July 25, 2006

Sen and Sensibility

This is the first of a series of posts in which I will critique the collection of essays by Professor Amartya Sen in his recent book, The Argumentative Indian. I submit that Professor Sen's arguments in these essays have been clouded by his sensibility to the feelings of the muslim community in his country of origin, India.

I was first introduced to Professor Amartya Sen when he delivered a lecture at UCLA in 1985. I recall that it was a talk on rational choice. A story that Prof. Sen used to illustrate his theory of choice has stuck in my mind ever since. The story went like this. Pedro and his gang had captured ten gringos (Americans) and were about to kill them all. Pedro's friend, a Jesuit priest, happened to visit him just then. Giving his gun to the padré, Pedro offered to let nine of the gringos go free, if only the padré would agree to kill one of his choice. The priest had taken a vow not to kill, and faced the dilemma of breaking his vow and killing one of the gringos, or the equally terrifying alternative of letting them all be killed by Pedro. I guess, the point that Sen was trying to make was that choice involved not just reasoning, but also sensibilities.1 I contend that Professor Sen's book, The Argumentative Indian, reflects how his own sensibilities have affected his reasoning.

My main points are as follows:

  • Professor Sen argues that heterodoxy and argumentation in the Indian tradition — free presentation and discussion of differing ideas and views — has laid a strong foundation for the nation's secular democratic form of governance. With the exception of a brief period during Akbar's rule, Sen does not present any significant evidence of encouragement and continuation of such a dialogical tradition in the second millennium C.E.. During most of this period Islam was the reigning religion in India. Does Islam proscribe debate and discussion of its ideas? If so, isn't Islam inconsistent with a secular democracy?
  • Sen suggests that the same dialogical tradition has been the mainstay of India's significant contributions in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, and science. India's contributions in these fields ceased to a trickle during the Islamic rule, once again with the possible exception of Akbar's rule. Could this be attributed to the lack of a dialogical tradition in Islam?
  • Sen seems to favor a kind of secularism in India that is equidistant from all the religions, as opposed to the strict separation of religion and state. I think that this is a dangerous prescription for India, given its history and demographics.
  • Sen argues for one's identities by reasoned choice and not, as it is often thought to be, by the "discovery" of one's community or culture. I tend to agree with this view. Sen, however, confuses identities with ideas. The identity of a hindu or a muslim is quite distinct from the idea(s) of Hinduism or Islam. It's quite like the difference between Sen's book, The Argumentative Indian, which is a collection of ideas on [India's] social history, and the identity of a social historian.

I will discuss each one of these points in the forthcoming posts, but not in any particular order. In the end, however, I hope to show that Professor Sen is not himself secular of the kind that he advocates for India. He has not placed himself equally distant from the religions that he talks about in his book. His sensibility towards muslims precludes him from taking such a position.

1 I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you the amusing end of this episode during Prof. Sen's presentation. After relating the story, Prof. Sen asked [probably not verbatim], "What's the rational thing for the priest to do? Kill one gringo or let Pedro shoot them all?". A booming voice from the audience quipped, "Simple, kill Pedro!". The voice, of course, was that of Professor Armen Alchian, who is described here as, "...the founder of the "UCLA tradition" in economics, a tradition that continues to this day. This tradition emphasizes that individual behavior is self-seeking and "rational" and that this has many unanticipated consequences."

  1. Interesting - Look forward to the posts. meantime, will try to finish the book in order to be able to indulge in a meaningful dialogue if possible.

  2. Sen's Argumentative...(AI for short) is a poorly produced volume - merely a collection of essays (actually lectures) delivered before naive undergraduates. In the interest of lethargy I am reposting a comment I made elsewhere on a another blog post on AI.

    Where does one start?
    I haven't read Sen's book yet but I am certainly in no hurry to buy a compilation of weekend-over-a-morning's-coffee reading. Why do I dislike big names churning out compilations like this one? Having been thru the contents pages of the book I am underwhelmed. First why the title "Argumentative..."? This wasn't Sen's original idea when he started writing those essays about 10 years ago, and in case it's an idea that has crystallised over the last ten years of thinking what experiences have led him to that end point? And if indeed he has arrived at this quite clearly new point of view how about delving into the idea and writing about it afresh instead of serving some warmed up leftovers?

