On Martyred Intellectual Prof. G.C. Dev
A Philosopher of, by and for the Commoners!
By Jahed Ahmed
“The subject matter of philosophy, as I conceive it, is not simply what other philosophers have said on the metalevel. Philosophers must descend into the concrete world of human practice and belief, sweat and toil like the rest of humanity within marketplace of ideas and images to find meanings and uncover truth.”
-Paul Kurtz, Secular Humanist philosopher
Prof. G.C. Dev (1907-1971)
Introduction: Great minds think alike. Very similar to What Paul Kurtz said above was said by a humanist philosopher of Bangladesh, some thirty to forty years ago. His name is Govinda Chandra Dev, popularly known as Professor G. C. Dev. “Any philosophy that has no connection with reality of life is merely an abstract theory and such philosophy is not a real philosophy,” is one of the famous sayings of Prof. G. C. Dev. For those of us who think “plain living and high thinking” is just a theory, and cannot be a life style, I would say, they (or us) may not have heard of Professor G. C. Dev. He lived his whole life as a “plain living and high thinking" man until he was killed by the Pakistani Army along with thousands of other innocent Bengali males, females, and children in Dhaka on the night of 25th March, 1971.
Prof. G.C. Dev was a leading philosopher of his time both at home and abroad. Excluding occasional intervals of a year or two, until his death he remained the general secretary of Pakistan Philosophical Congress. Equally, at international level he was honored with several accolades such as the fellowship of the United Kingdom’s The Union of the Study of the General Religions and of University of Michigan, USA. In September, 1966, on an invitation as a visiting professor he went to Wilkes-Barre College (present Wilkes University) of PA, USA. As a mark of his commendable knowledge and for the publicity of his humanistic philosophy; on 26th May in 1967, there was founded The Govinda Dev Foundation for World Brotherhood. Because of the invitation of the same institute, he once again went to the USA in October of 1970, just a few months prior to his death. From the archives of Wilkes College it is known that- Dr. Dev within a very short time became a popular teacher as well as an orator.
Birth and Childhood: G. C. Dev was born on 1st January in 1907 in the village of Lauta in Panchakhanda Porgana (present Biyani Bazar Thana) of Sylhet district in Bangladesh. Although his father was a small business-man, Dev’s family, however, initially was financially stable. Over the time his father faced a tremendous fiscal loss and having not being able to cope up psychologically with the loss had died consequently while leaving his son Dev as a small child. The incident had left a deep impact on child Dev’s mind and he left home at a very early stage of his life. For the rest eight long years, Dev was reared with affection by a Christian missionary which provided him financial and moral-spiritual guidance. Although Dev didn't forget his early experience with Christian missionaries, he nevertheless came up with his own personal philosophy over the time. We will come to that later.
Academic Education: As a student, Dev proved himself meritorious from the early academic stage of his life. In 1925, he passed through the Matriculation from the local Panchakhanda Horo Govinda high school (the school still is in existence in Biyani Bazar, Sylhet, BD) with 1st class. From there he qualified higher secondary examination in 1927, again in 1st class with special honor in Logic. At this stage, G.C. Dev moved to Calcutta. In 1929, from the Calcutta Sanskrit College he obtained B.A. (honors) degree in Philosophy. Subsequently in 1931, Dev obtained M.A. degree from Calcutta University with 1st class while standing at the top of the list among all his peers. There Dev came across prominent thinkers and philosophers of that time such as Dr. Hiralal Haldar, Dr. Surendra Das Gupta and Prof. Krishna Chanda Bhttacharya.In 1944 G.C. Dev received his Ph.D. upon submission of long-researched thesis entitled “Reason, Intuition and Reality” which was later published as a book named “Idealism and Progress.” Dr. G.C. Dev then started his career as a lecturer in Calcutta’s Ripon College. Due to chaotic situations during World War II, the college was transferred from Calcutta to Dinajpur (now in Bangladesh). At the same time Dr. Dev also moved to Dinajpur as a professor. Although later in 1945 the college was re-shifted to Calcutta, Prof. Dr. Dev decided to stay back in Dinajpur where he established Surendranath College, and became its founding principal. In the July of 1953, Dr. G.C. Dev joined Philosophy department of Dhaka University, Bangladesh. As an additional responsibility, he also served as the house tutor of Dhaka hall (present Shahidullah hall) in 1957. In the same year in July, he was appointed as the provost of Jagannath hall and remained so until April 1970. In 1963, G.C. Dev was appointed as the chairman in the dept. of philosophy and became a full professor on 1st July of 1967.
