In 2003, the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (“Comparative Science of Cultures”) was established at Ghent University, Belgium, under the directorship of Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara. The Research Centre promotes research on cultural differences between Asia and the West and has a special focus on European and Indian culture.
The research programme Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap emerged from a deep dissatisfaction with the human sciences and their descriptions of Europe and India. On the one hand, research made clear that theories about the history, society and culture of the West simply reproduce its self-image. These accounts view the secularized West as a unique culture, which has gone through the Renaissance and Enlightenment so as to liberate itself from religious dogma and attain true liberty, equality, democracy and rationality. On the other hand, social-scientific accounts of India tend to transform this culture into a pale and erring variant of the West: it is viewed as dominated by the Hindu religion and its “immoral caste system”—the very denial of liberty, equality and rationality.
At a more general level, it turned out that the human sciences reflect the western cultural experience as though it were the universal human experience. Both theories about the West and those about India are expressions of how the West experiences itself and India. The human sciences make all cultures into variations on one model, namely, the basic structure of western culture itself. From this perspective, all cultures are constituted by a religion, world view or belief system; their traditional practices embody this belief system; their ethics always revolve around moral norms or rules; their society is founded in a framework of laws; their psychologies are driven by beliefs, desires, purposes, etc. In other words, theories in different domains of the human sciences share a number of limitations upon their conceptualizations of human beings and societies. These limitations are those of the western cultural experience. They also constrain the current descriptions of non-western cultures like India.
The problems which the research programme seeks to address, then, are the following: How does one get beyond these constraints and develop alternative descriptions of the West and India? How can one conceptualize the Indian traditions in a way which shows their characteristic contribution to human knowledge, rather than making them into variants of biblical religion? How could one make sense of cultural differences and different cultures, if they are not variations on one single model of religion, society, law, ethics? What makes a difference into a cultural difference, rather than a biological, psychological or social difference? How does our understanding of human beings and societies change, once we see that cultures can differ in different ways?
To address these issues, the research programme takes a unique entry point: the western descriptions of India are approached as expressions of the western culture and its experience of human beings and societies. That is, we identify the limitations on the western understanding and the dominant framework of the human sciences by studying the way in which the West has viewed India. Once these conceptual limitations are identified and an alternative description of the West comes into being, the research programme allows us to develop alternative descriptions of the Indian culture and its traditions also. These descriptions give a new access to the Indian traditions and make their experiences and insights available for the development of new theories in the human sciences. In this way, the rich storehouse of knowledge embodied by the Indian traditions is rediscovered and translated into the conceptual language of the twenty-first century.
The Research Centre does not confine itself to research alone. It aims to disseminate its results among a larger public in different sectors of society and different parts of the world. It also strives to translate the theoretical work on cultural difference into practical know-how which allows professionals and institutions from the West and Asia to cope with these differences. It intends to revive social-scientific research and education in India and promote research into the Indian culture and its traditions in particular. These different aims have given rise to a series of projects in India and Europe; the focus is now also expanding to the United States.