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Monday, January 21, 2008

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." - Alfred Hitchcock


India: Large and Small:

"Since my childhood thoughts — for what they were worth — did not attract me at all to religion, I asked my grandfather whether I should be concerned that religion did not appeal to me. He told me, ‘No, in fact there is no case for having religious convictions until you are able to think seriously for yourself — it will come with time.’ Since, in my case, it did not come at all (my scepticism seemed to mature with age), I told my grandfather, some years later, that he had been absolutely wrong. ‘Not at all,’ replied my grandfather, ‘you have addressed the religious question, and you have placed yourself, I see, in the atheistic — the Lokãyata — part of the Hindu spectrum!’

I remember reflecting on that large view of Hinduism when, some years later, I was helping my grandfather to produce and edit the English version of a book on Hinduism which he had written in Bengali (he knew little English), at the invitation of Penguin Books. This book, published in 1961, was a great success, both in English (with many reprints on both sides of the Atlantic), and in translations into other languages (French, Dutch, Spanish, but also Farsi and Japanese). Among its substantive accomplishments, Kshiti Mohan’s book brought out with much clarity the heterodoxy of beliefs that Hinduism allowed, with a rich variety of well-developed but diverse religious arguments. Kshiti Mohan identified an overarching liberal ity as being part and parcel of the basic Hindu approach, and saw it as one of its intellectual contributions to the world of thought: ‘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.” That pride in liberality and tolerance contrasts rather sharply with the belligerently sectarian interpretation of Hinduism which is now becoming common through its politicization. [Ed: Yes, but then this is the same principle as how religions that encourage fecundity will become more popular than those that do not because, as we all know, God wants us to reproduce.]...

However, scepticism about religion need not always take the combative form of resisting religious pronouncements. It can also find expression as as deep-seated doubts about the social relevance and political significance of differences in the religious beliefs of different persons. Despite the veritable flood of religious practices in India, there is also a resilient undercurrent of conviction across the country that religious beliefs, while personally significant, are socially unimportant and should be be politically inconsequential. [Ed: Bring on the post-modernist attacks! Which, interestingly enough, he himself uses in other instances. Oh well, consistency.] Ignoring the importance — and reach — of this underlying conviction has the effect of systematically overestimating the role of religion in Indian society.

This claim might seem peculiarly implausible for a country in which allegedly religious conflicts have been extremely prominent in the recent past, and in which they seem to influence a good part of contemporary politics as well. We have to distinguish, however, between (1) evident societal tensions that we may see between pugnacious spokesmen of communities identified by different religious ancestries (often led by sectarian activists), and (2) actual religious tensions in which the contents of religious beliefs are themselves material. Indeed, even when the enthusiasts for religious politics in India have been successful in playing up religious differences, they have worked mainly through generating societal frictions in which the demographic correlates of religion have been used to separate out the communities for selective roguery (as happened, to a great extent, in Gujarat in 2002). In this, the finery of religious beliefs has typically played little or no part. It is important to appreciate the distinction between religious strifes, on the one hand, and political discords based on utilizing communal demography, on the other."

Tagore and his India:

"Friedrich Schiegel, Schelling, Herder and Schopenhauer were only a few of the thinkers who followed the same pattern. They theorized, at first, that India was the source of superior wisdom. Schopenhauer at one stage even argued that the New Testament ‘must somehow be of Indian origin: this is attested by its completely Indian ethics, which transforms morals into asceticism, its pessimism, and its avatar’, in ‘the person of Christ’...

Rabindranath’s passion for freedom underlies his firm opposition to unreasoned traditionalism, which makes one a prisoner of the past (lost, as he put it, in ‘the dreary desert sand of dead habit’).

Tagore illustrates the tyranny of the past in his amusing yet deeply serious parable ‘Kartar Bhoot’ (‘The Ghost of the Leader’). As the respected leader of an imaginary land is about to die, his panic-stricken followers request him to stay on after his death to instruct them on what to do. He consents. But his followers find their lives are full of rituals and constraints on everyday behaviour and are not responsive to the world around them. Ultimately, they ask the ghost of the leader to relieve them of his domination, when he informs them hit he exists only in their minds...

Tagore was explicit about his disagreement [with Gandhi]:

We who often glorify our tendency to ignore reason, installing in its place blind faith, valuing it as spiritual, are ever paying for its cost with the obscuration of our mind and destiny. I blamed Mahatmaji for exploiting this irrational force of credulity in our people, which might have had a quick result [in creating] a superstructure, while sapping the foundation. Thus began my estimate of Mahatmaji, as the guide of our nation, and it is fortunate for me that it did not end there.

