JK over at varnam.org has a great post asking ‘What Argumentative Indian?’ to Amartya Sen’s new book. I wasn’t very happy with the book either because it seemed to me while it did a good job of supporting his thesis that many ‘Western’ notions were in fact not so Western after all, it did not do a good job of explaining why despite these ideals much of the West ended up with secular democracies while India ended up first a rag-tag bunch of kingdoms that was easy pickings for the British (who then through their education system created a new generation of educated Indians who re-introduced concepts of civic democracy and nationalism back to the country).
It seems to me that the prodigious intellectual output of India during the Vedic period had given way to near-intellectual bankruptcy around 10BC. The chief culprit that destroyed India’s intellectual depth, I would say, was an increasingly rigid and unforgiving caste system, which had a side-effect of compartmentalizing knowledge and denying a first-class education to all (incidentally making Sanskrit effectively a court language and sealing its fate by making it incomprehensible to the masses, and as a third-order effect creating India’s modern tower of Babel). A rise in superstition and ritual mirrored the decline in education, as cows became ‘holy,’ temples became richer and rituals more elaborate. Brave and occasionally successful attempts to present alternatives to this dysfunctional society would abound in the next 500 years (starting with the Siddhartha Gautama and leading up to the Bhakti Movement and the Sikh gurus) but they had little impact on the majority of India’s Hindus who returned to worshipping rats and snakes, believing in Karma and generally accepting their lot in life.
And in a few hundred years much of India would come under Mughal rule, and (Akbar’s catholicism in religious matters notwithstanding) her history would roughly mirror those of other Islamic empires: people-rich empires (rich enough in people and uncaring enough of talent, it is said, that Shah Jahan had the hands of the creators of the Taj Mahal cut off that they may never recreate its wonder again) turning out intricate works of art, craft and clothing; but ignorant of the European renaissance and the rumblings of scientific enquiry emanating from the West, blissfully unaware that their ignorance of these would soon prove their downfall.
Yes, as the good Professor argues, Indian had achieved a high level of intellectual achievement at a time when most Europeans were in bearskins. What to me matters more is that Europe came out of her dark ages and saw a continent-wide Renaissance that it followed up with a scientific and industrial revolution. Whereas India never thought of herself as being in one and as a result various renaissance movements (Mahatma Phule, the Brahmo Samaj, Periyar) had extremely limited effect, even socially.
It is no wonder the Vedic period is unfailingly eulogised by traditionalists who then blithely ignore the rot that set into India in subsequent years. Perhaps the most telling fact about this loss is that it became necessary for Amartya Sen to write his essays to help his countrymen ‘rediscover’ these ideals in the first place.