Fatehpur Sikri is the now ruined Mughal capital built by the emperor Akbar outside Agra at the end of the sixteenth century. In the center of the palace that lies at the center of the city stands the diwan-i-khas, or Hall of Private Audience. Standing alone at the center of that room is a single, elaborately carved pillar.

On top of this pillar rests a round platform from which four walkways branch out to the corners of the building. There, four smaller platforms hang suspended. Though academics continue to argue about the exact purpose of this strange and intriguing structure, most agree that it formed some sort of throne for the emperor. Here, sitting on silken cushions raised on the central platform, so proclaiming his position as the axis mundi, the central pillar of the Mughal Empire, Akbar would listen carefully as philosophers, mystics, and holy men of different faiths knelt at the ends of the different walkways debating the merits of their different conceptions of metaphysics.

Muslim rulers are not usually thought of in the West as standard-bearers of freedom of thought; but Akbar for one was obsessed with exploring the central issues of spiritual truth, and doing so with as open and inquiring a mind as possible. To accomplish this ambition, he turned his new city of Fatehpur Sikri into a philosophical laboratory for his spiritual inquiries.

Holy men from all of India’s different religions were invited to the city to make the case for their particular understanding of the metaphysical. In this way Akbar set up the earliest known multireligious discussion group, where representatives of Muslims (Sunni and Shia as well as Sufi), Hindus (both Shaivite and Vaishnavite), Christians, Jains, Jews, and Zoroastrian Parsees came together to discuss where and why they differed, and how they could live together. There was also a party of atheists represented in the discussion: the skeptical Charvaka school, dating back to the sixth century BC, which denied the existence of any transcendental deity.

It was like a more ambitious version of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Platonic Academy in Florence a century earlier, and astonished many more orthodox Muslim contemporaries such as the Sheikh Nur al-Haqq: “Learned men from Khorasan and Iraq and Transoxiania and India, both doctors and theologians, Sh’ia and Sunnis, Christians, philosophers and Brahmins all assembled together at the sublime court,” wrote the Sheikh.

Here they discussed the rational and traditional methods of discourse, travel, and histories as well as each other’s prophecies. They widened the circle of debate and each attempted to prove his own claim and desired the propagation of his school. Outstanding thinkers appeared…. The lofty Lord [Akbar] declared before the people: “Oh learned ones! Our purpose is to seek the truth….”

It is an almost unquestioned commonplace these days that the West is the home of ideas of religious freedom, of free intellectual and theological inquiry, and above all of democracy: when George Bush talks of bringing freedom and democracy to the Muslim world, he envisages exporting it from its home in the West to the East. It is therefore useful to be reminded by Amartya Sen, in his profoundly wise and engaging collection of essays, The Argumentative Indian, that the East has its own venerable traditions of public participation in decision-making, of government by discussion, and of religious tolerance—of which Akbar forms a remarkable but far from unique part. Indeed, as Sen points out, at the same time that most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition, and while in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori for heresy, in India Akbar was declaring that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.”

Amartya Sen is one of the most distinguished minds of our time, a Nobel Prize winner for his contributions to the study of poverty, famines, and welfare economics, a former master of Trinity College Cambridge and now Lamont University Professor at Harvard. It is a measure of the reverence with which Sen is regarded in academia that he has probably been awarded more honorary degrees than any other economist: there were nearly sixty on his CV at the last count. Yet 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; nor, more surprisingly, do they say much about economics.

Instead 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.” The sheer diversity of views and faiths and competing ideas that have always coexisted in India have naturally generated a fecund argumentative tradition in South Asia that has always tolerated and often celebrated a wide spectrum of ideas: “In India,” Sen writes, heterodoxy “has always been the natural state of affairs.”


India’s genius, argues Sen, derives from this diversity, and the way that the different orthodoxies of India have always been challenged. Indians, he writes, have always had a habit of asking difficult questions. They also like to speak, often at length. India’s ancient epics are the longest poems ever composed, while more recently Krishna Menon set the record for the longest speech ever delivered at the United Nations—a remarkable nine hours.

All this, Sen argues, provides inherently rich soil for disagreement, dialogue, reasoning, and compromise, the vital culture-compost in which democracy most readily thrives: “Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning,” he writes.