A Philosopher in Action: A distinguishing feature of Prof. G.C. Dev was that- unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t confine philosophy and its wisdom simply to the sphere of academic discipline, or as an abstract subject matter. He was a man of action alongside being a man of wisdom. This trait has been reflected in various stages of his life. To name a few instances:
While he was provost of the Jagannath hall at Dhaka University, he helped many students by providing shelter, cash money and advices. To publicize life-oriented and humanist philosophy, Prof. G.C. Dev worked hard and set up “Philosophy House” in Dhaka. Many educational and cultural programs took place under the lead of Prof. G.C. Dev in that house where students, teachers and public took part. The house also had significant number of books on philosophy. Though the house became extinct later, Dr. Dev donated bulk of his wealth during his life time to Dhaka University, which helped later establishment of “Dev Center for Philosophical Studies (DCPS)” in 1980 at Dhaka University. Ever since its birth, two journals are regularly published by the Govinda Dev Darshan Gabeshana Kendra (DCPS). These are: “Philosophy and Progress” (in English) and “Darshan O Pragati” (in Bangla). There is a departmental library named Dev Smriti Pathagar (“Dev Memorial Library”) which contains about 2000 books and journals. In 1986 the Bangladesh government awarded him the Ekushe Padak posthumously.
As mentioned before, Dev was a plain living and high thinking man. From the attires he used in his daily life- white dhoti , panjabi (a kind of loose shirt) and shawl--it was often difficult to judge that within the plain clothed person lay an erudite scholar. He was also known as a man with remarkable sense of humor. He would enjoy making fun of himself. One such legend comes from his own narrations: once on a trip he was traveling in steamer while standing in front of the door of upper class. Coincidentally, same time there was present the officer in charge of ticket checking. The officer was a bit suspicious to find an outwardly ordinary guy near upper class. After a scanty observation, the officer made the indirect but stern comment, obviously targeting Dr. G.C. Dev: “(mind you!) this is upper class!” Dev sensed the target of officer’s comment easily and promptly replied: “My dear friend. My appearance is third class, but my ticked indeed is indeed (for) upper class.”
Synthetic Idealism and Dr. G. C. Dev: By virtue of birth and family environment, Dev as a child was familiar with most core concepts of the ancient Indian philosophy, in particular Hinduism and Sanskrit tradition. However, his childhood experience and affectionate care he received from the Christian missionaries was always vivid in his memory. In fact, the two parallel but seemingly paradoxical aspects of philosophy that later paved the way for Dev to synthesize his own and unique personal philosophy were: spiritualism and materialism. In his own words:
“If my faith in spiritualism turns out to be a gift from missionary; then my faith in materialism is a contribution from my poverty-stricken but courageous father”.
Further he said he never would have realized the importance of materialistic possessions, had his father not faced the pitfall of the poverty from a stable wealth and richness all-of-a-sudden basis. Therefore, both knowledge of spirituality and materialism he experienced during his childhood and adolescence period equally helped G.C. Dev embrace many obstacles of life with a smiling and inspirational face. The strong spiritual faith, on one hand, helped him during dark stage of his life; on the other hand, equally strong experience of materialism took him close to poor class and helped him become one of them. He said:
“Both spiritualism and materialism have enriched my life. Despite labor and hindrance, rewards and insults, I adhered to the synthetic philosophy consisting of both; because, to me, this is not simply an abstract theory, or any logical fantasy, but a way to beautify life through the means of applied adaptations”.
Here G.C. Dev differs significantly from many of his contemporaries. To him, philosophy is more than just all-metaphysics, or all-abstract analytical erudition. Neither has he considered abstract theory as core basis of philosophy, nor has he agreed- the duty of philosophy should be mere analysis of linguistics without any theoretical basis. I feel tempted to cite here a strangely similar comment made by today’s esteemed humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz:
“I am critical of the kind of philosophy that prevails in Anglo-American philosophical circles. I consider much of this philosophy irrelevant. It is like an ingrown toenail, turned within itself, festering with sharp linguistic distinctions and painful sophistries. The trouble with technical philosophy is that it has incapacitated philosophy proper, so that it hobbles about like a mendicant friar cloistered in a distant monastery on a remote island in the midst of an empty sea.”
What is even stranger- long ago Prof. G.C. Dev announced: “When today’s philosophy is floating randomly and without any direction in the ocean of life like a rudder-less boat; it is of utmost importance to establish its link to a productive life.” According to philosopher Prof. G.C. Dev, the origin and development of philosophy lies in natural human curiosity about life and nature, a tendency to glorify life further. Therefore, philosophy cannot exist without people. However, we need to keep in mind- G.C. Dev didn’t rule out the importance of metaphysical questions in Philosophy. All he said- such should not be the sole objective of philosophy since there are other areas of studies, which are no less connected to life, if not more, than metaphysics: Social philosophy, Political philosophy and of course, philosophy of history. Interestingly, to philosopher G.C. Dev, conflicts/tensions between idealism and materialism do not exist! “The so called conflict between the two is not so much as a matter of theory, as it is a matter of mentality”, announces Dev. He continues:
“Man is not made up of matter or conscience alone. Rather- he/she is made up of combinations of both. Since different people of different time didn’t share same mentality, it is NOT unnatural to find- some philosophers of the past were more of materialistic than of idealistic and vice versa. But in reality, neither of the two is independent and fulfilling as a way of life, although they have been explained so”.
Dev further elaborates his philosophical views:
“When we are told- materialism finds source of life and conscience in matter alone, or materialism believes only in senses and rejects intuition; it appears to me, through such statement we only uphold the skeleton of materialism, not its essence. On the other hand, when we are told (about spiritualism)- the main spirit existing behind the universe is the sole origin of matter, life and conscience; then also it equally appears to me, we are highlighting only the external traits of spirituality while excluding its essence…….. If the biological need leads a human to materialism, then spiritual need lead him/her to spiritualism. They both are complementary. Adhering to one while rejecting another is something beyond question. For the sake of mankind’s total welfare, fulfilled and peaceful life, it is crucial that we reconcile and synthesize the two. Materialistic vs. spiritualistic, secular vs. religious, natural vs. supernatural, etc conflicts would soon come to an end, mankind’s life would be based on the synthesis and reconciliation of both materialism and idealism; and philosophers, scientists and religious scholars would work toward that same goal”
Such were the hopes and faiths of Dr. G. C. Dev. Indeed this is the whole essence of his personal philosophy (“synthetic idealism”).
Features of his spiritual beliefs: Dev found his own way in philosophy through adoption of a 'middle path' which is a combination of ancient 'moderate philosophy' of Buddha, Veda-Upanishad and Bhagabhat Geeta. For Dev, it didn’t contradict itself with the Western monotheistic religions. His spiritual ideology was based on the unity of the universe and mankind, as pointed out in Upanishad-Veda. This ideal of unity is not based on any provincial religious outlook, or any personal God, even though he believed in single entity as the ultimate driving force behind the universe. Such ideal, if analyzed carefully, is the essence of all historical Eastern and Western religions and philosophies. According to this philosophy, the same entity manifests itself in different forms and angles in whole universe- sometimes as a matter, sometimes as a conscience. At one place if it is single, in other place, same is present in multiples. The life and the universe should be explained based on the inner unity of what we may see in multiples, that’s the opinion Dr. G.C. Dev held. Philosopher Dev solicited the unity among different persons, nations, races and in the spheres of different levels of human relations such as at social, political and religious based on this view.
Through life-long observation, Dev had seen it for himself common people are lured more toward faith than logic. They find religion more appealing than philosophy. This is said to be one of the main reasons, why Dev adhered to synthetic idealism. As just mentioned- the kind of religion he believed in was not a conventional one; on the contrary, it was a universal religion based on love and admiration for all mankind of the planet--one that would not, and need not compete with other religions to exert its “superiority”. In this sense, Dev was a believer, but an altruistic one, so rarely seen in today’s society.
Books by Dev in English: Idealism and Progress; Idealism: A New Defense and a New Application; Aspirations of the common Man; Buddha the humanist; Parables of the East and My American Experience (last two were published posthumously from Dhaka University with Prof. Dr. Aminul Islam as editor).
In Bangla: Amar Jibondorshon (My philosophy of life); Totwobidya sar (Essence of Theoretical knowledge) and Govinda Chandra Dev Rochonabolee (Collected Essays by Govinda Chandra Dev in three volumes, edited by prominent Bangladeshi writer Hassan Azizul Hoque and published by Bangla Academy, Dhaka)
A personal addition: Having been born in a place which witnessed G.C. Dev's birth, like many other people of Bangladeshi origin, I heard of his name too, although not in details. I knew him as a philosopher-cum-a-martyr of 1971 war and a life long bachelor. An interesting fact however remained hidden to me until a few days ago: that Dr. G.C. Dev indeed had a foster-son at the later stage of his life who is now living in New York State! Thanks to a fellow writer friend who also lives in New York.
Here it is:
A jubilant and young student of M.A. in Bengali literature (passed in 1962) at the Dhaka University was lured so much by Prof. G.C. Dev’s altruistic philosophy that he had no hesitations whatsoever to embrace G.C. Dev as his idol and foster-father. The same student also obtained his diploma in Journalism from the Dhaka University and came to the USA in 1963. Here he did his M.A. in Mass Communication from the Temple University, PA, and Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, USA in Journalism. He is Dr. Jyoti Prakash Dutta whose wife Dr. Purabi Basu is also equally eminent and well known among the expatriate Bangalee community living in New York and beyond. The couple is settled in a suburban area of New York State and has a son and a daughter. Below is how Dr. Jyoti P. Dutta responded when I requested him to make a comment on his foster-father Prof. G.C. Dev:
“A plain-living high-thinking philosopher he was, true, but that hardly explains the man he was. He was a man of wisdom--a man of infinite knowledge about the world, and the world beyond. He was a family-man yet remained unmarried. He always had an answer to the most complex family problems, even problems about human relationship. Above all, his love for the common man was legendary. His “Aspirations of the common man” was not simply written words. The synthetic philosophy he professed would easily combine principles of science and humanity. There never will be another person like him.”
Concluding Remarks: It goes without saying- by virtue of the advancements in science and technology mankind is now much more powerful it was in the past. The new discoveries that we are watching almost on a day-to-day basis is changing the world scenario drastically and rapidly. But despite such materialistic progress, we have yet to find a way out toward a long lasting and peaceful coexistence. Alongside new discoveries, we are flooded with news of killings and violence committed mostly by none but our fellow humans!
Prof. G.C. Dev was killed in a brutal and cowardly attack by Pakistani Army in 1971 without having allowing him any opportunity for self-defense. “Don’t worry, since death can only destroy my body but not souls,” was the remark of Greek philosopher Socrates toward his grief-stricken followers and relatives prior to the death by drinking Hemlock (a lethal poison). Whether one believes in the existence of soul or not, or for that matter, in Dev’s synthetic philosophy; it would be quite safe to conclude- examples of altruism, love for mankind, and selflessness shown by Prof. Dr. G.C. Dev would inspire generations to come--both within and beyond Bangladesh. If not all, at least those--who consider their first and foremost identity as a human being--would not and cannot be forgetful of G.C. Dev.
(First published on 14th December, 2004; revised and republished on 16th Dec. 2006.)
Major reference: Bangalir Dorshan: Prachinkal Theke Somokal by Prof. Dr. Aminul Islam, Dept. of Philosophy, DU, (Maola Brothers, Dhaka, 2002), pp. 247-258
Picture by the courtesy of: http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/D_0126.htm
1) Paul Kurtz, the Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991), pp. 7, 3.
2) Dr. Jyoti P. Dutta, NY, USA
3) Dept. of Philosophy, Dhaka University, Bangladesh (http://www.univdhaka.edu/univdhaka/Dept_of_Philosophy.htm)
4) G.C. Dev Center, Dhaka University (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/D_0125.HTM)
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