Monday, 20 August 2012

Lokāyata Materialism: Classification of Source Materials

Very much like the Pre-Socratic philosophical works, the basic texts of the Cārvāka system are lost. Only a few fragments — passages of varying length — have come down to us. Even then all of them are not genuine, as they seem to offer contrary points of view. Earlier scholars from H. T. Colebrooke down to D. R. Shastri and Mamoru Namai collected some fragments and presented them in ways they deemed fit.1 A closer analysis reveals that all the fragments are not of the same nature: some are aphorisms proper and a few are merely popular verses purportedly airing the Cārvāka view on life and death. More interestingly, there are a number of passages that appear to be more or less verbatim quotations from more than one commentary on the lost Cārvākasutra.

So far the names of five commentators are known: Aviddhakarna, Udbhatabhatta (Bhattodbhata), Kambalasvatara, Purandara and Bhavivikta. Six more fragments seem to have been extracted from some anonymous commentary or commentaries. In my paper I propose to discuss the difference in the attitude of the commentators to some of the Cārvāka aphorisms.

The Cārvāka apparently developed along the line of the other philosophical systems of India. The commentary and sub-­commentary tradition is not always consistent in every respect. The commentators and sub-­commentators sometimes manipulated the aphorisms to suggest what they would like them to mean. It is therefore necessary to take note of the Cārvāka/Lokāyatika philosophers known to us.

The names of three Cārvāka philosophers are given in Santaraksita's Tattvasangraha and Kamalasila's Pañjika: Aviddhakarna, Kambalasvatara, and Purandara. Purandara’s vrtti (gloss), apparently on the collection of the sutras, is mentioned in a Prakrit work, Pupphadanta (Puspadanta)’s Mahapurana and two Sanskrit works, Anantavirya’s Siddhi­-viniscaya­-tika and Vadirajasuri’s Nyya-­viniscaya-­vivarana. It should be noted that Santaraksita and Kamalasila were Buddhists while Pupphadanta and the other two were Jains.

The name of Aviddhakarna is also found in the Nyya-­viniscaya-­vivarana, Siddhi­viniscaya-tika and Pramanavarttika-­svopajña-­vrtti-tika‚ by Karnakagomin. The name of his commentary is also given by Kamalasila: Tattvatika‚. All that can be said about these three commentators is that they must have flourished in or before the eighth century.

Cakradhara in his Granthibhanga commentary on Jayantabhatta’s Nyayamanjari mentions the fourth name, Bhavivikta, whom he describes as a cirantana­-cārvāka, an ancient (=traditional) Cārvāka. He may have written his commentary even before Kambalasvatara and Purandara. Unfortunately no extract from his work has been quoted by Cakradhara.

The fifth and so far the last commentator we know of is Udbhatabhatta, also mentioned as Bhattodbhata. This Udbhata might be identical with the rhetorician from Kashmir. Kalhana in his Rajatarangini mentions a minister bearing the same name. As regards Kambalasvatara and Purandara, all that can be said is that they belonged to the eighth century or before. As to Udbhata, if all the Udbhatas were the same, we may fix the time at the ninth century. His name occurs in Syadvada­ratnakara and Granthibhanga. Vadidevasuri respectfully refers to him as ‘a venerable old twice-­born’ (jarad­-dvijanma-­mahanubhavah). Considerably long extracts from Udbhata’s commentary are quoted as the exponent’s view (purvapaksa) by Cakradhara and Vadidevasuri. Cakradhara sets all speculation at rest by clearly stating that susiksita, “well educated” and Cārvākadhurta, “cunning Carvaka” in Jayanta’s work mean Udbhata (and his followers).

From Kamalasila we know that there were at least two commentaries (if not more) on the Cārvākasutra in or before the eighth century. The commentators explained one sutra (tebhayascaitanyam) in two different ways. Cakradhara mentions Bhavivikta as one among many of the traditional Cārvākas. So the number of commentators may have been more than five that we have so far been able to ascertain.

The fragments of the commentaries mostly refer to five aphorisms, namely, athatastattvam vyakhyasyamah, “we shall now explain the principle”; prthivyapastejovayuriti tattvani, “earth, water, fire and air are the principles, nothing else”; tebhyascaitanyam, “consciousness (arises or is manifested) out of these”; pratyaksam (ekam) eva pramanam, “perception indeed is the (only) means of right knowledge”; and pramanasyagaunatvad anumanad arthaniscayo durlabhah, “since the means of right knowledge is to be non-­secondary, it is difficult to ascertain an object by means of inference”.

The sutra, kayad (or sarirad) eva, “From the body itself,” is more cryptic than the similar aphorism, tebhyascaitanyam. Even before Kamalasila, there were two schools of commentators: one supplying the adhyahara, upajayate, “is born”, the other opting for abhivyajyate, “is manifested”, 2 Other writers while controverting the Cārvāka preferred either of the two, some mention both.

How many instruments of cognition did the Cārvākas accept as valid? Being materialists, they had to uphold perception. But does it mean that they excluded every other instrument of cognition as invalid? Kamalasila has quoted a sentence apparently taken from Purandara’s Vrtti which runs as follows: “The Cārvākas, too, admit of such an inference as is well known in the world, but that which is called inference [by some] transgressing the worldly way is prohibited [by the Cārvākas].” It would seem that the Cārvākas accepted perception as the only valid means of knowledge because it was direct, unmediated and hence non­-secondary, as the proper instrument of cognition should be. Inference on the other hand is dependent on perception, and so is regarded as secondary. The distinction made by the Cārvākas between utpannapratiti (inferential cognition acquired by oneself) and utpadyapratiti (inferential cognition to be acquired on somebody else’s advice), mentioned by Jayantabhatta, is the lasting contribution of the Cārvākas to the study of Logic, especially in relation to the nature of inference.

Absolutely nothing is known about Kambalasvatara and Purandara. The names of Aviddhakarna and Bhavivikta are also found in Nyaya literature. But at the present state of our knowledge we cannot say, as Eli Franco writes, whether they were “Cārvākas who converted to Nyaya or Naiyayikas who converted to the Lokayata.”3 Franco is also of the opinion that “the possibility of their having introduced Vaisesika categories into the Cārvāka school is certainly not unimaginable.”. Yet it is to be noted that Cakradhara mentions him as belonging to the traditional line of the Cārvākas. It was Udbhata, as both Cakradhara and Vadidevasuri say, who went for strange innovations.

Of all the commentators, Udbhata deserves more notice than others. While the other commentators seem to have followed the literal meaning of the aphorisms (so far as can be gathered from the available fragments, admittedly inadequate to form any definite opinion), Udbhata was indeed a ‘revisionist’ among the materialists. Let me quote a few of his remarks as reproduced by Vadidevasuri:

While explicating the two aphorisms in the Lokayatasutras, “We shall now explain the principle” and “Earth, water, fire and air (are the principles)”, he (sc. Udbhata) described it in another way, forsaking the conventional interpretation. In the first aphorism, the term, tattva, tells the impossibility of laying down any fixed number and essential characteristics of the sources of knowledge and objects of knowledge. The second aphorism, too, is explained by him as referring to the objects of knowledge. The word, iti in the (aphorism), “The earth, water, fire and air iti”, indicates also the possibility of similar objects of knowledge other than the earth, etc. Such is his view.
The word, iti, does not denote the end, (but) it is illustrative. There are other principles such as consciousness, sound, pleasure, pain, desire, aversion, efforts, impression and others. There are also prior non­existence of the earth, etc., posterior non­existence, and mutual difference which are quite apparent and distinct (from the principles, viz., earth, etc.).

This goes against the very grain of the Cārvāka approach.

Like Aviddhakarna, Udbhata too was an accomplished logician. He could and did use the technical terms of Nyaya to justify the orthodox Carvaka position. However, he succeeded more in obfuscating than expounding the significance of the aphorisms. Here is an example (the least opaque of the fragments related to logic):

The one who framed the definition [of anumana as pramana] aimed at brevity of expression, but not only because of this does inference become secondary. And if they were to define the characteristics of probans [sadhya, i.e., inferable property, such as ‘fire’] as attributes of the thing which is a part of the probandum [hetu, reason, such as ‘smoke’], there would be no secondary significance even in the definition.

It is probable that Jayantabhatta had Udbhata in mind when he said, “The Cārvāka, the well-learned ones, say that it is really impossible to specifically state the number of the instruments of cognition.” Given Udbhata’s refusal to delimit the number of the objects of cognition (see above), it is only one step further to deny any definite number of the instruments of cognition.

In fact, in one instance, Udbhata seems to verge on pure idealism. He says, “[T]here is an unseen property of the elements, the particular nature of the elements that constitute the body, which brings about the experience of diverse pleasures and pains.”

Udbhata’s penchant for novelty is most apparent in his interpretation of the word bhutebhyah. He does not take it in the ablative case denoted by the fifth declension (a view followed by the earlier Cārvākas like Bhavivikta and others), but suggests that it is a case of tadarthye caturthi. The aphorism would then mean: “Consciousness is for (the sake of) the elements; consciousness is independent and aids the physical elements which constitute the body.” The separation of consciousness from the body is closer to idealism than materialism.

Although the available extracts from the commentaries are pitifully few, we may still venture to suggest that all the commentators of the Cārvākasutra flourished long after the redaction of the sutra work. Whether Purandara was the first redactor as also the first commentator cannot be ascertained. But the difference in opinion regarding the adhyahara in relation to an aphorism basic to the Cārvāka doctrine (tebhyascaitanyam) shows that there was a school of commentators which believed in the immanence of consciousness in the body itself. Apparently it did not treat consciousness as an epiphenomenon as suggested by the sutra, jalabudbudavajjivah, “souls are like water bubbles.” But the way in which Udbhata offers his interpretation of the well­-known aphorisms exhibits a marked break from the tradition. It may even be argued that he was only manipulating the Cārvāka aphorisms to propound a philosophy of his own.

What, however, unites Purandara, Aviddhakar‹a and Udbhata is their staunch defence of the primacy of perception. No other philosophical system except Cārvāka/Lokayata seeks to classify the pramanas into two categories, primary (agauna) and secondary (gauna), that is, any other instrument of cognition except perception is a pramana only in the metaphorical sense. Those who believe in the validity of more than one instrument of cognition treat all of them on a par: inference or word is as valid as perception. The Cārvākas alone treat perception as basic to acquiring knowledge and inference is to be admitted when and only when it is based on and preceded by perception. This is how anumana is defined in the Nyayasutra, 1.5.

Notes and References

1. For an account of critical surveys in the field of Cārvāka studies, see Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, “Cārvāka Fragments: A New Collection”, Journal of Indian Philosophy (Dordrecht), 30: 6, December 2002, pp. 597­640, included, with revisions and corrections, in my Studies on the Cãrvãka/Lokãyata, Firenze: Società Editrice Fiorentina, 2009. All the fragments referred to in this paper are to be found in the aforesaid article with full reference to the sources. Interested readers are requested to consult the same for further information.

2. See Kamalasila, Tattvasangraha-­pañjika on Tattvasangraha, verses 1857­58.

3. Eli Franco, Dharmakirti on Compassion and Rebirth, Wien: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 1997, p. 142.


While uploading the essay, we could not retain the original transliteration of Sanskrit words, which however is available in the pdf format of the essay

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of Pavlov Institute, Kolkata. His published works include Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata (Cultural, Historical and Textual Studies of Religions). Anthem Press; Bilingual edition (December 15, 2011)

His essays available on our website can be accessed at: 


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