Amartya Sen: “AN ASSESSMENT OF THE MILLENNIUM” – PART 1
From: Brenda Gael McSweeney
Please see India’s 1998 Nobel Laureate for Economics, Professor Amartya Sen’s last lecture delivered in Delhi. He kinldy agreed that we could share it liberally! Do enjoy!
AN ASSESSMENT OF THE MILLENNIUM
A little over four hundred years ago, in 1591-92, as the year 1000 in the Hejira calendar approached, Emperor Akbar was on the Moghal throne. The excitement, which was widely felt in Delhi and Agra about the completion of the millennium in that reckoning, led Akbar to issue a series of proclamations, about principles of governance. The pronouncements included, among other classics of civil administration, his famous tenets on religious tolerance, for example: “No man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone [is] to be allowed to go over to a religion he pleased.” There was no particular reason to think that this or any other principle had any special relevance at the end of a millennium – rather than at any other time. And yet the end of the millennium in what was then the official calendar did seem like a good moment to take stock, to reflect on basic principles, and to contemplate the shape of things to come.
There is, of course, something quite arbitrary in the segmenting of time that any calendar presents. Counting could have commenced at a different starting point and the division of periods could have been of a different length. The arrival of a new millennium is, in this sense, entirely a matter of convention. Indeed, Emperor Akbar himself had made an attempt, in 1584, to replace the Hejira calendar by a new synthetic calendar, the Tarikh-Ilahi, which – like Din-Ilahi (the synthetic religion he tried to promote) – did not survive very long. Any reckoning of a millennium must contain some inescapable plasticity.
And still, an artificially created special moment in history, once established in our minds, can be a good occasion to reflect seriously on what has happened and what might happen. The impending end of the second millennium in the modified Roman calendar that we now see as the Christian calendar, which is the most used international calendar in the contemporary world, can certainly be taken to be such a moment. The millennium excitement that is gripping the world at this time may not be based on any profound or transcendental reality, and yet the excitement itself makes it a special moment and gives us an occasion to look back and wonder.
It would, of course, be quite hopeless to try to do any real “assessment” of the millennium, on a narrow interpretation of the audacious title of this lecture. The world is much too large for such an exercise and a millennium much too long a period. No less difficult is the problem of choosing a perspective in terms of which any attempted assessment may be performed. Instead of trying to do the impossible, we could interpret the exercise in more limited and manageable terms, as an attempted understanding of a few specific developments in the history of the world.
The World a Millennium Ago
Let us, then, begin by looking at the world a thousand years ago – at the end of the last millennium. What exactly was happening in the world as the year 1000 A.D. approached? Well, the impending end of the millennium itself generated a sense of anxiety and dread. Europe was seized with panic, based on a widely shared belief that the world will come to an end as the millennium is completed and the dreaded “Last Judgment” would occur. Millions of panic-stricken Europeans breathed a sigh of relief as the year 1001 arrived.
But amidst all this fear and consternation, normal activities of trade, culture, science, literature and the arts continued. The millennium panic also did not prevent the continuation of normal battles and conflicts while 1000 A.D. approached. The European wars, in particular, continued as usual. Norway came under Danish rule after losing the battle of Svolder in 1000 A.D. Shortly before that, Germans subdued the Slavnici, the last independent tribe of Bohemia, and also got ready to fight Poland which occurred in the very early years of the new millennium. Britain went through a difficult time – vulnerable as it was to outside attack. Essex was subdued by the Danes in the battle of Maldon in 991; Vikings ravaged Yorkshire in 993; Norwegians and Danes besieged London in 994; Danes attacked the Isle of Wight in 998; and so on. Stability would not come until well after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
The Indian subcontinent – to looked at our own locality – also was not devoid of divisions and wars. As the year 1000 A.D. approached, the Palas ruled over Bengal and Bihar, the Pratiharas reigned over West india and the upper Ganges valley, Cholas governed Tamil Nadu, Chandellas controlled Bundelkhand, Kalachuris had Madhya Pradesh, Chahamanis ruled East Rajasthan, Paramaras were in charge of Malwa, and while one line of Chalukyas reigned over West and Central Deccan, another was powerful in Gujarat. King Rajaraja of the Chola dynasty conquered Sri Lanka as the millennium came to an end.
