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Of Niti, Nyaya, Bhagavad-Gita and Misrepresentations

12 September 2009 750 views 20 Comments

Thanks to Sh Ashok Chowgule-ji for alerting me to this excerpt from an interview of Prof Amartya Sen in a recent issue of Outlook (emphasis added):

Question: In your new book, The Idea of Justice, you speak a lot about the difference between niti (institutional justice) and nyaya (realised justice). Do you think we have too much niti in India and too little nyaya?

Prof Amrtya Sen: The short answer is yes. Niti has huge appeal and this applies to the great as well as to the non-great. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna’s position has much to commend it. I am not saying he should not have fought the war, but his doubts were not dismissable, in the way that Krishna dismissed them. Krishna is clearly a niti person.

How peculiar it is that someone as non-violent as Gandhiji, who was very inspired by the Gita, was on the side of Krishna, who is making Arjuna fight a war and kill people, when Arjuna is saying maybe I shouldn’t kill! The Mahabharata ends with success, but also with grief, desolation, with women weeping for their lost men and funeral pyres burning in unison.

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As Sh Chowgule mentioned in his email, this response perhaps came from a flawed understanding of the Bhagwad-Gita.

Bhagwaan Shri Krishna DID NOT make Arjun fight a war and kill people. The war was thrust on the Pandavas because justice was being denied to them. Shri Krishna answered the doubts of Arjun in a logical and spiritual way. (The doubts of Arjun were not on the issue of whether to fight or not. It was how he would feel when, in the process, he would be killing people whom he grew up with, people who taught him so much in his life, etc.)

Shri Krishna pointed out to Arjun that it was the latter’s duty to fight for justice, otherwise bullies would have had a field day in terrorising the people.

Gandhiji understood this and that is why he was on the side of Shri Krishna.

Prof Sen’s understanding of the Gita is no different from what many American ‘scholars’ of Hinduism propagate. The Queen Bee in this field, Prof Wendy Doniger, has been quoted by Philadelphia Inquirer (November 19, 1999) as follows:
“The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata … Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviours such as war…. The Gita is
a dishonest book; it justifies war. ..I’m a pacifist. I don’t believe in ‘good’ wars.”

Though she denies this quote, without saying what she actually said, eight years later she wrote:
The Bhagavad Gita, one of the major texts of Hinduism today, is a conversation in which the incarnate god Krishna persuades the hero Arjuna to fight in a war against his friends and cousins, a war from which Arjuna had recoiled.

This tendency to rush in with opinions and judgements on the subtle (and not so subtle) aspects of Hinduism without understanding their deeper socio-cultural context is hardly limited to Prof Doniger.

And yet, sadly – in spite of their biases (and in some cases, ignorance) – western academicians who speak on Hinduism are usually considered to be more authoritative than Indians themselves…Part of this can be explained by an inferiority complex I feel we (as Indians) still harbour…and one other (possibly major) reason could be that they have set the tone and defined the idiom when it comes to studies on Indology.

Not surprisingly (as a recent example), India Today’s Independence Day special issue which I chanced upon recently, has Prof Doniger waxing eloquent on Hinduism (“Why the Gods Can’t Fail” under “Politics of Hinduism”, Pg 32, Issue dt Aug 24, ’09). You will rarely find Rajiv Malhotra receiving the same *star* treatment – in spite of the enormous work he has done in helping promote a better understanding of Hinduism.

I was actually prompted to publish this post after reading one of Rajiv’s old blog posts (thanks to Sanjay Anandaram for alerting me to it). The post was written in 2004 but has all the crispness of a contemporary discussion. Excerpts from Dialog on Whiteness Studies below (emphasis mine):

This column is a conversation with Jeff Hitchcock, a liberal white American who specializes in studying white culture. I hope to bring Indians and Indianness into this vibrant debate, and to use whiteness as the context in which to re-examine various issues concerning Indian identity and culture.

…For years, I have wanted to start a new discipline, which I had tentatively called Westology, to study the West in the same manner as Indology was started in the 19th century by outsiders to study India.

But luckily, I came across an exciting new academic field that already does much of what I had envisioned in Westology. This field is called Whiteness Studies (or White Studies), and is taught in over 30 US colleges. For instance, in Princeton University, an undergraduate course on Whiteness is among the most popular courses in the entire university, and the vast majority of students taking it are whites who want to better understand themselves.

…A central concept of this discipline is white privilege, which has been defined as “a package of benefits, granted to people in our society who have white skin, which allows them certain free passes to certain things in our society that are not easily available to people of color[2].

