The Argumentative Indian Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

Amartya Sen




Trade Paperback

432 Pages


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A Washington Post Book World Best Book of the Year In The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen draws on a lifetime study of his country's history and culture to suggest the ways we must understand India today in the light of its rich, long argumentative tradition. The millennia-old texts and interpretations of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, agnostic, and atheistic Indian thought demonstrate, Sen reminds us, ancient and well-respected rules for conducting debates and disputations, and for appreciating not only the richness of India's diversity but its need for toleration. Though Westerners have often perceived India as a place of endless spirituality and unreasoning mysticism, he underlines its long tradition of skepticism and reasoning, not to mention its secular contributions to mathematics, astronomy, linguistics, medicine, and political economy.
Sen discusses many aspects of India's rich intellectual and political heritage, including philosophies of governance from Kautilya's and Ashoka's in the fourth and third centuries BCE to Akbar's in the 1590s; the history and continuing relevance of India's relations with China more than a millennium ago; its old and well-organized calendars; the films of Satyajit Ray and the debates between Gandhi and the visionary poet Tagore about India's past, present, and future. The success of India's democracy and defense of its secular politics depend, Sen argues, on understanding and using this rich argumentative tradition. It is also essential to removing the inequalities (whether of caste, gender, class, or community) that mar Indian life, to stabilizing the now precarious conditions of a nuclear-armed subcontinent, and to correcting what Sen calls the politics of deprivation. His book concludes with his meditations on pluralism, on dialogue and dialectics in the pursuit of social justice, and on the nature of the Indian identity.


Praise for The Argumentative Indian

"[A] profoundly wise and engaging collection of essays . . . While the pieces in The Argumentative Indian are, as one would expect, enjoyably erudite and full of intriguing insights, they are not written in academic language . . . The book is formed from a series of elegantly written historical and moral-philosophical essays which together cohere to form a single original argument: that India is and has always been 'a joint construction in which members of different communities were involved.'"—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. A magisterial work."—Shashi Tharoor, The Washington Post Book World
"Of the stream of eloquent Indians who have enlivened modern intellectual life . . . Amartya Sen is perhaps the most versatile and most determinedly argumentative . . . If ever there was a global intellectual, it is Sen . . . His essays take unsparing measure of India's social and economic problems . . . Although Sen is free with his judgments, his writing maintains a coolly embattled tone, as well as an unfailing, old-style courtesy . . . [He] is a distinguished inheritor of the tradition of public philosophy and reasoning—Roy, Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru."—Sunil Khilnani, Financial Times
"Sen has attempted—successfully, I think—to write an erudite but accessible handbook on, and in defence of, what is in effect secular Indian modernity . . . on its roots in antiquity and its possible direction in the future."—Amit Chaudhuri, The Times Literary Supplement
"Mr. Sen's interests . . . extend far beyond the work that won him the Nobel . . . [He] shows that the argumentative gene is not just a part of India's make-up that cannot be wished away. It is an essential part of its survival—and an advantage."—The Economist
"Calm and rational are suitable words to describe Sen, of course, because his reputation as a Nobel Prize-winning economist was based largely on his efforts to reconcile economic analysis and its assumptions of rational human behaviour with the real ways in which people behave. Economic thought provides useful analytical tools but only when these are harnessed to a humanistic philosophy are they useful. Sen deploys these tools in a variety of fields, demonstrating a wide range of learning and of concerns. His arguments are persuasive, infused with concern for people of all stations and filled with the calmness that derives from a masterful employment of discourse."—The Asian Review of Books
"Sen is unquestionably one of the most distinguished minds of our time . . . engaging and thought-provoking. The product of such a great mind at the peak of its power, it is one of the most stimulating books about India to be written for years, and it deserves the widest possible readership."—William Dalrymple, The Sunday Times (London)
"In this superb collection of essays, Sen smashes quite a few stereotypes and places the idea of India and Indianness in its rightful, deserved context. Central to his notion of India . . . is the long tradition of argument and public debate, of intellectual pluralism and generosity that informs India's history. One of the book's many triumphs is its tone. Sen does not indulge in triumphalism about his country's past . . . he propounds a view of Hinduism as an inclusive philosophy rather than an exclusionist, divisive religion. This view of Hinduism is mature enough and magnanimous enough to accommodate dissenting views and 'even profound skepticism.' . . . This is a book that needed to have been written. The perception of India in the West and, indeed, among Indians themselves has never been more amorphous as it is now. The Argumentative Indian will provide a new dimension and perspective to that perception. 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)

“In this book Sen provides an elegant introduction to his theory of economic development. He surveys his earlier accomplishments in order to explain how they are an outgrowth of Hindu and Indian culture, not something he came to through the study of Western cultural traditions.”—Edwin Dickens, International Journal of Hindu Studies

The Argumentative Indian, a collection of sixteen essays, can best be seen as a corrective to two oddly similar misrepresentations of Indian history and culture. One is found in Samuel Huntington’s influential The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, where India falls under the heading ‘Hindu civilization’; the second is embodied in the ideology of the Hindutva movement of Hindu nationalists in India, best known through the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) . . . As India grows in interest and importance in our world, we must look for understanding to cosmopolitan native sons like Amartya Sen”—Dwight W. St. John, Southern Humanities Review

“Deploying an arsenal of cultural and scholarly resources, Lutz traces the origins and metamorphoses of the meanings of the descriptive terms in his title . . . Lutz takes us through the hairpin turns with verve, good humor, and a shrewd sense of the convoluted intersections of mutually incompatible principles. Of one thing we may be sure, however: we all need work, if only to give us something to shirk.”—James P. Hammersmith, Southern Humanities Review

"Sen denounces—and indeed disproves—the bigoted view that reason is essentially Western or European. India, he makes plain, has a long tradition of civil debate, of secular thought and of contributions to math and science . . . Remarkably uniform in theme and quality . . . ultimately revelatory."—Kirkus Reviews
"Masterfully tying Indian concerns to broader social and philosophical questions, Sen addresses the many aspects of Indian identity."—Library Journal
"As India's multicultural society confronts violent sectarianism at home and a range of destabilizing forces internationally, these illuminating essays from Nobel Prize-winning economist Sen (most of which began as articles or lectures over the past decade) offer a timely and cogent examination of the country's long history of heterodoxy and public discourse. With sparkling erudition and crisp prose, Sen reminds readers of a capacious cultural legacy that has nourished a plethora of religious communities (including Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Parsee, Sikh and Baha'i), as well as a venerable line of atheist and materialist thought, while fostering ancient advances in science and mathematics, and inclusive theories of governance. Challenging the notion of the West as sole originator of liberal values, the book—which ranges over subjects as diverse as India's ancient calendars, nuclear arms policy, relationship with China, gender and class inequality, representations in the Western imagination and the competing national visions of Tagore and Gandhi—bears forcefully on contemporary debates over multiculturalism, secularism and postcolonial identity. Sen's lucid reasoning and thoroughgoing humanism, meanwhile, ensure a lively and commanding defense of diversity and dialogue."—Publishers Weekly

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Amartya Sen was born in 1933 and grew up in Santiniketan and in Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh). As a student in India and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, he "seriously flirted, in turn, with Sanskrit, mathematics and physics before settling for the eccentric charms of economics," as he has written. Now Lamont University Professor at Harvard, he was Master of Trinity College from 1998 to 2004, and has taught at many other universities in Britain, the United States, and India. When Professor Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998, he was the first Asian to be so honored.
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  • Amartya Sen

  • Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor at Harvard. He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998 and was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, 1998–2004. His most recent books are Development as Freedom and Rationality and Freedom. His books have been translated into thirty languages.