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The Vedāntic Realism of Rasvihari Das


This paper examines the realist interpretation of Vedānta that Rasvihari Das explicated in two of his celebrated treatises, namely, “The Theory of Ignorance in Advaitism” and “The Falsity of the World.” Rasvihari Das, unlike many of his contemporary thinkers of India, took a contrary position against the uninformed generalization about Indian thought that the philosophical tradition of India was one of an unbroken idealism and spiritualism. Though Rasviahari Das was influenced by his senior peer-thinkers of India like Hiralal Haldar, B. N. Seal, and K. C. Bhattacharyya, Rasvihari Das had his own independent view on and interpretation of Vedānta. The paper argues that in the Vedāntic realism of Rasvihari Das there is no rejection of the world or the individuals. In the first part of the paper, I suggests the possible influence of Indian realism on Rasvihari Das. In the second part, I make an attempt to unearth and examine the interpretation of Rasvihari Das that unravels his Vedāntic realism. The third part is the concluding appraisal of Rasvihari Das who could take Vedānta forward from its religious moorings and place it resolutely on a philosophical candour.

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  1. Rasvihari Das or Ras Bihari Das (1896–1976) is one of the most outstanding, original and critical thinkers in contemporary Indian philosophy. He was educated in the then Calcutta where he could study under and discuss with the known philosophers of the time like B. N. Seal and K. C. Bhattacharya. In 1920 at the completion of his MA in philosophy, he joined Indian Institute of Philosophy at Amalner (North Maharashtra)—the only center for philosophy in India on those days—and remained there for 26 years. His doctoral thesis was on ‘The Self and the Ideal’ (1930) (Dharamsi, 2012: 147). Since 1946 he taught philosophy at Calcutta, except for two years at Saugor (Sagar, MP) and one semester at Harvard. His works include Essentials of Advaitism (1933), Ajñāna (with G. R. Malakani and T. R. V. Murti, 1933), The Self and the Ideal (1935), The Philosophy of Whitehead (1937), A Handbook to Kant’ Critique of Pure Reason (a condensed free translation for use as a textbook, 1949) and many articles. Rasvihari Das had specialized in Advaita Vedānta and in the philosophy of A. N. Whitehead (Bhushan and Garfield, 2011: 353).

  2. S. Radhakrishnan writes that philosophy in India is ‘‘essentially spiritual. It is the intense spirituality of India, and not any great political structure or social organization that it has developed, that has enabled it to resist the ravage of time and accidents in history… The spiritual motive dominates life in India’’ (Radhakrishnan, 1923: 24–25). The same is the opinion of Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad too: ‘‘The characteristic of Indian thought is that it has paid greater attention to the inner world of man than to the outer world’’ (Azad, 1952: 21).

  3. Hiralal Haldar (1865–1942) was Professor of Philosophy at Calcutta University. His celebrated work Neo-Hegelianism (1927) is an extended study of the neo-Hegelian movement in English, and it discusses the works A. C. Bradley, E. Caird, T. H. Greene, J. Stirling, and J. McTaggart. In his succinct essay “Realistic Idealism” (1930), Haldar contrasts realism and idealism, and argues that they are not inconsistent with one another. He also explains his notion of the mind in which the universe finds its truth and explanation.

  4. Brajendra Nath Seal (1864–1938) was a leading philosopher of India in the first half of twentieth century and was Professor of Philosophy at Calcutta University. He was also Vice Chancellor of Mysore University and the first chancellor of Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. He was an original thinker of Brahmo Samaj. His magnum opus is New Essays in Criticism where he applies Hegelian dialectics to literary criticism. According Amita Chatterjee, B. N. Seal “having imbibed the wisdom of the East and the West, he developed his own philosophy characterized by syncretism, internationalism and interdisciplinarity. He drew the attention of the Western world to the scientific temper of the Indian mind garnering evidence from the ancient Indian philosophical treatises. He was the architect of the subject ‘Indian philosophy’ as we study it today. His philosophy of education and academic administration are still relevant” [Amita Chatterjee, “Brajendra Nath Seal: A Disenchanted Hegelian” in Sharad Deshpande (ed), Philosophy in Colonial India (New Delhi: Springer, 2015), 81 (the entire article is on pages 81–101)].

