The Dharma & Ethics Conference Series

Throughout the 20th century, a rift has grown between the modern intellectuals and the Indian traditions. The meeting points between these two worlds have been very few. The aim of this series of conferences was to take a first step in tearing down the wall between the Indian traditions and the modern intellectuals. It intended to do so through a focus on the questions of ethics and dharma at the dawn of the 21st century.

Dharma & Ethics I – The Indian traditions at the dawn of the 21st century

December 2005

The first Dharma and Ethics conference was organised by the Centre for the Study of Local Cultures (CSLC) in Kuvempu University on 12 and 13 December 2005. The conference focused on the following questions: Is western ethical theory able to capture the notion of dharma and its role in the Indian traditions? Can an ethical theory be developed within the framework of the Indian traditions, which can compete with—or complement—the various forms of western ethical theory? How central is the happiness or well-being of the individual to the Indian traditions and to the notion of dharma? How is individual happiness reconciled with the welfare of the community in the Indian traditions and in western ethical theory? What is the role of experience or anubhava in the Indian traditions and in western ethical theory?

S. N. Balagangadhara, Jakob de Roover, Swamy Nirbhayanandaji, Ashok Chougle, Shivaram Padikkal, William Robert D’silva, Narahari Rao, R.L.M. Patil, Prabhakar Joshi, Venkataramana Hegde, and Umakanta Bhat, took part in the two days conference.

On the one hand, western philosophy and the human sciences have aimed to develop answers to the problems of human life in the contemporary world. Extensive debates have emerged on such various issues as the character of moral duties and dilemmas, the structure of political justice, the pursuit of human well-being, the nature of the subconscious, etc. On the other hand, the intellectual activities of the Indian traditions have continued in splendid isolation from these developments. They are confined to local ashrams and particular sampradayas. They employ a language inherited from the medieval period and before. The main issues are put in terms such as the import of dharma, the relation between atman and jiva, the nature of moksha, etc. They are specked through with references to traditional stories and great gurus.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the western tradition of moral and political philosophy developed a series of theories about the nature of the ethical domain. To this body of theory were added insights and speculations from the various disciplines of the human sciences. Until late in the twentieth century, the theories focused on the nature of moral rules or norms (duties or obligations). They either prescribed how an individual ought to act in order to be moral and how a state ought to be structured in order to be just; or they analysed the linguistic character, logical structure and psychological foundation of such moral norms. From the 1950s onwards, a discontent was expressed about this obsession with moral rules: it was pointed out that rule-following hardly captures the behaviour we appreciate as truly ethical (e.g. generosity, courage, selflessness), that it denies the complexity of real-life situations and that it ignores the crucial question of human flourishing. This crisis in ethical theory generated various attempts at building an alternate framework. Most of these concentrated on the notion of virtues as an alternative to norms or obligations. However, no one proposal has offered a satisfactory answer to the poverty of moral theory when compared to the richness of ethical life.

The conference aimed to address the following questions: Can the Indian traditions and their reflections on dharma offer a fruitful answer to the present crisis of ethical theory? Do they possess the conceptual resources to develop a viable alternative to both the conception of moral norms and virtue theory? Are the reflections on dharma rich enough to clarify the complexity of ethical life? Are they able to capture those attitudes and actions which we appreciate as exemplars of the ethical? These questions were not be addressed merely from the perspective of the modern intellectuals, who are trained in western philosophy and the human sciences. Several representatives from the Indian traditions were invited. Both scholars and swamijis participated in the conference. The goal was not to have the swamijis give standard speeches about their particular tradition’s perspective on dharma. Rather, it was to create a genuine forum for discussion between these representatives of the Indian traditions and the invited scholars through an exchange of—and debate on—reflections on the questions of dharma and ethics. This is the route towards closing the gap between the modern intellectual world and the Indian traditions at the dawn of the 21st century.

Dharma & Ethics II – Caste Discrimination: Hinduism, Buddhism or liberalism?

December 2006

The Second Dharma and Ethics conference was held in Kuvempu University on the 6th and 7th of December 2006. One of the prominent political scientists and eminent philosophers of our time, Prof. Charles Taylor from Canada, was present on the occasion. Dr. Jakob De Roover (Ghent University, Belgium) and Dr. Vivek Dhareshwar (Centre for the Study of Culture and Society – CSCS, Bangalore), made preliminary remarks on the theme of the conference and highlighted serious problems in teaching social sciences and difficulties in understanding the key concepts in terms of the discrepancy between what we say and experience. Prof. Valerian Rodrigues (Jawaharlal Nehru University – JNU, Delhi), Prof. D.L.Sheth (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies – CSDS, Delhi) and Prof. Rajeev Bhargava (CSDS, Delhi) also presented papers. Prof. Rajarama Hegde, Director of the then running project “Caste, Community and Traditions in Karnataka”, presented a report on the project. Scholars like Rajarama Tolpadi, Shivrama Padikal, V.N.Bhat, Sudha Sitharam, Rajendra Chenni were present.

Since the nineteenth century, one of the chief concerns of social thinkers and activists in India has been to fight ‘caste discrimination’. This problem is considered to be an obvious evil of Indian society. Its illustrations are many. Members of the scheduled castes do not have access to water wells, because they are considered ‘impure’. For the same reason, other castes refuse to have food with them. They face discrimination in employment and allocation of resources. In many cases, these groups are even physically maltreated. Given that this problem of caste discrimination has been a major concern for a few centuries now, one would expect its nature to be relatively clear. However, this is anything but the case.

First of all, when it comes to caste discrimination, two kinds of problems are involved. On the one hand, there is the discrimination and conflict among the different ‘scheduled castes’. On the other, the same thing can also be observed to exist between the ‘scheduled castes’ and the ‘high-caste’ Hindus. Generally, it has been claimed that the chief problem is the second: the ‘higher castes’ discriminate against the scheduled castes. This is apparently what ‘caste discrimination’ is all about. In so far as similar injustices are committed by different scheduled castes against each other, this is said to be an imitation of the behaviour of the higher castes towards the scheduled castes.

Secondly, it is still the dominant belief that ‘Hinduism’ is responsible for ‘caste discrimination’, even though the relation between the two is anything but clear. To a large extent, this belief came into existence in the course of a crystallisation of Indology. This discipline divides the growth of religion in India into three distinct phases: Vedism, Brahmanism and Hinduism. While ‘Brahmanism’ is alleged to be the degenerate religion of the ‘Brahmin priests’ who imposed the ‘caste structure’ on society, ‘Hinduism’ (a further degeneration of ‘Brahmanism’) is seen fundamentally as a justification of ‘the caste system’. Therefore, fighting ‘the caste system’ seems to require taking recourse to alternatives for ‘Hinduism’. Two such proposals circulate today: contemporary political liberalism as the secular alternative to Hinduism and Buddhism as the religious alternative to both ‘Brahmanism’ and ‘Hinduism’.

The problems about the nature of ‘the caste system’ and ‘caste discrimination’ become more complex when we notice that our current conceptions of both have emerged in the course of the British colonial domination and the subsequent understanding of India, her culture and her ‘religions’. Consequently, one cannot provide adequate solutions to these problems without grappling with the nature and status of colonial ‘constructions’ of the Indian culture and society.

The purpose of this conference is to begin the long-due and the long-term process of seeking to understand the nature of ‘the caste system’ and its relationship to some of the ‘religions’ in India. It will do so through the presentation and discussion of a series of provocative texts, which analyse the problem of caste discrimination. These texts will focus on a limited number of questions. Each of them should give an unambiguous answer to one or several of these questions:

  1. Is there a relation between Hinduism as a religion and caste discrimination? If yes, what is the exact nature of this relation? What would constitute the proof for establishing the relation between the two?
  2. Does Buddhism offer a solution that Hinduism cannot? Does it provide a unique conceptual framework for an egalitarian society, which Hinduism cannot? Would other religions, like Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Islam do the job equally well?
  3. Does contemporary liberalism offer a framework to solve the problem of caste discrimination in Indian society? In which way is it a superior solution to those offered by other religions, or does it offer a unique solution that religions cannot?
  4. By taking India as an example, could one postulate a necessary connection between a religion and the justification of a social structure? Is, for example, any such connection to be found elsewhere in the world, say, between Christianity in the West and its social structures? Or between Islam and the social structures in Arab countries?
  5. If some religion justifies an unjust social structure and another does not, it seems to suggest that one could rank religions in terms of their relative superiority. How does one go about doing this? How does such a ranking look like? What are the assumptions about religions that we are required to make, in order to undertake such a task?

Dharma & Ethics III – Representation of caste in the modern Kannada literature

2 and 3 February 2008

The third Dharma and Ethics conference was held on the 2nd and 3rd of February 2008, in Kuvempu University. The topic was “Representation of Caste in Kannada Literature, Social Scientists’ Perspective”. Papers were presented by scholars like Raghavendra Rao, P.L. Dharma, Ashok Settar, Rajaram Hegde, Sarah Claerhout, S. N. Balgangangadhara, T. Vijaya Poonachcha. The discussants were Rajaram Tolpadi, Harish Ramaswamy, A. Shanmukha, Nele De Gersem, J. S. Sadanand, Esther Bloch and Marianne Keppens. 

The term caste invokes several associated assumptions and ideas for an educated person. First and foremost is that it is an oppressive system laid down by the ancient brahmanical tradition which is the priestly tradition of Hinduism. Secondly, the castes have been arranged hierarchically, and this hierarchy is based on the varna system as prescribed in the purushasukta of Rigveda. This is supposed to be originally a rational system based on social functions, but later degenerated into a set of superstitious, evil practices like idolatry, caste discrimination, widow burning, untouchability, etc. mainly due to the greed of the Brahmins. This picture is also substantiated by the examples of atrocities on Dalits, Women and lower castes. Caste is believed to be the most important humanitarian issue to be attended and be pursued by the modern state. This notion of caste provides the basis for the descriptions of Indian social structure in the academic world and also among the intelligentsia. In the field of literature it naturally has drawn the attention of the modern Kannada novelists and fiction writers. Their understanding of Indian social structure is no different as they are the products of the same educational system as the academics. The responses to and reproduction of these ideas however, may vary.