They are central to the practice of secularism and for even-handed treatment of adherents of different religious faiths (including those who have no religious beliefs)…. The argumentative tradition, if used with deliberation and commitment, can also be extremely important in resisting social inequalities and removing poverty and deprivation. Voice is a crucial component of the pursuit of social justice.

From this perspective, voting and balloting—the invention of Athens and the ancient West—are just part of a much larger and more universal story.


Professor Sen himself stands at the end of a remarkable intellectual lineage. He was educated at the deeply unconventional school founded by an earlier Indian Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore, in rural Santiniketan, a five-hour train ride north of Calcutta: “The school was unusual in many different ways,” writes Sen in an essay on Tagore originally published in these pages,

such as the oddity that classes, except those requiring a laboratory, were held outdoors…. We typically found the experience of outdoor schooling extremely attractive…. There was something remarkable about the ease with which class discussions could move from Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as classical Western thought, and then to the culture of China or Japan or elsewhere. The school’s celebration of variety was also in sharp contrast with the cultural conservatism and separatism that has tended to grip India from time to time.

In this essay Sen quotes his older near contemporary, the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, saying how

the three years I spent at Santiniketan [were] the most fruitful of my life…. Santiniketan opened my eyes for the first time to the splendors of Indian and Far Eastern art. Until that time I was completely under the sway of Western art, music and literature. Santiniketan made me the combined product of East and West that I am.

Tagore’s college seems to have had a similar effect on the young Amartya Sen. Indeed a central idea of Sen’s book—that India’s diversity is the principal source of its intellectual vitality—is one that Tagore consciously incarnated, describing his own family as the product of “a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British.” His grandfather, Dwarkanath, was well known for his command of Arabic and Persian, and Rabindranath, Sen writes, grew up in a family “in which a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts was combined with an understanding of Islamic traditions as well as Persian literature,” all of which flowered in Rabindranath’s “persistently non-sectarian” writings and outlook. For Tagore, diversity was central to the “idea of India” and generated an inclusiveness of outlook that militated against a culturally separatist view—acting “against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.”

This was also a spirit which animated Sen’s family, not least because Tagore was himself strongly influenced by his close friend, the philosopher and fellow leading light of Santiniketan, Kshiti Mohan Sen, who was Amartya’s grandfather. A similar way of looking at the idea of India can be seen from the older Sen’s short introduction to Hinduism, originally published in 1961 and recently reissued with a new foreword by his grandson.1

Here K.M. Sen argues most eloquently the case that the liberty of thought within Hinduism, and its amazing ability constructively to receive and absorb outside influences, were the principal source of its continuing vitality and strength. Like Tagore, K.M. Sen regarded both Indian culture in general, and Hinduism in particular, as enormously strong and adaptable, and his open attitude toward outside influences stemmed from a deep cultural self-confidence: since India’s culture was not fragile he believed it did not need protecting from outside influence, which time and time again it had encountered, then slowly succeeded in seducing, assimilating, and transforming.

In particular the elder Sen emphasizes throughout his book Hinduism’s “remarkable response” to Islamic ideas that can be seen in the evolution of Hindu thought from the twelfth century onward, and especially in the poetry of India’s great medieval syncretic poet-saints such as Kabir, Mira Bai, and Dadu, the last of whom had been born in a Muslim family but founded the mainly Hindu Brahma-Sampradaya (or Community of God) and who reportedly spent no less than forty days engaged in religious debate with Akbar. A similar Hindu-Muslim syncretism is still evident today in the contemporary poetry of the nonsectarian wandering Bengali minstrels known as the Bauls (or “Madmen of God”), whose remarkable Tantric poetry K.M. Sen and Tagore collected and studied. As the older Sen put it: “Many Indians ignore these influences [of Islam], but any objective study of the evolution of Hindu tradition must take into account the creative influence of this great religion.”


When Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, there was a tendency in the West to see him as some sort of exotic bearded Indian mystic.2 This, Sen argues, is to completely misunderstand Tagore, who was a far more realistic, rational, and focused thinker than this exoticizing Western pigeonholing of him would suggest: “The profoundly original writer whose elegant prose and magical poetry Bengali readers know well is not the sermonizing spiritual guru admired—and then rejected—in London.”

