Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Professor Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya as a Researcher

G. Ramakrishna
A prolific author and a versatile researcher, Professor Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya is among those who gave a qualitative turn to the methods and content of research in more disciplines than one. Essentially a student of Philosophy – Indian and Western - he has authored quite a few authentic works in the area of Philosophy, works which have established themselves as both scholarly and popular. They have been taken quite seriously by the world of scholarship not only in our country but also in several other countries. One indication of this is the numerous translations of his works in different languages, Indian and foreign. His works on medical science in ancient India as also his three volumes on the history of science and technology in ancient India stand as evidence for his signal contribution to historiography. Besides, he has distinguished himself as a stalwart among Marxist philosophers through any number of works directly dealing with the enunciations and application of the Marxist philosophy. He is reputed to have produced copious handbooks on a variety of topics related to science, history and literature, particularly for children and novices in the respective fields during his early years as an author. As G. Nagakumar has put it, “the value of his work lies in the insights it provides into the history, philosophy, science and social movements of India through the ages. He was not interested in merely cataloguing academic facts, but in providing powerful ideological weapons for the masses in the struggle for social, cultural and economic change in our country.” (The Observer of Business and Politics , 21.05.1993)
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya
Born on 19th November 1918, Debiprasad breathed his last on 8th May 1993 after a 75 year long formidable innings of creativity, fruitful and avid research, and extensive authorship. The first volume of his History of Science and Technology : Ancient India (Calcutta, 1986) came as welcome rains on the parched earth smeared with imprecise and at times chauvinistic formulations of what passed for science and history. The postulates of our ancient scientists, their method of scientific pursuit, and how they arrived at them were hardly ever given a cogent exposition. Not relating the empirical observations and scientific experiments of the early era with the social compulsions of the respective periods left many a historian in an unenviable position. This lacuna was exceptionally made up by Professor Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya who explored the dimensions of science and the potentials of science between the period of first urbanization in Harappa and Mohenjodaro and the second during the Mauryan period. In 1991 appeared the second volume, reviewing which, Robert Temple said in the reputed journal Nature (vol. 353, 5th September 1991) as follows: “ This is more than a book on the history of science. It grapples directly with the issues of whether India is to have any future or not. Chattopadhyaya is a brave man, and he has tackled the fundamental problem head on: he shows the history of Hindu obscurantism that has suppressed the rise of science in India through the ages – the implications for the present are clear.”

Chattopadhyaya was somewhat of an anathema for many orthodox and conservative scholars and they sensed that the carpet was being drawn from under their feet by this irreverent defender of the best in Indian tradition. That was rather paradoxical insofar as the intention of destabilizing wholesome thought in the context of ancient India was farthest from Debiprasad’s mind. One had only to listen to him, or else read him, to realise how justifiably proud he was about the richness of Indian tradition in certain respects, be it Harappan civilization, Vedic poetry or Upanishadic thought. He mustered courage and hard facts to openly claim that Uddalaka Aruni of Chandogya Upanishad fame was the first experimental scientist that the world knows of. He said it to no less a person than Joseph Needham, the most authentic chronicler of the Culture and Civilisation of Ancient China in eight volumes, and the latter had to accept it in the face of the evidence that Uddalaka, the Upanishadic celebrity of the seventh or eighth century B.C., held to a position of “essentially a rational knowledge based on observation and even experiment.” 
Having started his career as a college teacher in Bombay in the 1940’s, Chattopadhyaya moved over to the City College in Kolkata very soon and remained there till the late 1970’s when he opted out of the job to devote himself to whole-time research and writing. Much earlier, in the 1950’s he had gone to London to work in the British Museum as also to obtain direct guidance through discussions with George Thomson, the tallest scholar in ancient Greek studies in Cambridge and subsequently in Birmingham. On an allowance which hardly sufficed for a hand to mouth existence, he struggled on in England and produced an unconventional masterly book on ancient Indian materialism, named, Lokayata (1959). It was his first major work which launched him on the national and international philosophical scene in a big way. Even earlier, as already mentioned, he had made a name as a poet and also as an author on a variety of subjects for children in Bengali. The methodology as also the reconstruction of the evolution of ancient Indian society that Lokayata provided won its author a number of academic friends and foes.

It will be a futile venture to summarise the works of Debiprasad in a brief talk or in an article running into only a few pages. Equally difficult will it be to evaluate his works and contributions in a summary fashion. It is, therefore, proposed to highlight only a few aspects of his work and its methodology by way of an introduction for further studies by those who have the inclination for it.

Debiprasad made abundant use of both anthropology and archaeology in his studies. In his first major work, namely, the Lokayata, there is, for example, a chapter (ch. 2) entitled ‘The Chanting Dogs’. Scholars have been in a quandary as to what the episode in the Chandogya Upanishad, where the dogs figure and where they are presented as singing and dancing, actually signifies. Many are so amused by the episode that they dismiss the entire thing as being at best a take on the priests. Something like a humourous imitation of what the priests go through in the course of a sacrifice at a particular juncture. The passage in the Chandogya (1.12) is quite simple. Baka Dalbhya, also called ‘the grieving Maitreya (Glaava Maitreya), witnessed a white dog being accosted by a few other dogs with a request to get them some food by singing, whereupon the white dog asked the other dogs to be there the next day. Daalbhya arrived at the spot the next day to watch the proceedings, curious as he was. So did the dogs to enact the dance while singing. The dogs started going round and round, one behind the other, and then produced some sounds saying “Let us eat, let us drink, let us have food, ye gods.” The chanting and dancing closely resembled the chanting of the Saamans by the priests in a sacrifice. Some scholars even presumed that the dogs were holding each others’ tails, though there is hardly any tail referred to by the Upanishad. Even Shankaracharya had interpreted it more or less the same way while pointing out that the Upanishad decries elaborate formal rituals in order to uphold the importance of pure knowledge, as against rituals, to obtain liberation. Debiprasad was the very first to see the episode in a new light. Anthropology came to his help to recognize the dogs as men whose totem is the dog. He then dug out other references to men as dogs in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the Harivamsha and the Mahabharata. For Kautilya, men who slave like dogs for their masters are ‘dogs’, while in the other two texts they are those who belong to a group whose ancestors had a dog for their totem. Totemism is integrally connected with primitive tribes as evidenced from the study of tribes from different parts of the globe. Incidentally, what the dogs are craving for in the Upanishadic passage is food, a dire material need for the sustenance of life. Debiprasad observed that many seers of the Rigveda are identified with their totemic names: as for example, the Kashyapas, Mandukeyas, Shaunakas, Kaushikas, etc., indicating the tortoise, frog, dog, owl, etc. as totems. After all, these seers are descendants of the tribes of yore and they are historically placed at a time when the tribes are gradually getting disintegrated. What is so strange then for a totemic dance accompanied by singing which Baka Dalbhya witnessed? A totemic collective dance of this kind might not have been in practice any more by the time the Upanishad-s came to be composed. The Upanishad has reminisced about a practice which used to be in vogue at some time in the past, remote or recent. Whether or not the priestly ritual bears any resemblance to the totemic dance is beside the point. Does it, however, mean that one could obtain food by dancing like the dogs did? The answer to it again must be sought for in a tribal custom of ancient times when magical fulfilment of the desire would be attained to precede the actual fulfilment of the necessity. And it is a material necessity at that. In the episode of the chanting dogs, the white dog is presumably the elder member of the tribe under whose guidance and leadership the tribe as a whole obtains its food. The song of the ancient tribes is akin to what in later times was a prayer to a god or a group of gods. The tribal ritual is the prototype of the sophisticated sacrificial rituals of later times. Ancient Magic is not quite identical with religion of a later period though they have similarities to a considerable extent. As George Thomson explains, religion “is characterised by belief in God and the practice of prayer or sacrifice. The lowest savages known to us have no gods and know nothing of prayer or sacrifice. Similarly, wherever we can penetrate the prehistory of civilised peoples, we reach a level at which again there are no gods, no prayer or sacrifice. What we find at this level is magic.” And what is the fundamental characteristic of ancient magic? To quote Thomson again, “magic rests on the principle that by creating the illusion that you control reality you can actually control it. In its initial stages it is simply mimetic. You want rain, so you perform a dance in which you mimic the gathering clouds, the thunderclap, and the falling shower. You enact in fantasy the fulfilment of the desired reality. In its later stages the mimetic act may be accompanied by a command, an imperative ‘Rain!’ But it is a command, not a request. This principle of collective compulsion corresponds to a stage of society at which the community is still an undivided whole, supreme over each and all of its members, presenting a weak but united front against the hostile world of nature.”

