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The Burden of Karma

By Arun Kumar, Vanmala Hiranandani & Deepa Sonpal 

In 2012 and 2013, reviewers’ comments on two journal submissions to leading American journals in disability studies and community development intrigued us. The first submission was about the conflation of ableist conceptions of disability with neoliberalism in work-places, and subjection of persons with disabilities to newer forms of marginalization. The second submission questioned the universalist conception of inclusion of persons with disabilities and pointed to its limitations. Common to both sets of reviewer comments was the suggestion to incorporate in greater detail the idea of karma and religious traditions, and discuss how it impinged on conceptions of disability in India. This, it was helpfully pointed out to us, would be of ‘interest’ to the readers of the journals and would therefore, constitute a ‘contribution’.

We found these comments startling because our submissions did not make any specific mention of karma except for a passing allusion to it when discussing the ways in which persons with disabilities expressed their gratitude and their dependence on their employers or supervisors. This we had argued, following noted disability activist and academician Anita Ghai, was emblematic of the cultural beliefs in karma.[1] This led persons with disabilities, and those around them, to ascribe their disabilities to punishment for their past lives, or as eternal childhood, which locks persons with disabilities into dependence. The dominant response to this is characterized by charity or philanthropy, that is, giving in response to one’s dharmic (religious) duty. However, this was but a minor point in our submissions. It would not be an understatement to say that all three of us found the content of the comments, and the nudging towards a specific direction of what would be an Orientalist contribution to the Western scholarship on disability studies, through a journal article, discomforting.

Why is it our karma to write on karma?: Remembering Edward Said[2]

We do not contend the presence of religion and karma, and its relationship to how we imagine and respond to disability. However, we find it objectionable that scholarship on disability in India was expected to be (re-)framed to fulfil the West’s imagination of India. In the comments from the reviewers and editors, for example, there was an allusion to India’s centuries-old traditions deeply embedded in the Indian psyche and the extensive presence of religion in public life, as having come to bear on disability in the ‘Indian’ context. In this way, we argue, disability becomes one more means by which the West continues to construct India. Disability, and through it India, is imagined as a historical entity which has failed to detach itself from its past, where the culture remains grounded in mythical belief and where religion continues to determine the conception and imagination of disability. India is, thus, tied down to its pre-modernity, thereby denying Indian scholars the opportunity to develop a de-religious-ised narrative. To get published in western journals, Indian authors must, therefore, re-iterate tropes of the past and remain trapped in western conceptions of India’s lack of or deviation from modernity that scholars such as Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty have contested so brilliantly.[3] This is not to say that religion and cultural beliefs do not impinge on public lives in India. But we must also acknowledge the equal presence of religion in public life in the West, the lack of similar criticism of pervasiveness of religion in western cultures, and the West’s abiding faith in the singularity of modernity.

Allow us to tell a little story to explain this. One of us lives in a small historical town in north-west England. Each Saturday, a farmers’ market is organized in the town-hall. At one corner of the market, a small group of 5-7 men and women come together, singing hymns from the Bible, and holding placards that say ‘Jesus died for your sins’, ‘Join Christianity NOW’. These are not uncommon events; many of us are familiar with religious and faith-based groups working actively within educational institutions and university campuses in the West. Ideas of corporeal and emotional punishment for one’s sins, as penance, or even as signs of saintliness abound in Christianity.[4] However, these are not the subject of any reflexive enquiry within disability studies in the West. This self-assumption about the lack of religious and cultural beliefs and its relation to disability is used by the West to construct itself as modern and secular, while the pervasiveness of religion in Indian life and the links between karma and disability are encouraged as the subject of disability scholarship from India. And even if one is not particularly interested to write about karma and disability, or if one’s primary research data does not reveal karma as a major theme in the lives of persons with disabilities, one must still painstakingly write about it to be legitimated as a ‘contribution’ for primarily western audiences. It is this construction of India by the West, this reductionist and over-simplified representation that ties it down to its religious-ness and its ‘premodern’ ideas of faith which need to be challenged.

But why don’t we want to write on karma?: Remembering Dipesh Chakrabarty

Apart from the fact that we found it unsettling to be tied down to the idea of India as the land of the past, where conceptions of disability had somehow failed to detach itself from its karmic roots, we must also subject ourselves to scrutiny. We must try and understand the reluctance on our part to engage with karma and disability, despite passing allusions to it in the way persons with disabilities, and even those without, were responding to questions in our research. Here we find Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Habitations of Modernity very useful.[5] Identifying the limits of Marxist Indian history, Chakrabarty discusses its disinterest and lack of recognition of the role that religion and related mobilizations played in the political movement. This was framed by the Marxist historians as opening-up of space that would otherwise be usurped by the Hindu right. Chakrabarty points to the embedded hostility within the secular, rational, and therefore modern, Indian intellectual who discounts religion and related cultural beliefs as premodern or irrational. This, he argues, marks the failure of hyper-rationalism where science, rationality, and modernity are seen as counter to religion, tradition, and therefore to a premodern state.

In a similar vein, committed to the ideas of emancipation of persons with disabilities, we were also invested heavily in the (neo-)Marxist objectives of workers’ liberation, including persons with disabilities, from modern capital, and perhaps failed to look beyond our own hyper-rationalism. To investigate cultural beliefs was, somehow to us, symptomatic of research that would have played to embedded, and somewhat stultified, ideas of the past. And this, to us, would have deprived the opportunity to speak of and for the rights of the workers. It would have distracted from the more class-based argument relating to persons with disabilities as workers with rights, which deserved greater attention.

While there is a need to contest the West’s Orientalist projections of disability in India as tied to its cultural beliefs and its premodern past, simultaneously there is also the need to critically examine our own desire to break away from cultural beliefs towards the modern, which seems to hold the promise for the liberation of persons with disabilities through its language of rights and emancipation. Even more importantly, we must scrutinize the limits of this universalist language of rights and ‘emancipation’.

[Arun Kumar* is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Organisation, Work and Technology at Lancaster University, United Kingdom.

Vanmala Hiranandani is with Global Nutrition and Health at the Department of Rehabilitation and Nutrition, Metropolitan University College, Denmark.

Deepa Sonpal is Programme Coordinator with UNNATI Organisation for Development Education, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India.

* Corresponding Author. Please direct your comments and suggestions to Arun Kumar at a.kumar10@lancaster.ac.uk]


[1] Ghai, Anita. “Disabled women: an excluded agenda of Indian feminism.” Hypatia 17, no. 3 (2002): 49-66.

[2] Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage, 1979.

[3] For a further discussion, see: Chatterjee, Partha. Lineages of political society: Studies in postcolonial democracy. Columbia University Press, 2011; and Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Habitations of modernity: Essays in the wake of subaltern studies. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

[4] For a more detailed discussion see: Eiesland, Nancy L. The disabled God: Toward a liberatory theology of disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994. But also see Journal of Religion, Disability and Health which provides an overview of ways in which religions impinge on conception of disability and ways in which we respond to them, including outside of India and its religions.

[5] Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Habitations of modernity: Essays in the wake of subaltern studies. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

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