Questioning existing reality as means of attaining improved society isn’t an alien import; it’s part of ancient Indian tradition

Romila_2172491fWell-known veteran historian Prof Romila Thapar recently delivered in Delhi the Third Nikhil Chakravarti Memorial lecture (October 26, 2014), where, among other things, she dwelt on strong evidence from India’s past of existence of the intellectual tradition of questioning. Pointing out that “public intellectuals are not absent in Indian society, nor are they alien imports”, she regretted, however, that currently, “where there should be voices, there is often silence”. Excerpts from the lecture, titled “To Question or not to Question: That is the Question”:

The Indian philosopher who encouraged questions and who explored causality and rational explanations was a close contemporary of Socrates in the fifth century BC, although they lived continents apart and had no links. I am referring to the Buddha. The latter fortunately did not have to drink poison, but his teaching was strongly opposed by early brahmanical orthodoxy. It was described as delusional and misleading. This was one among many other reasons why Buddhism got slowly edged out of India. It went into neighbouring lands where it flourished, and in some places became in its own turn, orthodoxy.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of ideas is the diverse ways in which societies explain their evolving structures. When asked about the origin of government, the Buddha explained that at the beginning of time there was a pristine utopia where everyone was equal and had equal access to all resources. The first change came when families were demarcated and became the units of society. Subsequent to this came claims to ownership of land as private property. These changes resulted in confusion and conflict. So eventually people came together and elected from among themselves one person – the mahasammat, the great elect – to govern them and to provide them with laws that annulled the chaos. It was effectively a social contract. Let me hastily add, tongue-in-cheek of course, that neither Jean-Jacques Rousseau nor Friedrich Engels had read the Buddhist texts!

This Buddhist explanation contradicts the many brahmanical versions. In these the story involves the gods and demons at war, and since the gods were faring badly they appealed to the great god Prajapati for help. In some versions he appointed his son, Indra, to lead the gods to a victory – in which action lie the roots of governance. Appeal to deities and divine sanction is essential and it colours the attitude to authority. The Buddha’s notion of the “great elected one” is in some ways the reverse of the king – who was divinely appointed, concentrating power in himself. The assumptions in the two myths, differ.

When religion is referred to in these early texts, there is of course no mention of Hinduism – a term invented much later. The multiple sects that constituted Indian religion are referred to by their individual names. When speaking generally they tend to get assigned to one of the two streams: brahmana – associated with brahmanical belief, or shramana – representing Buddhist and Jaina teaching. (Shramana was the term used for Buddhist monks.) This is the form in which the religions are mentioned for over a thousand years, from the edicts of Ashoka in the third century BC to Al-Biruni’s account of India in 11th century AD. The Sanskrit grammarian Patanjali, writing at the start of the first millennium AD, provides an additional perspective when he compares the relationship of the two, to that of the snake and the mongoose. Clearly the debates could be virulent, as happens in societies where some believe unquestioningly in what they are told, but others raise questions.

And then there were the Carvakas, also called the Lokayatas. They were opposed to most philosophical schools as they adhered to a materialistic explanation of life, making virtually no concession to other ways of thinking. No text of theirs has survived, but references to them keep cropping up unexpectedly in various nooks and crannies of known texts. The Buddha describes the arguments of some of these sects as “the wriggling of an eel”.

At the turn of the Christian era, when Buddhism had the patronage of royalty, traders, landowners as well as popular support, important brahmanical texts registered sharp opposition to them describing them as heretics, referring to them as nastika – non-believers. From the brahmanical perspective, the Shramanas, Carvakas, Ajivikas, atheists, materialists and rationalists, were all one category – nastikas. And this because they questioned the existence of deity, and therefore also of the Vedas as divinely revealed; of the rules of caste practices; of the existence of the atman, soul; and their views on karma varied as some rejected the idea altogether. (I am reminded of the followers of Hindutva in our times for whom anyone and everyone who does not support them, are all put into one category and called Marxists! Interestingly, I am told that Muslim religious fundamentalists in India have also starting putting liberal Muslims who oppose the orthodoxy into one category, and are calling them Marxists.)

