India needs a Debating Culture (Part 5)

Debate in Ancient India

“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” – Nelson Mandela

Wikipedia has this to say about debating in ancient India:

There was, for a considerable period of time, a very lively and extensively practiced tradition of formal debates in ancient India. These debates were conducted, sometimes with royal patronage, to examine various religious, philosophical, moral and doctrinal issues. The corpus of knowledge on conducting a successful debate was referred to as vādavidyā and several manuals dealing with this discipline had been produced. It was from these debates that the Indian tradition of logic and allied investigations were evolved and developed. The antiquity of this tradition can be traced even to pre-Buddhist period. For example, Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, a pre-Buddhist text, has references to King Janaka as not only organizing and patronizing debates between the sages and priests but also as participating in such debates. Women also used to participate in these debates. Gargi was a woman scholar who used to participate in the debates in King Janaka’s court.

Though debate was popular at the time of the Upanishads, there was no theory of debates during that period. Such a theory evolved along with the spread of the teachings of Buddha, Mahavira, and other ascetics or religious reformers. By the third and second century BCE, monks and priests were required to have training in the art of conducting a successful debate. Several debate manuals were written in different sectarian schools. But these early manuals written in Sanskrit have all been lost. However, the nature of these manuals could be glimpsed from Buddhist Chinese sources as well as from Pali sources like the Kathavatthu.

Indic Today has an excellent summary of public discourse and debate in ancient India:

Basically, the people of ancient India believed that Truth was sacred. So the word was to be used to utter the truth, and to take us closer to the truth. Intellectual integrity was given the highest importance.

In our quest from ignorance to the truth, we start out with bias. Each of us has our biases and stereotypes; these are often based on flimsy evidence. The next stage of refinement is opinion. Having thought about the subject at hand, we form our views and impressions; this doesn’t require deep study, only cursory analysis and logic.

Further, refinement leads to perspective. When we examine the available facts and look at the different sides of the argument, we take an informed stance on the subject; after much toiling we construct our worldview.

The final stage before we reach the truth is vision. Not only do we examine all the facts from different sides but we also internalise the various ideas, thus developing a holistic vision. We become clear about what our assumptions are, what the facts are, what constitutes our analyses, and finally, what the purpose of the study is.

Reading all this made me more convinced that we needed to make a culture of debating central to our lives. In a world being polarised by all media, it was up to the people to step up and create their spaces where they could discuss, argue, persuade and change minds. How could we do this?

But first, I had a more basic problem at hand – to evolve a simple format for the Saturday night conversations with my three friends.

Tomorrow: Part 6

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.