India in Regress

JK over at 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.

4 thoughts on “India in Regress”

  1. See, that’s the problem – folks still relive the glory of those days. Oooh, back in the day we were the best yada yada yada.

    Who cares what you once were, at this point in time you’re a third world developing country with very poor infrastructure, a large section living in abject poverty, disease, corruption and the like.

    Unless people can give up the past and live in the present (and do something about things around them), there is not much hope. My two cents of course.

  2. Yet another piece on history which completely ignores the south. So what’s new, eh?

    Offhand I can think of the numerous political and architectural innovations of the Cholas: pioneers in organizing local self government, budgeting, accountability frameworks etc. Probably the only Indian kingdom which encouraged and supported a merchant owned navy.

    On the west coast, the Keralites where busy importing and assimilating Arab, Jewish and Christian cultures. They also were learning and using new technology developed by the Chinese.

    Philosophically, the Hindu revival, the Advaita philosophy and the Bhakthi movement originated and were nurtured in the south.

    So, what intellectual peaking in the Vedic period? I agree that we never caught on the whole intellectual wave of the Renaissance,but I don’t agree that we slacked off after 10BC (?!).

  3. I didn’t ignore the South. If anything the South offers a even more stark picture of Hindu India’s stultification esp because Mughal influence was less there.

    About navies — I actually had a para (that I removed because the post was already too long) in the original post about early Indian navies and the puzzling decline of Indian influence in SE Asia. I do not buy the ‘Indians are peacable folk uninterested in empire’ argument for a minute, I speculated that this was due to a change of worldview of Indian kings (from exploratory to insular).

    I really don’t want to get into a pissing match over where Bhakti originated; the point is in the ultimate analysis *wherever it originated* Bhakti et al was a failure in that it failed to uproot the superstitious rot that had set into Hinduism.

    In fact the rot sustains itself to this very day in the profusion of superstition (one of the best examples being cow worship because it is so deeply ingrained into the Hindu psyche) and caste — and South India is not immune to caste problems, cf. the near-apartheid state of affairs between Brahmins/Non-Brahmins in Tamil Nadu right upto the 1800s, which of course had alarming consequences post-Independence.

    Re ‘intellectual peaking in the Vedic period’ – well, if you define Vedic as upto ~100BC, then yes. The ‘achievements’ you mention (Advaita, Bhakti) are interesting spiritually but you can’t live on a diet of spirituality alone.

    India was once a leader in the sciences and various academic disciplines as well. That pretty much went down the toilet as India’s education system became FUBARed. And that happened as much in South India as the North. You will note that even the Keralites or the Marathas (who were coastal people and could potentially easily interact with Arabia/Europe) were unable to capitalize on the Renaissance that was happening in Europe. There were no Indian Marco Polos travelling to Florence, and that I feel says a lot about the insular nature of India in that period.

  4. very rarely i find some writings, which try 2 do justice with both side of the story, urs is one of those rare entries.
    I appriciate wat u have written.


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