Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen

In this collection of essays on Indian history, culture and identity the economist Amartya Sen attempts to illustrate the heterodoxy that has persisted in Indian traditions for last three thousand years, and the role that skepticism and reasoning have played in them. Sen repeatedly recalls the tolerant edicts of Asoka, and Akbar’s decidedly multicultural pursuits; he also quotes from classical texts to make his point. Even the Vedas, he writes, have verses that are deeply doubtful and skeptical their own explanation of the creation of the world:
“Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who knows whence it has arisen?
When this creation has arisen – perhaps it has 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.”
A good part of Sen’s motivation for his essays seems to stem the urge to correct “exoticist” and excessively spiritual perceptions of the history and religions of South Asia that exist in the West and that are also influential in the way the people of the Indian subcontinent view themselves. And Sen’s point also seems to be that the argumentative tradition needs to be better appreciated and effectively used to correct the sharp inequities – pertaining to class, caste, gender – prevalent today.

The essays are written in a tone that is “benignly professorial” – as Pankaj Mishra in his review of the book for the Outlook magazine describes it – but the academic solemnity of his writing seamlessly transforms itself, when the occasion demands, into something sharp and ironic. For instance, Sen notes in one of his well-researched articles on types of gender inequities (Women and Men) that in the 1970s the much-used Handbook for Human Nutrition Requirement, drafted by a high level expert committee from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), chose to classify household work as a ‘sedentary activity’. Sen’s contempt at this classification is evident in his own assessment: “It was hard not to think that the lack of experience of household work on the part of the patrician members of that august committee might have had a role in the remarkable diagnosis that household work was ‘sedentary’.”


Senthil said...

Aha. You're back! Goody!
Hey, with all this spam, I think it's time for you to turn on word verification on the comments...

Hari said...

Thanks, Senthiil. I didn't know that. I've turned it on now. .

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