Learning from Past: The Tradition of Questioning in Ancient Indian Culture


The concept and practice of questioning found across time and space in human society. Similarly, Indian culture experiences the idea of questioning from its earlier period. The idea of questioning led to the composition of ancient Indian knowledge tradition in the form of the Veda, Upanishad, Aranyaka, Brahmana, Itihasa, Purana, and a number of such kinds of literature. Most of these writings are meant to unravel the truth behind man’s curiosity to know the cause of the creation and origin of various species. The two distinctive approaches: religion and science have developed by man to explain the causes for creating this universe. It has been a subject of inquiry until today. So, the creation of religions came into existence due to the question that always hammers the minds of man about its existence. Without any question, the whole lot of knowledge system could not be possible.

As human progress reaches to civilization from the savage life, the freedom to ask questions becoming more restricted. Dos and don’ts became necessary phenomena in man-made society. Similarly, the present Indian society experienced the inappropriate condition for man’s unhindered capacity to ask questions. The more we claimed to be civilized we become more artificial and critical about some selective questions. Now, man can speak and write well to express its ideas but becoming selective to some questions due to expected inferential fear psychosis of its repercussion.

Education as an integral part of civilization noticed to be record-low phenomena of asking questions at present. Putting constraint on asking questions from the formative age shows the prohibition on the idea of questioning. Posing questions to an elderly person has been considered to be rebelled taught in early socialization and schooling to some extent. Now-a-days, the absence of freedom for our students deprives them from critical thinking and creative imagination. The lack of creative thinking puts innovation in delusion and directly or indirectly it halts the progress of human society. As a colonial offshoot, the Indian education system still not enhancing the original thought. The Anglicists constantly demean India’s traditional knowledge and critical about its practicality, rationality, and contemporary problem-solving capacity for which Indian intellectual constantly depends on the west for any kind of educational improvement.

Not only colonial but also post-colonial period, mostly the Indian intellectual does not encourage our students to understand the importance of questioning in Indian tradition. Right from the introduction of colonial education, the purpose was to produce an obedient subject instead of rationally or critically thinking individuals. Also, it has been an untouched area to study how a student’s question considered by an adult as a challenge posed to their knowledge as well as their ego. We have rightly fulfilled the colonial objective blindly following western structure and approach without realizing its appropriateness in the Indian context. It is prevalent in an Indian society how education in school, college, and university confined itself with textbooks, memorization, reading, writing, and conferring degrees. We hardly encourage our students to think and ask questions for which our educational system lost its contemporariness. It discourages our students to ask the question and a student even dare to do so then they are mentally or physically tortured otherwise. Asking questions to a teacher is equivalent to challenging their authority. These teachers put forward examples from our ancient Indian tradition that a good student should be like Aruni and Upamanyu who never posed any question to their Gurus and obeys whatever been told to do.

From the incipient stage of human communication (oral and written), the question had been an inseparable part of human life. Its importance has been growing until now. Question is the root cause for the composition of texts related to epic and scientific in order to explore the mystery of the origin of this creation. The earliest collection of knowledge related to the mystery of creation found in the Vedas. The Nasadiya Sukta of Rig Veda has been skeptical about the various aspects of creation and questions being employed to inquiry about it. Such examples of the critical questions have been found in the tenth Mandal of Nasadiya Sukta proves the presence of questions in ancient Indian culture.

The Upanishads are an important part of Vedic literature. The incorporation of questions in Upanishads shows the philosophical approach to it. In Mundak Upanishad, a household person namely Shounak asked questions to Sage Agnirasa, “What is that knowing which all others are known? Can we know the most fundamental knowledge for knowing everything? The Brihadaranyak Upanishad consists of question asked by Maitreyi to her husband Sage Yajnavalkya, “Sir, of that alone which you know to be the only means of attaining immortality? The Kena Upanishad starts with the question: What activates our mind? What is the mind of the mind? What is behind the mind? What is behind our senses activating them? The Katha Upanishad of the fifth century narrates the conversation between Nachiketa, a child, with Yamraj, the god of death. The little boy posed an important and mysterious question, “What happened to a person after its death, some say that s/he exists; some say that a person does not exist.”

Prasnoponishad as its title suggests the importance of question placed in a conversation between Kavandhi and Sage Pippalada. Each section of this Upanishad starts with a question which has been answered by Pippalada. The first question, “Where are all the creatures born?”. Secondly, “What do we mean by lively?, Thirdly, “What is the nature of man?”, Fourthly, “what do we mean by man?”, Fifthly, “What do we mean by meditation and why should we go for it?” the answer for all these questions may or may not convincing to all but what we would like to draw is the tradition of asking questions is an inherent part of ancient Indian life.

