In Pragati: The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India by Jonardon Ganeri

Recently the Society of Biblical Literature published the book Neo-Babylonian Trial Records (Writings from the Ancient World) by Shalom E Holtz. According to the description of the book, “this collection of sixth-century B.C.E. Mesopotamian texts provides a close-up, often dramatic, view of ancient courtroom encounters shedding light on Neo-Babylonian legal culture and daily life” and 50 cases are documented. Going even back in time, in 2062 BCE, an Indus colony existed in Mesopotamia and we have detailed documentation from that period mentioning the names of the colonists along with grain delivery records and debt notes. When it comes to India during that period, such detailed records are lacking.

Due to this, daily life in the Indus-Saraswati period is documented not from written records, but from archaeological evidence. As scholars get into the history of Indian philosophy, they run into new issues; there is not much biographical detail of the philosophers. In fact a common trend among Indian philosophers was to avoid writing personal details, and not have any mention of the social and political context, as they would be just distractions. While we know about Machiavelli’s childhood from his father’s documents and his personality based on the chronicles from his contemporaries, all we know about the Varanasi philosopher Raghudeva Bhattacharya that he was a student of Harirama, lived in Varanasi and had his work translated by Mahadeva.

These become important as we discuss the concept of modernity in Indian philosophy. Did Indian philosophers turn against the ancient traditions like Francis Bacon and Descartes who had warned that one should not stay with the past too much. Overwhelmed by the Mughal and subsequent British influence, did the Indian philosophers invent a neo tradition dissing the past and incorporating concepts from the non-Indian world? Was modernity in Indian philosophy instigated by Western influence?

Varanasi in 1832 by James Prinsep
Varanasi in 1832 by James Prinsep

Ganeri tries to answer all these by going through the evolution of Navya Nyaya school of thought which originated in Mithila, but later flourished in Navadipa and Varanasi. The person responsible for this school was Raghunatha Shiromani (1460 – 1540), the author of Pad-rtha-tattva-nir-pa-a, and who preceded both Bacon and Descartes by a century. He was a contemporary of Caitanya Mahaprabhu and advocated a “reason and evidence-based critical inquiry”, than scriptural exegesis. He asked philosophers to think for themselves and reflect on matters, which seem contrary to accepted opinion. The Navya Nyaya school was quite popular and attracted students not just from India, but from Tibet and Nepal as well; some Sanskrit pundits even went to Tibet in the 17th century to assist the Dalai Lama.

Ganeri discovers that unlike in Europe, where there was a tendency to break away from the past to display modernity, Indian philosophers did not think that was necessary. Instead they bridged the ancient past and the emerging modernity. Raghunatha and his students, who pioneered evidence based critical enquiry, reinterpreted the ancient texts and found no incompatibility between the ancient and modern. Ganeri argues that if you have to understand modernity in the Indian philosophical context, you have to discard the notion that modernity is a rejection of the ancient.

Instead what is seen in the period mentioned in the book — 1450 to 1700 — is a new type of commentary, which looks at the hidden meaning in the ancient texts. These philosophers wrote commentaries without deference for the ancient with the purpose of educating their contemporaries, explaining a difficult point, filling in gaps or presenting a deeper non-obvious meaning. Some of these commentaries, like those of Raghunatha apply a new framework on an older text. Another goal was to make the reader think well; they had a layered model of the world in which concepts worked at the smallest scale as well as at the highest levels with composite bodies. When expressing complex ideas warranted the creation of a new language, they did that as well to explain the logical forms of their philosophical claims.

According to Ganeri, these developments were possible because the philosophers lived on the fringe — they lived near intellectual centers like Navadipa and Varanasi— but were not too deeply involved in the affairs of the city. Another reason was the sponsorship they got from the Mughal Court to the Bengal Sultanate to various rich patrons. Though these philosophers lived during the time of Dara Shikoh and the Mughal empire with its strong Persian influence, that influence was not seen in the Sanskritic works.

Ganeri also acknowledges the difficulty in reconstructing the biographies of most of these philosophers and instead analyses the history of these ideas against the context of sastra andsampradaya. Fortunately we have sufficient information about the social, political and intellectual context in which Navya Nyaya flourished. This approach has helped him analyze not just the thinker, but also the so-called modernity that he brings in. This sampradaya based system was eventually scuttled by the British, who decided that such a system was irrelevant. According to Ganeri, another reason for putting an end to this system was because it provided a strong intellectual basis against colonialism.

As you read through the book, it even makes you wonder if the term — modernity — is the right one to describe these developments. This constant questioning and challenging the established was always part of Indian darshanas and not something unique to the 15th century. The Upanishads criticised the ritualism and ceremonialism in the Brahmanas while appreciating the philosophical concepts in the Mantras. Buddhism repudiated the concept of the individual self while Nyaya-Vaisheshika recognised the individual self to be the ultimate. According to Prof Hiriyanna, “we have all the different shades of philosophic theory repeated twice over in India, once in the six systems and again in Buddhism”. Which among these should one consider modern?

In the conclusion of the book Ganeri expresses shock that modern philosophy is taught in Europe without mentioning Indian philosophers. There is nothing to be shocked about this; most European or American courses don’t mention developments in Indian math or science either. For example, the Kerala mathematician Nilakanta, who was a contemporary of Raghunatha Shiromani, revised the Indian planetary model for the interior planets, Mercury and Venus and for this he formulated equations to find the center of the planets better than both Islamic and European traditions.

In their propensity to solve astronomical problems, mathematicians of the Kerala school developed concepts like Gregory’s series and the Leibniz’s series. Yuktibhasha, the text written by Jyesthadeva, contain proofs of the theorems and the derivations of the rules, making it a complete text of mathematical analysis and possibly the first calculus text. Thanks to the efforts of late Prof KV Sarma, Dr CK Raju, Dr MD Srinivas, Dr MS Sriram, Dr K Ramasubramanian and Dr George G Joseph, Indians and Western scholars are becoming more aware of the Indian contributions to Mathematics and understanding how those ideas spread to the West. Similarly, Ganeri’s book besides giving a great introduction to the Navya Nyaya school and the social and political atmosphere in which it flourished, documents the vibrant philosophical culture that encouraged ‘modernity’ even before the Western influence came in.

(This was originally published in Pragati)

1 Comment

  1. Good review. I am planning to buy the book. Slowly, Indian thought which was neglected during the colonial period is emerging out of shadows. More critical engagement is also required on our part to historically situate various texts. The British records would also help triangulate further research.

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