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Lily Ling: A Life of Courage and Compassion

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Swati Parashar | 8 October 2018

One day before, we had been exchanging a series of emails on ISA and those related to India and China. Lily forwarded the email from Mark Silinsky that she had received and we talked about contemporary anxieties, changing the ISA culture, getting members to demand more from the Association. She was on extended medical leave in Syracuse and seemed upbeat and hopeful. And on October 2nd, just as I landed in Kigali to talk about epistemic compassion and global knowledges from Africa, I heard that Lily was gone, just like that. I had never imagined writing an obituary for her but here I am, putting into words the most difficult of emotions.

I have known Lily for a while, mainly through our ISA encounters and her extraordinary scholarship. When she was program chair, the sapphire panels were introduced by the ISA, for which she copped unfair criticism from members. She always took pains to explain the situation and her generosity and empathy were easily grasped. When I requested her to write the afterword for a special issue of Postcolonial Studies on ‘Feminism meets Postcolonialism’, that I was editing, she immediately agreed and we received such a thoughtful text from her. (1)

During the last year, our email exchanges had expanded to so many different ideas of common interest including psychoanalysis, philosophy and dream interpretation. My angst filled ‘eastern’ (Indian) upbringing and orientation found a wonderful scholarly companion and mentor in Lily. We talked about the civilizational legacies of India and China, Hinduism, Sufism and Buddhism, the Mahabharata, the life of the Buddha and the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. We discussed how in the Western tradition, the terms ‘mind’, ‘self’ and ‘consciousness’ are often used synonymously. In the Eastern traditions, mind and body, are considered to be the results of Maya or Prakriti, fundamentally material principles. We debated the differences between the senses, reason or intellect, the ego and conscious memory. Those emails are staring at me today, reminding me of what it could have been had we had a few more years of these conversations and exchanges.

She would often ask for my views on readings of Indian philosophy and even though I was by no means knowledgeable, I always ended up reading things I did not know about. A certain well-known Marxist scholar annoyed Lily immensely by his arrogance. We psycho analysed his behaviour together. Lily believed that what he saw as “passivity” in Daoist dialectics was actually his misreading of humility. He wanted all scholarship to demonstrate how all that came before Marx could serve to enrich Marx and Lily engaged with him firmly and on her terms. She had the courage to call out the imperialistic attitudes, condescension and patronage of ‘progressive’ and critical scholars who were filled with narcissistic self-love and arrogance. She understood why taking positions, rigid ideological stance was not always productive. She also understood why people could be different and difficult and how we owed it to our intellectual curiosity and our humaneness to reach out and even celebrate difference. Lily never missed nuance, actively looking for one, and in that she was always my role model.

I saw Lily last year at the Gothenburg conference on populism where she delivered a keynote and was also part of a plenary panel. Little did we know that this was going to be our last meeting. In between the presentations we went for a long walk where she opened her heart full of compassion and wisdom. We talked a lot about religion, and how eastern spirituality appealed to our angst filled souls; we discussed duality and non-duality and the power of feminine worship. We chatted about the mysteries of the Mahabharata and its female characters. We also talked about betrayal from friends and the difficulties of navigating through academic insecurities, the problems with political correctness and being forced to take sides in conflicts not of our making. It was a lifetime of conversation packed in one afternoon walk. And as if in preparations for times ahead, we talked about death and grief and such completely different meanings of death in the West and in China and India. Lily wanted to see the burning pyres at the ghats of the Ganga in Varanasi and I promised to take her there. I am not sure why we talked about death so much, but we did.

Lily had had a health scare last year too and had canceled overseas trips and other activities. I received an email in which she wrote, “Nothing and no one was affected! I was not indispensable at all….We need to keep this in mind. There’s no reason why we have to do absolutely everything we do. That’s why we get so stressed. Of course, academics never do nothing. So, as long as it’s fun, it’s OK.” Ironically, she sent me a long email earlier this year with advice about looking after myself and taking care of my health through exercise and watching good TV shows. She used to love some of the Chinese shows that she promised to explain to me one day. She also wanted me to recommend some Indian TV shows to her, which thankfully I never did!

