the nuances within the second way of using the term.
We know that bhakti discourse predates the reform discourse by at least a few hundred years.
Reform discourse emerges as a public discourse in colonial India by the 1790s. Poems and couplets in
the bhaktirasa were composed, sung, performed and reproduced from as early as the 14th century.
Contemporary scholars display an awareness of this when they distinguish between their activity of
analysing or studying bhakti poems and the living tradition. The production and consumption of
bhakti poems took place within a different ethos to produce a living tradition, and scholars argue that



those modes of consumption and production are no longer present. However, they argue that while
there is no longer any scope for the rise of a new Bhakti poet, the mass appeal of the works of Bhakti
literature indicate that there is still a space for their consumption.
Reform discourse of the 19th century creates a parallel discourse on Bhakti which is both
limiting and distorting. However, as a word of caution, I do not argue for an original way of reading
Bhakti to be preserved against changing contexts. Rather, my case is that, this parallel discourse
renders the figure of the bhakta as ineffective and his or her work obscure. This discourse identifies
the bhakta as a quasi reformer with progressive values and an attitude of rebelliousness against
restricting social norms, which get in the way of his or her longing for the divine: locating Bhakti
merely within these parameters leaves out a great deal that is essential to a bhakta, which bhakti
discourse itself lays great emphasis on.
Any account of a Bhakti poet begins with his or her troubled relationship to the social milieu.
Mira the princess bhakta from Merta, Rajasthan, is introduced as, A 15 th or 16th century rebellious
woman poet-saint, who pursued her devotion to Krishna with complete dedicationand endured
severe persecution because shecrossed caste boundaries. (Martin-Kershaw, 162). Miras
persecution is seen as being caused by oppressive social norms, and her opposition is seen as strong,
rebellious and progressive. The narrative further continues to list the kinds of difficulties the poet
faces: the Rana sent poison to her (Mira) under the guise of holy water, which he knew she would
never refuse to drink.9 (Martin-Kershaw,163)
Similarly of Kabir the weaver, In modern, progressive circles today, Kabir is held in high
esteem as a social reformer, a bold enemy of Brahmanical pride and caste distinctions, a revolutionary
whose scathing attacks on caste prejudices, the principle of untouchability and all forms of social
discriminations are for ever famous and comforting to the enlightened Indian mind, like a breeze of
fresh air. (Vaudeville,12). Further, being accounted as an impure Muhammedan he was persecuted
by the cruel emperor Sikander Lodi (Vaudeville,19). And where scholars do not dwell on this minor
biographical detail they still find his writings full of progressive values and caste critiques. 10
Within reform discourse the Bhakti poets main concerns appear to be his or her conflict with
social norms. He or she is inevitably trapped in a social context which is morally suspect which the
individual must struggle to rise above. The bhakta manifests an intrinsic moral quality, which seems to
have no roots in the surrounding social milieu. Bhakti literature becomes a site of struggle for
progressive social values while the Bhakti Poet becomes the figure around whom this struggle
crystallises. This dichotomy between Bhakti Poet and his social context mirrors the Social Reformer
and his social context.
Is Bhakti a Reform Movement?
Charles Heimsath, in Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform (Heimsath 1964), was one of
the first to argue for the status of a reformer for the bhakta. He argued that the term reform could be
meaningfully used to speak about various facets of the Indian past. 11
Long before modern times and Indian exposure to Western civilization, flexibility in customs, mobility
in social relationships, and many cases of collective revolt against traditional social standards were
already in existence in India (Heimsath 1964: 9).
Heimsath argues that before the advent of Europeans, there were instances of revolt against
tradition. This is an attempt to extend reform discourse into the past. By doing so, the discourse of
reform is de-linked from the advent of colonialism, making it appear as though the evaluative
discourse of reform is a universal discourse rather than one that emerged out of a particular inter-



cultural interaction- viz. the interaction of a Christian moral framework with a culture where practices
were not based on scripture. According to Heimsath:
Because Vedanta, the dominant philosophical school of Hinduism, postulated the essential oneness of
God and man, it offers to man no real object of religious affection neither does it present to him any
Being to whom he can pray. Mans need for prayer and for the assurance that there is more than an
impersonal, unreachable and indescribable Force governing the universe inevitably produced the
devotional, or bhakti, movements among the Hindus, even as their philosophers surged onward into
the ineffable areas of pure speculation where the existence of a personal divinity was vehemently
denied or disdainfully ignored (Heimsath 1964: 30).
Heimsath argues that mans need for prayer produced the devotional Bhakti movements,
since the philosophers pursued ineffable areas of pure speculation which denied or ignored the
existence of a personal divinity.
About a hundred and thirty years before Heimsath, one of the early exponents of reform
discourse the celebrated reformer Raja Rammohun Roy had presented very similar arguments on the
nature of abstract worship. In arguing against idolatry Roy interpreted the scriptures 12 to show that
idolatry was the last provision for those who are totally incapable of raising their minds to the
contemplation of the invisible God of nature (Roy 1906: 21). He further argued that the Vedas also
repeatedly urge the relinquishment of the rites of idol-worship, and the adoption of a purer system of
religion, on the express ground that the observance of idolatrous rites can never be productive of
eternal beatitude (Roy 1906: 21).
There is a continuity of discourse from Roy to Heimsath on the subject of practices. In both
cases the central understanding of practices is linked to scriptural sanction, which identifies false
rituals such as idol worship and places it in opposition to the term abstract worship. The latter term
is meant to signify worship without the use of idols and occurs only within reform discourse.
Roy had argued for the practice he described as abstract worship. He submitted that it was
the highest form of worship and while Heimsath argues that abstract worship did not fulfil mans
need for prayer and assurance, thus turning him towards the Bhakti movement. He compares bhakti
favourably with other lesser practices like idolatry. Roy and Heimsath speak about abstract worship
within reform discourse. The difference in their positions is that while Roy evaluates it positively,
Heimsath has a relatively negative evaluation. This shift in evaluation does not indicate a change in the
discourse but an expansion.13 Following Heimsaths argument further:
Social and religious rebellions against the traditional authority of Brahmin priests and other
high castes created new movements whose doctrines and practices differed from orthodox Hinduism;
the medieval bhakti, or devotional, movements represented that form of rebellion, as did Sikhism in its
early stages. Social revolts with more indirect impacts periodically emerged throughout India in the
form of efforts to improve the positions of certain castes in their relation to other castes (Heimsath
1964, 9).
Heimsath brings in the figure of the Brahmin and argues that Bhakti was a rebellion against
the caste group known as the Brahmins. Earlier reform works such as Roys 14 criticised priests15 for
misreading texts and inventing practices. Roys argument was within the text/practice hierarchy,
which sought to justify practices with scriptural sanction. Roy argued as if texts were the source of all
true practices and the priests alleged interventions and modifications was seen as immoral. Now
Heimsath argues that some rebellions created new movements whose doctrines and practices
differed from orthodox Hinduism. In other words they must have produced practices which differed
from those prescribed by the scriptures. It looks as though Heimsath is overturning the text/practice
hierarchy that Roy is trapped in but that is only at first glance.



The limitations of Heimsaths discourse begin to appear on a closer analysis. Within reform
discourse, producing new practices is a problem if the Brahmins do it and a solution to a problem if a
Bhakti reformer does it. Yet there is no link within the discourse to explain what makes the departure
from texts on the part of the Bhakti reformer more acceptable than the departure from the texts on the
part of the priests or Brahmans. Heimsath extends rather than rejects reform discourse by continuing
to link texts and practices, albeit overturning the hierarchy that Roy imposes. In order to break out of
the discourse one would have to ask, as many of the orthodox natives do during the sati controversy,
what does a text, any text, have to do with practicing at all? The fact remains that this discourse does
not illuminate any of the native practices. By calling a practice idol worship one cannot have access to
the attitude of the individual who undertakes this practice. Heimsaths further argument projects
reform discourse into the pre-colonial past, he says:
for a Hindu, an outright revolt could take the form of excluding one-self from normal social and
religious requirements by adopting the role of the sanyasi, or wandering ascetic; caste laws then no
longer applied, and unorthodoxy in religious beliefs and behaviour was tolerated- or even revered, if it
caught the popular imagination. (Heimsath 1964, 9)

Here Heimsath says Hindus could revolt (presumably against the now ubiquitous
background of an oppressive social milieu) by adopting the role of a sanyasi. Further, the sanyasi
was tolerated or even revered if his unorthodoxy caught the popular imagination. So, the sanyasi
was a figure who gave up certain practices or at any rate was unorthodox about them. Heimsath no
longer argues for the primacy of Hindu scriptures as such orthodoxy is read broadly to mean those
practices which are followed by the majority. This view sets up several contradictions. After all,
individual natives had the choice of rejecting one set of practices and adopting sanyas. For this
rejection the majority who still follow those very practices would often revere him. The householder
does not reject his own practices in order to revere the sanyasi. His practices, although at odds with
the sanyasis, continue to be appropriate to him. The sanyasi on the other hand does not advocate the
reform of a householders practice. We see the native holding an attitude of tolerance towards
diversity in practices rather than a desire to find a norm. However Heimsath does not acknowledge
this distinction. He argues as if the sanyasis rejection of one set of practices is a sign of the immorality
of those practices. Heimsath further argues:
Individual outrage against particular social customs and religious beliefs has always been a feature of
Indian society, despite the high value that has always been placed on continuity, order, and the
wisdom of social precedent. (Heimsath 1964: 9)
Even as he articulates the native relationship to practices Heimsaths evaluative discourse
renders it opaque. He says individual outrage has always been a part of Indian society despite the value
placed on continuity. This suggests that the value on continuity in some ways prevents the individual
from showing his outrage easily. Two of the natives distinctions are present in a distorted form within
this description. The native relates to practices as the concern of the individual, and the native
attempts to preserve the continuity and diversity of practices. However the native does not pit one
observation against the other, and hence would not link the two with a despite. Rather the natives
attitude suggests that a practice is nobodys business but the practitioner, and that diversity in
practices is of no evaluative consequence.
On the other hand Heimsath asserts precisely this evaluation: The individual is able to voice
his outrage even though he is caught in a society, which places high value on continuity. In Heimsaths
description Indian society has some legitimately outraged individuals and a large number of others
who form the orthodox society and hamper this outraged individuals expression of individual



outrage. There is an additional dimension to Heimsaths thesis on bhakti as reform; he sees bhakti as a
failed reform project:
it was not the primacy of spiritual concerns alone that caused the bhakti movements to fail in the
transformation of social life; religious movements have been known to overturn social structures.
Most bhakti sects, like other Hindu religious movements, leaned toward mysticism, as a method of
spiritual revelation, and thus often encouraged a drawing away from worldly concerns. Individual
salvation, not the salvation of society or group, was the reason for the result of the religious quest
through mysticism. (Heimsath 1964: 37)

Now it turns out that within the evaluative discourse of reform, individual rage against social
customs is of less value than community rage against social problems. Individual rage leads only to
solutions like mysticism, but community rage might have brought better solutions like overturning
social structures. Within this limited evaluative discourse then, Heimsath argues that Bhakti
movements failed to transform social life because they leaned towards mysticism. This evaluative
discourse is severely limited to the extent that it can only describe the overall impact of individual
bhaktas like Kabir or Mira as failures.
Heimsaths analysis is geared towards answering one kind of question: why does bhakti not
bring in a mass social change? If the individual bhakta was able to reject social norms, why did his
example not lead to a social revolution? Why does Miras rebelliousness not change the position of the
Rajasthani woman? Why does Kabirs poetry not end the evils of the caste system? Within reform
discourse it looks as if there is a contradiction in the fact that Mira was immensely popular and that
her message of rebelliousness could not have mass appeal. And yet what could explain her
popularity today if not a mass appeal? There is no room in this formulation to ask why there should
be such expectations of these individuals in the first place. Does anything in their works suggest that
they were interested in social revolution? Or is it the limitedness of reform discourse, which can only
see social critique in relation to social revolution and not in relation to individual growth?
Women and Bhakti
Mira the Mertani, was what the 16 th century princess was called by her immediate circle. Born
into the royal family of Merta, one of the smaller kingdoms of Rajasthan, she was given in marriage to
Bhoj Raj, the heir apparent of the relatively more powerful kingdom of Mewar. Hagiographies of Mira
segue a few sketchy biographical details with narratives of miracles and end with her unexplained and
miraculous disappearance, allegedly by merging into the statue of Krishna, at a temple in Dwarka.
The interest in Mira is first and foremost for the quality of her poetry. Written in a simple
meter, and easily set to tune, her songs continue to be sung and retain their quality of immediacy. Each
composition articulates an expression, an attitude or an experience, related to her feelings for her
Ishta.16 The songs sometimes touch upon her relations with the rest of the world, who sometimes aid
and sometimes hinder her expressions of love for Krishna. Many of her songs are directly addressed to
him, in others she addresses her female companions and sometimes she addresses the world at large.
Mira herself is centrally present in her compositions, giving a careful account of what is happening to
her, her moods emotions and feelings, in relation to her special condition of being married as she
insisted she was, to her Ishta, the idol of Krishna.
Reform discourse locates Mira as a female Bhakti saint and a standard encyclopaedia
discussion on bhakti poet-saints17 suggests that they reject asceticism and remain house-holders.
This is further explained as a general rejection of institutionalized religion and a central focus on
inner devotion which lays the groundwork for more egalitarian attitudes towards women and lower-



caste devotees, further the claim is that women and shudras at the bottom of the traditional
hierarchy become the examples of true humility and devotion.
This introduction to the bhakta displays all the features of reform discourse we have noted
above. The poet-saint rejects asceticism, which as Heimsath pointed out earlier was a part of the
same abstract worship which did not fulfil mans spiritual longings. They reject institutionalized
religion which of course is the source of false practices which presented a problem for the early
reformers. They focus on an inner devotion which somehow brings in egalitarian attitudes towards
the traditionally oppressed women and lower castes, and these oppressed in turn become examples of
true humility and devotion.
This simple introduction to bhakti is packed with evaluations, which are difficult to decipher
without going into the back-story of reform. Why, for example is it that living as a house-holder is
better than being an ascetic? And also, why should we consider an individual like Mira, who is
reputed never to have consummated her marriage, or ever accepted Bhoj Raj as her husband, a householder? Indeed, given the details of her life, why should we not consider her an ascetic, which many of
her contemporaries did? More importantly why does the commentary place a negative value on
asceticism while implying that the position of the householder somehow links to a rejection of
institutionalised religion and encourages inner devotion?
When it came to rejecting institutionalised religion one is not sure what to make of the claim,
because a figure like Mira in fact took to puja very early and was recognised by elders and wellwishers as very sincere in her puja. She was said to have acquired an idol of Krishna from a wandering
ascetic at the age of four, by expressing her desire for it in terms of such true devotion that he could
not refuse (Ranawat 12). By the age of five she had got her grandfather Rao Dudaji to build her a
temple within the ladies quarters of the palace, exclusively for this idol. This temple known as Shyam
Kunj then became the central place of her devotional activities (Ranawat, 19). When she was married
she took the idol with her and demanded a similar temple be built at her husbands house. Every
religious ceremony related to her Ishta, Krishna, was celebrated at this temple with great fan-fare. In
fact Mira was very often taunted by the ladies of the Merta royal household and later by the ladies of
her husbands family, for neglecting her worldly duties at the cost of her stringent daily devotions. This
does not suggest that Mira was an exception to the general rule of Bhakti-saints who rejected
institutionalized religion, since she is included in the group being discussed. But it does suggest that
the term institutionalised religion may not be as precise at it appears to be.
In fact the term only becomes clear when we look at the term set up as a contrast: inner
devotion. This particular type of devotion is further linked to egalitarian attitudes, which one does
not find in institutionalised religion. The text-book introduction to Bhakti figures then suggest that
these individuals rejected institutionalised religion, in favour of inner devotion, on the strength of
their personalities (or some other factor which is not mentioned or analysed). This rejection combined
with their inner devotion in turn helps them to cultivate egalitarian attitudes towards the
traditionally oppressed viz. women and the lower-castes.
This argument serves as a common introduction to bhakti saints among whom Mira is also
numbered. However Mira makes almost no mention of lower castes (or any castes) in her poetry. Her
compositions are centred on the beauty of Krishna and her feelings for him. Her sentiments are often
expressed by presenting herself as an abject slave at the feet of Krishna, and her complaints against
the women from her husbands family is that they try to compel her to give up her devotion to Krishna
and replace it with a devotion to her husband. However Mira does not construct a husband-wife
relationship with Krishna as anything different from the one her in-laws would like her to have with
Bhoj Raj. When she is widowed Miras refusal to act as a widow does not come from her rejection of



the non-egalitarian treatment handed out to Rajasthani widows, it comes from the conviction that she
cannot be widowed because she is married to Krishna.
The pressure that Mira faces, not just at the hands of her in-laws, who disapproved highly of
her unorthodox behaviour in refusing to accept her husband, may have made her more sensitive to the
plight of the helpless, it does not follow however that she developed an egalitarian attitude towards
the traditionally oppressed. In fact she was even capable of expressing empathy for the perfectly well
to do and even the powerful, since they were blind to devotion and could not feel the love she felt for
The Narrative Turns
The story of Bhakti follows a peculiar pattern. The narrative begins by attributing to the
individual bhaktas personal qualities which allow them to recognise the problems in their social
milieu; problems that are not necessarily solved or addressed by the bhaktas. As Heimsath had
suggested, the primacy of spiritual concerns along with the leanings towards mysticism, which
encouraged a drawing away from worldly concerns allowed the salvation of the individual but not
that of the society or the group. (Heimsath 1964: 37) The narrative of reform continues to inform all
accounts of Bhakti. The female bhakta is first located within her oppressive social milieu:
Female poet-saintshad to struggle for acceptance within the largely male-dominated
movementTheir struggle attests to the strength of patriarchal values within both society and within
religious and social movements attempting to pave the way for more egalitarian access to the
DivineWomen bhaktas wrote of the obstacles of home, family tensions, the absent husband,
meaningless household chores, and restrictions of married life, including their status as married
Caste status and even masculinity were understood as barriers to liberation women bhaktas faced
overwhelming challenges through their rejection of societal norms and values, without having the
ability to revert back to their normative roles as wives, mothers and in some cases, the privileges of
their original high-caste status. (Women in World History)

The familiar tropes of caste and gender enter the narrative to highlight the plight of the female
bhakta. Her difficulties are variously listed as the obstacles of the home, family tensions, meaningless
household chores, her role and status as a married woman and the absent Ishta. 18 The template of
reform places the bhaktas rejection of her given role in life, as a rejection of the society, which
produces these roles. Further her rejection is seen as a failure to bring about revolution because she
advocates this only at an individual level:
While it is tempting to see womens participation within the bhakti movement as a revolt against the
patriarchal norms of the time, there is little evidence to support this perspective. Injustices and the
patriarchal order itself were not a major focus of these poet-saints. Women bhaktas were simply
individuals attempting to lead lives of devotion. Staying largely within the patriarchal ideology that
upheld the chaste and dutiful wife as ideal, these women transferred the object of their devotion and
their duties as the lovers or wives to their Divine Lover or Husband. (Women in World History)

This explains the continued existence of the problems bhaktas struggled against. It does so
by suggesting that the bhakta in some ways failed to address the problems they were apprised of.
This is actually a serious accusation against a bhakta. Within the society in which she exists the bhakta
is surrounded by individuals who do not have egalitarian attitudes and who do not see the problems
with oppressive hierarchies of caste and patriarchy. However, by suggesting that the bhakta, through
her individual effort recognizes these problems, the narrative lays the bhakta wide open to the charge
of hypocrisy. The suggestion is that the bhakta finds devotion of more value even though she
recognizes the problems of caste and gender. Such a position is very difficult to defend without naming



the bhakta a failure.
If the bhakta perceives the injustices of caste and gender, how does she reconcile her own
non-engagement with these issues at a larger level? How does she justify her withdrawal into
mysticism even while recognizing that there is unjustified suffering around her? In short does the
bhakta display a lack of courage in taking on social injustices? If not, then why is there no satisfactory
explanation for how individual devotion may mitigate organized social oppression?
The explanation for a lack of social revolution emerging from bhakti, can also take a more
inventive turn:
Further, it would appear that with the movements northward advancement (15th through 17th
centuries), its radical edge as it pertained to womens inclusion was tempered. Greater numbers of
women took part in the movements earlier development (6th to 13th centuries); it is largely male
bhaktas and saints that are today perceived as the spokespersons for the movement in its later
manifestations. The poetry of women bhaktas from this latter time period is generally not indicative of
a rejection of societal norms in terms of leaving family and homes in pursuit of divine love. Instead,
some of the later poet-saints stayed within the confines of the household while expounding on their
souls journeys, their eternal love for the Divine, as well as their never-ending search for truth.
(Women in World History)

The example of Mira directly contradicts this reading, as she was a 16 th century Bhakta from
the north who did in fact leave family and home. However the explanation seems to hinge on a prior
understanding of the north which takes from the movement its radical edge in relation to womens
involvement in bhakti. In short, the accounts of bhakti, over the last few decades seem to share a
common template which first pitches the bhakta against his oppressive social milieu and then looks
for explanations as to why this does not lead to wide spread social change.
In Rewriting History Uma Chakravarti (Chakravarti 1998) speaks about Dalit Reform and
recounts the history of the Bhakti movements in Maharashtra using the same template. In this case the
analysis remains inconclusive as she finds that there are many historical exceptions to the conclusion
that Brahmins opposed Bhakti, or that Bhakti came up in opposition to Brahmanism. Finally she
Bhakti has remained a rich reservoir of living ideas, even when it has lost its vitality, providing an
ideology to be dipped into by those seeking an alternative to Brahmanic ritual and the caste system, it
has more appeal for Brahmana reformers than for Dalit radicals. It is not an uncritical legacy for those
who wish to transform the material location of the Dalits, and those at the receiving end of the caste
system (Chakravarti 1998, 24).

This account of Bhakti turns it into yet another kind of failure the failure to be progressive
and speak for social equality. Chakravarti finds that the Bhakti movement does not completely
emancipate the Dalits. Again, this makes Bhakti literature a contradictory body of progressive
thought, which does not bring about any convincing social change, and the bhakta becomes a failed
social reformer.
The Life of Mira
Let us now look at the life and compositions of Mira to see if an alternative reading could be
made, which does not end up in the traps and limitations of the reform narrative on Bhakti. There are
two iconic stories about the childhood of Mira. At the age of four she had an interaction with a visiting
devotee, whose idol of Krishna she was greatly attracted to. The legend goes that she expressed a
desire to posses the idol which he initially refused, as one does not part with ones Ishta, but



eventually on seeing her sincere expressions of devotion, he began to feel as if the idol itself wanted to
remain with Mira. Offering this as an explanation for his unorthodox gift, he presented the four-yearold Mira with this idol of Krishna, along with instructions for puja (Ranawat, 20).
On another occasion it is said that Mira and her mother were watching a wedding procession
pass by their window when Mira wanted to know who her groom would be. At a loss for an answer her
mother pointed to the idol of Krishna and pacified the agitated child by identifying her groom
(Ranawat 25). Mira was also reputed to be the favourite of her grandfather Rao Dudaji, who
recognised her abilities and supervised her education. She was taught yoga and music from a very
young age, in a departure from the usual training given to the royal children. He also permitted her to
interact with visiting holy men and ascetics, and she often held conversations with them asking
questions and more often than not surprising them with the clarity and depth at which she was able to
hold discussions (Ranawat, 32).
On reaching the marriageable age of eight, when there was talk within the palace of a suitable
boy for Mira, it was her grandfather who intervened to delay the process. Eventually Mira was married
at some time between the ages of 14 to 18, 19 which was very late for her context. Once married, Mira
had several difficulties with her in-laws household. She refused to participate in the family worship as
her prior devotion to Krishna would not allow her to accept the family deity. Some sources suggest she
also refused to consummate her marriage. 20
Her unorthodox behaviour in her husbands house led to a large number of conflicts within
the ladies quarters. Miras difficulties only increased when her husband died in battle and she refused
to accept the role of a widow, insisting that she would remain eternally married as her Ishta would not
die. A widow continuing the life of a married woman was something unheard of in her times and this
was added to the many scandals surrounding her family life. Her religious life further drew attention,
as she preferred the company of wandering ascetics and saints, to the care and service of her family.
She also sang and danced as an offering to Krishna, often in the company of these holy men giving
further fuel to salacious gossip.
Two stories of persecution related to the life of Mira are the attempts on her life. Embarrassed
by her unorthodox behaviour, her brother-in-law the reigning king, allegedly sent her a poisoned
drink saying it was the offering from a puja to her deity. He is also alleged to have sent her a snake in a
basket containing flowers for puja. Legend has it that Mira consumed the poison with no ill effects and
that the snake in fact turned into a garland of flowers when she opened it. Both these incidents are
given as examples of Miras true devotion, which made miracles possible. The final miracle is in
relation to her death. When the everyday difficulties of following her path of devotion became too
numerous, Mira was said to have left home and travelled in pilgrimage to the various spots related to
the life of Krishna. This was a source of severe embarrassment for her family as she mingled and held
discussions freely with men.
On one occasion it was alleged that the court officials of the Mughal emperor came to see her
in disguise, as they were drawn to the stories they had heard about this beautiful Hindu princess with
extraordinary devotion. When such stories reached her family, they made one last attempt to bring her
back within the fold. They travelled to Dwarka, the holy city which was said to have been ruled by
Krishna, and there at the Krishna temple they attempted to force Mira to return with them. It was here
that Mira resisted their attempts and locked herself up in the sanctum sanctorum with the idol. Legend
has it that when the door was forced open she was nowhere to be seen. The only thing remaining was
her sari wrapped around the idol. This final merging of Mira with her Ishta is seen as the reward given
to a true bhakta.



Songs as Offerings
From the age of seven or eight, Mira is said to have begun composing songs and poems as
offerings to Krishna. Her subject never varies from the central object of her devotion. She places
herself in various stances vis--vis her Ishta, but she is as centrally present in all her compositions. The
songs follow several different themes, which are often repeated. They include songs of separation and
union, songs describing the beauty of Krishna, songs rejecting worldly duties and ties and songs
detailing the consequences or rewards of devotion.
Describing her relationship with Krishna, Mira writes:
Unbreakable, O Lord, Is the love
That binds me to You: Like a diamond,
It breaks the hammer that strikes it.
My heart goes into You, As the polish goes into the gold.
As the lotus lives in its water, I live in You.
Like the bird, That gazes all night
At the passing moon, I have lost myself dwelling in You.
O my Beloved, return. (Hirshfield)
Typically Mira uses metaphors to relate herself to Krishna, and the relationship is invariably
one in which she is lost or immersed in Krishna. So, she is like the polish to his gold, or the lotus to
his water, the infatuated nightingale to his full-moon. Another means of expressing this relationship is
in term of the physical and mental changes she sees in herself, so she writes:
I am true to my Lord,
O my companions, there is nothing to be ashamed of now
Since I have been seen dancing openly.
In the day I have no hunger
At night I am restless and cannot sleep.
Leaving these troubles behind, I go to the other side;
A hidden knowledge has taken hold of me.
My relations surround me like bees.
But Mira is the servant of her beloved Giridhar,
And she cares nothing that people mock her. (Keay)
Again Mira uses her physical symptoms to give depth and meaning to her relationship with
Krishna. The physical symptoms also lead to trouble with those around her. She is either mocked or
rebuked for her infatuations but it is the strength of her relationship to Krishna that allows her to
remain calm. A part of that calm also comes from recognising that there is nothing to be ashamed of
now, no matter what social protocols she is seen breaching. The theme of being mocked or persecuted
by others often enters Miras poems, at it is these compositions which allow commentators to make
the argument about Miras oppressive social milieu. However, it is worth nothing that Mira rejects the
pressures of her family and social context, not in favour of some egalitarian utopia which she
constructs, but in fact for an abject slavery to Krishna, with whom her relationship is very often
described as master and slave.
Miras compositions do not allow the easy argument that in criticising the women in her
family or social context she was in fact criticising the social structure they imposed on her, rather her
criticism suggests that they are foolish for not recognising that in her devotion to Krishna, she was far
ahead of them in her wifely duties and devotion. The source of the conflict is in the identity of the
husband and not at all in the duties one bears to him. For example in this song addressed to a
companion she says:



Friend, without that Dark raptor, I could not survive.
Mother-in-law shrills at me, her daughter sneers, the prince stumbles about in a permanent fury.
Now they've bolted my door, and mounted a guard.
But who could abandon a love, developed through uncounted lifetimes?
The Dark One is Mirabai's lord, who else could slake her desire. (Schelling)

Keeping Mira locked in her chambers is only one of the ineffective ways in which the family
tries to restrain her, but Mira cannot be restrained, because she is unashamed of her relationship with
Krishna, and considers that relationship more real than the one with her husband. Mira never
articulates any complaints about the way in which the relationship between a man and his wife is
conceived by her milieu. She merely rejects the prince as her husband. Her relationship with Krishna
allows her to put all her other assets at stake:
My friend, I went to the market and bought the Dark One.
You claim by night, I claim by day.
Actually I was beating a drum all the time I was buying him.
You say I gave too much; I say too little.
Actually, I put him on a scale before I bought him.
What I paid was my social body, my town body, my family body, and all my inherited jewels.
Mira says: The Dark One is my husband now.
Be with me when I lie down; you promised me this in an earlier life. (Bly)

The fact that a husband may demand ones social body town body family body and all her
inherited jewels is not a point of contestation. And having paid that price Mira has claimed her
husband, as he had promised her in an earlier life. Like the women around her, Mira too sees marriage
as a bond lasting over several lifetimes. It is clear from these examples that Mira does not articulate
any dissatisfaction with the social structures of her times; rather she is distressed by the
misinterpretation of her duties by the women in her family and the misunderstanding of her
intentions by society at large. In fact her relationship to Krishna is articulated clearly in terms of those
very duties and roles that the reform historian would see as oppressive to her gender.
In some ways, to argue that Miras songs critique her social context would be like arguing that
Shakespeares comedies critique homophobia. While there is a criticism of her social context, her
works reveal a very particular kind of criticism. She is disappointed with those around her who do not
accept the nature of her relationship to Krishna, a relationship over which she herself harbours no
doubts. The questions raised about the bhaktas social role seem to have no meaning in the context of
Miras compositions.
One cannot ask why Miras songs do not significantly alter the position of Rajasthani women
because there is nothing in her songs to suggest that she saw herself in any other position. The only
conflict she had was in the identification of her husband. She identified Krishna as her husband and
remained faithful to him all her life, while all those around her identified Bhoj Raj as her husband and
accused her of infidelity.
No one knows my invisible life. Pain and madness for Rama.21
Our wedding bed is high up in the gallows.
Meet him? If the dark healer comes, we'll negotiate the hurt.
I love the man who takes care of cows. The cowherd. Cowherd and dancer.
My eyes are drunk, worn out from making love with him.
We are one. I am now his dark color.
People notice me, point fingers at me. They see my desire, since I'm walking about like a lunatic.
I'm wiped out, gone.
Yet no one knows I live with my prince, the cowherd.



The palace can't contain me. I leave it behind.
I couldn't care less about gossip or my royal name.
I'll be with him in all his gardens. (Barnstone)

Miras expressions in this composition are of effacing the self into her Ishta. Repeatedly the
culmination of her relationship with Krishna is to become one with him. Far from carving out an
identity for herself as a person who brings about social change, her primary concern is always to be
wiped out, gone.
Her central focus in all her compositions is on the relationship between herself and Krishna.
His beauty, her devotion, his greatness, her persecution, her longing, his distance from her: these form
complimentary pairs, within which she expresses herself. Her poems allow access to her experience of
one who has submitted entirely to her Ishta, and her works, minimally, can show others, who have not
achieved such devotion how to achieve it. One must efface the self without a care for social, family or
personal pressures. This is the learning at the core of Miras works, the learning for which she is still
sung and remembered in contemporary India. This attitude of effacement of the self does not allow for
the role of messiah to the masses, or social reformer. There is no hint of any desire to improve society
in any of Miras works and she remains uniquely involved in her relationship with Krishna.
A study of her compositions suggests that Mira had concerns, which were far removed from
social reform. Her songs were primarily an offering to Krishna, but because of their content they could
also allow others, who did not have as keen a sense of devotion as her, a glimpse into the extent of
devotion it is possible to have. That is the only teaching that can possibly be extracted from her works.
They serve as an example to the reader of the kind and intensity of devotion that is possible and
desirable, because although Mira suffered at the hands of society there is no mistaking the tone of
ecstasy in her poems suggesting she also had access to a deeper and more fulfilling contentment.
There is a central difference between the Bhakti literature of reform discourse and the
compositions of a bhakta. Bhakti literature is mapped on a template of reform and social
improvement, it highlights those works which speak about the bhaktas rejection of social norms and
suggests that the bhakta is in some ways a reformer, although this can only lead to the conclusion that
the bhakta failed to reform his or her society.
The bhaktas work on the other hand uses domestic metaphors, and his or her existing social
context to depict a particular state of mind or attitude to which he or she has access due to his or her
special status of being a bhakta. This in turn helps his or her audience produce in their own minds a
similar, if not identical, attitude.
In the first variety of reading bhakti literature becomes a body of literature, which has
exquisite compositions marvelled at for their beauty, but also recognised as artefacts from another
time. And of course the framing narrative also suggests that they are failed artefacts, in that they were
not able to achieve the task their composer set out to do, which was to effect a large-scale change in
the social arena.
In the second variety of reading, bhakti literature is a piece of living tradition, which can still
be used and consumed so as to arouse a particular feeling or attitude in the mind. The 21 st century
reader of the bhaktas compositions, many require some help with language and context, which has
become out-dated or changed over time, but once this is provided, the composition again becomes a
tool to access an attitude or gain insight into a state of mind.



This difference between the two readings indexes the difference between the academic
treatises we have on bhakti today and the continued use of bhakti within the living tradition,
preserved in many communities in the form of gatherings to sing and listen these works, or the
traditional groups whose occupation it is to perform these compositions. The traditional consumers of
works of bhakti rarely engage with the academic discourse, which surrounds their subject. However, it
is worth asking if the academic discourse on bhakti can afford to ignore their access to these works
much longer.
It is also time to look not just at this discourse on bhakti, which we have traced from reform
discourse, but at the wider problem of colonial discourse. Colonial discourse emerged at a time when
the traditional structures of India were just being discovered by the adventuring west. It became the
prime tool of power during the middle and late phases of the inter-cultural encounter with the Indian
sub-continent, when peculiar economic and political conditions precipitated an extended colonial rule.
It should not come as a surprise then that colonial discourse employs an evaluative framework, since a
discourse with such a framework would also be necessary to justify, if not directly stimulate, the
colonial structures of power.
What should be a surprise is that such a discourse is still employed in contemporary India,
which now claims great distance from the trauma of its colonial past. However it is also true that mere
political independence cannot achieve de-colonisation. Colonial discourse, which portrays traditional
structures in a distorted form, continues to have currency within the colonially created structures of
state, education, and politics that we have inherited. One part of the de-colonisation project in this
context would be a process of re-describing traditional structures while simultaneously demonstrating
the distorting effects of colonial discourse. This would serve in a great measure to bridge the gap
between our experience of tradition and the discourse in which we speak about it.
This is not to suggest that the two meanings cannot co-exist but to index the differences in the two
uses of the term.

A very comprehensive discussion on the relationship between language and experience can be found
in Skinner 1989.

For a complete discussion on the phenomenon of Hinduism see S.N. Balagangadhara 1994.

One in which the colonial tries to educate the native into the correct use of the concepts, in the
attempt to civilise him.

See Hazarika 2011 (unpublished) for an alternative description of this inter-cultural interaction.

A complete discussion on secularisation as an extension of a religious process can be found in S.N.

Balagangadhara 1994.

See Pathans 2009 (unpublished).

That the framework here is more important than the actual facts, is indicated by the fact that the
period of bhakti is seen to extend from the 14th to the 16th century. This firmly leaves out one of the
greatest Bhaktas of the 19th century Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who is accommodated in texts books
under the title of Hindu revivalism due to his undeniable fondness for elaborate pujas to Kali,
something that reform discourse frowned upon as idol worship.



The Rana was Miras brother-in-law who was embarrassed by Miras lack of social etiquette and
attitude of abandon in her expressions of love for Krishna, who was her chosen Ishta. The Ishta is the
object of the bhaktas bhakti.

