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Uneven about India

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's new essay collection on Indian history, culture and identity is steeped in good intentions. As a book, it does not quite hold up.


Indian economics professor Amartya Sen received the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his studies of poverty, hunger and welfare. His new book, The Argumentative Indian consists of four times four essays, and in the preface Sen writes that the first part indicates what he wants to convey to the readers. The very first essay is about the old epic Bhagavad Gita, as well as the early Indian rulers Ashoka (death 232 BC) and Akbar (death 1605), who represent Senate in favor of multanimity and tolerance. "While it is indisputable that Aristotle wrote about how important freedom was, he did not care about women and slaves in this context. Ashoka made no such distinction at the same time, ”Sen. writes. Akbar, in turn, tried to create a synthetic belief based on India's various existing religions.

In the second essay he discusses the concept svikriti, which is Sanskrit and means "acceptance", and he tries it out in relation to the secular Indian constitution of 1950, as well as India's problematic relationship with its minorities, economic classes and traditional caste. In the third, he writes about the Indian identity in relation to religion. Although about 80 percent of Indians are Hindus, the country has the third largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia and Pakistan), and otherwise many Buddhists, Jainists, Jews, Christians, Parsis and Sikhs. Hinduism has always allowed disagreement, Sen says, pointing out that Ashoka was a Buddhist and Akbar Muslim. It is worth noting that today India's Prime Minister Sikh and President are Muslim, while the largest party is led by a Christian woman. In the fourth essay, Sen writes about the Indian diaspora, of about 20 million, and various attempts are made that these should rather identify with the Hindu movements than with India as an inclusive nation.

Democracy and Hindu Nationalism

India was under the rule of the Muslims from 1526, and their mogul empire lasted for 200-300 years. The takeover of the English gradually progressed towards the incorporation into the Empire of Queen Victoria in 1857. The British colony on the subcontinent, the British Raj, was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947, one day before India resurrected as an independent nation.

India's democracy has been quite stable since then, with the exception of Indira Gandhi's state of emergency in the 70s. The Hindu Nationalist Party BJP, which held the government from 1998 to 2004, wants India to depart from its secular constitution. Amartya Sen is naturally enough against. The BJP is also wrong, he says, when they claim that the time under the moguls was a breach of India's tradition as a Hindu state. India was around 1500 predominantly Buddhist, and the sacred scriptures of the Hindus, like the Vedas, are also sacred to the Buddhists.

To substantiate his view, Sen intervenes Bhagavad Gita, part of the 2000-year-old epic Mahabharata, which is seven times as far Odyssey og Iliad together. There it is described a discussion between Krishna and Arjuna. Krishna, an incarnate deity, wins the discussion (at least on the religious level), which is about whether or not a specific war is to be fought. While Krishna emphasizes that one should do one's duty, Arjuna keeps a button on avoiding unintended consequences. This conversation has gained great theological significance for Hinduism, and is well known elsewhere in the world. Sens points are not Krishna's victorious views, but how Arjuna's more pragmatic arguments survive. J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted Krishna as presiding over the first nuclear explosion in July 1945: "I have become death, the one who destroys the world". This is a good example of one fait accompli where Arjuna's view feels very present, though it is Krishna's sense of duty that emerges.

Economics, demographics and culture

Amartya Sen writes best when dealing with his own disciplines, such as economics and demographics, and here he has good skills as a communicator. Among other things, he can say that despite progress in the economic field, the proportion of malnourished children in India is 40-60 per cent, compared with 20-40 for Africa. He also emphasizes the connection between democracy and successful crisis management, for example in the event of famine, which India has released since the establishment of the People's Government. In another essay, however, he compares India to the notorious dictatorship of China, which does not always fall out of favor with his homeland, for example when it comes to illiteracy.

However, his ambition goes further, because, as he himself says, concentrating only on reason causes culture-specific influences on values ​​and behavior to be overlooked. Nevertheless, although he has some good ideas about the cultural fabric, such as the discussion of the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, they are not many enough, and there are some repetitions. There have been many big names at all who have written some silly essay collections about India, such as Salman Rushdie, Gita Mehta and Shashi Tharoor. Even I prefer sharper voices like Arundhati Roy, Mark Tully and disputed VS Naipaul. Amartya Sen's contribution is too uneven to fully deserve a place in the last group, although his intentions are never so good.

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