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The Argumentative Indian

Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

by Amartya Kumar Sen

Hardcover, 409 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $26 |


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Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity
Amartya Kumar Sen

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Amartya Sen, 'The Argumentative Indian'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Argumentative Indian


These essays on India were written over the last decade — about half of them over the last couple of years. The first four, which make up the first part of the collection, introduce and explain the principal themes pursued in this book, related to India's long argumentative tradition.

India is an immensely diverse country with many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and a veritable feast of viewpoints. Any attempt to talk about the culture of the country, or about its past history or contemporary politics, must inescapably involve considerable selection. I need not, therefore, labour the point that the focus on the argumentative tradition in this work is also a result of choice. It does not reflect a belief that this is the only reasonable way of thinking about the history or culture or politics of India. I am very aware that there are other ways of proceeding.

The selection of focus here is mainly for three distinct reasons: the long history of the argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and its relative neglect in ongoing cultural discussions. It can in addition be claimed that the simultaneous flourishing of many different convictions and viewpoints in India has drawn substantially on the acceptance — explicitly or by implication — of heterodoxy and dialogue. The reach of Indian heterodoxy is remarkably extensive and ubiquitous.

Consider the politically charged issue of the role of so-called 'ancient India' in understanding the India of today. In contemporary politics, the enthusiasm for ancient India has often come from the Hindutva movement — the promoters of a narrowly Hindu view of Indian civilization — who have tried to separate out the period preceding the Muslim conquest of India (from the third millennium BCE to the beginning of the second millennium CE). In contrast, those who take an integrationist approach to contemporary India have tended to view the harking back to ancient India with the greatest of suspicion. For example, the Hindutva activists like invoking the holy Vedas, composed in the second millennium BCE, to define India's 'real heritage'. They are also keen on summoning the Ramayana, the great epic, for many different purposes, from delineating Hindu beliefs and convictions to finding alleged justification for the forcible demolition of a mosque — the Babri masjid — that is situated at the very spot where the 'divine' Rama, it is claimed, was born. The integrationists, by contrast, have tended to see the Vedas and the Ramayana as unwelcome intrusions of some specific Hindu beliefs into the contemporary life of secular India.

The integrationists are not wrong to questions the factional nature of the choice of 'Hindu classics' over other products of India's long and diverse history. They are also right to point to the counterproductive role that such partisan selection can play in the secular, multi-religious life of today's India. Even though more than 80 per cent of Indians may be Hindu, the country has a very large Muslim population (the third largest among all the countries in the world — larger than the entire British and French populations put together), and a great many followers of other faiths: Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees and other.

However, even after noting the need for integration and for a multicultural perspective, it has to be accepted that these old books and narratives have had an enormous influence on Indian literature and thought. They have deeply influenced literary and philosophical writings on the one hand, and folk traditions of storytelling and critical dialectics on the other. The difficulty does not lie in the importance of the Vedas or the Ramayana, but in the understanding of their role in Indian culture. When the Muslim Pathan rulers of Bengal arranged for making good Bengali translations of the Sanskrit Mahabbarata and Ramayana in the fourteenth century (on which see Essay 3), their enthusiasm for the ancient Indian epics reflected their love of culture, rather than any conversion to Hinduism.[1] It would be as difficult to ignore their general importance in Indian culture (on some allegedly 'secular' ground) as it would be to insist on viewing them through the narrow prism of a particularly raw version of Hindu religiosity.
The Vedas may be full of hymns and religious invocations, but they also tell stories, speculate about the world and — true to the argumentative propensity already in view — ask difficult questions. A basic doubt concerns the very creation of the word: did someone make it, was it a spontaneous emergence, and is there a God who knows what really happened? As is discussed in Essay I, the Rigveda goes on to express radical doubts on these issues: 'Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?.perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not — the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows — or perhaps he does not know.' These doubts from the second millennium BCE would recur again and again in India's long argumentative history, along with a great many other questions about epistemology and ethics (as is discussed in Essay I). They survive side by side with intense religious beliefs and deeply respectful faith and devotion.

