An interview with Prabal Kumar Sen

This interview, part of an occasional series, was conducted by email with Prof. Prabal Kumar Sen, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a conference in Kolkata this January, 2018. Prof. Sen is a well-known scholar of especially, but not only, Nyāya philosophy. He studied under such luminaries as B.K. Matilal and Gopinath Bhattacharya, and has done significant work in editing and publishing previously unavailable Sanskrit manuscripts. Currently he is Honorary Research Professor at the Center for Indological Studies and Research at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Gol Park, Kolkata. In the interview below, in addition to describing the numerous projects he’s involved in, he lays out his view of the academic training which aspiring students of Indian philosophy ought to pursue, along with some of his own views about philosophical matters.

1. What are you working on right now, and what do you hope to achieve by it?
(a) I have recently prepared an edition of Siddhāntabindu by Madhusudana Sarasvatī (which is a commentary on Daśaślokī of Śaṅkarācarya) along with English translation and elucidation. There is considerable difference in the readings of Siddhāntabindu in earlier editions, and I have tried to prepare a satisfactory edition by comparing all these earlier editions. Some of the earlier editions contain English translation, but that is not always sufficient for understanding these abstruse works. I hope the elucidation provided by me (which is based on four available Sanskrit commentaries) will be of some help to the readers who do not know Sanskrit. (This work is likely to be published by Indian Council of Philosophical Research in collaboration with Motilal Banarasidas.)

I am currently busy with completing two other projects :

(b) The first one is the preparation of the second (and last) volume of the English translation and elucidation of Vedāntaparibhāṣa of Dharmarāja Advarīndra. This is in continuation of a joint work. It was started by Professor Gopinath Bhattacharya, one of my esteemed teachers, who had completed the translation and the elucidation of some initial sections of this text. Unfortunately, he expired without finishing his work. Many years after his demise, his daughters requested of me to complete this work and the first volume of this work (which contains the first fifty-one sections of this text along with translation and elucidation) which was published in 2013. My work on Vedāntaparibhāṣa was interrupted by my work on Siddhāntabindu and also an injury to one of my eyes, and I have now resumed this unfinished work.

(c) The second project that I have to complete is the preparation of the edition of a section of Nyāyamañjarī by Jayanta Bhaṭṭa along with Bengali translation and elucidation. This section deals with (i) the various doctrines about the veridicality of cognitions and (ii) the various doctrines about Illusory experiences ( which are known respectively as prāmānyavāda-s and khyātivāda-s ).

Here, too, my aim is to make the contents of these important works accessible to those readers who do not know Sanskrit. Till 1965, Sanskrit was taught in many schools in West Bengal as a compulsory subject, and the students had to study it for at least five years, which made them capable of reading books written in simple Sanskrit. Thereafter, the situation changed, and most of the students these days do not have any knowledge of Sanskrit; which makes them incapable of going through Sanskrit text, and my recent work is primarily meant for them.

2. How did you come to study Indian philosophy, and how is it related to your current position?
While I was in school (1948-1959), I had to learn Sanskrit, the beauty and rigor of which has always appealed to me. During my undergraduate studies also, I had studied Sanskrit literature under the tutelage of many eminent scholars (one of them being the late Professor B.K. Matilal). While I was in the MA class, I had chosen Vedānta as my area of specialisation, since my acquaintance with Sanskrit was of much help to me. Subsequently, it became evident to me that unless I had good grounding in Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika and Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā, I would not be able to go through the advanced texts of Advaita Vedānta. Accordingly, I started taking lessons in these systems from erudite and renowned traditional scholar (paṇḍit-s) at the Oriental section of the Government Sanskrit College at Calcutta. When I started teaching at the Department of Philosophy, University of Calcutta; I was assigned many classes for teaching Indian Philosophy. At about the same time, I found in the residence of one of my relatives some old and rare manuscripts of unpublished Navya-Nyāya works (the oldest of them being dated 1540 Śakabda, i.e. 1620 C.E). As per the advice of my teachers, I decided to edit as many of these manuscripts as possible, and to try to get them published. Thereafter, four of such works (viz. Nyāyarahasya, Ākhyātavādavyākhyā and Mokṣavāda by Rāmabhadra Sarvabhauma and Anvīkṣikitattvavivāraṇa by Janakinatha Cudamāṇi) have been edited by me, and they have also been published. I have also translated into Bengali a section of Nyāyamañjarī that deals with the different theories about the meaning of sentences in general, and the meaning of imperative sentences (vidhivākya-s). The time-consuming work of deciphering these old manuscripts, comparing them with other manuscripts in different manuscript libraries, tracing the quotations to their sources etc. did not leave much scope on my part for studying the recent trends of Western Philosophy, even though I am not averse to it in any way.

