Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Syncretism in the Caraka and Suśruta saṃhitās

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Ancient Indian physicians were as much interested in philosophical speculations as in the problem of diseases and their cure (Chattopadhyaya 1979: 110-13; Dasgupta 1975: VI and ch. 13). Two Sanskrit compendia of medicine and surgery, the Carakasamhitā (CS) and the Suśrutasamhitā (SS), often employ the Sāmkhya and Nyāya-Vaiśesika terminology (Dasgupta 1975: ibid.; Mrinal Kanti Gangopadhyaya, Appendixes VI and VII in Chattopadhyaya 1991: 481-540). Interestingly enough, there are also allusions to some ‘lost philosophies’ – as Randle (1930: 16, n. 3) called them – in both in connection with the origin of man and that of the diseases. While referring to them, the two texts are rather cryptic and the available ancient commentaries, Cakrapānidatta’s on CS and ahlana’s on SS, do not help us much to compre- hend the nuances of the names (specially of the term svabhāva, literally ‘own being’, suggesting ‘inherent nature’). Modern interpreters, too, are not unanimous in their explications. We shall therefore try to understand the views of the original authors of the relevant passages of the texts by comparing and contrasting them with those found in non-medical, philosophical sources.

SS first. A verse in the Śārīrasthāna (1.11) runs as follows:

vaidyake tu –
svabhāvam īśvaram kālam yadrcchām niyatim tathā /
pariāma ca manyante praktim pthudarśina // (SS ed. Śāstri, p. 340)

According to medical science, however, farsighted men consider svabhāva, God, Time, Accident, Destiny and the evolution/modification (of primeval matter) as the origin.

SS apparently refers to six separate claimants of the first cause which are elsewhere posited as rivals for the title (Śvetāśvatara Upaniad, 1.2) 1.The adherents of the doctrine of svabhāva form a separate group, those of the doctrine of kāla another, and so on. According to one school of interpretation, svabhāva stands for the inherent nature of every object. How is it that the thorn is sharp, water is cold, and fire is hot? Answer: It is because their inherent nature makes them so.Yadrcchā, on the other hand, signifies randomness, the absence of any cause whatsoever. ahlana, however, explains yadrcchā as causality:

yo yato bhavati tat tannimittam iti yādrcchika yathā trnāranimitto bahnir iti (SS ed. Śāstri, p. 341)

Wherever or whatever happens is due to its cause – such is the view of the yādrcchika. As for example, fire is due to grass and arani woods.

This interpretation flies in the face of both etymology and usage. But then, svabhāva has been taken to mean arbitrariness, the absence of causality as such by some Buddhists (see Pramānavārttika, Pramānasiddhi, 182 cd, p. 64; Tattvasamgraha, ch. 4; see also n. 12 below). But they do not mention yadrcchā in the context of the first cause along with svabhāva. On the other hand, wherever both svabhāva and yadrcchā are mentioned severally, they denote two contradictory approaches: the former accepting a sort of causality, the latter denying it altogether (Chattopadhyaya 1991: 57-59).3 

The second problem relates to the basic attitude of SS. ahlana, following his predecessors, suggests that SS takes a syncretic view regarding the first cause. Instead of endorsing one or the other of the rival claimants, he admits all the six collectively as the first cause. He then cites verses elucidating all the six and quotes passages from SS itself in support of each of them (see SS ed. Śāstri, pp. 340-41).

Jejjhaa, however, explains the idea differently. According to him, four of these, svabhāva, kāla, yadcchā and niyati, are the evolution/modification of prakti. Although they are not different from prakti in the truest (pāramārthika) sense, they inhere in prakti because of their special properties (quoted, or rather paraphrased, by ahlana, ibid., p. 341; see also Tarkavāgīśa 1988: 184-85).

Gayī (Gayadāsa), on the other hand, says that the physicians accept all the six factors in their combination (samuccaya) as the first cause. Parināma is the material cause (upādānakārana); svabhāva and the rest (five in all) are together the efficient cause (nimittakārana).

It is worth noting that Jejjhaa leaves God out of consideration whereas Gayī includes Him as one of the efficient causes, but not as the cause.