Recognition of the said Chandogya passage as a reminiscence of an age old practice of magic not only makes the meaning of the passage clear but tells us abundantly about the nature of the sacrificial rituals as an offshoot of the ancient magical practice. It will thus be possible to understand the Purva Mimamsa system of philosophy cogently. The gods and goddesses to whom apparently sacrificial offerings are made just do not exist according to this system, but nevertheless the fruit of the sacrifice is assured for the sacrificer. That is because of the potency of the ‘word’ or mantra which corresponds to the imprecations in early magic. Besides, the episode of the chanting dogs corroborates part of the ancient Indian materialist tradition for which reason it is that Debiprasad has referred to the episode of the dogs. There is no gainsaying that the interpretation of the episode of the chanting dogs is a significant development in the methodology for studying our ancient texts, philosophical or otherwise. Incidentally, it may be noted that the Rigveda has a number of hymns which in substance have the ingredients of early magic, not to speak of the Atharvaveda where we have any number of hymns which could be regarded as ‘magical’. For example, one may cite RV.10.161 (against consumptive disease called Rajayakshma), 10.162 (against diseases and evil spirits), 10.164 (against bad dreams), 10.166 (against rivals), and so on. From the Atharvaveda one could cite 3.6 (against enemies), 3.7 (against Yakshma), 1.22 (against heart disease), 1.25 (against fever), 5.13 (against serpent bite), etc. 
Another innovative method advanced by Debiprasad is what he terms ‘Retrospective Probing’ as a chronological pointer. It is well known that Lokamanya Tilak and H. Jacobi dated the Rigveda to the third or fourth millennium B.C. on the basis of a few passages containing some astronomical data. There are quite a few others who have depended on similar evidences while dating other ancient texts. The question is whether such astronomical data directly corresponds to the period during which it is cited or whether it belongs to a much earlier period than the one in which it has been cited. In other words, it is possible that some astronomical data which has come down to us as forming part of the literature of a given period might actually be an astronomical occurrence during a much earlier period. We cannot be too sure that the text in which the data is cited was actually composed during the exact period when the cited astronomical event actually transpired. That is only another way of saying that a memory of an event of an earlier period might well be presented as a contemporary event of the author recording the event. The assumption in such cases by many a scholar is that “the actual date of the observation (of the astronomical event) must be the same as that of the literature in which it is referred to or mentioned in some form” (History of Science and Technology in Ancient India, vol.1, p. 254). The particular instance that prompted Debiprasad to take up this issue is the fact that the lists of the asterisms (nakshatra-s) in various Vedic texts like the Taittiriya Samhita, Maitrayani Samhita, etc., always begin with the Krittika-s. Why so, asked Jacobi, and his answer was that it then coincided with the vernal equinox. His conclusion thereupon was that Vedic culture was in existence by roughly 3000 B.C. when this astronomical phenomenon had occurred. That is not the end of the story because the Vedic texts have quite a few other things to say about the Krittika-s which make such a chronology questionable. In the Satapatha Brahmana (ii.1.2.1-5) there is reference to a dispute as to whether the two fires – Garhapatya and Ahavaniya – could be set up under the Krittika-s. The six or seven stars of the Krittika asterism are supposed to be the wives of the Seven Stars who rise in the north. But the Krittika-s rise in the east, thereby making it impossible for the husbands to meet the wives. It would be inauspicious, therefore, to set up fires under the stars which never move away from the eastern quarters and therefore never meet their husbands. The sacrificer’s ambition might well remain unfulfilled like the ambition of the seven seers to be with their wives! Anyway, the fact is that other asterisms may move away from the eastern quarter but the Krittika-s do not. The Krtittika-s are identified with Pleiades with Eta Tauri as its determinative star. Ramatosh Sarkar, an astronomer, has calculated that “Eta Tauri can rise exactly in the east only when its declination is nil or when its celestial longitude is zero and celestial latitude is negligible, i.e. roughly