I do not know for sure whether I can satisfactorily answer the second part of your second question. As you must have noted, most of my work till date has been entirely textual; and in such work, the personal views of the person undertaking such work do not play any significant role. Besides, I am not gifted enough to be a philosopher—after all, a teacher of literature is not always a litterateur! I consider myself more as a historian of ideas, who is primarily interested in tracing the gradual development of various rival and yet contemporary philosophical schools by way of mutual criticism. While undertaking such work, one should be as impartial as possible; even though I must confess that my early exposure to systems like Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika and Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā, and also to the writings of philosophers like Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore has instilled in me a taste for Realism and Pluralism. I sincerely believe that in principle, all things can be known, conceptualised and described in a proper manner, even though our cognitive apparatus and language may sometimes fail due to some sort of malfunction. In other words agnosticism, scepticism and relativism of an extreme sort do not appeal to me; even though I paradoxically enjoy reading the works of Buddhists and Advaita Vedāntins, one of whose claims is that the ultimate reality is beyond conceptualisation and verbalisation.

3. What advice would you give to students wishing to pursue the study of Indian philosophy?
Those who wish to pursue the study of Indian Philosophy may initially go through the histories of Indian Philosophy by scholars like S. N. Dasgupta and others. The editorial introductions to the different volumes of Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies edited by Karl H. Potter and his associates are also extremely useful. They may also go through the summaries of the different texts that may be found in these volumes. So far as I remember, a publisher by the name of Otto Harrassowitz has published several short volumes that deal with the history and bibliography of the schools of Indian Philosophy (for example, the volume on Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika was written by B. K. Matilal).

Knowledge of Sanskrit is a desideratum, since very few original works of Indian Philosophy have been translated, and quite a few of such translations (e.g. those by Ganganatha Jha) are in a language that has now become archaic. In some cases (e.g. Buddhism and Jainism) the knowledge of other languages (e.g. Pāli in the case of early Buddhism; Hybrid Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese in the case of Mahāyāna Buddhism; and Prakrit in the case of Jainism) would be necessary. A good exposure to Western Philosophy can be helpful; and in some cases, grounding in subjects like Mathematics or Linguistics can also be useful (e.g. Jonardan Ganeri studied Mathematics, while Brendan Gillon was a student of Linguistics; and their knowledge of these subjects has helped them in shedding new light on many problems of Indian Philosophy).

4. What have your major intellectual influences been, philosophical or otherwise? I do not know whether I have significantly influenced any one whatsoever. Most of the bright students of my MA class had chosen Modern Logic as their area of specialisation, and subsequently, had worked on some problems of Modern Western Philosophy like Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, Philosophical Logic, Applied Ethics and so on. Some among them (e.g. Amita Chatterjee, Arindam Chakraborty and Madhumita Chatterjee) have done also some good work in Indian Philosophy; but none of these works has been done under my supervision, all though at times, I was consulted on some issues. Two other students of mine (Kuntala Bhattacharya and Soma Chakraborty) have also done some good work, though their doctoral dissertations are yet to be printed.

