Development of Indian Thought up to Modern Times

Transcript of the keynote address given by Dr. S. L. Bhyrappa at the two-day seminar on ‘Development of Indian Thought up to Modern Times’ conducted by ICPR. 10 September 2016, Sheshadripuram College, Bangalore.

Speaking on a complex topic like philosophy, that too in a more complex language like English is to do injustice to both the listener and the subject. Hence Kannada.

I taught philosophy for about ten years to MA students. I have studied it for my PhD degree. I also served as guide to PhD aspirants in that subject. Those who have read my literary works and my autobiography (Bhitti) are aware of how and when I let go of philosophy and definitively turned to literature.

I had spoken at several philosophy seminars and had written papers for science journals till then, and had secretly nursed a desire to earn renown by penning philosophy treatises. But I got to know that deliberations at most all philosophy symposia centered on what was then considered ‘philosophy’ in European or American Universities. The guiding canon there was ‘Publish or perish’. Each time something “new” had to be necessarily propounded. This proposition would assume sociological, economic, physical, logical and other such hues. The ‘logical’ here was not in the Aristotelean sense; it rather was mathematical logic. How can those who are not well versed in mathematics propound logical principles? I was vexed with philosophy and resolved that if this was philosophy, I wouldn’t pursue it.

Our academicians somehow earn scholarships for studying at European or American universities, and over a few years, they fill their brains with what their guides would at that hour call ‘philosophy’, return home and broadcast the same in the manner of a parrot. Here, it’s important to highlight the shrewdness of the British. Even after withdrawing their hold over their colonies, they sponsor such native academicians, train them for two or three years, dispatch them back with instructions to disseminate these reigning Western concepts of philosophy/literature and thereby sow inferiority complex in the citizens of their erstwhile colonies. One can grasp the magnitude of this situation from the fact that the scholarly Pu Ti Na (P. T. Narasimhachar, the celebrated Kannada poet and scholar of the previous century) had asked me if I ‘really considered him a poet’! For a while, I too was struck by a desire to pursue Camus-Sartre-Lawrence. But what saved me from that peril was the very same philosophy that I pursued.

So, what is the nature of this quandary? What was it that was troubling my thoughts? I couldn’t get a clear answer even during the early years of my switching to literature (from philosophy). After much deliberation within myself, the question that surfaced in my mind was this:  what was the nexus between literature and philosophy? Even so, it was unclear to me as to what my favorite choice of literature was, and what direction it would lead me towards.

When I surveyed the literary atmosphere of the time, I was vexed much in the same way that I was with philosophy earlier on. The Navodaya era of litterateurs like Bendre, Pu Ti Na, Puttappa and Masti was past, and the Navya school (or Navyas) had become dominant. According to these Navyas, literature was either Marxist or Existentialist. A literary work that did not encompass these two was not reckoned as literature at all, for it was these Navyas that would criticize and publicize as such. I became an outcast. I had to pursue literature in such an atmosphere. Back then, I had just eagerly returned to my native from a decade’s stint in north India, and was annoyed at this development.

Musings as to what the characteristics of Values are pit us against the very same social sciences, economics etc. These insist that their propositions be honored. Though the price of sand is zero by the sea, a truckload of it would cost Rs. 500/- some 50 kilometers further, and Rs. 5000/- some 500 kilometers further. The economist imposes that philosophy own up this scale of values. And the less said about social sciences the better. And Politics is very much a part of social sciences. Philosophy that had been emaciated from the aforementioned loss of constituents, now gained them back in other forms. It became a mirror to the tenets of these daddies. There remained absolutely nothing that was exclusive to philosophy. What then were Philosophical values?

So what was the philosophy that I had to pursue? Once upon a time Plato held that Philo=Love, Sophy=Wisdom. He called it ‘Love of Wisdom’ and not ‘Love of Knowledge’. What Plato has indisputably stated is that wisdom was greater than knowledge, all the more so, for it was wisdom that bestowed knowledge. Of the Western scholars, I hold Plato in high esteem. His conviction will become clear to us if we read his ‘Dialogues’. Though I had swerved towards literature, I had not lost sight of this Philosophy, and I haven’t lost it even now.

About five decades ago I had attended a philosophy seminar where its General President Dr. Das had spoken on the topic, ‘What is Philosophy?’ I was taken aback that such a rudimentary topic should be deliberated upon at an advanced level seminar. But I soon saw the need for it. In the West, the answer to this question keeps changing from time to time. Marxists, linguists and other predators keep hacking it and impose their perceptions on it. Philosophy thus becomes polluted often, and hence the need to resurrect it continually.

At one time, the subject of Philosophy encompassed several branches of knowledge. When the physical sciences grew exponentially, Philosophy shed its branches one after the other. Each school of Indian philosophical thought had clearly marked out its space and time. This was so in the West as well. In the Newtonian era it was understood that space and time contained matter. Everyone had agreed with this including Kant. By the Einsteinian era, the definition of space and time underwent a colossal change and moved to the domain of physics. What was philosophy left with now? What was the philosopher’s predicament?

By default, a philosopher is not as well trained as a physicist is. The latter would be strongly rooted in Mathematics. Therefore, the question pops up again as to what the subject matter of philosophy is. The philosopher M. Hiriyanna’s opinion provides the clearest answer: Philosophy is the study of values. The characteristics of values cannot be perfectly arrived at through discussions, they don’t evidence themselves easily, yet Philosophy should endeavor to study values.

A disclaimer: All that I state are findings from my personal study, reasoning and experiences. I will not mouth others’ prophesies. There is one striking difference between Indian philosophy and Western philosophy. True philosophy is in literature.

Our Vedas are not dry theories. They contain brilliant insights. Each of these insights is encased in the tales contained in the Upanishads. The Upanishads are part of Vedas; they are not different from Vedas. To state that the Upanishads emerged in protest against the Vedas is sheer ignorance, and is a result of the mindless application of theories of Western Protestantism. Let us consider three examples.

  1. The Satyakaama-Jaabaali saga is about a pupil who chooses to tell the truth about his birth to his preceptor. A close analysis of this saga will reveal what a great philosophical proposition this is. This innocuous declaration of the lad is canonized as ‘tell only the truth (satyam vada)’ in the very next chapter in the Taittiriya Upanishad. To comprehend this calls for creativity. Without literary temper, the crux of this saga does not appeal to us at all. Many have rewritten this story, but have perceived it at their own levels of maturity.
  2. Nachiketa sought out Yama, the God of death, for some clarifications. When he arrived at the abode of Yama, Yama was not in station. Despite much insistence, the lad would not bathe or eat or drink till Yama arrived three days later. When Yama learns of this upon return, he is deeply sad. The numerous versions of this hugely popular story are all centered on Nachiketa. But it is Yama who has to capture our attention. The value here is Yama, because his sense of guilt prompts him to give three boons to Nachiketa in atonement. Nachiketa was not invited by Yama, wherefore he was not obliged to provide him food and shelter. But Yama’s understanding is that it was improper to cause a visitor to starve – invited or otherwise. He dreads from non-adherence to this Dharma. The one who is authorized to weigh the rights and wrongs of people and dispense punishment and/or reward to them is also under the ambit of dharmic conduct. Who then is this Yama? He is just a functionary. Is this not good literature? At least I regard it so. It induces me to contemplate.
  3. Bhagavad Gita is another great revelation. That parts of this work are interpolations is irrelevant. Even granting that someone has done the interpolation, he has done it by employing the framework of Arjuna’s apprehensions, his anxiety at warring with cousins and relatives, Lord Krishna dismissing these as weakness etc. This matrix is a grand situation. It is because of this situation that the devotional character of Bhagavad Gita has assumed the dimensions of literature. Of late the virtue of ahimsa (non-violence) is blown out of proportions in India. Gandhi has grossly, incorrectly stated that it is ahimsa that Bhagavad Gita propounds. If that were to be fact, then we have understood it wrongly and naively. (When Gandhi was asked by a lady as to what she should do when she faced rape, he asked her not to consider it as outrage but to internalize it and remain calm. Is this practical? Should such advice even be given?) What actually is stated in the Bhagavad Gita is this: if you are provoked to war, and at that hour you are not assailed by anger, it would be entirely proper to fight the war. Else it would be cowardice. To relate such a profound proposition, a pertinent situation has to be conceived of, and thus the Mahabharata. Whether the Mahabharata saga actually took place or it is just a story is beside the point. If it is studied as a story, the situations and the characters come alive before our inner eye, and the Bhagavad Gita stands imparted to us.

