Abstract

The “idea of India” is indeed an open, assimilative, and spacious one, sustaining a plurality of voices, orthodox and dissenting, of many ages, regions, and affiliations. Modern Indian identities in the global diaspora, as much as in India itself, can call upon all these voices and traditions, rethink them, adapt and modify them, use the resources of reason they make available in deliberation about who to be, how to behave, and on what to agree. Amartya Sen argues the case with great force in his recent book, The Argumentative Indian . In the first part of my paper, I examine his argument in some detail and comment on what I perceive to be a serious omission in the book—the lack of any real engagement with India’s intellectual traditions, with roots in one or another of its religious systems. The background worry is that in developing the resources of reason within Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism, we are in some way making reason subordinate to tradition and religious command. Sen reads Akbar as resisting that threat with a strong insistence on the autonomy of reason. My argument is that we can respect the need for autonomy without restricting reason’s resources to those merely of allegedly value-free disciplines such as rational choice theory. My claim will be that the appeal to India’s traditions of argumentation and public reasoning is hollow if it does not engage with the detail of those traditions, for only in this way does the full panoply that a well-informed “argumentative Indian” has available to himself or herself come to the fore, in contrast with the restricted vision of a sectarian approach. Pointing to the brute existence of skeptical voices like that of Jāvāli is only the beginning of the story. What we really need to know is how a skeptic like Jāvāli adapted and manipulated the tools of justification and argument at his disposal so as to make possible his dissent. If nothing else, that would be a step towards understanding how heterodox voices might similarly empower themselves in global public discourse today. It is important to understand how the resources of reason can make internal dissent possible. In the second section, I document some of the evidence and begin to make good the lacuna I perceive in Sen’s work. In the third part of the essay, I show how “spacious” intellectual India really was in the seventeenth century, a period of increasing globalization, and one in which there was a rapid circulation of ideas between India and Europe.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 247-263
Launched on MUSE
2009-11-22
Open Access
No
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