But while it ‘did not end there’, that difference of vision was a powerful divider. Tagore, for example, remained unconvinced of the merit of Gandhi’s forceful advocacy that everyone should spin at home with the ‘charka’, the primitive spinning wheel. For Gandhi, this practice was an important part of India’s self-realization. ‘The spinning-wheel gradually became’, as his biographer B. R. Nanda writes, ‘the centre of rural uplift in the Gandhian scheme of Indian economics.” Tagore found the alleged economic rationale for this scheme quite unrealistic. As Romain Rolland noted, Rabindranath ‘never tires of criticizing the charka’. In this economic judgement, Tagore was probably right. Except for the rather small specialized market for high-quality spun cloth, it is hard to make economic sense of hand-spinning, even with wheels less primitive than Gandhi’s charka. Hand-spinning as a wide-sprad activity can survive only with the help of heavy government subsidies.

However, Gandhi’s advocacy of the charka was not based only on economics. He wanted everyone to spin for ‘thirty minutes every day as a sacrifice’, seeing this as a way for people who are better off to identify themselves with the less fortunate. He was impatient with Tagore’s refusal to grasp this point:

The poet lives for the morrow, and would have us do likewise. . . . ‘Why should I, who have no need to work for food, spin?’ may be the question asked. Because I am eating what does not belong to me. I am living on the spoliation of my countrymen. Trace the source of every coin that finds its way into your pocket, and you will realise the truth of what I write. Every one must spin. Let Tagore spin like the others. Let him burn his foreign clothes; that is the duty today. God will take care of the morrow.

If Tagore had missed something in Gandhi’s argument, so did Gandhi miss the point of Tagore’s main criticism. It was not only that the charka made little economic sense, but also, Tagore thought, that it was not the way to make people reflect on anything: ‘The charka does not require anyone to think; one simply turns the wheel of the antiquated invention endlessly, using the minimum of judgement and stamina.’ [Ed: So much for alienation and creative work.]...

Tagore’s criticism of patriotism is a persistent theme in his writings. As early as 1908, he put his position succinctly in a letter replying to the criticism of Abala Bose, the wife of a great Indian scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose: ‘Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.’ His novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) has much to say about this theme. In the novel, Nikhil, who is keen on social reform, including women’s liberation, but cool towards nationalism, gradually loses the esteem of his spirited wife, Bimala, because of his failure to be enthusiastic about anti-British agitations, which she sees as a lack of patriotic commitment. Bimala becomes fascinated with Nikhil’s nationalist friend Sandip, who speaks brilliantly and acts with patriotic militancy, and she falls in love with him. Nikhil refuses to change his views: 'I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.'"

Our culture, their culture:

"The invoking of Asian values has sometimes occurred in rather dubious political circumstances. For example, it has been used to justify authoritarianism (and harsh penalties for alleged transgressions) in some east Asian countries. In the Vienna conference on human rights in 1993, the Foreign Minister of Singapore, citing differences between Asian and European traditions, argued that ‘universal recognition of the ideal of human rights can be harmful if universalism is used to deny or mask the reality of diversity’. The championing of ‘Asian values’ has typically come fron government spokesmen rather than from individuals at a distance from established regimes...

The difficulties of understanding each other across the boundaries of culture are undoubtedly great. This applies to the cinema, but also to other art forms as well, including literature. For example, the inability of most foreigners — sometimes even other Indians — to see the astonishing beauty of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry (a failure that we Bengalis find so exasperating) is a good illustration of just such a problem. Indeed, the thought that these non-appreciating foreigners are being wilfully contrary and obdurate (rather than merely unable to appreciate across the barrier of languages and translations) is a frequently aired suspicion. [Ed: If only Bengalis like him, it is obvious that the rest of the world is being ethnocentric.]...

In the reading that sees the Western tradition as the natural habitat of individual freedom and political democracy, there is a substantial tendency to extrapolate backwards from the present. Values that the European Enlightenment and other relatively recent developments have made common and widespread can scarcely be seen as part of the long-term Western heritage — experienced in the West over millennia. There has, of course, been championing of freedom and tolerance in specific contexts in the Western classical tradition, but much the same can he said of many parts of the Asian tradition as well — not least in India, with the articulations associated for example with Ashoka’s inscriptions, Südraka’s drama, Akbar’s pronouncements or Dadu's poetry, to name just a few examples.

