Shruti Kapila organised a workshop, supported by the Centre for History and Economics, which aimed to bring together an international group of major intellectual and social historians to discuss modern (late 19th/early 20th centuries) interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita as a philosophical and ethical text both within South Asia and also on its ‘outward journey’ into western political debate. Though part of the epic tradition, the Gita, as the early modern historian Sheldon Pollock has argued, did not achieve its current pre-eminence until the end of the Mughal period. Its resurgence and reinterpretation is therefore coterminous with the formation of modern life and politics.
The workshop took place on 6-7 June in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Papers were presented by Dipesh Chakrabarty and Rochona Majumdar, Andrew Sartori, C A Bayly, Shruti Kapila, Faisal Devji and Uday S Mehta, and Aishwary Kumar. A second meeting is scheduled to take place in June 2009 at the New School University, New York. The resulting volume, provisionally entitled Politics in Action: Gita and Indian Modernity, will interrogate the relationship between political thought, religion and modernity.
The workshop followed the format of the meetings that resulted in the publication of the MIH volume entitled ‘A New Intellectual History for India’ (republishing as a Cambridge University Press book, 2008). The MIH issue developed as an outcome of a meeting at Tufts University, Mass., followed by another meeting at the Centre for History and Economics, King’s College, Cambridge. These meetings facilitated the project by inviting discussants (as opposed to presenters) from the host institutions. With this project, a similar approach was taken.
The first meeting took place in Cambridge, UK, on 6-7 June, 2008. The second meeting, organised by Faisal Devji, will take place in June 2009 at the New School University, New York. This enables the two co-organisers and editors - Shruti Kapila (Cambridge) and Faisal Devji (New School/Oxford) - to invite discussants from their respective institutions. The aim is to submit a manuscript of the volume in the summer of 2009 for publication.
The proposed volume on the Gita will be the first attempt at a sustained study of the changing meanings, interpretations and uses of this critical text and its relationship to history and politics. The workshops will examine the relationship between liberal ideologies and their critiques. It will consider religion and nationalism, duty, sacrifice and individuality, political action, freedom and independence, equality and justice. It will examine the place of the globalised languages of modern politics and their transformation in particular historical and cultural contexts. The proposed volume will situate these concepts within the emerging political languages of liberalism, Marxism, humanism and nationalism, thus addressing both the emancipatory and also the coercive ideological potential of the Gita. It will revise received notions of the relations between religion and the politics of modernity.