Awareness of History

By Anjum Altaf

I was reading an interview about philosophy when I came across some tangential remarks I felt would be useful to reproduce on this blog in this time of rising fundamentalism in the Indian subcontinent.

The interview is between 3:AM Magazine and the  philosopher Jonardon Ganeri (one of whose latest books is Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective on the Reach and Resources of Public and Practical Reason in Shaping Individual Identities).

The tangential remarks pertain to the evolution of intellectual history in India.

The bottom line for JG emerging from his detailed research in the history of Indian philosophy is the following: “In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam.”

This fundamentalist history is very familiar and repeated in countless comments on innumerable blogs: Muslim invaders imposed Persian, oppressed Hindus, destroyed temples, decimated Indian scholarship, etc., etc.

Instead, what JG discovered was a surprise to him: “What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.”

This is the reason JG advises people to learn from history, avoid locking themselves “into boxes” and “to be less dogmatic and categorical in their thinking.” He concludes with a recommendation that is eminently sensible but surprisingly hard for people to accept: those who desire knowledge should cultivate the intellectual virtues of keeping an open mind and seeing what turns up.”

The selected excerpts below speak for themselves. Key sentences are highlighted. The complete interview can be read here:

3:AM: The world’s in a mess and it’s partly because people are ignorant of their own histories…

JG: Intractable conflicts arise when people think themselves into boxes from which they can’t escape…

3:AM: Last year you published ‘The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India.’ Certainly for me it was a revelation. The names were new to me and probably were to most philosophers working in the philosophical mainstream. Can you say something about these key figures and why they are significant? So the Bengali Raghunātha Śiromai was the inventor of the ‘new reason’ philosophy and shaped metaphysical enquiry through the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Can you say what this ‘new reason’ philosophy was and why Śiromai was so important?

JG: The names were new to me too before I started laboriously trawling through manuscript catalogues in India and Nepal. I gradually began to notice that something very exciting had been going on in this period, something never mentioned in the standard histories of Indian philosophy which generally try to reinforce a picture of India as an ancient civilization.

What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.

Early modernity, I discovered, was not an exclusively European affair after all, but, rather, different forms and varieties of modernity were emerging concurrently in many places. In trying to give some context to the rise of these new philosophers, I found that they were mostly concentrated in two cities where there was a lot of interaction between Muslim and Sanskrit intellectuals, namely Benares, or Varanasi, and a smaller place in Bengal called Navadvīpa, or Nadia in its latinized form

3:AM: Given recent contemporary history, it is fascinating to read about the complex Muslim-Hindu interaction of Navadvīpa at this time…

JG: Navadvīpa was one of the great powerhouses of philosophy in the seventeenth century, and had been for three or four centuries. Before that, Buddhists had set up monastery-universities in Nalanda and elsewhere, but Navadvīpa was organised around a more traditional South Asian model, and was more like an extended intellectual community. One could get an extremely good education in the techniques of philosophical reasoning there, and students would come from all India for it, whatever their religious background. It seems quite likely that there was even an exchange with the flourishing intellectual culture in Tibet.

One thing which became clear to me is that the philosophers here enjoyed an enormous amount of intellectual liberty, and pursued a whole range of very innovative research programmes into all manner of topics in pure philosophy, especially semantics, epistemology, metaphysics, but also into the philosophy of law, and areas of social and political philosophy. I wondered what explained this unparalleled level of intellectual autonomy. The most evident fact about Navadvīpa was the strong ties it had with the larger world of Persianate and Islamicate scholarship, as a result of an enlightened history of Muslim governance.

I don’t think that it is any coincidence that one of the great religious reformers of the time, Caitanya, came out of Navadvīpa at this time. My primary interest is in the astonishingly modern, and yes basically secular, philosophy that was created, but I do think that Navadvīpa is great example of the tremendously progressive impact that Muslim attitudes towards intellectual inquiry have had on the world. In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam…

3:AM: You regret the historical facts that brought the new reason philosophy to a standstill. This was the collapse of the Mughal power and the new British imposition of fiscal arrangements and educational policies that funded colonial universities and colleges and down-graded the poorer, traditional networks in which the new reason philosophy had thrived. So we Brits were the bad guys here! Can you say something about this?

JG: Yes, Richard, I’m afraid we were. Britain did a lot, at the end of empire, to destroy the evidence, but on 18 April 2012 a large cache of Foreign Office documents whose very existence had been kept secret was forced into the public domain through a legal action taken by the Mau Mau. They paint a picture of atrocity and inhumanity that the British have worked hard to erase from the collective psyche.

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One Response to “Awareness of History”

  1. Anjum Altaf Says:

    More meticulous research in the same vein – about Anand Ram Mukhlis (1697-1751)

    “Mukhliṣ is relevant in our time because he confounds expectations about India’s past. Some today seek to define Indian culture as static, monolithic, and synonymous with the modern understanding of Hinduism. However, the existence of historical figures like Mukhliṣ is at odds with the worldview of such revisionists. He was perfectly at ease with Persian, even using Islamic devotional formulae in his writing, while being in the eyes of those around him and in his own mind unproblematically a devout Hindu, whatever that meant at the time.”

    Add to this a new book about Chandar Bhan Brahman (died 1670), a predecessor of Mukhlis: “his letters and autobiographical writings provide tantalizing examples of early modern Indo-Persian modes of self-fashioning.”

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