Saturday, 15 December 2012

Commentators on the Cārvākasūtra: A Critical Survey - Part I


Ramkrishna Bhattacharya


A recent essay by Karin Preisendanz (2008) set me thinking about the commentary tradition of the Cārvākasūtra. In spite of the fact that the mūla-text is lost, we have a number of fragments of the commentaries written by no fewer than four com­mentators, namely, Kambalāşvatara, Purandara, Aviddhakarņa, and Udbhata (Bhattacharya 2009, 65–68). The existence of other commentators too has been suggested (TS 22. 18568, II: 634), of whom only one name is mentioned elsewhere: Bhāvivikta (GrBh II: 257). Unfortunately no extract from his work is quoted any­where. It is interesting to note that there is a reference to Pauram: dariya vitti in addition to the Paurandaram sūtram (Pupphadanta, 20. 18. 9). We also read of Purandara as an author of a work on the Cārvāka doctrine (a marginal note in a ms qutd. in Gune 42).

From the thirty fragments so far collected we gather that Bhattodbhata or Udbhatabhatta was known as a commentator who differed from the traditional Cārvākas and broke new grounds in explaining some of the aphorisms (GrBh I: 100; SVR 764). Purandara too is claimed to have deviated from his predecessor/s, for he admitted a particular kind of inference, such as is well-known in the world (or better still, well-established in the world, lokaprasiddham anumānam) (TSP II: 528). Kamalaśila while quoting Purandara’s words (apparently verbatim) adds a tu, ‘‘but’’ (or ‘‘however’’) before the reporting verb, thereby giving birth to an opinion that the Cārvākas before Purandara accepted only one instrument of cognition, namely, perception, while Purandara includes such inference as depended on perception and well known in everyday practice (Franco and Preisendanz 180 col. 1).

This is open to question, as will be shown later. At present suffice it to say that while some critics call the Cārvākas pramānaikavādins, professing the validity of one and only one instrument of cognition (perception), they quote Bhartrthari’s Vākyapadīya,1.32–1.34 in support of their contention (Bhattacharya 2009, 117). This is downright absurd, for Bhartrhari considered scripture, āgama, to be the only valid instrument of cognition whereas the Cārvākas had nothing to do with it. In the long history of Indian philosophy Bhartrhari alone held a rigid one-pramāņa position. All others admitted two, three or four pramānas. The position of the Cārvākas was nearer the Buddhists (who admitted both perception and inference) than any other philosophical system. But in order to brand the Cārvākas as pramānaikavādins they were made to appear as one with Bhartrhari. Even though the commentators of the Cārvākasūtra had some differences among themselves concerning the interpretation of some aphorisms, they seem to have been unanimous in regard to the number of pramānas to be admitted. It was perception and inference based on perception. Only in this sense they were pramānaikavādins. Here we have to grasp the bhāva rather than the literal meaning of eka.

How do we know that? This is where the passages (fragments) from the com­mentaries of Aviddhakarna (PVSVT: 19) and Purandara (TSP II: 528) quoted by their opponents prove indispensable. Both of them interpret the aphorism, ‘‘Perception is the (only) instrument of cognition’’(III.1) in this sense (For details see Bhattacharya 2009, 88–90, Comms. 3, 4, 18). Udbhata too denied the status of inference as primary and defended the view of the sūtrakāra by adducing further reason (Comms. 11–13).
What is further to be noted is that, unlike other systems of philosophy, the Cārvāka/Lokāyata did not accord equal value to perception and inference. Inference, they said, must be grounded on perception first, so it was of secondary kind (gauna). The Nyāya school did not disagree with the view that inference is preceded by perception. However, they claimed that inference was nevertheless on a par with perception or word or comparison. The Cārvāka-s however claimed that perception was not only pramāņajyestha, the foremost of the pramāņa-s, but also the only primary means. Inference, etc. in order to be valid had to be based on perception first. Hence, they were secondary, or pramāņa in the secondary sense of the word. This is the proper understanding of the Cārvāka position and is supported by many Jain writers (for details, see Bhattacharya 2009, 57–63, 114–117). Vācaspatimisra disparages the Cārvākas by calling them worse than the beast, for they could not make inferential judgement on the basis of actual experience (Bhām on BS 3.3.53-4, 852). This is nothing but calumny, for the Cārvāka materialists accepted laukika anumāna as valid. This is found in the commentaries as well as admitted by some of their opponents (see Bhattacharya 2009, 57–58).