    Ram Guha's review http://tinyurl.com/94cvt is the most interesting. I have corresponded with Guha (drawing replies on things he likes pointed out and silence on his illiberal observations which BTW are to be found often in his writings). Guha's makes a few observations that first of all undermine the praise that is uncritically heaped on Sen by a fawning public in India (and probably in the West where he is the latest token India guru). In doing so Guha as usual doesn't know where his leg stump is - so busy he is chasing the ball. Sen's ill-read and unlearned myth making imagining a connection between Akbar and Gandhi/Nehru's 'secularism' or Buddist 'republic' and modern Indian republicanism is unspun in a few well written paragraphs where he draws out references both from Gandhi's and Nehru's writings. While Gandhi thought Akbar turned tolerant because of the influence of Hindu India (which is like saying English Anglia) Nehru thought Akbar did little towards establishing a scientific culture. And India's present republican and constitutional form Guha shows is a result of the Constitutient Assembly and what came after. A few other errors that Guha points out in the book (calling Ambedkar 'leader of the constitution' etc.) show up a certain casual approach to very serious issues on Sen's part. That these errors have remained over the years and crept into a compilation speaks poorly of Sen's copy editors and research team (if any). While the larger mistake of seeing connections where there aren't any can be conceded as a matter of Sen's opinion these small mistakes are serious matters. Guha himself is not very well read in Indic literature it seems when he refers to the Yajnavalkya argument with some "girl" that the latter supposedly loses, when a little searching on the web would have let him read thru that now famous debate starring Gargi Vachaknavi. Instead Guha jumps forward to the present and trots out an obscure reference to a Yajnavalkya Smriti on marital relations as if to deny any argumentatism to those of the past Sen holds up as examples. Doesn't Guha know that even if he were to hold orthodox Hindus to account a Smriti is not forever only Sruti is More interesting still is what Guha leaves out. While Shashi Tharoor writes of Sen's examples of skepticism drawn from the Vedas and even the Ramayana, Guha for reasons best known to him leaves these references out entirely. Maybe it isn't the done thing to find questioning or arguments in these writings. While Guha seems to have read a lot of Gandhi, Nehru. a little Ambedkar and plenty of other 19th and 20th century writing he has never revealed any knowledge of classical Indian writing in Sanskrit or for that matter in any otehr Indian languages. Sen of course is better read in Sanskrit and Bengali but is by no means an expert in those languages and is clearly out of his depth in the Indian philosophical tradition. As for Guha the less said the better. All the four reviewers linked here may vary in their appreciation or understanding of the Indic classics but are uniformly ignorant of its language and content. And that is unfortunate. India must be one of those exceptions on the globe where a scholar of its culture needs to know study nothing written in its languages or by its own people. Which is why I liked Saeed Naqvi's simple unostentatious review here
    Why is it someone like Saeed Naqvi who is probably the most well travelled foreign correspondent in the world today - save none - who is well read in Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Brajbhasha and English and can forget more national leaders than this gang of four will ever meet so modest?

  3. Sen is the latest exhibit I offer in the proof of my theorem: An Indian who achieves recognition for his expertise in any discipline immediately becomes an expert on the rest.

    Good post...looking forward to the entire series.

  4. Very interesting post. I come here from Usha's blog, & I've enjoyed your many insightful takes on her posts.

    - Yes, I agree that Sen usually falls short of providing justification for his positions on India outside of Akbar & Ashoka.

    - About Sen's stand on secularism, my initial feeling was that he was talking about a kind of assimilation of religions in the society & the state being cognizant of this & equidistant from this ensemble in terms of policies. I think what he was trying say that the nation was not in a state of denial of the existing religions.

    Also, to an extent I tend to view Sen's pro-Islamic stance as a pro-socio-econimically-deprived-minority stance. I think inequality & injustice in societies is what he is talking about, be it Muslims in India, or homosexuals in the rest of the world.

    I blog here, in case you want to take a look.


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