A TRIBUTE TO COM. DEBIPRASAD CHATTAPADHAYYA- PART IV : INDIAN IDEALISM - SANKAR

06 February 2020

I Have already given sufficient hints in the last issue that Comrade Debiprasad Chattapadhyaya possessed his own peculiar view on the tradition of Indian philosophy. He gave clean-chit to at least two philosophical systems, namely Purva Mimamsa and Naya-Vaisesika as materialist which were originated from the Vedas or at least declared their allegiance to the Vedas. He did not give much importance to Yoga since it was not a philosophy proper. The history of Samkhya philosophy we have already discussed according to the view of Debiprasad who did not accept this philosophy as a Vedic one. Therefore, there is only one Vedic philosophy left which Debiprasad declared as an out and out idealistic and that is Vedanta or Uttar Mimamsa. Along with that he added another philosophy, although non-Vedic in nature, in the list of idealist system, i.e. Mahayana Buddhism. Therefore he declared in the beginning of his another remarkable work, “What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy”: “At the same time when it comes to the question of a serious philosophical defense of idealism, the Advaita Vedantists eagerly borrow from the Mahayana Buddhists, just as the latter show no hesitation to work out the fundamental suggestions of the Upanisads, normally considered the scriptures of their aliens. This philosophical fraternity between the Vedantists and Buddhists is liable to be overlooked by us if we are misled by the face value of their own sectarianism.” Now let us see how Debiprasad described the fundamental tenets of the above mentioned philosophies and why he identified those as the most prominent idealist systems. I shall start with the Advaita Vedanta.

Debiprasad has divided the philosophical systems in idealist and materialist lines depending on the single issue, that is, whether the system recognizes the existence of the material world or not. The Vedanta philosophy opines that the material world is nothing but an illusion. We have already come to know that the Vedas are divided into four distinct portions, namely, Sanhitas, Brahmanas, Aryanakas and Upanisadas or Vedanta. The Vedic idealism took shape for the first time in the Upanisadas. Here, for the first time it was categorically asserted that actually there was nothing in this world but only Brahmo, the supreme idea due to which every creation was made possible. Whatever we see in this phenomenal world actually is nothing but only the manifestation of the Brahmo. However, we cannot recognize those as the one and same Brahmo due to our ignorance. Similarly all the human beings, or jibatman are actually another manifestation of the Brahmo or Paramatman.  Due to this monism the dominant school of the Vedanta is called Advaita Vedanta.

There are many Upanisadas so far discovered. The number might be around one hundred and eight. However, out of that only eleven Upanisadas are most important and sufficiently archaic in nature. Many Upanisadas are composed in the later period. The Brihadaranyaka Upanisada attributed idealist philosophy based on the concept of the Brahmo to one ancient sage called Yajnavalkya. Debiprasad wrote: “Such a philosopher is the great Yajnavalkya who declares that reality is just a mass of consciousness [vijnanaghana]. It can neither be grasped by the normal organs of knowledge nor described in normal language.” [What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy]

The same conception we can find in other major Upanisadas also. Apart from the Upanisadas another important source of Advaita Vedanta is Brahmosutra composed by some Badrayana. Later, in the eighth century CE, Acharya Samkara wrote a detailed commentary on Brahmosutra which actually became the main source of Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Although the Advaita tradition is pre-Buddhist and many Acharyas came into succession to uphold the view and establish it firmly into the people’s mind, Samkara became most prominent philosopher in this series. The upsurge of Samkara is described by Debiprasad in the following manner:

“In the subsequent history of Indian idealism, Advaita Vedanta becomes the most dominant philosophy, largely because of the marked decline of interest in philosophy proper among the Mahayana Buddhists after Santaraksita. The great prestige of Advaita Vedanta in later history of Indian philosophy is associated with the activities of Samkara, who is either a direct disciple of Gaudapada or a disciple of his disciple. Born in a village in Kerala he extensively travels in India and founds four monastic establishments in four corners of the country, the heads of which still bear the general title Samkara-acharya. In founding these monasteries, Samkara follows the organizational principles of the famous Buddhist monasteries which have provisions for wholetime religious and philosophical propagandists. In the context of his own times the establishments of these monasteries is surely an evidence of his exceptional organizational abilities, inclusive of his ability of mobilizing huge financial support for the purpose. Such organizational activities apart, his literary output is undoubtedly voluminous, just as the literary quality of his writings is exceptionally high. For sheer charm of lucid Sanskrit prose, none in Indian philosophy perhaps ever equals Samkara. And yet Samkara does not live a very long life. Born in AD 788, he dies at the age of only thirty-two. Judged by sheer personal gifts, therefore, this young philosopher has indeed a very imposing stature in the cultural history of the country.” [ibid]

This is an important fact, though Debiprasad did not give much importance to it, that all the major philosophies propagated by the Aryans, be it Vedic [namely Advaita] or non-Vedic [namely Buddhist], had started philosophical discourses with ignorance. Samkara also started his discourse with ignorance and “this behavior has for its material cause an unreal nescience and man resorts to it by mixing up reality with unreality as a result of superimposing the things themselves or their attributes on each other.”[Brahmosutravasya— Samkaracharya]. In Vedanta this superimposition is called nescience or avidya. Now, what is the consequence of avidya? As the result of this nescience lay persons perceive the material world and assume that it is real. According to Advaita this is the starting point of all problems.

But how can the felt reality actually be unreal? Here, the Advaita Vedantists reply that it is due to avidya a false perception takes place which is called Maya. Just as it is only because of ignorance that one saw a snake where there was just a piece of rope. Similarly the entire material world which we perceive is nothing but sense-illusion or Maya. However, the illusion is also a reality, but a different one. For a Vedantist illusion or Maya is illusory reality or pratibhasika-satta. But what about the perception of the rope in the rope? According to the Advaita Vedantists it is nothing but vyavaharika-satta or existence from the point of view of practical life. From the point of view of absolute reality both are false but the degree of their falseness differs. Debiprasad wrote: “The former [perception of a snake in the rope] not to speak of having any ultimate reality, could not serve even the purpose of practical life while the latter, though equally bereft of ultimate reality, could and did serve these purposes. From the point of view of ultimate reality or the paramarthika-satta both were of course utterly false, and as such, it would be wrong to imagine that the rope perceived in the rope had any more reality about it. In other words, there were degrees of untruth and unreality, though these were not to be confused with degrees of truth and reality. For there was nothing real excepting the Brahman and the whole structure of practical existence was false and unreal.”[Debiprasad Chattapadhyaya: Indian Philsophy]

Now, the question is why the Vedantists consider everything related to the material world is unreal?

No clear answer of this question is ever given in Vedanta, but there are enough indications. And Debiprasad too, did not pay much attention to it. However, it is an important subject which we must understand in order to follow the discussion of Debiprasad about the Indian career of Idealism. Let me quote a debate between Samkara and his opponent on a Sutra in Brahmosutra of Badrayana.

 The Sutra is: “Ante Caracagrahanat!”[He is the eater who consumes all that moves and does not move]. Now the question is, “who is the eater?” Samkara was in the opinion that the Eater was the supreme Self. Then the doubt was raised: “We read in Kathopanisad: ‘How can one know thus as to where It [the Self] is, for which both the Brahmana and the Ksatriya become rice [food] and for whom death takes the place of a curry [or ghee etc. poured in rice]?’ [I.ii.25]. Here we appraised of some eater indicated by the mention of rice and its adjunct [curry]. Now who can this eater be? Is it fire or the individual soul, or is it the supreme Self? This is the doubt, for no conclusive distinction is in evidence, and it is seen in this book that questions are put [to Death by Nachiketa] with regard to three entities——— Fire, individual soul, and the supreme Self. What should be the conclusion then?