What is true of Tagore is, Sen argues, also true in a more general sense of India. For Sen argues very convincingly that it is a fundamental Western mistake to see India as a country enveloped in an eternal mystical fog: instead he traces the region’s analytical, skeptical, and even atheistic traditions back to their earliest roots. He shows that the Rig Veda, India’s oldest sacred text written when both the Pyramids and Stonehenge were still in use, has at its center the idea of uncertainty about the divine: “Who really knows?” it asks.

Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? …Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know.

India, Sen points out, has a “larger literature in the atheistic and agnostic tradition than any other classical language—Greek, Roman, Hebrew or Arabic.”

Likewise, the great Hindu scriptures are notably open to ambiguity. In both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, even the greatest heroes have their weaknesses and the opponents their strengths: nothing is black and white; alternative perspectives are always presented. Even the Bhagavad Gita, the subtle centerpiece of Hindu scriptures, is presented as a debate, between Arjuna and Krishna, both of whom hold equally tenable moral positions and different understandings of dharma or duty. If Krishna eventually wins the debate—about the righteousness of entering into the great battle of Kurukshetra against Arjuna’s own cousins and teachers—the outcome of the battle and the apocalyptic desolation it causes can be seen, Sen believes, “as something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts.”

This tradition of debate and openness to rival positions was augmented by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, who, Sen writes, “laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates” at his great councils, with the opponents of his position “duly honoured in every way on all occasions.” Ashoka also set down in stone basic freedoms for all his people, and did not exclude women and slaves as Aristotle had done.

India’s often forgotten period as a predominantly Buddhist country in the centuries after Ashoka’s conversion to the religion—from around the third century BC until the resurgence of Hinduism in the fifth century AD—has left a profound mark on the country. As Sen points out,

Even the hold of vegetarianism among the Hindus must have been, at least to some extent, the result of Jain and Buddhist influence, since these religions, unlike the Vedic tradition, argued for vegetarian habits, in line with their moral opposition to the killing of animals and their philosophically situating the human species firmly within the broad spectrum of the animal kingdom, something the Vedas refrained from doing.

Crucially, Sen argues that Islam also greatly added to the richness of Indian civilization. He does not play down the destructiveness and sheer brutality of India’s first Muslim invaders, such as the violent iconoclast Mahmud of Ghazni, who destroyed Hindu shrines on a large scale. But Sen is at pains to point out that in the centuries that followed there was a huge amount of intellectual interaction, and the traffic between both Muslim and Hindu cultures went two ways. To this day, for example, scholars argue about whether the concept of zero traveled from India to the Middle East or the other way around; but the decimal system was certainly an Indian invention, dating from between the second and the sixth centuries, and came to be used extensively by Arab mathematicians soon afterward, from whom the idea eventually passed into Christian Europe via Islamic Spain.

A long history of public reasoning and of tolerance of heterodoxy also grew in the Indo-Islamic world, partially transmitted from Hindus to the incoming Muslims, and especially among the Sufis or Islamic mystics. Sen writes with particular enthusiasm of the “tolerant multiculturalism” of Akbar, of his codification of minority rights, his decision to entrust his army to a Hindu—his former opponent Raja Man Singh of Jaipur—and the way he filled his court with artists and intellectuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Indeed for Sen, Akbar is both a symbol of the forgotten tolerance and receptivity of much of Indo-Islamic civilization, and a remarkable example of a Muslim ruler who defies all Western stereotypes of Muslim bigotry. Among the holy men Akbar welcomed to Fatehpur Sikri, for example, were Jesuits from Goa, whom he allowed to set up a chapel—recently excavated by archaeologists—within his palace. There in 1580, to the astonishment of the Jesuits, Akbar prostrated himself before the images of Jesus, and later showed a particular pleasure in the Jesuits’ Christmas festival, when a crib was set up in the palace, adorned with satin and velvet and sculptures of the Christ Child, accompanied by placards proclaiming Gloria in Excelsis Deo in Persian.

Later Portuguese clerics found that the illustrated gospel books brought by their predecessors had led to murals of Christ and the Christian saints being painted on the walls not only of the palace but also nearby Mughal tombs. A Jesuit priest wrote that the emperor

has painted images of Christ Our Lord and Our Lady in various places in the Palace where he spends most of his time, and there are so many saints that…you would say it was more like the palace of a Christian king than a Moorish one.

