The Debaters

Prof Michel DaninoIt is not Right or Left that India’s intellectual life needs, but a revival of the ancient spirit of free inquiry. … Politically inflected ideologies have run their course. – Prof Michel Danino

Any student of India’s ancient intellectual traditions knows how they valued debate and questioning. Indeed, they often turned it into a preferred mode of teaching. The Upanishads delight in dialectics, as the dialogues of Yama with Nachiketas, Yajñavalkya with Janaka and Gargi, or Uddalaka Aruni with his son Shvetaketu illustrate. Ashtavakra, son of Kahoda, defeats Vandin in a debate to avenge his father’s earlier defeat. Buddhist scholarship depends largely on the art of discussion, as does Charaka’s fundamental text of Ayurveda.

The Mahabharata’s Yakshaprashna, Yudhishthira’s dialogue with his own father, Dharma, disguised as a demon, easily outdoes our shallow quizzes. Hsuan Tsang testifies that students wishing to enter the famed Nalanda University were confronted with probing “discussions” intended to filter out…

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