Dossier 23-24: Culture and Identity

Publication Author: 
Amartya Sen
July 2001
Word Document136.52 KB
number of pages: 
Whatever we understand and enjoy in human progress instantly becomes ours, wherever it might have its origins.

Identity is a subject which needs some reflection because I believe that certain things are taken for granted in this subject which do not, by any means, survive the scrutiny. This is not in any way to deny the importance of identity in our lives. It affects our actions, governs the loyalties that we have, the tides that we respect. It affects our reflections. It affects the way that we see ourselves. But it’s also the source of a lot of our problems.

We live in a divisive world today, and a lot of battles are fought on identity. Some countries themselves have been party to many of these disputes in the past, and they continue across the world today. We are involved in strongly divisive identities of various kinds and that is at the level of politics, nationalism, sectarian differences and so forth.

On the abstract level, in terms of cultural and literary studies, just to give an example, the issue of identity in a big way defines the nature of the literary commitments that people have across the world. On the one side there is the kind of fear that the non-Western cultures and literatures may be overwhelmed by the dominance that we see coming from the West. On the other side, some people find the cultural separatist position that is often taken in this rather self-consciously anti-colonial literature to be also tremendously historically constrained. The colonial heritage, which gave us very good reason to be critical of the West and to assert our independence, has continued to dominate our thought, even though India has been independent now for 50 years. The anti-colonial psychology, I think, is very strong and we have to examine how much of it is still justified and how much should be rejected in the world in which we live.

For Indians, the issue of identity is a problem even more than for an average member of the world’s population. India has some special features. First of all, the country is very diverse, very complex. I can think of no other country which has as much diversity of language groups, religious groups, local cultures, political convictions, literary traditions, classical backgrounds and various alternative traditions, Sanskrit, old Persian, Arabic, and so on.

All these differences, nestled side by side, are quite significant as a fact about India. Just to recount the nature of the religious diversity, India has more Hindus than any other country in the world, more sects than any other country, more languages than any other country, and more religions than any other country. It is the third largest Muslim country in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. It is the country of origin of Buddhism, even though Buddhism is not practised as widely in India.

When I was in my very anti-religious school days, I tried to establish in my school records that I was a Buddhist, because when I first tried to put down that I had no religion, I was told by my headmaster that no religion was not a possible answer to the question. So I put down Buddhism because that was the only religion I could think of which did not require as much submissiveness. My headmaster called me in and asked if I would be disturbed by the fact that there were no other Buddhists within 300 miles around. I said it didn’t disturb me in the least.

But even though Buddhism as a religion has declined in India, India is the country of its origin, and one has to only go through Buddhist literature to see how profound its connection is with Indian thought. Of course some of the influences of Buddhism survive today. It is not often recognized that there was essentially no vegetarianism in India before the Buddhist period, and that Indian vegetarianism is really a heritage of Buddhist convictions. In some parts of the country, like Bengal, where I come from, the Buddhist kings ruled until about the Eleventh century, so the gap between the Buddhist kings and the Muslim kings is a very thin one.

Thus in many ways it is still present with us, and, of course, you also ought to assert that India has had Christianity longer than Britain has had … from the 4th century AD. There is a tradition claiming that Thomas the Apostle came to India. Whether or not that is true, there are some records from 4th century AD of Christians in India. Jews came to India shortly after the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, we have a very long tradition of diversity, which is very important to assert in this context.

The second reason why identity issues are complex and important is the presence of us, expatriate Indians across the world. They represent a very large group, which is not only large numerically, but it is often quite influential in local communities. It is also a community where the identity of origin in very influential.

There is a kind of hardiness about the Indian identity, which is important. It is even formalized into categories as in the category of Non Resident Indian. I don’t know of similar categories of Non Resident Kurds, Non Resident Iranians, etc., but in our eyes it is a very established category and it has a kind of definite legal status. It is an engulfing identity and the law so defines it. If you marry someone, whether or not that person happens to be from India, they are immediately classified according to Indian law as non resident Indians, which my wife, with great pleasure, learned when she was trying to get an Indian visa. She was told since she was an Indian origin foreigner, she could get a five year visa, which was wonderful since she was born in London and had no connection with India before marriage. So, it is not only a surviving identity but an absorbing identity, which is important to mention.

But there is another reason why this issue is important. India also belongs to Asia. Quite often in the context of cultural contrasts, claims are made on behalf of Asia that we have to scrutinize and understand and subject to critical examination. One of them that comes up often is the claim that Asian values are “somehow hostile to democracy and human rights.” In truth in India, not just since independence, but even before independence, the whole Indian national movement has been committed to democracy and the problems of pluralism and tolerance. It is very important for us to examine whether we accept this way of interpreting Asian values, which also mean Indian values, since we are a major part of that population. So all these questions bring up, for Indians in particular, the question of identity as a very essential one in our lives.

I would like to make a few claims. First of all, one of the things that Indian history teaches us (it is not the only source from which we learn, but it certainly is one of the major sources) is the fact that identity need not be seen in unique terms. It is fundamental that we all have many identities. We have a very strong identity because of our citizenship and nationality. We could have strong commitments to regional loyalties, we could have commitments to language groups and cultures. We could have an identity connected with our community and religious backgrounds. We could have identities of friendship and other commitments of political beliefs and so on.

