Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya

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For the Founder/Chairman of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, see D. P. Chattopadhyaya.
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya
Born November 19, 1918
Calcutta, British India
Died May 8, 1993
Calcutta, India
School Indian philosophy, Materialism, Marxism
Main interests History of Indian Materialism and Science, Political philosophy

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (November 19, 1918 – May 8, 1993) was an eminent Bengali Marxist philosopher from India. He made extensive contributions to the exploration of the materialist current in ancient Indian Philosophy. His most outstanding work in this regard was the compilation and exposition of the ancient philosophy of Lokayata, liberating it from distortions that it had suffered at the hands of its opponents. He is also acclaimed for his researches in the history of science and scientific method in ancient India, especially his work on the ancient physicians Caraka and Susruta.


Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya was born on November 19, 1918 in Calcutta into a brahmin family. His father was a devout Hindu and a supporter of India's freedom struggle. It was probably his influence that intitiated Debiprasad to two major passions in his life - Indian philosophy and politics; however, he quickly progressed towards radical streams in both fields, developing a lifelong commitment to Marxism and communist movement. At a very early stage of his life Chattopadhyaya immersed himself in the left nationalist movement by joining the Association of Progressive Writers, which was formed in 1936.

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya obtained his academic training in philosophy in Calcutta, West Bengal under eminent philosophers like Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and S. N. Dasgupta. After standing first in philosophy at University of Calcutta both in B.A. (1939) and M.A. (1942), he did his post-graduate research work under Prof S. N. Dasgupta. He taught philosophy at the University of Calcutta for two decades. Subsequently, he was appointed a UGC Visiting Professor at the universities of Andhra Pradesh, Calcutta and Poona. He remained associated with the activities of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Indian Council of Philosophical Research (ICPHR) and the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) under various capacities. His second wife was the renowned educationist and Tibetologist, Dr. Alaka Majumder Chattopadhyaya ( 1926–1998 ).

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya's work on materialism and scientific method led to his active interactions with the international community of philosophers, historians and Indologists. He collaborated with some of the outstanding western scholars of the 20th century, like Joseph Needham, George Thomson, Bongard Levin and Walter Ruben. He was fellow of the German and USSR Academies of Sciences.

As mentioned above, since his youth, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya remained active within the communist movement of India in a very non-sectarian manner. Despite being a lifelong member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), which he joined in 1944, he interacted with all the Marxist segments in India, within and without the communist movement. Along with his professional writings, he was a regular contributor to party and allied journals on ideological and philosophical issues.

He died in Calcutta on May 8, 1993.[1]

Major works[edit]

Lokayata (1959)[edit]

Throughout his philosophical and historical writings, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya aimed to illuminate science and materialism in ancient India, and to trace their evolution. While commenting on his work on Lokayata, German indologist Walter Ruben called him a "thought-reformer", who was "conscious of his great responsibility towards his people living in a period of struggle for national awakening and of world-wide fighting for the forces of materialism, progress, humanism and peace against imperialism. He has written this book Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism against the old fashioned conception that India was and is the land of dreamers and mystics".[2]

This study questioned the mainstream view that Indian philosophy's sole concern was the concept of Brahman. From the scattered references in the ancient philosophical literature which were completely hostile to the ancient materialist schools, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya reconstructed the philosophy of Lokayata, which consistently denied the existence of brahman and viewed pratyaksa (perception) as the sole means of knowledge. He demolished the so-called "interpretation of synthesis" which sought to combine the diverse philosophical traditions of India to form a ladder that leads to the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.[3]

Being a Marxist, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya's uses the method of historical materialism to study "the ultimate material basis of the primitive deha-vada and the primitive rituals related to it" and to reveal how "could these be connected with the mode of securing the material means of subsistence". He also traced "the course of development this archaic outlook eventually underwent".

Indian Philosophy: A Popular Outline (1964)[edit]

It was probably the first introductory book that examined Indian philosophy through an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on anthropological, economic and philological studies. The book traced the philosophical development in India from the Vedic period to later Buddhism. In this introductory study, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya targets another important myth that overshadows the study of Indian philosophy - that of the presupposed predominance of shastrartha or textual interpretation. He views the development of Indian philosophy as the consequence of real clashes of ideas - "contradiction constituted the moving force behind the Indian philosophical development".[4]

Prof Dale Riepe in his review of this book says that Chattopadhyaya "combines the analytic sagacity of Hume with the impatient realism of Lenin".[5]

Indian Atheism (1969)[edit]

This is yet another provocative critique of the standard accounts of Indian philosophy and religion. This book brings out a coherent historical account of atheism in India. In fact, according to Chattopadhyaya, "an unbiased survey of the Vedas clearly shows the total absence of religious consciousness in its earlier stage and the Rgveda is full of relics of this stage of thought. Even the world polytheism is misapplied to such an early stage of the Vedic thought".[6]

What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy (1976)[edit]

In the Preface, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya says his purpose in this book is to present "an analysis of our philosophical traditions from the standpoint of our present philosophical requirements. These requirements, as understood here, are secularism, rationalism and science-orientation". He once again finds the philosophical development - debates and clashes - in ancient India embedded in the class struggles of the time. He discusses the materialist foundation of Vedic rituals, which he finds similar to the magical belief of controlling the natural forces through yajnas, etc. He shows how these rites and rituals that evolved as primitive scientific endeavours were transformed into superstitions and monopolies in the hands of the oppressors with the advent of class divisions.

The book also endeavours to demonstrate how Indian philosophy was not any exception to the sharp conflicts between idealism and materialism, which are universally evident in the philosophical traditions of other regions. Further, it considers the role of the law-givers like Manu in establishing the supremacy of the idealist traditions, and how due to the censor and censure anti-idealists like Varahamihira and Brahmagupta worked out their philosophies in distinctive Aesopian language, developing their own modes of camouflaging their ideas.

