“Sankara was one of the tallest of India's (and the world's) idealist philosophers; his Advaita Vedanta is one of the richest contributions India has made to the treasury of human knowledge.” So declares Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad, known to the nation simply as EMS. The Marxist, who headed the world's first elected Communist government in Kerala, pays this tribute to the saint-philosopher from Kaladi in an essay in the academic journal, Social Scientist, on the occasion of Adi Sankara's 1,200th birth anniversary in 1989. “Is the participation of Marxist theoreticians (in the anniversary) not a betrayal of dialectical and historical materialism...?” ‘No', says EMS, recalling the recognition by Marx and Lenin of the contributions of idealist philosophy and philosophers. From the tribute, however, he proceeds to a trenchant criticism of Sankara and the Advaita Vedanta.
Pointing to the non-idealist streams of ancient Indian philosophy, including that of “the Buddha whose near-materialist philosophy gripped the mass of suppressed humanity,” EMS writes: “...those belonging to the materialist school had to fight an unequal fight and were therefore defeated...the defeat of the materialists in this unequal battle was the beginning of a millennium-long age of intellectual and socio-political backwardness which culminated in the establishment of British rule in our land.” The approach is illustrative of the world outlook that informs the entire volume titled “History, Society and Land Relations.”
The same kind of scholarship and spirit marks the other book under review, which is a collection of articles by EMS as a columnist for the fortnightly, Frontline. While making what Frontline Editor-in-Chief N. Ram calls “simply the most dependable contribution from the standpoint of the editorial desk,” the author repeatedly deals with other oft-mystified subjects, relating them to the people's socio-political struggle. One of these articles, on the Rig Veda, takes a similarly historical look at a literary heritage that is sought to be reduced to a “holy” text. Talking of a Malayalam translation of the oldest of the Vedas, EMS says: “The great work which had been kept as a preserve of the men of the Brahmin community was now being made available to the men and women of all communities.” It is from his bitter experience that EMS talks of the Rig Veda as something learnt only by rote traditionally and recited by persons without understanding a word of it. He recalls the six years (from the age of eight to 14) when he “was learning to repeat it, rik (verse) by rik,” as was “the practice for the Namboodiri boys of those days after their upanayanam [sacred-thread ceremony].”
The two books, in fact, also tell the story of a personal rebellion transforming into a quest for revolution. In an essay in the first book, EMS recalls: “I was in my teens when I started taking interest in public life. I was deeply influenced by two currents in the modern democratic movement of India...The first was the growing revolt against the caste-dominated social life in Kerala...The second was the freedom movement, which was at that time going through a new wave of mass struggles led by Gandhi...” Later, he became an ardent supporter of the “left Congress... headed by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose...” After the Civil Disobedience Movement, he metamorphosed into “a young man fighting for a revolutionary restructuring of the entire society, a Socialist to begin with and subsequently a Communist.” The evolution of EMS is captured in his photographs featured on the covers of the two books: one from the forgotten years of a Marxist with a quizzical face and the other of the more familiar veteran giving his comrades a clenched-fist salute.
The contents of the two volumes carry the reader through the wide-ranging struggles of ideas that he waged relentlessly. How correct was Marx's concept of “the Asiatic mode”? What is right and what is wrong with Stalinism? What did a Marxist see as the Mahatma's greatness? Is religion only the “opium” of the masses? EMS has his answers, and holds your attention even if you do not agree every time with what he says. Together, they present a rich resource for anyone who wants to understand India's struggle for independence and equitable growth. EMS (1909-1998) represented an era of that struggle.
EMS NAMBOODIRIPAD - History, Society and Land Relations: Selected Essays. EMS NAMBOODIRIPAD - The Frontline Years: Selected Articles. Both the books pub. by LeftWord Books, 12, Rajendra Prasad Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 250 each.
Keywords: Marxist thinker