Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance

by Niranjan Dahr


Birth of Vedanta and its Earlier Historic Role

(b) Challenge from traders and artisans: A materialist explanation of things came from another contestant class for getting control over the social surplus. Originally the Sudras and the Vaisyas worked together in the same economic fields known as Sudraysu. But in course of time the Vaisyas became only traders. Those who became rich through trading gave up humbler activities. During the Vedic period there was certainly a good deal of internal trade but foreign trade was also not quite unknown as some of the passages of the Vedic texts refer to trade by way of sea.

In a priest‑ridden society traders had, however, to work under great handicaps. Trade could flourish only if the social surplus could be utilised for promoting a greater production of goods. In the early Vedic society the social surplus remained mostly idle with the priestly class. Like the warrior‑kings, the traders too wanted that the practice of performing sacrifices, etc. should cease, thus making the institution of priesthood rather redundant. [a] But they were at the same time against the Kshatriyas appropriating the social surplus because both production and trade were hampered by constant warfare and unproductive expenditure. So, unlike the warrior‑kings, the traders who were the standard‑bearers of progress in all countries now proceeded to give a physical explanation of things for achieving the purpose.

Travelling helped the traders discover the physical causes of such observed natural phenomena as rain, storm, lightning, ebb [end of p. 12] and tide, etc. They also saw the movement of heavenly bodies and became acquainted with their courses. Visits to distant lands further brought them in contact with many foreign peoples and strange practices. This expanded their mental vision and they learned to think. Traders and merchants are thus generally found to have taken a free and enlightened view of the world and been more amenable to its rational explanation in every ancient country. In ancient India too we find that in the Bihar-Nepal region first attempts were made to explain the mysteries of nature by means of reason. The great Eastern trade-route went north, from Rajgir to the Nepal Terai through Vaisali and Kusinara after crossing the Ganga at Patna. Kapilavastu was an important trade‑centre on this route. Both Kapila and Buddha could catch up many of the rationalist ideas floating in the air of this region. It was further found comparatively free from the influence of Brahminism.

It is true that the ancient Indian materialism, as was the case with the ancient Greek materialism as well, was primitive materialism, There the origin of the universe had been variously ascribed to water, fire or ether (akasa). Those propositions might appear childish today but what is important to note in this connection is that in these speculations the universe was traced to a material origin and not to any Spiritual First Cause. Any satisfactory theory of materialism could not be possible unless we had a clear conception of matter, and this presupposed a good deal of scientific knowledge which was not available in ancient times. In the literature of the later Vedic period like the Satapatha Brahmana and the Chhandyoga Upanishad we find the rudiments of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and surgery and chemistry and alchemy. A good deal of critical intelligence and concrete knowledge rather than intuition was behind all these achievements. The Indian materialism, though still at the stage of mere tendency, developed as an ally of this ancient science while the 'Indian idealism grew as an ally of religion.

In course of time materialism gave birth to some more or less full‑fledged philosophical systems like Sankhya, Nyaya‑Vaiseshika and Lokayata. Buddhism was the ultimate outcome of all these materialist and quasi-materialist philosophies. Buddha himself was, course, a Kshatriya prince. But in revolutionary periods a section of the ruling class is often found to transfer its allegiance to the rising revolutionary forces and [end of p. 13] played an active put in forming the new ideology. The 6th century B.C. was such a revolutionary epoch. The world was then in the midst of an intellectual ferment, as a result of. which some radical thought‑leaders were born in different countries from Greece to China. As a part of this world process we got in India Buddha and Mahavira. Both Buddhism and Jainism had much in common but Jainism could never attain the popularity of Buddhism. So Jainism is generally regarded as an offshoot of Buddhism.

 In Buddhism, however, the idea of nirvana hardly fitted in with its general materialist‑rationalist tenor. This idealistic deviation of Buddha, a Kshatriya prince, might be due to his caste‑prejudice.  But in spite of this loophole Buddhism rose in India as the ideology of the trading class. The original five hundred disciples of Buddha were all traders, and important Buddhist cities like Rajagriha, Kausambi, Pratisthana,  Gandhara and Taxila were all vital trade centres and located on the established trade‑routes of the country. Even outside India Buddhism spread largely along its foreign trade‑routes. The Pali texts mention voyages from Champa (North Bihar) to Suvarnabhumi (Burma and the Malay peninsula with its surroundings islands) and from Pataliputra to Saptaparna (Ceylon) via Tamralipta. The two famous merchants, Tapusa and Bhalluka, who were among the original disciples of Buddha, hailed from Suvarnabhumi. Attention may also be drawn to the Digha Nikaya. In it a wise man is urged to gather money as assiduously as bee gathers honey and spend only a. fourth part of it, save another fourth against the rainy day, and expand his trade with the half of it. Other Buddhist texts too eulogised trade and commerce.

