In Search of Navadvipa: Chronicling the Collapse of Nyaya Philosophy

The logic school of Hindu philosophy, Nyaya, flourished for 2000 years before dying out during the late Mughal and early British rule. 

Manish Maheshwari
| 17 min read
April 05, 2021
Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

Just 100 km away from Kolkata, on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, is a town called Navadvipa, well known as the birthplace of the great Vaiṣṇava saint, Caitanya Mahāprabhu, and the seat of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. Less well known is the fact that, long before British rule, some of the world's most sophisticated work in logic, epistemology, law, hermeneutics, and grammar was taking place in Navadvipa. Students from across India, Nepal and Tibet thronged to this town to learn under master logicians and grammarians. Navadvipa was a seat of the New Logic school of Hindu philosophy, called Navya-Nyāya. Swami Vivekananda points out:

Transported from the soil of Mithila to Navadvipa, nurtured and developed by the fostering genius of [Raghunātha] Śiromaṇi, Gadādhara, Jagadīśa, and a host of other great names, an analysis of the laws of reasoning in some points superior to every other system in the whole world, expressed in a wonderful and precise mosaic of language, stands the Nyāya of Bengal, respected and studied throughout the length and breadth of Hindusthān.1

Sheldon Pollock describes these Navya-Nyāya philosophers as "the legatees of two millennia of brilliant thought", the subject matter of their philosophy representing "some of the most sophisticated and refined known to human history."2

History of Nyāya

From the first millennia BCE, Indian philosophers placed immense importance on the science of inquiry and theories of reasoning, which they called Ānvīkṣikī. Later, Ānvīkṣikī developed into a fully-fledged science of logic and epistemology called Nyāya. Nyāya philosophers, known as nyāyaikas, sought to ground human knowledge on an indisputable foundation upon which all other sciences could be built. To construct their systems of thought, all schools of Indian philosophy relied on the methods of proof (prāmana) and analytic techniques propounded by Nyāya logicians.

The dialectic between the realism of nyāyaikas and the idealism of Buddhist philosophers was the highlight of Indian philosophical thought during the first millennia CE.  Nāgārjuna, the famous Buddhist philosopher, was skeptical about the very idea of grounding knowledge on some unshakable principle. He famously questioned Nyāya philosophers’ claims to knowledge: "If such and such objects are established for you through the ways of gaining knowledge, tell me how you establish those ways of gaining knowledge. If the ways of gaining knowledge are established through other means of gaining knowledge, then there is an infinite regress." This was one of the most astute challenges put to Nyāya philosophers.

With the waning of Buddhism in the 12th century, the logical foundations of Nyāya were challenged by the Vedantist, Sri Harsha. In response, the Nyāya philosophers of Mithila (the modern-day Darbhanga region in Bihar), starting with Gaṅgeśa, embarked on a completely reworked system of logic based on rigorous empiricism and a new technical vocabulary of reasoning. Any enquiry into the nature of the world would have to be evidence-based and the proofs derived from empirical confirmation. The questions that Gaṅgeśa was grappling with were still the fundamental ones – how is valid knowledge derived, and how are we conscious of that validity?

From the 11th century, if not earlier, the Mithila region in Northern Bihar emerged as the premier seat of learning. Its educational institutions attracted students and scholars from across India and neighboring countries. During the same period, the forces of Bakhtiyar Khilji, rampaging across Central Bihar, destroyed an entire university system – Nālanda, Vikramaśīla, Odaṇtapurī – and burnt entire libraries. However, tenacious scholars kept the flame of learning alive in Mithila (just 120 km away from Nalanda), which escaped destruction probably due to its location in the foothills of the Himalayas surrounded by impenetrable jungle and large tributaries of the Ganga.

The Rise and Decline of Navadvipa

The surviving flame of learning in Mithila was carried to Bengal by one of India's greatest logicians, Raghunātha Śiromaṇi (1470-1540 CE). Born in Navadvipa in the same period as Caitanya, Raghunātha learnt under the master Nyāya philosophers of Mithila. Having completed the most rigorous course of studies and, according to tradition, defeating even his teachers in public debate, he went back to Navadvipa to start his school (also called maṭh or ṭol). His students then went on to set up more schools and educational institutes in Navadvipa, inaugurating an extraordinary period of intellectual activity in this small Bengal town covering the years 1500-1800 CE. 

