Thursday, December 15, 2011

India and the utopian sprit

The Fall semester’s planning has been interrupted by a series of stimulating conversations that give a foretaste to what we have to look forward to in India: a series of discussions of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita with the Core 151 faculty, a performance by Bharatanatyam dancers, Vijay Palaparthy and Nalini Prakash (Vijay was a student of Bill Skelton, an extraordinary Colgate professor who led generations of students to Chennai on Colgate’s India Study Group), and a discussion of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-award winning novel, The White Tiger.

Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), polit...Among my favorites were the ones sparked by a visit from Ananya Vajpeyi, a historian at the University of Massachusetts – Boston and the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.  Ananya, a friend of mine from our graduate school days at the University of Chicago, gave a couple of incredible lectures in late September on two “fathers” of modern India: Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. (Colgate community members can view these on the Colgate Lectures and Events Moodle Site).  

One of the things that’s fascinating about India is the variegated, ever-changing blend of tradition and modernity that one finds at almost every turn.  People say that you can be happily traveling along an Indian street in the 21st century, turn the corner, and find yourself in the early 20th, 19th, 18th centuries or maybe even earlier.  This continual juxtaposition of tradition and modernity arises out of India's history.  

India did not modernize by sweeping the slate clean and starting over; rather, its great thinkers and politicians, like Gandhi and Tagore, reflected long and deeply about what elements of India’s own inherited traditions – political, artistic, religious, philosophical – resonated with the liberal values and institutions that came to India through the British. 

India’s constitution enshrines the principles of universal suffrage, equality before the law, freedom of expression - all the things that America’s founders also saw fit to draw from the European Enlightenment.   And yet, Gandhi and Tagore, among others, also looked towards ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita and Kalidas's Meghaduta (the "Cloud Messenger") for values and practices that could mitigate the horrors of industrialization and mass culture that marked European modernization.  That utopian spirit is still alive in India – I hope we get a chance to tap into it during our too brief 12 days in January. 
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