In course of time the artisans and the peasants too joined the traders in this battle of rationalism because they would also be the direct beneficiaries from the greater productivity of the economic process through the application of the social surplus to it in an increasing measure. The Vaisyas and the Sudras had the task of producing the surplus which the priests and the warriors took away by natural right. Further, the development of the productive forces like agriculture and handicrafts effectively required some knowledge of astronomy and of the physical and chemical properties of material objects. Their aspiration for social equality too found expression in Buddhism which did not recognise invidious caste distinctions. That is why the Vayupurana remarked that the atheists were "a people of workmen [end of p. 14] and craftsmen." Before Buddism was born, Charvaka and many of his followers too came from the plebian class.

Two contending camps, each trying to establish its hold ,over the social surplus, of the community, thus gave birth to two rival philosophies—idealism and materialism. Ideas, once born, exist by themselves and acquire a dynamism of their own. The dynamics of ideas then run parallel to the process of social evolution, not the one without influencing the other. The Indian idealism and the Indian materialism were, by their very nature, opposed to each other, and they came to clash almost immediately after their birth. Yajnavalkya started the idealist offensive against Uddalaka Aruni, the first known materialist thinker of India. Uddalaka was a contemporary of Yajnavalkya and is known to have been connected with the rising trading class. We can get a glimpse of Yajnavalka's offensive from the Chhandogya Upanishad (Chapter VI). Walter Ruben has compared this clash of ideas with that of the Ionian with the Greek idealists headed by the Eleatics‑Parmenides. [9] Thales, the oldest Greek philosopher, stood side by side with Uddalaka and lived only a short time after him.

In the long run, however, the outcome of this clash in India differed widely from that in the ancient Greece for which some historical factors were responsible. In pre‑historic times two batches of Aryan invaders entered India and Greece and built up two characteristic civilisations on the two flanks of the ancient Middle East. While the Indo‑Gangetic Valley gave an adequate scope to the Indian invaders for the establishment of some extensive empires, their kinsmen in Greece had to continue to live in the territorial compactness of the regions secluded by hills. So even if there were traces of the earlier existence of kingship in almost every part of the Hellenic world, all these kingships either decayed or disappeared. Grote remarked that the need for a. single ruler as a bond of union between the centre and the outlying districts ceased to be felt owing to the smallness of the various Hellenic states. But none the less the principal stages in the early histories of the two countries had a close resemblance. Both started with natural religion. Even some of the Vedic gods had their common origin in the antiquity. But the disillusionment with the natural religion then saw the beginning of philosophy in both the countries alike in two antagonistic directions—materialism and idealism. In Greece too the honour of being the birth‑place of. the materialist [end of p. 15] philosophy belonged to the Ionic and Doric maritime colonies. In fact, the rise of Indian materialism almost synchronised with that of its Greek counter–part. The democratic revolution of Athens was the culmination of the struggle between the landed nobles on the one hand and the merchants and the peasants on the other. Plato was the founder of the Greek idealism as he was the first philosopher to assert the primacy of spirit over matter. As a member of the old nobility he became eager to re-establish the rule of the landed  aristocracy and proceeded to undo all that the merchants had done. He felt an admiration for the priesthood and worked out his theory of ideas in conscious opposition to the materialist thought. But the platonic idealism could never get a strong foothold on the soil of Greece.

One of the reasons for the comparative weakness of the Greek idealism was that it, unlike its Indian counter‑part, did not get the patronage of powerful kings. [b] But above all, the Greeks had no priesthood on the Indian model. First, the Greek priests were not differentiated from the mass of people as a sacred caste through the medium of which alone the gods could be approached. Any citizen could be a priest. Aristotle even suggested that one and the same citizen should assume successively the functions of soldier, statesman and priest according to the appropriate period of his life. Secondly, a priest could riot claim any special privileges for himself by virtue of his priesthood. Even there was no such thing as a priest with a general competence of discharging priestly function at any and every shrine. He was always the servant of a particular deity at a particular shrine and at none other. Lastly, and this was of crucial importance, a Greek priest was in no sense a teacher or expounder of any dogma. Even the interpretation of sacred law was entirely beyond his domain. In Athens a special secular body of interpreters was entrusted with this function. The duties of a priest generally began and ended within the precinct of his own temple. The Greek priests were therefore in no position to develop a counter‑part of the Vedas containing unchanging truths. As a matter of fact, it is the polis and not religion which dominated the Greek thought.

In contrast, the Indian priests were a separate, sacred, hereditary and highly privileged class with a general competence not [end of p. 16] only to function at any and every temple of any and every deity but also to interpret the sacred law and even to expound a new dogma. With the influential Kshatriya class annihilated on the battle‑ground of Kurukshetra the Brahmins came to occupy a virtually unrivalled position in society. Mention may be made here of the great extinction of the Kshatriyas by the Bhargava Parasurama "thrice seven times". The prolonged struggle for supremacy between the Kings and the Brahmins was at last decided in favour of the latter. In Europe a similar rivalry had resulted on the whole in the triumph of the temporal power over the spiritual. In India the reverse was the case. The wily Brahmin-priests thus re‑established largely their control over the social surplus and retained their spiritual monopoly for a long time.

This class succeeded in reducing Hinduism to a book‑religion pure and simple and establishing themselves as the accredited interpreters of it. The book supported their authority. So they in their turn supported the authority of the book and attributed a divine character to it—a character which it was originally lacking. The consequence of that bibliolatry is that people became bound to a fixed viewpoint prescribed by the book not merely in religious matters but also in many other affairs. All this means that the Vedas became the corner‑stone of the Hindu thought, and any idea not found there was to be regarded as false and must be rejected as such. The authority of the book was so much magnified that those who, even if atheists, paid obescience to it were called astikas while theists would be condemned as nastikas if they did not accept the authority of it. Those who opposed the Vedic view of life were threatened with dire consequences, and the adoption of strong legal measures was advocated against the vilifiers of the Vedas. Even speaking to them was considered to be a sin.

Even though the caste system itself was not an innovation of the Brahmins, they became now instrumental in determining the relative rank of the different castes. Socially the Kshatriyas were relegated to a position subsidiary to the Brahmins, and the caste system was also made rigid which with its water‑tight compartments stood in the way of the establishment of a regular political organisation. The Kshatriyas themselves also became more immersed in political intrigues, and the claim of the Brahmins to a monopoly of knowledge was readily conceded. They in the meantime took over the new philosophy from the War- [end of p. 17] rior‑kings, developed it and tried to exploit it for their own purpose. They went on preaching the new doctrine but without at the same time forsaking the Vedic rites which, as we know, they now recommended as matter of spiritual discipline and mental purification. Even if originally there was hardly anything common between the religion of early Vedic period and the new religion of the Upanishads, a compromise was thus effected ultimately between the two, and the Upanishads became incorporated fully in the Vedic literature. The book‑religion thus came to include the Upanishads as well.


The Indian idealism spearheaded by this priestly class sensed danger in the emergence of contemporary radical rationalist movements and launched a frontal attack upon them. The Indian priestly class, no doubt, lacked in a central organisation like the Roman Catholic Church but none the less it became a close spiritual fraternity dominating the socio‑cultural life of the country. The classical battle which religion fought against science was, of course, conspicuous by its absence from the Indian scene because modern science rose in Europe and not in India. But if the materialist and quasi‑materialist thought‑currents of the ancient India were allowed to run their full course, it would have certainly given rise to modern science. In fact, a good deal of scientific development took place in the ancient India also as a result of the materialist thought but there was no follow‑up. The development was cut short by the defeat of the Indian materialist movement. The Brahmin priests did every thing in their power to stem the development of any theory which was or might prove inimical to their interest. Yajnavalkya's encounter with Uddalaka to which a reference has been made earlier was therefore just the beginning of the prolonged confrontation between the Indian idealism and the Indian materialism. It gathered momentum with the progress of time.