In his speech, The New Abolitionism, Noel Ignatiev said, “Race is not a biological but a social category. The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of white skin. The most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system…Just as the capitalist system is not a capitalist plot, racial oppression is not the work of racists.”

…The goal of White Studies is to neither demonize nor glorify whiteness, but to understand it, and to give white culture its rightful place among the various cultures of the world. The idea is to show that though whiteness dominates by occupying the central spot today, it is neither intrinsically superior nor inferior to other cultures, and that its dominant position is the result of history. (See endnotes for some references on Whiteness Studies[4].

Rajiv: You have mentioned that the main power of whiteness is silence. Could you explain this?

Jeff: There is a concerted effort to keep discussion of whiteness out of public discourse. This begins with mis-education in our primary and secondary schools, and to a lesser extent, even in higher education. Mainstream media engages in a studied ignorance and selective forgetting. This makes it seem like whiteness is not really an issue, so innocent looking is the lack of attention paid to it. But raise the topic and you will witness a sudden flurry of repair work brought forth by self-appointed guardians of the status quo. Whiteness is a powerful, unseen, and sometimes vengeful force that permeates every part of our lives. White Americans enjoy the privileges of whiteness without having to accept the identity of white.

…Rajiv: Why is white privilege a problem?

Jeff: White American culture was created with a frontier mentality that encouraged a nearly ravenous exploitation and consumption of newly appropriated natural resources, and a disregard of those defined as not white. In our contemporary world, these elements of white culture are clearly becoming dysfunctional.

We need to accept that white culture cannot deliver multiracial comfort. It can only deliver white comfort. White culture cannot deliver multiracial safety. It can only deliver white safety. White culture cannot deliver multiracial community. It can only deliver white community. White culture cannot deliver multiracial justice. It can only deliver white justice. White culture must give up the center if multiracial justice, multiracial community, multiracial safety and multiracial comfort are ever to become central to our society.

Jeff: The invisibility of whiteness behind the claim of neutrality has enabled it to hide from scrutiny, and this has been misused by whites to speak for universal humanity. Ani explains it as follows:

“The Roman self-image as “world conqueror” and “savior” issues from an ego that does not confine itself to the limitations of a culture, a nation, or even a continent, but from an ego that views its boundaries as ultra universal. This is the counterpart of the intellectual self-image of the European as “universal man”…he, therefore, has the right to spread himself universally in order to “enlighten” the world.” (Ani, p. 253)
“According to European nationalism, other traditions and earlier ones were expressions of mythological beliefs only: Christianity was an expression of historical fact. To this day, the most threatening appositional phrase that an avowed Christian can be presented with is ‘Christian Mythology.’ To accept its validity is to shake the ground of her/his belief.” (Ani, p. 141)

Rajiv: This is very interesting. Blacks had to fight so hard to take control over black studies, for instance. White culture wants to control the representation of others. Richard Crasta (an Indian Christian) writes (in “Impressing the Whites,” by Richard Crasta, Invisible Man Books, Bangalore, India. 2000) that despite all other kinds of intellectual freedom today, an Indian may not assert beyond a point if that would threaten white control. Crasta states his First Commandment for Indians wishing to impress whites as: “Thou shalt not have any other-colored gods before us.” His Fourth Commandment is: “Thou shalt be unthreateningly short.” His Seventh Commandment is: “Thou shalt be exotic.” The Ninth Commandment says: “As Austin Powers might have said, ‘Behave!’”

Whites appoint Indian proxies to let them pull strings from behind the scenes, but through such intermediaries, they impose their epistemologies, institutional controls, awards and rewards, all in the name of universal thought. Making fun of such Indians, Crasta lists his Tenth Commandment as: “Thou shalt kiss white ass.” His Eleventh and final Commandment is: “Thou shalt monkey around for our [i.e. whites'] amusement and pleasure.” It is amazing how many Indians are lined up to oblige and try to become members of the whiteness narrative in whatever capacity available.

One white Prof. Jack Hawley in the academic study of Hinduism appears to thrive on being “the white man in charge.”

It is important for many whites to make sure they run the show, especially when it is about other cultures, perhaps because it is a sort of voyeurism or subliminal conquest of the other. Those Hindus who accept white authority in Hinduism Studies are rewarded generously.

As a powerfully placed scholar in control of Hinduism Studies, Prof. Hawley wrote the following statement to introduce Hinduism as an illegitimate child of white people:

“Hinduism – the word and perhaps the reality too – was born in the 19th century, a notorious illegitimate child. The father was middle-class British, and the mother, of course, was India. The circumstances of conception are not altogether clear.”
[Jack Hawley, "Naming Hinduism," in The Wilson Quarterly, summer 1991. p. 21.]

One must wonder if this could be psychoanalyzed as a form of voyeurism, similar to the way white men liked to “conquer” black women and Native American women. Many black scholars have explained how whites portrayed their own culture as being masculine and the others as feminine waiting to be conquered as trophies, with the “illegitimate” children raised under white dominance. This could explain the obsession of certain whites to control the intellectual discourse on Hinduism in the academy.

…Imagine what would happen in mainstream Religious Studies if this imagery was reversed, and someone used Marimba Ani’s thesis to make the following definition: White people are the notorious illegitimate children fathered by Roman Imperialism and mothered by Christianity. The circumstances of conception remain mysterious.

*** End of Excerpts ***

Do read in full

Have a safe and relaxing weekend.

20 Comments »

  • 1. Abhinav said:

    More on Gita: Why Hindus should weed out Gita’s message

  • 2. Rohit said:

    Malaysian Muslims charged for cow-head protest against Hindus

    *** NOTE By MODERATOR ***

    Rohit: Off-topic comment but I am letting it stay this time.

    Pl. stick to the topic on hand while posting/discussing a comment.

    Thanks

  • 3. Harsh1008 (author) said:

    It is interesting/surprising/shocking to read that some people think that Gita teaches/inspires War. May God forgive them for they know not what they have missed. These people do not understand the basic teaching of a religious book and think they are competent to comment on it.

    I do not know what would be a comparable example but let me try – saying that French Revolution teaches that rulers must be killed; or American Constitution teaches that Natives of a country and the rulers should be defeats/killed and also those who do not sign the joint declaration; or the old Bible saying – “Love thy neighbour” means that you must get into illicit sexual relation with thy neighbour.

    During one of the visits to UK I had met some people of the church which used to run the affairs of the hostel where I was staying. They had a problem in understanding that Hindu religion. According to them it was not clearly definable/understandable as it lacked one single book which could claim to be more authoritative than others. They quoted case of a number of other religions which have one book. Therefore, they were concluding that the religion was not as old as the other religions and of course not as well defined/understood. I kept trying to explain our system to them for a long time but could not make much progress because I could not come up with examples which they could relate to. Then I got an idea.

    I asked them that their Constitution was not codified in one single book like that of India or USA and most of the other countries. I then asked them if one one should conclude from this fact that
    their democracy and democratic institution were not as old as those in USA and India.
    since there is not one single authoritative book it could also mean that they do not have a well defined constitution.
    In the next two minutes they had understood what I had been trying to explain.

    The people who offer such views on Gita (may be Amartya Sen or any other person) are not the persons who have authority on Religious books/subject/interpretation. Asking them about religious matter is like taking opinion of Mr. Sen on Electrical Engg aspects of Magnetic Levitation and taking it as a final word and spending endless hours or debate.

    I strongly recommend all of them to read at least some of the commentaries of Gita by eminent persons like Swami Paramhans Yogananda, Chinmayananda, Hare Ram Hare Krishna Mission, Swami Chidbhawannad

  • 4. KSV SUBRAMANIAN said:

    What a convoluted thinking ! So according to Amartya Sen a person wedded to non-violence will have to simply stand and get killed even after knowing the opponent is surely to kill him. If this kind of Amartya theory is applied we can very well disband our defence department, armed forces and even police force. Let the Pakistanis and Chinese overrun our land and kill us. We are wedded to non-violence. According to Amartya, Gandhiji by siding with Krishna was not completely on the side of Amartya style of non-violence!!!

    We the simple minded hindus are of course with Krishna whether the great Amartya like it or not ? We have to face the adversary boldly for our safety and our country’s safety and of course for upholding dharma. There may be thousands Amartyas demoralising us by preaching their convoluted theory of Ahimsa. But to uphold the real Ahimsa one may have to arm oneself. That is what Krishna teaches us through Bhagavad Gita that is to do our Dharmic duty, the rest HE will take care of and better leave it to HIM. He has neither understood Krishna nor Bhagavad Gita.

    After all for mosquitoes blood is sweeter than the milk in the udder of a cow. We have to tolerate such mosquitoes too.

  • 5. Kalidas said:

    B Shantanu.. excellent post and absolutely love the last part.

    I’m still working on that e-mail I wish to send you, perhaps be done with it today.

    As for the Gita, you might have visited the blog I’m linking my moniker to. Wish to have some of your feedback on it.

  • 6. Avinash said:

    Here is another UPA minister with his homilies
    http://publication.samachar.com/pub_article.php?id=5536038

  • 7. gajanan said:

    Just when I was posting I saw your comment come thru. What ignorance of a minister.

    http://www.csir.res.in/External/Heads/aboutcsir/leaders/DG/noble.pdf

    IT WAS IN JUNE 1998 THAT I MET AMARTYA SEN FOR the first time at India International Centre in New Delhi. At the end of our brief conversation, I said: “I hope this will be the year for the big one.” My reference was to the Nobel Prize.
    He laughed and said: “Do you know Dr Mashelkar, you have to be 10 times as good to win the Nobel Prize if you are an Indian!” In the same year, in October 1998, the Nobel Prize for Economics was declared.

    Amartya Sen won the prize. I remember sending him a one-line congratulatory message: “After all, you were 10 times as good!”

    Just read the conversation between RA Mashelkar and Dr Amartya Sen

  • 8. B Shantanu (author) said:

    All: Thanks for the comments/links…

    Avinash: thanks for the link…Amusing…and very very annoying…

  • 9. gajanan said:

    Yesterday while writing the comment on Sen-Msshelkar conversation, my computer froze and there were problems.Here is my analysis of the conversation.

    10 times as good. This shows the slavishness of ASen. Being a Professor at Harvard and talking like this shows a subservient mind. Now suppose 6 good hrs is working time for a Westerner in a day, do Indians have to work for 60 good hrs a day. A day has only 24 hrs. I feel that ASen is preparing to launch his political career in India. This is the reason he is shooting from his hip. Either he is trying for a Nobel Peace Prize , by adopting Crastian logic ( http://www.richardcrasta.com/impressingthewhites.htm) or he wants to join politics in India. Startegy burra nahi hai. Very chaalu fellow.

  • 10. gajanan said:

    Here is Gandhijis Gita

  • 11. H L (author) said:

    Came across the article in the subject line with reference to Rajiv Mehrotra.

    Consider the following:
    Quote ON
    …For years, I have wanted to start a new discipline, which I had tentatively called Westology, to study the West in the same manner as Indology was started in the 19th century by outsiders to study India.

    But luckily, I came across an exciting new academic field that already does much of what I had envisioned in Westology. This field is called Whiteness Studies (or White Studies), and is taught in over 30 US colleges…
    Quote OFF

    I think there are some big problems with this approach, consider the following:
    1) Rajiv Mehrotra starts off ambitiously, but why, when he comes across this field with the rather self-indulgent title of ‘Whiteness Studies’ started by a euro (that’s right, euro, not ‘white’), does he immediately drop the ball and become dependent on a source which is centered in the system that it claims to criticize but needs to be examined from his Mehrotra’s own frame of reference? Should he not do his own thing?
    2) The title ‘Westology’ is ok I think, but I think something like ‘Eurology’ would better fit the bill. (Has a slight odor to it. As well.) This does away with the directional association, covers Australia, etc. and also associates it correctly with Europe, which is where all the problems really started. It also detaches it from Rome and Greece, it being essentially a secondary civilization. What does the WASP have anything to do with Rome other than being slaves to the empire? Anyway that’s another tale for another day.

    s

  • 12. Rajiv Chandran said:

    @HL@HL – Interesting post from you – I would grant Rajiv Malhotra benefit of doubt solely because he has been researching and encouraging debate on the institutionalized implicit cultural biases in the academia. I think his adoption of ‘whiteness studies’ was done after due consideration of the methodologies and frames of reference involved. To Mr Malhotra and ‘whiteness studies’ scholars – whiteness is literally skin-deep. It seems whiteness over time has expanded or shrunk to accomodate or reject certain minorities. It a study of dominant cultural bias (probably fostered by judeo-christian/protestant) traditions – it’s manifestations have changed from anglocentricism, to europeanism, to judeo-christianity, and possibly in the future expand to abrahamism. I agree with you however that whiteness studies in it’s present form is reflective only of the evolution of social dynamics in the US. What is needed however is an expanded narrative to include Europe, and Australia without dovetailing the debate to a region, or race. Hopefully some future discipline will be capable of studying and understanding ‘Cultural Eurocentricism’. I do agree again that current Anglo-American or Pan-Atlantic powers and cultures have very little to do with the ancient Greeks and Romans. It would seem that Greek and Roman history has also been willfully appropriated and subsumed into Western grand narrative in the past few centuries – just as our ancient history has been.

  • 13. Rohit said:

    These guys like Amartya Sen etc forget one important thing. In human body factors, known to everyone and provable, the most important thing is common sense. Even MK Gandhi didn’t apply common sense although he derived inspiration from Shrimad Bhagwad Gita. Whatever any one may say, Shrimad Bhagwad Gita is science. These guys obsession stems from their self conceived faith (result of impression of luxuries of west) which they believe is true. Bhagwad Gita also says, once you do not apply common sense, the senses attract you to the physical things of this world. Which in turn engrosses mind and takes you to a state of self hypnotism. When there is a disturbance to the self hypnotized state, comes out the anger which overrules common sense and results in downfall of a man. Don’t worry about folks who think they are epitome of perfection. The contribution of folks who think they are epitome of perfection is usually zero or negative. Amartya Sen is good for United States. Amartya Sen has no time for giving common sense a chance to think on the acts of rulers of United States who wiped out the natives of America on faith based beliefs but has all the time to teach us the virtue of emulating such people.

  • 14. seadog4227 said:

    So Amartya Sen is an expert on Economics, Politics (especially Indian politics), History etc etc. Is there anything he doesn’t know? The more one looks at commies and their friends, the more one is convinced of their viciousness and stupidity.

  • 15. Rohit said:

    “So Amartya Sen is an expert on Economics, Politics (especially Indian politics), History etc etc.”

    If he was economic expert then he could have predicted the financial scam of US. But he may have forgotten Demand Supply law or is it that it takes common sense to understand forces of demand and supply?

    There is a bigger gas balloon than A Sen. Thy name is Meghnad Desai. Meghnad, was the name of son of Ravana. He lives true to his name’s history.

  • 16. Mod Prakash said:

    Let us not decide about what one is doing now by taking into account what he had done in the past.

    Please remember Da Vinci was a painter, a scientiest, a poet all at the same time.

    Ravindranath was a painter, poet, singer.

    Read what he is saying and debate on the merit of what it is.

  • 17. Rohit said:

    To Mod Prakash:

    Read what Amartya Sen had to say, without any prejudice. Worth going to dustbin.

  • 18. B Shantanu (author) said:

    A very pertinent extract from an article by Swami Tejomayananda (Chinmay Mission) Can violence be dharma?:

    …At the physical level, the word ahimsa is relative. A surgeon cuts the body for the good of the patient. His motive is to heal. This is an act of ahimsa. On the other hand, a murderer using a knife commits a definite act of violence because his motive is to hurt or kill. The same action can be dharmika or adharmika depending upon whether one is acting to integrate or destroy.

    Now a very important question arises. In the Gita, Lord Krishna teaches about non-injury (ahimsa). How is it then that He asks Arjuna to fight? Many people wonder, “How can this war be considered dharmika (righteous) while at the same time observing the law of ahimsa?”

    Earlier we spoke about dharma as it pertains to physical health. When the body is in a healthy condition, we will live comfortably. There is no need for medical treatment of any kind. But suppose the body develops a disease? Then possibly some medications or minor surgery may help. But if the disease is very serious, major surgery or even amputation may be the only solution.

    In the same way, if everyone is living happily and peacefully in society, then there is no need for war. But, as in the case of the Mahabharata, the evil, battle-hungry Duryodhana became strong and powerful, much like a cancer, whose growth was out of control. Small remedies could not fix the problem. If people like him are not removed from society, good people suffer and disintegration of the society is certain. Therefore, in such situations the ideal of ahimsa and a righteous war go together.

    …Dharma at the individual level is also different from that practiced at the community level. As individuals we may not carry any weapons, trying always to respond with peace and non-injury. However, if one is the secretary of defence of a country then that person cannot allow anyone to jeopardise its peace and he must be prepared to defend the national security. Therefore, dharma has to be understood in its totality.

  • 19. vivek said:

    Sen seems to have got away with a highly tendentious- not to say downright false- interpretation of nyaya as opposed to niti. His misreading of the Gita, however, is quite common.
    I’ve blogged about this here- http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/2010/07/nyaya-niti-and-amartya-sen.html
    I’ve also post on ‘why everybody is wrong about the gita’- http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-everybody-is-wrong-about-bhagvad.html

  • 20. B Shantanu (author) said:

    Thanks for the links Vivek..I will have a look

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