Cross-Cultural Playing Field

As part of our project on the varieties of religious understanding, I presented my research at two conferences, in Delhi and Kolkata, in December 2014 and January 2015. The conferences were entitled Languages, Cultures, and Values: East and West and were organized by the Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies and Academic Exchange. The Kolkata conference was specifically focused on philosophy, while the Delhi conference was thematically more open. Both conferences had international scholars, from Europe, America, India, Near and the Middle East, both well-established names in their field as well as upcoming young scholars and graduate students. I am thankful to all of them for a very rewarding experience.

The conferences turned out to be a fantastic playing field for a wide spectrum of East-West interaction. The spectrum was indicative of the identity politics that oscillate between upholding the East-West dichotomy and diffusing it in favor of a more dialogic mutual enrichment. There were various papers juxtaposing Western and Eastern thoughts, ancient and modern, to look at a range of issues, from freedom of will to sustainability, from gender differences to divine unity. It was interesting to observe the occasional passionate defense of Indian traditions vis-a-vis Western ones by various arguments: at times by showing how similar and equal they were to various Western systems or particular Western philosophers’ visions; other times by arguing that they presented better solutions to past and present quandaries; sometimes implying that India had worked out these sophisticated philosophical issues much prior to the West. Sparks flew in the conference room on a couple of occasions, when some argued that women enjoyed a high status in ancient India and that a fair and sound Gurukul system still continues to date. Others refuted these claims as an uncritical glorification of India’s golden past that had been fueling generations of national pride. There were some excellent papers and discussion around cultural values, cultural relativism, and globalization, and how, in the face of such matters, change occurs, ideas evolve, and personal identity is negotiated.

More directly beneficial to my research, many papers discussed a variety of Indian schools (as we all know) of Vedānta, Sāṃkhya, Nyāya, Kaśmir Śaivism, etc, and lamented that the Non-Duality school of Advaita Vedānta often glosses over this variety and is taken to be the representative Indian school, especially in cross-cultural/ Western comparative endeavors. The hermeneutics of German interpretations of “Hinduism” in my research illustrates this fact as well, and it is extremely relevant to how German thinkers conflated kataphatic and apophatic approaches to God in Hinduism. Two sets of related terms were discussed often in the conferences that will prove to be very important for my research going forward: on the one hand Pantheism, Panentheism, Panpsychism along with Substance, Spirit, Pure Consciousness, and the cosmological argument for God’s existence as the uncaused cause and ground of all causal regress of contingencies. Debates in Europe around these concepts filtered and influenced European understanding of Hinduism in the 19th century. And on the other hand, terms such as awareness, knowledge, understanding, apprehension, imagination, and experience of God that would nuance the rational, linguistic, aesthetic, intuitive, or mystical grasp of God and thus reveal the tension between kataphatic and apophatic modes.

All in all, the conferences turned out to be very productive for my further research. But they were also an excellent reminder of ground realities and cultural intricacies with which scholarship and academia run in India.