On the use of public and semi-public in relation to early South Asia

I have become intrigued by terms such as public and semi-public in relation to early Indian societies. I like the idea of ‘public imagination’ and ‘public reason’, but what do I mean by this? What audiences are suggested by these terms and what sort of cultural institutions and practices? For political theorists, such as John Rawls, the use of the adjective public is quite precise (and in many cases dependent on the existence of institutions related to democratic forms of government). For philosophers and social theorists, such as Jürgen Habermas, it belongs to a specific sequence of historical developments in Europe (as in the idea of a ‘public sphere’). The lack of evidence limits what we can say about early India, but sometimes I suspect that our categories also inhibit us. ‘Religious’ sources tend to be read in terms of their contributions to religious matters while epigraphy tends to be read for its capacity to shed light on social and political developments. Even the debates on Aśoka have often centred on ‘how Buddhist’ he really was or –in a more historical mode- how influenced he was by the Achaemenids or others… The example I considered in my last post, from the Majjhima Nikāya, points to a context in which certain pressing questions of social infrastructure and public morality were matters of public debate (be it by political announcement or the telling of a story). However, we interpret public in these contexts, this is not quite the same thing as, ‘Buddhist or not?’ or ‘Brahmin dominated or not?’ In short, the use of the terms public and semi-public (not to mention private) in early India raise some important theoretical and practical questions about how precisely we imagine the organization of society in that –admittedly rather vague- period. These questions cut across the domains of the philologist, archaeologist, religionist and historian. My thoughts are, however, at an early stage in this matter. Any guidance (or instruction to cease and desist) would be much appreciated!

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