These essays on India were written over the last decade – about half of them over the last couple of years. The first four, which make up the first part of the collection, introduce and explain the principal themes pursued in this book, related to India’s long argumentative tradition.

India is an immensely diverse country with many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and a veritable feast of viewpoints. Any attempt to talk about the culture of the country, or about its past history or contemporary politics, must inescapably involve considerable selection. I need not, therefore, labour the point that the focus on the argumentative tradition in this work is also a result of choice. It does not reflect a belief that this is the only reasonable way of thinking about the history or culture or politics of India. I am very aware that there are other ways of proceeding.

The selection of focus here is mainly for three distinct reasons: the long history of the argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and its relative neglect in ongoing cultural discussions. It can in addition be claimed that the simultaneous flourishing of many different convictions and viewpoints in India has drawn substantially on the acceptance – explicitly or by implication – of heterodoxy and dialogue. The reach of Indian heterodoxy is remarkably extensive and ubiquitous.

Consider the politically charged issue of the role of so-called ‘ancient India’ in understanding the India of today. In contemporary politics, the enthusiasm for ancient India has often come from the Hindutva movement – the promoters of a narrowly Hindu view of Indian civilization – who have tried to separate out the period preceding the Muslim conquest of India (from the third millennium BCE to the beginning of the second millennium CE). In contrast, those who take an integrationist approach to contemporary India have tended to view the harking back to ancient India with the greatest of suspicion. For example, the Hindutva activists like invoking the holy Vedas, composed in the second millennium BCE, to define India’s ‘real heritage’. They are also keen on summoning theRāmāyaṇa, the great epic, for many different purposes, from delineating Hindu beliefs and convictions to finding alleged justification for the forcible demolition of a mosque – the Babri masjid – that is situated at the very spot where the ‘divine’ Rama, it is claimed, was born. The integrationists, by contrast, have tended to see the Vedas and the Rāmāyaṇa as unwelcome intrusions of some specific Hindu beliefs into the contemporary life of secular India.

The integrationists are not wrong to question the factional nature of the choice of ‘Hindu classics’ over other products of India’s long and diverse history. They are also right to point to the counterproductive role that such partisan selection can play in the secular, multi-religious life of today’s India. Even though more than 80 per cent of Indians may be Hindu, the country has a very large Muslim population (the third largest among all the countries in the world – larger than the entire British and French populations put together), and a great many followers of other faiths: Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees and others.

However, even after noting the need for integration and for a multicultural perspective, it has to be accepted that these old books and narratives have had an enormous influence on Indian literature and thought. They have deeply influenced literary and philosophical writings on the one hand, and folk traditions of storytelling and critical dialectics on the other. The difficulty does not lie in the importance of the Vedas or the Rāmāyaṇa, but in the understanding of their role in Indian culture. When the Muslim Pathan rulers of Bengal arranged for making good Bengali translations of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa in the fourteenth century (on which see Essay 3), their enthusiasm for the ancient Indian epics reflected their love of culture, rather than any conversion to Hinduism.* It would be as difficult to ignore their general importance in Indian culture (on some allegedly ‘secular’ ground) as it would be to insist on viewing them through the narrow prism of a particularly raw version of Hindu religiosity.

The Vedas may be full of hymns and religious invocations, but they also tell stories, speculate about the world and – true to the argumentative propensity already in view – ask difficult questions. A basic doubt concerns the very creation of the world: did someone make it, was it a spontaneous emergence, and is there a God who knows what really happened? As is discussed in Essay 1, the Rigveda goes on to express radical doubts on these issues: ‘Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?… perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.’ These doubts from the second millennium BCE would recur again and again in India’s long argumentative history, along with a great many other questions about epistemology and ethics (as is discussed in Essay 1). They survive side by side with intense religious beliefs and deeply respectful faith and devotion.

Similarly, the adherents of Hindu politics – especially those who are given to vandalizing places of worship of other religions – may take Rama to be divine, but in much of the Rāmāyaṇa, Rama is treated primarily as a hero – a great ‘epic hero’ – with many good qualities and some weaknesses, including a tendency to harbour suspicions about his wife Sītā’s faithfulness. A pundit who gets considerable space in the Rāmāyaṇa, called Jāvāli, not only does not treat Rama as God, he calls his actions ‘foolish’ (‘especially for’, as Jāvāli puts it, ‘an intelligent and wise man’). Before he is persuaded to withdraw his allegations, Jāvāli gets time enough in the Rāmāyaṇa to explain in detail that ‘there is no after-world, nor any religious practice for attaining that’, and that ‘the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the śāstras [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people.’* The problem with invoking the Rāmāyaṇa to propagate a reductionist account of Hindu religiosity lies in the way the epic is deployed for this purpose – as a document of supernatural veracity, rather than as ‘a marvellous parable’ (as Rabindranath Tagore describes it) and a widely enjoyed part of India’s cultural heritage.

