Thursday, September 15, 2016

Max Weber’s afterglow


(Pragyata, 11 September 2016)




The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), together with the neighbouring British Museum, is a centre of Orientalism in its proper sense, viz. the study of “Oriental” civilizations. Exactly one hundred years ago, it came about as the headquarters of what Edward Said notoriously called “Orientalism”, meaning the colonial Empire’s project of pigeon-holing every Oriental culture in order better to dominate it.

At that same time, on the enemy side in the ongoing First World War, the German scholar Max Weber published one of the most influential studies of the Orient, focusing on the question of the economic views and implications of the world religions, and especially the part about Hinduism and Buddhism. It sought to understand why not they but Protestantism had presided over the techno-scientific and economic breakthrough to industrial capitalism and modernity.

Some fifty people gathered in the SOAS’s Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre for the centenary of both SOAS and Max Weber’s work. As for SOAS’s anniversary, chairman Peter Flügel quoted viceroy Lord Curzon calling SOAS at its time of conception the “necessary furniture of empire”, for “Oriental studies are an imperial obligation”. This is a key citation in Edward Said’s “Orientalism” thesis, viz. that Orientalist scholarship was essentially a strategic investment by the colonial establishment.

As for Weber, his view is fairly representative of general Western opinion (partly by having created it) regarding the Hindu-Buddhist counterpart to the role of the Protestant work ethic in the genesis of capitalism. He had concluded that the Orientals certainly succeeded in launching a mercantile capitalism but, partly because of their otherworldly religion, failed in creating modern industrial capitalism. However, he also had testified in 1916 how, in the middle of WW1, he had found his study of the Hindu-Buddhist worldviews invigorating. We were going to recreate some of that spirit.


Romila Thapar

The keynote lecture was given by the octogenarian historian Prof. Romila Thapar. She looked quite good for her age, elegant and dignified in her sari. She thus exemplified Sita Ram Goel’s observation that secularists often display a sincere affection for traditional Hindu culture, all the more striking when supposed Hindutva militants go all out for Westernization, from the British-style RSS uniform and brass bands to the present-day BJP-facilitated guzzling down of American economic mores and cultural mannerisms. The secularists of the older generation are culturally still very Indian, and have a traditional pride presenting an unassuming alternative identity to the present idealization of Western examples. (I am reminded of her colleague Prof. Irfan Habib’s proud old-Marxist rejection of US patronage, contrasting to the complete conceptual as well as outwardly Americanization of the younger generation of secularists and Ambedkarites.)

It transpired that she had a vivid interest in Weber’s work regarding India, whom she read some forty years ago. As no Indian scholar of the younger generation showed a similar interest, she had graciously accepted the invitation from SOAS. The institution was familiar ground to her. She earned her PhD degree at SOAS with a dissertation on Ashoka’s inscriptions, published as an authoritative book in 1961. (Also present here was retired Oxford Buddhologist Prof. Richard Gombrich, who strongly disagrees with her on those inscriptions, which he doesn’t consider “secular” at all, but instead outspokenly promoting the specific Buddhist worldview.) She immediately established a good rapport with the audience, speaking slowly with a clear and authoritative diction, as an experienced professor should.

She started with noticing the obvious: that Max Weber’s research on Indian history and society relied heavily on colonial writings available then, and necessarily differed from the present-day theories. Being a prisoner of the colonial view, he did not thematize the implications  of colonialism itself (unlike Karl Marx, who wrote about colonialism in Ireland and India). Weber reproduced and refined the colonial theory of “Oriental despotism”, which militated against the individual freedom and social mobility needed for the genesis of modern capitalism.


Religions and their work ethic

Weber remains most famous for his thesis that the Protestant work ethic in the UK, the US and Germany was responsible for the rise of industrial capitalism. Weber argued that capitalism could not have originated in the India because of its lack of fraternization between different groups (esp. during apprenticeship, where Indian pupils were confined to their caste environment)), its lack of social mobility, its cultural depreciation of commerce and its otherworldly religious orientation. He did not give sufficient consideration to the Jains, whose trading activity, money-lending and renunciation of enjoying their profits come closest to the Protestant work ethic, though in passing he admits they had potential. In precolonial times, China and India were the main economies in Eurasia and practised mercantile capitalism. But they missed the shift to industrial capitalism, which took place in Europe.

