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Social Scientist

Adi Sankara and His Philosophy: A Marxist View Author(s): E. M. S. Namboodiripad Reviewed work(s): Source: Social Scientist, Vol. 17, No. 1/2 (Jan. - Feb., 1989), pp. 3-12 Published by: Social Scientist Stable URL: . Accessed: 18/05/2012 20:35
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Adi Sankara and His PhilosophyA Marxist View

The year 1989 is the 1200th year of the birth of Adi Shankara. It is being observed in various parts of the country, his home state above all. The cultural department of the Government of Kerala is organising at Kaladi, the birth place of the great sage, a one-day seminar on some aspects of the teachings of this illustrious son of Kerala. Is the participation of Marxist theoreticians not a betrayal of dialectical and historical materialism by intellectuals and political activists who should be opposed to the philosophy of Adi Shankara? IDEALISM VERSUS MATERIALISM This question assumes that idealism and materialism are such polar opposites that they have always and everywhere to be opposed to each other. It fails to note that, like other opposites in real life and human thinking, the idealist and materialist philosophical trends are related to each other in a dialectical, rather than metaphysical, manner. Neither idealism nor materialism remains static, both are ever moving forward, always negating each other, the struggle between the two in newer and newer forms is the law of development of human thought. There is therefore no question of materialism as such being superior to idealism, idealism as such being inferior. As Lenin observed in his Philosophical Notebooks. Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of on the other hand, philosophical dialectical materialism, idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated development (inflation, distention) of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge into an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosized. Idealism is clerical obscurantism. True. But philoso3phical idealism is ('more correctly' and 'in addition') a road to clerical obscurantism through one of the shades of the infinitely complex knowledge (dialectical of man). (Collected Works, Vol. 38, p.363). Like Marx and Engels who were the disciples
* General Secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

of the greatest


philosophical idealist in history (Hegel), Lenin highly valued the contributions made to human knowledge by idealism. Developing in mutual conflict for several centuries, idealisni and materialism successively negated each other as they assumed newer and newer forms, culminating in the emergence of Dialectical Materialism in the nineteenth century. Marx and Engels, known earlier as talented Young Hegelians, developed and enriched Hegelian dialectics while assimilating all that is best in the then existing materialism. Dialectical Materialism was therefore a negation of both existing (Hegelian) Idealism and existing (Feurbachian)Materialism. It goes to the credit of Lenin that he further developed and enriched the MarxEngels philosophy. REVOLUTION PHILOSOPHYOF PROLETARIAN Dialectical (and Historical) Materialism of Marx, Engels and Lenin is the philosophy of revolutionary action. 'Philosophers', said Marx, 'have in various ways interpretedthe world; the point is to change it.' Theirs however, is not the philosophy of any revolution but of proletarian revolution. To quote from Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 'As philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy.' Marxism-Leninism being dialectical materialism, it is of course opposed to the philosophy of Shankara which is the acme of India's idealist philosophy. No Marxist, however, can help seeing that the evolution of that philosophy was an important stage in the development of Indian thought which, in its turn, is integrally connected with the development of Indian society. For, as Marx and Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto,'Intellectualproduction changes its characterin proportion as material production is changed. The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling classes.' To make a critique of Adi Shankara's philosophy therefore, we should make a survey of Indian society and thought. For, Shankara like any other Indian philosopher was a product of Indian society; his thought was the further development of Indian thought down to his time. Though born in Kerala (the village Kaladi in what is today Ernakulam district in that state), he acquired name and fame as an Indian scholar of a high order who carried forward the best in Indian idealist philosophy. His life and thoughts were moulded by India as a whole not Kerala alone. CLASSSTRUGGLE What then is Indian society? How did society and thought develop here? 'The written history of all hitherto existing society' is according to Marx and Engels, 'the history of class struggle' (CommunistManifesto)


