Rationalism and Akshaykumar Datta

Subhendu Sarkar

Rationalism― a philosophical outlook that considers reason, instead of faith and emotion, as the foundation of knowledge― first gained prominence in Europe during the Renaissance. It came in handy for the newly-emerged bourgeoisie in their struggle against feudalism. As a result of the relentless advancement of science, efforts were made to discover the laws of nature in order to control it. Availing happiness on earth was felt to be much more important for the new rulers than the prospect of posthumous bliss. Francis Bacon (1561-1620) and Renè Descartes (1596-1650) were the first philosophers of scientific temperament whose theories were strengthened by empiricism and rationalism. But it was only during the Enlightenment (‘the Age of Reason’) that rationalism could finally become the foundation of a worldview that challenged the dominance of the Catholic Church as well as the despotic ruler and laid emphasis on free thinking, individuality, secularism and constitutional government. The bourgeoisie had by then succeeded to gain control of the means of production.

However, it is well to remember that the reactionary ideas of the past were not altogether dispelled by the wave of rationalism. In fact, in some cases, the bourgeoisie compromised with religious faith; the Creator was either allotted a place outside the world or complete silence was maintained about His existence. For example, deism and agnosticism inquired into the real world without directly challenging religion. It was much later and after further progression of scientific ideas and the subsequent rise of a fundamentally different political ideology that the connection of science and religion was severed.

The rise of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth-century-Bengal was not due to any organic process as was the case in Europe. The motive of the British East India Company was to reap profit, not disseminate progressive thoughts among the natives. It was for this reason that the impassioned appeal made by Rammohun Roy in a letter (11 December 1823) to Lord Amherst in favour of imparting western education remained unheeded. However, in spite of the unwillingness of the ruling dispensation, western scientific ideas did spread in Bengal, particularly through H.L.V Derozio and his radical students (the Young Bengal). Thanks to the absence of a favourable economic base, their influence remained confined only to a small section of the urban population. In comparison, the methods of Rammohun and Vidyasagar were more effective. Both of them applied reason and logic (mainly deductive) but used the religious texts, sacred and infallible to the conservatives, to propagate social reforms. 

Akshaykumar Datta (1820-86), of course, did not keep himself bound to philosophy and the sastras. Right from his childhood he was interested in science; instead of myths and legends, ‘the unchanging natural laws of the world’ attracted him. At the Oriental Seminary, Datta learnt Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and German. He also became interested in astronomy and geography. By then, science had entered into the school curriculum. Newton’s law of motion and universal law of gravitation opened new vistas before the curious learners. Datta acquainted himself with the first four books of Euclid and elementary algebra before leaving school. His interest in mathematics and physics continued even later. Raja Radhakanta Deb’s private library was at his disposal. It was there that Datta completed Euclid, began with trigonometry and conic sections, and devoted himself to differential calculus and physical geography. It was quite natural that Datta would lean towards deism at a tender age. As a deist, Datta acknowledged god as the Creator of the world, but had no faith in prayer, customary belief and supernaturalism.

It does not mean, however, that Datta ignored Sanskrit studies. In fact, he felt, at quite an early age, the need to read ancient Indian literature and philosophical systems with an open mind. This resulted in his two-volume Bharatiya Upasak Sampraday (Devotional Communities of India). Datta also considered that the Vedas and the Vedanta are not apaurusheya (not composed by any being, human and otherwise) and infallible.

The young Akshaykumar Datta came under the influence of George Combe (1788-1858). Combe was a deist and therefore advocated that the knowledge of and acting in accordance with the laws of the natural and animal world increased man’s comfort. Besides, Combe interpreted all events as per causality. Akshaykumar Datta produced free translations of Combe’s Constitution of Man in Relation to External Objects (1828) in two volumes (1851, 1853). It must be noted that there is an ethical dimension to Datta’s work. Profit-mongering and gluttony, for example, have been condemned by him.

