The collection of essays co-written by Dev Nath Pathak, Ravi Kumar and myself, Against the Nation: Thinking Like South Asians was published by Bloomsbury on 18 July 2019. Our own rationale for the collection is outlined in the following write-up, which we have presented as its introduction.
|Authors on Tigers Nest, Bhutan conjuring the idea for the collection. Photo by Shweta Singh|
Mountains are intriguing and often inspiring places, as are they difficult to reach and to leave. It is perhaps in this context that William Blake had once noted, “great things are done when men and mountains meet.”[i] In that sense, this collection of essays in the present form has much to do with climbing a mountain, and the vistas of possibilities it indicated both metaphorically and in reality.
According to Christian belief, Jesus Christ delivered his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ possibly from Mount of Beatitudes located in present-day northern Israel. It is Jesus’ longest discourse in the New Testament, and contains some of Christianity’s core teachings. Closer to home in the extended neighbourhood we call South Asia, mountains have been equally important in myth, history and matters of faith. In Bhutan, popular belief holds that Guru Padmasambhava, popularly known as Guru Rinpoche visited the country in the 8th century or so, and defeated evil spirits that were harming the people, and essentially ‘cleansed’ Bhutan. To do this, he is believed to have initially flown on the back of a tigress’ to the mountain known as Taktshang Goemba or Tiger’s Nest, and began his quest by subduing a local demon. In mythological terms, this affectively marks the entry of Buddhism into Bhutan, which decisively impacted the social and cultural evolution of the country. In Sri Lanka, popular belief suggests that Arahat Mahinda flew through the air from the general area we now refer to as India with a small delegation of disciples carrying the message of Buddhism from the court of Emperor Asoka, and arrived at the mountain known as Mihintale, close to the ancient Sri Lankan capital, Anuradhapura. Sri Lanka’s history too changed radically in cultural and political terms with the introduction of Buddhism. Hindu mythology constantly refers to Mount Meru as do Jain and Buddhist mythic references. Mount Meru, in all these systems of faith, is believed to be the centre of physical, spiritual and metaphysical universes. And there are abounding narratives of similar significance from various parts of the Himalayas dotting the landscape in India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet and beyond. In all these narratives, embedded deeply in mythology, mountains generate notions of faith, versions of history, the genesis of cultural domains, and above all, the travel of culturally coded ideas.
This is the reason why poets have ruminated on and about mountains in many ways, including an admission of an effortless flow of mind in the face of mountains. If Blake attributed the dawn of grand ideas to mountains, Sachchidananda Vatsyayan Agyeya, the Hindi poet wrote, “as my horse gallops ahead, leaving marks behind; beholding riverine orbiting around the hills and peaks, I move ahead as though yet another thing in the larger picture.” [ii]
In this context, perhaps this collection of essays would not have found its genesis if not for a mountain, and more specifically, Tiger’s Nest once sanctified by Guru Rinpoche. In February 2018 (20.02.2018 – 24.02.2018), we had travelled to Thimphu, Bhutan at the invitation of colleagues from Sherubtse College, Royal University of Bhutan to help revise their syllabi in political science and sociology. This exercise was well within the mandate of the South Asian University with its slogan of ‘knowledge without borders,’ and more importantly, squarely embedded within our own ideology pertaining to how South Asia should be seen and experienced. At the end of the training, one of the Bhutanese colleagues, Leki Sangay volunteered to take us to Tiger’s Nest. It was a tough trek for us, unused to the climatic conditions in the area as well as the steep ascent and descent. But, it was done. In the slowness of the trek and the many rest stops and accompanying conversations, preliminary ideas for two books had emerged! One was a reflection on higher education in South Asia, which not only would survey the landscape of formal knowledge production and learning in the region, but would also attempt to theorize on how to explain this landscape and its intrigues. The other was a possible collection of essays we had written at different times that deal with the idea of South Asia. It is this latter idea, which has now become the present volume. We have reworked many lectures we had delivered at different places, restructured academic papers written earlier and essays specifically written for popular outlets as well as notes we had written for ourselves for future reflection, which we have reedited and restructured keeping in mind the politics of ideas we have envisaged for the present volume.
