The Argumentativeness of Indians
Posted on 1-August-2007
"....Such was the high esteem and respect in which these writers of the sutras were held by later writers that whenever they had any new speculations to offer, these were reconciled with the doctrines of one or other of the existing systems, and put down as faithful interpretations of the system in the form of commentaries. Such was the hold of these systems upon scholars that all the orthodox teachers since the foundation of the systems of philosophy belonged to one or other of these schools. Their pupils were thus naturally brought up in accordance with the views of their teachers. All the independence of their thinking was limited and enchained by the faith of the school to which they were attached. Instead of producing a succession of free-lance thinkers having their own systems to propound and establish, India had brought forth schools of pupils who carried the traditionary views of particular systems from generation to generation, who explained and expounded them, and defended them against the attacks of other rival schools which they constantly attacked in order to establish the superiority of the system to which they adhered....
"As a system passed on it had to meet unexpected opponents and troublesome criticisms for which it was not in the least prepared. Its adherents had therefore to use all their ingenuity and subtlety in support of their own positions, and to discover the defects of rival schools that attacked them. A system as it was originally formulated in the sutras had probably but few problems to solve, but as it fought its way in the teeth of opposition of other schools, it had to offer consistent opinions on other problems in which the original views were more or less involved but to which no attention had been given before....
"The fact that each system had to contend with other rival systems in order to hold its own has left its permanent mark upon all the philosophic literatures of India which are always written in the form of disputes, where the writer is supposed to be always faced with objections from rival schools to whatever he has got to say. At each step he supposes certain objections put forth against him which he answers, and points out the defects of the objector or shows that the objection itself is ill founded. It is thus through interminable byways of objections, counter-objections and their answers that the writer can wend his way to his destination."
Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy
I cannot remember how old I was, but probably not more than nine years of age, when I heard from a female member of my extended family the story of a great debate--she had used the sanskritic word shashtrartha for these religio-philosophical debates of Hindu tradition--between Shankaracharya and Mandan Mishra, which the former won. She did not have more education than the minimal ability to read and write simple Hindi and she told of this debate in the same manner in which elders tell children other tales. Obviously she had heard this story from someone else. In these retellings among ordinary folk over I do not know how many generations, Mandan Mishra had become an inhabitant of Mithila, while the 'real' Mandan Mishra of the written record of a great debate between Shankaracharya and himself had been an inhabitant of Malwa in central India.
The tradition of different teachers debating fine points of logic, metaphysics and philosophy in the presence of their acolytes till one scored a 'victory' over the other by demonstrating verbal, semantic or logical inconsistencies in his position is an integral part of India's intellectual heritage of philosophy and metaphysics which modern, educated Hindu elites have taken so much pride in for the last century and a half or so. It was not unusual for a teacher, having established his authority, to move from place to place propounding his doctrine and demonstrating how rival teachers were wrong, so much so that Shankaracharya, the ninth century teacher acknowledged as the greatest proponent of Vedanta, went on his long journey of 'world conquest' across the length and most of the breadth of India, teaching and debating. Those who listened to and participated in such disputations would for the most part be initiated disciples or young novices come to learn from their masters. As these events would nearly always be held in open spaces, there would no doubt be a sprinkling of lay people, curious bystanders watching and listening, who would not understand much of what was being said but would carry tales about who had 'won' and in what manner. Since for the best of men it is difficult to avoid acquiring mannerisms of speech and posture for effect when addressing an audience, not only the debate, the participants, and the victors, but also their appearance and mannerisms would in time become folklore, affecting popular attitudes and habits of thought and speech.
Once I became a reluctant participant in one popular, entirely lowbrow debate. That was on the occasion of a wedding. Now, in upper caste weddings in North Central India till about one generation ago, the bridegroom, the male members of his family and male friends travelled in a large group to the bride's home, often in another town or village and lay camp there. The more affluent the families the larger the groom's party and the longer it would camp. I am told that in one wedding in my family in 1930 or 1931, my family's party, which was the groom's, camped for one week at the bride's place. The actual wedding would be over in about five or six hours. By the next day some other related ceremonies would also be completed. None of the groom's party, or, in some cases very few, would witness or take part in these ritualistic ceremonies. For the rest, the groom's party would be fed and and entertained during the time of their encampment. For the decadent, lazy males of rich agricultural families the commonest form of evening entertainment at these weddings was dances by 'dancing girls'--a euphemism for prostitutes--who would also provide more sensuous pleasures to those who asked and paid for them. Other groom's parties would camp for two nights or even one night and the more puritanical or less affluent families would shun dancing girls. In their cases the evening entertainment for the party would be plain chatter or, if there were some 'educated' men around, there would be a debate. There was this wedding party I, still an adolescent at vacation time, was forced to join, as the bride's side was known to have some bright young 'educated' men and the groom's party wanted to show that they did not lag behind. In the evening a debate was organised with me pushed as the champion from the groom's side standing against a fresh engineering graduate from the bride's family. I do not remember what we were debating but my saying that oil and water did not mix provoked a hot and often loud dispute. I cannot remember who won, but my side thought I had because what I said about oil and water not mixing appealed to their common sense.
