The Observer of Business and Politics, May 1993
The man who showed the rainbow
Debiprasad Chattopadhyay wrote profusely on materialist and atheistic trends in Indian philosophy and their link with the history of science in India.
PROFESSOR Debiprasad Chattopadhyay who passed on May 8, 1993 at the age of 75, belonged to a generation of Marxist scholars like D D Kosambi who tried to apply Marxist method to study Indian history, philosophy and culture. This was both his strength and weakness.
Professor Chattopadhyay was a prolific writer. Besides a large number of research papers in academic journals he also wrote a number of monographs for the layman. His style though at times repetitive was very lucid to the reader the enthusiasm of new discovery by the author. His Lokayata: a study of ancient Indian materialism blended scholarly research into this ancient materialist trend in Indian philosophy with readability. Particularly significant were his insights into tantra as having originated in magical rituals with naive materialist intent in primitive agricultural society.
His monumental work History of Science and technology in ancient India Vol I and II were again scholarly and could be read with profit if the reader had a little patience. His discovery of scientific method in the approach of the ancient saga Uddalaka Aruni of the Chhandogya Upanishad is conveyed with great enthusiasm and thoroughness. He also argued that Uddalaka’s approach was much more mature than the ancient Greeks like Annagoras and who should hence be considered as the father of modern scientific method. He battled continuously against Euro-centric prejudices of many a science historian. He also traced the later development of Uddalaka’s method in the atomists of Nyaya-Vaiseshika and still later in the great Ayurvedic traditions of Charaka and Sushruta.
Indian Atheism, what is living and what is dead in Indian philosophy, In defence of materialism in ancient India were the more popular expositions of his views on Indian philosophy. In these books he battled against the dominant view among orientalists and indologists from Max Mueller to Radhakrishnan that Indian philosophy is basically spiritualism and Vedanta is the last word. He tried to show the rainbow in Indian philosophy and infact made the startling assertion that not only Lokayata but Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, Samkhya are also atheistic besides Buddhism and Jainism. Though this looked as aswing from the traditional orientalist view to the other extreme, he argued his thesis with great care and conviction as he realised that his views will not be easily accepted. The main weakness in his thesis was not that these trends in Indian philosophy were atheistic, at any rate in their origin, but the explanation for the fact that they either vanished later or changed their form to some sort of theism. Professor Chattopadhyay’s argument that the social strictures passed by law givers like Manu etc led to the disappearance of Lokayata is highly unsatisfactory. It fails to look at the weaknesses in Lokayata itself which become more obvious when we see the success of Bhakti in gaining widespread acceptability while fighting against social injustice, casteism and absolutist dogmatic attitude towards scriptures. It is clear that Bhaktas had a far more dialectical outlook towards the times they lived in as opposed to the mechanical materialism of Lokayata.
Though Chattopadhyay was a soldier for atheism he did not fail to recognise the role religion played in what V Gordon Childe called the ‘first urban revolution’ – the rise of colonies of artisans and priests – cities and the use of religious superstition to appropriate surplus from peasants so that technology can grow! His book, Religion and Society that came out of a series of endowment lectures he gave in Calcutta University has argued his case eloquently. He along with Kosambi tried to do to Indian history and philosophy what Gordon Childe and Needham and George Thomson had tried to do to the ancient Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Chines and Greek Societies.
His interpretation was refreshing in an atmosphere where religiosity, reverence and subjectivism were more dominant than objectivity. More so, when students of ancient Indian history face the uphill task of reconstructing it with hardly any reliable sources. His bold questioning of certain theses of orientalism will always find him a place in Indian intellectual milieu. The weakness in his Marxism of course as in most other Indian Marxists is the mechanical approach that led him to look for categories of idealism and materialism everywhere without looking at Indian specificity.
At the time of his death he was editing a eight volume series called Global Philosophy for Everyman. While most of the volumes of the series have been only tow of the three volumes he was supposed to write. As usual his style in this series was polemical and accessible to the general public.