By the end of Akbar’s reign, a mural of the Nativity filled a wall of the imperial sleeping chamber, while an image of the Virgin of Loreto was said to be particularly treasured by the emperor.3 He is certainly not a ruler who fits Samuel Huntington’s simplistic theory of the clash of civilizations, a thesis Sen rightly disparages throughout his essays.

The idea of Akbar that most intrigues Sen was that “the pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on the marshy land of tradition” was the proper way to address religious disputes. Attacked by traditionalists who argued in favor of instinctive faith in the Islamic tradition, Akbar told his trusted lieutenant Abul Fazl:

The pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders.

By respecting the full diversity of Indian religious beliefs, Sen argues that Akbar in a very real sense laid the true foundations for the nondenominational religious neutrality of the modern secular Indian state. Indeed there is, as Sen points out, a “continuity of legal scholarship and public memory linking [Akbar’s] ideas and codifications with present-day India.”


In choosing to celebrate Islam’s complex contribution to Indian culture, Sen of course stands in direct opposition to the other contemporary Indian Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul has always seen the Islamic incursion into South Asia in negative terms as something which fatally “wounded” ancient Hindu civilization and which was part of a long series of failures that, according to him, still bruises the country’s self-confidence.4 The wound was created by a fatal combination of Islamic aggression and Hindu weakness—the tendency to “retreat,” to withdraw in the face of defeat.

It is a theme that Naipaul first developed in 1964 in An Area of Darkness. The great Hindu ruins of the South, he writes there, represent “the continuity and flow of Hindu India, ever shrinking.” But the ruins of the North—especially the Great Mughal tombs and ruined cities such as Fatehpur Sikri—speak to Naipaul “only of waste and failure.” Even the Taj Mahal is to Naipaul a symbol of oppression: “Europe has its monuments of sun-kings, its Louvres and Versailles. But they are part of the development of the country’s spirit; they express the refining of a nation’s sensibility.” In contrast, to Naipaul, the monuments of the Great Mughals speak only of “personal plunder, and a country with an infinite capacity for being plundered.”5

This obsessively negative attitude toward India’s Muslim history echoes the sort of approach taken to Islam by writers such as Bernard Lewis or indeed by Sen’s fellow Bengali, the late Nirad Chaudhuri.6 In his history of Hinduism, Chaudhuri writes of the development of Hindu thought coming to a close with the rise of Islam in South Asia, after which “all the great cities of Northern India, dating from Hindu times were sacked by Muslim invaders and conquerors of India.” To this Sen comments:

There is, of course, considerable truth in this statement (exaggerated as it is), but to take this to be the whole truth and to ignore the constructive interactions between Hindus and Muslims in religious thinkings (in addition to the creative interrelations in literature, music, painting, architecture, science and medicine) over these centuries can hardly be good history.

Unlike Naipaul, Sen is extremely critical of India’s Hindu nationalist movement and its Hindu revivalist party, the BJP. He deplores what he calls the “communitarian exclusion and aggressive parochialism” of modern Hindutva, which he sees as doing its best to erode the “broad and tolerant” Hindu tradition he so admires. Indeed he directly charges it with adding “very substantially to the politics of sectarianism” and provoking “violent physical actions, including the killing and terrorizing of minorities (as happened in Bombay in 1992 and Gujarat in 2002).”

This aggressive attitude, Sen argues, is a product of an essential ignorance of the diversity and internationalism of Indian history and tradition. India, he points out, has many sources of its culture, and as well as the great Hindu traditions of ancient India, there are profound contributions from Buddhists, Jains, agnostics, atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs: today, as in the past, “interactions in everyday living, or in cultural activities, are not segregated along communal lines.” Ultimately Sen is optimistic that the bigots cannot succeed, since

through their attempts to encourage and exploit separatism, the Hindutva movement has entered into a confrontation with the idea of India itself. This is nothing short of a sustained effort to miniaturize the broad idea of a large India—proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present…. In the confrontation between a large and a small India, the broader understanding can certainly win.

Sen’s erudite book enjoyably mixes moments of profundity with flashes of mischievous provocation, and will surprise and challenge many Indian readers, especially those on the right. But whether one stands in Sen’s camp or that of Naipaul, no one could fail to find this collection of essays engaging and thought-provoking. The product of a great and playful mind at the peak of its power, it is the most stimulating and enjoyable book about the idea and identity of India to be written for years.

This Issue

February 23, 2006