On Sunday August 29th , the Kannada translation of Prof. S N Balagangadhara’s book, "The Heathen in his Blindness"…Asia, West and the Dynamic of Religion (1994) was released at the Kannada Sahitya Parishat in Chamarajpet. The book titled ‘Smriti, Vismriti: Bhaarateeya Samskruti’, translated by scholar-historian Dr Rajaram Hegde, was released by writer-journalist Ravi Belegere.
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Published by Akshara Prakashana, the book is priced at Rs 415. An introduction to the book was presented by Prof. Sivarama Krishnan, retired Sociology Professor, Bangalore University. Centre for the Study of Local Cultures (CSLC), Kuvempu University organised the event with support from Nagasri Book House, Jayanagar.
The author, Balagangadhara, was a student of National College, Basavanagudi. Currently he heads the research centre, Comparative Science of Cultures, at the Ghent University, Belgium. His work has been received with enormous attention by scholars, students and other professionals alike, and its translation into Kannada is only a fraction of what we will soon see, given the path-breaking nature of this book. Balagangadhara, in this book, questions existing understandings of religion’s universal presence, writes a history of the west that reveals its underlying beliefs, exposes assumptions about secularism in contemporary India and carves a path for the study of the Indian traditions – none of which neither Indians nor any others, I vouch, can ignore anymore.
Hegde, the translator of the book, also Director, CSLC spoke on the occasion of the release of Smriti, Vismriti… and shared with all, the impact the book had had on him. He said that there was simply no other book that had relieved him of the numerous impasses he had been struggling with for years from within his discipline in the social sciences. He noted that, for this reason, his experience of translating the book had indeed been fulfilling.
He appreciated the lucidity of the book (which, I believe, only a translator can best know) and specified the need to retain words like ‘religion’, and ‘secularism’ in English. He stressed upon communicating an important work such as this, as against simplistically deeming the usage of English as ‘polluting’ Kannada. This, he said, was especially the case with Smriti, Vismriti… because Balagangadhara argues precisely about the problems that, understanding ‘religion’ as ‘dharma’, ‘pooja’ as ‘worship’ and so on, have caused, in the study of cultures, be they western or Asian.
This speech was followed by the book release by Belegere, who shared anecdotes and experiences on the topics of culture and translation. And next in line was the very useful introduction to the book by Prof. Sivarama Krishnan who began by recounting his dissatisfaction with trends in the social sciences that had led him to interact with the late Dharampal (the historian).
He emphasized that after Dharampal, who himself had caught a nerve of life in India, it was Balagangadhara’s work that was of great importance. It had shed enormous light on the study of cultures and is very persuasive for the accurate tools it develops, he said.
Krishnan covered most parts of the book and succinctly related its arguments that deal with protestant Christianity and its ‘secularisation’-which envelop most discourses across the world today, including the social sciences. He recapitulated the book’s argument about European enlightenment being entrenched in Christian thought practices and the wrong assumption of egalitarianism that post-colonial scholars make, with regard to colonial objections to practices like sati, child-marriage, idol-worship and so on.
The book points out that objections to Indian practices were raised in imitation of the historical encounter between Rome and Christianity, wherein Christianity had domesticated the several traditions of Rome, and says that the unsuccessful attempts at conversion into Christianity, which Indians and particularly Brahmins eluded, during the colonial period triggered the colonial knowledge enterprise.
Moreover, ideas of egalitarianism emerged in Europe only in the 17th century, whereas Indian practices were seen as barbaric even in the 13th century European travelers’ accounts of India. The importance given to "practical knowledge" and the absence of religion in cultures like India’s came across quite clearly as one of the several important insights presented in the book.
Prof J S Sadananda, Director, Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities, concluded the event with a few remarks. He said that it was impossible today to interact in academic circles without first positioning oneself as either ‘left’ or ‘right’ ideologically and politically, and that what mattered was ‘who one belonged with’ or ‘what ideology one subscribed to’ more than any intellectual discussion. He said that it was not surprising that they had received similar lopsided feedback about the book so far, and mostly by those who hadn’t read it. He stressed the importance of ‘falsifying’ theories and urged one and all to read the book and get back with feedback, enabling a better discussion.