Delusion of Western Universalism : History of Mathematics

Rajiv Malhotra writes….

“One of the most important objectives of my recent book, Being Different, An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism (HarperCollins, 2011) is to refute Western claims of universalism. According to these claims, the West is both the driver of history and the ultimate, desirable destination of the entire world. The West purportedly provides the ideal template to which all other civilizations and cultures must contort, be pruned, trimmed or reconfigured to fit, or else be eliminated or sidelined by some means.

Of course, universalism cannot be Western, Chinese, French or any other. That wouldn’t really be universal but only a particular culture’s perception and lived experience of the world. The phrase “Western Universalism” is an oxymoron and I use it to highlight the hubris of this mindset. Rather than view it’s own culture as one that is the product of the unique history, geography, climate, myths, sacred literature, religion, empires and conflicts of ethnic groups and tribes of the North-Western hemisphere of the globe (a group that comprises less than 20% of humanity, and is shrinking), it assumes that it’s knowledge systems, epistemologies, history, myths and religions should be the norm for all of the world’s peoples!

This mindset neglects the unique trajectories and lessons learnt by other civilizations which in turn have been affected by their own geographies, histories (in many cases dating far beyond Western history), religious and spiritual traditions. The unique experiences of different cultures are not always inter-changeable. Yet the West, so certain that the shape and direction of world history should lead to Western goals – be it salvation or secular progress – tends to superimpose it’s own cultural paradigms, often through force, upon other cultures.”

Prof. Morris Kline, one of the modern historians of Mathematics, has characterized Babylonian and Egyptian math as the “scrawling of children”. He called the Indian mathematicians “fools”.

Prof. David Pingree illustrate for us how to do (or not do) agenda driven research. He began with a priori assumption of ‘Indians borrowing astronomy knowledge from Greeks and Babylonians’. I wish this professor had ability to understand intricacies and beauties of Indian astronomy – models but also precise observations made over a period of thousands of years (and to be precise .. at a minimum for 25, 000 years and more). Prof. Pingree would offer, occasionally, a compliment for Indian astronomy, but that is only when he ran out of options to discredit it – a specific invention or its historical antiquity.

And what a disappointment to read ‘The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero’ a book by Robert Kaplan that begins and ends with pre-set agenda, and with the help of a single tool of ‘justification’, goes on to ‘prove’ (read ‘justify’) what he believes to be true.


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