We know that the Lokayata was the most consistent materialist system of thought in India and came to acquire much influence among the people. So it met the most systematic cruel treatment from the Indian idealists. Undoubtedly the Lokayata Darshan had original texts and commentaries on them. Several idealist thinkers are also found to have quoted extensively from them in their attempt to refute them. But in the name of refutation what they have mostly done is to pour ridicule upon them.  [end of p. 18] Often they have been also depicted as asuras and daityas. Brihaspati, the proverbial father of the Lokayata School, was depicted as an imposter. Moreover, not a single book of this great school of thought could be traced as yet, and scholars are of opinion that its texts and commentaries were all destroyed by the followers of the Vedas. It is also feared that some of the prominent spokesmen of the Lokayata darshan were liquidated by their opponents. In the Santiparva of the Mahabharata, Charvaka, the most outstanding spokesman of the Lokayata thought, was described as a Rakshasa and was murdered by the Brahmins present at the court of Yudhistira because of his raising conscientious objection to the latter’s accession to the throne after killing so many of his kinsmen. As admitted by one of such opponents, Madhavacharya, in his Sarva‑darshana‑sangraha, such harsh treatment was meted out to the materialists because it was difficult to contradict their contentions.

Other rationalist thought‑currents were not, however, treated so harshly, the exception being perhaps the Buddhist thought which shook the very edifice of the Brahminical orthodoxy. Some unfortunate expressions used perhaps to evade persecution or some anomalies of these thought‑currents were exploited by the Vedantists to vulgarise and twist the meanings of their texts in favour of an idealistic outlook. Thus, according to the Vaiseshika system, the universe was a structure of atoms having inherent tendency to combine. Under it, therefore, there was no scope for an outside impulse to make them coaslesce. But still an unseen cause (‘adrishta’) was assumed to cause the motion of the atoms. Subsequently idealist commentators took advantage of this loophole and grafted the concept of God upon this otherwise self‑sufficient materialist system of thought. Similarly, Gotama in his Naya Sutra used the term 'atman' to mean the self, and later on again idealist commentators interpreted it to give it an idealist connotation. The meaning of the Samkhya Karika was corrupted in the same fashion. In Indian philosophical discussions one form of intellectual dishonesty was very common. It 'was called chala or semantic subterfuge which consisted in deliberately distorting the meaning of a term and thus to impute to his opponent a viewpoint which was not actually his.

The powerful Buddhist movement at last appeared on the scene. Buddhism was indeed the first comprehensive attempt to develop a truly philosophical system out of the materialist [end of p. 19] speculations of the Samkhya and the Nyaya‑Vaiseshika although it was not quite without blemishes. The Indian idealists now found it difficult to cope with the formidable challenge presented by Buddhism. The Upanishads lacked the requisite fighting capacity because of the desultory nature of their style and content. So Badarayana founded the Vedanta. For the first time thus a unified system of idealist philosophy was evolved out of the maze of the Upanishads. The Upanishads themselves now receded to the background, and, their place was taken by the Vedanta. Internal evidence shows that the Vedanta Sutras were composed to combat Buddhism as the Sutras were full of invectives against it.

The Brahmins, however, saw that so long as Buddhism enjoyed the royal patronage, intellectual onslaught alone would not dislodge it. So they conspired to have Brihadratha, the last Maurya King, assassinated by his Brahmin Senapati, Pushyamitra, who thus founded the first Brahminical kingdom (Sunga) in India. Pushyamitra and his successors persecuted the Buddhists and burnt down a number of Buddhist monasteries.

The time also proved extremely congenial for the revival of Brahminism. The Sungas ruled for about 120 years. Then they were followed by another Brahmin dynasty, known as the Kanvas, and in the South still another Brahmin dynasty, the Satavahanas, came to power. In course of this period of Brahminical domination the Code of Manu was compiled under royal patronage. Manu banned sea‑voyage for it encouraged heretical ideas. The Brahmanical compilers of the two epics spiritualised the original Kshatriya ballads of love and war by incorporating a large mass of Brahminical material into them. Vedantic monastic tendencies were also super‑imposed upon the Bhagwad‑Gita which basically constituted the Kshatriya code of conduct in warfare. Not being satisfied with it, they even composed the Anu‑Gita which simply extols Brahmanism. The Puranas were also re-written from the Brahminical viewpoint.

But all these cunning efforts to revive Vedo‑Brahminism could not check much the influence of Buddhism as such. The, fatal offensive on the intellectual plane came at last from Sankara who has been depicted by his two biographers, Madhavacharya and Anandgiri, as an incarnation of Lord Siva who came to put an end to Buddhism and re-establish Vedo-Brahmanism. As has been contended by D. Kosambi (Myth and Reality, p. 15), Sankara enjoyed the patronage of "richer, [end of p. 20] aristocratic landholders". The opulent Viharas of Buddhism were a serious drain upon the economy of the country. Sankara's activity provided a stimulus to their abolition and came to win the support of landholders. It enabled him to mobilise huge financial support for establishing new monasteries and maintaining wholetime propagandists.

