Friday, 6 February 2015

The Indic Identity - What It Is And What It Isn't

My exploratory thoughts on what an Indic civilisational identity could look like attracted some appreciation but also some critical comment.

I would like to expand on one set of related comments, which is that the Indic identity should more properly be called the "Dharmic" identity, which is a name that has recently come into vogue (I suspect, thanks to the influential writings of Rajiv Malhotra).

Fundamentally, I disagree with this.

First, I disagree on a personal level because an atheist like myself simply cannot believe the mystical ideas that are axiomatic to the dharmic worldview - an all-pervading supreme consciousness that underlies all of creation itself, the immortal atma or soul, karma or the law of cosmic consequences, and so on.

Hence the "dharma" part of the Dharmic identity is completely alien to me. Some well-meaning Hindu friends have attempted to tell me that one can be an atheist as well as a Hindu, since Hinduism is a very broad church. Well, it's heartwarming that a certain worldview accepts mine, but honesty prevents me from reciprocating. The metaphysical aspects of the dharmic philosophy make no rational sense to me, and so I cannot accept them.

Second, the Dharmic identity is too narrow to serve as a civilisational identity. It could be one possible cultural identity, because civilisational identities can and should go deeper. 

In order to explain this statement, we will need to step back a fair bit.

A course called "Careers, Roles and Identity" that I enrolled in at management school turned out to fundamentally alter my worldview and show me new ways of looking at things. The definition of Identity that I learnt here has revolutionised my personal philosophy. Identity, I learnt, is "the meaning you give to the situation in which you find yourself".

This is revolutionary because it turns the whole notion of "Who am I?" on its head. Who I am turns out to have nothing much to do with any objective attribute of myself, except what I think is important, - which then makes identity entirely subjective. Two people may have had almost exactly the same social, cultural and economic background as well as near-identical life experiences, yet they could form very different identities simply because they looked at these situations and events differently.

My theory of shared identities builds on this model. It deals with how we view ourselves in relation to other individuals. We subjectively evaluate (1) our similarity of appearance (which is influenced by race or genetics), (2) how we see ourselves in terms of a group narrative or community history, and (3) the set of ideas that we agree on. This is our mental model which makes us feel that we "belong" to a group, and also the extent to which we feel we belong.

Genetics can be thought of as "hardware" and cannot be easily changed except through generations of cross-breeding. However, genetic identity is based on a subjective view of our racial appearance and what it means to us. This explains why family, tribe, clan and ethnic group tend to be such powerfully emotive grounds for a feeling of belonging, even in the case of individuals with whom we may have had no prior relationship. At the same time, since genetic identity is subjective, loyalties to family, clan or ethnic group cannot be deterministically predicted.

Received history can be thought of as "firmware". It is largely immutable, although secure and enlightened individuals can consciously revise the model of their own group history, perhaps even identify with another group's narrative.

Thoughts, ideas, theories and ideologies are "software". They are much less "fixed", although many may endure for life.

Together, genetic identity, shared community history and one's current set of ideas and ideologies form one's mental model. Again, secure and thinking individuals constantly revise and refine their mental model of themselves and the world.

The model I propose is that the more immutable aspects of one's identity (genetics and received community history) can be called civilisational identity. The more mutable aspects (various ideas, philosophies and ideologies) can be called cultural identity. The boundaries can be somewhat blurred, but the distinction is nevertheless useful.

(Click to expand)


Western civilisation, for example, could be thought of as being made up of a Caucasian racial identity, a shared Hebraic/Hellenic historical identity and commonly held ideological beliefs such as a belief in democracy, the rule of law, individual rights, etc. (I will explain the terms Hebraic and Hellenic in a minute.) Two Caucasian individuals with the same cultural background would tend to see themselves as the same people, especially in contrast to other individuals who do not share either or both identities. Other ethnic groups may share specific ideas and philosophies with individuals belonging to Western civilisation, but there is a natural limit to such self-identification, mainly because of differences in racial and historical background. African-Americans, for example, cannot exclusively identify with Western civilisation even after generations of cultural conditioning, because the racial part of their identity, based on their genetic hardware, draws them back to their African roots. Besides, many of them have a community narrative based on the experience of slavery, which prevents them from identifying completely with their Caucasian compatriots.

The example of African-Americans brings us to the important concept of hybrid identities, especially in relation to the notion of authenticity.

Authenticity is a key concept that I want to address, because cultural purists (usually from the right of the political spectrum) have a simplistic idea of identity. To them, hybrid identities are marked by confusion and are therefore inauthentic; only "pure" identities are authentic. But such simplistic ideologies are dead at the starting gate, because there are no pure identities. All identities are combinations of genetic, historical and ideological views of oneself. They are all subjective and are hence software. The ideas underpinning them have evolved and grown through interplay over millennia. Therefore purity of identity is a chimera. Not only is it a chimera, any "pure" culture is, ipso facto, stagnant and dead. All living cultures are malleable and fluid. As they cross-pollinate through ideas, hybrids form all the time. By definition, all these hybrids are authentic. It is "pure" cultures that are inauthentic, and this is also by definition, since pure cultures only exist in the imagination.

Typically, the cultural make-up of an individual draws from multiple groups of related ideas. Religion and language are two of the two most powerful markers of self-identification, along with gender identity.

Cultural layers can coexist in spite of inherent contradictions (e.g., religious faith and training in scientific rationalism). Also, like any software, any strand of cultural identity can be modified or even removed completely.

The "dharmic" identity has a genetic basis, being associated with people from South Asia and to a lesser extent Southeast Asia. It also has a unique historical narrative (although one with parts that are in dispute, such as the Aryan Invasion Theory) and a set of core metaphysical and abstract philosophical beliefs. It could conceivably form a civilisational identity, but it is unlikely to be a good one.

The first problem, of course, is obvious when one looks at the social reality of the Indian nation-state to which this identity is proffered.

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There are people who are part of the Indic civilisational identity who would feel left out of a purely Dharmic cultural identity. These include not just Indian Christians, Muslims and atheists, but also people, mostly Muslim, from other South Asian countries.

Besides, the Dharmic cultural identity is not inherently egalitarian towards all the individuals that it includes.

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Women, the so-called "lower" castes, non-Hindus and non-Indians could all feel like second-class members of this group because of entrenched biases in the social culture that is enmeshed with the core dharmic philosophy. It is hard to separate out abstract philosophy from social prescriptions when the two come tightly bound in a single cultural package.

It is far more powerful to adopt the Indic civilisational identity as a basis of a shared identity, since many more individuals can accept this, and undesirable elements of culture can be dropped without one's core identity being threatened. Some individuals, of course, will also have a dharmic cultural identity, with the specialised characteristics of their particular faith shaping this identity more finely. but they will not be "more equal" than others who share their civilisational identity, which is the problem when a common dharmic identity is sought to be imposed on all.

See diagram below (click to expand).




As a contrast, it is useful to look at the Western identity. It is simpler than the Indic one, but it is not monolithic either.

