In search of a Lost Philosophical Dialog in Mithila: An interview with Pundit Kishorenath Jha (A guest post by Debajyoti Gangopadhyay) UPDATED

Pundit Kishorenath Jha is one among the last very few Naiyāyikas of note of Maithil origin (according to traditional sources also Udayana, Vācaspati and Śaṅkara Miśra were born in the same Madhubanī district of North Bihar). After retiring from Ganganath Jha Research Institute in Allahabad, he is now staying in his pustaini households here. He is very well-built even at this age, around 70 or so. His physic reminded me of the Maithili tradition of Naiyāyikas being trained Wrestlers also; Pundit Ganganath Jha himself was, as I heard, a trained wrestler. We had our discussion mostly in Hindi and partly in Maithili.

Hum Gaṅgeśa ko jhuta jasan manate haye.. (“we make a false celebration of Gaṅgeśa”)

— was his first reaction after listening to my brief statement of purpose to be in Mithila in search of the lost trackof knowledge dynamics initiated by Gaṅgeśa and other Maithili Naiyāyikas.

I had never heard this kind of harsh assessment of Gaṅgeśa from anywhere so far! In fact, Gaṅgeśa’s Tattvacintāmaṇi is famously held to have initiated the modern phases of Non-Buddhist Logic at the end of 13th Century.

“Gaṅgeśa had taken substantially”, claimed Punditji, “from the Nyāyaratna, a work composed by Maṇikaṇṭha during the 11th CE. In fact, the Tattvacintāmaṇi – Gaṅgeśa’s celebrated work was basically an elaboration of the Nyāyaratna.”

Seeing me surprised, Punditji referred to the authority of Śaṅkara Miśra, a 15th c. Navya Naiyāyika:

“Check in the Vādivinoda of Sankar Mishra, Sankar Pongtee Pongtee uthake dikhaya(“Sankar had shown it by mentioning line by line”)”
“But how these all could happen at all?”- I asked Punditji.
“Not an issue”, Punditji exclaimed, “It was a common practice to changea few letters in a śloka to claim it in one’s own favor”.

I don’t remember hearing about this trick anywhere else, not even in History of Navya-Nyāya in Mithilaby Dinesh Chandra Bhattacharya. But this sounds very important for me for understanding at least one typical feature of Indian knowledge dynamics, namely the concept of growth of knowledge doesn’t make any straightforward sense in Indian context, as it does in context of the so-called Western science.
In fact, I am not a student of Indian Philosophy in formal sense; my interest in Indian knowledge dynamics is basically an outgrowth of my selective discomforts with the epistemology of Physics, which provides for me the grounds to look for the best possible points of entries into the knowledge store of my own traditional/scholastic past. This calls for basically formulating questions of real mutual interest stemming from modern perspective, so that this can engage the traditional scholars in a meaningful dialog with ‘modernity’. However, this is a formidable task, as I now understand, which can often turn out to be misleading. Of course, trying to understand Indian knowledge dynamics in ‘modern’ terms is surely endangered with considerable risks of different orders, as classical India and the contemporary world surely thought in many respects in profoundly different ways. So, we need to be very careful to set up the comparative norms, in order for them to be of real mutual benefit. Yet, this ‘false celebration ‘of Gaṅgeśa sounds as a provocative point of entry for me to make further comparative sense of the medieval knowledge dynamics from modern perspective.
I already had several loose ends in my understanding of Gaṅgeśa triggered, in one way or another, long back during my earliest interactions with Late Pundit Anantalal Thakurof West Bengal – incidentally the Guru of Pundit Kishorenathji himself,during the mid 90s of the last century

“Mention of only one śloka of Jñānaśrī is there within the huge literature of Gaṅgeśa”, told Pundit Anantalal Thakur, “but though not explicitly mentioned, Buddhist logicians themselves were the primary target of Gaṅgeśa”.

Jñānaśrī was among the last known Buddhist Philosophers of note located in Vikramasila Mahāvihāra (today’s Bhagalpur, Bihar, just on the southern side of Ganga) during the 11th century. He is well known to have continued an undisrupted debate with Udayana of Mithila. After Buddhist ransack during the late 12th Century, philosophical writings of Jñānaśrī were moved to Tibet. He was completely forgotten with other Buddhist philosophers in his homeland until Rahul Sankrityayan during the 1924 brought Jñānaśrī back along with a huge bulk of other exiled Indian philosophical literature from Tibet – after nearly 8oo years…!
In fact Pundit Anantalal Thakur played a key role to reinstall Jñānaśrī in the Indian academic scenario after Rahulji’s bringing Jñānaśrī back here.
Punditji played also an important role. In fact, during the early part of his career, Punditji spent a considerable time transcribing the manuscripts with Jñānaśrī’s works, in order to make them accessible.

“In Patna museum”, told Punditji, “I was engaged for years in changing the old Bengali* script into Devanāgarī.”

Back to our main topic: This ‘one śloka’ business is quite strange not only in perspective of long tradition of debate between Vikramaśila and Mithila, but also from the point of view of the time Gaṅgeśa worked. Gaṅgeśa undoubtedly composed his work between the end of 13th century and the beginning of 14thcentury. Vikramaśila by that time definitely ceased to exist as a center for learning; but the ashes of the burnt remains of Buddhist scholastic tradition should have been quite hot yet!
In fact, though ruined almost to ashes, the knowledge legacy of Nalanda and Vikramaśila should have been very much there. The huge legacy of nearly 5 centuries of Nalanda wisdom can’t be expected to reduce to only one śloka within 40-50 years or so. Buddhists are known to have soon disappeared from even the social scenario of Bengal after this. Nalanda and Vikramaśila ruins were buried deep down into soil, the local people around Nalanda used to describe the ruin heaps even up to the 19th century as Jarasandhka kela (fort of Jarasandha, the legendary King of Magadha mentioned in Mahabharata), something that shows a complete forgetfulness of the Buddhist scholastic past.
Pundit Kishorenathji did not respond directly to my furtherquery about Jñānaśrīor the survival of his one śloka only in Gaṅgeśa. After a meaningful pause, he repeated that “you can’t expect to understand the Ātmatattvaviveka of Udayana without knowing Jñānaśrī”. But then what about Gaṅgeśa’s stance of notproperly acknowledging Jñānaśrī? How to make sense of the notion of growth of knowledge in the logical context presupposed byGaṅgeśa’s choice, not to mention Jñānaśrī?
Punditji, however, did not talk anymore about this Maithili “trick”…

The notion of growth of knowledge doesn’t seem to make much sense to him. But the issue,that compels itself after knowing about this said trick of Gaṅgeśais how to make sense of the celebrated navyatā (newness) of Navyanyāya popularly credited to Gaṅgeśa. I am not sure, but may we conclude that the truth content captured in a given śloka is of a bit fluid character compared to what can be expected to be captured in Law-like mathematical expressions? This could be the reason why this trick is quite unlikely in context of any modern discourse, for example, contemporary Physics. In fact, it is not possible to change arbitrarily the prior equations of an established fact in this way and then to claim it one’s own! Of course, Logic is not entirely an empirical science in the sense of Physics, and its purpose is to ensure primarily the valid norms of cognition and its basis. So, the Logic-Physics analogy referring to the notion of growth of knowledge can also be misleading after a certain extent. In fact, along with the other collateral factors, what triggered scientific revolution in 17th Century Europe was crucially the realization, in one way or other, that there is an objective (that is, observer independent) reality which can be faithfully (at least to a reasonably reliable extent) captured through a mathematical language insofar as (as Galileo put it in a well-known letter) Nature expresses herself in a mathematical language. But even in Europe, this idea, as far as I know, started becoming commonly accepted only after Galileo. And Newton, though he himself invented the calculus, was much puzzled with the ontology as well as the effectiveness of this Mathematics. He could not epistemically justify the strange effectiveness of the mathematics he himself created! He was not ‘historically’ ready to accept the apparent conflation between what is physical and what is mathematical as a result of this.
Now the immediately next issue of note is the question of consistency. Truth content of a given mathematical equation (Physical Law) has to be consistent, that is, globally compatible with everything else we understand in terms of other Laws also.
Richard Feynman expressed this point aptly as “whatever we are allowed to imagine in science must be consistent with everything else we know.” [Feynman Lectures in Physics, Vol II (chapter 20-3: Scientific imagination)]
I will only add that Nature allows us to imagine in mathematical terms, but no mathematical equation can earn its legitimacy alone without any reference to the other equations discovered, not only within the same domain of discourse, but also with the equations outside it, directly or indirectly. I can’t discuss this issue anymore within the intended scope of this interview.
But this can’t be so, as long as one expresses in a non-mathematical Language even with a high degree of informal rigor. In spite of an incredible development of Indian mathematics and Astronomy – almost undisrupted from the Vedic ages to the 17th c. Kerala school of Mathematics, this was not realized at least to the extent needed for Physics.
Anyway, we talked at length quite for the next 3-4 hours or so, which can’t be captured within the scope of this small article.

On our way back to Dwarbhanga, an early monsoon evening in the Naiyāyika’s village was as usually plunging into night, the skyline soon became hazy. Within a few minutes we will be on our way back to Dwarbhanga again. We always feel unnecessarily compelled to place someone we meet within the known categories of our own prior understanding. I was trying in vain to place him in one such category I was familiar with. Punditji definitely belongs to a world of different mental set-up than us. A mental set-up conditioned mostly by the profoundly different pre-colonial ways in which the Indian knowledge dynamics developed compared to Europe. One can’t expect to have a full access into this world on the basis of only a few hours of talk. So I soon gave up trying to categorize him within the framework of my known set-up. “Something should be left for the category of undecidable”, I thought finally after giving up hope to find a suitable category for him.

Acknowledgement: My sincere Thanks to Professor Amarnath Jha of Lalit Narayan Mithila University’ Dwarbhanga for his warm hostage and all sorts of cooperation. This Dialog mission would not have been possible without his active cooperation.

UPDATE: This brief interaction with Pundit Kishorenath Jha is the first among a series of interviews aimed to have access, as much as possible, to the Maithili scholastic Past at least still mentally enacted by some of the existing traditional scholars there. This visit aimed at finding some of the pre-colonial ingredients, hopefully still surviving there, to reassess the ‘accepted answers’ we started drafting as a part of our colonial reception of West ever since the 19th century. However, this is not a Maithili counterpart of the History of Indian Philosophy, but an account of different aspects of our scholastic Past exposed to a method of enquiry that had been evolving as a part of my ‘modern’ understandings, an account of my rejection and appreciation of my own traditional Past which continue to redefine me!

*Rahul Sankrityayan referred to this script as “Kutila”. [Note by EF: There are many disagreements concerning the labels to be attached to each script. See Formigatti’s work for further theoretical reflections about it.]

Note by EF: This guest post has been authored by Debajyoti Gangopadhyay and only edited by Elisa Freschi. You can contact the author at this address: humanphysics2014@gmail.com.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

8 thoughts on “In search of a Lost Philosophical Dialog in Mithila: An interview with Pundit Kishorenath Jha (A guest post by Debajyoti Gangopadhyay) UPDATED

  1. Interesting read, so much lost and forgotten or mixed up in Indian philosophy, posts such as these are great help. Bravo!

    • Thanks Praveen ! Indian thought dynamics is indeed mixed up in such a way that it is now difficult to figure out the logico-factual sequence . But understanding this sequence is important to make sense of the notion of Growth of Knowledge in Indian context . Or , should we not try to do so at least guided by the way we feel compelled keeping science in view ?

  2. Thank you for this post. It’s very easy to forget that there remains a living Navya-Nyāya tradition of inquiry, and it’s great to have this glimpse into it.

    • Dear Amod and Matthew
      Thanks a lot ! Planning to write a post script or sequel of this visit . There are many other things in my detailed conversation with Punditji which are left here . He mentioned in passing about a group of Mithila philosophers who were actually trying to bolster Pracheen Nyaya of Goutama instead of the proposed one by Gangesa . Indeed there were a generation of philosophers who were more or less hostile to Gangesa’s magnum opus ! Sankar Mishra was only one of them . Gangesa’s own son Bhardhaman was perhaps among the rebels !This interests me a lot . How eventually Gangesa’s work was accepted and gained ground ? Should we look at the issue of gradual acceptance keeping in view the longstanding debate between Newtonian and Cartesian or between Newton and Leibniz ? Of course the debate in west was decisively guided by practical effectiveness of Newton’s Physics or empirical reference ; but this can’t be so in Indian context as it was not a matter of judgement based on the effectiveness of mathematical equations . Can you please help in this regard ?

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