Sankara succeeded in dealing a mortal blow to Buddhism by taking advantage of its theoretical contradiction. The political importance of the new religion became clear to the Kshatriya kings. They found in this universal religion a way of uniting the people of diverse tribal backgrounds and consolidating their power over them because ideological conquest was better than that of arms. So they started swelling its ranks. The Mauryas, however, became particularly attracted towards it for living out the Sudra stigma attached to their clan. Ultimately the Kshatriya kings succeeded in pushing back the traders as the main driving force of the Buddhist movement. As a result, the idealist element of Buddha's teachings inherent in the idea of nirvana began getting greater and greater emphasis. The Mahayana monasteries where this emphasis was being worked out were all dependent upon royal munificence. The Kshatriya-kings became thus instrumental in giving a Vedantist twist to the Buddhist doctrine. Sankara defeated the Buddhist scholars in argument by showing that the idealist part of the Buddhist philosophy was hardly compatible with its materialist‑rationalist essence.  He had, however, not the remotest idea of Buddha's original teaching. Several Buddhist monasteries were now converted into Hindu maths.

Driven from all other parts of India, Buddhism then sought shelter in Bengal, the easternmost region of the country,  where the influence of Vedic orthodoxy was never keenly felt. Embers of Buddhism remained hot here for nearly four centuries more under the Pala dynasty. The emergence of Tantric cults in the Mahayana Buddhism of Bengal further marked a healthy departure from the prevailing practice of  the Buddhist monks and meant a return to the original Buddhist doctrine of middle path—middle between extreme asceticism and extreme indulgence in living.

The foreign trade of Bengal too accordingly lingered longer. She continued to carry on a prosperous trade with the Roman Empire till its fall. But even after that, Bengal carried on trade with the Himalayan countries like Kashmir, Bhutan, and [end of p. 21] Sikkim by land‑route and with Burma, Siam, Champa, Bali, Java, Sandwip by sea. Various literary sounds bear an eloquent testimony to this foreign trade. Saptagram, a port on the Saraswati in the district of Hooghly, appears to have displaced Tamralipta from its place of honour as a port of foreign trade. Folk‑stories and land-deeds testify that merchants were then occupying a prominent place in the social life of Bengal.

But in the case of Bengal too, as had been the case with the rest of India, the reaction came from the South which was generally more orthodox than the North. The Sens who were originally the inhabitants of Southern India led a Brahminical revolt and came to power in Bengal after dislodging the Palas who were Sudra by caste and Buddhist by religion. The foreigners brought a foreign ideology with them and hurled the last blow against the surviving Buddhism to abolish it from this. part of this country. They freely used the state‑power to achieve this purpose. Thus with the Sens coming into power not only the Vedic way of life was restored but also the extensive foreign trade of Bengal came to a stop. Henceforward land became the principal means of livelihood for her people, and her economy virtually came to be land‑locked. At this stage Buddhism was forced to leave the land of its birth altogether and took shelter in the neighbouring countries like Tibet, China, Burma,  etc. Those adherents of the Faith who remained behind welcomed the advent of Islam and became converted into it.

But even after it, a quasi-Buddhist intellectual movement known as the Navya Nyaya movement appeared in this Easternmost region of India. In old Sanskrit we find no word exactly corresponding to the term 'philosophy'. The word which had some rough correspondence to it was 'anvikshiki' which means 'that which reviews'. At first it meant only logic for logic brought under review all propositions put forward by various thinkers. This promoted skepticism. Orthodox Hindu philosophers therefore began discountenancing the science of logic. They even ceased to use the term 'anvikshiki', and invented a new term 'darshan' in its place. Throughout India the Buddhists had, however, to wage a war of intellect with the exponents of the orthodox view of life, and therefore they had to improve upon their existing theoretical position continually. So they had to develop, along with their philosophy, some heretical systems of logic, also to help their thinking and arguing. It created an atmosphere very conducive to the cultivation of [end of p. 22] logic. After the intellectual defeat sustained by Buddhism, this branch of knowledge ceased to develop further in the rest of India. In Bengal, however, the continuous tussle went on, and this certainly affected the minds of her people. The influence continued to operate on the sub‑conscious level of their minds and generate a spirit of non‑conformity even after Buddhism had vanished from her soil and also perhaps even from her memory. This influence incidentally found expression in the birth of a new logic called the Navya Nyaya. It was inspired by the Buddhist school of Prabhakara who was, according to Sriharsa, a kinsman of Buddha himself.

