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East versus West: a false Western idea

By: Dr.Dipak Basu
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(The author is a Professor in International Economics in Nagasaki University, Japan)

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The problem with the Western intellectual is that they know very little beyond their own countries but they are arrogant enough to make comments about the whole world.

Guy Sorman is one of those Western intellectual who has taken as his profession to denigrate the East or the Eastern civilizations. Guy Sorman is a regular columnist for Le Figaro in France. He wrote recently his new book "The Empire of Lies". As a critic of the East he has considered, forgetting India altogether, only the Chinese and the Muslims as the representatives of the East and pointed out some fundamental differences between the East and the West so that these two different civilizations can never be compared equally, reflecting the same prejudices as the British colonial writer Rudyard Kipling.

According to Sorman three major characteristics separate the East from the West: Innovative nature, Self Criticism and Gender equality. According to him the East cannot innovate but dependent on the West for every scientific innovation. The East cannot criticize the concept of The God or deny it. The East also discriminates against the women. Similar opinions were expressed by a number of Western intellectuals. Paul Krugman, professor of economics in Harvard recently in 1995 in the Foreign Affairs magazine also wrote that the Eastern people, including the Russians, couldn"t innovate but depend on the West for every scientific innovation. Another Harvard professor, historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote in a number of articles in the Foreign Affairs that the concept of human right is purely European; the Asian civilizations have no idea about it. Geert Hofstede, the management Guru considers in his very well known book "Cultures and Organizations" that the culture of both South Asia and East Asia are authoritarian and closed whereas the Western culture is democratic and open.

What is East and what is West:

The first problem is that there is no proper boundary of the Western or the Eastern civilizations. Where exactly the East starts, if the Arab world is the "Middle East"? If it starts from Constantinople, a fusion of Greek, Roman and Armenian civilizations, then Greece itself is also a part of The East, as the Greeks do not consider themselves as Western. The Hindu deity Mitra was the principal God in Persian, Roman and Byzantine Empire before Constantine. Ancient temples of Mitra still exist in both Armenia and in Britain, which was a colony of the Roman Empire.


Even before the birth of Gautam Buddha there was a great university in Taxila. After the death of Buddha several universities were formed in Nalanda, Ujjain, Vikramshila, Paharpur, which have received scholars from China, the Arab world and South East Asia, until their destructions by the Turkish invasion of India in 12th century. The oldest surviving university of the world today is in Cairo.

Since the days of the invasion of India by Alexander until the Arab invasion in 7th century, Afghanistan had Indo-Greek kingdoms creating fusion of all knowledge from three great civilizations India, Persia and Greece. Since 7th century Baghdad became the reservoir of knowledge of the world until it was destroyed by the Mongol invasions in 11th century. Scholars from India were invited to go there and translate books of Indian mathematics and sciences from Sanskrit to Arabic. Several Arab scholars, like Al Beruni and Iban Batuta, also came to India searching for knowledge.

Modern development of science and mathematics in Europe had started in Italy in 14th century, when Italian and Armenian traders transmitted the knowledge of India translated by the Arab scholars in Baghdad and Constantinople. Thus, much of what is considered as Western is nothing but recycled Eastern knowledge; that is particularly true about inventions in science, technology and mathematics.

That was the reason when the East India Company first came to India and China, it had nothing new to offer to Asia until the industrial revolution started in Britain by the Scottish scientists with the money flooded in from the exploitation of Bengal. However, even then the East had made major contribution in 19th century science, which was not acknowledged by the West. Radio transmission, for example, was first invented and demonstrated by J.C.Bose in Calcutta India in 1896 and in London in 1897 but was copied by Marconi who got all the credit. That was also true about Copernicus who only had repeated the discovery made by Arya Bhatta in 4th Century India. Thus innovations and inventions are not only due to the West.

Self Criticism:

Self-criticism is the fundamental part of the Indian philosophy. Thousands of years ago in the Rig Veda, the most important book of the Hindu religion and the first book composed in Indo-European language group, it is written, "Only that God in highest heaven knows whence comes this universes. He only knows or perhaps he knows not" (Book 10, Verse 129).

Indian philosophy was developed through continuous criticisms of existing ideas. Hegel and Karl Marx did not invent Materialism. It was already there in 7th century BC philosophy of Brishaspati, Kapil and Kanad in India. They along with Gautam Buddha and Mahavir have denied the existence of God, nearly 2600 years before Nietzsche. Chinese philosopher Confucius also denied the existence of God. Zorathustra denied the existence of Mitra, considered to be the God in ancient Persia and made a revolution in religious ideas. Thus, self-criticism is not an exclusive Western virtue.

Gender Equality:

Equality of Gender was not a Western virtue either as women were denied even right of education until the middle of 19th century in the West and they did not have civil rights even in Britain until 1928. However, in ancient India, one of the seven stars of Ursa Major is named after a famous astronomer of ancient India, Arundhuti. Rig Veda has mentioned the three women philosophers of ancient India, Lopamudra, Gargi and Maitreyi, who have challenged their philosopher husbands and others in open debates. Gender equality was a part of the ancient India, but not of the West.

I am here only giving examples mainly from India, but I am sure similar examples can be drawn from other Eastern civilizations. Thus the distinguishing virtues of the Western civilizations are not unique; these were there also in the Eastern civilizations. The only way one can distinguish the East and the West is through geography, but not through culture, race, color or any other attributes.

Dr.Dipak Basu

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