15 Mar Is There Such a Thing as a Modern South Asian?
We have been struggling to understand the nature of modernity in South Asia and in one of the posts on the topic (How Modern is Modern?) had left off with the following observation from a reader: “Even the small segment one might call modern has never experienced anything like the Enlightenment directly so that culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors.”
This prompted us to look up the literature on the Enlightenment in greater detail and our search could well leave us with the conclusion that there is really no such thing as a modern South Asian. We will follow up this heretical thread later in this post but let us first introduce an exceptionally illuminating book on the subject of the Enlightenment.
In Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford University Press, 2006), Jonathan Israel enumerates what he views as the enduring, core values of the Enlightenment:
1) Philosophical reason as the criterion of what is true; 2) rejection of supernatural agency (divine providence); 3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual equality); 4) secular universalism in ethics anchored in equality and stressing equity, justice, and charity; 5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought; 6) personal liberty of lifestyle between consenting adults, safeguarding the dignity and freedom of the unmarried and homosexuals; 7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press in the public sphere; and 8) democratic republicanism.
Israel argues that the Enlightenment was responsible for the emergence of liberal modernity in the eighteenth century with its rejection of ecclesiastical authority and the superstitious interpretations of accepted religion, its strict differentiation between truth and belief, philosophy and religion, its rejection of authoritarianism and insistence on human equality regardless of race, gender, and class, and its demand for the absolute freedom of expression in the public sphere. This radical model of full equality and absolute freedom of expression – in which the unrelenting critique of existing church and political authority, sexual roles, gender differences, empire, and colonialism was first fully articulated – represents the cornerstone of modernity.
Thus a specific set of notions – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, equality racial and sexual, freedom of expression, sexual emancipation, and the universal right to knowledge – are at the heart of what can be described as the system of modern Western values.
With this background we can now ask: What is the corresponding set of values that describes the modern South Asian? Note that we are concerned here not with the facility with modern science and technology but with a certain set of values that are associated with a modern worldview. Was our reader right when he claimed that “culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors?”
Of course, the title of this post is rhetorical and we do not intend to take a Eurocentric perspective on modernity in South Asia. We are well aware of the excellent arguments made by Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provicializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press 2001) warning against the intellectual pitfalls in adopting such a simplistic stance. But while accepting that the values that describe a modern European need not be the same that describe a modern South Asian, we can still ask for an enumeration of the set of values that characterize a modern South Asian.
And it is from this perspective that we could conceivably argue that with no sharp break between old and new values in South Asia, it may be an intellectually defensible claim to say that there is no such thing as a modern South Asian. South Asians have become scientifically and technologically advanced but their core values have changed relatively little – South Asians have either always been modern or they remain pre-modern depending how one prefers to look upon the phenomenon.
Jonathan Israel’s primary purpose in writing his book was not to enumerate the values that characterize modernity and the values they replaced although he does an excellent job of that. He is more interested in explaining the events and the path that led to these changes. More importantly, he is interested in the sociology and history of ideas. It is the radical claim of the book that the credit for the Enlightenment belongs not to some of the greatest names traditionally associated with the Enlightenment – such as Locke, Newton, Leibniz, Wolff, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hume and Kant, all of whom Israel portrays as Enlightenment ‘moderates’ – but to the Enlightenment ‘radicals’ whose leadership belonged to Spinoza.
Israel’s book is worth reading if one is interested in ideas and in understanding how ideas help to shape history. It could inspire some of our young scholars to pursue a similar exploration of the critical ideas that have shaped, for better or for worse, the history of South Asia in our times.
Two excellent critical commentaries on Jonathan Israel’s book from which we have borrowed and benefited greatly can be found at the following links: