TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

Sektion 8.14. Gemeinschaft in Differenz: Kollektive Agenten im interkulturellen Kontext / Community in Difference: Collective Agents in Intercultural Contexts
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Bertold Bernreuter (Universidad Intercontinental, Mexico City)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Indian Social Imaginaries

Sudarsan Padmanabhan (IIT Madras, India) [BIO]



The post-colonial societies have been bequeathed with the Sisyphean task of experiencing pre-modern, modern and post-modern social transformation synchronously. Due to the stultification of organic social and cultural development during the colonial rule, the post-colonial societies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East encounter a conflictual process of constructing social, political, cultural and linguistic identities. While the Western societies anticipate rapid desacralization and secularization of the post-colonial societies, I argue that without the construction of a cultural social imaginary the transition into consensual communties is not possible. I examine the cultural and social transformation of India and the problems encountered by the Indians in contesting cultural, social, linguistic and religious identities. I analyze the role played by The Bhagawad Gīta the most popular Indian scripture and the concept of non-attached action emphasized by it. I advocate a social action that is asymmetric which I call cooperative action that is consensual and dialogical, and takes into account the need to encourage intersubjective interaction in all aspects of the life world. I examine the Gandhian model as an attempt to construct an Indian social imaginary utilizing the cultural, religious, social, political and economic ingredients of pre-independence India. In order to substantiate my argument that construction of social imaginaries is indispensable for the rationalization and democratization of a society, I utilize Cornelius Castoriadis' writings on social imaginaries and Charles Taylor's analysis of modern social imaginaries that elucidate the role of the social imaginaries in the West.



In this paper, I argue that the concept of social imaginaries could be utilized to create a vision of development even among the 'communities' that lack an organic and structural framework of democracy. I have utilized two descriptions of social imaginaries to construct my argument. First, I examine Cornelius Castoriadis' writings on social imaginaries. Castoriadis writes: “Every thought of society and of history itself belongs to society and to history. Every thought, whatever it may be and whatever may be its 'object', is but a mode and form of social-historical doing.”(1)  Castoriadis asserts that an idea that is constructed is always embedded in the socio-historical setting and vice versa. Also, such a construction of an idea is not only functional but also symbolic. Hence, an idea of a society is a construction that is at once real and imaginary. A social imaginary is a joint creation of the symbolic and actual social processes.  The symbolic aspect that is indispensable to the construction of social institutions is represented by the term 'imaginary.' The symbolic aspect of the social imaginary is tied to the imaginary production of the unconscious element of the human psyche in the role of social actors. Hence, the socio-historical processes at a deeper level also inspire the unconscious. While the process of the formation of a social imaginary could be to a large extent unconscious, Castoriadis emphasizes the possibility of elucidation of the formation of the process of the imaginary institution of society through reflection; such a reflective elucidation would not render the formative process of the social imaginary a-historical. The second description of social imaginary that I would refer to in this article would be that of Charles Taylor's modern social imaginaries. Taylor specifically addresses the gradual historical, social and political transformation of western societies to liberal democracies from the medieval to the modern era.  Then, I will explain how a meta-narrative of Indian social imaginaries as constructed in the most famous Indian scriptural text of The Bhagawad Gīta which attempts to create an imaginary, a social frame of reference, that would govern the interactions of various classes and castes, in the context of the Mahabharata war, by providing a cultural paradigm for social, political and moral reasoning.(2) The social imaginary of The Gīta includes a justification of social classification based on a theory of qualities or gunas. As a case in point, I demonstrate how Mahatma Gandhi effectively facilitated a construction of an Indian social imaginary in the pre-independence India by synthesizing various cultural, social, political, and religious components in the Indian society. What I call the Indian social imaginary is not entirely ideological in conception. It is an imagined portrait of the individual and the society as conceived by the individual and social actors and not an essentialization or hypostatization of the institutions themselves as such.


