Quotes from ‘The Argumentative Indian’ by Amartya Sen

Read the review for the book

NOTE: The quotes appear in italics and my comments appear in normal form.

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence this creation? The gods came afterwards with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it from the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.

Sen making the case for doubt and skepticism in the Indian tradition by quoting the creation hymn from the Rigveda.

Just consider how terrible the day of your death will be. Others will keep on talking and you will not be able to argue back.

Here, Sen is making the case for argument and discourse being an incredibly important aspect of Indian culture. After quoting this line from a poem by Ram Mohun Roy, Sen continues – “We are told in line with our loquacious culture that the real hardship of death consists of the frustrating – very frustrating – inability to argue. There is, actually, an interesting vision behind this extraordinary diagnosis.”

Silence is a powerful enemy of social justice.

Hindutva critics have sometimes focused particularly on the intolerance of Aurangzeb, a later Mughal emperor who ruled from 1658 to 1707. Indeed some Hindutva sectarians see historical justice in discriminating against the Muslims precisely because Aurangzeb is supposed to have done the opposite – discriminating against the Hindus – in the late 17th century. However, even if Aurangzeb had been the only Muslim ruler of India (he was, of course, one of a great many), the idea of a historical retribution would be exceptionally silly: it is a proposal for matching a historical folly by creating a new folly, penalizing people for sins they did not commit. But also, Aurangzeb clearly was the least tolerant of a long line of Mughal rulers.

One of the oddities of the intellectually under-informed world of the Hindutva movement is the chastisement that it offers to the Arab world. The international head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Praveen Togadia, whose knowledge of science cannot far exceed his political wisdom [1], is even on record asking ‘Indian Muslims to get their genetics tested’, to rule out the possibility that ‘the blood of Arabia’ may ‘flow in their blood’. The grossness of this gratuitous counsel is particularly galling, not just because of its moral crudity and scientific stupidity [2], but also because of Togadia’s evident ignorance of the generosity with which the Arab authors have historically tended to treat the creative works of Hindu intellectuals. In fact, Hindu mathematics became known in the Christian west mainly through the efforts of Muslim Arabs. [3]

[1] Intellectual bitchslap one
[2] Intellectual bitchslap two
[3] Knockout punch

Rabindranath insisted in open debate on every issue, and distrusted conclusions based on mechanical formula, no matter how attractive that formula might seem in isolation (such as ‘this was forced upon us by our colonial masters – we must reject it’, ‘this is our tradition – we must follow it’, ‘we have promised to do this – we must fulfill that promise’ and so on). The question he persistently asks is whether we have reason enough to want what is being proposed, taking everything into account. Important as history is, reasoning has to go beyond the past. It is in the sovereignty of reasoning – fearless reasoning in freedom – that we can find Rabindranath Tagore’s lasting voice.

Amartya Sen is a product of Tagore’s Santiniketan, but even beyond that external influence, there is an intrinsic connect between their worldviews that shows throughout the book.

argumentative indian FB cover

Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.

It is quite common in many societies to take for granted that while men will naturally work outside the home, it is acceptable for women to do this if and only if they could engage in such work in addition to their inescapable – and unequally shared – household duties. This is sometimes called ‘division of labour’, though it may be more descriptive to see it as the ‘accumulation of labour’ on women.

Such a simple but cogent argument. This is the hallmark of Sen that is seen in all his essays.

Pakistan was quite modest in its response (to India’s testing of nuclear weapons at Pokhran). I remember thinking in the middle of May 1998, following the Indian tests, that surely Pakistan would now blast a larger number of bombs than India’s five. I was agreeably impressed by Pakistan’s moderation in blasting only six, which is the smallest whole number larger than five.

Hahahaha! That last line is killer!

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