Such popular notions are generated and supported by the sociological theories and researches on the ‘Caste System’. However researches on the caste system pose several basic questions to this popular notion. Those who adhere to theories on the caste system fail to provide scientific grounds to their arguments. They are, for example, not able to explain the gap that exists between their empirical findings and the theoretical conclusions they derive from them. Recent researches on the colonial orientalist discourses have come up with an argument that caste system is a colonial construction aimed at the consolidation of colonial power in India. Such post-colonial arguments also fail to support their claim that such constructions were motivated by the colonial programme and they are silent over the matter whether such constructions have been able to change the experiential reality of the people who are part of the caste system in the contemporary world. There appears to be a consensus among the academics and intelligentsia alike that the caste system is an evil immoral system and our task of building a just society makes it imperative that we remove the entire system lock, stock, and barrel. And yet no one has a clue as to how such an evil system, that makes all its members (i.e., the entire population of ‘hindus’) as moral cretins, survived and continues to survive for thousands of years. There is also a great puzzle: despite many attempts to eradicate the caste system by both the public policies and the social reform movements, the caste system not only does not show any sign of weakening let alone disappearing altogether from the scene. This leaves us but with two conclusions: a) All those who are members of the caste system are moral cretins and the immoral caste system continues to exist however strong and whatever way we fight against it; b) There is something basically wrong with our understanding of the Indian social structure. The first of the conclusions is highly improbable as no society can survive for long with the majority of its members being immoral. The second one appears plausible.

It is in this background that a research team in Kuvempu University in collaboration with Ghent University, Belgium, has taken up the research project “Caste, Community and Traditions in Karnataka” (2005-2012). The study conducted for the last three years reveals that the general notions shared by the scholars and the educated public about the caste system at work is not the experiential reality for its members. They, for example, are not aware of a religion called Hinduism, or, varna. Majority of the respondents could not locate the position occupied by their own jati among different jati groups in their locality. Most of them could not make sense of our questions as they are loaded with the pre-theoretical assumptions about the existence of caste system. If this is the case, we are presented with two tasks before us: to reread the descriptions produced about our society, and to reformulate our descriptions of this society.

The present seminar is but an extension of these efforts. If literature represents social reality, how is it represented in the case of caste system? Keeping the above debates and findings as the basis, an engagement with selected literary works, mainly novels, in Kannada, from the following angles would prove a fruitful exercise.

  1. It would be interesting to know; a) What sort of theoretical perception an author entertains while dealing with a theme on caste problems in his novel? b) What sort of questions he confronts and manages through his characters and plots? c) What sort of event or empirical reference is cited to depict this system and what exactly is the author’s engagement with this issue?
  2. How does the author relate the caste issues as moral issues? What are the dimensions of his moral stands: political ideologies, concept of dharma, etc.?
  3. Is there any attempt in the text to question the accepted notions and suggest inadequacies of the existing descriptions, or to provide counter descriptions of the caste system through the fictions? Under what compulsions is it done?
  4.  Whether the novel exhibits any inconsistency between the experiential reality of the characters in the fiction and the author’s claims with regard to the question of caste. If so how do we account for the same? In other words, is it possible to understand the breach between claims of the authors and their experiential realities?

The above listed sociological questions should provide a basis to probe in to the contents of novels/fictions, and the organisers’ request was that the presentations stick to the aforementioned issues. This exercise was important because the issues raised by a novel or a fiction have generated important social and cultural issues in Karnataka with far reaching consequences. Unfortunately, social scientists have by and large remained aloof from these debates. It is with this intention that we invited social scientists to present papers on the basis of the study of any one novel (or author if needed) in Kannada.

Dharma & Ethics IV – Rethinking political thought in modern India

January 2009

The fourth Dharma and Ethics conference was held on the 18th and 19th of January 2009, in Kuvempu University. The theme of the conference was ‘Rethinking Political Thought in Modern India’. Papers were presented by the scholars R.L.M. Patil, S.N. Balagangdhara Rao, Vivek Dhareshwar, Polly Hazarika, Jakob De Roover, Jamuna Raju, Santhosh Kumar, G. Shivaramkrishnan, A. Shanmukha, and others. The discussants were Marrianne Keppnes, Dunkin Jalki, Esther Bloch, and Raf Gelders. It is the fourth conference organised by the Centre for the Study of Local Cultures (CSLC) at Kuvempu University. The conference was a continuation of the earlier efforts to understand Indian social and cultural reality.