Cornelius Castoriadis: Imaginary Social Institutions

Castoriadis defines social imaginary as follows: “The imaginary of which I am speaking is not an image of I. It is the unceasing and essentially undetermined (social- historical and psychical)  creations of figures/forms/images, on the basis of which alone there can ever be a question of 'something'. What we call 'reality' and 'rationality' are its works.”(3) For Castoriadis, any understanding of the social imaginary that attempts to dissociate the symbolic aspects (figures/forms/images) and its functional aspects is incomplete. The functional and the symbolic complement each other and require each other to adduce meaning to social institutions and their functions in a society.

Castoriadis attacks the functional-economic description of social institutions which is: “the view that both the existence of the institution and its characteristics (ideally, even in the slightest details) can be explained by the function the institution fulfills in society given the circumstances, by its role in the overall economy of social life.”(4) Castoriadis questions the claim of the functionalists that there is a concomitant relation between the institution of a society and its social function. He argues that the institutions of created within a society have a symbolic significance even when the functional role of such institutions cannot be ascertained. For Castoriadis, history is the canvas that provides the connecting thread for a symbolic interpretation of the institution of society. Castoriadis refers to several instances in which social institutions do not either adequately address the functional needs for which they were created or they become redundant. While agreeing with the need for an analysis of the functions of social institutions, Castoriadis asserts that they cannot be entirely reduced to their functional role.  Castoriadis argues that “people often pretend to think that this symbolic logic, and the rational order that corresponds to it in part, pose no problems for the theory of history. In fact, they do, and these problems are almost intractable. A functionalist may consider it self-evident that, when a society provides itself with an institution, it gives itself at the same time, as something it can grasp, all the symbolical and rational relations that this institution carries or produces...”(5) 

Castoriadis does not claim that the institution of society is purely symbolic and that we cannot understand the symbolic structure. Rather, he argues that while the symbolic aspects of a society could not be refuted it could be understood and also be acted upon. Castoriadis draws a comparison between the notion of language as a constitutive element of communication and its utilization to express various ideas . Also, for Castoriadis, the language has a reflexive application which is a critical evaluation of the institution of language itself. Castoriadis asserts that while we cannot speak outside  the language, we have limitless mobility within the system of language itself. We can question everything with the help of language and even the very idea of language itself.(6) Similarly, the symbolic has a very strong social, cultural and historic relation to the context from which it emanates and hence it is constructed differently in each context. Therefore, the symbolic is an indicator of something that lies outside the purview of the symbolic itself. Castoriadis argues that the functional-economic understanding of a culture or a society creates a rigid framework that excludes the symbolic element that is ubiquitous in the institutions of the society. The exclusion of the symbolic contributes to the misunderstanding of one's own and other cultures. Ironically, the exclusion of the symbolic leads to an incomplete understanding of the functionality of the cultural institutions of alien societies. Castoriadis points out that the institution of law in the west requires a symbolic understanding.(7) From the days of Roman consuls and Caesars, Justinian Code, Renaissance, and the nineteenth century Germany, Roman Law has undergone several changes. Castoriadis indicates the evolution of Roman law over a period of ten centuries in a non-linear pattern. Castoriadis provides an example of how the Roman law governing an agreement between two parties emphasizes ritual aspect such as gestures and words rather than the intention and will of the parties. The functional part of any transaction which is a pact between various parties to abide by their mutually agreed rules never catches up with the formal or symbolic aspects of the ritual that surrounds the agreement in the Roman Law. (8)

The ideal of the economic-functional interpretation of social institutions does not preclude the impact of the symbolic aspects on the social, political and economic institutions. Hence, Castoriadis argues that any search for coherence in the development of social institutions from a purely economic-functional paradigm would not be successful in explaining the complexities of such processes. Castoriadis differentiates the symbolic from the functional and the imaginary exists as something that is different from the real. Castoriadis argues that the imaginary is almost always associated with the symbolic. The symbolic is not divorced from the real and rational element. Underlying the symbolic aspect of social institutions is the radical imaginary. A radical imaginary is the unceasing propensity to produce images/figures/images. Allied to radical imaginary is the concept of actual imaginary, which is the relation between the signified and the signifier, the symbol and the thing.(9) The actual imaginary in this instance is the social imaginary. In this context, a social imaginary is a symbolic aid created by a society that is necessary and which gives meaning to the social institutions. The functional aspects of the social institutions derive their meaning because of the social imaginaries. Some examples of social imaginaries are religious, cultural, linguistic, legal and economic institutions that are very strongly connected with the symbolic.


Charles Taylor: Modern Western Social Imaginaries

Charles Taylor identifies economy, public sphere and democracy as the three most distinguishing features of modernity that governed the self-understanding of the people.  These institutions, according to Taylor, emerged as a result of a transformation in the conception of moral order during the modern era in the West. (10) Taylor also argues that the conceptual change began with a few people who believed and promoted it and then spread to larger group, to finally become a social imaginary. The pre-modern conception of politics contains a strong religious dimension embedded in the perception of the world as totally ordered by a God who was a benevolent supernal artisan, micro-managing the individual events happening in the world. The institution of monarchy was a replication of such a God controlled conception of nature, which was an ancient idea. But in modernity, the upward despondent gaze towards the whims of a celestial being was challenged and the terrestrial prospects were explored. An interesting transformation, what Max Weber characterized as the ethics of the puritans, encouraged people to toil and succeed in this world rather than worrying about what was in store for them in the nether world.(11) Such an insouciant attitude towards the designs of God was largely due to the development of science, but in terms of social attitude, disenchantment.  This disenchantment created a questioning attitude towards religious authority and cultural traditions and science provided better answers to the questions that arose about the world. The change in the world-views also coincided with the change in the moral order of the society.

Taylor writes: “The picture of the society is that of individuals who come together to form a political entity against a certain preexisting moral background and with certain ends in view. The moral background is one of natural rights; these people already have certain moral obligations toward each other.”(12) The discovery of the laws of nature that explained various forces and processes that governed the world prompted people to look for such explanations in the social and political realms too. Adam Smith recognized such a need when he claimed that economic prosperity was indispensable and social order would be better served if they were causally related to observable phenomena rather than intangible qualities such as virtues and wisdom.(13) Another important attitudinal change palpable in modernity is the recognition of mutual cooperation. Kantian categorical imperative identifies the inescapability of the need for mutual cooperation among human beings by precluding strategic cooperation. Kant emphasizes the need for conducive social environsthat facilitate moral reasoning, in Perpetual Peace, which is interestingly phrased as the limiting conditions of politics.(14)

Weber’s and Tönnies’ diagnosis of the inexorable triumph of purposive rationality also anticipates mutual cooperation based on mutual benefit. Weber attributes the development of political associations and cities in Western Europe in the Middle Ages to the realization of the potential of mutual cooperation for political economy.(15) Taylor argues that political institutions adapted to the changing scenario of crumbling social hierarchy and growing democracy by facilitating mutual cooperation. Interestingly, the reflexivity of the civil society in Europe and America was not reflected in the economic and political exchanges with the third world countries. The third world countries were not deemed sufficiently civilized to warrant an attitude of mutual cooperation. The sense of solidarity, which ensured the social imaginary of a unified society, and subsidiarity that facilitated mutual cooperation in the Western civil society with the advent of modernity cannot be dissociated from each other. Thus, subsidiarity of a society is incumbent on the solidarity of its constituents. In a liberal democracy, the feeling of social solidarity is also heavily dependent upon the notion of subsidiarity since a sense of solidarity cannot be imposed but only appealed to. Such a notion of solidarity could be organic or politically forged as witnessed in the development of American democracy. There are two portents if the equilibrium between solidarity and subsidiarity is disturbed. They are: 1) the notion of subsidiarity would take over and economics becomes increasingly a citadel of powerful corporate interests. Hence, the intervention of government through law enforcement to curb malpractices and other predatory market tendencies increases. This is an extreme result of Lockean social contract; 2) If a tendency to emphasize solidarity predominates, then nationalistic fervour, secessionism, religious fanaticism, and ethnic cleansing are distinctly possible results.

