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The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity Paperback – September 5, 2006
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“This is a book that needed to have been written. . . . It would be no surprise if it were to become as defining and influential a work as Edward Said's Orientalism.” ―Soumya Bhattacharya, The Observer (London)
“The product of a great and playful mind at the peak of its power, The Argumentative Indian is the most stimulating and enjoyable book about the idea and identity of India to be written for years.” ―William Dalrymple, The New York Review of Books
“An intellectual tour de force from an economist who can lay equal claim to the designations of sociologist, historian, political analyst, and moral philosopher . . . Breathtaking in its range and scholarly eclecticism.” ―Shashi Tharoor, The Washington Post Book World
“Masterfully tying Indian concerns to broader social and philosophical questions, Sen addresses the many aspects of Indian identity.” ―Library Journal
Top Customer Reviews
Mr. Sen seeks to demonstrate that India is a multi-hued society of many shades and composite cultures. It is also wrongly seen as primarily a spiritual culture, as it has many other talents as well. This is quite elementary. In order to do so, he ranges over a vast number of topics, and offers extremely interesting information about a number of them. He has a typically wry sense of humor, which is rather appreciable. He also has an axe to grind, which keeps making a screeching distraction throughout.
That axe is his grudge against the hard-line Hindu politics, particularly the BJP, RSS and its assorted allies. This keeps getting in his way, and he keeps making short raids to take pot shots at them. This becomes irritating after a little while. In reality, BJP / RSS do not influence or define Indian culture to the extent that we must become obsessed with them to the point of distraction. One also finds that this grudge leads him to constantly twist arguments and facts, in order to enable him to take a better shot at his arch-enemies: BJP/RSS.
Coming back to his argumentativeness, we find that he repeatedly mentions Javali, and his advice to Lord Rama in Valmiki's Ramayana. On page xi-xii, he mentions that Javali, who was critical of Lord Rama, has been given a lot of space in Ramayana. Then again on page 26, he gives him a full para, describing Javali's advice in great detail. We meet Javali again on page 47, and are told that he called Lord Rama's actions as 'foolish'. Javali pops up again on page 159, with the same advice.
Two issues arise out of Mr. Sen's treatment of Javali: 1. He does not mention the context in which Javali made these statements. Javali has come to the forest to persuade Lord Rama to return to Ayodhya and assume Kingship after his father's death. 2. He does not mention Lord Rama's subsequent reasoned rebuttal of Javali's arguments, and Javali's hasty and abject turn-around (in his anger, Rama concludes by suggesting that atheists such as Javali should be put to death).
Javali then says that he was merely making up these arguments, in order to persuade Lord Rama to return to Ayodhya - he goes on to mention that this is permitted as a tactic to achieve a desirable end, and Rama should not think poorly of him.
To continue: Mr. Sen approvingly emphasizes that Ramayana gives a lot of space to Javali, who is propounding a counterview to the main argument of Ramayana. Mr. Sen's thesis also is that India is a land of many cultures, and all people have a right to voice their views and be heard. However, Mr. Sen himself is unable to hold up this great tradition of `poorva paksh' and `uttara paksh' (roughly prior-view and post-view). He does not present or reproduce the arguments of his opponents at all. And when he mentions these, he does it in such disparaging and value-loaded terms that you do not at all get an idea of what their argument was.
This, in my view, is a definite demonstration of his approach and objective: to impose his own views over that of others. This is the objective of an argument - where the other person is not convinced, he merely shuts up, unable to counter it properly, in the face of superior intellect or argumentative skills.
Let us now look at his facts, as presented in 'India through Its Calendars'. He tells us that the Saka era is the most widely used indigenous calendar in India: it is not. It is used mainly in some Southern parts of India and Maharashtra. Northern and Central states, as also Gujarat, use the Vikram era, which is also used in Nepal. Bengal uses the Bangla era.
