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Reviewed by:
  • The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity
  • William Dalrymple (bio)
Amartya Sen , The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005), 432 pp.

It is no bad thing to be reminded, as Sen reminds us, that the East has venerable traditions of public participation in decision making, of government by discussion, and of religious tolerance. When in Europe Giordano Bruno was being burned for heresy in the Campo dei Fiori, in South Asia the Mughal Emperor Akbar was declaring that "no man should be interfered with on account of religion." The sheer diversity of faiths and competing ideas that have always coexisted in India has led to a fecund and tolerant argumentative tradition. Sen traces that tradition back to the Rig Veda, a sacred text written when both the pyramids and Stonehenge were still in use, because the Veda enshrines at its center an idea of uncertainty about the divine: "Who really knows?" it asks: "Whence is this creation? 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." The practice of questioning and of openness to rival positions was augmented by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, who "laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates" at his great councils, with the opponents of his position "duly honoured in every way on all occasions." Crucially, Sen points out that there has been considerable cultivation of public reasoning and tolerance of heterodoxy also in Islamic India, especially among the Sufis. He writes at length of the "tolerant multiculturalism" of Akbar's court, where, in the 1590s, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Jews, Parsees, and atheists were gathered to discuss where and why they differed and how they could live together. In this celebration of the Islamic contribution to Indian culture, Sen stands opposed to the other great Indian Nobel laureate, V. S. Naipaul. Unlike Naipaul, Sen is extremely critical of the "exclusionary" thinking of the Hindutva movement, which he views as a product of ignorance—ignorance of the diversity and internationalism of Indian culture. But even those in Naipaul's camp must acknowledge that The Argumentative Indian is the product of a great mind at the peak of its power—among the most original and stimulating books about India to be written in many years.

William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple, fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, is the author of White Mughals, which received the Wolfson Prize for History in 2003. His other books include In Xanadu, City of Djinns, From the Holy Mountain, and The Age of Kali. He also wrote and presented "Stones of the Raj" and "Indian Journeys," which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2002.



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