  5. The claim that the Naiyāyikas make is that Udayana’s arguments in the Ātmatattvaviveka and the Nyāyakusumāñjali silenced the Buddhists in toto, and the Buddhists due to the said defeat withdrew from the philosophical scene. Let us recall that the Naiyāyikas’ claim that the Ātmatattvaviveka is weapon with which the Buddhists were defeated.

  6. It is interesting to see how Dharmendra Nath Shastri holds Udayana as a weak philosopher: “Like the writers of the Navya-nyāya school, he (Udayana) lacks philosophical insight and originality and, as in their case, words get the better of the sense” (Shastri, 1964: 120). Shastri does not regard Uddyotakara and Udayana as great thinkers and gives credit to Vācaspati Miśra as the greatest exponent of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school among all others (Shastri, 1964: 6, 110–120).

  7. Samhitās of both Caraka and Suśruta advocate evidence-based and realistic approach to clinical practice. Caraka is a realist and he warns that the drug whose name, form and properties are not known or the drug which though known is not properly used will cause bad effects [Caraka Samhitā 1:125 (Caraka Samhitā, 1998)]. It is fascinating to note that Caraka does not even believe in theory of Karma and any form of fate and determinism, as an acceptance of them will prove his medicinal practice inefficacious. “In Āyurveda the basic knowledge is the knowledge about the knowable object, padārtha vijñāna. The knowledge of the material, its practical context and the observation of results are fundamental to the generation of Āyurvedic knowledge. In Āyurveda, padārtha vijñāna is extended into a holistic understanding with theoretical foundations and logical arguments emphasizing practical relevance” (Nair and Shankar, 2016: 49). The Āyurvedic tradition is a realistic system. World is real, human body is real, and the dhātus of the body are real. It also assesses the safety and efficacy of a medicinal substance in a realistic manner.

  8. Kauṭilya is considered as “the most ruthless of the Indian realists” (Brown, 1954: 268).

  9. Debiprasad Chattopadhaya (1918–1993) devoted his time and energy to explore on Indian materialism, history of science and scientific method in ancient India, and the works of Caraka and Suśruta. He also was a Marxist thinker. In a recent study on Indian rationalism Johannes Quack writes about Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya like this: “In his writings Chattopadhyaya does not hide his sympathy for the rationalist movement in the twentieth century; he also openly highlights his personal Marxist agenda” (Quack, 2012: 15).

  10. M. N. Roy’s new humanism tries to synthesizes the humanist, the materialist, the naturalist and the rationalist so as to bring out a social philosophy and ethics. For a good recent study see, Kataria (2005: 619–632).

  11. B. R. Ambedkar was a realist. One could see a study on the political realism of Ambedkar in Rajasekhariah and Jayaraj (1991: 357–375).

  12. As Jay L. Garfield and Arindam Chakrabarti write: “The range of Daya Krishna’s contribution is immense. He wrote dozens of important philosophical articles and books on a wide range of topics, including the philosophy of language and logic, epistemology, ethics, social and political philosophy, the philosophy of history, aesthetics, and the philosophy of the social sciences, as well as on the history of Indian philosophy and on the enterprise of cross-cultural philosophy” (Garfiekd and Chakrabarti, 2013: 459). Daya Krishna’s selected papers in the volume titled Contrary Thinking shows his realist and critical acumen (Krishna, 2011).

  13. T. R. V. Murti writes: “Brahman or Ātman is not one reality among other realities. If it were so, there is no point in calling the world false. Brahman is the reality of the world; and without negating the appearance, we cannot know Brahman” (Murti, 1996b: 88).

