The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen


When I was a kid, I absolutely hated History and Geography, mainly because of the need to memorize facts and trivia. After I completed my 10th boards I immediately cleared my brain of all the “crap”, because, my childish mind could barely grasp the significance of the dates and events and worse still, the texts didn’t even try to explain it.

The same goes for biology and chemistry. Whichever text you pick up, you always notice that it is loaded with information. I had recently put down my thoughts about the importance of information vis-a-vis wisdom or knowledge. The texts go about explaining how reproduction happens or the principle of photosynthesis as if they were merely mechanism to be studied, without explaining the awesome origins of such systems and their necessity to life on earth.

Textbooks always were atleast to me, something to be memorized. Recently, I read Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru and The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen. The meaning and the breadth of perspective conveyed by these books is simply too awesome for words. When you consider that the Discovery of India is a book written by a single person while in jail, and the fact that it tries to convey an idea of India that took 5000 years to evolve, you feel  a sense of profound wonder and admiration. The vision and power of Nehru was rooted in his incredible understanding of India.

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a masterpiece of an awesome intellect and demonstrates how reason combined with history can help one make informed choices. The book tries to expound India’s traditions in the field of debate and experimentation. The incredible breadth and depth of Indian thought as illustrated will easily amaze and render shallow and petty the ideas of even the most hardcore nationalist bigot.

The book deals with some of the biggest questions that face India, like Secularism, Globalisation, Nuclear Weapon Testing, Hindu Nationalism, the perception of India in the West etc. and tries to provide a balanced view on these matters. Efforts by people to define India and it’s thoughts and traditions in narrow and simple  terms appear silly to the point of almost being funny after reading the book. Some things like the fact that no other classical literature deals with atheism, agnosticism and free thought like Indian literature does with the same depth, beauty and power was a true eye opener. The Lokayata and the Carvaka schools of thought mentioned in the book and Madhavacharya’s Sarvadarshasangraha caught my attention and I did some more reading on Wikipedia on these topics.

The bits about the the rise and fall of Buddhism, an agnostic religion and it’s roots in Hindu literature are very enlightening. The myth about India having developed it’s culture in isolation is thoroughly destroyed by masterfully crafted arguments.T he designs of the Sangh Parivar for radicalizing sections of the Indian population with hideously distorted versions of history and the political motives for that are elucidated in some detail.

The most important thing that the book demonstrates is that things rarely have simple answers. Impulsive and “intuitive” decisions do more damage than good, and things that “sound” right more often than not turn out to be based on fallacies of the highest magnitude.

After reading this book, Discovery of India and a few anecdotes about Indira Gandhi’s prodigious reading skill by Natwar Singh I realized the true significance of the words

Men of power have no time to read, yet the men who do not read are unfit for power”

Michael Foot

Each one of us has power to influence the future of our nation and our people in ways that we might not yet realize. Wielding this power responsibly requires us to honor our duty to be informed about the decisions we make. Sadly, the Indian primary education system has failed most tragically in this highest duty. India’s problems will take longer to solve without this being remedied first.

Another thing, I noticed is that a lot of people are extremely proud of everything Indian and use their prejudiced assumptions to make easy decisions when faced with choices. Do you support the Indo-US nuclear deal? Well, the US is bad, so no! Do you think that the greatest contribution of India to the world is spirituality? How do you explain away the morbid caste system? Should India let her culture be “destroyed” by ideas from outside?

India was great in several ways and like anything else, had her failings. It is important we understand that and learn to be proud of the truly noble things and try to learn from our past mistakes. Efforts by people to impress others with stuff about Vedas being the ultimate source of all knowledge are an insult to the authors’ spirit of inquiry and do gross injustice to the true nature of the works. Indian classical literature is admired for it literary excellence and the unique perspective it offers of Indian classical thought.

Similarly, the modern day obsession with glorifying the past and trying to prevent changes to our society find a mention in the book.

While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either.”

Amartya Sen

A thought…

When I look back at the years I spent trying to learn Indian history in school and the amount of lasting knowledge I gained compared to the ideas that I gleaned over a week’s time from reading a single book, I feel that maybe, something, can be done differently in our school system. If schools encouraged students to read these books instead of depending on textbooks and then prepared question papers that encouraged them to share their ideas, I think, a lot might change.

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