Balvant Parekh Distinguished Lecture Series is instituted in memory of Shri Balvant K. Parekh, the founder of the Centre who passed away on 25 January 2013. This series is a tribute to Shri Parekh’s ideal that knowledge is a collective endeavour and it should be shared. The series of lectures earlier known as the Annual Balvant Parekh Distinguished Lecture will hereafter be known as “Balvant Parekh Memorial Lecture.” The Board of Trust has decided to invite distinguished scholars who have made a mark in their respective fields to speak at the Centre under the new Distinguished Lecture Program, which unlike the Memorial lecture, would be held more than once in a year. The contributions in the domains of literature, art, culture, science, social service and the range of publications would be the criteria for selecting the speakers.

The following lectures were delivered under this program:

Sunthar Visuvalingam

a. Dr. Sunthar Visuvalingam delivered the first lecture of the series titled “Laughter and Humor - a Semiotic Approach” on 24 August 2013. Dr. Visuvalingam has done significant work in Sanskrit and Indian studies, especially in the area of transgressive sacrality. He is known as an expert on Abhinavagupta. His 1984 PhD on “Abhinavagupta’s Conception of Humor: Its Resonances in Sanskrit Drama, Poetry, Hindu Mythology, and Spiritual Praxis,” was recommended for a D.Litt. degree and earned a special commendation from the Vice-Chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University . He wrote the concluding essay reviewing all the other contributions to Alf Hiltebeitel, ed., Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees (Albany: SUNY, 1989) from the perspective of transgressive sacrality. His other comprehensive and polemical overviews, including “Towards an Integral Appreciation of Abhinavagupta’s Aesthetics of Rasa” (2006) and “Hinduism: Aesthetics, Drama, Poetics” in Frank Burch Brown, ed., Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts (in press), explore aesthetic sensibility as a possible resolution of the ethical problem posed by the dialectic of interdiction and transgression. Since 2001, while working as an independent consultant, Sunthar has been hosting the multilingual website to facilitate international collaborative research on intercultural issues.

A Summary

In this highly engaging and interactive session, Sunthar looked at the semiotic, aesthetic, ethical, political and social aspects of laughter and contemplated on the subversive potential of laughter and humour. Abhinavagupta (10-11th C), arguably India ’s greatest philosopher-mystic and certainly its most authoritative commentator on aesthetics, makes the following astounding series of pronouncements on ‘humor’ (hasya). “Because the semblance (abhasa) of any (aesthetic) emotion (rasa) generates humor, all the (other) emotions are comprehended within humor. (By the same logic, even) the semblance of humor (hasyabhasa) generates humor; thus the (ritual) clown of the (Sanskrit) theater (vidusaka) deploys (the semblance of) ‘humor’ through his incongruous traits, speech, and behavior.” Within the ‘behavioral’ stimulus (vibhava) → organism (bhava = hasa) → response (anubhava) psychology that underpins (the aesthetics of) Indian theater (Natya-sastra), Abhinava is thereby positing a ‘bisociation’ model of humor and its underlying laughter reflex. Instead of an unambiguous reflex directed towards a single goal, the ‘incongruous’ (vikrta) stimulus simultaneously provokes two sharply opposed, positive (‘yes’) and negative (‘no’), reactions that neutralize each other, the mobilized nervous energies being simply discharged as ‘cathartic’ laughter (Gurdjieff). The corresponding subjective (organismic) experience of this convulsion correlates the opposing emotions with two incompatible association fields at the level of thought and the resulting paralysis of contradictory motor impulses (Koestler). Humor, which exploits and plays upon such bisociative patterns, is therefore not a unitary emotion but a binary structure that can simultaneously embrace contradictory affects, such as love (sex), enthusiasm, surprise, anger (aggression), fear, sorrow, disgust, etc. This is why laughter may serve both to chastise infractions against social norms (Bergson) and to allow the public expression of repressed (unconscious) tendencies by circumventing censure (Freud). The challenge for (modern Western) ‘psychology’ is to explain not only how such otherwise distressful states of mind can become ‘objects’ of (artistic) relish (rasa) but also the phenomenon of ‘ritual humor’ in other cultures, such as the comic behavior and unprovoked laughter (attahasa) of the Pasupata ascetic, who is not a stage-performer. How has the explosive laughter of the ritual clown come to signify ‘sacred’ transgression in societies as far apart as native America and ancient India ? Is it (logically and cognitively) possible for humor to be a ‘mere’ semblance of itself?

Inspired by Michel Foucault’s distinction between analyses in terms of functions-and-norms (psychology), conflicts-and-rules (sociology), and signification-and-system (semiotics), the talk explored how the above ‘behavioristic’ model could be integrated into a much more sophisticated and nuanced approach that may also clarify why these ‘human sciences’ (‘disciplines’ whose methods have been encroaching more and more upon each other’s territory) never emerged in traditional India.

Bhikhu Parekh (Centre),  Thomas Pantham (Left) & Sitanshu Mehta (Right)  

b. Professor Bhikhu Parekh delivered the second lecture of the series titled “Crisis of Indian Democracy” on 28 September 2013. Professor Bhikhu Parekh is Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at the Universities of Westminster and Hull , and was earlier Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics. He is the author of nearly a dozen widely acclaimed books in political philosophy including Rethinking Multiculturalism (Harvard University Press) and Gandhi (Oxford University Press). His books have been translated into fifteen languages.

A Summary

In the lecture, Professor Parekh commented on some crisis manifestations in the working of the four pillars of Indian democracy. The four pillars were identified as: 1) elections; 2) constitutional morality; 3) public deliberation, public discourse, public norms, public reason; and 4) public welfare. In their functioning, they have indeed contributed considerably to the people’s sense of agency, power and dignity. This is indeed a commendable positive side of Indian democracy. Also positively notable are the roles of the Supreme Court and civil rights activism. There are however some serious crisis manifestations too, which need to be addressed.  

Professor Parekh felt the need for serious constructive engagements on a great agenda for the nation. The lectured was chaired by Shri Sitanshu Yashaschandra and Professor Thomas Pantham introduced Professor Parekh to the audience.

Prepared by Professor Thomas Pantham, former Professor of Political Science, M.S. University, Baroda

Gad Horowitz

c. Gad Horowitz delivered a lecture titled “Levinas: A New Ethical Orientation” on 11 November 2013. A Canadian political scientist and a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, Horowitz teaches a course entitled “The Spirit of Democratic Citizenship” which revolves around general semantics, a non-Aristotelian educational discipline first theorized by Alfred Korzybski. He has specialized in labour theory, and is known for the coinage of the appellation, “Red Tory.” His major publications include Creative Politics: Mosaics and Identity; Repression: Basic and Surplus Repression in Psychoanalytic Theory–Freud, Reich, and Marcuse; Everywhere They are in Chains: Political Theory from Rousseau to Marx; and Difficult Justice: Commentaries on Levinas and Politics (with Asher Horowitz)

A Summary

Levinas is the first, and the only, philosopher to put ethics before philosophy. “Ethics is first philosophy”.

The thought of Levinas is actually not “philosophy” in the sense of a quest for systematic knowledge of reality, or wisdom about Life; it is not a code of ethical principles discovered by a knower; it is not a psychology; it is perhaps a phenomenology, but a weird phenomenology which cuts or probes back behind the phenomenologies of Husserl and Heidegger and happens upon the pre-condition, quasi-transcendental and also profoundly immanent, of all human experience. So then, in Heideggerian terms, prior to Being!

Some have called it a “meta-ethics.” That is perhaps not mistaken, but again, a weird meta-ethics. If the Question of ethics is “Why should I be ethical? Why should I care for the other? ,” the answer of Levinas is that the question itself, if not actually unethical, is grievously misleading: it may come from ethical concern and/or it may open to ethical concern, but it points away from the ethical. It is like Cain’s question to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God answers not with arguments or homilies but with the mark of Cain.

My obligation to the other is without “why.” Absolutely without “why.” In the human realm, obligation is First. Social institutions arise not as restrictions of an original selfishness but as necessary limitations of original absolute altruism.

The lecture touched on some of the main points of Levinas’ discombobulating teaching: The Face…of the other…The Asymmetrical non-relation which opens all possibilities of relation…and finally, justice.