The Indian Intellectual tradition

  • By Prabuddha Bharata
  • September 2007

IN his essay on “The Nyaya and the Architectonic of Logic”, P T Raju observes: ‘Gautama [the founder of the ancient Indian school of logic called Nyaya] felt that salvation (nihsreyas) can be obtained only if the right effort is made Our effort can be right only if it is in accordance with reality; for life has to be planned according to reality. But then we have to know what reality is. Our knowledge has, therefore, to be right and logically valid. There is no other way to determine reality than experience and logically valid forms of knowing. When the forms and their methods and through them, reality are properly understood, then only can salvation be possible. So Gautama enunciated sixteen categories of logic, epistemology, and argumentation as means to salvation’.

Nyaya as a system of philosophy has always been both pragmatic and realistic. Its pragmatism is reflected in its refusal to develop a purely formal framework of deductive logic totally divested from empirical considerations, as has been done by modern mathematical logic. Its realism is grounded in the pluralistic world view assiduously developed by its cognate system, the Vaisheshika. The Vaisheshikas were probably the earliest analytical philosophers in India. They attempted a complete description of objective reality in terms of six conceptual categories (later increased to seven).

Moreover, none were as ‘unrestrained in their speculations’ and none ‘such powerful critics of time- worn prejudices as the followers of Kanada [the Vaisheshikas]’. Gautama mentions doubt, aim, empirical examples, general truths, premises, hypothetical reasoning, and conclusions as essential components of his framework of logic. Doubt and aim provide the incentive, empirical observations and general truths the material, and premises and hypothetical (or counterfactual conditional) reasoning the instruments for fresh knowledge. It was this spirit of inquiry and freedom of thought that was responsible for much of the vigor and vitality associated with ancient Indian thought and culture.

If the Nyaya-Vaisheshika schools refused to let go of their empirical moorings, the ancient Indian mathematicians made rapid strides into the realm of abstract reasoning by developing the decimal place value notation with zero that not only allowed them great facility in handling large numbers and complex computations--including those involving irrational and negative numbers and surds--but also facilitated the development of symbolic algebra and later of analytic trigonometry and calculus.

Intellectual vigor and creativity are not of much practical value if they do not get translated into technological innovation. The theories of modern science have a fascinating grip on the contemporary mind because of the amazing power they grant us to manipulate nature and secure better longevity, comfort, and physical connectivity, and the broadening of our intellectual horizons that has followed as a consequence. A thriving Indian manufacturing industry right up the eighteenth century, a sophisticated tradition of medicine and surgery based on astute observations, and the excellence of ancient and medieval Indian handicraft, architectural design, shipbuilding, and iron works are proofs of the practical face of Indian thought.

With such sound intellectual traditions, why did we miss the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century? The prime reasons were (i) loss of touch with our intellectual heritage, (ii) isolation from the global community, and (iii) political instability and colonial subjugation. All of these factors are virtually non-operational today. We can, therefore, well expect a vigorous flowering of Indian thought in the coming decades.

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