coinciding with the vernal equinox” (HSTAI, vol.1, p.258). This yields 2334 B.C. as the date for such a phenomenon. And the Satapatha Brahmana is definitely not that old by any reckoning. The approximate date of the SB is 1000 B.C. at which juncture the celestial longitude of Eta Tauri was 18 degrees and odd (Ibid. p.259). Obviously, the priests of the Satapatha Brahmana are only referring to an astronomical knowledge that has been passed on to them from days of yore somehow. These priests might have been as innocent as Adam as far as astronomical observations and calculations were concerned for all we know. Debiprasad maintains that this knowledge belonged to the period of Harappan culture. The SB helps him to take to ‘restrospective probing’ whereby the date of Harappan culture could be safely adduced. This date for the astronomical phenomenon just mentioned was corroborated also by the astronomers of the Dr. C.V. Raman Research Institute in Bengaluru whom Debiprasad had approached for confirmation of Ramatosh Sarkar’s calculations. At the instance of Debiprasad, the present author had the privilege of going to the astronomers concerned for their opinion based on expert calculations and convey the same to Dr. Chattopadhyaya for his information. It is true that this kind of research is stimulating although it may have nothing to add to our knowledge of philosophy, but then Debiprasad was not only a student of philosophy but also a historian of ancient Indian science. “A one-man brigade against philosophical obscurantism” as he came to be called by his close associates, Dr. Chattopadhyaya had necessarily been required to have many irons in the fire and he had to keep stoking all of them duly and meticulously all the time. That was the kind of academic acumen he possessed and that deserves to be an attribute worthy of emulation for all of us. In the world of Philosophy proper, his signal contribution consists in establishing “Two trends of philosophy” – namely, materialism and idealism – as an inevitable characteristic of Indian Philosophy just as it is of world philosophy. Other minute and subtle distinctions between different schools of Indian Philosophy notwithstanding, the fundamental criterion for classification of the schools ultimately has to be in terms of the two basic differentiating points of view in philosophy represented by materialism and idealism. Materialism in essence asserts that objective reality is independent of subjective consciousness, which simply means that objects have an existence of their own irrespective of whether they are cognized by anyone or not. This was cryptically summed up by Lenin in his classic statement that the world was there long before there was anyone to know that the world was there. As opposed to this point of view, Idealism in a variety of forms posits that it is our cognition that gives credibility to the world. The oft quoted conundrum that intends to bring out the difference between the two runs somewhat like this: “What is mind? – No matter. What is matter? Never mind.” As one can see, there is nothing about matter here as both responses to the two questions attach greater importance to mind than to matter. So much of esoteric literature has come out on this topic over the centuries in practically all parts of the world that no simple propositions can be satisfactory. Dr. Chattopadhyaya had delivered two talks under the aegis of the University of Mysore way back in November 1976 on “Two Trends in Indian Philosophy” in which he had discussed both streams of philosophy fairly extensively. It has been delineated more elaborately in his “What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy.” His emphasis is on the historical developments in the course of the evolution of society which created the ground for the emergence of idealism at a definite point of time. This is true of the Indian philosophical context as much as it is applicable in the case of, say, ancient Greek Philosophy. In the Indian context, the contrast is best seen in Vedic literature where during the first phase represented by the Rigveda there is hardly any scope for idealism, whereas all intellectual efforts are afoot in the second phase represented by the Brahmana-s and Upanishad-s to establish the veracity of the idealistic approach to philosophy. The absence and presence respectively of a rigid stratification of society has much to do with the kind of philosophical viewpoint that comes to the fore at a given point of time. Thereafter it is a perpetual conflict between the two ways of looking at ourselves and the world. The techniques and the relations of production have a tremendous potentiality to advance variants of