The conference intended to depart radically from the routine discourses and studies on the theme of social and political thought in modern India. It considers that, although, a lot of studies have been carried out in contemporary India on various thinkers and issues pertaining to political thought in India. Most of these studies are mechanical, superficial and ideologically straight jacketed. Therefore, fresh and rigorous approach to recapture the nuances of the entire ideological complex of social and political thought in India is required. The proposed seminar was an attempt in this direction. The organisers of the seminar invited papers from those keen students and scholars who are engaged in different aspects of the history of social and political ideas in modern India; choosing a thinker from the list given below. The paper presenters were also requested to take note of the themes suggested below while preparing their papers. This was to ensure that the seminar shall deliberate upon selected thinkers in relation to the specific issues and concerns of our time. It helped us to understand not only the thinker in terms of his ideas but also the context in which those ideas were generated.

Generally speaking political thinkers of modern India are located in two broad opposite camps. We tend to describe some of them as traditionalists and some others as modernists. Or in terms of their ideological orientation they are categorised as either liberal and secular thinkers, or cultural nationalists. We are not out rightly rejecting this categorisation instead, we strongly feel that quite often these categories are inadequate to understand and appreciate the real nature of political thought in modern India. The rationale behind these categorisations needs to be problematised. Therefore, we need to ask the following questions:

  1. Why is it that it is found on many occasions that some of the thinkers who are found in the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum strangely share among them a common world view?
  2. Is it because they borrow from the same source of knowledge?
  3. What distinguishes a liberal secular discourse from the cultural nationalist discourses? Is there a substantial distinction at all?
  4. How far is a traditionalist really a traditionalist, a modernist a modernist? What is the nature of this dichotomy?

This implies that a re-look at the ideological complex of modern India and a critical examination of the ideas generated is the utmost requirement of all those who are in one way or the other engaged with and influenced by issues and concerns of modern India. The thinkers chosen for discussion are: Rammohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati, Vivekananda, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Jyotiba Phule, Dadabhai Navroji, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Aurobindo, Moulana Moududi, M.K.Gandhi, Savarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R.Ambedkar, Golvalkar, Rammanohar Lohia.

The above thinkers were discussed in relation to the following themes:

  1. The idea of India as a nation, society and civilisation.
  2. The idea of religion in general and Hinduism and Islam in particular: The problem of communalism.
  3. The perception of caste and the problem of untouchability.
  4. The perception of community and the problem of communal representation.
  5. The perception of ethnicity and the problem of ethnic conflicts.
  6. The question of reform-attitudes towards modernity, and the issue of political intervention.
  7. The problem of cultural difference and its resolution.

Dharma & Ethics V – Decolonising social sciences

January 2011

The fifth Dharma and Ethics conference was held on the 22nd and 23rd of January 2011, at Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies, Mysore. The theme of the conference was ‘De-Colonising the Social Science”. Madan Gopal (I.A.S.) has inaugurated the conference; S.N. Balagangadhara introduced the theme and the keynote address of the conference. Discussions took place on the presentations of G. Sivaramakrishnan, J.S. Sadananda, JaKob De Roover, Vivek Dhareshwar, Dunkin Jalki, Shanmukha A. Scholars like Venkat Rao, Dr. Shankar Prasad, Dr. Sivaramkrishanan, Dr. Rajaram Tolpadi, Ms. Sushumna Kannana, Ms. Polly Hazaraika, Dr. Ravindra Gadkar, Dr. Muzzafar Assadi, Dr. Sarah Claerhout, Dr. Sufiya Pathan, Dr. Ashok Shettar and Dr. Lakshmi Arya were invited discussants.

In the last four years, the Dharma and Ethics conference, held in Kuvempu University in January or February of every year, has emerged as a forum where important issues, problems and texts that have shaped both the Kannada and the Indian intellectual traditions are taken up for serious theoretical scrutiny and tested for their soundness, coherence, validity and relevance. We have subjected texts by Nehru and Ambedkar to evaluate their ‘theories’ on Indian tradition and social structure; we initiated a re-examination of the domain of ‘politics’ by taking up important figures in the Indian national movement. For the coming year, we propose to take up the issue of decolonisation of the social sciences. This will also allow us to present our own research findings for a deep scrutiny before the expert audience.

It may seem that the task we had undertaken in the previous Dharma and Ethics workshops was an entirely negative one. It’s true that such exercises do give the impression of being critical rather than constructive. However, we have to be mindful of the fact that our research programme has emerged from a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of the social sciences and humanities and their descriptions of Europe and India. Until today non-Western cultures have primarily been studied as pale and erring variants of the Western culture, and this situation is in urgent need of a solid and sustained rethinking and a serious change. The social sciences, which are cast in the matrix of Western cognitive framework, reflect the Western experiences of the non-Western cultures and not a scientific understanding. The basic idea guiding this rethinking is the realisation that whatever their explanatory power or problem-solving capacity, the existing social sciences are not adequate to the task of making our world intelligible to us.

