Wednesday, March 07, 2012

A strange book

I have read a few articles and interviews of Amartya Sen before but The Argumentative Indian is the first book by him that I started reading. But after reading the first four articles beginning with the one with the same title as the book, I did not have the stomach to read the rest of it and quickly browsed through the rest of it. The article claims that there is a long standing argumentative tradition in India and the evidence is givef from quotations from ancient books, discussions there, budhist councils and so on.I assume that Sen is talking of Indians in general not just some elites or text communities; he does say "We do like to speak". Of course talking, gossip and expressing opinions is not the same as an 'argumentative tradition'. If Sen wants to substantiate the later, he should give some examples as to how ordinary people discussed perhaps looking at books of various periods such as plays where ordinary people were represented or from travelogoues which existed for at least 2000 years/ There is none of that and there are also paeans to people like Aryabhatta. My own suspicion is that the opposite of what Sen says may be true. In fact there was too much respect for elders and what some allegedly great people said, even in science.
From Johannes
Bronkhorst in his artcle "Panini and Euclid: Reflections on Indian Geometry",
Journal of Indian Philosophy, 29,p 43-80, 2001:
"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. In spite of this, Bhaskara accepts Aryabhatta's rule and carries out some (incorrect) calculations with its help. The same is true of Aryabhatta's incorrect rule for the volume of a sphere.
Aryabhatta's incorrect rules have drawn the attention of scholars, some of whom have tried to interpret the rules differently, so as to obtain a correct result......

And yet it seems obvious that these mistakes do throw light on the intellectual culture of their authors. It seems inevitable to conclude that the theorems propounded by Aryabhatta and Bhaskara were apparently not accompanied by proofs, not even in private, not even outside the realm of the written commentary. They were handed down as received truths, with the result that incorrect theorems were not identified as a matter of routine by any student who checked the proofs. Bhaskara
confirms that he regards the theorems and other information contained in Aryabhatta's work as received truths in his commentary on the first chapter, the Gitikapada."
See also Aravindhan's comments quoted towards the end of the post A.K.Ramanujan's famous essay /
Apart from this attitude of taking for granted statements of 'great' people there seems to be strong currents of seeing even scientific matters through the religious prism. From Christopher Minkowski's artcle The pandit as Public Intellectual , we have
"Aside from Nilakantha the authors of these works were predominently astronomers. Nevertheless they wrote primarily as defenders of Puranic authority and validity. The general approach of the argument is that faced with an apparent contradiction between Siddhanta and Purana, the Purana overrules the Siddhanta in its authority claim."
In a later chapter,on page 173, in the essay "China and India", Sen quotes Alberuni "On the whole, there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves...On the contray all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them- against all foreigners. They call them mlecha, i.e. impure, and forbid having any connection with them, be it by intermarriage or any kind of relationaship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them,'
Sen quotes Alberuni in the first chapter but does not mention this quote.
It seems to me that the kind of things that Sen says (reading what he wanta to in the past by selective choice of material)without much evidence encourages the unfortunate trend of seeing glory in the past topics and encourages this common tendency among many young people particularly of Hindvatta extraction. I see a comment from one of the bloggers on the blurb "This is how history should be written...". I have read "The Aryans" by Romilla Thapar. There is painstaking reasearch based on several areas from archaeology to linguistics to numismatics to reach tentative conclusions and these conclusions got modified over several years afterwards. I do not think that there is any serious danger of historians taking these particula essays of Sen seriously but non-experts may. I have no expertise in these areas and am quite prepared to be proven wrong and learn more.
Sen seems to come in to his own in some of the later chapters. I liked the one on Tagore and Tagore's view on patriotism. But the later chapters where he clearly has expertise, somehow I started having doubts after the impressions I had from the first chapters. At some stage, I should try to read related material by others to make sure.
P.S. Searching about Sen through Nilanjana Roy's blog Akhand of Swat (the blogger whose comment is one of the comments in the blurb about the book, I find that there has been much discussion about the book including a long and erudite one from Ramachandra Guha in EPW Arguments with Sen

No comments: