The Conditions of Listening: Essays on Religion, History and Politics of South Asia July 1996
When anthropologist Richard Burghart passed away in January 1994 at the age of 49, he left behind several incomplete and unpublished research reports and a huge corpus of published writings. An American by birth, Mr Burghart finished his college in western Massachusetts and went on to complete a doctoral dissertation entitled The History of Janakpurdham: A Study in Asceticism and the Hindu Polity in 1978 at London´s School of Oriental and African Studies. This ethno-historical work was never printed in its entirety even as Mr Burghart published several articles based on it. While he taught in the UK (1978-1988) and later at the University of Heidelberg, Mr Burghart published many articles which now stand as testimony to his stature as a formidable scholar of South Asian history and society.
These writings also established the scholar as one of the foremost historical anthropologists of his generation. However, they remained scattered in various academic journals and books, and were never compiled in a publication while Mr Burghart was still alive. Some of his most important essays have now been brought together in the volume under review by anthropologists C.J. Fuller and Jonathan Spencer who have also edited and introduced this selection of Mr Burghart´s writings.
The essays in the book are organised in three sections. The first of these contains essays on the interpretation of Hindu society and others on Mr Burghart´s empirical research on the ascetics of the Ramanandi sect. Together, these essays provide an original critique of Louis Dumont´s most influential interpretation of Hindu society, proposed majestically in Homo Hierarchies (1966 in French, 1970 in English). Mr. Dumont identified a single caste hierarchy—led by the brahmin—based on the ritual encompassing of the impure by the pure as the most essential feature of Hindu society. He was rightly taken to task by various scholars, some of whom argued that notions of hierarchy in Hindu South Asia included other aspects such as authority, honour and prestige, and could not be reduced to a single ritually pure-impure model. Using historical materials from his research in Nepal, Mr Burghart, in what was an original critique of Mr Dumont, argued that the traditional social system of Hindu society consisted of a complex tripartite hierarchical scheme led by the king, the brahmin and the ascetic respectively. In working out the complexity of this scheme, Mr Burghart used the notion of lntra-cultural translation as deployed by each of the three agents who, he argued, "absorbed elements of the other two codes into his own code and then claimed the absolutely supreme rank in the social system." This complexity, Mr Burghart suggested, could be ignored by the outside anthropologist interested in intercultural translation only at a great risk of misrepresentation.
Conditions of Listening The second section of the book contains papers on the history of the political culture of the nation-state in Nepal. As a set, they exemplify both Mr Burghart´s skills as a meticulous historian and his interest in transformations of Nepali idioms of power, authority and agency during the past two centuries. "Gifts to the Gods" is a classic account focused on the king´s agency as someone engaged in cultural transaction with respect to the gifting of lands to divinities, both celestial and human.
"The Formation of the Concept of Nation-State in Nepal" is perhaps the scholar´s best-known essay among Nepal specialists. In it, and in a following essay dealing with the use of the category "Hindu", Mr Burghart concerns himself with the history of the use of these ideas in governmental discourse in Nepal. His formulation helps us to understand one aspect of the history of the Hindu-based, Nepali-language-based exclusive nationalism in Nepal.
In one of the other essays in this section, using ethnographic details from the teachers´ movement of the mid-1980s, Burghart argues that in a hierarchical social structure with no civil society (this is how he interpreted Nepal during the Panchayat era), the "conditions of listening" have to be created by first generating "the moral space in which subjects can publicly criticise." He interprets the movement´s three phases— symbolic strike, open procession and bandh (closing down)—as a way in which the subjects communicate with the king and not simply rebel against the lord.
In the third section entitled "Complex Agency", we find three essays that exemplify some of Mr Burghart´s other concerns: culture in the South Asian diaspora, medical anthropology and development, and the description of spoken Maithili.
By publishing a selection of Richard Burghart´s scattered essays in a single volume, the editors´ purpose was to present the intellectual unity that characterised the diversity of the scholar´s writings. They have succeeded, for The Conditions of Listening certainly provides that opportunity and assists our appreciation of Mr Burghart´s insights into South Asian history and society.
As a scholar who used historical materials from Nepal (more than anybody else) to speak about the dominant organising concepts of the anthropology of South Asia, much of Mr Burghart´s work helped in extending the otherwise India-dominated focus of the field. By forcing most of his colleagues who did research on ´South Asia´ (most of them would have obtained their doctorates without having read a single thing on Nepal, for example) to think about a part of the Subcontinent that had escaped direct colonial rule, Mr Burghart provided powerful comparative insights for others who delved into the corresponding transformations in colonised South Asia.
For Nepal specialists, Mr Burghart´s writings provide a good perspective on the cultural history of the Nepali state and society. It is another story that Nepali historians from the country have largely ignored this distinguished scholar´s work at the cost of their own continued intellectual incarceration within the narrow confines of political history.
Finally, it must also be recognised that the anthropological highways that brought Mr Burghart into Nepal, despite his historically informed analyses, limited his view of Nepali society. Obsessed with the king, brahmin and the ascetic in traditional Hindu Nepal, Mr Burghart´s appreciation of more recent Nepali society under the Panchayat system was rather limited. His evocation of the idiom of lordship in the essay "His Lordship at the Cobblers´ Well" does not reveal much of an understanding of the idiom and substance of development.
In failing to notice the agency of the middle-class Nepali nationalists in the propagation of both Hindu- and Nepali-language-based Nepali national culture, Mr Burghart could only hold a narrow view of the Panchayati public sphere. His readings of the teachers´ movement in the 1980s and of the 1990 Jana Andolan (People´s Movement) that brought an end to Panchayati rule (published elsewhere) indicate that his obsession with the idiom of lordship and governmental discourses on Nepaliness prevented him from seeing much that happened as way of public criticism of the Panchayati rule and the institution of kingship in Nepal during the 1980s. One possible reason for this could be the late academic´s neglect of recent Nepali-language sources, including insightful literary works produced by Nepalis whose terms of reference do not necessarily overlap with those of the anthropologists of Nepal and South Asia.
~ P. Onta is an editor of the new journal Studies in Nepali History and Society.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)