See Jalki 2009, for a statistical analysis of Vachanas the bhakti literature of Karnataka. Jalki
demonstrated that less than 4% of all the vachanas even mention the names of castes, and an even
smaller number actually criticise specific caste practices.

Heimsath found Reform in Bhakti and Sikhism (Heimsath 1964, 9), Suresh Chandra finds protest
which leads to reform, in the concept of Ahimsa (Malik 1977) Devahuti reads dissent in Emperor
Ashokas actions (Malik 1977, 84) and B. Saraswati finds reform ideas in the mystic Kabir (Malik
1977, 167).

His method was to translate certain Sanskrit texts into Bengali and English. Very often the
interpretation would be in the preface to the texts where Roy would present his reasons for
translating this particular text and highlight sections dealing with monotheism polythesism and idol
worship. See Ghose, J.C., 1901.


See Skinner 1989 for a discussion on how discourse expands. Also Koselleck, 2002

For example the piece titled A conversation between an advocate and an opponent of Sati. See Ghose,
J.C., 1901.

For the expansion in reform discourse from priests in general to brahmins in particular see
Hazarika 2011 (unpublished). This becomes important because, it is a well known but little mentioned
fact that not all pujaris at all temples belong to the Brahmin caste group. The conflation was merely
an extension of the early colonial tendency to identify all temple caretakers as the priestly classes in
relation to their own experience of priests in catholic and protestant churches.


The chosen object of ones bhakti; Miras Ishta was Krishna.


Women in World History.

Although one could argue that for Mira above all, her Ishta was always uniquely present for her,
which is what triggers her rejection of the rest of her relationships in the first place. She does write
very often of separation from her beloved, but on the other hand she writes just as often of union
with him.

Sources differ on her precise age, but agree that it was much later than the normal age which would
have been between 8 and 10 years, and definitely before the onset of puberty.

There are differences among biographers as to her husbands reaction to this. Some suggest her
extraordinary devotion led him to accept her decision, while others suggest that he was highly


Krishna was an avatar of Vishnu, as was Rama, hence the inter-changeable names.


Alston, A.J. 1980 The Devotional Poems of Mirabai, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Balagangadhara, S.N. 1994. The Heathen in his Blindness... Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion.
Leiden, New York: E. J. Brill.
Barnstone, Willis. 1999. To touch the sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual and Metaphysical Light. New
York: New Directions.
Bly, Robert and Jane Hirshfield. 2004. Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
Bose, Mandakranta. Ed. 2000. Faces of The Feminine. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Cutler, Norman..1987. Songs of Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Embree, Ainslie Thomas, Stephen N. Hay and William Theodore De Bary. 1988. Sources of Indian
Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press.
Garlington, Bill. 2010. The Rebellious Rajput Rani. Arts Dialogue. /g
/garlingt.htm (accessed April 14, 2012).
Ghose, J.C., ed. 1901. The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy. 2 vols. Calcutta: Srikanta Roy.
Goetz, Hermann. 1966. Mira Bai: Her Life and Times. Bombay: Sriprakashan
Hawley, John Stratton. 2000. The Bhakti Voices: Mirbai, Surdas, and Kabir in Their Times and Ours.
Oxford: OUP.
Heimsath, Charles.1964. Indian Nationalism And Hindu Social Reform. Bombay: Oxford University
Jalki, Dunkin. 2009. Vachanas as Caste Critiques: Orientalist Expression of Native Experience.
(unpublished Ph.D thesis) Manipal University.
Keay, F.E. 1920. A History of Hindi Literature. Calcutta: Association Press.
Kishwar, Madhu. 2001. Traditional Female Moral Exemplars in India. http://www.infinity (accessed April 15, 2012).
Koselleck, Reinhart. 2002. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Trans.
Todd Samuel Presner. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Kurl, Shreprakash. 1973. Trans. The devotional poems of Mirabai. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1973.
( /~zddisse/mirabai.html#anchor480881) (Accessed April 15, 2012)
Malik, S.C., ed. 1977. Dissent Protest and Reform. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.
Martin-Kershaw, Nancy. 2000. Mira Bai in the Academy. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Pathan, Sufiya. 2009. A Historical and Theoretical Investigation into Communalism. (un-published
Ph.D. Thesis). Manipal University.
Ranawat, Soubhagya Kuwari. 2009. Meera Charita. Ujjain: Mrityunjay Singh Sisodia.
Schelling, Andrew. 1991. For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai, Prescott, Arizona: Broken Moon
Skinner, Quentin. 1989. Language and Political Change. In Political Innovation and Conceptual Change,
6-23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vaudeville, Charlotte. 1993. A Weaver Named Kabir. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Werner, Karel. 1993. Love Divine: Studies in Bhakti and Devotional Mysticism. Surrey: Curzon Press.
Women in World History. 2010. Bhakti Poets: Introduction. (accessed April 15, 2012)


International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 66 -72

ISSN 2277 7997

A Fight For Harmony: Secularism and Its Problems in the Bababudangiri Hill
Rajaram Hegde
Professor, Dept of History and Archeology, Kuvempu University, Shankaraghatta, Shimoga. Karnataka,
Sadanand J.S.
Professor, Dept of Political Science, Kuvempu University, Shankaraghatta, Shimoga. Karnataka, India
Discussions of religious syncretism in India routinely fall into two binds: one of
assuming the religious nature of the conflict and the other of assuming a conflicting
relationship between two purportedly religious communities. Therefore, even when
secular accounts evoke religious harmony as a value, it presupposes religious rivalry
between communities thereby exacerbating the conflict rather than solving it. The
solution may well lie in an intellectual programme with the goal of arriving at a better
understanding of Indian traditions rather than a political programme steeped in
rights-based claims.
Keywords: Syncretism, secularism, fundamentalism, coexistence, harmony.
Bababudangiri is exalted as a place of religious harmony, where Hinduism and Islam have
coexisted for last several hundreds of years. There is a durgah, in the form of a cave, situated at the top
of the hill which is also known as Guru Dattatreya Bababudanswamys Dargah. This cave is held to be
a place associated simultaneously with Dattatreya and Hazrath Dada Hayath Meer Khalandar. The
former is a well-known puranic personality, supposed to be a combined form of trimurtis (Brahma,
Vishnu and Mahesvara).1 Religious syncretism is a popular secular term that describes the above
phenomenon. This syncretism at Bababudangiri presupposes a peaceful coexistence of two rival
religions, a miracle that can only happen in India. This part of Indian culture, according to secularists,
offers a solution to the Semitic world of religious rivalry. However, ironically enough, this very place is
gripped by communal strife for last few decades. Those who are committed to secular principles think
that this place is threatened by the communal forces, especially Hindu fundamentalism. The
Hindutvavadins on the other hand hold the view that the stand taken by the secularists is not neutral;
it is biased in favour of Muslims. For both of them Bababudangiri exemplifies how Indian secular fabric
is endangered by the religious fundamentalism. The problem, viewed from this angle, provides
justification for the secular state to interfere in order to protect both Hindu and Muslim rights over
this place.
This framework of analysis, though apparently adequate to understand the nature of the
dispute, raises some problems that require explanation. They are:
1) How is it that the same religious groups which are pitted against one another now, coexisted
peacefully in a syncretism-milieu till about 1975?; 2) why the practices of two religions now appear to



be threatening the very secular fabric only after the entry of the secular state with its objective of
protecting the syncretism of this place?; 3) how to account for the complaints of different religious
and secular groups that the state is not taking a neutral stand on this issue and therefore is acting
against the principles of secularism?; and 4) how to account for the ambiguous and vacillating stand of
the state in response to both the religious and secular demands? In this paper we would like to argue
that such claims and contentions would not make sense unless one presumes that fighting for religious
rights is a part of the secular programme. By putting the issue in this perspective, we hope to show
why the traditional practices started conflicting in this particular shrine only after 1964.
What we want to argue in this paper is that the description Hindu-Muslim syncretism
presupposes a conflict, instead of peaceful coexistence, between two religions. This shrine can not be
classified either as Muslim or as Hindu, and, therefore, application of the concept of religious rights
makes no sense here. But the secular state, true to its nature, took recourse to identifying it as an
instance of Hindu-Muslim syncretism. In other words it presumed that the practices in the shrine were
religious practices and that since both Muslims and Hindu devotees visited the place it was construed
as a case of Hindu-Muslim syncretism. The description Hindu-Muslim syncretism for this shrine is an
entry point to the realm of religious rights and the concomitant secular programme. Fight for and
protection of religious rights in this shrine, once generated through the notion of Hindu-Muslim
religions, sustains different types of claims and interpretations precisely because of this ambiguity.
Therefore, this very description generates a series of disputes.
Secular decision and its implications:
The secular value of this place is preconditioned by the existence of two religions: Hinduism
and Islam. The Indian judicial system, for example emphasised the fact that this place is different from
other religious places in bringing these two religions together, therefore interests of both the religions
need to be safeguarded. However, this stand is empirically ambiguous which, coupled with legal
interpretations and claims on rights, creates an irresolvable conflict. The contention here is that there
is a violation of Hindu rights, that too by the secular state. The state on its part makes an attempt to
rectify its mistake by emphasising the importance of protecting the harmony between Muslims and
Hindus. But such attempts, instead of preventing the religious rivalry, actually have the adverse effect
of instigating it. Let us see how:
What requires emphasis here is that the idea of Hindu-Muslim syncretism emerged as a
solution at a particular stage of this problem. Though this conflict was started as a legal dispute in
1975, the grounds were prepared half a century before. This shrine was listed under the jurisdiction of
Muzrai (temple endowment committee) department under Religious and Charitable Act of 1927 2
under the custodianship of a traditional officer called Shahkhadri. However this decision was
reconsidered when a Wakf Board was formed in 1964 as a part of Central Wakf Act. Accordingly, the
present shrine was brought under the Wakf Board's jurisdiction through a government order in 1975.
This shows that the exact religious nature of this shrine remained mysterious to the state. This
decision was taken despite the doubts expressed by the concerned administrators about the exact
religious nature of this shrine. Later, the decision was objected to by local Hindus, Shahkhadri, the
traditional custodian of this shrine and the Muzrai Department. Some of the Hindu organisations had
appealed the government about liberating this shrine from Muslims. 3 Two Hindu coffee planters
appealed to the District Court to cancel the above order on the grounds that Hindus also worshipped
in this shrine. The District Court ordered in 1980 to restore the shrine to the Muzrai Department and
the Shahkhadri. Since this place was worshipped by both the Hindus and Muslims, no religion could
have exclusive rights over this shrine. 4 The Wakf Board appealed to the Karnataka High Court, and



meanwhile the District Administration disallowed certain privileges enjoyed by the Shahkhadri, who
in turn filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High court to restore the pre-1975 practices. The Hindu
practices and Shahkhadris traditional rights over this place provided the ground for the argument in
this case. The High Court ordered the Commissioner, Religious and Charitable Endowments, in 1985,
to report on the Hindu practices prevalent in the shrine prior to 1975. The traditional practices
prevalent in this shrine were labelled either as Hindu or Muslim as a part of this exercise.
The High Court disposed of the case in 1991 in favour of the Shahkhadri and also ordered to
maintain the pre-1975 status quo. The decision was justified on secular grounds:
We can not part with this judgment without placing on record our happiness and appreciation of the
spirit of brotherhood among the Muslims and Hindus who offer prayer at this Dargah or Peeta.The
suit institution the Guru Dattatraya Bababudan Swamy stands aloft as shining examples of true
secularism in this world divided so sharply on narrow caste, communal or religious consideration.

Thus, the idea of syncretism seemed to solve the problem of deciding over the legal matters
concerned with this shrine. The implication of the court judgement was to show Bababudangiri as a
model for a peaceful coexistence of Hinduism and Islam. But contrary to the fond hope expressed by
the court, its decision on the issue turned Bababudangiri into a virtual battle ground between the
Hindutvavadins and the secular forces. In this way, the idea of coexistence of two religions also
seemed to create problems. We should note that the court decisions and administrative measures
could not contain the rival claims not because of lack of commitment, but because of lack of clarity
over the issue. What follows throws some light on this quandary.
Fight for religious rights:
The above decision leads to a new kind of struggle of Hindutvavadins, who legitimise their
position through the language of religious rights. The Hindus and the Shahkhadri had used the
uniqueness of this shrine as a weapon for dislodging the Government decision and Muslim claims. The
District Court, while deciding over the matter in 1978 clearly considered the petitioners of this case as
representatives of the entire Hindu community. The judgement also made it clear that neither the
disciples nor the devotees of a particular religion or faith can claim exclusive right to worship in this
shrine. The Hindutvavadins based their movement on this decision to push forth their demands when
the administration was enlisting the pre-1975 rituals in this shrine.
Though some practices were enlisted as Hindu practices to be presented before the court the
Hindutvavadins were not too happy with the list. They thought it missed some of the important
practices of Hinduism like homa-havana, a Hindu archak and pujas in the model of Hindu temples.
However, no one could provide the exact indicators of what constitute specifically Hindu practices. For
Hindutvavadins the very idea of Hindu-Muslim syncretism, so dear to secularists, amounts to losing
ground to Muslims. Their grievance was that this shrine originally belonged to the Datta cult, which
was occupied by the Muslims in the medieval period resulting in the disappearance of earlier Hindu
practices. Thus the Muslim elements in this shrine were not there as a result of syncretism, but were
indicative of a historical takeover of this shrine, originally Hindu, by the Muslim conquerors. To begin
with, the Hindutvavadins started fighting for justice by insisting on the revival of Hindu rituals which
had disappeared due to the Muslim occupation, and ended up by calling for the liberation of this shrine
from the Muslims. It is on this ground that they reject the secular interpretation which according to
them, would perpetuate the status quo.



The bone of contention for Hindutva organisations was the 1991 court decision that the pre1975 status quo be maintained i.e., only those Hindu practices be allowed that were in vogue before
1975. The Hindutvavadins argued that the place originally belonged to Hindus before the Muslims
occupied it and since then many of the Hindu practices disappeared from the scene. Thus the largescale movements launched by the Hindutvavadins was nothing but a civilian confrontation of the
Indian secular policies, supported by different Hindutva organisations. The political parties also got
their message in Karnataka, which effected the decisions of the government in this matter. The next
part of the Bababudangiri story will make sense at the backdrop of what happened in the national
politics. The VHP and BJP led rathayatras on the Babri Masjid issue, and the formation of Bhajrang Dal
in the national scene, provided a new dimension to this local issue. VHP leaders described this site as
the Ayodhya of Karnataka. In 1988, VHP started strengthening the Hindu claims over this shrine by
introducing Datta Jayanti, (this was permitted by the District administrator). Hindutva organisations
also put forward their demands to introduce other Hindu rituals like homa-havana and the
appointment of archakas. They also succeeded in mobilising the support of Hindu religious heads
In 1999 another practice called Datta mala Abhiyan was added to the Datta Jayanti and it
became a grand event with processions of thousands of activists wearing malas and conducting
pilgrimage to the hill. The introduction of these new rituals that were not included in the list of pre1975 rituals made by Religious and Charitable Endowments Commissioner was questioned by the
secularists. In response to this objection, Hindutvavadins made a new demand that the rituals of preHyder Ali should be considered.6 The District Court and the High Court of Karnataka, in 2007, accepted
this demand and directed the Commissioner to make such a list and directed the District
administration to appoint a Hindu archak. (The Times of India, 2008)7 This decision was questioned
by the secularists in the Supreme Court in 2008, and the latter upheld the earlier judgement of the
High Court that pre-1975 status quo be maintained. Interestingly, both the judgements of pre-1975
status quo, and pre-Hyder Ali status quo, were equally justified on the basis of the secular principles
by the Courts. The ground for appeal to the Supreme Court in November 2008 was The Places of
Worship Act (special provision) passed in 1991 after the destruction of Babri Masjid. It says: except
the case of Babri Masjid, the religious nature of all other places of worship should be retained as it was
prevailing as on August 15, 1947. (The Hindu, 2008)8
This historical review of the case clearly suggests that Hindutvavada plays the role of a civilian
movement within the secular state. The stand taken by them is not against secularism per se but
against a particular type of secular stand taken by the secularists. Hindutvavada speaks the language
of religious rights. The religious rights of the Hindus, according to them, are violated if the state allows
the rituals of Muslims. The secular state is caught in a peculiar situation: the contention is that the
state has violated Hindu rights. If the state accedes to the demand of Hindutvavadins then it will be
violating the religious rights of Muslims. The state can neither be neutral nor can it treat the demands
of both Hindus and Muslims with equal respect. The neutrality and equal respect to all religions being
the central tenets of secularism cannot be practiced by the secular state without contestation by either
Struggle for secularism and minority rights:
The contention of secular movements is that the Hindu-Muslim syncretism of this shrine is a
secular value to be cherished, but the Karnataka government, by yielding to the pressure of Hindutva
organisations, is not impartial in implementing the Court decision. Thus, a civilian movement is
deemed necessary to contain Hindu fundamentalism. Though its ultimate concern is to protect the



Hindu-Muslim syncretism in this shrine, it has to achieve its goal by safeguarding Muslim religious
rights against Hindu fundamentalism. The secularist thinkers are not actually arguing for Muslim
religious rights as such in Bababudangiri, for they recognise that the problem lies in seeing the issue as
one of contention between two religions called Hinduism and Islam. To that extent they seem to be
recognising the problematic nature of these religious categories. The secularist position is that what
Hindutvavadins are doing is to introduce brahmanical rituals and hegemony in the name of Hindu
practices. The introduction of Datta Jayanti, paduka pooja, appointment of archakas was all seen as
rituals of Brahmans, the priesthood of Hinduism. Thus, the secular movement has presented itself as
an anti-hegemonic and pro-subaltern movement. However, they fall into the same trap of seeing this
case an instance of religion by recognising the shrine as a result of a popular revolt both within Islam
and Hinduism against idol worship, hierarchy, brahmanical priesthood and caste discrimination To
demonstrate this point, historical details are culled out from the Datta and Sufi traditions, which
advocate nirakara worship, equality and brotherhood. Ultimately, the syncretism of Hinduism and
Islam, in whatever form and for whatever reasons, lies intact in the secular arguments and the
movement could not avoid the accusation of being pro-Muslim insofar as they opposed the pro-Hindu
organisations in the battlefield.
Secularists also appreciated the dismissal of the rights of the Wakf Board precisely because it
logically flowed from their belief that this shrine was a result of popular revolt within hegemonic
religious structures. Despite this fact, the secular movement practically turns out to be a movement for
the protection of the Muslim rights in this place. It was because, at the juncture when they entered the
scene, Hindutva movements had targeted the Shahkhadri as a Muslim agent and syncretism as
undercover Islamisation. Thus the secularists, in order to protect the secular nature of this centre, had
to fight for the Shahkhadris rights, and retain the idea of syncretism in the form of 1975 status quo,
which, according to the Hindutvavadins, was nothing but the Islamized version of this shrine.
Secularist speeches and writings targeted the Hindu organisations and evils of Hinduism in general. To
that extent, it paved the way for Hindutvavadins to accuse them as anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim and
put to doubt the secular credentials of the secular activists.
Caught between the rival demands of secularists and Muslims on the one hand and the
Hindutvavadins on the other, any move made by the Karnataka Government with its avowed objective
of exhibiting a neutral stand ended up in antagonising both the groups. Secularists accused the
Government of acceding to the demands of Hindu communalists and Hindutva organisations claiming
that the Government is following the policy of appeasing Muslims.
Resume: misplaced disputes?
The idea of syncretism presupposes the existence of Hindu and Muslim elements in this
shrine, and the states decision to provide equal protection to the religious rights of Hindus and
Muslims in this place. Although secularists and Hindutvavadins are opposed to each other with regard
to the interpretation of Hindu-Muslim syncretism and the nature of worship and the role of the liberal
state in resolving the controversy, the vocabulary used and the presuppositions made by both the
parties makes it clear that both of them operate within the secular framework. And each of them
views the other as a threat to the true secular objectives. Both of them together accuse the state for
erring in implementation of neutrality. The state faces a dilemma in accepting or implementing the
standpoint of any one group.
Contrary to the secularist commonsense that the idea of Hindu-Muslim syncretism leads to
communal harmony, it, in fact, presupposes a division and rivalry between the two. The dispute arises
due to the ambiguities and contestations about the implications of these terms. Therefore, to make



sense of this dispute, we have to first understand these terms clearly. The contesting parties have not
been able to establish what makes these practices into Hindu and Islam. None of them provide any
hint about what makes Datta cult or Datta jayanti, homa-havana, archaka, puja, etc. into Hindu or antibrahmanical practices? On the other hand, what makes Urs into a Muslim practice when Urs itself is
described as a fusion of Muslim and Hindu practices and the orthodox Muslims refuse to accept such
practices as sanctioned practices of Islam. Why personal names like Datta, Anasuya, Bababudan, etc.,
and the stories connected with them ought to represent different religions? Without convincingly
answering such questions through the empirical evidence, the talk about the religious rights of any of
these groups only leads to more confusion.
Thus, the notion that Hindu and Muslim religions create a rival division and it can be
contained only in the form of harmonious co-existence of these religions requires rethinking. Conflicts
arise because of the fact that the practices at present do not fit into any categories presupposed in the
secular vocabulary and programmes. Why is it that all those involved in this dispute think of two
different kinds of practices, instead of looking at it as a different category, of a single tradition? This
shows the compulsion of reducing all sorts of Indian traditions to one or the other religions. When a
tradition does not fit into our notion of any one religion, it appears to be composed of two or more
religions. When we read a standard description of Bababudangiri, it refers to two different sets of
stories or practices, as though belonging to two different religions, i.e., Hindu and Muslim. For that
matter, why should we see only two sets of stories and practices? Why not many more of them? Why
not see all of them as components of a single set of practices? We do not know how these two sets of
stories and practices or some personal names make them two religions or, for that matter, two
different traditions. This cult has also migrated to other places exactly, or in more or less similar form,
with same names and practices. Why is it not a traditional cult?
It is also interesting to note that, the practices and objects associated with these two different
stories are one and the same. The fact that multiple stories never generated disputes about the
legitimate identification of the objects and practices of this shrine, instead they happily coexisted,
would itself suggest that there was no truth claims associated with such stories. They were not
historical traditions of one or the other religion, recording either a conquest, or a revolt, or providing
ideological foundation to the practices here. These stories are pertaining to the spiritual and healing
powers of this shrine, to bestow children, relief from physical ailments, and resolutions to property
disputes, which were connected with the powers of this seat, and assured the followers that such
practices would provide them solace.
Such facts would raise strong objections about applying any concept of religious rights and
secularism to such a tradition. Thus, dislodging the hill from the current distress is more an
intellectual programme with the goal of arriving at better understanding of this tradition rather than a
political programme steeped in rights-based claims and wrought by misplaced terms and concepts.
For a detailed account of the background of this place and its history see: 1) Report of the joint factfinding team commissioned by the People's Union for Civil Liberties - Karnataka (PUCL), including
members from Citizens For Democracy - Karnataka, and South India Cell for Human Rights Education
and Monitoring (SICHREM) dated January 2000. Baba-Datta Vivadada Sutta published by Karnataka
Komu Sauharda Vedike, Shivamogga, 2005; Kamath, (1998) and (1999), Hunter (1887), Hayavadana
Rao(1930) and Archaeological Survey of Mysore, Annual Report,1916;




Proceedings of the Government of his Highness The Maharaja of Mysore 1943

Bharatiya Janata party, Letter to District Commissioner, 4/3/99; Jagratha Praja Samiti, letter no title
Chickmagalur dated 4th December 1978 ; Jagratha Praja Samiti, Letter to the Chief Minister,
September 19th 1978

Case OS.No 25/1978 Order of the Civil Court of Chickmagalur The Honble court in 1980 declared
that shrine is a religious institution of holy place of worship belonging to Hindus and Mohammedans
alikeNeither the disciples nor devotees of a particular religion or faith can claim exclusive right to
worship at the said institution. .

The Judgement, The High Court of Karnataka Regular First Appeal No 119/1980 dated March 26,
1991. This case was between The Karnataka Board of Wakf appellant B.S Nagaraja Rao,
Chandrashekar, and the State of Karnataka, the Commission of Religious and Charitable Endowments
and Sajjade Nashin as respondent.

Vishwa Hindu Parishat, Letter to the Honble Home Minister, includes this information according to
which a care taker was appointed by Hyder Ali in 1717. Sometime in the Middle Ages the place
slipped into the hands of Sufi saints and during Tipu Sultans time and part of the shrine came to be
called Dargah.

Hunter, William Wilson. 1887, Imperial Gazetteer of India Vol. xiv. London, Trbner & co.
Kamath, Suryanath. 1998.Malenadina Mooru Nathapantha Kendragalu, Ithihasa Darshana.pp.207-10.
Kamath, Suryanath, 1999. Ithihasa Darshana, p.207
Rao, C. Hayavadana. 1930. Mysore Gazetteer: Kadur District, Vol.5, Govt. Press.
The Hindu, Tuesday, November 3, 2008.
The Times of India, August 5, 2008.


International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 73- 94

ISSN 2277 7997

On the Streedharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan

Sushumna Kannan

College of Arts and Letters, San Diego State University, San Diego, USA.
The Streedharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan (1665-1750) is an eighteenth century
text that delineates the duties of women. This paper attempts to understand the texts
rationale. This is important in the context in which the text has been read previously:
as patriarchal and as representative of Hindu patriarchy. I discuss the work of Julia
Leslie, scholar and historian who introduced and commented on this text and argue
that the text can be viewed differently sans the textualisation in Leslies approach. I
then locate the Streedharmapaddhati within the context of the dharmashastras and
examine its statements through gender as a category of analysis. This is followed by a
study of the text using a theory of ritual. I argue that the text needs to be viewed as
embedded in the philosophical context of Indian self-transformative practices and thus
endorsing the path of streedharma, one path among the many that led to
enlightenment within traditional Indian philosophy.
Keywords: Streedharmapaddhati, patriarchal, feminist, dharmashastra.
In 1989, the late Julia Leslie introduced to the academic world, a text from the eighteenth
century, dedicated to delineating womens daily duties. Her book The Perfect Wife was comprehensive
with translation, transliteration and commentary and perhaps that is the reason why the text,
Streedharmapaddhati has not been written about in recent times. There has been no attempt to study
the Streedharmapaddhati(Stdp from now on) thence, excepting for one critique of Leslies approach
(See Sugirtharajah: 2001). Several books 1 excerpt the text, however, to show the patriarchal nature of
Indias culture or religion/Hinduism. In this context, my study of the text will dialogue with Leslies
work, a feminist predecessor and also present my thesis on it. I will argue that we should look at
Stdpas a text embedded in the philosophical context of Indian self-transformative practices. In the first
section, I will attempt an evaluation, revision and extension of Leslies work by showing which of her
positions come across as anachronistic and why, causing problems of textualization. My second
section theorizes the genre of the dharmashastras and locates Stdpwithin it, in relation to other texts
in that genre. The third section will explore gender as a category of analysis and the fourth section will
attempt to understand the text in terms of rituals. I suggest that we view the Stdp as a text endorsing
streedharma, one path towards enlightenment among the many conceived within the Indian
intellectual traditions. My methodology is difficult to cull out at this stage, but it is neither excessively
philological, nor entirely textual; the aim is to arrive at a balanced theoretical view of the Stdpthat
allows its logic to become more apparent. My reading of the textcould well be seen as a feminist
reading but with a considerable amount of questioning of and alteration to current trends therein.
The Stdp begins by paying obeisance to Gods and Goddesses and interestingly enough,
Tryambaka himself offers comparisons of the duties of men and women in order to contextualize his
work on womens duties. The text is applicable to married women but also lists rules for widows. The



chapters elaborate on the daily duties of women at different times of the day, before dawn, at dawn
and evening. Following this is a chapter that Leslie describes as a fascinating and original digression
on the inherent nature of women, that is, on streesvabhava or womens nature. This is followed by a
chapter on duties common to all women and a conclusion. The activities listed include meditation
(devatadhyanam) upon waking up and household tasks such as preparing the grain, cleaning the
house, worship of the threshold, taking bath, performing ablutions, getting dressed and wearing the
tilaka. Then there is the serving of the fire and offering arghya to the sun. This is followed by saluting
ones elders, paying homage to ones parents-in-law, other household tasks, mid-day rituals, serving
guests and having meals. In the evening, more rituals are followed by cooking, cleaning and preparing
the grain.
The obeisance in the beginning, followed by a number of rituals and illustrative stories from
the epics prompts the Stdps position within the Indian philosophical tradition that focuses on selftransformation leading to enlightenment. The appeal to Gods is especially significant, since it is
treated within the tradition as similar to the appeal to a guru; any purana would reveal this. Also,
except for some commentatorial works on the Vedas, majority of the texts and traditions in Indias
pre-colonial past have been to do with transformation of the self, asking deeply philosophical
questions about what there is and who we are. 2 But Leslie does not read this text as philosophical in
nature. She does not view the Stdp as anything more than a guidebook to etiquette and from her
perspective as a historian using the category of gender, the text appears patriarchal. However, though
viewed through 20th century frameworks, the text does not consistently appear to be patriarchal. It
appears at times to be patriarchal and at times not; and some of its patriarchal elements are not
definitively patriarchal. Hence, an exploration of what else there is to this text is required. Also, Leslies
contextualisation is limited to exploring similar or different rules in other dharmashastras and epics.
Her usage of the category of gender causes anachronism on several occasions, as I will argue soon and
therefore I believe that an attempt to theorize the Stdp is in order. Leslie takes a feminist-Marxist
position that views all religious (self-transformatory traditions) endeavour as secondary to the
pursuit of human dignity (based perhaps in a philosophy of humanism) which we know today has
roots in Western Christian philosophical trajectories and history. 3
Problems in Reading/Textualisation:
Leslies analysis of Tryambakas text does not theorize it or speculate upon its authorial
intention except to assume first and then illustrate that it is patriarchal. The anachronism inherent in
her analysis cannot be missed and her approach to the text embodies a potpourri of sympathy and
outrage. Although she does not assume a notion of patriarchy as she begins with the story of
Bhirubai,a sati-aspirant, denied the chance because she is unable to perform the necessary miracle,
she views the Stdp as bizarre and bizarre but intriguing document in her conclusion and
throughout her book misses no opportunity to discredit Tryambaka for being what he supposedly has
to be, i.e. patriarchal. The usage of myths, epics and rituals within this text is not adequately theorized
by Leslie even as she looks for the ideology of the text. Rather than remaining open to the
possibilities of the texts progress, Leslie looks upon it as a static object and with increasing disbelief
and outrage. Such a reading, I believe, could be seen as textualised. As elucidated by Lata
Mani,textualisation is the process wherein different cultural expressions such as myths, folklore,
epics, rituals and other artifacts are interpreted in the manner of texts (Mani, 1989, 53). 4 Mani is
following Ricoeur, who says that the textualisation of something involves a discourse that results in
the fixation of meaning, and dissociation from any authorial intention, along with the display of nonostensive references and a universal range of address.5



In her conclusion, Leslie rightly asks what relationship the text might have had to social
reality and the lives and experiences of actual women. She asks a number of other questions to
account for the differences between text and reality and her answers pick out ethnographic works that
show community behaviour forbidden by the dharmashastras. For e.g. pilgrimage priests do receive
money for their service although it is forbidden, for otherwise they could not survive, and they chant
Vedic mantras for the shudras which is also forbidden. To this extent, Leslie notes that the range and
influence of the dharmashastras may be limited. But then Leslie guides us to historical and
anthropological works if we want to listen to the voice of women for we do not find it in a text such as
this. (p. 329). That is, Leslie displays a distrust of the sources she studies. And this emerges from an
understanding that male authors are unlikely to include womens voices. While this could be true of a
number of texts, the reason why she expects to find womens voices in the Stdp still needs justification.
Also, how is it fair to override the text for the reader, privileging the reader (in this case, feminist)
alone? Leslie also expresses puzzlement in many unwarranted instances. For example, when
Tryambaka prohibits certain actions giving the reason that they cause adrshta (unseen) fruits, Leslie
views it as stock answers (p. 70). The view that the burden to understand the text is ours could have
led to different results.
In her introduction, Leslie does try to project different viewpoints after presenting Bhirubai (a
sati-aspirant, denied the chance because she is unable to perform the necessary miracle) to us, by
quoting the letters Manushi received from lay women asserting themselves as equals to their
husbands. Thus an orientalist view is avoided; India does not emerge as stagnant in history or
timeless. But then again Leslie views Stdp as orthodox. This merely amounts to slating a text as
traditional and informs the reader of its dated nature. Is it that Leslie thus suggests her own
acceptance of modernity as an alternative? Clearly, a text cannot be orthodox without a context. This
problem recurs when Leslie describes Tryambaka as reactionary (p. 329)
Like many works today that offer the clarification that dharma is different from religion,
and explicate the etymology of the term but do no further, Leslie invokes the definition of dharma, but
does not study its implications on the text. While Leslie is aptly empirical when she points out If one
asks an Indian villager about his religion, he describes not rituals nor the ascetic life but
righteousness (dharma), she does not pursue this. She does not ask what kind of dharma the Stdp
proffers when it speaks of stree-dharma. And Streedharma emerges in her analysis quite reductively:
as a means of controlling women. In fact, Leslie merely quotes Manu, another dharmashastrin on
dharma and doesnt explore his definition further. Her understanding of dharma too is problematic;
she suggests that in the world of dharma in theory, at least, there is no conflict, while in reality,
conflict is the subject matter of numerous puranas, kavyas and most importantly of the
dharmashastras themselvesall works that proclaim the protection of dharma as important. The
dharmashastras, more than any other genre of writing available from pre-colonial India go to great
lengths to elucidate the problems encountered when one dharma clashes with another. Solutions are
provided to such scenarios after the dharmashastras raise these questions themselves. The Stdp also
does this in its last chapter.
In yet other places, Leslies work suffers from cultural blind spots. For e.g. when she says,
Tryambaka is collectivist. His concern is not with women as individuals but as parts that fit into and
therefore strengthen the whole (p. 4) she notes the lack of individualism with enthusiasm. Perhaps
this is because the communitarian nature of the life-worlds in non-western cultures was not written
much about in her time, with universalism still dominating feminist thought. But Leslie then says that
the treatise is itself an admission of the power of nonconformist women to wreck the entire edifice of
Hindu orthodoxy. Her lens seems anachronistic when she views those parts of society that
Tryambaka gives importance to, as parts of a whole; she is reversing the authors emphasis. The main



feature of a communitarian society is indeed dependence on the different communities to preserve its
functionality. Within such a society, the Kings ruled and provided security to the people; the Brahmins
preserved knowledge and performed rituals for the well-being of the world, the Vaishyas traded and
provided goods the Shudras provided services. In addition, women participated across these
communities in different ways; interacting with traders (something Tryambaka allows them),
participating in rituals, maintaining their households, selling goods and working the fields and so on.
Notpassing evaluative judgments on this scheme, we can see that in Tryambakas times the whole
and its parts are both are crucial. Instead of explaining why such schemes continued over long periods
of time, Leslies reading gives us the impression that such schemes indirectly admit the power of
women. In fact, there is no indirect admission; there is a direct one that Leslie herself quotes: For
when women are corrupted, all is lost. (Gita 1. 41) That is, what Leslie reads as derogatory of women
can also be read positively. The very possibility of multiple readings suggests that the parameters of
the text have not been established coherently and that a reader who chooses to privilege her/his
subjectivity can indeed produce any number of readings. But the text also directs the meaning to be
derived from it by eliminating other meanings over its course.Attention to this and a resolution of
problems in reading can only occur through better theorization of the text. Such a theorization will be
attempted soon.
My last point in this section concerns Tryambakas statement that marriage is the equivalent
of upanayana for women. Throughout the text, Tryambaka argues that there is adrshta (unseen) and
drsta (seen) fruits obtained by the woman who behaves in her husbands household as would a pupil
in his gurus. The wife even has claim over the fruits of the ritual-actions (sacrifices) of the husband.
Yet, we see Leslie concluding thus: In order to persuade women of the religious significance of their
role, he [Tryambaka] expounds the view that the marriage ritual is their initiation onto the religious
path. Leslie negates the proclaimed intention or argument of the text/author because it does not
result in the model of equality between the sexes that she subscribes to. The exploration of the texts
world is considered secondary to the process of evaluationbased on a philosophy of humanisma
philosophy that is alien to the one in which the text is located. Such anachronistic evaluations abound
in Leslies work and puzzle the reader who may wish the text to speak, even if s/he may question its
content later.
The genre of the dharmashastra:
Leslie rightly places the Stdp within the dharmashastra genre and does not regard the genre
as expounding law. Taking a cue from Derrett, she views them as precepts. However, her analysis does
not probe further to ask why Tryambakas statements are precepts. That is, what is so idealistic about,
say, a woman serving her household with the loyalty of a student towards his guru? She is instead
merely puzzled that there is no equality in the marital relationship between the husband and wife. Had
Leslie pursued the question about precepts, she would have discovered an underlying philosophy on
how action can lead to spiritual advancement. 6
I find Leslies analysis that while he [Tryambaka] is evidently familiar with the rulings of
dharmashastra and the traditional tales of the epics and puranas, he is no real mimamsaka, no true
philosopher puzzling (p. 329). I say this because the Stdp can also be seen as a result of philosophical
thought; philosophical thought that is itself not captured directly in the text. That it is a result is, in
fact, evident because Tryambaka quotes from the Manusmriti (MS from now on), the Vedas and the
epics without delving deeper into reasons why these texts say what they say; he also humbly admits to
merely gathering verses related to women. In other words, the Stdp functions from within a reality



that is well aware of the precepts and their rationale and does not find it necessary to explicate them.
The status of a text like the Stdp becomes clearer when it is compared to other texts inhabiting the
pre-colonial textual world. Elsewhere, I comparatively studied the 12th century vachanas and the
dharmashastra genre and my conclusions were as follows: 7

Vachanas (Philosophical utterances of bhaktas)

Dharmashastra Texts

A philosophical reflection upon or assessment of

social structures.
Could hail the discovery of a new social structure or
could redefine an existing one.
Show that social structures cannot mark us fully.
Fluctuate between the following models: no-agency,
God is the agent and I am the agent through God
Perceptions unique to the experience of
A pedagogical teaching-method to preserve
Preserve undecidability of social issues.
Vachanas can contemplate meta-learning or be
direct (pedagogical).

There is reflection upon social structures here

too though not explicitly. We could view this as
self-reflectiveness of the text because the
Dharmashastras uphold certain social structures.
Could record or present an instance of a social
Combination of instructions and descriptions.
(Attitudes with which actions be performed are
also talked about, Tryambaka does this in his last
chapter). Show how a social structure can mark
philosophical/experiential discoveries conducted
Guides to action, with the intention of facilitating
social organization but also uphold the
configuration of learning.
Instrumental agency (Discussion of what fruits
specific actions procure).
A practical way to preserve experience.
Preserve undecidability of social issues, while
offering suggestions. This facilitates in exposing
the unstable effect social structures have upon
us; an understanding of which could release us
from attachment to actions or bondage to the
Contain ideas about human nature; contemplate
human dispositions and precedent behaviour.
Are tools to assisted self-control.

It is impossible in the given space to go into the details of the table above. But it may suffice to
suggest that the dharmashastra genres attitude towards women can be understood differently: as
fulfilling needs of pedagogy, as a guide to filial piety by upholding the structure of family, as embedded
in epistemological findings and as results of philosophical explorations and so on. The dharmashastras
are a result of philosophical thought conducted elsewhere and earlier. Thus, Tryambaka doesnt have
to be a mimamsaka or philosopher to compose a dharmashastra text; he is embedded in the tradition
anyway. He is merely recording the results of epistemological findings in the form of suggestions. We



could say that in Stdp, Tryambaka, like many others before, has found a way to combine the
epistemology of action and the structure of the family.8 For him, womens performance of selfless
action within the household is equivalent to the sadhana of others who are pursuing enlightenment
Given the above possibility, I believe that Leslies delineation of the political history of the
time could well be the correct context of Tryambakas text. That is, domination by Muslim overlords
and people turning away from Hindu principles. Leslie thus rightly places Stdp within the rubric of
Hinduism. The text, however, stands independently as wellin line with other earlier
dharmashastrasin both content and form and demands explanation. Tryambaka too extensively
quotes from other dharmashastras such as the Apastamba Sutra and the MS. Thus, it does not suffice to
view the genre of dharmashastra merely as a collection of precepts. A theorization of the genre would
enable a feminist analysis in understanding the context of Tryambakas rules for women. This is
further significant because Tryambakas text is the only surviving text that exclusively speaks of
womens duties; all other dharmashastra texts dedicate a section to it or include instructions to
women as part of the main text.9 He is the sole male author of such a text. This being the case, let us
now frame Leslies implied question: is it possible that Tryambaka, the male author, could have
imposed himself upon the ideas he presents on women. A partial answer to this, I hope, has been given
through my theorization of the genre above, but this also requires a detailed analysis of the text, which
we will conduct soon. Perhaps it suffices to say now that Tryambaka appears as a paternalistic
character, sharing his wisdom and offering his advice, rather than as a young person who may harbour
fantastic notions about the other sex.10
Gender as a category of analysis:
At least two kinds of works in relation to the category of gender are generally available: those
that argue the relevance of the category and then use it and those that assume its validity and then use
it. Mainstream Indian feminism is largely about the second. Recall the gender is everywhere mantra
in the introduction of an influential volume of essays, Recasting Women. The drawbacks of this mantra
as argued by Denise Riley (1988)cannot be ignored. 11 As if to concur with gender is everywhere,
Leslie does not consider the possibility that Tryambakas time could have been guided by different
sexual dynamics such as asexual difference approach that views men and women as ontologically
different, with each sex following a different care-ethic.While gender can be used as a category for
historical analysis that probes the relations between the sexes, its usage in conjunction with the
above-noted mantra or merely as a cultural construct seems inadequate. 12 I say this because other
dynamics, such as filial piety, age, self-effacement and so on play a role in complicating it in the study
of Indian history. One such dynamic I theorize in this section is streedharma. When these dynamics are
taken into account, it may well be the case that gender is the wrong category to use. We will now see
instances of such readings where the category of gender takes precedence over others, imposing itself
as the only mode of reading texts such as the Stdp. We will also try to explore alternatives to such a
straitjacketed reading.
The first verse of the Stdp says that the smritis uphold sushrusha of the husband as the
primary duty of women. Leslie understands sushrusha to mean seva and devotion towards the
husband.13 But the etymological meaning of the word points to other issues that were once associated
with the knowledge-fabric of society; these then gained different meanings to suit modernity. The
etymological root of sushrusha is from shravana which means to to listen. So sushrusha could be
hearing well or gladly heard. The corresponding Kannada phrase used in filial contexts, especially



by parents towards children is hELidamAtukeLu. This does not necessarily mean do as I say but
quite literally means listen/harken to me. Together, these two meanings indicate a situation that
essentially requests another person to be receptive or considerate. Bereft of the knowledge-fabric that
once held society together, sushrusha now means caring, like mamakara means compassion while
earlier it meant attachments of the I. Given this, I think that Tryambaka is invoking the
authority/testimonial evidence of earlier smritis to suggest that the primary duty of women is to be
receptive to their husbands. Such a reading allows us envisage the logic of this text thus: in a marriage
spouses have to be receptive to each other. But since this text is essentially about women, they are
advised to be receptive. Interestingly enough, the MS and the Apastambasutra quite similarly lays
down rules for men.14 Thus, it is possible that the Stdp is more than a delineation of womens duties
enforced on patriarchal whim.
In the second verse, Tryambaka invokes the Goddess Parvati, pays obeisance to her and
describes her as one who became abhajatahalf of Shiva.15Abhajata here is to be related to the ardhanareeshwara aspect of Shiva-Parvati and is often seen positively by feminists. But Leslie views this as a
popular image and does not note the positive possibilities it has for women. She discusses it by
referring to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad wherein the primeval Self parts into two as pati and patni
and then refers to the Vajapeya rituals wherein the wife is included as the ardhangi of the sacrificer.
She makes no particular point from these two references though they are both positive in nature,
granting women equal status. She then refers to the Upanishadic male half pursuing the female half for
the purpose of sexual intercourse. No point is made again here, but I sense the same voice that sees
Tryambakas text as bizarre used here. What is bizarre about sexual intercourse unless one concurs
with Victorian sexual morality? (The reference of sexual intercourse is to the story of God Surya
pursuing his own wife after a misunderstanding and mating with her). Leslie then reads the abhajata
concept thus: On the human level, the oneness of the married couple means not the merging of two
individuals but the self-effacement of one of them (p. 31). Her discussion is reductive and does not
add up to her conclusion, especially because the text is aware that it instructs women to be selfeffacing and justifies it by viewing it as a parallel to upanayana. Abhajata, emerges from the root
bhaj, (also the root for bhakti) which means to share and partake. Abhajata here with the prefix a
should mean inseparable. That is, Parvati who is inseparable from Shiva. But Leslie instead reads it as
a pun! (p. 30) Also, self-effacement is prescribed for men as wellin the MS.16 Leslie then gives the
example of Gandhari, to support her point, who not only adopts her husbands lifestyle and interests,
but his physical characteristics as well (p. 31). This selection from the epics is puzzling. Why does
Leslie not invoke Draupadi who refused to do as her husband would have of her, when he lost the
game of dice? Why invoke only Gandhari? Thus, Leslies use of gender as a category masks some other
dynamics of the text she studies.
Glossing this second verse further, Leslie tells us the story of Parvati, Shiva, and Skanda. The
Puranas either mention the story of Shiva and Parvati independent of their son Skanda or include a
prophecy and plot hatched by the devas to bring the couple together so that their combined powers in
the form of Skanda may destroy the demon, Taraka. Leslies interpretation of this story is misleading.
She puts in scare quotes in order to show favour to the world, when speaking of the reason why
Parvati set out to win Shiva. Leslie overlooks the fact that the primary duty of gods and goddesses in
the Indian life-world is lokakalyana or ensuring the well-being of the others/world. Leslie reads the
mention of Parvati saving the world as a mere ploy to delude us about the real status of Puranic
women. She then says The importance of the son at this mythological level reinforces the orthodox
view that the wifes main purpose is to be the bearer of a son for her husbands family. (p. 31). This
again seems reductive, because there are instances of powerful female Goddesses destroying demons
too. Skanda, in this case known as the warrior god, was needed in a context different from say, Durgas



birth. It is not that I am attempting to justify occurrences in a puranic story but attention to different
puranas shows that the importance placed on the son is not constant. In the puranic world, female
Goddesses are generally saumya but can take violent forms when necessary. In keeping with this, in
Durgas story, she takes birth in order to protect the world from evil and restore balance and has the
combined powers of all the Gods and Goddesses. What is misleading in Leslies analysis is that she
views the Purana and its world without granting it any integrity of its own. The selflessness of
Gods/Goddesses as demonstrated in the story of Shiva, Parvati, and Skanda is viewed with suspicion.
There is yet another point that needs to be made here. The word for son, putra is derived from the
root put which means hell and putra means deliverer from hell. The word putri (daughter)
derived from the same root, also means deliverer from hell and is merely the other gender of putra.
Thus, a simplistic understanding of son-preference may not help. We may need to re-examine the
conclusions that the category of gender leads us to draw and and we may also need to re-examinehow
we tend to use it by exploring the different dynamics that intersect with it.
Tryambaka completes his invocation of Parvati as mother, by describing her as jagat-janani
(the mother of the universe) and by saying that it is upon her command that he gathers the sacred
verses related to women. (p. 32) 17 By mentioning that he merely has gathered verses, both in the
beginning and end of Stdp, Tryambaka gives up agency: a fact typical to the Indian authorial tradition.
Using the category of gender carelessly could well lead us to rephrase Tryambakas denial of agency
as: a man gives up his agency and is at the command of a female Goddess! But this is hardly an
accurate formulation in the context of the Indian traditions.
Tryambakas third introductory point that the the general rules (samanyadharma)
prescribed for men are equally applicable to women (p. 39) is significant for our discussion. He
concludes from this that rulings such as he who (couched in the masculine form without any
additional modifying rules) are in fact equally applicable to women (p. 39) This point is worthy of
attention even from our current standards of equality between the sexes. There is, at least no denial of
a role for women in rituals. However, Leslie criticizes Tryambaka that he is obliged to quote passages
couched in the masculine and assume that they apply to women too. While she says this because of
the vagueness in some of Tryambakas rules in relation to the uha (guessing) application, I think,
there is not enough appreciation that women had significant roles assigned to them. Leslies criticism
seems harsh, also because other scholars, like Jaimini, rule that women are entitled to perform
sacrifices (not just activities) based on uha. Leslie, in most cases in her book, takes the point that
proves to be the most negative for women and criticizes the tradition for it. 18 This has led to the
rightful criticism of her work by Sugirtharajah.19
Leslie recordsthe history of the upanayana as an important ritual for women in Vedic times
that then faded.20 In attempting to understand this, she discusses a later grhyasutra that says that
women do not wear the yagnyopavitam, but instead wear their saree in the same way (from left
shoulder down) on the day of their marriage. This is factually correct in so far as certain kinds of
saree-wearing (particularly from left down) are followed on the day of marriage only. 21 This matter
requires more research since, empirically, it is true that the yagnyopavitam is required in many
communities (such as the Vaishyas and Kshatriyas) to be worn in a ceremony conducted either on or
the previous day of marriage. And the yagynopavitam is regarded as a garment even for men. 22 What
these facts suggest to me is that the claim that marriage is for women what upanayana initiation is for
men may have to be regarded seriously. These facts are further significant when we consider that girls
were married at a very early age, sometimes before puberty. That is, they were married at an age
corresponding to the upanayana ceremony of boys; it was their initiation into a life of learning. 23
Leslie, however, does not view marriage as an equivalent for upanayana. Instead, she repeatedly
questions why women cannot perform certain rituals directly. Her point is that women do not perform



as many rituals as men do and do not also perform the same activities that men do. For instance, she
notes that men do not perform household activities and that the freedom to leave home to earn this
money [for the sacrifice] applies only to the man, never to his wife. However, Leslie does not note that
women have the household domain as their responsibility as well as privilegethe different careethic. For, Tryambaka cites Manu to say that the husband should put the wife in charge of saving and
spending money, keeping things pure in the household for rituals, religious matters, the preparation of
food, and looking after the household utensils. (cf. p. 168) Leslies comparative methodology masks the
inquiry that could have been launched into why there is a bifurcation of duties. 24 Leslie herself notes
that the MS can be used as a text detailing mens duties but she does not take the project forward by
offering more comparisons. When read alongside the MS, the Stdp does not seem disproportionately
biased towards women.
In continuation with her questioning of womens roles in rituals, Leslie asks why some rules
are common to women and shudras. Discussing the rule that a boybefore his upanayana or initiation
(even if a brahmin) is considered equivalent to the shudra for ritual purposes, Leslie concludes that
she [the wife] too is equivalent to a shudra before marriage (p.36)But Tryambakas two verses (one
on shaucha, the other on achamana) explicitly equate women and shudras. And Leslie writes in
response: This means that women are ritual shudras both before and after marriage (p. 36). It is
true that the MS as well as Stdp provide rules commonly for women and the shudras, but I think there
is more here that we need to discover. There could be reasons why women and shudras are grouped
together. Perhaps ritual purity is one; the shudras cannot maintain a high level of ritual purity because
they are service-providers for the society and women cannot maintain the same because they are
service-providers and also go through menstrual cycles. Thus, that Tryambakas verses on this topic
are to do with saucha and achamana, both cleansing rituals become more obvious. 25 (p. 71). It is also
possible that shudras and women both being service providers to others are therefore seen as impure
for performing a set of actions (rituals) as a result of the subjectivity this then confers. But Leslie takes
the grouping of women and shudras as a negative remark on both communities. Her conclusion of
women=shudras is invoked time and again at the slightest pretext throughout her book and the
reading seems stretched and exaggerated, especially since there is no inquiry into the logic behind the
grouping. In other words, the category of women coincides with different dynamics that require
exploration. These dynamics could be about ritual purity or about the kind of subjectivities that
specific actions confer.
Leslies discussion of the reference to the bride as nagnika and pre-pubertal marriages is
laced with anxiety (p. 146, p. 86-88). But marriages in pre-colonial India were not contractual in
nature with sexual gratification as the goal; the goal instead was progeny. Also, child marriages were
only consummated after puberty, with the girl remaining at her parents house until puberty.
Additionally, if the yagnyopavitam (recall the word upavitam which also means garment) was
considered a garment for men and the left-shoulder-saree a garment for women, the unmarried girl
may well have been called nagnika or unclothed. Hence Leslies anxiety is unfounded. Leslie is also
disturbed that another wife is taken soon after one wife dies. But the reason traditionally cited for this
is that a wife is needed in order to perform rituals. There is consistency in this claim since there are
other alternatives provided. That is, grass or other substitute materials can be used if the wife is
missing and so on. In the Ramayana, Rama uses a golden image. While a historical analysis is useful
and we should not view texts as standing in a timeless eternity, placing this issue within polygamy can
be confusing toosince Kings and many other communities were polygamous in the past and
communities followed fluid and androgynous sexual practices. 26 Leslies attack seems to be on
privileging male sexual needs. But the consistency we see in the dharmashastric world about the need
for a wife accompanying the husband for rituals and the performance of rituals as central to human life



prompts the discussion of alternatives (such as we saw above. i.e. grass etc) as well as the possibility of
Leslie pitches Stdp as a text for upper-caste women, also born out of brahminical patriarchal
ideology. But empirical work can show that women of all castes could have been following the texts
rules. The application of rangavalya in the morning, cleaning and decorating the hearth, tending to the
cows (in any agricultural household), rituals of inviting Lakshmi by cleaning etc are activities women
of many jatis and communities participate in. As Leslie notes, it is possible that the tending to the fire
and performing rituals could be done only by the first wife, the patni. The primacy here is possibly
indicative of dharmashastric indifference towards taking other wives, since one wife suffices for the
performance of rituals and the main duties of the householder couple is the performance of rituals.
Tryambakas chapter on Streesvabhava begins by saying that those women who are by
nature dushta are disinclined towards dharmasravana or listening to dharmic discourses. The verse
says that women are known to have such doshas/faults by svabhaava. The first part corresponds to
our exploration of the genre of the dharmashastras in section II where we saw that human dispositions
are discussed, taken into account and suggestions offered. Thus, this could be an invocation of the bad
student, as it were, in order to guide other women towards dharma. The rest of the verse simply
quotes verses from the Mahabharata wherein Bhishma compares women to the edge of razor, poison,
snakes and fire. Such a quotidian exercise which is also testimonial evidence for Tryambaka is, for
Leslie, an argument that assumes womens inherent sinfulness (p. 246) However, her stance cannot
be sustained since Tryambaka also says later that a woman is inherently pure. These verses are not
obvious to us as we have not reconstructed the meaning of svabhaava or the notion of the self
therein. Bhishmas verses above are not easily understandable either. They could constitute a male
perspective and given Bhishmas relationships with women, perhaps reflect his character and nothing
elsean indigenous tradition of reading the Mahabharata (as also a feminist reading) would have
questioned the invocation of Bhishma in this context. But it is also important to note that Bhishmas
comparison of women with the edge of a razor etc. is part of an education given to the young king
Yudhisthira. And in this, men and women can each be distractions or obstacles to each other in the
achievement of their goals. Verses of the MS also condemn wayward behaviour in women. Bhishmas
verse is followed by one where Kausalya complains about the hearts of women who do not care for the
good of the family; a verse possibly uttered in the context of Kaikeyis actions. Leslie does not make
this connection although she does recognize the context of the following verse of Anasuyas advice to
Sita and rightly says these words describe the behaviour and fate of bad women, not the inherent
nature of women in general. (p. 250)Leslie goes on to say of the same verse that Out of context, as
presented by Tryambaka, the implication is that such is the behaviour of the majority of women. (p.
250)Leslies critique, in this case, is correct; but Tryambaka is quoting these as testimonies of
precedent female behaviour, as usually the dharmashastra texts do. That his purpose here may be
pedagogic should not be lost sight of.
If women are by nature wicked, why bother to teach them at all is the question that
Tryambaka puts in the form of purvapaksha. His question is phrased thus: how can there be any
inclination towards receiving religious instruction on the part of women who are by nature dushta. For
the inherent nature of women is widely recognized. He continues the purvapaksha by saying that
Since being born a woman or a shudra is the result of particular sins in a previous birth, (p. 246)
teaching women may be futile. Tryambaka then quotes three shlokas by Yudhisthira from the
Mahabharata and argues against it. He does this by citing Manu, thus opening up the issue of
apparently contradictory verses within the MS which have not seen comprehensive discussion in
feminist analyses. Tryambaka quotes Manus verse Women have such qualities as inherent purity.



And also cites the Vishnupurana that says that women are inherently blessed with good fortune. Thus,
Tryambaka uses traditional sources from the Vedas as well, to negate the purvapaksha on the dushta
nature of women, sifts through the dharmashastra sources, making a selection and defends it. Leslie
fails to appreciate his work which, as a feminist, she could have viewed as positive for women. Instead,
she says: he [Tryambaka] wisely avoids the pitfalls of comparing women with men: the beliefs
surrounding sexual difference make this a fruitless approach.(p. 256) Leslies expectation here seems
to be that Tryambaka make an argument for the equality of men and women. In this, of course, he fails
and instead endorses beliefs in sexual difference. But such an expectation of Tryambaka is baseless
and wrong; there is nothing to indicate that the philosophical views of the period viewed men and
women in the same way we currently do. Men and women, in numerous discourses are only entities
(jiva) closer or farther from final liberation or moksha. They were judged based upon how capable
they were of performing sacrifices and actions that took them close to moksha. And since women were
far from both in one sense because of menstruation, that is, because they could not engage
continuously in spiritual practices, Tryambaka could only have argued that there are positive aspects
that menstruation bestows upon women.27 The quotations he uses from the Vedas state that upon
menstruation, a girl is married to Agni and other gods who offer her all-round purity in return.28 It is
obvious that Leslies expectation of Tryambaka is misplaced; she views the text against a set of
standards he could not have known about. Perhaps he may not have been interested in equality even,
given the preoccupation with moksha. Leslie gets it right when in conclusion she notes that there are
beliefs surrounding sexual difference as seen in the quote above. This is the only place where Leslie
recognizes that there is a sexual difference model at work and while this proves disappointing for
Leslie, it is the starting point of understanding the dharmashastra and other philosophical texts for me.
Tryambakas second argument against the purvapaksha is again about menstruation and he quotes
Manu: Women are incomparably pure; at no time are they defiled; for menstruation sweeps away
their sins month after month. (p. 254). Tryambakas third argument is to do with the possibility of
people improving. Here, we may note that many dharmashastras often proceed from the premise that
human nature is capable of evil and that it requires constant honing and changing. As we saw in
section II, they respond to human dispositions. The MS is also replete with punishments for those who
cannot act righteously.
The notion of streesvabhava, in Tryambaka, seems to be articulated after taking into account
the bodies of women, its functions and the roles and responsibilities that women generally take on.
Thus, menstruation, pregnancy, widowhood and the bodys alignment to these different stages become
the topics of discussion for Tryambaka. Bodies in general are spoken of, within the Indian traditions, in
terms of accruing doshas and the lack of such doshas is said to aid progress towards moksha. We will
look into this and why menstruation is seen as disabling for women soon.
Leslie views with discomfortTryambakas insistence on his rules for women Tryambaka
declares that only women are blessed with the essential path to heaven; there he intones that any
alternative or additional observance will cause them to fall. Instead of viewing the first part of this
verse as a positive possibility for women and unearthing its logic, Leslie continues: Such
pronouncements dismiss the claims of bhakti altogether. (p. 259) Perhaps this is not how we should
read the verse.29Tryambaka could be endorsing the path of streedharma and may have believed that a
mixing of paths and methods is counter-productive to results for moksha. Also, my research into
Bhakti reveals that the claim of Bhakti is not necessarily that everyone can perform rituals. It is instead
a call for performing actions/kayaka with greater sincerity. This is at least true of the sharana
movement of the 12th century. Some of the female and male bhaktas, in fact, uphold streedharma. (For
e.g. Akka Mahadevi, Kabir and Avvaiyar).



Speaking of the Stdp in the context of dharmashastras Leslie views them as offering the
arrangement: svadharma for men, stridharma for women. (p. 23). This may not be accurate.
According to her quotation of Draupadi later in the text, when Draupadi encounters Jayadratha, she
says that she is niyataasvadharma, and not streedharma. If women were guided by streedharma and
men by svadharma, Draupadi didnt have to invoke svadharma. But Leslie translates Draupadis
statement to mean i.e. as an orthodox wife. Draupadi here was specifically referring to the rules that
she and her husbands abide by as Kshatriyas. Whatthis means is that streedharma may have been one
of many options for women and that women too could enter into conflicts as to how to define their
svadharma. Leslies own note that Tryambaka designates common activities for men and women and
lists duties specific to women later, suggests that streedharma may have been advocated strongly for
women but that it was not compulsory for them. Also, svadharma read in the context of the Gita
appears to be a common resource for both sexes rather than for men alone. A cross-referencing with
other texts could have complicated Leslies formulation. Additionally, in his chapter Duties Common
to all Women (strinamstrinamsadharanadharmah), Tryambakas usage of the word sadharana
dharma (p. 173) complicates our understanding of the term, streedharma. It shows that these two
terms are not exclusive of each other. More importantly, Tryambaka also recognizes other women like
the parivrajakaswho do not engage in streedharma. Thus, we need not view streedharma as the only
path available for women.30
The tradition of streedharma seems to have developed into a full-fledged path through various
texts including the dharmashastras, sutras, kavyas and puranas. And the 18th century hence sees texts
exclusively dedicated to this topic. The performance of womens social roles, especially as wife and
daughter-in-law were seen as crucial and as a substitute for upanayana in men and as womens
sadhana. We see in streedharma primarily an importance placed upon the fulfilment of duties and
responsibilities along with an emphasis upon knowledge how. And streedharma itself can be seen as a
way in which the care-ethics of sexual difference was acknowledged in India. I suggest that we see the
summation of these attitudes as constituting streedharma. We could say that streedharma is a
path/paddhati/practice that has developed its own rules, ideals and representations, raising and
attempting to resolve issues. Unfortunately, this aspect of streedharma being a path towards moksha
and what that entails is not something that mainstream feminism attempts to understand. This
emerges clearly in Julia Leslies discussion of the text. Streedharma is often seen reductively by
feminist analyses as the exaltation of wifely duties, as a result of which it is seen as an aspect of
tradition that needs to be removed.31Streedharma is indeed the exaltation of wifely duties, especially
since the grhastaashrama was seen as the best of all ashramas, but it is also much more; it embodies
within it a way of learning, a conception of Knowledge, an understanding of human society and the
role of filial piety within it. This becomes evident when we see that Tryambaka gives the wife, the
duties a student should perform when with his guru. He also advises on the attitudes with which she
should perform her tasks towards the end of the text: selflessly, without regard for her own life. One
limitation that arises from reading streedharma merely as wifely duties is that it can blind us to a way
of articulating selfhood, choice and agency by women, evidenced as late as the 19 th century and also in
Bhirubhai, the rural woman with whom Leslie begins her book. 32
Tryambaka provides a list of women with whom the wife should not associate: courtesans,
women gamblers, women who meet their lovers in secret and female renouncers. (p. 171) For Leslie,
this is how Tryambaka denies the option of renunciation and other freedoms to women. But this could
be the result of merely endorsing one pathof streedharmaover others. This attitude is consistent
with sectarian-like rigidities we see in communities; it is as if faith in other paths dilutes ones focus on
the path one is treading, thus putting moksha itself farther from ones reach. Leslie is not at ease when
she arrives at the understanding: For a womans religion is her family life. (p. 171) But we could ask



why this cannot be the case, especially in a culture where moksha is seen as the final aim and
streedharma, a path to it.
The Stdp has been hitherto seen as a text delineating wifely duties, but it would be equally
fruitful to see it as a text delineating rituals.Leslie too recognizes every now and then that a certain or
other practice is a religious duty rather than merely a domestic matter (p. 224) Examples are
plenty: women may view the Sun upon arising just as men do and as soon as she is awake, she should
meditate on the chosen deity. (p. 52) The husband together with his wife should meditate on Hari
(Vishnu), and then reflect on the requirements of dharma and artha for the coming day (p. 53). After
bathing, the wife should accept prasada of a deity (because it has both seen and unseen advantages; it
is tasty and also conveys merit) (p. 58). Coating the front porch with cow dung too has such double
benefits, we are told. Goddess Lakshmi should be invited into the house by doing this; Tryambaka
drives the point home by telling a story on the Goddess Lakshmi and the cows. (p. 61) Worship of the
threshold, drawing rangavalyaand cleaning is to be done for without cleanliness, actions do not bear
fruit (p. 74). Women can also perform achamana (p. 76). And the wife should prepare all materials for
the husbands devapuja, including the preparation of naivedya. On no account may the wife delegate
her sacrificial (yagnya) duties to anyone else (p. 65). Standing among cows, one should repeat the
gomatimantra (p. 67). Even basic aspects of daily life such as brushing ones teeth and urinating are
touched upon as if they wererituals.Tryambaka also explains that it is necessary to urinate and so on
because one who has not done so in not entitled to participate in religious ritual. (p. 69). An
interesting way of reading the Stdp is through Staals thesis on rituals which states that they are
essentially non-semantic in nature (especially the Vedic rituals which are a major part of this text,
from which even the Sandhyavadanam is extracted). Though the many implications of Staals theory of
the meaninglessness of rituals are not obvious to me at this stage, I am able to understand a relation
between the need for rituals in the Vedic period and the way in which they concretized later in the
dharmashastrasrituals serve as models for action. For this reason, there was not only a detailed
instruction on rituals; there was also a ritualization of activities/actions as well. S N Balagangadharas
essay on action-knowledge is significant here. He argues that actions, contrary to the belief in the
western tradition, are not goal-oriented. Read together, the implication for our reading of Stdp is that
actions and rituals share properties, each enabling the other. That is, Stdp in its emphasis on right
action, as a book of precepts from the dharmashastra genre is also significantly about how to perform
rituals. And since rituals are essentially models that help us act, over time they have resulted in a
ritualization of daily life. This ritualization is what we can see in Stdp, in almost every verse; a daily
timetable is also the chapter-division. What this means is that streedharma is a path of action/ritual
(karma marga) that as a result of philosophical discoveries, was thought to lead to moksha. It seems
that Leslie too notices the all-pervasive nature of ritualization when she says: the wifes services
areclassed as services in the religious sphere (p 166). Thus, the importance of serving the husband
is not that he is superior to the wife but that a path of actions is on par with other forms of sadhana
undertaken. What we see through this is that there is no separation of domains such as the everyday,
the philosophical or the sacred and the profane/secular and so onthey are all equally ritualized.
When Tryambaka describes the woman who performs certain actions as pativratabhagini (p. 210),we
need to understand that pati-vrata is itself a kind of ritual; the word vrata being significant. Many of
these rituals, in fact, are not about serving the husband at all but about contributing to the
householdand whatever the merit, it is earned by both. Thus, we will have to examine the claim that



marriage is for women what upanayana is for men with greater seriousness, a task for now and the
future as well.
Leslies history of the period serves as a believable context for the theory of rituals we have
just used. The reigning King Sahaji, in 1693, probably under the influence of his minister,
Tryambakaraya, renamed the village of Tiruvisanallur as Sahajirajapuram and made a gift of it to
forty-five scholars and poets for the perpetual performance of sacrifices and the free creation of
religious, literary and musical works (p. 17, emphasis mine). That is, the period of Tryambakayajvan
was one where the importance of rituals was widely acknowledged. 33
Let us now examine Tryambakas statement that for women marriage has taken the place of
initiation. He quotes a verse from Manu that equates the residence at a gurus house for a boy to that
at a husbands house for the girl and household duties to that of worship of the sacrificial fire. This
understanding is consistent in the Stdp so much so that the wife must sleep on a low bed (p. 240) like
the student. Also, the wife must pay homage to her husbands feet before eating (p. 221) and must eat
what is left as prasada, like the student. Leslie does note that these actions are a sign of humility in
relation to the other person but also that the reverse is normally condemned. (p. 242) Leslies
preoccupation with the status of women in relation to men is responsible for the second observation
but, viewed as a substitute to the students life, the path of streedharma and the rationale of Stdp open
up. Leslies contextualization through Manu is relevant here:The three atigurus of a womans religious
life are her husband and her parents-in-law. By serving them devotedly all her life, as a perpetual
student serves his teacher, she will achieve the highest reward. (p. 168). Then two shlokas attributed
to Vyasa that say the wife must not eat, vomit, sleep, dress, or make herself beautiful in front of her
husband (p. 226) also indicate that she is to show the selfless deference a student shows to his guru. In
continuation of this logic, the wife is asked to drink the water used to wash the husbands feet. Sexual
pleasure too seems to be offered as a service. And then, the widow too must live the subdued and
restricted life of the celibate student (p. 299). It is significant that the husbands worthiness, as also a
gurus is never discussed. It is the other end of things, the giving that seems to matter.
Leslie notes differences in the way in which the student-guru relationship and the wifehusband relationship is described. That a wife may not brush her teeth in the absence of the husband,
she says, is because there is no possibility of sex intercourse. The rule that a wife may not dress in the
same way in the husbands absence as she might when he is with her is to Leslie, again, made up of
sexual connotations. But to this, we could say that a stance of waiting/mourning the absence of the
husband is expressed in action in this way. The verse on brushing teeth is indeed difficult to
understand, although Leslies reasons are unconvincing. Leslie too however concedes on this issue
generally that Nonetheless, the uplifting analogy, [between guru-student and husband-wife] complete
with its associations of religious commitment, remains. (p. 82)
True to the theory we have been exploring, we see that a wife is taken primarily for
performing rituals in the Apastambasutra. Leslie quotes from this text, speaking of the two reasons a
man needs a wife for: to bear him children and to perform the religious rituals that must be
performed jointly with a wife. (p. 109).34 Quoting other sources, Leslie concludes It is for this reason
that, as long as she performs her part in the joint sacrifice and bears children, her husband may not
take a second wife.35 I think that Leslies reading of the verse views the wife as lacking in status and
gives it a reverse meaning. Considering the language and narrative style of the dharmashatras, one
realizes that some statements are neither precepts nor rules but mere observations. For instance, the
MS states, Some priests are grounded in knowledge others in inner heat and the private recitation of
the Veda, others in ritual acts. (MS, 3:134. Trans. Doniger and Smith). Similarly, it is possible that the
above quote from the Apastambasutra is merely observatory in nature; wives participate in rituals,



wives bear children. Leslies reading of other sources that forbid a husband from taking a second wife
by stating reasons such as the above are distortive. One plausible way of reading thisis: a second wife
can only be taken if the first wife is unable to fulfil the duties of a wife, that is, bear children and
perform sacrifices. The bearing of children is important because of the belief that children carried in
them an amsa or aspect of the parent and by living after the parent, finished the remainder of the
parents karma. That is how they deliver the parents from put or hell.36 This could well the mean the
following: the bearing of children and the performance of sacrifices are both the ritual duties of a wife.
This would not be surprising in a culture that sought to ritualize its life in every manner possible;
ritualization was extended to the most mundane of daily activities as well as the significant ones. That
is, the mundane or the domain of the everyday becomes ritualized in specific ways, based on the
insights obtained via philosophical discoveries.
Leslie in her discussion of womens role in rituals quotes the Taittiriyabrahmana which says:
may the husband and wifeyoke like the oxen, bear together the burden of the sacrifice (p. 109).
This is indicative of a sense of duty imposed upon both the wife and the husband. Also, the wife is seen
in the Puranas as the sahadharmachari (p. 110) and her role described as jaghanardha (bottom half)
of the sacrifice in traditional sources. Yet, Leslie is unconvinced about the value of the wifes actions
and concludes by citing a few dharmashastric rules against others that hers [the wifes] is a
necessarily supportive role. (p. 111) Perhaps, this is her conclusion because the importance of
womens presence is under-estimated by her.37 Many different rituals and life-aspects are marked,
not always by explicitly direct action, but by a look or gaze, a relationship with an object, the symbolic
representation of another person or object and a presence.
Leslie finds another rule negative for women. If a wife has died or disappeared, the husband
can substitute the wife with shraddha or intellect, qualities within the sacrificer. While by itself it is not
entirely negative, since the husband then doesnt take a second wife in haste, Leslies anxiety hails
from the fact that wives can be replaced so easily. But this kind of substitution seems to have been
based on principles beyond those that a cursory knowledge of Indian philosophical traditions allows. I
say this because there is an indigenous debate on the marital status of the popular god, Ganesha. Even
as puranic stories personify his wives with names such as Siddhi and Buddhi, traditional scholars still
maintain that he is a perfect brahmachari. That is, Ganesha, like other Gods dons various roles for his
devotees but when it comes to marriage, projects Siddhi and Buddhi as his two wives, maintaining his
status as a strict celibate. Thus, we realize that there is possibly more to the tradition of replacing
wives with grass, a golden image or even ones own qualities and that this tradition doesnt exactly
translate to show a wifes worthlessness. Leslies repeated analysis of such aspects of the
dharmashastras is a result of her concern over polygamy, since this structure is rarely known to
guarantee an equal relationship either between the wives or the two sexes.
Arguing that women are not allowed deity-worship, Leslie makes several points. While some
of these points need to be understood through the student-guru or apprenticeship model, others
emerge purely from misunderstanding. For instance, Leslie defines the tilaka or pundra as sectarian
marks worn to indicate the religious persuasion of the wearer, (p. 99) and concludes that these are
so important to men [while they are]deemed irrelevant to their wives. (p. 99). This is inaccurate
since sindhura worn by women is also said to represent the dust or mark of Gods feet. In Northern
India, the orange hue kumkum is attributed to the henna of Goddess Durgas feet. Consistent with this,
in some communities, women too wear differently-shaped markings on their forehead. The differences
are not to do with displaying sectarian differences but with the philosophical understandings and guru
paramparas followed by communities.



Tryambaka says that the wife should be like Lopamudra, who takes her husbands religious
duties as her own to the extent that she seems no more than her husbands shadow. (p. 115). The
model of unity and relationship envisaged here shows that the wife is definitely not equal to the
husband, yet she is not unequal to him either. We could say that according to the verses of Manu and
Tryambaka, the wife is under a tutorship of sorts in the husbands house and trains to be selfless to the
greatest extent possible. In other words, the loss of selfhood (the personality-egoistic self, that is) and
the sense of agency is the stated aim of the dharmashastra texts that endorse the paddhati of
streedharma. When viewed in this light, all that feminist readings seem to be doing, coloured by their
own ideological persuasions derived from a different time, context and historical development, is state
the obvious and express outrage again and again. A worthwhile alternative is perhaps to explore the
reasons why an annihilation of the self, so to speak, was even attempted. Probing in this direction
may well reveal that this was the stated aim for not just women, but for men, and for members of
different communities and station as well.
The role of the wife in the household gains in importance when we see that many sources
consider the grihasthaashrama dharma as the best of all four ashramadharmas. Leslie touches upon
this topic but fails to notice the weight placed on the contribution made by women to this ashrama
throughout history. Women are the pillars of this dharma; they sustain the other ashramadharmis by
feeding the mendicants who appear at their doors, by serving the young and old in the family alike.38
Tryambakas reason for allotting women different roles could have to do with menstruation. Some of
his rules on them state that the menstruating woman is forbidden the application of collyrium for
eyes; she cannot comb her hair or perform any similar activity. Tryambaka provides a long list of
things that will happen if she does all this; he asks her to be like a renunciate during this period.
According to Tryambaka, the child born of her (menstruating woman) will suffer from defects if she
does not follow the rules. That is, there is a relationship envisaged between what the mother does
during her menstruation and the child she will conceive. Since the traditional sciences such as
Ayurveda and Yoga emphasize on the prana energy of a person and on the doshas/elements in the
human bodyit is possible that such causal effects were envisaged. Leslie, however, concludes about
such rules thus: the detailed prohibitions to ensure that the menstruating woman is neither
available nor attractive to her husband at this time. She seems to be assuming that the forbidding of
the application of the collyrium for the eyes is to make the wife unattractive to the husband. She is
ignoring the reason Tryambaka explicitly stateschildbirth. Leslie is thus imagining the husband
wanting to have sexual intercourse with the wife, which then Tryambaka seems to prohibit! On the
contrary, Tryambakas reason is childbirth but other dharmashastras forbid sexual intercourse during
menstrual periods, which makes it sinful for the man as well. Once the traditional understanding is
ignored and the texts statements are overlooked, it is left to the imagination of the feminist reader to
imagine many demons where there may be none. Significantly enough, the menstruating woman after
her fourth day is allowed to have sexual intercourse with the husband, despite the fact her
rajas/bleeding may not have stopped.
In more than one instance, Tryambaka privileges the Gods more than the husband, indicating
the dharmic nature of the setting. For Gods are often substitutes to Gurus. Tryambaka says: the
menstruating woman after the fourth day may interact with her husband normally, despite the
bleeding, but she is not fit to perform the ritual worship of the gods and so on (daivaadikarma) (p.
287) until she is free of the bleeding. A similar preference is set in the MS as well. This brings us to the
core issue behind menstruation. The abhorrence of bodily fluids is not just to do with notions of
purity-pollution, but more, as we saw briefly earlier. There is an entire discourse about how bodily
fluids should be controlled and channelizedthis is especially true of semen in men. The fact that such
a fluid is not controllable in women is seen as a handicap within some of the Indian traditions. The



belief in an economy of fluids and its aid in sadhanais so strong that renunciates are to follow certain
rules without fail.39 Within this discourse, the involuntary outflow of fluids is considered the reason
why a womans body is not suitable to attain moksha, although it is suited to perform sadhana. It is
said that the final move towards moksha is successful only through a male body. 40Shankara thus says
in his Vivekachudamani: What greater fool is there than the man who having obtained a rare human
body, and a masculine body too, neglects to achieve the real end of this life? (1921, Verse 5). There
seems to be a technical and experiential aspect here that we cannot inquire into more but can
however, note down for its consistency. A deeper look at this discourse also helps us understand, to
some extent, the preference for male children in the familial lineage.Semen is seen as an amsa of the
parent that is passed onto children which male children can in turn pass on. This is how it is usually
explained: A mans sperm is viewed as his rasa or essence. a man replicates himself, creates a
second life for himself, in his sperm. (Black cites Olivelle, 2007, 11). 41 But Leslie reads some related
issues differently. When Tryambaka says that shortcomings like cheating, deviousness, greed and
cunning are the cause of female birth, Leslie concludes First, since sinfulness is the mark of female
birth, the female of the species is always lower than the male. Secondly, so deeply ingrained is this
sinfulness that it is more difficult for a female to be reborn as a male than it is for an animal to be
reborn as a human. (p. 247) The inherent sinful nature of women has been, as we saw, both argued
against and defended on the basis of menstruation. Leslie however concludes, quite baselessly that
Tryambaka thought that menstruation was a sign of sexual appetite and her innate impurity (p. 251).
It is important to ask if the husband is indeed the God for the wife. And if yes, why is such a
belief advocated as part of streedharma? The verse where the wife is asked to substitute pilgrimage
with the water from the husbands washed feet is significant here. Although we hear the patiparameshwar slogan in popular media, in the Stdp, we see Gods privileged more than the husband,
but at times the husband is privileged more than the Gods. For instance, in his section on widowhood,
Tryambaka states that the good wife may worship Vishnu only if she thinks all the time of her husband
and not of the god (p. 300). But this could be the case because Vishnu, who is real for Tryambaka is the
husband of Lakshmi. The relationship between the wife-husband could be conceived of, in terms
similar to that envisaged between Gods and humans, hierarchical to a great extent but also
partaking/sharing each other. Far from the Christian understanding of Gods role in human life as
omnipotent and omnipresent, there is mutual dependency and obligation between Gods and humans
in the Hindu traditions. This obligation also makes up the model of filial piety found in India and other
parts of Asia. It is unlikely that Tryambaka indeed believed that a wife should view her husband as God
because he also offers practical solutions to issuesin a surprisingly pragmatic manner when current
theoretical frames expect him to evoke elaborate shastric injunctions; his ensuring of stridhana and
other provisions for women complicates any simplistic understanding in this regard.The MS also
advises that women leave their husbands if the marriage does not work out, in a matter-of-fact way.42
Of all of Tryambakas chapters, those that emphasize on ritual duties are more in number than those
that endorse devotion towards the husband. The role of the wife in current times is intriguing to the
extent that many Indian women appear very detached, performing their household activities as duties;
neither viewing their husbands as Gods nor ready to tear the family apart for the inequalities they
suffer. It is possible that they have developed such an attitude because rituals/actions can be
performed in two ways, with attachment and desire or without it. Indian women, like those writing to
the journal Manushi (that Leslie invoked) seem to have chosen the latter.
Numerous renouncer-male bhaktas talk of women as obstacles to attaining Knowledge. But
women rarely spoke of men as obstacles to them, possibly because they were instead engaged in
streedharma, the alternative path. Yet, it seems that male bhaktas too used the rules of streedharma
and made God their husbands; such that, streedharma served them as a path to effectively erase their



sense of agency. Thus, the effectiveness of this path needs to be studied more. In the last part of Stdp,
Tryambaka relates many stories to emphasize the extent to which the wife must sacrifice pleasures for
her husband. But crucially placed here, to show the importance of streedharma, is the story of sage
Kaushika and the pativrata. The pativrata outshines the sage in her spiritual abilities. 43 The point of
the story is that following streedharma is equivalent to the sadhana of the ascetic, a befitting end we
could say to a treatise on streedharma. Lastly, Leslie says that They [Tryambakas views on women]
deserve to form part of the emerging picture of the religious role of Indian women. I agree. Women
spiritual aspirants should aim at arriving at a good understanding of the path and must then choose to
do as they please, rejecting it or reworking it, if possible with the help of valid practitioners. Or they
could choose other paths altogether, if so inclined. Streedharma is after all, one paddhati to gain access
to the insights of the tradition among many others.

See for e.g. Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood.2007.Eds. Preeti Gill and Uma Chakravarti.
Cambridge University Press/ Zubaan Publications.
2This is phrased in the Vedas as a quest into the nature of the Brahman and in other texts, the ways in
which to reach Him are elucidated.
3Alternatives to this are many. For instance, we see in the work of TalalAsad, an identification of
critical reason emerging from within traditions, a feature also found in Indian philosophical debates.
4GauriVishvanathan also points to the different way of reading that had developed during the 19 th
century, a time when Indian interaction with the British had intensified. The period is rife with
critiques of book worms and the skepticism of knowledge gained through reading of books; they are
widely available in the cartoons and popular media of the time.
5The discussion of the relationship between feminism and postcolonialism explores the problems of
location and universalism well. See Mohanty Under Western Eyes (1989). But these discussions had
just begun when Leslie was writing on the Stdp. Hence, it is probable that Leslie thought it sufficed to
read the Stdp by referencing it with other dharmashastras and epics. But the result is an isolationist
and a colonial-style reading of the text as also argued by Sugirtharajah (2001).
6Leslies methodology of reading kavyas and dharmashastras together is a necessary integrationist
view that often helps. But the characters she picks up from the kavyas are always negative ones. She
constantly picks Gandhari andYudhisthira and such others instead of the more vocal characters like
Draupadi.The Dharmashastras, according to Leslie are a mixture of reality and utopia. Her examples
for this are the prohibitions on wearing no blouse during the day, and no earrings during love-making
(p. 3). This understanding of such practical suggestions and their details is accurate. The attempt in
the dharmashastras is usually to consider as many practical possibilities of an event as possible.
7In my unpublished PhD thesis titled AkkaMahadevi: A Saint, Rebel and Poet?:A Study in Tradition
and its Feminist Understandings. 2011.
8Tryambakas definition of sushrushana in his conclusive chapter every action that brings pleasure to
ones husband (p. 313) is indeed the ideal of filial piety. By the same standard, hurting parents is said
to cause suffering according to both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation. That a woman
should obey her husband and put his wishes before any dharmashastric obligations even is
emphasized repeatedly in Tryambakas conclusion.Tryambakas reference to the virtuous patni (p.
41)who gets a preferential treatment also follows from this logic; she is of pleasant demeanour and
sweet words.The importance of filial duty is, in general, greatly stressed in all the dharmashastra texts.
Its rules apply not just to women, but to men and to others as well with respect to their station in life.



Punishments are levied on those who violate it ranging from violent to non-violent means (cf. Leslie,
1989, p. 56). Filial piety is one aspect that does not get discussed positively within feminist readings
and Leslie merely mentions details of the rules in dharmashastras without explaining them.
9Notable exceptions are Hadibadeya Dharma and The Book of Filial Piety for Women both by women
authors. SanchiyaHonnammasHadibadeya Dharma, aneighteenth century text also talks about the
duties of women. She too sees sati dharma as the highest dharma and states that the satismake the
rains fall and crops grow. Her descriptions of the serving of the husband is so similar to the worship of
the Gods, that VijayaRamaswamy concludes thus: A perfect pativrata is then by definition a perfect
spiritual being at whose feet even Gods and Brahmins worship. (Ramaswamy, 1997, 136).The Book of
Filial PietyforWomen in the Chinese philosophical tradition is a similar text by Miss Zheng (dated
eighth century).
10It is possible that western philosophers such as Husserl concluded that India was a wisdom culture
based on a reading of such a partial reading of texts. We have instead demonstrated through the table
the dharmashastras were based on philosophical discoveries conducted elsewhere.
11Riley argues that we inhabit many identities at once and no one identity such as even gender
completely and at all times. Ignoring this would amount to suggesting that gender over-determines us.
12In this context, the implication of reworking the concept of patriarchy to mean its effects in recent
feminist work disables research into pre-colonial India; we have to rethink/reassess this move and
reopen the question of the origin of patriarchy. In response to such theories, I advocate a move back to
studying social roles but am unable to explicate this in the space of this essay.
13Bhartrpara too is translated by Leslie as devoted to her husband (p 162) while it just means
someone on the side of the husbanda common stance expected of everyone in the filial set-up. This
corresponds to a Confucian notion of honour wherein filial duties rank the highest priority. Leslie also
translates pativrata as someone devoted to the husband. However, pati-vrata could simply mean she
who is engaged in a vratato do with the husband, the ritualized connotation of this will explored in the
next section. Recall in this context, Ramas self-proclaimed oath of ekapatnivrata.
14For e.g.A man who fails in his duty to his wife should put on the skin of a donkey with the hair
turned outwards and go to seven houses calling (out to each in turn): Give alms to a man who has
failed in his duty to his wife! And this should be his livelihood for six months. (Apastamba, cited in
Leslie, 1989, 287).
15The appeal to gods/goddesses reflects the post-puranic period in which the text is located. Such an
obeisance is not there in the grhyasutras, as Leslie point out; it is also not there in MS. The MS however
has an instance of offering obeisance to the guru.
16Verses on serving ones guru and guests show this.
17Tryambaka says at his mothers command.Leslies long drawn speculation on who this is, seems
unnecessary. The mother is quite obviously the Goddess Parvati.
18Leslies later statement, the uha of gender is increasingly ignored and ritual texts are more often
taken to apply only to men and that by the time of the later commentators, injunctions not given
specifically in the feminine form are assumed to refer only to the male sacrifice (p 114) is worth
pursuing in detail. There is an important history to unearth here but we may lack the necessary
sources that record that cause for such shifts. Modern developments or Islamic attacks since the eighth
century could be causes for such shifts. This point is significant because groups of women in recent
times have begun to perform sacrifices asserting their right to perform homamsetcbecause there is no
rule forbidding them from such a performance.




argues that in Leslies work we are offered a picture of a fixed and unchanging
tradition and a frozen Hindu patriarchy. (2001, 7)
20Many historians find this change awkward and insist that it needs accounting for. I agree with them.
Streedharma as a path may have replaced the upanayana in later times due to its social relevance.
21It is significant in this light that unmarried women dressed differently until a few decades ago, at
least in the Karnataka region; they did not wear sarees and tended to remain in the apparently maiden
dress: a blouse and skirt. What this demonstrates is that the saree from left side down was not only
worn first on the day of the marriage, but also that those unmarried did not wear it.
22Note here the meaningful insistence in some temples even to this day that men should not wear their
shirts for entry and women enter only in a saree.
23The dharmashastrins, however, differ on the right age for marriage of girls. There is no consensus on
the age of marriage in both the dharmashastras and Puranas. As Leslie herself points out, Savitri is
aged 18 when she sets off in search of her husband alone. Other dharmashastrins set the limit to age 3
or 4 or 3 months from the beginning of the menstruation.
24The two sexes were probably treated as different because of the social roles they performed. Leslie
compares them at many stages and expresses puzzlement that the two sexes do not perform the same
activities; men do not have to perform household tasks (p. 58).
25Tryambaka suggests that black earth be used by the women and the shudras for cleansing. But the
dharmashastras are also flexible: if one is unable to findthen any colour will do (p. 72). Another
such verse says that women should use teeth-cleaning twigs shorter than the shudras (p 78) and that
for shudras and women, the bath is silent, without mantras, according to the Gita (p. 83). The
arbitrary nature of the ruling becomes evident when one sees in the Smritichandrika that one may
use grass, leaves, water or ones fingers (p. 79). Other verses say that women and shudras require
half the amount of purification ritual as required for the twice-born man. Leslie notices inconsistency
in grouping women and shudras: no particular number of lumps of earth prescribed for women,
shudras and boys who have not undergone initiation. (p. 73).
26To understand why this was so, we need the help of Balagangadharas concept of non-normative
cultures. He argues that there was no prescriptive ought in heathen/pagan cultures and that it was
naturalized, that the normative talk, the moral talk, is a way of talking about experience but is not
itself an experience. (Balagangadhara, 2002)
27Note here that menstruation is considered as positive and negative in different parts of India and in
different traditions. In Rajasthan, menstruating women are considered auspicious and sow the first
seeds of the planting season. In other parts of India, menstruating women are believed to be harmful
to plants and impure. In Tantra, it is again seen positively but not so in mainstream ascetic traditions.
28When Tryambaka says in a verse that a womens mouth can never be impure, Leslies asks what the
relationship of the text to reality may have been. However, her speculation that womens mouths
cannot be ruled as impure because she has to be available for the mans kissing/sexual advances,
seems like an excessive reading.
29Sugirtharajah in her critique of Leslie says the bhakti traditions are more lenient and that Leslie
could have picked these texts up instead of the Stdp. I disagree.
30Leslies title The Perfect Wife suits the Stdp since it is clearly for the householder wife and not the
parivrajakawoman or the prostitute.
31Even Sugirtharajahobjects that Leslie uses a very patriarchal text to make her analysis. But we have
been able to understand Stdp without assuming or claiming that it is a patriarchal text. Here is where



my analysis departs from Sugirtharajahs. Feminist historians view streedharma as the system that
existed before new patriarchy during the nationalist resolution of the womens question in the 19 th
century took over. However, they do not always seek to understand its rationale.
32Reading streedharma as merely wifely duties can also make feminists wonder how they should
understand Rasasundari Devis interest in self-educating herself to read Chaitanyas biography. We
also lose access to regional glorifications of punyastree or mahasati.
33Furthermore, Kings Ekoji and Sahaji excelled as scholars and linguists. Sahaji composed music in
praise of the family deity, Sri Tyagaraja, and himself composed several works on pativratadharma.
34 A qualifier is added that states that he may take another wife, as long as he does so before the
sacrificial fires are kindled. This goes to prove my point about the importance of the ritualistic
attitude in all aspects of life in pre-colonial India.
35 Consistent with this, there is a rule in Smritichandrika that states that there are no unseen (adrshta)
rewards from marriages or unions other than the first. This again indicates that the first wife, who is
also the ritual partner, is the one who brings unseen benefits that is significant in the Hindu
philosophical world.
36 One dharmashastrin states: if the wife produces only daughtersthen she may be abandoned. The
reason for this may be the belief in some that amsa is necessarily carried through semen from one
generation to the next. Additionally, daughters adopting their husbands gotra, customs and lineage
and sociologically being given away may have led to the belief that daughters dont fulfil the function
of delivering from put. It is important to note however that many dharmashastras state that in the
absence of a son, a daughter maybe reclassified as son for many purposes, such as performing funeral
rites and also inheriting property.
37This aspect is noted well by scholars like Jamison (1996). ThoughLeslie notes that the wifes
presence for rituals is seen as important by some sources, when Tryambaka endorses it, she sees it as
a restrictive definition of her [the wifes] role. (p.130).
38The Smritichandrika stresses that the triple goals of the householder can be met only with the
cooperation of the wife, as glossed by Leslie (p. 54). Thus the wife supports the dharma, artha and
kama goals within the grihasthaashrama as well.
39 Gandhi in recent times explored this, and the Taoists recommended a disciplining of the body in this
regard. In Tantra and Yoga, semen finds specific roles, Pattanaik puts it thus: the state of urdhvaretas or the upward movement of semen which led to the blooming of charkas a series of psychophysiological changes that led to the appearance of boon-bestowing deities and change in the levels of
consciousness. In art, the state of urdhva-retas was depicted by the erect phallus of Shiva, the lord of
40BahinaBai (1682-1700) mourns this. But, we do not know if, in Bhakti, this barred women from
attaining liberation. She says: The Vedas cry aloud, the Puranas shout; No good may come to a
woman. I was born with a woman's body, How am I to attain truth? They [women] are foolish,
seductive, deceptive. Any connection with a woman is disastrous.Bahina says, If a woman's body is so
harmful, How in the world will I reach truth?
41Oliville sees this as having gender implications, which is accurate, but such a conclusion itself seems
simplistic in the light of the discourse.
42See Menski (2003b) for an acknowledgment of this. Tryambaka states that a husband should never
seize his wifes property as long as she is alive; if he does he should be punished by the king. (p. 279)



This story is discussed aptly as representing a tradition of knowledge-how byfeminist
philosophersDalmiya and Alcoff.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford University Press.
Balagangadhara S N. 1987. Comparative Anthropology and Action Sciences- An essay on knowing to
act and acting to know.Philosophica 40 (2): 77107.
Balagangadhara S N. 2002. Notes on Normativity and Normative Experience.Unpublished Paper.
Black, Brian. 2007. The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early
Upanishads. New York: State University of New York.
Buhler, G.The Laws of Manu.Halsall History Web Site Page. Also available at:
Dalmiya, Vrinda and Linda Alcoff. 1993.Are Old Wives Tales Justified? in Feminist Epistemologies.
Eds. Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter. New York: Routledge. 217-244.
Jamison, W Stephanie.1996. Sacrificed Wife/Sacrificer's Wife: Women, Ritual and Hospitality in Ancient
India. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leslie, Julia. 1989. The Perfect Wife (Stridharmapaddhati). By Tryambakayajvan. New Zealand: Penguin
Mani, Lata. 2008, 1989fp. Production of an official discourse on Sati in Early Nineteenth century
Bengal In Women and Social Reform in India.Eds. Sarkar and Sarkar.Indian University Press.
Menski, Werner. 2003b. Hindu Law: Between Tradition and Modernity. Oxford, New York: OUP.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 1997. Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial
Discourses. In Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and postcolonial perspectives. Eds.
McClintock and Shohat. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Ramaswamy, Vijaya. 1997. Walking Naked: Women, Society, Spirituality.New Delhi: OUP.
Riley, Denise. 1988. AmI That Name?Feminism and the Category of 'Women' in History. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Sangari, Kumkum&SudeshVaid. 1989. EdsRecasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. Delhi: Kali for
Shankaracharya.2005 (fp 1921).Vivekachudamani. Trans. Swami Madhavananda. Kolkata:
Staal, Frits. 1996. (1990 fp). Ritual and Mantras: Rules without Meaning. Delhi: MotilalBanarsidas
Sugirtharajah, Sharada. Courtly Text and Courting Sati Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.Vol. 17.
No 1 (Spring 2001) pp 5-32.
Viswanathan, Gauri. The Beginning of English Literary Study in British India.Oxford Literary Review
9:1-2 (1987) 2-26.


International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 95-109

ISSN 2277 7997

The Power of Our Words: Historical, Cultural and Political Observations

On the Concept of National Language
Margaret Lundberg
University of Washington, Tacoma
As the primary bearer of culture, language holds great power. This paper looks at
language through the lenses of history, politics and culture, to discover what it is that
language represents on both a personal and national level, and examines the ways it is
shaped by immigrants, refugees and exiles. It also examines historical examples of
nations who through conquest have stolen a peoples language as a way of
subjugating them, as well the more benign example of growth and assimilation
demonstrated by the history of the English language. Bilingual education in the United
States, and nations where multi-lingualism is state policy are considered, as well.
Finally, focusing on indigenous languages on a smaller scale, it draws attention to the
current revival efforts involving Native American languages, specifically the
Lushootseed language of the Pacific Northwest region of the United States.
Keywords: National language, identity, culture, immigrant.
Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded
and preserved. It has arrested ten thousand lightning flashes of genius, which, unless thus fixed and
arrested, might have been as bright, but would have also been as quickly passing and perishing, as the
lightning. Richard Chevenix Trench (1807-1886)

Words are powerful things. They reveal our thoughts, give us power in our relationships with
those around us, and reveal our identity to the world. Authors speak of having a voice, and we grow to
recognize their voices through the words on a page. But words are merely the tools of a language that
communicates our identity, both personal and cultural. Because those identities are so much a part of
who we are, we guard our languages well.
As the primary bearer of culture, language holds great power, and as such it is inseparable
from ideas of politics and influence. In examining some of the political aspects of language, it seems as
if expedience and a fear of the other has far too often led the way when it comes to national decisions
on language policy. This paper will look at language through the lenses of history, politics and culture,
to discover what it is that language represents to us, on both a personal and national level. It will offer
examples of nations which have, as a result of conquest, stolen a peoples language as a way of
subjugation, as well as more benign examples of language loss or gain by assimilation into a larger
This paper also examines historical thoughts on the meaning of a national languageas both
a way to unite a nation, and a way to separate from other nations as well as examining multi-lingual


nations to see how they function. It will discuss the current revival process for several Native
American languages, most specifically those in the United States Pacific Northwest--with the
Lushootseed languages as my primary example.
Botz-Borsteins (2006) concept of ethnophilosophy, defined as a kind of anthropology with
an incorporated interest in metaphysical questions (p. 154) isthe philosophical approachused in this
paper,observing language as a sort of ethnoscape, as it is defined by Arjun Appadurai. Viewing
language as an ideoscape that is shaped by immigrants, refugees and exiles (p. 162), Appadurais
observation becomes a perfect viewfinder for examining language and what it represents to us as the
bearer of culture and identity, as well as the political power it carries as it travels around the globe.
As Botz-Borstein (2006) discusses Appadurais idea of scapes, he adds that in the realm of ideas,
migrant notions and refugee concepts have been moving around the globe for centuries, probably
because ideas are easier to displace than anything else in the world (p. 162). It is this prospect of a
dislocation of ideas which makes an awareness of the connection between language and culture so
important. It is vital to realize that both Appadurai and Botz-Borstein are speaking of the movement of
ideas as not only a cultural infusion, but also from the standpoint of the refugeesthose who have lost
their location, and have only their ideas left to them. With their lost culture bound upwithin their
language, the loss of that language would truly representto them the end of their identity.
Examining ideas of a political system that seeks to take away the language of the immigrant
and refugee, Dusseldefinesthose systems as public spaces that give rise to the"legitimacy of a central
power. Based on the will of the people and their will to live, Dussel (2011) states they aresubject to
"consensual rules known by the dominant members of the political system [which] are now valid in
the public sphere" (p. 10). These views play out daily in terms of national language and the "English
Only" movement in the United States. The dominant playersthose who seek to get "the people" to
rally around an issue like a common languageare anxious to construct rules they believe are vital for
unifying the country, or forcing out any form of "difference" that may become dissidence. It would be
worth noting that other cultures which have dealt with issues of multi-lingualism have managed to
"leave room" within their culture for extraordinary ethnic, linguistic, political and cultural
diversity and to "incorporate the traditions and accomplishments " (Dussel, 2011, p.20), of
those with whom they live side by side. Instead of giving into an imagined need to protect ourselves
from the contamination of other tongues, we might instead try to gain insights from the
accomplishments of those with whom we come into regular contact within the world's language
In observing nations where multi-lingualism has been practiced historically, movementsfor
the creation of an official national languagewhether in the United States or other nations around the
worldbring the idea of bilingual education forthe children of immigrants to the fore. This paper will
look at bilingual education policies in the United States, and at multilingualismin nations such as
Papua New Guinea, Canada, India, South Africa, and Switzerlandwhere it is state policy. Each of
these nations acknowledges the rights of the people to speak their language of choice, and has set
public policy to make such choices possible in the public domain. Finally, it will look specifically at
Pacific Northwest Native American cultures in the United States that have come very close to losing
their native languages, but which are now in the process of reclaiming them before they can disappear
forever. The Tulalip Tribe of the Eastern Puget Sound region are currently in the midst of projects
working to pull their Lushootseed language back from the edge of extinction, and this paper will
discuss tribal efforts in its revival.



Language as an Identifier of Personal and Cultural Identity
It is evident that unity of speech is essential to the unity of a people. Community of language is a
stronger bond than identity of religion or government, and contemporaneous nations of one speech
are essentially one in culture, one in influence. G.P. Marsh (1860)
Language is often considered to be the greatest common-denominator of a nation; it is seen as
the glue that holds different people together, with a socially unifying tendency especially in times of
national crisis or warthe one who speaks my language becomes, quite literally, my family (Crowley,
1989, p. 78).
Language carries a culture within its words. It holds the scientific knowledge, customs, and
history of a people. Examine the any language and you will discoverits neighbors, its conquerors, and
its conquered. You will learn what its speakers value, and what they know. Our language tells us who
we are. Language unites, and language divides. It lets some in, and keeps others out.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, as African nations were divided along boundaries that
considered neither language nor former kingdoms, these nation-states were almost literally "imagined
into being" as a way to unite communities. They also "often divide[d] real communities that share[d]
language and culture" (Garcia, 2009, p. 25). As these cultures were divided, and later recombined
with others, sometimes based on nothing more than riverbanks or other geographical features,
language changed from the glue that holds a people group together, to a weapon that coulddrive them
Historical aspects of Language Development
They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps .William Shakespeare (Loves
Labors Lost-5.1.39)

Languages have evolved throughout history due to the influences of or conquest by other
those who spoke other languages.Examples of this evolution are found world-wide as we examine the
development of modern European languages from what is known by linguists as the Proto-IndoEuropean language..
Linguistic comparisons can offer great examples of similarities that stand as evidence for
common origin. Languages as seemingly diverse as English, Spanish and Hindi are all descended from
the common branch of Indo-European languages, and show great similarities in many basic words
such as you (t in Spanish, and tum in Hindi), my or mine(me in both Spanish and Hindi) and words
like who, what or why(Quin, qu, por qu in Spanish, and kuan, kyakyo [pronounced cue] in Hindi).
Although, the origins of these languages, followed back far enough, seem to disappear into the
mists of time, it is clear that all languages have not only common roots, but have been greatly
influenced by all other languages with which they came in contact. There is a Biblical story found in
the book of Genesis that offers explanation for ourmyriad human languages:
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same wordsAnd they said
Come let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make
for ourselvesa name; lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earthAnd the Lord said, Behold,
they are one people, and they all have the same languageand now nothing which they purpose to do
will be impossible for them. Come let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not
understand one anothers speech. (Gen. 1: 1, 4, 6-7)



Similar stories are found among cultures throughout history and around the world, including
Mesoamerica and Polynesia, among Australian Aborigines, in Native American tales, and even Homers
Odyssey (Velikovsky, n.d.)
There is much more that could be said about the development of languages world-wide
language has been both the tool and result of conquest from its very beginningsbut for the purposes
of this discussion, this paperwill focus on the development of the English language as it evolved in
Although we usually consider England and its language as inseparable partners, the English
language has only been in existence there in any form for about 1500 years. The earliest known
culture to exist in England were the Celts (although they were definitely not the first humans there),
arriving in the early days of the Bronze Age. The Romans followed in 55 CE, with the invasion by Julius
Caesar, bringing Latin with themtraces of which still remain in place names, Roman baths, and the
occasional archeological find. A great many Latin inscriptions have been found, most coming from
military outposts, and in official writings, but the use of Latin by the larger population of the time was
not extensive (Baugh& Cable 1993, p. 43-45). When the last of the Roman legions left England in 410
CE, they left behind a few traces of their language that can yet be found in modern English today.
Romes retreat from England was followed by waves of invasionby Germanic tribes. The Jutes,
Saxons, and Angles, all left their mark on the developing English language,although it was the Saxons
who played the predominant role, both in English history and on the continent of Europe. Yet, it is the
Angles who left their name behind in boththe nation and its language (Bryson 1990).
Moving ahead a few hundred years, we find invasions by the Norman French, who took over
the language of the royal court with such vigor that no king of England spoke English for the next 300
years (Bryson, 1990, p. 54). All official business was done in Frenchalthough the common people of
the day did not speak it, continuing to speak their English language. But for English, the damage was
done anyway, with over 10,000 words of Norman French being left behind in words such as justice,
jury, felony, and marriage. According to Bryson (1990), nearly all of our English words that relate to
government and jurisprudence have come to us as a result of the French invasion. We can also see its
influence in words like pork (for the Saxon pig) and beef (for the Saxon cow).
As it turns out, many of the words that we see as wholly English have been left behind by
ancient conquerors or influenced by neighbors. No language is truly untouched or pure. However,
the languages that we speak do express the culture that we
hold to, in spite of the fact that they have been affected by
those around them.
All of these historical language politics can seem
relatively benign as we view them from our vantage point
hundreds of years after the fact, especially as compared to
some of the tactics used by others in the more recent past.
Language as Politics in 20th century History

Figure 1: Baseball Extra (2000).

Caren, E.

In Germany, during the years leading up to World

War II, language and rhetoric were put to great use to
encourage the German people to fall into line with Hitlers
plans. Pine (1997) describes the Naziuse ofwords resounding
with wholesomeness and health in propaganda,churning out
terms like alien, inferior, undesirable, asocial, to



convince the German people of the appropriateness of Nazi values regarding those who were not
racially German, or otherwise deemedunfit. Sterilization of the unfit and euthanasia of those
thoughtvalueless became the moral duty of an improved German race (p. 10). Pine also speaks of
the socialization of girls as future mothers, the use of textbooks to inculcate German children with
Nazi family ideals, and the education of women in household and family duties (p. 4), as a way to
further their goals of increased fertility and a kinderreich(child rich) family of four or more children. A
nation that plans to take over the world must have a larger population to promote its values, and the
Nazi party used language as a primary tool to persuade the people.
Gross(2010) speaks of the ideologies of the Nazi Third Reich which created what he calls a
systematically distorted communication, in essence, language designed to mislead its hearers.
Offering the words of Victor Klemperer, he writes, Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the
people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on
themmechanically and unconsciously . Language thinks for you (Klemperer, 2002; cited by Gross,
2010, p. 343). This distorted language so permeated German life, that even its victims used it in their
everyday life (p. 343). This rhetorical language, which often took on religious overtones, was accepted
by millions and drew the people together with its common objective (p. 344).
Another political tactic involving the use of language, which seems much less threatening in
comparisonused in Europe not-so-long-agowas a forced assimilation of the Czechs by the
Russians in the years after the Second World War. The article below, reprinted from the October 10,
1949 edition of The San Antonio Express, comes across as a relatively benign contest barely worthy of
mention in an Associated Press article.This small article records just one of many devices employed
throughout history for subjugating the conquered to their conqueror. When Communist Russia had
taken power over Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1948, one of the first things they did was take
control of the peoples languageoffering prizes for those who learned Russian the fastest.
A people without their own language would be far easier to control.
Although examples of this use of language for political purposes are numerous, one last
example of the language politics of the conqueror is found in the history of Native American languages
and their near-criminalization as the 19th century United States government attempted to force
assimilation in the interest of national security.
Native American Languages
In the difference of language to-day lies two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Schools should be established,
which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the
English language substituted. -Report of the Indian Peace Commissioners(1868)

During the early years of American colonization, Native American languages were learned by
somesettlers as a way to communicate and spread Christianity among the indigenous people. The
Reverend John Eliot came to America in 1631, and after learning the language, began preaching to the
Massachusetts Indians in 1646 in their own tongue.By 1663 he had printed the first New Testament in
their language, and began to use it for the purposes of education. Missionaries were originally very
aware of the benefits of teaching the indigenous people in their own languages, and in the early 19th c.
books written in the Chippewa language were being used in mission schools very effectively (Reyhner,
At the end of the Civil War, President Grantin an effort to end the Indian Wars appointed
a commission to decide how best to assimilate the Indian and bring about a peaceful resolution to the
hostilities faced by the army on the frontier (Reyhner, 1993, p. 36). These commissioners were
convinced that the key to solving the problem was in offering to Native American children a "White



Man's education," away from their families in government boarding schools (p. 37), where they could
be taught a more civilized language and culture.
But this very idea that the problems caused by herding the Native American onto desolate
reservations could be solved by taking away their language and culture seems somehow ludicrous, yet
the findings of the commission stated that
by educating the children of these tribes in the English language these differences would have
disappeared, and civilization would have followed at once.... Through sameness of language is
produced sameness of sentiment, and thought; customs and habits are molded and assimilated in the
same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually
obliterated.... In the difference of language to-day lies two-thirds of our trouble.... Schools should be
established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out
and the English language substituted. (Report of the Indian Peace Commissioners, 1868; cited in
Reyhner, p. 37).

However, not everyone went along with these ideas of "effective teaching." In 1871, the
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions published an editorial in their monthly
newspaper Iapi Oaye(The Word Carrier) that stated:
It is sheer laziness in the teacher to berate his [Native American] scholars for not understanding
English, when he does not understand enough [of their language] to tell them the meaning of a single
one of the sentences he is trying to make them understand properly, though they have no idea of the
sense. The teacher with his superior mind should be able to learn a half a dozen languages while these
children are learning one. Even though the teacher's object was only to have them master English, he
had better teach it to them in [their native language], so that they may understand what they are
learning. -(cited in Reyhner, 1993, p. 39)

In 1868, the president of Dartmouth University, the Rev. Asa Dodge Smith, also spoke to this
idea of teaching Native American children without the use of their own language. He is quoted as
saying that "the idea of reaching and permanently elevating the great mass of any people whatever, by
first teaching them a foreign tongue, is too absurd to ever have been entertained by sane men"
(Reyhner,1993,p. 38). Unfortunately, no one was listening. Teachers and administrators who knew
nothing about their students language or way of life oversaw reservation schools, and use of English
alone as the language of instruction was strongly enforcedsometimes by a leather strap (p. 39), and
sometimes by a mouthful of lye soap (Kapralos 2008, p. 2).
This forced assimilation of Native American children continued into the 20 th century, but even
when the boarding schools closed, the stigma attached to these languages remained entrenched in
American culture. While persecution and prejudice has waxed and waned over the subsequent
decades, both Native Americans and new immigrants have dealt with their identity as a part of the
Exteriority to the Totality of American culture. Although there is some current good news regarding
Native American languagesthat were once greatly marginalizedand in some cases threatened with
extinctionwe will return to the topic later, and now examine attitudes toward the Immigrant in
American culture since the end of the 19 th century.
Language and the Immigrant
Two things are essentialTo speak, to read, to write the English Language and to have a Bank
Account. Then with the American Flag flying over your home, YOU ARE SAFE and your children are
safe. Then you count. Without these two essentials, you dont count. In Rome do as the Romans do. In
America do as the Americans do. Save Money. Get ahead.
-Advertisement for Middlesex Trust Co. Lowell Massachusetts (1919)



In the United States, we have often been concerned about the lack of English language skills by
those who have migrated to our shores. High levels of immigration have historically led to either an
outbreak of xenophobia or a push for Americanization of new immigrants (Schmid 2001, p. 32). The
late 1800s was just such a period in US history when manynewimmigrants came from poorer and less
democratic regions in Europe, and were considered less educated, more clannish, slower to learn
English, and generally less desirable as citizens than the old immigrants (Handlin, 1957; cited by
Schmid, 2001, p. 33). These sentiments were echoed by others who claimed that unlike earlier
immigrants, many of the latecomers [showed] no desire of becoming Americans (Hill, 1919; cited by
Schmid, 2001, p. 33).
With attitudes becoming decidedly anti-immigrant, legislation began to spring up to legalize
discrimination with attempts to put into place the first English-language requirement to gain
naturalized citizenship, and state policies that stated that English would become the sole language of
instruction in fifteen states (Schmid,2001,p.36). Oregon created a law that required foreign language
newspapers to publish English translationswith the law coming from a place of fear of the other
that eventually sounded the death-knell for many of those newspapers.
In the early 20th century, German-Americans were the largest language minority in the United
States. Although schools inmany large German-American communities up to that time had been using
German as a language of instructionwith no outcry from the surrounding communitiesthe advent
of World War I, changed all that. After the US entered the war, anything even tenuouslyconsidered
German was viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Many states took harsh measures against GermanAmericans, banning not only the speaking of German in school instruction, but also German music,
literature, church sermons, even going so far as to outlaw the speaking of German over the
telephonewith high penalties for ignoring the law (Schmid, 2001, p. 36).
Attempts to stem the flow of undesirable immigrants used language, religion, color, and
country of origin as identifiers of those who seemed less likely to fully identify as Americans, in an
effort to deny them access to Americas shores (Schmid, 2001, p. 40).Throughout history wehave been
consistentlyfaced with our own nationalist suspicions rightly bred by colonialism, racism and
persistent metropolitan snobbery (Schneewind, 2005, p.177-178), and it becomes essential come to
terms withthese realities.For a nation overwhelmingly comprised of the descendants of foreign
immigrants, America became remarkably xenophobic during those years.
Another language group that came under great persecution toward the middle of the 20th
century was the Japanese. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. entry into World
War II, Japanese language speakerscitizens or notwere subject to virtual imprisonment, and in
some cases questioning to determine their loyalty to the United States. According to Howard (2008),
perceived cultural assimilation [w]as [seen as] a proxy for loyalty (p. 210), leading many to see those
who still spoke Japanese at home as potential enemies. Second generation, native born United States
citizens of Japanese descent were required to fill out questionnaires about their national allegiance,
receiving two points if they marked their religion as Christian, but losing two if they were able to
speak, read or write Japanese. These questionnaires, used particularly at the Tule Lake internment
camp in Arkansas were meant to weed through and gain release for those discovered to be loyal to the
U.S., but proved such an embarrassment that they were tossed out without further use (Howard,
2008).For most, release from the camps came only with the end of the war.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, various groups have come under intense
language discrimination at various timesRussians and Arabs, in particularbut none more than
Mexicans and other Latino groups. Because of a strong desire to maintain their language and cultural
heritage, they are seen by some as resistant to learning English.Howeveramong native Spanish



speakers age five and older (Schmid,2001), nearly three-quarters claimed to speak English welland
the same was true among every other language on the list. Since it is clear that recent immigrants are
not resisting learning the English language, what is causing the current anti-immigrant attitude
toward Hispanics?
According to Schmid (2001), many Americans believe that most immigrants enter the U.S.
illegally, rather than legally. She quotes a 1996 CBS News poll that found 73% of Hispanics, 69% of
African Americans, and 62% of whites believing that most people in the previous 10 years had
emigrated illegally (Public Agenda Online, 1999a; quoted by Schmid, 2001, p. 80), when in reality most
immigrants enter the country legally. Even among illegal aliens, the vast majority enters legally, but
continues to stay even though their visas have expired (p. 80). There is clearly a mistaken impression
of Mexicans who illegally cross the U.S. border as theonly source of illegal aliens in the nation, and with
a large Spanish-speaking population in the southern U.S., it becomes too easy to assume that most of
them are illegals.
Speaking a language other than English has long been seen as an indication of outsider
statusin the United States, and currentlySpanish speakers have faced that sentiment most strongly
(Bergman, Watrous-Rodriguez and Chalkley, 2007). With a recent emphasis in the media on illegal
immigration, there are places where simply speaking Spanish is enough to cause people to decide that
the speaker must be an illegal.Accented English, spoken by anyone who is not a native-English
speaker, becomes a mark of a minority position that will often bring a discriminatory response (p. 43).
Because of this growing backlash against Spanish and other minority speakers, bilingual
education is becoming more important as an aid to assimilation, but it is also being threatened as some
see it as a way to enable Spanish-speaking children to get away without learning English in schools.
However, with a growing population of non-English speakers, bilingual education becomes even more
vital to making inclusion in American society possible for these children.
Bilingual Education
On educational grounds we recommend that the use of the mother tongue be extended to as late a
stage in education as possible. In particular, pupils should begin their schooling through the medium
of the mother tongue, because they understand it best and because to begin their school life in the
mother tongue will make the break between home and school as small as possible. - UNESCO

Bilingual education in both Greek and Latin was common in childrens educationduring the
days of the Roman Empire (Garcia 2009, p. 13). Seen as a form of enrichment,it was encouraged
among future citizens of Rome, enabling them to become more productive members of their
communities.Throughout history it was common for school books to be written in a language other
than the common language that children speak at home, with students reading sacred texts in one
language, and commentaries written in another (Garcia p. 13). St. Augustine, a Medieval (354-430 CE)
philosopher and theologian, learned Latin in his birthplace of Thagaste, located in a Berber-speaking
region of North Africa. Greek was taught in his school, thoughhating the languageAugustine never
really learned it (Augustine, 1992). Knowledge of more than one language has been the historical
norm among the educated for centuries.
It is only during the 20th century that bilingual education seems to become an issue, as a
result of "modernist development[al] ideological frameworks that imagined, constructed, and
narrated a nation-state into being one language, and thus considered bilingualism to be a problem"
(Garcia 2009, p.14). In the 1920s, bilingualism came to be seen as a language handicap. Psychological
studies began to appear that showed bilingual children as inferiorscoring lower on intelligence



tests, and on a range of verbal and non-verbal linguistic tests, which were undoubtedly delivered in
English, as compared to monolingual children. These findings gave a great deal of weight to ideas of
reducing foreign language instruction (Schmid 2001, p. 40).
Common around the world, bilingual education offers immigrants an opportunity to use their
primary language as a tool to learn a second language. Study after study has shown that for most
individualschildren in particularconcepts learned in one language can be transferred "easily to a
second or third or other later-acquired languages" (Tucker, 1999, p. 336). Teaching children in a
familiar language produces much more rapid learning, and will ultimately lead to expertise in a second
language as well.
According to Garcia, it has been with the rise of globalization in the 20 th century that
"languages which symbolized national identity were standardized, codified, and used in schools, to the
exclusion of others" (Garcia 2009, p.14). Garcia also holds that bilingual education has been
recognized around the world as having the ability to do for the greater population what it had
historically done for the elite, enabling them to "acquire the language of power through schooling" (p.
14). A. Bruce Gardner, speaking for the U.S. Office of Education, during subcommittee hearings on The
Bilingual Education Act of 1968, stated that:
Language is the most important exteriorization of manifestation of the self, of the human personality.
If the school, the all-powerful school, rejects the mother tongue of an entire group of children, it can be
expected to affect seriously and adversely those childrens concepts of their parents, their homes, and
themselves. (cited in Crawford 1992, p. 78)
With the prevailing sink or swim policies of the day resulting in little more than confusion,
failure, and frustration (p. 78) for teachers and students alike, it became clear to some that something
must be done.
The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 (Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act) was initially written to include only Spanish-speaking students, but eventually came to include
all children whose Native tongue was not English (Leibowitz, 1971; cited in Wiley & Wright 2004, p.
153). The bill directed aid specifically to schools with a large percentage of low income families in an
effort to reach children considered deficient in English. Beginning in 1970 with 134 programs using
16 languages, the program had grown within four years to include 220 programs that served about
340,000 studentswith 85% of the funds going toward Spanish-speaking children (Kloss, 1977; cited
in Wiley & Wright, p. 153).
Yet, in spite of the efforts of some to extend bilingual education programs to more students, in
the hopes of enabling them to learn English, and become better assimilated into American culture,
there are moves on the parts of others to do away with such programs entirely. In many states around
the nation, English Only efforts have sprung up, working to declare English the sole national
language, eliminating many of these language concessions now available for immigrants.
English Only movement in the United States
What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
And one who knows only one?
American. Portes and Raumbaut (1996)
It is a commonly held myth that the United States has always been a monolingual nation, with
English as its first and only language. In thetraditional Western view, the history of the Americas
began with Spanish Conquistadors discovering a nearly empty continent, overflowing with abundant,
untapped resources. The reality was, however, that the Spaniards stumbled across
multiplecivilizations in full-flower: rich in culture, political organization and wealth (Dussel 2011). It



was a land populated by tens of millions of Native Americans spread across vast spaces, and speaking
approximately 500 different languages (May 2008). According to the first US census in 1790, only
about 75% of the population were native English speakers (Lepore, 2002), with the rest representing
a diverse pool of native speakers of other languages (Wiley & Wright 2004, p. 142). Spanish, French,
Dutch, Swedish and German settlersalong with African slavesbrought with them numerous
languages and dialects, creating a rich and diverse linguistic landscape (May, 2008, p. 208).Languages
bumped up against each other, each struggling for supremacy, while pidgins and creoles developed
along linguistic borders (Baugh & Cable, 1993, p. 325). In spite of our impressions of the United
States as a culture held together by a single language, multi-lingualism has been a significantfeature of
the US since itsearliest beginnings.
The daily realities of language in the United States today are a result of its history as a nation
of immigrantsa history that has not always been so easily accepted. It would seem that as soon as
our particular family was assimilated into American culture, Americans grew increasingly
contentious towards those who had just arrived in the melting pot.
The view of immigration in the 20th century is a representation of one law after another bent
on eliminating certain people groups from the mix. At first,according to Schmid (2001), the law
worked to favor Northern Europeans over Southern Europeans. Later it was Chinese and Japanese
immigrants who were excluded and kept from citizenshipeven if they were already hereand
occasionallylaws allowed for the exclusion of immigrants from certain types of employment.Yet
whatever the reasons offered, it all seemed to come down to language.
English Only movements began to proliferate widely during the last two decades of the 20 th
century. Rhetoric spread rapidly, leading to the belief that English as the primary language of the
United States was in danger of beingoverthrown, as multi-lingualism became the norm. The dangers
of language diversity were trumpeted as a major cause of social conflict, and this conflict, so it goes,
could only be set right through legislation that made English the official language of the United
States. Although, these groups claimed concern about all languages spoken by immigrants, in reality it
was Spanish speakers who concerned them the most (Massachusetts English Plus Coalition).There are
those who believe that making allowances for multi-lingualism will ultimately lead to the
transformation of America from the core Anglo-Protestant culture plus ethnic subcultures that it has
had for three centuries (Huntington 2004, p. 316), into a nation with two languages and two
culturesHispanic and English.
For a long time, Official English bills died in legislative committee and never made it to the
ballotbox, but those which did won easily for the most part. Crawford (1992)noted, voting against
English was simply counterintuitive.The very fact that some people, mostly minorities, were
opposing English as the official language seemed to confirm that English was threatened(p. 17). In
spite of the fact that the 1980 Census reported 98% of U.S. residents over the age of four spoke
English well or very well, and that over forty thousand immigrants were on waiting lists for ESL
classes in Los Angeles alone, [p]roponents of Official English [linked] language to God and Country
sentiments and worked hard to pass legislation in state after state (Crawford, 1992, p. 17). As of
2012, there were 31 states that named English as their official language (
Groups such as U.S. English, Inc.(2012), an organization dedicated to making English the sole
official language of the United States, argues against things such as multilingual ballots and bilingual
education,saying the government is only hurting non-English speakers by providing translations in
other languages and perpetuating the myth that this is an English optional society (,
2012). While claiming to be acting in the best interest of the non-English speaker,such groups are



firmly placing non-native speakers and new immigrants on the fringes of society, making them what
Dussel calls the Alterity, or the victim of the Totality of American society. Discussing the authority
of law, Dussel offers the explanation that the law gives life when the order is just. When the law
represses the possibility of the new it kills (Dussel, 2011, p. 72). Bycreating a law that would
effectively cut immigrants off from legal documents they can read and understand, and offering in
their place a document that theycannot read, the law is effectively repressing any prospect for gaining
information. Without drivers license tests or other official documents printed in a language that a
person couldread with clarity, one would be truly set on the outside. On a purely practical level,
cutting off translation services before increasing the availability of ESL instruction will only cause
more problems for the publicas well as the immigrant.
Although American society is struggling with ways to deal with the multiple languages spoken
within its borders, there are nations around the globe who have found effective ways to be act as
multilingual societies. The practical aspects of multilingualism may not be easy to manage, but
numerous nations demonstrate that it is possible.
Multi-lingual Nations around the world
The language of our thoughts and our emotions is our most valuable asset. Multilingualism is our ally
in ensuring quality education for all, in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination.
- Eurasia Review (March 8, 2012)

Of approximately two hundred nations around the globe, fewer than fifty recognize more than
one official language, yet at the same many nations are functionally bilingual or multi-lingual, rather
than simply monolingual (Tucker, 1999). A few of those nations are made up of multiple language
groupsone of the largest is Papua New Guinea which linguist say is represented by over 870
different languages. It is common there for a child to speak multiple languagesone at home, another
at school, and still another in the local marketplace. If that child continues onto a formal education, you
can add a fourthtypically Englisha situation that is not at all unusual in many parts of the world
(Tucker, 1999).
Canada is an officially bilingual nation, with many languages represented on a daily basis. The
Canadian constitution requires the government to offer official documents and government services in
both of its official languages. Approximately 25% of the population speaks French almost exclusively,
with many more speaking both languages. The Canadian Territory of Nunavut is approximately 85%
Innuit, with its official languages listed as French, English and the Innuit dialects of Inuktitut and
Inuinnaqtun. In many of the more isolated areas, the indigenous people have retained their original
languages, although most speak either French, Englishor sometimes both. Additionally, according to
the 2011 Canadian census, immigrants add even more languages to the mixover 200 languages are
reported by residents as a mother tongue spoken in the home (Statistics Canada, 2011).
India is an additional example of a functional multi-lingual society. With the second largest
population on the planet, India is home to over 200 minor languageswith 18 recognized by the
Indian Constitution as official languages. Hindi was recognized first as India declared her
independence from Great Britain in 1947, but with much of the existing government infrastructure
and many of the wealthier, more educated citizens speaking English, it was also declared a national
language. Over time, other languages were added, and each Indian state has the authority to add their
own official languages, making India effectively multi-lingual, with many Indian citizens using one
language at home and another in the marketplace (Sharma, 2001).
South Africa is also an officially multi-lingual nation, with 11 official languages and many more
that are unofficial, along with many European and Asian languages spoken as well.



English is considered the language of business, politics and the media, (southafrica
but it only ranks fifth among the national languages of South Africa with the greatest number of
speakers. Most South Africans are multi-lingual; although English and Afrikaans speakers are fairly
fluent in each others language, however not in the various indigenous languages
With nearlyone-quarter of the nations around the globe recorded as officially bi- or multilingual, it is clear a multi-lingual nation is a feasible option. It would seem that the arguments about a
lack of social cohesion with a multitude of languages are suspect at best. Most citizens of multi-lingual
nations become effectively multi-lingual, and national business runs smoothly on a daily basis.
In the United States, which historically has not been supportive of multiple languages spoken
in society, it is good to see that some cultures who were previously forced to give up their languages
are now attempting to bring those languages back. In the Pacific Northwest region, one of those
languages is Lushootseed, spoken by the Pacific Coast Salish Tribes. Taking on the monumental task of
reviving a near-dead oral language, documenting it for the first time, and restoring it to use is an
amazing story of determination and desire to regain a nearly-lost cultureand one well worth telling!
Revival of Native American Languages in the Pacific Northwest
Native American languages are in a major state of decline. The present and future language
survival schools can turn this sad state of affairs around for at least some languages. Along with their
languages are being lost eloquent speech-making and story-telling skills, powerful oral literature,
philosophical frameworks, environ-mental knowledge, and diverse world views." - Leanne Hinton
At St. Anne's Mission on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, Mass is being celebrated for the first
time,at least in part, in the ancient Lushootseed language of Pacific Coast Salish Indian tribes. Thanks
to the efforts of linguists like Vi Halburt and others, this language that was once on the verge of
extinction is being painstakingly recorded and documented, and is now being taught in tribal schools
and used in public meetings such as the celebration of this Catholic Mass (Kapralos, 2008).
As the last of many of their native speakers are dying out, there has been a race to preserve
these Native American languages before they are gone forever. Tribes are in the midst ofrecording and
transcribing their languagessome of which have never even been written before-- all in an effort to
capture not only a language, but the culture that it contains. Mel Sheldon, chairman of the board of the
Tulalip Tribes is quoted as saying, "Language is who you are. It's that anchor, it's another way to
believe in yourself, to know yourself" (Mapes 2008, p. 2). Language is an expression of our
personhood to the world; to lose it is to lose a part of ones self.
Languages are bearers of culture, holding the collective knowledge of a people group
scientific, historic, environmental, and religious. A language can tell us about family relations,
understanding of time and geographysometimes offering theentire worldview of a culture in just a
few sentences.
Language scholars believe that before the arrival of the Spanish explorers in North America,
there were hundreds of languages spoken here in what is now the United States. Today there are still
nearly 175 in existence, but 90% of those are on the verge of extinction, with very few children
speaking them as a first language. There are about 16 native languages still actively spoken in
Washington state-- Makah, Okanagan, Quileute and Lushootseed among thembut many of them have
been teetering on the edge of extinction. Although some schools are now teaching these languages in
high schools (and even some elementary schools), this has been a difficult undertaking with so few



qualified teachers. In 2006-07, there were fourteen instructors certified by tribes to teach language in
their public schools (Mapes 2008, p. 2).
However, tribal schools are making language instruction a priority, in spite of the difficulties.
Teresa Iyaall-Williams, principal at Tulalip Elementary reports that language instruction increases
student's engagement, and allows them to finally "see themselves in the curriculum" (Mapes p. 2).
Non-native students have enjoyed learning the language, as well as discovering a bit about the culture.
Teachers have discovered that learning another language has helped hone students knowledge of
English syntax and grammar as they seek to understand sentence structure in the second language
(Mapes, p. 3).
God designed Man for a Sociable Creature, made him with not only an inclination and under a
necessity to have fellowship with those of his own kind; but furnished him with Language, which was
to be a greatInstrument, and a Common Tie of Society.- John Locke (1690)

Language and identity are so closely linked that it can easily be said that the language that we
speak is "crucial to our identity to the degree to which we define ourselves by it" (May 2008, p.135).
Forimmigrants, their language both separates them from those in their new home, and ties themto a
family and community left behind. To take their mother tongue from them as some have done in the
past, or as some call for today, isin essenceto take away a piece of their soul, heritageand identity.
Language marks our identity within the larger world by linking us to all others who speak as we do.
Language is, and has always been the means by which we construct and analyze what we call
reality (Lakoff, 2000, p.20). For the speakers of the nearly 6,900 languages spoken around the world,
that may be true today. Yet 3,500 of those languagesare spoken byonly 0.2% of the global population,
and according David Harrison (2007), by the end of this century most of those will have likely
disappeared, as their last speakers die. When these languages die, they will take with them the voices
and knowledge of a culture. What will happen to their reality then? Words may be absorbed into
another culture, and may hold onto a certain level of meaning, but when the last speaker of language
dies, there is an inexplicable loss to all of humanity.According to Harrison, language death typically
begins with political or social discrimination against a language or its speakers. This may take the form
of official state policies to suppress speech, or it may be benign neglect (Harrison, 2007, loc.100).
Through this paper, we have seen manyillustrations of this sort of language suppression, whether
through conquest, discrimination, or politics. We have seen what Dussel (2011) would describe as the
victimizationof these speakers, and theirestablishmentas Alterity, as their language is first
diminished, then finallystolen away.
Throughout global historyespecially over the last centuriesas populations and migrations
have increased exponentially, there has been a steady increase in the rate of language and cultural
death.But does this really matter? Language is just air after allit is not a gun, it has no power on its
own (Lakoff, 2000, p. 21). Yet we have seen that this is not true. Words are exceptionally powerful
they change hearts and minds, altering the way we view the world around us. Languageand its
meaningsalso changes as it moves from one culture to another, and one generation to the next. The
great novel of today may be as unintelligible to the average person in 500 years as great works such
asthe Old English Beowulfareto English speakers today.
Political language changes with culture, as well, and the ideas of antiquity do not always
translate easily outside the culture that gave them birth. If we would understand anothers words, we
must understand the culture from whence those ideas came, and yet words themselves are the key to
that understanding. We must learn to listen before we judge, and accept before it is too late.



We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward;
so we can understand why and how we came to be who we are today.
SanfokaAkan proverb(Ghana)
We must become aware of the power of our words.

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International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 110121

ISSN 2277 7997

The Circuits and Politics of Sound Technology in India

Olympia Bhatt
Junior Research Fellow, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. India.
This article investigates the history and presence of the new sound technology
available in the country. The technological innovation of sound began as early as the
development of the cinematograph, and it was in the early decades of the twentieth
century that it emerged from the laboratory and became visible in the public sphere.
This article will look at the transfer of sound technology as part of a global network of
technology transfer and the earliest precedents, distribution and dissemination of
sound technology in the local film industry in India as well as the reasons for certain
kinds of technology becoming popular while others became obsolete. India also had its
own history of technological transfer and diffusion that began as early as the presence
of De Forests Phonofilm in 1927. There have also been instances of local innovations of
sound technology in Bengal and Lahore. One such example is the Csystophone, a locally
produced sound recording machine for Indian theatres developed by B.D Chatterjee of
Calcutta University. It was declared to be nearly fifty percent cheaper than any foreign
machine and touted as the local innovation which was cheap as well as better adapted
to the local tropical conditions. However, the publicity of Csystophone reveals the
contradictions of swadeshi politics that determined the publicity of such equipment
and its possible affiliations to the journals that were available at around this time.
Keywords: Innovation, cinema, recording devices, technology, motion picture, talkie.
[T]he industry is standing on its EAR not knowing which way to turn for real sound picture
- (Cinema May 1931)
This quote is from an advertisement that featured in the May 1931 edition of the film journal
Cinema, a few months after the release of the first Indian talkie feature film Alam Ara1. This publicity
advertisement by film distributors, Famous Pictures, is making a case for the Prabhat talkers (sic) as
the ad describes the quality of its talkie films superseded the talkies produced in other studios during
this period. Leaving aside the particular debate about the quality of films made by different studios of
1930s, my focus is on the possible connotations and contexts that available archival material of this
period offers, which is key to understanding the different historical forces shaping Indian cinema's
transition to sound. One such historical context that I will document in this paper is a detailed account
of how India features in the global exchange of new sound technologies developed in the 1920s and
which began to have tangible application in film production and exhibition.
This paper will chart the history of sound technology and the different prototypes that were
extensively available in the early-sound period extending from late 1920s to 1930s. By examining the
availability of these new technologies and the discourses shaping their materiality, I wish to present a
story of how the trade of technology evolved in the twentieth century and how the possibility of
indigenous development of technology is realised in different sound systems like Csystophone and


Fezi Sound Recording systems.
Sound Technologies and Cinematic Sound: A Brief History
Numerous historical accounts indicate how the addition of synchronized sound was always
intended as part of the cinematic visual. As early as 19 th century, Edison wanted to merge the
phonograph with his Kinetoscope, one of the early prototypes of film recording devices 2 (Cook, 5).
During the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a lot of time and capital was invested to
create an audio-visual device where the visual and the audio outputs were perfectly synchronized.
However, the experimental and unpredictable nature of these new devices could not win the
confidence of the film industry or the industrial entrepreneurs, and no foreseeable application was
developed even as cinema was taking off towards the end of nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the
nineteenth century saw constant engagement towards developing technologies that attempted to
capture the sensuous realm of evolving modern experiences. Apart from developments in
photography and motion photography (that eventually became cinema), sound technologies were also
being developed in this century and constantly being engaged to understand the changing sensory
history as it changed not just sound but amplified and extended the sense of hearing. These sound
technologies became an object for scholars like Adorno, Walter Benjamin to develop and observe the
historicity of hearing (Sterne, 6), to contemplate the transformative role of mechanical reproduction
over communication, to observe the process of how technologies acquire a set of functions and
become linked to certain cultural practices.
One early observable perception of sound was interlinking it along/as part of the cinematic
visual though early sound technologies traversed different directions in terms of conception and
development. The phonograph was one of those devices which made the ephemeral sound an
experience for posterity. Its initial conception was as a business machine that would record dictations
which could then be transcribed, the reason why it was called a phonograph in the first place. An
important realisation of this particular invention was its ability to dissociate space and time from aural
experience. The publicity material of listening devices of this period constantly mentioned how one
could enjoy the experience of listening to one's favourite singer right in the comfort of their homes.
Newer inventions like telephone and long distance communication further disconnected listening
from its spatial specificity as one could now engage in conversation and listen to another person in a
different place but at the same time. Further, public address system was also developed which brought
technology-mediated sound to the emerging public spaces. To summarise, the nineteenth century was
a period of institutionalizing these prosthetic sensuous machines. Jonathan Sterne describes this
process in the context of
Sound reproduction technologies ... [which] would undergo their transformations as they grew more
socially and institutionally established, as they were shaped into media. As the technologies were
gradually organized into media systems with their own distinctive industrial and cultural practices...
they could in a sense take a life of their own. (200384)

One invention crucial for cinema to develop as an audio-visual media, with its own industrial
and cultural practices, was the development of the audion tube in 1909. Developed by Lee De Forest,
who would also contribute to the development of sound recording, the audion tube was a device useful
in amplification of sound. The wartime efforts in radio transmission and wireless communication
facilitated the scope of innovating new workable technologies engaging with sound. The different
sound recorders that were developed for recording radio transmissions were, after the war, being
adapted for alternative uses. The telecommunication industry and researchers involved saw this
change of circumstance as an opportunity to attempt again the integration of film and sound. These
inventions were the background against which the cinematic apparatus was transitioning to sound,



and cinema as a unique media with its distinctive industrial and cultural practices was emerging. This
moment of technological transformation in cinema was largely determined by the economic concerns
which led to a series of patent wars and a scramble for acquiring exclusive distribution rights of
different systems for studios and theatres. The war was not about the best available technology or
format which will feature as part of the discussions of new sound technologies present in India later
in the paper or one that allowed the easiest process of conversion.
Douglas Gomery in The Coming of Sound: A History discusses in detail the intersecting
histories of different prototypes of sound recording devices that were simultaneously being developed
across the world and how few companies managed to exert complete monopolistic control. These
businesses with their deeper market penetration and economic clout managed to override other
independent inventors and companies who were trying to address the new possibilities that had
emerged around cinematic sound. In the late 1920s, sound recording systems were being developed in
the Bell Laboratories' main supplying unit, Western Electric. In January 1927, Electric Research
Products, Inc. (ERPI) was formed as a subsidiary of the Western Electric Company to handle
commercial relations with the motion picture producers and exhibitors (Hilliard, 272). Meanwhile, GE
Electric as well as independent inventors like Lee De Forest were working on their own prototypes for
sound recording. Further, similar technologies were being developed in Europe too as three German
inventors developed a sound-on-film method of sound recording which became known as Tri-Ergon.
It is interesting to see how this scramble for emerging global markets of the new sound
equipment impacted the Indian film industry as well as how India participated and adapted in this
commodity exchange. There are two points to underscore this historical context of technological
exchange before venturing specifically into the topic of India as a market for such technologies. First,
the privileging of certain sound systems and formats over others indicate the tight control of a few
conglomerates who tried to push for a vertical integration of technology as well, with a single company
providing the sound equipment for both sound recording (in film studios) and sound projection (in
theatres). According to Douglas Gomery, the major studios converted to sound in a planned systematic
fashion, especially the two big studios, Paramount and Loew's/MGM, who invested in not just the
equipment but also built indoor studios and hired vaudeville actors for their upcoming talkie
productions. It comes as no surprise that within 2 years of the release of Warners' talkie film The Jazz
Singer (1927), every major studio in the U.S had started producing talking films. Gomery describes in
detail how the process of conversion to sound was an investment strategy for Warners to help it
become a bigger and influential studio like Paramount and Loew's/MGM studios.
In April 1926, Western Electric signed an exclusive agreement with Warners' for using their
new sound-on-disc system, now called the Vitaphone, for sound-film production and distribution
(Gomery, 38). The new sound system used for film production included a high quality microphone, a
non-distortive amplifier, an electrically operated recorder and reproducer, a high quality loudspeaker
and a synchronizing system free from speed variation (Gomery, 32). But soon this contract was
renegotiated and ERPI, as a Western Electric subsidiary, was organized to market sound equipment
and sell it to other major studios. The economic clout of AT&T, whose subsidiary was Western Electric,
and its ability to procure patents and licenses were the reasons why De Forest's Phonofilm could not
emerge as a strong contender and was reduced to a vaudeville novelty (Gomery, 30). Interestingly, in
the 1920s AT&T encouraged the development of non-telephone patents like the new sound recording
device Vitaphone to use for bargaining with potential competitors. Gomery states how a balance was
struck between competing firms innovating similar emerging technologies:
AT&T cross licensed many of its new broadcasting-related patents to the Radio Group, those
firms primarily interested in radio broadcasting: General Electric, Westinghouse Electric and



