26 September, 2020

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South Asia Comes To India Via South Asian University

By Dev Pathak

Dr Dev Pathak

Faculty of Social Sciences, at South Asian University, initiated the annual program ‘Contribution to Contemporary Knowledge Series’ to execute the vision of synergetic regional scholarship. This program envisages bringing eminent scholars of the region who have made it to the international repute and have earned worldwide acceptance of their scholarship. First in the series was a public lecture by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere, former Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Princeton University and currently based in Sri Lanka, on 31 Janaury at Teenmurty Auditorium. The enormous scholarship of Prof. Obeyesekere encapsulates the themes from mythology, history, culture and religion in the framework of South Asia with specific focus on Sri Lanka and its historical intersections with India. The stature of Prof. Obeyesekere evokes reverence and awe in the domain of scholars of the region. The lecture had in attendance scholars such as historian Professor Romila Thapar, amongst other noted socials scientists from the leading varsities of India. The title of the lecture was ‘Coming of Brahmin in Sri Lanka: Sudra fate of the Brahmin Elite’, which explored the shared history and mythology of India and Sri Lanka. Prof. Obeyesekere noted the evolution of Sinhala Buddhism with reference to ancient texts and showed that Sinhala Buddhism has posterity of fusion of religious and cultural motifs. It emerged from the lecture that the contemporary version of Sinhala Buddhism, which has been bane of Sinhala society and politics, is not what all Sinhala boasted of; it was rather a consequence of syncretism and tolerant acceptance of elements from Tamil Brahmins who came to Sri Lanka in distant past. An exclusivist Sinhala Buddhism is only a political invention to suit the agenda of identity politics and propaganda of politically questionable Buddhist country.

Prof. Gananath Obeyeseekere at the podium, with chair Prof. Patricia Uberoi (University of Delhi), Prof. Sasanka Perera (Dean, South Asian University), and Prof. G K Chaddha, President, South Asian University): by Sreedeep

As the second leg of the program Faculty of Social Science conducted a unique interactive workshop on 1st February at Akbar Bhawan Campus of South Asian University in Chanakyapuri, Delhi. The workshop deliberated on the possibilities of doing ethnographic studies in the context of contemporary South Asia with its multiple crises and complexities. It emerged that ethnographic monographs can offer a mechanism to overcome the identity politics rife in South Asia. Prof. Obeyesekere made it clear that scientific arrogance is not a virtue in truly ethnographic practice. The social dogmatism too can not rule an ethnographer. For, an ethnographer is ever aware of his/her ignorance and hence there is need to conjecture and analyze endlessly. No knowledge in ethnographic enterprise can ever be absolute. More importantly, the ethnographic knowledge production entails intellectually fruitful fantasies. Without those fantasies anthropologists’ methods and techniques become dominant and canons begin to rein the minds of ethnographers. No wonder that social scientists from the region of south Asia suffer from poverty of imagination as they are consumed by canonical notions of doing research and they sacrifice on intellectually necessary fantasies. Another aspect of the decline in the knowledge production is that market forces, international funding agencies and state have become instrumental in researches. It leaves no room for the ethnographers to go beyond the easily available empirical details. Hence what emerges in the forms of books is nothing but slightly tweaked versions of reports. These reports are, apparently, suitable for policy framing and planning. But they do not yield the necessary insights into the complexity of social, cultural and political. Hence, most of our researches, in anthropology as well as sociology, are feeding into the identity politics, by offering illegitimately simplified understanding. For, social reality encapsulates cobweb of complex meanings, such as the phenomena at Kataragama as mentioned in his celebrated book titled Medusa’s Hair. Unless that cobweb of meanings is unraveled in coherent, cogent, rational fashion, there is no knowledge of society; it is only knowledge by researchers, for themselves, of themselves. To make knowledge all pervasive, it is instrumental to bring in intuition and fantasies, going beyond the Cartesian claims of scientific rationality, and capture the complex lives of the people. If we do so as anthropologist, there is little room to play with politically correct categories, which have been bedrock of both modern social scientific dogmas and identity politics. Responding to questions and observations by teachers and students, at South Asian University, Prof. Obeyesekere made it clear that South Asian scholars have to continue with the efforts to break the politics of anthropology, which has defined scholarship at international scale. Reflecting upon his own intellectual dispute with Sociologist Marshal Sahlins, he indicated that there ought to be multiple disputes of this kind in every epoch of history. Instead of talking endlessly about the post-coloniality, and intellectually seeking for the voice of the subaltern in the complex texts, there is need of south Asian scholars to produce viable anti-theses to the theses of western masters. This is not to debunk the west; this is rather to offer perspectives, which have been located in faraway places such as Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and other countries of South Asia.

It became evident that Prof. Obeyesekere is one of the most sought after social anthropologist in India on both days. The teeming number of young and aged scholars who made to the event and engaged with him was a vindication of his scholarly persona. The Contribution to Contemporary Lecture Series will continue to generate new insights in the knowledge production and transaction at this two-year-old university, which was started by SAARC in 2010.

*Dr. Dev Pathak, Assistant Professor, South Asian University, Akbar Bhawan, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Prof. Gananath Obeysekera, is probably the only scholar -savant contemporary Sri Lanka has produced. Unfortunately, there are very few in Sri Lanka who appreciate the treasure he is and even fewer who value his insight. In the years left of his life, Prof. Obeysekera should write a series of articles in the popular press on the subjects of language, religion, people and their interaction, from an anthropological perspective.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 0
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      Indeed, Prof. Obeyesereke is a great scholar and human being, unlike the [Edited out]
      The larger question is can a SAARC university with non-scholars on board produce any knowledge aside from pious platitudes about South Asian civilization unity dressed in superficial radical-sounding postmodernist rhetoric), in the human and social sciences given the tainted nature of the South Asian regimes that are its patrons? South Asia is a region with poor governance and having academic mediocrity with no track record of publications in REPUTED ACADEMIC OR SPECIALIST PRESSES OR JOURNALS or contribution to their fields sends a poor signal to possible students.. Perhaps like SAARC – it might as well be disbanded as another expensive talk shop..!

      Part of this comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy
      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

      • 0
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        Sad to say but it is a fact that today all the best students from South Asia who can afford it, leave for higher study and go to other parts of the world – Europe, US, Aussie etc.
        There is a massive brain drain of the best and brightest from the region, while the bright souls that remain in country prefer to avoid nasty university politics and be independent scholars doing independent research — if they can afford it..
        The South Asian University, indeed all universities in the region, are in a massive crisis, due to political meddling and appointments in Higher education sector. Sri Lanka is a good example – just look at the clown who is the Minister of Education and the puppet who is head of UGC! There is a proliferation of mediocrity that jealously guards its territory against better researchers. All the real scholars who actually produce new knowledge and do solid research (and not hot air pontification favoured by the SAARC university sociologists) prefer to be OUTSIDE the (South Asian) university system in their respective countries.. rather than waste their time dealing with petty academic politics within the system that is both draining and demeaning.. It seems that the SAARC university Social sciences dept simply replicates this problem and the crisis of academic mediocrity and poor governance endemic in South Asia in politics and academics…

  • 0
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    We have serious issue regarding qualifications and quality of Indian run South Asian University faculty. I guess Dean him self does not have special Hons degree. If you give anything to Indian forget about quality. Now no one interest about this university and it lost its prestigue, and dirt, filthy and Westerns not even smell about this low quality place. This place now Sri Lankan jokers professors play ground. All south asin nations get together and remove this university from India and establish in Pakistan. Then qualified people will come as faculty.

    • 0
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      Prof.Steven Gomes says:

      “If you give anything to Indian forget about quality.”

      Thank you reminding us.

      I can see this rare quality among Sinhalese and Tamils, who are the descendants of migrants from India.

    • 0
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      For your kind information, before coming to any public forum one should be well equipped with facts and figures. Another thing is that the whole world knows about society and intellectual capacity of Pakistan which is highly dogmatic, radically ignorant and Inventors of peace crises; and forget about any institution in the present scenario when whole ‘p’AKISTAN is governed by bunch of idiots, so one should not argue that a co-operative university should be established there, by any means.

    • 0
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      Dear Professor,

      How could India became a problem and Pakistan will be a solution?
      Kindly enlighten.

      Avidita

  • 0
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    India a wanna be regional superpower is hated by all South Asia neighhbours for promoting wars in Nepal, Bangla and Lanka and Pak. SAARC is a failure in uniting region. SAARC university has not got a campus and is squatting at JNU – in the heartland of empire looks desperate to get students and be India’s fig leaf!
    Looks like a hot air balloon for grandstanding by wanna be and has-beens and acolytes. Also promoting patronage and family dynastic- uncle-nephew politics in good Rajapakse – JRJ-Ranil Wickramasinghe style!

    • 0
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      What a good time to write a comment, (4.44 am)
      What negative angle to look at it.
      If we cannot live with each other,
      take it that we cannot exist without each other.
      A journey of a thousand mile will always start with the first step,
      you think it is a baby step,
      add your strength to our journey.
      Lighting a candle is always better than cursing the darkness.
      May you glow be so enlightening that we see the boat in which we are traveling,
      and the ocean.

  • 0
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    Jaya says:

    “ndia a wanna be regional superpower is hated by all South Asia neighhbours for promoting wars in Nepal, Bangla and Lanka and Pak.”

    You have missed one country in your list which is India.

    India is hated by Indians, the country is war with itself.

    So what is new about India?

    You say:

    “JRJ-Ranil Wickramasinghe style!”

    It is superseded by Sri Lanka version of Gangnam Style. MR and his clan number more than 250 relatives.

  • 0
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    Lets talk about new religion, contemporary politics and the ethnography of the present violent Buddhism, rather than endlessly rehashing “history”.. whose texts are always already partial, depending on who quotes and how, today!
    The fact is after Prof. Obeysekeres’s no doubt excellent lecture, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has accusations of war crimes against him will once again be in India on Friday on another “religious visit” and will visit Bodh Gaya in Bihar and Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh on February 8, the government media unit said.
    Who is fooling whom here?! Let’s talk political ethnography and the politics of ethnography today, rather than indulging in vacuous beating of abstract straw men, like the pseudo-sociologist of SA uni!

  • 0
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    I totally agreed with Prof. Steven. Indians messed this new University and full of joker faculty. All South Asian nations remove from Indian hands and even Maladives or Napal people are good in running it. Quality is zero and filthy and dirtness like a hell. Quality is zero. I visited only one time it is badly run full of bad faculty (100 $ Indian PhD). I do not think anybody will come second time this University and anybody will recognised Indian run this dirt place.

  • 0
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    Yes I also totally agree about quality of faculty and its degree programmes. See qualification of Dean. Only general arts degree. But no where give prof/dean position to first degree general holders. India anything can happen. I visited this University, I think it is quality less than technical school and dirt and uncleaness. Poor South Asians stop funding this Indian JILLMART.

  • 1
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    You criticizing lot – did you apply to SAU and not get in? You may want to brush up your communication skills to begin with. Next step – get some research skills, so you know a bit more about the University before you write about it (that’s what well-trained academics do, you know).

  • 1
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    In my childhood i heard a proverb that “Rome was not built in a day”…so this university will also take some time to get its shape. As far as the level of faculty is concerned i can say it is a good start. who so ever says that the university does not have quality and experienced faculty then i would say the so called “quality” faculties does not want to join a budding institution because it can affect their so called “academic career”, so what ever SAU has as faculty, they are selfless and real academician in a sense, because they left their permanent “quality” careers for a cause which is free from western colonial hang over.

  • 1
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    James Peggy, prof.nagalingam, Steven Gomes , just a little piece of information for you regarding the quality of faculty at SAU. All of them whom you are condemning here on this web page have had their work supervised, examined and awarded by the centinels of knowledge in the west. I have a doubt if you have actually visited the SAU for any information or are speaking from the mind. People who condemn things before they have taken shape are doomsayers, and SAU can very well live without their opinion. There are students and faculty doing work of significant and portending value for the region. Two years has shown that we want to and can live beyond the political and other issues.

  • 0
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    This design is steller! You most certainly know how to keep a reader
    amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Fantastic job.
    I really loved what you had to say, and more than that,
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