Similarly, the adherents of Hindu politics — especially those who are given to vandalizing places of worship of other religions — may take Rama to be divine, but in much of the Ramayana, Rama is treated primarily as a hero-a great 'epic hero' — with many good qualities and some weaknesses, including a tendency to harbour suspicions about his wife Sita's faithfulness. A pundit who gets considerable space in the Ramayana, called Javali, not only does not treat Rama as God, he calls his actions 'foolish' ('especially for', as Javali puts it, 'an intelligent and wise man'). Before he is persuaded to withdraw his allegations, Javali gets time enough in the Ramayana to explain in detail that 'there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that', and that 'the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the sabar;stras (scriptures) by clever people, just to rule over (other) people.'* The problem with invoking the Ramayana to propagate a reductionist account of Hindu religiosity lies in the way the spic is deployed for this purpose — as a document of supernatural veracity, rather than as 'a marvellous parable' (as Rabindranath Tagore describes it) and a widely enjoyed part o India's cultural heritage.

The roots of scepticism in India go back a long way, and it would be hard to understand the history of Indian culture if scepticism were to be jettisoned. Indeed, the resilient reach of the tradition of dialectics can be felt throughout Indian history, even as conflicts and wars have led to much violence. Given the simultaneous presence of dialogic encounters and bloody battles in India's past, the tendency to concentrate only on the latter would miss something of real significance.

It is indeed important to understand the long tradition of accepted heterodoxy in India. In resisting the attempts by the Hindutva activists to capture ancient India as their home ground (and to see it as the unique cradle of Indian civilization), it is not enough to point out that India has many sources culture as well. It is necessary also to see how much heterodoxy there has been in Indian thoughts and beliefs from very early days. Not only did Buddhists, Jains, agnostics and atheists compete with each other and with adherents of what we now call Hinduism (a much later term) in the India of the first millennium BCE, but also the dominant religion in India was Buddhism for nearly a thousand years. The Chinese in the first millennium CE standardly referred to India as 'the Buddhist kingdom' (the far-reaching effects of the Buddhist connections between the two largest countries in the world are discussed in Essay 8). Ancient India cannot be fitted into the narrow box where the Hindutva activists want to incarcerate it.

It was indeed a Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who, in the third Century BCE, not only outlined the need for toleration and the richness of heterodoxy, but also laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations, with the opponents being 'duly honoured in every way on all occasions'. That political principle figures a great deal in later discussions in India, but the most powerful defence of toleration and of the need for the state to be equidistant from different religions came from a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar. This was of course much later, but those principles of religious toleration, enunciated in the I590s, were still early enough at a time when the inquisition was in full swing in Europe.

The contemporary relevance of the dialogic tradition and of the acceptance of heterodoxy is hard to exaggerate. Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning. They are central to the practice of secularism and for even-handed treatment of adherents of different religious faiths (including those who have no religious beliefs). Going beyond these basic structural priorities, the argumentative tradition, if used with deliberation and commitment, can also be extremely important in resisting social inequalities and in removing poverty and deprivation. Voice is a crucial component of the pursuit of social justice.

It is sometimes asserted that the use of dialectics is largely confined to the more affluent and more literate, and is thus of no value to the common people. The elitism that is rampant in such a belief is not only extraordinary, it is made more exasperating through the political cynicism and impassivity it tends to encourage. The critical voice is the traditional ally of the aggrieved, and participation in arguments is a general opportunity, not a particularly specialized skill (like composing sonnets or performing trapeze acts).

Just before the Indian general elections in the spring of 2004, when I visited a Bengali village not far from my own home, I was told by a villager, who was barely literate and certainly very poor: 'It is not very hard to silence us, but that is not because we cannot speak.' Indeed, even though the recording and preservation of arguments tend to be biased in the direction of the articulations of the powerful and the well schooled, many of the most interesting accounts of arguments from the past involve members of disadvantaged groups (as is discussed in Essays 1 and 2).

