The Argumentative Indian

I just finished reading Amartya Sen's Argumentatvie India . Hats off to Prof. Sen for this passionate and patriotic account of India's past, its culture, argumentative tradition, identity and tips for India's future.

Growing up in Mumbai (previously Bombay), I always wondered why we Indians argue over anything and everything. (I still vividly remember an incident when I was travelling in a Mumbai local train when two middle aged men were passionately arguing over the potency of Salman Khan). Whether it be religion, national and international politics, cricket, movies, you name it and we can immediately jump into a heated argument. I am sure most of you would have thought of this yourselves. One of the recent polls in my school email group asked:

India/Pakistan, Hindu/Muslim why are these debates never ending ?

One of the answer choices (rightly) was

"Because we are Indians"

To add fuel to the fire, some people also argue that India's development is slow because people keep arguing with themselves. Looks like arguement is kind of a double edged sword. But wait. Sen argues that arguments and debates are good for a society in the long run. He argues his point by comparing India with China. India for example, after having adopted democracy hasent had a major drought as opposed to China where dissent it not very much tolerated.

He also puts forth the argument that arguing is not a recent phenomena but somthing which has been running in an Indian's blood since time immemorable. The creation song from Vedas ends with the following skeptical questions:

" Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen – 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."

The books starts off with an overview of heterodoxy in Indian thoughts, epics, sciences and a very elaborate discussion on various kinds of secularism. It points out that India's past diversity is very essential to understand its present and also to remove the biased Western perceptions which are still alive. Debates and exchanges between various schools of thoughts are recorded in Indian texts. Rituals and religiosity were both defended by its defenders and questioned by skeptics. Over some time, even the atheistic school became influential. One can see very clearly different forms of agnosticism developing here. Vedic ritualism, Buddhism, Jainism, agnosticism and atheism were all debating with each other during this "philosophical golden age". Infact, the first chapter in Madhavacarya's Sarvadarsanasamgraha is devoted to the defense of Carvaka's skeptic atheistic school, though the later chapters denounce this school of thought with counterarguments. (That was the style adopted in text in those times). Atheism flourished for quite some time and also had representatives in Akbar's multi-religious court as chronicled in Abul Fazl's writings.

Without going into too many details, let me end by just pointing out some prime highlights as follows

  • The extreme diversity and flexibility in past Indian thought is crucial not only to understand India's present but also to frame policies for a better tomorrow.

  • Because of its past diversity, its unfair to categorize India in religious terms. The form of inclusive secularism which India adopted (very different from prohibitive secularism in France for example) after independence, inspired by Ashoka and Akbar (definitely two prime characters in the book) should continue. Infact, the broader term Hindu had a very different meaning till recent times. The Arabs used Hindu to refer to people in the geographical area arond current India. For example, muslims in India were called "Hindu Muslims" and christians were called "Hindu Christians".

  • The book also addresses concerns over labelling of India as a Hindu ( using the current notion of Hinduism) nation by certain political parties in recent times. Not only is such a categorization not unique (i.e., a nation can be categorized using numerous concepts, each of which has its own properties and shortcomings. Think of the blindmen elephant story), but it completely ignores contributions made by other sects like Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims, Parsees, agnostics, atheist and many other communities. Amartya gives the following examples which are equally good attributes of the majority Indians

    • category of low- or middle-income people
    • class of non-owners of much capital
    • rural Indians
    • people who do not work in the organized industrial sector
    • Indians who are against religious persecution

    • As can be clearly seen from the above list, trying to redefine India as a Hindu nation because majority of Indians happen to be Hindus is a very narrow minded Indianview.

  • The book offers a very detailed account as to why the West looked at India with a skewed mystic perspective.

  • Gives a very strong defense for globalization of trade and thoughts. Infact, as Amartya points out, globalization is not a new phenomena at all. Adoption of Indian mathematics by Arabs and Greeks, import of Buddhism by China, adoption of chinamsuka (chinese silk), chinake (camphor), paper, chinaka (fennel), chinapista (vermilion), gunpowder by India, the appointment of Gautama Siddhaartha (Qutan Xida, in Chinese) as president of Board of Astronomy in China in 8th century, Xuanzang's stay in Nalanda University, etc are old examples of trade and exchanges on a global scale.

Finally, let me end this by quoting how Sen ends his book

" Jamsetji Tata had the pride not of a Parsee who happened to be Indian, but of an Indian who happened to be a Parsee".

Truly an excellent read to grasp the mystery and diversity that is India.


sunshine said...

had started reading the book... but got distracted by work and life in general.. should get back to it soon :)

nairmuse said...

i just couldnt keep it down once i started it. read it like a thriller :)

Prashanth said...

Hi there.
Enjoyable review.
I have bought the book in question and have been immmediately struck by the erudite, yet simple expression Mr. Sen employs.
That apart, the richness of an aspect of our culture.
Makes ya wonder, doesn't it, at our roots?

xl pharmacy said...

It is a great book, I read it already two times, very interesting.