(Click to expand)

Western identity consists of a shared civilisation identity (Caucasian genetics and European history, in the main) but with two mutually opposed cultural identities, the Hebraic and the Hellenic. The Hebraic culture refers to the Judeo-Christian tradition that underpins the two major religions of the West, Judaism and Christianity. The Hellenic culture refers to the rational schools of philosophical thought that originated with the ancient Greeks. The tension between the Hebraic and Hellenic cultures is reflected in the separation of church and state in the modern West. Western society reflects Western identity.

Similarly, although the (Han) Chinese appear to have a monolithic identity, there have been many cultural influences that have shaped their identity/identities. They share a racial identity and a historical narrative (e.g., the invasion and subsequent repulsion of the Mongols, the "century of humiliation", etc.) The two sets of indigenous cultural ideas are Confucianism and Taoism. The former emphasises duty, hard work and the importance of social structures and hierarchies. The latter emphasises oneness with nature and an ability to "go with the flow". These are quite distinct philosophies. In addition, Buddhism is a third influence imported from India, which stresses compassion and the renunciation of desire as the means to a fulfilling life. Finally, Communism was a twentieth-century import from Europe, and a version of this philosophy endures to this day.

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Civilisational and cultural identities need not result in constant conflict. The world sees shifting alliances based on shared (or not shared!) values. This implies that groups of people with no common civilisational identity could ally with one another based on shared cultural identities. Opposition to a common group that is more alien to two parties than they are to each other could also lead to political alliances.

(Click to expand)


To find one's place in the world, one needs to establish an identity that is self-confident yet respectful of others on equal terms. The model of the Indic civilisational identity described above, which layers cultural identity above civilisational identity, provides the maximum scope for individuals to engage effectively with one another to form groups and build bridges, to find commonality where it occurs and to be respectful of difference when none is found.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Towards A Humanist Indic Identity

Let me cut to the chase.

I think Indians have lost their collective self-confidence. We've had it beaten out of us over centuries. We need to find our civilisational identity to learn to hold our heads up again. But the search for this civilisational identity is fraught with risk, because we could end up being jingoistic, xenophobic, intolerant of minorities and reactionary in our caste prejudices if we are not careful. Indeed, this is already happening in a section of our society. All the more reason for the rest of us to go about it the right way.

OK, let me start again, more slowly.

I have always been fascinated by the Indian character. And why not? I am Indian, and my character is the Indian character in microcosm. Yes, yes, I can't speak for the other gender, for the transgendered, for people of other faiths, other castes, other linguistic groups, other age groups. But even given those qualifications, my character has an authentic claim to being the Indian character in microcosm. As do those others.

Call me cynical, but I believe that the Indian character can be summed up in a simple phrase - the cowardly survivor. We have learnt to keep our heads down and not to stand up for any principle, to please the powerful and stay in their good books, to exploit our weaker comrades and abandon the fallen, to view every peer as a rival and to scan them anxiously for flaws, to bide our time and be ungracious to those we beat.

It has taken a lot to learn to rise above myself, and I am not even sure I can stay that way in all circumstances. My civilisational character dies hard.

Dimly, I am aware that a collective lesson learnt by my people over centuries of foreign subjugation has resulted in this passive-aggressive persona that I have inherited. Dimly, I am aware that if I can go back to an earlier time when I knew no trauma and could think for myself without flinching, I will be a more secure and gracious person, confident and strong, productive and protective, far-thinking and nurturing. I need to find my original civilisational identity, the one I had before I was conquered and forced to permanently bow my head and worry about survival.

I have found something that I can crudely call the Indic identity, which is distinct from the Western, Sinic and Islamic civilisational identities. However, adopting this Indic identity without being aware of my own inherent insecurities could lead to some undesirable results.

  • I could see the past achievements of my civilisation and begin to think of myself as superior, when I should merely take pride in the fact that I belong to a distinct civilisation that has made a contribution to humankind. I could tend to look at other civilisations with either envy and resentment, or superiority and contempt, when I should be looking at them with curiosity, respect and an eagerness to learn.
  • I could tend to see myself as original and authentic, and to look at others who are like myself but have multiple civilisational identities as ersatz and even traitorous, when I should recognise that having rich, hybrid cultural influences helps a society evolve.
  • I could refuse to critique any aspect of my civilisational values, believing them to be superior by definition. I could become blind to the injustices they may contain, when I should be eager to learn by contrasting the values of various cultures to take the best from all of them and leave behind those that are unsuitable.

When I adopt an Indic identity without addressing my insecurities, I tend to become what is referred to as "right wing". But then, because I don't like the nasty person it makes me become, I begin to have some opposing thoughts.

  • I think the notion of an Indic identity is narrow and dangerous. I don't want to talk about it. Why should I even accept the notion of a civilisational identity? I prefer to be a universalist and restrict myself to generally accepted liberal humanist principles.

When I think like this, I become what is referred to as "left wing".

However, neither way of thinking really satisfies me. The former attitude is insecure and defensive, preventing me from seeing the good in others and rendering me incapable of improving myself; the latter seems dishonest and cowardly, and holds me back from tapping an inner positive vitality if I can only get it right.

Three stories tell me that turning away from my civilisational identity is not the solution to avoiding a cultural superiority/inferiority complex.

- At the time of partition, the leader of the North-West Frontier Province, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, complained that the Indian National Congress had "thrown the Pathans to the wolves". The Pathans asserted their Indic identity by opposing partition, but the Indian leadership was too diffident to endorse the claim, preferring to defer to the Muslim League's claim that a shared Islamic identity placed the Pathans in Pakistan. That was an example of civilisational cowardice, because we let down our own out of fear of standing up for what unites us.

- When India voted with Vietnam against Cambodian interests, a Cambodian politician complained to Shashi Tharoor that India had sided with a Sinic country against a fellow Indic nation. Regardless of the merits of the issue in question, no Indian had even thought of these relationships in the terms that the Cambodian politician did! That was an example of civilisational blindness, because we cannot see our kinship with other people, while they can see it with crystal clarity.

- When the crown princess of Thailand approached India for help in hosting a World Sanskrit Conference, the diplomats of the External Affairs ministry balked "because we are a secular nation". Ultimately the conference was held with the assistance of some private individuals (NRIs), with Indian officialdom only clambering on board when it was obvious the train was leaving the platform. That was a breathtaking example of confusion over what secularism means, and how a false sense of universalism can keep us from tapping the richness of our civilisational heritage.

The denial of an Indic identity by the so-called "secular" political parties has resulted in cultural cringe on an epidemic scale. This has now created a backlash that is sweeping much of Hindu India into the Hindutva fold.

We are at a crossroads in history, a critical juncture when the misguidedly "secular" policies of the Congress party have been rejected by a majority of Hindu Indians, but the only available alternative is an unthinkingly jingoistic Hindu nationalism. An Indic identity has begun to be strongly asserted, but it suffers from all the insecurity-fuelled ills I listed earlier.

The most immediate problem with the Indic identity as articulated by Hindutva organisations like the RSS is that it is not inclusive of Indian religious minorities on equal terms and hence tears at the social fabric through active alienation. To be precise, the terms under which minorities are sought to be "included" sound like second-class citizenship. The position towards minorities is that "they must accept that they are cultural Hindus." As I said before, a more powerful and inclusive philosophy would be that religious minorities have a rich and hybrid identity that can potentially take the best of the Indic and Islamic worlds (in the case of Muslims), or the Indic and Western worlds (in the case of Christians), so they are equal citizens of this dynamic civilisation.

Another example of needless cultural alienation is the Hindutva ideologue's typical insistence on Hindi as the link language for India rather than a pragmatic combination of Hindi, English and other languages. It reduces non-Hindi-speaking Indians, perhaps over half the country's population, to the status of second-class citizens who must now speak the language of their cultural overlords. Non-Hindi-speaking people are as Indic as Hindi speakers, and this majoritarian linguistic stance is hardly unifying.

The further characterisation of English-educated Indians as cultural enemies ("Macaulay's children") is again born out of a sense of threat because of cultural difference, since the mass of Hindutva leaders has never learned to speak English and were hence never exposed to Western ideas. A far more powerful way to include the educated elite and harness their skills would be to see them as people with a hybrid Indic-Western identity, which can help our civilisation tap the best of both cultures. (For their part, many of the English-educated elite would do well to shed their embarrassment at being associated with anything Indic.)

Yet another danger with the Hindutva ideology is the notion of "Akhand Bhaarat", or "undivided India", where the notion of a shared Indic civilisational identity is conflated with a territorial claim on independent nation-states. With the right attitude, a shared civilisational identity provides a basis for strong bonds between peoples and by extension, between governments. It can lead to greater economic cooperation and shared prosperity. With the wrong attitude, it can lead to jingoism, strained international relations and even war.

A side-effect of the Hindutva ideology is that the brand of Hinduism that results is not as freewheeling and multi-centred as what has always been practised, but more unitarian and exclusivist, much like the Abrahamic religions the Hindutva organisations are bitterly opposed to. This is ironical but not surprising, since the resentment towards the other is fuelled primarily by cultural insecurity.

Cultural insecurity explains the attitudes of those who subscribe to the Hindutva ideology. They are envious and resentful when they look at Western civilisation, because it is materially more advanced and had subjugated India for two centuries. They are resentful yet contemptuous of Islamic civilisation, because the Muslims had subjugated India for over five centuries, and their practices are different from those indigenous to India. They are envious, fearful and contemptuous at the same time of the Sinic civilisation, because China is also a great civilisation with a glorious past, they are militarily and economically stronger, but the physical appearance, values and practices of the Chinese are different from those of Indians.

There is a very thin line between civilisational assertiveness and fascism, and we must be careful not to cross that line in our quest for a unique civilisational identity. This is the lesson I have learnt by observing the intellectual contortions of the Hindutva groups. Their elaborate rationalisations fail to hide the truth that their ideology is driven by a cultural inferiority complex, which causes them to spout an air of superiority that will acknowledge nothing good in other civilisations. It also causes them to exclude millions of their own people. None of this implies that other cultures and civilisations must not be critiqued. On the contrary, it means that all human cultures have their unique strengths and contributions as well as their negative ideas and practices. By being exposed to multiple cultural influences, and by being open to learning from all of them. all of humankind can progress. For this, the fundamental prerequisite is cultural security, the inherent ability not to be threatened by difference but to be respectfully curious about it.

Without cultural security, we cannot respect other people. It would be too threatening to our own identity. Without true respect, we cannot learn and we cannot include those different from ourselves. Without learning, any civilisational identity we assert will be stagnant. Without inclusion, any civilisational identity we assert will become fascism.

And so I have to ask myself some basic questions.
  • Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without envying other civilisations?
  • Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without looking down on other civilisations?
  • Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without bearing a grudge towards other civilisations for historical wrongs?
  • Can I learn to think of myself as Indic while being prepared to discard traditionally Indic values that I begin to recognise as negative when I study other civilisations, and also to adopt values that I recognise as positive in other civilisations? Specifically, can I eschew caste as a social marker? Can I eschew sexism and patriarchal values?
  • Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without believing that it is a cultural identity carved in stone? Am I secure enough to see my culture change and evolve through the influence and conflict of ideas?
  • Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without believing that it belongs exclusively to Hindus? Can I accept that an Indic identity is part of the identity of Christians, Muslims and other Indian religious minorities, and that the fact that they may also have other identities does not make them second-class citizens or traitors to the country or its civilisation?
  • Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without believing that Hindi-speaking people have a greater right to claim that identity than non-Hindi-speaking people? Can I accept that English-speaking Indians are not necessarily culturally alienated but have a hybrid Indic-Western identity that is a useful source of ideas to help our civilisation progress?
  • More generally, can I see a hybrid civilisational identity not only as being as valid as a "pure" Indic identity, but also potentially richer in terms of providing opportunities to advance and grow by adopting the best from multiple cultures?
  • Can I learn to think of myself as Indic and build close ties with people of other Indic nations with the confidence of belonging to the fountainhead but without being territorially covetous, bullying or patronising?

I would like to do all of this, but I have a challenge. The modern Indian nation-state as defined by its constitution is strongly humanist, but it is not distinctively Indic. On the other hand, the Indic civilisational identity, though strongly distinctive, is also a broken one because of current-day realities.


  • English is not an Indic language. But English has been grafted into Indian society, and it is useful for our future.
  • Sanskrit is an Indic language, perhaps the most strongly authentic one. But no one speaks Sanskrit any more.
  • There are many authentic Indic languages that are in use. But none of them, not even Hindi, is common to all of us.
  • Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Judaism are not Indic religions, but there are hundreds of millions of people in India who follow these religions and they are every bit our own people as those who follow natively Indic religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
  • There are people who have hybrid civilisational identities - Indic-Western, Indic-Islamic, Indic-Sinic. We have to find an equal place for all of them. No one is inferior to any other.
  • There is no universally shared culture in India except pop culture like Bollywood and cricket, which are shallow compared to the traditional arts. The traditional arts are not universal. They are either regional in scope or elitist by taste.


In other words, it seems a challenge to forge an identity that is culturally unique but also socially inclusive. I want to be Indic as well as humanist, but there are no simple answers. I will continue to explore this idea in my own life, and post updates from time to time when I think of something significant.

The first update is here.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Book Review - The Guardians Of The Halahala

I have just finished reading the first book in what is billed as the "Vikramaditya Trilogy" - The Guardians of the Halahala.

[Pronunciation hint: It's Vikramaaditya, i.e., with a long vowel in the middle.]

Mythological fiction at its best

The author is Shatrujeet Nath, whose earlier spy novel The Karachi Deception I had enjoyed very much. So I fully expected this one to be good, and I was not disappointed.

Different genre, same quality

Nath joins a distinguished line of modern Indian authors who are delving into the rich store of Indian mythology to inspire their works of fiction. Amish Tripathi's Shiva Trilogy is perhaps the best-known in this genre so far, but my bookshelf is being rapidly populated by a host of similar others, and Nath's Vikramaditya Trilogy promises to be one of the classiest.

The premise of the Vikramaditya Trilogy is intriguing. It combines two well-known myths, one being the churning of the Ocean of Milk by the eternal rivals, the devas ("lesser" gods) and the asuras (demons), and other being the exploits of the wise and valorous king Vikramaditya of Vetala (or Betaal) fame.


The churning of the Ocean of Milk is a cultural meme that resonates throughout the Indic world, as this statue at Bangkok airport testifies - but more on the Indic stuff later!

Generations of Indian children have grown up shivering at the creepy tales of the storytelling Betaal or Vetala (a ghoul that possesses corpses) and the brave and wise king Vikramaditya

Most Indians know the story of how the devas and asuras once reluctantly cooperated, using the giant snake Vasuki as a rope and mount Meru as a pestle (with Lord Vishnu in the form of a tortoise supporting the pestle) to churn the Ocean of Milk in their quest for Amrit, the nectar of immortality. But before the Amrit appears, a host of other objects and beings emerges from the Ocean, the first of which is the deadly poison Halahala that threatens to kill them all. Enter Lord Shiva, who eliminates the danger by simply swallowing the Halahala, after which the churning resumes.

Nath introduces a bit of mischief into the proceedings by revealing that not all of the Halahala was consumed by Shiva. A little bit of the poison, enough to fuel a weapon of mass destruction, had been stolen by one of the asuras and hidden inside a dagger before Shiva could arrive on the scene. True, Shiva seizes the dagger from the asura and keeps it away from the squabbling rivals, but there comes a time when he wants to return to his meditations and looks for a trustworthy and neutral party who can keep the dagger safe. The unfortunate one Shiva chooses is of course our hero King Vikramaditya, a mere mortal but endowed with all the heroic qualities one would require to stand up to both the devas and the asuras.

Nath neatly melds the historical king Chandragupta "Vikramaditya", who kept the Huns and Sakas at bay, with the mythical hero of the "Vikram and Betal" stories.

The historical Chandragupta titled "Vikramaditya", presented to us by Amar Chitra Katha comics

So in The Guardians of the Halahala ("guardians" being a reference to King Vikramaditya and his loyal warriors), the king has to ward off not only his conventional nomadic enemies the Hunas and the Sakas, but also his two new celestial foes. An uneven contest? Well, that's what makes the story interesting! Vikramaditya and his merry men (and women, for Nath is no chauvinistic male author) have plenty of tricks up their sleeves to meet the challenge, not to mention pluck.

Nath maintains a lively pace, switching from one scene to another and back again to provide a simultaneously progressing narrative covering many characters in many settings. This is a story in which many things happen, and at the same time, so it's important for the reader to be treated to a slice of each scene before the narration moves on.

The story could be confusing to readers without a good background into Indian history, mythology and a familiarity with Sanskritic names.

There is a nice Tolkienesque map at the beginning of the book showing all the kingdoms referred to in the story. The difference is that Tolkien's Middle-Earth was pure fiction; Nath's Sindhuvarta is based on historical reality.

It helped me to mentally translate each kingdom's name to the name of the modern Indian state to which it corresponded, so I could make sense of the geographical directions mentioned in the story. These are a sample:

Avanti (Vikramaditya's kingdom) - a region between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh
Heheya - Madhya Pradesh
Anarta - Gujarat
Matsya - Rajasthan
Vatsa - also in Uttar Pradesh
Magadha - Bihar
Vanga - Bengal
Kosala - Northern Uttar Pradesh
Kalinga - Odisha (Orissa)

As a South Indian, I was slightly disappointed that much of South India was not shown on this map at all, and the bits that did appear were largely dismissed as the "Dandaka forest", when some of the most virile kingdoms of ancient India happened to have been in the South. It was the seafaring South Indian kings, omitted from mention in the Sindhuvarta story, who spread the Indic culture to South-east Asia, through Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia all the way up to Cambodia and South Vietnam! [Ah well, some of the best historical fiction of the South Indian kingdoms has already been written. See this and this.] During the course of the story, one of the characters mentions "two kingdoms to the East", Sribhoja and Srivijaya, which hints at the extent of the ancient Indic civilisation. This is a bit of an error, though, since these are both names for the same kingdom which corresponds to part of modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia. Perhaps he meant to say Kamboja instead of Sribhoja, which would have referred to modern Cambodia.

The nine gems of Chandragupta Vikramaditya's court, who were mostly nerdy scholars, are here turned into doughty warriors, with two of them even becoming female. I daresay even Indians would have a tough time pronouncing some of their names (try Varahamihira and Kshapanaka).

I enjoyed the occasional flashes of Nath's subtle humour, as when Kalidasa is introduced as a giant warrior who also writes poetry on the side. It was redolent of the tough Steven Seagal character in the action movie "Under Siege" who "also cooks".

What I liked most about the book is how it turns conventional notions of morality and right and wrong on their head. Hindu mythology has always glorified the devas as the virtuous ones, and the asuras as evil beings, with Amar Chitra Katha comics contributing to the stereotyping with appropriate illustrations.

The Devas - the "good guys" are always fair-skinned, clean-shaven and handsome

The Asuras - the "bad guys" are always dark-skinned and demonic in their features

The stark difference in appearance between the devas and the asuras is implausible. Both had a common father, the sage Kashyapa. The mother of the asuras was Diti and the mother of the devas was Aditi. Diti and Aditi were sisters. How can the offspring of two sisters and a common father be so different? It's just stereotyping and quite literally the demonisation of one set of beings.

Shatrujeet Nath's portrayal is more realistic. In The Guardians of the Halahala, the devas are villainous characters, no better than the asuras. It's the humans who are the heroes. Indra, the king of the devas, comes across as a particularly odious character.

Indra - a villainous god in Shatrujeet Nath's retelling

There is no question about where the reader's sympathies lie. We root for King Vikramaditya all the way.

To be frank, the depiction of Vikramaditya isn't rousing. The dashingly heroic character of Hansa Mehta's Adventures of King Vikrama is strangely absent. Yet there is one trait of Nath's Vikramaditya that endears him to us - his loyalty and love for the wife who lies in a near-coma throughout the first book.

Nath's description of the shadowy Borderworld as "Creation caught in the transition between life and death" is brilliant and haunting, as is his portrayal of it as "the eternal realm of the undead ghouls, the gloaming separating the world of the living from the world of the dead". This is where Nath houses the Betaal (Vetala) of the old Vikram-Betaal stories, and the Betaal has a crucial role to play, after all.

Nath neatly brings together chiasmic contrasts, as in this passage.
Shukracharya held his breath, not heeding another word being spoken by the men. Asuras with four horns on their heads, shell-like bodies that were impenetrable, eyes that glowed like white moonlight...and jagged swords shaped out of bone.

Diti's seven demonic sons. The dreaded Maruts. Asura by birth, deva by allegiance.

The irony of it brought a small sneer to Shukracharya's lips. After all, he was a deva by birth, but asura by allegiance. Loyalty was everything and nothing.
The Guardians of the Halahala is a great first volume of a promising trilogy. If Shatrujeet Nath can keep up the suspenseful pace and carry the series through to a satisfying conclusion, he would have earned a leading place in the pantheon of new Indian authors who are forging new tales from old.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Genocide, Guilt And Gormlessness

I'd like to talk about a subtle but crucially important topic on which many well-meaning people go wrong - the distinction between justifiable and unjustifiable claims.

Let's take this statement: "The Mohammedan Conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history" [Will Durant, "The Story of Civilization", Vol. 1, Chap. 16]

A statement like this, suitably backed up by research, is a dot on someone's graph. By itself, it may do nothing either useful or mischievous. All utility and mischief arise from the way dots are joined and extrapolated.

Here's a mischievous way in which the dots may be joined. If one misapplies inductive logic to generalise about a group, one could say, "Muslim invaders and rulers massacred hundreds of thousands of Hindus. Therefore, all Muslims are capable of massacring other people." Further, if one then misapplies deductive logic to make inferences about a member of a group, one could say, "All Muslims are capable of massacring other people. Therefore, my neighbour Ahmed, who is Muslim, is capable of massacring other people. I must therefore fear Ahmed." Never mind that poor Ahmed may be a nerdy software engineer with nothing more on his mind than his weekly grocery shopping. He has now been turned into a potential mass murderer and a threat by the simple misapplication of inductive and deductive logic.

This particular kind of mischievous reasoning is called "guilt by association". Guilt by association is very much in the air these days in the wake of frequent violence and terrorist acts committed by people who happen to be Muslim. There is a narrative pushed by the right wing, both overtly and covertly, that all Muslims are suspect because a few Muslims have engaged in acts of violence. The narrative dovetails neatly with the Right's demonisation of immigrants in general on economic and law-and-order grounds. Immigrants have been held responsible for everything from "taking away our jobs", to being parasites on the welfare state, to being responsible for crime. The cocktail of Islamophobia and xenophobia that the Right is brewing has now put tremendous strain on the social fabric in countries with Muslim minorities, especially Muslim immigrant minorities.

Liberals have a hard fight on their hands attempting to reason with the uncommitted majority not to succumb to the Right's specious arguments. Guilt by association cannot become an accepted narrative in a civilised society.

Having said this, here's what the liberals are doing wrong.

Let's try another way to join the dots. We'll start with a hypothesis (no more than a hypothesis, mind you) that since Islamic religious doctrine has severe injunctions against unbelief (especially polytheism, idolatry and apostasy), it could possibly influence devout Muslims into committing acts of violence and aggression upon those they see as unbelievers. We can test this hypothesis by analysing the possible influence of Islamic doctrine on those who had historically committed such acts of aggression against unbelievers to assess if there was a correlation. For historical figures, we would probably study biographies written by sources that are plausibly unbiased. For present day figures, we might be able to rely on their own testimony. Assuming this causal link between doctrine and violence was proven, one could then survey the opinions of Muslim communities in various countries today to assess their degree of belief in Islamic scripture. If the surveys should find that there is an overwhelming belief in literal interpretations of scripture by Muslims today, there would then be reasonable cause to predict a predisposition towards violence and aggression by Muslims against unbelievers even today.

[This isn't just a thought experiment. Muslim biographers from Ziauddin Barani to Abdul Qadir Al Badaoni have embellished the accounts of their masters' conquests (Mohammed bin Tughlaq and Akbar) with their own hate-filled invective against the infidels who were killed or taken into slavery, which certainly points to the influence of doctrine in such savagery. Timur (Tamerlane) himself seems to have claimed that his motives in invading India were as much to gain spiritual merit by fighting infidels as to plunder their wealth. A recent Pew survey on the attitudes of Muslims around the world today shows a disturbingly high proportion in favour of death for the crime of apostasy. This particular approach to joining the dots seems to have a valid basis in fact.]

The subtle point to note is that although the above reasoning seems to arrive at very similar conclusion to that of our earlier example, this is not guilt by association! It does not imply that my neighbour Ahmed is a potentially dangerous killer. What it is is a nuanced conclusion about the correlation of intolerant attitudes to violent action, arrived at through data and logic. It would no doubt be a very uncomfortable sort of conclusion, but it would be perfectly defensible. It is also the sort of reasoning that makes liberals break out in hives.

I saw a textbook example of liberal outrage last week when I commented on a post appearing on the Facebook site "The Liberal Indians". My comment was in response to a rather typical left/liberal piece that laid the blame for all violence originating from Muslims at the door of the West. It claimed that recent Islamist terror attacks were all in response to the provocations of the West. I challenged this thesis by providing a simple counterexample. I spoke about the experience that India had with Islam. India is not a Western country, and there was no provocation to Islam in the form of an invasion by any Indian king of Muslim lands. Yet, Indian history bears witness to centuries of brutality inflicted by Muslim invaders and conquerors.

As a specific example, I cited the well-known writings of the American historian Will Durant, together with some informed calculations by the modern Belgian political thinker Koenraad Elst. Elst, basing his calculations upon notes chronicled by Muslim scribes in the retinue of conquerors and kings, came up with a figure of 80 million Hindus massacred by Muslims over a period of 500 years. Perhaps, I suggested, there is something in Islamic doctrine itself that provides a motive for violence against unbelievers, and external provocation is not always necessary.

The liberal response was multi-pronged, and this is a sample of the arguments thrown at me.

  • I was labelled a right wing Hindu, the classic ad hominem. (Clearly, no one had bothered to read my blog posts or my various on-line battles with Hindutva sympathisers. I guess this is the cross that independent thinkers have to bear - being attacked Left, Right and Centre (see what I did there?))
  • I was accused of having a simplistic view of history. My sources were trashed as having a right-wing agenda. Koenraad Elst in particular was described as being "sophisticated but dangerous".
  • I was challenged to prove exact numbers (the number of million Hindus who were reportedly killed) and to justify the claim of "largest genocide in human history", with the implication that if the numbers were any less than claimed (say 10 million instead of 50 million or 80 million), then the entire thesis could be safely rejected.
  • The massacres of the time were ascribed to the violent nature of the period itself - examples of cruelties by non-Muslim rulers were provided.

The last argument is the only one that I would consider plausible, but it should also lend itself to critical, statistical analysis (assuming we have the relevant numbers to go on).

I am not a Muslim-hater, and I made my comment without mischievous intent, in the spirit of logical enquiry. But the ferocity of the response took me by surprise. The peculiarly personal tone of the attacks suggested to me that not only had I hit a raw nerve but that I may actually have stumbled upon a truth that the liberals are desperate to deny.

The point behind my example was simple. If Muslims could visit large-scale violence upon a non-Muslim populace thanks to scriptural injunction, then not all Islamist violence can be laid at the door of the West, nor be ascribed to external provocation in general. For this line of logic to work, it is not relevant whether the number of deaths was 80 million, 50 million or even 10 million. If sufficiently large numbers of Hindus have died at the hands of Muslim invaders and conquerors, and if the accompanying chronicles associate those killings with the doctrinal injunction against idolaters and polytheists, then this would strongly suggest that a predilection for violence exists within Islam.

Therefore, being hung up on a figure of 50 million or 80 million betrays a desire to win the argument on a technicality and shut down an extremely inconvenient line of thought.

My reading of the situation is that the Right wants to join the dots in a mischievous and self-serving way, while the Left wants to deny the existence of dots in the first place. I wonder - Is there a middle ground between the denial of the Left and the mischief of the Right?

As to the sources I quoted, it is not at all clear why Koenraad Elst should be considered "dangerous", other than for the fact that his writings may be misused by mischievous parties to further a divisive agenda.


What should Hindus say to Muslims when they consider the record of Islam in Hindu lands? It is first of all very important not to allot guilt wrongly. Notions of collective or hereditary guilt should be avoided. Today's Muslims cannot help it that other Muslims did certain things in 712 or 1565 or 1971. (Emphasis mine.) One thing they can do, however, is to critically reread their scripture to discern the doctrinal factors of Muslim violence against Hindus and Hinduism. Of course, even without scriptural injunction, people get violent and wage wars; if Mahmud Ghaznavi hadn't come, some of the people he killed would have died in other, non-religious conflicts. But the basic Quranic doctrine of hatred against the unbelievers has also encouraged many good-natured and pious people to take up the sword against Hindus and other Pagans, not because they couldn't control their aggressive instincts, but because they had been told that killing unbelievers was a meritorious act. Good people have perpetrated evil because religious authorities had depicted it as good.

This is material for a no-nonsense dialogue between Hindus and Muslims. But before Hindus address Muslims about this, it is imperative that they inform themselves about this painful history. Apart from unreflected grievances, Hindus have so far not developed a serious critique of Islam's doctrine and historical record. Often practising very sentimental, un-philosophical varieties of their own religion, most Hindus have very sketchy and distorted images of rival religions. Thus, they say that Mohammed was an Avatar of Vishnu, and then think that they have cleverly solved the Hindu-Muslim conflict by flattering the Prophet (in fact, it is an insult to basic Muslim beliefs, which reject divine incarnation, apart from indirectly associating the Prophet with Vishnu's incarnation as a pig). Instead of the silly sop stories which pass as conducive to secularism, Hindus should acquaint themselves with real history and real religious doctrines.

Another thing which we should not forget is that Islam is ultimately rooted in human nature. We need not believe the Muslim claim that the Quran is of divine origin; but then it is not of diabolical origin either, it is a human document. The Quran is in all respects the product of a 7th-century Arab businessman vaguely acquainted with Judeo-Christian notions of monotheism and prophetism, and the good and evil elements in it are very human. Even its negative elements appealed to human instincts, e.g. when Mohammed promised a share in the booty of the caravans he robbed, numerous Arab Pagans took the bait and joined him. The undesirable elements in Islamic doctrine stem from human nature, and can in essence be found elsewhere as well. Keeping that in mind, it should be possible to make a fair evaluation of Islam's career in India on the basis of factual history.
I think Elst makes very sensible suggestions here, both for a clear-headed understanding of history and for an inter-faith dialogue without blame or rancour.

The prevalent attitude among Indian liberals today seems to be to avoid this hard-headed approach altogether and to comfort themselves with visions of a relatively benign encounter of cultures. Their intentions are the best (i.e., to let sleeping dogs lie), but this is not an approach that will work when there is a mischievous Right eager to stir the pot for its own nefarious ends.

Liberal gormlessness has resulted in a political vacuum that is now occupied by the Right. Just because liberals are engaged in a conspiracy of silence regarding the possible links between Islamic scripture and violence by Muslims, it does not mean everyone is silent. The absence of honest debate has left the field open to the dishonest to manipulate facts as they please. It would be far better if liberals could seize the bull by the horns and understand the distinction between a people (individual Muslims) and an ideology (the Islamic religion and its teachings). It is possible to fight to protect the rights of marginalised people even as they challenge illiberal ideas in an ideology.

I explore these ideas further in another post.

The Dangers Of Selective Liberalism

Abstract: 

The unwillingness of liberals to confront illiberal ideas in Islam with the same spirit that they attack right wing bigotry and the excesses of capitalism is an example of intellectual dishonesty. Their consequent loss of credibility only strengthens the Right. This is as true of India as it is true of the West.

A reformation within Islam is overdue, but the form it will take depends on the actions of all players today.

If liberals can emphasise the distinction between Islam as an ideology and Muslims as fellow human beings, they can play a constructive role in nudging Muslims towards creating a more progressive society for themselves, a society that will also coexist amicably with others. Abdicating this challenge only vacates the stage for a mischievous and divisive right wing narrative that conflates ideology with people and demonises an entire community. Such a narrative will paradoxically strengthen the more regressive forces within Muslim society and perpetuate hatred and social conflict for decades to come.

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With the atrocities of Boko Haram and the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Islam today occupies centre stage in world affairs, and not in a good way. In spite of widespread condemnations of these atrocities from many Muslims and their organisations, such opinion is hardly unanimous. There is more outrage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons than over the killing. In the recent past as well, the attitude of many Muslims has been to demand acquiescence from the world in enshrining Islam's special status, exempt from all criticism, even as the killing of perceived cultural enemies is applauded. A girl who achieved worldwide fame after her shooting is being vilified in her own country. Stories of the ill-treatment of women and minorities in Muslim countries has grown common, with the latest outrage being the ISIS pamphlet documenting scripturally sanctioned ways to treat female slaves. And in the background is the constant theme of terrorism, with depressingly regular attacks that kill perceived aggressor and innocent victim alike. The image of Muslims worldwide has never been lower.

The Right has responded to these developments with glee. Attacks on civil liberties, jingoism and xenophobia, a systematic demonisation of Muslim communities both in their home countries and in others - all form a consistent pattern. Under the guise of protecting the freedom of the majority, the rights of all have begun to be eroded. Muslims have begun to be seen as the hated and feared "other".

But from the start, the Left, the traditional champion of civil rights, has done nothing to call out the illiberalism within Islam, nor did it ever begin a fearless investigation into the causes of such illiberalism. Had liberals done so in an even-handed manner from the start, a firm yet hate-free critique of the good and bad in Islam could have been presented to civil society as a whole, and the terms of the dialogue could have been framed in a more constructive form. Alas, liberals have abdicated their role.

It is true that Muslims conflate criticism of their religion with attacks on themselves as people. Their defensiveness is perhaps understandable. But what is not acceptable is that liberals (who should definitely know better) have fallen victim to the same fallacy. By seeing any critique of Islam as the "oppression of an already marginalised community", they conflate the ideology of Islam with Muslims as a people.

I have liberal views, and I dislike illiberal ideas anywhere. I don't understand the reluctance among liberals to point out the illiberalism in Islam, mainly in the following areas:

  • Intolerance towards unbelievers of all stripes, including apostates from Islam
  • Poor treatment of women
  • Poor treatment of animals (e.g., ritual bleeding to death of animals during slaughter, injunctions to kill geckos on sight, etc.)

I have separately described a particular example of how liberals vociferously attempt to shut down uncomfortable questions. They seem unaware that right-wing bigots are merrily spreading their own simplistic and self-serving answers to these very questions.

How to make liberals see sense? As my own experience in a liberal forum demonstrated, a non-Muslim's critique of Islam is deemed to be Islamophobia or motivated by right-wing ideology (whether consciously or unconsciously imbibed). I think what liberals need is a figurative kick in the pants from a person belonging in some sense to the Muslim community (even if not a practising Muslim).

Indeed, this is what Sufian Ahmed has brilliantly done. Just substitute "Indian" for "White" in his post and it will be completely relevant to India.



Ouch! That's got to hurt.

For a movement that has historically been associated with revolution, I think the Left/Liberal side has become timid and forgotten to think big.

What we should be calling for is nothing short of an Islamic Reformation. In the 21st century, this is overdue, but it appears that only a minority within the Muslim community is thinking along these lines, with Egypt's military leader the only public figure to openly call for it. The Right does not have a viable plan to deal with Islam, because their prescriptions will lead to unending strife without resolution. The Left seems to naively believe in business as usual, when the political temperature is rising. An Islamic Reformation is the last thing on anyone's mind. Everyone seems to believe that an ideology that has not changed in 1400 years can never change. Not true. The fact that Islamic doctrine has remained unchanged is what has resulted in the decline of Muslim society, and a tipping point has either been reached or is imminent. Something has to give, and the best outcome would be a peaceful reformation within Islam itself rather than a war of civilisations. The Left can help bring about such a peaceful outcome, but first they need to get their collective heads out of the sand and learn to think big again.

I am not alone in criticising liberals for their lack of courage. "Dear Fellow Liberals" is a particularly candid one that makes the same criticism of American liberals over their lack of courage in dealing with Islam. How To Be An Islamist Apologist is even more scathing. And in the Indian context, the charge has been made that liberals don't really support freedom of expression.

It seems clear to everyone but the liberals that their pusillanimity in confronting illiberal thought in Islam has seriously damaged their credibility in the eyes of the undecided majority. This is why they are losing the argument to a newly-belligerent Right that has no compunctions about drawing false equivalences between illiberal ideologies and the communities that nominally identify with them. If the liberals abandon the discourse to the Right, bigotry will take over and we will see increased strife over the coming years.

If liberals want to avoid such a dystopian future, they need to be able to tell uncomfortable home truths about Islam just as they do with every other ideology.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Moderate Muslims Need To Feel Some Tough Love

It seems appropriate to use the French term déjà vu to describe the reaction of Muslims to the murderous assault in Paris against the publishing house Charlie Hebdo.

Every time Muslim terrorists engage in an atrocity against humanity, moderate Muslims (whom no one in their right mind is blaming anyway) go into a huddle feeling sorry for themselves ("Now they'll blame us again", "Brace for a fresh round of Islamophobia"), disowning the perpetrators without acknowledging the problem ("These are not true Muslims", "This is not Islam", "Islam is a religion of peace") and engaging in whataboutery ("What about the crusades?", "What about Palestine?", "What about the drone attacks?", etc.) as if those are effective rebuttals.

These tweets by a Muslim (which have been eagerly retweeted) are an illustration of everything that is wrong with the wider Muslim community today.

The victim complex on full display.

No one (except a bigot) would tar an entire community with the same brush. It's acknowledged that only a tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists. At the same time, it's impossible to sweep under the carpet the fact that virtually all terrorists in recent times have been Muslims. Hence there is a problem within the Muslim community. (Let's not bring up those tired strawman counterexamples of Tim McVeigh and the IRA.) This is really what people are concerned about. The Muslim community has a problem within itself that Muslims are not acknowledging.

Victimhood on parade again

A community whose members regularly lash out with deadly force against critics, and which most people are afraid to offend, cannot be called "oppressed" by any stretch of the imagination. That's a cruel joke. Substitute "easily offended" for "oppressed" to get a truer picture. Satire challenges both power and the easily offended. It's meant to tell the latter not to take themselves too seriously.

Diversionary tactic #157

Yes, there is a serious problem with the surveillance state. Every act of terror makes people in government rub their hands in glee as they strip away more of our rights. But that doesn't make the conversation about freedom of speech "fake". It just means freedom has two sets of enemies - Islamists and the government. The former is the enemy we recognise. The latter is the enemy who pretends to be our saviour. The former empowers the latter.

Whataboutery sugarcoated with humour is still a non sequitur

Don't be misled by the humorous reference to Iggy Azalea. There is some serious whataboutery being engaged in here. He left out the Crusades and Palestine, because you know, everything bad that Muslims are doing today is a reaction to the terrible things the West has been doing to the Muslim world for centuries. So we mustn't blame Muslims for the terrible things Muslims are doing. The West has not only done worse, it is responsible for what Muslims are now doing! This is a seriously facetious argument that will only convince Muslims who want to be convinced. Worse, it blocks all criticism and introspection, justifying inaction and throwing the ball into someone else's court.

So what is the problem with the Muslim community?

It's two things - defensiveness and denial, i.e., feeling like the victims when confronted with difficult questions, and denying that the problem might actually lie with Islam itself.

Let me spell out what moderate Muslims are expected to do. This is not going to be pleasant reading for them, but I'm going to do it anyway. Think of it as tough love.

No, you don't have to apologise for what happened. It wasn't you who did it.

But you do need to seriously introspect instead of being defensive and feeling like the victims.

There is a problem with Islam as enshrined in the Quran, and that is a fundamental lack of respect (no, intolerance) for non-Muslims. Every page of the Quran drips with self-righteous hatred for unbelievers. If this is a religion of peace, the Quran doesn't seem to show it.

You need to actively challenge this thinking within your own community. And by that, I mean each and every one of you needs to start from yourself. You're not a terrorist, but ask yourself honestly if you hold any of the following views (take your time with each one):

1. You believe Islam is the best religion
2. You think non-Muslims should ideally convert to Islam
3. You feel happy when you hear that Islam is the fastest-growing religion
4. You think Muslims who renounce their faith are doing something wrong, and probably that they ought to be punished in some way
5. The community that you identify with is the 1.5 billion strong Ummah
6. You believe the Quran is the literal word of God and is perfect, requiring no change

If you have any of the above views, then I suggest that you are contributing to the problem the world has today. It is not enough to condemn acts of terror or to disown terrorists. These ideas are the root of the problem.

You could try entertaining the following ideas instead.

1. Islam is a religion like any other. There are good and bad aspects in every religion.
2. There are good people in all religions (and there are good atheists as well). There is no necessity for people to convert from one religion to another. All that is required is for people to be good.
3. It is better for Islam to rid itself of bad practices than to simply gain more adherents.
4. People have a right to change their minds. If someone thinks Islam is not for them, that's their business.
5. I belong to a 7 billion strong community called humanity. All of us are equal human beings, Muslims as well as non-Muslims
6. The Quran may quite possibly contain some ideas that are not in keeping with the times, and these may have to be discarded.

If you can accept these latter thoughts, then you are on your way to solving the problem with Islam, i.e., its arrogance regarding its own perfection and its fundamental inability to respect other people as equally good human beings. The next step is to challenge the more hard-line elements within your community and get them to change their thinking, and this is the hard part. But this is something non-Muslims cannot do for you. It is a task for moderate Muslims.

The secular world treats Muslims as equal human beings, but the sentiment isn't always reciprocated, not even by many moderate Muslims. If Muslims can effect these changes within themselves and propagate these new thoughts, then the basis of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims will gradually dissolve and disappear. You won't feel alienated and threatened anymore.

In short, guys, we love you, but you really need to fix your attitude.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

When Engineering Isn't Just Engineering

Perhaps this is purely an Indian problem, because it frequently crops up in Indian forums. It has to do with the high social premium placed on an engineering education, and the subsequent pressure on many young students to choose this specialisation regardless of what they really feel about it.

The argument against this cultural pressure takes many forms, but the core idea is the same:

  • One must only do an engineering degree if one is genuinely interested in engineering as a career
  • No one should be forced into doing an engineering degree if their passion is something else
  • It's sad that students are lured into engineering because of monetary considerations
  • It's sad that engineering graduates go on to work in unrelated professions later on

I confess I myself chose engineering at the university level by elimination, because I was not at all interested in medicine, commerce or law. I further confess I did not practise as an engineer even for a day. I went on to do an MBA, then turned my back on the management profession as well, to end up as an IT professional.

The movie "3 Idiots" explores some of the above ideas in detail. The main protagonist is genuinely interested in science and technology, and he then goes on to win over 400 patents - entirely as a by-product of his passion. A classmate of his who is really more interested in wildlife photography plucks up the courage to give up engineering for his passion. A brilliant student is so frustrated by the heartless "system" that he takes his own life. So does another sensitive person who would rather have been a writer. These messages should not be controversial, but I do have some bones to pick with the movie's characterisation of an engineering college, especially the IITs on which it is modelled.

For example, there is something very wrong with this scene.

"Provide a descriptive answer rather than the quantitative result of a mathematical calculation", said no IIT professor ever

But we digress. Let's return to the core issue of cultural pressure to study engineering, especially at one of the prestigious IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology). I had a batchmate who dropped out of IIT to become a writer. Opinion was divided within his batch about the wisdom of his decision. Many of us thought he should at least have completed his degree before pursuing his passion. After all, one does not sneeze at an IIT degree, considering how hard it is to gain admission to one of the IITs. Fortunately for him, he did turn out to be an award-winning writer.

Now, another IIT student has written in harsh terms about his "mistake", and the article has prompted an outpouring of similar sentiment, judging by the comments following it. 

[...] there are many students like me and the system failed all of them

The system failed them!? From what I can gather, he is disappointed that he doesn't remember any of the subjects that he studies for his exams. Once the exams are over, he forgets whatever he learnt. He therefore believes he has learnt nothing and his entire education has been a waste. Along the way, he blames the poor teaching skills of most of the faculty, and the coaching classes that churn out "to-be engineers".

While no one should be coerced into a field of study they are not interested in, I think the author of this piece, and many others who criticise the "blind" pursuit of an engineering degree, are missing a critical aspect of the situation.

It is a fallacy to believe that the sole purpose of an engineering degree is to equip a person to work as an engineer in one particular discipline. Lamenting that one does not remember a subject after the exam betrays this fallacy. We need to understand that engineering as a generic set of skills has far wider application than in the engineering profession. Additionally, it's impossible to forget such skills after an exam, because they are really about learning better ways of thinking. One can't regress to less sophisticated ways of thinking.

The set of what can be called "engineering skills" include:

Mathematical ability of a high order. An engineering graduate is not afraid of maths. They can readily tackle problems requiring a knowledge of trigonometry, calculus, differential equations, Fourier transforms and the like. More importantly, they know they can pick up the concepts to tackle virtually any mathematical problem. This feeling of confidence is a wonderful one to have. Needless to say, advanced mathematics is useful in more fields than just engineering, and confident mathematicians are an asset in any such field. Finance is a case in point.

Systems thinking. An important part of problem-solving deals with isolating the relevant parts of a system from the irrelevant ones and considering only the relevant subset, which makes the problem much simpler and more tractable. The judgement required to draw an appropriate "system boundary" around some entities, such that interactions across the system boundary are reduced to a very simple set, goes a long way towards making a problem solvable. Systems thinking can be applied to anything from biology to geopolitics.

Mathematical modelling. This is related to both systems thinking and raw mathematical ability but is not quite the same thing. Systems thinking deals with isolation and with interfaces. Mathematical modelling deals with describing in precise quantitative terms how an entity behaves, and the entity in question could have been isolated in a previous step through an appropriate system boundary. By the "behaviour" of the entity, we refer to the quantifiable outputs that result from equally quantifiable inputs. Mathematical ability is then used to actually solve the relevant equations, but modelling describes the problem in the first place. Mathematical modelling is a general-purpose skill that can be applied to any field of study requiring quantitative answers, not just engineering.

Logical reasoning. Problems cannot be solved with sloppy reasoning. There may be more than one way to arrive at a solution to a given problem, but all of them need to obey a system of logic and to be justifiable. Logical thinking should be a universal skill, but unfortunately isn't.

I can't speak for all engineering colleges, but an IIT education provides exactly this set of skills. No question paper at IIT would ask a student to describe in words how an induction motor starts or how it functions. It would more likely contain a simplified diagram of such a motor with the relevant dimensions marked. Some values of parameters would be supplied, and the student would be asked to calculate the torque developed by the motor, or some such thing. Unless the student understands the concepts behind how the motor works, they will be unable to construct the mathematical model that represents the motor. Unless they have the math skills to solve the equations that comprise that model, they will be unable to arrive at the required answer. And of course, without systems thinking and logical reasoning, they will be unable to even tell if they are on the right track. If they can't do all of the above, they score a zero. The system is therefore ruthless, but effective in teaching engineers how to think.

A student of engineering who has been through four years of rigorous training in this kind of thinking can be a very valuable knowledge worker indeed. I would go so far as to say that it would be a waste of human capital for such a person to seek employment as an entry-level engineer. I think that for every engineering job available, the world needs to produce at least seven engineering graduates. One of them will fill the engineering job. The rest will take their skills to other professions that are equally hungry for them.

I graduated as a Civil Engineer but have never laid a brick in my life. Yet the years I spent studying engineering at IIT have profoundly influenced my thinking. Indeed, I owe what I am to this education. I hope the understanding that engineering (as a generic set of skills) is more than just engineering (as a profession) will help to convert some of the angst I see into a sense of acceptance and even satisfaction.