Sunday, 15 February 2015

In Defence of Reason

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

In recent times all over the world there has been a revival of religious fundamentalism, bigotry and intolerance. In fact, the forces that sustain terrorism today are basically religious.

Add to this the current crusade against reason that has been launched by some postmodernist thinkers. Reason is made to stand on the dock. It is portrayed as the worst enemy of mankind. Some writers, formerly known as Marxists of some sort, are now eager to come to a compromise with religion. They are finding new virtues in people’s faith in the benevolence of the Almighty and the solace such faith offers. Some try to draw our attention to the historical role that religion is supposed to have played in people’s struggles off and on. The consensus of the postmodernists and some lapsed Marxists appears to be this: tyranny of reason must not be allowed to continue. However, they do not offer any substitute for reason (since there is none). It means they are prepared to give a free rein to impulse and thoughtless action.
The Thinker at the Gates of Hell :A bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin,(Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Let us understand one thing. Who is a fanatic? A fanatic is one who refuses to be reasonable. He would rather cling to his faith than listen to any contrary view. Terrorism is nourished by fanaticism. Indiscriminate slaughter of helpless men, women, and children cannot be undertaken by a human being unless he or she is a fanatic. Human has been defined as a rational being. But rationality has to be cultivated, consciously and continuously. Although the seeds of rationality are sown in every human, without proper care and nurture the seeds cannot bear fruit.

It is only by cultivating rationality that we can combat all expressions of fanaticism, both in our everyday life and in the society at large. Impulse needs no nurturing, rationality does.

It will be rewarding to remember, at this juncture, how the ancient Greek dramatists understood and expressed the value of reason. I give below two passages from two plays by Sophocles and Euripides respectively. They lived in the fifth century BCE and learnt the value of reason through their own experience in war-torn Athens. Let it be remembered that they believed in the existence of the gods and considered reason to a gift from them to mankind. This was their way of suggesting how worth-revering reason is.

Why select dramatists rather than philosophers? The reason is this: philosophers, particularly the Presocratics in ancient Greece, did cultivate reason. That is only to be expected. It is necessary to know how far their own rational views had permeated among the masses, the citizens of Athens and other city-states. Greek plays were performed in an open- air amphitheatre. People from all walks of life thronged to see the plays staged. It will be interesting to note which kind of ideas were projected in the plays meant for their pleasure and profit.

First, Sophocles. In his play, Antigone, Haemon, a prince, urges his tyrannical father, Creon, not to take any rash action. Creon claims that a king “must be obeyed in everything, both small and great, just and unjust alike” (lines 665-66). Otherwise, he thanks, there would be anarchy. The elders, who constitute the chorus in the play, approves of this view as “both reasonable and wise”. Haemon, however, says:
Father, the gods implant in mortal men
Reason, the choicest gift bestowed by heaven.
Tis not for me to say thou errest, nor
Would I arraign thy wisdom, if I could...1
He rounds up his speech with the following observation:
I’ll say ’tis best of all to be endowed
With absolute wisdom; but, if that’s denied,
(And nature takes not readily that ply)
Next wise is he who lists to sage advice.2
The second instance is taken from Euripides. In his play, the Suppliants, Theseus, King of Athens, declares:
Praise to the God who shaped in order’s mould
Our lives redeemed from chaos and the brute,
First, by implanting reason, giving then
The tongue, word-herald, to interpret speech..3.  
I do not mean that whatever these dramatists wrote is to be accepted as irrefutable truth. On the other hand, I suggest that we must use our reason to decide what is living and what is dead in their views. There is really no substitute for reason. In spite of their faith in gods, ancient Greeks understood it well.
Much has been said about the Greeks and the irrational.4 Yet we should note, and note well, what Jonathon Barnes says:
Recent scholarship has gone out of his way to stress the irrational side of the Greek genius: that even the Greeks had their moments of unreason is not to be denied, but that sad platitude however engrossing its detailed documentation may be, is surely of far less significance than the happy truth which it balances. For rationality, in a relaxed sense of the term, was the glory and triumph of the Greek mind, and its most valuable gift to posterity. The Greeks stand to the irrational as the French to bad cuisine.5
All this reminds us of a verse that occurs in the Yogavāsisṭha Rāmāyaṇa. Vaśiṣṭha advises Rāma: 
yuktiyukaṃ upādeyaṃ vacanaṃ bālakād api /
anyat tṛṇam iva tyājyam apyuktaṃ padmajanmanā //

A reasonable proposition even from a boy is acceptable; (but) anything else is to be rejected like (mere) grass even if said by Brahmā (the creator God) himself.6
This verse should not be viewed as something exceptional in the Indian tradition. Admittedly, reverence of the Vedas has been widespread all over our ancient land. Even atheist philosophers belonging to the Sāṃkhya system of philosophy could not dare to challenge the overwhelming authority of the Vedas. Another school of philosophy, Mīmāṃsā, too, was avowedly atheistic. They did not believe in the physical existence of the gods mentioned in the Vedas themselves. Nevertheless they thought that the sacrificial rites produced results, if not in this life then in the next. The Mīmāṃsakas were acute logicians. They spared none in their criticism. Other orthodox schools of philosophy claiming to be Vedists were their chosen target of attack. Yet all their rationality was employed to establish the infallibility of the Vedas. In the ultimate analysis Mīmāṃsā was substituting or replacing blind faith in gods by an equally blind faith in a so-called ‘revealed’ text, not composed by any god or any human. This may very well be called an abuse of reason.

Rationality in ancient India is more evident in the works of the heterodox schools: the Jains, the Buddhists, and the Cārvākas. Unlike other philosophical schools, they refused to believe in the halo round the word, veda. This was no mean achievement in the Indian context. These three schools together were called nāstika, negativist, by Brahminical orthodoxy. The reason is that they said ‘no’ to the supposed authority of the Veda as one of the valid means of knowledge. It is interesting to note that the Buddhists and the Jains too used to describe the Cārvāka or any other materialist school as nāstika. The word in this context is, however, used in a different sense. The materialists were condemned as negativists because they did not believe in the after-world, paraloka. In spite of being atheists and non-believers in the Vedas, the Jains and the Buddhists could not get rid of the concepts of rebirth and the other-world, punarjanma and paraloka. The materialists did not believe in any of these. Therefore, they were nāstikas in both senses of the term.

In the whole of Indian tradition the materialists alone were uncompromising rationalists. Their works are unfortunately lost. But their opponents have quoted or paraphrased their views in course of refuting them. I shall now cite some instances to show what the materialists are accused of.

Śrīharṣa, the philosopher-poet, in his Naiṣadhacarita makes a materialist (Kali, also mentioned as Cārvāka) say:
śrutismṛtyarthabodheṣu kvaikamatyaṃ mahādhiyām |
vyākhyā buddhivalāpekṣā sā nopekṣyā sukhonmukhī ||
Is there ever unanimity among the learned in expounding the sense of the scriptures and the law books? Interpretation depends upon the force of intelligence. One that conduces to pleasure is not to be neglected.7
Then he raises a very pertinent question: 
tarkāpratiṣṭhayā sāmyādanyonyasya byatighnatām |
nāprāmāṇyaṃ matānāṃ syātkeṣāṃ satpratipakṣavat ||
Owing to the unstable character of all reasoning, is there any whose opinions, mutually opposed, being equal in force, will not be baseless; like ‘a fallacious inference with a contradictory reason on the opposite side’?8
Apparently the materialist also understands that mere logic-chopping leads nowhere. Reason should not be abused in hair-splitting and unnecessary controversy.

Let us take another instance. In the Viṣṇupurāṇa, some demons, under the influence of Mahāmoha (Great Delusion), boldly declare: 
naitad yuktisahaṃ vākyaṃ hiṃsā dharmāya ceṣyate |
havīṃṣyanaladagdhāni phalāyetyarbhakoditam || 
 
The precepts that lead to the injury of animal life (as in sacrifices) do not stand to reason. To say that casting clarified butter into flame is productive of reward is mere childishness. 9
Mahāmoha, posing to be a materialist, is made to say to the demons in the context of criticizing the Vedists:  
nahyāptavādā nabhaso nipatanti mahāsurāḥ |
yuktimad vacanaṃ grāhyaṃ mayānyaiśca bhavadvidhaiḥ || 
 
O mighty demons, the words of authority do not fall from the sky: the text that has reason is alone to be acknowledged by me, and by such as you are.10
The target is the Vedas, the ultimate word or verbal testimony (āptavākya, āptavāda). The second verse challenges the independent status of verbal testimony as a valid means of knowledge. No verbal testimony is acceptable unless it is reasonable and based on perceptible evidence. This is not to deny the validity of verbal testimony as such but to warn people against accepting verbal testimony uncritically.

Another interesting instance is found in the Bṛhaspatismṛti, the law book written by one Bṛhaspati. In many respects he was quite conventional. He held Manu as the authority. But on one occasion he declares: 
kevalaṃ śāstramāśritya na kartavyo vinirṇayaḥ |
yuktihīne vicāre tu dharmahāniḥ prajāyate || 11
No sentence should be passed merely according to the letter of the law. If a decision is arrived at without considering the circumstances of the case (lit. if a decision is devoid of reason), violation of justice will be the result.1
The context of this significant observation is the question: Which śāstra (scripture, authoritative work), Arthaśāstra (science of polity), Dharmaśāstra (canonical law book), and Nyāyaśāstra (logic), is to be given priority over others? The answer is as expected: Dharmaśāstra. At the same time Bṛhaspati cautions that Nyāyaśāstra should not be transgressed (verse 112) and admits that śāstra alone is not enough; any consideration or judgment devoid of reason will harm dharma (merit) itself. Here too the voice of reason is clearly audible.

