Friday, June 24, 2005

Amartya Sen's large India

In his new book The Argumentative Indian, a set of magisterial essays on the subject of India's diverse and many-sided past and the manner in which our understanding of that past influences the present that we now inhabit, Amartya Sen gives the sense of having distilled a lifetime's thought on the subject of India.

Amongst the best of Sen's essays is one called 'India: Large and Small', in which he engages with the claims made by the Hindutva movement - based on certain historical and cultural features of India's past and the overwhelming majority of Hindus among Indian citizens currently - that Hinduism is preeminent amongst the religions of India and is therefore central to any conception of 'Indianness'. Obeying the first rule of good debate, which is to engage with the viewpoint of the other party instead of dismissing it outright, Sen first tries to represent the positions of the Hindutva movement as fairly as possible. He does contrast the tolerance towards other religions and internal heterodoxy that has been a historical feature of Hinduism with the many untenable claims and the warlike approach of the present-day Hindutva lobby, but then note how skilfully he declines to validate - as a more earnest scholar might - the former at the expense of the latter:

It is not, however, particularly worthwhile to enter into a debate over whether the liberal, tolerant and receptive traditions within Hinduism may in any sense, be taken to be more authentic than the narrower and more combative interpretations that have been forcefully championed by present-day Hindu politics. It is sufficient to note here that there is a well-established capacious view of a broad and generous Hinduism, which contrasts sharply with the narrow and bellicose versions that are currently on political offer, led particularly by parts of the Hindutva movement.
Sen then moves on to scrutinise the foundational axioms of Hindutva ideology one by one, offering alternate arguments of his own. Here he is on the viewpoint that India should be thought of as a pre-eminently Hindu country because the Hindu tradition is pre-eminent in India's past:

Certainly, the ancientness of the Hindu tradition cannot be disputed. However, other religions, too, have had a long history in India, which has been, for a very long time indeed, a multi-religious country, making room for many different faiths and beliefs. Aside from the obvious and prominent presence of Muslims in India for well over a millennium (Muslim Arab traders settled in India from the eighth century), India was not a 'Hindu country' even before the arrival of Islam. Buddhism was the dominant religion in India for nearly a millennium. Indeed, Chinese scholars regularly described India as 'the Buddhist kingdom'.
…And to this has to be added the early presence of Christians, Jews and Parsees from the first millennium CE, and the late - but vigorous - emergence of Sikhism in India as a universalist conviction that drew on both the Hindu and Islamic traditions but developed a new religious understanding. The high ground of history is certainly not comfortable for a Hindu sectarian outlook, which is one reason why there has been such a flurry of attempts by political fanatics to rewrite India's history.
After many such specific and patiently elaborated rejoinders to different aspects of Hindutva thought, Sen concludes:

Rabindranath Tagore thought that the 'idea of India' itself militates 'against the intense conciousness of the separateness of one's own people from others'. Through their attempts to encourage and exploit separatism, the Hindutva movement has entered into a confrontation with the idea of India itself. This is nothing short of a sustained effort to miniaturize the broad idea of a large India - proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present - and to replace it by the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized version of Hinduism. In the confrontation between a large and a small idea, the broader understanding can certainly win. But the battle for the broad idea of India cannot be won unless those fighting for the larger conception know what they are fighting for. The reach of Indian traditions, including heterodoxy and the celebration of plurality and scepticism, requires a comprehensive cognition.
Many of the other essays in Sen's book attempt to provide this 'comprehensive cognition' of Indian traditions that will equip us adequately should we wish to defend the idea of a large India against the small. Here are two of them: 'Tagore and his India' and 'India Through Its Calendars' ("...the nature, form and usage of calendars in a particular society can teach us a great deal about its politics, culture and religion as well as its science and mathematics). And here is an essay by Sen on the issue of the writing and rewriting of history: 'History and the Enterprise of Knowledge'.

But even if parts of the book are available here and there on the web, there's nothing like reading these beautiful essays in bed late into the night over several nights, as I did. And since Indian bloggers, as I remarked in another post recently, are almost by definition argumentative Indians, it makes sense to read this book as an exemplary demonstration of the ideal on which we all have our sights.

1 comment:

Sorcerer said...

I came across this article of urs only today.. and cud nt have agreed any more... read the book some one year back and it shall remain as one of those treasures of my life which i can never part with.. the book myt ultimately wither away, but the perspectives tht i gathered from it are eternally embedded...