The Manu Dharma-shastra is almost paranoid about the heretics, calling them atheists and preachers of false doctrines. They are said to be like diseased men and are a source of tamas – the condition of darkness. It was in some ways a time of troubles for the orthodoxy, given that some dominant schools of philosophy were striated with degrees of atheism. But that is what makes it an intellectually exciting time.

Wherever the heretics had a popular following, the attack on them became stronger. The Vishnu Purana, of the early centuries AD, is replete with negative references to a person called Mayamoha and his followers. Delusion and deception, as the name, maya-moha, implies, are characteristic of the group. Mayamoha collects all the evil ones – theasuras and daityas – and converts them to his way of thinking. Some of their practices point to their being Buddhists and Jainas: such as wearing red robes, removing their hair, not observing rituals and living off alms. Discourse with them is not permitted, since such discourse is declared polluting. A record of such a dialogue would have been fascinating but only brief references survive.

The Carvakas continued to be part of the landscape even if not always directly visible. Shankaracharya in the ninth century AD refers to their theory of the primacy of matter over spirit. And the Sarvadarshana-sanghraha, a discussion on major philosophical schools put together in the 14th century, by Madhavacharya, begins with a lengthy discussion on the viability of Carvaka thinking. Although he finally rejects it, he nevertheless discusses it at some length. If the Carvaka thinking had been of no consequence, it could as well have been ignored. This, of course, did happen later in the world of 19th century colonial scholarship, when some colonial writers argued that rational thought was absent from Indian civilisation and was one of the causes of Indian backwardness. This argument, although unacceptable to nationalist thinking, was not confronted in any significant way by Indian scholars. Those that ask questions are anathema to any kind of autocratic authority. Similarly, those trying to build a single national identity based solely on Hinduism would not have conceded the significance of teachings that contradicted the brahmanical.

The heretics were dismissed by the orthodox. However, some of their ideas and other similar ideas were explored in philosophical schools of the early centuries AD. At the scholarly level, discussions among learned brahmanas and Buddhists, gave rise to various impressive philosophical schools. Logic and methods of reasoning were sharpened, as also were other methods of thought more sympathetic to idealistic philosophy. The major logicians, at this point were interestingly largely Buddhist, such as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Dignaga and Dharmakirti, some of whom had been born brahmanas and educated accordingly but preferred to be Buddhists. They teased out the ideas, and especially more so when discussing the nuances of atheism. Views were not uniform and were widely debated, the argument sometimes taking an almost dialectical form.

What would have been of much intellectual significance but which is unfortunately difficult to locate, are conversations between philosophers using critical reasoning with astronomers or mathematicians, even more closely allied to rational thought. Aryabhatta on the basis of mathematical calculation argued that the earth went round the sun. This theory preceded that of Copernicus and of Galileo by a millennium. In Europe the potential of these ideas was feared by Catholic orthodoxy as undermining the Bible and therefore also the control of the Church on society. Galileo had to recant. In India there was a debate among astronomers on the heliocentric model, but its wider implications seem to have been bypassed, possibly because there was no Catholic Church. But if I may suggest another reason, adopting the heliocentric system would perhaps have upset some astrological calculations. Astrology was one mechanism by which royal power was controlled by religious orthodoxy. Old knowledge therefore continued unshaken in most places. Indian theories of mathematics and astronomy expanded creatively in their own space, but ironically became more influential when taken to Baghdad, the then centre of proto-science.

In India, meanwhile, other sects provided an ambience in which similar questions were being raised. Scholars questioned beliefs and practices upheld by religious authorities and by those who governed or they questioned other orthodoxies, other than the brahmanical. Some among them were women, such as Andal, Akka Mahadevi and Mira, flouting caste norms, who were listened to attentively by people at large, creating their own social codes. But we seldom give enough attention to this aspect of their discourse, focusing as we do largely on religion.