It is true that tolerance has not been advocated by all in the Asian traditions. Nor has that advocacy typically covered everyone (though some, such as Ashoka, in the third century BCE, did indeed insist on completely universal coverage, without any exception). But much the same can he said about Western traditions as well. There is little evidence that Plato or St Augustine were more tolerant and less authoritarian than Confucius. While Aristotle certainly did write on the importance of freedom, women and slaves were excluded from the domain of this concern (an exclusion that, as it happens, Ashoka did not make around roughly the same time). The claim that the basic ideas underlying freedom and tolerance have been central to Western culture over the millennia and are somehow alien to Asia is, I believe, entirely rejectable.

The allegedly sharp contrast between Western and Asian traditions on the subject of freedom and tolerance is based on very poor history. The authoritarian argument based on the special nature of Asian values is particularly dubious. This supplements the more basic argument, presented earlier, that even if it had been the case that the values championed in Asia’s past have been more authoritarian, this historical point would not be grounds enough to reject the importance of tolerance and liberties in contemporary Asia."

Indian traditions and the Western imagination:

"I shall begin by considering the curatorial approaches [to India]. But first I must deal with a methodological issue; in particular, the prevalent doubts in contemporary social theory about the status of intellectual curiosity as a motivation for knowledge. In particular, there is much scepticism about the possibility of any approach to learning that is innocent of power. That scepticism is justified to some extent since the motivational issues underlying any investigation may well relate to power relations, even when that connection is not immediately visible.

Yet people seek knowledge for many different reasons, and curiosity about unfamiliar things is certainly among the possible reasons. It need not be seen as a figment of the deluded scientist’s imagination, nor as a tactical excuse for some other, ulterior pre-occupation. Nor does the pervasive relevance of different types of motivation have the effect of making all the different observational findings equally arbitrary. There are real lines to be drawn between inferences dominated by rigid preconceptions (for example, in the 'magisterial' approaches, to be discussed presently) and those that are not so dominated, despite the possibility that they too may have biases of their own.

There is an interesting methodological history here. The fact that knowledge is often associated with power is a recognition that had received far too little attention in traditional social theories of knowledge. But in recent social studies, the remedying of that methodological neglect has been so comprehensive that we are now in some danger of ignoring other motivations altogether that may not link directly with the seeking of power. While it is true that any useful knowledge gives its possessor some power in one form or another, this may not be the most remarkable aspect of that knowledge, nor the primary reason for which this knowledge is sought. Indeed, the process of learning can accommodate considerable motivational variations without becoming a functionalist enterprise of some grosser kind. An epistemic methodology that sees the pursuit of knowledge as entirely congruent with the search for power is a great deal more cunning than wise. It can needlessly undermine the value of knowledge in satisfying curiosity and interest; it significantly weakens one of the profound characteristics of human beings...

In addition to veridical weakness, the exoticist approach to India has an inescapable fragility and transience that can be seen again and again. A wonderful thing is imagined about India and sent into a high orbit, and then it is brought crashing down. All this need not be such a tragedy when the act of launching is done by (or with the active cooperation of) the putative star. Not many would weep, for example, for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when the Beatles stopped lionizing him and left suddenly; in answer to the Maharishi’s question of why they were leaving, John Lennon said: ‘You are the cosmic one; you ought to know.’...

Even on religious subjects, the only world religion that is firmly agnostic (Buddhism) is of Indian origin, and, furthermore, the atheistic schools of Cãrvãka and Lokayata have generated extensive arguments that have been seriously studied by Indian religious scholars themselves. Heterodoxy runs throughout the early documents, and even the ancient epic Rämayana, which is often cited by contemporary Hindu activists as the holy book of the divine Rama’s life, contains dissenting characters. For example, Rama is lectured to by a worldly pundit called Javali on the folly of his religious beliefs: ‘O Rama, be wise, there exists no world but this, that is certain! Enjoy that which is present and cast behind thee that which is unpleasant.’...

Despite the grave sobriety of Indian religious pre-occupations, it would not be erroneous to say that India is a country of fun and games in which chess was probably invented, badminton originated, polo emerged, and the ancient Kamasutra told peopie how to have joy in sex. Indeed, Georges Ifrah quotes a medieval Arab poet from Baghdad called al-Sabhadi, who said that there were ‘three things on which the Indian nation prided itself: its method of reckoning, the game of chess, and the book titled Kalila wa Dimna (a collection of legends and fables).’ This is not altogether a different list from Voltaire’s catalogue of the important things to come from India: ‘our numbers, our backgammon, our chess, our first principles of geometry, and the fables which have become our own.’ These selections would not fit the mainstream Western image of Indian traditions, focused on religion or spirituality."

--- In: The argumentative Indian : writings on Indian history, culture and identity / Amartya Sen
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