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‘Episteme’ based on Experience: Review of “The Cracked Mirror” by Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai

‘Episteme’ based on Experience: Review of “The Cracked Mirror” by Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai

Pic cracked mirror

Bhawesh Pant

‘Lived experience’ is growing in popular appeal (Hoerger, 2016). The reasons for this upsurge are ‘emergence of the politics of identity’ (pg.1) and the theoretical failing of different disciplines, in grasping the essence of varied marginalities. The observation pertaining to lived experience is certainly not new, the celebrated tradition like Phenomenology and Feminist Stand Point theory are dealing with the element of ‘lived experiences’, but in these traditions, we try to validate and categorize the diverse experiences into few ‘universal’ categories. And these categories are cognitive products either curated or influenced by preeminent cultures and communities. Thus a thoughtful questioning has to be carried down on the whole ‘theory doing.’ Mere suspicion will not work, one should also strive to develop an ‘egalitarian theory doing.’

Pic cracked mirror

“The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory” by Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2012

‘The Cracked Mirror’ is the outcome of a dialogic conversation between a political scientist (Gopal Guru) and a philosopher (Sundar Sarukkai). This intellectual intervention visions to make ‘lived experience’ as a foundation of social theory. Sheldon Pollock, a celebrated scholar of Indian Studies considers this very work as an admirable example of “theory from the south.” The authors with this intellectual concern try to traverse a few important contours. This work starts with explicating the practices of Social Science in India, then the authors try to locate the main theme of the work i.e. ‘experience’ where multiple dimensions of ‘experience’ are touched upon. Next to this they also engage with the ‘theorizing’ aspect, later they excellently dealt with a distinct way of sensing the perilous practice of‘untouchability.’

This work contains eight interrogating essays. In the very first essay titled “Egalitarianism and the Social Sciences in India” Guru tries to underscore the cultural hierarchy which is existing in the sphere of Social Science in India, this hierarchy according to Guru creates an “inferior mass of academics who pursue empirical social science and the privileged few who are considered the theoretical pundits with reflective capacity that makes them intellectually superior to theformer.” (pg. 1) Throughout this chapter, he highlights the lack of egalitarianism in practicing social science in India, in a biting manner. He divides the Indian academic space into two-fold, for which he uses the phrase ‘theoretical Brahmins’ and ‘empirical Shudras.’ One can sense that this kind of dichotomy sounds in the same tenor as “theoretical north” and “empirical south” famously used in the ‘de-colonizing’ literature. Guru later in the chapter argues that “for Dalits, theory comes as a double commitment both to scholarship and also to the social cause.” (pg. 28) He makes a fervent plea that “Dalit need theory as a social necessity” (pg. 24) & “Dalits need theory as an inner necessity” (pg. 27) First chapter excellently sets the stage for further intellectual intervention by firstly scandalizing the hierarchical practices pertaining in SocialScience in India and secondly by making a conscious effort to guide Dalits attention toward theorizing.

The philosophical intervention in the book comes when Sarukkai extensively discusses the nuances of ‘experience.’ He posits a basal inquiry to readers that “can experience really be materialized, commodified, and transferred without taking the subject of experience into account?” (pg. 34) Sarukkai and Guru are very different in their articulation, Sarukkai subtly propels a submission and call for further deliberation. Whereas Guru is blunt in his expression, reason can be their different academic training. Sarukkai also valuably hints at the difference between ‘experience’ and ‘lived experience’, when he claims that “lived experience is not about freedom of experience but about the lack of freedom in an experience.” (pg. 36) Then Sarukkai tries to sense the two different vantage point of theorization, on one hand, he situates Habermas who legitimizes theory by its “distance from experience” and in another pole, readers will find Guru who advocates to have experience or to be more correct ‘lived experience’ at thefoundation of theory. This distinction calls for a critical engagement where what Sarukkai is forwarding as ‘theory’ has to be contested, and what role empirical insights will play in Guru’s conception of theorization has to beraised.

