Sunday, March 12, 2006

Rationalism in India: Immanuel Kant vs. Emperor Akbar

I will begin by saying I know precious little about either Kant or Akbar – this post is more about the choices that two desi academics have made in recent writings on the history, culture, and politics of India (Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, and Meera Nanda’s article which explores the cultural contradictions of Indian modernity).


Meera Nanda has been one of the most vocal critics of the “scientism that pervades modern Hinduism,” and has taken to task not only the right-wing types who have done much to conflate the Vedas with science, but also scholars of a postmodern persuasion who have (according to Nanda) bought into the notion that modern science “has no special claims to truth and to our convictions, for it is as much of a cultural construct of the West as other sciences are of their own cultures.”

I have been reading about these debates (and I will admit, as an admirer of the writings of Shiv Visvanathan and Ashis Nandy) over the past few years, so Nanda’s essay in the Feb 11, 2006 issue of EPW concerning the “cultural contradictions of India’s modernity” was one I read with much interest. Before we grapple with why modernity in India feels “incomplete,” “superficial,” and “even schizhophrenic,” Nanda argues in this essay, “we must first understand what the transformation of reason that the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment set in motion.”

So Nanda invites us to consider a few lines from Kant’s famous piece, Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?:

“Enlightenment is man’s release from this self-incurred immaturity [which is] his inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another…Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” that is the motto of the enlightenment.”

She goes on to write:

“Kant’s call of ‘Sapere aude!’ was simultaneously an invocation of a new standard of reason meant to challenge all a priori truths that we accept out of faith, cultural conditioning or overt indoctrination.”

And in a subsequent paragraph, deploring how the conflation of the Vedas with science is an affair that has been going on ever since science and technology were introduced in India in the 18th century, she notes: “Indian rationalists, in comparison, have never enjoyed the same degree of cultural hegemony. The marginalisation of rationalism in India’s cultural politics is a topic for another day and another essay.”

It is this point about “the marginalization of rationalism” that caught my attention. I wondered if Nanda could not find any dialogues on rational thought within India that pre-date Kant and other influential European thinkers? And if she did, why did she choose to invoke Kant and not a figure from Indian intellectual history? Surely, Nanda is aware of how for centuries, we have heard that analytical reasoning and critique are quintessentially ‘Western’ and were introduced to the rest of the world post-Enlightenment. I was just not comfortable with her decision to use Kant’s phrase – Sapere Aude – to invite us to reflect on our “incomplete” and “schizophrenic” modernity. It is “our” modernity, damn it. And if it seems incomplete by Kantian standards, so be it, I felt.

Let us now turn our attention to Amartya Sen’s collection of essays. In this book, Sen challenges “promoters of a narrowly Hindu view of Indian civilization,” and those who have “tended to view the harking back to ancient India with the greatest of suspicion.” His goal in the book is to examine how a consideration of India’s “argumentative tradition,” or the “extensive and ubiquitous reach of Indian heterodoxy,” might influence our understanding of the history, culture and politics of the subcontinent (p. ix).

Sen offers a sweeping introduction to the tradition of reasoning that has been part of India – all the way from the Vedas to thinkers like Ram Mohan Roy. The first chapter of the book includes a section on “Science, Epistemology and Heterodoxy,” in which he narrates an incident from the Ramayana worth quoting at length:

"Javali, a skeptical pundit, lectures Rama, the hero of the epic, on how he should behave but in the process supplements his religious scecpticism by an insistence that we must rely only on what we can observe and experience…follow what is within your experience and do not trouble yourself with what lies beyond the province of human experience (p.26)."

Could Nanda not have used instances such as this to reflect on “our” modernity? Ok, perhaps the Ramayana is a text that is irretrievable from the clutches of the likes of L. K. Advani. But how about the great Moghal Emperor Akbar?

Sen brings to light a phrase that Akbar championed: rahi aql (the path of reason). Nanda would perhaps argue that such examples do not help because they are still connected to the domain of religion, that even debates on “rationalism” were never fully separated from the realm of the religious or the metaphysical. Perhaps, yes. But if the central concern here is to fight against the “streak of scientism in modern Hinduism” (Nanda), isn’t it just as critical to re-assess the history of “rationalism” within India and to use that to critique on-going attempts to read science into the Vedas?

To my mind, rahi aql (the path of reason) is as powerful and evocative as Sapere aude (dare to know).


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