Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian (2005)

Intellectuals don’t come more highly powered than Amartya Sen, and this book of essays makes his thought on one cluster of issues readily available. Two of them in particular caught my attention.

In the opening essay, which gives its title to the book, Sen points out that there is a powerful tradition of argument in Indian thought that can be seen as early as a debate between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. He believes that such argumentative encounters, occurring across the lines of gender, class and caste, form a tradition of public discussion, exemplified by exchanges encouraged by Ashoka and Akbar, that has made India more democratic and secular than it is often taken to have been. Sen is particularly interested in the latter point, and distinguishes an Indian view of secularism that emphasises neutrality between religions from a Western one that prohibits displays of religion. (The workings out of ‘laicite’ in contemporary France are a matter for dispute, and in Turkey, which imitated France in the twentieth century, its fate is unclear. Obviously there are deep issues here; it can be unclear, for example, to what extent the right of a state to legislate on matters of morality should be applauded as a means of social betterment, or queried as making the state the arbiter of morality in society.) Sen argues that India has a much more robust secular tradition than has generally been acknowledged, and connects heterodoxy with advances in science and mathematics. People who are inclined to think of India as almost compulsively religious may find this a challenging interpretation.

Another essay, ‘China and India’, discusses intellectual links between these two great countries, which Sen, not surprisingly, finds to have had less to do with Buddhism than most people have assumed. The case is made out in fascinating detail across a range of types of exchange. One aspect of the argument particularly interested me. In the great work that he initiated on Science and Civilization in China, Joseph Needham saw China as a centre from which scientific ideas and inventions ideas radiated outwards. (He was able to show a Chinese origin for surprisingly many things, without ever quite managing to explain why ancient China was so precocious.) But it need not follow that the place where things are mentioned for the first time was where they were invented, as Needham seems to have assumed, for what Sen terms ‘an asymmetry of records’ tilts the balance in favour of China, where the ancient past is far better documented than in India. Yet paradoxically, the more plentiful records available from ancient China allow its borrowings from India to be better known than those going in the opposite direction. As so often, an advance in historical understanding complicates matters. This is a good example of one of the reasons why there can be no definitive reading of history.

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