Amir Khusrau was not unknown to the Delhi Sultans. He provides a poetic view of court politics in his Tughlaq-nama,composed in the 14th century as a form of traditional history. His study of astronomy, however, underlining a heliocentric universe, distanced him from orthodox Islam, as it implied questioning accepted truths. And it was his poetry and musical compositions that gave him a status and a following, such that even though he was regarded as a court poet, the Sultans and the orthodox thought it better not to antagonise him. His mentor and friend, Nizam-ud-din Auliya, a Sufi of the Chishti order, kept his distance from the Sultans and made a point of asserting the distance.

A few centuries later Ekanath in Maharashtra also questioned the control exercised by formal religion. His versions of the Bhagavata Purana and of the Ramayana defined his brahmanical scholarship. This did not stop him from questioning the viability of the social order and caste practices.

Not everyone who was teaching a new form of worship was questioning authority, but where they were, this has to be recognised by us. We have hesitated to do this since the form in which social commentary occurs in earlier times is unfamiliar to us. We tend to brush aside the views of such people on matters other than those referring to belief and worship, forgetting that religious belief does make the claim to be all-encompassing, and to speak on all aspects of life. Therefore, even those who were primarily religious teachers did have views on society and social values. These views are of considerable interest and especially at moments in history when religious sects were incorporating ideas from a wide range of sources.

Questioning by Nationalism

Turning to modern times, the ideology of nationalism made attempts to re-order society. Nationalism may have opposed colonialism but was not always averse to appropriating theories from colonial scholarship. Social reform movements pertaining to upper caste Hinduism, such as the Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj and Arya Samaj, suggested new forms of Hindu religious organisation and the role of caste. We are all familiar with Raja Ram Mohan Roy and socio-religious reform, but so little is said about his exact contemporary in Tanjore – Serfoji II, a minor Maratha raja. He questioned orthodoxy by focusing on the content of education. His reading of Enlightenment authors convinced him that knowledge was based on processes of reasoning and that these were taught through education. The schools he established were intended for this purpose, as were the books and objects that he collected for the Saraswathi Mahal Library.

Although these movements were not intended to critically question the intellectual traditions, they did occasionally scrape the surface. Despite the centrality of caste hierarchies legitimised by religion, the interface between religion and caste was seldom investigated. In the 19th century Bal Gangadhar Tilak supported the Aryan foundations of Indian civilisation and upper caste culture, even if, according to him, the Aryans did have to trek all the way from their Arctic homeland to India. But Jyotiba Phule saw the coming of the Aryans as a logical explanation for the oppression of the lower castes. For him the Aryans were brahmanas who oppressed the indigenous inhabitants who were the shudras. Tilak extended the accepted view, Phule questioned it to explain existing society. Both readings were historically faulty, but Phule was asking an incisive question.

There were others who were also questioning the legitimacy of caste, and were critical of brahmanical beliefs. Periyar, or EVR, although not an academic, was known to be as well-read as were his academic colleagues. He was critical of the contradictions in Hindu mythology which, as a rationalist, he dismissed as fabrications of the Indo-Aryan peoples. He took a strong position in favour of social equality, and more particularly the equality of women.

The people I have mentioned were not public intellectuals in the modern sense. They were among those who questioned the existing reality as a means of attaining an improved society. They were listened to because they were respected in their diverse professions. The point is not the similarity or otherwise of their questions. It is the way in which they reasoned even if the nature of the questions changed in accordance with the issues of the moment. Such questions are not arbitrary. They have to be governed by acknowledged critical reasoning. And people who question, were and are, articulate at moments of significant historical change.

Moments of historical change coincide with the exploration of new ways of ordering society, as has been happening off and on in the Indian past. Now we have more insightful ways of understanding social and economic conditions and how they give a form to society. These connections require exploration. Public intellectuals, playing a discernible role are needed for such explorations, as also to articulate the traditions of rational thought in our intellectual heritage. This is currently being systematically eroded.


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