Neither Śrīharṣa nor the unknown authors of the passages in the Viṣṇupurāṇa and the Bṛhaspatismṛti were secret sympathizers of rationalism. Yet the similarity of phrasing is suggestive. It proves that there had always been a living stream of rationalism in India that never went dry. The burden of religious faith, popular superstitions and irrational philosophical systems could not totally obliterate it. It can be traced back to the Vedas themselves, down to the Upaniṣads and the two epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. Censoring of reasoners (tārkika, haituka, etc.) in the Dharmaśāstras, such as the Manusmti, also testifies to the existence of freethinkers and rationalists in pre-modern India. We seldom hear their own voices, but, as Richard Garbe once shrewdly observed: 
“[T]here is no doubt that those doctrines had even afterwards as they have to-day, numerous secret followers.” 13 

Appendix A 

We may recall in this connection an anonymous verse that has been current in India for centuries: 
yuktimad vacanaṃ grāhyaṃ bālādapi śukādapi |
yuktihīnaṃ vacaṃ tyajyaṃ vṛddhādapi śukādapi ||

A proposition endowed with reason is to be accepted whether it comes from a child or a śuka (parrot). A proposition devoid of reason is to be rejected whether it comes from an old man or Śuka himself (Śuka, son of Vyāsa, who was the legendary compiler of the Mahābhārata and eighteen Purāṇa-s, was reputed to be a very wise man).
I quote this verse from memory, for it could not be found in any of the collections of gnomic verses (subhāṣita-s) available to me. Compare the verse from the Viṣṇupurāṇa, 3.18.30 (31) quoted below. A similar stanza of unknown authorship is found in the Śāraṇgadhara-paddhati (452), an anthology of verses, reproduced in Parab-Panashikar, p. 159: 
yuktiyuktaṃ pragṛhnīyād vālādapivicakṣaṇaḥ |
raveraviṣayaṃ vastu kiṃ na dīpaḥ prakāśayet || Acharya (ed.), p.159.
Whatever is rational is to be accepted by the wise even if it comes from a child. Does the lamp not reveal an object which is beyond the reach of the sun?

Notes and references 

1 Lines 683-87, p. 307. 
2 Lines 720-23, p. 369. 
3 Lines 201-04, p. 517 
4 There is Dodds’s book-length study on this theme. 
5 Barnes, p. xvi. 
6 Mumumkṣu-vyavahāra-prakaraṇa, 18.3. See also Appendix A. 
7 Śrīharṣa, Naiṣadhacarita, 17.51. Trans. p. 250. 
8 Ibid., 17.79. Trans. p. 254. 
9 Viṣṇupurāṇa, 3.18.25 (Kalikata ed.), 3.18.26 (Bareli ed.). I have preferred the emendation proposed by Śrīdhara (ceṣyate in place of neṣyate in the text, 25b). See Kalikata ed., p.109. Trans. (modified to make it more literal), p. 271. 
10 Ibid., 3.18. 30 (Kalikata ed.), 3.18. 31 (Bareli ed.). Trans., p. 272. 
11 Verse 114, p. 19. 
12 Trans. p. 284. 
13 Garbe, p. 25.

Works Cited

Barnes, Jonathon. The Presocratic Philosophers. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. 

Bṛhaspatismṛti (Reconstructed). K. V. Rangaswami Aiyangar. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1941.

Trans. Julius Jolly in The Minor Law-books. Part I. Sacred Books of the East 33. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977 (Reprint).

Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1951. 

Euripides. Vol. III. Ed. and trans. Arthur S. Way. London: William Heinemann (Loeb Classical Library), 1962.

Garbe, Richard. The Philosophy of Ancient India. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1899 (second ed.).

Parab, Kashinath Pandurang (ed.). Śrīsubhāṣitaratnabhāṇḍāgāraṃ. Revised by Wasudev Laxman Panashikar. Delhi: Eastern Book Links, 1991. 

Sophocles. Vol. I. Ed. and trans. F. Storr. London: William Heinemann (Loeb Classical Library), 1962.

Śrīharṣa. Naiṣadhacarita. Ed. M. M. Pandit Sivadatta. Revised by Wāsudev Laxmaṇ Śāstri Panśikar. Bombay: Nirnay Sagar Press, 1928 (sixth ed.).Trans. Krishna Kanta Handiqui. Poona: Deccan College, Postgraduate Research Institute, 1956 (2nd ed). 

Viṣṇupurāṇam. Kalikata: [Vangavasi], 1294 Bengali san (1887-88 CE);ed. Sriram Sarma Acharya. Bareli: Samskrita Sansthan (U.P.), 1967. Trans. H. H. Wilson, Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1961 (reprint). 

Yogavāsisṭhaḥ (Rāmāyaṇa). Ed. and trans. into Hindi by Mahaprabhulal Goswami. Varanasi: Tara Book Agency, 1988.

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya and Siddhartha Datta


    Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of PAVLOV Institute, Kolkata.



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