Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book: The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

This collection of essays on Indian culture, history and identity was published ten years ago. I remember that at the time of its publication this book had received rave reviews. After purchasing this book I had put it in my bookshelf and forgotten all about it. Recently, while watching Amartya Sen on television, I remembered the book and took it out to read. Surprisingly for a book mostly on history, this one was engrossing.

As the author points out in the preface, the great diversity of our country makes any attempt at defining its culture, history or politics a very complicated task. A task that must involve considerable selection among the innumerable things that one can focus on. The author mentions that the focus on the argumentative tradition in this work is also a result of a choice.

The long history of the argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and its relative neglect in ongoing cultural discussions are cited by the author as the reasons for selecting this as the focus for this work.

The book is divided into four parts. The essays in "Part I : Voice and Heterodoxy" outline the nature, reach and relevance of the argumentative tradition in India. "Part II :  Culture and Communication" contains essays on the role of communication in the development and understanding of cultures. Insights on the subject from the works of the poet and writer Rabindranth Tagore, and the film director Satyajit Ray are provided in this part. "Part III : Politics and Protest" contains essays on the politics of deprivation and the precariousness of human security in the subcontinent. "Part IV: Reason and Identity" contains essays about the role of reasoning in the identity of Indians.

At a time when any talk on culture and history often turns shrill, where propaganda takes the place of facts, it is crucial that for answers we turn to people with proven credentials and scholarship . With decades of scholarship and rigorous academic research to support him, Amartya Sen makes very convincing arguments. Respecting the very 'tradition of arguments' in our culture that he painstakingly elaborates throughout the book, we ought to pay attention to the cogent case that he presents.

The essays are written in such clear, convincing and readable manner that they don't demand any great scholarship from the reader to understand. He raises such fundamental and relevant questions that you pause in your reading to ponder over them. For anyone interested in getting a better understanding of our very ancient and diverse history, this book can be a great source.

Reading 'The Argumentative Indian' makes one feel less proud about some things about current politics, and proud about some things from the past that one has generally been ignorant about.

I have listed some observations and arguments in the book on certain topics that I found to be incisive.

On the relevance of the dialogic tradition -
"Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning. They are central to the practice of secularism and for even-handed treatment of adherents of different religious faiths (including those who have no religious beliefs)."(Preface - page xiii)
"The nature and strength of the dialogic tradition in India is sometimes ignored because of the much championed belief that India is the land of religious, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices. "(Preface - page xiii-xiv)

On the importance of an understanding of Indian heterodoxy-
"This is especially critical because of the relative neglect of the rationalist parts of the Indian heritage in the contemporary accounts of India's past, in favor of concentrating on India's impressive religiosity. That selective attention has, in fact, produced a substantial bias in the interpretation of Indian thought, and through that in the understanding of the intellectual heritage of contemporary India." (Part I, Essay 1 - page 25)

Amartya Sen's grandfather Kshiti Mohan, in his book called Hinduism, on liberality being part and parcel of the basic Hindu approach-
"Hinduism also points out that a difference of metaphysical doctrine need not prevent the development of an accepted basic code of conduct. The important thing about a man is his dharma [roughly, the personal basis of behaviour], not necessarily his religion."
Amartya Sen's comment-
"That pride in liberality and tolerance contrasts rather sharply with the belligerently sectarian interpretation of Hinduism which is now becoming common through its politicization." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 46)

On Hindus and Muslims in History-
"The main political moves to undermine Indian secularism have tended to focus, not on discussing the broad current of India's social, cultural or intellectual history, but rather on arbitrarily highlighting specially chosen episodes or anecdotes of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus evidently aimed at generating the anti-Muslim and anti-secular sentiments." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 58)
"The history of India does indeed contain many nightmarish elements, but it also includes conversations and discussions, and extensive joint efforts in literature, music, painting, architecture, jurisprudence and a great many other creative activities." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 59)

