"I love your "Malaysian Accent", can you say it again?"

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Sunday, January 20, 2008


"The roots of scepticism in India go back a long way, and it would be hard to understand the history of Indian culture if scepticism were to be jettisoned. Indeed, the resilient reach of the tradition of dialectics can be felt throughout Indian history, even as conflicts and wars have led to much violence. Given the simultaneous presence of dialogic encounters and bloody battles in India’s past, the tendency to concentrate only on the latter would miss out something of real significance.

It is indeed important to understand the long tradition of accepted heterodoxy in India. In resisting the attempts by the Hindutva activists to capture ancient India as their home ground (and to see it as the unique cradle of Indian civilization), it is not enough to point out that India has many other sources of culture as well. It is necessary also to see how much heterodoxy there has been in Indian thoughts and beliefs from very early days. Not only did Buddhists, Jams, agnostics and atheists compete with each other and with adherents of what we now call Hinduism (a much later term) in the India of the first millennium BCE, but also the dominant religion in India was Buddhism for nearly a thousand years. The Chinese in the first millennium CE standardly referred to India as ‘the Buddhist kingdom’ (the far-reaching effects of the Buddhist connections between the two largest countries in the world are discussed in Essay 8). Ancient India cannot be fitted into the narrow box where the Hindutva activists want to incarcerate it."

The Argumentative Indian:

"Prolixity is not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length. Krishna Menon's record of the longest speech ever delivered at the United Nations (nine hours non-stop), established half a century ago (when Menon was leading the Indian delegation), has not been equalled by anyone from anywhere. Other peaks of loquaciousness have been scaled by other Indians. We do like to speak.

This is not a new habit. The ancient Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which are frequently compared with the Iliad and the Odyssey, are colossally longer than the works that the modest Homer could manage. Indeed, the Mahabharata alone is about seven times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are certainly great epics... we encounter masses of arguments and counterarguments spread over incessant debates and disputations.

[Ed: Compare - ""Indians, moreover, 'are naturally contentious'. Like women, they are loquacious and theatrical, too indulgent and irresponsible to be capable of the social discipline of 'hard' Confucian culture." (Quoted in Devon and Wong)

When Amartya Sen says Indians are talkative, he is lauded for writing a brilliant book. When the Great Leader says the same thing, he is racist (I guarantee you the same accusation will be levelled even if you lop everything after 'theatrical' off.

Keywords: Lee Kuan Yew, LKY, talkative, argumentative, querulous]

... Even if we go back all the way to ancient India, some of the most celebrated dialogues have involved women, with the sharpest questionings often coming from women interlocutors... For example, in the Brihadãranyaka Upanisad we are told about the famous 'arguing combat' in which Yajnavalkya, the outstanding scholar and teacher, has to face questions from the assembled gathering of pundits, and here it is a woman scholar, Gargi, who provides the sharpest edge to the intellectual interrogation. She enters the fray without any special modesty: 'Venerable Brahmins, with your permission I shall ask him two questions only. If he is able to answer those questions of mine, then none of you can ever defeat him in expounding the nature of God.' [Ed: The feminists will have a field day with this.]

... As the Reverend A. C. Bouquet, an accomplished expert on comparative religion, has pointed out: ‘India in particular furnishes within its limits examples of every conceivable type of attempt at the solution of the religious problem.'

And so it does. However, these grand explorations of every possible religious belief coexist with deeply sceptical arguments that are also elaborately explored (sometimes within the religious texts themselves), going back all the way to the middle of the second millennium BCE. The so-called ‘song of creation’ (or the ‘creation hymn’, as it is sometimes called) in the authoritative Vedas ends with the following radical doubts:

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 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.

These 3,500-year-old doubts would recur in Indian critical debates again and again. Indeed, Sanskrit not only has a bigger body of religious literature than exists in any other classical language, it also has a larger volume of agnostic or atheistic writings than in any other classica language. There are a great many discussions and compositions of different kinds, conforming to the loquaciousness of the argumentative tradition...

It is not hard to see that the possibility of scientific advance is closely connected with the role of heterodoxy, since new ideas and discoveries have to emerge initially as heterodox views, which differ from, and may be in conflict with, established understanding... We can argue that the flowering of Indian science and mathematics... benefited from the tradition of scepticism and questioning which had been flourishing in India at that time...

In the Ramayana, Javali, a sceptical pundit, lectures Rama, the hero of the epic, on how he should behave, but in the process supplements his religious scepticism by an insistence that we must rely only on what we can observe and experience. His denunciation of religious practices (‘the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the sãstras [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people’) and his debunking of religious beliefs (‘there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that’) are fortified by the firm epistemological advice that Javali gives Rama: ‘Follow what is within your experience and do not trouble yourself with what lies beyond the province of human experience.’ [Ed: As you can see, sedition and offending religious feelings is a sacred, millennia-old tradition.]...

Like Akbar’s championing of rahi aqi (the path of reason), Tagore emphasized the role of deliberation and reasoning as the foundation of a good society:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert
sand of dead habit;...
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake...

I end on a positive (if somewhat light-hearted) note, by recollecting a nineteenth-century Bengali poem by Ram Mohun Roy which bears on the subject matter of this essay. Roy explains what is really dreadful about death:

Consider how terrible the day of your death will be.
Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back."

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

He accuses cultural essentialists of cherry-picking to paint India as a Hindu country, but I can't help but feel that he's doing cherry-picking of his own (a la Karen Armstrong) in the aim of a lala we love everybody agenda.

For one, as others have pointed out, he demonizes Aurangzeb and whitewashes Akbar.
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