In search of new idioms

Making knowledge accessible: Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara.  


We need to develop indigenous frameworks to study the various religions of India, says Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara, who will be heading the first international conference on the religions of India in January 2008.

We need to understand and develop these extraordinary insights into the nature and structure of human psychology that no sociology, psychology or political science has ever come even remotely close to doing.

Professor S.N. Balagangadhara was a student of National College in Bangalore and came to Belgium in 1977 to study philosophy at Ghent University, where he obtained his doctorate. Presently, he is professor at the university and heads the research centre Vergelijkende Cutuurwetenschap (Comparative Science of Culture). He has been researching the nature of religion and his central area of enquiry has been the study of Western culture against the background of Indian culture. He will head the first of the five-year international conference clusters “Rethinking Religion in India” which will be held in New Delhi between January 21 and 24, 2008. Excerpts from an interview… Why this conference on Rethinking Religion in India?

There is a long-standing complaint that the academic study of religion and culture has never really taken off in India. Rather than lamenting this, we would like to change this state of affairs.

The current theoretical framework is firmly embedded within Western cultural history and proves inadequate when it comes to studying non-Western traditions. The framework therefore needs rethinking.

When you talk about “rethinking” religion in India will the emphasis be on Hinduism?

No, there will be an emphasis on what the term “religion” actually means, as there is no satisfactory understanding of the concept, as well as an examination of the nature of Indian traditions and not just Hindu traditions.

We will also look into the nature of the caste system because it has always been associated with Hinduism and then question the premise of whether Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism are religions at all.

What is the framework you would use to define Hinduism in this conference?

The definition will only come later. We would first need some kind of description. We will look at traditions first. Is it possible to demarcate traditions? Can we, for example, say that Buddhist traditions are completely different from Advaitin traditions? Do they overlap? Where do you draw the line? Should you draw the line? Why draw the line? These are the kinds of questions that will be asked.

The plurality of Indian traditions has led to them being described as “deficient” religions. An attempt of this conference is to start developing new ways of thinking about these traditions, finding out what their strengths are and how it might be possible for us to recover their essence and explain them in 21st century language. It makes no sense to speak of chittasuddhi, manasuddhi, atman, etc. because many of us don’t even know to what these terms refer. We would have to explain the concepts in a simple language — English in this case, because it is the language of the present time.

Do you think part of the problem in understanding Hindu concepts like atman is that we don’t speak Sanskrit any more? And most of our philosophical texts are in Sanskrit.

No, because Sanskrit, in the first place, was never a spoken language. It was a language of the literati who wrote the texts. It is not simply the absence of Sanskrit that creates a problem. The problem lies in transmitting words, but not their underlying meanings and theories. One could, of course, read up Patanjali’s Yogasutra, but it is very difficult to agree with his theories of the gross body, the subtle body etc. These kinds of explanations are both inadequate and unscientific.

But is there no understanding beyond scientific understanding?

No, but what I’m going to say is something more interesting. Indian insights in themselves are scientific in nature. What we need to do is understand and develop these extraordinary insights into the nature and structure of human psychology that no sociology, psychology or political science has ever come even remotely close to doing. And we have to re-formulate in 21st century language what was formulated 3,000 years ago in languages and idioms of that time.

Understanding Indian philosophical concepts is not easy. Do you believe there was a simplification of these concepts to make them appeal to the average person?

I don’t think there was any simplification at all. A multiplicity of ways and means for people to be happy, and by this I mean not just sukha and dukha but ananda, was developed. We need now to understand what its structure was, and focus on developing it.

So far Indian philosophers like Dr. S. Radhakrishnan have only been reproducing what Western philosophers have been saying about us.

Would you equate philosophy with religion?

First of all, we have no religion in India and even philosophy, as the West knows it, is absent. But what we have is something different. We have experience. We have reflection on experience. We ask a different set of questions to what the Western philosopher asks.

Experience, in occidental philosophy, is confused with sensations, or emotions, or feelings, or thoughts. But experience is actually all of this. It is not identical to any of these. It is what we call anubhava, which roughly translates as “having an appropriate way of being in the world”. This knowledge that Indians have developed over the last 3,000 years belongs to all human kind and it is this knowledge that we seek to share in this conference.

Going back to your earlier comment on whether Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism can be regarded as religions at all. Why this comment?

The religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam share a set of characteristics that are absent in the Indian traditions: the belief in one god, a system of beliefs, holy scriptures taken to be the word of god, and so on. Since these characteristics are essential for these religions to be recognisable as religions at all, the absence of these characteristics in the Indian traditions constitutes a serious problem with religious studies in India. The very nature of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism is extremely complex and diversified. They have so many doctrines and nobody knows them all; there are hundreds of contradictory stories behind the beliefs, rituals and practices. It is therefore impossible to find a common core of doctrines that is believed in by all adherents of the religion. Scholars speak instead about the “evolution from Vedism to Brahmanism to Hinduism”. What was earlier characterised as a “false” religion with its proliferation of gods and rituals, practices and doctrines, is now explained as a mixture of influences from both indigenous people and Aryan migrants.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the caste system in India, and its links with Hinduism?

I don’t really know if there ever was a “caste system”, or a caste hierarchy in India. There are castes or jatis, but was there ever a system? We have no evidence of a clear-cut demarcation of jobs. Though the Brahmins are said to have been the only ones with access to learning, less than 10 per cent of them constituted the literate class when the British came.

And then again, what hierarchy can you talk about with regard to castes today? The so-called caste system therefore is something that the Westerner developed in order to explain the so-called “degeneration” in Indian culture.

Is having this conference now, at this point in time, of any particular significance?

It is significant because in contrast to the last 500 years, India is now an economic power with a new confidence. “How does the West or the rest of the world appear to us Indians?” is a question that will grip an entire class of intellectuals.

“What is it that makes us Indian?” is another question that needs answering. We’ve always accepted what the West has said about us, but is it true? Do we live the way books say we do? What about our own experiences? We have to ask ourselves all these questions. And along the way if we find injustices or prejudices we have to endeavour to change them.

(Additional information on the conference can be obtained on >