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Confluence of Disciplines

Upinder Singh

By Ronald Inden with an introduction by Daud Ali
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 372, Rs. 695.00


Daud Ali’s introduction points out that the essays in this book represent an eventful phase in writings on South Asian history, one marked by the confluence of disciplines, especially history and anthropology. Ronald Inden in fact describes himself as an Indologist, historian and anthropologist of India, all rolled into one. The main focus of his work is medieval South Asia, but his writings range freely over and across pre-colonial and postcolonial pasts, drawing attention to the links between them. Religion, caste and kingship are among the important themes that he has explored in his influential writings. The starting point of Inden’s approach – and the subject of the first essay of this book – is a powerful critique of Orientalist constructs of knowledge. This goes beyond the nexus between knowledge and power to try to penetrate the deepest, most fundamental levels of Orientalist discourse and in fact to lay bare the epistemological basis of all the social sciences that purport to deal with other cultures. Using the categories of Freud’s dream analysis (I am not convinced that this really gives us a deeper insight into Orientalist constructs), Inden questions Orientalism’s claims to objective knowledge and the hierarchical relationship it posits between the knower and the known. More specifically with regard to Indology, he questions its essentializing tendencies, its unitary view of cultures, its curious combination of societalism and individualism, its view of Indian thought as irrational, symbolic and mythical, its caste fixation and its assumption that the essence of Indian civilization is the opposite of that of the West.   Many critiques tend to exaggerate the power and impact of Orientalist discourses, ignoring the existence of the divergent voices and discourses of the ‘Orientals’ themselves. This is the case, for instance, when Inden talks about the Orientalists having produced in India the Orient of their constructs. In a clear case of overkill (p. 21), he questions whether Gandhi’s concept of nonviolence would have played a central part in the national movement had the Orientalists not singled it out as the defining feature of the Hindu character. Drawing inspiration from Collingwood, Gramsci, Foucault, and Derrida, among others, Inden moves from his critique to outlining a more ambitious agenda. He aims “to establish a space for the production of a new knowledge of South Asia” (p. 13), to transform intellectual practices and make them more egalitarian and multi-centred (p. 58). “The capacity to ...

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