The Study of Hindu Philosophy

The Study of Hindu Philosophy  (1873) 
by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

First published in Mukherjee's Magazine, May 1873. Here taken from Bankim Rachanavali (1960), compilation of the author's English works, edited by Jogesh Chandra Bagal. Source: Digital Library of India.

The Study of Hindu Philosophy

As yet no serious attempt appears to have been made to estimate the value of Hindu Thought and its influence on the progress of civilization. It is generally assumed that outside the limits of India, Hindu Civilization has exercised little influence. Perhaps the assumption is, on the whole, correct. The intellectual relations of Greece and through it, of Europe, to India will perhaps never admit of being fully cleared up. But apart from the question of its influence on the world at large, the history of the Hindu Intellect has a value of its own which has been but imperfectly recognised. If Europe presents to the student the more perfect type of civilization, India offers to him the more instructive though less interesting study of arrested development and decay. The intellectual history of Europe bears to that of India the same relation as physiology does to pathology; while the one presents the richer field for the investigation of the laws of the healthy and vigorous growth of civilization, the other furnishes greater facilities of studying it under the conditions of disease and death.

The study of Sanskrit is making its way in Europe, and the history and the literature of India occupy, it is satisfactory to know, a considerable share of the attention of her scholars at the present day. But it is to be regretted that the literature of Indian mythology and ritual should engross the attention of the learned, to the exclusion of the higher forms of intellectual activity which were developed at a later period of Hindu history. It must, of course, be admitted, that Hindu mythology is a subject of universal interest on account of its real or supposed affinity to the primitive beliefs of all the Aryan races, while Hindu Philosophy has no higher claim than that which arises from its being exclusively Indian. To us, indeed, who are the children of the soil, Hindu Philosophy is a far more important study than Hindu mythology. To us the nearer and more local is of greater interest than that which is the common property of all nations, and the real significance of which is lost in the dim shades of remote antiquity.

We have not, however, by any means shown any readiness to recognise Hindu Philosophy as an important branch of study. It is, indeed, still taught with reverence, and learnt with awe, in the secluded tols of Nadiya and other seats of ancient learning, but the philosophy of the tols is the most barren and unprofitable study in which the human intellect can engage itself. Philosophy as taught by the pandits, is simply a storehouse of verbal quibbles, and high proficiency in it is considered synonymous with high proficiency in the art of profitless wrangling. Why Jagadisa should have used nine letters where he might have used five, or of how many significations an ambiguous word in Gadadhara's Commentary can admit, are regarded as the highest problems of which it is allowed to the human intellect to attempt the solution. The sum of useful human knowledge would in no way be diminished, if by some fortunate accident, the philosophy of the tols disappeared from the face of the earth.

There are two aspects in which the natives of India can regard the study of Hindu Philosophy. We can study it for its own sake—for the philosophical knowledge which it will yield. We can also study it for the sake of the light it can throw on the past history of India,—on the great social changes of which it has often been the cause and often the consequence. It will be generally admitted that at the present day, in the full blaze of the light which the science and the philosophy of Europe pours upon us, the value of Hindu Philosophy, for the sake of the knowledge of Nature which it can impart, is insignificant.

The principal value of Hindu Philosophy consists in its bearings on history and on sociology. As the great causes which have influenced the destiny of India, which have moulded the national character, taught the Hindu to despise the blessings of existence and to look upon inaction as the ideal of human happiness; as causes in short to which a very great deal of the characteristics of national life may well be referred, the importance of the philosophical doctrines of India cannot be overestimated. There are, however, no indications of any tendency among native scholars to take up the study in earnest. Natives of India, so far as they have hitherto interested themselves in its past history, have generally followed in the wake of Europeans, throwing little handfuls[1] of materials upon the structures reared by the giants of another clime. It is a painful proof of the absence of originality and vigour in the intellectual character of the natives of the present day that we little relish pursuits which are not sanctioned by the example and the approval of Europeans; that we dare not ascend heights which they have not attempted to climb. The traces of European footprints must encourage us in any journey we undertake; we lack the courage—not the ability—to venture upon an untrodden path. There is always present to us a morbid dread of failure which itself is a powerful cause of failure.

Hindu Philosophy has not been wholly neglected in Europe. But its spirit has never been seized—it remains to be understood. Natives of the country alone can fall into grooves of thought which they imbibe with their earliest education, but which appear unintelligible and grotesque to the foreigner. The study of Hindu Philosophy in Europe has therefore been barren of results. It is, on the other hand, pursued by a certain section of native scholars with lifelong devotion, but only as the science and the art of verbal quibbling. Here, too, has the study of Hindu Philosophy been barren of results. Natives who have fitted themselves for the work by that wider culture which a complete acquaintance with European science alone can impart, are in a position peculiarly suited for giving to Hindu Philosophy its proper position in the history of human achievements.

But no study is likely to be fruitful of results if carried on without a system. The majority of those who pursue knowledge for its own sake pursue it after an aimless and desultory fashion. An aimless and desultory pursuit of knowledge may be productive of good in other cases, but in the case of Hindu Philosophy it can lead to no good whatever. Hindu Philosophy must be studied with certain definite objects or not studied at all. My object in the present paper is to suggest some of the leading points on which attention should be bestowed in a special manner.

I. The relation of Hindu Philosophy to Hindu Mythology.—A sort of hazy perception that Hindu Mythology is in a great measure the parent of Hindu Philosophy is not wanting among those who have bestowed any attention on either. It is again believed on the other hand, that the philosophical systems arose out of that reaction against the mythological religion which culminated in Buddhism, and that while some systems were aggressive and hostile to the national religion, others aimed at its conservation, and attempted to rebuild the fabric of superstition on rational foundations. All this may be true, perhaps is so, but the great problems of history still remain unexplained. How is it that we find a cumbrous mythology and an absurd ritual flourishing gaily side by side with enlightened rationalism and searching scepticism, nay, not only flourishing side by side with them, but riding triumphant over both? Again, without questioning the general affiliation of philosophy to mythology, it is of great importance to trace how each individual myth developed itself into a philosophical idea. Lastly, it is of still greater moment to ascertain, if we can, the national modes of thought common both to philosophy and to mythology, which gave its distinctive character to each and which influence the national character even at the present day.

I will try to explain what I mean by an illustration. We find the principle of triple existence running throughout both Hindu Philosophy and Hindu Mythology. The Supreme Soul has, in philosophy, the threefold attributes of Goodness (satwa), Passion (rajas) and Darkness (tamas). Next, as separate impersonations of each of these three attributes of the Supreme Soul, we have the Pauranic Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. This trinity has no existence in Vedic literature, but there we find another trinity as the more primitive representatives of the Pauranic Triad, viz., Agni, Vayu and Surya. (Nirukta VII., 5.)[2]

These, again, in their turn represent the Light. Agni the terrestrial light, Vayu the light of the atmosphere, and Surya the light of the sky.[3] This triple light is traced through the Nirukta (XII., 19) to the three steps of Vishnu in the Rig-Veda. The following is the explanation from the Nirukta:—

"Vishnu strides over this, whatever exists. He plants his step in three-fold manner, i.e., for a threefold existence, on earth, in the atmosphere, and in the sky according to Sakpuni."[4]

The verse in the Rig-Veda which is explained here is as follows:—

"Vishnu strode over this (universe); in three places he planted his step:" etc.[5]

So that here at least we can trace a philosophical idea to its source in a myth in the Rig-Veda. No other intelligible explanation can be offered how philosophy came to announce so fanciful a doctrine as that of the three attributes of the Supreme Being.

He who will write the history if Hindu asceticism, from its first appearance in the Vedic Theology to its most complete development in the Buddhistic philosophy, will earn a title to the gratitude of India. Lecky has shown, with a power of gloomy narration rarely surpassed, the evil influence of asceticism upon the destinies of mediaeval Europe, but no country in the world has suffered more deeply from its baneful power than India. Both the mythology and the philosophy were intensely imbued with the ascetic spirit. Buckle has shown how the imposing aspects and unconquerable forces of nature create superstition. Imagination invests these mysterious powers of nature with human volition and superhuman caprice and aptitude for mischief. After man has once assumed their unlimited capacity for taking offence, his next step is to assume that they are constantly offended at intentional and unintentional human actions. Hence arises the sense of Sin. The sense of Sin leads to Penance. Wrathful divinities must be appeased by suitable expiations. When man is unable to rise to the lofty doctrine of Repentance, the only form which penance can assume is that of physical privation. Hence the rise of asceticism in Hindu religion.

Philosophy, seeking a loftier ideal and proceeding on a more rational basis, discarded the notion of Sin. But the same causes were at work. The mighty energies of nature worked with impressive force on every side. With no more than the appliances of primitive life, existence was felt to be a burden in a climate and a country which overpowered human powers and neutralized human energies. What had appeared to the theologian as the vengeful action of offended divinities appeared to the philosopher as the omnipotent but natural causes of human misery. Hence in philosophy the sense of Suffering took the place of the sense of Sin. These two notions, the sense of suffering and the sense of sin, run side by side throughout Hindu Philosophy and Hindu Mythology respectively. The end and aim of the Sánkhya is the Cessation of Pain by the Cessation of all Experience. The Bud­dhist, not satisfied with the Cessation of Experience, aims at the Annihilation of the Experiencing Soul as the only effectual means of securing freedom from misery to man. The Vedanta declines to believe that so much apparent misery can be real and resolves existence into a mass of illusions. The Yogin in the madness of despair constructs a fanciful machinery for conquering the powers of nature. Everywhere the philosopher labours under an overwhelming sense of human misery and directs all his efforts against it. The vast field over which these two leading notions, the notion of sin and the notion of suffering, have spread, giving rise to asceticism, to fatalism, to apathy in politics and to sensuality in poetry, is one of the most interesting subjects of study with which the Hindu can occupy himself.

II. The relation of Hindu Philosophy to true Science.—It must be borne in mind that Philosophy in India had never the restricted signification attached to it in modern Europe, but was co-extensive in meaning with the knowledge of Nature. Philosophy therefore included Science. The Hindu laboured under the disadvantage of an erroneous method. An intense theological spirit rarely leads to anything but the deductive method, and the Hindu method was almost solely and purely deductive. Observation and Experiment were considered beneath the dignity of Philosophy and Science. Nor is even deduction as a rule pushed on its legitimate consequences. First principles are assumed on no grounds, and with the most perfect weapons of deductive logic at his command, the Hindu thinker contents himself with the most fanciful inferences. Mighty glimpses of truth reveal themselves to men of almost inspired intellect, but the Hindu sage will not follow them out to their legitimate consequences.

When the gardeners of Florence found that the column of water in the water-pump will not rise to any greater height than thirty-two feet, the idea of the atmosphere exerting a pressure upon the water outside flashed upon Torricelli like an inspiration. But Torricelli did not stop at the inspired thought. "If the pressure of the atmosphere sustained a column of air," he reasoned, "it ought to sustain a column of mercury also." He experimented with a glass tube filled with mercury, which verified his conclusion-Here was a splendid triumph, but European energy of thought would not stop here. Pascal argued, that if the atmosphere supports the mercurial column, the higher we ascend the lower ought the column to sink. Pascal took a barometric column to the Puy de Dome and the column sank.

A Hindu philosopher in Torricelli's place would have contented himself with simply announcing in an aphoristic sutra that the air had weight. No measure of the quantity of its pressure would have been given; no experiment would have been made with the mercury; no Hindu Pascal would have ascended the Himalayas with a barometric column in hand. To take a parrllel case. The diurnal rotation of the earth is shadowed forth in the Aitareya Brahmana.[6] Arya Bhatta distinctly affirms it. "The starry firmament is fixed," says he, "it is the earth which, continually revolving, produces the rising and the setting of the constellations and the planets."[7] In addition to this, the apparent annual motion of the sun and the periodical motion of the planets were well known. The only legitimate deduction from the combination of these three facts, viz., the diurnal rotation of the earth, the fixity of the heavenly bodies, and the apparent annual motion of the sun, was the heliocentric theory. But the heliocentric theory was never positively put forward—never sought to be proved—never accepted and never followed out to the establishment of the further laws of the universe. In modern Europe, the announcement of the Copernican theory rendered certain the future discovery of the laws of Kepler and of the great law of Universal Gravitation. In India Arya Bhatta's remarkable announcement rendered certain that nothing further would come of it.

Examples might be multiplied. But the point for enquiry is, did India make no contribution of value to the sum of human knowledge? Did no power of intellect suffice to neutralize the fatal error in method? Is the intellectual history of India nothing but the longest page in that unwritten chapter of the world's history—the history of human error? If not, if truth is still to be gleaned from the recesses of Hindu philosophy, where and how can we find it? What is in fact the real place of Hindu philosophy in the history of Science?

Those who follow with admiring reverence Mill's exposition of the Law of Causation must be startled to find that the Hindu Naiyáyikas arrived at precisely the same result as Mill. The following is Mill's definition of Cause, the net result of his exposition:—

"The cause of a phenomenon" is "the antecedent or the concurrence of antecedents on which it is invariably and unconditionally consequent."

This is nearly identical with the Naiyáyika's definition, which is as follows:—

"Anyatha siddhi sunyasya niyata purvabartita karanatwam".

Literally translated it runs thus:—

"Being a cause is being the invariable antecedent of that which cannot be brought about without it."

There are two elements in Mill's definition, viz., the concurrence of antecedents, and the unconditionally of the consequent, which may at first be missed in the Sanskrit definition. But this defect is apparent only. The aphoristic form in which Hindu Philosophy was taught precluded the concurrence of antecedents being prominently brought forward in the definition; it was sufficient that the definition did not exclude such concurrence. But the point is explained and illustrated at great length in other texts. For the unconditionality of Mill the Nyáya substitutes an awkward periphrasis, which, however, in reality signifies unconditionality, and is elsewhere explained in the Nyáya to do so. Mill explains unconditionality by the illustration afforded by the sequence of day and night. Night is the invariable antecedent of day, but is not its cause, because if the sun did not rise there would be no day. Day is not, therefore, the unconditional consequent of night. Precisely the same thing is meant by "anyatha siddhi sunyasya". Day cannot be brought about without the rising of the sun; therefore the rising of the sun and not night is the cause of day, though night is also the invariable antecedent of day. The identity of the two definitions -is remarkable.

The point for enquiry is, what measure of sterling gold like this can be found amid the dross of Hindu Philosophy?

It is by no means so small as is generally believed.

This strictly philosophical conception of the law of causation suggests an important point, viz., the recognition of Law as the only agency in the government of the universe. That which specially distinguishes the superiority of modern Europe over the Europe of the past and over all other countries whatever, is this unflinching recognition of the absolute sovereignty of Law. I have not space to dwell on the point, but I must indicate that the same spirit reigns over the higher forms of Hindu thought, such as the Sánkhya and the Nyáya. Whatever the character of inferior schools, such as the Mimánsá, Law is recognised as supreme in the more advanced systems. No divine interposition, no especial providence, no miracle, not even the initial creative Act is recognised here. Indeed after the great law of causation has once been seized in a true philosophical spirit, the recognition of the Reign of Law must supersede all theological conceptions. So it did in the superior systems of Hindu Philosophy.

III. The effect of Hindu Philosophy on the political and social life of the Hindus.—This is by far the most important point in the study of which enquirer into the Hindu Philosophy can engage. A single question, such for instance, as the share which philosophical systems like the Sánkhya had in causing the birth and promoting the growth of such a stupendous social revolution as Buddhism, is alone of engrossing interest. But this portion of the subject is so important that it will not admit of being treated at the close of this paper. It must be reserved for a future occasion.

  1. Every native of India must remember with pride that there is at least one remarkable exception to whom such language cannot apply.
  2. Muir's Sanskrit Texts, IV., p. 57, et seq.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p. 55.
  5. Ibid., p. 54.
  6. Colebrooke's Essays, ii. p. 392.
  7. Dr. Haug's Translation, ii. p. 142.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse