Philosophy as an outlook has long been a trait of Bengali life and character. Religion influenced the Bengali philosophy in the Middle Ages, when Bengalis resorted to deities and sages for a solution to their problems. The Bengali worship of chandi, manasa, shitala, Laksmi and other deities was not entirely for achieving something in the other world, but for gaining worldly prosperity and happiness in this world. This explains why in Annadamabgal the boatman Ishwar prayed to the goddess that his children might have good food always. Gauda Purnananda (14th century) is a prominent example of the combination of Bengali materialism with spiritualism. His materialistic thinking is reflected in the dexterity with which he shredded to pieces Shankar's mayavada in his book Tattvamuktavali-Mayavad-Shatadusani.
Buddhist philosophy in Bengal dates back more than a thousand years, to the works of the Buddhist scholar Shantadev (700-800). Three of his well-known books are Shriguhyasamaj-Mahayog-Tantravalibidhi, Sahajgiti and Chittachaitanya-shamanopay. From the 8th to the 11th centuries, the Buddhist viharas were the centres of learning and philosophical discourses. Though most of the philosophical writings of the Buddhist scholars of the period are no longer extant, translations of these writings have been preserved in the libraries of Tibet, China and Central Asia. The logician shanta rakshit was one of the well-known scholars of the Vajrayana school of buddhism. He is known to have written three books on Buddhist philosophy. Nalanda's Pandit Shilbhadra and the great teacher atish dipankar srijnan (980-1053) were distinguished Bengali scholars of the time. Few of their sanskrit writings, however, have been preserved. The 10th century book charyapada, which is still available, bears evidence of a culture of philosophy.
The lyrical verses of the Charyapada explain Buddhist doctrines and answer philosophical queries. These verses also contain some occult thoughts, which are also the themes of modern philosophies of the East and the West. From these devotional lyrics flowed in due course the streams of Vaishnava sahajiya songs, Vaishnava and Shakta padavali and aul, baul, marfati and murshidi songs with their deeply spiritual meanings. Most of the Charyapada verses aimed at some inner meaning of the Buddhist sahajiya devotional rites. The sahajiyas paid little attention to the hymns, mantras, forms of worship and the rites prescribed in the vajrayana. They relied more on the perception of the individual self than on the rituals of the community. Their craving was to achieve spiritual upliftment by controlling the body and the mind. The rituals of deep devotion mentioned in the Charyapada remind us of the intellectual and metaphysical manifestations of some western philosophical thoughts. This philosophy is entirely spiritualistic.
Hindu philosophers The distinguished 10th century thinker, Sridhar Bhatta, earned all-India fame by writing a treatise on gaudapada's spiritual thoughts and philosophical concepts. Among his other books are Nyayakandali, Advayasiddhi, Tattvaprabodh and Tattvasangvadini. In the 14th century, Gaur Purnananda made an effort to disprove Sankar's mayavada (illusionism). Even in those ancient days people used to practise Smriti or Hindu jurisprudence and study the six systems of Hindu philosophy. The logicians of gauda were well known throughout India for their knowledge of logic. The study of logic began in the 15th century at Navadvip. The study of navya-nyaya (new logic) began there in the 16th century and continued up to the 18th century. Some famous Bengali scholars of navya-nyaya were Haridas Nyayalankar of the 15th century, raghunath shiromani and kanad tarkavagish of the 16th century and jagadish tarkalankar, Jairam Panchanon, Harinam Tarkavagish and gadadhar bhattacharya of the 17th century.
Vaishnava philosophy advocates the importance of both the temporal as well as the spiritual. Its earliest exposition may be seen in Gitgovindam of the 12th century poet jaydev. Hindu society was split into many castes and sects, and the rigidity and narrowness of the Brahmanic order rejected the popular beliefs and lifestyles of the masses. Against this backdrop Jaydev spoke of human love through the story of radha and krishna. His narrative appealed to the common people and his liberal humanism inspired the literature of the Middle Ages and Vaishvava philosophy.
The verses of vidyapati and chandidas were inspired by a liberal humanism in striking contrast to the casteism and social divisions of the period. The padavalis of Vidyapati reassured Bengalis while the padavalis of Chandidas brought them peace of mind. The message of love and unity found in the padavalis of Chandidas is believed by some scholars to be rarely found even in the scriptures. This is why he is regarded more as a poet-philosopher than just as a poet.
Chaitanyadev's (1486-1533) philosophy too was one of love and devotion. His messages of wisdom, devotion and humanism were the basis on which his followers created padavalis such as chaitanya bhagavatA, chaitanya charitamrIta and chaitanyamangal as well as thousands of lyrical verses. Chaitanyadev's philosophy of love was propounded through eight of his Sanskrit shlokas. The Vaishnava gurus of Vrindavan further expounded this philosophy.
According to Vaishnavism, knowledge, work and love constitute human existence. The Supreme Being is complete and self-contained. He has no want or sorrow. So it is useless to attempt to please the Creator through work. It is also not possible for human beings to know God, as the kind of knowledge that is necessary in order to comprehend Him is beyond the realm of ordinary people. Thus, only the devotion of love is left with which God may be comprehended. This is why the Vaishnavas laid so much emphasis on love. Vaishnavas believed that it is only through the devotion of love that finite human beings, despite their limitations, can comprehend the limitless glory of God and enjoy His love. However, Vaishnavas emphasized that God is omnipresent and that the divine presence is to be found in ordinary human beings. They therefore stressed that all human beings must love their fellow human beings and practise universal love. The knowledge-based philosophies of the past maintained a great divide between the finite and the infinite, between man and God. The Vaishnava philosophy of love greatly reduced this distance.