The nature and strength of the dialogic tradition in India is sometimes ignored because of the much championed belief that India is the land of religions, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices. Some cultural theorists, allegedly 'highly sympathetic', are particularly keen on showing the strength of the faith-based and unreasoning culture of India and the East, in contrast with the 'shallow rationalism' and scientific priorities of the West. This line of argument may well be inspired by sympathy, but it can end up suppressing large parts of India's intellectual heritage. In this pre-selected 'East — West' contrast, meetings are organized, as it were, between Aristotle and Euclid on the one hand, and wise and contented Indian peasants on the other. This is not, of course, an uninteresting exercise, but it is not pre-eminently a better way of understanding the 'East — West' cultural contrast than by arranging meetings between, say, Aryabhata (the mathematician) and Kautilya (the political economist) on the one hand, and happily determined Visigoths on the other. If the immediate motivation for this book is social and political understanding in India, it has, I believe, some relevance also for the way the classification of the cultures of the world has become cemented into a shape that pays little or no attention to a great deal of our past and present.[2]

The four essays in Part I outline the nature, reach and relevance of the argumentative tradition in India. This includes, as is particularly discussed in Essays 1 and 2, the part that pluralism and the dialogic tradition play in supporting democracy, secularism and the pursuit of mathematics and science, and the use that can be made of dialectics in seeking social justice, against the barriers of class, caste, community and gender. Essay 3 discusses the relevance of a capacious understanding of a large and heterodox India, contrasted with the drastically downsized view of the country that appeals to some religious activists, who combine it with a severely miniaturized understanding of Hinduism.[3] These discussions have relevance, as is discussed in Essay 4, for the way Indian identity can be understood, and the diagnostic issues are relevant not only for Indians in India but also for the large (at least 20 million strong) Indian diaspora across the world.

The essays in Part II deal with the role of communication in the development and understanding of cultures. The discussions in Essays 5 and 6 try to follow and to develop the insights on this subject that emerge from the works of the visionary poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore and the great film director Satyajit Ray. The emergence of difference versions of 'imagined India' in Western perceptions is investigated in Essay 7, along with the impact that these misconceptions, in turn, have had on the way Indians have tended to see themselves in the colonial or post-colonial period. Essay 8 is devoted to examining the close and extensive intellectual relations (covering science, mathematics, engineering, literature, music, and public health care and administration) that China and India had — along with religion and trade — for a thousand years, beginning in the early part of the first millennium, and the lessons that emerge from all this for contemporary China and India.
Part III is concerned with the politics of deprivation (poverty, class and caste divisions, gender inequality) and with the precariousness of human security in the subcontinent as a result of the development of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan. Essays 9-12 investigate what has happened and is happening right now, and what issues can appropriately be taken up for critical examination.

[1] As is also discussed in Essay 3, the first translation of the Upanisads — the most philosophical part of the Vedic Hindu literature — that caught the attention of European intellectuals was the Persian translation produced in the seventeenth century by the Moghal prince Dara Shikoh, the eldest son (and legitimate heir) of Emperor Shah Jahan and of Mumtaz Mahal (the beautiful queen on whose tomb the Taj Mahal would be built). Dara was killed by his more sectarian brother, Aurangzeb, to seize the Moghal throne.

* See Essays I and 3 for fuller discussions of these and other examples of ancient scepticism and dialogic combats.

[2] I was impressed to find, on arriving at Harvard in the late 1980s, that all books on India in the bookshop of the famous 'Harvard Coop' were kept in the section called 'Religions'.

[3] In my Foreword to the reissue of my grandfather K. M. Sen's book on Hinduism (London: Penguin Books, 2005), I discuss the different ways in which that capacious religion can be seen.