But then, Weber neglected the specific 18th-19th century history of India and the role of both native and colonial capitalism therein. More generally, he treated Hindu culture as a monolithic whole, insufficiently considering the differences between classes and regions, and not taking the changes between the different periods into account. In a borrowed distortion typical for the Orientalists of the colonial period, he based his understanding of Hinduism only on texts, esp. the Vedic corpus to whom different groups across  regions and centuries paid due lip-service all while exhibiting variations and going through changes. Thus, that is why the scripture-based fourfold Varna (“caste”) system figured far more prominently in the Western image of Hindu society than the real-life thousandfold Jati (“caste”) system.

The corrective that Hindu society was too readily seen as changeless may have been the most important message in her lecture, seemingly trivial but full of consequences for both Hindus and practising Orientalists. In this case, the colonial-age Orientalists, with Weber in their wake, may have borrowed their extremely static view of Hindu culture from the Hindus themselves. Allow me to improvise an example.


The “Hindu caste system”

When the Ambedkarites and their Western cheerleaders anchor the caste system, complete with untouchability, in the Rg-Veda’s Purusha Sukta, they are wrong; yet, they are only following a traditionalist Hindu view that prevailed during the past few centuries. The box-type caste Apartheid with caste endogamy of the Puranic and early modern era was nowhere to be seen in the Rg-Veda: the earlier family books don’t report any trace of it, and the Purusha Sukta in the late Book 10 only reports the existence of four distinct functions in a complex society. After that, the caste system gradually hardened with a stage of hereditary caste only in the paternal line (as with the Brahmin Vyasa, son of the Brahmin Parashara and the fisher-girl Matsyagandha; and as with the sons of Dasis who were recruited into the Brahmin caste, mentioned here by Prof. Thapar), and finally endogamy. Equating Hinduism with the classical caste system, as is the wont of the Christian missionaries, the Ambedkarites and many an Orientalist, makes the mistake of disregarding change in Hindu history, but this mistake is based on Hindus having made the same mistake. For some two thousand years, any trespass against or doubt regarding the fully grown caste system was condemned with an invocation of the Rg-Veda’s authority, as if the Purusha Sukta had described the kind of caste system with which later Hindus were familiar.

(It deserves mention here that Prof. Thapar has personally contributed to our awareness of change within Hindu social structure. She has edited the book India. Historical Beginnings and the Concepts of the Aryan, 2006, in which Marxist historian Shereen Ratnagar asserts, p.166: “if, as in the case of the early Vedic society, land was neither privately owned nor inherited by successive generations, then land rights would have been irrelevant to the formation of kin groups, and there would be nothing preventing younger generations from leaving the parental fold. In such societies the constituent patrilineages or tribal sections were not strongly corporate. So together with geographic expansion there would be social flexibility.” It has become fashionable to moralize about the caste system, with evil Brahmins inventing caste and then imposing it on others; but hard-headed Marxists don’t fall for this conspiracy theory and see the need for socio-economic conditions to explain the reigning system of hierarchy or equality. The pastoral early-Vedic society did have the conditions for a more equal relation between individuals than the more complex later Hindu society.)

Other factual inaccuracies in Weber’s work include the total disregard for the presence of Islam in India, like for that of Buddhism in China, because their foreignness jeopardizes Weber’s explanation of India’s economic performance as stemming from the Indian religions. The different religions were treated as self-contained, not porous. The Indian state was described as agricultural, while recent studies corrected this: there was much commerce, including maritime, and this had only increased with urbanization after the year 1000. Weber also exaggerated the power of karma beliefs to reconcile people to social misfortune. The peasantry often responded to crises by migration, and sometimes even by that supposedly un-Indian behaviour: rebellion. They didn’t wait for the next birth to better their circumstances.