Islamic Rule and Influence
These are some of the details of history as the new millennium began, but if we take a more panoramic view of the millennium, two big changes cannot escape our attention. The new millennium began with the rise of Islamic power in the world, and it is ending with an established Western dominance of the globe. Both these developments changed the nature of the world, but had particularly profound effects on India. For one thing the governance of India shifted from the collection of diverse Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms (just described) at the end of the last millennium to a diversity of Islamic rules, culminating in the Moghal empire. And this in turn gave way to the British Raj, taking us almost to the end of the millennium itself. An assessment of the millennium from the Indian perspective cannot but address the impact and implications of these major trends of history.
The coming of Islamic rule in India was part of a larger process. Indeed, if we examine the world in the early centuries of the new millennium, we see a nearly continuous band of Islamic rules from the Atlantic, across North Africa, around the Western Mediterranean, on to West Asia, and to India. In India it commenced with raids rather than conquests. Just around 1000 A.D., the early invasions by Muslim kings across the Khyber Pass began with great severity. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni kept visiting and revisiting India, concentrating on plundering and ravaging rather than ruling the country. But in the centuries to follow, these invasions would give way to Muslim rulers settled in India, from the Sultanates to the Moghals. India would become a partly Muslim country.
The absorption of Islamic influences within the body of Indian civilization is resented by some Hindu activists who look to the pre-Muslim period as the era of purity of the unalloyed Indian civilization. This raises the interesting question as to whether such a purity did, in fact, exist in the pre-Muslim period. It also raises the question: how best to view the integration of Islamic rule and culture in India, and how to assess its impact on the identity of Indian civilization itself. I must briefly address these questions.
Nature and Reach of Western Dominance
The second set of questions relates to the rise of the West in the latter part of the millennium. This includes, of course, the British Raj itself, but there is a more general issue that engages the attention of many contemporary commentators across the world. This is the issue of Westernization and of the dominance of the West, which enjoys not only political preeminence, economic authority and military superiority, but also cultural influence of a kind that no civilization in the past had.
The world was much more evenly balanced in 1000 A.D. While the beginnings of the changes that would usher in the Renaissance were already in the making, and the economic, political, cultural and social developments that would lead to the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment could be seen in parts of Europe, there was no great asymmetry yet between Europe and the rest of the world. Emperor Otto III may have made Rome his permanent residence in 1000 A.D., but the world did not shiver at the thought of any new Roman conquest as the first millennium came to an end. Venice, the rising star in the Mediterranean, did manage to reign over the Dalmatian coast and the Adriatic Sea, but this was a strictly local power base, and the flourishing trades with Asia and Western Europe in which Venice and Genoa both engaged, were not unlike what Asian and Arab traders were doing for centuries. China, Japan, India, Iran, the Arab world, African kingdoms, and other civilizations and societies continued to have their own ways without being bossed over by the West.
Aside from these old world centres of power and authority, there were, of course, great civilizations in the American continents. While 1000 A.D. is precisely the date on which Leif Ericson, the son of Eric the Red, is supposed to have “discovered” America, his journey, if true, did not take him beyond the remoteness of Nova Scotia, and it gave the old world no clue of the splendours of the Mayan civilization which was then at its peak in the Yucatan peninsula, nor of the Tiahuanaco civilization which covered all of Peru. The dominance of Europe was, in fact, nearly “total” in the way the American continents were reshaped in the latter half of the last millennium – totally subduing and sometimes obliterating the central features of the preceding civilizations that were overrun and overpowered by Europeans.
The subjugation was not quite as total in Asia and Africa, but the question of Western dominance arises there too, and it is a question that continues to engage attention today. There can, of course, be little doubt about the asymmetric power of the West in the contemporary world, but a more interesting question is raised in the diagnosis of the sense in which the world in which we live today is “Westernized.” What counts as Westernization? How much dependence does it generate? How destructive are its consequences? These questions have to be asked.
A central normative issue concerns the acceptability of what is seen as Western cultural influence on non-Western worlds. The dominance of the West leads to triumphalism in some quarters and great resentment in others. How should we assess all this? This is the second basket of questions I want to examine briefly, in this lecture.