Another theme discussed in the book is the conception of ‘space’ and its intertwining with ‘experience’ and ‘justice’. Guru asserts that there exists a ‘logic of space’ which ‘objectively’ produces a ‘subjective experience.’ The tormentor configures these spaces in a manner that it remains ‘oppressive’. Guru ingeminates to strive for ‘ideological restructuring of spaces.’ (pg. 72) to have ‘justice’ in actuality.

To draw a stark difference between ‘experience’ and ‘lived experience’ Guru creates a creative bulwark when he brings in the articulation of both Ambedkar and Gandhi into the scene. He claims that Ambedkar was ‘epistemologically’ and ‘ontologically’ well equipped due to his ‘lived experience’ of being from a particular caste location, which overarches Gandhi’s imagination which lacks ‘lived experience.’ Guru understands village based on ‘caste’ as a ‘dark hole’ and speculates in the same vein as Ambedkar also advocated that ‘urbanization’ will destroy the face to face interaction thus the nefarious practice of ‘untouchability’ will be ceased. The untouchability never ceased, it manifests itself in the ‘new avatar.’

Guru and Sarukkai by initially arguing for the necessity to have a theory based on ‘experience’ then they move to deliberate on the ‘theory doing’ ethically. The basic premises on which Guru develops his thesis reads that mere reacting on ‘experience’ will not work instead one has to necessarily reflect on it. “The recipient of experience carries a special responsibility to reflect on the experience for larger theorization.” (pg. 113) He calls for clearing of ‘ideological layers’ by a theorist who invests itself into the theorization of ‘experiences.’ Though Guru is not writing flagrantly; one can sense that he situates his stand that ‘it is ethically inappropriate to become an author of somebody else’s experience.’

On his turn, Sarukkai very swiftly problematizes the whole conception of ‘theorization’ per se. He makes a very thought-provoking statement, when states that “in the act of theorizing, there seems to be no place for ethics” (pg. 128) He stresses that in theorizing the ‘ethics of choice is important and not of method’ (pg. 132), what he is trying to convey is ethical decisions have to be taken into consideration when one is choosing a research problem. Sarukkai also warns on excessive dependence on epistemological vocabularies created in the west. He urges to formulate the concepts after ‘creative & deconstructive’ exploration of varied culture, which can reciprocate with the nuances of lived-localreality.

The last two essays solely talk about untouchability but with newness, their titles are attractive especially for those hailing from Sociological or Philosophical tradition. Sarukkai in his essay “Phenomenology of Untouchability” where he explores the concept of Untouchability through the phenomenology of touch. He shapes a ‘never thought before’ understanding of untouchability when he states that “practicing untouchability is morally wrong, because the person is denying himself a part of his ability, his capacity to engage with his own sense” Here one can sense the excellence of the philosophical mind, where he is moving away from ‘purity-pollution’ dichotomy, instead he questions the capability of an individual who practices untouchability. Then in “Archaeology of Untouchability” Guru demands that “untouchability needs archaeology, mere sociological and anthropological study will not work.” He tries to explore the whole journey of how bodily untouchable came into being, prior to this the notion of untouchability was latched with soil, water, air, and sounds. The comprehensive understanding of these phases will assist us in understanding the present manifestation of untouchability more fittingly, for this one has to adopt archaeology as a tool of intellectual inquiry.

Through skim reading this work seems to be a conversation between two scholars, on squintingit was revealed that the structure of the book has an inherent plan, the sequence of each essay is done after a thoughtful exercise. Gopal Guru initiates or invokes a query at length then Sarukkai with his philosophical wit problematizes it and refines it. This book though keeps Dalit experience at its core, but authors were always aware that this creation is developing a ‘vocabulary’ and ‘methodology’ not only for Dalits per se but this work is of concern for many marginalized communities, thus they were judicious in their approach. One should not limit usages of this cognitive creation only to Dalits or other subordinates for theorization, instead, it is the potent ‘mirror’ for them who consider subordinates as ‘data-rich fields’ where they can feed on. This work has every potential to be included, as an Indian contribution to the global project of ‘decolonizing’ theory or to be considered as a humble ‘theoretical’ submission from the ‘global south.’



1. Hoerger, J. (2016). Lived Experience vs. Experience. Retrieved 13 March 2020, from


Bhawesh Pant is pursuing his M.Phil at Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, TISS, Mumbai.


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