philosophical thought, an aspect almost ignored by historians of philosophy sometimes. There is nothing unique about ancient Indian society, as all ancient societies had to tread more or less the same path and come face to face with the same phenomena. Engels had noticed long ago that “with society splitting up into classes, there took place the divorce of thought from action – of mental labour from manual labour – and also a sense of degradation attached to the latter” as quoted by Chattopadhyaya (Lokayata, p.670). That is how production relations developed. Engels further added elsewhere in this context the following for elucidating the impact of this development on spheres like the philosophical: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the idea of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” (German Ideology, quoted by Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata, p.670). This is best corroborated by our contemporary situation in which the havoc caused by the media, including the electronic media, the endless literary festivals where the same thing gets repeated ad nauseam as it were. The power and pelf of the ruling class which enables that class to sell its none too glamorous merchandise to the gullible masses is indeed unfathomable. Where is the wherewithal for the likes of us to counter that propaganda machine? That class, therefore, shines as the pace-setter in culture and philosophical thought giving the impression that there is no other viable thinking process in our midst. Ancient societies had their own characteristic instruments to serve a similar purpose and philosophy was one among them. That is the reason why Dr. Chattopadhyaya has argued vehemently in favour of considering the socio-economic background to philosophical disquisitions and has drawn from history to support his method. In the specific case of the germination of idealist philosophy in India, especially during the period of the Upanishads, he has this to say: “The philosophical view which arose to condemn and reject life was the result of philosophical pursuit turning away from life itself. As with the development of slavery in ancient Greece, so also in Upanishadic India, the lofty contempt for the material world with its ever-shifting phenomena was the result of philosophical enquiry taking a free flight into the realm of pure reason or pure knowledge, i.e. knowledge divorced from action. This in turn could be possible only when a section of the community living on the surplus produced by another, could withdraw itself from the responsibility of the labour of production, and therefore also from the obligation of acknowledging the reality of the material world; for the process of labour alone carries the sense of objective coercion on consciousness” (Two Trends in Indian Philosophy, p.31). If we come to think of it, there is no serious doubting of the reality of the real world in the folk tradition, a tradition nurtured by the working masses. We do have some talk of the theory of karma and the like, but denial of the material world is hard to come by, for the simple reason that cultivation of the land, need for the rains, sowing and putting manure are inevitable processes for obtaining yield from mother earth. The agriculturist does not have the luxury of speculating about the unrealness of the real world. Certain tenets of the idealist school of Vedanta are foisted even on a few religious cults, but that hardly makes any sense, because religion in practice does not deny the world but only tries to give an assurance that a religious person stands every chance of gaining material well-being in reality. Almost every such cult hankers after welfare and seeks the blessings of some god or goddess or both for achieving that end. Paradoxically enough, however, in the range of philosophy the idealist school of thought has at times gained ascendency. Among the Vedantins also we have Ramanuja, Madhva, and a number of others for whom reality of the world we live in is no chimera. Some schools of Buddhism and the Advaita school of Vedanta are about the only few who insist on a purely idealist view of philosophy. All said and done, analysis and not authority is what guides philosophical thought. Thus, in spite of the alleged authority of the Upanishads as understood by the author of the Brahma sutra-s and as interpreted by the likes of Shankara, there has always been a counterpoint to the idealist school of thought in the Indian philosophical tradition. No amount of hectoring can wish away philosophical materialism, which insists that objective reality is independent of subjective consciousness, and that is true of Indian Philosophy as well. 
