A Passage to India

(Jacket Art By Kailash Raj, Courtesy Of Www.exoticindia.com)
Reviewed by Shashi Tharoor
Sunday, October 16, 2005


Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

By Amartya Sen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 409 pp. $26

If you laid all the economists in the world end to end, the old joke goes, you would never reach a conclusion. So it's all the more remarkable that it is as a practitioner of the "dismal science" that Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in 1998. Sen is a man of conclusions; he is also brilliant at marshalling, with both extensive research and empirical evidence, the arguments that justify his conclusions. The Argumentative Indian -- a collection of 16 essays, many reworked and expanded from lectures and previously published articles -- is an intellectual tour de force from an economist who can lay equal claim to the designations of sociologist, historian, political analyst and moral philosopher. It is a magisterial work, except that the adjective is not one of which Sen would approve.

That is because Sen uses it, along with "exoticist" and "curatorial," to describe the three perspectives from which the West has tended to view India (each of which he dissects and discredits with precision and finesse). He is particularly critical of the Western overemphasis on India's religiosity at the expense of any recognition of the country's equally impressive rationalist, scientific, mathematical and secular heritage, fields treated by Orientalists as "Western spheres of success."

"There is certainly a need for some emendation here," Sen adds dryly. Emendation he provides, in capacious detail. Sen convincingly demonstrates that Asian (and specifically Indian) traditions of rationality and scientific liberalism go further back than Western ones and have been just as important as the religious or mystical strains in shaping India's heritage. There is none of the economist's propensity to theorize on the basis of airy assumptions here; Sen's arguments are grounded in a keenly felt, deeply empathetic reading of Indian history and culture, augmented by a breadth and depth of research (extensively footnoted) that is breathtaking in its range and scholarly eclecticism. The essays are also informed by Sen's passionate concern for the impoverished, undernourished and marginalized, especially women. The Nobel citation lauded him for restoring "an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems," and a strong moral sense is never absent from his prose.

To reduce such a richly diverse book to a couple of main themes is a disservice, for there is much here to reward the careful reader (notably two startlingly educative essays on the ancient roots of relations between India and China). Particularly pleasurable is Sen's masterly reclaiming of Rabindranath Tagore's reputation from the unjust misjudgment of him in the West as a mediocre mystic poet rather than the rationalist and humanist genius and polymath Sen convincingly depicts. But -- disservice aside -- two principal arguments emerge from this collection: an affirmation of India's political and cultural heterogeneity, and of the "reach of reason" in India's intellectual traditions. Even an essay on the films of Satyajit Ray (the only Indian director to win an Oscar for lifetime achievement) affirms Sen's case for India's absorptive culture. "In our heterogeneity and in our openness lies our pride, not our disgrace," Sen writes. "Satyajit Ray taught us this, and that lesson is profoundly important for India. And for Asia, and for the world."

Sen's argument for his idea of India is constructed not just in opposition to Western stereotyping but also to the homegrown Hindutva ("Hindu-ness") movement, which in recent years has sought power on a platform asserting that India is a Hindu nation that ought to be a Hindu state, while defining Hinduism in crudely sectarian terms, both as a religion and as a badge of cultural and political identity. In several of the essays in this collection, Sen demolishes each of these "narrow and bellicose" premises of Hindutva, along with Western religious reductionism. Sen reminds us that even the sacred epic the Ramayana , much beloved of today's Hindu revivalists, features the skeptic Javali, who advises the god-king Ram that "there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that. . . . [Religious] injunctions . . . have been laid down in the [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people." India's skeptical tradition is as old as the Rigveda , composed around 1500 B.C., when most Europeans were clad in animal skins. "Who really knows?" it asks about creation. "Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced?. . . 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."

I love that final "or perhaps he does not know." The reach of rationality in Indian thinking goes far; Hinduism is the only major religion with an explicit tradition of agnosticism within it. Equally important is the tradition of secular tolerance practiced by such rulers as the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka and the Muslim Emperor Akbar some 1,800 years apart.

Sen points out that Ashoka's edicts promoted the human rights of all in the 3rd century before Christ, a time when Aristotle's writings on freedom explicitly excluded women and slaves, an exception the Indian monarch did not make. At a time when the Catholics of Europe were tyrannizing each other, persecuting Jews with the Inquisition and burning heretics at the stake, Akbar was proclaiming in Delhi that "no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him." Unlike in the West, Indian secularism has tended not to be about the separation of church from state and the prohibition of religious activities but about tolerance of a profusion of religions, none of which is privileged or favored by the state. To Sen, "the Hindutva movement has entered into a confrontation with the idea of India itself."

The essays are not merely celebratory of Sen's "capacious idea of India." In hailing the Indian argumentative tradition, Sen does not overlook the need for discourse to be politically effective, and his chapter on Indian democracy is both reasoned and critical, calling for "broadening the force and range of political arguments and social demands." While hailing Indian democracy's success in preventing the famines that occurred with depressing regularity under British colonial rule, he stresses that this does not mean the problem of chronic and endemic hunger ("a much more complex task") has been solved. His demolition job on the Indian nuclear tests of 1998 is all the more effective for being couched in the language of reasoned discourse.

Sen is a cosmopolitan and an Indian -- and he, of course, would see no contradiction in those terms. Educated at Rabindranath Tagore's experimental school, Shantiniketan (where the earlier Bengali Nobelist prophetically dubbed Sen "Amartya," or "immortal"), and at Cambridge University, the first non-English Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, the holder of two named professorships at Harvard, film buff, cricket fan and voracious reader, Sen embodies the yearning for heterodox learning.

There is only one problem with his rich and instructive book: He constructs his essays with such meticulous reasoning and expresses his point of view in so courteous a tone that this Indian found it difficult to pick an argument with him. A future edition will need a less contentious title. ยท

Shashi Tharoor is the author of "India: From Midnight to the Millennium" and eight other books, including most recently "Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers."

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