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A Personal Reflection On Social Science Research As It Pertains To The Indian Traditions

Introduction: Erudition and Knowledge

On an unseasonably cold June afternoon in Ghent (Belgium), I was in the now former office of the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (Comparative Science of Cultures), the research centre established within Ghent University by Professor S.N. Balagangadhara for the study of Indian culture. I was having an intellectually stimulating conversation with his student, now my mentor and supervisor, Professor Jakob De Roover, about the writings of Karl Marx and their impact on the intellectual world. I admitted sheepishly with a sense of embarrassment to my teacher that I had never read Marx, except for some brief snippets from his Communist Manifesto, and that I should probably read more of his writings. Much to my surprise, Jakob told me not to bother reading Marx or any other Western philosopher just for the sake of reading them. It is of no use to simply read and digest the ideas of these thinkers like a computer. In order to understand Marx’s ideas and engage with them, one needs to approach them with specific research questions and problems.

That conversation left an impression on me and I was thinking about it for a few days. Even though I had known that having research problems/questions was the starting point for research, it started to dawn on me that erudition was not the same as having knowledge. ‘Well read’ doesn’t mean knowledgeable. Passively sucking in information and ideas from a variety of sources about a certain subject, automatically doesn’t make us knowledgeable about the subject, especially if a large proportion of what we read is nonsense. In the course of my doctoral studies, I learnt that an important part of becoming knowledgeable is the ability to discriminate between knowledge and sophistry when reading any scholarly piece of writing. One of the ways one does that is approach these writings with specific questions in mind about certain phenomena, and parse out the facts and ideas relevant to the questions.

I can honestly say that the four year years of my doctoral studies in Pardubice (Czech Republic) under my doctoral supervisor Martin Farek, as well as my six month internship in Ghent (Belgium) under the supervision of Jakob De Roover, were the most fruitful years of my life in terms of learning how to learn. I learnt more about the process of learning in these four and a half years than the previous twenty years of my education. I learnt how to think critically and systematically, to raise clear and precise questions, to analyze texts based on these questions, and formulate hypothesis. In a nutshell, I learnt how to do scientific research. I will not pretend I am well versed in these areas. I still have a long way to go before I am at the level of the above-mentioned scholars.

But unlike a great many of my peers who have undertaken doctoral studies in various domains of Social Sciences, I was nurtured by scholars with a genuine love for and seriousness about knowledge and the process of knowledge acquisition. They guided me at every step of the way through my doctoral studies, which is a privilege that many doctoral researchers don’t have.

This essay is a reflection of what I learned during my doctoral studies about the process of doing research and its implications for both social science research in India and on Indian culture.

In the Beginning: Why do research? Why do a PHD?

At the end of my B.A. Psychology degree in York University, Toronto, I was mentally drained and disillusioned. I came into psychology with a genuine interest to learn about human nature and human psychology. The first year of my studies was extremely interesting, studying the history of the discipline and older figures like Freud and Jung. Whether they were right or wrong, they were raising interesting questions and grappling with interesting ideas. By the second and third year, however, it had become dry and boring and it was clear to me that psychology in twentieth century, especially after World War II, stopped asking interesting questions. Things like Jean Piaget’s stages of development, and Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory didn’t resonate with my experience and didn’t seem to give any knowledge about human beings (how are Chinese more masculine than Brazilians? What is a masculine trait or masculine value? This is not science). Couple that with tedious statistical analysis and I quickly lost interest in the field. I had also become disillusioned with the North American university system. Universities had just become degree factories, where three hundred odd students are often packed into one hall, professors robotically drone on with their powerpoint presentations, and treat students as nuisances and clients rather than as young minds that need to be nurtured how to think. The experience at York University almost killed my love for knowledge, before I discovered the writings of S.N. Balagangadhara and his research program. I will further elaborate on his research program later in this article.

Being a researcher and doing a PhD (especially in humanities) is not the same thing. One should get into research because of love for knowledge, and also because one has the ability and skills to contribute to knowledge in a particular domain. This is my personal opinion. Of course, there are several other reasons to do PhD. To have a good career, to make a good living, status, fame etc. I too want a career, but that wasn’t my primary motivator.

The Research process

When I began my doctorate, I was still learning about the research process. I came in with basic knowledge about the research process, hypothesis, and theory formation. Over the course of the past four years, through trial and error, and through the guidance of my teacher I learned the following four important components that comprise the research process.

Having a Research Problem

This is the preliminary step before starting any research project. An interesting (for the researcher) research question or problem one has to solve. Everything else about the research should flow from this. One of the main struggles I encountered early on and continue to struggle from time to time is staying focused on the research problem. All the activities of research, finding sources, reading them, taking notes, which lines of thought to pursue, which to discard, all these have to revolve around the research problem. When I initially began my doctoral studies, I used to passively read and take notes from the books in a very passive manner in bullet point form, without looking at the larger picture: how do these connect to the research problem. This brings me to a strategy or heuristic that is very important for the research process….

NetiNeti (Not This, Not This)

Through the process of doing research, I learnt that one of the best cognitive strategies to follow was the netineti process that many Indian acharyas used. As a researcher, an important skill when reading articles and books, is being able to discriminate between salient and irrelevant ideas and information as it pertains to my research problem. Thus, the process of netineti also encompasses the ability of viveka; discriminative inquiry that helps us sift between that which is knowledge and that which impedes the acquisition of knowledge. I find that viveka is the most important skill for a researcher to have, and at the very heart of doing research. It is the foundation for building one’s hypothesis and arguments. The strategy of netineti and the ability of viveka are important for one more reason. Once I was poring over the books of a scholar who was an important figure in my research domain, and I was frustrated that I was unable to find anything about an idea that was important to my research topic. It was then that somebody pointed to me that the absence of that idea in that intellectual’s writings itself tells you something significant: the idea or ideas I consider to my research topic and question is unimportant to the intellectual in question. This leads to the question of why that particular idea was unimportant to the scholar. This in turn, gives us insight into the ideational framework of the scholar.

The Goal of Scientific Research: To Develop Theories

It was during my doctorate that I was introduced to the basics of philosophy of science. I learnt that coherent arguments should eventually lead to theory development. It is through developing and testing theories that one advances knowledge.

The philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg uses what he calls the ‘’axiomatic account’’ to explain the nature of a scientific theory. Axioms are the statements that are assumed to be true within a theory. They are the basic premise or foundation that a theory builds upon. These assumptions include basic observable facts as well as explanations of phenomena that a particular theory accepts as true. For example, two of the axioms or premises of Darwin’s theory of natural selection are that there is a variation of traits within a single population (such as the Galapagos finches) and that these variations are heredity.  One of the qualities that makes a theory scientific is the unifications it effects. The axioms of a theory work together to connect and explain multiple phenomena by postulating an underlying structure that account for the phenomena we observe. A second important feature of any robust scientific theory is that it makes precise testable predictions.

This brief exposition about the nature and makeup of a theory shows us that facts don’t constitute knowledge. If that were the case, then a telephone book would constitute knowledge. A theory gives us knowledge because it goes behind the facts and shows us the underlying phenomenal structure from which the facts accrue.

Why understand the Western culture? : Introduction to S.N. Balagangadhara’s research program

Although the process of research and theory formation outlined above might seem obvious and familiar to those working in the physical or ‘hard’ sciences, it is difficult to find this kind of systematic research and analysis in the social sciences. Since the Second World War, for various reasons I won’t bother getting into, social sciences have become less about taking up and systematically researching interesting questions about our individual psychology, cultural and social world, and more about crafting discourses and narratives about human beings and cultures under the ambit of some ideology or the other. For example, postcolonial scholars through the lens of some or other feminist or anti imperial ideology, wax eloquent about how Brahminical patriarchy has oppressed the lower castes, specifically, lower caste women. This kind of discourse doesn’t give us knowledge about the society in question, but deems a society as oppressive and immoral based on some preconceived norms. When one challenges their story about Brahmanical oppression with logical questions (‘How did a small group of Brahmins gain so much power?’, ‘What kind of institutions did they have at their disposal?’), one is met with ad hoc explanations e.g. the cunningness of the Brahmins in manipulating the powerful people in society. Without a systematic research methodology or rigorous criteria about what constitutes knowledge, sophistry and ad hoc explanations have become the norm in social sciences. Take this passage from Jonathan Z Smith’s Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown,

‘’ I intend to reflect on the problem of myth and history… rather on the historical context of myth and the question of the utility of concern for such context in the interpretation of texts by historians of religion. This grows out of an increasing preoccupation with making clear and explicit the preinterpretative decisions and operations undertaken prior to exegesis by the historian of religion…’’

JZ Smith’s work serves as a perfect exemplar of many of the writings coming out of the humanities and social science departments in universities today. The obfuscating jargon and terminology of this passage makes this into an incomprehensible word salad that freezes the brain of the reader trying to understand it.

It was writings such as these that made me grow disillusioned with the social sciences as an undergraduate student. As a result, when I encountered the writings and research of professor Balagangadhara and his students, it was a breath of fresh air. Here was a research group that raised interesting questions about Indian culture, that formulated explanations and hypotheses based on rigorous analyses, and yet expressed their research findings in a precise but accessible manner, without using impenetrable jargon.

True to its name, the research programme Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (Comparative Science of Cultures) studies Western culture against the backdrop of Indian culture. It was born out of a deep dissatisfaction with the descriptions of and theorizing about India and Indian culture in the social sciences. According to Balagangadhara, in order to understand Indian culture, we have to understand the Western culture. Why is this the case?