The Post-Vedic period was full of questions evident in an epic like The Mahabharata. The beginning of the Mahabharata is conversational mode among various persons to understand the genealogy of the Bharatas. The presence of questions in the Mahabharata is a normal thing and Gita, an important part of it, starts with a sloka asking questions following, “Dharma Kshetre Kurushetre Samaveta Yuyutsava, Mamaka Pandava schaiva Kim Kurvata Sanjay.” In this sloka, Kim means “what,” which suggests the presence of question. Dhritarashtra, the emperor of Hastinapur and the father of Duryadhan, has been excited to know the position of the Pandava army and Kaurava army on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Gita is mostly the conversation between Arjun and Lord Krishna. Arjun asks question and Lord Krishna answer it appropriately. Even it is largely found that Arjun was skeptical about the answer given by Lord Krishna and posed counter-question.

Not only in Vedic but also in the Buddhist tradition, the importance of question goes high. The Buddhist text like Sutta nipata have words like Vadasila, Vitandas, Lokayats, and materialists which are connected with the world of question. According to Sutta Pitaka, Gautam Buddha teaches about four types of questions and their answer should be given accordingly. Firstly, there are questions that should be answered categorically (straightforwardly yes, no, this, that). Secondly, there are questions that should be answered with an analytical answer (defining or redefining the terms). Thirdly, there are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. Fourthly, there are questions that should be put aside.

Whether it is Vedic or Buddhist writings, the presence of questions within it is noticeable. The major pillar edict (No.2) of Asoka says, “Dhamma Sadhu, Kiyam Cu Dhammeti; Apasinave, Bahu Kayane, Daya, Dane, Sase, Sakaye.” Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness, and purity. The post-Mauryan period has witnessed the texts like “The Questions of Kind Milinda (Milind Panho).” Milind, the Indo-Greek King, asked questions to Nagasen, the Buddhist monk. His question on Buddha and Buddhism was answered by Nagasen convincingly; thereafter Milind became a Buddhist monk by enthroning his son. The books like Milind Panho are suitable example of Indian culture with the tradition of asking questions in an unrestraint manner.

Silapadikarnam has been composed by Ilanko Atikal in the sixth century C.E. The protagonist of this Tamil epic is Kannaki who accused the King of Madurai as the culprit of murdering her husband, Kovalan. She has questioned to the King how he forgot the duty of a king to dispense right justice before executing her husband erroneously. Though it may be a story but the author of this work had this principle that a king is not away from the question of a common man. Thus, the idea of questioning was very much present in Tamil tradition. Also, Adi Shankaracharya of the ninth century revitalized the Vedic tradition by propagating Advaita Vedanta through debate with Buddhist scholars. His scholastic debate is impossible without the presence of questions. However, the Gupta royal court was full of intellectuals who composed their writings based on romantic themes and praising the king who patronize them. These trends had been continued from 8th to 18th century when religious, genealogical and biographical writings became more relevant. The tradition of question goes into hibernation during this phase as the question in the search of information are mostly found.

When the English ruled over India, they found nothing as rational, logical and critical thinking or questioning in Indian knowledge tradition. They found Indian literature without any sense of western notion of rational or question-forming themes due to their feeling of superiority and generalization with selective Indian knowledge with regard to linguistic and improper translation. Furthermore, the patronizing culture of Indian intellectuals and educational policy of English obstruct the subject and object of free-thinking and capability to think and established selective ideologies through the state-sponsored education system. The censorship of questions reflected in inferential fear psychosis of Indians for which education became imitation rather than innovation. Thus, colonial education could not fostered free mind and freedom for question suppressed the atmosphere of innovation and creation. Now, education became reservoir of information and state prescribed textbooks, syllabus and restriction on the newspaper from the colonial period rightly show the intention of the state. As a colonial product, the present Indian education system suppresses the questioning tradition in school, college and university. It is quite natural that the educational institutions run by the state can’t tolerate any question against it. It is viable for all types of government i.e. democracy, communist, despotic, oligarchy, plutocracy and monarchy. No state or person would feel comfortable with the question due to its power to disentangle them. In a nutshell, the ancient Indian questioning tradition is an example before us to stimulate our logical and critical thinking for creativity and innovation in the twenty-first-century Indian society. 

Dr. Iswar Parida
Assistant Professor
Department of History and Archaeology
Central University of Haryana
E-Mail: iswarparidahcu@gmail.com
Jayanti Sahoo
Doctoral Scholar
Department of History
Ravenshaw University, Odisha
E-Mail: jayantisahoo.90@gmail.com