[INDOLOGY] More uninformed discussion of ancient India

Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi c.ram-prasad at lancaster.ac.uk
Sun Jul 12 20:24:13 UTC 2015

While I too have often worried about Sen’s views along the lines mentioned in this thread, Birgit’s concluding question is a thought-provoking one. Not ignorance, for a man educated at Santiniketan, grandson of Kshtimohan Sen (see the intriguing foreword he provides in the 2002 re-issue of his grandfather’s Penguin book, Hinduism), who had many years of discussion of Indian thought with Matilal and Mohanty.
So, argumentative strategy. I think we can see him as affected by different cultural vectors. First, of course, is the ‘secular Indian’ public intellectual’s resistant response to Hindu nationalism, which makes him feel that drawing substantially on ‘Hindu’ thought for contemporary discussion is dangerous. Second is his version of the Tagorean notion of Asia, which makes Buddhism attractive as the historical-ideological vehicle for pan-Asian values; something that plays a large role, I hazard, in his involvement with the Nalanda initiative. Third is his reluctance to concede to a completely modernist rejection of the Indian past that characterizes both classic Indian Marxists and many liberals (see Ramachandra Guha’s excoriation of The Argumentative Indian in a review somewhere, from just such a perspective); and possibly, there is a Bengali intellectual strain that includes Ashis Nandy, which worries about the rootlessness of contemporary Indian liberalism but does not think through the historical and philosophical complexity of reading the past for the present.
So what we have is a clumsy redaction of the Buddhist past. It is neither robustly philosophical in identifying the structure of arguments and then clearly demonstrating their disembedding from context for the purposes of conceptual analysis; nor carefully text-historical in locating the ideas in their context and their temporal trajectory. We do not even have a historical philosophy that acknowledges the complexity of context and engages in close reading of text, while also seeking to develop ideas for contemporary relevance. Instead, we have a radically simplified pseudohistory of ideas. (I blame Charles Taylor...)

Best wishes,
From: INDOLOGY [indology-bounces at list.indology.info] on behalf of Birgit Kellner [kellner at asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de]
Sent: Sunday, July 12, 2015 8:35 PM
To: indology at list.indology.info
Subject: Re: [INDOLOGY] More uninformed discussion of ancient India


like Dominik, I agree with you. Ignorance of history, perhaps, but
definitely a tendency to project certain ideals that Sen himself shares
-- especially that a society should be driven by reasoned debate in a
public arena -- back into Indian history.

This also comes to the fore e.g. in Sen's book "The Argumentative
Indian" and his 2014 article/essay "The Contemporary Relevance of
Buddha" (Ethics&International Affairs 28/1, 15-27). There is a
romanticized depiction of Buddhism as utterly rational and committed to
reason and public debate in the latter piece that is not only bizarre in
its one-sidedness, but also depressing in the way that it does not
engage the historicity of Buddhist thought. The possibility that "public
debate", for instance, might actually represent something very different
in ancient India and in modern democracies does not even seem to be
entertained. Is this ignorance, or some kind of argumentative strategy?
I'm wondering.

Best regards,

Birgit Kellner

Am 12.07.2015 um 17:00 schrieb Jonathan Silk:
> Dear Friends,
> In a somewhat different vein than the ongoing discussion of a certain
> Hindutva partisan, you might want to take a look at Amartya Sen's
> piece: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/aug/13/india-stormy-revival-nalanda-university/
> In my opinion, while his political position seems to be something close
> to 180 degrees the opposite, he is in some ways remarkably similar in
> his almost studied ignorance of classical India. His portrayal of
> Nalanda is nothing short of fantasy, and I confess that I am
> disappointed and depressed to see such fictions repeated by someone who,
> until recently, was actually significantly influential in this 'neo'
> Nalanda project. That it might be advantageous to say certain rosy
> things in a political context is one thing, but the result is, to my
> mind, an utter misrepresentation of the historical truth. A final point
> is that by portraying Nalanda as an international university, using in
> his description explicitly secular categories, the anti-Hindutva Sen
> succeeds in virtually entirely subverting the Buddhist nature of Nalanda.
> I am curious if I am alone in my impressions of this piece.
> Jonathan
> --
> J. Silk
> Leiden University
> Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, LIAS
> Matthias de Vrieshof 3, Room 0.05b
> 2311 BZ Leiden
> The Netherlands
> copies of my publications may be found at
> http://www.buddhismandsocialjustice.com/silk_publications.html
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Prof. Dr. Birgit Kellner
Chair of Buddhist Studies
Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context - The
Dynamics of Transculturality"
University of Heidelberg
Karl Jaspers Centre
Voßstraße 2, Building 4400
D-69115 Heidelberg
Phone: +49(0)6221 - 54 4301 (Office Ina Chebbi: 4363)
Fax: +49(0)6221 - 54 4012

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