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.


“The spread of secondary and later of tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity for anaytical thought.”

Peter Medavar

The above quote is a more modern version of the saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, despite the superficial contradiction. The first one is talking about information, while the second one is talking about that portion of information backed up by reason. A fundamental failing of modern education systems is that in it’s hurry to pile information on it’s victims it sidelines analytical thinking. By the time students finish high school, most of them stop seeing any deep significance in what they are learning because they are too busy focussing on the details…

Critical thinking and scepticism are faculties that should be cultivated early on in one’s life, failing which, all knowledge, no matter how little or big it is, becomes dangerous, as it merely serves to reinforce whatever fanciful delusions a person might have.

India’s Unending Journey by Mark Tully

I go to the Public Library at Ernakulam with a list of books that I want to read. But, I can almost never find the ones that I am looking for. Instead I just pick up something with a nice cover and end up reading it. I don’t know what will happen to my reading habit once the classes are over. I might become more discriminating and eventually just stop reading altogether.

I have recently been reading a lot of books which have tried to elucidate the necessity and advantages of maintaining a scientific outlook on life. So, I decided that maybe I would read a book that has a different message.

Mark Tully was  a BBC correspondent in India who had a great fascination with Indian culture and ideas, which he says might have been due to his close ties with India since he was very young. From the beginning the book emphasises the importance of believing in a higher power and of religion in our lives. He describes various religious festivals in India, the myths and ideas behind them and the messages that they try to spread. He also tries to drive home the point that all religions speak of the same God or whatever that he calls  a “Higher Power” and that the teachings of the various religions are true in their own peculiar way.

He criticizes the arrogance of scientists and has even named a few including Dawkins.  He says that they discount the value of intuition and “other” ways of knowing things and says that there are certain things that science doesn’t understand. He also admits that he has been unable to obtain even a rudimentary grasp of the field and that he feels as if he is on shaky ground when he argues with people with intellectual leanings.

He also describes his childhood days and the role of the school that he studied at(Marlborough) on himself. He feels that the rationalism and the competitive attitude espoused by the school is not entirely correct. He also describes his attempts at priesthood and the reasons for giving it up.

Mark Tully has also tried to spell out his position regarding economics. He warns people against dogmatic belief in any particular economic model and emphasises the importance of trying to find the middle path.

The underlying message of the whole book is that people need to find balance in everything. That everyone should be open minded. We should value our religious traditions and by way of example he sites the examples of the religious festivals in India and the devotion of the pilgrims, which he thinks makes them happy. He also says that the replacement of religion by materialism as God has resulted in moral bankruptcy in western countries. He feels that secularists are responsible for provoking believers into religious fanaticism and that the state should try to give due to credence to the religious beliefs of people.

There where a lot of other things mentioned in the book. But, I don’t think they added to the ideas that a person might absorb from reading the book.

My take on it:

When reading the book one has this strong feeling that the author is trying to take credit for his failings. He also pushes a very strange kind of reasoning where he admits that he knows nothing about the opposition, but tries to keep harping on how happy the Masses at church made him. He also appears to labour hard to balance his belief in Christianity and his  belief in the validity of other religions, most of which seem to push contradicting ideas.

His treatment of tantric wisdom can impress only the most unread and suggestible of people. While he says that people should not fall for dogmatic beliefs as far as economic theory is concerned and should instead look at what works and what does not, he seems to be glibly oblivious as to how that can sit well with religion which is nothing more than dogma and unreasoning belief.

While he blames religious riots on the poor understanding of religions, he never provides any convincing explanation as to why people should not believe their religious texts literally. He also does not give a convincing explanation of how he balances his religious convictions with that of others. The position that he proposes is a highly metastable one and he never seems to realize that religion in itself can never provide an internal check on itself as it is based on belief which by definition is trust in something that cannot be verified.

His admiration of the vulgar and obscene displays of mass idiocy that some of the festivals in India are, is somewhat sickening despite the vague and “intuitive” explanations he provides. He never seems to grasp that ordinary people with their limited resources and time that they can devote to self-delusion and “doublespeak (1984 by George Orwell)” might be easily lured into superstition and admiration of fake and shallow phenomena. He does not understand or admire the real mysteries and suggests that people do what he has done, which is be amazed by their own ignorance.

He also does not think along common lines about how religion has stymied and sometimes just completely overshadowed debate and action on the real issues, and worse, does not even provide any reasons for his observations.

Reading the book will convince anyone about the difficulties of believing blindly and being human at the same time.

Someone also needs to explain the difference between culture and religion. India has a very different culture and this has influenced what some call it’s religions. This has kind of confused Mark Tully.