It is important to remember that Indology as a discipline was built upon the colonial descriptions of European scholars and orientalists. Most, if not all of the scholarship about India and her culture for the past two hundred years or more has been produced by the West. This brings up the question: What is wrong with the Western descriptions of Indian culture? Should we reject these writings just because they were produced by Westerners? After all, knowledge is knowledge. The skin colour and ethnicity of the person who produces this knowledge is irrelevant.

However, the problem with these descriptions are that they ”tell us more about the culture that produced them than about Indian culture. Rather than describing India, they describe the way in which Western culture has experienced another culture”. Balagangadhara claims that studying these descriptions will tell us more about the Western culture than about India. His research program gives importance to the fact that Europe, for over two thousand years, has been dominated by Christianity. In his book, The Heathen in his Blindness (1994), Balagangadhara develops the hypothesis that the Western culture was not merely influenced and shaped by Christianity, but is the child of Christianity. It is the Christian theological framework that became the foundation for the various institutions of the West (from their political to their economic to their legal institutions), as well as their intellectual domains (from philosophy to psychology to sociology). Even more profoundly, it is the Christian theological framework that shapes the cultural common sense of the members of the Western culture to this day, the way they go about with other and the world. The British/European experience of India was shaped through the lens of this theological framework. Their foundation and the framework of their ‘discoveries’ and descriptions about Indian culture were not the result of empirical investigations but their theological beliefs. Everything they ‘discovered’ was fitted into this framework.

When it comes to the Indian intelligentsia and social scientists, they merely reproduce Western descriptions of both India and the West. ”However, in reproducing these western descriptions about India and the others, something additional intervenes: the Indian intelligentsia too is constrained by the Indian culture. This means to say, they do not simply parrot the western descriptions of India but transform them in the process”[1]. Because the Indian intellectuals come from a non-Western culture and lack the experiential framework of the Westerners who produced these descriptions, there is bound to be incoherence and distortion when they reproduce Western descriptions of both their own culture and Western culture. If there is a pattern and systematicity to the way Indian intellectuals reproduce Western descriptions, studying these reproductions will give us insight into Indian culture.

Is Learning Sanskrit the key to accessing our (Indian) culture?

When it comes to reconnecting to our culture and traditions, one of the solutions that is often put forward is to learn Sanskrit so that we can access the traditional Hindu texts and the knowledge contained within these texts. While I agree that knowing Sanskrit is an important prerequisite to accessing these texts, the problem is not so simple.

Let me begin with a thought experiment. Imagine that you are trying to teach someone (X) with no knowledge of either biology or English, about the theory of photosynthesis in the English language. Here we have two levels of problems. The first prerequisite for X to understand photosynthesis is to learn the English language. However, this alone would not be enough. Terminology such as ‘photolysis’ and ‘ATP synthase’ are technical terms that play a specific role within the theory. One does not open up the Oxford English dictionary to learn about these terms or the process of photosynthesis. Instead, one needs scientific training to understand the underlying structure of the theory, the kind of phenomena it is trying to explain, in order to truly understand terms such as photolysis and the part they play within the theory of photosynthesis’ explanation of the chemical processes that sustain plants.

Similarly, it is useful to think of Sanskrit texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads as scientific treatises about human psychology and happiness produced by our acharyas. The Sanskrit words used in these texts are technical terms that play a specific role within the ‘theories’ of our acharyas about various aspects of the human experience, from ananda to dharma to dukkha.

Due to almost eight hundred years of colonialism, we as Indians have lost the ability to reflect upon these Sanskrit concepts, the units of experience they are referring to, and how they interconnect with one another to give us experiential knowledge, whether it be atmajnana or ananda. Islamic colonialism destroyed our native institutions of learning. When the British colonized us, the education system they implemented presented their experience of Indian culture as a truthful veridical description.

When European missionaries arrived in India, they realized that they needed to learn the vernacular languages of the natives, not only to be able to communicate with the natives, but also to spread the word of God among the natives. They also learnt Sanskrit in order to be able to read and understand the texts they believed to be the religious scriptures of the Hindus. This was done not only to debunk these texts as false doctrines, but also to communicate Christian theological concepts to the Indian masses through the Sanskrit language, especially among those Indian intellectuals well versed in Sanskrit. The missionaries began to look for and found Sanskrit words to translate Christian theological terminology. These missionaries assumed that these Sanskrit words were synonyms for the Christian theological vocabulary they were familiar with. They thought Bhagavan was the Sanskrit word for God, Atman the Sanskrit word for soul, and so on. Therefore when Indians learnt English in Christian mission schools, they learnt Christian theological terminology through words in Sanskrit as well as their native languages, that have already been mapped on to these theological terms by British missionaries.