Islam and India
I begin, then, with the first set of questions, concerning the absorption of Islamic culture in India and how it affects the nature of Indian identity and civilization. What did the Islamic influence do to India? Did it, in fact, change what is sometimes characterized, by some contemporary commentators, as a homogeneous culture – an allegedly “pure” pre-Islamic culture – into an inescapably hybrid one? The sense of a loss of Indian pureness in the early years of this millennium seems to have some hold in political discussions in contemporary India. How sound is this way of seeing what happened in the last millennium?
It is worth beginning by recollecting that even pre-Muslim India was not just Hindu India. Indeed, to begin with the most obvious, perhaps the greatest Indian emperor in the pre-Muslim period was a Buddhist, to wit, Ashoka, and there were other great non-Hindu emperors, including Harsha. Even as the Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided India, the Buddhist dynasty of the Palas was firmly in command over eastern India. In fact, Bengal moved rapidly from Buddhist rule to Muslim rule with only a very brief period of Hindu monarchy in between – in the form of the rather hapless Sena kings.
It must also be recollected the nearly all the major world religions other than Islam were already well represented in India well before the last millennium. Indeed, when Christianity started gaining ground in Britain in the seventh century, India had had large and settled communities of Christians for at least three hundred years – certainly from the fourth century. Jews too had been settled in India – in fact from immediately after the fall of Jerusalem. And of course, Buddhism and Jainism had been quite well-entrenched in India for a very long time. The Muslim arrival merely filled up the spectrum.
Another point to note is that unlike the British rule in India where the rulers remained separate from the ruled, Muslim rules in India were combined with the presence of a large proportion of Muslims in the population itself. A great many people in the land embraced Islam, so much so that three of the four largest Muslim national populations in the contemporary world are situated in this subcontinent: in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indeed, the only non-subcontinental country among the top four Muslim populations in the world, Indonesia, was also converted to Islam by Indian Muslims, mostly from Gujarat. Islam was by then a native Indian religion.
It is also worth noting that though Islam remained a separate religion from Hinduism, the roles of the different communities in the cultural life of the country were largely integrated. Whether in music or in painting or in poetry, evidence of integration is plentifully present. Indeed, it would be impossible to understand the nature of Indian culture today without seeing it in integrated terms. While references to raids from Ghazni and other isolated elements of divisive history remains tactically potent and even flammable in the contemporary politics of India, the nature of the present-day Indian civilization cannot be understood without seeing it as a joint product of many influences of which the Islamic component is very strong.
The integrated nature of contemporary Indian culture has been illustrated by many commentators with reference particularly to the arts, the literature, and music. Let me choose a different field of illustration, involving an example of integration that does not seem to have been much discussed. Even though Akbar failed, as was noted earlier, in his attempt to establish an integrated calender, the Tarikh-Ilahi, such integration did take place in odd forms across the country.
It is, for example, year 1405 now in the Bengali calendar. What does 1405 stand for? Its history is a most engaging form of cultural integration. In the year 963 in the Muslim Hejira calendar (coinciding with 1556 A.D.), the Bengali solar calendar – corresponding to the Shaka system of reckoning – was “adjusted” to the Hejira number, that is, the clock was put back, as it were, to 963. Since then the Hejira has marched ahead, being a lunar calendar, so that the Bengali “san” has fallen behind Hejira as well. But when a Bengali Hindu does his religious ceremonies according to the local calendar, he may not be fully aware that the dates invoked in his Hindu practice is attuned to commemorating Mohammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina, albeit in a mixed lunar-solar representation.
The last millennium saw the occurrence of a remarkable integration in the subcontinent, and while separatists in both communities often challenge the integration that has emerged, there can be very little doubt about the range and reach of the integration that has been achieved.
I turn now to the second set of questions. What about the ascendancy of the West and its world-wide impact? This has become a subject of concern and disquiet in many parts of the non-Western world – including India. The criticism here may not have quite the form that it has in, say, West Asia, but the critique of Western influence in the post-colonial world is quite strong in India as well. There is by now quite a world literature that is directly or indirectly concerned with “cultural imperialism” – a field in which Indian authors have made very substantial contributions.
There can be little doubt that there do exist many examples of cultural imperialism in the contemporary world and that they certainly call for critical scrutiny. For example, the weakening of locally rich literary traditions, which has occurred in many cases, can be cogently regretted and sensibly resisted. On the other, criticism of Westernization can also be a cloak for unreasoned conservatism and a force for reaction in a world of constant change. It is not only the Taliban that plants the label of Westernization on many unsuspecting candidates (such as the schooling of girls), but the rhetoric of resisting Westernization can be a very potent means of undermining critical scrutiny of local traditions and practices in general.