So the Opponent said: “The eater is Fire. Why? Because this is gathered from the familiar use in such text as, ‘Fire is the eater of food’ [Brihadaryanaka Upanisada, I.iv.6], as well as common parlance. Or the individual soul may be the eater, for there is the text, ‘One of them eats the fruits of divergent testes [sweet or sour]’ [Mundaka Upanisada, I.1]. But it cannot be the supreme Self, for there is the text, ‘The other looks on without eating’ [ibid].

Samkara replied: This being the position, we say: The eater here should be the supreme Self. Why? Because of his appropriation of all that moves and does not move. For all movable and immovable things appear here as the eatable thing with death as its [pouring] adjunct. None but the supreme Self can consume such a food fully. As for the supreme Self, it is quite possible to assert that He devours all, inasmuch as He withdraws everything into Himself during dissolution.

Opponent: But the appropriation of all that moves and does not move is not stated here. How can then the appropriation of all movable and unmovable things be accepted as an established fact to be advanced as a ground [for inferring God]?

Samkara: That creates no difficulty, because when Death is mentioned as the curry, all beings present themselves along with it, and because the Brahmanas and Ksatriyas are cited by way of suggesting [all beings], they being the chief among them.

As for the arguments that even the supreme Self cannot be the eater in the face of the Upanisadic revelation, “The other looks on without eating”, we say: This revelation is meant to deny the enjoyment of the fruits of action, for that is near at hand [to the text]. That is not a denial of the dissolution of all things [figuratively denoted by eating], inasmuch as Brahman is well known in all the Upanisads as the cause of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. Therefore, the supreme Self can be the devourer here.” [Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya of Sankaracharya/ Trans by Swami Gambhirananda/ Advaita Ashrama/ Kolkata].

Although written in little obscure language, but it is very clear from the passage that Vedanta accepts the fact that in this world everything is perishable, impermanent. We have already seen that the materialists [Lokayatikas] also were in this opinion. But is there anything which is not perishable? The materialist answer is No. However, the Advaita Vedanta as the leader of idealism in our country strongly advocates the notion that there is the supreme Self which is not perishable. It is permanent [nitya]. Therefore, “He” is the “eater of all the things which moves and does not move”. Hence “He” is only real. And rest of the world which is impermanent and perishable is not real, only illusion or Maya. For the idealists, impermanent is unreal. And the permanent is only real, the absolute truth.

If the Mayavada [the theory of illusion] is the first basic tenet of Advaita, the second one is based on its denial of the valid means of knowledge [pramana]. Debiprasad Chattapadhyaya rightly pointed out, “Above all, any real allowance to the normal sources of knowledge carried the danger of imputing reality to the body and the external world. Therefore, to fortify his own position Samkara had to deny the validity of all possible sources of knowledge—— the senses, reason and even the Veda.” [Indian Philosophy].

Now, this conception needs some discussions. According to Samkara and Advaita philosophy only real thing is the supreme Self, which is called Brahmo. Therefore, the entire material world is unreal. A person is unreal. His or her body is unreal. Therefore, his sense-organs are unreal. So, his perceptions, inference and other means of knowledge are unreal. Therefore, all pramanas are unreal or invalid. All sense-organs are operating under the general boundary of ignorance or avidya. Therefore those are doing nothing but super-imposing one entity upon another. So, Debiprasad wrote:

“Samkara opens his Sariraka-bhasya with the declaration that the claim of all sources of knowledge like perception, inference, etc. as giving us real knowledge has to be rejected outright, because we can use these as instruments of knowledge only so long as we are under the general spell of ignorance. But why is it so? Samkara says that the basic function of ignorance— as is evident from the patent cases like seeing a snake in a rope —is to ‘super-impose’ something on something else, or, in simpler language, falsely imagining something to be what it is actually not. Without such a ‘super-imposition’ no source of knowledge can at all operate. The very precondition of all the alleged sources of knowledge is ignorance. Instead of giving real knowledge, all these so-called sources of knowledge keep one under the spell of ignorance.” [What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy].

