SAIH Seminar: HT21 Wk 4: The Curious Career of Shunya: Politics and Metaphysics of Caste Thinking in India

Convener: Zobia Haq

Speaker: Prathama Banerjee (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)


Thinking across time often stumbles upon the disciplinary division between the metaphysical and the sociological. How does a historian trained in the modern discipline of history engage ideas from the past which deal with metahuman, cosmic and/or spiritual forces - without discounting them as mere ideology, i.e. false and sublimated consciousness, or indeed exporting them to the anthropologists' country of culture and religion? In this paper I engage with this question by thinking through discontinuous histories of Shunya, a metaphysical concept often translated as the Void, as it came to play out in traditions of caste thinking and caste radicalism in India. I also ask whether and how traces from the precolonial past may animate critical thinking in our contemporary.


Prathama Banerjee is a historian and a political theorist, and is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (Delhi). Her latest publication is entitled Elementary Aspects of the Political: histories from the global south (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2020), in which she discusses how modern conceptions of political subjectivity, political action, political ideology and political community come to be fashioned in India between late 19th and mid-20th centuries. Currently she is engaged in a study of the career of political ideas and concepts in India – as they emerge in the cusp of philosophy, religion, history and literature and across the ancient, medieval and modern periods. She asks if it is possible to think across time from within the discipline of history. Banerjee is also interested in the emergent futures of democracy in the digital cum viral age.


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