UNESCO Lecture in Delhi
An assessment of the Millennium
By Amartya Sen
over four hundred years ago, in 1591-92, as the year 1000 in the Hejira
calendar approached, Emperor Akbar was on the Mughal throne. The excitement,
which was widely felt in Delhi and Agra about the completion of the
millennium in that reckoning, led Akbar to issue a series of proclamations,
about principles of governance.
included, among other classics of civil administration, his famous tenets
on religious tolerance, for example: 'No man should be interfered with
on account of religion, and anyone (is) to be allowed to go over to
a religion he pleased.' There was no particular reason to think that
this or any other principle had any special relevance at the end of
a millennium -- rather than at any other time. And yet the end of the
millennium in what was then the official calendar did seem like a good
moment to take stock, to reflect on basic principles, and to contemplate
the shape of things to come.
is, of course, something quite arbitrary in the segmenting of time that
any calendar presents. Counting could have commenced at a different
starting point and the division of periods could have been of a different
length. The arrival of a new millennium is, in this sense, entirely
a matter of convention. Indeed, Emperor Akbar himself had made an attempt,
in 1584, to replace the Hejira calendar by a new synthetic calendar,
the Tarikh-Ilahi, which -- like Din-Ilahi (the synthetic religion he
tried to promote -- did not survive very long. Any reckoning of a millennium
must contain some inescapable plasticity.
an artificially created special moment in history, once established
in our minds, can be a good occasion to reflect seriously on what has
happened and what might happen. The impending end of the second millennium
in the modified Roman calendar that we now see as the Christian calendar,
which is the most used international calendar in the contemporary world,
can certainly be taken to be such a moment. The millennium excitement
that is gripping the world at this time may not be based on any profound
or transcendental reality, and yet the excitement itself makes it a
special moment and gives us an occasion to look back and wonder.
of course, be quite hopeless to try to do any real 'assessment' of the
millennium, on a narrow interpretation of the audacious title of this
lecture. The world is much too large for such an excercise and a millennium
much too long a period. No less difficult is the problem of choosing
a perspective in terms of which any attempted assessment may be performed.
Instead of trying to do the impossible, we could interpret the exercise
in more limited and manageable terms, as an attempted understanding
of a few specific developments in the history of the world.
World a Millennium Ago
then, begin by looking at the world a thousand years ago -- at the end
of the last millennium. What exactly was happening in the world as the
year 1000 AD approached? Well, the impending end of the millennium itself
generated a sense of anxiety and dread. Europe was seized with panic,
based on a widely shared belief that the world will come to an end as
the millennium is completed and the dreaded 'Last Judgement' would occur.
Millions of panic-stricken Europeans breathed a sigh of relief as the
year 1001 arrived.
all this fear and consternation, normal activities of trade, culture,
science, literature and the arts continued. The millennium panic also
did not prevent the continuation of normal battles and conflicts while
1000 AD approached. The European wars, in particular, continued as usual.
Norway came under Danish rule after losing the battle of Svolder in
1000 AD shortly before that, the Germans subdued the Slavnici, the last
independent tribe of Bohemia, and also got ready to fight Poland which
occurred in the very early years of the new millennium. Britain went
through a difficult time -- vulnerable as it was to outside attack.
Essex was subdued by the Danes in the battle of Maldon in 991; Vikings
ravaged Yorkshire in 993; Norwegians and Danes besieged London in 994;
Danes attacked the Isle of Wight in 998; and so on. Stability would
not come until well after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
subcontinent-- to looked at our own locality -- also was not devoid
of divisions and wars. As the year 1000 AD approached, the Palas ruled
over Bengal and Bihar, the Pratiharas reigned over West India and the
upper Ganges Valley, Cholas governed Tamil Nadu, the Chandellas controlled
Bundelkhand, Kalachuris had Madhya Pradesh, Chahamanis ruled East Rajasthan,
Paramaras were in charge of Malwa, and while one line of Chalukyas reigned
over West and Central Deccan, another was powerful in Gujarat. King
Rajaraja of the Chola dynasty conquered Sri Lanka as the millennium
came to an end.
Rule and Influence
are some of the details of history as the new millennium began, but
if we take a more panoramic view of the millennium, two big changes
cannot escape our attention. The new millennium began with the rise
of Islamic power in the world, and it is ending with an established
Western dominance of the globe. Both these developments changed the
nature of the world, but had particularly profound effects on India.
thing the governance of India shifted from the collection of diverse
Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms at the end of the last millennium to a diversity
of Islamic rules, culminating in the Moghal empire. And this in turn
gave way to the British Raj, taking us almost to the end of the millennium
itself. An assessment of the millennium from the Indian perspective
cannot but address the impact and implications of these major trends
of Islamic rule in India was part of a larger process. Indeed, if we
examine the world in the early centuries of the new millennium, we see
a nearly continuous band of Islamic rule from the Atlantic, across North
Africa, around the Western Mediterranean, on to West Asia, and to India.
it commenced with raids rather than conquests. Just around 1000 AD,
the early invasions by Muslim kings across the Khyber Pass began with
great severity. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni kept visiting and revisiting
India, concentrating on plundering and ravaging rather than ruling the
country. But in the centuries to follow, these invasions would give
way to Muslim rulers settled in India, form the Sultanates to the Moghals.
India would become a partly Muslim country.
of Islamic influences within the body of Indian civilisation is resented
by some Hindu activists who look to the pre-Muslim period as the era
of purity of the unalloyed Indian civilisation. This raises the interesting
question as to whether such a purity did, in fact, exist in the pre-Muslim
period. It also raises the question: How best to view the integration
of Islamic rule and culture in India, and how to assess its impact on
the identity of Indian civilisation itself. I must briefly address these
and Reach of Western Dominance
set of questions relates to the rise of the West in the latter part
of the millennium. This includes, of course, the British Raj itself,
but there is a more general issue that engages the attention of many
contemporary commentators across the world. This is the issue of Westernisation
and of the dominance of the West, which enjoys not only political pre-eminence,
economic authority and military superiority, but also cultural influence
of a kind that no civilisation in the past had.
was much more evenly balanced in 1000 AD while the beginning of the
changes that would usher in the Renaissance were already in the making,
and the economic, political, cultural and social developments that would
lead to the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment could be seen
in parts of Europe, there was no great asymmetry yet between Europe
and the rest of the world. Emperor Otto III may have made Rome his permanent
residence in 1000 AD, but the world did not shiver at the thought of
any new Roman conquest as the first millennium came to an end.
the rising star in the Mediterranean, did manage to reign over the Dalmatian
coast and the Adriatic Sea, but this was a strictly local power base,
and the flourishing trades with Asia and Western Europe in which Venice
and Genoa both engaged, were not unlike what Asian and Arab traders
were doing for centuries. China, Japan, India, Iran, and Arab world,
African kingdoms, and other civilisations and societies continued to
have their own ways without being bossed over by the West.
from these old world centres of power and authority, there were, of
course, great civilisations in the American continents. While 1000 AD
is precisely the date on which Leif Ericson, the son of Eric the Red,
is supposed to have 'discovered' America, his journey, if true, did
not take him beyond the remoteness of Nova Scotia, and it gave the old
world no clue of the splendours of the Mayan civilisation which was
then at its peak in the Yucatan Peninsula, nor of the Tiahuanaco civilisation
which covered all of Peru.
of Europe was, in fact, nearly 'total' in the way the American continents
were reshaped in the latter half of the last millennium -- totally subduing
and sometimes obliterating the central features of the preceding civilisations
that were overrun and overpowered by Europeans.
was not quite as total in Asia and Africa, but the question of Western
dominance arises there too, and it is a question that continues to engage
attention today. There can, of course, be little doubt about the asymmetric
power of the West in the contemporary world, but a more interesting
question is raised in the diagnosis of the sense in which the world
we live today is 'Westernised.' What counts as Westernisation? How much
dependence does it generate? How destructive are its consequences? These
questions have to be asked.
normative issue concerns the acceptability of what is seen as Western
cultural influence on non-Western worlds. The dominance of the West
leads to triumphalism in some quarters and great resentment in others.
How should we assess all this? This is the second basket of questions
I want to examine briefly, in this lecture.
then, with the first set of questions, concerning the absorption of
Islamic culture in India and how it affects the nature of Indian identity
and civilisation. What did the Islamic influence do to India? Did it,
in fact, change what is sometimes characterised, by some contemporary
commentators, as a homogeneous culture -- an allegedly 'pure' pre-Islamic
culture -- into an inescapably hybrid one? The sense of a loss of Indian
pureness in the early years of this millennium seems to have some hold
in political discussions in contemporary India. How sound is this way
of seeing what happened in the last millennium?
It is worth
beginning by recollecting that even pre-Muslim India was not just Hindu
India. Indeed, to begin with the most obvious, perhaps the greatest Indian
emperor in the pre-Muslim period was a Buddhist, to wit, Ashoka, and there
were other great non-Hindu emperors, including Harsha. Even as the Sultan
Mahmud of Ghazni raided India, the Buddhist dynasty of the Palas was firmly
in command over eastern India. In fact, Bengal moved rapidly from Buddhist
rule to Muslim rule with only a very brief period of Hindu monarchy in
between -- in the form of the rather hapless Sena kings.
also be recollected the nearly all the major world religions other than
Islam were already well represented in India well before the last millennium.
Indeed, when Christianity started gaining ground in Britain in the seventh
century, India had had large and settled communities of Christians for
at least three hundred years -- certainly from the fourth century. Jews
too had been settled in India -- in fact from immediately after the
fall of Jerusalem. And of course, Buddhism and Jainism had been quite
well-entrenched in India for a very long time. The Muslim arrival merely
filled up the spectrum.
point to note is that unlike the British rule in India where the rulers
remained separate from the ruled, Muslim rulers in India were combined
with the presence of a large proportion of Muslims in the population
itself. A great many people in the land embraced Islam, so much so that
three of the four largest Muslim national populations in the contemporary
world are situated in this subcontinent: in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Indeed, the only non-subcontinental country among the top four Muslim
populations in the world, Indonesia, was also converted to Islam by
Indian Muslims, mostly from Gujarat. Islam was by then a native Indian
also worth noting that though Islam remained a separate religion from
Hinduism, the roles of the different communities in the cultural life
of the country were largely integrated. Whether in music or in painting
or in poetry, evidence of integration is plentifully present. Indeed,
it would be impossible to understand the nature of Indian culture today
without seeing it in integrated terms.
references to raids from Ghazni and other isolated elements of divisive
history remains tactically potent and even flammable in the contemporary
politics of India, the nature of the present-day Indian civilisation
cannot be understood without seeing it as a joint product of many influences
of which the Islamic component is very strong.
nature of contemporary Indian culture has been illustrated by many commentators
with reference particularly to the arts, the literature, and music.
Let me choose a different field of illustration, involving an example
of integration that does not seem to have been much discussed. Even
though Akbar failed, as was noted earlier, in his attempt to establish
an integrated calendar, the Tarikh-Ilahi, such integration did take
place in odd forms across the country.
for example, year 1405 now in the Bengali calendar. What does 1405 stand
for? Its history is a most engaging form of cultural integration. In
the year 963 in the Muslim Heijira calendar (coinciding with 1556 AD)
the Bengali solar calendar -- corresponding to the Shaka system of reckoning
-- was 'adjusted' to the Hejira number, that is, the clock was put back,
as it were, to 963.
then the Hejira has marched ahead, being a lunar calendar, so that the
Bengali 'san' has fallen behind Hejira as well. But when a Bengali Hindu
does his religious ceremonies according to the local calendar, he may
not be fully aware that the dates invoked in his Hindu practice is attuned
to commemorating Mohammad's flight from Mecca to Medina, albeit in a
mixed lunar-solar representation.
millennium saw the occurrence of a remarkable integration in the subcontinent,
and while separatists in both communities often challenge the integration
that has emerged, there can be very little doubt about the range and
reach of the integration that has been achieved.
now to the second set of questions. What about the ascendancy of the
West and its world-wide impact? This has become a subject of concern
and disquiet in many parts of the non-Western world -- including India.
The criticism here may not have quite the form that it has in, say,
West Asia, but the critique of Western influence in the post-colonial
world is quite strong in India as well. There is by now quite a world
literature that is directly or indirectly concerned with a 'cultural
imperalism' -- a field in which Indian authors have made very substantial
can be little doubt that there do exist many examples of cultural imperalism
in the contemporary world and that they certainly call for critical
scrutiny. For example, the weakening of locally rich literary traditions,
which has occurred in many cases, can be cogently regretted and sensibly
resisted. On the other, criticism of Westernisation can also be a cloak
for unreasoned conservatism and a force for reaction in a world of constant
not only the Taliban that plants the label of Westernisation on many
unsuspecting candidates (such as the schooling of girls), but the rhetoric
of resisting Westernisation can be a very potent means of undermining
critical scrutiny of local traditions and practices in general.
some of the recent grumbles about Westernisation concern such commodity-centred
issues as the popularity of MTV or of Coca-Cola or of Mcdonalds, the
weightier disputes tend to raise questions about much profounder issues,
in particular the growing dominance of ''Western modes of thinking,'
'Western conceptions of rationality,' and 'Western science and technology.'
of these dominant relations is to undermine -- it has been argued --
the regional traditions of thinking, native concepts of rationality,
and local knowledge and practical wisdom. An overemphasis on analytical
reasoning is seen as one of the outcomes, which has tended to undermine,
it is argued, the native mystical and religious ideas, and other modes
of thought, that are native to India.
are these diagnoses? How cogent are these concerns?
with an elementary question: What kind of an animal is Westernisation?
Like the blind men describing an elephant in the old Indian tale, different
commentators tend to concentrate on different aspects of Westernisation.
Some describe, as it were, the legs, others the trunk, and still others
the tusk. But unlike the real elephant in that tale, it is not obvious
that there is, in this case, a pre-existing concept of a total elephant,
with legs and a trunk and a tusk around a body which together make up
a whole. Westernisation, one can argue, is not at all like that -- it
does not exist independently of our conceptualisation, and what we take
the total animal to be is itself a matter of judgment.
put my own cards on the table. I believe the idea of Westernisation
is used too readily and too uncritically in many of the contemporary
debates to be helpful for serious cultural critique. The fear of Westernisation
and its debilitating effects suffers from a number of distinct problems.
First, there is the question whether any influence across the border
is to be seen as dependence and whether anything taken from the west
would then count as making a country Westernised.
is to be feared, we surely need an analysis that goes beyond the simple
identification of the origin of a thing or a thought. The progress of
culture as well as science and mathematics in the world has greatly
benefited from learning things across the borders. Not to be able to
distinguish creative influences from debilitating dependence on others
would be a blinding mistake.
given the historical interconnections between different cultures, it
may be hard to determine what are the exact origins of particular ideas,
or objects, or techniques. Very many different types of influences have
come in recent years from the West to non-Western societies. Some are
quintessentially European, like the English language, the French language,
and so on. While others -- such as scientific knowledge or technology
or cultural practice -- may be so mixed in their origin that it would
be quite hopeless to try to determine from where they have originated.
some of the generalisations about the contrast between Western and Indian
conceptions of rationality and modes of thinking seem oddly na´ve and
simplistic. There are enough heterogeneities within each of these traditions
to make such generalisations deeply problematic. I shall discuss these
different issues in turn.
irrelevance of origin
it important to worry about the geography of origin of an idea or an
object? If Westernisation is seen as a legitimate source of concern,
then some bad effects would have to be identified, rather than simply
noting the fact of foreign origin. Does the use of penicillin amount
to Westernisation? What about the enjoyment of Shakespeare? On the other
side, was Goethe getting de-Europeanised because he was so moved by
his reading of Kalidasa? Is Indian cooking deeply Westernised because
chilli was unknown in India till the Portuguese brought it to India?