It may not be out of place here to have a word on the traditional classification of the schools of philosophy in India. It is customary, albeit irrational, to speak of the astika and nastika systems as if that was the last word in understanding the nuances of Indian philosophy. This classification is not based on analysis but on authority, which is an anathema for any academic discipline as we have already observed. It does injustice to those texts of Vedic literature, particularly the Rigveda and Atharvaveda, which leave us in no doubt that their principal purport is anything but philosophical. For the authors of these two Vedic texts the world is unquestionably a reality and appeasing the gods and goddesses is one way of facing the world with some confidence and hope. What does it mean then to say that Veda is the authority for philosophical thought and that acceptance or otherwise of this doctrine would make the schools either astika or nastika? What aspect of the doctrines of Nyaya and Vaiseshika schools do we categorise as the one which is directly drawn from the Veda? The Nyaya school would unhesitatingly declare that it does not need the authority of the Veda to say that practice is the criterion of truth, a cardinal idea in the Nyaya school. That fire is an antidote to shivering in the cold is a matter of experience and that piece of knowledge need not be authorized by the Vedic lore. Thus agnirhimasya bheshajam of the Veda does not need to be invoked to authenticate this knowledge. The circumstances under which the formality of adhering to Vedic thought for the enunciation of philosophical ideas came to be considered sacrosanct should be explored dispassionately to call the bluff. Is it acceptance of the ideas contained in the Veda or acceptance of the ritualistic extravagance contained in some influential portion of Vedic literature, namely, the Brahmana-s, which are no more than liturgical texts, which constitutes adherence to the Vedic thought? If it is the former, even the Lokayata-s may not have any quarrel with it, for, after all the Rigveda contains umpteen hymns which constantly crave for material wealth and welfare without going through any ritualistic practices. It is the extraordinary power of the priestly class that enables that class to lord it over the gullible ordinary people that the Lokayata resents, wedded as it is to the folk tradition in which early magic is still the major factor. To what extent indeed will the Samkhya be an astika school if adherence to Vedic authority is the sole criterion for classification of the philosophical systems? We shall soon acquaint ourselves with another anomaly in this regard, but suffice it to state for the present that this classification of philosophical schools on the basis of Vedic authority leads us nowhere. On the other hand it has led to the subordination of philosophy to the dictates of the law-givers or Dharmashastrakara-s. Let us at the very outset be clear that social dynamics and social mores during the centuries when these law-givers gained an awful lot of influence were what they were, not because the law-givers prescribed the rules but because society had formed itself that way under the influence of the then prevailing relations of production. The law-givers merely recorded the structure society had at that given point of time. That structure could not have been imposed by them, had the forces of production been different. The position of the ruling authorities ably assisted by the law-givers was such that even philosophers played second fiddle to them. Shankaracharya, who appeared on the scene quite a few centuries after the major law-givers had already enunciated their doctrines and dictates, goes to the extent of saying that what Manu has said is indeed the final word even in the realm of philosophy. The astika – nastika classification of philosophy on the basis of Vedic authority ultimately became a classification on the basis of what the law-givers approved of and sanctioned. This was decidedly a burden on philosophy which under different conditions might have evolved quite differently.

Let us view the classification by defining the terms differently now. That definition also is a product of tradition. The acceptance or rejection of god is the criterion in this scheme to differentiate the philosophical schools. That criterion makes Samkhya, Vaiseshika and Purva-Mimamsa schools atheistic. Nyaya would also have fitted into the atheistic model if at some stage in the history of its evolution god had not been foisted on it. The Jain school might well qualify for a theistic tag if its elaborate rituals are any indication. No matter, therefore, how we define the two terms astika and nastika the classification as it stands looks incongruous. The only sensible thing to do is thus to consider philosophy as philosophy and make the alleged authority of the Veda for purposes of classifying philosophical ideas infructuous. The only alternative then for us for classifying the schools is to broadly consider them as either materialist or idealist and make them autonomous instead of allowing them to be judged with the yardstick of the law-givers.

