Friday, August 24, 2007

India

It's a fascinating country, India: "The world's largest democracy," with a population of 1.12 billion, and now the world's customer service department. It is a place of vast contradictions that embraces (in a mixed economy) the individualism of a free market, yet retains vestiges of a pre-capitalist caste society. How many Indians will touch an untouchable to this day?

On the 15th of this month India celebrated its 60th anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom. As an American I tip my hat and say congratulations. A free and flourishing India is not only morally right, it is important to the world's economy. And India is, along with Israel, America's natural ally in the war against Islamic totalitarianism.

I believe that independence is good, but I also think India's association with the British Empire was the best thing that ever happened to it -- another paradox in this land of contradictions! The infusion of western values that came from Britain accounts for India's progress and is the foundation of its freedom.

"East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet," wrote Rudyard Kipling, but in India today the two very different cultures do meet. I once read an anecdote about an Indian VIP who was taken to a concert in New York City of the three B's -- Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. After the concert he was asked which he liked best. He said he liked the piece at the very beginning the best. After some confusion his American host realized the Indian thought the orchestra tuning up was part of the show and liked that best.

In India you can find individuals on the cutting edge of the Information Revolution, but you'll also find ghastly superstitions and mysticism. Now, mysticism is everywhere in the world, from Malibu to Melbourne to Madrid to Marakesh; but it is noisier and more bizarre in Mumbai. You don't find fakirs lying on a bed of nails in Montana.

Along with the mysticism in India you can find many who subscribe to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a philosophy of reason and reality that is the opposite of mysticism. I was fascinated in the 1980's to read announcements in The Intellectual Activist of all the cities where Leonard Peikoff's taped lectures could be heard. After the USA, the country with the most lectures by far was India.

When Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand was published in 1991, I could hardly put it down and I took it to work with me as a temp legal proofreader. This being New York City, I was surrounded by liberals, of course; they reacted to the sight of the book with revulsion, as if I had done something wrong merely by bringing the book to work. I was not part of the politically correct group. But there was one Indian woman at work, an immigrant with a heavy accent whose eyes lit up at the sight of the book and we had a very nice conversation about our favorite philosopher. To the liberals, Ayn Rand represented an enemy to be scorned; to that Indian woman she represented the best within, the hope of aspirations fulfilled by the use of reason and productiveness in a free country. (I suspect that the Indian woman was the only one in the office besides me who had actually read Ayn Rand.)

What are we to make of a country where one can find both Objectivists and Hindus? A country where one can find computer programmers and women who decorate fire hydrants with flowers in some fertility ritual because they look like phallic symbols? A country that has a thriving international commerce and poor people who defecate in the gutter?

I think the contradictions in India are the same as the rest of the world -- the struggle of reason vs. faith, individualism vs. collectivism, freedom vs. statism -- but the mysticism is purer, which is to say more backward and less tempered by the west's philosophic heritage of reason. The crisis is similar to that in the Islamic world, but India seems to have benefited from its Hindu religion's syncretism. Unlike the more dogmatic Islam, Hinduism, from what little of it I understand, has a tradition of bringing in outside ideologies and working with them.

Looking at the struggles in non-western civilizations reminds me how much we owe to the medieval scholastics led by Thomas Aquinas, who integrated Aristotle with Christianity. They made this world real to Christians and made all the subsequent achievements of science and civilization, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, possible.

Hindus must have their limit of how much reason they will tolerate before they lash out in mindless force. Hinduism is certainly no guarantee of freedom. India seems to be in a precarious position: will it move forward in the direction of reason and freedom or backward to its mystical past?

Ultimately, the fate of India and the world rests on the fate of America. American leadership allows the best elements of the rest of the world to work for peace and international trade. If America succumbs to religion and statism, there is no hope for the rest of the world.

11 comments:

Ergo said...

Hi Myrhaf,

Thanks for your comment on my blog.

Your post on India is very generous in its assessment of the state of this nation. I recently wrote up my own views of the state of the nation, titled "What Can India be Proud of". I think you might find it informative in shaping your perception of India.

Here's the link:
http://ergosum.wordpress.com/tag/india/

Regarding your view that India benefited from British imperialism, I agree. There's so much we have to thank them for: the British constructed structures in magnificient baroque and gothic styles that still stand in our cities more than 100 years later. Meanwhile, Indian-built structures are regularly collapsing around us, killing hordes of Indians.
Our railway network is so extensive because the British laid the tracks for the most part and charted out railway territories. We even still use the design of the train coaches that was left by the British designers from the early 1920s and 1930s.
Downtown Mumbai luckily escapes the flooding deluge of monsoon rains because of the smart network of sewer systems that were built by the British, although the sewer system is now alarmingly overstressed.

However, the Indian political and economic scene actively *rejected* western and British values. Immediately after the independence, India quickly aligned with the Soviet Union and rapidly instituted Soviet socialist policies. The oppressive Socialist atmosphere in India is what gave rise to the brain-drain phenomena in India--what I like to call the Atlas Shrugged movement.

And that brings me to Ayn Rand's popularity in India. I wrote up a detailed post on this point titled "Why is Ayn Rand Respected More in India?"
I hope you don't mind that I post a link to that as well here for you and your readers:

http://ergosum.wordpress.com/2006/09/16/why-is-ayn-rand-respected-more-in-india/

Myrhaf said...

