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Veezhinathan, quintessential philosopher

Sanskrit scholar Dr. Veezhinathan   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

British philosopher Julian Baggini talks about how the human quest for knowledge must have begun. Early human beings just went about the business of life, until one day someone asked himself why he lived the way he did. Man progressed from describing the world as it is, to how it could be and from there to how it should be, moving from the descriptive to the normative. When man tried to understand the Universe, science was born. But scientific endeavour required a representation of the world in “language and in perception.” And this led him back to “where philosophy began.” Philosophy, therefore, would be a good place to begin a study of the history of human thought. And it would also be a good place to begin an interview with Dr. N. Veezhinathan, the quintessential philosopher. Having studied Sanskrit since the age of five, he naturally ended up with a Ph.D. in the language, with his thesis on Advaita philosophy. Joining Madras University’s philosophy department as a lecturer, he was introduced to Western philosophy by Dr. T.M.P. Mahadevan and Dr. Devasenapathy.

Veezhinathan read Heidegger, Underhill, Kierkegaard and the Jesuit priest Coplestone. He says this helped him express Advaitic thoughts in English. “For instance, Brhadaranyaka Upanishad says that Brahman can be known only through the Upanishads. But Taittiriya Upanishad says Brahman transcends speech and mind. How do you explain this paradox? I explained it thus - ‘Sankara has proved that these are not clashing antinomies, but reconciled opposites.’ This kind of precise expression in English was possible because I read writers like Russell.”

Veezhinathan studied Advaita for 12 years under S. R. Krishnamurthi Sastri, Professor at the Madras Sanskrit College. Veezhinathan’s family has had a 100-year connection with the Kanchi mutt, and he recalls with gratitude the guiding hand of Kanchi Paramacharya throughout his life.

Veezhinathan says studying under N.S. Ramanuja Thathacharya, popularly known as NSR swami, gave him a firm grip over navya nyaya, without which one cannot explain Hindu philosophy. “I would take down notes as NSR swami dictated his commentaries for the Gadadhari texts. His commentaries for seven Gadadhari texts have been published.” In the introduction to his commentaries, NSR Swami wrote that Veezhinathan was to him like an oasis in a desert.

Is someone else going to write commentaries for the remaining texts, now that NSR Swami is no more? “No one can do the kind of work he did,” says Veezhinathan, who has written the English introduction for NSR Swami’s commentaries. “Paramacharya used to say that he was holding on to life solely to read Thathacharya’s Gadadhari commentaries.”

“NSR Swami wrote a commentary for AkhandArthavada of Advaita Siddhi, using tarkka sastras brilliantly in his explanations. He said to me, ‘Publish it under your name.’ Just look at his generosity! Needless to say, I turned down his offer. My teacher’s book will be published shortly.”

Another person who was a great influence on Veezhinathan was the Cochin king, Rama Varma Pareekshit, an authority on nyaya. Veezhinathan brought the king’s disciple Pisharoty to Madras, and learnt from him the king’s method of teaching nyaya. “The king used to say, ‘Advaita is nothing but applied logic,’” recalls Veezhinathan. After 11 years in the philosophy department, Veezhinathan moved to the Sanskrit department, where he taught Advaita, Dvaita and Visishtadvaita.

Healthy refutations

Veezhinathan says that when proponents of one school of thought argued against another, they were only seeking clarity. “Ramanuja has explained Advaita wonderfully in his Sri Bhashya, without twisting arguments to suit his theory. Refutations are healthy, because they help a school of thought grow. The growth of Advaitic literature in the 16th century owes a lot to the criticisms of Dvaita philosophers like Vyasa Tirtha.”

Is there such a thing as free will in Hindu philosophy? If there is, then what happens to the inexorability of karma? “Karma is the result of actions. We have to face the results of our actions, and this cannot be changed. In addition to punya and papa, acts also leave latent impressions called vasanas, which continue into your next births. Latent impressions make you repeat acts. Good vasanas make you do meritorious deeds, and bad vasanas lead you down the wrong path. Free will lies in checking the bad latent impressions and cultivating good vasanas. In Yoga Vasistha, sage Vasistha tells Rama that by overcoming bad vasanas, one can attain moksha. Mysore Hiriyanna, an outstanding modern philosopher, rightly said, ‘This is not fatalism, but exactly the reverse of it.’”

Is there humour in Sanskrit literature? “Of course. There is a verse in Prataparudriyam which gives you the yardstick for good humour. It says the Kakatiya king was humorous, without being offensive.” Veezhinathan talks about the satire of Nilakantha Dikshitar’s Kalividambana, where Dikshitar takes pot shots at incompetent teachers, astrologers, the nouveau riche and even Kali Yuga! In one verse, Diskhitar says an astrologer should always predict long life for his clients. If a man lives long, he will be pleased with the astrologer. If the client were to die young, then the astrologer does not have to worry anyway!

The philosopher in Veezhinathan helps him see philosophy in whatever he reads. Kalidasa, he says, can be appreciated fully only if one knows Hindu philosophy. “Let me give you an example. Kalidasa, in Kumarasambhava, says sa hi devah param jyotih tamah pAre vyavasthitam. The phrase tamah pAre occurs in Chandogya Upanishad. Kalidasa is referring to the transcendental form of the Lord as pure consciousness, and speaks of it as the substratum of avidyA. And that is the Advaitic position.”

While T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is well known for its Brahadaranyaka Upanishad references, Veezhinathan says he has found echoes of Hindu philosophy in other works too. “In Advaita, greed, envy etc., are all qualities of the mind, and have no connection to the self. When Shakespeare says ‘Condemn the fault, not the actor of it’ (Measure for Measure), he is in tune with Advaita!”

Russell, who is one of Veezhinathan’s favourite writers, was an agnostic. Does this challenge Veezhinathan’s belief in religion? “In Impact of Science on Society, Russell writes that the world is on the brink of catastrophe because of greed, envy and competitiveness. He offers love and compassion as the remedy, and says that if you feel this, ‘you have a motive for existence, a guide in action… and you have all that anybody should need in the way of religion.’ Such ethics is also the foundation of Hindu philosophy.”

His work

Veezhinathan has many books and 60 research papers to his credit. He has done the editorial work for Vakyarthadarpana of Ramatirtha Yati and for Vakyavrtti of Sankará with the commentary of Ramananda, based on manuscripts collected from different places. Recipient of many honours, Veezhinathan received the President’s award for Sanskrit in 2002.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 10:13:18 AM |

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