This same long speech Samkara gave in his Brahmosutrabhasya, too. Now the question is, how then a person can come out from the all-pervading grip of ignorance in order to achieve salvation or mukti? This is another question to which Debiprasad Chattapadhyaya once again did not pay much attention. He is only happy to identify idealism and not really interested into the social consequences of the same. According to Advaita since ignorance or avidya is the root cause of bondage and false knowledge, then the actual knowledge is the only way out. And what is the actual knowledge? It is nothing but the knowledge of the supreme self which is called Brahmogyana. However, since Brahmogyana is also a gyana or knowledge [actually supreme knowledge] then if there is no valid means of knowledge then how can one obtain this? Advaita philosophy has a specific answer to this question. In Kath Upanisad, when Nachiketa requested Yama [the god of death] to render him the knowledge of Brahmo [Brahmogyana], Yama at first expressed doubts whether he was a fit person for the job. He said that if this knowledge was rendered by an ordinary person then it would not be understood because this particular knowledge did not depend on debates and discussions, or on some other means of knowledge. Only a fit person [Brahmogyani] can render this knowledge [“Na narebarena prokto esa subigyea, bahudha chintyamanah/ Ananyoprokte gatiratra nastanian hi atarkam anupramanat”— Kath Upanisad/ 1.2.eight]. Therefore, as far as the philosophy is concerned, Advaita finally accepted the advices of the supreme teacher who possesses the knowledge of Brahmo as the only valid means of knowledge, since the knowledge of Brahmo— the only true knowledge—— is beyond of any debate or discussion [atarkam]. Same thing is repeated many times in different Upanisadas and other Vedantic literatures. As a result the grip of the Brahmins over the religious matters was firmly established. And it is a well known fact that the control over the religious matters was the key to control the society including its economy and politics. 

Here, Debiprasad unfolded a magnificent discussion that how the religious matters became the key to control the economy and society which in return played a pivotal role to develop the backdrop of idealist insurgency.  Yajnabalkya, the great sage at that time once called his two wives to divide his wealth between them as he was about to leave the family in order to pursuit for a higher life. Then Maitreyi, one of his wives asked him, “If now, Sir, the whole earth filled with wealth were mine, would I be immortal thereby?” The core philosophical discussion in the Brihadaryanaka Upanisada starts with this question. The question undoubtedly is thought-provoking mainly for two reasons.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that at that time in the realm of human thought one question was already present, i.e., how to become immortal! Debiprasad pointed out that in the Vedic age the thinking to be immortal did not occur at all in the human minds. However, in the Upanisadic age, when the surplus production had appeared and a propertied class was born then arising of this thinking at first among them and next to spread in the entire society became absolutely natural. Debiprasad said, “Nothing is more attractive for the kings than the prospect of overcoming death or attaining immortality. It is basically the same temptation that leads the Pharaohs of Egypt to waste colossal amount of wealth to build pyramids.” [What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy/ page 127]. Now the question is what is the connection between immortality and the idealist Vedantist philosophy? It is interesting to see that when Maitreyi asked Yajnabalkya the above mentioned question he replied, “No, as the life of the rich, even so would your life be. Of immortality, however, there is no hope through wealth.” Then what is the path for immortality? Then Yajnabalkya started to render the “secret knowledge” on Barhmo to Maitreyi and the core philosophical discussion in Brihadaranakyaka Upanisada began.

This secret knowledge of Barhmo is nothing but the world denying idealism which is called Vedanta. Debiprasad remarked, “The metaphysical discourse attributed to him [Yajnabalkya— present writer] is a long one. Its main point is the gradual unfolding of the idealist outlook. But how is this outlook supposed to overcome death and ensure immortality? There is only one way of doing this and that is to remove from the realm of reality the physical world as a whole, and along with this the physical facts of birth and death. As Yajnabalkya argues, the soul, which is pure consciousness and bliss, is the only reality. Being completely uncontaminated by anything material, it is by nature aloof from what appears to mortal eyes as birth and death. This death, like birth, is completely unreal. How can one who knows this be any longer haunted by the fear of death? This is not ensuring oneself against the fact of death, before which the philosopher is as helpless as any other mortal. But it is a way of inducing a subjective change in oneself which helps one to overcome — though only in ideas and imagination — the sense of death and the terrors thereof.” [ibid/page:131].