I think that part of the difficulty of identity politics is in the presumption that only one identity is permitted. I think that is a great mistake. In my more ambitious days, I was trying to look at the issue of identity widely. I was even trying to work out to what extent you could define an individual as an intersection of a variety of identities, which might not uniquely define a person but might get very close to defining that person in terms of all his characteristics. In fact, we can see how one can attempt it, which is perhaps just amateur philosophy. If you describe a person, you describe certain features: where she comes from, her nationality, her gender, her language, her cultural background and her history. Now each of these characteristics belong to a group. Looking at the intersection of these groups, do I arrive at this person’s description?

Thus, I think the first, and perhaps the most important thing to emphasize is that identity is not a unique feature and that to assert one identity is not to deny another, because it is the coexistence of various identities that make us what we are. In the Indian context, this is a particularly important. It is almost a characteristic feature of the idea of India. And the claim here is that we have separateness, which are these separate identities, but it is a question of how intensely conscious we are of how hostile the other group is. Mann, in describing his own identity (in the lectures he gave in Oxford in the thirties), describes himself as coming from the confluence of Hindu, Islamic and British culture, because he is a part of the heritage that he himself had got, and he could have gone on to describe other features like language groups and so on. So I believe this is the first issue to be asserted, since we see so much of the identity discussions assuming that asserting identity must involve denying other identities.

The second point, is that we should not think of some of the positive aspects of our identity as being fragile. I think the assumption of fragility has done great damage, a lot of harm to our ability to absorb things from elsewhere and still retain a broader sense of our identity.

We sometimes underestimate the extent to which cultures absorb. Let’s take post-colonial trends in contemporary literature. There is a tendency to assume that they need to be separate worlds where the Western world is one safe place and other worlds are separate and cannot survive without banishing Western culture.

But that is not the way cultures ever developed. Just to give an example, think about how Indian culture generally has benefited immensely from interaction with the world. Indian drama was transformed by contact with Greek drama, and some of the world views in the art of dramatics in India are clearly of Greek origin. Literature has been strongly influenced by things happening elsewhere. We cannot even understand fully the medieval and mystical Hindu literature without looking at Muslim Sufi influences on it, the interactions with it, which are very strong.

If you look at even the art of cooking - the distinctive feature of Indian cooking is thought to be the food being hot and the liberal use of chillies. But chillies were unknown in India until the Portuguese brought it. And yet, when we think about Indian food being hot, we don’t think of it as a Western product. We think that is the nature of Indian cooking. It doesn’t make it any less Indian that the Portuguese brought it to us. That is also true, of course, in other countries as well. I’m very impressed to find examples of how much Indian food has taken over Britain. It is the largest variety of ethnic food - including English - that is served in Britain. An interesting note is that the British tourism brochures now tout that the authentic British food is curry.

So with some things, when the circle is completed, we are not quite clear on the origin of them. Just to give you another example of a complex origin, this one from mathematics, when Western trigonometry was introduced in India, there was a lot of discussion as to whether we should use Western terminology or whether we should use Sanskrit and Bengali terms for it. I studied in a Bengali school so I studied all these in Bengali terms. But sometimes when these thoughts come to us, we learn how to recognize how much they have migrated. Knowledge is such a collaborative activity that to take this kind of very separated view is not a sustainable tradition. Therefore, I believe that the fragility assumption is often very mistaken.

A lot of people in India are irritated by the invasion of MTV. And there are moments when one might take just that view. But I think to take a view that this is a threat to Indian culture is a mistake. The fear of the foreign, the fear of invasion is something which has become so dominant today that one really has to diffuse it.

Let me return to the question that I referred to earlier, the issue of Asian values. What we mean by Asian values is mostly Asian culture. That applies not just to the Indian subcontinental part of Asia, it also applies to Far East itself. Quite often what is called Asian values is nothing other than a kind of cosmetic reading of Confucianism. First of all, Confucianism is not the only part of Asian culture, and not the only part of Chinese culture. In fact, one has to only spend a little time in any museum, whether it is in Beijing or Taiwan, to recognize how much of the Chinese past is a Buddhist past.

There is no earlier discussion of the value of the universal tolerance than in the Buddhist writing, particularly in the writing from Ochuga. The 4th century BC writing in India on the subject of tolerance is very striking. Sometimes people make the mistake of identifying the politics of, say, Confucianism by attacking another group, and by not being tolerant of it we weaken the group to which we belong. Very essential to my belief is John Walters discussion of imperial justice and the nature of tolerance being part of what he called political liberalism.

So not only is it the case that Asian values are not intolerant of democracy and human rights, it may be exactly the opposite. We find some of the earliest discussions of the importance of tolerance and universal tolerance in Asia itself, in India particularly.

Identity is very important and it is right that we should think about it. But identity need not be seen in unique terms. It is a non-unique characteristic. It is a non-fragile characteristic. In fact, interaction happens to be enriching, rather than impoverishing. Along with the separateness of identity, we have to consider also the strength that is involved in tolerance. It is not a sign of weakness to have a sense of identity and yet to recognize other people’s identity in non-hostile terms. It is something in which we have a long classical tradition to fall back on, which I would like to emphasize very much.

Whatever we understand and enjoy in human progress instantly becomes ours, wherever it might have its origin. And I think there is a really wide source in that and a source which has returned again and again in the subcontinent.