|Authors on Tigers Nest, Bhutan conjuring the idea for the collection. Photo by Shweta Singh|
Academic Knowledge beyond Academia
We fully agree and know well from experience that the circulation of academic writing is limited. But that is in the very nature of the academic enterprise globally. What we usually write is not meant for popular or mass consumption. But as a group of people, we are interested in scholarly knowledge as a form of politics, as a source of power and as a means of social and political transformation, as well. In this context, we have believed for a considerable time such knowledge needs to shed its Ivory Tower sensibility at certain times, and should transgress beyond the limited and limiting ramparts of academia, and enter the broader discursive spaces of the society at large. This does not mean that all academic knowledge could be made available for unrestricted mass consumption. In other words, it does not mean that a journalistic piece and an academic reflection could be forcefully made to read the same. Instead, we believe it to be self-evident that specific elements of knowledge we produce formally must necessarily travel to domains inhabited by enlightened people who may not be academics, but might agree with what we have to say, on the basis of our own politics of knowledge. Or, they might also not agree with us. Nevertheless, we hope such knowledge would form a basis for conversations. However in making this shift, we are also mindful of a potential ‘unbearable lightness’ of things, a populist compromise on depth and breath of an argument or the comprehensive nature of an observation we might have to make. We tend to enlighten our lightness with critical insights, conceptual and theoretical formulations that we hope are more readable, with some help from canons of social sciences in the background. This enlightened lightness, we hope, is not unbearable, overly simplistic, and an undue compromise on the rigor of reasoning. The chapters in the volume are, at the same time, invitations for engagements with larger theoretical-political questions that have historical origins, which continue to affect the contemporary.
In this context, we know that by and large, most discussions on South Asia so far have been limited to policy or conventional academic discourses and have seldom touched the cultural and political domains beyond these. This is one reason why a more inclusive idea of South Asia as an approach to politics or research and way of thinking has not had much success at the popular level beyond academic circles. Kanak Mani Dixit explains this situation in his book, The South Asian Sensibility[iii] when he notes, “it is imperative to think of regionalism as going beyond conference rooms and airport lounges” so that regionalism might ignite “the imagination of the masses rather than only well-meaning elites.”[iv] In our present effort, we hope to join Dixit as well as other predecessors, such as Ashis Nandi, Sugata Bose, Imtiaz Ahmed, Shiv Vishwanathan and so on, in doing precisely this. But as far as we are concerned, this is merely a preliminary step towards making our writing and thinking more accessible not simply among fellow academics with an interest in the region, but more so among enlightened people who may be based in art studios, colleges, schools, corporate offices, stakeholders in the culture industry, publishing houses, diplomatic circles, and so on. Our academic background is not something we are willing to camouflage or shed and cannot see any reason to do. At the same time, we are convinced that very background can more sensibly inform what we are trying to do here, somewhat differently. As a result, many of the essays in this collection are more simply written and relatively shorter than our regular work. That is why we do not shy away from utilizing in these essays poems, creative prose, fiction, and other cultural texts vis-à-vis cinema, theatre, music and so on. When the intention is to drive an argument of academic nature to the wider readership, the submission cannot afford to be bound to what is considered ‘empirical’ in social scientific orthodoxy. In these essays, the empirical and the non-empirical seamlessly coalesce to accomplish a dual hermeneutic goal- explanation and an understanding. Likewise, the art of reasoning and polemic also unfold together without hiccups about the legitimacy of this cocktail. We tend to share a basic disposition with Karl Popper, and we do not concern ourselves too much about the types of sources that inform us. Instead, we invite our readers to falsify us. Through these essays, we understand, and we persuade our readers to see merit of our understanding, if any. Similarly, any profundity in these essays would stem from our keenness to straddle many worlds, primarily, academic and non-academic.
All of us have also intervened and commented on matters of importance to us in public forums beyond our academic work at different times in our individual careers. In that sense, the present effort as a method is not new to us. What is new is that we have collated some of our recent writings and lectures so far presented in disparate places into a single collection. In these essays, we have opted to explore South Asia through music, film, violence, pedagogy, travel, art, myth, and ideas more clearly located in the messy and often indefinable domains such as culture. That is, we have pushed the conventional ways in which ideas of regionalism is studied in our universities in disciplines that vary from sociology and social anthropology at one end, to international relations and political science at the other end. We are sure our colleagues in more established departments of sociology or universities more generally would be horrified at this approach, and would pose that perennial question often posed to irreverent practitioners within the discipline: This is not sociology! How is your work sociological? For them, our answer is a simple counter question: why is this not sociological? After all, we are dealing with society, politics, art, culture and so on in the extended area we call South Asia. These are products of human interaction, which essentially make them relevant to sociological inquiry. The fact that some domains of knowledge become ‘sociological’ such as caste, class and gender in the case of South Asia, and other domains such as art, music and film somehow have to be studied beyond sociology makes no intellectual sense to us. It is a reflection of the intellectual regression of the region’s formal sociological enterprise. Besides, we are amply sociological in another sense. These essays are deeply informed by sociological and anthropological canons, as are they by many other disciplinary sources. In many instances, this reality comes through in these essays, but we seldom waste our energy on, what might well be a conservative-obsessive-disciplinary disorder.
