The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen

India's faith in freedom
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But a reader soon realises that behind the kaleidoscope of subjects and ideas, the animating thought is only one. That is to stress the intellectual plurality of India's heritage. Sen believes that as a result of that plural heritage, "the simultaneous flourishing of many different convictions and viewpoints in India has drawn substantially on the acceptance... of heterodoxy and dialogue". Such an acceptance has created, he believes, the "argumentative Indian": predisposed, under the influence of thousands of years of conditioning, to doubt, question and dissent.

Sen's erudition in support of his thesis is impressive. He refers to a range of ancient texts, and cites with pride the fact that Sanskrit "has a larger volume of agnostic or atheistic writings than in any other classical language". His personal background provides a clue to the staunch liberalism that informs his world view. A great part of his childhood was spent at Shantiniketan, outside Calcutta, where he studied at the school established by Rabindranath Tagore. His grandfather, K M Sen, a Sanskritist and an expert on Hinduism, taught at Shantiniketan.

The Sens came from upper-middle-class stock; knowledgeable about their culture, they were westernised in the same degree as most of the elite in India. "We did not have any religious rituals at home," writes Sen, "but my grandfather had fairly firm religious convictions, in line with a contemplative and rather non-ceremonial version of Hinduism".

The problem with Sen's thesis is that it relies too heavily on one aspect of Hinduism. To be fair, he accepts that this may not be "the only reasonable way of thinking about the history or culture or politics of India". It is true that some Hindu texts have laudable examples of dissent and debate, but the practice of Hinduism has even more dramatic examples of the absence of tolerance and heterodoxy. Arjuna's questions to Krishna in the Bhagwada Gita is indeed a good example of the argumentative tradition, but the Manusmriti, for instance, advocates that a Shudra's (untouchable's) tongue should be cut off if he even chants a Sanskrit shloka, and hot oil should be poured into his ears if he deigns to hear the sacred literature.

There must have been a time when the freedom to interrogate was an intrinsic part of our tradition, but in real life it has congealed for much too long into unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy and uncritical genuflection before hierarchy. The enquiring spirit did lead to remarkable achievements in science and mathematics, as in the pioneering work of Aryabhata in the fifth, Varahamihira in the sixth, and Brahmagupta in the seventh centuries. But honest observers are appalled at the lack of such a spirit in the bulk of Indian universities today, where most students learn by rote, and teachers rarely encourage the right to disagree.

Sen cites examples of heterodoxy within Hinduism in order to question, spiritedly, the misguided attempt by some Hindu zealots to give the religion a fundamentalist hue. His motivations are laudable and his critique trenchant. Yet my own view is that religious fundamentalists in India have been consigned to a comical nuisance-value on the fringes of the mainstream - not because Hinduism is an exceptionally tolerant religion, but because most Indians want today to swim away from the islands of religious exclusiveness to the opportunities of the secular mainland.

People want to get on with their lives and have little time for those who seek to whip up religious passions for personal gain. In fact, it can be argued that even though Hindus have a record of not being hostile to people of other faiths, the practice of Hinduism is tainted by a great degree of intolerance.

The violence and bigotry traditionally inflicted by high-caste Hindus on members of their own faith, the low-caste Shudras, has no parallel in any other religion. Nor is Hinduism particularly welcoming to outside influences. We need only recall that until recently Hindus considered all foreigners to be mleccha, inherently unclean, and regarded those who ventured to foreign lands - as Mahatma Gandhi famously did when he left for England to study law in 1888 - as having polluted themselves.

Any civilisation as ancient, accomplished and diverse as India's will have instances of argument, dissent and debate. This is something to be proud of. But to make such instances the principal contributing factor for the success of the democratic experiment in India, or for the triumph of secularism, is, I believe, to oversimplify things.

The real reason why the erstwhile "untouchables" or the poorest of the poor have the freedom to argue today is that the working of democracy - with all its inadequacies - has created a real shift in power to the deprived and dispossessed. This, and not examples of argumentation in elite circles of Indian society in some remote past, is the reason India is now an argumentative nation.

Gargi and Maitreyi may have boldly participated in a debate more than 2,000 years ago, and Sen cites them as examples of how Indian women were not outside this tradition. But the truth is that most Indian women have been denied the freedom to question for centuries after that pioneering performance. A path-breaking 1993 law, which gives women a 33.3 per cent reservation in panchayats (elected village councils) across the country, has done more to give them a voice than the inspiring example of these two ladies in the hoary past.

Amartya Sen's vision for a pluralistic and secular India, which comes out so vividly in this book, deserves wholehearted respect and endorsement. He writes with gentle and persuasive skill and with intellectual rigour, encompassing history, sociology, culture and economics. But sometimes - and for entirely laudable reasons - he ends up making the same uncritical evocation of the past that he rightly criticises among the Hindu zealots.

Pavan K Varma, director of the Nehru Centre in London, is the author of 'Being Indian' (Heinemann). He will be speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday