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Ancient Indian Views on Freedom of Expression and Public Discourse

For a moment, just try to visualize the kind of public debates that happen today, on television, in the newspapers, and in person. In the light of these images floating in your mind, read the following lines:

Why fear them? Why pay attention?

Why listen to your opponent’s words?

Just contradict them immediately.

You are sure of victory in the debate!

The five rules for victory are: be cool, be shameless, be mocking, despise your opponent, and praise those in power.

If the mediator is not learned, shout your way to victory.

If the mediator is learned, simply accuse him of being biased!

These words perfectly align with the said images in your mind.

Except that these lines are taken from Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita’s Sanskrit satire Kali Viḍambana, ‘mockery of the kaliyuga,’ written sometime in the 17th century. And it is perhaps significant that he begins his composition with the above lines, poking fun at the intellectuals of his time.

A common feature of public discussions and debates of today is that, people are more interested in forcing their view, rather than embarking on a joint quest to know the truth. The debaters seem to have an opinion on everything. In fact, they are offended if one doesn’t have an opinion on something. Further, there seems to be little or no accountability in standing by what they have said.

Debate in Ancient India

In ancient India, there has been much discussion about freedom of expression and public discourse. This starts with understanding what constitutes eloquent and reasoned expression.

One of the earliest discussions on this subject is found in the story of Sulabhā in the Mahābhārata (Śāntiparva / Book 12, Chapter 308). Sulabhā, a wandering mendicant, debates with Janaka, the philosopher-king, who has become over-confident and pompous due to his spiritual achievements. While Janaka stoops to character assassination and vulgar speech, Sulabhā patiently and methodically demolishes his arguments. The Mahābhārata doesn’t tell us who won the debate but clearly Sulabhā words stand out as opposed to the deluded Janaka.

During the course of their discussion, Sulabhā mentions (Mahābhārata 12.308.79) that in an assembly of intellectuals, the statements made by the debaters should reflect the following five qualities:

Saukṣmya – subtlety, finesse

Sāṁkhya – listing out the points of debate

Krama – order, logical flow of arguments

Nirṇaya – decisiveness

Prayojana – clarity of the purpose of the debate or discussion

Later on, she mentions the various imperfections in discourse. (Mahābhārata 12.308.88-90) They may be divided into flaws of expression and flaws of intent.

Flaws of Expression

Gurvakṣarasaṃbaddham – verbose

Parāṅmukhamukham – complex

Anṛtam – untrue

Trivargeṇa viruddham – opposed to the three basic purposes of human life: dharma (principles), artha (resources), and kāma (enjoyment)

Asaṁsakṛtam – uncultured, ungrammatical

Nyūnam – deficient, too brief

Kaṣṭaśabdam – strained usages, forced language

Vyutkramābhihitaṃ – arrogant tone

Śeṣam – incomplete

Akalpena – ambiguous

Niṣkāraṇam ahetukam – without reason, baseless

Flaws of Intent

While making a statement, one should not be affected by the following emotions:

Kāma (lust)

Krodha (anger)

Bhaya (fear)

Lobha (greed)

Dainya (self-pity)

Anāryatva (disgrace)

Hrī (shame)

Anukrośa (pity)

Māna (arrogance)

Sulabhā then makes this wonderful observation-“During the course of a discussion, when the speaker, the listener, and the words spoken agree with one another without conflict, then the meaning comes out clearly.” (Mahābhārata 12.308.91)

In the Bhagavadgītā, Krishna gives a holistic view of right expression by saying, “Speaking words that are truthful, pleasant, beneficial, and not causing distress or anxiety, as well as the study and recitation of scriptures – this is austerity of speech.” (Bhagavadgītā 17.15)

The great law-giver and seer Manu goes on to say that one must speak words that are both truthful and gentle- neither gentle words that are false nor harsh words that are true. (Manusmṛti 4.138) The great poet Bhāravi says in his magnum opus (Kirātārjunīya 11.38) that speech should, in essence, evoke serenity, cheerfulness, and positive energy.

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. It is interesting to note the importance that Kauṭilya gives to ānvīkṣikī, ‘reasoning’ in the Arthaśāstra (1.2).

A useful framework to have while embarking on a discussion is found in the anubandha catuṣṭaya, ‘the four bindings’ that Sadānanda Yogendra Sarasvati puts forth (Vedāntasāra 1.5) for the study of vedānta, which can be easily applied to discussions in general:

Adhikāri – the one who is qualified to study or speak about a subject

Viṣaya – the subject matter; the scope of the discussion

Saṃbandha – the connection of the adhikāri to the viṣaya

Prayojana – the purpose of the discussion

Some of the biggest gaffes in today’s debates are because one or more of these four criteria aren’t taken into consideration by the debaters.