Lily interpreted my dreams for me (she was very good at that as many would know!) and she had a deep interest in the world beyond what the senses could grasp. In times of self-doubt and professional anxieties, I had started to rely on her advice and wisdom. I attended her eminent scholar panel at ISA 2018 and went for the celebratory dinner later, which she had organised for some friends. We missed her but it was such an eclectic group that we had fun together. After a sumptuous meal when it was time to pay we realised Lily had paid for all of us. She connected us all, even when she couldn’t be there herself.

I have been navigating different worlds and geographies, including the complex humanscape of the Indian subcontinent, where spirituality and religion play a key role in everyday life. In Lily Ling I found a kindred spirit who understood, above all, my need for spiritual nourishment and my fascination with questions of afterlife and death. We discussed the Yaksha Prashna for Yuddhishthir in the Mahabharata. In order to save the lives of his brothers he had to answer the questions of the Yaksha (benevolent spirit). When he was asked what the biggest surprise in the world was, he answered ‘people observe death rituals and cremation and then get absorbed into the drudgery of everyday life. Even the impermanence of life does not deter people from the pursuit of mundane material pleasures. That is the biggest surprise’. Lily loved this fable and we talked about its timeless significance.

In recent times, Lily and my worlds have had a remarkable meeting point, in our efforts to ‘seek spiritual guidance for analytical emancipation’. I have found in her thinking and writing, the most remarkable and persuasive case for pre-Westphalian histories, philosophies, and worldviews to address the systematic erasure of Global South knowledges. I shared her great interest in ancient texts and scriptures such as the Mahabharata or Zen Buddhism and we exchanged various interpretations of these texts, often lamenting the separation of the sacred from the secular as part of epistemic erasure engendered by the European Enlightenment and Modernity.

Lily drew intellectual inspiration from The bodhisattva Guanyin (Kuan-yin), or Avalokitesvara, in South Asia, with “thousand arms and eyes” but all emanating from the same celestial body. Her epistemic compassion came from Guanyin and she has developed this argument further in her forthcoming book, A Worldly World Order: Epistemic Compassion for International Relations (Oxford University Press). In it, she wrote, “The oneness of the body politic symbolizes ontological parity: that is, respect for each source of difference despite its multiplicities. Epistemic compassion thus enables a moral imagination to balance Westphalia’s power politics with the multiple worlds surfaced by postcolonial-feminism”.(2)

I derive my inspiration from the multiple armed and three eyed Hindu Goddess Durga (resembling the Buddhist deity Tara). Durga or Tara are one of the ten “great wisdom goddesses” (Dasa Mahavidyas) or forms of Adi Shakti. Durga’s annual home coming next week will not be the same this year, as I attempt to make sense of this loss which only Lily would have understood. She energized me to think beyond the visible and immediate, urging me to return to the ‘roots’. She encouraged me to take risks both for intellectual sustenance and to survive in the treacherous world of academia where friends are few and detractors many, where kindness is rare and empathy missing. I stare at my last email to her that she did not answer; I think about the Bengali speaking Chinese professor who she was going to introduce me to but did not happen. I think about Lily’s friends and admirers everywhere in the world and the grief that unites us, the heartbreaking emptiness that we feel because of a life gone too soon.

In a world which lacks both empathy and compassion, we have lost a very valuable member of our scholarly community who enriched us with her calls for epistemic compassion, and by being herself: a person of great courage, integrity and empathy. The Buddha had said, “your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it”. Lily Ling did just that.


(1) L.H.M. Ling, “Postcolonial-Feminism: Transformative possibilities in thought and action, heart and soul”, Postcolonial Studies, Volume 19, 2016 – Issue 4: ‘Feminism Meets Postcolonialism: Rethinking Gender, State and Political Violence’.

(2) Ibid.


This post was originally published on "The Disorder of Things" - a blog definitely worth checking out! The text was re-published here with permission from the editorial team.


Swati is an Associate Professor at the School of Global Studies. Her research and teaching interests are in critical security and war studies, feminist and postcolonial international relations, women militants and combatants, gender, violence and development in South Asia.


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