During the early 16th century, Bengal was ruled by the unusually liberal Husain Shāh, who provided liberal patronage to the ṭols of Navadvipa and generally encouraged scholarship.3 Scholarship in ancient and medieval India depended upon such patronage. Students were provided free lodging, food and other facilities, but having no source of direct income, these scholar-pandits relied on the local kings and wealthy merchants to fund their elaborate education system. 

After the Husain Shāhi dynasty collapsed and Bengal was conquered by Sher Shah Suri, some of the scholars of Navadvipa fled to Varanasi, fast emerging as a hub of scholarship. However, after some 40 years of uncertainty and political turmoil, in 1574 CE stability returned to Bengal finally came under the stable rule of Akbar and his guardian, Toḍar Mal. With the renewed patronage of the Mughals and local rājas, Navadvipa flourished for the next 100 years as the premier seat of learning in India, producing some of the most outstanding scholars and philosophers of medieval India: Rāmabhadra Sārvabhauma, Jagadīśa Tarkālaṇkāra, Harirāma Bhaṭṭācārya and Gadhādhar Bhaṭṭācārya.  

These scholars wrote treatises on mathematical reasoning, philosophical grammar, semantics, logic, the atomic nature of reality, philosophy of mind, and many works on metaphysics. At the court of Akbar, the Mughal historian Abu’l Fazl famously described these philosophers as those who "look upon testimony as something filled with the dust of suspicion and handle nothing but proof."4 Jonardan Ganeri, a scholar of Navya Nyāya, states that the works of these philosophers "reach a degree of analytical sophistication not seen in Europe until the late twentieth century."5

Indian academia, with its European epistemic orientation, has ignored this heritage. I am not aware of any university department in India that offers specialized courses in early modern Indian philosophy. The majority of these works are not even available in English or any modern Indian languages. 

Meanwhile, western academia still holds to the view that modernity first emerged in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, before spreading elsewhere. Any acknowledgement of an advanced analytic philosophical tradition thriving in India contemporaneously with Descartes or Copernicus will disturb this convenient status quo. Jonardon Ganeri writes, "It is actually rather shocking that this history of the birth of modern philosophy continues to be taught uncritically in university philosophy departments still today."6    

The Collapse of Hindu Analytic Thought

With the waning of the Mughal empire in the early 18th century, Navadvipa again went through a period of political and economic turmoil, leading to another collapse of scholarship. Things were partially revived again in 1728, with the enthronement of a wealthy Rāja, Ramakṛṣna, who provided generous funding to the ṭols and provided rent-free land to the pandit scholars to establish their educational institutions.

However, things began to deteriorate rapidly after the East India Company was granted Diwani rights over Bengal in 1765 CE. The general mismanagement and ruinous extraction of agricultural revenues by company officials culminated in the catastrophic famine of 1770 that desolated the entire Bengal countryside. A third of the Bengal population (some 10 million people) perished in the famine of 1770. Agriculture collapsed7 and it would take Bengal many generations to recover from this human and economic tragedy.

At the time of the famine, the East India Company collected revenue from Bengal totaling £100,000 per annum and, out of this, they allocated a paltry £6000 for famine relief. To add insult to injury, the company officials hoarded grains from the previous harvest and sold them for extortionate profits.  In the company report, Warren Hastings boasted that, despite the famine of 1770 CE, the revenues from Bengal were higher in 1772 CE compared to the revenues in 1768 CE.8

The scholarly community of Navadvipa paid a heavy price. Some of them were undoubtedly numbered amongst the millions who starved to death. The local rajas were beggared, unable to support the fast diminishing scholarly community. There is a poignant story of a famous Nyāya scholar, Ramnath, teaching his students under conditions of extreme poverty. When the local raja offered some help, he refused, saying that teaching Tattvacintāmaṇi of Gaṅgeśa does not require money. When the raja asked his wife, she replied that she had a sari to wear, a metal pitcher, a mat to sleep on, and an iron bangle, and so was perfectly content.9

The East India Company, grudgingly, did provide some support. When that was withdrawn, the Orientalist, HH Wilson, intervened to reinstate it. But the British viewed the syllabus of the ṭols as narrow and irrelevant and set about creating universities along the lines of the European education system. Deprived of patronage and unable to compete against well-funded British universities, the ṭols withered away under British colonial rule.