There are problems that come to the fore as a result of this learning process. These problems have to do with the translatability of Christian theological concepts into the Sanskrit language. What do I mean by translatability problems? In Europe, ”theological terminology has become part of natural language to such an extent that one has lost awareness that certain words are a part of specialised [theological nomenclature]”[2]. English is no exception to this phenomenon. Words like ‘God’, ‘soul’, and ‘evil’ are part of the theoretical vocabulary of Christian theology. However, these terms have been part of the English language for so long that they are no longer limited to the domain of theology and have become part of everyday language. Furthermore, the concepts that these theological words express have become part of the cultural common sense of native English speakers. Since Christian vocabulary has become part of natural language usage in European languages and since the terms of this vocabulary are connected in particular ways, a background framework continues to guide their usage and the common ways of understanding them and making sense of them. That background framework is still determined by Christian theology even though we are not generally aware of this.

Although these theological terms have been part of the English language for centuries, the Sanskrit language developed over millennia in a non-Christian culture. This raises the question of whether there are words in Sanskrit that can accurately translate Christian theological vocabulary.

This is the first problem. If it is the case that the Sanskrit words the missionaries used to translate Christian theological terminology do not capture the meaning of these theological terms, then it follows that the Indian intellectuals wouldn’t have been able to make sense of the theological concepts they encountered in the English language. This is the second problem.

Because of this second problem, a third problem arises. When the Tamil intellectuals use Sanskrit words to translate theological concepts – for instance, Deva = God – it is not simply the case that a signifier in one language takes the place of a signifier in another language that refers to one and the same object which is obviously and universally present in all societies. e.g. jalam=water. Unlike the word water, the word God expresses a concept that is part of a theological complex, connected with other theological concepts, and hence comes with a huge theological baggage. In Christianity (and Judaism), ‘God’ refers to the God of the Bible, the supreme and omnipotent creator of the universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; even when the term ‘God’ came to be used more loosely in Western languages, its implicit reference is to this creator.

When Indian intellectuals use these theological terms in their writings such as ‘God’ and ‘soul’, they inevitably carry over into their writings a cluster of theological ideas and concepts. They would assume that these Christian theological concepts ”have linguistic equivalents (or semi-equivalents) in their native languages”[3].What these writers see as an issue of translating and hence choosing the ‘right’ Sanskrit equivalents for certain English-language words, then, is much more than that. It is not simply a question of translating one word from English into another word from the Sanskrit language, much like translating ‘water’ into ‘jalam’. It is a question of translating terms embedded in a conceptual framework (Christian theology) into the language of a culture where this framework is neither known nor present and where other background frameworks guide natural language usage. In summary, this is not a translation problem but a problem of understanding concepts that come from one cultural framework using the tools and resources that come from a different cultural framework. Because the Indian intellectuals do not understand Christian theology, they do not understand the English theological terms they are using to translate Sanskrit terms and texts. Moreover, because these English theological terms come with this theological baggage, they end up distorting our understanding of the Sanskrit terms as well. The end result is we neither understand the Western culture nor our own culture.

In conclusion, re-accessing our traditions requires a great deal more than learning Sanskrit and being able to read texts such as the Upanishads. As a prerequisite it requires Indian intellectuals to gain a certain level of understanding of the Western culture, before they begin the task of understanding their own. Regaining access to our traditions is a multigenerational project of intellectual labour, and entails removing the occluding filter of colonial consciousness so that we are finally able to see our traditions with our own eyes.


BALAGANGADHARA, S. N. The Heathen in his Blindness: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion. Leiden, New York: E.J. Brill, 1994.

BALAGANGADHARA, S. N. Reconceptualizing India studies. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012.

BALAGANGADHARA, S. N. Seven Problems in Translation: The Case of India. In: Cultures Differ Differently: Selected Essays of S.N. Balagangadhara. 1st Edition. London: Routledge India, 2021.

[1]BALAGANGADHARA, S. N. Reconceptualizing India studies. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 59.

[2]BALAGANGADHARA, S. N. Seven Problems in Translation: The Case of India. In: Cultures Differ Differently: Selected Essays of S.N. Balagangadhara. London: Routledge India, 2021, p. 126.

[3]Ibid., s. 127.

(Editor’s Note: A few months back, IndicA Today had published a requirement for research scholars for which we received a good response. After a rigorous selection procedure, we selected a few scholars, of them one is Dr. Arvind Kaushik. We are delighted to have him on board at IndicA Today. He has moved to India from Ghent and joins us after finishing his PhD degree under the guidance of Prof. Martin Farek, Prof. Jakob De Roover and Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara. In this essay, Dr. Arvind describes his journey in Universities at large where students in general are treated as clients rather than as young minds that need to be nurtured and goes on to describe Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara’s research program at Ghent University where according to him, “It was the most enriching experience and the most important skill I learnt during my doctorate was the research process itself; namely, learning to learn”)

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