The immediate occasion which led to the birth of the new logic was a fresh attack made by the Vedantists against the realism and logical reasoning of the Nyaya‑Vaiseshika system. Sriharsa, an orthodox Vedantist, took the lead in launching this attack. It provoked Ganesa Upadhyaya to compose his celebrated work Tattvachintamoni in 1225 A.D. which gave birth to the Navya Nyaya. Raghunath Siromoni who lived at Nabadwip during the l6th century then became its most brilliant exponent. Nabadwip indeed set up a new scholastic tradition as Raghunath's exposition of the New Logic, though based on the commentary of Ganesa, became for all practical purposes a novel and original interpretation of the Nyaya. Nabadwip then came to be designated as "the Oxford of the province." [11]

The orthodox Hindu contention was that the Vedas were the supreme authority, and any idea not finding sanction in them was false. As against this, the exponents of the Navya Nyaya argued that the test of logic and reasoning accompanied by direct observation was superior to all other tests, and to acquire validity an idea must pass this test. The conception of the Vedantic Brahmin being only an a priori assertion deriving its sanction only from a scriptural declaration and incapable of proof could not be accepted as a valid idea. In this connection we would like to point out that the older Nyaya of Gotama and Vatsyana was directed mostly against the Buddhist phenomenalism while the target of attack of the Navya Nyaya was the Vedanta itself.

The chief feature of the new logic was its logical empiricism. It never took its propositions as final and ultimate truths. Its propositions were always variable and continually improved upon. The Navya Nyaya further broke a new ground by insisting on an absolute precision of language to represent a speci-  [end of p. 23] fic thought We have already seen how the lack of lingual rational precision and exactness in the different systems of Indian rationalist thought had given scope to the Vedantists to distort their meanings.

The process of reasoning involved in the Navya Nyaya was thus conceived in relation to the objective reality and had tremendous possibilities. Soon the Navya Nyaya movement acquired such a momentum that Sarbhauma, a renowned Vedantist, had to leave Nabadwip for Nilachal. But it was also not allowed to accomplish its historical task. This time, however, the devotional Vedanta played the devil of the drama. [c] In fact, the Vedanta proper made its great influence felt for the first time in Bengal now, formerly there being only some isolated individual recruits. It was done through Sri Chaitanya who was also resident of Nabadwip and a contemporary of Raghunath Siromoni. The Sens represented the Karma Kanda of the Vedic thought and Chaitanya the jnana kanda‑cum‑bhakti kanda.

The Vaisnava movement too had its origin in Southern India and was brought to the North by Ramanuja when he migrated permanently to Mathura, the land of Sri Krishna. Chaitanya was converted to Vaishnavism at Gaya when he was greatly upset by the death of his first wife. The Vedantic school of the Chaitanya movement is known as the Achintyabhedabbed which means 'inconceivable difference in unity and unity in difference.’ [12]

From the nature of the case the Chaitanya movement was ill‑disposed towards the contemporary Navya Nyaya movement. In his Advaita Prakash published in 1568 Ishan Nagar stated that in course of his tour in Bengal Chaitanya vanquished some Tarakchuramanis in argument. Chaitanya is further reported to have written a book against the  Navya Nyaya. [13] Above all, the emotional atmosphere created by the Chaitanya movement made it all the more impossible for a rationalist doctrine like the Navya Nyaya to make much headway in the country. Then in their design to bring the Navya Nyaya within the Vedantic [end of p. 23] fold the Vedantists began claiming Raghunath Siromani as their own. Incidentally it may be mentioned here that the Bengal Vaishnavas were also no less inimical towards the Buddhists who still survived here and there.

After the defeat of the Navya Nyaya movement Bengal almost fell in line with the rest of India. What Pushyamitra and Sankara did to the rational movement of the latter was perpetrated by Ballal and Chaitanya in case of that of the former.

The defeat which Buddhism and Neo‑Buddhism thus sustained on all fronts was so crushing that it sealed the fate of Indian rationalism for centuries to come. From now on the Vedantic thought came to dominate the Indian scene and became for all practical purposes the implied creed of Hinduism. It is a unique phenomenon in the sense that in any other country of the world only some isolated philosophers had subscribed to an extreme form of idealism like that of the Vedanta but in India we find an almost national commitment to it.

The radical difference that ultimately thus came to exist between the Indian thought and the Greek can best be illustrated by the imaginary anecdote mentioned by Aristoxcnus, the musician. He says about certain Indian philosophers who found their way to Athens and interviewed Socrates. They asked him about the aim of his philosophical inquiry. On their being told that it was an inquiry into human affairs, the Indian philosophers burst into laughter. They said that none could inquire into human affairs if he were ignorant about divine ones.

Such was the role uniformly played by the Vedanta in the ancient and medieval India. But do we find any difference in this role during the modern period? The 19th‑century Bengal was early modern India, and here an increasingly strong Vedantic movement made its appearance side by side with the rise of modern rationalist forces. Hence Bengal could be a very good test case in this respect. We propose to make an intensive study of it in the following pages.


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[end of p. 25]

9. Walter Ruben's "Uddalaka and Yajnavalkya—Materialism and Idealism" in his Studies in Ancient Indian Thought. [—> main text]

10. Ballalsen openly stated in his treatise Dansagar that he had come for annihilating the atheists and helping the rise of the true religion. The Burmans were the contemporaries of the Sens and ruled in East Bengal. They too hailed from the South (Kalinga). Just as the Sens dethroned the Palas, so the Burmans did the Chandras who were also, like the Palas, devoted Buddhists. [Note: reference in main text not found.]

11. Dinesh Bhattacharya's Bangalir Saraswat Avadan, Part I (Bange Navya Nyaya Charcha), p. 42. [—> main text]

12. After taking into consideration both the Navadwip and the Brindaban traditions of Chaitanayaism, Dr S. K. De came to the conclusion that the Chaitanya movement was also basically a Sankarite movement though of a devotional nature. The devotional worship of a particular deity was never considered inconsistent with one's belonging to the Sankara sampradaya. In fact, Sankara himself was a devotee of Lord Sankara. Kavikarnapura, in the Fifth Act of his drama Chaitanya‑Chandrodaya clearly said that Chaitanya entered the monastic order of the Advaitavadins. Besides, Kamalaksha Bhattacharya of Santipur who reportedly prepared the ground for the advent of Chaitanya assumed the name of Advaita Acharya. The name itself suggests his leaning towards the non‑dualistic Vedanta. See Sushil Kumar De's Early History of the Vaishnava Faith and Movement in Bengal, pp. 10‑16.

Long before it, however, Raja Rammohun contended that the Gaudiya Vaishnavism had nothing to do with Vedantism and refused to admit that the Srimad‑Bhagvat on which the Gaudiya Vaishnavism was based was a commentary of the Vedanta. [—> main text]

13. Ishan Nagar's Advaita Prakash, p. 133 and p. 212. [—> main text]

[Footnotes with asterisks have been replaced by lettered endnotes.]

[a] The struggle between the traders on the one hand and the Brahmin priests on the other was symbolised by the clash between Ganesa and Parasurama which has been described so vividly in the Ganesa‑khanda of the Brahmavaivartapurana. Ganesa was the leader or deity of the gana  or commune comprising the Sudras and the Vaisyas. He led them in war and peace. The tribal wars and the exchange of commodities took place through the Ganapatis. Captured prisoners, cattle and wealth first came to them and, through them, to the commune. Commerce thus naturally developed through  them. Ganesa thus came to be the deity of traders and businessmen. We have images of dancing   Ganesas and know that dance by tribal chiefs was essential in most of the fertility rites of the ancient people. On the other side, Parasurama was the most militant champion of the Brahminical supremacy. In a clash with him Ganesa lost one of his elephant‑teeth. [—> main text]

[b] In India Alexander met some Indian ascetics and was much impressed by them. [—> main text]

[c] With the end of the great centralised personal empires, the new State of the medieval period had to be feudal from top to bottom. To hold this type of Society together the suitable religion was one emphasising personal bond. Hence the Vedanta became particularly devotional now. Chaitanya had also the support of some feudal barons, both Hindu and Muslim, including the Raja of Puri. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Dahr, Niranjan. Vedanta and the Bengal Renaissance. Calcutta: Minerva Associates, 1977. Chapter 1, 'Birth of Vedanta and its Earlier Historic Role' (pp. 1-26), extract, pp. 12-26.

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