The title itself is intriguing, characterizing an entire nation as "argumentative". The book is a superb ride through the history, culture, religion, philosophy and politics of the Indian subcontinent. The perspective is modern, and very strongly in support of India's pluralist tradition, tolerance and encouragement for heterodox views. Prof. Sen addresses the issue of India and Indianness using the cultural, religious, philosophic, and historical record of India in many ways. Importantly, from this record, he draws connections, shows parallels and provides context to a lot of contemporary questions about India. I see the book as a guide to Indianness, that focuses on a particular aspect of being Indian - the rich heritage of reasoning and argumentation about important questions. Prof. Sen explains the argumentative tradition well, and himself presents compelling arguments in the discussion of various current issues facing India, from the nuclear bomb to gross inequality.
The book is a collection of essays written over the past several years. The essays have been woven together in the book's theme. The four sections of the book, "Voice and Heterodoxy", "Culture and Communication", "Politics and Protest"and "Reason and Identity" are all based on Prof. Sen's many decades of research into these issues. Prof. Sen draws on results from his work in the economics of poverty, famines, and gender and class divisions. He uses a rich variety of documents, from religious texts such as the Vedas and Upanishads to modern Indian thought expressed in Tagore, Nehru and Gandhi's writings and Satyajit Ray's cinema. He relies on many foreign records of India in the past, such as those by Alberuni, Yi Jing and others. The arguments made by Prof. Sen are forceful yet put forth gently, with great care to respect a different point of view. He considers each narrow view carefully, and rejects it with great reasoninng.
Some of the important questions that Prof. Sen addresses include
- The historical record and present state of India's argumentative tradition. From the Vedas to the current democratic process, India's record of debate, dialog and discussion. How argumentation and reasoning is a truly indigenous tradition, not an influence of the west.
- The heterodoxy inherent in Hindu tradition. How does the concept of Hindutva being advanced by communal forces relate to Hinduism? In particular, how Hindutva restricts itself to a narrow, incomplete view of Hinduism, belittling a great tradition.
- India's global connections. How does (and should) India relate to the world - in the past and the present.
- The Indian identity. How do religion, class, caste, language and other factors relate to beind Indian. How is identity "defined", not "discovered" by an individual, and why it matters.
- Mistaken perceptions. How the western perception of India as a "mystical land of spirituality" is mistaken, in view of India's achievements in philosophy, science and literature. How do Indians' perceive India, and how that perception is influenced by Western beliefs.