Krishna is not an abstract god like Brahma, but a human god, the symbol of love and everyone's loving friend. As a mother experiences maternal love by separating her child from her womb, Krishna enjoys the glory of love by separating Radha from himself. This relationship between the Creator and His creation is neither one of mere difference nor of total identity, because it at once involves difference and identity. This is known in Vaisnava philosophy as achintyabhedabhedavadatattva or the concept of indistinguishability of difference and identity between human beings and God. A detailed discussion of this philosophy is found in Sri Jiva Goswami's Satsandarbha.
Vaishnavism recognizes five blissful conditions of the mind: tranquility or freedom from passions, servitude or regarding oneself as the servant of God, intimacy or a system of worship in which the devotee regards himself as a confidante of Krishna, affection and ecstasy. Ardent devotees gradually cross the first four conditions to arrive at the state of ecstasy that symbolizes the closest relationship of love between God and His devotee. According to Vaishnava philosophy, a devotee experiences real freedom when he attains this bliss. It is in this state of freedom that a devotee enjoys the supreme bliss of union with God.
This great love enunciated in Vaishnava philosophy is not independent of the body. It starts with the body but, as it climbs higher, it transcends the bounds of the body and turns into love beyond the pale of the senses. Its vehicle is not merely the body, but also the mind and the soul. Here the body and the soul act together. This great love is divine and carries profound meaning. In this state the barrier between God and His devotee withers away completely. In the language of the Vaishnavas, this is symbolized by Radha's giving herself to Krishna. Baul ascetics call this state jyante mara, life-in-death.
This Vaishnava philosophy of love was not confined to transcendentalism; it spread to the wider field of human relationships and culminated in the message of humanism. Chaitanyadev came forward with the message of equality, brotherhood and universal humanism at a time when caste-ridden Brahmanism created sharp distinctions between segments of people and none but the brahmans had access to all spheres of the society. The message of human values that he proclaimed was not meant for any particular religious group or community but for all humanity irrespective of race, religion or caste. Muslim Sufi poets also joined in this endeavour of the Vaishnavas. Rising above the confines of religions and community, both Sufi poets and Vaishnava poets sang the same song of universal human love.
Muslim philosophy of the middle ages Islam's gospel of equality brought about a revolutionary change in a society divided by caste distinctions. After the establishment of Muslim rule in Bengal in the 13th century, Muslim scholars studied both Bangla literature and the works of the Sufis. Alongside metaphysical matters, their discourses concerned social and moral issues. sheikh faizullah, Haji Mohammad and syed sultan of the 16th century, sheikh chand of the 17th century and ali raza of the 18th century were well-known scholars in metaphysics. The sufi literature of the middle ages includes Faizullah's goraksavijay, Syed Sultan's Jvanapradip and Jvanachautisha, Haji Mohammad's Suratnama, Sheikh Chand's Haragaurisambad and Talibnama and Ali Raza's Agam and Jvansagar. These books combine Islamic mysticism with Yoga exercises. They explain many occult views including philosophical monism, the fana of sufism and the nirvana of Buddhism. The literature in question-answer form looked for truth in a variety of areas: in the relationship between the Creator and His creation; in the relationship of the life of this world and the next; in the meaning of sin and piety, right and wrong, etc. Attempts were made to find rational answers to common and theoretical questions.
Like the Vaishnava believers in love as a form of devotion, Muslim Sufis also believed in humanism. They did not accept artificial distinctions between human beings, nor did they accept communal boundaries or religious intolerance. They believed that all human beings were created by the same God and had the same origin. In other words, they believed in the unity of human beings and not their separation, in their brotherhood and not conflict. This liberal humanism advocated by Muslim thinkers and writers generated new life in the thought processes of the Bengalis and their literary and social works.
Baul philosophy' developed towards the close of the 15th century and flourished in the second half of the 17th century, is a mystic philosophy. Bauls remain engrossed in spiritual devotion, ignoring worldly life and avoiding social rites. rabindranath tagore and kshitimohan sen were largely responsible for the wide recognition of Baul philosophy. The similarity of Baul philosophy with Vaishnavism and Sufism is striking. Like Vaishnavas and Sufis, Bauls too live on a kind of emotional ecstasy. They owe allegiance to no particular religion, believing that religious rites are only externalities. According to Bauls, the human body is the foundation of all philosophy and truth and the source of all knowledge and work. One does not need to go to the holy places of Hinduism or Islam, as both Kailas and Vrindavan and Makka and Madina are to be found in the human body. The paramatma or the eternal soul and the maner manus or the desired being reside in the human soul itself. This is why Bauls say, 'You will know everything if you look into your own pot' and 'What you cannot find in your own pot, you cannot find in the whole world'. They believe that since God dwells within human beings, human beings must first know themselves if they wish to know God. They say God has to be sought not outside the self but within the self.
Like Sufism and Vaishnavism, Baul philosophy is also based on love. According to the Bauls, human beings can find Allah only through love. This love is of two kinds: love of the world and love of God. Worldly love is temporary and centres upon the body, attracting human beings to worldly things. This love in due course transforms into spiritual love for God. Bauls stress that the fleeting experience of the senses or partial knowledge cannot lead one to the knowledge of the eternal. This can be achieved only through direct feeling or knowledge of the self combined with total devotion to love. Bauls believe that through devotion they can transcend the material world and reach a state of ecstasy where they are apparently dead and yet live in God. It is in this state of the mind that they visualize the form of the eternal soul. To reach this stage the Bauls seek, what they call, arop under which they superimpose on conventional religion a religion that is above the usual rituals. This is how they achieve eternal bliss in place of ordinary earthly happiness. Bauls call this state jyante-mara, life-in-death. This ultimate state of union of finite and infinite is the total surrender of Radha. Sufis call this state fanafillah and bakabillah.
According to Bauls, there is no racial distinction between human beings. Hindu gurus may have Muslim disciples and Muslim gurus may have Hindu disciples. It is as common for Hindu Bauls to sing songs about Makkah and Madina and the Prophet muhammad (Sm) as for Muslim Bauls to speak of Hindu deities and Radha and Krishna. Muslim fakirs, Vaishnavas and Hindu Bauls follow the same philosophy and observe the same devotional rites.
Bengal renaissance In the 15th century Bengali talents flourished through the efforts of Chaitanyadev and his associates. Bengali intellectuals were inspired by Buddhist culture, Vaishnava belief in love and Islamic equality. The Islamic idea of equality, Hindu devotionalism and tantrik sahajiya philosophy combined to create what is known as the humanistic revolution of thought. But this process lost its natural course under the rigours of Brahmanism and other adverse forces. For instance, the humanism of the Vaishnavas was transformed into Brahmin worship, while an attitude of slavishness took the place of the religion of love, and free rational thinking turned into futile exercises of speculation and mysticism. However, in the 19th century there was a new awakening in Bengal.
This new awakening, which became known as the Bengal Renaissance, resulted in a new intellectual awareness in society and affected religion, philosophy, literature, arts and politics. The intellectuals and writers of this phase were not only aware of the knowledge of the orient but also familiar with European intellectual thinking and history. Because of their western education, they were influenced by European history, philosophy and literature and made efforts to reform their own religion, philosophy and culture in that light.
The first great Bengali intellectual of this age of reawakening was rammohun roy (1772-1833). With his unbounded power for freethinking and freedom from prejudice, he propounded a religion that was founded on rationality and philosophical analysis. His religious philosophy was based on the necessity of ensuring human welfare on earth and not on the idea of ensuring eternal happiness in the next life. The essence of Rammohun's philosophy was to free religion from the shackles of rigid and meaningless rites and employ it for the welfare of humanity.
Rammohun did not deny that religions aimed at man's moral and spiritual elevation. But he also did not deny life's functional and material needs under the guise of religion. He turned his attention to the vedas and the vedantas, which are the original sources of Indian knowledge, and stressed that a true religion lays emphasis on both spiritual and material life. In doing so he presented to the Bengalis a new philosophy. He supported the Vedanta but not the renunciation of life as contained in Sankar's annotations of the Vedanta. He was an admirer of Sankar but did not renounce life. Rather, he became well-known as a man who believed in activism. According to him, it was not enough to engage in just worship but also to act. While all human actions were an offering to the Lord, it was also necessary to keep alive in one's heart the need for action. The primary aim of his philosophical thought was to free religion from the rigidity of rituals and base it on reason. He believed this was the way towards human freedom. This humanism born out of religion and nurtured through reason assumed a more articulated and wider form later through the discourses of great Bengali intellectuals like swami vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore.
Derozio and his disciples The progressive concepts of Rammohun Roy were further developed by Calcutta hindu college's teacher henry derozio (1809-1831) and his disciples. They rejected the rationalistic concepts of Rammohun's brahma samaj and supported materialistic concepts and progressive philosophy of life in place of spiritualism. Patriotism was the main fountain of their inspiration. This is why they were more enthusiastic about exposing social inequity, exploitation and deprivation. They were accused of propagating materialism and atheism and Derozio was driven out from the Hindu College. His disciple and later a teacher at Hare School, Durgacharan Banerjee, propagated that there was no world beyond this world and that man was just like a clock.
Another advocate of this concept was akshay kumar datta (1820-1886). While the Brahma leader debendranath tagore (1817-1890) was trying to ascertain through the lessons of the upanisads the relationship between the creator and his creation, his close associate akshay kumar datta advocated a progressive materialistic concept. In his early life Akshay kumar was associated with the Brahma movement but gradually he was attracted to the concept of the unknown. In his book Bahyabastur Sahit Manab Prakrtir Sambandha Bichar (1852), he criticized the traditional religious rites and supported scientific naturalism. According to him, to work following the rules of nature was religion, not to follow it was negation of it. He did not believe that worship had any significance in life. By way of a simple arithmetical equation he tried to prove that worship had no value. The equation was: work = crops, worship + work = crops, therefore worship = 0.
Akshay kumar's concepts about religion were quite far-reaching and daring for the time. His concepts foreshadowed the widespread stir created early in the 20th century by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and a few other French intellectuals in propagating the socialist theory of religion. According to Durkheim, the deities worshipped by man were created out of imagination unconsciously by the society. There was no God, and the God worshipped by man is a creation of the society. The social environment around man is reflected in the concept of God. Akshay kumar's philosophy of life was a shining example of the fact that the Bengali philosophers were not engaged merely in spiritualism and in seeking salvation only, but also thought of progressive aspects of life and orientation towards nature.
Another philosopher like Akshay kumar was iswar chandra vidyasagar (1820-1891) who advocated a realistic philosophy of life. Although he was a well-known scholar in Hindu jurisprudence, Vedanta, Nyaya (logic) and Hindu philosophy, he did not accept the six systems of Hindu philosophy. His ideals were to serve human beings and ensure their worldly welfare. His greatest identity was as a true realist devoted to love for humanity. He believed in the concept of world and life as seen from direct experience and not in theoretical exercises and concepts. He used philosophical ideas for human welfare. He was bent on removing social prejudices and secure human welfare. This led him to launch a successful movement for introducing widow marriage in Hindu society and resisting child marriage and polygamy. Introducing education for women was his life's prime motto.
bankimchandra chattopadhayay (1838-1894) was among those who pursued philosophy to establish moral and human values. Like some of his predecessors, he analysed the Hindu scriptures on the basis of reason and contemporary beliefs while still remaining within the bounds of religion. He noted that neither a plurality of gods nor the cultural practices of a country made a true religion. Nor was it enough just to worship attributeless and formless Brahma. According to Bankimchandra, the aim of a true religion was to ensure the total development of a human being and to employ such a being for the task of human welfare. Bankimchandra termed this religion Anushilan Dharma and identified it as the quintessence of the Hindu religion. The principal element of this religion as propounded by Bankim was devotion. This was not, however, a traditional religious rite nor a way to achieving deliverance. He combined patriotism from a contemporary perception with the modern European philosophy and ethics of action which is known as 'purnatabad' or perfectionism, which had been introduced in Europe by the Dutch philosopher, Spinoza (1632-1677).
Bankimchandra gave a new interpretation of the doctrine of incarnation. He did not believe in the incarnation of God in the form of a human being. He recognized a person as an avatar, if, through his own efforts, he could achieve fullness as a human being and if his life were completely devoted to human welfare. Bankimchandra believed that Krishna in mahabharata was such a complete man. Krishna did not renounce life as did gautam buddha or jesus Christ. Instead, he suffered all kinds of experiences of life to shoulder his responsibilities.
Upholding Krishna's life of action as a model, Bankim called upon all to achieve freedom through action. According to him, the prime objective of religion or philosophy was to ensure the happiness of the individual. This objective could be achieved through action, particularly utilitarian action. This activist philosophy of life advocated collective welfare rather than personal welfare. Bankim, however, did not reject the well being of the individual. According to him, individual welfare was the aim of life, but this could not be achieved except through collective welfare. In Bankim's opinion, lack of synthesis between man and society could lead to dangerous arrogance in the name of worship.
Faraizi concepts the syncreticism that is a characteristic of Bengal was not always welcomed. In the early 19th century, the faraizi movement condemned some Muslim practices as unIslamic. Maulana karamat ali jaunpuri and Haji Shariatullah (1779-1840) attempted to reform what they perceived as unIslamic. Maulana Karamat Ali Jaunpuri led the Taiwania movement, which opposed singing and dancing, urs at death anniversaries of pirs and darveshes, offering flowers and fruits at mazars or mausoleums and offering fatiha for the salvation of a dead man's soul and similar other rituals.
haji shariatullah of Faridpur led the Faraizi movement (1818), which similarly attempted to purge Muslim society of what was unIslamic. Haji Shariatullah believed that as long as India was under the rule of the British who were non-Muslims, India would not be an Islamic land and that, in fact, it was Darul Harb or the land of the infidels. In such a state neither weekly Jumma prayers nor prayers on the occasions of eid-ul azha and eid-ul fitr could be offered. The Faraizi movement opposed ascribing supernatural power to pirs and darveshes, celebrating muharram with fanfare like the Hindu durga puja and rathayatra and holding colourful functions at weddings. It was obligatory on the part of those who subscribed to this movement to repent for their past sins and pledge to lead an honest pious life in the future.
Liberal Muslim thinkers fortunately, the extremism of Haji Shariatullah was overshadowed by the attempts of liberal Muslim thinkers and reformers who encouraged Muslims to acquire western knowledge and develop liberal thoughts,. Among those thinkers who paved the way for the educational, social and political advancement of Muslims were Hooghly's rationalist thinker Delwar Hossein Ahmad (1840-1913) and syed ameer ali (1849-1928). Delwar's thoughts had originality and boldness. The contemporary western rationalistic philosophy, especially of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) greatly influenced him. His philosophy was: 'It is the duty of every man of intelligence and knowledge to seek truth and when he finds it, it is his duty to proclaim it'. It was his belief that stagnant religious principles could not meet the requirement of a changing society. He advocated change and even rejected those edicts of Islam obstructed social progress. He advocated abolition of polygamy, opposed wearing of veils by Muslim women and pleaded for appropriate reforms of Muslim family laws.
