Scientific temper and the argumentative Indian

September 22, 2005 12:00 am | Updated 12:00 am IST

Scientific temper involves the application of logic and the avoidance of bias and preconceived notions

Since the Upanishadic or Mahabharata times, arguments, disputations, questions and dialogues have characterised Indian thought

Heterodoxy was the characteristic of medieval mystical thought — including the Bhakti and Muslim Sufi traditions

SCIENTIFIC TEMPER is one of the attributes that Pandit Nehru wanted all of us Indians to cultivate. This involves the application of logic and reasoning, and the avoidance of bias and preconceived notions in arriving at decisions, and becomes particularly valuable while deciding what is best for the community or the nation.

Discussion, argument and analysis are vital parts of scientific temper. It is thus necessarily open — admitting every point of view, however heterodox it might be, or where it comes from. Elements of fairness, equality and democracy are built-in. Two eloquent phrases characterise a group that practices scientific temper — internal pluralism and external receptivity.

These two phrases are from Dr. Amartya Sen's recent scholarly collection of essays called `The Argumentative Indian.'

His book makes us realise how scientific temper has been the hallmark of Indian thought over the millennia. The title is a bit of a tease, since the reader might expect Indians to be portrayed as loquacious and quarrelsome in the book.

Hardly! Sen makes the telling point that since the Upanishadic or Mahabharata times, arguments, disputations, questions and dialogues have characterised Indian thought. We often tend to think of science and scientific temper as Western, and brought to us by the colonials. Sen demolishes this thought and points out how the twin features of internal pluralism and external receptivity have been woven into the development of Indian thought over the ages.

Internal pluralism involves accommodating all men, women, kings and robbers, old and young. Gargi questioned the sage Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. And Yajnavalkya's own wife Maitreyi too engaged him in scholarly debate. Note that both Gargi and Maitreyi are women.

Then again the woman Draupadi instigates her wavering husband Yudishthira to go fight the usurper Kauravas.

The Indian argumentative tradition crossed not just the gender barrier, but of castes and class as well. Sen quotes the sage Bharadvaja: "If different colours indicate different castes, then all castes are mixed castes", and the Bhavisya Purana: "Since members of all the four castes are children of God, then all belong to the same caste. All human beings have the same father, and children of the same father cannot have different castes." Is this not what human genome studies have revealed to us recently?

Heterodoxy was the characteristic of medieval mystical thought — including the Bhakti and Muslim Sufi traditions. Many exponents rejected caste and class, religious divides and other imbalances — Khusro the poet, Kabir the weaver, Dadu the spinner, Ravidas the cobbler and Sena the barber.

Here, we find not internal pluralism alone but external receptivity as well. Incidentally, the grammarian Panini was apparently an Afghan!

Sen further argues that this richness of the tradition of argument has shaped our social world and the nature of our culture. It has deeply influenced Indian politics and the development of democracy in India and emergence of its secular priorities. ("It also includes the unequivocal rejection by the Indian electorate of a very prominent attempt in the 1970s to dilute democratic guarantees in India").

The point about secularism is important here. For centuries Buddhism, not Hinduism, was the predominant religion of India. And early Indian Buddhism was famous for its public discussions and `councils' (at Rajagriha, Vaisali, Pataliputra) to settle disputes between different points of view.

Secularism in India included Muslims, Jews, Parsis, Christians, Bahais, Jains, Sikhs, and each community has retained its identity within India's spectrum of faiths.

A remarkable example in this connection that Sen cites is the multiple calendars that are in vogue even today in India. The nature and usage of calendars in India reflect its politics, culture and religion, as well as its science and mathematics.

Ujjain was chosen as the meridian of India (long before Greenwich was chosen in the U.K. and accepted by the world), and the astronomical work Paulisa Siddhanta talked of longitudes at Ujjain, Benaras and Alexandria. Sen says that Ujjain serves as a good reminder of the relation between calendar and culture — note the wonderful description of Ujjain in Kalidasa's works of the 5th century.

Another insightful essay in the book is `The Reach of Reason.' Western thought identifies reason with the age of enlightenment and that the ideas of individual liberty, democracy and ethics came into societal practice from that period. Western scholars identify these as `modern' and tend to point out that these thoughts were introduced by them into the colonies. Sen slams this type of `Samuel Huntingtonism' and points out how values such as rationalistic and liberal ideas, analytical scrutiny, open debate, political tolerance and agreement, rights and justice — and science — were part of the multicultural Indian tradition since the days of Ashoka, Tiruvalluvar, Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, Madhwacharya, Nanak, Kabir, Akbar, Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru.

Akbar in his Rahi Aql (the path of reason) argued that "the pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need for argument. If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their elders (and not come with new messages)".

Is this not what Karl Popper argued years later in his study of science? Perhaps nothing crystallizes the Indian feel for rationalism and scientific temper better than poem 35 of Tagore's Gitanjali:

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way,

into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,

where the mind is led forward by thee into

ever widening thought and action,

into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

Sen argues: "That task, momentous as it is, is made easier by the long history and consummate strength of our argumentative tradition, which we have reason to celebrate and defend". In this collection of 16 erudite essays, he helps us realise the ethos of India. It is this ethos that Nehru wanted us to cultivate when he spoke of scientific temper.

D. Balasubramanian

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