Monday, February 22, 2010

Amartya Sen strikes again

The World Bank has a South Asia blog. On it I saw this:
In the book, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen motivates the discussion on the importance of processes and responsibilities by relying on an example. In the Gita (part of the Mahabharata), on the eve of the crucial battle episode in the epic, Arjuna expresses his doubts about leading the fight which will result in so much killing. Lord Krishna, tells him that he, Arjuna, must perform his duty, that is, to fight. And to fight, irrespective of the consequences.

Krishna’s blessing of the demands of duty is meant to win the argument from a religious perspective. But most of us would share Arjuna’s concerns about the fact that, if the war were to occur, with him leading the charge on the side of justice and propriety, many people would get killed. He himself would be doing a lot of the killing, often of people for whom he had affection.

Arjuna’s dilemma goes well beyond the process-independent view of consequences. Like him, most of us believe that an appropriate understanding of social realization has to take the comprehensive form of a process-inclusive broad account.

It then goes on to basically say that poverty alleviation programs need to figure out how to verify that they are working, i.e., like Arjuna (before Krishna persuaded him otherwise) we must worry about consequences.

To my response, Elaina Cardoso replied:
A rich text such as the Gita can live with more than one interpretation. Amartya Sen makes good use of the contrast between Krishna's ethics ("do your duty") and Arjuna's dilemma. Should Arjuna do his duty and fight (and kill many people including people he loved)? Or should he spend the rest of his life in exile (without being responsible for a brutal battle and much killing)? Even if there would not be peace, Arjuna could choose between leading the battle or not.

My responses were hurried, here I'd like to spell it out a bit more carefully.

a. First, to read any text is to interpret it. There is no mathematical proof of what the correct interpretation is. But we can talk of good interpretations and bad interpretations. If the text is not gibberish and not fiction, a good interpretation is possible. We postulate that a good interpretation of the Gita is possible.

b. Second, we note that it is almost impossible for humans to do anything without the consequences in mind. I raise my hand to scratch my nose - even in this simple action, there is a goal that I hope to reach.

c. Third, as you find from any sane teacher of the Gita, (ranging in orientation from Eknath Easwaran to "Dadaji" Pandurang Athavale to Swami Dayananda Saraswati) the non-attachment to the consequences does not mean that you do not strive for a particular goal. One is irresponsible if one does not use the right means for the right goals. What it means is that success does not elate you nor does failure depress you.

d. Fourth, while the Gita is indeed a rich text and admits many interpretations, one still has a responsibility to not mangle the text.

To illustrate the category of mistake that Amartya Sen makes here, consider the Quran as a rich text that admits of many interpretations. I can quote chapter and verse and prove to you that the true believer is obliged to fight and kill the non-believer. At least, it is within the scope of possible interpretations (and such interpreters exist). But notice what I have done by this interpretation - I have turned every Muslim into a homicidal maniac and every peaceful Muslim into a hypocrite who does not follow the tenets of his/her religion. (Indeed, a lot of Muslim-phobia is created in exactly this way - by creating mistrust of peaceful Muslims, saying that they cannot be following their religion, the true religion is that preached by al Qaeda.)

Like Amartya Sen did with the Gita, I can use this interpretation to make a wonderful and beautiful philosophical discourse on the First Amendment and the Freedom of Religion in the Light of Islam. But I cannot justify the mistake I made on these grounds.

Amartya Sen with his interpretation of the Gita, turns the Hindus of the present and of the last two thousand years into cretins; a central book of theirs supposedly tell them to act without thinking of the consequences, and they have held on to such a useless book through the millenia.

My advice to people like Elaina Cardoso is: No matter how brilliant Albert Einstein was you wouldn't learn the Torah from him.