The Nyaya School

Perhaps the most systematic exposition on the subject of discussions and debates is found in the Nyāya School, one of the six classical schools of Indian philosophy. The sage and philosopher Akṣapāda Gautama wrote the Nyāya Sūtra, which is the earliest text of this school.

He begins (Nyāya Sūtra 1.1.1) by listing out the sixteen padārthas, ‘categories’ that lead to success in attaining knowledge and goes on to explain them in the succeeding verses (Nyāya Sūtra 1.1.2-41, 1.2.1-20):

Pramāṇa – refers to the methods by which knowledge is obtained. These are four: pratyakṣa (direct perception; seeing), anumāna (inference; assumption), upamāna (comparison; relying on what is already known), and śabda (scriptures; reliable sources)

Prameya – refers to the subject of study; traditionally it was soul, body, mind, etc.

Saṁśaya – refers to the doubt that arises from conflicting judgments about the exact nature of something

Prayojana – refers to the purpose of the study; what one aims to achieve and/or avoid

Dṛṣṭānta – refers to the points of agreement; these are commonly held views, that are at once acceptable to the scholar and layman

Siddhānta – refers to an established theory that derives its authority from a particular school of thought or hypothesis

Avayava – refers to the elements of reasoning. These are six: pratijñā (proposition), hetu (reason), udāhārana (example), upanaya (application, reaffirmation), and nigamana (conclusion)

Tarka – refers to the act of reasoning that is carried out in order to know the exact nature of something

Nirṇaya – refers to the decision taken after listening to the opposing sides, thus removing the doubts and getting closer to the truth

Vāda – refers to discussion carried out with the intention of getting closer to the truth; in this case, there is no need for a mediator because those involved in the discussion are jointly seeking the truth, and do not intend to debate with one another

Jalpa – refers to debate (or argument) that is carried out with the sole intention of winning and proving one’s point; in this case, a mediator is required and the ground rules have to be laid clearly

Vitaṇḍā – refers to malicious quarrel that is employed with the sole intention of maligning the opponents, and contradicting their views without any grounds; this used to be punishable by law

Hetvābhāsa – refers to the fallacies in reasoning; in this case, the arguments are hollow, erratic, ill-timed, and contradictory

Chala – refers to deceit in argument; here, the debater could intentionally misinterpret an ambiguous word used by his opponent, or by taking the literal meaning of a metaphor used by the opponent

Jāti – refers to futile refutation of arguments, and making claims that are self-contradictory

Nigrahasthāna – refers to the points of defeat; there are several instances where the debater might be checkmated or trapped

Nature of Public Discourse

Manusmṛti 12.102-19 deals with law-making and setting up of the sabhā (assembly). There are many details that go into the setting up of a sabhā; and it is important to get the opinions of the sabhā before presenting your views on a public platform. In the early days, it was not so easy to share one’s ideas with the world without getting it whetted by a group of learned people.

In his comment on Manusmṛti 12.113, Kullūka Bhaṭṭa says that it’s no use to blindly follow the letter of the law. If we don’t ponder upon the matter using our common sense, then dharma may be violated (we find a similar idea in Bṛhaspatismṛti 1.1.19). This is particularly instructive in grey areas, where no specific rule can be invoked (for example, what counts as obscenity in a movie?)

Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra (3.18) prescribes specific monetary fines for mithyāropa (false accusations) and vākpāruṣya (abusive language). Further, Kauṭilya says that slander is bad, but abuse of money and property is worse (A 8.3). Basically, if we think bad thoughts, nobody can punish that. However, if we speak bad speech, then that is punishable in small measure, and if we do bad deeds, then that is punishable in larger measure.

Manusmṛti 8.13-15 speaks about the practical aspects of dharma in daily life. Manu says, “Either you stay out of the court/assembly, or having entered, speak the truth. If you remain silent or if you tell a lie, you are a sinner.”

Manu also says that each one should follow his duty as per his profession (Manusmṛti 8.42). These verses underscore the idea, that the onus to maintain integrity is not only on the judges and law-makers; but also on the individuals of a society. Fines and punishments can work only to a limited extent.

Art and Freedom of Expression

There is also much discussion in today’s world, about what kind of art is acceptable, and what is objectionable. In these matters, one has to simply follow the laws of the land. It is almost impossible to have a detailed framework, and set of rules for every possible type of transgression. In general, we can say that if we want to judge any art, we have to use the principles of aesthetics.

In the Nāṭyaśāstra (1.7-15), Bharata speaks about the origin of drama. He says that since audio-visual entertainment was lacking, and people were over indulging in sensual pleasures, he created drama as a positive distraction.