  14. By ‘religious residue’ I mean the inclination of those Indian philosophers to justify their philosophical convictions that have been inculcated through religious beliefs and religious texts. Some researchers, in psychology that deals with social motivation for meaning and its relation to values and morality, like Van Tongeren refer to this facet as “religious residue effect” (Van Tongeren et al., 2020). The religious residue that Rasvihari Das sees in Advaitism is this: “…the main purpose of advaitic philosophy is to guard its revealed truth against all possible doubts and criticisms as well as to demonstrate its possibility to our reason” (Das, 1933: 95).

  15. Yathā svapnamāye dṛṣṭe asad-rūpe, tathā viśvam idam asad dṛṣṭam (“As are dreams and illusions or a castle in the air seen in the sky, so is the universe viewed by the wise in the Vedānta” (Gauḍapāda, 1949: Māṇḍūkyakarikā 2: 18, p. 125). Śankara’s commentary on Māṇḍūkya Kārikā 2: 18 goes like this: ayam prapañco māyā rajju-sarpavat – “This is world is unreal like the illusory snake on the rope” (Śankara, 1949: Commentary of Māṇḍūkyakarikā 2: 18, p. 115).

  16. As for example let us take G. R. Malkani and T. R. V. Murti. Malkani and Murti write, in the same volume in which Rasvihari Das published his “The Theory of Ignorance in Advaitism,” about the world: “The only reality is the Absolute, the one eternal intelligent substance. Besides it, nothing else exists. The world of the manifold that we appear to know is a mere appearance; it is non-existent in the real” (Malkani, 1933: 4). “To experience Brahman is not to know the world., not to be caught in the meshes of relations and differences” (Murti, 1933: 214).

  17. Let me bring briefly here the distinction that philosophers make in contemporary discourse between ontology and metaphysics. According to contemporary way of dividing up the doing of philosophy, mainly made popular by Quine, ontology is concerned with the question of what entities exist (a task that is often identified with that of drafting a “complete inventory” of the universe) whereas metaphysics seeks to explain, of those entities, what they are (i.e., to specify the “ultimate nature” of the items included in the inventory) (Varzi, 2011). The source for this division is W. V. O. Quine, “On What There Is,” (Quine, 1948) However, the “inventory” metaphor goes back to C. D. Broad that he explained in his Scientific Thought (Broad, 1923: 242). In this sense, we could say that ontology is the study of what there might be and metaphysics of what there is. Then metaphysics is clearly inseparable from empirical science and our experience and reason. But it is thereby also inseparable from an interest in the real world. Let us also note that there is a difference, not just a trivial variance, today in the construal of metaphysics in Continental Philosophy. Let me quote what is said in this regard: “And so in CP (continental philosophy), too, metaphysics thrives. Claims about the nature of reality and being, about possibility and necessity, and about particularity and universality are flourished ad nauseam by its practitioners. Moreover, CP metaphysic is inseparable from a genuine interest in the real world. … its metaphysics is never pursued in any properly theoretical way. Just as, in a good poem, content and form are inextricably entwined, so too in CP the metaphysics is inseparable from its idiosyncratic expression (‘‘differance’’). Finally, CP’s interest in the real world is an interest in the social and political world, never in the physical or biological world. Only occasionally, when a scientific theory or, more often, a piece of scientific jargon, resonates with the CP metaphysician’s view of things does he turn his attention to science (to catastrophe theory, complexity theory, quantum gravity, Goedel’s limitation theorems) in order to play with a handful of ill-understood expressions” (Mulligan et al., 2006: 65).

  18. I take this term ‘reality-in-itself’ from Bernard d’Espangnat. He uses this term for the ontological reality, and says that the scope of scientific knowledge is just on empirical reality. In his Press Conference Statement at the reception of Templeton Prize, d’Espagnat said: “I think that our scientific knowledge finally bears, not on reality-it-itself—alias ‘the Real,’ alias ‘the ground of everything’—but on empirical reality, that is, on the picture that, in virtue of its structure and finite intellectual capacities, the human mind is induced to form of reality-in-itself” (d’Espagnat, 2009).

  19. K. Satchidananda Murty explained it in this way: “While no description is possible of Brahman, the task of the Vedānta is to teach about it, and so logically speaking it is an impropriety; but only in this way can the Vedānta emphasize the mystery of Brahman, which eludes all objective language; and yet it can be dealt with only in that way if Brahman has to be talked about intelligibly. While thus to talk of Brahman is a verbal impropriety, this impropriety is mitigated by means of qualifying epithets, which attempt to reduce or remove the spatio‐temporal elements in experience, by either enlarging our conception or narrowing it down (Murty, 1974: 57).

  20. According to Rasviahari Das, the theory of illusion in Advaita expresses a faith—fides, not reason—ratio. It operates in spiritual life. He states: “It expresses a faith and a demand which necessarily accompany a certain spiritual outlook. The faith is that the apparent is nought, although it is not yet realized to be such, and the demand is that it should be so realized. The faith and the demand cannot, from the nature of the case, be justified and fulfilled in secular life and thought. The justification and fulfilment can come, if at all, only from a spiritual illumination” (Das, 1933: 114).

  21. All the Advaitins do not subscribe to this view of the unreality of the world and all that is in it. This is what T. M. P. Mahadevan has to say about it: “Some hold that pure Brahman is the cause, and some others maintain that the jīva is the cause of the universe. The followers of the Samkṣepa-śārīraka says that pure Brahman is the material cause. Those who uphold the theory that perception is creation (dṛṣṭi-śṛṣṭi-vāda) regard the entire world as the fabrication of the jīva’s intellect. Just as dream-cognition, īśvaratva, etc., are all mental constructions made by the jīva, Bhāratītīrtha (Vidyāraṇya) does not seem to support either of these views regarding the cause of the world. In the Vivaraṇa-prameya-sangraha he expounds the Vivaraṇa view according to which Iśvara, or Brahman qualified by māyā, is the material cause. The world cannot be suspected to be a product of the jīva, he says, for all jīvas who are qualified by agency and enjoyer-ship and are of the nature of name and form fall within the product. In the Pañcadaśī, though the Vivaraṇa view that Iśvara is the primal cause is maintained, subsidiary causality is attributed to the jīva. Some Advaitins who make a difference between māyā and avidyā say that the universe beginning with ether, etc., is the product of the māyā located in the Lord and that the internal organ, etc., are the products of the subtle elements which are created by the nescience of the jīva. According to Bhāratītīrtha, Iśvara and jīva are the joint creators of the world. But there is this difference while the lord is the principal author, the jīva is only a subsidiary parent. In respect of the existence of the world, Iśvara is the ground, whereas in respect of its enjoyment the jīva is the locus. The nature of creation by the jīva is psychical rather than physical. The universe is a product of Iśvara and an object of enjoyment for the jīva” (Mahadevan, 2011: 165–166). The Advaitins do not consider that there is an absolute non-entity of the world, but they would argue only that there is a mistaken cognition of it. Madhusūdhana Sarasvatī says in his Advaitasiddhi this fact in this way: “As for the Śūnyavādin, the Bauddha Nihilist, he does not admit of any mistaken cognition with a real substratum; and so with reference to the shell-silver and to the phenomenal world, he would never admit the presence of the character of being cognizable as existib in a certain substratum,—a character which serves to differentiate ordinary things from absolute non-entities, which are not cognizable as having an existence in any substratum. [So it is the Nihilist who will be open to the charge of regarding the phenomenal world as an absolute non-entity; and not the Vedantin, who fully admits of mistaken cognitions with real substratum, the ultimate real substratum for all things being Brahman]” (Madhusūdana-sarasvatī, 1990: 22–23).


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Sebastian, C.D. The Vedāntic Realism of Rasvihari Das. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. 39, 279–295 (2022).

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