• Cold war social science and the development of the human sciences in Europe and India (see below)
  • Towards a research network in the Social Sciences and Humanities in Karnataka (see below)
  • Development of a Centre for the Study of Local Cultures at Kuvempu University (see below)
  • Development of Human Resources and Strategies for Education on the Stereotypical Images and Cultural Differences Between Europe and South Asia (DevHAS) (see below)
  • Caste, Community and Traditions in Karnataka (see below)
  • Bhakti, intentionality, and configurations of learning (see below)



Project: Cold war social science and the development of the human sciences in Europe and India

In the period that followed the Second World War, the United States saw an unprecedented growth of the social sciences and humanities caused by a massive injection of government funding into the universities. The government had a specific goal in mind: to promote and support research that was of import to the American national interest and security. Scholars were expected to develop, illustrate, and promote Cold War ideology. The United States stood for ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’; the Soviet Union represented ‘tyranny’, ‘oppression’ and ‘the totalitarian state’; and the rest of the world had to follow the American way. This “ideological offensive,” as government representatives called it, was considered as important to the national security strategy as the nuclear bomb.

For decades, Cold War America consciously spread its academic model and ideology to the rest of the world. American foundations became active in funding research and societal projects in the Third World. Often funded and inspired by the CIA, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and smaller organisations supported projects that supposedly sought to bring freedom, equality, and social justice to these countries. In reality, they aimed to promote Cold War ideology and the American national interest by funding individual scholars, research institutes, and non-governmental organisations. Governments in these parts of the world also learned from the U.S. as to how to direct scientific research and higher education along particular lines. Thus, the American foundations and local government agencies succeeded at shaping a generation of academics and activists subservient to some ideological agenda or the other.

While the emerging domain of Cold War Studies has looked at the development of Cold War Social Science in the United States, little research has been done on how this impacted other parts of the world. This project is a preliminary study of the impact of Cold War Social Science on the social sciences and humanities in two parts of the world: Europe and India.

Time frame: 2015-2016

Project: Towards a research network in the Social Sciences and Humanities in Karnataka

The Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR-UOS) awarded a ‘harvest project’ under the South Initiative 2012 call to the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap, to build on the experience of a previous VLIR-UOS project in which the CSLC (Centre for the Study of Local Cultures) was set up in Karnataka.

The project created a network of researchers at universities and colleges in Karnataka, which participates in rejuvenating and decolonising the social sciences and humanities in the region and in meeting the local demand for scientifically informed debate on societal issues.

The research network was built through workshops, expert classes, lecture series, national conferences, research and dissimination activities.

Donor organisation: VLIR-UOS // Time frame: 2012-2014

Project: Development of a Centre for the Study of Local Cultures at Kuvempu University

The aim of this project was to reinvigorate social scientific research and education at a rural university located in a remote region of South India, where social science students and staff at Kuvempu University were prevented from developing research skills. The university failed to produce social scientific research on local cultural and social problems and was unable to address the problems of caste and pluralism in local society. The Centre for the Study of Local Cultures (CSLC) focused, therefore, upon innovative research on local problems of caste/inequality and pluralism/conflict. It also established a feedback loop between the university and the local society in Karnataka, its self-government bodies, its policy makers and NGOs. Simultaneously, the Research Centre initiated the KASSH Task Force, to work towards the development of the Karnataka Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities (KASSH). The KASSH, later called ASHA, was meant to provide an umbrella for social sciences and humanities research in Karnataka and was meant to develop an autonomous research agenda.

Donor organisation: VLIR-UOS // Time frame: 2007-2012

Project: Development of Human Resources and Strategies for Education on the Stereotypical Images and Cultural Differences Between Europe and South Asia (DevHAS)

Stereotypes create a variety of problems in the interactions between Europe and South Asia, in the business world, media coverage, international political relations, and development cooperation. Europe is often seen as a static, protectionist and even racist culture; while South Asia is seen as a deeply religious region where poverty, religious strife and caste discrimination prevail.

DevHAS (Development of Human Resources and Strategies for Education on the Stereotypical Images and Cultural Differences Between Europe and South Asia) aimed to improve public awareness, to promote innovative social-scientific research, and to build a network of European and South Asian higher education institutions, all related to the stereotypes and cultural differences between Europe and South Asia. The specific project objective was to increase human resources and to improve strategies for education on the stereotypical images and cultural differences between Europe and South Asia. Four PhD students from five European and Asian research groups participated in this project. A final conference in Ghent (BE) involved policy makers, educators and business representatives in debates on stereotypes.

Donor organisation: European Commission, Asia-Link Programme // Time frame: 2006-2008

Project: Caste, Community and traditions in Karnataka: Outline of the Fieldwork (2005-2012)

In 2002, an alliance with Kuvempu University in Karnataka was started. Among others, the cooperation consisted of various researchers who started focussing on the empirical study of the ‘caste system‘. From 2005 onwards, a number oft hem participated in a large-scale fieldwork investigating the relationships between the various ‘castes’ and local communities in the villages of Karnataka. Preliminary findings in this framework were presented at a conference on the Lingayat community in Heggodu, Karnataka, in January 2003. Later results were presented at the international conferences of the Rethinking Religion in India cluster (2008-2012), and in 5 PhD theses at Kuvempu University (2012).

Donor organisation: Fund for Scientific Research-Flanders, Belgium (for 2005 – 2007) // Time frame: 2005-2012.


When Christian missionaries and travellers landed in the coastal cities of India and visited other cities and states inland each was able to see “the caste system” in India immediately. If it is that easily visible to them, it must also be visible to us, that is, to those who are alleged to live within the “caste system”. While it may not be so easily visible to us as it was to people looking at it from the outside, it does mean, however, that the “caste system” retains its visibility to us as well.

The proposed empirical research attempted an indirect answer to the following question: On the basis of which empirical, visible properties can one “see” (or conclude the existence of?) “the caste system”? This question is extremely pertinent in India today. Almost all the discussions about the “caste system” refer to or narrate (a) horror stories about water wells; (b) physical beatings; (c) denial of entry into the temples; and (d) “untouchability.” (It is not clear what the latter is about though.) Interestingly enough, most early missionaries and travellers appear to have missed seeing these things. Nevertheless, they saw the “caste system.” This leads one to suspect that the travellers and missionaries saw “something else.” So, what did they see? Research on the European travel and missionary reports at the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap focuses on enumerating what they saw.

There is a second reason why this question is important. In discussions it is never clear whether (a) the above four aspects are the empirical properties of “the caste system”; or whether (b) they are the causal consequences of “the caste system.” If they are empirical properties, we need to ascertain whether they are the constitutive properties of the system or not. If they are constitutive properties, then the condemnation of “the caste system” based on these properties could be justified. If they are, by contrast, secondary (or not necessary) properties, then the discussion will have to take an entirely different route.

However, if they are the consequences of “the caste system,” then “the caste system” is something other than and different from these consequences, which are the themes of moral indignation. If they are the consequences, we need to know whether they are necessary consequences of “the caste system.” If it turns out that these are not the necessary consequences of “the caste system” or that other things generate these consequences severally, again, the discussion has to take a different route.

These analyses involve the theoretical research into “the caste system,” and into its theories, pursued at the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap. The practical fieldwork provided data that are invaluable in getting a handle on these questions. That is to say, some clarity was achieved thanks to the field research.


What exactly is the focus of the field work? (a) It tries to examine the truth of one of the most fundamental assumptions about “the caste system.” (b) It tries to describe/narrate the empirical stories about “the caste system.” (c) It tries to see whether the conceptualisations that result from the empirical findings can be historically related to the so-called indigenous criticism of “the caste system.” That is, whether the Vaçana’s (the Lingayats) criticise the empirical picture of “the caste system” or whether they criticise the commonsense picture of “the caste system,” viz. as a social structure that characterises the Indian (Karnatic) culture. Let me spell out each of the above-mentioned foci.

