Marianne Keppens<<back

Doctoral researcher
Tel: +32 (0) 9 264 93 71
Fax: +32 (0) 9 264 94 83
Email: Marianne.Keppens@ugent.be


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My research starts from a general heuristic of our research programme: to understand the western culture one has to examine the way in which this culture has described other cultures. More specifically, it focuses on nineteenth-century European descriptions of India such as travel accounts, missionary reports and Indological texts. The main question is how the ‘caste system’ and ‘Brahmanism’ came into being as descriptive entities that structured and made sense of the European experience of India. What was the nature of the cultural background of nineteenth-century Europeans so that they experienced and understood Indian society in terms of a corrupt socio-religious organisation called ‘the caste system’? So far, research results have shown that this image of Indian culture and society has its origins in the Christian theological framework that structured the European experience of India.

The notion of an Aryan invasion has been an important element in the development of the concepts of ‘caste system’ and ‘Brahmanism’. Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) tells us that a Sanskrit-speaking people invaded India around 1500 BCE and not only introduced their language, but also their religion (Vedism) and their social structure (the caste system). This theory is supposed to explain both how the caste system came into being and how the religion of the Vedas degenerated. It allowed for the classification of the historical evolution of the Indian religion into three main phases, viz. Vedism, Brahmanism and Hinduism.

Today the AIT is still accepted as the historical framework for the understanding of the Indian culture. Since the last few decades, however, this theory has also been the subject of a fierce and controversial debate. Peculiarly, it is completely unclear what the controversy is actually about. The arguments and claims that are given on both sides only tell us that India has known a long history of co-existence and cross-fertilization of different groups of people, cultural traditions and languages. In other words, this heated debate about India seems to lack any controversial problem at its core.

My research approaches the issue from a different angle: the problem in the AIT is not whether Sanskrit was indigenous to India or not, but that this theory did not emerge as an explanation of empirical or other scientific facts. Instead, it seems to have developed as an answer to a puzzle intrinsic to the European understanding of ‘the caste system’ and ‘the degeneration of religion’. Apparently, Europeans could make sense of what they experienced only in terms of the caste system, the domination of the Brahmin priests and the corrupting force of the Brahmanical religion. This European experience, rather than the linguistic or archaeological observations, were the ‘facts’ accounted for by the Aryan invasion theory. My questions then are the following: How can we account for the ‘caste system’ and ‘Brahmanism’ as experiential entities of the European culture? How, in the absence of any kind of evidence, was it possible that the Aryan invasion became a ‘self-evident’ explanation of these entities? To answer these questions I will look into the dominant understanding in nineteenth-century Europe of how societies come into being, of the role of religion in this process, of the relation between religion and law, etc.