Akshaykumar Datta indefatigably spread rationalist thoughts as the editor of Tattwabodhini Patrika (Philosophical Journal, 1843). He regarded all scriptures as imaginary; his articles ranged from explaining the position of the Earth in relation to the solar system to the occurrence of days, nights and seasons. Many articles that he wrote for this journal later found place in his books. Of course, Debendranath Tagore, a spiritualist, was in no mood to endorse scientific ideas; the ideologies of the two men were diametrically opposite. As a member on the paper committee of Tattwabodhini Patrika, Datta’s friend, Vidyasagar lent him whole-hearted support. The clash with Debendranath, however, continued, and Datta, at the time suffering from illness, quit as the editor in 1855. By then, his sensational verbal equation caught the imagination of the students of the then Calcutta:

Labour = Crops
Labour + Prayer = Crops  
∴Prayer = 0   

Like Rammohun and Vidyasagar, Akshaykumar Datta was also influenced by Francis Bacon’s empiricism and inductive reasoning. In fact, it was Bacon who helped Datta gradually proceed towards uncompromising atheism. Datta’s glorious achievement lies in his socio-economic interpretation of ancient India. Even a cursory glance at the analysis reveals Baconian logic at work. Datta’s study of history was objective; his patriotism did not give way to Hindu revivalist attitude. In fact, he, besides upholding feats of the ancients, pointed out their deficiencies.

Akshaykumar Datta’s approach to the study of Indian philosophy was equally rationalist. Though his primary intention was to prove that the six philosophical systems were atheistic (opposed to the Vedas and god), Datta highlighted their limitations, mainly their subsequent cessation of development. Further, Datta was severely critical not only of institutionalized religion, prevalent beliefs and rituals but also superstition and communal hatred. Datta even went to the extent of declaring religion and the desire to attain moksha (salvation) ‘mental disorder’. Yet it is significant to note that he painstakingly documented, in spite of failing health, the major and minor sects of Hinduism (about some of which he had extreme abhorrence) because, he thought, accurate knowledge of the disease is required to cure it. Vidyasagar too, for the same reason, wanted the students of Sanskrit college to study the Indian idealist philosophical schools, though he very well knew those systems were faulty.

Akshaykumar Datta’s thoughts underwent an evolution: from deism to agnosticism to positivism. The materialist outlook that began in the seventeenth-century Europe reached a more advanced stage with Auguste Comte (1798-1857)’s positivism. Comte’s ideas generated a lot of interest among the educated Bengalis of the nineteenth century. The Indian Positivist Society was founded in Calcutta with Vidyasagar as one of its patrons. Besides, atheism, Comte also advocated a secular and humanitarian religion whose objective was to promote human happiness on the basis of brotherhood. No wonder that Comte would later influence both John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Karl Marx (1818-1883). It was Comte’s scientific temperament and eagerness for social reform that attracted Datta and other likeminded progressive Bengalis. Therefore, Datta considered the works of Bacon and Comte ‘our sastra’. His outlook was the same as regards ‘Bhaskara and Aryabhata as well as Newton and Laplace’. 

For Akshaykumar Datta rationalism was not merely an academic phenomenon. It was, in fact, the basis of his worldview. When other Hindus headed to the Ganges for a holy dip Datta preferred bathing in a nearby pond; he set foot out of his home deliberately on ‘inauspicious’ days and happily mixed with ‘low-born’ people. It is no wonder that portraits of Rammohun, Newton, Darwin, T.H.Huxley and John Stuart Mill would adorn the walls of his living room of his house at Bally. 

Religious sentiments pervaded Bengal and Indian politics since the beginning of the twentieth century and marginalized the rationalist tradition set off by Rammohun, Vidyasagar and Akshaykumar Datta. But it nevertheless continued, with new perspectives gradually enriching it. It is that tradition which today provides us courage to fight against ignorance, obscurantism and bigotry.

Back to Home Page

May 3, 2020

Subhendu Sarkar

Your Comment if any