In case you wanted to know by whom I have been influenced most, I have to say that in my case, the maximum amount of influence has been exercised by my teachers at the Oriental Section of Government Sanskrit College, Calcutta; who taught me a number of abstruse Sanskrit texts line by line; and one could not but admire the intellectual honestly, seriousness and thoroughness with which they discharged their duties. They have shown to me time and again how each system of Indian Philosophy is based on some basic prephilosophical intuitions; and also that once these basic views are admitted, the other doctrines of that system logically follow from them, just as geometrical theorems logically follow from axioms and postulates. They have also repeatedly pointed out to me that most of these systems also have some basic and yet vulnerable doctrines, and that once such doctrines are rejected, the system concern breaks down like a house of cards. [In the case of Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika systems, one such doctrines is the admission of inherence (samavāya); which has been the prime target of attack by almost all the other systems].

5. What do you think you’ll do next?
If my health permits, then I may once again undertake some project where either small texts, or some important section of a bigger work would be translated with elucidation. I have already devoted a lot of time on texts of Nyāya and Advaita Vedanta, and this time, I would prefer to choose some text of some other system. And alternative may be to write a small monograph on some selected problem.

6. Where do you think the field should go next, in terms of priorities and projects?
In the field of Indian Philosophy, a lot of work remains to be done at the ground level itself, because a huge number of texts are still in the form of manuscripts that need to be edited, published and translated. [In this respect Ancient and Medieval European Philosophy is in much better position–consider, for example the amount of work that has been done even in the field of Pre-Socratic Greek Philosophy. The first volume of A History of Greek Philosophy by W. K. C. Guthrie that was published from Cambridge University Press, and which covers a period from Thales to Heraclitus has more than 600 pages, and its Bibliography contains more than 900 entries in different languages.] An enterprising scholar may either choose to work in this area, or take up the task of annotated translation, or work on specific problems, concentrating either on the view of one particular school, or on a comparative account, where the views of more than one schools can be discussed. [For example, one may take up the problem of Substance (dravya), or Universal (sāmānya) or Relation (saṃbandha)]. Some works, that are in the form of anthologies, may also be undertaken by a team of scholars where the different chapters would be prepared by different authors under the editorship of some competent scholar.

People interested in Indian Philosophy should note that time is running out, because fewer and fewer people are learning Sanskrit and associated languages, and the number of competent traditional scholars who can give necessary and useful advice is also dwindling at an alarming rate.

7. Finally, a question originally asked on the 3AM Interview Series: What books do you recommend to help our readers be taken further into your philosophical world?
As I have already mentioned earlier, most of my work happens to be textual, where I have tried either to present in a published form, or to make intelligible the views of some other person(s). Such being the case, which book could I possibly recommend to some reader for being “taken further into my philosophical world”?

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

4 thoughts on “An interview with Prabal Kumar Sen

  1. In Volume 18 of Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Dvaita point of view has been presented, which seems to be the last word in Indian
    philosophy. Dr BNK Sharma in his various books like Advaita Siddhi
    versus Nyaymruta has explained the unacceptability of arguments of
    Madhusudhana Saraswathi. It is expedient that realism in Indian philosophy as established through Dvaita Vedanta is accepted for getting the man’s cherished goal of liberation or Non-birth status.

    • I am not sure that Dvaita Vedānta is the “last word in Indian philosophy” (or that such a last word even exists!) but for our readers, the book being discussed is:

      B.N.K. Sharma, Advaitasiddhi Vs Nyāyāmṛta: An Up To Date Critical Re-Appraisal. Bangalore: Anandatirtha Prathisthana of the Akila Bharata Madvha, 1994.

  2. Thank you for this, Malcolm. It is important that younger western scholars know the work of such stalwarts as Professor Sen. This is one reason why your interview series is so valuable.

    I wonder if Professor Sen’s comments on the synoptic analysis of Indian schools in terms of primary assumptions and problematic siddhanta-s is a sort of vindication for the relevance of the “schools” approach to Indian thought. My first academic Indian philosophy teacher, Ed Bryant, would echo the approach that Professor Sen’s teachers stressed, looking for structural assumptions and their consequences. Something in that seems important to make sense of the different approaches and their philosophical merits/problems.

    What I would have given for that compulsory 5 years of Sanskrit though. . .

    • I think there’s something to that, although it’s important to underline the difference between structural assumptions and “schools,” especially given the (still common) default assumption that Indian philosophy is “merely” religious and thinkers are following previously set-out dogma.

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