Book Review- “The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity” by Amartya Sen


Author–                         Amartya Sen

Category/ Genre–      Nonfiction/ Essays/ Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

Awards/ Recognitions–   Nobel Prize in Economics(1998)

First published–             2005


Author Biography

Amartya Kumar Sen, the Indian Economist, 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, was born in Santiniketan on the campus of Rabindranath Tagore‘s Viswa Bharati(both a school and college). Originally his family is from Dhaka( now the capital of Bangladesh). His father was a Chemistry professor at Dhaka University, his maternal grandfather taught Sanskrit and ancient and medieval Indian culture in Viswa Bharati University, where his mother was a student.

Before choosing to study and research in Economics, he flirted with Sanskrit, Mathematics, and Physics for a while. Much of his childhood years were spent in Dhaka and later his educational attitudes were formed in Santiniketan. The schooling in Shantiniketan, according to Sen, was progressive, co-ed, and emphasized in fostering curiosity and thinking over competitive excellence and grades. The school curriculum included India’s cultural, analytical, and scientific heritage along with Wester, Eastern, South East Asian, West Asian, and African cultures. Later he would write to his friend that it was this kind of diverse exposure that helped him identify himself with the cultural diversities of the world.

Tagore’s “idea of India” was against the culturally separatist view “against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.” He resisted the Hindu- Muslim communal identity from the very beginning. Sen saw his teenage years marking a great divide in diversity, a belligerent and divisive communal hatred sweeping through India. The communal violence that engulfed the 40′ s India left a deep mark on young Sen’s mind. He gives an example of a Muslim laborer knifed to death by Hindu mobs, only for the reason of the religion he followed. The unfreedom of poverty that forced the man to seek work in a hostile area, thereby endangering all his other freedoms thus having had to pay with his life devastated young Sen.

Another event that influenced his thinking greatly was The Bengal Famine of 1943. He was struck by its class-dependent nature. Only those at the lowest rung of the ladder were affected. The political convictions that he had subscribed to as a student in Calcutta college and his ideas of constructive political opposition happened to be in tandem with the political liberal ideas of the post-Enlightenment Europe and the tolerance and diversity in Indian culture.   As KingAshoka had put it in the third century B.C.: “For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own, with intent to enhance the splendor of his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts the severest injury on his own sect.” According to Sen, it was a serious mistake to see tolerance just as a Western liberal idea.

Sen’s research encompassed welfare economics, economic inequality, and poverty, famines as the manifestation of poverty, democratic social choice, cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in awarding him the Nobel. Kenneth Arrow‘s path-breaking study of social choices in his work ‘Social Choice and Individual Values‘ influenced him and his friend. Later, in Cambridge Trinity College, the political-economic debates about Keynesian theory among the neo-Classical Keynes skeptics supporting capital theory and neo-Keynesians against the capital proved to be a victorious battleground for Sen in developing his research.  The genial co-existence and tolerance of the supporters of different theorists were notable in Cambridge.

He did PhD in research and study in Philosophy in Calcutta later and went to work as a professor of Economics in the Delhi School of Economics until 1971. His ideas of the social choice theory were developed here in-depth. In his 1970 book,’ Collective Choice and Social Welfare’, he has tried to explain the social choice theory. He moved to London in 1971, while he had been suffering from serious health problems as a result of earlier radiation treatment to his oral cancer. He developed bone necrosis of hard palate for which plastic surgery was required.

In Oxford, he expanded his research from the theoretical social choice to applied and practical sides of inequality, unemployment, personal liberty, basic rights, and poverty. He worked on gender inequality, causation and prevention of famines, hunger and deprivation, and development. Notable was his studies on the nature of individual advantage in terms of the substantive freedoms that different persons respectively enjoy, in the form of the capability to achieve valuable things.

He moved with his two children to Harvard in the late 1980s after the death of his second wife from cancer. Up to 1991, he was much involved in analyzing the overall implications of the perspective on welfare economics and political philosophy. He is currently the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also a senior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he previously served as Master from the years 1998 to 2004. He is the first Asian and the first Indian academic to head an Oxbridge college.

