Sunday, July 03, 2011

A.K.Ramanujan's famous essay

Is there an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay online.
Some commentaries:
Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan by Candy Wagoner ""Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?" is a cultural essay that appears in social anthropologist, McKim Marriot's India Through Hindu Categories (1990). Ramanujan's ultimate answer to the title question is yes; it is what he calls "context-sensitive" as opposed to "context-free." These terms, he takes from linguistics, in which they refer to different kinds of grammatical rules. In applying them to cultures or ways of thinking, Ramanujan relies primarily on a text-based analysis. He cautions that they are "overall tendencies." "Actual behavior may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor guiding the behavior" (47). Context-sensitive is, he suggests, the more appropriate term for what others have taken for an Indian tendency toward inconsistency and hypocrisy, as well as, perhaps tolerance and mimicry. Ramanujan cites Said's Orientalism here, suggesting a European source for these stereotypes created out of a necessity to essentialize and exoticize the Eastern world.

Context-free thinking, which he attributes to Euro-American culture, gives rise to universal testaments of law, such as in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the European philosophical tradition, e.g. Hegel. Context-sensitive thinking, on the other hand, gives rise to more complicated sets of standards such as the Laws of Manu, by which appropriateness depends on various factors, especially factors of identity and personhood, such as birth, occupation, life stage, karma, dharma, etc. Ramanujan stresses that this difference in philosophical outcome is not a symptom of irrationality, but a different kind of rationale."

In People Of The Grammar, Anil Menon quotes from the article "...And grammar is the central model of thinking in many Hindu texts. As Frits Staal has said, what Euclid is to the European thought, the grammarian Panini is to the Indian. Even the Kama Sutra is literally a grammar of love — which declines and conjugates men and women as one would nouns and verbs in different genders, voices, moods and aspects."

Respective influences of Euclid and Panini have also been discussed by Swiss Samskrit scholar Johannes Bronkhorst in "Panini and Euclid:Reflections on Indian Geometry", which appeared in Journal of Indian Philosophy, 29, pp 43-80. In a discussion forum Aravindhan remarks:
"I think he identifies an important problem, and does it well, but misidentifies its cause. He seems to suggest that the problem could have been that science was influenced by grammatical methodology (though there is no clear evidence for this). In my opinion, it was much deeper than that.

Panini's grammar, from a methodological perspective, embodies two trends. The first is the trend towards the primacy of exegesis in scholarly discourse. For some reason, texts by renowned scholars came to have a very special status, eventually becoming a source of knowledge equal to or superior than observation. The second trend is the increasing importance of inductive reasoning, where you used specific examples to derive generalised rules. Taken together, these are capable of producing devastating errors.

But Panini's grammar did not create these trends, nor were they confined to grammatics. You find them equally in philosophical works of the period which - unlike earlier texts - only try to interpret, expound on and clarify the meanings of existing texts; and even the original work that is done still seeks support in interpretation of existing texts.

We see exactly the same disease in the mathematics of the period. Bhaskara tries to argue mathematics using rules of mimamsa. Mimamsa, for heaven's sake! And proofs - where they are provided - tend to be anecdotal, rather than deductive. Bronkhorst argues that philosophy in that period understood the concept of proof. He's right, technically speaking, but the form of proofs they used lacked rigour and routinely accepted exegetic and anectdotal evidence as "proof". Just as the mathematicians did.

So I don't think Bronkhorst adequately looks at what was happening in other disciplines. I think there is a readily available explanation for why the problems he identifies happened in Ancient India, as I've tried to outline above.

There is also a clear parallel with certain modern trends (not just confined to India), where ancient knowledge is being venerated without much independent inquiry. I would like to quote one passage from Bronkhorst's paper:

"Aryabhatta is wrong where he gives the volume of a pyramid as: "Half the product of the height and the [surface of the triangular base] is the volume called 'pyramid'." The correct volume of a pyramid is a third, not half, of the product here specified... The same is true of Aryabhatta's incorrect rule for the volume of a sphere."
These errors are discussed in greater detail in a 1985 paper published in a French journal. It tends to flabbergast people because the idea that Sanskrit texts might actually be wrong is not something people think about (which is absurd - no human science can ever be wholly right about everything at any point of time).

And that, I think, is the biggest danger in the current trend of constantly exalting ancient works. Science (and any other field of inquiry) progresses best when it is most open and least dogmatic. Which is why (in my opinion) Indian science didn't progress beyond a point - and why even mathematicians as obviously gifted as Aryabhatta and Bhaskara made such glaring errors."

And finally Amit Chaudhuri reviewing a book of poems by A.K. ramanujan in The twin-lobed brahmin quotes extensively from the famous article and says "I quote this passage at length not only because of its intrinsic readability, but also because of the way it embodies some of the most characteristic features of Ramanujan's poetry. First, there is the exploration of an idea, not through metaphor or analogy, but through an "image" of a member of Ramanujan's family, in this case his father."

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