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Inventing India

Barnita Bagchi

By Roland Lardinois
CNRS Editions, Paris, 2007, pp. 493, Euro 35


Roland Lardinois’s book on ‘the invention of India’ is a densely-researched, well-crafted work straddling historical sociology and the history of knowledge. Tracing the evolution of French indology from the late eighteenth century till the 1970s, with an excursus into the evolution of South Asian studies in the United States post-1950s, Lardinois adopts a methodology akin to that of Pierre Bourdieu, as he makes detailed theoretical and empirical analysis of the economic, social, and cultural capital of the principal individual French indologists, as well as the periodicals, learned societies, and educational departments where such work was disseminated. At the centre of the book is a critical analysis of the sociology of Louis Dumont, the single most influential figure on French social sciences in the post-World War II period.   Lardinois navigates institutional, individual, and imperial history and sociology with depth and breadth. If there is a central thesis in the work, it is that the study of India as it developed in France took totalizing brahminical indigenous knowledge about India as the principal source of information, and then proceeded to replicate the inequality and hegemony of that model as a norm about India. This is a thesis that many voices today, within and outside India, would have no problem acceding to. Another part of his thesis is that the ‘critique of post-colonial reason’ as it has developed in the hands of scholars such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and others of the Subaltern Studies school has, in its hostility to the project of ‘Western’ reason, progress, and empire (seen by them as inextricably interwined) approached a paradoxical rapprochement with anti- rationalist, neo-conservative forms of knowledge. Such rapprochements, Lardinois argues, can be found also between the work of Louis Dumont, proponent of sociology as a universal social science, and the metaphysician and esoterist René Guénon, who in the period between World Wars I and II valorized and saw India as synonymous with an all-embracing, ‘harmonizing’ Hinduism.   This is not, however, a book driven by overriding theses that impede its rigour, nor does it expend its energy in invectives or strident polemics. The alternative methodology and perspective it proposes to those it criticizes is embodied in the work. Crucial to this is an understanding, found so powerfully in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, of how economic, social, and cultural reproduction of professional selves and cohorts takes place in any given milieu; how ...

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