I have learnt over time that such debates on ordinary social occasions, or others organised as pure divertissement are not rare. It is perhaps my fancy, but it seems to me that debates of this kind are nothing more than popular versions of the traditional religious dispute. Even if that were not true, it would seem that popular culture as well as the folk and scholarly memory of the traditional philosophical dispute have together given rise to an almost endemic argumentativeness among the people of India. Also, it is an argumentativeness of a special kind: declamatory, loud, disputatious, repetitive and hair-splitting. A casual glance at public discourse on any issue in India or at discussions in India's parliament or in the legislative bodies of Indian states on a question of great concern to political parties shows how endlessly and futilely some of the arguments can continue. Quite often scoring debating points becomes more important than persuading people.
It is fanciful to think that this argumentativeness somehow gives a special Úlan or in the least provides a guarantee to Indian democracy. To say so is to ignore two essential points about democracy: one, that the growth of democracy as we know it today has been characterized by a government at every stage making the minimum concession necessary for keeping social peace in response to popular demands and two, that it is a political arrangement meant to ensure harmonious relations between different classes of people by maintaining the reality or the fiction that the government works for the benefit of and at the behest of the people. The only place arguments have in this scheme is for leaders of different groups persuading their followers of the worthiness of their cause. And the only real guarantor of democracy is popular sanction. If people can be bamboozled or frightened into submission or because of the traditional indifference of people in some places to the change of rulers, democracy can be easily subverted. A little bit of all these happened during Indira Gandhi's stab at dictatorship between 1975 and 1977, the argumentativeness of the Indian people notwithstanding.
Perhaps it is time to look at what this argumentativeness among its people has given to India. As the passages from Surendranath Dasgupta's book with which this essay opens suggest, India started about two thousand eight hundred years ago with six systems of what may be called Hindu philosophy. The original tenets of those systems have come down in the form of highly condensed formulae, called sutras, whose full meaning has either been lost or become very obscure. Generations of teachers have commented upon, debated, differentiated and defined the ideas contained in these sutras. Commentaries and treatises within each of these systems continued being produced till about the end of the seventeenth century. At the end of this long period India still had the same six systems of Hindu philosophy it started with, more clearly enunciated, more differentiated but still essentially unchanged. Adherents of these different systems argued against each other but seldom questioned the authority of the teachers who had preceded them and never raised doubts about the basic premises of their system. Even those schools of thought that differed fundamentally from the six Hindu systems such as Buddhism and Jainism which arose around the middle of the first millennium before Christ, have followed the same path of schoolmen-like arguments and refinement but without modifying the original doctrine. One, the purely materialist school of the Charvaka, which was contemporaneous with the earliest Hindu, Buddhist and Jain thought was throttled a long time ago. In many ways the history of philosophical thought in India is a sad story in that centuries of argumentation, disputes and ratiocination have produced eight principal systems of thought, sharing some common concepts such as karma, rebirth and the release from the cycle of birth and rebirth, and all frozen in time.
The story of science in ancient India is more dismal than that of philosophy. Even the most enthusiastic believer in the achievements of ancient Hindus in the field of science and mathematics is unable to mention more than the sulva sutra of the Rigveda, and the works of Aryabhatta, Varahamihira and Bhaskara II in trigonometry, astronomy and algebra. After Bhaskara II in the thirteenth century science and mathematics disappeared as it were from the intellectual world of Indians until the twentieth century, in the first half of which a number of Indians belonging to the world of modern science and not to ancient Hindu intellectual tradition, made very important contributions to science and mathematics. It is difficult to point at any important technology other than steel making that was invented by Indians in the ages preceding the modern. For all their argumentativeness, the achievements of Indians in science and technology in the centuries preceding the nineteenth were hardly more than meagre.
To understand why science did not prosper among a people who delighted in their mental agility in philosophical debate, it is necessary to look at the nature of the debates so many engaged in. While the disputants used all their ingenuity in finding arguments to demonstrate the fallacies of their rivals, their minds were closed when it came to questioning the validity of the assertions of their own teachers or of the premises of their own systems. Science by contrast has been nurtured by and has in its turn nurtured the spirit of free enquiry. For science the only things which are sacred are empirically observed facts, logically coherent explanations of those facts and of patterns formed by them and consistency of a new theory with the established world view arrived at through the same process of empirical observation and logically coherent explanation. For science, if any one of these conditions is not satisfied, then either the observation, or the theory or the established world view must be re-examined and revised. In this model of science there is neither room for argumentation nor for speculation about the nature of phenomena that have not been observed.
It is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that the argumentativeness of Indians has for the most part kept India back. The tendency to interminably argue about issues in our own times not only saps our energies, but also distracts our minds from real problems and delays action which can improve the lives of people. Historically, the argumentativeness has been creative neither of new ideas in philosophy nor of science. Unlike a very eminent Indian writer, I do not celebrate or glorify the argumentative Indian but wish him instead metamorphosed into a reasonable, sensible, free-spirited individual, imbued with the spirit of modern science.