In countries such as India, which have had a cultural continuum of over five thousand years and a rigidly stratified society, the transformation into a democracy that respects individual rights has not been without obstacles. Especially, reciprocal relationships and mutual cooperation have had a different connotation because of the unequal caste-class relationships, what Taylor labels as “hierarchical complementarity.”(16) Reciprocal and mutual were always considered in the background of individual duties within the ambit of caste duties. Hence, before the terms reciprocity and mutuality are considered within the framework of equality of social status, there is a need for votaries of democracy and liberalism to consider the social conditions of those countries that are forced to become democratic. The question that arises here is: Does democracy restore equality of social status or is equality of social status a must for democracy? There are inherent problems to the process of democratization of a non-democratic society. There are several issues that need to be addressed in this context. Some aspects that seem unimportant such as the density of population in a country also play a major role in the transition of a country to a democracy. Another misconception about democracy that has become endemic to the process of democratization of countries that are not democratic is the belief on the part of the Western powers that once a country becomes democratic, issues such as violence, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing would disappear. Or at least, the Western countries believe that the intensity of terrorism, ethnic clashes, religious fundamentalism and internal colonization would be drastically reduced because a democratically government that is elected by the people is in place.  Secularization, in the West, had occurred mostly vis-à-vis the relationship between Church, the State and the people in the West.

Charles Taylor questions the notion of one grand narrative about social rationalization in the West. Utilizing Taylor’s analysis, the clash of cultures could be viewed as a clash of social imaginaries of two cultures.(17) It is a clash of two cultural frameworks. In this context, one can consider Hans-Georg Gadamer’s idea of ‘fusion of horizons’ which overcomes the ‘I-Thou’ divide that creates conflicts both in interpersonal relationships at a micro-level and bilateral and multilateral foreign policy approach at a macro-level. A distant-objective gaze does not reveal the diversity of another country and cultivates only false stereotypes about its culture and traditions. Interestingly, even in a country such as India, which is a potpourri of several cultural traditions, religions, languages and ethnicities, an understanding of religions other than once own is not facilitated sufficiently. The secularization of educational curriculum in schools, especially the government institutions, has mandated reading about different religions and cultures. In spite of the best efforts of the Indian government to secularize education and encourage an ecumenical understanding of the multi-cultural environment that epitomizes Indian culture, there are stark distinctions between linguistic groups, castes, religions and regions. A case in point is the relationship between various religious groups such as the Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs. Very little dialogue exists between Hindus and Muslims as religious groups even though as citizens of India, Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Christians, Jews and others interact with each other everyday in buses, trains, trams, planes and other places.  The fear of the ‘other’ engulfs the ‘I’ and the Sartrean idea that ‘other is hell” only encourages a celebration of the “I” to the detriment of social relationships. Hence, it is important to place the ‘I-Thou’ relationship on a firm footing within a civil society that is supported by a liberal democracy. The relationship between the individual and the society is reciprocal and mutual and the political process guarantees individual liberties and social obligations in a democracy. In order to transform the Indian society, there is a dire need for a new social imaginary, a new moral order. In this endeavor, Taylor's description of the modern social imaginaries, that is causal in nature, would be a good point of reference. 


Indian Social Imaginaries – A Conceptual Analysis

In almost all societies that were either contemporaneous or anterior to the Greek society, social stratification was based on perceived natural qualities. Similarly, in India, social stratification was justified on the basis of gunas (qualities). Three qualities equivalent to appetite, courage and reason, respectively, tamas, rajas and sattva combine in different ratios to constitute the human species.(18) Interestingly, the concept of gunas, which sought to adduce a natural justification for the class distinctions in India, was developed over a course of several centuries. From a classless society, gradually the Indian society was divided into four classes, namely, the brahman (priest), kshatriya (warrior), vaisya (business), and śūdra (labor).(19) From a society of hunter-gatherers and clans, the institution of kingship evolved with increasing urbanization.(20) Max Weber’s account of cities as centers of political administration could be applied to the development of the cities in the Indian context as well. The development of the class-system aided administration and specialization of occupation led to the institutionalization of kingship. Thus, from a diffuse and consensual decision-making social structure in the form of clans, Indian civil society came under the control of kingship and its supporting institutions. Simultaneously, a hitherto non-class society also began to stratify itself on the basis of endogamous and exogamous rules of kinship, social status based on vocation, access to religious rituals and political clout. But in the context of India, what Socrates euphemistically called a noble lie in the Republic, the gunas or qualities were ennobled in the scriptures and became rigidified.(21) The gunas became constitutive in determining the behavioral and hereditary qualities of the individuals but only in the context of a society classified on the basis of vocational status. Because of relentless migrations and intra-social stratification, class distinctions were gradually replaced by more minute caste distinctions. The caste distinctions were based on birth and hence any chance of upward mobility in the social hierarchy was impossible. Interestingly, the religious ideologues realized the problems inherent in reconciling the concepts of svadharma (individual duty), kuladharma (family duty) on the one hand, and apadharma (duty under extraordinary circumstances) sādhāran dharma (everyday duty). The tension between the individual and the social duty is one of the main aspects discussed in The Bhagawad Gīta. The term dharma contains the social aspect, which is in turn linked to the cosmic order (rta).(22) Thus, the concept of dharma is akin to a conception of duty of the citizens of a polis. The individual duty is always attuned to the family and social obligations. Interestingly, in a class-based society, different modes of dharma were based on occupation whereas in the caste-based society the birth determines one’s individual, family and social dharma. The ineluctable causal relationship divined by the votaries of the caste system arrested the prospects of lower classes for upward mobility in the caste hierarchy by connecting birth, social status, and past deeds. It was only by fulfilling the duties pertaining to one’s caste that a person could graduate to the next caste in the hierarchy which could ensure rebirth in higher classes for attaining liberation from the birth-death cycle. This approach was roundly opposed by heterodox systems such as Buddhism, Jainism and Charvaka who refuted the concept of the class system and the path to liberation as prescribed in the orthodox schools that swore allegiance to the Vedic corpus. 


Non-attached action as a Cooperative Action

Concepts emphasizing deontology tend to trivialize an emphasis on consequences, while the converse is true for those concepts of action that privilege consequences, such as utilitarianism. Co-operative action is modeled on the concept of non-attached action (niskama karma). The concept of non-attached action emphasizes the performance of an action with truthfulness and sincerity. It emphasizes procedural fairness in the pursuit of wealth, happiness, and success. Non-attached action is at once an individual and a group action. In the context of The Bhagawad Gīta, non-attached action is a clever reconciliation of the deontological with the teleological. As a treatise that emphasizes social action within the confines of the Indian caste system while at the same time recognizing the need to transcend social barriers, The Gīta offers the solution of ‘renunciation in action as against renunciation of action.’ (23) The context of non-attached action is a battlefield in which cousins, uncles, teachers, and friends are on opposite sides. A simmering feud assumes gargantuan proportions and culminates in a war between two royal clans (first cousins), the Kauravas and the Pāndavas. Eventually, it becomes a war in which friends fight against friends, uncles against nephews, and teachers against students because of what could be termed as a confusion of deontological dogmatism with social responsibility, on the one hand, and extreme purposive-instrumental reason on the other. Arjuna, the Pāndava prince, who is the recipient of the teachings of Lord Krishna on the battlefield described in the great Indian epic of The Mahabhārata, is confused between his sense of duty and sense of civility. Questions about moral turpitude and rectitude of his actions swirl in Arjuna’s mind. Is killing some one even for deontological reasons justified? Can one relinquish what is one’s duty to kill in the pursuit of justice and, instead, sacrifice the desire to avenge what is perceived as a denial of justice? Should injustice be tolerated and ignored without any opposition?(24) 

In The Gīta, which is a religious text, the ultimate purpose is merged with God’s will and the duty to adhere to fulfilling one’s role in achieving such a purpose. Hence, at some level, deontology and teleology merge into God’s will. We are once again revisited with the Socratic question of whether the Gods advocate an action because they are just or actions are just because the Gods say so. The Bhagawad Gīta within its context provides an answer that karma or one’s duty is to be performed at all costs on account of the social responsibility attached to it. The Gīta argues that there is a direct link between individual and social action. In the Vedas, the concept of rta or cosmic moral order is connected to the dharma or righteousness of the individuals and the society. (25) In order to resolve the moral dilemma resulting from an action that is purportedly both right and wrong (killing one’s own kin for the sake of revenge or possessions, which is entailed by duty to protect one’s honor and regain what is rightfully one’s property that was unfairly usurped by Arjuna’s cousins, and prohibited by one’s dharma not to kill one’s own kin for the sake of wealth), Lord Krishna advises Arjuna to perform his duty, which is to lead the war, but sacrifice the fruits of action, in this context to God. Since a war had been declared and the armies were facing each other on the battlefield, renunciation of the role of a warrior was not to be condoned.

According to Lord Krishna, Arjuna’s moral dilemma arose out of a combination of factors. Arjuna was concerned with the outcome of the war and the blame that would be attached to him for his actions on the battlefield rather than the moral rectitude of his actions. Arjuna was more mindful of the consequences of his actions than the rightness of the means of achieving his goal. Krishna also emphasizes that the war was not wished by the Pāndavas and that all other avenues of sāma (discussion), dāna (concessions), bhēda (warnings and threats) have been exhausted, and finally the time for the use of danda (force) had arrived.(26) Hence, Arjuna cannot shirk his responsibilities as a soldier to fight a righteous battle even if it was against his own clansmen. That being said, attitudinally, Arjuna had to become involved with the process of waging war. Here, Krishna introduces the concept of karma-yogi. A karma-yogi is one who performs an action without any attachment to the consequences of an action for oneself. (27) Here, the consequences refer to selfish-interest and egoism. One can argue that in the final analysis, deontological positions cannot be bereft of common or individual good. The issue for the deontologists is whether an action is procedurally correct irrespective of its outcome. Underlying such an approach is the assumption that procedural correctness would ultimately lead to the right objective. Such an act of self-denial is anathematic to the consequentialists and they emphasize the primacy of the consequences more than procedural correctness. Mahatma Gandhi is the foremost proponent of interpreting Indian social imaginary on the insights derived from The Gīta.

Gandhi recognized the need to appeal to the common indian social imaginary and harness terms such as dharma, karma, moksha, satya and ahimsa which have very strong social, religious, political and moral connotations.(28) Such terms resonate with people at all levels and also create a strong bond of camaraderie, moral companionship, and a sense of purpose.  This was possible for Gandhi only because he understood the symbolism that characterized the social institutions of India such as the caste and class systems. Traditionally, the political, economic and religious power in the Indian society was distributed among the three upper classes, namely, the priestly (brāhman), warrior (kshatriya) and mercantile (vaisya)classes. Apart from the fourth class, śūdras, the labor class, a fifth class emerged later, which was called the fifth class (panchama) or pariah (drummer.)(29) Furthermore, because of the in-group/out-group, ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural differences, the interstices of the Indian society were filled with intra-caste distinctions. Few attempts were made to unify the society based on a common social imaginary. Instead, the individual, family, and social goals were enmeshed with the caste and class obligations, which prevented any mobilization of the masses. Even the elites who authored the grand narratives could only provide the masses with a vague and abstract concept of liberation (moksha), which was actually expressed more vividly by the Buddhist conception of nirvāna, which represents the total destruction of the birth and death cycle. Thus, Gandhi envisaged a cooperative action based on the concept of non-attached action espoused in The Gīta in order to bring varied groups in India together. The basis of Gandhi's moral, social and political maginary is The Gīta's philosophy of non-attached action or karma yoga. While Gandhi's philosophy itself was highly secular, it still operated on the premise of tolerance, understanding and assimilation of other cultural, social and religious beliefs.(30) There is a further need to re-secularize Indian politics and society, which is riven by caste, religion, language and cultural differences.

A secularized concept of non-attached action, in the form of co-operative action, in which the actors must be accommodative of self-denial as a virtue but not a rule, would not violate voluntary action encouraged in a democracy. The concept of co-operative action fuses subsidiarity and solidarity together.(31) Solidarity is a notion that indicates the sense of togetherness of a group of people either as a nation, religious sect, political party or cultural entity. Subsidiarity is a notion that emphasizes the separation of the powers between the central Catholic Church and its local chapters. According to the notion of subsidiarity, “…nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which could be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization.” (32) As a deliberative action, co-operative action does not stipulate conditions of linguistic competencies. The only pre-condition for co-operative action is the freedom to voice opinions as citizens irrespective of their linguistic or communicative competencies. Facilitating free exchange of ideas would create a framework of communication between communities that differ from each other. In this context, the Gandhian method of non-attached cooperative action would include the notion of subsidiarity. The Gandhian path is not one of negative liberty but a positive engagement with different linguistic, social, political and religious groups towards achieving mutual understanding and facilitates national reconciliation and development by creating an Indian social imaginary.



The Indian social imaginary is bound to be variegated and diverse.  In India, the social imaginaries constructed around the institution of class and caste systems developed a narrative and symbolism that was very influential during the bygone era. But the current social imaginary demands a more interpersonal engagement spawned by democracy. Throughout human history the higher classes have subjugated the lower classes by denying and depriving their hope for a better future. Very seldom has there been an uprising in the history of mankind that has been unaided by disgruntled elite classes even in revolutions inspired by popular movements. One can argue that while the higher classes were living and enjoying the present, the lower classes were wallowing in the fruits of their past while yearning for a better future, all the while ruing the present. The construction of new Indian social imaginaries necessitates a discourse on inequality, development and moral values. In the last century, Gandhi recognized and harnessed the symbolic and functional aspects of the Indian social imaginary and hence became a great leader when the Indian freedom movement was stuttering. Gandhi brilliantly conjoined the symbolic and the functional aspects on the one hand and the prescriptive-normative aspects of the social imaginaries of his period.

The Western societies had had social imaginaries that influenced their social, political, economic, psychological and scientific endeavours. In this paper, I have attempted, briefly, to look at the attempts in The Bhagawad Gīta to construct an imaginary that appealed to various religious, social and political institutions that were prevalent in India during an ancient epoch. I argue that there is a need to reinterpret and reconstruct the Indian social imaginary in lieu of the necessity to engage various cultural, religious, linguistic and political components of contemporary polity. In this effort, I have also analyzed Cornelius Castoriadis' and Charles Taylor's views on social imaginaries of the West and incorporated many important insights into my analysis of the need for an Indian social imaginary. The most important insight that I derive is that of the symbiotic relation between the symbolic, functional and the prescriptive aspects of a social imaginary. The success or a failure of a social imaginary is determined by inspirational, causal, and institutional factors, which are reiterated by both Castoriadis and Taylor. 

All political systems symbolize various imaginary institutions. A successful political system is an imaginary system that is meaningful to people at various levels. In the contemporary epoch, in Western countries, republican and liberal social imaginaries symbolically appeal to the populace.  Charles Taylor's analysis traces the social, political, cultural and economic components of the Western culture that evolved during modernity. Taylor's analysis emphasizes the characteristic features of the political systems in countries such as the United States, Britain, France, Canada and Australia. But, there are lessons that India could learn out of such an analysis. One of the reasons why Indian society did not witness revolutions in the scale of the French or American Revolution is due to two reasons; the lack of identifiable singular cultural objective (social imaginary) and cultural diversity of India. What Taylor defines as hierarchical complementarity is clearly visible in the Indian context.

In the case of the Indian society, myriad distinctions among the castes made it difficult for the people to fight for their rights as well as social change. The rumblings due to discontent were usually passed on to the vertical and horizontal social structures that are immediately above or below one’s caste. For example, groups of people belonging to lower caste if they felt dis-empowered and disgruntled usually fight with the immediate sub-caste above or below themselves. In the case of a major issue of dis-empowerment usually involving the members of the caste above the people belonging to the lower castes, then there will be a major altercation between only those two sections of the society. Ironically, each caste has its own chosen nemesis and seldom do members of different castes join together in a clash between two castes. Charles Taylor’s analysis of the modern social imaginaries of the Western hemisphere deals with societies that have less rigid social stratification than countries such as India or cultural diversity like Nigeria. Taylor also forewarns against any attempt to replicate the Western experience in a non-organic manner elsewhere since it could produce catastrophic results. While Taylor accepts the existence of several social imaginaries even within the Western hemisphere, differences between them could be termed as variations in cultural particulars than universals. Disentangling cultural universals from particulars is possible only with a reflective understanding of the concept of social imaginaries in their symbolic manifestation. The concept of Indian social imaginaries, currently, revolves mostly around India’s economic development. What Castoriadis refers to as the institutional-symbolic relation and Taylor as the moral order in the realm of politics, society and culture is yet to achieve normative strength in the Indian social imaginaries, either at the level of private sphere or public sphere, in the institutions of judiciary, market, education, and religion.


1 Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, Trans. Kathleen Blamey, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1987. p. 3. Referred to as IIS hereon.
2 Srimad Bhagawadgīta, Trans. Jaydayal Goyandka, Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1996. Referred to as also The Bhagawad Gīta and The Gīta.
3 Castoriadis, IIS, 3.
4 Castoriadis, IIS, 115.
5 Castoriadis, p.122.
6 Castoriadis, pp. 126.
7 Ibid., p. 120.
8 Ibid., pp. 120-121.
9 Ibid., pp. 127-128.
10 Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. p. 2. From here, MSI.
11 Max Weber, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Routledge, 1992. pp. 35-45.
12 Taylor, MSI, p. 3.
13 Taylor, MSI, pp. 69-73. Taylor cites Louis XIV who claims that the show of respect for the monarch is in return for the offer of protection and justice to the people. According to Montchretien, a good ruler has to be a guiding force to the economy of a state by enacting good policies.
14 Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace, Trans. M. Campbell Smith, New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1948. Appendix I, pp. 32-33.
15 Max Weber, Economy and Society, Eds. Guenther Roth andClaus Wittich, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society, Trans. Charles P. Loomis, New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
16 Taylor, MSI, p. 16.
17 Imam Abdul Rauf disagrees with Huntington that there is a clash of civilizations/ culture between Islam and the West. Imam Rauf attributes the current impasse between the Islamic countries and the West to a virulent anti-religious secularism. Furthermore, the social imaginary of binary opposition that has been indelibly imprinted on the American psyche due to the cold war seeks to construct an enemy that is as resolute and valiant as the erstwhile USSR. In this aspect, the social imaginary of post 9/11 America is bereft of enemies and hence the horizon appears to be vacuous. One of the Himalayan failures of post-cold war America is the lack of recognition of the demise of the grand narrative in the form of Soviet Union and the replacement by several petty narratives.
18 Srimad Bhagawadgīta, Trans. Jaydayal Goyandka, Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1996. Ch. XIV, p. 145.
19 Wendy Doniger, Rg Veda, New Delhi: Penguin Publishers, 1994. pp. 29-32.
20 Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, New Delhi: Penguin Publishers, 2002. Thapar has elaborately dealt with the phenomenon of the emergence of caste system in India.
21 Plato, Republic, Trans. Allan Bloom. Basic Books, 1991, pp. 93-94.
22 M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000. p. 33. Referred to as OIP henceforth.
23 M. Hiriyanna, OIP, p. 121.
24 The Mahabharata, edited and translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973-78). The Mahabharatais one of the two great epic-poems of India and the longest epic-poem in the world. The Bhagawad Gīta is a part of the epic. I have used the shorter form of The Gīta hence forth.
25 Hiriyanna, OIP, p. 33.
26 Manu, The Laws of Manu, Trans. Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith, London: Penguin Publishers, 1991.  (7.198)
27 Hiriyanna, OIP, pp. 121-124.
28 Dennis Dalton, Ed., Mahatma Gandhi: Selected Political Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1996. pp. 97-98.
29 Wendy Doniger, Rig Veda, pp. 29-32.
30 Dennis Dalton, Ed., Mahatma Gandhi: Selected Political Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1996.
31 George F. McLean, Ed. Civil Society and Social Reconstruction, Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Change Series I, Volume 16, Washington D.C: Council for Research in Values & Philosophy, 2001. p. 15.
32 David Bosnich, “The Principle of Subsidiarity,” Religion & Liberty, Volume 6, Number 4, July and August 1996.

8.14. Gemeinschaft in Differenz: Kollektive Agenten im interkulturellen Kontext / Community in Difference: Collective Agents in Intercultural Contexts

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