While some of the recent grumbles about Westernization concern such commodity-centred issues as the popularity of the M.T.V. or of Coca Cola or of Macdonalds, the weightier disputes tend to raise questions about much profounder issues, in particular the growing dominance of “Western modes of thinking,” “Western conceptions of rationality,” and “Western science and technology.” The effect of these dominant relations is to undermine – it has been argued – the regional traditions of thinking, native concepts of rationality, and local knowledge and practical wisdom. An overemphasis on analytical reasoning is seen as one of the outcomes, which has tended to undermine, it is argued, the native mystical and religious ideas, and other modes of thought, that are native to India. How justified are these diagnoses? How cogent are these concerns?
What Counts as Westernization?
I start with an elementary question: what kind of an animal is Westernization? Like the blind men describing an elephant in the old Indian tale, different commentators tend to concentrate on different aspects of Westernization. Some describe, as it were, the legs, others the trunk, and still others the tusk. But unlike the real elephant in that tale, it is not obvious that there is, in this case, a pre-existing concept of a total elephant, with legs and a trunk and a tusk around a body which together make up a whole. Westernization, one can argue, is not at all like that – it does not exist independently of our conceptualization, and what we take the total animal to be is itself a matter of judgment.
I should put my own cards on the table. I believe the idea of Westernization is used too readily and too uncritically in many of the contemporary debates to be helpful for serious cultural critique. The fear of Westernization and its debilitating effects suffers from a number of distinct problems. First, there is the question whether any influence across the border is to be seen as dependence and whether anything taken from the West would then count as making a country Westernized. If Westernization is to be feared, we surely need an analysis that goes beyond the simple identification of the origin of a thing or a thought. The progress of culture as well as science and mathematics in the world has greatly benefitted from learning things across the borders. Not to be able to distinguish creative influences from debilitating dependence on others would be a blinding mistake.
Second, given the historical interconnections between different cultures, it may be hard to determine what are the exact origins of particular ideas, or objects, or techniques. Very many different types of influences have come in recent years from the West to non-Western societies. Some are quintessentially European, like the English language, the French language, and so on. While others – such as scientific knowledge or technology or cultural practice – may be so mixed in their origin that it would be quite hopeless to try to determine from where they have originated.
Third, some the generalizations about the contrast between “Western” and “Indian” conceptions of rationality and modes of thinking seem oddly naive and simplistic. There are enough heterogeneities within each of these traditions to make such generalizations deeply problematic. I shall discuss these different issues in turn.
The Irrelevance of Origin
Why is it important to worry about the geography of origin of an idea or an object? If Westernization is seen as a legitimate source of concern, then some bad effects would have to be identified, rather than simply noting the fact of foreign origin. Does the use of penicillin amount to Westernization? What about the enjoyment of Shakespeare? On the other side, was Goethe getting de-Europeanized because he was so moved by his reading of Kalidasa? Is Indian cooking deeply Westernized because Chili was unknown in India until the Portuguese brought it to India? Are Bengali sweets not Bengali because the use of “chana” (or cottage cheese) in this form came with the European settlements in eastern India? Isn’t there a difference between cultural contact and cultural dependence?
Even if something were distinctly a product of a particular country or culture, to assume that its use elsewhere must undermine other countries or cultures is a completely arbitrary presumption. Rabindranath Tagore put the main point with great clarity:
Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that the all the great glories of man are mine.
This is not to deny that we may have ground to resent the import of a practice from elsewhere when it stifles or obliterates some local practice or tradition to which the regional people have reason to attach value. Each such use has to be judged, on the one hand, by what it offers (what valuable things we learn from others), and on the other, by what it may stifle (what valuable things of our own we forget as a result of outside influence). The precise origin of an object or an idea or a technique is not crucial for this judgment, and has to be distinguished from the assessment of its impact and creative and destructive effects.
The problem cannot be dealt with simply by disapproving every cultural import, nor by regarding every import to be just fine. The main issue is surely to increase the freedom that people have to choose between alternative life styles and ways of being.
