is arguably India's greatest living public intellectual
. In 1998 he won the Nobel Prize in Economics1
. His award was a matter of great pride for us Indians. But it wasn't until dad/I bought a copy of his 2005 book, The Argumentative Indian
, that we became aware of just how knowledgeable Sen was about India itself, its history and its culture. We just assumed he was a dry financial-economist and another one of those foreign-based Indians, whose connection to the motherland merely consisted of his long-forgotten heritage and obvious Sanskrit-based/Hindu name. How mistaken we were. When I first read The Argumentative Indian
about 7-8 years ago, I concluded that it should also be read by every other Indian, and ideally perhaps even by the world at large. Here was a text I had been looking for all along that put the IN back into India, at a time when it seemed like only Western Civilization had triumphed over all others in its rich and ancient dialectic tradition.
Ever since I first read the book my admiration for Sen has grown leaps and bounds. His essays on comparing and contrasting Gandhi
patriotism/nationalism were my particular favourites back then. And each time I returned to Muscat, I promised to pack the book along with all my stuff, but for some reason or another I didn't manage it until my latest journey back. It is utterly fascinating how re-reading any book (like this one) with the benefit of added knowledge and experience, brings into focus passages which I probably previously glossed over, and placed into the shade others.
My only regret is not securing a ticket via the lottery to attend Sen's free lecture at the LSE
last summer. Anyone who has listened to him recently will only be too aware, how difficult it has become to understand anything he says, but the sheer fact of being in his presence would've ticked-off a long-standing gap in my social CV. Indeed it appears as though I missed another free lecture of his at the LSE just a couple weeks ago. Hopefully he will be back again soon.
Below I have copied an excerpt from the Preface which I think sums up the general tone of Sen's text and provides the reader with an introductory sample of India's (largely-forgotten/ignored?) rich dialectic tradition.1
Although not one of the Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895, it is identified with them, and prizes are announced with and awarded at the same ceremony. The Prize in Economics
(as it is referred to by the Nobel Foundation) was established in 1968 and endowed by Sweden's central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank
, on the occasion of the bank's 300th anniversary. (Source: Wikipedia
Even though more than 80 per cent of Indians may be Hindu, the country has a very large Muslim population (the third largest among all the countries in the world - larger than the entire British and French populations put together), and a great many followers of other faiths: Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees and others.
However, even 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 (on which see Essay 3), 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 particularly raw version of Hindu religiosity.
The Vedas may be full of hymns and religious invocations, but they also tell stories, speculate about the world and - true to the argumentative propensity already in view - ask difficult questions. A basic doubt concerns the very creation of the world: did someone make it, was it a spontaneous emergence, and is there a God who knows what really happened? As is discussed in Essay 1, the Rigveda goes on to express radical doubts on these issues: 'Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? ... 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 doubts from the second millennium BCE would recur again and again in India's long argumentative history, along with a great many other questions about epistemology and ethics (as is discussed in Essay 1). They survive side by side with intense religious beliefs and deeply respectful faith and devotion.
Similarly, the adherents of Hindu politics - especially those who are given to vandalizing places of worship of other religions - may take Rama to be divine, but in much of the Ramayana, Rama is treated primarily as a hero - a great 'epic hero' - with many good qualities and some weaknesses, including a tendency to harbour suspicions about his wife Sita's faithfulness. 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 sastras [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people.'** The problem with invoking the Ramayana to propogate a reductionist account of Hindu religiosity lies in the way the epic is deployed for this purpose - as a document of supernatural veracity, rather than as 'a marvellous parable' (as Rabindranath Tagore describes it) and a widely enjoyed part of India's cultural heritage.
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 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, Jains, 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.
* As is also discussed in Essay 3, the first translation of the Upanishads - the most philosophical part of the Vedic Hindu literature - that caught the attention of European intellectuals was the Persian translation produced in the seventeenth century by the Moghal prince Dara Shikoh, the eldest son (and legitimate heir) of Emperor Shah Jahan and of Mumtaz Mahal (the beautiful queen on whose tomb the Taj Mahal would be built). Dara was killed by his more sectarian brother, Aurangzeb, to seize the Moghal throne.
** See Essays 1 and 3 for fuller discussion of these and other examples of ancient scepticism and dialogic combats.