Everything we have presented is informed by our research, thinking as well as our sense of ‘politics’ broadly defined. We take it as axiomatic that in an effort like this, the clinical objectivity of sociology as well as the empiricist rationale of social research needs self-conscious reassessment. It is not that we would insist myth is considered empirical fact or that a figment of imagination be considered grounded theory. However, in this intervention, our readings, our thinking, our formal research as well as what we see, hear and smell as individuals in our travels and quotidian existence would also inform what we have to say. History as much as present day politics inform our ideas. We do not fear utopias, and instead embrace them at a time dreams are in short supply and might be considered hallucinations. In other words, biography as well as research and a particular kind of idealism have pushed us in the direction we have taken. These essays are testimonial to the larger intellectual objective of bursting the ‘safe’ territory of academia open for much needed risk-taking, a kind of out-of-box thinking. While the worshippers at the altars in the established Ivory Towers may deem something hazardous about what we have done, we consider it essentially an ideal act to be performed, frequently and feverishly, in social science literature. In short, one must be truly angry with issues, genuinely in love with things, passionately affected by matters, and yet writing about them as cogently as possible. Is this not what Bertrand Russell envisaged to be the hallmarks of good writing? No, we have not achieved it in fulsome. We don't have sufficient arrogance to present this book as an ideal instance of the kind Russell celebrated. But the essays in this book might often remind one of a Russell’s ridicule about the problem of writing in sociology. He says that sociologists might write like the following:
Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behaviour-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner. Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English.[v]
This whole humbug can be simply put, without a care for political correctness, as Russell does in the following observation:
All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing[vi].
At times, through acrimonious polemic laced with instance-based reasoning, the essays in this book call a scoundrel a scoundrel, and at times lets loose the rawness of energy, emotion and intellect.
The title we have given this collection, Against the Nation: Thinking Like South Asians might also lead to some anxiety in the general climate of fearing ‘others’ and populist sentiments of ‘anti nationalism’ and being ‘unpatriotic’ that have become a part of the political landscape in South Asia. Any criticism of any nation is instantly, and cheaply, dubbed anti-national or unpatriotic. It may range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the sacred to the mundane, and from the important to the banal. For example, if one says one word against the imposed practice of standing up for the national anthem before a cinema begins in a theatre, it may be considered anti-national. Likewise, if there is a critical idea about the state of development in the development of state, it may be thought of as anathema in developmentalist societies. These are extremely superficial notions that call for the submission of citizens’ will, people’s thinking, and electoral subjugation. Our approach to nations in South Asia solicits a more nuanced treatment of patriotism without falling prey to what Tagore warned us in the heydays of cultural-political nationalism. As one of the most erudite poets and thinkers of modern South Asia, Rabindranath Tagore[vii] tried to show through metaphors that modern political nationalism warrants us to belong to the unison produced by a mechanical and coercive power loom, whereas culturally there has been an idea of belonging to the hum and rhythm of a handloom.
In our writing, we seek to restore this sense of belonging, to the region and its nations in tune with the handloom. A more organic version of belonging, which does not prevent a critical comprehension of the problematic politics of belonging, is pivotal in our scheme. The gloss, erasure, and finesse produced by the power loom of nations could be detrimental to the organic evolution of people’s belonging. In short, they give rise to a variety of identity politics foreclosing the possibility of dreaming and enacting those dreams beyond boundaries. While we appreciate the sentiments in favour of a landmass described in poetry and music of a nation, we are wary of the divisive lines deepened by them too. While we may love to hum our individual national anthems, we are anxious of the Machiavellianism behind the impositions engineered by state apparatuses. Though there is no denial of the significance of national flags in the popular conscience, one cannot dismiss the hegemonic emergence and impositions of the same too. The region of South Asia has been witness to the politics about national flags, acquiring all sizes and spectacular manifestations.
