The public discourse in today’s Bharat has hit a new low. Be it mud-slinging on social media, debates on news televisions, public speeches/comments of politicians or press conferences by various political parties, the level of acrimony, bitterness and harshness is unprecedented. What we as a society have to witness and suffer every day is violence of words. Most of our public intellectuals and the so called ‘influencers’ tend to add fuel to the fire.
Bharatiya vs European framework of ‘Debate’
The root cause of this problem is that we adopted the Western framework of ‘debate’ under European influence of around 200 years and left our own tradition of ‘Vaad’ that we have inherited since the birth of our civilisation. There is a fundamental difference between the Western framework and the Bharatiya tradition in this regard. The Western framework of public discourse believes that the idea behind a debate is to win an argument by outwitting the opponent through combative and aggressive arguments. The Bharatiya tradition of Vaad believes that the objective of a debate is not about winning an argument but about reaching nearer the truth.
That is why unlike the unilinear approach of the West ‘Vaad’ has a multi-dimensional approach with two key facets: Samvada (correspondence/communication) and Vivada (disagreements).
Wilhelm Halbfass aptly explained the reason behind the contorted model of debate and the Indian dilemma in India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Halbfass said, “Modern Indian thought finds itself in a historical context created by Europe, and it has difficulties speaking. Even in its self-representation and self-assertion, it speaks to a large extent in European idioms. This does not, however, mean that the dialogue between India and Europe has been superseded by Europe. The power of the Indian tradition has not exhausted itself in self-representation and self-interpretation of Modern India. The dialogic situation is still open.”
Halbfass (1940-2000) was professor of Indian Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. His work, mentioned above, was published in 1988. Since then, the dialogic window has become much narrower and with the advent of West controlled social media platforms, the European idiom has become much more dominating. This gets reflected in the emergence of new buzz words that govern our public discourses such as ‘trending’, ‘trolling’, ‘Viral tweets/posts’ as well as the frequent use of derogatory words in our public space. This wasn’t our Bharatiya tradition ever when it came to debates or discussions.
Radha Vallabh Triptahi explains it lucidly in Vada (Vaad) in Theory and Practice, “There is a popular saying amongst Sanskrit Pandits: ‘Vaade, Vaade Jayate tattvabodhah’ (after going through the series of Vaadas, true knowledge is acquired). In fact, it is this idea of tattvabodha — arriving at the very essence and ultimate truth — that distinguishes the Indian tradition of ‘Vaada’ from Western dialecticism. Greek philosophers like Aristotle have given the idea of dialectics primarily in the sense of ‘the art’ discussion, debate, controversy, a method of argument or disputation, the process of discursive or conversational thinking.”
S Radhakrishnan, former president of Bharat and a well-known scholar of Bharatiya traditions, wrote in Indian Philosophy (Vol. 2), “Helped by natural conditions, and provided with the intellectual scope to think out the implications of things, the Indians escaped the doom which Plato pronounced to be the worst of all, viz. the hatred of reason.”
Violence of speech
Ancient Bharatiya scriptures such as panishads, Mahabharata, Suutanipata (an ancient Buddhist text), Yajnavalkyasmriti, Arthashastra, etc, talk extensively about avoiding use of harsh words in a debate.
Bhishma lays down the criterion of not using harsh language for carrying out a discussion. According to the Mahabharata, the use of harsh words or foul language can be equated with inflicting violence on a person.
Gautam Buddha clearly said that a person who quarrels with others about his own point of view as he is prejudiced, can’t be brought to the senses.
According to Tripathi, “The law books of Manu, Yajnavalkya, Narada and others define ‘Vaak-Parusya’ (harshness of speech) as one of the sins and also prescribe punishment for it. The concept of Vaak-Parusya involves shouting, calling names and throwing abuses… Kautilya defines the following categories of Vaak-Parusya — attributing physical deficiency (calling someone blind, deaf etc.), use of filthy language and condemnation.”
The Ramayana and Mahabharata both have some interesting and fiery debates but instead of indulging in violence of speech, the participants strictly adhered to certain norms of discussions. It would do our politicians, TV anchors, public intellectuals and social media influencers a lot of good and help to bring up the level of public discourse if they can go back to Mahabharata (Shantiparva) and read the debate between philosopher king Janaka and a single woman Sulabha who is an intellectual-renunciant.
Sulabha gives a perfect guide for carrying out a debate as she outlines 18 blemishes of speech which corrupt the wisdom-nine of them are related to the structure and stylistics of the discourse and nine are related to the intent of the interlocutor.
Nine flaws of expression related to structure and stylistics
The flaws of expression that affect a debate as explained by Sulabha are Gurvarthasamutyam (verboseness), Paranmukhasukam (not easy to understand), Antram (false), Trivargena Viruddham (flouting the human ends: Dharma, Artha and Kama), Asamkartam (uncultured/ungrammatical), Nyunam (laconic), Kastam (full of strained phrases), Vikramabhihatam (full of words reflecting arrogance), Sesam (incomplete) and Niskaranam (unreasonable).
Nine flaws of expression related to the intent
Nine flaws of intent pertain to making a statement out of Kama (lust), Krodha (rage), Bhaya (fear), Lobha (greed),Dainya (self-pity), Anaryatva (disgrace), Hri (bashfulness), Anukrosa (pity) and Mana (ego).
Virtues of speech
According to the Mahabharata, these are the virtues which the speech imbibes when free from these blemishes: Anapetarthata (wholeness), Abhinnarthata (coherence), Nyayarthata (judiciousness),Anyunadhiky (conciseness), Slaksanata (grace) and Asandigdhata (being free from doubt).
It is mentioned in the Mahabharata, “A discourse is illuminated when the speaker, listener and the statement come in unison. The communication does not develop if the speaker disregards the listener and simply promotes self-interest. On the other hand, if he/she gives up his/her own issues and simply promotes the issues of the other, then also his discourse is subjected to doubts and the statement becomes defective. A true speaker therefore takes into account the view of the listener and also puts up his own propositions in a balanced way.”
As mentioned above, it would do the quality of public discourse in Bharat a great deal of good if we can learn from the rich history of debates, dialogues and discussions in our intellectual discourses in the past. This would help us all to reach nearer the truth making all these debates worthwhile; otherwise we can choose our public discourse to be governed by cacophony.
The writer, an author and columnist, has written several books. He tweets @ArunAnandLive. Views expressed are personal.