Haranachandra Chakravartti (SS Chakravartti), a modern commentator, however, has challenged such a syncretic view ascribed to SS (SS Chakravartti on Śārīra, 1.11, p. 10). He explains the word pthudarśinanah as asūksmadarśinah, i.e. ‘the gross-sighted ones and men capable of observing only the superficial appearances’ – as Bhishagratna (1981: V.12, 118) renders it in his English translation of SS.4

According to Chakravartti, SS, Śārīra 1.11 does not express the view of the author of SS: it merely ironizes the views of others. The verses that follow, viz. 1.12-13, express the opinion of SS (SS Chakravartti, ad ibid., vv. 10-12, pp. 10-11).5

However logical this interpretation may seem, there is one fundamental problem in the way of accepting it: why does SS introduce the above- mentioned verse with the comment, vaidyake tu, ‘according to medical science, however’? (see Tarkavāgīśa 1988: 185).6 Second, such a syncretic view is not altogether unprecedented in the ancient Indian tradition. Both the Mahābhārata, Śāntiparvan, 224.52 and Haribhadra’s Śāstravārtāsamuccaya, 2.192 advance such a view instead of upholding any one as the first cause.7 Hence it will be more appropriate to accept the interpretations of the three ancient scholiasts of SS who, in spite of some differences between themselves, broadly agree on the syncretic approach expressed in 1.11.

So much for SS. Let us now move on to CS. It does not speak of the first cause as such. In the Sūtrasthāna we read of a sort of symposium. The prob- lem to be discussed is the following: What is the origin of the diseases as also that of man? It is in connection with this couple of questions that different sages propose several alternative doctrines. They are as follows: the six dhātu-s, parents, karman, svabhāva, Prajāpati and kāla (CS, Sūtrasthāna, 1.25.14-25). Each one of these is rejected by one or the other of the authorities present. Punarvasu Ātreya, the final arbiter, who is mentioned and quoted in CS, at last declares: «Food is the thing (bhāva) which is at the root of all» (CS, 1.25.31).

Since the scope of this symposium is rather limited, it may be improper to draw any conclusion regarding CS’s view concerning jagatakārana from this passage alone. Yet another passage in CS (1.11.6) may be taken in conjunction with this.

It runs as follows:

Śrutibhedāc ca – 
mātaram pitaram caike manyate janmakāranam / 
svabhāvam paranirmānam yadcchām cāpare janāh //

Tradition also differs (regarding this question). Some consider the parents to be the cause of birth. Others (consider) svabhāva, divine creation and accident (to be so). 
This is spoken in the context of the question whether there is such a thing as rebirth or not. What is to be noted, however, is the juxtaposition of the views of two ‘lost philosophies’, viz. svabhāva and accident. Cakrapānidatta does not refer to any verse or saying in relation to the doctrines of kāla, svabhāva, etc. in his commentary on CS, 1.25.21-25 (CS ed. Acharya, pp. 128-29). His glosses on 1.11.6 are, however, quite elaborate. He identifies svabhāva with the views of such nāstika-s as the Cārvāka-s and the rest (CS ed. Acharya, pp. 68-69). Nāstika to him is one who does not believe in the other-world (paraloka). This is also a traditional view that can be derived from Pānini’s Astādhyāyī.8  As regards yadcchā, too, Cakrapānidatta’s view is quite tradi- tional: one who believes in the production of an effect without any definite cause is called a yādrcchika (CS ed. Acharya, on 1.11.6, p. 69). Svabhāva and yadrcchā, then, are clearly distinguished in Cakrapānidatta’s interpretation and in neither of the passages is there any approach towards syncretism. 

It is, however, interesting to note that CS too seems to incline towards a syncretic view, not concerning the first cause, but the cause of diseases and of health. It first explains the northern and southern courses of the sun, the changes in other aspects of nature and sums up by saying: ‘This is how, the sun, the wind and the moon, governed by time as well as by inherent nature (svabhāva) and orbits are spoken of as the causative factors of the manifestations of the periods, seasons, sap, morbid body-elements and physical strength’ (CS ed. Acharya, 1.6.5, p. 44). 

As with SS, here too we have a syncretic view regarding several natural phenomena. But one difference has to be noted. Here the idea of svabhāva has nothing to do with accidentalism as it was apparent in Kānkāyana’s objections to Bharadvāja’s proposal in CS, 1.25.22. On the other hand, svabhāva here stands for absolute regularity and represents a natural force, not a supernatural agency existing outside nature and controlling all events. Kāla, too, is not a mysterious entity as projected in the Mahābhārata, Śāntiparvan (chs. 217 and 220), Kāmasūtra (1.2.32-37) and elsewhere.9 Time here is no less regular than svabhāva: it leaves nothing to chance or randomness.
It has been suggested that svabhāva is the basis of Caraka’s materia medica (Chattopadhyaya 1979: 155 and passim [see Index]). We would like to add, however, that CS is not uniform in its use of the term svabhāva. The connotation of the word in 1.6.4-5 is much narrower than it is in 1.25.22. 

Syncretism has been a part and parcel of ancient Indian thought. In the philosophical tradition we have such syncretic schools as the Sāmkhya-Yoga and the Nyāya-Vaiśeika. In the case of the ‘lost philosophies’ too, we find the same inclination towards syncretism. It is evident both in Brahminical and Jain works as well as in the two medical compilations.10 

At the same time, it is worth noting that in CS itself, svabhāva is used in two quite different senses: one, suggesting the inherent nature of objects as the cause of their appearance and the other suggesting randomness. Cakrapānidatta apparently did not bother to explain this discrepancy. His identification of svabhāvavāda with the Cārvāka/Lokāyata seems to have followed from a tradition that can be traced back to the author of Suvarnasaptatiśāstra (sixth century CE).11  alhana’s interpretation of yadrcchā, however, is not only unconventional but also unacceptable. It is probable that since svabhāva and yadrcchā had already been considered as synonymous,12 he used yadrcchā as an interchangeable term for svabhāva, taking it to mean causality or regularity of nature. All this proves that the doctrines of svabhāva, kāla and the rest were largely forgotten by the early centuries of CE which is why the commentators of CS and SS do not agree in their interpretations of these terms.



1 The interpretation of the verse is rather problematic. Commentators and translators are not unanimous in their understanding of the syntax as also of the exact significance of purua and yoni (see Bhattacharya 2006: 48-49). But one thing is certain: kāla, svabhāva, niyati, yadcchā and a few such items had already been proposed as the first cause in the Upaniadic times.
2 See Chattopadhyaya (1991: 55-70) for an exposition of the doctrine although all may not agree with his views. 

The views of both ancient and modern authors in this regard are to be found here.

4 A. Śāstri glosses the word as viśāla buddhi vāle log (SS ed. Śāstri, v. 15, p. 4). He also refers to Chakravartti’s interpretation (p. 5). Ghanekara offers several related meanings: moti yā udāra buddhi vāle, dūradarśī, samkucita vicāra na rakhne vāle (SS ed. Ghanekara, v. 10, p. 11).

5 Tarkavāgīśa (1988: IV, 185) most probably had Chakravartti in mind when he referred to ‘a modern scholiast’ (ādhunikaīkākāra). However, Tarkavāgīśa had doubts whether such an in- terpretation properly reflected SS’s view (ibid.).

6 Chakravartti seems to have taken the whole section (vv. 11-13) as representing SS’s view, viz. the elements (bhūtāni) alone are the first cause, and hence nothing else should preoccupy the thought of the physician (as stated in v. 13 cd).

7 For a detailed exposition of the texts mentioned above, see Bhattacharya (2001a; 2001b).
8 Aphorism 4.4.60: astināstidistam matih. Bhaṭṭoji Dīkita (1906: 30.1610), Vāmana and Jayāditya (1966: 765) explain asti as the existence of the other world (paraloka). So nāstika refers to one who denies it. Another interpretation of the word nāstika is found in the Manusmti, 2.11d: nāstiko vedanindakah («The nāstika is the reviler of the Veda»).

9 For other sources see Bedekar (1961: 3-8) and Bhattacharya ( 2001a).
10 The tradition of worshipping five gods (pañcopāsanā) instead of belonging to any one cult (Sun, Śakti [Mother Goddess], Śiva, Viṣṇu and Gaeśa) is also an indication of the same trend. See Bandyopādhyaya (1960: passim).

11 Bedekar (1961: 10, n. 44), quoting extracts from the commentary on Sāmkhyakārikā, v. 27. See also the English rendering from the French, [Suvarnasaptatiśāstra], p. 36. Utpalabhaṭṭa (tenth century CE) and Vidyāraya (fourteenth century CE) have also identified svabhāvavāda and the Lokāyata doctrine. For details see Bhattacharya (1999: 92, n. 1). A few other later Advaita Vedāntins (Agnicit Puruottam, Amalānanda, nandagiri, Nsihāśrama and Rāmatīrtha) have also followed suit.

12 Right from the first century CE svabhāva was explained as lawlessness. Cf. Aśvaghoa, Buddhacarita, 9.62. The later Naiyayikas also meant the same. See Bhattacharya (2006: 34-38).


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Syncretism has been a dominant trait in Indian thought. It is also found in the two medical compilations, the Carakasamhitā and the Suśrutasamhitā in relation to the question of the first cause.

(Ramkrishna Bhattacharya is a Fellow of PAVLOV Institute, Kolkata.
Email ID: ramkrishna.bhattacharya@gmail.com)


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