There is another good reason why we should go along these lines. Under the traditional classification, both Samkhya and Advaita are astika systems and yet the latter shreds the former into pieces as it considers that system its most preposterous opponent. Samkhya is the finalist in the wrestling bout for Shankara who gives him the nomenclature of the pradhanamalla. Why should two systems equally devoted to Vedic authority be at loggerheads so fundamentally? It is obvious that ‘Vedic authority’ is no more than a formality and the philosophical schools are expected to fall in line to be on the right side of the presumptive custodians of the Vedic lore, namely, the law-givers who are steadfast in defending the vertical division of society. The long and short of it is that philosophy has been appropriated ‘for justifying the ways of the law-givers to society’ if using an expression of Milton is at all pardonable. If we rid ourselves of such extraneous factors for the classification and study of the schools of Indian philosophy a whole storehouse opens itself up. Besides, the absurdity of the traditional a-historical and a-philosophical classification could well be a thing of the past. But the absurdity does not really end with it as there are a few other absurdities we may be required to sort out.

The Brahma sutra-s in a way regimented the study of the Upanishads by insisting that the entire compendium of the Upanishads has but one idea to convey by and large. The apparent differences in the ideas advanced in the different Upanishads, this text said, should be reconciled appropriately (1.1.4: Tat tu samanvayat). In any case, this text does recognise variety of ideas in the Upanishads, but is somehow not inclined to accept this variety. It is more at home with straitjacketing. The euphemistic name given to that is ‘reconciliation.’ Not long after this text there emerged the Bhagavadgita which also purports to be derived from the Upanishads (Sarvopanishado gavah). But where was the problem in accepting the Upanishads as pluralistic in the matter of ideas regarding reality and evaluate the variety of ideas thrown up in the Upanishads? More than a century ago R.G. Bhandarkar raised this question and said in so many words that the Upanishads contain numerous ideas regarding what constitutes reality. A few others opined similarly. But catholicity of ideas has been deftly opposed by our scholars who continue to bask in the sunshine of the Brahma sutra-s, on which there are more than half a dozen ‘authentic’ commentaries, each of them stoutly asserting that its own understanding of the text is the only genuine meaning of the text. Possibly, we have to attempt to reconcile those opposing interpretations also in the true spirit of the Brahma sutra-s! Why has this rigidity set in when the Upanishads themselves did not revere any one single opinion on ever so many philosophical questions? Is there some apprehension of any rival school of philosophy gaining ground because of which a reconciled unity of ideas is considered necessary to protect the philosophical fort? The answer seems to be in the positive and it is the Buddha whom the Brahma sutra-s and the Gita obviously defend themselves against. The orthodox opinion of the priestly class which ruled the roost in the then deeply entrenched vertical society faced a formidable challenge from the Buddha, the Lokayata-s and quite a few other schools on the fringe. The Brahma sutra-s seeks to perform the task of forging a united philosophical front in the face of heterodox opinion which undermines the interests of the ruling class of which the priestly class is a component. The so called ‘ekarthata’ of the Upanishads is thus a constructed phenomenon which the Upanishads themselves do not mind rejecting outright. Historically also there could not have been a single approach to questions of philosophy, considering the fact that the Upanishads were not composed by any one individual at any one given locality at a specific point of time. They were products of a few centuries and the thinkers belonged to different places from the ‘Aryavarta’ to the Gangetic plains. None of the so called acharya-s who wrote commentaries on the Upanishads, the Brahma sutra-s and the Gita ever raised such simple questions. They blindly followed the directives of the Brahma sutra-s and the law-givers and thus acted as active intellectual defenders of the orthodoxy in our vertical society.

There is scope for illustrating this with one example here. Dr. Chattopadhyaya has assigned the role of a pioneer experimental scientist at the global level to Uddalaka Aruni of the Chandogya Upanishad fame for upholding a philosophical position which was anything but idealistic and for having demonstrated it with a series of observations and experimental demonstrations. The formulations of Uddalaka are not far different from what the atomists (paramanu-vadins) during subsequent times advocated and they all fall within the sphere of the philosophical materialists. “How can being evolve from non-being?” (katham asatah sat jayeta) asks Uddalaka which is precisely the question that the Samkhya-s posed. But the Brahma sutra-s and the later acharya-s are all eager to have one uniform idea of reality as the substance of the Upanishads and therefore do not mind converting the materialist Uddalaka into an ardent seeker of Brahman. They do not have the patience to see that Uddalaka never once uttered the word Brahman while explaining his philosophical concepts to his son Svetaketu. It is to the credit of Dr. Chattopadhyaya that he had the courage of conviction to swim against the wild current built up over centuries of philosophical scholarship in our country and place philosophical enquiry on a sound footing. That is the fruit of enviable research acumen. It may at this juncture be proper to proceed to take up another question which Debiprasad has discussed fairly comprehensively in many of his works. The question concerns the role of superstitious ideas and fostering such beliefs with a definite purpose.