Are Bengali sweets not Bengali because the use of chena (or
cottage cheese) in this form came with the European settlements in eastern
India? Isn't there a difference between cultural contact and cultural
something were distinctly a product of a particular country or culture,
to assume that its use elsewhere must undermine other countries or cultures
is a completely arbitrary presumption. Rabindranath Tagore put the main
point with great clarity:
Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes
ours, wherever they might have their origin.
I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists
of other countries as my own.
Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man
not to deny that we may have ground to resent the importance of a practice
from elsewhere when it stifles or obliterates some local practice or
tradition to which the regional people have reason to attach value.
Each such use has to be judged, on the one hand, by what it offers (what
valuable things we learn from others), and on the other, by what it
may stifle (what valuable things of our own we forget as a result of
outside influence). The precise origin of an object or an idea or a
technique is not crucial for this judgement, and has to be distinguished
from the assessment of its impact and creative and destructive effects.
cannot be dealt with simply by disapproving every cultural import, nor
by regarding every import to be just fine. The main issue is surely
to increase the freedom that people have to choose between alternative
life styles and ways of being.
extent this is best dealt with by leaving the choices to the individuals
involved. But there may be cases in which the survival of local cultural
forms may be threatened by strong-armed or better-funded competition
from foreign sources. It is, then, up to the society to determine what,
if anything, it wants to do to preserve old forms of living, even as
significant economic cost. Lifestyles can indeed be preserved if the
society decides to do just that, and it is a question of balancing the
costs of such preservation against the value that the society attaches
to the objects and lifestyles to be preserved.
is, of course, no ready formula for this cost-benefit analysis, but
what is crucial for a rational assessment of such choices is the ability
of the people to participate in public discussions on this subject.
There is no compulsion to preserve every departing life style at heavy
cost, but there is a need -- for social justice -- that people should
be able to take part in these social decisions, if they so choose.
spread of science, mathematics and culture
now to the second issue: the difficulty in deciding what exactly is
the origin of an idea or an object. Sometimes a thing may come, proximately,
from the west, but its earlier origin may have involved non-Western
influences in a crucial way. This is particularly the case when we talk
about science or mathematics, since these subjects absorbed the contributions
of many different societies and cultures. To the immediate recipient,
the arriving ideas and beliefs may look identifiably 'Western,' since
they are brought in by people from the west, and yet these ideas and
beliefs may not be, in any sense, specifically Western in nature or
I can illustrate the point with an example I have used in a different
context (in the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture I gave in Calcutta in
1995 under the title 'Our culture, their culture') namely, the arrival
of modern mathematics in British India. The subject arrived in Indian
high schools in a distinctly British form, and the terminology as well
as the exact propositions were a reflection of what was then standard
in English high schools. There is, however, nothing quite essentially
'British' or 'Western' about contemporary mathematics, even though some
conservatives in Indian did see it as an intrusion of Western modes
of thought. As it happens, some of the basic ideas, for example of Trigonometry,
that were being introduced by the British in Indian schools had, in
fact, been developed in India itself, even though these came back to
India through Western textbooks.
nothing illustrates the point better than the origin of the term 'sine'
-- a central concept in Trigonometry. Aryabhata, the Indian mathematician,
had discussed the concept of 'sine' in the late fifth and early sixth
century, and he called it jya-ardha (half-chord) in Sanskrit,
and sometimes abbreviated it simply as jya. When the Arabs
took on this notion, they Arabised the term jya, and with that
began a remarkable story of international transformation of terminology.
Howard Eves, the historian of mathematics, describes it thus: Aryabhata
called it ardha-jya ('half'chord') and jya-ardha (chord-half'),
and then abbreviated the term by simply using jya ('chord').
From jya the Arabs phonetically derived jiba, which,
following Arabic practice of omitting vowels, was written as jb. Now
jiba, aside from its technical significance, is a meaningless
word in Arabic. Later writers who came across jb as an abbreviation
for the meaningless word jiba substituted jaib instead,
which contains the same letters, and is a good Arabic word meaning 'cove'
or 'bay.' Still later, Gherardo of Cremona (ca 1150), when he made his
translations from the Arabic, replaced the Arabian jaib by
its Latin equivalent, sinus (meaning a cove or a bay), from
whence came our present word sine.'
the migration of ideas in mathematics and in science, it is hard to
see any particular concept or discipline as being specifically from
any part of the world -- the West or anywhere else. In fact, as we look
at the time around the end of the first millennium, cross-cultural comparisons
bring out the spread of Eastern influence on Western mathematics. While
the decimal system was well developed in India by the sixth century
and used extensively by Arab mathematicians soon thereafter, the arithmetic
notation and procedures reached Europe mainly in the last quarter of
the tenth century. Also, the related use of zero, which too was well
established by then in Indian and Arab mathematics, still needed some
championing, and the Indian mathematics, still needed some championing.
mathematician Sridhara produced a definitive treatment of this issue
around 1000 AD. Indeed, these two are the only items of mathematical
interest between 975 and 1000 AD that are noted in the well-known reference
books The Timetables of History, and in Kulturfahraplan,
in German, edited respectively by Bernard Grun and Werner Stein. Similarly,
the only scientific invention in physics and chemistry that is recorded
for this period in the world, in these reference books, is the perfection
of gunpowder by Chinese scientists, just around 1000 AD.
by the name of 'Western science' or 'Western mathematics' is not exclusively
a product of the West, even though it is in the West that some of the
integration and recent developments have tended to occur. Indeed, in
nearly every field of knowledge and art and craft, influences run across
boundaries at impressive speed, and it is just as hopeless to find fully
homegrown Western science or mathematics or literature or the arts,
as it is to resent innovations coming from other countries for the fear
that its foreign origin would itself undermine local culture.
Mysticism and Heterogeneity
now to the third issue related to the diagnosis of a specific distinction
between 'Western' and 'Indian' traditions of thinking and rationality.
The point is often made that Indian culture in particular has been much
more deeply religious and mystical than are the western traditions.
It is certainly true that there is an astonishingly large volume of
religious literature in India. But there is also a larger volume of
atheistic or agnostic writings in Sanskrit and Pali than in any other
classical tradition -- Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Arabic. This applies
not only to the Carvaka and Lokayata schools (and their descendants),
but also to Buddhism, the only agonistic world religion ever to emerge.
late as the fourteenth century, Madhavacarya's book Sarvadarshanasamgraha
('The collection of all philosophies') devoted the entire first chapter
to arguments in favour of the atheistic position. If these arguments
were presented as part of a 'Western' challenge to Indian religiosity,
no doubt an Indian particularist would see it as vindication of the
gulf between Western and Indian modes of thinking, but as it happens
the atheistic arguments came, in this case, in a book written by a fourteenth-century
if we take the Ramayana, the great epic which some see as a
holy book on the life of divine Rama, it may appear terribly 'Western'
to suggest that Rama should have been advised by someone not to abdicate
his kingship, as he did towards the beginning of the epic, for reasons
that can be seen basically as religious piety. However, this would be
no 'Western criticism,' since this is exactly what the worldly-wise
pundit called Javali tells Rama in the Ramayana itself: 'O Rama, be
wise, there exists no world but this, that is certain! Enjoy that which
is present and cast behind thee that which is unpleasant.' Heterodoxy
runs throughout the early Indian documents, and a customs officer looking
for contraband 'western' material would find plenty to confiscate there.
the generalisations about Western rationality and its deep difference
with Indian and other non-Western traditions are not worth the paper
on which they are written. Each major culture tends to have very considerable
heterogeneity within itself, and this applies to Western as well as
itself is, of course, deeply diverse on the subject of nature and the
supernatural. One has only to open the television in America in the
evenings to see how many tales involving supernatural forces are being
dished out to credulous viewers. In this context, it is also worth recollecting,
what I mentioned earlier in this talk in describing the end of last
millennium, that as 1000 AD approached, much of Europe was seized by
a panic that the world must end then and the much-feared 'Last Judgment'
would presently occur. The 'millennium panic,' as it was sometimes called,
had connections with the idea that Jesus Christ would appear a thousands
years prior to the so-called Last Judgment. This idea, called 'milleniarinism''
still survives among some sects of Christianity (for example, among
with the European panic, the arrival of the year 1000 in the Shaka calendar
or in the Hejira had an air of quiet normality in India. This is not
to argue that Europe is more attuned to the supernatural than India,
but only to note that had there been a millennium panic in India related
to the Shaka or the Hejira and none in Europe in the year 1000 AD (that
is the opposite of what actually happened), the guardians of the west-non-west
distinction would have undoubtedly offered this as a telling example
of the contrast between Western rationality and Indian beliefs in the
I am not
denying that the balance of different attitudes may well differ between
distinct cultural traditions, but some of the generalisations that are
made to present west-non-west distinctions are hard to sustain. There
are enormous varieties within each culture, and also changes over time.
To see the contrasts in terms of frozen generalisations about the east
and west -- each homogeneous on its own and sharply different from the
other -- would be a very great mistake.
is as simple as attaching the label of 'Westernisation' when some people
in a non-Western society criticise some on-going custom, but these criticisms
may arise just as easily from local heterodoxy as from any grand preference
for Westernising a non-Western society. Buddha or Carvaka -- or Javali
-- are as Indian as are Rama or Krishna.
Rights and Asian Values
now to a particular debate concerning Westernisation involving the place
of 'human rights,' particularly related to political and civil liberties.
Governments of some countries in Asia and Africa, which have favoured
authoritarian forms of government, have often invoked an allegedly fundamental
difference between Western values and local values elsewhere. 'Asian
values,' for example, are taken to be less committed to such rights
than are 'Western values.' The rhetoric against Westernisation played
a major part in the confrontations that occurred in the World Conference
on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993.
a real divide between Western and non-Western values on the subject
of human rights? It is certainly true that the practice of democracy
and the related political and civil rights have strongly emerged in
the West over the recent centuries, particularly since the European
'enlightenment.' There have been great champions of human rights in
non-western societies as well, for example among the leaders of movements
of national independence and basic freedoms (such as Mahatma Gandhi
and Sun Yat Sen), but these leaders themselves have not hesitated to
praise Western development of these ideas.
at issue is not the proximate origin of these political ideas in the
West, but whether there is a real divide here between traditions of
the West and those elsewhere that allow us to identify these values
as quintessentially 'Western values,' as some authors, especially in
East Asia, have done. I have tried to discuss this issue rather extensively
elsewhere (particularly in my Morgenthau Memorial Lecture at the Carnegie
Council in New York last year), and I have argued that hardly any such
divide can be seen in this general form in the contrast between the
intellectual history of the Western and non-Western worlds.
favourable as well as critical of the underlying concepts of human rights
can be seen both in the West and in non-Western traditions -- the Indian,
the Chinese, the Arabic and others. Confucius may be seen, in some respects,
as being rather authoritarian, as is Kautilya, but so are Plato and
St Augustine in the West. Aristotle may be a great champion of political
freedom and tolerance, but he too restricted the demand for these freedoms
to free men (not slaves, not women), whereas Ashoka's theorising on
the importance of tolerance made no such exceptions.
was making his forceful pronouncements on tolerance of diversity and
religious differences in particular, the Inquisitions were powerfully
active in Europe. It is also worth recollecting that when, in the twelfth
century, the great Jewish scholar Maimonides had to run away from an
intolerant Europe (where he was born) and from its brutal persecution
of Jews, he chose the security of a tolerant and urbane Cairo and the
patronage of Sultan Saladin.
who is constantly invoked by the champions of the thesis that Asian