How Modern is Modern?

In our previous post (The Degeneration of Politics) we picked up a thread on dynastic politics in Ramachandra Guha’s new book (India after Gandhi, 2007) and commented that in India (and, by extension, South Asia) “the modern and the medieval exist at the same time” and that “the future of Indian politics will depend largely on the proportion of people left behind in medieval times.” 

Amongst other things, this was triggered by Guha’s reference to a remark by Amartya Sen that as “inequalities intensify, half of India will come to look and live like California, the other half like sub-Saharan Africa.”

We have received interesting feedback from a reader that enables us to try and push the argument further:

Perhaps the one qualification I would make is that 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. Sadly, even the younger generation appears to have taken to a sanitized religiosity. 

If we leave religion aside and focus solely on modernity with respect to dynastic rule, I think the younger generation in urban areas is much more modern in this sense than our generation and I think the younger politicians too – often the sons of older politicians – entering the fray are very much more modern in this respect. I don’t think the younger generation will be as tolerant of dynasties. Of course, this is a small minority but it is growing. So, I think one might conclude that it may not be so much of a reversal from modern to medieval but a temporary downturn until the new generation comes in. 

The second argument seems easier to dispute. We see little evidence that the new urban generation is less tolerant of dynasties. In fact, most of the people inheriting their positions in business and politics are members of the new generation. Nor do we see, much of a protest against the continuation of such practices from other members of the new generation who are not in the fortunate position to inherit much by way of assets or privileges.

The first point is a much more tricky one and also a great deal more interesting from the perspective of ideas. Clearly, we were amiss to conflate modernism with living in California and medievalism with living in sub-Saharan Africa. The economically “modern” (in the sense of a sharing an advanced standard of living) could coexist quite easily with the culturally “traditional” (in the sense of worldviews and belief systems). 

So, the question really is how culturally modern is modern society in South Asia and what constitutes this modernity? We are struggling with this question and need a cultural sociologist to weigh in with greater expertise than we have at our disposal. 

What we feel to be correct intuitively is the observation of our reader that “culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors.” And we also feel that the trend is in the “wrong” direction based on our agreement with the observation that “even the younger generation appears to have taken to a sanitized religiosity.”

We can perhaps illustrate our unease by picking up on another comment from Guha’s book (page 736) where, with reference to the 2004 elections, Guha quotes the political analyst Yogendra Yadav as saying: “India is perhaps the only large democracy in the world today where the turnout of the lower orders is well above that of the most privileged groups.” 

Lower orders? Without being able to put our finger on it, this formulation seems to represent a worldview that is profoundly un-modern and one that Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book (The Burden of Democracy, 2003) holds responsible for the limitations of Indian democracy. 

Going by our limited knowledge there has not yet occurred the kind of break point in Indian society that can be compared to that Cartesian pronouncement of “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”—a pronouncement that can be used as a marker of the separation between the traditional and the modern worldviews. This separation would characterize the fading away of the belief in a divinely ordained world (made up of lower and higher orders, to take one example) to a modern perspective that sees all arrangements as social outcomes that are amenable to change and improvement based on rational thought and action. 

We are quite well aware that we are in deep waters here and would welcome a more informed discussion.

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5 Responses to “How Modern is Modern?”

  1. Dr. Bettina Robotka Says:

    Are you proposing that South Asian /Indian Modernity has to culturally and ideologically look the same as European or “Western”? That would be a desaster! Neither of the developments which finally resulted in the type of European modernity has been experienced by South Asians. Neither Renaissance, nor enlightenment nor actually Reformation and the need to separate a Church from the state for the very survival of European civilization after the devastation of the religious wars lasting about one hundred years and bringing the whole set-up to the verge of collapse. I think South Asia should better think to develop its own ideas about what modernity means under South Asian historical, philisophical and cultural circumstances. Religion as such does not come into the way of being modern, as far as I can see. May be the way of professing it, of interpreting it and of handling it may need re-thinking. But even in Europe we are re-thinking the outfall of secularism which is secularization and irreligion and even recovering religion to a certain extend because we start realizing its impact not only on culture but on ethics and morality. So don’t look westwards, have your own modernity and stand by it.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    Dear Dr. Robotka,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful comment. No, we are not proposing that South Asian modernity should look the same as European modernity. We have noted, as you point out, that the equivalents of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Reformation are absent in South Asia and are wondering what South Asian modernity would be like in their absence. We are not even sure how we would know that we have become “modern.” Our curiosity was triggered by the implication in Ramachandra Guha’s book that we were going backwards instead of forwards.

    We also agree with your position on religion except perhaps when religion leads one to accept any worldly fate as the working of a divine dispensation.