Trade was not despised, and even Brahmins and ascetics involved themselves in it, e.g. in the horse trade. Labour division between castes was more flexible than used to be thought. In the century before Weber, the static view of caste was conspicuously challenged by the anti-Brahmin movements and by the upper-caste reform movements. Even a non-specialist could have been more aware of these developments.



So, let us sum up. Max Weber’s world exists no more, and even the terms of the debate have been altered. Are the categories of religion used by Weber (and likewise by Marx) still valid? They strike us now as context-free and innocent of the changes that took place. Today, this non-change view is regarded as ahistorical. Weber would have been better if he had compared the same period in East and West, rather than comparing apples with pears: timeless societies in the distance with the familiar recent stage of Western society.

We remain stuck with the large question: what prevented Asia from taking the lead in knowledge? Why was the lead grabbed by Europe, after having lagged behind for so long? More was required for this than the Protestant work ethic. And another question, rather trivial but appropriate on this occasion: how would Max Weber have seen the religion of India a hundred years later?



So much for the Weber lecture. People who know something of the Ayodhya controversy may be surprised to learn that afterwards, I had a few friendly interactions with Prof. Thapar. Remembering the flak I drew in India when I took my erstwhile Aryan Origins adversary Michael Witzel’s side in the controversy that followed the publication of his book on Global Mythology, I will take the trouble to explain.

Firstly, it is all rather long ago, about a quarter century. Back then, she took a leadership role in the secularist plea that there was no basis for historans to accept the belief that a Hindu temple had stood at the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. In the dominant political and academic circles, that position suddenly became a consensus, and I stood out by challenging it. But that debate has been settled, definitively with the Court-ordered excavations in 2003, which laid bare plenty of remainders of the temple. When the war is over, soldiers go home, and let the war psychology which had animated them on the battlefield, subside. 

I will not mention the names of some Hindu and some anti-Hindu scholars who are still repeating quite exactly what they said decades ago, especially in the Aryan Origins debate. They foam at the mouth when they argue their point, and keep on doing so. But for better or for worse, I am not like that. So, the second reason is that I really don’t believe in personalizing debates on specific issues. Admittedly, I was not quite immune to that tendency when I was younger. But gradually, you not only know in theory, but also realize in practice, that human relations should not, or as little as possible, be affected by controversies. Even in controversies that I find myself in today, I endeavour to stay on friendly terms with my adversaries.

Number three is the reason of principle, that I want henceforth to guide all my dealings with adversaries. As Socrates said, the root of everything deemed evil is ignorance. People who objectively do evil, subjectively believe they are doing the right thing, because somewhere they have picked up a mistaken idea of what constitutes right, or of what exactly it is that they are doing. There is no need to intensify the impression that they are evil, it is more helpful to make them see reason, and automatically they will correct their position; for it is not in eagerness to do the right thing that they are lacking.  It also helps to remain aware that you yourself with all your good intentions seem likewise to be on the wrong side from your adversaries’ viewpoint. That is no reason to assume all positions are equal, or to drop your own convictions, but it will help you to better understand how anyone could have taken the opposite position to your own.

Meanwhile, on the lawn outside the SOAS gate, there is a statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. It carries a translated quotation of his, which I would like to reproduce as my parting shot:

“Meet with joy, with pleasant thoughts part,/ Such is the learned scholar’s art.”


Vraja said...

Industrial capitalism is dependent on the workers needing money. Industrial capitalism arose at the same time as the rise of modern money system in the west. Also the population growth in Europe meant that the traditional skills people had which earned them a living were becoming less and less a reliable source of income because of competition. Pushing people to look for work in factories in order to make money. I don't think religion had anything to do with it, or a work ethic, it was the desperation of the workers for money which was the new honey in the new economic system. The combination of the new inventions which started the industrial revolution, combined with the new money system, along with the population growth in small areas causing increase of competition for goods and services, caused people to flock to the factories to make dependable wages.

In Asia the conditions were quite different for most people, the population for the most part at that time were self-sustaining off the land. Factory work has no intrinsic appeal aside from money. Only those desperate for money would work in a factory, it would be a very last resort, which in Europe could be found many of in small areas. Of course Asia eventually succumbed to industrial capitalism, but it had to start somewhere and it started where the conditions of the common worker were so bad that they felt they had to work in factories in order to survive. Religion had nothing to do with it, it was the conditions of Europe for the worker along with new inventions and the new money system. The conditions in Asia where everything was much more complex and much more based on traditional economies and self-sustenance with extended families and clans taking care of people in need, made it slower for industry to take root because the people were less inclined to do that hellish factory work for money.

Unknown said...


A few more or less general observations, if I may...

Just because a public person wears a sari doesn't mean they have a sincere affection for traditional Hindu culture. They may have been advised to do so by paid experts on promotion, advertising and opinion making, creating an illusion attractive to the average viewer, who becomes more open to accepting their ideas, opinions or products. A kind of maya within the maya.

Just because something was not mentioned in the Vedas doesn't mean it wasn't there in practical life. It simply means that the Vedas were not (particularly) interested in that kind of contents or did not consider it important enough to deal with more extensively. That may be the lesson with the caste system: its not that important in defining the Hindu society, neither ages ago, nor now. Though there may have been periods when the system was pushed towards extremes (aka exceptions).

A side note: what's with all that marxism? Weren't all attempts at applying it in practice quite unsuccessful or negative, to use a euphemism (referring to marxism-based ideologies like communism). On the other hand, every ideology has much truth to it, especially when properly interpreted.

Hindu society as monolithic and changeless?
The society may change, but its (Vedic) basics remain the same. Our experiences may change, but the Absolute Truth remains the same. The interpretation of the caste system may change, but its purpose remains the same.

Why is Webber promoted?
Could it be because his views are yet another way of denigrating religions, blaming them as obstacles to the supposedly advanced western system of efficient accumulation of wealth (ie. greed) or knowledge (of materialistic, ie. lesser things). The view is likely supported by those that are interested in weakening traditional values in favor of current materialistic dogmas.

What prevented Asia from taking the lead in knowledge?
One answer is 'destiny' or 'karma'. Another answer may be that Asia already had much knowledge on the nature of reality and thus was not particularly impressed by what comes out from observing the (lesser) materialistic reality.

Why was the lead grabbed by Europe, after having lagged behind for so long?
Why does a starving man tend to eat excessively when he finally gets some food, even though it is wiser to take it slowly?

Protestant work ethic?
Didn't the dictators in this world also have an impressive work ethic? Yet the results of their work have had a very negative effect. In other words, a work ethic needs to be accompanied by intelligence in order to choose the appropriate way of doing things.

“Meet with joy, with pleasant thoughts part,/ Such is the learned scholar’s art.”
I'd interpret that one as: remaining optimistic regardless of the results of one's pursuits.

Ray Lightning said...

Why did the industrial revolution happen in Europe and not in Asia ?

I think you should feel some pride as a person with Dutch heritage. The Dutch were squarely responsible for many inventions for which appropriate credit is not given. In the broader scheme of things, credit is instead given to British people - Newton, Watt, Darwin etc.

The Dutch had a brilliant technical know-how of operating water mills and wind mills. This mechanization was important for later inventions e.g, clockwork. Another important invention was that of lens making, noticed accidentally by the spectacle maker Hans Lippershay. This invention was coopted by Galileo to make his telescope. Finally, the Dutch anatomist Versalius should be credited for revolutionizing the study of anatomy and medicine. Unlike mathematics and physics, where Europe was severely lagging behind Asia (India/China/Arabs), the advantage in anatomy was clear. Before Versalius, starting from even 1200s, open anatomical dissections of corpses were performed in Europe. This knowledge was combined with artistic knowledge, by people such as Da Vinci, who created the first modern scientific discipline of careful mapping of facts: anatomy. This inspiration from anatomy later percolated into machine drawings and other mechanization. The credit should be squarely given to these practical thinkers than metaphysical theologians like Newton (who copied off astronomical calculations from India and added his metaphysics to write his Principia Mathematica). The church was instrumental right from the beginning in assigning credit to people who are more favorable to the dogma.

