The researcher Jaby Mathew, from the University of Toronto, gave an interview to the colloquium’s blog about the research he will present at the event. As he said, “this particular work of mine is part of project which wants to challenge a still dominant binary, despite the vigorous critique made of it in the last few decades, between ‘West’ and the ‘East'”. This challenge will be brought by an analysis that points out vast intersections between west and east through the Hindu text Bhagawad Gita.
Read the interview below >
TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – In your research, you showed that the Hindu text Bhagawad Gita has a strong influence on the construction of the idea of democracy on the Western, as it inspired the abolitionist writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau in United States. How could you discover that? This relation happened by accident?
JABY MATHEW – I would not say that Gita had a strong influence on the idea of democracy in the West or even in India. The connections that I am exploring are tenuous. What we know in the case of Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau is that “Hindu” thought was one of the many influences in their writing, and they eagerly read those early Indian texts which they could lay hand on. Gita was one of those enthusiastically received text by the Transcendentalists. My paper argues that Emerson and Thoreau’s ideas on individual action and duty have connections with their abolitionist positions. And, one of the reasons why Gita was read during the anti-colonial movement in India by many nationalist leaders was for conceptions of individual action and duty, which in turn leads to multiple versions of freedom and means to attain freedom in India. The larger point is that in the context of slavery in America one of the important voices of abolition came from the Transcendentalists, and these thinkers in arriving at those thoughts were not just relying on only one tradition but on multiple sources including Indian.
TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – You also said that the influence of Gita in our culture could lead us to think of Hinduism as a “Western” religion? Did you intend to say that Hinduism influenced our Western culture so deeply that we can almost see it as a Western religion? Could you explain this idea?
JABY MATHEW – The point about Gita enabling Hinduism to be “western” religion is made by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji in their introductory remarks to a volume on Gita and modern thought published in the journal Modern Intellectual History. The different articles in the volume discuss the status of Gita as a philosophical and ethical text in the modern period both in South Asia and its travel outside India. I think the point they are making is not that Hinduism has deeply influenced the western culture, but that the way in which many of the Hindu idioms and practices are so commonplace in the West now that we cannot think of it as Indian or Western. The best example is Yoga. One could ask whether contemporary Yoga is Indian or western? Gita was one of the early Hindu text that travelled to the West in modern times and was widely read, and could be thought of as having a impact on making the Hindu western and the western Hindu. This particular work of mine is part of project which wants to challenge a still dominant binary, despite the vigorous critique made of it in the last few decades, between “West” and the “East” with west being democratic, equal and free and east being despotic, hierarchical and slavish. It is in this context that revisiting one of the early travel and readings of Gita in the United States can open up possibility to think transnationally rather than in strict binaries.
TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – How did Gita influenced Mahatma Gandhi, but at the same time it was criticized for defending the system of caste and inequality in India? How could it be possible for the same text?
JABY MATHEW – Gita was one of the main sources of inspiration for Gandhi. But Gita also defends what is know as varna or the classification of society into four classes. Gandhi in his different discourses on Gita defends this theory of varna present in Gita, and this is one of the reasons for many to argue that Gandhi despite being critical of caste practices like untouchability was not critical of caste as a structure itself. The more interesting question here is how could we argue that Gita, which defends caste, could also be possible source for some abolitionist thinking? The answer lies in the de-contextualization of the text. Once a text travels from its points of origin it becomes susceptible to other interpretations and appropriations. In the caste-based Indian context portions of the text serve the function of justifying hierarchical relations, but through travel into another space certain of its ideological functions could be discarded.