[INDOLOGY] More uninformed discussion of ancient India

Andrew Ollett andrew.ollett at gmail.com
Sun Jul 12 21:10:36 UTC 2015

Just two thoughts:

(a) Sen's contention is not that "public debate" was substantially the same
in ancient India and in the modern normative vision of deliberative
democracy, but just that concepts and practices that Sen's readers might
typically associate with Europe, the Enlightenment, and classical
liberalism (such as realism, skepticism, debate, higher education, etc.)
have analogues in precolonial India. These analogues lack historical
context in his treatment, and they're fuzzy and inexact, but the point is
just that they are there to be found.

(b) The implication of this, and what I understand to be the primary
argumentative goal, is that these concepts and practices can enter into the
"idea of India" without being rejected out of hand as imposed from without
by colonial powers. Sen explicitly positions this vision, which it's fair
to call left-nationalist for the reasons Ram-Prasad mentioned, against the
right-nationalist vision of India (which is fideist rather than
critical-skeptical and leans strongly towards Hinduism) and implicitly
against the still-too-popular idea that liberal values could only have
originated in Europe and were subsequently "gifted" to the rest of the
world through colonialism.

I don't think Sen's goal was ever to provide a complete account of Nalanda,
Buddhism, the Buddha, "the Buddhist past," Indian intellectual history, or
even a detailed reading of any particular arguments. But didn't we know
that already? Sen was not pretending to be an Indologist. Maybe Jonathan
can tell us what struck him as false, fantastic, ignorant, etc., as opposed
to hyperselective.

Andrew Ollett

On Mon, Jul 13, 2015 at 1:54 AM, Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi <
c.ram-prasad at lancaster.ac.uk> wrote:

> 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,
> Ram-Prasad
> ________________________________________
> 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
> Jonathan,
> 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
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