India's education system collapsed to the extent that, by mid-19th century, India was overwhelmingly an illiterate society. Mahatma Gandhi directly blamed the British for destroying the functioning education system. He wrote, "The British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of the things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished."10 The advent of European education in the 19th century led to what is usually called the "Bengal Renaissance", but readers must pause to consider at what tremendous cost did this 'renaissance' come about.

With the introduction of the European knowledge system, an entire tradition of Indian knowledge and its cognitive universe was dismissed without even putting it under critical scrutiny.11 It was set aside with contempt by British officials such as Macaulay. In his own words, "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India…." The dismantling of the Indian educational infrastructure and the wholescale implantation of European knowledge systems was described as "an epistemic rupture on the vastest scale possible – one of the greatest known in history."12

Sheldon Pollock contends that Indian philosophy collapsed because of the sheer superiority of western philosophy. "When colonialism made the norms of Europe the norms of India the Sanskrit intellectual formation melted like so much snow in the light of a brilliant, pitiless sun."13 In other words, when western philosophy was introduced to India, Indian philosophy vaporized into thin air under the sheer brilliance of western thought.

Jonardon Ganeri, the scholar of Navya-Nyāya, responds to this as follows:

….what caused the dissolution of Sanskrit culture under colonialism was the dismembering of the systems of education and patronage that held that culture together, along with the simultaneous creation of well-funded colonial universities and colleges….(Navya Nyāya) did not so much run its course as was brought to a virtual stand-still, in the first instance by the collapse in stable Mughal power and patronage, and in the second by the disruption caused to established patterns for conducting and financing education by the British imposition of new fiscal arrangements and educational policies.14                                                                                                                                                                 

European Reactions to the 'Discovery' of Indian Logic

British hostility to Nyāya philosophy also contributed to its demise. The west was made aware of the once flourishing school of Indian logic through the works of English orientalist and mathematician, Thomas Colebrooke. But the very existence of logical thought in India was received with surprise and disbelief, the west’s sense of self being so closely tied to the notion that it was the sole possessor and inheritor of rational and enlightened thought. Denying Indians a heritage of logic and scientific development became, for the British, a means of "ring-fencing" the ideological driving-force of British colonialism - the civilizing mission of British rule based on enlightened rationalism as a necessary historical intervention to dispel the superstition and non-rationality of Indian civilization.15

Hegel is a perfect example of European stereotyping of India in the early 19th century: "(India) is marked by an idealism – but only as an idealism of the imagination, without distinct conceptions…which changes everything into the merely imaginative…We may say the Absolute being is presented here as in the ecstatic state of the dreaming condition." Notice the words used to describe India: idealism, imagination and dream condition. Some Indian intellectuals were to take this European description of their country as god-given truth and call India the ‘land of spirituality' while the west would be called the 'land of sciences'.

When Indian logic was introduced to the west it came under attack from certain European philosophers as imprecise and lacking rigor. European philosophers trained in Aristotelian logic by definition considered Indian logic inferior. Max Muller exhorted the Hindu logicians to "take up the gauntlet and defend their logic against the attacks of European critics."16 However, there were so few scholars left by the end of the 19th century that men who would take up the gauntlet to defend the pinnacle of Hindu analytic thought were hardly to be found. Nyāya as a living philosophical system had died out, replaced whole-scale with European epistemology and logic, bringing to an end Indian civilization's three-thousand-year-long quest to find an unshakable foundation of knowledge.

(Note: Readers would have noticed how significant a role does sponsorship play in the sustenance and survival of our cultural and scholarly heritage. In case you are interested in sponsoring translation projects or funding Navya-Nyāya research, please reach out to me at manish@tattvamag.org)

Manish Maheshwari is the curator and editor of Tattva. He can be contacted at manish@tattvamag.org. He tweets at @manish_tattva

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