Sanjeev Sabhlok's blog

Thoughts on economics and liberty

A liberal perspective on taxes – Part I

[This write-up was published in Freedom First, November 2009]

Sanjeev Sabhlok

This month and the next I will outline a liberal theory of taxation: something that, surprisingly, does not yet exist (indeed, there are may arbitrary assertions about taxes in the liberal literature but nothing that is fully integrated with the liberal social contract). Before I propose such a theory, let me thank Mr. S.V. Raju for his generous review of my book, Breaking Free of Nehru,in Freedom First last month. I’d also like to remind you that the book, as published, is now available as a free e-book at

Paying for the social contract

The idea of a liberal social contract to defend our life and liberty harks back to Thomas Hobbes. The contract authorises governments to provide us with public goods like defence, police, justice, and infrastructure.[1] Taxes are then the fees paid for these goods. The liberal thus considers the proper funding of government activity as an integral part of the free society. This perspective is dramatically different from the ‘New Classical’ or anarchic approaches which consider government activity to be a waste.The liberal notes that it is citizens who, implicitly or explicitly, authorise the social contract (and not companies or other legal entities). Therefore citizens, individually, must pay taxes: not companies or other such entities. Second, it must be mandatory on all citizens to pay taxes except when someone is simply too poor to pay.

How much should these citizens pay? Should there be one flat fee per citizen (poll tax) or should different citizens pay a different amount? There are basically two different price models in the marketplace. (1) In a perfectly competitive market everyone pays the same unit price (such as for a kilo of onions) irrespective of his or her willingness or ability to pay. (2) Monopolistic control, however, allows circuses to fix different prices for different seats for the same performance. Price discrimination (PD) of this sort is based on consumers’ differential willingness to pay (note that willingness to pay is the same as the ability to pay under most circumstances). PD is commonly used in markets, and includes student discounts and different fees charged from Indians and foreigners to enter the Taj Mahal.

Price discriminating taxation by the monopoly stateEconomic analysis (made from the demand side) of public goods provision leads us to “Lindahl prices” as the proper solution. According to this each person must pay a different price equal to the worth of the public good to him.[2] From the supply side the opposite problem becomes: what should the monopoly state (Leviathan) charge for its services to ensure that everyone gets what they really want?

The theory of monopoly tells us that where PD is feasible, the monopoly will increase its output to accommodate all preferences and thus produce “the same level of output as would a competitive industry”[3]. It does so by skimming off all consumer surplus.[4] Both these analyses lead us to reject outright the poll tax solution: thus, a “tax structure that levies the same tax on all citizens cannot in general be Pareto efficient”.[5]

But which of the two: flat tax or progressive tax is a better way to deliver the optimal level of public goods?Consumer surplus generally increases disproportionately with income for (as illustrated by auctions) the rich are willing to pay disproportionately more than the poor for a given product, since each incremental unit of money has a relatively lower value for them. A flat marginal tax will therefore lead to sub-optimal provision of public goods by not capturing the entire consumer surplus of the rich. A level of progression is therefore more appropriate. In general, tax levels should be set at the point where the rich and poor get equal disutility from taxes.

A few other arguments reinforce this conclusion. First, the liberal requirement of a social minimum (basically a universal insurance scheme funded through the tax system) adds an apparent measure of progression to the liberal tax system. More commonly, progressive taxation is needed to offset the many indirect taxes usually imposed, such as consumption and excise taxes which are highly regressive, hitting the poorest the hardest in relative terms. Even F.A. Hayek, the great advocate of flat taxation, accepted that a modicum of progression would be needed for these two reasons.

But there is one more very important reason that is often neglected. PD is optimal only when the same good is provided by a government. If an extra product is delivered to the rich, then a further increment must be charged. It is self-evident that the rich do receive a greater share of government services than the poor do. For instance, they use the court system disproportionately more. They also receive a higher quality of services. Thus, if a rich person’s daughter is kidnapped, the head of Police gets involved, but a similar complaint from a poor slum-dweller may not even get registered. Governments treat the rich as being of value, and the poor of no value. That is totally contrary to the social contract, and even the slightest such discrimination means the rich must be charged progressively.

The practical implementation of PD: hurdle pricingA monopoly can only price discriminate if it has complete information about consumer preferences and is able to keep transaction costs (of calculating different prices for each consumer) low. Without these preconditions, it will prefer to impose hurdle pricing by placing hurdles between ‘seats’ and pricing them differently. “[T]he more finely the monopolist can partition her market under the hurdle model, the smaller the efficiency loss will be.”[6] Governments generally follow a hurdle model with tax brackets based on citizens’ ability to pay.

The rich never pay a flat taxThe reality all over the world is that only the salaried upper middle classes end up paying the highest marginal tax rates. The rich pay much less than an overall flat tax rate would require, by influencing politicians to create tax shelters, exceptions, exemptions, and loopholes. Thus, Warren Buffet noted in June 2007 that in 2006 he paid only 17.7% of his $46 million income as tax, while his employees paid 32.9%. And the rich never pay the worst tax of them all: inflation; because they own real estate and shares which are inflation-proof.

Modest progressive taxation recommendedSince the rich don’t even pay a flat tax, introducing a genuine overall flat tax will always be an improvement. But other factors prevent the practical implementation of progressive taxation, as well. First, a government can never determine the precise level of progression that captures everyone’s consumer surplus perfectly. Second, progressive taxation can lead to injustice when those with variable income flows (e.g. sports celebrities) are taxed at the highest marginal rate during the few years when they receive high incomes, while others who receive the same total income that is distributed more evenly are possibly (not necessarily) taxed less (in theory, this should not happen as the annualised lifetime worth of individuals must be used as the base of taxation; but this requirement can’t be implemented precisely). The third problem is that if a country sets its highest marginal rate too high, its rich will promptly abandon it or smuggle out their capital. Practical difficulties with progression and the reality that the rich never pay even a flat tax mean that only a modest level of progression can be recommended. Hayek’s prescription on taxation[7] can now be extrapolated to yield a broad rule of thumb, namely: that where income taxes are the primary source of taxation (as should be the case), then the highest marginal tax rates should be just above the proportion of taxes to GDP, with two tax brackets equal to, and below, this proportion. In India, this could mean the highest marginal tax of (say) around 21 per cent with two brackets at 18 and 15 per cent each. Of course, such low rates will demolish our tax collections because of our narrow income tax base. But in this article I’m only discussing the theory; the practicalities will be dealt with the next month.

Freedom Team of IndiaYou are hopefully aware of the work of the Freedom Team of India ( to find leaders to contest elections on a liberal platform. A new concept called Adharshila has also been proposed ( to promote liberal discussion and advocacy across India. I hope you will participate in these important efforts to reform India’s governance.

[1] Details in chapter 4 of my draft manuscript, The Discovery of Freedom,[2] Joe Stevens, The Economics of Collective Choice, Westview, 1993, p. 106.
[3] Hal Varian, Microeconomic Analysis, W. W. Norton and Company, 3rd edition, 1992, p. 243.
[4] The amount over and above the market price for a product that that different consumers would be willing to pay if its supply were significantly reduced.
[5] Robert Frank, Microeconomics and Behaviour, Irwin McGraw Hill, 3rd edition, 1997, pp.622-23.
[6]Ibid, p.418.
[7]In his book, Constitution of Liberty, Routledge & Kegan Paul,1960, p.323.


1. Minimising tax a rich man’s game, by CLARE MARTIN, November 16, 2009. The Age.
2. Captains of industry or pirates? Private investors flee without paying taxes. 3. Australia: tax-free for foreigners. The Age 16 Nov 09
3. These slides summarise some of the traditional issues in public finance.
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Review of 'Breaking Free of Nehru' by S.V. Raju

This was published in Freedom First, Mumbai on 1 October 2009.

BREAKING FREE OF NEHRU: LET’S UNLEASH INDIA! By Sanjeev Sabhlok.  Publisher: Anthem South Asian Studies, C-49, Kalkaji, New Delhi 110019. Pages: 290(including the preface)  Price: Rs. 495

Reviewed by S.V.Raju, formerly Executive Secretary Swatantra Party. Currently editor Freedom First.

The title is explicit, leaving little to the reader’s imagination. That’s typical of the author of this book. I have had the pleasure of knowing Sanjeev Sabhlok. Met him first at a conference he had convened at the Habitat House in New Delhi in January 2004 (to discuss the potential for the emergence of a liberal party) and to which he had invited me; subsequently through the occasional email; and since March 2008 as a regular contributor to Freedom First with his column “Come on Liberals: Let’s Change India”.

The book is well organised and the narrative style absorbing and quite passionate. You get the feeling that he is talking to the reader one to one. The preface explains who he is, why he resigned the IAS, how he got to write this book which in draft form had the benefit of critical comments from those who were broadly in agreement with the general tenor of his views.

The preface is also quite exhaustive, some 22 pages; so impatient is he to unburden himself, that the preface tells it all – almost! “The real choice before us today” he writes “is between two western models of governance – socialism and capitalism; between the life-denying concept of equality and the life-sustaining concept of freedom.” Freedom, to the author of this book is the flip side of capitalism and vice-versa. He does anticipate that this perspective might not be acceptable to everyone who upholds the sanctity of the liberty of the individual vis a vis the State and society.

There are six chapters in all, two appendices, a copious 5 pages of printed notes and a reasonably informative index.

Chapter 1 begins with what he describes as a “stylized overview of the history of our freedom and divided into three phases: First phase: pre-battle of Plassey 1757; second phase: 1757-1947; third phase: post independence.

Taking a critical look at India in Phase 1, Sanjeev Sabhlok concedes that India had “cultural unity based on Hinduism”. Citing from historian Vincent Smith’s Oxford History of India (1958) , ‘Indian unity rests upon the fact that…India primarily is a Hindu country’ the author accepts the fact that “Hinduism has therefore had a significant influence on the concepts associated with freedom, ” but the “individual still did not count for much being merged into collective identities such as caste.” For instance “very rarely do we find an individual artist’s name acknowledged in an Indian painting or sculpture…. even today beautiful paintings are sold without individual signature.” Or, unlike the Magna Carta, “no argument to advance justice or freedom was articulated in ancient India.” Yet another marker to indicate the absence of individuality was the “uniquely Indian trait of obsequiousness” particularly “towards ‘seniors’ in India.” Indians despite the foreign invasions by sea from the West were insular, perhaps because of difficulties of travel that prevented Indians from travel to the lands of the colonisers or perhaps it was due to the “great haughtiness among the Indian elites who believed they needed to learn nothing from others …” Frogs in the well – that is what our ancestors were for most of our history prior to 1757.”

Phase 2 the period between 1757-1947; Indians were quick to learn English as it helped Indians secure jobs as clerks which it did, but also opened the “Pandora’s Box of knowledge.” Indians were “quick to become aware of the enormous leaps made by Western political thought over the centuries with men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy Mahadeo Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Pherozeshah Mehta “catching up with the liberal ideas and start demanding self-governance.” Along with this also rose the “competing theory of socialism (or communism). Both rejected feudalism but, unlike the freedomwallahs, the socialists/ communists wanted to revert to the tribal state. The two distinct philosophers of these competing “Western ideologies” were Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

But only a few Indians like, Tagore and Gandhi raised the “broader issues in relation to freedom” even if these were “incidental to the focus on self-rule and opposing racism”. Sabhlok gives full marks to Gandhiji’s philosophy of non-violence: “the most awe inspiring independence movement the world has ever seen…far ahead of its time in its principle-based standards of political protest….His exposition of the equality among peoples and of non-violence protest were significant contributions to the freedom of mankind as a whole.”

In the 3rd phase: Independence and Freedom are not quite the same points out Sanjeev Sabhlok. “Independence is at best a minimum condition. It is very poorly related to the level of freedom prevailing in a society,” The author, clearly an incurable romantic, writes: “freedom needs constant attention, even fawning and at times ferocious battle to protect it against the enemies of freedom. Very reclusive, reluctant, but the most beautiful and graceful lady of all, is freedom.”! He cites with enthusiasm Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem in Gitanjali “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…” pointing out that nowhere in this poem (written in 1912) does Tagore talk about independence. “Tagore’s poem is truly embarrassing to socialists. Each of Tagore’s lines resists socialism.” He interprets the poem as Tagore “asking …each individual to achieve this ‘heaven of freedom’. The Tagore poem points to an enabling role for government.” And has a dig at Nehru “Nehru never reminded us of this embarrassing poem.” Ah! But his daughter’s censors did! In 1976 when Minoo Masani then editor of Freedom First decided to reprint this poem to protest the infamous emergency and submitted the issue to the government’s censor under the censorship rule then in force, the poem was censored and its publication disallowed on the ground that it endangered national security and encouraged disaffection!

It is essential to understand the philosophical framework of what the author means by “freedom” to appreciate the rationale for his all out attack on Nehruvian socialism which did reach “dizzying heights of incompetence.” As someone who not only lived through those years of avoidable scarcity, misery and misgovernance but had the added opportunity, as the executive secretary of the Swatantra Party, to fight for “freedom” there is little that this reviewer finds wrong in his high voltage criticism of the Nehruvian era. This reviewer recalls an article by Rajaji in Swarajya (March 4, 1961): “The egalitarian socialism of the Congress is a fallacy and a fraud, a mere election-carrot for the donkey the Congress takes the electorate to be. We must kick the rider from our back, rider and carrot. The mechanism of wealth production is something quite different from the socialism of the Congress, which ignores the incentive, the capital, the frugal management and the output of work needed for increase of wealth.” This quote full justifies the grief expressed by the author for missing out on “the opportunities we have had in the past 60 years to bequeath to our children the greatest possible country on earth.”

In a passage headed “Rediscovering Rajaji” Sabhlok observes: “Rajaji, however, was no match for Nehru. Nehru was far more charismatic and popular. He also had populist policies.” True. Also true is his observation “Rajaji was als
o just too far ahead of his times.” But his next statement is only partially true: “People simply didn’t understand what he was saying, and he did not have sufficient time left to explain to them what he wanted to stay.” Oh they did. Rajaji’s big success was his denouement of socialism, even if he did not live long enough to strengthen the foundations of the party he started, and this, it must be underlined, he managed in Nehru’s lifetime; his daughter Indira Gandhi who ruled longer than her father ‘managed’ by corrupting and destroying the character of the people. After imprisoning a veritable phalanx of opposition leaders during the emergency she disfigured the preamble to the constitution by adding the words “socialist’ and “secular” to describe the Indian Republic.

The author is also an incurable optimist. Quoting with approval a statement by S.P.Aiyar, a political scientist that the challenge lay in finding “solutions appropriate to given situations but only those compatible with freedom” the author observes: “The
good thing is that while the Indian government is not the best protector of freedom in the world, it does not censor books of this sort. It does not prevent people from talking about their views. Its laws almost fully protect our freedoms. We are almost there! Just a nudge to our system of governance – including making our government get out of things where it has no business to be in, and rebuilding our political and bureaucratic institutions to make them compatible with transparency and accountability that are the hallmarks of freedom; and we could soon have the freest country in the world – and thus ultimately the greatest”.

So far this review has covered only the preface and the first chapter. There are five more chapters. Merely mentioning their titles gives an indication of the range of his endeavour – From the macro observations in Chapters 1; Overview of a Free Society Chapter 2 ;Problems with our Constitution (3) ; to micro diagnoses and offering cures in Chapters 4: Causes of Political Corruption in India; 5: Why is our Bureaucracy so Inept? 6: Unleashing India.

In the little space left for this review I shall refer, briefly, to just one of them: Chapter 3: “Problems with our Constitution”. This reviewer does not claim any special qualification to comment on the Constitution. Nevertheless he finds it difficult to understand the obvious ambivalence of the author on its merits. For instance even while agreeing that the Constitution has “served us reasonably well” and “has done us far more good than harm” he says elsewhere it is an “abstruse and distant document not easily understood, not of much interest to most of us….Evaluating its merits I find our Constitution a mediocre product.” compared for instance to its US counterpart. Describing the Constitution as a “social contract” and drawing attention to the fact that it has been amended 94 times, Sanjeev Sabhlok considers “the time has come to completely review and remake our social contract. A statement that he makes which this reviewer finds patently unfair: “The Constitution that we got was a hotchpotch compromise between the whims of the 299 people on our Constituent Assembly not the resonantly clear voice of freedom.” Maybe, but then should we make the best the enemy of the good? There are numerous troublesome matters that need attention, as the author himself details in his book. Surely the Constitution has not come in the way. Liberal critics of the numerous amendments to the Constitution have pointed out that every time the Indian Constitution was amended it resulted in the contraction of the freedom of citizens, whereas the few times the American constitution was amended it was to expand freedoms. In other words blame the carpenter not his tools.

As for the whims of the 299 people, let us be grateful that our leadership including Nehru had the wisdom to nominate men and women of calibre to add to the elected members of the Indian Legislative Assembly which included quite a number of liberals. It might also be recalled that the socialists boycotted the Constituent Assembly because it was not an elected one. Frankly your reviewer shudders to think of the kind of Constitution we would have had if its members had been elected on the basis of adult franchise. Not a liberal statement to make, but an honest one that many secretly felt but did not articulate! Remember Nehru’s Congress swept the polls in 1952 and 1957

Be that as it may, this book offers valuable inputs not only of problems arising from Nehruvian socialism but also point the way out even if some of them could be of the extreme kind that need further discussion – as for example the suggestion to dump the Constitution!

Regular readers of Freedom First have been reading issues raised in the various chapters from his book which are not referred to in this review but feature in his column “Come on Liberals, let’s Change India”.

The author deserves to be thanked for the massive effort he has put into presenting his case for what amounts to be nothing less than revolutionary changes( not “reforms” as he suggests in the Preface) to ‘unleash India’. Well worth the buy and acquire fresh insights.

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Banishing the concept of foreign aid

Sanjeev Sabhlok

[This was published on 1 October 2009 in Freedom First]

In a civilized free society no one can, or should, be self-sufficient. Division of labour is a typical feature of free societies by which each worker specializes and produces only a small part of what he will ultimately consume. The rest of his needs are met by exchanging, in the marketplace, the goods or services he produces. Therefore no one is self-sufficient. But this does not (or should not) imply dependency. Indeed, the citizen of a free society is an exemplar of self-reliance and independence, and declines charity unless he is in desperate need.

Unfortunately, the concepts of self-respect and self-reliance are totally missing from arguments made by those who insist on increasing foreign aid. Thus, in 2007 the philosopher Peter Singer asked rich countries to spend $808 billion each year in foreign aid.[1]

Aid violates human dignity

The liberal opposes foreign aid. He believes that except for life-threatening emergencies, no one has the right to help us without our prior consent. Self-respecting people insist on being left alone to determine their own destiny, no matter if it leads them to privation and distress. Far better to live in self-created poverty than to receive foreign aid that humiliates the recipient while exalting the donor.

It is one thing for rich nations to trade with poor nations but quite another to look down upon them by foisting unwanted foreign aid. That their ‘generosity’ is suspect is evident from the many trade restrictions they impose on developing nations. It is high time for the West to stop this farce and stop carrying the ‘white man’s burden’. Let the poor nations be left to their fate.

Poverty is never caused by shortage of foreign aid

The liberal opposes foreign aid because he knows that foreign aid has nothing to do with removal of poverty. Poverty has never been caused by a shortage of foreign aid! Recipient countries can, if they want to, bootstrap themselves and become wealthy in less than a generation by adopting the policies of freedom. Capitalism can readily – and without fail – transform poor societies into wealthy ones. But poor countries choose to decline the medicine provided by the Adam Smith pharmacy, preferring the sweet poison administered by Karl Marx & Co., instead.

Therefore, if countries like India want to be poor, what can foreign aid do to stop their desperate mania? Throwing money into such socialist dens of corruption can’t ever help the poor, anyway. In such countries, foreign aid quickly finds its way into Swiss bank accounts of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Even where aid is directly supervised by donor nations (as in Afghanistan or Iraq) corrupt practices can easily creep in because no one is accountable. As Peter Bauer found, foreign aid usually makes poverty worse.[2]

Countries like India can, if they want, readily eliminate poverty by using a negative income tax regime (see my article in the August 2009 issue of Freedom First). But they don’t want to eliminate poverty. They want, instead, corruption-ridden subsidies and misdirected wasteful programs. And if that is what they want, then that is what they should get. Why should foreign nations interfere by giving foreign aid?

Aid arms dictators and increases genocides

There is also a deeply sinister side to foreign aid. Foreign aid is fungible. During a drought, local politicians would have bought food worth Rs. X of their country’s own money for the poor; but with foreign aid taking care of food, they can happily divert Rs. X to purchase guns. Aid therefore strengthens totalitarian dictators and increases genocides and global terrorism.

Teach the poor to fish, don’t give them fish

The most important argument against foreign aid is that it is only a palliative. Charity can give people fish to eat today but it can’t teach them to fish. It also becomes additive, particularly for bureaucrats of international organizations who need poverty in order to protect their jobs.

The permanent cure for poverty is therefore clear: not to keep giving fish but to teach the poor how to fish. Genuine well-wishers of the poor should therefore stop all charitable work and become equal partners and friends of the poor. They can, as part of this role, teach poor nations about freedom and good governance. Taking this approach is not only ethical, cheaper, and far more effective, it will also ultimately protect the West from terrorism.

But before the West can think of teaching freedom to poor nations, it must throw open its markets and eliminate trade barriers. Its credibility will remain suspect until it actively supports free trade.

Having done that, it can adopt a range of respectful methods to teach the poor nations. One way could be to make the classics of freedom (such as books by Adam Smith and John Locke) readily available at low cost in bookshops in poor nations. Apart from this general educational approach, it is crucial that Western nations do not directly teach poorer nations; for that could be interpreted as racist arrogance. Freedom must be promoted through poor nations’ own nationals.

Developing country liberals can be supported by giving them scholarships to study in good Western universities provided they commit to return to their countries afterwards. Forming official partnerships with poor nations should also be explored. One example could be the secondment of developing country bureaucrats to local, state and federal governments of the West where they will pick up the processes of good governance. Finally, policy partnerships can be created through which the rich and poor countries jointly work on agreed policy areas such as regulatory reform.

No matter which method of engagement with the poor nations is chosen, one thing is clear: that the calls by international organizations and utopian philosophers to establish global foreign aid ‘targets’ should be rejected outright. The best foreign aid target is precisely equal to zero; not one cent more.

Compensation for pollution

There may be cases, unrelated to foreign aid, where rich countries can be called upon to transfer funds to poorer nations. This can arise where developing countries experience negative externalities from pollutants such as greenhouse gas emissions emitted by rich countries. I should note here that this argument is contingent on unequivocal proof of harm (particularly in the case of CO2, there are numerous dissenting views about whether it is a pollutant in the first place). Such compensation must not be made out to the governments of poor countries. Instead it should be transferred to private businesses that ‘clean-up’ the environment, such as by growing new trees.

Freedom Team of India, and Adharshila

The Freedom Team of India ( has now floated Adharshila, a concept that involves creating ground-level branches to promote liberal ideas. The team has also established a Speakers Panel comprising eminent Indian liberals. An increasing number of opportunities therefore exist for all Indian liberals to get involved. Please join! Even small contributions of your time and effort will quickly add up.

[1]Singer, Peter, ‘Giving till It Doesn’t Hurt’, The Age, 6 January 2007.

[2]See his 1991 book: The Development Frontier: Essays in Applied Economics.

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Greek thought, the harbinger of world liberty, has its direct source in INDIA

While revising my manuscript The Discovery of Freedom‘ (DOF) I could not but help noting how similar the view of Indian sceptics including Buddha, and Socrates were. And that Indians came earlier in historical time than the Greeks. So yesterday I had this question: did India influence Greece? A bit of reading from books at home and a bit of research on Google seems to have ‘solved’ the puzzle.

When, upon reading A Critical History of Greek Philosophy by W.T. Stace (MacMillan,1965) I came across his rather niggardly view on Indian philosophy, arguing that Indian thought doesn’t arise from ‘pure thought’ and that it is ‘poetic rather than scientific’ (p.15), I decided to investigate further. I have now found a recent American PhD dissertation (2000) that uses the most recent sources to firmly demonstrate that it was INDIAN scepticism that traveled to Greece through Persia and brought out the temperament of questioning that finally led to Socrates. I’ve extracted a short section from the dissertation below (the dissertation is publicly available). I encourage everyone to read the entire dissertation, if for nothing else but to learn more about the sophists and to understand the importance of Protagoras who may ultimately turn out to be more important in world history than even Socrates.

Does it matter to me whether humanity has benefited in the areas of mathematics (number system) and philosophy more from India than from, say, Greece? I’m not particularly fussed where the source is, India or Greece. These ideas belong to all of us. Humanity. No country owns them, at least not today. What I do want, though, is accurate attribution of sources. It won’t do to attribute the first seeds of rational thought in the world to Greece when these ideas arose in India, and were transmitted by Indians to the Greeks. I’m not a specialist in history so I won’t finalise my opinion on this issue, but I will note in DOF the strong possibility of Rahula’s research findings being true.


Extract from The Untold Story about Greek Rational Thought: Buddhist and Other Indian Rationalist Influences on Sophist Rhetoric, PhD dissertation by BASNAGODA RAHULA, found as PDF on the internet. [Copy on my server] [This is a conversion from PDF to text – a painful process with a lot of errors. A lot of manual editing, and references have been removed. They are all available in the original PDF].