Thanks for your comments and for the links. Those posts are terrific and highly informative.

madmax said...

"Those posts are terrific and highly informative."

I second that.

Ergo, I have been following your blog since you were still in America. Your knowledge of Objectivism and your ability to apply it in your commentary has grown exponentially. Along with Gus Van Horn, Noodlefood and of course Myrhaf, yours is my favorite Objectivist blog.

Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I grew up in Durban where the largest number of Indians outside of India live and joined a Hindu sect for about ten years that had been influenced by Christianity in the late 1800s. Hinduism is not an authoritarian religion. Okay, some Hindu sects are but mostly it's a fluid, easy-going and adaptable religion.

Leon Lowe, a South African libertarian, wrote a book called The Solution about 20 years ago (I can't find a link to it right now) about how to solve South Africa's economic problems by allowing small entrepreneurs to have unregulated free trade. It was only partially implemented in SA but took off in India where Lowe spent a few years teaching local governments how to do it.

Ergo said...

Thanks Madmax. You've always been so generous in your compliments of my writing. I am encouraged and motivated by your words.

softwareNerd said...

India is such a hard country to describe, because of the extremes of ultra modern and feudal residing almost side by side.

I just have one comment on this point made by Ergo, regarding how India changed after independence in 1947: "actively *rejected* western and British values.... rapidly instituted Soviet socialist policies."

While the underlying facts are true, I do not see this as a rejection of western values. Rather, I see it as learning from the west, and trying to apply that learning with a greater sense of idealism than one's teachers.

Let me explain.

Nehru (first Indian Prime minister) was British educated, and sincerely believed in the doctrines that he was taught in England. He attended an famous English boarding school from 15, went to Cambridge and was a barrister in the "middle temple" in London. His socialism was not a rebellion, but was what he was being taught in college.

When Nehru got a chance to be PM, he simply implemented these teachings. Back in Britain there were probably forces resisting the moves to the left (though they drifted there too). In India, with a blank slate, and the enthusiasm of a new country, Nehru (and his daughter, Indira) spent the first few years making the country ever more socialist. [As an aside, as socialism grew, so did "cashers-in" and corruption. If Nehru was a witch-doctor, then Indira had a little more Attila in her. Fortunately for India, her son, Sanjay, who'd have been the real Attila, died before he could become PM. Instead, her quiet, non-political son, Rajeev, took over --- and that is one of the key events to which India's turn-around can be traced.] But I digress....

On the verge of Independence, Indian intellectuals debated what their new country should look like. The socialists won.

There was a group that was calling for a more American-style system. An important figure in this group was Rajagopalachari. However, his group did not carry the day. In the end, they settled for letting Rajagopalachari become India's first President (a titular role), while the socialist Nehru became PM.

Not to be left out of the equation was Gandhi -- India's Ben Franklin (as in "grandfather") figure. He was definitely socialist in his leaning. Here too, he was a lawyer, educated in England, in the political philosophy of his times.

I've often wondered if the following hypothesis would hold true:countries that gain independence, more often than not adopt the currently-fashionable political theories of their colonial rulers at the time of independence.

Anonymous said...

"I've often wondered if the following hypothesis would hold true:countries that gain independence, more often than not adopt the currently-fashionable political theories of their colonial rulers at the time of independence."

Interesting. I wonder what this portends for Iraq?

John Kim

softwareNerd said...

Iraq will probably go more Islamic than ever; but, Iraq is not relevant to my comment, which isn't a rule anyway.

Ergo said...

SoftwareNerd, you made some very good points and qualifications to my comment.

However, I have the understanding that the intellectual climate in Britain--at the beginning of the 19th century--was the most pro-capitalist, laissez-faire as it has ever been. It was during this time that the ideas of men like Adam Smith, James Mill, David Ricardo, etc., dominated the intellectual scene. And while this is not to say that the 20th century was equally pro-capitalist, I'd assume that some of its influence would have carried on in the British academia in the early part of that century.

Oh, and there's a minor correction I'd like to make to your attribution of Rajiv Gandhi as a mild-mannered politician who may be credited with India's turn-around. It was actually Rajiv Gandhi who passed the constitutional amendment to redefine India as a Socialist republic, thus requiring that all political parties adhere to the principles of Socialism.

A handful of people moved the courts to allow legal recognition of their political party, which professed anti-socialist principles, and were rejected on these grounds.

So, I'd not let Rajiv off the hook quite so easily.

softwareNerd said...

Hey Ergo,

Not sure how old you are, but I lived through Indira's "emergency". She was the one who changed the constitution in 1976.

For others, in 1976 the Indian constitution was changed. In the preamble, instead of declaring India to be a "SOVEREIGN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC", it was declared to be a "SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC"

Rajiv was no saint. The changes he made were small. I can even understand some people thinking of him as evil. My point was merely that his "reign" was the turning point. Think Gorbachev on a smaller scale; it sometimes takes someone from within the establishment to turn the ship around. Once he shows "weakness", the right people can move in to do the rest.

It's an interesting topic. We should do a thread somewhere (other than comments) about the history of India.

Ergo said...

Ah, I stand corrected then. Unbelievable that Indira did so much evil in her time as prime minister.

I'm 25. And yes, I'd be interested in a post on the history of India; I'd not be too competent to write about that area, however.