Thus, the genesis of philosophy cannot be without of a literary situation. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have come into existence in this manner. Far from such epic dimensions, modern philosophical works are all in the form of essays. These are uninspiring. It was not so in Plato’s time. He wrote them in literary form. A Socrates augments it with his experiences. Some humor is thrown in for effect. Cephalus is an elderly and moneyed character in the ‘Republic’. At a festival of a certain Goddess, he provided food to the participants. He gets into a discussion with Socrates:
Socrates: What are your feelings about old age?
Cephalus: Old age is fine, for then we are free from the tyranny of youth.
Socrates: What should we do to be happy in old age?
Cephalus: We should not deplete the inherited ancestral property. Rather we should earn much and donate all the incremental earnings. Then one can remain happy in old age.

A literary situation should be imagined and depicted in this manner. It is only in literature that it is possible to depict values of life though plot and characterization. Abstract philosophical statements serve no purpose. Actuality serves no purpose. They do not move any hearts. Values can be amazingly put across by couching them in a saga so that they appeal to the mind and strum experience. Thus literature is a domain for philosophy, and philosophy is core to literature.

It would be heartening to discuss literature with a litterateur who has studied true philosophy. Likewise, it would be heartening to discuss philosophy with a philosopher who has studied literature. Majority of today’s litterateurs have not been initiated into even rudimentary philosophy. I have had several meaningful discussions with the likes of D. R. Bendre and Pu Ti Na, and these chats have yielded many insights, precisely because these scholars were well versed both in literature and philosophy.

Western philosophy is something that can be argued at only the level of the intellect. It naturally comes with a limitation that there is nothing beyond it. F. H. Bradley was a British philosopher. He was a cousin of A. C. Bradley who has written extensively about Shakespeare’s works. (There was a joke that went around in British universities: “The text was Hamlet. Shakespeare was a student. He failed in the exams because he hadn’t studied A. C. Bradley.”)

F. H. Bradley’s work Appearance and Reality had gained renown at the time. It is a subtle translation of Shankaracharya’s advaita philosophy, but he did not declare so, giving us yet another proof of the cunning nature of the British. He would not give credit to Shankaracharya because he belonged to the imperial ruling race and hence couldn’t admit that the natives were more accomplished.

However, Schopenhauer exhibited the magnanimity of giving due credit. By then the Upanishads were translated to German, and Schopenhauer had studied them thoroughly. He was so deeply influenced by them that he retained those treatises by his bedside when he retired each day. He said, “Upanishads are the solace of my life and Upanishads are the solace of my death.” Schopenhauer had also this to say: A murderer is haunted by fear before committing an act of murder, because he feels that the life in his target is the same as his own, wherefore murdering another man was as akin to killing oneself. This is in the Upanishadic tenets of aham brahmaasmi and tattvamasi.