Let us turn to Udbhat:a again. He was well-versed in Nyāya terminology and employed them profusely (SVR 265, 270, 764). But what is remarkable is that he had a penchant for explaining aphorisms in a radically novel way. His interpretation was based on the inbuilt ambiguity of certain words in the sūtras, such as iti and tebhyah (GrBh I: 100, II: 257–258; SVR 1087). Consequently his glosses make the Cārvākasūtra appear as a kind of a parallel Nyāya text. Moreover some of his interpretations render the Cārvāka view as almost bordering on immaterialism, if not idealism proper (GrBh II: 257, 262). What has been said about S. H. Butcher’s Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art may very well apply to Udbhat:a’s commentary: ‘‘[Butcher] uses Aristotle as a peg on which to hang rather vague and un-Aristotelian speculations.’’ (Hardy 8)

The question is: once we know, as Jayantabhat::ta, Vādidevasūri and Cakradhara also knew (GrBh I: 100, II: 257–258; SVR 1087), that Udbhata was intent upon interpreting the Cārvāka in the light of his personal understanding, not following the original tradition, and even consciously going against it, how much credence is to be given to his work as a true exposition of the Cārvāka system? There is every reason to believe that he had hammered out a philosophical system of his own but instead of writing a new sūtra work, with or without an auto-commentary, as Purandara (see above) presumably did, he had manipulated the Cārvāka aphorisms to represent his singularly distinct point of view. Should we classify his commentary as ‘‘creative’’ (Preisendanz, 609–611)?

It should be borne in mind that Jayantabhatta and Vādidevasūri controvert the Cārvāka view accepting Udbhata’s commentary as the exposition of materialism in India. Jayanta refers to Udbhat:a sarcastically as ‘‘the well-learned Cārvākas’’ (honorific plural or meaning Udbhata and his followers) (NM I: 52, II: 257). More derisively he calls him ‘‘the cunning Cārvāka’’ (NM I: 100). Thanks to Cakradhara we now know that instead of two different persons (as some scholars used to believe) Jayanta was referring to one and the same person, namely, Udbhata, once calling him ‘‘the well-learned Cārvākas’’ and then ‘‘the cunning Cārvāka’’. It is to be noted that in spite of his occasional deviations from the ‘‘orthodox’’ Cārvāka position, Udbhata is still regarded by Jayanta and others as a Cārvāka.

However, there is an allusion to one unidentified ascetic (tapasvin) in NM I: 101, who may be Udbhata or some other person. Is it also an instance of sarcasm, so typical of Jayanta’s style? The suśiksitatarāh (NM I: 184), ‘‘the better-learned ones’’, however, probably refer to some other materialists. The change in the degree of comparison may not be without significance. They may allude to those who adhered to the Paurandarīya-vrtti rather than the Tattvatīkā, the commentary written by Udbhata.

Although Jayanta and Hemacandra, the Jain savant, do not hesitate to call the Cārvākas varāka ‘wretched’ (NM I: 9; YS 2.38), Vādidevasūri, another Jain scholar, mentions Udbhata as ‘‘the respectable veteran twice-born’’ (SVR 764). Vādidevasūri was aware of both the traditional view about the Cārvāka/Lokāyata (of Bhāvivikta and others) as well as the unconventional view of Udbhata (SVR 764). However, like Jayanta, Vādidevasūri quotes extensively from Udbhata’s commentary knowing full well that he was a maverick in the Cārvāka tradition.

