In another Varanasi

Here, intellectual engagement transcended identities in the name of knowledge.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: March 19, 2014 11:44 pm
As Varanasi becomes a gigantic political ‘akhara’, these esoteric histories might make us think more reflectively about our civilisational aspirations. (PTI) As Varanasi becomes a gigantic political ‘akhara’, these esoteric histories might make us think more reflectively about our civilisational aspirations. (PTI)

Here, intellectual engagement transcended identities in the name of knowledge.

The idea of Varanasi is overdetermined with symbolism. Each story comes with its distinctive mix of sin and redemption. I recently had occasion to think of a forgotten Varanasi project, perhaps of interest to a handful of scholars, if that. This was the project of Varanasi, amongst other places, as a site of intellectual modernity, recently brilliantly recovered for us by Jonardon Ganeri’s The Lost Age of Reason.

I was thinking of the project in the context of a rather perplexing conundrum. I was teaching two texts back to back: Iqbal’s dazzling book, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, and Sri Aurobindo’s ambitious The Human Cycle. One of the questions emerging from the discussion was this. These are works of breathtaking ambition. They have a philosophy of history, they deeply engage with Western thinkers like Nietzsche and Bergson, they synthesise reason with other aspects of the human personality, and they wrestle with questions of community and humanity. They engage with the whole world.

But they do not engage the traditions adjacent to them. It is almost as if, except for a cursory reference to idolatry, Hindu thought does not exist for Iqbal, and Islam does not for Aurobindo.

This is all the more surprising because the philosophical ground they occupied, a discussion of being and reason, could have been amenable to such a dialogue. After all, both are talking to Nietzsche. Aurobindo was later to say that he could have engaged with Islam if he knew Persian, and that Sufi philosophy could perhaps provide a philosophical meeting ground. Sufism was, of course, precisely the philosophical stance Iqbal criticised.

But the larger puzzle is this: why, despite an extraordinary coexistence of Hinduism and Islam, is their mutual philosophical engagement so meagre? Carl Ernst has laboriously documented Persian translations of yoga and other texts, and there are scattered references to Islamic thinking in Sanskrit texts. But the scale of deep conceptual engagement has remained surprisingly modest on all sides. Whatever the engagement between Hinduism and Islam at the vernacular level, at the level of philosophical thought, these were like the banks of two rivers running parallel but not destined to meet.

There is of course one major exception to this, which involves the first “Varanasi project”. This was Dara Shikoh’s work with Banaras pandits to translate, among other things, all the Upanishads. Much can be written about Dara Shikoh’s enterprise. But two claims about it were striking. The first, as Ganeri points out, was the deep philosophical engagement: the Upanishads were to be used to interpret and reveal the truth of the Quran.

The second claim, embodied in his masterwork, Majma al-Bahrain (the meeting of two oceans), was the mutual reinterpretation of Islam and Hinduism in terms of each other’s categories. But this was not, as shallow modern understandings often portray, a political gesture synthesising two traditions. The meeting of the two oceans was meant to refer to the moment when an instant of enlightenment is produced. It is an intellectual engagement not driven by a desire to add identities, but to transcend them in the name of knowledge. This is perhaps the spirit that led the French observer Francois Bernier to describe Varanasi as the Athens of the East, the place where all kinds of cross currents circulated.

One central figure who plays a big role in this story, whom Bernier seems to have consulted, is the great Kavindracharya Saraswati, patronised by a Dara Shikoh acolyte, Danishmand Khan. No wonder that the Sanskrit scholar, P.K. Gode, could write this about 17th century India: “It was a tie of learning that brought together a Frenchman of Paris, a Muslim of Persia and a Brahmin of Banaras, actuated by only the motive of learning of thought which we so value in modern times.”

If these cross currents are one story that Ganeri recovers, the other story of Varanasi’s incipient modernity is perhaps even more pertinent. A Gujarati Jain, Yashovijaya Gani, spent more than a decade in apprenticeship with Nava Nyaya scholars in Varanasi around the same time that Dara Shikoh’s project was under way. Varanasi was a thriving centre of innovation in logic and epistemology. Gani made significant contributions to logic, theories of reasoning and thinking about religious pluralism. But as Ganeri recounts, two of Gani’s contributions stand out quite startlingly. The first was his enumeration of the virtues required for reasoning.

In particular, Gani placed stress on two virtues: neutrality and groundedness in all points of view. Neutrality is about the detached use of reason, and following it where it leads; groundedness is about taking an all-things-considered view. In the absence of these virtues, debate is just empty quarrelling. Gani went on to to develop a sophisticated account of reason and reason-giving.

His second important contribution was the outlining of a non-dogmatic theory of reasoning, one he thought implicit in all religions. No shastra should be accepted based merely on sectarian claims. In Ganeri’s felicitous translation of Gani’s core argument, “the theory should be subject to testing, just as the purity of a sample of gold is determined by tests involving rubbing, cutting and heating”. Like many Jain thinkers, he used these ideas to remind people of the conditionality of all assertion, and used this for his exegesis of other traditions.

These are of course large and complex projects. The collective amnesia about our own intellectual history has brought us to the point where these questions seem of little more than scholarly interest. Perhaps it is precisely the disillusionment with the generation of Iqbal and Aurobindo that has made us more instrumental and pragmatic. Somewhere, their reconstructions of our respective pasts unwittingly pushed us into a cul-de-sac from which we are still recovering. But as Ganeri’s interesting history reminds us, India has always been full of such intellectual possibility and unexpected juxtapositions.

Varanasi was the name for one of them. We have so gotten used to being argumentative, that we seem to forget how to reason. We have so gotten used to enumerating identities that we have lost a sense of what truths we might jointly pursue. As Varanasi becomes a gigantic political akhara, these esoteric histories might make us think more reflectively about our civilisational aspirations, about the virtues that sustain its best possibilities.

India has lost too many “ages of reason”, it has often been too unaware of what is right under its nose. One can only hope that the spirit that brought Dara Shikoh and Yashovijaya Gani to their Varanasi projects, the commitment to truth and public reason, will find a way of triumphing over the fist fights about to ensue.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for 

‘The Indian Express’

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

First Published on: March 20, 2014 12:05 am
  1. G
    Feb 10, 2015 at 1:08 pm
    1. L
      Luhar Luhar
      Mar 20, 2014 at 4:02 pm
      Thank you for a wonderful read, Mr. Mehta.
      1. S
        Mar 20, 2014 at 5:03 am
        superb man! superbly written!
        1. N
          NIdhi Prabha
          Mar 24, 2014 at 7:25 am
          Fresh perspective and useful knowledge, thanks.
          1. S
            Mar 21, 2014 at 4:38 am
            1. Load More Comments