    I must report the remark of a colleague who, on reading your comment, wondered that if we could be scientific and rational in the same way, why couldn’t we also be modern in the same way. To me, the unstated presumption in Guha’s account was that Nehru was a thoroughly modern man in the European sense of modernity and he was disappointed that Indira failed to live up to that standard.

  3. Dr. Bettina Robotka Says:

    The belief in the superiority of predestination is not necessarily connected to the belief in God. Religion properly understood and interpreted can appeal very much to your own responsibility for your actions and the free will to perform them according to the best of your understanding. The problem is not the religion as such but the way we interpret it.

    Being rational and scientific is surely a part of modernity, but again, in the first place we don’t have necessarily to abondon religion for that just to re-interpret it according to the requirements of modern society. So far the religions, in the first place the big ones like Christianity and Islam (I don’t know much about Hinduism but the process seems to have stopped somewhere in the 19th/early 20th c. when the Arya Samaj lost its innovative drive). But if you look at the way the Ismailis adopt their religious beliefs to modern society, that may be one way. There are some new ideas in Christianity also, some Christian theologians start saying that it was a mistake to refuse to acknowledge the findings of Galileo Galilei and if you read that speech of the pope which was creating such upheaval because of his anti-Muslim remarks, he was actually trying to explain that there is nothing in Christianity which is contrary to rationalism and reason. All Mohammad Iqbal was trying to do was to show that actually there is nothing in Islam which is contradicting reason and rational thought. The problem is with the Muslims, not with Islam. So things are moving, but they take time. More time then we are usually ready to give to them. We live in a time of extremely quick (technological) progress and development. But the mindsets, the thinking of the people also has to be adjusted to cope with that new technical environment and to globalization. That is a much slower process and it applies to everybody.

    With regard to Nehru und that he was perfectly modern in the European sense. I haven’t met him, but I doubt it. But I agree that he came very close, still he was a Kashmiri Brahman with certain may be religious, may be cultural may be other convictions which he normally would not talk about frequently or openly. Then also we tend to be rebels in our younger years and then go back to our roots at a later age. So we are not the same throughout our lives. But conceding that he was almost perfect we have to realize that there were not many of his kind. Not only his daughter.
    When Iam teaching South Asian students I am observing that they do have a different “logic”. They may not understand or accept the same explanation or argument and I have to re-think my logic and to find a meeting point. I always do find one, but it shows that even rationality and logic are imbedded in historical and cultural thought-structures which have to be accounted for. And that is wonderful, isn’t it? How boring would the world be with only uniform people and ideas around! We should celibrate diversity and not deplore it!

  4. SouthAsian Says:

    Dear Professor Robotka,

    Thanks once again for participating in this discussion. I guess we should clarify that we are neither celebrating diversity nor deploring it. We are simply taking note of the differences in understanding that exist and making that reality our starting point. We agree that thought structures are embedded in our lived experiences and that is why we have called this blog the South Asian Idea. In our first post (The South Asian Idea) we sated our position clearly:

    We are also conscious that our imaginations are not unlimited. Most of the time what we imagine and how we imagine it is a function of the reality in which we have grown up. That is why we call this forum the South Asian Idea. This is a South Asian perspective on the world with all its strengths and limitations.

    Regarding your comment, we see a certain commonality of attitudes and practices in South Asia (the acceptance of dynastic succession, for example, that we have been discussing). So whatever we are trying to understand goes beyond specific religions. Nor, are we trying to ascribe blame to the adherents of any religion. Perhaps, a part of what we seek to understand has to do with religion itself, broadly speaking. Religion is a generic term that can refer to systems with very different social hierarchies, relations between individuals, and overlaps with politics. Transformations along these multiple dimensions could lead to very different social, political and economic outcomes. Thus it would be difficult to imagine the same kind of religious crusade in Europe today that was common a millennium ago although a return in one form or another cannot be completely ruled out.

    Our concern is with these specificities and transformations in trying to understand what being modern might mean in South Asia today.

  5. Vinod Says:

    Here is an alternative view – As the eastern and western societies get more interconnected, the eastern societies get to experience some of the western paradigms of thought, especially by the economically well off. There then starts to grow, among the middle classes of the eastern societies, including South Asian societies, an internal battle of ideas. This battle can rage for a few decades. At some points the traditional ideas seem to win, reactingly strongly to modern ideas. At other times, it may work in the opposite way. Which side wins, depends on which side is able to play its political cards well, bring an overall economic development, ensure a more just and equal society. The battle lines are not clearly drawn either. People can e influenced by a syncreticism of the ideas on the two sides. Such people are most suited to take the countries forward and bring about positive and lasting change. If there is no economic development and inequality continues to rise then it can lead to an overthrow of the existing order and replaced with idealogues of the opposite camp. With such grandscale social and political phenomena, it is better to reserve one’s opinion and play a watch and wait game.

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