This task however is not easy. To reject the existing conceptual frameworks, simply because we feel that they do not quite manage to do what theories are supposed to, would be a folly. One of the first tasks facing us, then, is to build a vision for rejuvenating social sciences and humanities teaching and research in our immediate context. The present workshop is an occasion to reflect upon the nature of the tasks facing us today.

In this seminar, the analysis of the project of decolonising social sciences was be done by focusing mainly around Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara’s book Smriti-Vismriti: Bharatiya Samskriti (the Kannada version of “The Heathen in his Blindness…”) and some of his other research articles. As his writings demonstrate, the western description of Indian society can only tell how westerners experienced this society. Indians too have added their own flavours and colours to these descriptions by assuming as though they are true descriptions for centuries together. However, all these efforts made our sociology rather alien to our experience and we have failed to overcome these colonial descriptions even after passing more than half a century after independence. Though the identification of the process of this reality started during the 1980s, it is not very clear how to theorise the problems of colonial description and how to search for an alternative way of understanding Indian society. The works of S.N. Balagangadhara and the researchers in the Comparative Science of Culture research programme, we propose, address this problem and show new ways of answering the questions that this situation confronts us with: How do we recognise the colonisation of social sciences? What is its impact on our attempt to understand Indian culture? How to make the study of comparative science of cultures possible? The theme of the discussions in each session is structured around the work Smriti-Vismriti: Bharatiya Samskriti. However, the hope was that the discussion would cumulatively develop the project of decolonisation of the social sciences.

Session themes and key-note presentations

  • Prof. Rajaram Hegde: Introduction to the Conference
  • Prof. S.N. Balaganagadhara: ‘Is Comparative Science of Cultures Possible?’
  • Prof. G. Sivaramakrishnan: ‘The Making of Indian Sociology’
  • Prof. Sadananda J.S: ‘Addressing the Contemporary Problems of Social Sciences’
  • Dr. Vivek Dhareshwar: ‘The Difficulty of (Being) Heathen: Doing Science and Reflecting on Experience’
  • Dr. Jakob De Roover: ‘Secularisation and the Study of Western Culture: The Contributions of ‘The Heathen…’”
  • Dr. Dunkin Jalki: ‘The Implications of Balu’s Smriti-Vismriti for Caste Studies’


Prof. Sivaramakrishnan, Dr. Vivek Dhareshwar, Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara, Dr. Jakob De Roover, Dr. Martin Fárek, Dr. Sarah Claerhout, Prof. Harish Ramaswamy. Prof. Ashok Shettar, Dr. Rajaram Hegde, Dr. Shanmukha A., Dr. Rajaram Tolpadi, Dr. Muzzafar Assadi, Dr. Vijay T.P., Dr. Ajjakkala Girish Bhat, Dr. Shivaram Shetty, Dr. B. Surendra Rao, Dr. M.G. Hegde, Ms. Polly Hazarika, Dr. Sufiya Pathan, Mr. Ashwin Kumar A.P, Ms. Sushumna Kannan, Mr. Shankar Prasad.

Dharma & Ethics VI – Tradition, religion and law

January 2012

This year the conference was organised on the 28th and 29th of January 2012 in collaboration with the Karnataka State Law University in Hubli. The present conference focuses on the theme “Tradition, Religion and Law”. The western notions of law and justice, on which the modern judicial system is founded, appear to be at variance with the traditional Indian understanding of what a ‘good’ and ‘just’ society is. This situation is easily explainable if we accept modern western notions as standards to judge the traditional Indian society. One can easily dismiss the latter by saying that it fails to meet the standard or, that it is not democratic enough. If that were to be the case our task is clear: we have to transform Indian society into a modern democratic society. But what if there is something wrong with the very yard sticks that we use to judge the traditional practices of Indian society?

This appears to be the case if we look at the consequences of the policies and judgments in India that are based on western notions of law and justice. Not only do they, in most cases, fail to have the intended effect, i.e. to establish a just society, in many cases such policies and judgements even have perverted effects on the society. Moreover, even though we do not have clear statistics on this matter, one can safely say that a larger number of disputes are settled outside the formal courts today than inside. How do we account for the fact that many people rely on the traditional methods of resolving disputes rather than going to court? What role do these traditional methods play in ensuring the cohesiveness of the social structure as compared to the modern judicial institutions? Is there any substantial difference, both in content and mode of the delivery of justice, between the traditional and modern modes of resolving disputes? The present conference will focus, amongst other things, on these issues.

This conference was also seen as a preparation for two other initiatives: (1)the fourth international conference of the Rethinking Religion in India cluster (RRI), held in Mangalore in November 2012 and (2)the creation of an international research group on ‘Comparative Law’ at the Karnataka State Law University.

Instead of formulating an overarching set of questions to guide this Dharma and Ethics conference, the organisers (Kuvempu University) have chosen to isolate some concrete issues to be taken up in three different modules. These modules are indicative of the kind of discussions the organisers would like to encourage in the plenary sessions.

Module 1: Implications of Religious Distinctions for Law in India

One of the characteristics of religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘lies’. Confining ourselves to Judaism and Christianity for now, it can be said that both these religions include the notion of ‘deceit’ in the core meaning of falsehood while ‘trustworthiness’ is included in the core meaning of truth. That is to say, lying involves (at its core) the intent to deceive and thus implies untrustworthiness. The Devil or Satan exemplifies deceit and falsehood; God embodies the truth and trustworthiness. While the criminal law (say, in Europe) deals directly with this issue also through its statutes, the distinction itself is of great relevance in various other branches of law, involving as it does such matters as ‘evidence’, ‘testimony’ and the like.

Equally characteristic of the Indian culture (as indexed by its use in multiple Indian languages) is the distinction between ‘lie’ and ‘deception’. These are seen as two different acts, even if, in some cases, they include both. That is, one could lie without it involving deception and truth does not dovetail with trustworthiness. Yet, say, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is built upon foundations that deny this distinction. In that case, the questions become: How has the judiciary interpreted this distinction? Has it followed the Semitic religious distinction or have its judgments reflected the Indian intuitions on the matter? In one case, it remains faithful to a particular religious distinction; in the other case, it has distorted the law.

Module 2: Religion, Law and Society

The idea of the ‘Rule of Law’, not as a legal principle but as the regulative ideal of a democratic society, requires that democratic societies are founded on the basis of Law. That is to say, Law constrains any legislative process and thus prevents democracy from becoming either a mob rule or the tyranny of a majority. It is also to say that citizens ought to obey Law in their intercourse with fellow human beings. It is this assumption, which stretches all the way back to early Judaism and Christianity, that made the British look for the Law-giver in India the way Moses and Mohammed were Law-givers elsewhere. In Manu, they found such a Law-giver. The colonial codifications of the Indian Law (which still form the foundation for us) presupposed this assumption which is completely religious in nature.

As against this notion of the relationship between Law and Society, there are the ‘traditional’ practices in India which see laws only as ways of solving conflict between people. Its ends are also in consonance with the ideal of enabling a peaceful and, where possible, harmonious living. Consequently, laws are seen as problem-solving heuristics and not as expressions of the ‘General Will’, whether that Will is the will of God or of the people understood as a ‘sovereign’. In this context, the questions are these: is there a place for incorporating these cultural understandings within the framework of a parliamentary democracy and the existing legal traditions? If yes, how do we account for the fact that laws are seen to impose obligations (to obey the law)? If no, how are we justified in making Semitic religious assumptions in the course of formulating laws for the Indian society and culture?

Module 3: On the nature of Law, Legal Disputations and justice in traditional mode

In this module, an outline of the results of the fieldwork conducted by the researchers in Kuvempu University was presented. They studied the practice of informal ‘legal’ disputations in villages and formulated some observations on its method, manner and goal. The session began with the presentation of experiences of those who have had long firsthand experience of resolving disputes outside the formal legal system. This was followed by the roundtable discussions meant to reflect on both presentations and the results of the field work and draw out implications, if any, to the conceptualisation of Law in the Indian culture and its relationship to the modern legal traditions.

Dharma & Ethics VII – The travails of “modernity”

December 2012

The seventh Dharma & Ethics conference took place on the 1st and 2nd of December 2012 at the Centre for the Education and Social Studies in Bangalore. This time our approach involved not only a critical interrogation of the concept “modernity” and its cognate or component terms, modernisation and modernism, but some attempt to figure out what phenomenon on the ground these terms and theories embodying them may be trying to makes sense of. What socio-economic phenomenon do modernisation theories address? What cultural or historical process does the term “modernity” try to explain or comprehend? It is our conviction—a conviction borne out by experience—that only when we begin to develop concerns and problems of our own that we will be able to cut through the inflationary use of terms, which has unfortunately come to substitute for thinking and theorising in our traditions. And one of the ways of developing our own concerns is to learn to analyse our own current ways of thinking and speaking to see if they are grappling with a genuine problem or an issue. It is time to do this to “modernity”, whose pervasive presence in our thought and speech has taken for granted its theoretical value.

Given the theme and our experience of the previous ‘Dharma and Ethics’ conference, we decided to introduce a new format for reflection and discussion. Instead of simply inviting papers and hoping for a lively discussion, we split this conference along some thematic lines and hoped that a triad would generate debatesan empirical report based on experience in the field was followed by a talk on the theories behind the phenomenon touched on. A third person, called the ‘interlocutor’ attempted to bring theory and experience together and to present the ideas and questions for discussion.

The conference began with two talks, which began clarifying the nature of the process at stake: Is India pursuing the path of ‘modernity’ or is she just ‘modernising’? This question was answered by two resource persons, each of whom clarifying what ‘modernity’ and ‘modernisation’ mean in the Indian context and what their mutual relationship is. These two talks were meant to prevent confusion entering into the discussion during the ensuing days. After these two talks, the conference seeked to unpack “modernisation” along three axes: socio-economic, politico-legal and psycho-cultural. Although we logically should have been addressing the third component “modernism” given its enormous presence in the literary and artistic world, we will need a separate workshop for it.


Scholars have talked about modernity as a phenomenon that contrasts with something they call tradition; have spoken about colonial modernity, have recently discovered alternative modernities. Some literary scholars have even proposed early modernity as some universal phenomenon that promises a different understanding of comparative history. And so forth. Clearly something, and something important, is being picked out by the use of the term “modernity.” There is a sense of something momentous being explained, portended or diagnosed. Or, even, celebrated. Therefore, while not many would disagree that the concept is badly in need of a vigorous re-examination, some might with good reason question whether the task might not be too unwieldy, given the extraordinarily eclectic use of it in very different domains. Given, however, the ubiquitous way in which it intrudes or is invoked in so many different domains and contexts, it is all the more important to get an analytic handle on some of its uses.

Here, then, are some of the broad topics to be clarified: a) modernity as a periodising concept b) colonial modernity or alternative modernities c) modernity against tradition d) modernity and (the enlightenment) Reason e) modernity and scientific rationality.


Socio-economic Axis: Increasingly, many are beginning to be dissatisfied with the process of ‘development’, as it is occurring in India. Of course, this complaint is old: during the sixties and seventies already, dissatisfactions were expressed about the Indian ‘developmental’ path. Political protest movements, the criticism of multiple NGOs, criticisms of the 5-year plans, etc. are neither new nor unknown to us. However, what is interesting in the present context is the attempt to chalk out notions of ‘development’ as they are relevant to Indian culture and society. In a session devoted to thinking about the developmental issue, two talks will meet each other: one, from people who believe that Indian ‘development’ should follow a path that suits her culture and society and another from those who believe that, all problems notwithstanding, India should follow the path it has chosen but that she should be guided by different policies.

Politico-legal Axis: The process of ‘classical’ political parties beginning to lose their power to other coalitions and groups began with Mrs. Gandhi, who tried to ‘empower’ minority groups and ‘castes’ in opposition to the ruling ‘elites’ of her day. Since then, the process has accelerated: with the increasingly aggressive Maoist movements in parts of India through the militantly affirmative ‘Dalit’ organisations to the so-called ‘Hindu nationalists’, Indian political scene exhibits new trends and fissures that were not there a couple of decades ago. We need also to analyse the nature of “protests” (the protest against the presence of other linguistic, ethnic groups) that are turning coercive and anti-democratic.

These developments raise many issues: the nature of the Indian political class, the increasing fusion between the criminal and the political domain, the nature of democratic politics in India, the relationship between the politicised judiciary and the competence of the current law makers to make democratic laws, and so on. Can politics be conceived along some other lines?

Psycho-cultural Axis: One unmistakable result of the developments of the last three decades or so is the growth of middle class in India. Increasingly wealthy and ceaselessly growing, this group is confronting kinds of ills it is not capable of meeting: disintegration of family, dissatisfaction and discontentment that is growing in proportion to its wealth, growing children whose life-world is both alien and concealed to the parents, increasing impact of American TV shows with the attendant ‘licentiousness’ of the youth, etc.

Reactions to these processes are also occurring simultaneously: the increasingly violent ‘vice-squads’ (or the ‘Moral Police’), which try to ‘protect’ Indian virtues, the growth of Guru’s and Ashrams, the popularity of quick ‘spiritual’ remedies propagated by such organisations as the ‘art of living foundation’ to the ‘landmark forum’, etc. The youth is facing increasing alienation from society and is beginning to face tremendous psychological problems, which the society is even unable to recognise let alone remedy.

The objective of this session would be to access the experience of the youth, their problems, how they formulate their problems and what the “experts” such as counsellors say about the youth and their problems. Or, again, we can focus more sharply on a confusion: the Victorian morality that dominates the urban middle class is confused with ‘true’ Indian ethics. This session can take up such issues as dating, celebrating Valentine’s Day, etc. and show how reactions to these issues is more an expression of Victorian morality than it is an expression of ‘authentic’ Indian values. Can we see these developments as a consequence of the domination of ‘artha’ as the only goal? Could we analyse these developments from within the framework of Indian idea?

The format for this session was rather novel and improvisatory: (a) have young people talk about the problems they face or have ‘counsellors’ talk about their experiences of working with students in colleges and universities; (b) have people from these spiritual organisations come and talk about their goals, missions and their reasons for success; of happiness.

Dharma & Ethics VIII – Revisiting Swami Vivekananda

June 2016

The host organiser for the Dharma & Ethics conference in 2016 was Alva’s Education Foundation, Mudabidri. The co-organisers were the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (Ghent University, Belgium) the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHS, at the SDM PG College, Ujire, India) and the India Platform.

Swami Vivekananda is one of the great names of 19th-century India. He was a disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and founder of the Ramakrishna Mission, an organisation aimed at propagating Indian spiritual traditions across the world. Vivekananda also had a profound influence on the Indian national movement. Today, scholars, politicians, and activists across the board quote Vivekananda – regardless of what ideology they adhere to, they are able to make use of Vivekananda’s words in support of their own arguments. In order to gain insight into this, we must think of the different ways in which Vivekananda is currently understood. There is a long tradition of seeing him as a sanyasi (or a saint, or guru) and a worthy student of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Besides this, there are three other available perspectives to understand Vivekananda:

  • A pioneer of Hindu nationalism (the stance that Hindutva takes).
  • A champion of the anti-caste and reformation movement of Hindu society (the nationalist, secular stance).
  • A Western-influenced neo-Vedantic scholar, who Christianised and ‘radicalised’ Hinduism and played a seminal role in the construction of the contemporary image of Hinduism as a universal world religion (a stance that post-colonial scholarship takes).

Each of the above perspectives can be substantiated with appropriate references to events in his life, or to excerpts from his writings. A quick glance through his writings would leave no doubt that Vivekananda used the language of orientalist discourse about India. For example, he talks of Hinduism, the Aryan race, Hindu nationalism, the immoral caste system, Hindu scriptures, Hindu doctrines, Hindu laws and religious reformation. Each of these notions come from Orientalism and Orientalist discourse about India. As such, it is plausible to see Vivekananda’s thoughts as orientalist, and even colonial. If so, revisiting Vivekananda would hardly contribute to the goal of this conference: reflection on the process of decolonising the social sciences.

The social sciences and their descriptions of Indian culture are a product of the labour of generations of western intellectuals. As such, they are laden with many common sense themes. However, it is not the case that some idea is true because it is a part of the common sense of western culture. Many of the common-sense ideas and attitudes of the west are products of the secularisation of Christianity rather than results of scientific research. Over the last two millennia, the Western-Christian world has faced many problems; it formulated and reformulated the problems and questions it faced and provided solutions. It did all of this in the conceptual language available to it: that of Christian theology. Western intellectuals have taken over these problems and their solutions as a starting point of what we call social sciences today. The social sciences, therefore, continue to reproduce secularised Christian themes and descriptions. Decolonising social sciences is a project of developing knowledge about Indian culture and western culture, as against reproducing secularised Christian descriptions of both cultures.

The objective of decolonisation the social sciences also involves looking anew at Indian thinkers and writers of the past. Consider Vivekananda. Contemporary scholarship on his life and writings remains trapped within Orientalist discourse. It does not allow us to make sense of the way in which many Indians have seen Vivekananda over the years: simply as a traditional guru or sanyasi who shared his insights into adhyatma or spiritual practice. However, if we are unable to understand this widespread perspective, we will also remain unable to understand Vivekananda’s contributions towards understanding and solving the problems that have troubled Indian culture and its traditions. This dimension of his writings will be lost to us. This conference is an attempt to revisit Vivekananda’s thoughts from this background, with the objective of reformulating insights available in his writings into the language of the 21st century.

Let us begin with the idea that Vivekananda was a sanyasi who had been initiated and guided in his adhyatmic practice by none other than Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Vivekananda was scholarly enough to acquaint himself closely with the different traditions of thought in India. He was striving hard to project the distinctness and importance of Indian culture and its contribution to human civilisation. In this effort, Vivekananda exhibits major intuitions about Indian culture and its way of life in comparison to western culture. While formulating these insights and in making these comparisons, Vivekananda has unhesitatingly used ideas and concepts from Indian culture to speak about the West and Christianity. At the same time, he has uncritically used the vocabulary of the European orientalists in framing his thoughts about Indian culture. If we take cultural difference as a non-trivial fact, then this unreflective use of concepts from one culture, used to explain those from another culture, must become problematic.

In fact, Balagangadhara has argued that Indian intellectuals reproduce Orientalist discourse and its concepts without having access to the background framework that informs this discourse. When one does not have access to the larger framework in which terms and ideas are embedded and still adopts those terms and ideas, something predictable happens: one begins to map these terms and ideas onto the prior background ideas already present in one’s own mind. As such, when Indian intellectuals adopt terms and concepts from Western thought, they map these onto terms and concepts that are part of the common sense of their own culture. The result is a systematic distortion of these adopted terms and concepts. This brings us to some central questions that guided the conference: Did Vivekananda understand the European and Christian ideas and terms that he was drawing upon? Did he use them in a coherent manner or did he distort these concepts by mapping them onto terms and ideas from the Indian languages and traditions? Can we see a systematic pattern in these distortions? Do these distortions provide insight into Vivekananda’s understanding of Indian traditions and culture?

Within the context of these questions, this conference on Vivekananda’s thought will seek to investigate: (a) the significance of Vivekananda’s intuitions for social sciences and the study of Indian culture in the 21st century and (b) his distortion of the western Christian concepts and what this tells us about Indian culture and its traditions. Some of the specific themes that this conference intends to take up for discussion are: Vivekananda’s views on nationalism, politics, Hinduism and Christianity, social reform, education and cultural differences.