Manufacturing Corporation, and their off-spring RCA. In return, the Radio Group agreed not to
threaten AT&T's monopoly on wire communications... To prevent potential conflict over patent rights
for long distance telephone transmission, AT&T signed cross-licensing agreement with General
Electric, Westinghouse, and RCA on July 1, 1920. Under this agreement the Radio Group and AT&T
cross-licensed all the basic patents for the radio, telegraph, and telephone industries. Then they restricted
each other's activities to certain markets... For the new field of sound recording, AT&T obtained
exclusive license for use over telephone wires, while the Radio Group secured a total monopoly for
one-way radio transmission. In addition, the Radio Group captured the rights for sound recording in
conjunction with any non-commercial motion pictures. The two exchanged nonexclusive licenses for
sound recordings for motion pictures for all other purposes. Thus, by late 1925, AT&T had rights to not
only its own patents, but also those of General Electric, Westinghouse and RCA. (200533-4) [emphasis
The oligopolistic rearrangement of sound equipment market led the American film industry to
presume an unchallenged acceptance of the new technology and talkies produced by Hollywood.
However, this turned out to be far from the ground reality when the Americans tried selling talkies
and sound systems in Europe. Both European exhibitors and inventors opposed Hollywood's attempt
at diffusing sound and this further ended up dividing the available international market. By the end of
1929 only 18 per cent of European theatres could present talkies while nearly half the cinema in the
U.S. could. The most important foreign market for Hollywood's talkies was United Kingdom which
wired to sound most quickly. Other markets like France and Germany were slow to adapt because of
language conversion difficulties (Gomery, 107). Further, European corporations which had developed
similar sound reproduction technologies got together in a bid to thwart the American attempts at
usurping their local markets. The German conglomerate Tonbild Syndicate A.G. (also known as Tobis,
from its acronym) was formed with capital from Holland, Switzerland and Germany. Tobis had
acquired the Tri-Ergon patents and began to install sound equipment in German cities.
At the same time Siemens and AEG produced their own jointly owned system and formed
Klangfilm. Tobis and Klangfilm united in the struggle to compete with U.S. companies and their sound
systems: Tobis made films and Klangfilm made the sound apparatus. Later Tobis signed an agreement
with a Dutch firm which resulted in a huge, German-based multinational trust, Tobis-KlangfilmKuchenmeister. This organisation later signed an agreement with the German studio and distributor
UFA. As a result, the talkies in Germany managed to remain under German control (Buckland, 298).
This new unionised Tobis became a thorn in the eye of the Hollywood monopolists. They
responded by boycotting the German market thinking that the loss would make the theatre owners
force the government to rethink its strategy of allowing only Tobis-Klangfilm devices, and its films and
would eventually allow films recorded on U.S. systems as well. This strategy, however, did not work
and by 1930, the representatives from Tobis-Klangfilm, Western Electric, RCA and the U.S. film
industry began to confer in Paris. On July 22, 1930, both American and German firms agreed to divide
the world into four territories. Tobis-Klangfilm secured exclusive rights for Europe and Scandinavia,
while Western Electric and RCA obtained rights for U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and the
Soviet Union. The rest of the world became open territory; no company held exclusive rights (Gomery,
If the present material on early sound technologies in India is anything to go by, then it clearly
indicates that India as a territory was a lot more complex. One obvious reason stated for this
complexity is that a strict implementation of the Paris agreement between the Germans and the
Americans did not happen till 1936 and ended at the beginning of Second World War in 1939
(Gomery, 145-6). However, as this paper will reveal, the process of institutionalizing of cinematic



technologies was a unique process of adaptation which, at some level, fit into the global circuits of
technological transfer but questions and concerns that came around technology were imbricated in a
complex negotiation of the traditional/modern socio-cultural anxieties. Some of the engaging concerns
that came up around the sale of sound technologies were, how technologically informed were the
filmmakers and buyers of this emerging commodity, what sort of technologies were popular, did it
work well in the local conditions, the methods of sales and distribution, the circuits through which it
travelled, the availability of different models, the emerging discourse around the need for a technology
adaptable to local conditions, the need for local innovations and marketing and finally how scientific
discourse was posited to support the argument for locally-produced technologies suited better to the
local means and methods of filmmaking.
Indian History of Technology Import
The nineteenth century saw a large scale import of modern technology in the country that
resulted in a change in the traditional means of production, and the presence of new sensuous
technologies affected local aesthetic forms of representation and performance. Ashish Rajadhyaksha
and Christopher Pinney have documented the impact of photography on local aesthetic and how
newer genres and forms like the bazaar paintings and Company school of painting emerged that tried
to mimic the camera's new ocular framework in its representation of local subjects. Photography and,
later, early prototypes of filmmaking devices had a longer history and presence than aural devices like
phonograph. Even though the phonograph was invented in 1877, its transformation into a device for
recording music and sound began only in 1890. Columbia Phonograph Recording Co. began
commercial recording for coin-in-the-slot phonograph machines in the last decade of nineteenth
century (Liang, 1). Other companies like Britain's Gramophone Company was established in 1898 as
part of the first wave of British multinational investment, referring to its presence in other countries
as well as British colonies like India (Jones, 77).
The Gramophone Company was proactive in recording Indian music as well. Its first recording
of Indian music was done in London in 1899 by Capt. Bholonath, Dr. Harnamdas and someone
identified only as "Ahmed". These recordings included examples of singing and recitation. Later, Fred
Gaisberg, a representative of the Gramophone company, came to India in 1902 and made the first
commercial recording of Indian music. He was responsible for discovering Gauhar Jaan who took this
opportunity and became the first artist to record her song for the gramophone (Ferrell, 33). Even as an
emerging soundscape was slowly taking form, film exhibition was also becoming a part of this
changing landscape; travelling troupes of film makers/exhibitors would stop at different locations on
their voyage towards South East Asia and Australia and exhibit their films as well as capture film
footage of these different locales for exhibiting later in Europe. The cinematic apparatus was still a
curio object and in its experimental phase and had yet to acquire a large-scale production and utility.
According to sociologists, this is the first step invention in the three-step process of studying
economics of technological change (Allen and Gomery 125). By 1910, both gramophone and film had a
sizeable presence in the country where the former was still a luxury amongst the few but local
recordings of music was available while Dadasaheb Phalke and others were venturing into local film
The fascination for these representational technologies continued to grow and in the 1920s,
when the experiments to bring an integrated synchronized audio track to the cinematic visual were
becoming pragmatic and a not-so distant possibility, prototypes of these new technologies were also
demonstrated. One of the earliest prototypes of sound production apparatus which finds frequent
mention in material of this period is Lee De Forest's Phonofilm. Amongst all the innovations of sound
reproducing technologies in the 1920s, Phonofilm managed to record sound on celluloid and became



one of the earliest devices that managed to record a synchronized sound track for single-reeled films.
Its inventor De Forest had begun with the same idea of creating an integrated gramophone-film
device. In 1921, he came to Germany and developed his new device. By 1922, he claimed that he had
successfully managed to integrate sound in the film. He tried promoting Phonofilm to American film
studios but the studios were wary as Phonofilm, like previous experiments, had its own limitations.
Even though it could synchronize sound, the tonal quality still needed improvement, and it could only
produce single-reeled films as synchronization between reel changes was not part of this new
In spite of its limitations, the Phonofilm managed to get the attention of exhibitors like Hugo
Reisenfeld of New York, and De Forest managed to make a few single-reeled films with sound. De
Forest Phonofilms Inc. was formed in February 1924 and short films with vaudeville artists and music
hall singers in Britain were made. De Forest managed to sell a few of these recording systems to
travelling showmen who travelled and exhibited sound films in different theatres. Though the
company became insolvent by 1926, Phonofilm continued to have an afterlife as it continued to be
exhibited in locations apart from Europe and the U.S. (Lee de Forest and Phonofilm: Virtual
Broadway). As part of one such travelling exhibition group, Mr. R.B. Salisbury of Quaint's Fame, the
Phonofilm came to India travelling all the way from Singapore, Rangoon, Calcutta, and Karachi before
finally arriving in Bombay. May 19, 1927 article in The Bombay Chronicle describes the technology of
this new contraption:
Phonofilms are not a gramophone but they are the films in which the audience see the acting
and hear the natural voice of the performance as if they were seated in London's principal theatres
and listening to the voices of well-known singers. This is not a gramophone combined with the film it
is the photograph of sound, the voice and picture. 3 (5)
The well-known theatres also began installing sound systems along with their projectors in
order to capture the nascent talkies market whose production had begun in Hollywood studios. The
Excelsior Theatre of Bombay installed Movietone system, and this sound system is described as one
that aims to synchronise the scenes and movements on the film with the appropriate sounds whether
they be vocal, instrumental or physical. (Times of India 1929). The other theatre to install a sound
system in 1929 was Elphinstone Theatre in Calcutta. In the same year, the first talkie film Universal's
Melody of Love was screened in Bombay and Calcutta. Even established studios like Madan had
acquired RCA's Photophone and began producing short films which had recording of different
performances which included recitation, singing, scenes from dramatic performances, etc.
Global Exchange and Minor Players
The prompt presence of devices like Phonofilms and talkie films clearly indicate that not only
was the culture of exhibiting new technologies well received in India but also that there were lesser
inhibitions in embracing new forms and available sources. As previously mentioned, these new
prototypes of sound technology were determined by the control exercised by conglomerates
associated with Hollywood. Later, the Paris Agreement between the Americans and the German cartel
Tobis-Klangfilm was supposed to divide the world into mutually-exclusive territories for the sale of
their sound systems. However, the Indian market shows that not just the dominant sound equipment
were available but also other lesser-known peripheral sound systems were also available in the Indian
As the material of this period suggests, each company would directly import to local
distributors who would then publicize these new machines for sale. Again, based on the available
archival material, the major distributors of sound systems were located in Lahore, Karachi and Sindh
before establishing their offices later in Bombay and Calcutta as well. Some of these distributors were



the sole agents of a particular equipment for a specific territory with other agents/distributors for
other territories. Empire Projection and Sound Service Lahore in its advertisement claimed to be
dealing with RCA products for the entire Northern India territory 4. Others like Bombay Radio
Company with offices in Bombay and Calcutta was the sole agent for BTH Sound equipment for all of
India5. The more established companies like Philips Electric and Western Electric sold directly from
their local distribution systems in the country 6. These minor players used different methods of
publicizing their equipment in the market. Fidelytone Ad mentions a number of studios who recently
bought this system7. Other distribution companies like Movie Camera Company Bombay, a supplier of
Art Reeves sound system, also provided with a technical representative, R.G. Torney, who would help
studios and theatres in installing the new sound system8. The Austrian Selonophon Korting Sound
System in its publicity ad claims to be the original inventors and makers of Photo Sound System;
again, whether this is purely a publicity tactic of the Continental Talkie Equipment Corporation, who
were the distributors of this particular sound system, or was it a genuine narrative is something
beyond the scope of easy verification. 9. Blue Seal Sound systems mentions this additional information
apart from its special features: Our special representative in New York says In America all studios
use only Variable Density equipment like Blue Seal. 10
Concerns around Sound Technology
The mention of variable density, as in the Blue Seal advertisement described above, is one
feature which recurs in the publicity material of these sound systems. There is already present
awareness about two different kinds of technologies developed for recording sound: sound-on-disc
and sound-on-film. Western Electric's system was based on the former while RCA's Photophone
recorded the sound on the celluloid itself. In the latter system, there are two ways of recording sound
on the celluloid strip: variable density and variable area recording. This technical process of the
sound-on-film recording finds frequent mention as part of the description of these new sound
machines without actually getting into the merits of each of these methods. The basic method of
recording sound was recording both the visual and the audio on the same strip of film. The new sound
systems allowed a double track recording of the audio and visual in different pieces of film, which
were developed separately and then merged on a single track. Audio-Camex had the facility for double
track recording which is mentioned in one of its publicity material11.
Further, the local exhibitors in India were aware of how sound was being integrated for
projection. The quickest way of integrating sound in film theatres was by latching a sound amplifying
system to an existing film projector. This method of integrating sound was cumbersome and could
have been the source of problems during film projection as there was always a chance that the added
sound system may not always work in a synchronized fashion. The other and newly developed sound
system integrated sound within the projecting system. RCA Sound system accompanied the SimplexAcme Sound Projector which is described clearly as in no sense to be confused with that type of
equipment consisting of makeshift apparatus, assembled from silent equipment with sound
attachment added. (Filmland April 1933)
Motiograph projector is also described in a similar fashion:
The only sound projector designed and built for dual purpose of projecting Motion Picture and
reproducing sound. It is the only projector in which the Sound reproducing unit are built in part as a
part of the projector. There is no addition or attachment. (Cinema June 1932)

However, the scope and nature of these new sound technologies was not the sole determining
factor for the success of a particular device. Rather, the easy availability of spare parts of these new
machines was a crucial factor in underscoring the success of these systems in the Indian market.
Usually the distributor was responsible for providing both service and durability of parts as



mentioned in Zeiss Ikon Ad while there were other companies like the Central Automobile Company of
Calcutta which mentions that it also supplies for your requirement of RCA replacement parts and
Simplex Projector Parts12.
One reason for such a huge demand for spare parts was the sensitive process of recording
sound and the amateur handling of these new machines. The history of transition to sound indicates
that the shortcomings of the earliest sound recording devices were discovered in the process of
filmmaking which was improved upon later. The question of spare parts remained a major issue that
affected Indian filmmakers' quick and swift transition to sound as importing the spare parts for these
machines remained a very expensive proposition:
The cheapest recording machine including the duty of 10% would cost Rs. 13,200 but the parts alone
imported from Europe or America in building a set would be assessed at 40% or 50 % ad valorem
duty. (Filmland May 6 1933)

The 1928 ICC Report mentions the need for continuing with the duty on imported films as it
would encourage the local film industry. The report also recommends that the machinery associated
with cinema should be exempted from duty as the expenditure on machines forms a small part of the
general expenditure of producers and exhibitors (ICC Report 1928: 75). Further, the proprietor of
Cinema B R Oberoi recommended, along with the rest of the Indian film community, a reduction in
custom duty on camera, sound recording sets, etc. as this would enable a spurt in the local film
production13. Interestingly, the debate around reduction in duty leads the discussion in a completely
unanticipated direction. The Filmland editorial continues to talk about how a cheaper alternative is
possible by supporting local inventions that would work as well as other imported machines.
According to the same article, a local recording set would cost Rs. 8000 to assemble as against Rs.
13,200 for an imported one, as mentioned above, and cites the example of a local invention that has
been developed in Lahore whose result is not so good at present but there is enough scope for
improvement. [page 2], referring to the Fezi Sound Recording System.
This discussion around local technological innovation is part of a changing attitude of
perceiving a local context for technology. Some of the devices constantly mention how they are
suitable for a local climate. The publicity material for Parmeko amplifiers describes it as an amplifier
specially prepared for tropical climates14 while Mellaphone Quality Sound Equipment is described as
specially built for the Indian climate. The transformers are protected from the climatic [sic] effects. 15
In the next section, I will examine the provenance of this local context in the debates around
technology, and how the two documented local inventions Fezi Sound Recording System and
Csystophone acquire meanings and contexts way beyond what it initially set out to represent.
Sound Technology: A Case for Local Innovation?
In a Filmland article titled The Effects of the Talkie Revolution, the writer N Roy says that the
most important development with the coming of talkies is the idea of nationalism. Roy's context was
Europe and how it had affected the continent with emerging linguistic identity 16. The advent of talkies
generated a similar response in India as well and not only did it trigger a response amongst the
filmmakers to make films in local languages but there were also claims that the new technology could
be fabricated locally, providing a much-needed fillip to innovation and enterprise. This decade came to
be known for the bourgeois intervention and role in developing the new studios and even raising
funds and creating public venture companies. Instances of similar interventions are seen in the new
sound recording technologies as well.
However, local acknowledgement and appreciation of these new technologies is deliberated
through diverse socio-political concerns and, as the instances below indicate, leads to conflicting



versions and accounts about the role and presence of these new technologies. The fillip for innovation
is grounded in the need to address the unique geographical location as seen in the previously
mentioned Parmeko Amplifiers and Mellaphone Quality Sound Equipment. This does not imply that
the local factors also had a major affect on the process of film making, especially film development;
rather how these local factors feature in the discussion around creating an indigenous system helps in
understanding the matrix of references along which these technical innovations are referenced.
The earliest innovation in audio-visual technologies was in 1911 by F. D. Pudumjee, of India,
who described a method of using a mirror attached to a vibrating diaphragm to produce a
photophono-graph and was granted a patent by the British government. This particular innovation
remained purely at an experimental level and like many attempts at integrating sound during that
particular decade remained unrealised. In the 1930s, the local film journals constantly refer to two
local innovations developed indigenously in India: the Fezi Sound Recording System developed in
Lahore and Csystophone sound system of Bengal. Another sound system called Krishna Sound System
is also mentioned; invented by the technical director of The Cinema Art Society of Lahore C L D Mullick
and which, according to the article, would soon be out for a public demo at Lahore 17. I have not focused
on this particular apparatus because this was the sole reference that I came across while Csystophone
and Fezi Sound Recording System were brought into a larger discussion which remains missing in
single-referenced locally produced sound systems. Fezi Sound Recording System is a sound recording
device developed by Nazir Mohammed of Auto Welding Co. of Lahore, which was found to be better
than many foreign sound recording systems. What is fascinating is how the merits of this new system
are concluded with a cynical tone of neglect:
If the system had been invented in/by some American, in America, he would have been encouraged
and helped by financiers, but here in India, nobody takes interest in the machine and research work
and therefore Mr. Nazir had to develop the system slowly and steadily with his own scanty financial
resources. (Cinema June 1932)

This double recording system was used to produce Elephanta Movietone's 1932 talkie
Pakdaman Raqasa or Innocent Dancing Girl directed by Shah G. Agha. The sound was recorded by Nazir
Mohammed and the film was advertised with perfect and clear recording. A year later, B. R. Oberai
who was also the scenarist for the film, gave an impartial perspective about the reality of local sound
systems. They employed the services of Mr. Nazir Mahammed as Sound Engineer, who had never
recorded a Talkie drama in his life time and recorded the picture on a locally-made recording
equipment, Fezi Sound System, which was a new and untried set. Hence the recording was most
defective. (Cinema 1933)
The same editorial where Fezi system was mentioned, subsequently mentions B.D.
Chatterjee's Csystophone, a sound projecting system, with the additional information that it had been
installed at Chabighar Calcutta and was operating quite satisfactorily. If the merits of the articles and
advertisements of this period are to be believed, then, Csystophone managed to have a far larger
impact than Fezi sound system. Bamadas Chatterjee was a research scholar from Calcutta University
who built a sound projecting system that could be attached to an existing silent cinema projector. He
also wrote an article in Filmland where he describes in great technical details of the scientific
processes involved in recording and projecting sound for films. However, he concludes his article with
a cryptic reference to the unsuitability of foreign devices in India:
it is generally found that the type and impregnated paper insulation adopted by some manufacturers
abroad is unreasonable for Indian climate. (Filmland September 3 1932)

Csystophone found many takers in theatres of smaller towns and cities. A Csystophone
advertisement describes how within six months nine machines have been sold in different cities



Dacca, Mymensingh, Rajshahi, Chittagong, Budge Budge, Vizagapatnam, Bezwada, Coconada, and
Hissar and claims to have given complete satisfaction to the buyers. The development of local
technologies for films is giving shape to an industry in India, making a strong bid for being the
foremost industry in India.18 The success of this system was of a symbolic tone and gesture in the
volatile political climate of this particular decade. One of the well-known theatres in Calcutta,
Rupabani, switched from the existing Csystophone system to RCA sound apparatus. This news of the
public change of sound has the tone of hurt and betrayal and is described as follows:
we now hear that to satisfy the whims of some of the foreign distributors, the authorities of Rupabani
have been forced to dismantle the Csystophone set. (Filmland January 21 1933)

However, Varieties Weekly's edition for the same day looks at the same news in a matter-offact tone:
The proprietors of the above house [Rupabani] are new-comers in this trade and I feel pity that they
are being misled by interested parties... Such misleading statements help none. With due respects to
Mr. Chatterjee and to his efforts as a honest [sic] businessman I cannot but help calling spade a spade.
(Varieties Weekly January 21 1933]

After 1933, little is heard about these sound systems. Their chequered fate underscores the
fate of most technologies pioneered independent of the big conglomerates involved in this business.
Within a few years, the prominent and prolific studios had acquired the well-known Western Electric
and RCA sound systems. Within a few years after the talkie feature films were being made, the form
and method of engaging with this novel aspect had become more organised. There are two reasons for
this particular trend in the 1930s. First, the distribution network of technology and other equipment
required for filmmaking was becoming independent and established in the twentieth century. This is
different from the case of photography which Sudhir Mahadevan describes in detail. He states that the
procurement of photography-related equipment in the nineteenth century was located in apothecary
and shops for imported goods even though photography was an important colonial administrative tool
apart from being a vocation for the colonial officers and local dilettantes. Second, the new and earlier
studios engaged in making talkies were becoming more than a mere conceptual enterprise. With the
bourgeoisie support and added legitimacy to the cinematic form with a technologically-advanced
apparatus, the studios of 1930s attempted to create an industrial model for making films.
Technology becomes an important mode of thinking about the history of cinema in India,
especially in the current year which marks the centenary of filmmaking in the country. Indian
encounter with cinema goes back even further as India was already part of a global network of film
exhibition and exchange. Lumires cinematograph arrived in Bombay en route to its journey to South
East Asia and Australia. The centenary celebrations and early cinema discourse uphold the notion of
an indigenous industry that not just survived but managed to be successful in spite of support and
encouragement from the colonial government. This mode of thinking and writing about the early
cinema forgoes the networks in which local cinema and film industry were already enmeshed. The
introduction of sound technology, however, the local film industries attains a self-reliance as local
talkies superseded imported films in terms of both popularity and number within a few years after its
release. Therefore, in this centenary year the history of Indian cinemas transition to sound needs to be
reconsidered and examined to get a better sense of our cinematic past.



1 Alam Ara was released on March 14, 1931.
2 Edison ... envisioned ... motion pictures made by the kinetograph [which] would illustrate the sound
from the phonograph... In the first place, it shows that the idea of making motion pictures was never
divorced from the idea of recording sound ... the first viable motion-picture camera was invented as an
accessory to a sound recording device and not for its own sake. (Cook: 5)
3 Another description of Phonofilm's films: These films are of standard size, along margin of which
runs a minute band stripes corresponding to sound vibrations. These vibrations are magnified, then
amplified and finally thrown out by loud speaker. Bombay Chronicle May 26, 1927
4Cinema July 1933
5 Cinema February 1934
6Cinema December 1933
7 Page 6 Filmland March 25 1933
8Cinema May 1933
9 Cinema July 1933
10 Cinema November 1933
11 Cinema April 1932
12 Filmland January 14 1933
13 Page 6 Filmland September 10, 1932
14 Filmland Puja Special 1932
15 Cinema August 1933
16 Page 3 Filmland August 6, 1932
17 page 24 Filmland Nov 5, 1932
18 p. 19 Varieties Weekly May 6 1933
Buckland, Michael K. 2006. Emmanuel Goldberg and His Knowledge Machine: Information, Invention
and Political Forces. Westport: Libraries Unlimited.
Cook, David A. 1996. A History of Narrative Film. New York: W W Norton & Company.
Ferrell, Gerry. 1993. "The Early Days of Gramophone in India: Historical, Social and Musical
Perspectives." British Journal of Ethnomusicology 2: 31-53.
Gomery, Douglas. 2005. The Coming of Sound: A History. New York: Routledge.
Hilliard, John K. 1985. "A Brief History of Early Motion Picture Sound Recording and Reproducing
Practices." Journal of Audio Engineering 271-278.
Jones, Geoffrey. 1985. "The Gramophone Company: An Anglo-American Multination, 1898-1931." The
British History Review 59 No. 1: 76-100.

Lee de Forest and Phonofilm: Virtual Broadway. Accessed May 19, 2013.



Liang, Dave. January 1991. "A voice without a face: Popular music and phonograph in the 1890s."
Popular Music 10 No. 1: 1-9.
Mahadevan, Sudhir. 2009. "The Traffic in Technologies: Early Cinema and Visual Culture in Bengal,
1840-1920." Unpublished doctoral dissertation. New York: New York University.
Pinney, Christopher. 2008. The Coming of Photography in India. London: British Library.
Rajadhyaksha, Ashish. 1987. ""The Phalke Era: Conflict of Traditional Form and Modern Technology."
Journal of Arts and Ideas 47-79.
Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham : Duke
University Press.
Times of India. 1929. February 29.


International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 122-129

ISSN 2277 7997

Colonialism and its Impact on India: A Critique of Pollocks Hypothesis

Dunkin Jalki

Post-Doctoral Researcher, Department of Religious Studies, University of Pardubice, Czech Republic.
This paper attempts to develop a systematic critique of Sheldon Pollocks massive and
important work on South Asian cultures. It argues that the absence of a theory of
cultural difference undercuts some of the important insights Pollocks work offers
about pre-modern South Asian culture. It also claims that the changes brought about
by colonialism, without an appropriate theory of culture and cultural change, are
comparatively insignificant in understanding colonialisms devastating impact on
Keywords: colonialism, culture, indigenous, education.
Sheldon Pollock has become a name to reckon with in any study about the ancient Indian past.
He has become, with the Sanskrit Knowledge System on the Eve of Colonialism project and the cogeneral editorship of Clay Sanskrit Library 1, the greatest curator,in some senses,of the Indian literary
past. Pollocks contribution to the field can be fully gauged only by specialists of Sanskrit and ancient
Indian literature. However, as Pollock himself states, there is a hypothesis about colonialism which
underlies his work and it is this hypothesis that must stand up to scrutiny for his project to be
considered worthy of further examination. This essay examines carefully Pollocks hypothesis
regarding how to study colonialisms impact on South Asia (or India, more specifically). The
hypothesis in question is a rather blunt but thought-provoking claim: As I have tried to argue in
various forums for some fifteen years though it will seem breathtakingly banal to frame the issue in
the only way it can be framed we cannot know how colonialism changed South Asia if we do not
know what was there to be changed (Pollock 2004: 19). This hypothesis raises at least two difficult
questions. (1) How do we find out what was there in South Asia (or India) before it was colonised? (2)
How will we ever recover that which is changed or lost for ever? Let us examine how Pollock
addresses these questions.
The First Question
The first question is about finding out ways of knowing what was there in South Asia (or
India) before colonialism began. We can see two different solutions to this problem in Pollocks work.
The first solution Pollock provides, simply says that we need to do the boring task of
excavating the data (2004: 19). The existing interpretations of what was there in pre-colonial India,
which have been dominant since the days of Max Weber are derived more from assumptions than
from actual assessments of data. Pollock further points out that we have abundant materials to make
some sense of culture and power in early modern India [pre-colonial India]South Asia boasts a
literary record far denser in terms of sheer number of texts and centuries of unbroken multilingual
literacy, than all of Greek and Latin and medieval European culture combined. This answer carries an


optimistic claim that mining the abundant pre-colonial Indian data (which has not been done by
scholars of the last 150 years) will somehow reveal deep insights about pre-colonial India as also
about what colonialism did to India subsequently. It needs no deep research to see why this answer is
rather simplistic. Among other reasons, the following is important for our discussion here. This
answer ignores the fact which, as we will see below, Pollock himself acknowledges that the current
social sciences are Eurocentric and are therefore not suitable to interpret pre-colonial data from
The second solution, interestingly, speaks about the Eurocentric nature of, and therefore the
ineptness of, the current social sciences for the task. There is a natural tendency, exhibited even (or
especially) in social and cultural theory, to generalize familiar forms of life and experience as universal
tendencies and commonsense, says Pollock (2006: 259; see also 19). Even though Pollock does not
develop this point further in his works, we cannot undermine the importance of this observation since
he keeps returning to this point throughout the book, though obliquely (Pollock 2006). Let us first
reformulate this thesis in more accessible terms and also make it stronger in the process. There is a
natural tendency in social and cultural theory, to accept (generalize) western experience (familiar
forms of life and experience) as scientific descriptions, and as modes of understanding and living
(tendencies and commonsense) common across cultures.2
The juxtaposition of these two solutions offered by Pollock raises our expectations about his
work. He is aware of the tendency of the current social sciences to generalize western or European
experiences as universal. Hence, when he proposes that we should excavate and interpret pre-colonial
Indian material to understand the impact of colonialism on India, we can legitimately hope that he has
developed ways of interpreting the data that successfully overcomes the problem of the current social
sciences. Some of his significant insights about the Indian past, like the one described below,
strengthen our expectations too. Pollock reasserts that [o]ne of the most serious conceptual
impediments in understanding South Asian culture comes from the fact that our tools to understand
it are shaped by western exemplars. He then offers the notion of empire as an illustration. This
concept is shaped by western exemplars in general and by the historical construction of the Roman
Empire in particular. And making use of this concept has produced an imperfect image of southern
Asian rajya (2006: 274). He does not stop at that.
The practices of empire in the two worlds were as different as their principles. No imperial
formation arising in the Sanskrit cosmopolis ever stationed troops to rule over conquered territories.
No populations were ever enumerated. No uniform code of law was ever enforced anywhere across caste
groupings, let alone everywhere in an imperial polity. No evidence indicates that transculturation was
ever the route to imperial advancement in the bureaucracy or military. (277; emphasis added)
On the contrary, Pollock continues, a belief that it [the Roman state] was universal and willed
by the gods is abundant in Latin literature and is a constituent of Roman thinking from the end of the
third century b.c.e. on.
Indeed once we learn to look free from the prejudgments derived from Roman and later
European experience that tend to obscure our vision, there is no cogent evidence that any remotely
comparable instrumentality was attached to the numinous status of the overlord in Sanskrit
cosmopolities. Here is perhaps the most surprising difference from Rome, given the lingering
Orientalist presuppositions of premodern Indians as priest-ridden and religion-besotted. (278; emphasis
Two points are worth noting in these arguments: a uniform code of law was never enforced
anywhere across caste groupings, let alone everywhere in an imperial polity. And, it is an Orientalist
presupposition to think of pre-modern India as priest-ridden and religion-besotted.



We can conclude this section by noting the following: the condition under which Pollocks
hypothesis is acceptable is when the second solution is seen as a constraint on the first solution. That
is, since the current social sciences are problematic, we need to develop new and more sound theories
of culture that provide alternative ways of excavating and interpreting the material from pre-colonial
India. Only then can the excavation of this material lead to an understanding of the Indian past.
Pollocks Method of Studying Cultures
According to Pollock, a comparative study of two cultures works as an antidote to the
unjustifiable tendency of the social sciences to generalize familiar forms of life and experience as
universal tendencies and common sense. And it does so by demonstrating the actual particularity of
these apparent universalisms (2006: 259). Pollock does not elaborate on this claim. Instead, he offers
a comparative study of South Asia and Europe, or West and East. Hence, to further our argument, we
have to examine his comparative study of cultures.
Pollock keeps the concept culture as a rather stable or self-evident entity and focuses on what
he calls its subsets (Pollock 2006: 2). This raises several questions and doubts. What properties
make a culture into a meta-level entity, and distinguish it from its subsets? What are the relations
between culture and its subsets? There is no answer in Pollocks work to these questions, even though
an answer to some of these questions is quite important for understanding his research. By not
providing a clear answer, he prompts us to rely upon a reconstruction of his arguments. He claims
rough-and-ready understandings of cultures subsets, such as, culture, power, and
(pre)modernity have proved adequate for organizing this [his] historical study. He further
declares that [t]here should be nothing problematic about using the term culture to refer specifically
to one of its subsets, language, and especially language in relation to literature. But he is emphatic in
saying that, [w]hat should be problematicis claiming to know and define [the subset of culture
called] literary.
To divide a culture into different subsets, to discuss whether a culture includes every element
of its subsets or not, to talk about how something can include elements from two different cultures, we
need, at the least, a theory of cultural differences. Pollock does not seem to have a theory of culture nor
does he presuppose one that helps him solve these problems. Not surprisingly therefore, when Pollock
compares two cultures3 to enumerate similarities and differences between them, he argues that except
the factors peculiar to South Asia and Europe the other major cultural issues like, nature, control,
and dissemination of literacy are universal factors. We can reformulate it thus: India and Europe are
similar in terms of culture (issues like nature of literacy etc.), and the differences they have are the
differences in the cultures subsets (factors peculiar to).
Similarly, the two major linguistic shifts (from Sanskrit and Latin to vernaculars), that
constitute the core research problem of Pollocks works, are not posited as specific to their respective
cultures, but there are specificities to these phenomena which separate them from each other. This
means that the two cultures are different in any number of ways, but not culturally. Hence, the driving
force behind his project is to show how two cultures have more similarities than differences. The
differences shown are differences in the broad similarities that they share. This leads him to compare
Java (Indonesia) to England and ask: Can we have a creditable account to explain the abandonment of
trans-regional in favour of regional languages and such transformations as a unified spatiotemporal
process connecting Java to England from the beginning of the second millennium through the
following three or four centuries? (2006: 482). From the perspective of this argument, both Europe
and India had a polity or a religion. What distinguished India from Europe is the way people related to
these entities and the way these entities related to each other. 4



We can now see that the stronger version of Pollocks thesis, as we formulated it earlier, is not
something that Pollock has in mind. The comparative study he proposes is indeed nothing more than
the boring task of excavating the archives. Instead of solving the existing problems, our analysis of
Pollocks notion of culture and comparative studies brings to the fore a major problem in his method
of showing the similarities between two cultures to understand them. How will we ever arrive at the
differences that make the two cultures under study two different cultures and not one? Put simply,
how is Pollock so sure that he is studying two different cultures (England and Java) and not one
universal culture? All that Pollock seems to be using here is either his intuitive understanding or the
general common sense that England and Java (or the West and the East) are two different cultures.
This intuition or commonsense is then explained through historical analysis. For example,
Pollock wonders, as noted earlier, whether we can even use a concept like empire, which is so
saturated with the particularities of European history in understanding India (2006: 6). He then
spends an entire chapter to show how the concept empire is based, in its very origin, on a local event
such as Roman Empire and hence is not useful in studying the Indian past. Since this argument is
based merely on the commonsense understanding of the distinction between the West and the East, it
suffers from multiple weaknesses. To bring those weaknesses to the surface, we can make the
following observation. Consider the passage:
A radical monism, enunciated in the eighth century and associated with philosopher ankaraBased
on older conception of the self, this system argued, with new discursive rigor, for afundamental unity
of being. Beginning in the early twelfth century, two major variations on this conception developed.
The firstwas the qualified monism of the rivaisnavas. In their theology a kind of personal
individuality of the self was maintained. (Pollock 2006: 430; emphasis added)

A little familiarity with the current developments in the area of studies in self, theology, or
individuality would cast sufficient doubt about using these concepts in understanding India. 5 With this
in mind, we can ask of Pollock: What makes the concepts such as monism and theology acceptable as
scientific explanations and not concepts such as empire? It might be argued that the notion of empire is
based, in its origin, on a local event such as Roman Empire, and hence not useful in understanding the
Indian past. But consider this example to bring out the fallacy here: even the theories of Einstein are
based on his daily experience (and not that of, say, Adolf Hitler), limited to the locality he lived in (and
not Bangalore, for instance). Does that mean that we have to discard it as not useful to understand
Asia? Pollock has no answers to provide for these questions. Hence, his argument that western
concepts are being used to describe India not only remains futile (because we do not know what to
make of it), but also ad hoc at best (because there is no theory to support his claims). Further, not
having a theory at this stage of his argument makes him inconsistent while some European concepts
cannot be used, some others can be used, to describe India.
A Theory to Rescue Pollocks Claim
The moral of the story thus far is that Pollocks call to know what existed in pre-colonial India
will work only if we develop a theory that will deal with Indian and Western culture and the cultural
differences between the two. History and historiography that Pollock employs will create a long list of
objects supposed to have existed in the pre-colonial India.6 His The Language of the Gods... (2006)
looks indeed like a long list of such facts. Some of them are indeed breathtakingly refreshing. However,
he fails to see the importance of those facts or notice their implications that undercut some of his own
arguments in the book.
The alternative we are gesturing towards should be able raise our intuitions about cultural
differences into a researchable question with testable hypotheses: what makes differences between



human groups into cultural differences? What makes a difference, any difference, into a cultural
The Second Question
Our second question was this: How will we ever recover that which is changed or lost for
ever? By reading pre-colonial Indian texts if we are able to identify the objects that have changed at
some stage of colonialism, Pollock would say, we can begin to understand what colonialism did to
them. This is possible only under one condition. An entity even when it undergoes changes should
consist of two types of properties: those that are sufficient to say what it was like in its pre-colonial
avatar and those that suggest that it has changed sufficiently, in comparison with its previous avatar.
For example, we can talk about a system of education in this way. We can show, through colonial
records, what pre-colonial Indigenous Indian Education looked like (a good example of this variety of
work is Dharampal 1983). When contrasted with the education system of today, we can get an idea of
the changes it has undergone. However, without a sound theory these changes and our intuitions
about them will remain in the realm of anecdotes. As anecdotes they cannot prove that colonialism
was responsible for the observed changes. The theory, among other things, has to explain how the
perceived changes are a result of a historical process. That is, an object (of the kind we are concerned
with here) inevitably undergoes changes over a period of time. How do we know which of those
changes is due to colonialism and which for other reasons? Yet again, neither has Pollock developed
such a theory nor does he subscribe to one that does this work for him.
One of the changes that India witnessed under colonialism is of the kind that is hard to trace,
if not untraceable.8Discussing such change our concepts have undergone, or what is more, a loss of
concepts, Balagangadhara observes about one such absence:
When we go-about with our fellow human beings, we need to possess some or another idea about the
nature of ourselves and our fellow human beings. (Call it, for the sake of convenience, an 'intuitive
theory' about human beings.)So, in principle, we must possess a vocabulary to talk about human
beings; if we do not, we can neither talk about human beings nor could we make sense of their actions
in the world.
We [Indians] do seem to possess a vocabulary and the words in these vocabularies appear to have
meanings that make sense to the users of the language. Yet, and this is the absence I am talking about,
we [Indians] are unable to identify what these words refer to. The user of the word' manas' cannot
identify which part of him is the 'manas'; he wants to get rid of 'manovikaara' in himself but he does
not know whether that means he should not experience 'emotions' (anger, sorrow, contentment...)
and, if this is what it means, how not to feel the emotions. Should he control his 'manas' (how does he
control what he does not know?), should he keep his 'Chitta' untainted ('chittashuddhi', but he does
not know what his chitta is or where it is located except that it has something to do with himself)?
How does he do either of the two? He knows he has to do 'sankalpa' but he knows that no matter how
often he tells himself ("is this not what 'sankalpa' is?" he asks himself often) not to get angry, he
continues to get angry.9

This is not a question of language use. It is a question of being cut off from a tradition, which
still at some level shapes our experience. More importantly, we have no way of accessing this
experience today. That is, even though our experience is shaped by this tradition, we are not aware of
it. Our language use, of the kind described by Balagangadhara here, gives hints to both how the
tradition shapes our experience and our lost access to it. Will the boring task of excavating the precolonial Indian data that Pollock suggests as a way of understanding colonialism, help us in this
situation? Here is Balagangadharas answer to this question.



Many of these things have been explained in the tracts of yesteryears, he has been told. So, he
goes and tries to read them buthe does not understand much. They talk about 'saptadhaatu',
'panchavaayu', and 'panchakosha' and so on, when they talk about human beings; they talk about
horses, chariots and the charioteer, when they talk about 'manas', 'buddhi' and so on. Neither the talk
of 'annamayakosha' nor the talk of horses tells him much; his daily language saysthat humans have
'kapibuddhi' (an apish buddhi that is inconstant) and he reads that 'manas' is very fickle ('chanchala')
and flits from one subject to the other. So, is 'manas' then what he used to call' Budhhi'? If he knows
English even a little bit, he is now thoroughly confused: he had thought 'buddhi' was 'intelligence' and
'manas' was' mind'. He tries to read some or another translation of a philosophical tract and cannot
figure out what they are talking aboutbecause they invest terms with meanings he has difficulties in
associating them with. They speak of 'pramaana' in a way he does not understand (he thought
'pramaana' was to take an oath); and speak of 'anumaana' (which is what 'doubt' is in his daily use) as
though it settles issues!
What will the excavation of the pre-colonial data achieve in this kind of situation? How do we
ever find out what these concepts from Indian intellectual traditions ever meant?
In short, such tracts, instead of telling him something that illuminates, end up confusing him.
They undercut his belief about his use of language so thoroughly that he just does not want to return
to these tracts because he knows reading them is (almost) like learning another language. On top of it,
he still has to figure out which his 'annamayakosha' is or what the 'dhaatus' (he thought 'dhaatu' had
something to do with Sanskrit grammar) are!
All that we can say, if we take Pollocks method seriously and excavate pre-colonial Indian
literature is that Indian traditions have changed. His method of studying colonialism fails to explain
anything about these changes: their nature, extent, historical reasons or reasons for attributing these
changes to colonialism and not just to the passing of time. In fact, Pollocks understanding of
colonialisms impact on India will categorically fail to take note of these absences, let alone
understand them. The kind of changes brought about by colonialism that we can understand through
Pollocks method, without an appropriate theory of culture and cultural change, are comparatively
insignificant in understanding colonialisms devastating impact on India.
When one excavates the pre-colonial Indian data without a theory, the result looks somewhat
like Pollocks The Language of the Gods... (2006). It has seemingly refreshing insights on the Indian
past. But, and this is the reason why I say seemingly, it is not clear what the importance or the
implications of these insights are. Consider the insight from Pollock mentioned earlier in the essay,
that [n]o uniform code of law was ever enforced anywhere across caste groupings, let alone
everywhere in an imperial polity (2006: 277).If this is true, it is possible that castes were never seen
as one unit (as a social system, that is), as we so conveniently portray them in the present. If a uniform
code of law was never enforced across caste and an imperial polity, either no restrictions or rules were
ever enforced across caste and a state (imperial polity) or such restrictions were enforced through
other modes. Pollock fails to see such implications of his own insight, and argues that[f]rom around
the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E., when the earliest form of Sanskrit appeared in South Asia,
until around the beginning of the first millennium C.E., Sanskritwas restricted both in terms of who
was permitted to make use of the language and which purposes the language could subserve. Access to
Sanskrit was reserved for particular orders of society, and it was employed predominantly in
connection with the liturgy of the Vedic ritual and associated knowledge systems such as grammar,
phonetics, and metrics (2006: 39).It looks miraculous that two-thousand-years ago, with the kind of
transportation and communication media available at that time, a language was restricted across



South Asia to specific castes and purposes. Pollocks book (2006) is full of similar examples where he
fails to see the implications of his own insights, and ends up making farfetched claims. And, in this
sense, he looks more like a colonial European scholar amazed at the rich material found in India.

See /pollock/ sks/index.html and

http://www.claysanskritlibrary .org (Accessed 24 July 2013).

This stronger version of the thesis has been developed and discussed in the works of S.N.
Balagangadhara (2005, 2012).

As in the following instance: As in South Asia, the nature, control, and dissemination of literacy
crucially affected the creation of vernacular European literary cultures; and, as in South Asia, literacy
in western Europe had a specific history, infected by factors peculiar to that world (Pollock 2006:

In all these featureschronology, polity, the localization of the global the southern Asian and
western European cases show quite remarkable parallels. We will then be in a position to consider the
factors that make them different and give one the character of a vernacularization of necessity and the
other a vernacularization of accommodation (Pollock 2000: 607).


for instance, Foucault (1985), Bernard Williams(1993), Balagangadhara (2005), essays in Bloch,
Keppens et al. (2010).

calls his The Language of the Gods a historical work(2006: 2).


is a theory that can almost rescue Pollocks work and make his claims about understanding
colonialism useful. The theory I am referring to is the research that has developed around S.N.
Balagangadharas The Heathen in His Blindness (2005). This research will rescue Pollocks work
because it has a theory of culture and cultural differences (Balagangadhara 2005, 2012). More
importantly, Balagangadharas research programme offers, or at least is an attempt tooffer, an
alternative to the current social sciences, which, as Pollock notes, generalize European forms of life
and experience.
Cora Diamond discusses different kinds of conceptual losses. One is where we have certain words
and use them, but are unable to give them a truly intelligible use. Another one is where we lack the
capacity to use certain words, but, if we had it, we could make intelligible to ourselves important parts
of our life and experience (Diamond 1988: 258).

S.N. Balagangadharas blog post, dated 5 February 2006, available at:

also HeathenInHisBlindness/message/4428 (Accessed 20 July

Balagangadhara, S.N. 2005. 'The Heathen in his Blindness': Asia, the West and the Dynamic of the
Religion. Delhi: Manohar. (First pub. 1994).
-----. Reconceptualizing India Studies. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Bloch, Esther, Marianne Keppens, and RajaramHegde, ed. 2010.Rethinking Religion in India. London
and New York: Routledge.



Dharampal. 1983. The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century. Mapusa:
Other India Press.
Diamond, Cora. 1988. Losing Your Concepts. Ethics 98 (2): 255277.
Foucault, Michel. 1985. The Use of Pleasure: Volume 2 of The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert
Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.
Pollock, Sheldon. 2004. "Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern South Asia: Introduction." Comparative
Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 24 (2): 19-21.
-----. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern
India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Williams, Bernard. 1993. Shame and Necessity. University of California.


International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 130-147

ISSN 2277 7997

Communities in Conflict: Fighting for the Sacred Cow1

Elizabeth Thomas

Doctoral Fellow, Promoting Pluralism Knowledge Programme

University of Humanistics, Netherlands
Cow slaughter has been a long-standing issue in India leading to conflicts and
disturbances. It resurfaced again in recent times when Anti Cow-Slaughter Bills were
introduced in various Indian states such as Karnataka, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh.
There has been a common framework determining the debate about the issue and the
conflicts surrounding it: the colonial state dealt with the issue as a problem of
opposing and clashing beliefs of Hindus and Muslims, while present day academics,
intellectuals and activists treat it as a problem of communalization, a result of
fundamentalist attitudes. Both refer to the religious belief of the sacredness of the
cow, a value held by some among Hindus, and how that gets used, interpreted,
manipulated. Both colonial and postcolonial frames treat cow protection as a
normative injunction for the Hindus. This paper argues that this common assumption
ignores many of the contradictions visible in the Hindu attitude towards cow
protection when seen as an essential religious belief. It argues that statements about
worshipping the cow was part of a set of ethical dispositions inculcated in various
groups rather than a religious norm or practice. It argues that the conflicts around the
issue are a result of the 19th century transformation of practices to represent religious
beliefs of communities.
Keywords: Cow Protection, cow slaughter, legislation, communal
In March 2010, the Karnataka State Assembly passed the controversial Anti-Cattle Slaughter
Bill, which led to a public outburst both within and outside the state.2 The Bill was introduced as an
amendment to an existing Act from 1964 that bans slaughter of cattle that are still in their productive
years.3 The new Bill was seen by many as an attack on the minorities and the secular ethos of the
country by right-wing politics and politicians. There were also arguments about the adverse effects on
the livelihood of some sections of society belonging to the Muslim community and to the lower caste
Hindu communities, who are butchers by trade or in related professions like leather trade4. Following
this Bill, other similar bills were introduced in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in 2012. The Gujarat bill,
entitled the Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill 2011, prohibits killing of cows, their
transportation and selling, purchasing and possession of beef. It also includes imprisonment of up to
seven years and a fine of up to Rs. 50,000 for transporting cows for slaughter, in addition to seizure of
The slaughter of the cow in particular has been a contentious subject from at least the latter
half of the 19th century. There are reports of small-intensity communal riots as well as major
disturbances from the 1880s to the 1920s in parts of northern India, especially in the state of Uttar
Pradesh (Pandey 1993; Freitag 1990; Bapu 2012). The Constituent Assembly included prohibition on
cow slaughter under Article 48 of the directive principles of the constitution, for the states to take up


as a general direction for agricultural considerations 6. From 1955 onwards a number of states started
enacting laws for the protection of cattle and against cow slaughter (Deparment of Animal Husbandry,
Government of India 2011). In 2003, the government at the Centre had attempted to pass a legislation
to enforce a blanket ban on cow slaughter that would be applicable to all states, but this was defeated
in the parliament.
Although some invoke economic aspects related with the ban, the primary issue appears to be
that of the state favouring some groups over others in terms of their religious, social, or political
values. It is pointed out that for some groups the cow is a sacred animal while other groups make
many instrumental uses of the animal, from consumption to uses for professional reasons. One of the
crucial aspects of this situation is of the states commitment to secularism and tolerance, where the
state cannot be seen as privileging one way of thinking and living over others .
In an article on the anti-cow slaughter ban proposed in 2003 for the whole country,
surprisingly by a Minister from the Congress Party, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote:
It is, in the context of our lifestyles and other beliefs, nothing but an expression of a religious identity.
Is it an accident that we are talking just about cows? We have all the rights to express this identity,
spend as much on serving cows as we want, buy out every cow that is a candidate for slaughter. We
have a right to appeal to others to voluntarily desist from cow slaughter or to abstain from beef. What
we do not have the right to do is enforce this identity using the coercive power of the stateAccepting
a ban on cow slaughter is accepting the fact that religious sentiment is sufficient warrant to invoke
state power. That is a frightening prospect. Whatever its function as a short term palliative, in the long
run it will jeopardize liberty and justice alike (Mehta 2003).

Arguments are made constantly in favour of and against such legislations. On the one hand,
many see the proposed ban as an attack against minorities. They point out that cow sacrifice and
consumption of beef have been practiced in India for centuries from the Vedic period onwards, even
before the arrival of Islam and Christianity (thus opposing the controversial argument that cow
slaughter is a practice put in place by foreign rulers and followed by non-Hindus) (Jha 2004).
Introduction of such legislation is opposed not only because it is an infringement into everyday social
practices of specific groups, but also because it tends to provide false descriptions of Indian society.
Recent academic debates looking into the issue focus largely on the increasing communalization of
society, leading to issues such as cow slaughter being used as tools for political mobilization. 7 It is
argued that particular political interests are being furthered by protecting Brahminical practices
(Rajashekhar and Somayaji 2006). In fact, many point out that the cow is not sacred for all Brahmins in
India either. The practice thus does not neatly overlap with the interest of any one group at a panIndian level. However, the debate in the Indian context from pre-independence to the present
represents cow slaughter as a problem for the overarching community of all Hindus (S. Chigateri
Most arguments favouring the legislations are based on the figure of the holy cow or sacred
cow. They claim that the special place for the cow in Hinduism is not an argument that has come up in
recent times. When the Bill came up for discussion in the Karnataka Assembly, the then ruling BJP
government used quotes attributed to the Mughal emperor Akbar to justify the ban 8, thus claiming
that the ban on the slaughter of cows has been a norm in one form or another through the centuries. 9
Despite the statements about the cows sacredness, most legal prohibitions are justified on economic
grounds. Citing the Jan Sanghs anti cow-slaughter campaign in 1966-67, Christophe Jaffrelot says that
the Hindutva groups have found it useful to base arguments that tie the sanctity of the cow with the
economic utility of the animal (Jaffrelot 2008). The VHP in 1966 created the Sarvadaliya Goraksha
Maha-Abhiyan Samiti (SGMS) in order to mobilize the Hindus and force the Congress-led government
to reform the Constitution by making cow-slaughter illegal. The Jan Sangh, while supporting the VHPs
campaign placed more emphasis on the economic aspect. According to Jaffrelot, the Jan Sanghs



strategy is a clear indication that a simple argument based on religious sentiments is rarely enough for
a large scale mobilization (Jaffrelot 1993).
An interesting anecdote quoted in Dr. Verghese Kuriens book, I too had a Dream complicates
this assumption as well. Kurien says that in the years when he was trying to argue for disposing off old
and dying cows so that there is always a young breed for the milk products industry in India, he
befriended RSS ideologue M. S. Golwalker. One day in 1967, Golwalker asked him, Kurien, shall I tell
you why Im making an issue of this cow slaughter business? I said to him, Yes, please explain to me
because otherwise you are a very intelligent man. Why are you doing this? I started a petition to ban
cow slaughter actually to embarrass the government, he began explaining to me in private. I decided
to collect a million signatures for this to submit to the Rashtrapati. In connection with this work I
travelled across the country to see how the campaign was progressing. My travels once took me to a
village in UP. There I saw in one house, a woman, who, having fed and sent off her husband to work
and her two children to school, took this petition and went from house to house to collect signatures in
that blazing summer sun. I wondered to myself why this woman should take such pains. She was not
crazy to be doing this. This is when I realized that the woman was actually doing it for her cow, which
was her bread and butter, and I realized how much potential the cow has. Look at what our country
has become. What is good is foreign: what is bad is Indian. Who is a good Indian? Its the fellow who
wears a suit and a tie and puts on a hat. Who is a bad Indian? The fellow who wears a dhoti. If this
nation does not take pride in what it is and merely imitates other nations, how can it amount to
anything? Then I saw that the cow has potential to unify the country she symbolizes the culture of
Bharat. So I tell you what, Kurien, you agree with me to ban cow slaughter on this committee and I
promise you, five years from that date, I will have united the country. What Im trying to tell you is that
Im not a fool, Im not a fanatic. Im just cold-blooded about this. I want to use the cow to bring out our
Indianness, so please cooperate with me on this. 10 This anecdote is a powerful indication of the
transformation of a practice and the meanings associated with it, a point that I will return to later in
the paper.
Writing about the issue of cow slaughter, journalist and political analyst, Praful Bidwai
pointed out several contradictions in the behaviour of Hindus about the notion of the sacredness of
the cow. He observed that even though the cow is held to be sacred by some and not all Hindus, very
poor physical treatment is meted out to it, most of them are found in an emaciated condition after
their productive years are over. Similarly, a large number of Hindus eat beef and many of them who
own cattle seem to have a utilitarian attitude towards it (Bidwai 2003). This seems to throw up a few
puzzling questions. Why is there such disparity among the same set of people about the sacredness of
the cow?11 And despite such disparity what makes cow protection available as an argument for
political mobilization? Who practiced cow protection, if at all, and how do we understand this practice
and its relation to the notion of the sacred? As Christophe Jaffrelot observed, the instrumental alone is
not enough to explain the appeal of the issue to so many. Nor, one might add, is it sufficient to explain
the contemporary problems we are faced with.
The colonial emergence of cow protection
The debate on the question of cow protection goes back to 19 th century India, the contours of
which remain largely unchanged even today. The debate emerged as a particularly contentious one in
the years between 1880 and 1930 leading to a number of conflicts and riots in parts of north and west
India. Historical and anthropological writings on this period tell us about the emergence of large
numbers of cow-protection societies called Gaurakshini Sabhas across Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh
and present-day Uttar Pradesh, which started mobilizing people for their cause, thus producing a
decisive practice called cow protection. Scholarly works probing into these events trace this practice
to the emergence of Hindu reformist movements particularly in North India in this period. The Arya
Samaj and other such reformist organizations are often identified as being at the locus of the debate



urging people to take up cow protection actively.12 Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya
Samaj, initiated several cow protection activities and movements in Punjab in 1882 encouraging
people to take up the practice and to start goshalas to care for old and infirm cattle. Dayananda, and
many others following him, regularly wrote on cow protection saying that cows are sacred and must
be protected because they give milk, they ensure agricultural productivity, and that they will produce
healthy sons for the nation. Lest we assume that they were a group of cloistered fundamentalists,
many of these were also the same people who opposed practices such as child marriage, sati and the
caste system. Dayananda argued that Vedas are the guiding texts for Hindu beliefs and life, and Hindu
practices not rooted in Vedic texts should be purged from society. Cultural theorists argue that there is
a deep connection between social reform and Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva politics in India, because
reform required positing of good vs. corrupting Hindu practices, the former being ideal for the
nation (OToole 2003); (Gupta 2001); (Pinney 2004). Many works looking into this period find links
not only between the revivalist or reformist movements and Hindu nationalism, but argue that the
mainstream nationalist movement also led to the politics of communalism in its use of symbols and
practices such as cow protection (Freitag 1990).
By the 19th century cow slaughter became a heated issue especially directed against the
British who had opened a number of slaughterhouses to meet the needs of their large standing armies.
Numerous critiques arose about the moral degradation caused by the British rule in India and
writings appeared associating foreign rule (these would sometimes club the Islamic and the British
rule and sometimes mark their difference in approach) and the deterioration of the moral quality of
life in India. Enquiring into the agitations of the late 19 th century the British officials stationed in
Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of north and west India observed that cow protection was used
as a political idea to unite against the British. While they asserted that cow protection and cow
slaughter was a religious question between the Hindus and the Muslims, and it reflected the essential
hostility between the two communities, they saw in the agitations and conflicts a political motive, to
promote sedition and subversion against the British. 13 The British were deeply concerned that the
movements if left uncontrolled had a potential to become threatening for the empire. The colonial
state also read the Hindus growing power as the cause behind the timing of the agitations (Dharampal
and Mukundan 2002, 179180). Peter van der Veer observes about the protectionist sentiment in late
19th century that cow protection was clearly a sign of the moral quality of the state (van der Veer
1994, 91). In the later years of the independence movement, Gandhi and the Congress members often
talked about the purification of the self or self-reform as a necessary step to attain swaraj. In this
discourse of self-reform, cow protection was seen as having an important role. The civil disobedience
agitations of the 1930s combined the khadi and anti-foreign cloth agitation with the cow protection
movement, where the one seemed to have fed into the other. Here again cow slaughter was used to
illustrate the moral degradation and cruelty of the government by the nationalists, particularly by
the members of the Congress (Gould 2005). Some historians thus argue that the cow protection
movement was tapped by both reformists and nationalists to get access to the Hindu society and to
mobilize them for specific political ends (van der Veer 1994; Bandyopadhyay 2004). It is pointed out
that the practice lent itself to the creation of a universal idea of Hinduism and to counter the
communities in conflict argument made by the colonial state.
Historians point to multiple instances of cow protection being used by different groups of
people from diverse caste and class backgrounds to mobilize people for various kinds of communityrelated needs. In the 1890s agricultural castes such as Kurmis and Ahirs who lived both by Hindu and
Islamic traditions adopted cow protection as part of their social reform movements, representing
themselves as protectors of cow and thus dharma. Similarly, in her observations about Hindus in
Maharashtra, Shabnum Tejani quotes local Maulvis pointing out that lower caste Telugu Mahars and
Chamars who were eating beef till recently participated in protests against cow slaughter in the 1890s
(Tejani 2007). It is suggested that in the case of some of the lower-caste groups, anti-cow-slaughter



agitation becomes a means for upward mobilization. Historians and cultural theorists have argued that
such symbols and practices from upper caste Hindu life became, and continues to be, the source of
consolidation of dominant powerful identities around which Hindutva groups and other
fundamentalist groups organise their politics (Mayaram 1997; Datta 2002). In an important empirical
work on the issue Sandra Freitag points to various local groups in north India using the cow-slaughter
debate to generate what she calls a sense of community (Freitag 1990). She examines the gaurakshini
sabhas that emerged in the U.P region in this period and which became a wide spread movement
tapping on commonly shared values of cow protection. Freitag shows that supporters of cow
protection were known to pursue a variety of reformist and community-related activities (collecting
money for a common cause, getting poor girls married) through such sabhas. Large gatherings used to
come together for the meetings of these sabhas which had participants varying from rajas to local
merchants, to sadhus and fakirs. On some occasions, the members of these sabhas would buy cows
marked for slaughter, and bring them to goshalas established to look after them. On other occasions,
local agents of these sabhas would meet Muslims and try to offer incentives to them or use coercion to
give up cow slaughter.14 In the Bombay region, many influential Parsis were actively involved in cow
protection movements who also refused any religious sentimentality associated with the act. Critics
find contrary examples as well: Shabnum Tejani points to instances of members in the gaurakshini
sabhas who would pay handsomely for cow protection but were otherwise indifferent to the inner
workings of the sabhas. Tejani also refers to government questionnaires in the 1893 in the
Maharashtra region where many high class Hindus say that they are indifferent to the Mahomedan
consumption of beef. Sandra Freitag observes, In symbolic terms, the figure of the cow could unite
popular and high culture; it could serve reformist and traditional ends; it could reach the hearts of
townsmen and peasants alike (Freitag 1996, 218). Freitag argues that the exact ideological content of
cow protection and cow slaughter varied in all these groups; yet according to her, movements like
these, by giving public expression to religious precepts, succeeded in forming community-based civil
society groups in India (Freitag 1996, 220). On similar lines Gyan Pandey observes, It scarcely needs
stating that the unitywhich cut across several castes and classes on each side, was built up on the
basis of certain deeply shared religious concerns in this period. In the course of the development of
their agitation in the 1880s and 1890s, the gaurakshini sabhas circulated numerous pamphlets, leaflets
and pictures of the cow to drive home the sanctity of this particular symbol (Pandey 1993, 109).
Enquiring into the cow protection movement and its importance to Indian society, Peter van
der Veer asks, What is left to be understood (at least partially) is why people would die and kill for
the protection of cows. Much of the research begs the question what the cows body meant to the
Hindu protectionist...the sanctity of the cow has instead to be understood in terms of the Hindu
religious tradition, but unfortunately not much progress has been made in understanding that
tradition. My argument is that the sanctity of the cows body and the prohibition against killing and
eating her flesh is made real for Hindus in crucial ritual performances that communicate a great
variety of cosmological constructs (van der Veer 1994, 89). This argument about the sacred religious
symbolism associated with cow protection for the Hindus is common to all scholars who enquire into
the 19th and 20th century events around it.
As evident from the discussion above, the scholarship designates these conflicts either as the
history of communalism, or as community consciousness and emerging nationalist discourse, all of
which taps into religious symbols. The assumption of the religious feeling or belief tied to cow
protection underlies most of the analysis of the political debates and activity around the cow.
Various kinds of literature tells us that kings and rulers are regularly asked to protect the
cow, or to work in the hita of the cow , or that many rulers across time came to think of this as one of
their important duties. Some point out that from the time of the Mughal rulers such as Babur and
Akbar, as well as later Islamic rulers, bans on cow slaughter were prevalent. Similarly it is observed



that Sikh and Maratha rulers defined kingship in terms of the protection of the cow (van der Veer
1994, 90). And there was no obvious contradiction in the act of cow protection and the fact of sacrifice
or consumption by others, one act need not have existed in the elimination of the other (Bhandarkar
1989). Critics and lay commentators note in passing that there is no worship of cows in India, or terms
such as aghnya (variously interpreted as not to be killed or violated, not to be hurt) are associated
with the cow, but it is not consistent to read that as implying the holiness of the cow. Ambedkar who
associates the ethic of cow protection as the struggle between Hinduism and Buddhism, has noted that
the many sayings against cow killing cannot be seen as positive injunctions but rather must be read as
exhortations or interpolations in view of an existing practice (Ambedkar 1990).
For Gandhi cow protection was part of the many constructive programmes he embarked on,
such as his work for removing untouchability. Gandhis statements about cow protection and cow
slaughter surprise many in the centrality he attributed to cow protection in Hinduism, going so far as
to say that the question of cow protection was one of the important aspects of gaining swaraj. For
instance, he says, Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of that
which lives and is helpless and weak in the world, and again The central fact of Hinduism is cow
protection. Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution; for it
takes the human being beyond this species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man
through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. Why the cow was selected for
apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow was in India the best companion. She was the giver of plenty. Not
only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible (Jack 1994, 170). He also refers to the
usefulness of the cow. The cow is the protector of India because, being an agricultural country, she is
dependent on the cow. The cow is a most useful animal in hundreds of ways. Our Mohammedan
brethren will admit this (Gandhi 2008).
About the issue of cow slaughter Gandhi says, Cow slaughter can never be stopped by law.
Knowledge, education, and the spirit of kindliness towards her alone can put an end to it People
seem to think that, when a law is passed against any evil, it will die without any further effort. There
never was a grosser self-deception. Legislation is intended and is effective against an ignorant or a
small, evil-minded minority; but no legislation which is opposed by an intelligent and organized public
opinion, or under cover of religion by a fanatical minority, can ever succeed. The more I study the
question of cow protection, the stronger the conviction grows upon me that protection of the cow and
her progeny can be attained only if there is continuous and sustained constructive effort along the
lines suggested by me (Chapter II, Annex II(6) Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying,
Government of India 2002). He also notes about the emerging cow protection societies in his times
that, Am I, then, to fight with or kill a Mahomedan in order to save a cow? In doing so, I will become
an enemy of the Mahomedan as well as of the cowWhen the Hindus become insistent, the killing of
cows increased. In my opinion cow-protection societies may be considered cow-killing societies. It is a
disgrace to us that we should need such societies. When we forget how to protect cows, I suppose we
need such societies (Gandhi 2008, 187188). He saw cow protection as a noble sentiment and a
tapasya and said, To carry cow protection at the point of sword is a contradiction in terms (Gandhi
Gandhis attitude towards cow protection reveals a deep understanding that although cow
protection was an important ethical action for many Hindus, no normative rule or principle could be
derived from it which can take the shape of a religious or legal injunction. His statements about the
centrality of cow protection to Hindu faith or religion hint not at his sense of it as a core belief or
principle in Hinduism, but indicate the prevalence of a practice. It is also evident from many of the
things Gandhi said that he saw in cow protection an exemplary action with a moral charge to it that
could address the burning question of Hindu-Muslim unity.15 Similarly, much later, in 1956,
Jayaprakash Narayan issued a statement in Calcutta, advising the West Bengal government to ban cow
slaughter. He says, Banning cow slaughter is an affirmation of a great human value. The Hindu view of



the cow is not due to any superstition, blind faith or what the anthropologists would call primitive
taboo. There is enough evidence to show that at the earliest states of Indian civilization even the
Brahmins, even rishis took beef, rather he affirms that it was through a gradual process that Indians
arrived at the notion of ahimsa and protection of animals (Prasad 2007). Interestingly, what is
common to both Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan is that both warned against using the issue as a
political strategy to evoke partisan interests.
These multiple references and resonances of positions can be used to formulate a hypothesis
about cow protection as a practice: it hardly functioned as a religious or normative injunction among
these communities and in Indian society in general. Instead, the many statements made about it
indicates that rather than being a practice reflecting a religious belief, it seems to have been closely
tied to peoples notions of good moral actions, resonant in Gandhis claim that revering cows might be
a good manifestation of a commitment of reverence towards all life (Mehta 2003). We will take this up
for elaboration later in the paper.
In his work on the Indian textual traditions about the holy cow, D.N. Jha notes many
contradictions in the Hindu attitudes towards the cow. Jha argues that in the Vedic and post-Vedic
periods (roughly second millennium B.C onwards) cow and other cattle were used for ritual sacrifices
and for non- ritual consumption especially by Brahmins and by other castes. This was simultaneous
with views about the cow and other animals being sacred, about the purificatory value associated with
cows products, and specific restrictions such as not sacrificing a Brahmanas cow. He notes a shift in
the sacrificial rituals using cow and other cattle after the spread of Buddhist and Jaina traditions,
which generally spoke against animal sacrifice and spoke in favour of ahimsa. Later Medieval period
texts like the Upanishads and Dharmasutras thus spoke of cow slaughter as a sin (although Jha notes
that this was a minor and not a major pataka or wrong), while also prescribing penances if one had
indulged in it. Jha poses a question that if all this is factually correct how should we understand the
increasing inviolability and sanctity of the cow. The accuracy of the interpretation of the textual
sources apart, Jhas question can be reframed thus, how did a set of varied practices take on the form
of a normative value?
It must be noted that most anti-slaughter mobilizations from the late 19 th century represent
the cow as a sacred object and the act of cow protection as a religious duty of the Hindu. The scholarly
analysis of the agitations of the last two decades also sees it as part of a growing religious
consciousness. More specifically, they argue that cow protection and cow worship are part of
Brahmanical rituals and thus these mobilizations are attempts to resuscitate and impose Brahmanical
norms on all people, particularly by religious fundamentalist groups like the Hindu Mahasabha (Bapu
2012). They also point to the violence associated with the issue of cow slaughter that continues from
the colonial times to the present, consistently alienating many communities from each other. The
existing analyses put us in a particular bind, where on the one hand, we have to explain the
importance of the practice by assigning it a religious belief, while on the other, we claim the opposite,
that the recent meanings and intensity associated with the practice was only a later construct.
Arguments that deny such religious value are unable to offer a satisfactory account of how to view the
practice and how to theorise the changes it underwent from the 19 th century onwards.
How do we explain the transformation in the practice? If one holds the hypothesis that the
practice functioned as an action heuristic most likely meant to inculcate a good moral orientation, how
did cow protection become a sectarian symbol, worrying communities and nationalist leaders like
Nehru (Iyengar 2007)16? An important and related question is about the particular historical time of
these conflicts. The cow slaughter problem is seen as a communal issue primarily between the Hindu
and Muslim communities. If so, why is it that the conflicts increased in the 19 th century and not before?
If one assumes that there was always some form of tension around this issue, what conditions in the
19th century led to a drastic increase in these conflicts. Most of the scholarship that we have looked at



provides answers to this question by pointing to the politicization of the issue by the Hindu right and
others who lean toward that ideology (like Gandhi, according to many) from the late 19th century
onwards. However, from there the explanations become a narration of how Brahmanical or upper
caste religious norms were universalized for everyone through political processes. What are the
conditions that led to such a universalization, wherein a practice acquired a religious normative
status?17 How did a specific set of instructions or actions meant for individuals to cultivate a moral
disposition, to inculcate certain attitudes, become a norm prescribed to and/or accepted by all? In
these analyses, the general assertion is that the cow is sacred for Hindus. At the root of our presentday socio-political quandaries with the cow, it is argued, is the Hindu belief in the sanctity of the cow.
Most scholars who comment on the issue treat statements and discourses surrounding the
sacredness of the cow to imply a religious belief, or a norm than treating it as an action heuristic. The
problem of cow slaughter thus emerges as a crisis in the idea of religious tolerance. As an implication,
we are required to understand conflicts between different communities as a result of the divergent
values and beliefs held by people.
Assuming that cow protection and cow slaughter are two contending practices requiring a
resolution through the value of tolerance is to continue the colonial understanding of the conflicts. The
paper tries to present another understanding of the action and practice of cow protection that gives us
a better handle on how it was used and referred to in forms of public action in the 19th century, and
transformations it underwent henceforth, by keeping aside the normative charge assigned to it.
Another point that deserves mention: most of the 20th century debates, especially the ones in the last
decade, speak more of beef eating than cow protection or cow slaughter. The debate cuts up the
problem as an opposition between people who eat beef and those who do not. Rather than see this as a
separate problem, we need to see how this is an aspect of the transition that we have been referring
to: eating or not eating a particular item is more of a social habit acquired in communities over long
periods of time. In itself, that is no evidence to assume that such culinary habits necessarily are a
religious or normative practice.
However, when cultural practices acquire a normative charge, our ways of talking about all
aspects of social life undergo change. In the next section of the paper, I take up the question of the new
understanding of the practice of cow protection, making it and the terms associated with it into a
religious one. If at a particular historical point, statements about the sacredness of the cow, or the
practice of cow protection did not imply a religious or normative attitude then how did it transform so
Cultural practices in the province of colonial law
The years when the cow-slaughter movements were taking a violent turn, also saw the
increased intervention of the colonial courts in community conflicts. In the 1860s, several legislations
were passed and revoked where the colonial courts were asking whether the practice of cow slaughter
was intended to hurt religious sentiment. If the intention was not so and cow slaughter was only for
the purpose of food, it could not be banned or punished. One such instance was in the year 1888 when
the North Western Provinces High Court following complaints of slaughter of cows from some Hindu
groups, declared that the cow was not a sacred object within the meaning of section 295, of the Indian
Penal Code, and thus slaughtering of cows cannot be seen as incitement of religious violence (Bapu
2012; Pandey 1993; van der Veer 1994). Historians observe that this statement of the court intensified
the anti-cow slaughter movement dramatically (Pandey 1993; Bapu 2012). Another instance is from
Azamgarh district in 1893 before the Bakr-Id festival, where the fears of communal disturbance led
the magistrate to summon Muslims from all villages to register with them if they intended to slaughter
cows for qurbani. People of the villages were asked to adhere to custom (of slaughter or prohibition)
as far as possible. Many Hindus and Muslims agreed to do so. However, this recording of custom



backfired with some Hindu and Muslim groups accusing each other of false statements and of
perverting the custom.18
Gyan Pandey, argues that attempts to codify customs and legislate on practices led to a further
destabilization of it (Pandey 1993). Pandey points out that the stress on cow protection among Hindus
and shariat practices among the Muslims became more pronounced particularly in response to the
Christian missionaries in the early part of the 19th century. This, coupled with the reform movements,
helped in the deepening consciousness of the people as members of particular religious communities
(Tejani 2007; Pandey 1993). It is also noted by many that following this period the communitys
awareness of their right to slaughter or to protect cows also increased leading to more rigidified
positions and more conflict.
The colonial state in India was thus centrally preoccupied with the problem of dealing with
and administering diverse communities since the 19th century onwards. It was an especially
excruciating problem for the colonial rulers because of the marked difference of the Indian polity from
anything encountered in Europe, in its seemingly mind-numbing diversity of languages, traditions,
religions and other social forms such as jatis or castes. By 1919 the colonial courts general position
was of maintaining status quo in the issue and yet they were concerned that a mutually satisfactory
solution could not be arrived upon (Thursby 1975). In instances like the above, the colonial
governments attempts to understand, record and codify customs and practices of communities led it
to believe that India was a land of warring groups and therefore an external structure or government
was necessary to rule it (Mukherjee 2010). This reading of India remains intact with claims such as,
socio-political diversity continues to be a major source of conflict in contemporary India (Bryjak
1986)), to this day.
Historians and anthropologists writing on the cow-slaughter issue and cow-protection
movements often find evidence of various kinds which cannot be fully explained by either of the theses
forwarded to account for the conflicts (Freitag 1990; Jalal 2001; Hasan and Roy 2005; Pinney 2004).
The first thesis was generated by the colonial state in India to call the conflicts on cow slaughter, from
late-nineteenth century, as a problem of Hindu-Muslim differences, thus casting it as an issue of
clashing religious values. However, they saw an anti-British political motivation in the cow protection
movements. Contemporary and postcolonial writings are critical of the colonial formulation of the
problem. They challenge this thesis by showing varying commitments by these communities to the
practice, and read the cow protection movements and practice as more than a political tool. They also
observe that Hindu- Muslims differences were not so stark, and the period prior to this shows a
greater degree of accommodation of differences between communities. In a seminal writing on this
issue, Dharampal argues that gaurakshini sabhas and the conflicts surrounding the cow were primarily
agitations against the British in the initial years of the nineteenth century in response to large number
of slaughter houses opened in late 18th century for the needs of the British standing army (Dharampal
and Mukundan 2002). The writing also provides several examples of Muslim support for these
agitations and positive intervention for the cause of cow protection (such as getting beef shops closed)
(Dharampal and Mukundan 2002). In North India, Muslim zamindars and Muslims from the Rajput
caste are known to have supported the call for ban on cow slaughter. The authors also argue that
everyday practices of Muslim communities in the region prove that many Muslims in India had
inherited these practices as much as the Hindus did.
An important work about the plural traditions in India, Living Separately Together, provides
interesting examples of cow protecting saints (both real and mythical) from Hindu and Islamic
traditions, venerated by several intermediate castes between both traditions (Hasan and Roy 2005).
One essay in the book talks about warrior heroes and saints called Pabuji and Salar Masud venerated
by many communities in north India around Awadh for having become martyrs while performing their
Kshatriya duty of protecting cows and women. In a similarly interesting account, Shahid Amin talks



