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Theorizing Beyond the Western Canon

Vidhu Varma

By Ananya Vajpeyi
Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2012, pp. 325, $ 19.95

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

The plethora of commentaries and critiques on Indian political thought in the early seventies that saw a dismal disconnection between theoretical endeavours and philosophical traditions, was based on the fact that the latter seemed to play no role in the way social sciences and politics were practised in India and elsewhere. Western theorizing on a set of thinkers that belonged to the liberal canon was seen to constitute an authentic political tradition. Other writers were included or excluded according to how they were compatible with the larger aims of this canon. In the last two decades a lot of interest has been generated in what is termed ‘indigenous’ political thinking. One of the daunting tasks of doing work of this kind is to analyse the colonial contexts in which ideas and theories emerge, and the socio-historical changes that those ideas and theories intended to bring about. A definite canon of Indian political thought is being taught in standard courses across Indian universities today. The canonical story of this thought is situated within nationalism. It represents the intellectual component of a more general view in which the rise of the nation state is depicted as the triumph of freedom and modernity. However, it is not surprising that political theory is still viewed as more developed in the West than elsewhere as many idealized abstractions and terms like atman, dharma, karma and samsara that reflect on Indian experience are different from the concepts deployed in politics like sovereignty, secularism, rights or civil society. Another belief that has reinforced this separation is related to the nature of Indian political modernity. Embedded in this debate is the claim that Indian modernity is derivative, incomplete and belated in nature which underplays the extent to which normative political theory has been executed extensively in the past. Ananya Vajpeyi in her book on the intellectual history of modern India challenges some of these beliefs and shakes up many established views and misunderstandings of a country, whose claims to being a sovereign and global power is certain, yet whose intellectual breadth and ethical commitment remains poorly understood by most of the world. She suggests a reversal of this trend and radical reconnection of the aims and methods of the liberal canon with its constituted traditions. The author claims that an effective study of Indian political thought should identify the basic normative principles prevailing in some of the writings ...

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