My larger writeup on the importance of anatomy for European renaissance:

On the real story of calculus:

Anonymous said...

Desi calendar system makes somewhat more sense than judeo-xtian/mohamedan calendrical systems. Desi time-keeping is in harmony with Nature. Spring is the natural time for celebrating New Year. Body is microcosm of Multiverse/Brahmand/'universe'. I think Vadakayil has stated Mount Kailash is pineal gland of Dharti Mata/Earth.

Anonymous said...

The Dharmic day commences at Sunrise. One error in Nanakshahi calendar is day starts at midnight: this is a mistake - day is from sunrise to sunrise though ablutions and morning spiritual routine start around three hours before sunrise. Of course first priority is kirat/work. Work makes life possible. Persons who adhere to early rising usually have naps during day. It is duty of gov't to ensure ethical work is available to citizens, especially careers and jobs for men as they are head of family. Feminism is unnatural.

NK said...

Frankly, I've never understood these civilizational pissing contests. Empirically, world history seems to show different geographical regions going through periods of ascent and decline. Northwestern Europe (the area associated with founding "modernity") was a backwater during the beginnings of civilization, philosophy, and science. The founders of "Western" civilization, the ancient Greeks, weren't even interested in that part of the world.

We can ask questions that Weber ignored: Why did the the Greeks (circa 1500 onwards) play no role in the "modern" transition even though their ancestors set the foundation for it? The point of the question is merely to show that these analyses never look at the broad movements of history.

Anonymous said...

Kindly note: the four ages (Satjug/Dwapar/Treta/Kaljug) are reflected in each day with sunrise signalling start of Satjug and throughout twelve months springtime is beginning of the year's Satjug.

It is thought that in this most recent Kalpa Treta and Dwapar were mixed up and did not occur in their natural order.

With plight of girls and cows in most horrific conditions since Fueher A. Hitler lost WW2 it seems like it is deepest darkest Kaljug even though some claim Kaljug ended in 1699 with Guru Sahib's revealing of Khalsa. With such desperation world sought to destroy two nations that would have been completely vegetarian: Deutchland and Sovereign Sikh State. (Khalistan declared in April of 1986 by Sikh Quom)

It is impossible to put a noose around an ideal. Satguru Sahib's Ideals of truthful and worthwhile life will never die.

Karthikrajan said...

'Ray Lightning's video of Dr C.K.Raju provides the answer why the indians and chinese lost out to europeans.
Just look at aryabhattaa's complicated description for the ratio of circumference to diameter of the circle !! Sufficient to chase away anyone who has little interest in maths. I wonder how he got those figures and method to find out value of Pi :" 100 + 4 , multiplied by 8 , and added to 62,000 this is near measure of circumference of circle whose dia is 20,000 "
If this ratio is what he wanted to find out , then he should have a 'built' a circle and its diameter with bricks , and he could have easily found out that with 7 bricka as dia, it requires 22 bricks to built the circumference and hence the ratio is 22:7.
This is very similar to the way pythagaros theorem is mentioned in the vedhas: "The area formed by two sides of a right angled triangle is same as the area formed by its hypotenuse. ". They need just 50 bricks to derive this info. !!

There is a saying in tamil : if you want to touch your nose with your finger, just touch it straight, don't wrap your arm around your head to touch it. !!
Well, this is where aryabhattaa and indians flopped. I won't be surprised to hear that arybhattaa's disciples had abandoned maths after his death , LOL !!!!

NK said...

Unknown said...

मन की बात : “100 फीसदी कैशलेस संभव नहीं, लेकिन लेस-कैश तो संभव है” पीएम मोदी

Dinesh said...

nice post! really it's worth reading.By:lingashtakam team.