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Inaugural Sorabjee lecture tackles universalism

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Section: News

November 20, 2009

<i>PHOTO BY Phil Small/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Phil Small/The Hoot

Harvard’s Prof. Sugata Bose discussed the role of universalism and cosmopolitanism in Indian intellectual conversations in a presentation given Monday afternoon in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall entitled, “Different Universalisms, Colorful Cosmopolitanism.” The lecture inaugurated the Soli Sorabjee Lecture Series, which was co-sponsored by the South Asian Studies program and the Office of Global Affairs.

Bose, who is head of Harvard’s South India Initiative, recently hosted an international conference on “The Idea of Asia in Tagore and His Times.” This conference will be followed by conferences in Singapore, Beijing, and Kolkata, all of which will address Asian universalism.

In his lecture Bose tackled what he described as “universalism with a difference” and “vernacular cosmopolitanism,” ideologies which stress that all people belong to a single community based on shared philosophical characteristics.

Both stand in sharp contrast to the ideologies of nationalism and patriotism, which, he said, argued for a kind of destructive particularism.

“Colorful patriotism is seductive but always devoid of meaning,” Bose said.

To cast light on his topic, Bose examined universalism through the eyes of Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

Throughout his life, Tagore advocated for what he branded “Asian universalism,” seeking to build connections between disparate cultures in southeast Asia.

As part of this, Tagore traveled throughout the continent, exploring the artistic and cultural heritages of countries from Burma to China to Japan. He fostered a dialogue which led artists to meld, for example, Japanese artistic techniques with Indian subject matter.

Though Tagore and other members of the Indian intelligentsia sought out other Asian cultures specifically, he did not ignore western Europe.

“The colonized didn’t erect walls around their notions of culture,” Bose said.

Instead, they simply rejected the “false universalist claims of [the European colonizers].” They accepted the validity of European knowledge while advocating for the “interplay of multiple and competing universalisms,” Bose said.

Tagore was a vehement critic of Indian nationalism and sought its removal from the discourse among anti-colonialists, whom he did support. He wrote letter after letter arguing against worshiping what he called “the new God called nation.”

However, Tagore’s travels also brought him into contact with growing Japanese nationalism, which disturbed him.

“Asian universalism was torn apart by Japanese nationalism,” Bose said.“The idea of Asia was not a single one.”

Despite the growth of Japanese nationalism, however, Bose argued that Tagore’s notions of Asian universalism were still salvageable, with these ideas having had a great effect on the creation of the modern Indian state.

Bose called on his audience to further research the presence of the theories of universalism and cosmopolitanism in Indian discourse.

Bose’s lecture was introduced by Dan Terris, Vice President for Global Affairs, who proudly spoke about the “emergence of South Asian studies” at Brandeis and the way it had succeeded in “pull[ing] together… the community interested in India at Brandeis into one coherent group,” Terris said.

He also praised Soli Sorabjee, the Indian jurist for whom the lecture series is named, as “one of the giants of Indian law.” Sorabjee, who was the Indian Attorney General from 1998 to 2004, is currently a Special Rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Aarti Modi ’10, Sorabjee’s granddaughter, also spoke about her grandfather, whom she described as “passionate about administrative and constitutional law.” However, she also emphasized his interests outside of law.

“He loves literature, especially poetry,” she said, “and jazz.”

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