A Buddhist Atheist’s Memoir | Sunday Observer
Home in the World:

A Buddhist Atheist’s Memoir

3 October, 2021

Home in the World: A Memoir

Author - Amartya Sen

Publisher - Penguin Random House

Home in the World is the memoir of Amartya Sen, an Indian Nobel Laureate in 1998. Sen is considered one of India’s leading economists, intellectuals and human rights campaigners. He was the first non-white head of a Cambridge college when he became Master of Trinity in 1998, and the first head of India’s Nalanda University. He also worked as a lecturer at Harvard, Oxford, Delhi and the London School of Economics.

There are 26 chapters in the book, and he mainly shares details from his life and explores the idea of ‘home’. First, he describes growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, raised by his grandparents and parents in Santiniketan. And then, elaborates his study of economics, first in Calcutta, and then in Trinity College, Cambridge – Sen has been to many places in his lifetime. He also reminisces about the conversations at Calcutta’s famous Coffee House and at Cambridge, and Marx’s, Keyne’s and Arrow’s ideas, all of which shaped his views.

Life at Santiniketan

One of the main themes in the book is education at Santiniketan. From his very early days Sen’s life was closely associated with Santiniketan. Sen was born at Santiniketan, in his mother’s parental home, though much of his childhood was spent in Dhaka and in Mandalay where his father was a Professor of Chemistry. He visited Santiniketan when he was a child, but began to go to school there when he was about eight years old - before that, he went to St Gregory’s in Dhaka where he was, by no means, an outstanding student. Sen describes Tagore’s school as the “School without Walls”.

After entering it he began to blossom: “I absolutely loved,” Sen remembers, “not having to perform well.”

According to Sen, Santiniketan was remarkably progressive. One reason for it was that the girls and boys in it were treated equally. When the great 1943 Bengal famine hit India and killed more than two million people, Santiniketan was spared, and that inspired Sen’s Nobel-cited study on how starvation is caused by income inequality rather than food shortages. Sen’s first name, Amartya which means ‘immortal’ in Sanskrit, was also given by Rabindranath Tagore.

Grandfather’s Influence

Another aspect Sen elaborates in his memoir is the influence of his maternal grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen. Kshiti Mohan was an erudite proficient in Pali, Sanskrit, Hindi, Gujarati and of course Bengali. He was also an authority on the Bhakti poets, especially Kabir and Dadu and the philosophy underlying their poetry and their songs. His book titled Hinduism is considered a little gem of a book and continues to remain in print by Penguin. His erudition made Tagore bring him to Santiniketan where he worked as one of Tagore’s closest associates. Thus, the enormous intellectual light of Kshiti Mohan naturally reached Amartya as well, because when he was a schoolboy at Santiniketan, he lived with his grandparents.

Amartya’s growing relationship with Kshiti Mohan, often marked by the latter’s ‘gentle humour’, is best illustrated by one incident. When the young Amartya informed his grandfather, a pious man, about his growing indifference and scepticism regarding religion, Kshiti Mohan told him, “...you have placed yourself, I can see, in the atheistic – the Lokayata – part of the Hindu spectrum.” He followed this by giving his grandson a long list of references to atheistic and agnostic treatises in ancient Sanskrit. This incident reveals not only the relationship between grandfather and grandson but also Kshiti Mohan as an outstanding teacher.

Title of the book

The title of the book, The Home in the World, is drawn from a Tagore novel, The Home and the World, which is about the complexities of India’s struggle against Western domination. To Sen, the title evokes the secular, intellectually curious and tolerant climate in which he was raised.

Rivers of Bengal

Another important theme that Sen illuminates in the book is the rivers of Bengal. Sen’s childhood was both Santiniketan and Dhaka (now in Bangladesh). As a child in Dhaka, he was able to travel on boats across rivers with his parents. The rivers are, more or less, situated at the deltaic Bengal – the Padma, the Meghna and the Dhaleshwari. These journeys across rivers aroused Sen’s curiosity about the rivers, the lives around them, the fish and the enthralling landscape. Some rivers of West Bengal have beautiful names like Mayurakshi, Ajoy, Rupnarayan, Ichamati and Bhagirathi(commonly known as the Hooghly). As a student, he became aware of the importance of these rivers and the economy of the hinterland which Tagore had noted in his essays and poems. When Sen read Adam Smith in his later life, these links acquired greater salience.

The Buddha’s Teachings

Next, Amartya Sen focuses on how he was fascinated by the Buddha’s teachings. He first encountered them when he was about ten or eleven years old. It was from a book given to him by his grandfather. Sen writes, “I was completely bowled over by the clarity of reasoning Buddha used and his accessibility to anyone who could reason.” From then on, his appreciation and attachment to the Buddha started to grow.

According to Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Chancellor and Professor of History at Ashoka University, who writes a review on the book in The Wire magazine, Sen brings out four aspects of the ideas of the Buddha to explain his attraction:

“First, the Buddha focused on reason to reject or accept a given position; he made no appeal to unargued beliefs. All his ethical conclusions – equality of all human beings, kindness towards living beings, replacement of hatred by universal love – were based on reasoning. Second, the Buddha was human and he shared the same anxieties as all human beings – death, disease and disability. Third, the Buddha was making a radical departure by not asking, ‘Is there a God?’ but by posing the question, ‘How should we behave?’ irrespective of whether there was a God or not. The Buddha emphasised good behaviour and good action. And, finally, the Buddha made the rather important point that doing good should not be transactional. One should engage in good actions because it was ethical to do so.” In this way, many of Sen’s ideas came to be anchored in these ideas.

However, Sen’s memoir stops in 1963 when he was only 33 years old. But this does not disappoint the readers. Ashwani Kumar, a poet, author and Professor of Development Studies at TISS, Mumbai, writes in his review to the Financial Express, India, “After having finished reading the memoir, I felt as if my soul had been suddenly filled with ethereal voices of ‘flyin fishes’ from ‘near and far’. True, home is everywhere, and the world is like an irresistible ‘monsoon kiss that rains so incessantly like flowers from a gulmohur tree’.”


A book by an atheist generally lacks cultural identity. But with Home in the World it embodies all the cultural elements with its identity. In other words, Sen’s story as a cosmopolitan in the world has not lessened his sense of Indianness. As a person Amartya Sen loves his country, his people and his identity as an Indian. Though he has lived abroad since 1971, he has an Indian passport, and before the pandemic, he visited Santiniketan up to five times a year. He has a house there . So, Sen’s memoir, as Ashwani Kumar states in his article, is an epic journey of a beautiful mind trudging across generations and geographies of normative economics to make the world a more humane and inclusive civilisation.