PART 2: Amartya Sen: "An Assessment of the Millennium"

From: Brenda Gael McSweeney
Category: Category 1
Date: 10/15/98
Time: 8:21:13 PM
Remote Name:


This is part 2 of Amartya's lecture delivered 20 August 1998 in New Delhi.

Rationality, Mysticism and Heterogeneity

I come now to the third issue related to the diagnosis of a specific distinction between "Western" and "Indian" traditions of thinking and rationality. The point is often made that Indian culture in particular has been much more deeply religious and mystical than are the Western traditions. It is certainly true that there is an astonishingly large volume of religious literature in India. But there is also a larger volume of atheistic or agnostic writings in Sanskrit and Pali than in any other classical tradition - Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Arabic. This applies not only to the Carvaka and Lokayata schools (and their descendants), but also to Buddhism, the only agnostic world religion ever to emerge.

Even as late as the fourteenth century, Madhavacarya's book Sarvadarshanasamgraha ("the collection of all philosophies") devoted the entire first chapter to arguments in favour of the atheistic position. If these arguments were presented as part of a "Western" challenge to Indian religiosity, no doubt an Indian particularist would see it as vindication of the gulf between Western and Indian modes of thinking, but as it happens the atheistic arguments came, in this case, in a book written by a fourteenth-century Vaishnavite scholar.

Similarly, if we take the Ramayana, the great epic which some see as a holy book on the life of divine Rama, it may appear terribly "Western" to suggest that Rama should have been advised by someone not to abdicate his kingship, as he did towards the beginning of the epic, for reasons that can be seen as basically religious piety. However, this would be no "Western criticism," since this is exactly what the worldly-wise pundit called Javali tells Rama in the Ramayana itself: "O Rama, be wise, there exists no world but this, that is certain! Enjoy that which is present and cast behind thee that which is unpleasant." Heterodoxy runs throughout the early Indian documents, and a customs officer looking for contraband "Western" material would find plenty to confiscate there.

Many of the generalizations about Western rationality and its deep difference with Indian and other non-Western traditions are not worth the paper on which they are written. Each major culture tends to have very considerable heterogeneity within itself, and this applies to Western as well as Indian traditions.

The West itself is, of course, deeply diverse on the subject of nature and the supernatural. One has only to open the Television in America in the evenings to see how many tales involving supernatural forces are being dished out to credulous viewers. In this context, it is also worth recollecting, what I mentioned earlier in this talk in describing the end of last millennium, that as 1000 A.D. approached, much of Europe was seized by a panic that the world must end then and the much-feared "Last Judgment" would presently occur. The "millennium panic," as it was sometimes called, had connections with the idea that Jesus Christ would appear a thousand years prior to the so-called Last Judgment. This idea, called "milleniarinism" still survives among some sects of Christianity (for example, among Adventists). Compared with the European panic, the arrival of the year 1000 in the Shaka calendar or in the Hejira had an air of quiet normality in India. This is not to argue that Europe is more attuned to the supernatural than India, but only to note that had there been a millennium panic in India related to the Shaka or the Hejira and none in Europe in the year 1000 A.D. (that is the opposite of what actually happened), the guardians of the West-non-West distinction would have undoubtedly offered this as a telling example of the contrast between Western rationality and Indian beliefs in the supernatural.

I am not denying that the balance of different attitudes may well differ between distinct cultural traditions, but some of the generalizations that are made to present West-non-West distinctions are hard to sustain. There are enormous varieties within each culture, and also changes over time. To see the contrasts in terms of frozen generalizations about the East and West - each homogeneous on its own and sharply different from the other - would be a very great mistake. Nothing is as simple as attaching the label of "Westernization" when some people in a non-Western society criticise some on-going custom, but these criticisms may arise just as easily from local heterodoxy as from any grand preference for Westernizing a non-Western society. Buddha or Carvaka - or Javali - are as Indian as are Rama or Krishna.

Human Rights and Asian Values

I turn now to a particular debate concerning Westernization involving the place of "human rights", particularly related to political and civil liberties. Governments of some countries in Asia and Africa, which have favoured authoritarian forms of government, have often invoked an allegedly fundamental difference between Western values and local values elsewhere. "Asian values," for example, are taken to be less committed to such rights than are "Western values." The rhetoric against Westernization played a major part in the confrontations that occurred in the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. Is there a real divide between Western and non-Western values on the subject of human rights? It is certainly true that the practice of democracy and the related political and civil rights have strongly emerged in the West over the recent centuries, particularly since the European "enlightenment". There have been great champions of human rights in non-Western societies as well, for example among the leaders of movements of national independence and basic freedoms (such as Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen), but these leaders themselves have not hesitated to praise Western development of these ideas.

What is at issue is not the proximate origin of these political ideas in the West, but whether there is a real divide here between traditions of the West and those elsewhere that allow us to identify these values as quintessentially "Western values," as some authors, especially in East Asia, have done. I have tried to discuss this issue rather extensively elsewhere (particularly in my Morgenthau Memorial Lecture at the Carnegie Council in New York last year), and I have argued that hardly any such divide can be seen in this general form in the contrast between the intellectual history of the Western and non-Western worlds.

Writings favourable as well as critical of the underlying concepts of human rights can be seen both in the West and in non-Western traditions - the Indian, the Chinese, the Arabic and others. Confucius may be seen, in some respects, as being rather authoritarian, as is Kautilya, but so are Plato and St. Augustine in the West. Aristotle may be a great champion of political freedom and tolerance, but he too restricted the demand for these freedoms to free men (not slaves, not women), whereas Ashoka's theorizing on the importance of tolerance made no such exception. When Akbar was making his forceful pronouncements on tolerance of diversity and religious differences in particular, the Inquisitions were powerfully active in Europe. It is also worth recollecting that when, in the twelfth century, the great Jewish scholar Maimonides had to run away from an intolerant Europe (where he was born) and from its brutal persecution of Jews, he chose the security of a tolerant and urbane Cairo and the patronage of Sultan Saladin.

Even Confucius, who is constantly invoked by the champions of the thesis that Asian values conflict with human rights, had extensive discussions on the importance of dissent when one finds that the authorities are mistaken. As an intensely practical man, Confucius was not, of course, averse to practical caution and tact, but this did not weaken his belief in the need to oppose a government that is unacceptable: "When the [good] way prevails in the state, speak boldly and act boldly. When the state has lost the way, act boldly and speak softly."

A Concluding Remark

Time to conclude. The millennium that is coming to an end has changed the nature of the world in many different ways. It is right that we should seize this occasion to reflect on what has happened and how we might interpret them. Aside from a multitude of separate developments, the beginning of the millennium was characterized by the rise of Islamic power in the world and the end of the millennium is distinguished by the asymmetric preeminence of the West in the contemporary world. Each development is a rich subject for investigation and assessment, not least in India.

Indian civilization evolved substantially with the absorption of Islamic culture as an integral part of it. In viewing these changes, an attempt is sometimes made to see pre-Islamic India as being homogeneous and unmixed in a way it never was. The arrival of the Islamic influences only furthered a heterogeneity that was already plentifully present, and the result was an enrichment that can be seen in the arts, literature, music and culture in general. The integration is often so consummate that the internal diversity of many of the Indian traditions and practice is hardly noticed and can be brought only by a specific historical scrutiny (as I have tried to illustrate).

Rather different issues are raised by the phenomenon of the rising influence of the West that occurred in the world towards the latter end of the millennium. The asymmetries involved between the West and non-West raise legitimate matters of concern, but it is very important to be clear about the considerations that make some of these concerns cogent, while others remain far from it. The idea of "Westernization" is itself full of conceptual problems, and the need to resist cultural imperialism is often confounded with criticism of constructive influences that come proximately from the West.

The origin of an idea, or an object, or a practice may not itself be terribly significant, and what has to be examined is the contribution that the idea or the object or the practice can make as against the suppression it may bring about. This calls for a normative scrutiny - the origin in itself is neither here nor there. Also, given the historical movements of knowledge, understanding and techniques across the borders, it is often extremely hard, if not impossible, to identify the origin of an idea. The full circle that the idea of the Trigonometric notion of "sine" experienced in going from and then returning to India (an example I discussed) illustrates the difficulty in distinguishing the local from the global.

Towards the end of this talk, I presented some arguments in resisting two particular generalizations that are in vogue: first, the allegedly mystical or religious nature of Indian culture, and second, the allegedly sceptical view of human rights in non-Western traditions, particularly in the so-called "Asian values." I have argued why neither of these generalizations can be sustained by historical scrutiny.

I may perhaps end with one final remark. In the course of discussing the variety of topics that have figured in this lecture, I have had several occasions to emphasize the internal heterogeneity of Indian culture. I have also argued for seeing our civilization as quite robust and able to take influences from outside without losing its identity, or its richness. Some of the cultural debates that are occurring today - whether involving resistance to Western influence or involving the pining for societal or religious purity - really turn on the view we take of the strength of the culture. The alarmists of different kinds have a shared concept of Indian culture as terribly flimsy and brittle. This is where, I believe, my main difference is with the fearful: in the recognition of our ability to be welcoming to new influences without losing what we value and have reason to treasure. There are good reasons to recognise the robustness of our culture. We are not fragile.

UNESCO Lecture New Delhi, 20 August 1998


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