'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bully For The 'Interrogative Indian'

'The more the arguments, the more Truth is revealed' - an Upanishadic maxim quoted by Dr. NVP Unithiri in his autobiography (partially serialized at 'Locana' -link on the right panel).

"Not to argue and win but to know and make known - that is our intent." - Sri Narayana Guru.

Amartya Sen's famous work 'The Argumentative Indian' paints a celebratory portrait of the ancient Indian traditions of dispute, dialog and argument and calls for a fuller appreciation of these traditions in our troubled times.

I would personally have preferred Sen to have emphasized the 'Interrogative Indian' of ancient times as distinct from (and even as opposed to) the 'Argumentative' one. The two adjectives obviously mean different things - an argumentative person is looking for a verbal scrap and trying to prove his viewpoint as superior to a real or imagined adversary's, whereas an interrogative one is often a genuinely curious seeker looking for 'illumination'.

Indeed most of the best examples Sen gives in his work fall in the 'interrogative' category - The skepticism in the Rig Veda hymn on 'Ka', Arjuna's questions to Krishna, Gargi questioning Yajnavalkya and so on... One can add to this list Nachiketa's doubts to Yama, the quest of Satyakama for knowledge of the Absolute and so on... and most of these episodes evoke a deep admiration and appreciation for the questions and the questioner - often far in excess of what the answers provided deserve.

However, ancient India did have a very strong Argumentative Tradition as well, one that hardly deserves such unalloyed admiration. For example, Dr. Unithiri's autobiography mentioned above quotes from Adi Shankaracharya's critique of Buddhist philosophy (my adaptation):

"The Buddhist concept ... is full of internal contradictions and will hardly stand up to serious scrutiny - it will collapse like a well dug in sand. One even suspects whether Buddha's intent in producing such a jumble of confusing and contradictory arguments was to befuddle the reader and to misguide him; indeed a devious streak is very much evident in the teachings.... So, one can conclude that the Buddhist doctrine merits only total rejection by any serious student"

'Unithiri Master' narrates an incident: his referring to Shankara's ad hominem attacks on Buddha provoked anguished (but ill-informed) outrage among some monks at the Shankara Mutt in Kalady - on the lines of "please do not talk about these things (which show our guru in poor light) here. This is an Ashram!"

'Master' states unequivocally that Shankara's personal attacks on Buddha were clearly unwarranted. But then, was Buddha himself 'clean' in this regard? I remember reading that in his sermons, he (at least the early Buddhist works) often mocked Mahavira, his contemporary and competitor in the spiritual realm - and it is very unlikely that the barbs were not returned in kind, although 'Osho' has said somewhere that Mahavira, being a considerably older man, usually did not respond to those attacks (it is quite surprising that Jainism and Buddhism, which are so similar and originated from the same region at the same time, never seriously worked together; perhaps arguments and mutual personal recriminations might have prevented any collaboration).

At least according to tradition, Shankara composed the famous 'Bhaja Govindam' addressing a student learning grammar by rote thus: "Hey, you idiot, this grammar is no good. Seek refuge in the Lord!" (that the poem also mocks most of the trappings of saintliness as tricks to fill one's stomach does not absolve Shankara of being downright rude upfront).

Indeed, the more one looks at history, this is the picture that emerges: within a 'school', when a disciple and his Guru were in serious conversation, there often was a quest for Truth, inquiry and most importantly, doubting and questioning; but once different doctrines met, it was usually a turf war of a seriously argumentative nature, with no quarter given. At least according to tradition, those who lost these arguments between rival spiritual schools often got burnt alive or impaled or maimed... (examples abound in Periya Puranam, an ancient - and very graphic - Tamil classic of such clashes between the dominant Saivism and Buddhism/Jainism). That in other world cultures, such disputes were often even more ugly and violent is no real consolation.

And Shankaracharya, the 'aggressor' in many of the above examples, was (and continues to be) attacked by the Dwaita school of Madhva - an example is his name being pronounced deliberately as 'samkara' - (approximately, 'cross-bred') branding him (to put it very mildly) a product of miscegenation.

Of course, argumentative interactions of rival schools did have benefits - open-minded third parties who followed those debates gained exposure to different and even conflicting view points and thus to a fuller range of information and its interpretations. And Emperor Akbar, someone Sen so evidently admires for (among other things) encouraging and organizing inter-faith dialogs, comes through as such a third party - himself not particularly argumentative but inquisitive and interrogative. So the above Upanishad saying could be taken to imply "The more the argument between A and B, the more Truth is revealed to C".

To sum up, I beg to differ with Sen (although someone could say the differences are a matter of detail) and argue(!) for the *Interrogative Indian* - his/her Argumentative Aspect, although quite interesting in its own way and even sometimes useful, does not come through as half as worthy of cherishing.

Vivekananda is said to have remarked on Shankaracharya: "Intellectually, I admire him, but the way he used to force his thoughts on others in disputes, I certainly do not approve of" and this applies to much of our argumentative tradition.


  • At 1:40 AM, Blogger Two Minds said…

    Satyma Gnanam Ananatm Nityamankasam Bhuvankasam ...

    Chidananda Rupa Sivoham ....

    Are you refering to the same very Shankara, the Jagat Guru?

  • At 6:13 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    two minds,

    unfortunately, yes, assuming the person who composed the brahmasutra bhashya (which contains the attack on buddha) and 'shivoham' is the same.


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