Thus, according to the observations of Debiprasad, Indian idealism took up the task to make a subjective change in the minds of the people to deny the material world in order to deny the actual facts related to the birth and death of human beings. This observation is important and at the same time it is interesting to note that Rabindranath Tagore, a staunch follower of Upanisada for quite a long time in his life, finally landed in the same conclusion in a different perspective although. Travelling Iran by airplane at the backdrop of the war-ridden events between the World Wars was a turning point in the life of Tagore. Most probably it was the first ever experience for him to travel through an airplane in his life. He wrote that when the plane took off and reached in certain height the houses, roads and localities on the ground suddenly became a map only which in return exhausted the human relations centering round the ground reality. He exclaimed that probably for that reason it made so easy for a pilot of a bomber plane to drop bombs in order to create mass destruction. He said further that in the beginning of the Kurukshetra war when Arjuna did not want to enter into the war fearing mass killing, Krishna rendered him the knowledge of Brahmo. And what it did? Tagore said that it actually lifted the mind of Arjuna in such a height that from that above, the facts related to who killed and who were killed became absolutely cloudy. Tagore named this treatment of Vedanta as “theoretical airplane”.  [“As the flying machine goes higher and higher ... the signs that tell us the earth is real are gradually obliterated and a three-dimensional picture is flattened into two-dimensional lines. ... Thus deprived of its substantiality, the earth’s hold on our mind and heart is loosened. And it is borne in on me how such aloofness can become terrible, when man finds it expedient to rain destruction on the vagueness below. Who is the slayer and who the slain? Who is kin and who is stranger? This travesty of the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is raised on high by the flying machine.” Persia, 1932]

Now, let us back to the time of Yajnabalkya once again. We have already discussed the first point which we can understand from the question of Maitreyi to Yajnabalkya, that, the idea and aspiration to be immortal already appeared in the human minds at that time. The second important point is that how much wealth a sage who used to propagate a world-denying philosophy could have at that time, and what was the source of that wealth? Debiprasad tried to calculate the amount which a world-denying sage philosopher could earn at that time and indicated the source of that.

Yajnabalkya was a philosopher from Advaitva Vedanta school, according to which the material world was not real, only illusion. However, it is interesting to note that it did not prevent Yajnabalkya to accumulate wealth. This wealth was accumulated from the King. Debiprasad quoted Brhidaranyaka [Br] Upanisada: “Janaka, king of Videha, was seated. Yajnabalkya came up. To him the king said, ‘Yajnabalkya, what brings you here? Is it because you want cattle or hair-splitting discussion?’ ‘Indeed both, your majesty’, he said.” Debiprasad said further: “Thus this great idealist philosopher, with his intense contempt for the material world, shows no hesitation to admit that he is not interested merely in philosophy; he is also interested in the payment for it.” [ibid/ page:128].

 Now, Debiprasad took an attempt to calculate the amount of the wealth of Yajnabalkya. We all know the famous incident which is narrated in Br Upanisada: Once the king Janaka organized a massive yajna [Vedic ritual] where many Vedantist priests and philosophers participated. Janaka was curious that who possessed the highest knowledge on Brahmo [Brahmistha]! So he declared one thousand cows with ten pieces of gold [padas: 1/400th of a tula — ancient Indian measurement] tied to the horns of each as prize. [janako ha baideha bahudakshiena yajneneje tatra ha kurupanchalanam brahmana avisameta bavubustasya ha janakasya baidehasya bijiggisa bavuba kahswidesham brahmananamanucanatama iti sa ha gabam sahasramabarurodha dasa dasa pada ekaikasya srimgorabadha bavubah— Br Upanisada: 3.1.1]

Undoubtedly, it was a big amount. So everybody hesitated to advance. However, Yajnabalkya immediately ordered his disciple Samasraba to lead those cows towards his home [Yajnabalkya’s]. Naturally, it initiated resentments among the Brahmins present there and one of them came forward to challenge Yajnabalkya and a hair-splitting debate started. Yajnabalkya finally defeated Aswal [the Challenger] and won the prize.