According to Shankaracharya, appearance is maya and reality is brahman. But because Bradley did not want to acknowledge the source, he delineated it using other concepts. He used a child, sugar and sweet as metaphors. If sugar is placed on a child’s tongue, it experiences and relishes the sweet taste, a taste different from what it experienced before tasting the sugar. But if the same sugar were to be placed on the tongue of an adult, apart from merely relishing it, he would gain knowledge that “sugar is sweet.” The nature of this knowledge is this: Sugar is the subject, Sweet is the predicate, the word “is,” is the copula. What is called the Verb in grammar is called Copula in philosophy. It correlates the two disparate concepts – sugar and sweet. This correlation is relational in nature, and the copula links sugar on the one side and sweet on the other. But this is futile, because the copula too, is another concept like them, and is different from them! The correlation that happens is actually ad infinitum viz., it never happens. This is the nature of mere intellectual knowledge. In the case of the child, there is neither correlation nor discord. The experience is fleeting, and it is actual. Bradley stopped at this. If he had drawn even one ounce more, his plagiarism would have been revealed. He can be called either clever or a thief. So is the case with Sheldon Pollock – to grasp everything intellectually, to dismiss the Vedas as nothing more than an ode etc. What is philosophy to us, is not philosophy to him. He is a product of Western upbringing; he is a Marxist.

It should be noted that even Indians have indulged in linguistic acrobatics in the realm of philosophy. The need for studying philosophy is to eventually transcend it. The pursuit would have brought about mental acculturation in us, which will enable us to comprehend and reason in any matter whatsoever. Yet, the question remains as to what the subject matter of Philosophy is. It may be reiterated that the Wisdom that transcends perspicacity as propounded by Plato is de facto philosophy.

To me philosophy means Veda, Upanishad, Buddha and Mahavira. The claims by vested interests that Buddhism/Jainism is a separate religion is not tenable, because it is done with a view to obtain special privileges from the State. So R. D. Ranade in his ‘The Constructive Survey of the Upanishadic Philosophy (1926)’ states that Buddha is a rishi of the Upanishad lineage. The insights of Buddha and Mahavira appeal to us as philosophy. I do not concede that the Veda-Upanishads belong in a bygone era, and that they have since stagnated. The Vedic culture and tradition is an unbroken one. My understanding is that in the modern age Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi are all rishis of the Vedic lineage. There are great insights in the former’s work ‘Ramakrishna Kathamrita’. We have studied about the attributed and non-attributed Brahman in philosophy, but they do not readily appeal to our experience. But the same is effectively delineated in Ramakrishna Kathamrita by using fish as a metaphor. This way is the creative way.

Vedic, Buddhist, and Jain insights are philosophy, others are rootless and can be interpreted as per convenience. Let’s take the example of Humanism to prove this. Humanism is human-centric. The Semitic religions state that man is supreme and God has created the milk and flesh of animals, vegetation and the inanimate (rivers, mountains etc.) for enjoyment by man. Why should these elements of nature be subservient to man? These religions are anthropocentric.

A Greek thinker has stated that if donkeys and monkeys could draw, they would have painted their Gods in the form of donkeys and monkeys. There is great philosophy in this. The Vedic people-Buddhists-Jains saw their own life in all forms of creation. Modern biology may have its own views about rebirth, but to perceive an animal as being one’s deceased grandfather, father, mother or another relative reborn, or oneself attaining such a life in his/her next birth, urges him/her to abstain from causing harm to all nature. Philosophy is that which has gained permanence in a protracted living tradition.

The audience of this symposium consists of students as well. Today’s students are not at taught philosophy at all. My request to the speakers is that they present their debates (preferably in Kannada) in such a way as to kindle interest in philosophy in these youngsters.

Transcribed and translated from Kannada by Ranganath Prasad and edited by Sandeep Balakrishna.

Dr. S L Bhyrappa philosophy Development of Indian Thought up to Modern Times s l bhyrappa

Dr. S L Bhyrappa

Arguably the foremost novelist of modern India, S L Bhyrappa began his literary journey in the 1950s with a few of his works being published for private circulation. In 1961, his first major work Dharmashree was published and ever since, he has written several masterpieces such as Aavarana, Daatu, Grhabhanga, Mandra, Nele, Parva, and Vamshavrksha.
Dr. S L Bhyrappa philosophy Development of Indian Thought up to Modern Times s l bhyrappa
  • keval

    Waited so long to read something from him, got chance today. Great lecture.