Review Article

Masterly Insights into Ancient India

Anirban Biswas

Science And Philosophy In Ancient India
by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya
Aakar Books, Delhi-110091, 2013, 244 pages, Price Rs 295

In view of the continuous and persistent rediscovery and to put exactly, distorted rediscovery, of ancient India by the forces of Hindutva,whose main objective is to promote the forces of obscurantism in the name of nationalism, dissemination of proper and scientific studies of ancient India is essential. It is well- known that late Professor Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya made much useful contribution to this subject. His first scholarly work was the famous study of Indian materialism, Lokayata Darshan. Lokayata was his first important work, followed by many other scholarly studies, namely Indian Atheism (1969), What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy (1976), Science and Society in Ancient India (1977), History of Science and Technology in Ancient India in three volumes (1986, 1991 and 1996), In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India: A Study in Carvaka/Lokayata (1989) etc, besides several books in Bengali.

The present volume*, published twenty years after Chattopadhyaya's death, that this reviewer seeks to introduce to the readers of Frontier, is a rather small one, a collection of eight essays only. This reviewer cannot presume to be an authority on Chattopadhyaya, as he is familiar with only a part of his writings. Yet he finds himself fascinated by these essays and thinks that greater circulation of them is overdue.

The first article, delivered as a lecture in Delhi in 1988, traces the root of the scientific approach to reality in ancient India. The author's statement that Uddalaka Aruni was the first important person to have this approach in this world must create a stir among all those interested in the history of science. Historians of science usually give this honour to Thales of Miletus. Chattopadyaya argues that this priotiry given to Thales is based on a large measure of ignorance of ancient Indian literature. Uddalaka Aruni, also referred to as Gautam, was, according to Chattopa-dhyaya, a much earlier figure than Thales, and he was the first eminent figure to apply the method of drawing on empirical data and using the experimental method to reality, having little regard for the speculations on the destinations of the soul or atma. By means of a masterly interpretation of Uddalaka’s conversation with his son Svetaketu as recorded in the Chandogya Upinisha-das, Chattopadhyaya has proved his point strongly enough. He goes on to point out that the relative non-acceptance of Uddalaka's philosophy was due to the superimpositions of Vedanta on it. He quotes the authority of P C Ray on the baneful effects of the Vedanta on the progress of intellectual and scientific thought in this country.(p-47) Ray, besides being a famous teacher and researcher in chemistry, was the founder of the famous nationalist enterpirse Bengal Chemical, and assiduously studied the history of science in India with whatever materials he got. In his famous book, History of Hindu Chemistry, Ray firmly expressed the opinion, substantiated with evidence, that the 'Vedanta philosophy, as modified and expanded by Sankara, which teaches the unreality of the material world, is also to a large extent responsible for bringing the study of physical science into disrepute'. (quoted by Chattopa-dhayaya). The essay titled "The Making of Mathematics in Ancient India" shows with abundant clarity the knowledge of geometry embodied in the Sulva Sutras, "in which geometry as an exact science is overtly intended to meet the requirements of the brick-makers and bricklayers". (p-69) These bricks were reqired for construction of sacrificing altars. Here the author proves two points. One is that the construction works were done by masons and other craftsmen, not the Vedic priests, well-versed in brick technology and having little connection with magico-religious beliefs. Thus the mathematics embedded in the Sulva texts does not have anything to do with Vedic priests. Here the author points to a problem. The Sulva texts belong to a period in which, archaeologically speaking, there is no such technology. The author's answer to the puzzle is that the bricks were collected from the ruined Indus sites by the Vedic priests who did not know how to make them.

The piece 'Sources of Indian Idealism' is a brilliantly written and cogently argued one. The author systematically demonstrates how the transition from the Rgveda to Brahmanas symbolises the emergence of a new political philosophy, that of the subordination of the direct producers to the non-producing classes. As the author succinctly comments, "The contempt for manual workers—and therefore for manual labour—is quite clear. The counterpart of this is the exaltation of mental work- of thought, of consciusness, of pure reason. We have in this the clue to Upanisadic idealism". (p-151) The essay is indeed a masterpiece in which the author argues that in the period of the Rgveda, there was no question of birth of any philosophy because the sheer concern with survival by means of struggle with nature ruled out the possibility of emergence of a leisured class . The rituals were meant to aid this struggle with greater confidence. In the Brahmana texts, however, such rituals "are uprooted from their original context, and their function passes into its opposite". The Brahmannas tried to validate a new social norm, the norm of a split society. Here there is a class engaged in stabilising the power of kings. But the philosophising class does not emerge as yet. This class as the repository of secret wisdom is first clearly found in the Upanishadas. The author elegantly sums up the role of knowledge in the Upanishadic era. It " is not at all intended to be a better insight into nature, serving as the basis of a better mastery of it. What is believed is that knowledge by itself fulfills all desires. The belief is essentially magical." (p-158) The belief in the potency of magic is there in the early Vedic literature, but as the author points out insightfully, 'it is the bellief in the magical potency of the ritual acts' while in the Upanishadas, it is the belief 'in the magical efficacy of secret wisdom'. The author here drives home two points. The first is that the Upanishadic philosophy was not of Ksatriya origin, and 'the theoretical contributions attributed to the kings and nobles are on the whole secondary in importance'. Secondly, without the political and financial support of the kings and nobles, 'Upanishadic idealism is not adequately explained'. The second point he illustrates with reference to the famous Upanishadic scholatr Yagnavalkya, to whom death and birth are unreal and hence one can overcome the sense of death and the terrors thereof, and thus attain immortality. These scholars were parasites, subsisting on donations of gold and cattle, and the clue to their world-denying idealism is this parasitism. The author shows the resemblance of this philosophy to that of Plato who was born a few centuries later than Yagnavalkya. While the theoretical temper of the early Vedic poets was based on the unity between wisdom and action, that of the Upanishads was based on a separation between the two, whereby the wise men lived on the surplus yielded by the society and imparted 'secret wisdom'. "This wisdom, completely cut off from action, develops a sense of delusional omnipotence of its own: it wants to dictate terms to reality and to be recognised as the only reality". (p-185)

In the penultimate essay (Material Basis of Idealism) the author, drawing liberally on the writings of Marx and Engels, explains how the division of the society into a leisured class and a toiling class constituted the material basis of idealism in the sense that this division caused a separation of thought from action. The author hence argues that 'the false consciousness of class-society can be overthrown only by overthrowing the structure of society itself." Given the present disorder and chaos in the international situation, it may be hoped that mankind may achieve it in the foreseeable future. Idealism has its own contradictions; for example what Hegel called 'the Idea' was an objective and hence material phenomenon. A scholar of Chattopadhyay's stature could have elaborated on this subject.

The final essay is on Rabindranath's Tagore's philosophy. Tagore was undoubtedly the greatest literary figure of modern India. But he was a social thinker as well and despite being a religious man nurtured in the Upanishadic tradition, was not blind to the reality of crisis of humanity that was unfolding before his eyes. Those who have a reasonable acuaintance with Tagore's writings can discern the change in his outlook over time, particularly during the last phase of his life. In his essay, Chattopadhyaya analyses this aspect of Tagore's thought and shows that much of what he said in the later years of his life was in direct contradistinction to Hindu orthodoxy and to what was preached by Bankimchandra, Vivekananda, Tilak, Aurobindo and Gandhi. Chattopadhyaya analyses the impact on Tagore's mind of the Soviet post-revolutionary experiment and imperialist brutality against ordinary human beings . It may be mentioned here that the author could have referred not only to Tagore's Crisis of Civilisation and Letters from Russia only, but also to his poems warning the people against fascism. His famous poem 'Dike dike naginira fliteche bishakta niswas / Santir lalita bani shimaibe byartha par/has / Biday nebar age tai,/dak diye jai/Danaber sathejara sngramer tare/Prastut hatechhe Ghare Ghare' (Snakes are emittimg venomous breaths all around/ Poetic exhortations of peace will sound like futile jokes/ So, before bidding farewell / Let me issue the call to those/ Who are preparing everywhere to fight the demon) is one typical example. That Tagore clearly perceived the danger of fascism is evident from this poem.

There are three other essays in this collection, namely Making of Astronomy in Ancient India, Tradition of Rationalist Medicine in Ancient India and A Critical Analysis of the Medical Compilations. This reviewer leaves them out because he does not feel himself competent enough to comment on them, and while asking to be forgiven for this lack of competence, expresses the hope that readers will obtain much impetus for further learning from these three essays.

There seems to be little doubt that this collection of essays should be translated into major Indian languages and studied all over the country for the sake of dissemination of scientific knowledge as against the present attempt of the forces of obscurantism. No amount of praise is enough for the publisher who has made it possible for these essays to be assembled in the form of a book and to reach the common reader. Ramkrishna Bhattacharya's scholarly introduction has definitely added to the merits of the book.

Vol. 50, No.23, Dec 10 - 16, 2017