To some extent this is best dealt with by leaving the choices to the individuals involved. But there may be cases in which the survival of local cultural forms may be threatened by strong-armed or better-funded competition from foreign sources. It is, then, up to the society to determine what, if anything, it wants to do to preserve old forms of living, even at significant economic cost. Life styles can indeed be preserved if the society decides to do just that, and it is a question of balancing the costs of such preservation against the value that the society attaches to the objects and life styles to be preserved. There is, of course, no ready formula for this cost-benefit analysis, but what is crucial for a rational assessment of such choices is the ability of the people to participate in public discussions on this subject. There is no compulsion to preserve every departing life style at heavy cost, but there is a need – for social justice – that people should be able to take part in these social decisions, if they so choose.
The Spread of Science, Mathematics and Culture
I come now to the second issue: the difficulty in deciding what exactly is the origin of an idea or an object. Sometimes a thing may come, proximately, from the West, but its earlier origin may have involved non-Western influences in a crucial way. This is particularly the case when we talk about science or mathematics, since these subjects absorbed the contributions of many different societies and cultures. To the immediate recipient, the arriving ideas and beliefs may look identifiably “Western”, since they are brought in by people from the West, and yet these ideas and beliefs may not be, in any sense, specifically Western in nature or in origin.
Perhaps I can illustrate the point with an example I have used in a different context (in the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture I gave in Calcutta in 1995 under the title “Our Culture, Their Culture” ), namely, the arrival of modern mathematics in British India. The subject arrived in Indian high schools in a distinctly British form, and the terminology as well as the exact propositions were a reflection of what was then standard in English high schools. There is, however, nothing qunitessentially “British” or “Western” about contemporary mathematics, even though some conservatives in India did see it as an intrusion of Western modes of thought. As it happens, some of the basic ideas, for example of Trigonometry, that were being introduced by the British in Indian schools had, in fact, been developed in India itself, even though these came back to India through Western textbooks.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the point better than the origin of the term “sine” – a central concept in Trigonometry. Aryabhata, the Indian mathematician, had discussed the concept of “sine” in the late fifth and early sixth century, and he called it jya-ardha (half-chord) in Sanskrit, and sometimes abbreviated it simply as jya. When the Arabs took on this notion, they Arabized the term jya, and with that began a remarkable story of international transformation of terminology. Howard Eves, the historian of mathematics, describes it thus:
Aryabhata called it ardha-jya (“half-chord”) and jya-ardha (“chord-half”), and then abbreviated the term by simply using jya (“chord”). From jya the Arabs phonetically derived jiba, which, following Arabic practice of omitting vowels, was written as jb. Now jiba, aside from its technical significance, is a meaningless word in Arabic. Later writers who came across jb as an abbreviation for the meaningless word jiba substituted jaib instead, which contains the same letters, and is a good Arabic word meaning “cove” or “bay”. Still later, Gherardo of Cremona (ca. 1150), when he made his translations from the Arabic, replaced the Arabian jaib by its Latin equivalent, sinus [meaning a cove or a bay], from whence came our present word sine.
Given the migration of ideas in mathematics and in science, it is hard to see any particular concept or discipline as being specifically from any part of the world – the West or anywhere else.
In fact, as we look at the time around the end of the first millennium, cross-cultural comparisons bring out the spread of Eastern influence on Western mathematics. While the decimal system was well developed in India by the sixth century and used extensively by Arab mathematicians soon thereafter, the arithmetic notation and procedures reached Europe mainly in the last quarter of the tenth century. Also, the related use of zero, which too was well established by then in Indian and Arab mathematics, still needed some championing, and the Indian mathematician Sridhara produced a definitive treatment of this issue around 1000 A.D. Indeed, these two are the only items of mathematical interest between 975 and 1000 A.D. that are noted in the well-known reference books The Timetables of History, and in Kulturfahrplan, in German, edited respectively by Bernard Grun and Werner Stein. Similarly, the only scientific invention in physics and chemistry that is recorded for this period in the world, in these reference books, is the perfection of gunpowder by Chinese scientists, just around 1000 A.D.
What goes by the name of “Western science” or “Western mathematics” is not exclusively a product of the West, even though it is in the West that some of the integration and recent developments have tended to occur. Indeed, in nearly every field of knowledge and art and craft, influences run across boundaries at impressive speed, and it is just as hopeless to find fully home-grown Western science or mathematics or literature or the arts, as it is to resent innovations coming from other countries for the fear that its foreign origin would itself undermine local culture.