Thursday, March 30, 2006

Traditional, and Argumentative: UPDATED (3/30/2006)

Even though I'd previously read a couple of the pieces in the pages of The New Republic and the New York Review of Books, I'd been awaiting Amartya Sen's new book with eager anticipation.  While Sen is a "classic" liberal (i.e. somewhat removed from my own philosophical sympathies), the combination of immense erudition, an engaging writing style, and a refusal to bully his readers makes his work irresistible.  And he is in fine fettle here, ranging from the many species of traditional Indian calendars to Hindutva to Orientalism to Tagore and much else.  His overarching theme is the abiding necessity of argument, of reasoned and rational debate to the democratic -- and the Indian -- enterprise, and his conviction that the argumentative impulse is not simply a legacy of the Raj but is firmly grounded in Indian traditions and history.

The import of Sen's argument is large, chiding not only the votaries of theories premised on a clash of civilizations but also the once-colonized themselves, for imagining themselves through an overwhelmingly religious prism, precisely as the colonizers once did, unfavorably contrasting native (and "blind") "superstition" with foreign rationality. Sen is unsparing in his critique of the blinkered view of Indian history propagated by the Hindu right, yet he is equally (and in my view correctly) impatient with those "secularists" who seem to regard any discussion of India's Sanskritic heritage as communalism by stealth. Sen's intentions are clear from the book's outset:

[E]ven after noting the need for integration and for a multicultural perspective, it has to be accepted that these old books and narratives have had an enormous influence on Indian literature and thought. They have deeply influenced literary and philosophical writings on the one hand, and folk traditions of storytelling and critical dialectics on the other. The difficulty does not lie in the importance of the Vedas or the Ramayana, but in the understanding of their role in Indian culture. When the Muslim Pathan rulers of Bengal arranged for making good Bengali translations of the Sanskrit Mahabharata and Ramayana in the fourteenth century. . . their enthusiasm for the ancient Indian epics reflected their love of culture, rather than any conversion to Hinduism. It would be as difficult to ignore their general importance in Indian culture (on some allegedly 'secular' ground) as it would be to insist on viewing them through the narrow prism of a particular raw version of Hindu religiosity.

A sensitive reader, Sen is attuned to textual moments in India's past when even viewpoints subsequently discredited or disproved are aired, and reminds readers that "[a] defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive." Thus, while Sen does not ask us to forget the gods, sages and Hindu religiosity of the classical texts, he sees value in acknowledging the skeptics, mavericks, and simply heterodox who populate Sanskrit literature in abundance:

A pundit who gets considerable space in the Ramayana, called Javali, not only does not treat Rama as God, he calls his actions 'foolish' ('especially for', as Javali puts it, 'an intelligent and wise man'). Before he is persuaded to withdraw his allegations, Javali gets time enough in the Ramayana to explain in detail that 'there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that', and that 'the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the shastras [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people'.

It bears reiterating that Sen does not present Javali as a "key" to, or as the overriding "truth" of, the Ramayana, that is, Sen does not on my reading aim to "secularize" what is an overarchingly devout text. Rather, Sen uses Javali's presence to illustrate an Indian tradition of heterodoxy. On Sen's view, so ingrained is this tradition that one encounters exemplars of it even in texts that help form the core of more "orthodox" traditions. Moreover, giving voice to minority and even unpopular viewpoints is not unconnected with the practice -- and vitality -- of democracy and the quest for more just social order. Whether one is speaking of Gautama Buddha or Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the voice of dissent all too often presages political claims that implicate dominant notions of ethics, politics, and statecraft. The precise nature of these "dominant" notions is itself complicated in The Argumentative Indian: thus we see the Mughal emperor Akbar, not merely as the politically correct "good" Muslim monarch (in contrast to the "bad" and intolerant Aurangzeb), but as a serious theorist and practitioner of what one would now call public reasoning and civic culture. The lesson is valuable: Akbar is not just a "good guy," but his efforts provide valuable insights and cultural resources for contemporary Indians to draw upon.

The orientalizing vapidities of, among others, contemporary cultural theorists in Western academia also come in for a fair bit of flak from Sen, for whom "highly sympathetic" intentions are hardly a defense:

Some cultural theorists . . . are particularly keen on showing the strength of the faith-based and unreasoning culture of India and the East, in contrast with the 'shallow rationalism' and scientific priorities of the West. This line of argument may well be inspired by sympathy, but it can end up suppressing large parts of India's intellectual heritage. In this pre-selected 'East-West' contrast, meetings are organized, as it were, between Aristotle and Euclides on the one hand, and wise and contented Indian peasants on the other. This is not, of course, an uninteresting exercise, but it is not pre-eminently a better way of understanding the 'East-West' cultural contrast than by arranging meetings between, say, Aryabhata (the mathematician) and Kautilya (the political economist) on the one hand, and happily determined Visigoths on the other.

Sen's arguments are particularly useful in countering a viewpoint I shall refer to as Huntingtonian, a viewpoint somewhat different from that of the proponents of Hindutva ("different" because the Hindutvawaadis are not particularly liable to dispute Sen's account of the diversity of Hindu philosophies and their generous acknowledgment of heterodox positions; "somewhat" because Hindutvawaadis and Huntingtonians share a common view of a world delineated into civilizational blocs, often described in religious terms), particularly in the post-9/11 world, when orientalizing discourses (and their concomitant neo-imperialist justifications) have acquired significant legitimacy:

It is at this time rather common in Western political discussions to assume that tolerance and the use of reason are quintessential - possibly unique - features of 'Occidental values': for example, Samuel Huntington has insisted that the 'West was West long before it was modern' and that the 'sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties' to be found in the West are 'unique among civilized societies'.

The smugness inherent in this view is offensive, and borders on bad faith. The unspoken assumption in Huntington's view is that Western tendencies opposed to the ones Huntington sees as quintessentially Western are defined as aberrations, whereas their "Eastern" equivalents are representative. Thus Osama bin Laden represents a tendency within "Islamic civilization," as does "Hindu spirituality." The notable feature of this worldview is that it involves the sacrifice of much consistency. Why aren't fascism and right-wing authoritarianism, which overtook country after country in Europe betwen the two world wars, similarly representative? The oversight seems particularly curious when one considers that Spain and Portugal (presumably at the heart of whatever it means to be "Western") continued under autocratic dispensations until the mid-1970s; so too with the authoritarian regimes of Greece and Latin America, all of which are firmly under the rubric of Western metaphysics, not to mention Eastern Europe and its legacy of Communist rule until the end of the 1980s.

Conversely, what is one to make of India's long tradition of scientific achievement and research, one of the principal stereotypically "Western" values in the popular imagination?  This theme is particularly close to Sen's heart, and he devotes considerable space to highlighting both Indian attainments in this area and the trans-cultural pollination that is the very lifeblood of scientific achievement:

Consider, for example, the originality of Aryabhata's work, completed in 499 CE, on the diurnal motion of the earth (disputing the earlier understanding of an orbiting sun) and the related proposal that there was a force of gravity which prevented material objects from being thrown away as the earth rotated . . . . The most influential colonial historian of British India, James Mill, took these claims to be straightforward fabrication. It was clear to Mill that the Indian 'pundits had become acquainted with the ideas of European philosophers respecting the system of the universe', and had then proceeded to claim that 'those ideas were contained in their own books'.  [By contrast, Aryabhata's work] received careful and detailed description . . . from Arab and Iranian mathematicians, who also translated and extensively used (with generous acknowledment) some of the relevant Sanskrit books. Mill made a conscious decision to write his history of India without learning any Indian language and without ever visiting India, [in contrast to Alberuni] the Iranian mathematician, who mastered Sanskrit and roamed around in India for a great many years before writing his own history of India . . .Colonial undermining of self-confidence had the effect of driving many Indians to look for sources of dignity and pride in some special achievements in which there was less powerful opposition -- and also less competition - from the imperial West, including India's alleged excellence in spirituality and the outstanding importance of her specific religious practices. . . . This has been associated with an extraordinary neglect of Indian works on reasoning, science, mathematics and other so-called 'Western spheres of success'. There is certainly a need for some emendation here.

