Most people might find my initial remarks something very drastic. More over, people have every right to question my competence to make such an opinion. I won’t be offended if that is the case. Call me a Macaulayist for this crime if you must, but do hear me out. I opine that if we want to understand our social dynamics and contribute to knowledge pool of the world, the volumes on history, mythology, literature, art and modern sociology are only going to be of help as footnotes. They can utmost provide details of individual tiles in a jigsaw puzzle. But we won’t be able to view the shape from the angle we are viewing. We are not using the right tools or developing them, as far as one can see. For somebody who has more than working knowledge on the cultural history of ‘Indian society’ (or some aspect of it), I believe that reading modern psychologists like Richard E. Nisbett and Daniel Kahneman (Nobel laureate in economics, the author of “Thinking fast and slow”), mathematician cum financial analyst Nicholas Taleb (author of “Black Swan“, “Fooled by Randomness“) etc. will be more beneficial. Social psychology, economics, logic and mathematics (especially for game theory) should be a must read for budding social scientists and even historians. We need to nurture analytical ability, a pathetically under appreciated skill in Indian social science research landscape, as far as I have seen.
Allow me to elaborate this point. It is well recognized that oriental people, including Indians of all ethnicity and religions, have a problem in understanding categories. We are culturally trained to see a continuum, which is possibly good for social cohesion, but certainly a handicap in dealing with concrete objects and ideas. In fact, we hate concrete ideas with sharp boundaries and are afraid of making the distinctions. In my opinion, this has consequences in our social outlook. Risk aversion is the motto of Indian society. ‘Sharmaji ka beta‘ meme did not come as an accident. In our society, the ‘ideal person’ is a weighted golden mean. The weight varies from place to place. It is a Master moshai — the upper caste, lower middle class, nominally irreligious (and yet culturally Hindu), sacrificing Bengali school teacher with calm mannerism — in Bengali society, while a Deenanath Babu — upper caste, pious, slightly wealthy, Ramayan chanting, Mukhiya type, Sarkari officer — in the Hindi heartland. All communities have such stereotypes, but in western societies these golden means only have a symbolic value, as a pillar of stability; you have to surpass them and are encouraged to do so. But in our oriental societies deviation from this golden mean are not generally considered as positive. The weights and values change only when there is an external pressure on the community. In short, in our societies failure is looked down than success is valued.
Now the above said social dynamics has direct impact on the way we think. It discourages bold analyses, even in the academic disciplines where it is expected. As a result, we value getting along than pursuit of truth or bettering our understanding. I believe that even persistence of caste in urban spaces in this modern age has something to do with this attitude. Society believes that an inter-caste marriage implies a lowering of value from the ideal mean for the privileged spouse and hence failure. But then, for the less privileged spouse, it is again a digression from the mean which might award better mobility or success (for lack of a better word). A risk averse society does not value success to the extend it abhors “failures”. Hence even progressive values does not catch up fast. The general hatred towards wealthy capitalists, even in societies with no left wing roots, again is a permanent feature of this risk averse society. It happens in rich countries too, and higher in poorer societies. Yet in India we have it more as disdain, than just anger. To top it all, our cultural discouragement for thinking in the middle scale, i.e weaving the observed diversity into a theory with ample explanatory power and without bothering whether it upsets the current notions, is really poor.