Workshop: Political Cosmologies

Political Cosmologies: Global and Contextual Categories in the Study of India

Workshop, June 4-5 2015
Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

Organized by:
Ajay Gandhi, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity Shankar Ramaswami, Harvard University

The post-war social science study of India was preoccupied with questions of cosmology. Considerable importance was given to the cognitive frames through which hierarchy and reproduction were enacted. The question of ethnological specificity – the priority given to globally circulating analytical concepts, or grounded categories germane to India – was open. Contemporary scholarship on India largely evades such concerns.

This intellectual shift is the result of debates over two decades ago, when ethno-sociology, structuralism, and cognitive anthropology – and Indian culture’s essence and totality – were questioned. The post-structuralist and post-orientalist theories mobilized in this critique favoured the genealogical unpacking of identity, class and nation. The product of this shift can be seen from gender studies to labour history. Prevailing approaches to Indian sociality now privilege the contingent and constructed, not the enduring or immanent.

More recently, the study of India has been saturated by prefigured conceptual categories. With globalization understood to have irrevocably altered India, so too are mobile categories – neoliberalism, secularism, modernity, rights, citizenship, identity, public, middle-class and democracy – seen as indispensable to its study. In this line of thought, global frameworks are seen as interchangeable with an existing cultural vocabulary. Scholars are expected to scale up from grounded categories as a precondition of participation in wider debate.

At stake are two issues that this workshop aims to explore. First, we seek to question the conjecture that the socio-political forces which prevail and therefore animate study are universal and can be grouped under familiar keywords. Such overwhelming logics are understood to stand above and encompass everything and everywhere. The ascription of comprehensive authority to global categories persists despite their historical novelty, uneven reach, and dissonance with lived understandings. Existing cosmologies and categories are then seen as a variant of, or response to, something already extant. Rarely asked is whether local cosmologies do not instead absorb these putatively hegemonic notions into their own logic, spurring reflection and mobilization in unpredictable ways. Indeed, grounded categories, so often relegated to background empirics, may constitute the necessary grounds for both scholarly analysis and socio-political critique.

Secondly, this workshop questions whether prevailing categories in the study of India resonate with the myriad dimensions of collective life. Despite the increased generation of empirical data on India in recent decades, the analytical frame invariably draws on a particular experience of Euro-American modernity. In employing an established optic instead of operational notions, the specificities of social being tend to be flattened and transposed. The scholar who seeks to explore and develop a grounded cultural vocabulary for India – as exists for societies as distinct as Germany and Japan – is left with a fragmentary archive to draw on. This is not to suggest recourse to an ahistorical and textual notion of the Indic when studying India. Rather, it is to focus on nested meanings and proximate beliefs – manifest in practices, rituals, festivals, films, idioms, transactions, myths, and narratives – which have a historical density and irreducible vitality. This suggests that contextual categories may not easily be incorporated within, or rendered equivalent to, universal categories, and that resonances should be proved instead of presumed.

This workshop provides a setting for exploring these issues and reopening earlier debates on the study of India. The scholars present will, from a range of disciplinary perspectives, examine the relevance of global and contextual categories for the study of India.


  • Ajay Gandhi, Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity
  • Sudipta Kaviraj, Professor of Indian Politics and Intellectual History, Columbia University
  • Uday Mehta, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, City University of New York
  • Prasannan Parthasarathi, Professor of History, Boston College
  • Parimal Patil, Professor of Religion and Indian Philosophy, Harvard University
  • Christopher Pinney, Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture, University College London
  • Shankar Ramaswami, Lecturer on South Asian Studies, Harvard University
  • Peter van der Veer, Director, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity