The Argumentative Indian

Amartya Sen

Stop and Think

Question 1: Sen quotes Eliot’s lines: ‘Not fare well/But fare forward voyagers’. Distinguish between ‘faring forward’ (Krishna’s position in the Gita) and ‘faring well’ (the position that Sen advocates).

Answer: Faring forward means moving ahead without harping too much on consequences and collateral damage. Faring well means moving ahead, along with minimising untowards consequences and collateral damages. In the Mahabharata, Arjuna is worried about propriety of killing his relatives and numerous innocent people in order to win the war. So, he is hesitant to fight. Krishna guides him by advocating the rationale of using all the means so that Arjuna could regain what is rightfully meant for his clan.




Question 2: Sen draws a parallel between the moral dilemma in the Krishna-Arjuna dialogue and J. R. Oppenheimer’s response to the nuclear explosion in 1945. What is the basis for this?

Answer: Oppenheimer was the head of the team which developed the first nuclear bomb. After the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima brought tragic disaster of a gargantuan scale, Oppenheimer was probably shaken with grief. This is the reason that Oppenheimer talked about ‘faring well’ as Arjuna thought when the war of the Mahabharata was yet to begin. Oppenheimer suffers from the moral dilemma that Arjuna was suffering. Developing a new technology is the ultimate goal for any scientist. It is only after a technology is developed and applied in real life that people can be in a position to think about its positives and negatives. Probably, Oppenheimer could have never imagined about the havoc caused by a nuclear explosion.

Question 3: Maitreyi’s remark – ‘what should I do with that by which I do not become immortal’ – is a rhetorical question cited to illustrate both the nature of the human predicament and the limitations of the material world. What is the connection that Sen draws between this and his concept of economic development?

Answer: Since time immemorial, people have been obsessed with material comforts. It is said that money is important but money is not everything. You cannot buy happiness with money. You will find numerous examples of people with more than enough money to buy whatever they desire. But most of these people are full of stress and happiness is far from their reach. On the other hand, you will find many people who are just able to manage two square meals a day. Yet these people are happy as they get a sound sleep at night. You can also correlate the stresses of overachievers in the modern days, with the story of the King Midas who turned everything into gold, only to find that there was nothing left for him to eat or drink. There was no live person available with whom he could share his joys and sorrows.

Question 4: It is important to see that the Indian argumentative tradition has frequently crossed the barriers of gender, caste, class and community. List the examples cited by Sen to highlight this.

Answer: Sen has given numerous examples to show that the Indian argumentative tradition has frequently crossed the barriers of gender, caste, class and community. He has given examples of Gargi and Maitreyi to illustrate that women too were active participants in dialogue and debate. He talks about a learned man telling about irrelevance of skin colour and caste to wisdom of an individual. He talks about many poets of the Bhakti Period who came from underprivileged section of the society.

Understanding the Text

Question 1: What is Sen’s interpretation of the position taken by Krishna and Arjuna in the debate between them?

(Note Sen’s comment: ‘Arjuna’s contrary arguments are not really vanquished …….. There remains a powerful case for ‘faring well’ and not just ‘faring forward’.)

Answer: The author says that the arguments of ‘faring well’ and ‘faring forward’ remain thoroughly relevant in the contemporary world. Sen says that the case for doing what one sees as one’s duty must be strong. But a person cannot be indifferent to the consequences of his actions. If we look at various problems of the modern world (like terrorism, war, violence, pandemic, economic disparity, regional confrontations, etc.) we need to weigh the pros and cons of Krishna’s and Arjuna’s arguments. You cannot rob everybody else to become filthily rich. You need to apply fair means to become successful and rich.

Question 2: What are the three major issues Sen discusses here in relation to India’s dialogic tradition?

Answer: The three major issues which Sen has discussed in relation to India’s dialogic tradition are as follows:

  • Balancing between faring well and faring forward.
  • Involvement of people from different genders, caste, community and classes
  • Effect of this tradition on the way democracy is practiced in India

Question 3: Sen has sought here to dispel some misconceptions about democracy in India. What are these misconceptions?

Answer: Many people have a misconception that India got democracy as a gift from the Western World. Such people think that India has zero contribution towards the concept of democracy. Some other people have a misconception that there is something unique in India history that makes the country singularly suited to democracy.

Question 4: How, according to Sen, has the tradition of public discussion and interactive reasoning helped the success of democracy in India?

Answer: Sen argues that the tradition of public discussion and interactive reasoning has helped the success of democracy in India in great many different ways. It has helped to make heterodoxy the natural state of affairs in India. India has been thriving as a set of hugely diverse cultures, and respect for different cultures is a result of the long tradition of dialogue and discussions. This culture is also relevant in making India a secular country.




Talking About the Text

Question 1: Does Amartya Sen see argumentation as a positive or a negative value?

Answer: Amartya Sen sees argumentation as a positive value. In every part of this essay, he talks about positive aspects of dialogue and discussions. He talks about positive effects of this culture on the way democracy is being practiced in modern India.

Question 2: How is the message of the Gita generally understood and portrayed? What change in interpretation does Sen suggest?

Answer: People generally understand the message of Gita as Krishna’s preaching to obey one’s call of duty, without making much ado about doing it the right way. Amartya Sen says that Gita is just a minuscule part of the great epic Mahabharata. We need to understand Gita in the context of Mahabharata. We need to supplement the teachings of the Gita with various lessons from the Mahabharata.

Appreciation

This essay is an example of argumentative writing. Supporting statements with evidence is a feature of this kind of writing. For each of the statements, given below state the supportive evidence provided in the essay.

Question 1: Prolixity is not alien to India.

Answer: Krishna Menon’s 9 hour long speech at the UN

Question 2: The arguments are also, often enough, substantive.

Answer: Bhrigu’s arguments about irrelevance of skin colour and caste to wisdom.

Question 3: This admiration of the Gita, and Krishna’s arguments in particular, has been a lasting phenomenon in parts of European culture.

Answer: Examples of Eliot and Oppenheimer

Question 4: There remains a powerful case for ‘faring well’, and not just ‘forward’.

Answer: The author has talked about various pressing problems of the modern world and the need for paying attention to such problems.




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