Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Universals, Universalism, Empathy, Human Rights, Cosmopolitanism

Major Advisor

Patrick Colm Hogan

Associate Advisor

Bandana Purkayastha

Associate Advisor

Glenn Mitoma

Field of Study

Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access


This dissertation entitled Ethical Universals in the Study of Indian Literary Traditions examines how the conception of universalism informs literary discourses of colonialism and anti-colonialism in India. Colonial writers from Macaulay to Kipling often recruited universalism—or, more properly, pseudo-universalism--to justify imperialist expansion in India, primarily by connecting it to a rhetoric of the civilizing mission. Based on evaluations of this history, postcolonial theorists, since the late 80s, have treated universalism as a colonial ideology that legitimizes racist worldviews. Through close readings of literary, theoretical and political texts of anticolonial thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore, Dharamveer Bharati, and Phoolan Devi, I identify alternative articulations of universalism that depart from a colonialist understanding of the term. I show that, in these cases, universalism does not express an absolutism, to be imposed on a subject population. Rather, it is ethically evoked to condemn oppression and empower marginalized communities through an advocacy of equal rights. My analysis focuses on the works of these thinkers to reconceptualize the position of universalism in contemporary discourses of identity, politics, and ethics. I argue that all kinds of colonialisms are ultimately anti-universal and that universalism—as opposed to colonialist pseudo-universalism--is a cultural phenomenon that uniformly guides anticolonial activisms in India.

Available for download on Wednesday, August 07, 2024