Sen heralded the area of Qualitative Economics as opposed to the for-profit Quantitative Economics based on mathematical calculations and taking their cue from Wall Street. He introduced the humane element in Political Economics thus spearheading the branch of Welfare Economics. “The Human Development Index” used to rank countries based on human development was his contribution along with the Pakistani Economist Mahbub ul Haq. Amartya Sen’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security. In 2006, Time magazine listed him under “60 years of Asian Heroes” and in 2010 included him in their “100 most influential people in the world ”



The work is a collection of 16 essays on identity, culture, and Indian history. The first four essays explain the principle theme of the book- India’s long argumentative tradition. The focus is on the long history of argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and the neglect in cultural discussions. Sen drives home the point that Indian heterodoxy and dialogue give rise to many convictions and viewpoints.

In the preface, the author contrasts the politically charged ‘ Hindutva’ movement,  – a narrow Hindu view of Indian civilization that separates it into pre and post-Muslim conquest periods invoking holy Vedas and the Hindu epic Ramayana in justifying their actions like a mosque demolition, with the integrationists who view these as unwelcome intrusions into secular society and question the partisan, factional nature of invoking Hindu Classics time and again.

The author in addition to stressing the import of the epics on Indian literary and philosophical texts, folk traditions, and dialectics, points to their role in Indian culture. He gives examples of the fourteenth-century Bengali translations of the Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana by the Muslim Pathan rulers of Bengal out of pure love of Indian culture. Similarly, he contends, The Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas was first translated into Persian by the Moghul prince, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Emperor Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal, in the seventeenth century.

The epistemological nature of the Vedas paving way for the argumentative and dialectical tradition in Indian culture is stressed. The author writes that such a tradition is in full view in Ramayana itself, where Rama is considered a fallible human and an epic war hero and not divine by the pundit Javali who explains in detail that ” there is no afterworld nor any religious practices for attaining that and the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts, and penance have been laid out in the Shastras( scriptures) by clever people to rule over other people”. According to Tagore, the epics should be taken for what it is- a marvelous parable and cultural heritage than a document of supernatural veracity.

Sen contends that skepticism, dialectics, debates, violence, and wars had been a part of Indian history since the beginning and it would be counterproductive to signify the latter over the former in social and political discourse. Similarly, the long tradition of heterodoxy in Indian thoughts and beliefs, and the co-existence of different religions which were debated are writ large on annals of history not to be ignored into a single orthodox legacy of Hinduism, which is a much later term according to the author. There were Buddhists, Jains, Agnostics, and Atheists in the mainstream that debated with each other and with Hinduism followers. He observes that the dominant religion in India was Buddhism for almost a thousand years, and the Chinese in the First Millenium CE referred to India as a Buddhist kingdom.

He provides two examples, that of the Buddist emperor of India, Ashoka, who in third century BC outlined the principles of tolerance, rich heterodoxy, and rules of debates, dialectics, and disputes. Similarly, the principles of tolerance and separating religion from the state were cemented by a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar, in 1590 s, at a time when The Inquisition was in full swing in Europe.

The essays assert the contemporary relevance of dialectics and heterodoxy n a democracy, public reasoning, secularism, resisting inequities, removing poverty, and in the pursuit of justice. He disagrees with the notion of elitism in arguments, that it is a realm accessible to the literate and affluent in contrast to the common men and points to the way this leads to cynicism and impassivity. He reminds us that the critical voice has always been the right of the repressed and oppressed and an opportunity to be utilized and not a necessary skill. Even though, the documentation of arguments tends to be biased in the route of articulations of the powerful and well educated, many interesting accounts of debates in the past involve disadvantaged groups.

He contends that the nature and strength of the argumentative tradition in India are greatly ignored on the premise that the country is a land of religions, uncritical faith, and unquestioned practices. The practice by some theorists in suppressing India’s intellectual heritage by highlighting the faith-based unreasoning culture of the East does injustice to the argumentative tradition of India in the past by simply contrasting the East-West culture in a fixed and preconceived manner through the prism of religion. A great deal of our past and present is intentionally or unintentionally getting effaced by this practice. The names of the great Aryabhatta, the Mathematician, and Kautilya, the political economist are evoked by Sen during the discussion.

There are four parts, each consisting of 4 essays. The first two essays deal with pluralism and dialogic tradition in the support of democracy, secularism, the pursuit of art and science, and social dialectics in seeking social justice. Essay 3 is about the significance of understanding heterodoxy as against the parochial religionistic approach through the lens of Hinduism. Essay 4 is about the ways to understand Indian identity.

Part 2 is about the role of communication in understanding and development of cultures. Essays 5 and 6 deals with the insights on communication from the works of Tagore and the Indian film director Satyajit Ray. The 7th essay is about the impact of imagined India in Western perceptions on the Indian mind during the colonial and post-colonial periods.  Essay 8 is about the intellectual, religious, and trade relations that China and India had for a thousand years from the early part of the first millennium.

Part 3 has four essays that deal with deprivation and security after the development of nuclear weapons. The last four essays are about the import of reasoning in identity, secularism, multiculturalism, and the calendrical variations that allowed to fix the principal meridian for India at Ujjain(the basis for Indian Standard Time five and a half hours ahead of GMT).


As one of the most influential public thinkers and intellectuals of our times, a Nobel laureate, the very first quality that is seen mentioned about him, anywhere his name or the critical reviews of his works appear, is his humility and humaneness. He is still an Indian citizen, he has not given up the Indian passport despite having been living and teaching abroad since the 1950s. He is a man whom Cambridge and Harvard are said to have fought to offer an appointment. He returns to Santiniketan every year working for a trust he had set up there with the Nobel prize money. A true patriot, he is unassuming and has an unparalleled knowledge in Indian History, Philosophy, Economics, and Culture.

In the book, the author tries to upend the stereotype of India from its exotic, mythical place to a rightful one. He is careful not to overemphasize the past triumphs at the same time criticizing the Western oversimplification of the realities like James Mill‘s History of British India. Sen warns not to oversimplify the notion of democratic India as a Western gift to a country suited to democracy by virtue of its rich history and culture. He disputes the ideas of Hindutva propagated by the Hindu nationalists and refutes the Western idea of India as a Hindu nation.

With the help of a vast array of references, he invokes rulers and emperors like Ashoka and Akbar, dissects the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata to delineate the facts of inclusivity and accommodation to dissent and skepticism in the broad and magnanimous Hinduism and criticizes the notion of bellicosity, divisiveness, and exclusionist sentiments and agendas of the Hindutva movement.

The part where the only Indian literature Nobel laureate in India is being discussed, he is unambiguous in criticizing and vindicating the poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and playwright. Though versatile, Tagore was mainly known for his poetry in the West. The Western judgementalism and revisionism of Eastern writers are being thrown to light through his own prism. Tagore was the recipient of both these while alive. Ezra Pound and WB Yeats were champions of his works earlier, but they pilloried him later on thus making his works oblivious to the world outside India. Sen adds his own vindication for this while he mentions the untranslatability of Tagore’s works. At the same moment, he criticizes the Western literary world in trying to categorize the great author into an Eastern, mystical, exotic, sage-like niche while they missed noticing a liberal, rational, humane thinker.

Invoking the filmmaker Satyajit Rai, Sen draws the conclusion that his triumph in the midst of world movies is drawn from a heterogenic approach, not remaining inside the bounds of what one normally expects as an overdose of Orientalism from an Asian filmmaker, and eclectic experimentation by learning and blending from other cultures.

The relevance of the book in contemporary India cannot be overstated. A well of knowledge and wisdom, the author has, with meticulous research, driven home the basic understanding of ideas like pluralism, heterogeneity, heterodoxy, secularism, and inclusivity by digging into history, identity, religious identity, and culture, while underpinning the significance of dialectics and debates in sustaining these and defenestrating preconceived and prejudiced Western notions of all these with respect to India- ancient and modern.










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