Amartya Sen

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Analyze Amartya Sen's "The Argumentative Indian."

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In his essay "The Argumentative Indian from the book The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity," Amartya Sen presents examples from the Indian tradition of public reasoning and debate. He suggests that the vigorous exchange of differing viewpoints and beliefs through India's history has strengthened democracy and kept a check on religious fundamentalism.

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Amartya Sen begins his essay “The Argumentative Indian” by acknowledging the love Indians have for speaking at length on a great many topics. This is visible in the Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata being far longer than comparable works like the Iliad and Odyssey . He then begins to examine...

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the arguments and counterarguments that are contained in such epics. In doing so, he shows that theBhagavad Gita representing a tussle between two contrary moral positions is only a part of the many points of view and perspectives that emerge in the Mahabharata. Krishna’s message in the Gita of doing one’s duty has been emphasized by Western scholars as well as theological interpreters of Hindu philosophy. However, Arjuna’s hesitation in the face of what he realizes will be disastrous consequences for his family and fellow humans also has a certain validity, as is borne out by the “tragic desolation” of the “post-combat and post-carnage land.”

Raising the question of whether India’s argumentative tradition was confined only to members of the male elite, Sen says that, “The social relevance of the argumentative tradition would be severely limited if disadvantaged sections were effectively barred from participation.” He accepts that present-day India has deep inequalities along the lines of caste, gender and religion or community. He places the argumentative tradition among Indian women in this context, pointing out that women have been visible leaders in the struggle for Indian Independence, such as Sarojini Naidu, who became the President of the Indian National Congress in 1925. He cites the ancient Brihadaranyaka Upanisad from eighth century BCE in which the great scholar Yajnavalkya has to face questions from the woman scholar Gargi, who proves to be his toughest challenger. Reference is also made in this text to Maitreyi, the wife of Yajnavalkya who wants to know of what use are riches if they cannot guarantee immortality.

Apart from examples that show the Indian argumentative tradition as being one that included women, Sen also speaks of how the tradition has crossed the barriers of caste and class. Movements that arose against the Brahmin-dominated orthodoxy of Hinduism include the religious rebellion of Jainism and Buddhism with their message of human equality. Early Buddhist and Jain literature contains powerful arguments against caste, and it was the resistance to this form of inequality that led to the rapid spread of Buddhism. The counter arguments to inequality are a part of the epics as well, says Sen, citing examples from the Mahabharata and the Bhavisya Purana. He cautions against a monolithic understanding of the “Hindu point of view” by presenting such examples. Further, he describes how the anti-inequality resistance was strengthened in a later period by the egalitarianism of the Hindu Bhakti movement and the hereticism of the Muslim Sufis, many of whom came from economically and socially humble backgrounds, such as Kabir the weaver, or Ravi-das, a shoe maker:

In dealing with issues of contemporary inequality… the relevance and reach of the argumentative tradition must be examined in terms of the contribution it can make today in resisting and undermining these inequities which characterize so much of contemporary Indian society. It would be a great mistake in that context to assume that because of the possible effectiveness of well-tutored and disciplined arguments, the argumentative tradition must, in general, favor the privileged and the well-educated, rather than the dispossessed and the deprived. Some of the most powerful arguments in Indian intellectual history have, in fact, been about the lives of the least privileged groups, which have drawn on the substantive force of these claims, rather than on the cultivated brilliance of well-trained dialectics.

In his next sub-section, Democracy as Public Reasoning, Sen tries to point out what difference a rich argumentative tradition has made to democracy in the sub-continent. He says that when India became the first country outside the non-Western world to adopt a resolutely democratic Constitution, it was not only drawing on learning from the institutional examples of Europe and America, but its own traditions of heterodoxy and tolerance. This became evident in the manner in which the dilution of democratic guarantees during the period of the Emergency from 1975 to 1977 was convincingly rejected by India’s vast electorate in the 1977 general elections. Sen has a word of caution in evaluating Indian democracy:

It is very important to avoid the twin pitfalls of (1) taking democracy to be just a gift of the Western world that India simply accepted when it became independent, and (2) assuming that there is something unique in Indian history that makes the country singularly suited to democracy. The point, rather, is that democracy is intimately connected with public discussion and interactive reasoning. Traditions of public discussion exist across the world, not just in the West.

Sen sees the early Buddhist era in India to be an important period when discussion was used for social progress. He makes particular mention of Emperor Ashoka who was a champion of public discussion and tried to codify and propagate the rules under which such discussion could be held. Restraint in speech, and no extolment of one’s own sect or disparagement of another’s sect were some of the principles codified under Ashoka. Nearly two thousand years later, Sen sees the sponsorship and support for dialogues between adherents of different faiths by the Mughal Emperor Akbar as a continuation of this same tradition of public discussion.

When he arrives at a consideration of what secularism has meant in the Indian tradition, Sen again underlines the tolerance and diversity under Ashoka and Akbar, as well as examples from classical Sanskrit drama such as Sudraka’s Mricchakatikam (The Little Clay Cart) and Kalidasa’s Meghadutam (The Cloud Messenger). He points to how such texts have exalted diversity and ridiculed and criticized narrow-minded characters seen as persecutors. In the present day, Amartya Sen considers that the Indian version of secularism has leaned more towards a neutrality between different religions rather than a prohibition of religious association in state activities.

There is a standard characterization of Indian culture that places far too much emphasis on religion. Sen warns against such an approach, saying that religious belief has co-existed with deeply skeptical arguments in the Indian tradition. Giving examples from texts as far apart as the Rig Veda and the sermons of Gautama Buddha, Sen says that agnosticism and atheism have also been part of India’s traditions. To bolster this, he speaks of the Lokayata philosophy of skepticism and materialism that flourished in India from the first millennium BCE, and the atheism and materialism expounded by the intellectually combative Charvaka, which was invoked by the Vedantist Hindu Madhav Acharya in the fourteenth century and in the late sixteenth century in the multi-religious court of the Emperor Akbar.

As he considers the flowering of Indian science and mathematics in the sub-section Science, Epistemology, Heterodoxy, Amartya Sen points out that the tradition of skepticism and questioning greatly assisted this development. He explores the connections between the works of Aryabhata of the fifth century CE, Brahmagupta of the seventh century CE and their counterparts in other parts of the world, noting that Indian mathematicians and scientists benefited from learning about work in Babylon, Greece and Rome. There were also cross-cultural connections between the Iranian astronomer Alberuni and the students of Aryabhata. In fact, Alberuni chided the followers of Aryabhata to be less courageous than he had been.

In his final sub-section on The Importance of Arguments, Sen warns against a single-factor explanation of India’s past and present. This is particularly seen if we choose to focus on a religious aspect of India’s past, instead of the many visible facets of its constantly evolving traditions. He has sought to underline the importance of India’s argumentative heritage for a particular reason:

It also definitely does not encourage us to think of any social feature as an unchanging, perennial characteristic of an 'eternal India'. India has undergone radical developments and changes over its long history which cannot be understood without bringing in a variety of factors, circumstances and causal connections that have had and are continuing to have - their impact. The particular point of the focus on heterodoxy and loquaciousness is not so much to elevate the role of tradition in the development of India, but to seek a fuller reading of Indian traditions, which have interacted with other factors in the dynamism of Indian society and culture.

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