The roots of scepticism in India go back a long way, and it would be hard to understand the history of Indian culture if scepticism were to be jettisoned. Indeed, the resilient reach of the tradition of dialectics can be felt throughout Indian history, even as conflicts and wars have led to much violence. Given the simultaneous presence of dialogic encounters and bloody battles in India’s past, the tendency to concentrate only on the latter would miss something of real significance.

It is indeed important to understand the long tradition of accepted heterodoxy in India. In resisting the attempts by the Hindutva activists to capture ancient India as their home ground (and to see it as the unique cradle of Indian civilization), it is not enough to point out that India has many other sources of culture as well. It is necessary also to see how much heterodoxy there has been in Indian thoughts and beliefs from very early days. Not only did Buddhists, Jains, agnostics and atheists compete with each other and with adherents of what we now call Hinduism (a much later term) in the India of the first millennium BCE, but also the dominant religion in India was Buddhism for nearly a thousand years. The Chinese in the first millennium CE standardly referred to India as ‘the Buddhist kingdom’ (the far-reaching effects of the Buddhist connections between the two largest countries in the world are discussed in Essay 8). Ancient India cannot be fitted into the narrow box where the Hindutva activists want to incarcerate it.

It was indeed a Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who, in the third century BCE, not only outlined the need for toleration and the richness of heterodoxy, but also laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations, with the opponents being ‘duly honoured in every way on all occasions’. That political principle figures a great deal in later discussions in India, but the most powerful defence of toleration and of the need for the state to be equidistant from different religions came from a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar. This was of course much later, but those principles of religious toleration, enunciated in the 1590s, were still early enough at a time when the Inquisition was in full swing in Europe.

The contemporary relevance of the dialogic tradition and of the acceptance of heterodoxy is hard to exaggerate. Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning. They are central to the practice of secularism and for even-handed treatment of adherents of different religious faiths (including those who have no religious beliefs). Going beyond these basic structural priorities, the argumentative tradition, if used with deliberation and commitment, can also be extremely important in resisting social inequalities and in removing poverty and deprivation. Voice is a crucial component of the pursuit of social justice.

It is sometimes asserted that the use of dialectics is largely confined to the more affluent and more literate, and is thus of no value to the common people. The elitism that is rampant in such a belief is not only extraordinary, it is made more exasperating through the political cynicism and impassivity it tends to encourage. The critical voice is the traditional ally of the aggrieved, and participation in arguments is a general opportunity, not a particularly specialized skill (like composing sonnets or performing trapeze acts).

Just before the Indian general elections in the spring of 2004, when I visited a Bengali village not far from my own home, I was told by a villager, who was barely literate and certainly very poor: ‘It is not very hard to silence us, but that is not because we cannot speak.’ Indeed, even though the recording and preservation of arguments tend to be biased in the direction of the articulations of the powerful and the well schooled, many of the most interesting accounts of arguments from the past involve members of disadvantaged groups (as is discussed in Essays 1 and 2).

The nature and strength of the dialogic tradition in India is sometimes ignored because of the much championed belief that India is the land of religions, the country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices. Some cultural theorists, allegedly ‘highly sympathetic’, are particularly keen on showing the strength of the faith-based and unreasoning culture of India and the East, in contrast with the ‘shallow rationalism’ and scientific priorities of the West. This line of argument may well be inspired by sympathy, but it can end up suppressing large parts of India’s intellectual heritage. In this pre-selected ‘East–West’ contrast, meetings are organized, as it were, between Aristotle and Euclid on the one hand, and wise and contented Indian peasants on the other. This is not, of course, an uninteresting exercise, but it is not pre-eminently a better way of understanding the ‘East–West’ cultural contrast than by arranging meetings between, say, Āryabhaṭa (the mathematician) and Kauṭilya (the political economist) on the one hand, and happily determined Visigoths on the other. If the immediate motivation for this book is social and political understanding in India, it has, I believe, some relevance also for the way the classification of the cultures of the world has become cemented into a shape that pays little or no attention to a great deal of our past and present.*

The four essays in Part I outline the nature, reach and relevance of the argumentative tradition in India. This includes, as is particularly discussed in Essays 1 and 2, the part that pluralism and the dialogic tradition play in supporting democracy, secularism and the pursuit of mathematics and science, and the use that can be made of dialectics in seeking social justice, against the barriers of class, caste, community and gender. Essay 3 discusses the relevance of a capacious understanding of a large and heterodox India, contrasted with the drastically downsized view of the country that appeals to some religious activists, who combine it with a severely miniaturized understanding of Hinduism. These discussions have relevance, as is discussed in Essay 4, for the way Indian identity can be understood, and the diagnostic issues are relevant not only for Indians in India but also for the large (at least 20 million strong) Indian diaspora across the world.

The essays in Part II deal with the role of communication in the development and understanding of cultures. The discussions in Essays 5 and 6 try to follow and to develop the insights on this subject that emerge from the works of the visionary poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore and the great film director Satyajit Ray. The emergence of different versions of ‘imagined India’ in Western perceptions is investigated in Essay 7, along with the impact that these misconceptions, in turn, have had on the way Indians have tended to see themselves in the colonial or post-colonial period. Essay 8 is devoted to examining the close and extensive intellectual relations (covering science, mathematics, engineering, literature, music, and public health care and administration) that China and India had – along with religion and trade – for a thousand years, beginning in the early part of the first millennium, and the lessons that emerge from all this for contemporary China and India.

Part III is concerned with the politics of deprivation (poverty, class and caste divisions, gender inequality) and with the precariousness of human security in the subcontinent as a result of the development of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan. Essays 9–12 investigate what has happened and is happening right now, and what issues can appropriately be taken up for critical examination.

The role of reasoning in the identity of Indians is the subject matter of the last part of the book, which begins with an essay on the reach of reasoning, including a rejection of the often-aired claim that analytical reasoning and critique are quintessentially ‘Western’ or ‘European’ traditions. The contribution that reasoned assessment can make to the troubled world in which we live is also examined. Essay 14 subjects the debates on secularism to critical scrutiny, which has implications for the way Indians can see themselves in a multi-religious and multicultural India. India’s multicultural history is wonderfully reflected in the profusion of the well-designed and well-developed calendars that exist, each with a long history. This is the subject matter of Essay 15. That essay also discusses how these calendrical variations have allowed agreement on a ‘principal meridian’ for India – fixed at Ujjain – from the fifth century CE onwards, which still serves as the basis of ‘Indian standard time’ – an odd five and a half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (though it was fixed rather earlier than the GMT was born). The final essay is based on the Dorab Tata Lectures I gave in 2001, on the Indian identity, and it returns briefly to the very general issues taken up at the beginning of the book.

I have benefited from the comments and suggestions of many friends and colleagues, and their contributions are acknowledged individually in some of the essays. For the book as a whole, I have also greatly benefited from many helpful suggestions from Sugata Bose, Antara Dev Sen, Jean Drèze, Ayesha Jalal, Martha Nussbaum, V. K. Ramachandran, Kumar Rana and Emma Rothschild. In addition I would like to thank, for advice and comments, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Sudhir Anand, Pranab Bardhan, Kaushik Basu, Homi Bhabha, Akeel Bilgrami, Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak, Nimai Chatterji, Deependranath Datta, Supurna Datta, Meghnad Desai, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Krishna Dutta, Nathan Glazer, Sulochana Glazer, Craig Jamieson, Armando Massarenti, Patricia Mirrlees, Pranati Mukhopadhyaya, Siddiq Osmani, Mozaffar Qizilbash, Anisur Rahman, Andrew Robinson, Indrani Sen, Arjun Sengupta, Jagdish Sharma, Robert Silvers, Rehman Sobhan, Leon Wieseltier and Nur Yalman. I must also record my appreciation of the inspiration provided by the analyses of parts of the corpus of Sanskrit literature by Sukumari Bhattacharji and the late Bimal Matilal.

I would also like to express my appreciation of the general guidance I have received from discussions on the structure and content of the book with my editor, Stuart Proffitt, at Penguin. He has also made a number of important suggestions on individual articles. I would also like to acknowledge gratefully the extremely helpful copy-editing done by Elizabeth Stratford. For excellent research assistance I am much indebted to Rosie Vaughan at the Centre for History and Economics in Cambridge. Finally, I am grateful for the joint support from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mellon Foundation in meeting some of the material costs of my research on this and related subjects.

I end with three final remarks. First, since this is a collection of essays (eight new ones and eight previously published), there are some overlaps between them, particularly involving empirical illustrations (though they often illustrate different points). I have eliminated some overlaps, but others could not be dropped without making the individual essays incoherent or obscure. I have tried to give cross-references when they could help. Immediately relevant references are given in the footnotes; other citations are in the Notes at the end of the book.

Second, even though I have had to use diacritical marks for the English spelling of Sanskrit words, I have invoked them in extreme moderation (see the explanations here). I have used none for some Sanskrit words and names that are by now commonly used in English, such as Raja, Rani, Rama, Krishna, Ashoka, Brahmin, Vedas, Vedantic or Tantric, not to mention the word Sanskrit itself.

The final remark concerns the style of writing. The book aims to be, at one level, an academic study done by a detached observer, but at another level I am caught within the domain of my subject matter. As an involved Indian citizen, who is very concerned with Indian culture, history and politics – and also with general life in India – it is hard for me to refer to Indians as ‘they’ rather than ‘we’. So, ‘we’ it has been, not the distant ‘they’. Further, given my sense of subcontinental identity, particularly with Bangladesh (from where my family comes), the domain of personal affiliation has sometimes been wider than that of India alone. I need not apologize for this, but the reader is entitled to an explanation of my departure from academic impersonality.


15 August 2004



If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!