After drama was created, there began a preparation for conducting the first ever drama, ‘Amṛta Manthana’, or ‘the churning of the ocean.’ When it was staged, the demons were upset that the play showed them in a bad light. They created a huge ruckus, jumped on stage, manhandled the actors, and disrupted the play.

Indra and other gods fought with them and defeated them. Then they went to Brahmā, and complained about their plight. He pacified them saying that it’s just a play, and sometimes the gods might win while at other times, the demons might win. He asked them not to take it personally (Nāṭyaśāstra 1.101-7). This clearly suggests that one should not read too much motive into art. Ultimately, art should bring joy and serenity (Nāṭyaśāstra 1.114-15).

In fact, Dhanañjaya goes as far as saying that only fools look for education in art instead of enjoyment (Daśarūpaka 1.6). Even if we are dealing with propagandist art, there is little that we can say outside of the aesthetic principles of the art itself. And if we are really upset by it, we can always compose a parody in response.

In the final chapter of the Nāṭyaśāstra (36.33-35), there is an episode where Bharata’s sons get conceited with their knowledge of drama, and produce a cheap play that caricatures prominent seers and saints. The sages, upset by this, curse the sons of Bharata.

The Gods intervene on their behalf, and reduce the effect of the curse such that the drama is saved, although the artistes remain cursed. This instructive episode suggests that in the name of artistic freedom, it is unwise to caricature people who are worthy of respect. Further, it is always art that should be protected even if it is at the cost of a few artistes.

Examples of Debates in Ancient India

Finally, in order to understand public discourse better, let us look at a few examples of beautiful debates and discussions in our traditional texts.

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.1.1-20, Dṛpta-Bālāki, a brāhmaṇa, goes to King Ajātaśatru, and starts boasting about his knowledge of brahman (Supreme Being). The king patiently hears him out, and finally says that his knowledge is incomplete, and that there is more to be known. Then the brāhmaṇa, realizing his folly, asks the king to guide him. Ajātaśatru remarks that it was strange indeed that a brāhmaṇa was learning about brahman from a kṣatriya; but goes on to explain the subject since Bālāki sought instruction.

In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad 5.3.1-7, young Śvetaketu goes to his father Uddālaka, and tells him about the questions posed by King Pravāhaṇa. Śvetaketu accuses his father of not teaching him everything that he knew. Uddālaka is surprised at hearing the questions, and tells his son that he himself doesn’t know the answers. Then they both go to the king to learn that from him. Pravāhaṇa tells Uddālaka that previously the knowledge was only with kṣatriyas but he would go forth and instruct the brāhmaṇas who seek the knowledge.

A later chapter of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (6.1.1-7) narrates the story of Śvetaketu going to study the Vedas for twelve years, and returning to his father’s house as a young man who is quite conceited with his learning. His father Uddālaka tells him that he has become complacent and arrogant, so much so that he doesn’t know the ultimate teaching. Śvetaketu asks, “How can there be such a teaching?” Now, Uddālaka doesn’t ridicule him or rebuke him. He gently takes Śvetaketu on the right path by patiently explaining the ultimate teaching.

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.7.1, Uddālaka Āruṇi warns Yājñavalkya that his head would fall off if, he did not know what he claimed to know. It is a beautiful metaphor that reminds us to be accountable for what we say, to the extent that we would give our life if what we said was untrue.

Again, in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.1-4, King Janaka and Sage Yājñavalkya hold a discussion on a variety of topics. That is a classic example for vāda– a discussion between equals, and at the highest level. Neither judge, nor arbiter, nor audience is required. There is neither clamour, nor polemics; but just a joint effort in the quest of truth.

Equally, there is a lovely dialogue between the Buddha and Māluṅkyaputta in the Cūḷamāluṅkya Sutta from the Sutta Piṭaka. Māluṅkyaputta poses many unanswerable questions to the Buddha (“Is the cosmos finite?”, “Is the cosmos eternal?”, etc.)

In response, the Buddha tells him the story of a man who has been fatally wounded with a poisoned arrow. The wounded man’s friends and relatives are willing to bring a surgeon to pull out the arrow, but the man first wanted to know the caste of the man who shot the arrow. Then he wanted to know the name and clan of the man. Then he wanted to know the physical characteristics of the man. Then he wanted to know where the man came from, and what kind of bow he used…. and so on. The Buddha tells Māluṅkyaputta that before all these questions were answered, the man would die. And so, first, focus on what is pertinent and then you may think about the rest of the universe.

Co-authored by Hari Ravikumar.

(The article was earlier published on

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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