On Inventing the Past-
"The redrawing of India's history using the Hindutva lens suffers from some deep empirical problems as well as conceptual tensions." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 65)
"The problem starts with the account of the very beginning of India's history. The 'Indus valley civilization', dating from the third millennium BCE, flourished well before the timing of the earliest Hindu literature, the Vedas, which are typically dated in the middle of the second millennium BCE."
"Furthermore, there is a second challenge associated with India's ancient past, which relates to the arrival of the Indo-Europeans (some times called Aryans) from the West, most likely in the second millennium BCE."
"The Hindutva view of history, which traces the origin of the Indian civilization to the Vedas has, therefore, the double 'difficulty' of (1) having to accept that the foundational basis of Hindu culture came originally from outside India, and (2) being unable to place Hinduism at the beginning of Indian cultural history and its urban heritage." (Part I, Essay 3 - page 66)
"The achievements that are linked to Buddhism include not just the focus on public reasoning and printing, but also accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, literature, painting, sculpture and even in the presence of public health care."(Part I, Essay 4 - page 82)
"One of the sad features of a narrowly Hinduized view of India's past is that the justifiable pride Indians can take in the achievements of non-Hindu as well as Hindu accomplishments in India is drowned in the sectarianism of seeing India as mainly a vehicle for Hindu thought and practice." (Part I, Essay 4 - page 83)
"The openness of the argumentative tradition militates not only against exclusionary narrowness within the country, but also against cultivated ignorance of the well-frog. We need not agree to be incarcerated in the dinginess of a much diminished India, no matter how hard the political advocates of smallness try to jostle us. There are serious choices to be made." (Part I, Essay 4 - page 86)

On Western Approaches to India: Three Categories-
"Attempts from outside India to understand and interpret the country's traditions can be put into at least three distinct categories, which I shall call exoticist approaches, magisterial approaches and curatorial approaches.
The first (exoticist) category concentrates on the wondrous aspects of India. The focus here is on what is different, what is strange in the country that, as Hegel put it, "has existed for millennia in the imagination of the Europeans."
The second (magisterial) category strongly relates to the exercise of imperial power and sees India as subject territory from the point of view of its British governors.
The third (curatorial) category is the most catholic of the three and includes various attempts at noting, classifying and exhibiting diverse aspects of Indian culture. (Part II, Essay 7 - pages 141-142)
"The nature of these slanted emphases has tended to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of Indian intellectual traditions." (Part II, Essay 7 - page 159)

On Poverty and Social Opportunity-
"The removal of poverty, particularly of extreme poverty, calls for more participatory growth on a wide basis, which is not easy to achieve across the barriers of illiteracy, ill health, uncompleted land reforms and other sources of severe societal inequality. The process of economic advance cannot be divorced from the cultivation and enhancement of social opportunities over a broad front." (Part III, Essay 9 - pages 197-198)

On Cultural Contentions-
"The issue of cultural disharmony is very much alive in many cultural and political investigations, which often sound as if they are reports from battle fronts, written by war correspondents with divergent loyalties: we hear of the 'clash of civilizations', the need to 'fight' Western cultural imperialism, the irresistible victory of 'Asian values', the challenge to Western civilization posed by the militancy of other cultures and so on. The global confrontations have their reflections within the national frontiers as well, since most societies now have diverse cultures, which can appear to some to be very threatening." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 281)

On Tolerance and Reason-
"It is worth recalling that in Akbar's pronouncements of four hundred years ago on the need for religious neutrality on the part of the state, we can identify the foundations of a non-denominational, secular state which was yet to be born in India or for that matter anywhere else." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 287)
"Indian secularism, which was strongly championed in the twentieth century by Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and others, is often taken to be something of a reflection of Western ideas (despite the fact that Britain is a somewhat unlikely choice as a spearhead of secularism). In contrast, there are good reasons to link this aspect of modern India, including its constitutional secularism and judicially guaranteed multiculturalism, to earlier Indian writings and particularly to the ideas of this Muslim emperor of four hundred years ago." (Part IV, Essay 13 - page 288)

On the 'Cultural' Critique-
"Even if it were right to see Indian culture as quintessentially Hindu culture, it would be very odd to alienate, on that ground, the right to equal political and legal treatment of minorities." (Part IV, Essay 14 - page 315)
"The cultural inheritance of contemporary India combines Islamic influences with Hindu and other traditions, and the results of the interaction between members of different religious communities can be seen plentifully in literature, music, painting, architecture and many other fields." (Part IV, Essay 14 - page 315)

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