about the narratives, songs, epics and ballads around the person of Salar Masud known as the cowsaving Muslim warrior in parts of North India. Amin points out that this too is not a straightforward
story. Masud is venerated by Muslims in the region of Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, as a warrior saint who
laid down his life and became a martyr for the cause of Islam, while Hindu communities like Ahirs, the
cowherd caste, revere him for being their protector (Amin 2002).
The second and latter-day academic thesis suggests that the conflicts are a result of the
appropriation of upper caste, Brahmanical values, as Hindu beliefs and the violent imposition of the
same on all people by Hindu fundamentalists (Gupta 2001). Counter examples that challenge this
thesis are in fact present in the very same scholarly writings. First, most ancient literatures would
show that cow protection was one of the actions meant for the ruling and agricultural classes. In the
case of the rulers it so happens that many of these instructions link the cow, the Brahmana, the women
folk and so on as candidates for such protection. For the others there might be diverse associations
with the cow or other household cattle, from reverence to use. Second, as the commentaries on 19 th
century movements and conflicts show, cow protection and cow worship was a value very easily
picked up by various groups such as local leaders and non-Brahmin castes, including but not limited to
castes linked with agricultural work. Third, as the literature shows, people who spoke against cow
slaughter ranged from leaders like Gandhi to Jayaprakash Narayan to eminent social reformers and
parliamentarians who can hardly be clubbed together as Hindu fundamentalists. The constituent
assembly debates on the issue reveal that parliamentarians who spoke against cow slaughter
(justifying it alternatively as a religious and economic necessity) also spoke about toleration between
communities and respecting religious sentiments and practices of others. 19 All these observations
suggest that the story of transformation of the practice cannot be very simply shifted from the HinduMuslim divide to the fundamentalist-marginalized divide. In order to explain the abovementioned
contradictions we tend to find answers such as sanskritization to false consciousness, to political
instrumentality of the crude kind. Although the colonial and postcolonial formulation of the problem
looks marginally different from each other, the preoccupation is the same: of contending religious and
cultural values in the political realm.
Instead, one can observe that cow protection is a valued practice for many Hindus and it has
been a practice prevalent in India with varying forms since ancient times. The discomfort of the Hindu
groups is that contemporary intellectuals ignore this point all too easily. While on the other hand, the
secularist discomfort arises from the use that such practices are put to: mobilizations, legislations and
other kinds of political activity through which cultural practices take the form of a normative
injunction, making it an imposition on even those who do not value that practice.
One could argue that liberal concepts and ideas that mark the cow slaughter debates as an
issue of diversity of values and then proceed to offer social and political solutions often end up adding
to the strife. Attempts to codify and mark practices also seem to take away from the life of these
practices. Not only do they exclude a multiplicity of practices, but they also erase the matrix in which
these actions make sense, transforming them into actions that have a religious or political telos. One of
the ways by which this transformation happens is by asking foundational questions to practices. Such
a trajectory can be seen in the 19 th century attempts to deal with the politics around the cow
protection movements. Whenever questions were posed using a religious frame, such as, for whom is
this practice sacred?, or, what are the underlying beliefs and texts that authorize such practices?, it
led to a greater rigidity of positions than before.
What indeed happens with the intervention of law? Looking at the descriptions of the
questions posed by the courts, we notice that its central problem relates to mining out intentions and
beliefs of the participants. The constant preoccupation of the courts was to find out what kind of
beliefs were involved in this case and how to deal with contending beliefs embodied in practices. In
some cases, the court is known to have given rulings observing that cow slaughter was not a religious



imposition on the Muslim and so he/she could avoid it if necessary (similar pronouncements are made
by various courts in India in the post-independence period). In other cases statements were made
around notions of individual and community rights, such as the ruling of the Allahabad High Court in
the 1880s that Muslims have a right to slaughter cows irrespective of whether they had exercised the
right (Freitag 1990, 206). In the same period, in response to petitions by many individual Muslims or
groups who wanted to slaughter a cow for some personal or public festival in a conflict-ridden area,
the court would often rule that if the slaughter was for religious festivals then it has to be allowed.
However, if it was for consumption, then care was to be taken to avoid performing the act in public
places where it would cause tension. The legal interventions led to a new discourse of organising ones
world around conceptions of community rights and beliefs (Pandey 1993; Freitag 1990). Debates and
public speeches around the issue of slaughter heightened various groups sense of their rights, for
instance, people started talking in terms of Muslim rights, ancient rights of Hinduism and so on
(Gould 2005, 81; Freitag 1990, 158). Following such political and juridical encounters, more conflicts
came into the public sphere about temple processions and other practices, revolving around rights of
people. One historian notes, Cow protection conflicts merged easily with more general violence over
religious festivals and processions. Although in prior decades Hindus and Muslims had participated in
each others festivals, by the late 19th century, the two communities were openly split along religious
lines. What boon has Allah conferred upon you, went one turn-of-the-century Maharashtrian song,
That you have become a Mussalman today? The cow is our mother; do not forget her (Walsh 2006,
Evidently, the debate would have posed a deep problem for the colonial state faced with two
communities with different practices. Several writings demonstrate that issues such as cow slaughter,
music before the mosques and other similar issues proved to be particularly tricky ones and frustrated
the colonial attempts at regulating conflicts. Dharampal and Mukundans text reproduces a series of
correspondences and reports of the British officers in the early 20 th century on this issue wondering
about how to intervene in the issue (Dharampal and Mukundan 2002): should they protects rights,
should they protect beliefs, or should they just see to their own interests. What flummoxed the
colonial state was that even after positing all the events as a problem of diverse beliefs, it was difficult
to understand a situation where both communities participated in a common practice.
More recently legal scholars have shown that when cases against or for cow slaughter has
come up in Indian courts after the independence, most often it has continued to favour the Hindu
interests and sentiments, assuming that the cow happens to be sacred to all Hindus, ignoring voices
from within the Hindu community which oppose such assumptions. In appeals by Muslim groups to
the High Courts or Supreme Court about cow slaughter on Bakr-Id, the courts have echoed the colonial
states position that the Quran has not necessitated cow sacrifice. In cases where appeals have come
from butchers and other trading communities, the courts have maintained a total ban on cow
slaughter, while delivering varying judgements about bulls, calves and buffaloes. 20 Shraddha Chigateri
argues that the judicial and political privileging of the caste Hindu ethic of cow protection is a
simultaneous devaluing of Dalit and lower caste ways of life, and thus is experienced as an injustice by
those communities (Chigateri 2013). Chigateri also argues that, the legal arguments, which are
purportedly based on an economic, ecological understanding of the use value of cows in a
predominantly agrarian economy, mask and elide the prioritising of dominant-caste Hindu identity in
the regulation of cow slaughter. This elision is at the expense of the even-handed recognition of all
religious sensibilities, and strikes at the heart of Indian constitutional secularism (Chigateri 2011).
This resonates with arguments made by many other researches. A researcher writing on the
recent amendments in Indian states of the cow slaughter acts observes that although the political
discourse revolves around religious faith and sentiment, the legal language makes it necessary to
argue for the legislations from the standpoint of agricultural interests. He says, In legal terms, no



State has attempted to protect cattle as important religious symbols and the absence of such a
discourse indicates the complex and problematic nature of that argument in constitutional law. The
legal and political discourse on cow slaughter legislations are carried out on very different terms and
using vocabularies that have very little intersection. Such attempts at achieving non-secular aims
through secular means in the context of cow slaughter come to a head when states prohibit possession
and consumption of beef per se. It does not fit the existing constitutional discourse on the issue and a
ban on cow slaughter invoking religious grounds, rather than agricultural interests, might provide a
better basis to attempt a wider ban. I do not think such a ban would succeed even then but it is
certainly better than relying on a stretched notion of agricultural interests. 21 The general argument
thus revolves around failure of the polity to be secular and tolerant to diverse values.
We see thus a transformation of cow protection from an exemplary action, or an action
heuristic into a religious duty for many. In colonial and postcolonial India through the juridical
process, the law becomes the main instrument of this transformation. The colonial legal framework
assesses practices in such a way that it tries to connect a practice to some irreducible value, or belief
(this approach has been carried over in postcolonial legal methodology). A large part of the judicial
process is to arrive at the essential belief, through a series of exegetical methods. Much has been
written about colonial legal procedures and the domain of practices and customs. By the time the riots
around the cow started occurring ideas of Hindu and Islamic personal laws were heavily entrenched
and texts prescribing the same were a point of reference for the courts (the laws of the Koran with
respect to the Mohamedans and those of the shaster with respect to the Gentoos (Derrett 1999, 289)).
Having adjudged a particular practice for its religious principles, the courts strategy has been to find
ways to negotiate between conflicting values, belief states and religious principles. Chigateri argues
that in recent appeals against state law on cow slaughter, when the appeal comes from Muslim groups,
the Judges determine which social or religious value is essential through a painstaking interpretation
of religious texts. While, when it comes to assessing the arguments made by the Hindus, the courts are
satisfied to go by hearsay and quote a couple of obscure Indian texts, or reassert the argument of the
usefulness of the cow (S. Chigateri 2011). The courts approach in a way demonstrates an unexamined
reproduction of colonial knowledge about practices.
A detailed survey of legal arguments or positions or theoretical reflections about the same in
the cow slaughter cases or in reference to other practices is outside the scope of this paper. One can
just note that these and similar contemporary debates around practices can be subjected to a proper
reflection only if one begins to understand how much the thinking about cultural practices are
subsumed under the social diversity and social justice frame from 19 th century onwards.
What is sacred about the cow: a possible route of interpretation?
The postcolonial theorists observe many transformations that happen in 19 th and 20th
centuries with respect to the cow protection/slaughter debates, but their analyses amounts to saying
that a marginal religious (or traditional) value becomes more rigidly religious (fundamentalized) or
gets manipulated for political ends (politicized). Although they note many contradictions associated
with the sacredness of the cow, or with cow worship, there is no theoretical framework to understand
what these could mean outside of a religious framework. Thus, they reproduce colonial knowledge
even in their nuanced observations about Indian society.
I would like to extend the argument that in the cow protection issue the term sacred
acquired specific religious overtones in the 19th century. Although some groups might have
traditionally refrained from eating beef and even worshipped the cow, their relation to others who did
not follow these practices, but followed practices diametrically opposed to theirs, was not necessarily
one of animosity. In fact it is possible to argue that cow protection was earlier seen as an action to
morally and ethically orient oneself and thus originally had very different connotations from the
religious matrix in which it is seen today both by right wing groups and their critics.



Initial hints to begin understanding the idea of the sanctity of the cow are available from the
pre-colonial assertions about cow protection, where it is associated with the moral quality of the state
and killing of cows is linked to a certain moral degradation (Gould 2005; van der Veer 1994). More
crucially, in literatures prior to this period, cow protection is a duty of the king or the ruler, who is told
that it is his duty to protect many from the animal and human world particularly cows, women and
Brahmanas (Ambedkar 1990). From the scholarly readings and interpretations, we can hypothesize
that the notions of sacredness and purity associated with cow protection or cow worship demanded
no specific normative action, while also inculcating attitudes of respect and protection. It is not useful
to ask why the cow, why not the buffalo or any other animal. In a sense, it is not cows that are sacred,
or even the act of protection a sacred duty in the way that we understand it today. Although different
kinds of groups such as rulers, Brahmanas, gwalas (cowherds), devotees of Krishna, perceived cow
protection as a sacred act, it is very difficult to conclude from this that their practice is equivalent to a
religious action. In effect, it does not denote any particular ideal or belief. When asked why one must
protect cows, or why they see cows as pavitra, most ordinary, learned or spiritually-inclined Hindus
are likely to give the same reply given by a series of national leaders advocating cow protection, from
Dayananda to Gandhi. These range from claims like, the cow gives milk, the cow is a useful animal, the
cow represents our mother, our ancestors did the same, and only in very rare circumstance, that it is
mentioned or prescribed in the Vedas. None of these signal the presence of a religious principle tied to
cow protection. If cow protection indeed constituted a religious injunction, deriving a religious belief
or principle from it would have been far easier.
To understand the nature of such practices more precisely one can borrow the conception of
rituals that anthropologist Talal Asad, and linguist and philosopher, Frits Staal, use. Studying the Vedic
rituals and mantras Frits Staal argued that rituals are not symbolic activity; they do not stand for
something else. Instead, they are self contained and self absorbed (Staal 1979). The stress is not on
the meaning of the action, but on the rules governing them, or the correct performance of an action.
Staal observes, Why has it proved so difficult to define the meaning, goals and aims of ritual...There is
one simple hypothesis which would account for all these puzzling facts: the hypothesis that ritual has
no meaning, goal or aim. Therefore, explaining a ritual as a transition from profane to sacred is
tautological because these can only be terms within a ritual or terms to mark the status of a person or
object before and after a ritual. Staal calls rituals pure activity, where rules and not results are more
important. Talal Asad gives a genealogical account of the idea of rituals from its use in the medieval
Christian world to its modern secularized usages in anthropology and in other disciplines including
modern Christian theology, from signifying discipline of the self to representing a symbolic act (Asad
1993). Asad argues that in medieval Christianity rituals were practices for cultivating particular moral
dispositions and capacities, and were part of disciplining the self. In this view, there was no necessary
separation between visible signs and actions, and invisible feelings or thoughts. Rituals and practices
needed no decoding to get at their inner meaning. In fact, Asad observes that it was through the
concept of a disciplinary programme that outer behaviour and inner motive were connected (Asad
1993, 64). While in latter-day understanding, which Asad traces to Bacons use of the terms simulation
and dissimulation in political behaviour, rituals became more and more of a representative and
expressive activity, where they seem to stand for some yet to be decoded thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or
These descriptions about ways of understanding rituals give us a sense of how to understand
the transition in cow protection practice. 22 From being an action heuristic, or a practice meant for a
correct ethical disposition it changes to something which represents non-negotiable beliefs in the
sacredness the cow.23 One could say that the instruction of protecting a cow can be meaningfully read
as having to do with instilling an ethic of care and responsibility in whomever it was addressed to,
most frequently in a ruler towards his subjects. We could also speculate that some strains of this



tradition are visible in the nationalist leaders picking of cow protection as an exemplary action
(Narayan 1968). For others it signifies an ethical action for something that sustains life and livelihood.
Two related but different aspects come together in the making of the cow-slaughter problem
in India. One is the colonial-legal framework that interprets community practices as embodying
religious beliefs. Once seen as embodying religious beliefs, these practices have to be inevitably
interpreted as flowing from a non-negotiable crux of religious commitments. Colonial courts
interpreted much of the tension surrounding the cow slaughter issue in the 19 th century as signalling a
religious conflict. Rendered as such, it has no conceptual resources to deal with religious conflicts
because religious conflicts are not civil suites where a common legal framework determines actions
and behaviours of both parties. Religious differences, by their very nature, entail paradigmatic
differences in beliefs that are not reducible to common frameworks, legal or otherwise. There is
evidence now to believe that all the religious hermeneutics the courts participate in to get at the core
of the practices prove unsuccessful in addressing social conflicts.
The second aspect of the problem is the transformation of the ethical domain of actions into a
moral domain of beliefs. What we see in the Indian literature about cow protection is an ethic of care
and action. It is inappropriate to read the Indian texts about cow protection as arguments for the
religious sanctity of the animal. Two typical arguments provided by the Indian texts are this: 1) cows
should not be slaughtered because animal sacrifice is deplorable and 2) cows should not be
slaughtered because it helps man in his essential agrarian needs. The first argument over-determines
the case because it is not an argument about the sanctity of the cow, but about the sanctity of all living
creatures. The second argument under-determines the case, because it is not about the issue of
sanctity at all, let alone about the sanctity of the cow, but about the utility of the animal. It is
interesting to note that when Indians worship the cow, they are involved in an activity that has many
parallels and equivalents for them: worshipping implements, tools, gods, elders, trees and pots and
pans. It might be foolhardy to derive from this the sanctity of all such things to Indians.
This fundamental difference in the significance of cow protection for practicing communities
on the one hand and for the state on the other is what we are stuck at today. When such a practice
finds housing in the hotbed of political rights and claim making, the result can only be conflict. Put as
the right of Hindus to protect the cow, it obviously hurts another right of another community, which is
the right to sacrifice the animal or use it for everyday purposes. Seen as the design of the priestly
classes or upper castes to protect their hegemony, it only renders the communities incorrigible and
culpable beyond redemption. Seen as the right of another community to eat beef, it only goes to prove
the malevolent attitude of that community to practices of Hindus, thus leading to more strife.
Along with other such practices, cow protection has been at the centre of much thought about
secularism, tolerance, and diversity in contemporary India. The 19 th century cow-protection and cowslaughter debate marks a shift in the way practices were discussed henceforth. Practices are often
debated as reducible to a set of values or beliefs that they represent and people are shown to have a
right to follow a practice, based on principles that adhere to other liberal values of freedom and
equality, subjecting practices to a second level of analysis about just principles. This has transformed a
repertoire of exemplary actions available for Indians from texts and stories and perhaps even from
real life into normative actions, now made mandatory for many. Narratives about sati daha, about
Rama and Ayodhya, and cow protection, fall largely into this category. Mainstream scholarship has not
paid adequate attention to this profound alteration of the conceptual landscape of Indian culture. In
this paper, I have attempted to discuss one such example of the transformation by looking at what
happens to exemplary actions when they acquire the force of an apparently normative injunction.
Underlying this transformation is the story of a deep change in the ethical life of Indians brought about
by long periods of colonisation. That story, however, awaits another author.



This paper is a re-worked version of a jointly authored unpublished paper by the present author and
Serene Kasim, entitled Legal Discourse Around Social Practice: an enquiry into the cattle slaughter bill
presented in the Second Law and Social Sciences Research Network (LASSNET) Conference held in
Foundation for Liberal and Management Education (FLAME), Pune, India, from 27-30 December, 2010.

See /58978/cow-slaughter-ban-bill-passed.html

Very recently, the Congress led government in the state has withdrawn the bill and restored the 1964
Act. See http://www.asianage. com/india/karnataka-congress-govt-reverses-bjp-rules-tough-lawcow-slaughter-444

This became apparent in conversations with activists in the Karnataka West Coast and Bangalore. 864513

Article 48 of the Constitution reads thus: Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry: The
State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and
shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter,
of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.



Various newspaper reports.

One cannot quiet establish the veracity of such statements at this stage, and there is little evidence
other than the speculative to suggest why such bans came into place, or what justification was used for

10 ddm=10&pid=2695

At the face of it the implication is that sacred implies something particular and actions such as
worshipping, or making use or killing (or sacrificing) are mutually exclusive, that is, if the cow is
believed to be sacred then, one cannot tolerate its being killed.

Prior to the Arya Samaj, in the 1860s the Sikh Kuka movement is supposed to have actively agitated
against cow slaughter in the Punjab region.

See the British Intelligence note on Anti Kine Killing Agitation, pages 87-122 (Dharampal and
Mukundan 2002)

An interesting incident is related by Sandra Freitag about the Rani of Majhauli who deputed an agent
to buy 80 heads of cattle being taken by butchers. She also agreed to give local butchers rent free land
if they gave up their trade in cattle (Freitag 1990, 153).


See (Bilgrami 2003) on Gandhis thought on moral principles and exemplary actions.

Immediately after independence, Nehru wrote a letter to Rajendra Prasad expressing his anxiety
about the revivalist phenomena. He too asks the question about how to counter the sectarian outlook
while also retaining the economic aspects of the cow slaughter debates.

The use of universalization is not to suggest that henceforth everyone started practicing it but to
indicate a particular conceptual use of the practice as a core and essential Hindu religious practice.

This was also the time when many conflicts emerged about sacred spaces for different
communities and places like Ayodhya became sacred in a particular sense.

Thakur Dass Bhargava, who moved the amendment against cow slaughter, is also known to have
spoken in the parliament against untouchability and was part of many social reform committees
including the age of consent committee.



See formInput=cow%20slaughter on judicial out-comes on
these cases.

21 guest-post-by-anup-surendranath-anti.html

The suggestion is not that cow protection is some sort of a sacred ritual. But that the role of rituals
can be borrowed to understand the role of cow protection in India.

Also see (Polly Hazarika 2011). Polly Hazarikas work on the 19 th century reform discourse and its
postcolonial assessment shows some of the crucial shifts in the understanding of practices with the
colonial encounter. She argues that practices whose primary goal was to produce ethical self-reflection
and thus effect a transformation in the individual came to be associated with groups or communities in
their goal for identity formation. In the colonial understanding diverse practices where marked by
diversity of doctrines and beliefs which was the basis of the diversity of the groups. S N
Balagangadhara has made a very persuasive and detailed case for the way in which action heuristics
work in Indian cultures and how they differ from moral norms.

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International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities
Vol. 2. Issue 1, June 2013, pp. 148 154

2277 7997

Rethinking a Humboldtian Vision for the Twenty-First Century

S.N. Balagangadhara
Onderzoekscentrum Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap, Universiteit Gent, Belgium.

This article discusses Humboldtian ideas and higher education from the point of view
of Europe. However, it is possible to see the deep resonances and equally importantly
the dissonances with the Indian context.
Keywords: Humboldt, higher education, pedagogy, fact, value,
Humboldt has three axes: the State, the German Nation and Education. People should develop
their individual capacities and powers and grow fully. In this autonomous process, education provides
people with the knowledge necessary for complete self-expression. Such people would constitute the
German Nation. A nation of people like these would have another relationship to the State than those
of being mere subjects. Education itself (or, better put, research) is an individual process that occurs in
solitude and in freedom (Einsamigkeit und Freiheit). It is important to note too that the idea of
higher education was formulated in explicit opposition to the utilitarian ideas, especially the idea
that educational institutions should be of use to society.
Higher (in higher education)
versus mundane
In the Humboldtian vision, the university, as an institution, was an institution of higher learning.
Not in the sense that only those with a secondary education could enter the university. This is a postHumboldtian development, during which period universities became institutions for certification.
Instead, the notion higher referred to two things: to the content of university education and to the
goal of scientific research. What one learns, or should learn in the university has to do with the higher
capacities and faculties of the humankind; here, the contrast set is the world of the mundane. In
contrast to the world of the mundane, there existed a higher world, the world of education, which
formed and gave shape and expression to the good, the noble and the excellent abilities of the
humankind. That is why the university education was seen as higher education.
versus utilitarian
There is another sense in which the University education is higher. In being trained by such an
institution, mankind pursued the highest goal of all: the search for truth. Here, the contrast set is the
utilitarian and the instrumental. Unlike in the professional schools, where people strove to learn some
or another skill that would be of utilitarian benefit to themselves and of instrumental benefit to the
society at large, in the university, people pursued only one thing and for its own sake: truth. Truth
liberates and knowledge was synonymous with truth. Unencumbered by instrumental and utilitarian


concerns, one pursued truth for its own sake in the universities. In this sense too was the university
seen as an institution of higher learning. Such an institution, the Humboldtian vision insists, is an
ivory tower.
Humboldts legacy: higher education today
Even though the ideas of self-cultivation, self-development and self-expression continue to
be a part of the western commonsense, it fails to motivate people involved in higher education to any
significant extent. Even where they do, these ideas do not constitute arguments for curricular reforms
and do not form the basis for curriculum planning at the university level.
Furthermore, today, utilitarian ideas are determining the educational landscape: of what use
are the universities to a knowledge economy, when there are technical schools that provide people
with economically useful skills or when there are huge R&D branches of industrial firms or where the
global competition between nations has become decisive to the welfare of each nation? Unlike
yesterday though, today, slogans have replaced clear thinking and profound visions.
In the late sixties of the twentieth century, the notion of the university as an ivory tower
came under withering attack. Of course, this Humboldtian notion became entwined with the ideas of a
sociologist, Karl Mannheim, about the free floating intelligentsia and the well-known philosophical
distinction between facts and values. Most of the criticisms during the sixties invariably ran these
three totally different themes together: (a) the social scientist had to be an engaged and committed
intellectual; (b) s/he could not claim to pursue value free enquiries into society and human beings;
(c) the universities had become irrelevant to society by isolating themselves from the social concerns
of their day, i.e. the university had become an ivory tower. Here, as elsewhere, the ideologues of the
sixties were incoherent; but this very incoherence guaranteed their popularity in the society at large.
Even though nobody quite knows why, being an ivory-tower intellectual is a bad thing today.
Today, instead of having a vocation or a calling, the universities appear to have accepted
their institutional role of providing certifications as their end-goal. Today, one speaks about the core
business of a university, its products and the need for quality control of the same. Of course, there is
a suspicion in the outside world that the internal auditors of the universities (namely, the academic
staff) are rarely interested in the quality of the education. Consequently, external auditors, the
visitation commissions, are called in to certify the educational content of the universities: such
commissions are to declare that there is no tampering, no fraud and no cheating in the education
process. Not so long ago, the Flemish minister of education even willed an audit commission into life
to oversee that the non-financial accounts of the universities were properly kept following the visit of
these external auditors. In other words, because universities appear merely to certify, a further
certification of the certifier and the certification process is but a natural evolution. Needless to say, the
universities appear to embrace this (social) goal enthusiastically: witness the pride with which they
speak of their internal quality control.
Research in natural sciences has challenged one of the core values of the Humboldtian vision:
research-in-solitude (Einsamigkeit). Today, doing research in groups has evolved as the most
efficient way of conducting scientific enquiry. Individual creativity or freedom is not compromised by
doing research in groups; indeed, it appears, it is just the other way round. Except for most humanities
and a few social sciences, collective research has long since replaced individual research-in-solitude.



With respect to freedom (Freiheit), the second cardinal Humboldtian value, the following
two developments need to be noted. (A) The increasing interpenetration between the universities and
the private sector; and (B) the increasing pressure on the universities to look for funding from
elsewhere than the state have both put paid (at least partially) to this much respected virtue.
Truth seeking
In the Humboldtian vision, it is quite unclear what the nature and scope of the term
education is. On the one hand, education is supposed to help in seeking truth. If we focus on the fact
that education is supposed to help one in doing this, it appears as though truth and truth seeking are
desirable values. These values, however, are presupposed and, at best, education can only cultivate
them further. On the other hand, if we focus on one of the Humboldtian axes, namely the need to build
a German Nation, then it follows that such a nation could not be built unless and until all people could
be educated to become citizens of such a nation. That is to say, truth and truth seeking are cognitive
values that education instilled in people in their transformation into autonomous citizens. In other
words, these cognitive values are presupposed and presupposed as something that only higher
education can instil.
The above ambiguity becomes clearer, if we look at the relationship between the University as
an institution of higher education, the student and the teacher. Because of the emphasis placed on
autonomous self-development and the role that knowledge plays in enabling this process, the
teachers role becomes rather marginal: such a person (at best) mediates or transmits knowledge to
the individual pupil. The student makes use of his/her own powers in using knowledge on the way to
self-development and self-expression. The teacher is a mediator, a facilitator and a mere
(pre)condition for learning, and learning is something that the pupil does on his/her own.
Under this construal, pedagogy becomes subordinated to psychology: the teaching process is
subordinated to the learning process. Here is where the ambiguity comes to the fore: does the teacher
actively instil (and create) the ability to learn autonomously, or does the teacher merely facilitate the
development of a pre-existing need (and desire) for autonomous learning that is already present in the
pupil? Does the teacher teach the value of autonomous learning to the student or does the teacher
merely strengthen and reinforce a value that already pre-exists in the student? Should university
education inculcate the value of self-development or merely respect and strengthen this value, which
the student already has?
This problem becomes even more complicated if we bring in primary and secondary
education into the scope of our considerations. Should the university teachers presuppose that the
earlier education of an individual (in family and in the schools) has provided them with a pupil, who is
able to learn autonomously (given the right conditions) or should it be the aim of university education
to create such an individual? In very simple but Humboldtian terms: should the university presuppose
that the students follow higher education because they seek truth, or should it teach them the value of
seeking truth? Here is an easy and simple answer: both. That is to say, the university education should
enable the students to recognize explicitly what they knew only implicitly, namely, that they are
seeking truth. More often than not, simple and easy answers are also the wrong ones, as it is the case
in our context. To appreciate this point better, we need to look at it from three dimensions.
The first dimension: Is there a single motive animating the students, when they enter the
university? If yes, is this motive one of searching for truth? The second dimension: To what extent is
the Humboldtian value (seeking truth as the only goal of higher education) an integral part of our



ideas of knowledge today? The third dimension: Why should one introduce pedagogic innovations, like
those that stimulate active and autonomous learning, in education today?
First dimension: motivations for learning
The empirical answer to this question is ambiguous. On the one hand, it is impossible to
suggest that all the students (or even a majority of them) enter an institution with a single
psychological motive, namely, to seek truth. Some enter the university because they seek truth, some
others do so because they need a degree and yet others because they do not know what else to do. On
the other hand, if we look at how the teachers speak, their expectations are clear: one speaks either of
having a group of motivated students or unmotivated and uninterested students in their class
rooms. Often, one hears them complain of the current generation of students as being thoroughly
unmotivated. This teacher-speak tells us that the presupposition of the University teachers is that the
students who come to study in the Universities should have the motivation to study before they enter
the portals of higher education. From this ambiguity, one can only conclude that the University
teachers do not see themselves either capable of or wanting to motivate students to seek truth.
According to them, this is something that the earlier education should accomplish. It is unclear though
how any kind of education (be it in the family circles or in the lap of secondary education) could instil
a single motive in all the students entering the University.
Of course, one possibility is to restrict the entry of students into higher education to only
those who have the motive to seek truth. However, it runs against two difficulties. The first is that of
testing the students for their motives: we have no clear ideas about what motives are anymore than
how we can test for their existence. While this is an empirical difficulty, there is also a conflict between
any such restriction and our modern democratic value, namely, the need to make the education
democratic. That is, there is a very strong feeling that education should be accessible to all those in a
society who seek it. Entrance tests and numerus clausus in an educational institution (like, say, for
Medicine or Law) do not test the students for their motive but for their pre-acquired skills and
Second dimension: seeking the truth
In the increasingly instrumentalist society we are living in, knowledge has lost the preeminent role it once had. Today, one often hears of the need for a University to justify its existence
(measured in cost-benefit terms) to the rest of society. As a consequence, one speaks often in terms of
a research University as against a University that merely teaches. The former, however, is measured
and quantified: in terms of the research money that the researchers bring in and in terms of citations
in the citation indices. Research that is quantified in terms of money is mostly (if not exclusively)
privately funded research: in principle, such research is not oriented towards seeking truth. Articles
indexed in the citation indices do not simply express the over-riding concern of the researcher to
contribute towards human knowledge. The motives, here as elsewhere, are multiple in nature.
Moreover, the current scientific journals (for the most part) are not communications of learned
societies: they are commercial concerns that intend being profitable. If we look at all these things, it is
almost impossible to suggest that the Humboldtian value is central to the higher education of today.
Third dimension: pedagogic innovations
Why the emphasis on the need to introduce pedagogic innovations? Quite apart from the
vague feeling of the pedagogists that innovations are important by virtue of the fact that innovations
are important, there are two additional reasons: the need to strengthen the existing motivation of the
student and the need to develop efficient teaching methods. The notion of efficiency has been



operationalized by speaking about the end-goal of a curriculum: instilling competency (comprising
of knowledge, skills and attitudes) in the student.
In other words, as we dig deeper into these three dimensions, we see that each is guided by
values and concerns that are hardly connected to each other. There is no single vision animating the
higher education of today. Humboldtian notions are present, without doubt; but in the form of
unrelated fragments and pieces.
Reviving Humboldt?
The question facing us today is this: is it worth our while to revive a unified notion of
Humboldtian education? If yes, what form should it take in the twenty-first century? My answer to the
first question is in the affirmative for two reasons. The first is that the ideas of Humboldt are present
in different forms and versions in the educational landscape of Europe today. Therefore, it will be
easier to implement an educational policy that attaches itself to the prevalent practices and ideas than
a policy that radically diverges from them. The second reason is that there is value and power to much
of Humboldtian ideas. We would do better to see how the changes in society require an adaptation of
these values and ideas than propose some new ones. With this in mind, I will focus on answering the
second question in what follows. In doing so, I will try to present such a vision in a tightly unified
In the recent times, Solidarity has become one of the guiding values of the European Society.
This value holds synchronically within and between societies: the concern for sustaining a social
safety net for the less privileged in the European societies and the need to help the developing
countries speak volumes about this value. However, it also exhibits a diachronic dimension across
generations: our current ecological concerns and the increasing worry about the aging population in
Europe exhibit the diachronic dimension in an unmistakable way. Clearly, any rethinking about the
role of education in the twenty-first century needs to incorporate this value in an explicit fashion.
A new world
The concern for nation-building that so dominated the Humboldtian Prussia is replaced by
three other inter-related goals. (a) The need to retain diversity in an increasingly homogenizing and
global society of ours; (b) the need to acquire a global outlook and generate citizens who can live in the
globe; (c) the need to create Europeans who can form the basis of the European union of today and
The role of the teacher
Let us begin by noticing how the notion of knowledge has changed since Humboldt. What
was once unified in the Humboldtian period has fallen apart in our own time: facts and values.
Knowledge connoted truth and wisdom (in their unity) for a long time; however, as we have since
discovered, there is no tight and intimate connection between these two in our own time. We have
discovered value-free sciences and have the domain of axiology to study values (whether they are
aesthetic values or ethical ones). For the Humboldtian notion of education to work, we need to reestablish the unity between facts and values. How can we do this in the face of convincing logical and
linguistic analyses that tell us that these two are not united?
I suggest that we look at that one place where facts and values are united and cannot be
dissociated, namely, in the human person. A human being has both and, in his person, it is not possible
to pull them apart. We can make the cognitive distinction between facts and values in a human being
but they are existentially united in that person. We are all such human beings and it is my proposal to



weave a new Humboldtian vision around one such being: the teacher. In this new Humboldtian vision,
the teacher plays a role that s/he never played in the original Humboldtian ideas about higher
education. S/he becomes an equal participant in the process of education by playing an explicitly active
Much the same way the student has a goal in an education process, namely, to learn, the
teacher too has a goal, namely to teach. One learns to seek the truth and the other teaches to seek
truth. The teacher does not presuppose a pre-existent motivation in the student; in fact, s/he is
indifferent to the multiple motives present among the students. The teacher provides a goal for the
student, induces the student to search for truth, and instils in that student a capacity to reach that goal
as well. The teacher does not merely provide information for the student to choose and pick but
actively participates in the learning process by convincing the student that pursuing the goal of
seeking truth is the ultimate goal of higher education. Far from being a mere (pre)condition for
learning, the teacher becomes an equal partner in the educational process of the student. Pedagogy, in
this new Humboldtian vision, is not subordinated to psychology, but becomes as crucial to the learning
process as the presence of the learner.
The student learns autonomously, but this autonomy is taught by the teacher and is acquired
by the student at the end of a particular phase in the learning process. Through the active intervention
of the teacher in the learning process, the student slowly acquires the ability to learn autonomously.
Autonomy, then, is the end-product of higher education and not its presupposition. The teacher
becomes an exemplar for the student to follow because the former embodies the unity of facts and
values, namely, knowledge.
Consequently, the University does not merely become an institution that functions as a
reservoir of information. It becomes that social institution which builds bonds between two
generations. Next to the family, it is the social institution par excellence that guarantees continuity in
society. In the same way the existence of the family as a social structure does not require justification
for its existence, neither does the University need one. By virtue of this, the primary concern of the
University shifts from its current focus, which is to administratively manage this institution so that it
efficiently caters to its clients. Instead, the University shares the basic concern of the family: the need
to form the individual human being. Indeed, the teacher becomes a surrogate parent, the university
becomes a surrogate family and the individual families entrust their children to the University to
guide and form them. A covenant comes into existence between the family and the University instead
of a teaching contract between the student and the University.
Pedagogical innovations become interesting only to the extent they succeed in the goal of
inculcating the value of searching for truth in the student. Even while education retains its democratic
character, the recruitment of right teachers becomes the basic concern of the University and the
society. Not everyone with a doctoral degree and many scientific articles to his/her credit can become
a teacher. Teaching, then, will cease being a mere career but, instead, becomes what it should always
be: a vocation and a calling.
In some senses, we can generalize the earlier points to encompass the entire education
system. We could say that there is a division of labour in society: between individual families on the
one side and the educational institutions on the other. This division of labour has the making of an
individual human being into an autonomous creature as its end goal. Autonomy can be partially
defined by taking recourse to a cognitive notion: someone is autonomous to the extent s/he can
search for truth. The higher education, then, completes the process that actually begins in a family. A
visitation commission to judge an institution of learning is just about as absurd as a visitation



commission to judge a family: in the case of both, rules exist merely to restrain abuses but not to
prescribe positively what they should be doing.
In a way, the higher education becomes the telos of the entire education system. In the
University, the student learns the ability to search for truth, whereas the earlier education prepares
him/her to acquire this ability. Only such an individual can become the enlightened citizen that the
world and Europe demand today.



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