Then he goes on to set up a straw man of the Kaliyuga calendar dating based on Whitaker's almanac. Mr. Sen states that according to Whitaker's Alamanac, Gregorian year 2000 corresponded with Year 6001 in the Kaliyuga calendar. Actually, according to Whitaker's, it corresponded with Year 5101 (see Hindu_calendar - Regional_variants at Wikipedia.org). He then devotes considerable space to first proving that this was right, as this is the 'official date of the Kaliyuga calendar'. Here he makes an elementary arithmetical error referring to Calendar Reform Committee and making it sound as if 5055+46 is rightly equal to 6001! Then he goes on to prove that the calendar is off - it should actually be Kaliyuga 5101 !! This, I suspect, was done in order to hurriedly get into position to take a pot-shot at `Indian chauvinists' (p.322, 323, last para). Unfortunately, he seems to have shot himself in the foot (or put his foot in the mouth, to mix the metaphors a little).
We are also told that the Indian calendars were mainly secular calendar systems, which were used for all purposes, including religious ones. This is quite a confusing statement. In the Indian tradition, secularism had no place or need. The king also had religious advisers, who guided him on all political as well as religious affairs. Secondly, these calendars were designed and maintained mainly by Brahmin priests, who used them to identify correct times for various religious rituals, as well as to predict auspicious moments for important business and state matters.
Then we are told that the `mala masa' (extra month) is added to correct the calendar shifting that creeps in due to error in value of days in a solar year (365.25875 days instead of the correct 365.24220 days). Actually, the mala masa is added every three years to reconcile the lunar calendar with the solar calendar.
He is also under the impression (p.331) that Indian calendars are solar calendars - actually mostly these are composite calendars, where the lunar and the solar passage is tracked side by side. In fact, there are five aspects in all, which are tracked and reconciled simultaneously, hence the name 'panchang' (having five parts) is used for Indian calendars.
Mr. Sen offers copious notes and references. Some of these are themselves quite interesting, though a great many tend to be from Left-oriented perspective, or commentators. This is acceptable and discountable, once we know and accept Mr. Sen's own political preferences. Quite a few of the references tend to be to his own writings or to that of his own family members, which sounds a bit like plugging.
For page references, I have used the hardcover Penguin edition published under the Allen Lane banner. The book has been bound nicely, has a beautifully illustrated cover and is printed well. However, the paper is rather like newsprint, and tends to absorb ink, if you like making notes in the margins. The book is also quite large - you can't carry it with you on trips, so it may be a good idea to go for the paperback.
After reading both 'Identity and Violence' (Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Issues of Our Time)), and 'Argumentative Indian', it is reasonably clear that the political animal in Mr. Sen is more wily than the intellectual in him. Treat his historical, cultural books as engaging, interesting but carefully disguised polemic, and you will be quite fine.
Sen's Argumentative Indian argues against Western interpretations of India as a land of airy mysticism and religious speculation whose democratic traditions were imposed by the British; at the same time, with a firm but even hand he corrects the more recent Hindu fundamentalist view that wants to impose a narrow, `miniaturized' version of the nation that excludes the contributions of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and thinkers of no particular religious persuasion at all.
Sen addresses the fact that this cultural predilection for argument and debate (along with a healthy respect for opposing points of view) has done little to change the vast social inequalities in India. But his book isn't so much about looking backward as it is about finding a usable past that Indians can take pride in as they look forward to a more global future. Along the way, Sen makes a lucid and compelling case for pluralism in all its forms in a century where fundamentalisms, East and West, are sadly on the rise. Sen's India is one I think the rest of the world could learn a lot from.
Bengal has produced many fine intellectuals like Vivekananda, Bankim, Aurobindo, Ray and many others, but Sen is not one of them. Amartya Sen must be one of the most overrated intellectuals. I recommend instead the works of Ram Swarup, Koenraad Elst, Arun Shourie, K.D. Sethna and V.S.Naipaul.