This is as true of India as of Europe about which the Manifesto was speaking. In India however, class struggle did not develop (as it did in Europe) 'between freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman etc.' The first division in ancient Indian society arose between the first two of the four Varnas (Khatriya and Brahman) and the last two (Vaisya and Shudra). The beginnings of this could be seen in the emergence of a class of fighters and another of those who engaged themselves in the performance of rituals which is as necessary for success in war as actual fighting. The two classes whose services were thus essential for the victory of the advancing Aryan tribes against their opponents first marked themselves off as the 'twice-born' (dwijas), superior to the rest of the to begin with, later to be further divided into Vaisya population-Vis and Shudra. In course of time, the four Varnas proliferated into innumerable castes and sub-castes at whose head stood the 'twice-born' (Dwijas), the Brahman in particular. Naturally therefore, the two Varnas (Khatriya and Brahman) were dominant in Indian society. They were, by and large, the producers of the intellectual, the aesthetic, the scientific and other forms of spiritual wealth including philosophy, while the rest of society produced material wealth. The division into the oppressing and oppressed sections of society thus involved the division between intellectual and physical labour, between the spiritual and temporal life. The dialectical relation between these opposites constitutes the totality of intellectual and physical life. ROOTS OF PHILOSOPHY This explains the emergence of idealist and materialist Indian philosophy. To quote Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya, trends in

The philosophical view which arose to condemn and reject life could only have been the result of the philosophical pursuit turning away from life itself. As with the development of slavery in ancient Greece, so also in the Upanishadic India, the lofty contempt for the material world with its evershifting phenomena was the result of the philosophical enquiry taking free flight into the realm of 'pure reason', or 'pure knowledge', i.e. knowledge only when a section of the community, living on the surplus produced by another, withdrew itself from the responsibilities of direct manual labour, and therefore, from reality of the material world, for the process of labour alone can exercise a sense of objective coercion on conscious theory. Theory, in other words, was divorced from practice and became 'pure theory', the things thought of became mere ideas and thus the knower, the subject, sought to emancipate itself from the inhibitions of the known or


the object, and a look at the latter as but products of ignorance or avidya.' (Indian Philosophy: A Popular Introduction, People's Publishing House, 1986, pp. 85-86) Adishankara with his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta was the finest and most sophisticated exponent of this school of India's idealist philosophy. He developed his teachings on Brahman to such an extent that it implied the denial of even God (everything other than Brahman); for this he was denounced by his opponents as 'Buddha in disguise' (Prachchanna Buddha). This very appellation shows how bitter was the conflict between the teachings of Buddha and Brahmin domination, between idealism and materialism, how far the two had gone in Indian philosophy. Despite the powerful and successful fight put up by Shankara against what was considered to be the main contender in opposition to Upanishadic idealism he was denounced for making concessions to that philosophical trend which had thrown a serious challenge to Brahmanism. Shankara was and is still revered however, for the erudition with which he defeated the Buddhist philosophical trend. Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya who traced the roots of ancient India's idealist philosophy also explained the basis on which the materialist trend in Indian philosophy arose and developed. In his work Science in Ancient India, he analyses the two well-known classical works on ancient Indian medicine-Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita. The authors of the two books in their elucidation of problems connected with the human body, its ailments, remedies for them and so on see no iota of the soul when they give a materialistic account of these aspects of human life. Having done this of course, they show their loyalty to the dominant ideology of the age making obeisance to God (as part of treatment of the sick body). SCIENCE AND MATERIALISM This is as true of other sciences as of the medical science. The artisans and other sections of the working people skilled in one or another area of practical activity were materialists when dealing with the phenomena and problems of their work. But the moment they go over to the general problems of social life, they had to become votaries fo the dominant ideology-the philosophy of life after death, the soul, Moksha and so on. It is out of skilled artisans, practitioners of occupations like medicine, etc., that a distinct materialist trend in philosophy originated. Those who followed this trend had to be materialist in their interpretations of problems connected with their art or professions. But, being dominated by the ideology of the ruling was idealistic in essence, they had to class-Varna-caste-which submit themselves to idealism. This is true of such philosophers of the materialist school as in who are 'very near to materialism' Nyava-Vaisesikas


Chattopadhyaya's opinion but 'fully endorsed the authority of the scriptures, argue at length to prove the should, and its survival after death' etc. 'There however, remain', Chattopadhyaya proceeds, 'enough of very clever and and subtle hints in the Nyaya-Vaisesika literature itself that all these were not to be taken earnestly.' (In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India, People's Publishing House, Jan. 1989, pp. 16-17. There were however, other schools of materialist philosophy who refused to bow to the ideology of the ruling class - the Charvakas, the Lokayatas etc. They minced no words to expound their philosophy which was opposed to that of idealism. Very little of their writings however, have been handed over to us. Their arguments having been quoted for purposes of refutation (as Purvapaksha),we get an inkling of the extent and sweep of materialist thinking in ancient Indian philosophy. SCIENCE VERSUS POLITICS The struggle between the two schools of philosophy was so bitter and prolonged that the outcome was decided by what Chattopadhyaya calls 'politics'. What this means is explained as follows, 'The spokesmen of traditional Indian politics were above all our law-givers whose writings are generally called the Dharmasastra. What these lawmakers were basically concerned with was of course the safety of a social structure which they considered as the ideal one. Such a social structure generally goes by the name Varnasrama, by which is meant a society in which the conduct of everybody must be regulated by the caste in which he or she is born as also by the stage of life reached by every one. Concretely however, it stood for the norm of a society in which a minority of of nobles, priests and traders-were the population-consisting entitled to all material privileges, though in varying degrees. The rest of the people which could only mean the direct producers whose surplus products alone could create the material benefits for the dwijas, was dumped under the general category called Sudras. And the lawmakers insisted that these direct producers were entitled to have nothing more than was essential to keep themselves alive. Their only duty was to serve the upper strata of society, because the creator himself brought them into being exclusively for this specific purpose. (pp 17-18) The struggle between idealism and materialism in India was, in other words, the manifestation of the Indian variety of class strugglea minority of upper castes (dwijas) as opposed to the overwhelming majority of the common people. The latter being engaged in physical labour for their livelihood were in constant touch with the various phenomena of nature. The ideas that they formed of the universe around them was naturally materialist. The narrow upper layer of


society on the other hand depended on intellectual exercises and were therefore moved by ideas in the mental horizon, rather than phenomena of nature, they developed themselves into idealists, those who assert the supremacy of ideas over nature. The most sophisticated expression of this idealistic outlook was Shankara's Advaita Vedanta which asserted everything other than the Brahman (the absolute idea) as Avidya, non-existent. Out of the ranks of the overwhelming majority of people who engaged themselves in physical labour-artisans and others-arose the various schools of materialism. This class as a whole and the ideological representatives of this class however, were completely at the mercy of the idealist philosophers. It was therefore, an unequal battle between the toiling people who were inherently materialistic in outlook and those who lorded it over them with their idealistic philosophy. The battle between the Buddhistsand the Vedantins was in fact the final engagement between the two forces and Shankarawas the commander-in-chief of the idealists in that battle in its last stages. The defeat administered to the Buddhist materialists was therefore the victory of the dominant upper castes whose theoreticians championed idealism. GROWTHAND DECLINE SCIENCES: The battle between the two ideological trends did much to develop the various branches of natural sciences. Astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, medicine etc. were so developed in ancient India that this country not only equalled but excelled most other countries in terms of ancient civilisation and science. The defeat of the Buddhist materialists at the hands of Shankarahowever, meant a big setback to the development of Indian science. The pioneer historian of Indian science, P.C. Ray, observes: The Vedanta philosophy, as modified and expanded by Shankara, which teaches the unreality of the material world is to a large extent responsible for bringing the study of physical science into disrepute. Shankara is unsparing in his strictures on Kanadaand his system. One or two extracts from Shankara'scommentary on the Vedanta Sutras will make the point clear: (Observes Shankara) 'It thus appears that the atomic doctrine is supported by every weak arguments only, is opposed to those scriptural passages which declare the Lord to be the general cause and is not accepted by any of the authorities taking their stand on scripture,such as Manu and others. Hence it is to be altogether disregarded by high-minded men who have a regard for their own spiritual welfare'. (Again): 'The reasons on account of which the doctrine of the Vaiseshikas cannot be accepted have been stated above. That doctrine may be called semi-destructive'.


Having quoted the above from Shankara, Ray added: 'Among a people ridden by caste and hide-bound by authorities and injunction of Vedas, Puranas and Smritis and having their intellect thus clamped and paralysed, no Boyle could arise to lay down sound principles for guidance'. (Quoted by Chattopadhyaya,In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India, pp. 103-104) EUROPEAN RENAISSANCE IN WORLD HISTORY While India after the defeat of the materialists at the hands of the idealists was thus stagnant, Europe which had earlier been behind India in ancient days was going through fundamental socio-cultural transformation. The eminent scientist and historian of science, J.D. Barnal, refers to the European Renaissance as having 'healed, though only partially, the breach between aristocratic theory and plebeian practice' (Chattopadhyaya, P. 101). Barnal goes on (as quoted in Chattopadyaya, pp. 101-102) What was really new was the respect given to the practical arts of spinning, weaving, pottery, glass-making and, most of all, to the arts that provided for the twin needs of wealth and war-those of the miners and metal workers. The techniques of the arts were of more account in the Renaissance than in classical times because they were no longer in the hands of slaves but of free man and these were not, as they had been in the middle ages, far removed socially and economically from the rulers of the new society. The enhancement of the status of the craftsman made it possible to renew the link between his traditions and those of the scholars that have been broken almost since the beginning of the early civilisation. POLITICAL FALL-OUT The question, however, was not merely of the decline of science in Indian history. It was a question of what Karl Marx called 'undignified, stagnatory and vegetative life' in pre-British India. The village communities in India as Marx saw them 'were contaminated by distinctions of caste and slavery'. Marx further noted such 'a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Hanuman, the money and Sabala the cow.' This had its political implication that the country lost its independence. Say, Marx: The paramount power of the Moguls was broken by the Mogul Viceroys. The power of the Viceroys was broken by the Mahrattas. The power of the Mahrattas was broken by the Afghans, and while all were struggling against, all, the Briton rushed in and was enabled to subdue them all.


Considering that this happened to a country which, once again to quote Marx, 'has been the source of our (Europeans') languages, our religion', the question naturally arises: why and how did our country fall from its brilliant antiquity to the degradation of pre-British days? The answer is that the defeat of the oppressed castes at the hands of the Brahminic overlordship, of materialism by the idealism, constituted the beginning of the fall of India's civilisation and culture which in the end led to the loss of national independence. EUROPEAND INDIA: THE CONTRAST Having reviewed the evolution of the Shankara philosophy and the socio-political implications thereof, let me now proceed to discuss the relevance of that philosophy to present-day world with particular reference to India. Shankaralived and worked in an era in which furious battles were being waged all over the world between the idealist and materialist schools of philosophy. India was no exception. There was however, one big difference: the battle did not end in the decisive victory of either in Europe; both schools developed as parallel forces with their mutual conflicts, producing giant personalities in their respective fields, culminating in the nineteenth century giants, Hegel on one side and Fierbach on the other. Marx and Engels were the pioneers of a new school of philosophy in world history-the school which carried forward the dialectics of Hegel and the materialism of Fierbach while rejecting the Hegelian idealism and Fierbachian metaphysics. The theory of Dialectical and Historical Materialism that emerged, with Marxand Engels as its proponents, marked a new stage in the history of world philosophy. In India, on the other hand, the battle of the two philosophical schools ended in the defeat of one (the materialists) and the domination of the other. This battle however, was an unequal one, the full force of the socio-political establishment (the regime of caste comination) being made use of in favour of the idealist and against the materialist school. The victor and the vanquished in our country were not two philosophies in the abstract but two social classes-the dominant and oppressed castes-using the two philosophies as weapons in their arsenal. The victory of Shankaraand his philosophy therefore was the victory of the Brahmin and other dominant castes, the defeat of the rest of Indian society. TO ATTITUDE IDEALISM MARXIST It is therefore unimaginable for any thinking person to consider the Shankaraphilosophy to be relevant to the present-day world, presentday India. That philosophy like other schools of idealist philosophy should in fact be vigorously combatted if our country and humanity at large are to keep in step with the world-shaking developments of the present day. For India in particular, the struggle against Hindu


revivalist, against the revival of the Vedic and Upanishadic spirit, is an essential prerequisite for the building of a democratic, secular, new India. Let me in this context note the enormous harm caused to our national unity by the preaching and practices of the politics of Hindu revivalist symbolised by such 'socio-cultural' organisations as the RSS, the Viswa Hindu Parishad, etc. and political outfits like the BJP. Such movements as on the Ram Janma Bhoomi and other temples are disruptive of the concepts of national unity and communal harmony which were part of our freedom movement. The organisers of these movements are using the names of the Vedic and Upanishadic Rishis, the successors of these Rishis including Shankara, to buttress their disruptive activities. Combatting the pernicious activities of these opponents of national unity is therefore one of the foremost political duties of the left and secular political forces in the country. In doing this however, we Marxist-Leninists should never adopt a nihilist attitude to the idealist school of which Shankara was the most illustrious representative. This is a mistake committed by a number of Marxist scholars in India and abroad. A Soviet scholar writing in Social Sciences in the USSR (No.l, 1989, p.19(a)) says that some Marxist scholars 'often identified with materialism certain doctrines such as the anti-Brahmin essentially non-materialist The attitudes or the rejection of the doctrine of 'liberation' ...... Lokayata school was arbitrarily pushed into the foreground, while the Vedanta school was placed as the seventh and last.' The author is of the view that 'the Vedanta was and still is the most influential of the philosophical schools in India' and that 'Shankara occupied in Indian philosophy approximately the same place as Plato's doctrine holds in West European philosophy.' Let me conclude: Shankara was one of the tallest of India's (and world's) idealist philosophers; his Advaita Vedanta is one of the richest contributions India has made to the treasury of human knowledge. But so are other philosophers and their works in which elements of materialism existed, such as the Nyaya, the Vaiseshika, the Sankhya, the Mimamsa, the Lokayata etc. not to speak of the Buddha whose near-materialist philosophy gripped the mass of suppressed humanity. While we are proud that both schools of our Indian philosophy produced geniuses of the intellect, those belonging to the materialist school had to fight an unequal battle and were the defeat of the therefore defeated. Still more unfortunately, materialists in this unequal battle was the beginning of a millenniumlong age of intellectual and socio-political backwardness which culminated in the establishment of British rule in our land. I am however, not at all pessimistic. The dark age of all-round backwardness has slowly been coming an end; hard knocks have already been given to the socio-political forces which kept the mass of toilers under subjection; the alien rulers who did this job of destroying


the old have been forced to quit India; democratic forces have been rising as a united army fighting for freedom; India's freedom movement came to be linked with the forces of the international revolution for peace, freedom, democracy and socialism. In the wake of all these developments, the Indian working class has been slowly getting organised into the position of vanguard in the struggle for democracy, freedom, peace and socialism; Dialectical and Historical Materialism is naturally becoming the leading ideology of the most significant elements in politically awakened India. This indeed is the situation in which, as Marx observed over a decade and a half ago; 'Philosophy finds in the working class its material weapon; the working class finds in philosophy its spiritual weapon.'