Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Deeper into India’s soul March 12, 2006

How is it that so many Indians are making it in the global economy?’ This was a common refrain during President Bush’s recent visit. I looked for answers in India’s education system for a recent essay for an American magazine, and concluded that success belonged to students rather than teachers, and the real victory might lie with parents and their middle class insecurities—it’s a rare Indian mother who will step out of the house in the evening during exam season.

But education is only half the answer. The other half lies in history. ‘Western iron has probably entered deeper into India’s soul’ noted Arnold Toynbee fifty years ago. He felt India’s experience of the West was more intimate, more profound, and more painful than China, Russia, Japan, or Ottoman Turkey. His historian’s view of British colonialism was of a leisurely intermingling of two great civilizations over two centuries, which has eased India’s passage to modernity. Modern institutions thus found a comfortable home in India, and more significantly liberal thinking become a part of the Indian mind, unlike the Middle East, which also experienced colonial rule. This might explain in part why Indians move about comfortably in today’s global economy.

The British needed educated Indians to collect revenue, man the railways, guard forests, and generally run the country. The price of a ticket to these jobs was the English language. So, Indians learned English, passed exams and entered the modern Indian middle class. We became Macaulay’s bastard children, otherwise called “brown sahibs”. We berate Macaulay for cutting us off from our roots and ancient culture, but we don’t give him enough credit for creating a meritocratic middle class society. Happily, the pain of political slavery is gone, but our obsession with English and excelling at exams has stayed.

The colonial exam system merely reinforced the old Indian reverence for knowledge. This goes back three thousand years to the earliest speculations in the Rig Veda, which blossomed in the systematic reflections of the Upanishads. These experiments of the mind led to six systematic schools of philosophy and the rebellious paths of the Buddha, Mahavira, and Ajivikas. The diverse paths were an invitation to any creative spiritual entrepreneur that he could start a new yoga sect as long as he had a new idea and a talent for organization. Hence, we have a bewildering array of diverse paths to the truth. Not only does this diminish the temptation for theological narcissism—that only my religion has the answer--it also creates a bias for innovation. As there is no hierarchical church, each brahmin in his temple across India’s half a million villages thinks he is the Pope, while each self-sufficient village jealously guards its autonomy. It makes things chaotic but it also fosters an independent, enquiring mind which is so essential to success in the global knowledge economy.

Democracy in the 20th century has boosted the Indian’s irreverent temper, and after 1991 the young Indian mind is finally decolonised and unbound. Turn to any of our hundred TV channels—it’s a chattering India of Amartya Sen’s ‘argumentative Indians’. Contemporary India is filled with spiritual innovators, software princes, Dalit activists, brown sahibs and more—it’s a noisy, raucuous party, full of fun to which a billion Indians are invited, as long as you have an opinion and are aware that both spiritual space and cyber space are invisible. All of this enters into the explanation of India’s recent economic rise.


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