Book Review of Kalidas Bhattacharyya. New Perspectives in Indian Philosophy [Ed. Nirmalya Narayan Chakraborty]. (Reviewed by Krishna Mani Pathak)

Kalidas Bhattacharyya. New Perspectives in Indian Philosophy [Ed. Nirmalya Narayan Chakraborty]. X+435pp., index. The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2023. ₹ 600.00 (paperback).

The New Perspectives in Indian Philosophy (henceforth NPIP) edited by Chakraborty is a scholarly collection of philosophical lectures delivered by Kalidas Bhattacharyya (1911-1984) at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture during last two decades of his life. Bhattacharyya continued the philosophical legacy of his father, the notable modern Indian philosopher, Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyya (1875-1949) by establishing himself as one of the profound Indian thinkers through his major writings of Object, Content and Relation (1951), Alternative Standpoints in Philosophy (1953), Philosophy, Logic and Language (1965) and Presuppositions of Science and Philosophy (1974). (To avoid any confusion in the names of the two father-son Bhattacharyyas, I propose to call Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyya, popularly known as K. C. Bhattacharyya, as ‘Bhattacharyya Senior’ and Kalidas Bhattacharya as ‘Bhattacharyya’.) This book gives a good glimpse of Bhattacharyya Jr.’s philosophical ideas already published, and delivered as lectures at the institute. Since his intellectual concern was to outline the essential features of various Indian philosophical systems and their historical development, he was interested not only in the methodology of Indian metaphysics and epistemology, but also in the patterns of thinking adopted by Indian minds. This can be seen in the book which on the one hand unfolds Bhattacharya’s philosophical reflections on the definite-indefinite relationship, and on the other hand demonstrates his phenomenological approach to Man as a psychophysical reality and his transcendental approach to the Absolute as a cosmic reality.

The NPIP consists of 13 major chapters excluding Chakraborty’s introduction. (The chapters in the paperback are not numbered by the editor/publisher. Therefore, to make the review more systematic and to help readers develop methodological coherence, I have numbered the chapters and referred to them in sequence where necessary.) It shares the key features of the Indian philosophical tradition along with Bhattacharyya’s insightful percipience on major concepts like dharma, karma, bhakti, tattva, yoga, mukti, etc. But before shedding light on the core of these chapters, let me begin with Chakraborty’s introduction of the book that offers a clear account of Bhattacharyya’s mature philosophical thinking. Indeed, Chakraborty’s succinct introductory description of Bhattacharyya’s philosophy gives a clear picture of the inner content of the NPIP. For example, at the beginning of his introductory note, Chakraborty observes that Bhattacharyya though “draws our attention to the fact that the fundamental motive of Indian Philosophical speculation is the attainment of an ideal life”, for him, “post-eleventh century Indian philosophy lost touch with this practical mooring and engaged itself into theoretical and linguistic niceties” (p. 1). To some extent, Bhattacharya was right because except for the emergence and contribution of a few big names in Indian philosophy from time to time, philosophical engagement in post-eleventh century India began to sink or decline. The kind of commitment to intellectual discussion that can be seen in the philosophical texts of India before the eleventh century is almost missing in the later centuries.

However, from Chakraborty’s introduction to the final chapter, the book comprehensively explores Bhattacharya’s views on three important aspects of the Indian philosophical system: 1) major metaphysical concepts and ideas, 2) major knowledge contents and their application in life, and 3) the contribution and development of ancient and modern Indian philosophical schools. Chakraborty states that for Bhattacharyya, Indian philosophy and religion were, by and large “adhered to humanistic ideals. Indian religions, in general, never talked about a divorce of man and the God or Absolute” and calling the Absolute ‘absolute’ “is our attempt to definitise the indefinite” (p. 5). It is worth noting that the idea of the indefinite was central to the philosophy of K. C. Bhattacharyya.  

Chapter 1 outlines the major concepts like the Self or Ātman, the Mind or Manas, ignorance or ajñāna or avidyā, the Subject or Sākṣin and Pure Consciousness or Śuddha Cit or Cetanā etc. and their philosophical significance in Indian philosophical history. Bhattacharyya, in this chapter, declares that “Indian metaphysics is almost a matter-of-fact study of reality, conducted in a thoroughly intelligible manner to the end” and that ‘Indian epistemology is none other than detailed psychology of knowledge or a branch of matter-of-fact metaphysics, nothing of a mysterious brand like Kant’s ‘Critique’ or Husserl’s ‘Phenomenology’” (pp. 11-12).  However, he believes that despite having a strong intellectual foundation, Indian philosophy ceased to be creative and “lost its practical mooring” in post-eleventh century India, although he also admits that “the intellect of our philosophers remained as sharp and analytic as before, it could not alter the framework of each system and the bold reliefs built through centuries and millennia” (p. 12). With regard to Indian ethics, surprisingly Bhattacharya was slightly negative when he claims that “systematic ethics, as it is generally understood in the west, was not much developed in India” (p. 27), although the truth is that systematic ethical views do exist in most Indian philosophical schools. Bhattacharya may seem to some of us to be somewhat correct in relation to modern Indian philosophical history, it is also true that the contributions of many notable philosophers of our time cannot be undermined and ignored at all.

In chapters 2 to 6, Bhattacharya discusses the concept and existence of God, his divine character and his relationship with man as conceived and advanced in the theist-atheist schools of the Indian tradition. The overall content and contemplative reflection of these chapters is exactly what we find in most of the books on the history of Indian philosophy. For monists such as (Indian) Advaitavādins or nondualists who follow the Real Self doctrine, there is no creation and no creator. God or Brahman and the individual self (Ātman) are essentially identical. The kind of duality or diversity that one experiences or sees in the world is only due to ignorance of the difference between the real and the unreal. Bhattacharyya rightly believes that “individual selves as not contingent are not caused by anything. God, therefore, cannot be taken as the cause of the self. The world, however, is, according to all theists, so caused. […]. The primary stuff of the world, no matter whether it is atoms or an inchoate and homogeneous primary stuff, is, according to all Indian theists, co-eternal with God” (pp. 41-42).

Furthermore, on the essence of man and his suffering, Bhattacharya draws a line of distinction between systems including Christianity that believe that man is fundamentally a sinner and those that believe that man is divine, not a sinner. Drawing a contrasting parallel between the typical Christian view and traditional Indian view on man’s suffering, Bhattacharyya claims that the root cause of suffering of the individual self in Indian tradition is “some form of cognitive confusion” or ignorance (avidyā) whereas in the Christian tradition, “the ultimate cause of suffering on the part of man is sin, not the basic cognitive confusion” (p. 48). Bhattacharyya has a reason for his claim about the divine character of man since most theistic Indian texts and the common Indian mind strongly believe that pure knowledge (sat), pure volition (cit) and pure bliss (ānanda) constitute “the threefold spirit in man” (p. 113).

Chapters 7 and 8 present Bhattacharyya’s understanding of the Indian concept of Self as the realization of the self or the cosmic ‘I’ or the cosmic ‘you’ as reflected in orthodox Indian schools such as Sāṁkhya-Yoga and Advaita Vedānta, and of man’s freedom as transcendence and determining factors of his actions. With regard to man or the individual self, Bhattacharyya believes that “Essentially,… man is the ultimate cosmic śakti in the different aspects of knowledge, volition, and feeling-and-emotion called cit-śakti, kriyā-śakti and ānanda-śakti respectively” (p. 135). On the issue of whether man is completely under the cosmic control of Nature or subject to supernatural control for all his actions, Bhattacharyya shares the mixed reaction of determinism with indeterminism when he concludes that “if there were no scope whatsoever for freedom, there could never be the mokṣa that the Indian philosophers speak so much of. […] Even scriptural injunctions, prescriptions as much as prohibitions, would all be pointless; for if all my actions be wholly determined, why should the scriptures at all enjoin these prescriptions and prohibitions?” (p. 159). Needless to say, according to Bhattacharyya, Indian philosophical systems consider personal freedom as a prerequisite for applying the knowledge of the definite and the indefinite while deciding to perform a particular action.

Chapter 9 is a brief discussion on the close intellectual relationship between Charles Freer Andrews (popularly known as Deenbandhu), Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore as well as their temporal mutual disagreements on certain political issues. Historically, we know that these dynamic social and religious reformers in British India actively worked together to overcome the alienation of individuals due to severe rifts and contradictions in the world. They more or less laid down a common path of non-violence and religious harmony for a dignified world free from conflicts and suffering. It is also known that Andrews held an intimate place in the hearts of both Gandhi and Tagore because of his affection for India and the Indian knowledge tradition. Appreciative of Andrews, Bhattacharyya rightly observes that “Essentially a man of Christ, he was attracted by the two near approaches to him – Tagore and Gandhi – and through their examples and teachings learnt again to see the Lord everywhere” (p. 171).

Chapter 10 of the book presents Bhattacharya’s discernment on Bhattacharyya Sr.’s philosophy of the definite and the indefinite that can be understood in the Advaitic framework of the absolutely real (pāramārthika) and the temporally real (vyāvahārika). Throwing light on the logical basis for the identity and difference relationship between the definite (temporally limited in properties) and the indefinite (the Absolute), Bhattacharyya illustrates that “The realistic equivalent of the relation of objects and subjects is the relation of the definite and the indefinite. The definite is distinct, and the indefinite is distinct from distinction” (199). (George Bosworth Burch’s excellent discussion of issues related to the idea of the definite and the indefinite may be more helpful in enhancing the understanding of the relationship between the two from both an East and West perspective. See George Bosworth Burch’s The Definite and the Indefinite. Retrieved on 31 March, 2024. URL: ) Chakraborty observed exactly the same philosophical aspect of the definite and the indefinite in the introduction when he writes that for K. C. Bhattacharyya “if indefinite constitutes definiteness, the relation between the two individuals involves a play of dependence and independence together, for individuals qua individual is dependent on the other” (p. 5). Thus, in this chapter, Bhattacharyya seems to agree with Bhattacharyya Sr. on the definite-indefinite debate.

Chapter 11 is a general discussion on the humanist tradition of India as seen in its spiritual and naturalistic approach to the cosmos. With some important philosophical and theological narratives drawn from Europe and the Church tradition about the so-called humanist development in the West, Bhattacharya clearly and correctly outlines that “In India, thus, there was no occasion, till the other day, or at the close of some dark days earlier, for the type of humanistic revolt we found in Europe five or six centuries ago. This was because there was nothing to revolt against. Natural pursuits were gladly permitted. Not only that, they were positively recommended, though as well-regulated, i.e. within the bounds of dharma” (p. 203). What Bhattacharya implies is that Indian philosophical thinking is primarily humanistic because its spiritual and natural demands do not prevent anyone from living an ideal life consisting of the cardinal virtues. All human activities have been given due credit and contextual moral importance when necessary as a means of achieving the ultimate goal of salvation or Mokṣa as the highest Puruṣārtha.

Chapter 12 of the NPIP is a lengthy description in two parts of two subtopics that Bhattacharyya had already examined in the previous few chapters. The first part is thus a re-exploration of already explored concepts of man, self, consciousness and freedom, although from the philosophical perspective of Cārvāka and Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika. The second part of the chapter then depicts his descriptive reflection on the three means of liberation or self-realization:  jñāna (knowledge), karma (action) and bhakti (devotion). Bhattacharyya re-examines these key concepts and important means for liberation to outline the major bones of contention between various philosophical schools and their followers interested in making a comparative study of Indian philosophy. He believes that disagreements among Indian philosophical schools are caused by the application of a particular logic by a particular school and at the same time rejection of another important logic by the same school. An attempt has been made to develop a neutral logic acceptable to all, but unfortunately this has not happened. The only reason is that each philosophical school or tradition respects its own logic and ignores the logic of others. Bhattacharyya points towards this when he writes that “Nyaya logic is the boldest attempt in that direction. But others have not accepted some of its important fundamentals. This is true not only of Indian philosophy, but of philosophy everywhere and, strangely enough, even of modern science. Logics differing from one another are a highly intriguing phenomenon” (pp. 276). Bhattacharya seems to be true to the reality and future of Indian philosophy in modern times.

The final chapter (Chapter 13) focuses on the Kaṭhopaniṣad, a classical Sanskrit text that narrates the famous dialogue story of Naciketā (a child protagonist or hero) and Yama (the god of death) on the nature of the self, and tackles larger questions of metaphysics and ethics. In this chapter, Bhattacharyya has tried to reflect and explain some of the key ideas of the text such as punarjanma (rebirth/reincarnation), karmaphala (result of actions), brahmaloka (Brahman-world) and sākṣin (the Supreme Subject). Since Kaṭhopaniṣad talks about God, the Vedic gods and deities, and the idea of brahmaloka is central to the Yama-Naciketā dialogue in the text, Bhattacharyya interprets the text in favour of the existence of God and man as potential manipulators: “So the postulation of God, gods, and men-as-conscious-agents – all as free manipulators, though according to causal laws – is neither absurd nor gratuitous. This is not only the traditional Indian approach, it lies at the back of all old-day Ontological, Cosmological, and Teleological arguments in the West” (401).

Later on the question of what brahmaloka is and how one can realize being there, Bhattacharyya describes the process that involves pure consciousness: “this brahmaloka is what is first freely posited by pure consciousness and should, on that account, be as ultimate, according to the logic we have developed so far, as that free positing itself and, also by the same logic, as the substantive self-contained pure consciousness that posits it freely” (p. 432). Although Bhattacharyya gives a comprehensive account of the philosophy of the Kaṭhopaniṣad, the structure of the NPIP appears to have this chapter as an addition to the book, perhaps to include some textual material from the classical form. I believe that if NPIP had started with the questions raised in Kaṭhopaniṣad, this pithy philosophical chapter would have had a much more significant impact on the minds of the readers.

In short, although this book overall is worth reading about the old and new approaches in Indian philosophy, it has a few disadvantages: Firstly, the book certainly disappoints the mind of a researcher and those who always calculate the value of the book in respect and proportion to the number of literature and references used. This is because this comprehensive collection of Bhattacharyya’s lectures lacks a list of literature and textual references except for a few ‘endnotes’ as references are given in Chapters 11 to 13. Secondly, reflective claims and interpretations made by Bhattacharyya are not supported by any textual quotations, which is quite unlikely for a scholarly book like this. And thirdly, due to the above mentioned methodological flaws, this book doesn’t seem to be a good resource book for a beginner or an early-career researcher as it runs the risk of misunderstanding Bhattacharyya’s perspicacity and his mature philosophical thoughts. Nevertheless, this book is potentially so good that it attracts ordinary minds interested in Indian philosophy.

Reviewed by Krishna Mani Pathak, Hindu College, University of Delhi, India

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