This is a known fact. However, Debiprasad went on further investigation. He said: “In the account of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad just quoted, Yajnabalkya’s pupil drives away for him one thousand cows, with ten padas of gold tied to the horns of each. In the next account of the same Upanisad, king Janaka——awed by Yajnabalkya’s breath-taking flights of pure reason—— four times offers him ‘a thousand cows and a bull as large as an elephant’. This is followed by another account of the same text in which the same philosopher receives from the same donor for the same reason five thousand cows, in installments of one thousand each……… Let us try to be clearer about the property accumulated. Not to speak of other accounts, the three that we have just mentioned tell us of a total of ten thousand cows, besides the ten thousands padas of gold.” [ibid, page 132]

Now, was it the total amount of Yajnabalkya? No. Debiprasad further remarked: “But this is only elementary arithmetic, and lest we are misled by it the Upanisad tells us also of the bulls as big as elephants. The cows accumulated by the priest-philosopher also multiply.” So now it is clear that why king Janaka did not give Yajnabalkya only the cows but also big bulls. Bulls were used to multiply the cows by reproduction. But what was the rate of that reproduction? In order to have a rough understanding regarding the rate of reproduction, Debiprasad quoted a story from Chandagya Upanisad. Let us read that portion:

“Satyakama Jabala goes to Haridrumata Gautama, desiring to be a student of sacred knowledge. After having received him as a pupil, he [the priest-philosopher] separated out four hundred lean, weak cows and said, ‘Follow these, my dear.’ As he was driving them on, he said, ‘I may not return without a thousand.’ So he lived away a number of years. When the number reached a thousand the bull spoke to him, saying: ‘Satyakama!’ ‘Sir’, he replied. ‘We have reached a thousand, my dear. Bring us to the teacher’s home’.” [ibid, page 133]

Then Debiprasad said again: “If this rate of increase satisfies the Upanisadic calculation in one case, there is no reason why it should not be applicable to another. The ten thousand cows received by Yajnabalkya only according to three accounts of the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad are soon supposed to multiply into twenty five thousand. It does not take much time again for the twenty five thousand to multiply into 62,500 and so on.” [ibid, page 133].

Yet the amount of wealth of Yajnabalkya cannot be restricted with cows only. At that time since the cattle were main form of wealth it is often overlooked that to maintain this huge number of cattle a vast portion of land was also required. So, indicating the text of Chandogya Upanisad, Debiprasad said, “Whatever may be the system of land tenure in Upanisadic India, there are in these texts unmistakable accounts of the gift of villages by the kings and the nobles to the custodians of secret wisdom.”

It is interesting to note that all the wealth of the priest-philosophers at that time was accumulated from the kings or the nobles. Therefore, it is clear that a portion of extracted surplus from the real producers by the ruling classes in our country at that time went to the hands of these idealist philosophers. The kings and the nobles used to pay these amounts to them as the reward of the ‘secret knowledge’ which was supposed to make them ‘fearless and immortal’. Therefore, there was a clear and definite relation between the world-denying idealist philosophy and the surplus sharing between the kings and the priests, i.e. between the Brahmins and the Khsatriyas.

However, in this course the biggest challenge emerged in front of the idealist philosophical theories to bridge between illusion and reality. If the material wealth was an illusion then why an idealist priest-philosopher was interested to accumulate wealth? How, Yajnabalkya solved this question which became the landmark of idealism according to Debiprasad, I shall discuss it in the next issue. In this course of discussion it is also an interesting point that how Debiprasad accused the Mahayana Buddhists to follow the path of Vedanta.

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.