Being aware of all this does not mean a cancellation of the nation, the state, and the reality of state apparatuses. There is a discomfort that we encounter while looking at the contemporary politics being almost exclusively defined within the frame of a nation. ‘Nation’ appears to us in myriad forms in this politics. However, our perturbation emanates out of the uncritical, blind and violent employment of the term called nation. In contemporary times, it makes much sense to be aware of Tagore’s idea that “nationalism is the training of a whole people for a narrow ideal; and when it gets hold of their minds it is sure to lead them to moral degeneracy and intellectual blindness.”[viii] He attributes violence, massacre and conflict to the ‘Nation.’ We are also aware of debates on the nation grounded in the context of anti-colonial struggles and how it is being debated in light of globalisation debate and the rise of transnational capital. It is the vast body of work around the nation and nationalism that informs our discomfort with it when we posit it vis-à-vis the idea of the region. This is what has led to our discomfort in looking at South Asia as a region defined primarily through the prism and framework of nation states. South Asia is much more than the simplistic relationships between nations. It is rather about connections across people over time. In this sense, we have not attempted to divide our essays among the nation states in the region. That is, we do not count nations in order to be South Asian. Instead, as we think like South Asians, our ideas usher in nations as well as stories from them when they make sense in relation to what we have to say.
We take the nation as a given in this region and beyond. We have not dispensed with our individual citizenship or passports. And we see no reason to do so. But we do believe that the days of pilgrims and travellers like Hiuen Tsang or Fa Hian who traversed the region relatively freely without too many restrictions based in ‘national’ origins is perhaps a much better ideal. We also believe that a vast and far more interesting world of possibilities await us if we can think beyond the limits of the state and the nation, and transgress into an area that is broader, more open, more replete with ideas, and certainly more exciting in general. This is what many of the pilgrims did before the dawn of the official modernity in South Asia. After all, they were the ones who concretized the idea of sacred geography, connecting the dots from Anuradhapura to Varanasi, Kandy to Kochi, Peshawar to Patiala, Kathmandu to Calicut, and Kabul to Calcutta. People moved across the boundaries as small traders, sellers, artisans and craftsmen. And if one can join Ashis Nandi[ix], mercenaries have been more successful in crossing boundaries, even though for the wrong reasons. The socio-cultural underworld of South Asia is therefore more successful in showing us the way forward. But beyond this underworld, there were missionaries and intellectually hungry wanderers who paved the way. Who cannot forget Anagarika Dharmapala in this regard who came from Sri Lanka in the latter part of the 19th century to re-establish what he considered was the lost Buddhism in India and also to champion his idea of a ‘united Buddhist world.’ And among many others, Rahul Sankrityayan was renowned for crossing boundaries in various guises, as a monk or as a ready-to-be converted mind or as an eternally keen traveller, a ghumakkad, willing to witness the world.
And that is South Asia. That is the sum of the spirit in South Asia, which conditions our way of thinking like South Asians.
What we have written is an invitation to experience that possibility.
- Ravi Kumar, Dev Nath Pathak and Sasanka Perera
[ii]. Sachchidananda Vatsyayan Agyeya: http://kavitakosh.org/kk/%E0%A4%AA%E0%A4%B9%E0%A4%BE%E0%A4%A1%E0%A4%BC%E0%A5%80_%E0%A4%AF%E0%A4%BE%E0%A4%A4%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%B0%E0%A4%BE_/_%E0%A4%85%E0%A4%9C%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%9E%E0%A5%87%E0%A4%AF (Accessed on 14 December, 2018). Translated from Hindi by Dev Nath Pathak.
[iii]. Dixit, Kanak Mani (2012) The Southasian Sensibility: A Himal Reader, Sage Publications: New Delhi
[iv]. Kanak Mani Dixit, ‘Introduction’, pp. xiv-xv. In, Kanak Mani Dixit ed., The South Asian Sensibility. New Delhi: Sage, 2012.
[v]. Russell, Bertrand. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. Edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn With an introduction by John G. Slater, London and New York: Routledge, 2009
[vi]. Ibid.: 35
[vii]. Rabindranath Tagore. Nationalism. Penguin: London and Delhi, 2017. [viii]. Tagore, Rabindranath. The Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore. General Press: Delhi, 2017.
[ix]. Ashish Nandi. ‘The Idea of South Asia: A Personal Note on the Post-Bandung Blues.’ Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 6:4, p. 541-545, 2007.