Syed Ahmad Khan and Syed Ameer Ali were Muslim modernists who believed that the spirit of Islam was progressive not regressive and was capable of rational analysis and reassessment. Syed Ahmad's contention was that Islam was not an impediment to liberalism and progressive ideas. Ameer Ali went a step further and said full-fledged liberal progressivism was ingrained in Islam. According to him, acquiring knowledge was a prerequisite for reforms. And through knowledge human beings could be freed from those shackles and prejudices which for ages had overwhelmed their freethinking
Merging reform and religion Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902) believed that social reforms and human welfare could be made possible through the path of religion. He derived his ideas from ramakrishna Paramhansadev (1836-1886). Ramakrishna preached a doctrine of humanism and love. He believed that there was no distance between the Creator and His creation. All life forms were part of Brahma or an expression of Him. Ramakrishna used to serve the poor and the needy himself to show that serving human beings was equal to serving God. This gospel of Ramkrishna was propagated by Vivekananda. In this religion of service there was no distinction between Brahmins, ksatriyas, vaishyas or shudras or between Hindus and Muslims.
Vivekananda believed that it was necessary to reform religion as a prerequisite to reforming society. He regarded religion as a limb of the social body and he chose the concept of unity as the basis of social reform. He realized that the life of the people of this part of the world was based on religion. Therefore one had to proceed through the path of religion for any social or political reform. Vivekananda felt that it was necessary to have knowledge and cultivate love to move towards any true reform. Sri chaitanya also spoke of love and showed the path of love and devotion but that was essentially supernatural love. By contrast, the gospel of love as received by Vivekananda from Ramakrishna was human love. This love meant respect for human beings and sought to find God in human beings.
Vivekananda was a humanist ascetic wedded to activism. He sought to establish true human welfare through action. He went around India to learn the problems and conditions of the common folk. Vivekananda declared that those sections of the society regarded by the upper classes as unholy and untouchable were the real backbone of the country. They were the majority and their well-being meant the well-being of the country. It was his belief that a hungry man could not practise religion. The essence of his religion was therefore to give food to the hungry, clothes to the ill-clad, shelter to the shelterless and education to the illiterate. His message to the youth was: Before studying the gita, play football and build up your body.
Vivekananda had deep understanding and insight into human history, social revolutions and the actions and reactions of political and economic forces. He believed that one day the lower strata of society would rise. This perception came from his love for the working people. In his view it was undesirable to have divisions among people; this division ate into the vitals of society and became the cause of national disunity. Casteism and divisions in society were responsible for the decline of India. This is why he desired a quick change of the society for the greater good of the people.
The efforts of Vivekananda at freeing religion from the shackles of traditionalism found its fuller reflection in the thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore. To Tagore religion did not mean something that centred round rituals and that was concerned with salvation or bliss in the other world. He looked upon religion as the door to human liberation. His religion was a religion for humanity, a religion of human values. Thus the object of his religion was not some supernatural God, but rather a God who could be found in all human beings through devotion, love and action. God was an infinite extension of human beings, a superman or spirit of life present in human beings.
According to Tagore, the Infinite is ceaselessly expressing itself through the finite. It is the duty of everyone to be inspired by the Infinite to engage in action and through that action to lead personal, social and state life and ultimately the whole world on to the path of righteousness, truth and welfare. Tagore supported Bankim's thought that there was no salvation in the humanity of an individual; salvation lay in the full development of the entire human world. Just as a single lamp cannot remove the darkness of night, so too an individual's efforts cannot lead to social welfare on the widest possible scale. For this, collective effort is needed. This would lead to a fuller development of all human beings. Through the ages great men have appeared to help human beings to achieve this objective.
Secularism and realism acharya ramendrasundar trivedi (1864-1919) was another philosopher who believed in secularism and realism. He came to the realm of philosophy through science and had tremendous confidence in the system of science. He was quite familiar with the evolutionary concepts of the western philosophers like Darwin and Spencer, and like them he was a naturalist. He did not believe in any supernatural reality, nor did he accept the traditional explanation of religion. He did not believe in any miracle beyond the natural laws. In this respect he was a follower of Akshay kumar Datta. But ultimately he relaxed his adherence to scientific analysis and naturalism and engaged himself in explaining Hindu scripture and leaned towards the Vedas. To him where science ends, philosophy begins. He was an ardent advocate of activism and pleaded for the expulsion of asceticism from life. Hence he urged all to improve their lot through action and not by praying to the supernatural.
The purnayoga of Rsi aurobindo ghosh (1872-1950) is a spiritual devotion based on reason. According to this philosophy, living beings are the manifestations of Brahma or rather the images of Brahma in disguise. The end of human life is to achieve continuously a higher state of development but not by rejecting the material world. It is not enough to perceive the essence of truth in one's spirit; it is also necessary to perceive it in matter. The truth is not soul apart from matter; it is equally present in both soul and matter.
Like the modern evolutionists of the west, Aurobindo believed that evolution was a natural phenomenon. It is through the process of evolution that the inanimate gets life and life gets consciousness. In the next phase this consciousness attains fullness to make a self-conscious man, and, in the due process of evolution, man turns into superman. The supreme being is a developing and moving existence defined in terms of space and time. This existence continuously moves upward to achieve the ultimate objective of life. But this process of upward movement does not aim to reach Brahma by rejecting the material world; rather, it attempts to bring eternal light and eternal bliss down from the heaven to this world of living. In the process of evolution, man reaches such a stage of knowledge where the supreme being comes down to join him. At this stage man achieves perfect knowledge and turns into superman. But this requires a special kind of exercise. This process of man becoming superman is the essence of Aurobindopurnayoga. Purnayoga is not confined to ashram, but extends to the field of life and the society. Aurobindo, of course, preferred to use the term 'gnostic being' rather than 'superman'. A gnostic being is a person who has acquired perfect knowledge, whose eyes are fixed on human welfare and who is ready to welcome even death for the sake of higher ideals.
'The movement for intellectual freedom the attempt to view religion in the light of philosophy and to apply it to creating a worthwhile and fruitful life was not confined to the renaissance in the 19th century nor to Bengali Hindu intellectuals only. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, progressive thinking created a huge wave among the Bengali Muslims. In 1926 a group of Muslim teachers and students formed the muslim sahitya- samaj. Prominent members of the group were abul hussain, kazi abdul wadud, poet abdul quadir and qazi motahar husain. The aim of this society was to view different problems of the world and life in the light of rationality rather than in the traditional way. Their annual, shikha, proclaimed their motto: 'Where knowledge is limited and intellect thwarted, freedom is absurd'.
Kazi Abdul Wadud, the leading spirit behind the movement for intellectual freedom, was respectful towards religion. But to him religion was not a traditional ritualistic religion. He named it bikash dharma. Although its source was Islam it had similarities with the movements of nanak, Kabir and Rammohan advocating liberal religion. He believed that a true religion would allow for change and not be simply based on rituals. In his view whatever aided human beings to develop was religion. In his opinion, religion emanates from knowledge and wisdom, and its true purpose is human welfare.
Khan Bahadur ahsanullah (1873-1965), an educationist, litterateur, spiritualist and humanist, believed that religion was not mere worship or preparation for the next world; rather, it was the total development of a person through a combination of belief, perception and intellect. Religion elevates a man's personality and character. By stressing the idea that the entire universe is the creation of one God, religion proclaims that service to any living being is in effect service to God. Religion does not approve of any harm to a person because the person who harms and the person who is harmed are both creations of the same God. All religions convey the message of education, unity, good conduct, peace and amity. Ahsanullah was pained by the clashes and conflicts of different religions and drew the attention of people towards liberal humanism. According to him, it was necessary to have effective education to help mould the character of a person so that the love and humanism contained in a religion could be employed for the good of humanity. For this, it was necessary to have love in one's heart, for it is only through love that human beings can control their senses and proceed towards higher levels of development. At the beginning, human beings are engrossed in personal happiness but they gradually move towards service to the society, country and the entire world. Towards the ultimate stage of such service, human beings perceive the unity of the loving God. Anyone who perceives this great work of love cannot see divisions between human beings.
mohammad barkatullah (1898-1974) occupies a special place in the realm of recent literature and philosophy in Bangladesh. He was the first Muslim of this region who wrote profound philosophical essays in Bangla. Manuser Dharma (1934) is one of his famous philosophical books. Barkatullah was greatly moved by ontological questions. In seeking answers to these questions, he first conceived the idea of world consciousness. According to him, it was under the influence of this world consciousness that magnet attracts iron, and the stars and the planets revolve under the force of gravitation. Parallel to this consciousness, Barkatullah believed, there exists another law, which he termed the law of self-preservation. This law extends everywhere, from inanimate objects to the entire world of the living. Even a lifeless piece of stone resists an attempt to remove it from its place. So if anybody kicks it, it hits back and inflicts pain. This phenomenon is more consolidated and pronounced in the world of the living. The living are not satisfied with mere life and try to extend themselves beyond time. This is evident from the desire to have offspring and achieve a form of immortality. The same desire is manifest in the soul, which wishes to survive the destruction of the body. In search of this desire for eternity, Hindus, Muslims and Christians have built a fantasy world of paradise. This desire has found place in the poetry, literature and music of different societies.
Although the image of paradise apparently looks like the reflection of human desire, in reality it is not. At the heart of it lies the influence of eternal truth that however limited human beings are in their knowledge and intellect they try to transcend reality and move ahead in search of ideals. This attraction to ideals, this eagerness to extend oneself from the present time to eternity, flows through entire humanity. Barkatullah says, just as a single streak of electric current expresses itself by way of lighting up a million street lamps of a city, so also a great inspiration passes through the entire humanity to a distant target. That inspiration desires to live in human beings. This is why human beings are so eager to live on.
Our senses, intellect etc are, according to Barkatullah, the traditional vehicles of our knowledge. These vehicles cannot, however, carry us to God. But God is not beyond our knowledge. Apart from the senses, Barkatullah notes, human beings have another power, intuition. Intuition helps human beings to understand their own existence and consciousness. When intuition becomes mature, human beings can directly perceive God through it and realize their relationship with Him. Like other spiritualists, Barkatullah also said it is not possible for human intellect to understand the basis of intuition or its source. But he did not reject intellect as a vehicle for knowledge; he merely mentioned the limitations of intellect and the need for intuition. Barkatullah said intellect consolidates the elements of knowledge collected by the senses; intellect enriches and integrates human knowledge. But life is not composed of intellect alone. There are some other aspects of life such as emotions, exuberance, desire etc that are beyond the reach of intellect. This is why we have to take recourse to intuition even after accepting the importance of intellect.
Barkatullah did not wholeheartedly support Marxist socialism, but he did not condemn it either. He had doubts about the possible effects of Marxism. One aspect of it was that under socialism the abolition of personal property might erode the capacity of human beings to think independently. His question was whether, under a system where an individual's ideas had no value, where everyone was a labourer of the state, there could be opportunity to develop such human qualities as affection, love and greatness. Barkatullah also had specific observations about the position of Marxists in respect of religion. He said the Marxists were loudly vocal against religion but pointed out that social injustices committed in defiance of religious injunctions in the presence of priests were not the fault of religion. The culprits were those who employed religion for dishonest purposes and exploited the common people in the name of religion. So the battle was not against religion, but to ensure that religion was applied properly.
Islam and Islamic philosophy were the basis of abul hashim's (1905-1974) philosophical and political thoughts. The Creed of Islam (1950) was one of his valuable philosophical works. Abul Hashim believed that true philosophy meant the philosophy of life. A philosophy worth the name embraces thought and action. A philosophy not related to the practical life has no value whatsoever. As for knowledge, Abul Hashim said, science proceeds from the known to the unknown through deduction, induction and hypothesis. Scientific knowledge is limited to those objects and events which can be identified either by the senses or by machines. But human beings are not satisfied with limiting their search for knowledge within the bounds of their senses, for they believe that there may be truth and reality beyond the knowledge acquired through the senses. This belief is part of human curiosity and this is why human beings constantly move forward to see the unseen and know the unknown. According to Abul Hashim, true civilization is not confined to a geographical region; civilization means world civilization. True civilization must have a universal appeal. Just as the rising sun lightens up the entire hemisphere, so too does a new civilization influence the existing civilization.
Marxist philosophy manabendra nath roy (1887-1954) was a representative of the philosophy of materialism and humanism. Well-known as MN Roy, this intellectual was inspired quite early in his youth with the spirit of human freedom. And to this end he studied deeply the history of social evolutions, joined a secret (nationalist) revolutionary group and travelled widely to countries like Java, China, Japan, America and Mexico. In Mexico he was inducted into Marxism and soon earned fame as a celebrated theorist of the international communist movement. But this was short-lived. He lost faith in Marxism when he failed to find in it and especially among the Russian communists the hopes and aspirations of individual human beings and their desire for self-determination and freedom. He then engaged himself in developing and advocating the new philosophy of radical humanism or new humanism. In 1947 he declared in the manifesto of new humanism that his philosophy was based not on any fundamentalism or blind faith but on rationalism and sound principles. His humanism, he said, was aimed at freeing the harassed individual from all kinds of exploitation and oppression. He challenged the Marxist emphasis on society in preference to the individual and said: an individual is the basic unit of a society and so the journey towards progress must start with him and through his enlightenment civilization would move forward.
According to Marxism, man is simply a part of the economic system. Human history is a record of class struggles for wealth. Disparity in distribution of wealth forces changes in the social, political and religious systems. In this respect Manabendranath said that in human life material and moral forces were more powerful than economic factors. This is why he laid emphasis on human freedom of desire and creativity and laid particular emphasis on collective morality and sense of value in place of the class morality of the Marxists. According to him, morality ought to be the yardstick for measuring human conduct in all spheres including sociology and politics. According to Marxism, it is not possible to bring about a revolution in a peaceful way. So if necessary armed struggle needs to be carried on to bring about a revolution. But according to Manabendranath, if immoral methods were used in any effort the objective was bound to be defeated.
Manabendranath firmly believed that political movements could not allay the miseries of the people and secure their overall freedom. Instead, he believed, it was necessary to have a comprehensive cultural renaissance or reawakening. To explain his ideas he wrote several books, including From Savagery to Civilization, Indian Message and Science and Superstition. In 1947 he helped set up the Indian Renaissance Institute, the objective of which was to establish the dignity of human beings and show how oppressed human beings could achieve freedom and peace.
Secular humanism according to Professor govinda chandra dev (1907-1971), every philosophical view has both a theoretical and a practical application. Throughout his life, GC Dev, as he was called, tried to establish this practical aspect of philosophy. He set a bright example by bringing down philosophy from the ivory tower to the real world and applying it to the welfare of ordinary human beings. In his view, proper philosophy is always the philosophy of life and a philosophy that has no relationship with life is mere theory. He viewed philosophy as an eternal source of beneficial inspiration and tried to evaluate it in the context of the wider life of the common man. According to him, behind the origin and development of philosophy was a natural curiosity of man about the world and life and a sincere endeavour to make life worthwhile and great. So there can be no philosophy without life.
Govinda Dev was an ardent believer in the existence of a supreme reality as the custodian, carrier and director of the entire universe. Hie philosophical ideal was the ideal of the unity of the universe and of humanity as enunciated in the Upanishads and the Vedanta. The ideal can be found in all the historical religions and philosophies of the East and the West. According to this philosophy, the same reality manifests itself in different forms and degrees. Somewhere it is inanimate, somewhere it is conscious, somewhere it is one, somewhere it is many, somewhere it is a reality and elsewhere a mere appearance of it. This one entity takes the form of many, and again the many find their existence in one. Life and the universe have to be explained on the basis of the innermost unity of the many, and it is on this basis that unity has to be established between individuals and among the nations.
