EAS Speaker Series: Prasenjit Duara

“Transcendence in a Secular World: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future”
Prasenjit Duara, Duke University
Monday, February 6, 2017 from 12 – 1:30 PM
Mergenthaler 266
Co-sponsored by the History and Sociology Departments

Write-Up Courtesy of Jia Yao Kuek

On the 6th of February, Professor Prasenjit Duara of Duke University, visited Johns Hopkins to give a talk as part of the East Asian Studies Program Spring 2017 Speakers’ Series. The talk centered on the role of Asian traditions in building a global, sustainable future; in arguing his point, Professor Duara adopted an interdisciplinary approach that combined elements of philosophy, epistemology, sociology, history, and political science. Despite the broad scope of Professor Duara’s research, combined with the large task that he has set for himself, the talk strung together a coherent, well-argued narrative, reinforced by the eloquence of its speaker. The foundations of Professor Duara’s talk focuses on the tug-of-war between modern universalism and the forces of nationalism and consumerism. Specifically, he argues that modern universalism, as a source of ideals, principles, and ethics, is retreating in the face of more competitive and exploitative forces. This led into the crux of his argument: That the physical salvation of our world today is an urgent priority – planetary sustainability is the transcendent goal of our times. A large part of the talk comprised Professor Duara’s discussion on his definition of ‘universalism’ (or ‘cosmopolitanism’) and ‘transcendence’, with the semantics of these two terms forming the core foundation for his argument. Given the need to cultivate this goal of universal sustainability that transcends conventional mental frameworks of the nation-state, Professor Duara posits that the universal tenets of various Asian cultural and religious traditions may provide the impetus necessary for political leaders and societies to look past the short-term, tangible concerns of economic and national interests, encouraging faith in the transcendent ideal of sustainability. Professor Duara raised the brief example Chinese cosmology, which argues that nature represents the greatest of all living organisms and its governing principles had to be understood so human life could live in harmony with it. In sum, the process of self-formation was inseparable from nature. These Asian traditions support the work of a growing transnational civil society, with emerging quasi-government agencies, and public-private partnerships. Indeed, religious societies themselves are evolving into significant players in civil society, with various groups beginning to adopt sustainability as part of their agenda. Professor Duara’s points certainly struck a chord with the gathered audience, and the talk concluded with an engaging question-and-answer session. It was this writer’s pleasure to have attended it.