How to understand modern India

I could just rewrite my post How to understand modern China, but change the examples.  But you can do that mental exercise yourself, and besides it is easier to access information about India in the English language.  So let me try a very specific recommendation for India:

Study Indian textiles and their history

I  found this the single most useful way to get a handle on Indian history, a bit less on contemporary India.  Here’s why:

1. The artistic side of textile history gives you a clear sense of regional differences, and also Islamic influence, or lack thereof.

2.. It focuses your attention rather immediately on the role of women and women’s work, and also how this interacted with industrialization.

3. In the early 18th century, India was a world leader at cloth production, but it lost this position by the early 19th century.  Studying textiles and cloth production offers an excellent window on their major story of economic decline, and how British import penetration, backed by colonialism, contributed to Indian deindustrialization.

4. Relatively poor and neglected regions of India, such as Bihar and Orissa, have a strong presence in Indian folk textile traditions, and you will learn plenty about them.

5. Books on textiles will explain the accompanying information about Indian history in a clearer way than will actual history books about India.

6. People who write books on textiles tend to be both clear and careful I have found, perhaps because they love and collect something delicate.

7. Studying textiles and cloth also brings you right to Gandhi’s “Swadeshi’ movement.

8. Unless your income is really quite modest, you can afford to buy and regularly view some pretty high-quality Indian textiles.  In India I’ve found some excellent pieces for as cheap as $200-$250.

9. Studying textiles also will bring to your attention India’s tribes and indigenous peoples.  And it ties in readily to India’s broader cultural influence throughout Southeast Asia.

10. Textile books have many pretty pictures.

My favorite books on Indian textiles are cited in my discussion of that topic in Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures.  But it’s more a question of reading a bunch of them, rather than picking out a select few.  Simple, direct searches will get you to where you need to go.

My favorite collection of Indian textiles is in the Victoria & Albert museum in London.  Sadly, I’ve yet to get to the Calico textiles museum in Ahmedabad, though it is very highly regarded.




India was never industrialized!

Stop lying, Tyler, as a new year's resolution, please?

Textile looms were destroyed by the British. You think people made cloth at home?

If you read Gregory Clark, its apparent that free trade destroyed the textile industry in India. English workers were just too competent and the Indians couldn't match their productivity or make a profit even if they worked at night or employed children. Basically they were lazy and incompetent according to Clark.. So yes, the British did destroy the looms and also, libertarians are evil.

You're never going to go broke selling the idea that your problems are someone else's fault ...

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I think the fact that the British ruled both countries and had the power to rig trade and tariff policies in their favor had a little to do with it. Free trade, my rear!

Of course that is explored. In fact the industry in Britain operated under more restrictions. Since they employed mostly women thay had to be shut down at night and so on. As hard as it is to accept, societies aren't made industrialization-compliant overnight.

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Funny, who would have thought that being run by a country from the other side of the world might possibly ever have any downsides?

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Deindistrialization, yes, really.

You're the idiot, scumbag, lyin' sack, Skeptic.

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Don't professors ever do any real work?


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A very interesting presentation of Indian history through the textile industry.

Just as a side note, the textile industry is capital intensive while the apparel industry is labour intensive. Something that might just a bit more insight to the already insightful presentation.

I agree with both of these statements, although wouldn't a further refinement be that the capital intensity of the textile industry increased during the Industrial Revolution and its associated technological change?

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Good post.

There are a few other topics that can serve as useful handles to "understand" India.

1. Study the folk history of the popular Indian pilgrimage sites -

For a lot of people, Hinduism is associated with abstruse metaphysics, mysticism, Vedanta, and Yoga. And this obsession with the high falutin theoretical stuff, means that many students of Hinduism don't pay as much attention to the pop-religion on the ground. And this religion is best understood by actually understanding the few hundred important pilgrimage sites scattered across the country. Each of these sites is ancient and has a "legend" associated with it. (the so-called Sthala Purana). The civilizational unity of India is largely accomplished because of the pan Indian reverence for these pilgrimage sites. Be it Benaras in the North, Kolhapur in the west, Srirangam in the south, or Puri in the East. A nice way to get started on this is Diana Eck's book - "India - A Sacred Geography" where she makes a strong case for the theory that the idea of one India is one that is primarily stemming out of the pilgrimage experience of Hindus.

This study of pop religion will be messy and frustrating for people from an Abrahamic monotheistic background. But there is no better way to understand what makes Indians tick spiritually, and why every Indian is a millionaire when it comes to Religion.

2. Study of the history of Indian mathematics -

This may seem like an odd handle to understand India. But in my view it is useful, because Indian mathematical tradition that goes back to roughly 700 BCE, is one that is highly empirical, algebraic, and averse to theorizing and rigorous proofs. So it tells you a lot about the Indian mind. Which is very different from the Greek mind, in that it places a very very low premium on "neatness", and a high premium on "improvisation".

Unlike the Greeks, Indian mathematics is not that big on geometry. And also not that big on "visualization". While someone like Euclid leveraged diagrams to make his point, Indian mathematicians like Brahmagupta and Bhaskara I/II, just stated results in 2-line or 4-line verses.

The Indian mathematical tradition is arguably the greatest Indian contribution to human civilization. Particularly the decimal number system, infinite series, and the algebraic orientation in general (markedly different from the Greek emphasis on geometry). The tradition includes Sulba Sutras (700BCE), Aryabhata (400CE), Varahamihira (400CE), Brahmagupta (500-600CE), Bhaskara I (600CE), Bhaskara II (1100-1200 CE), and ofcourse the famed Kerala school of mathematics (14th century). Madhava from the Kerala school approximated Pi to 13 decimal places. In more recent times, the most distinguished mathematical mind is ofcourse Srinivasa Ramanujan, very much a man in the Indian tradition, who disdained proofs and conventional rigor, and instead relied on intuition and heuristics.

3. Study of Indian poetry and music and its emphasis on meter

This is something that is again uniquely Indian - the very very high emphasis on meter. Which is a consequence of the Indian oral tradition and cultural aversion to writing. Which continues to this day. The emphasis on meter and rhyming was partly an aid to memorization and rote learning. And this emphasis begins with the Vedas (the earliest religious literature, preserved orally for some 1500 years before they were written down in the common era) And you see this in Indian poetry and even Indian film music to this day! Bollywood songs are characterized by their metrical style and perfect rhyming, which you don't always see in western popular music. In that sense, the metrical legacy of the Vedas is still alive in popular culture.

"And this obsession with the high falutin theoretical stuff, means that many students of Hinduism don’t pay as much attention to the pop-religion on the ground."

I mean who cares about truth? If one village worships the twenty-legged devil and another village worships the twelve-headed demon, God must be ten-legged devil with six heads. Average may be over, but in India it rules.

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Regarding mathematics: how are lack of rigor, an aversion to proofs, and improvisation, conducive to building up a body of knowledge? If I read you correctly, you are presenting this "approach" to doing mathematics as a different, yet equally valid, way to that of "the Greeks" (I assume Pythagoras and Euclid and their intellectual descendants?) Can you justify that? Without rigorous proof, how can one verify a mathematical assertion? How do we know that a mathematical statement passed down the centuries was not a mistake someone made?

Not saying it is equally valid or less or more valid. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Indian mathematics was definitely more advanced and of far greater utility than Western mathematics right up to 14th century or so.

While western mathematics has traditionally been concerned with giving universal propositions, Indian math was less concerned with expounding truths but more with "how to" techniques - an example being the place-value system which revolutionalized computation.

Not that there aren't theorems and identities in Indian classical math. There are, and very often there are proofs as well (though the approach isn't quite the same as the Greeks). Srinivasa Ramanujan famously published several hundred identities in his notebooks without proofs. After a 100 years investigation, mathematicians agree that the accuracy rate of those identities is pretty high. A very vast majority of them have been proved right.

I am not decrying the Greek way. I am just saying the mathematical tradition in India says something about the Indian mind. And in my view there is something to be said for the intuitive approach. Intuition can often provide insights, which can and should be proved later on. A more orthodox approach where you start with an incontrovertible proposition and work your way to a new truth, is more fool proof, but can also depress productivity.

Mathematical rigor isn't about starting with incontrovertible truths and working towards new truths. It's about understanding *why* your results (which are always arrived at through intuition) are true. It gives structure to the space of ideas.
For example, check out Archimedes. His results were usually guessed at using mechanical analogies, then verified rigorously. True of all working mathematicians.

It's not as binary as you make it out to be. The development of calculus was largely empirical for a century from Leibniz until Cauchy put it on a sound theoretical footing.

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And I mentioned it as a handle that can help "understand" Indians.

Not valorizing it or calling for an overhaul of math pedagogy

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@Kris, it isn't true that Indian mathematics didn't have any proofs. For instance, the first ever infinite series for \pi, namely \pi/4 = 1 - (1/3) + (1/5) - (1/7) + ..., was proved by Neelakantha. His successor Jyeshthadeva's book contains many proofs.

@blah, shrikanthk:

Thanks. I wasn't trying to assert that Indian math has lacked proof in the past. I was just asking a question about the worth of non-rigorous math vis-a-vis math based on rigor.

I need to learn more about the history of Indian math for myself. If you have any references, I'd be glad to look them up whenever I get time.

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I haven't made serious reading, but have heard good opinions on Plofker's book.

Rigor in math is super-important and indispensable, but overstated by "science journalist"-types. Rigor is a way of ensuring that something is right; it cannot in itself give any intuitions. Secondly, a lot of important mathematics, including calculus, developed without much rigor initially, and was only formalized much later. Consider Ramanujan: much of his work was non-rigorous but made such a massive impact on really modern mathematics. Subhash Khot's Nevanlinna prize was awarded basically for a conjecture (though it led to many proofs). Even in modern times, mathematicians sometimes differ on how carefully papers should be refereed...

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For a recent chapter of the textile story, and trade barriers and the Ambani family, try “the polyester prince”, .

It all seemed playsible to me but comments on factual accuracy would be welcome.

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A great post, one of those that make visits here worthwhile despite everything else.

"6. People who write books on textiles tend to be both clear and careful I have found, perhaps because they love and collect something delicate."

And perhaps also because their primary focus is a concrete object which they love for its own sake, and not for its utility in politicking.

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Certainly this is an interesting point of view.

But, with respect, if you really want to understand modern India in total, there is a much simpler way.

Just realize that Malthus was right.

Remember, Malthus never predicted a global catastrophe. Malthus only described what he saw, what exists for real right now. That when the people of a society all have more children than they can support, they will be crushed into poverty and misery. And no, Virginia, it is not the case that first people get rich then they have fewer children: the iron law of development is that FIRST people have fewer children, THEN if everything else goes more-or-less right, they slowly accumulate per-capita wealth. Not the other way around.

Understanding modern India: Malthus was right. He's always been right, although the lovers of cheap labor have screamed mightily to deny this. All else is detail.

Descendants of 16th century Europeans, especially the British, call four continents their home today. However that result occurred, it was not because of them bearing fewer children!

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in the same way

How to understand Russia?

up to xix century Russia was hardly urbanized and had one particular pattern: distances prevented trade of grain ( example - near by provinces could have different harvest - but still those who had lost harvest would never purchase from neighbors - the road expenses were too high ), still Russia managed to export quite of bit of iron, but with start of british use of coal for iron smelting - that business collapsed, so basically up to 1840s russia still was the same as at the beginning of xviii century. Then import of machinery (and coal ) from England resulted in growth in textile production, and since 1860s ( after serfs emancipation and coal in donbass) Russia started to industrialize, there was input from Baku oil too - but being more remote, than american oil - the benefits were not reaped in full extent. Only when rich iron ore from Dnieper region was connected by railway to donbass coal, and river tankers were invented - there was a surge of growth due to iron availability - ural iron was almost never used to build railways due to being soft - better suited for handicraft industries that to rails that was also accompanied by much more railway build (which partially solved russia transportation deficiency ) and availability of heavy oil for steam engines helped to ease the effect of remoteness of donbass coal from most populous regions . but a delay resulted from iron industry problems in the beginning of xix century lead to defeat in ww1, then communism, then restructuring from soviet legacy.

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Maybe read this blogpost about the Textile industry and correct your #3 -

Scrolled down to post this.
TLDR: Indian labor power was s.t. workers could not be made to work a sufficient number of looms.
"Bessen shows that in the early 19th century, a New England weaver operating a single power loom spent 70-75% of the time watching the loom. By 1900, monitoring without active intervention was reduced to ~20% of the weaver’s time, and actively performing tasks took up 80% of the time. This is because the weaver in 1900 was made to operate 8 power looms.

In other words, over the course of a century, technological change did not reduce the amount of work for the New England operative, because he or she was made by employers to handle more and faster machines. The effects of technology were counteracted by a social process.

By the early 1930s Japan had tripled its manning ratios to 600 spindles per operative and 6 power looms per weaver. The ratios at Japanese-owned mills in Shanghai had been doubled. But in India the average remained 200:1 and 2:1, i.e., unchanged since 1910. This means many more workers were employed in India to handle a given number of machines than in Japan."

Interesting reading indeed but I think it relies too much on its theme of labor unions who resist technological change. The huge economic gains provide opportunities to buy off unions with higher wages. Sometimes this happens (containerization and mechanization of the work of longshoremen) and sometimes it doesn't (Indian textiles apparently, for decades). The question of why and when it happens is indeed interesting but these union disputes are I think only a small part of the bigger story of technological change and economic and cultural re-organization.

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