Tarka Shastras and the culture of the argumentative Indian

Self styled liberal authors and film makers do frequently misrepresent Indian traditions. In the Tamil movie Dashavatara, which has nothing to do with the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the film makers show Shaivites and Vaishnavites engaged in violent clashes. It is now widely known that Isalmic Invaders and rulers desecrated and destroyed thousands of temples. Maybe, the film makers tried to project that Shaivites, Vaishnavites and other sects did similar things to one another.

Whatever might be their intention, what is shown in the movie is devoid of any historical fact or logical possibility. No doubt there were rivalries among various sects. But the rivalries were settled in very sophisticated ways without involving violence.

There was a time when Buddhism was just another path of spirituality. There were already so many paths of spirituality in India. Buddhism was one of them. Its popularity increased and later on it branched out as a separate religion. Then also there were lots of fluidity of movement. One could go to attend a Buddhist discourse and still remain a Hindu. Or one could be a Hindu today, a Buddhist next year and come back again to Hindu fold after a couple of years. In the same family there could be Hindus and Buddhists living under the same roof for years together. There were Buddhist kings whose wives continued to be Hindus. Unlike today, religious or sectarian affiliations were never rigid.

Since last six or seven centuries religious conversions have been happening in India either by force, or by material inducement, or by psychological manipulation. Funded by foreign hardliners, religious conversion in India is a very lucrative industry. But in those days even the process of conversion was a beautiful tradition. At least that was how great intellectuals got converted. It is said that a Buddhist teacher with his disciples and a Hindu guru with his disciples would meet for a debate. If the Hindu lost, he along with all his disciples would embrace Buddhism and vice versa. It was a logical follow up of the outcome of the debate. The guru who lost the debate became the disciple of the victor to fulfill the terms of the debate. According to the legends, that was how Adi Shankaracharya established the supremacy of advaita vedanta and revived Hindusim.

And those debates must have been anything but today’s TV debates where kutarka dominates. When you open a news channel it feels like you have entered to witness the fight between the crows and the owls. Kutarka appears on surface to be logical but as you dig deep you come to know that it is a fallacy. It is easy to deceive the gullible with kutarka. One popular kutarka is – zero divided by five is zero and zero divided by ten is zero, so five is equal to ten.

When conclusions are drawn from partial truth that is also a type of kutarka. We have these professional M haters. Or let us say P haters. Or K haters. So, if out of ten occasions M has done right on eight occasions and wrong on two occasions, these professionals quote only the two failures to say that M is a total failure. Kutarka is so dominant in our poplar discourses that in spite of having access to so much information, it becomes difficult to find out the truth, because, to get to the truth you have to wade through so much propaganda that appears to be logical at surface.

Those were the days when intellectuals were judged not based on their decibel level or position in society or the number of followers they had, but purely on the quality of their tarka. By the way, though tarka is literally translated as logic, in the context of the Indian knowledge systems, tarka is connected with guidelines for art of debate. It defines the basic terms and states methods to explore so as to gain knowledge and find out the truth.

The art of debate had to be refined to avoid kutarka and ambiguity. It was not that there were always face to face organised debates. The proponents of various philosophical schools put forth their arguments in elaborate books. To avoid ambiguity and make their arguments fair, forceful and appeal to common sense, each school elaborately explained the system of their tarka. Such explanations were sometimes embedded inside the texts or sometimes these were separate books. Tarka Sangraha of Annambhatta is such a text which is associated with Nyaya school of Indian philosophy. In this context let me briefly mention various systems of Indian philosophy.

There are nine scholols of Indian philosophy (Bharatiya Darshana) – Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purba Mimamsa, Uttara Mimamsa, Jaina, Buddhist and Charvaka. The first six are astika schools and are known as orthodox systems. The rest are nastika schools and are known as heterodox schools. The astika schools are called so not because the proponents believed in a concept of Gods, but because they believed in the authorities of the Vedas. In fact God is either not at all important or all together missing even from some of the astika schools and sub-schools.

So translating astika as theist and nastika as atheist may sometimes be misleading, especially in the context of Indian philosophy. It is also worthwhile to note that though philosophy and darshan are used interchangeably, etymologically they have different meanings. Philosophy, a combination of two words ‘philein’ (love) and ‘sophia’ (knowledge) means love of knowledge. Darshan means to see deep into.

Any kind of debate is futile unless all the parties have the required background knowledge and derive the same meaning from the same words. The cacophony of today’s debates whether on social media or on TV is mostly because the parties don’t bother to have the necessary background knowledge before coming to debate. It goes without saying that sometimes panelists are called only because they have some celebrity value and even though they may have zero background knowledge on the topic. It gets compounded when the parties assign different meanings to the same word. Subsequently, they are lost only in shouting out to establish supremacy in stead of listening and basing their arguments after properly understanding what the other party is saying.

Maybe, if not to have a better world, at least to to have sensible dialogue and debates on all platforms, knowledge of ancient systems of civilised debate should be made compulsory for all participants and spokespersons.

Coming to the Dashavatara Tamil movie, the premise itself is wrong. Most of our so called intellectuals focus only on the surface and never probe into the underlying deeper philosophical aspects. Exclusivity has never been in the Sanatani tradition which is an organic and integrative system. Moreover, as I have mentioned in the previous post all the different deities are considered as the manifestation of the same supreme Brahman. Hari and Hara are not different at the core. There used to be rivalries among various sects. But these were either resolved by civilised and sophisticated debates using the principles of tarka or left unresolved with each sect following its path without resorting to violence of any kind or desecrating the sacred places or symbols of others.


This is the alphabet T post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.

15 thoughts on “Tarka Shastras and the culture of the argumentative Indian

  1. Interesting to learn how Adi Shankaracharya established the supremacy of Advaita Vedanta and revived Hindusim. Wasn’t aware of Tarka Shastra. Amazes me that our India has so many schools of thought!

    Totally agree with your analysis of TV debates today. Many “intellectuals” invited as panelists, don’t even understand the subject! e.g. they state Trademark/Patent instead of GI! 🙂 How will the public become any wiser following such people? Lord Jagannatha knows!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I opted out of watching ‘news’ on TV three years ago and this clip you shared reminded me that I had made the right decision then:)
    I wish the tradition of getting ones views heard via debates (such as you describe here) is brought back. Otherwise, it’s the blind leading the blind to the country’s/society’s/ world’s detriment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Producers of “Dashavatara” and organisers and participants of televised debates are apparently at the same plane of wisdom that is woefully below the perceived intelligence of primates. I suspect we have already advanced to the prophetic visualisation of human race by H G Wells in The Time Machine. What we are witnessing around us is a gradual but definite transmogrification of masses into Morlocks. ‘Tark’, that was originally intended to be a logical discourse has come to be understood as vitriolic attacks on one’s opponents. The day is not far when Tark will be synonymous to slaughter.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Glad to know that Sankaracharya revived Hinduism through Tarka Shastra. Also was not aware that one who lost the debate had to embrace the winner’s religion.

    And totally agree with you on the pseudo-intellectuals who create noise on TV news channels only for TRPs. I have stopped watching the news channels.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You are spot on about the TV debates. Kutark. Precise description. Your post makes many valid arguments. “Unlike today, religious or sectarian affiliations were never rigid.” This has to be the best, in today’s intolerant society.

    Liked by 1 person

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