It is worth noting that the book's concerns range more widely than I have suggested in this review -- for instance, in Sen's simultaneous defense of the civilizational unity-in-diversity of India, a view that hearkens to Nehru and Tagore, among others, but which often finds few defenders in the contemporary Indian academic left -- but I was particularly struck (and hearteningly so) by Sen's attempt to avoid both the Scylla of authentic and unchanging tradition on the one hand, and the Charybdis of an empty liberalism that has internalized the colonial gaze to such an extent that the only dream of Indian tradition that it will permit itself is of a nightmare from which India would do best to wake. Sen's mining of Indian traditions in search of the heterodox, the rational, and quite simply the argumentative, is hardly the only plausible reading of those traditions, but it does offer a useful corrective to prevailing views on both left and right. More importantly, I believe it reflects a concern on Sen's part that a progressive politics that evinces little or no interest in India's cultural heritages will end up making the job of India's assorted fascists -- who always depend on the plausibility of being able to pass off their radical innovations as merely a return to, or a rejuvenation of, the traditional -- that much easier (not to mention that taking Orientalist writings on Indian "tradition" as a given is also likely to lead to the Huntingtonian problematic of slighting the diversity and open texture of what is conceptualized as a "Hindu" or "Islamic" or "Western" civilizational bloc). Sen implicitly realizes that the guardians of Hindutva have little or no interest in Indian traditions (as opposed to, for instance, in the construction of a Hindu identity that is stable, easily policed, and clearly set-off against a principally -- but not exclusively -- Muslim "other") leading to a rather rueful footnote:

I had initially hoped that, despite all its transgressions, the Hindutva movement would have the good effect of enhancing the study of Sanskrit in India, on which there were many declarations of intent. This expectation has not, however, been substantially realized, perhaps because so few of the Hindutva advocates know Sanskrit, but also because many enthusiasts for 'Hindu traditions' evidently prefer to rely on garbled 'summaries' of the Vedas and the Ramayana, combined with 'rewritten' Indian history, rather than looking for the classical documents themselves.

The danger with the historical indifference of Indian liberals to the riches of India's heritages is that it might serve to ensure (and perhaps already has ensured to a significant extent) that concepts like pluralism, secularism, and non-partisan statecraft remain the province of a tiny social elite, signifying no more than markers of social exclusivity to the great Indian unwashed, and divorced from the conceptions of those who have not been schooled in the institutions that are part of the Indian elite's cultural inheritance from the Raj. If I am reading Sen's concern accurately, The Argumentative Indian serves as an indictment not only of the Hindutvawaadis and Huntingtons of the world, but also of the deeply undemocratic and illiberal nature of what India has come to know as Congress-style secularism (never to be confused with its Nehruvian progenitor). If this book is any indication (and one should always be cautious in using a sensibility as rarefied as Sen's as typical in any sense), Indian liberals might just be waking up.

Updated November 6, 2005: At Locana, Anand has a great post on Sen.

Updated March 30, 2006: He's back, and apparently with a new book...


Motif Leit said...

Refreshing to read a balanced view on a sensitive subject! Thanks for this post; you have proved that rationality and tolerance are not the hegemony of the West. Makes me want to get Sen's book immediately.

It is true that the heterodox or iconoclastic thought traditions within the Hindu community are often fogotten by both right-wing groups as well as the liberals as they agressively pursue their missions. Yet one can understand how some ardent secularists are suspicous about folks who speak proudly of India's Sanskritic heritage. Thanks to concerted campaigning by right-wing ideologues, the equation of Indian culture with Hindu/Sanskritic culture is both subtle and insidious, apart from being very innacurate. Whether this equation is made consciously or just thoughtlessly, this is a dangerous trend that ignores the influences and contributions of non-Hindu thought, culture, traditions and values to Indian culture.

Sen is right that sources of misinformation that are still making their rounds - sources ranging from semi-scholarly to downright fraudulent - all disseminated in order to further a communal agenda and/or to offend and denigrate the religion and culture of minorities.

I applaud the argument that we don't need the West to patronize us. Yet that should only be a reminder that the real change should come from within. If the goal is to define, create and sustain true standards of liberalism, secularism and an integral national identity that embraces all aspects of Indian culture (a very high order), and if the "deeply undemocratic and illiberal" Congress is not going to get us there, who will?

Qalandar said...

"If the goal is to define, create and sustain true standards of liberalism, secularism and an integral national identity that embraces all aspects of Indian culture (a very high order), and if the "deeply undemocratic and illiberal" Congress is not going to get us there, who will?"

To a certain extent I think your own post suggests the (or at least an) answer, when you assert that change should come from "within." and the "within" could be a person, society, whatever. To put it another way, in part the Congress is illiberal because so many of "us" are too. Or at the least we accord such (unthinking?) prestige to notions like "tradition", "faith" etc., that we uncritically accord deference to those purport who speak in the name of these hallowed terms.

Take for instance the question of censorship; I've previously noted the "audition" quality of so much outrage in contemporary India:

At a minimum, if we are to breathe life into some of the ideas that Sen is talking about, we need to change (beginning with ourselves) the national culture of thin-skinnedness.

Qalandar said...

Motif Leit: Thanks for taking the time to write a truly thoughtful comment.

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