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The Argumentative Indian

by Amartya Kuma Sen. I read this back in 2006, just re-read it recently. It's overdue so I don't feel I have the time to do a review, I'll just drop in some points of interest.

As I think I mentioned, being able to know where various states this time around was cool. Go geography!

One of his repeated themes is that India has a long tradition of, if not democracy per se[1], then public discourse and religious tolerance. He hammers on India's religious diversity a lot: for like 1000 years India was more Buddhist than "Hindu"; Sanskrit has more atheistic and agnostic writing than any other classical language; there's doubt about Rama's divinity expressed within the Ramayana itself; Ashoka and (the Muslim) Akbar the Great both sponsored big public councils on religion, with Akbar laying out rules for civil discourse (and trying to create his own integrationist religion; didn't get far.)

Rabindranath Tagore sounds like a cool guy. Gandhi's contemporary, more secular and 'modern', big Bengali poet, picked up and dropped like a fad by Western writers of the time.

Another theme is how India has been exoticized, with Indians even coming to buy into Western exoticism of their own country. The West saw itself as scientific and rational and played up India's mysticism and religions, with many Indians doing the same; this ignores a lot of math and science that came out of India. He quotes Alberuni talking about Aryabhatha's heliocentric theory, from 499 CE. Another medieval Arab is quoted as saying India prided itself on three things: their method of reckoning, chess, and a collection of myths and fables. Voltaire later listed important things from India: numbers, backgammon, chess, "our first principles of geometry", and "the fables which have become our own."

Sen describes three approaches to India: curatorial, a la early British, closest to being objective and open-minded, but still drawn to the exotic and contrasts with Europe rather than comprehensive description; the magisterial, a la James Mill and other 19th century colonialists, condemning all of India without visiting it or reading any native languages; and the exoticist, going straight for what's "cool" and different.

There's a chapter on the Bomb, where he notes that it was a big security setback for India. Before, they had the strategically ambiguous 1970s tests to know that they could go nuclear, and 7x the conventional military of Pakistan. The BJP going openly nuclear gave Pakistan the political cover to do the same, leveling the playing field, and hampering India's ability to conventionally defend Kashmir (e.g. no more cross border raids.) And India still doesn't have a Security Council seat, perhaps because the existing permanent members don't want to create an incentive to blast your way onto the Council.

By absolute numbers, India is the third largest Muslim nation, just behind Pakistan and well ahead of Bangladesh. (Indonesia leads.)

The gender ratios of south and east India are fairly normal; it's north and west India that has the big deficit of girls and women, at birth and in general. He points out that he uses sub-Saharan Africa as his baseline, not just rich countries like Europe.

He notes the irony of Sanskrit and Vedic nativism when those came with the Aryan 'invasion', relative to the indigenous Dravidian and other populations.

One of Sen's professional themes has been how Indian famines stopped outright with democracy; OTOH, persistent hunger and other deprivations like illiteracy haven't been cured, with problems like teachers simply not showing up to low caste schools. Part of the food problem is the government buying up production above and beyond what's needed for famine buffering, to keep up food prices, which helps farmers (some of whom are poor) at the expense of all the other poor people.

Okay, that's it for me. A lot more to the book, but time presses.

[1] Though I've seen it said elsewhere that the historical Buddha was born in a republic, and a 'prince' only insofar as a republic's citizens are all 'sovereign', but this wasn't glorified enough for future hagiographers. Anyway, there's low-detail Greek attestation to various republics in India.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/422355.html#comments


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 23rd, 2015 11:29 am (UTC)
An eye-opening book to Indians alike.
The Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore are available online, in English and Bengali.
Jun. 23rd, 2015 04:04 pm (UTC)
Re: An eye-opening book to Indians alike.
That site seems to be just Bengali.
Jun. 23rd, 2015 04:36 pm (UTC)
Don't let the homepage fool you - as it nearly did me. If you click on the links on the left, you'll find English versions of all his works and essays. So for instance, Gitanjali, the work which largely contributed to his Nobel Prize (with a foreword by Yeats), can be viewed by clicking on Verses on the left frame, and it's the second-from-top in the middle column. You'll see other poems around it as well.
Jun. 23rd, 2015 11:38 am (UTC)
The BBC (via Sunil Khilnani) is actually exactly halfway through a fantastic series tracking the history of India through fifty lives. Each episode is only fifteen minutes long and it's also available as a podcast. And if you weren't aware before, pretty much any BBC radio programme is available to listen anywhere in the world. The time-limited ones are up to 30 days, but a substantial body of documentaries, history and cultural programmes are available at your leisure. A particular favourite for the aspirising wannabe polymath is: In Our Time, whose entire catalogue of programmes dating back to 1998 (or thereabouts) is available online.

Edited at 2015-06-23 11:38 am (UTC)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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