Govinda Dev advocated a philosophy of synthesis which meant a synthesis of materialism and spiritualism. According to him, materialism and spiritualism are but two aspects of the same supreme reality. The craving for worldly welfare leads human beings to materialism while their spiritual needs lead them to spiritualism. Human beings move between these two apparently antagonistic views of life. It cannot be the purpose of human life to reject one and cling to the other. Synthesis of these two views is essential for a safe and peaceful life. It was Govinda Dev's earnest hope and belief that the conflicts between materialism and spiritualism, secularism and religious belief and worldly and supernatural matters would soon disappear, and that human life would be established on the basis of a true synthesis of materialism and spiritualism and that philosophers, scientists and theologists and other people of conscience would work towards that single end.
Govinda Dev formulated his philosophy after evaluating the historical process of religion and modern science. Common people, according to him, are more attracted towards belief than to reason and more to religion than to philosophy. This is why he wanted to synthesize the reason of philosophy with the faith of religion. The religion that he believed in was not a traditional one but universal humanism. In his view, true religion had to be a vehicle for meeting the common people's demand for materialism and spiritualism. Govinda Dev's dream and the essence of his philosophy was that the universality of religion and philosophy would generate love among people, that love would be combined with the power of science, and that all the people of the world, irrespective of religion, caste or creed, would be able to live happily.
Another champion of secular philosophy was saidur rahman (1909-1987). For nearly half a century he tried to establish that philosophy was not merely a set of theories but a call for advancement in life and that it ought to be the prime objective of a philosopher to apply philosophy to practical life. The struggle for life ought to be aimed at creating an appropriate atmosphere for human welfare. He wanted the end of exploitation of one human being by another. He believed that a culture of knowledge would help create an atmosphere that would give birth to the attitude for public welfare. Philosophy should aid the creation of this new atmosphere by reforming traditional social norms. Human beings are not mere passive spectators, but active agents. It is through human efforts that changes have been brought about. In Saidur Rahman's view, philosophy is but another name for the religion of human welfare. He named it 'welfare philosophy'. He was more interested in the programme of action and pursuit of science in this world than in the pursuit of religion to ensure happiness in the next. He preferred reason to devotion and declared unequivocally: For progress we do not need worship but action, freethinking and a desire for human welfare.
aroj ali matubbar (1900-1985) was a largely self-taught creative writer and rationalist philosopher. He fought against fundamentalism and superstitions and expressed his philosophical views about the world and life in simple language. According to him, even in this age of science various superstitions have overwhelmed human life, obstructing freethinking and progress. This is why he became active in propagating the idea that religion should be based on reason. He did not believe in supernaturalism nor in emotionalism or mysticism. According to him, there was no area of human life to which science had not contributed. It was the prime objective of the scientist to unravel truth and ensure human welfare. The humanism of today had its origin in materialism combined with sacrifice and love. Aroj Ali's war against religious fundamentalism and blind faith and his support for scientific ways had at their origin his irresistible desire to find truth. Although a critic of religion, he was not opposed to true religion. His war was not against religion but against blind faith and rites in the name of religion. He denounced superstitions but not religion.
Assessment of the philosophy of Bengalis Emotion and religion dominate the philosophical thought of the Bengalis. But a religious bias is not confined to the Bengalis alone, but extends to the Indian Subcontinent and Europe itself, which is known as the seed-bed of rationalistic philosophy. In the past as well as in the middle ages, Indian philosophy had very close links with religious beliefs. Even though some philosophers of the Vedic period did not accept the existence of God, they did not oppose Vedic religious traditions and rituals. What is more, although the carvaka, Buddhist and Jain philosophies opposed the Vedas, Buddhist philosophy was influenced by the Buddhist religion as Jain philosophy was by the Jain religion. Among them only Carvaka philosophy seems to have been free from traditional religious influence.
However, while Bengalis were predominantly religious and spiritual in attitude, there was present in their psyche a secular spirit which blended and informed their life and thought. The Dharma in which the philosophy of the Bengali has its root is not mere religion as understood in the West, not only the vehicle for achieving deliverance or bliss in the world to come, but also the pursuit of life in its entirety. When Bengalis refer to God they do not mean a supernatural being detached from the world of living beings, but one who manifests Himself in all human beings. In other words, Bengalis have, to a considerable extent, employed their religious and philosophical thoughts towards making this world a happy and prosperous place to live in. [Aminul Islam]
Bibliography Haraprasad Shastri, Hajar Bachharer Puran Bangala Bhasay Bauddha Gan O Doha, Preface, Kolkata, 1916; Ahmed Sharif, 'Banglar Tattvasahitya', Darshan, Dhaka, 1964; MN Roy, Bangalir Itihas, abridged edition, Kolkata, 1966; SP Bhattacharya, Padavalir Tattvasaundarya O Kavi Rabindranath, Kolkata, 1967; RC Majumder ed, Bangladesher Itihas: Middle Age, Revised second edition, Kolkata, 1973; Bhudev Chowdhury, Bangla Sahityer Itikatha, (1st Part), 5th edition, Kolkata, 1978.