Paucity of extracts from Udbhata’s commentary and lack of evidence regarding his identity, particularly the time he flourished, compel us to stop at this point without offering any conclusion. Chattopadhyaya and Gangopadhyaya, following Gaurinatha Shastri, identify Udbhata with the Sabhāpati of King Jayāpīda of Kashmir (regnal years 779–813 CE), as mentioned in the Rājatarangini (5.495). That would make Udbhata the philosopher identical with Udbhata the rhetorician. However, there is absolutely no evidence, internal or external, to justify such a conclusion. The names ending in -ta (Mammata, Rudrata, etc.) appear to suggest Kashmirian origin. But there is no harm in having three, or at least two Udbhatas instead of one. After all we hear of two more Udbhatas (NCC II: 341). In any case, one point is certain: Udbhata does not represent the mainstream Cārvāka tradition. By taking him as the true representative of the materialist doctrine Jayanta has successfully left the traditional Cārvākas out of consideration, excepting once when he writes that ‘‘the Cārvākas say that there is only one kind of pramāņa, which is perception’’ (NM I: 43). However, after a few pages he writes: ‘‘The well-learned Cārvākas say that it is really impossible to specifically state the number of pramāņa’’ (NM I: 52). This goes flatly against the words of the sūtra (III.1) which says: pratyaksam (ekam) eva pramāņam, ‘‘Perception indeed is the (only) means of right knowledge’’.

Jayanta was aware of the ancient Cārvākas like Bhāvivikta and others (as was Cakradhara, his faithful commentator (GrBh II: 257)). Jayanta’s refutation of the Cārvāka, however, is by and large beside the point. He was controverting Udbhata’s views, not the traditional views of the Cārvākas.

In this sense we may say that Udbhata’s commentary was creative in its own way but at the same time unreliable in reconstructing the original Cārvāka position. Udbhata is relevant only in relation to Jayanta and Vādidevasuūri but totally irrel­evant in connection with the Cārvāka philosophy as such. Udbhata is out and out a ‘‘revisionist’’ or more probably a Naiyāyika who wears a Cārvāka hat (as my friend, Prof. Prabal Kumar Sen suggests) and interprets the Cārvāka/Lokāyata in the most non-Cārvāka-like way conceivable (see GrBh II: 262). I would, however, avoid the expression, ‘‘progressive Cārvāka’’ used by Esther A. Solomon (1977–1978, 990), for Udbhata seems to have digressed from the original, monist materialist position, taking a dualist position concerning the body-consciousness relation. Moreover, he seems to verge on the idealist side in his explication of an aphorism (see Bhattacharya 2009, 68, 88–90). In this sense he was a reformist or revisionist.
Objections may be raised at this point: was not the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, like Nyāya and Sāmkhya, open to development, adopting itself to more advanced standards of philosophical reasoning and concepts? Why should it be considered absolutely monolithic over the centuries?

My answer is this: in case of Nyāya or Sāmkhya we do have evidence of development made by their adherents, or at least those who claimed to be their adherents for the time being. In case of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata the case is different. Aviddhakarna and Udbhata were basically Naiyāyikas. Even if they were converted to the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, they brought the whole baggage of Nyāya-Vaiśesika terminology when they composed their commentaries on the Cārvākasūtra. Such instances are not uncommon even in modern times. Without accepting the Cārvāka/Lokāyata views as whole, expositions, not altogether unsympathetic, have been written by traditional Sanskrit scholars. For instance, Pandit Ananta Kumar Bhattacharyya wrote such an exposition of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata in 1365 Bengali era (1958–1959 CE). An English translation of his essay has been provided by Chattopadhyaya and Gangopadhyaya (452–473). More recently, in 1984 Acarya Badarinatha Sukla, former Vice-Chancellor, Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Varanasi, defended dehātmavāda, following the method of Nyāya (121–134). He even extolled dehātmavāda as an appropriate philosophy for contemporary life.

These developments are of course quite interesting but whether they mark any significant ‘‘growth’’ is, I am afraid, a matter of opinion. They do not help us reconstruct the original Cārvāka/Lokāyata or any other materialist doctrine that had flourished in India right from the Buddha’s time or even before. That is what we need first. We need more hard facts. Exploration of Tibetan sources is a desidera­tum. Such new material alone can throw more, if not new, light on materialism in India through the ages.


This essay was first published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy (Springer Netherlands) in 2010. Part II of the essay can be accessed here. Bibliography is available along with the second part.

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.

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