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Asian Origins Of Enlightenment Thought

Shivangini Tandon

Rajani Sudan
Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2016, Pg 223, 925

VOLUME XLI NUMBER 2 February 2017

We generally identify modernity with westernization, and in identifying the forces that caused it, attribute to the modern West an almost exclusive agency. In the emergence of global modernity, we often treat the Asian world— the oriental—as a passive object, a hapless victim or, an unwitting beneficiary of the initiatives and drives emerging from the modern western world. Of course, the origins of these arguments go back to the Whig historiography, and Utilitarian thought, but even the more mature, politically sensitive strands in historical writing have often served to support them. Indeed, Edward Said’s Orientalism is the most well-known case in point; arguing that the modern forms of knowledge were a product of European postenlightenment epistemic system, and was tied to the project of imperial domination, he denies agency to the colonized peoples in the articulation of modernity. The position is now increasingly contested, and in an effective rejoinder to the work of Gyan Prakash,1 among others, David Washbrook and Rosalind O’Hanlon argue that modern European knowledge was not passively imbibed by the colonized subjects, but they creatively interacted with modern western thought to produce authentic, and organic categories of knowledge and forms of historical experience.2 In seeking to restore the agency of the colonized subjects to the shaping of global modernity, it is indeed the work of C.A. Bayly that is of immense significance. Arguing that global modernity is mutually constitutive, he has pointed out that just as much as the western imperial forces influenced the Asian world, the western world was similarly influenced by the Asian knowl-edge and communication systems in return.3 The argument is taken forward in a number of empirically rich and theoretically nuanced studies by South Asian historians, in particular Sanjay Subrahmanyam, that seek to develop a framework of comparative and connected histories between the Asian and European cultural and intellectual exchanges and cross-overs. The book under review is firmly situated within this line of enquiry. Rajani Sudan re-examines the Enlightenment project, and persuasively builds the case for its non-European origins. Focusing on the representation of India in English writings, she argues that the Enlightenment science was rooted in South Asian technology and forms of knowledge. Summing up her thesis, she says: ‘My method adds literary as well as archival documentation, but my thesis suggests that some of the “classical” Enlightenment scientific knowledge is not European in origin but emerges from ...

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