Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity

Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity

Article excerpt

Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Penguin Books, 2005, 409 pp, ISBN: 0141-01211-0.

Perceptions of culture, history, and identity are necessarily subjective and selective. There's no impartial and omniscient chronicler of events, no "scientific" history. Facts are one thing, their interpretation another. As in Kurosawa's Rashomon, there are only particular interpretations of most facts, which may of course coincide at times. In this stirring book on the historical perceptions of India, Amartya Sen, noted scholar and Nobel laureate in economics, acknowledges this upfront with disarming modesty, while also signaling his attitude to his subject:

India is an immensely diverse country with many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and a veritable feast of viewpoints. [Any talk about its history, culture or politics must] involve considerable selection ... the focus on the argumentative tradition in this work is also a result of choice. It does not reflect a belief that this is the only reasonable way of thinking about the history or culture or politics of India. I am very aware that there are other ways of proceeding.

Soon enough though, Sen reveals his impatience with certain "other ways of proceeding". The India Sen presents to us has a long tradition of heterodoxy, openness, and reasoned discourse, a capacious India that is inclusive, tolerant, and multicultural. This contrasts with at least two major perceptions of India in modern times: (a) a Western and (derivatively) an Indian elite's stern view of India as "the land of religions, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices", and (b) the Hindutva, or the Hindu chauvinist's, idea of India.

To votaries of the first, Sen says, "it would be hard to understand the history of India [without its tradition of scepticism]". To see India "as overwhelmingly religious, or deeply anti-scientific, or exclusively hierarchical, or fundamentally unsceptical involves significant oversimplification of India's past and present." To support his view, Sen marshals evidence from the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Buddhists and the Carvakas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Gupta-era science and mathematics, the intellectual links of the first millennium between India and China, the liberal-plural regimes of Ashoka and Akbar, the egalitarianism of Hindu Bhakti and Muslim Sufism, men like Gandhi, Tagore and Ray, etc.

The modern West, contends Sen, emphasized "the differences - real or imagined - between India and the West," focusing on India's spiritual heritage at the expense of the rational one, partly because the West was naturally drawn to what was unique and different in India.

[Such] slanted emphasis has tended to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of Indian intellectual traditions. While India has ... a vast religious literature [with] grand speculation on transcendental issues ... there is also a huge - and often pioneering - literature, stretching over two and a half millennia, on mathematics, logic, epistemology, astronomy, physiology, linguistics, phonetics, economics, political science and psychology, among other subjects concerned with the here and now.

And while India might offer "examples of every conceivable type of attempt at the solution to the religious problem," Sen submits that they "coexist with deeply sceptical arguments ... (sometimes within the religious texts themselves)." Among his examples is the "song of creation" of the Rig Veda, "the first extensive composition in any Indo-European language" (Wendy Doniger) and the radical doubts expressed therein.

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? Whence this creation has arisen - perhaps it has formed itself, or perhaps it did not - the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows - or perhaps he does not know. …

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