Like elsewhere, in India too anti-idealists and materialists took practice as the main criterion of truth. Nyaya-Vaisheshikas were most outspoken in this regard - "after a knowledge is proved true in practice, there remains no doubt about the proof; hence the question of proving does not arise".[7] On the other hand, the idealists believed in complete separation between theory and practice. They adhered to, in the words of Kumarila Bhatta, the principle of bahyartha-sunyatva (the unreality of the objects of knowledge), which, according to Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, formed "the real pivot of idealism throughout its Indian career".[8]

Science and Society in Ancient India (1977)[edit]

This book is about scientific method in ancient India and how societal divisions of the time shaped the development of science. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya chooses the field of medicine for the purpose, because, according to him, "the only discipline that promises to be fully secular and contains clear potentials of the modern understanding of natural science is medicine".[9]

The main concentration of the book is to present an analysis of Caraka Samhita, the crucial source book in Indian medicine. According to Chattopadhyaya, "discarding scripture orientation, they [the Indian physicians] insist on the supreme importance of direct observation of natural phenomena and on the technique of rational processing of the empirical data. They go even to the extent of claiming that the truth of any conclusion thus arrived at is to be tested ultimately by the criterion of practice".[10] For them, "everything in nature occurs according to some immutable laws, the body of which is usually called svabhava in Indian thought"[11] and "from the medical viewpoint there can be nothing which is not made of matter".[12] They even say that "a substance is called conscious when it is endowed with the sense-organs".[13] Further, Chattopadhyaya shows:

"If anywhere in ancient Indian thought we are permitted to see the real anticipation of the view that knowledge is power - which, when further worked out, assumes the formulation that freedom is the recognition of necessity - it is to be found among the practitioners of the healing art".[14]

Chattopadhyaya also tries to show in the book, how societal divisions, especially the caste system, which was enforced by the law-givers and their justificatory idealist ideologies, formed obstructions in the way of scientific development in India.

Lenin, the Philosopher (1979)[edit]

This book was written in the context of growing state authoritarianism during the Indian Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, on the one hand, and the upsurge of rightist forces in the form of Jan Sangh, Shiv Sena etc., on the other. Chattopadhyaya opined "that in these grim and anxious days through which India today is passing, that which holds hope for our future is the growing awareness of our people of socialism being the only way out". And, "an essential pre-condition for moving forward to Socialism is the consolidation of Socialist consciousness in its right sense among the Indians today", for which "it is imperative to understand and absorb the philosophical views of Lenin".[15]

This book is meant to be a "guide or introduction" to Lenin's philosophical writings. It seeks "to lead the readers to the actual study of Lenin, providing them with some clarifications, annotations and summations that they may be useful only for the limited of a preliminary acquaintance with Lenin's philosophical ideas".[16]

However, Communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad in his overall appreciative review of the book criticised Chattopadhyaya for not able to "explain in a sufficiently convincing way as to why Lenin thought it necessary to go to Hegel in his later years", as evident from his Philosophical Notebooks of 1914.[17]

D. Chattopadhyaya's writings[edit]


  • 1959 Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism: People's Publishing House, New Delhi
  • 1964 Indian Philosophy - A Popular Introduction: People's Publishing House, New Delhi
  • 1969 Indian Atheism - A Marxist Analysis : Manisha, Calcutta
  • 1976 What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy: People's Publishing House, New Delhi
  • 1977 Science and Society in Ancient India: Research India Publications, Calcutta
  • 1979 Lenin, the Philosopher: Sterling Publishers, New Delhi
  • 1986 History of Science and Technology in Ancient India: Firma K.L Mukhopadhyaya, Calcutta
  • 1989 In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India: People's Publishing House, New Delhi
  • 2002 Musings in Ideology- An Anthology of Analytical Essays by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya: G. Ramakrishna and Sanjay K. Biswas - Editors; Navakarnataka Publications Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore.


  • 1982 Studies in the History of Science in India (2 Vols; Edited): Editorial Enterprises, New Delhi
  • 1994 Carvaka/Lokayata : An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies (Edited): Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi


  1. ^ Most of the biographical materials are extracted from S.K. Biswas, "Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya - The Modern Indian Sage", Current Science, Vol 65 No 11, December 10, 1993, pp. 889-891 [1]
  2. ^ Quoted in Rajendra Prasad, "Obituary - Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya", Social Scientist, Vol 21 No 5-6, May–June, 1993, pp. 102-105
  3. ^ Rajendra Prasad, "Obituary - Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya", Social Scientist, Vol 21 No 5-6, May–June, 1993, pp. 102-105
  4. ^ Indian Philosophy, pp 27
  5. ^ Dale Riepe, Review of "Indian Philosophy - A Popular Introduction", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol 26 No 4, (June 1966), pp. 611-612
  6. ^ Indian Atheism, pp 39n
  7. ^ What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy, pp. 359
  8. ^ Ibid, pp. 46
  9. ^ Science and Society in Ancient India, pp. 3
  10. ^ Ibid, pp. 7
  11. ^ Ibid, pp. 64
  12. ^ Ibid, pp. 66
  13. ^ Ibid, pp. 72
  14. ^ Ibid, pp. 180
  15. ^ Lenin, the Philosopher, pp.1
  16. ^ Ibid, pp.2
  17. ^ E.M.S. Namboodiripad, "Dialectical" Materialism and Dialectical "Materialism", Social Scientist, Vol 10 No 4 (Apr, 1982), pp.52-59

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