It is a strange paradox that philosophy which seeks knowledge of reality quite often panders to some base emotions of the people by not only supporting but also actively creating superstitious beliefs. All superstitions are logically invalid and most of them could well be dismissed under the error called post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). The so called omens come under this category. Why are seekers of truth fascinated by gross superstitions? Plato and others are classic examples for this model of philosophers turned propagators of superstitions. Plato blatantly supported the idea of disseminating what he called ‘beneficial falsehood’ which is euphemism for crass superstition. That was his solution to what he considered was a problem with the youth of his times. The youth did not simply fall in line with the so called established norms. They questioned the legitimacy of certain ideas and that irked Plato a lot. His antidote to this was to plant ‘beneficial falsehoods’ in the minds of all such potential dissenters. In the Indian context we have a plethora of superstitions nurtured not only by religion but also by philosophy. Orthodox Indian philosophers took cudgels against the Lokayata principally because it sought to attribute motives to the priestly class for fostering superstitious cults among the people. It is an irony that philosophers who swear by logic (tarka or nyaya) while demolishing their opponents ignore that very logic when parrot-like they sing panegyrics to the dictates of the law-givers on matters outside the purview of the law-givers. Shankara says that ‘what Manu says is the final word.’ And that on matters philosophical. In other words, philosophers do not hesitate to fall into the trap of superstitions. It is alright for Kautilya to advocate the innovative use of superstitions to empower the ruler because it is his mission to keep the people subjugated, but philosophers profess to help the people to obtain liberation. Why then should they forge chains in their workshops to keep the minds of the people under control? Debiprasad has discussed this question at great length in many of his works, especially in his What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy. He has a whole chapter on ‘the Social Function of Superstition’ in that work of his. There is the philosophy for keeping minds under check and there also is the philosophy to emancipate the minds from the clutches of dry orthodoxy. In fact, in addition to the classification of philosophy as either materialist or idealist, it is time that we also categorise philosophy according to whether or not it positions itself in the bandwagon of superstition, for the simple reason that superstition and true knowledge can never go together. A misconceived belief system and the quest after truth are diametrically opposed to each other. Nyaya philosophy which lays emphasis on the nuances of logical thinking and Lokayata which collides head on with everything that borders on superstition provide people with the weapons of criticism to steer clear of superstitions. Historians of Indian philosophy who are prepared for a confrontation with superstitious ideas are not too many, even when such ideas form an integral part of the philosophical doctrines that different schools of philosophy profess. Dr. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya is happily an exception to this and it behoves us to follow in his footsteps if we want philosophy to be truly an accessory to people’s emancipation. Emancipation itself is quite frequently defined in abstract terms insofar as the summom bonum of life is to be a worthy servant of the great master called God, as in the philosophies of Ramanuja and Madhva. Bhakti and Prapatti are terms which have been made popular among the votaries of these schools and many other schools have emulated them. This is a case of philosophy being wedded to a specific religious order. Philosophical Materialism is one school that does not have to fall back upon divine intervention for emancipation. The pragmatic philosophy of the Buddha with its doctrine of the pratitya samutpada comes very close to that approach.

Dr. G Ramkrishna is the Chief Editor of Hosatu, a progressive periodical in Kannada. He was Professor of English at National College, Bangalore and a Visiting Professor at Kannada University, Hampi. He is the author a number of books in Kannada and English including The Strange Culture of M.S. Golvalkar,  The Living Marx, and Philosophy in China (in English), The features of the Anti-Fascist Movement, RSS – A Poisonous Tree, On Hindutva (Kannda)
Email ID: dgrkrishna@gmail.com


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