General Signs of Indian Influence on Protagoras and Gorgias

Three factors may justify the possibility that the unusual resemblance of Indian rationalist thoughts to Greek sophist thinking was caused by a connection between the two societies. First, Protagoras, the alleged father of Greek sophistry, was given Persian education, an easy route to the access of Indian wisdom. During Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, Protagoras’ father, an extremely rich person in Abdera, entertained Xerxes and received the emperor’s permission to educate Protagoras under Magi. This report was supported by Herodotus’ notes that Xerxes, during his return journey, “stopped at Abdera and made a fact of friendship with them [people in Abdera].” As Untersteiner noted, Protagoras was a young child when Xerxes’ visit to Abdera took place, and Protagoras education under Magi could have been arranged for a later date (2). Based on the traditional practice of the pupil’s visiting the master, one may conclude that Protagoras later went to Susa and studied under Magi. This visit would have been more profitable for Protagoras since he would hardly miss Indian wisdom those days in the central part of the Persian empire. On the other hand, wherever Protagoras was educated, knowledge coming from Persia could have included Indian thinking since Darius had already accommodated, as the next chapter will elucidate, Indian wisdom in the Persian empire. Protagoras’ Persian education seems to be a strong support for his possible acquisition of Indian concepts in epistemology and other fields.

Second, Protagoras was the pupil of Democritus who was presumably benefited by a multitude of Indian concepts, including Buddhist concepts as his major source of influence. Philostratus was the first informant of Protagoras’ learning from Democritus,’ and this information can also be true, “concerning the intellectual development of Protagoras” (Untersteiner 2). Particularly, Democritus’ theory of knowledge seems to have enkindled a new interest in epistemological inquires among his followers, and Protagoras’ directions in the same field may have been guided by Democritus. Protagoras’ closeness in his epistemological studies to the Indian counterparts will be discussed later, but here it should be briefly stated that Democritus’ possible Indian influence could hardly leave no marks on his pupil Protagoras.

Third, Gorgias was the student of Empedocles, whose philosophical theories reflect his possible familiarity with Indian idealistic and rationalistic views. Laertius and Quintillian and some others reported that Gorgias studied under Empedocles, and there is no reason to doubt these reports. As Untersteiner indicated, Empedocles’ influence on Gorgias is “generally recognized by scholars” (92), and Gorgias’ particular interest in epistemology is a possible sign of this influence. It is probable that both Protagoras and Gorgias exhibited a similar interest in epistemology and both maintained skepticism towards metaphysical concepts since the teachers of the two sophists retained a particular interest in the same field.

The major aspects of sophist rational thought and their similarity with the Indian counterpart will be discussed in separate sections, but it seems apt to highlight here a unique flavor in argumentation entertained by Protagoras-the flavor for arguing for or/and against any topic-as a possible Indian derivation. Perhaps this hypothesis appears to be an overstatement since argument on probabilities is said to be of Greek origin. Nevertheless, a careful examination of the practices in Indian debating during the sixth century B.C.E. and comparison of those practices with Protagoras’ attitude towards argumentation justify the possibility of this hypothesis.

Interestingly, there was a group of Indian debaters namely Vitandavadins who roamed among all sorts of thinkers and challenged other views. “He [a Vitandavadin] had no views of his own but merely indulged in eristic for the purpose of securing victory in argument” (Jayatilleke 217). Even though the word Vitandavadin did not occur in the Sutta Pitaka, one finds numerous examples that during the sixth century B.C.E. these debaters frequented debating halls, parks, and other meeting places, challenging all sorts of views of other traditions, without maintaining any particular philosophy or theory of their own:

There are recluses and Brahmins who are clever, subtle, experienced in controversy, hair-splitters, who go about breaking to pieces by their intelligence [pannagatena] the speculations of others. Were I to pronounce this to be good, or that to be evil, these men might join issue with me, call upon me for my reasons, and point out my errors.’

These remarks suggest that those “recluses and Brahmins” were not those who held any particular view or theory but those who were indulged in debating rarely for the sake of defeating the opponents and establishing rhetorical power. Whatever concept or theory one held, those debaters opposed one’s position using their intelligence and verbal skill. This practice is farther confirmed by the sentence, “Some recluse or Brahmin is addicted to logic and reasoning.” Saccaka, who earned the description of “one who indulged in debate, a learned controversialist, who was held in high esteem by the common people” was, undoubtedly, one of them. The Majjima Nikaya has preserved a very important sentence that reflects his theoretical practice and skill:

If I attacked a lifeless pillar with my language, it [the pillar] would totter, tremble, quake; how much more a human being!’ Saccaka was more a demonstration of his verbal power than a theorist. Here, he has presented no theory, but simply boasts about his invincible rhetorical power. ‘Whoever he argued with, he defeated the opponent’s theory without insisting on a particular view of his own but only using his verbal skill (eristic) and argumentation (antilogic) that would suit to the occasion. The Samyutta Nikaya has provided “an eye-witness’s account of these recluses and Brahmins in action” (Jayatilleke 221). Kundaliya, a visitor to the Buddha’s monastery, told the Buddha that he (Kundaliya) would visit parks and frequent assemblies as a regular habit because he had found interest in seeing some recluses and Brahmins having being engaged in debates. The purpose of those debates was only to emphasize their own argumentation (itivadapa mokkhanisamsam) and to disparage that of others.” All this evidence indicates that debating for the mere sake of reflecting the opposition had become a prevalent practice, as well as a crowd-gathering entertainment, during the time of the Buddha. The topics reportedly argued about by those controversialists speak a volume of this peculiar practice of debating. Most of the topics were in pairs, representing the thesis and the antithesis of the same subject. The following is the first list of such topics given in Pali texts:

The fact that they were originally in pairs is confirmed by the remarks attested to one particular pair of topics:

1.The universe is eternal/The universe is not eternal.
2. The universe is finite/The universe is not finite.
3. The soul is identical with the body/The soul is different from the body.
4. The enlightened person exists after death/The enlightened person does not exist after death.
5. An enlightened person does and does not exist after death/An enlightened person neither exists nor does not exist after death.'” A more expanded list of thirty-one topics, all in pairs and each pair dealing with the opposite of the same subject as given above, is found in the Lankavatara Sutra.’ The fact that they were originally in pairs is confirmed by the remarks attested to one particular pair of topics:

The threefold world is caused by ignorance, desire, and Karma. The threefold world is not caused by ignorance, desire, and Karma. This pair too belongs to the Lokayata category of questions. (qtd. in Jayatilleke 53)

It is obvious that this development of questions in pairs echoes the practice of debating, in which the mere skill in argumentation was emphasized. Debaters such as Saccaka, whose primary interest was “displaying dialectical skill and defeating their opponents, regardless of the nature of the arguments used” (Jayatilleke 219), would probably argue one day in favor of the infiniteness of the universe and the other day against it, depending on the position of his opponents. Even though some debaters actually held some theories of their own, rhetorical skill was the main weapon that they employed to attack the opposition and defend their own views. The important point here is that in India there was a predominant and widespread debating practice in which both the proponents and opponents vehemently debated on the thesis and the antithesis of the same topic, adducing equally powerful arguments.

In Greece Protagoras was the first rhetor to introduce this kind of argumentation. Laertius said that “Protagoras was the first to say that on every issue there are two arguments opposed to each other.” Clement repeated the same statement, saying that Greeks said, “Every argument has an opposite argument,” following Protagoras.” Seneca wrote, “Protagoras says that one can argue equally well on either side of any question, including the question itself whether both sides of any question can be argued.” Not only did Protagoras introduce this “eristic argument” as remarked by Hesychius,” but he also demonstrated the truth of his theory, arguing “by the method of questioning, a practice he originated.” Protagoras also “wrote down and prepared disputations on notable subjects.” Thus it is evident that Protagoras held his two-logoi theory as one of his major concepts, having introduced it, practiced it, and written treatises on it.

This theory of argumentation seems strikingly similar to the popular Indian concept of arguing for and against the same topic. Just as the topics used by Indian debaters consisted of the direct affirmation and the direct negation of the same statement, Protagoras’ topics also consisted of pairs of two extreme opposites. Similarly, the field from which these questions were drawn seems to be exactly the same for both Protagoras and the Indian debaters:

Protagoras, when once the existence of ‘two logoi in opposition to each other’ was discovered as inherent in all reality whenever one tries to consider it abstractly, translated this properly of the metaphysical world into contradictory pairs of opposites, making of it a precept for argument; that is to say, he must have demolished by dialectical arguments and with a certain systematic severity all the principle concepts created by Reason, beginning from the problem of God in order to pass on to the others. (Untersteiner 35)

Notably, Protagoras’ “contradictory pairs of opposites,” as Untersteiner has stated above, did not originate in traditional Greek rhetoric; rather, it originated in metaphysics, the field from which the Indian debaters also selected their topics. There is the possibility that Protagoras learned this practice from Democritus, who could have been very much exposed to the Indian way of debating while he was in India. One should also wonder why Protagoras was not exposed to the same theory of argumentation while he was receiving his Persian education.

A controversial situation might arise from this disclosure since the argument about probabilities has long been accepted as an essential, inherent characteristic in traditional Greek rhetoric. It should be repeated, however, that the origin of systematic persuasion in Sicily was a little over two decades old when Protagoras came to Athens, and whatever arguments on probabilities that might have existed in Sicily before Protagoras began his rational persuasion in Athens was probably in legal discourses. Contradictory references to the existence of argument about probabilities in Sicily would make this second assumption even more doubtful. Plato, referring to the example of a weakling’s assault on a strong man, indicated that Tisias argued about probabilities in legal discourses. However, Aristotle cited the same example to suggest that Corax, not Tisias, argued on probabilities in legal speeches. In contrast to both, Cicero, relying on another Aristotelian source that is now lost, remarked that Corax and Tisias prepared only a handbook for the civilians to regain their (civilians’) lost property from the fallen tyrants.” Another alleged reference is that Corax “developed a tripartite scheme of oratory to help the citizens speak in the assembly” (Kennedy, Art of Persuasion in Greece 59). However, no argument about probabilities was ever mentioned in this scheme of oratory that was invented at least a decade after the origin of judiciary discourses. If whatever persuasion on probabilities ever achieved any importance in Sicily before Protagoras entered upon rational argumentation in Athens, that would probably be only in legal speeches.

As noted in the introduction, when Gorgias and Tisias visited Athens about three decades after Corax and Tisias prepared the earliest handbook on legal discourses, Protagoras had already enkindled an interest in debates, eristic, and antilogic, using his two-logoi theory. He introduced “the method of attacking any thesis,” conducted debates, and earned the nickname “master of wrangling.”‘ His two books—The Art of Debating and Contradictory Arguments in Two Books—may further authenticate his intention and interest in this field. This rhetorical situation, which apparently had no roots in Greek culture, connects, both in appearance and content, only to the debating habits practiced by the Indian debaters during the late sixth century and the early fifth century B.C.E.

The difference between Protagoras and Sicilian Gorgias may be marked by the latter’s overemphasis on the invincible power of language, ft is apparent that Gorgias had developed this attitude towards language before he visited Athens in 427 B.C.E, as an ambassador to Leontini since his sensational speech in Athens against the impending attack on Leontini by Syracuse bears witness to his confidence in the power of language and his demonstration of that power, “Encomium on Helen” farther clarifies his attitude towards language, “Speech is a powerful lord,” which affects the mentality of all sort of people,” Words are like magic and drags that cause unbelievable changes in individuals,’ While Protagoras maintained that antilogic and eristic would empower the opposing argument, Gorgias mainly held that the power of the language itself might determine the skill in persuasion.

One may observe a close similarity between Gorgias’ emphasis on the power of words and the Indian debater Saccaka’s assertion of the same, Saccaka, as quoted above, maintained the invincible power of words, giving his own exaggerated skill of frightening a lifeless pillar with his words. Based on the awareness of the highly competitive debating background during this time, it may be assumed that there were a host of Saccakas in India, maintaining the same power of words with some variations. This widespread emphasis on the power of language might invite one to investigate a possible Indian influence on Gorgias, who also asserted the same power of words. Overemphasis of language as a tool to beat the opposition in India and to convince the opposition in Sicily was determined by the demands in each society, but the invincible, almost magical power of words might have originated from the same source.

One important clue available to suggest a transmission of this concept to Gorgias is the possibility that Gorgias’ teacher Empedocles had known about the debating practices of Saccaka and of similar Indian debaters. The discussion in the previous chapter revealed that at least two contemporaries of the Buddha-Ajita and Kacchayana­ had held the theory of elements exactly in the same form as Empedocles held it, providing strong support for Empedocles’ possible borrowing of that theory from the Indian sources. Both Ajita and Kacchayana were themselves debaters, but the vital point is that they both were engaged in debates with Saccaka:

Saccaka is made to say that when he joined them [the six famous debaters including Ajita and Kacchayana] in debates, they evaded in one way or other, shifted the topic of discussion, and showed signs of irritation, anger, and displeasure. These are among the recognized ‘occasions for censure,’ and their mention here implies that Saccaka was victorious in these debates. (Jayatilleke 219)

So the probable assumption should be that, if Ajita’s and Kacchayana’s theories of elements reached Empedocles exactly in the same form, the Greek thinker should also have heard about the debating power and practices of Saccaka, the more famous figure than the two theorists of elements. The rest is understandable. Even though one may not hear Gorgias say anything about Empedocles, it is probable that Gorgias came to know about the invincible power of words from Empedocles. This assumption will be farther justified in the next section of the present chapters when Gorgias’ theory of knowledge is evaluated in the light of Indian skepticism.

The lives of the other sophist thinkers except of Critias are surprisingly obscure; little is known other than the reports that several of them were the pupils of either Protagoras or Gorgias. Nothing is known about Thrasymachus other than that he came from Chalcedon in Bithynia and lived in the second half of the fifth century B.C.E. Hippias was a contemporary of Socrates, but his life is unknown except Suidas’ report that Hippias learned from virtually unknown Hegesidamus.’ Antiphon the Sophist was mixed up with two other Antiphons, and, despite having a certain collection of his writings, his early life remains unknown.

Despite the unavailability of biographical details about these sophist thinkers, strong similarities exist between their thinking and Indian thought. Particularly, the common Indian theory of knowledge and the Buddhist theories of sociology and ethics bear an undeniable resemblance with the thoughts of Prodicus, Antiphon, and Critias. Perhaps, Protagoras’ and Gorgias’ inquiry into epistemology paved the way for the rest of the sophists to continue with the same investigation. All sophist thinkers generally maintained a close relationship with other sophists. Several of Platonic dialogues have shown that sophists gathered together and held conversations together. It is possible that the younger sophist thinkers learned from more honorable Protagoras and Gorgias, whose teachers were the possible borrowers from Indian sources.

Addendum: I made the following entry on Wikipedia on 23 March 2010, but my experience with them is very poor and it is that they will likely delete it. So be it. Let this information stay on my web page.

Indian thought as direct precursor of the Sophists

Basnagoda Rahula, in his PhD dissertation (December 2000) entitled, ‘The Untold Story about Greek Rational Thought: Buddhist and Other Indian Rationalist Influences on Sophist Rhetoric’ (Texas Tech University), provides evidence on the influence of Indian philosophy on Protagoras, the founder of sophistry. In particular, “a careful examination of the practices in Indian debating during the sixth century B.C.E. and comparison of those practices with Protagoras’ attitude towards argumentation justify the possibility of this hypothesis.”

Further readings

Accidental compilations of references that may be useful to me for further investigations if time permits:

1) India in early Greek literature: by Klaus Karttunen: here and here

2) India and the Greek World; A study in the transmission of culture by Sedlar, Jean W.



3) Early maritime links: Indian Economic & Social History Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, 65-88 (1994)

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