The Indic tradition of debate

It should be possible to have profound questioning and open debate without encouraging intolerance or separatism.

There is a long tradition of dialogue and debate within all the spiritual and philosophical traditions of India, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain. Everything proposed can be doubted and the teacher himself must be questioned. The Upanishads, for example, contain extensive questioning, dialogue and debate, rather than merely setting forth a particular doctrine or creed. This tradition of questioning and inquiry is not only true of the knowledge-based traditions like Advaita Vedanta but of the devotion based traditions like Dvaita Vedanta as well. Such debates occur both within Indic traditions, like between the many Schools of Vedanta, while others occur between Vedic and non-Vedic systems, like debates between the Buddhists and the Vedantins or Samkhya followers.


Yet over the past two hundred years, we find this tradition of debate ignored, neglected, criticized or rejected. Instead there is a new approach of accepting all paths as valid or true, even when their principles and practices may be mutually contradictory. This extends not only to different Indic systems but often includes an effort to embrace outside religious and spiritual traditions, including those that may be hostile to Indic traditions. It includes often an equation of terminology that blurs potentially different meanings. This includes a lot of English terminology used to translate Sanskirt, even when the meanings may not be the same, like Moksha or liberation from the cycle of rebirth, equated with salvation or release from sin that takes on to Heaven.

Of course the path of reconciliation between spiritual paths has its value, but it can respect differences of philosophies or theologies as well. Tolerance between different religions or philosophies has an important place, particularly at a political and social level. Yet something gets lost when we discard critical debate, and try to equate everything as the same, as long as some spiritual or religious terminology may be involved.

It should be possible to have profound questioning and open debate without encouraging intolerance or separatism. It is important to revive this Indic tradition of friendly debate in order to sustain any deeper spirituality, which should rest upon meditative inquiry, not simply verbal agreements or emotional equations. A new Indic scholarship should bear this in mind. It should follow the same approach as in science, where every theory can be questioned and in some way must prove itself, yet with all the decorum between scientists maintained at the same time. This is also what the older tradition required. We find the same tradition of debate in Tibetan Buddhism, where it seems to remain intact.

Dr David Frawley
(Pt Vamadeva Shastri)

This essay was first published in Motilal Banarsidass Book Depot’s January 2014 newsletter.

Photo: Thessilian