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Mystic River

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The sage of Bengal has pronounced. Pluralism, we are informed, has an ancient pedigree in Indian history. It is embedded in the oldest known texts of Hinduism and, like a river, has flowed through Indian history (including the Mughal period, when the country was under Muslim rule) till the arrival of the British in the eighteenth century. It is this cultural heritage, ignored and misinterpreted by colonialists and religious fanatics alike, that shapes Indian culture and goes a long way toward explaining the attachment of all social classes to modern democracy. The argumentative tradition "has helped to make heterodoxy the natural state of affairs in India," exerting a profound influence on the country's politics, democracy and "the emergence of its secular priorities." This view informs most of the thought-provoking essays in Amartya Sen's new book, a set of reflections on India written in a very different register from his other books on moral philosophy and poverty. It is designed not so much for the academy but as a public intervention in the country of his birth, to which he remains firmly attached despite the Nobel Prize and his latest posting at Harvard as a Boston Brahman.

About the Author

Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali is an editor at New Left Review. His latest book is The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power (...

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Although the essays in The Argumentative Indian were composed at different times, they have been successfully welded into a single volume. There is much to agree with here. Sen's lofty worldview remains staunchly secular and rationalist, as befits a scholar whose intellectual formation took place in Nehru's India, a historical time zone under constant attack today from Hindu nationalists on the one side and some of the more fashionable Indian luminaries of the US branch of the subaltern school of historians on the other. Unlike fellow Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, Sen does not see the entry of Islam into India as a dagger thrust in the heart of Indian civilization. On the contrary, he argues that the effect of Mughal rule was beneficial. This was undoubtedly the case on the dietary front: The historian Irfan Habib has shown how the average Indian peasant ate better and more often in this period than under the British.

Given the title of Sen's book, it would be churlish to prove him wrong by simply nodding in approval, as is so often the case in our wonderful subcontinent. What follows, then, from this argumentative Pakistani is the expression of a few doubts concerning his central thesis and the odd complaint with regard to some omissions.

Can the lineages of modern Indian democracy be traced back to the holy texts, as Sen suggests? And does the affection of ordinary citizens for democracy have any material (as opposed to mystical) links to the arguments once heard by Buddha or King Ashoka (273-232 B.C.), let alone the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605)?

It's true that disputes abound in the ancient Sanskrit epics. Their multiple tales are, as Sen puts it, "engagingly full of dialogues, dilemmas and alternative perspectives," such as that of Javali, the notorious skeptic of the Ramayana, who explains in detail how "the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts and penance have been laid down in the sastras [scriptures] by clever people, just to rule over [other] people." In codifying the rules for debate in the Buddhist councils, Ashoka demanded mutual respect among the various sects. While the Inquisition was sowing terror in Europe, Akbar, himself a Muslim, ruled that "anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him." The interreligious debates he organized in Agra included Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees, Jains, Jews and the atheists of the Carvaka school, who argued that Brahmans had established ceremonies for the dead only "as a means of livelihood" for themselves. Even the Vedic Song of Creation on the origins of the universe ends in radical doubt: "Who really knows? Whence this creation has arisen--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."

Yet the skepticism voiced by some rulers and reflected in ancient texts was usually, if not always, confined to the priestly elites. The model for the debates among scholars from different religions and sects that were organized by Akbar's court was little different from similar discussions a few centuries earlier in the camp of Mongol leader Genghis Khan (1162-1227). With this exception: Mongol soldiers were permitted to both listen and participate in the arguments. The Mughal courts in India were sealed off from public view: The courtiers listened and, no doubt, nodded when the emperor smiled appreciatively as a point was scored, but they did not speak. Only the emperor and a few of his close advisers posed questions. The tyranny of the few over the many--exercised through a ritual combination of coercion and religion--was never seriously challenged in India until the advent of capitalist colonization. Nobody spoke for the subalterns.

Unlike ancient Greece, there were no city-based institutions where important issues could be debated, and the overglorified village panchayats, or councils, were the domain of the privileged where the poor could only appear as supplicants. Ancient India produced an ugly caste system that led to early divisions and splits, but neither Brahmanism proper nor its wilder offshoots--Buddhism and Jainism--came even close to producing a political philosophy that could lay the basis for a popular or semipopular assembly like those in ancient Greece, whose formal decrees always began with the invocation: "The demos has decided." The assemblies in Athens were barred to slaves, but they did include peasant proprietors and even some peasants who worked for others. Hence the debates between rich and poor; hence the fear of the multitude evinced by the wealthy; hence Solon's New Deal-ish boast: "I stood covering both [rich and poor] with a strong shield, permitting neither to triumph unjustly over the other." But even these traditions, while never forgotten, disappeared completely. The idea of democracy re-emerged in the debates that followed the English Revolution and found institutional form only after the American and French revolutions.

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