Universiteit Leiden

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India in the Making of the Global Esoteric: 1200-2000

On 15-16 June, Jos Gommans, Marieke Bloembergen, and Carolien Stolte will organize an international conference entitled “India in the Making of the Global Esoteric: 1200-2000”. The conference asks: why is it always India that has been imagined as a wonder, and what did that wonder mean, intellectually and politically, within and beyond India?

Deconstructing an “imagined India” has been a prominent theme throughout the decades following Edward Said’s ground breaking criticism of Western Orientalism. From about the mid-1980s scholars like Raymond Schwab, Wilhelm Halbfass and Ronald Inden paved the way in the exploration of India’s specific place in the Orientalist discourse in the West, whether in the service of the West’s imperialism or of its self-understanding. One of the most persistent components of this Indian discourse was the cliché that India is an essentially Hindu-Buddhist civilization that is inherently spiritual and as such the antithesis to a materialist, modern West. Rather than the result of Western Orientalism alone, this stereotype was also a product of “self-orientalization” on the part of Indian intellectuals and politicians in dialogue with Western orientalist scholars and politicians. All along, connected by scholarly and spiritual knowledge networks, both in India and in the West “moral geographies” developed of a deeply spiritual, Indianised Asia which failed to impress East Asian intellectuals but drew Southeast Asia into an imagined “Greater India.” In that imagination, India and Southeast Asia became part and parcel of an epistemic violence which silenced the role of Islam, or made it into a disconnected, Indianized version of local genius.

Although we have gained a better understanding of these relatively recent and ongoing processes of appropriation, the role of the esoteric and esoteric thinking in this imagination, and how these developed inside and outside India, intellectually as well as politically, still needs serious scrutiny. This conference therefore brings together experts from multiple regions and disciplines to compare and contrast different trajectories of esoteric thinking.

By focusing more specifically on India in the making of the global esoteric, this conference aims, firstly, to facilitate a wider, spatial research agenda to include those parts of the world that have been neglected in scholarship thus far. We hope to include perspectives from the region now called Southeast Asia, traditionally drawn into the moral geography of a Greater Hindu-Buddhist India, to those from Central Asia and the West, and African diasporas therein. Secondly, since the fascination for Indian spirituality is far from exclusively modern or Western, our next aim is to link the debate on Indian orientalism to similar precolonial engagements with Indian religions and philosophy, in particular with the Persianate World which, despite intensive intellectual exchange throughout the centuries, has hardly if ever been conceived as part of a Greater India. Interestingly, after circa 1200, the Persianate courts show a remarkable fascination for the esoteric, which may have been partly the result of an increasing engagement with the Indian subcontinent and its legendary “wonders”. We strongly feel that earlier Indo-Islamic dialogues on the esoteric will throw fresh light on processes which primarily highlighted Indo-European constructions of a similarly spiritual India. In both cases, the conference will attempt to connect these apparently “outside” imaginations with intellectual developments on the subcontinent itself. Thirdly, in an attempt to further integrate intellectual history into political history of action, the conference will explore the often-neglected entanglements of the esoteric with political power, be it by Persianate sultans like Akbar or modern nationalist leaders like Gandhi, or by the lesser known, the spiritually inclined, local participants involved in multi-sited global reformist movements.

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