It is sociologically unlikely that “the caste system” emerged as a full-blown social system, simultaneously and all over India, some 4000 years ago. It is equally unlikely that this system emerged simultaneously in several places and converged. To argue any of these is to transform “the caste system” into a miraculous social organisation. No known (or conceivable) social mechanism can help explain any of the above theses. The only reasonable hypothesis is to assume that it emerged in some place at some time.

How did it propagate itself? Because we are talking about “the caste system” (in the singular), somebody or something must have enabled its propagation. The possibility that there is no one, single caste system, but many caste systems need not be entertained by us. Let those called upon to do so prove this first.

If we now consider India of some 4000 years ago (the famous Purusha Sukta, the favourite piece of all Orientalists, Indologists, leftists, etc., is dated thereabouts), with vast distances separating the cities from each other, with huge differences in languages, it is a prerequisite (almost) that some central political, or administrative system imposed this system on society. We know this was not the case. Without such an imposition, however, there is no way, on heaven or on earth, that a system with the same four varna’s, with the same four names (with an identical “caste” of untouchables or whatever else), with an identically structured set of practices (e.g. the four properties mentioned earlier) could come into being from the Himalayas in the North to Kanyakumari in the South. The vastness of the region, its multiplicity of languages and dialects, its diversity in practices make it impossible to conceive anything else based on what we know about human beings, societies, social organisations, etc. And yet, it is an established fact that neither the origin nor the propagation of “the caste system” (let alone its reproduction) was due to the existence and efforts of a centralised system.

Instead of asking the question about the origin and propagation of “the caste system,” the mainstream opinion on “the caste system” simply assumes that “the caste system” “somehow” came into being (deus ex machina, as it were), somehow propagated itself, and that it holds the Indian culture as a hostage. It is this fundamental assumption that was challenged in this research by drawing out the kind of complexities involved in a region of about 250 kilometres of today. If today’s 250 kilometres make it impossible to talk about “the” caste system, what does it tell us about the 4000 kilometres of yesterday?


The wider the net, the more the number of villages we investigated, the more complex the picture became: there will always be a variety of names, a variety of stories, and a variety in the internal classifications of these castes as well as an absence of classifications (in terms of hierarchy) among the Brahmins.

These varieties were the greatest among the so-called scheduled castes and those movements which have recruited primarily from the so-called scheduled castes. One of the ways of reducing the diversity into a recognisable picture of “the caste system” is to make a series of assumptions. (That is to say, the empirical picture will not carry clear or uniform criteria for classification.)

From this it follows that “the caste system” is not a social structure but some ad hoc scheme of classification. If both “castes” and “sub-castes” turn out to be ad hoc categories of classification, what does it mean to ask the question, “How did the caste system come into being in India?” (Equally, the continued existence of “the caste system” will have to do purely with political exigencies, i.e., that maintaining “the caste system” is in the interests of some groups, who are alleged to be against “the caste system” and benefit from being the alleged victims of structuralised atrocities.)

The Fieldwork

The field work focused upon sets of villages in rural Karnataka and was conducted by local students from Kuvempu University. In addition, Kuvempu University organised a Certificate Course for elected members of the Gram Panchayats (the Rural Self Government Units) in Karnataka. Members of the Gram Panchayats were actively involved in bringing the fieldwork to their respective villages.

An empirical list of the so-called Jati’s was being drawn up, each with its local name. This list enabled us to pose the following question: On what grounds is one to consider some caste with a local name “X” the same as another caste “Y” some 250 kilometres away? (The “havyika” of Shimoga and the “Babburkamme” from Bangalore, for instance.)

It appears that this problem is most acute with the so-called “Harijans.” In fact, even with our knowledge of Karnataka, we have not been able to classify the multiple castes into one coherent system. Unless, that is, we already would have assumed that a “badiga” and a “banajiga” are sub-castes of the Lingayat caste if they are Lingayats, and that they are independent castes if they are not Lingayats. The purpose of this exercise was, and continues to be, to raise questions about such a classification.

Project: Bhakti, intentionality, and configurations of learning

In this project, bhakti was described against the background of Indian traditions. The hypothesis was: we should not understand bhakti either as ‘devotion’ or ‘devotional faith’ but as a solution to the problem of intentionality.

Time frame: 2000-2002