Thursday, 20 December 2012

Commentators on the Cārvākasūtra: A Critical Survey - Part II

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya 

Reverting to the other commentators on the Cārvākasūtra, it may be said that Aviddhakarna, like Udbhata, attempted to interpret the Cārvāka aphorisms from the Nyāya-Vaiśesika point of view, perhaps without being converted to the Cārvāka. Since it is not possible at the present state of our knowledge to determine whether they were Cārvākas converted to Nyāya or Naiyāyikas converted to Lokāyata, as Eli Franco (1997, 142) says, my suggestion—they simply adopted the Cārvāka position while writing their commentaries without being converted to the Cārvāka—may be taken as a third alternative.

In this connection Franco mentions (1997, 142) the name of Bhāvivikta along with Aviddhakarna, for both of them are known to have written Cārvāka and Nyāya works. However, there is nothing to show that Bhāvivikta, like Udbhata, went for a novel line of interpreting the Cārvākasūtra. This is why Cakradhara calls him one of the ancient masters of the traditional Cārvākas, cirantanacārvākācārya (GrBh II: 257), following Jayanta’s own description. Jayanta also notes the dualist position adopted by Udbhata as against the traditional, monist one which did not believe in the independent existence of the spirit (NM II: 257).

If we care to notice the plural number employed by Kamalaśila (TSP II: 633) as well as Cakradhara (GrBh II: 257) in regard to the vrttikāras of the Cārvākasūtra (now lost), we may legitimately think of more than five commentators of the mūla text whose names so far are known to us. Apparently some followed the conventional approach and adhered to the mainstream tradition, while Udbhata and his followers proposed to advance an alternative line of dualist materialism, as borne out by GrBh: II: 257–258, 262. All of them, however, stuck to the basic premise: inference cannot be accepted as an independent instrument of cognition, although such inferences as are verified and verifiable by perception may be admitted. Solomon does not accept Mahendra Kumar Jain’s view that there were two Aviddhakarnas, one a Naiyāyika and the other a Cārvāka(1971, 23). It is possible that, like Vācaspatimiśra, both Aviddhakarn: a and Bhāvivikta composed two separate commentaries on the Cārvākasūtra without being converted to the Cārvāka. Since there is no hard fact either for accepting or for denying such a hypothesis, both the possibilities—one Aviddha­karna and one Bhāvivikta or two Aviddhakarnas and two Bhāviviktas—remain open. It is however worth noting that Aviddhakarna, like Udbhata, is admitted as a Cārvāka in NVV II: 101, not merely as an author of a Nyāya text.

Solomon is of the view that both Aviddhakarna and Udbhata belong to 
a section of thinkers who while firmly adhering to the doctrines of the Nyāya school, saw some affinity of the school with the Lokāyata school inasmuch as nothing is said in the Nyāya-sūtra about God, creation of the world, heaven [,] hell, etc. They perhaps wrote commentaries on the sūtras of the Lokāyata interpreting them in a new light and making their views more cogent and acceptable, so that the Lokāyata could have a better philosophical status. Bhāvivikta, Udbhata and perhaps even Aviddhakarna belonged to such a group and so were ridiculed as ‘Cirantana Cārvāka’ or Par[a]malokāyatammanya’ perhaps by the Cārvākas, as also by Nyāya philosophers who marched with the times and admitted the reality of heaven, etc., in their own philosophical sys­tem. This also explains why their views are hardly given any importance in the orthodox line of thinkers of the Nyāya School, whereas the Buddhists respect their clear-headedness. Even if looking to the expressions used we consider them as Cārvākas, we would have to admit that they tried to liberalise and re-interpret the orthodox Cārvāka doctrines, but remained faithful to the Nyāya doctrines in their commentaries on Nyāya works. I am inclined to regard them as primarily Nyāya thinkers (–they are referred to by Sāntaraksita and others among them–) who tried to bring the Lokāyata concepts closer [to Nyāya?], and to make them a little more philosophical (1973, 4: 11–12).
While such a possibility cannot be ruled out, I have only one comment to offer: Cakradhara clearly contrasts Bhāvivikta with Udbhata: the former alone is called a cirantanacārvāka while the latter’s innovative interpretation is noted both by Cakradhara (GrBh II: 257–258) and Vādidevasūri (SVR 764) as going against the tradition, yathāsrutārtha (GrBh I: 100). (In the last sentence quoted from Solomon, we must read Kamalaśila instead of Sāntaraksita, who alludes to Kambalāśvatara alone, while Kamalaśila refers in addition to Aviddhakarna and Purandara (TSP 521, 528–529). Bhāvivikta is mentioned by Cakradhara only once (GrBh II: 257)); no passage has been quoted from his work.

It is also to be noted that the commentators always had their rival philosophical systems in mind which sought to find fault with such materialist premises as con­sciousness can be present when and only when there is a body. Kambalāśvatara, for example, explains that the word ‘‘body’’ here is to be taken as one endowed with the five breaths, Prāna, Apāna, etc. (TS 22. 1863, II: 635). In other words, cognition is produced from the body inhabited or governed by the five breaths, i.e., a living body, not a corpse. Such a clarification may have been necessitated by some opponent’s resorting to jalpa, or chala, or vitandā in this context. Purandara and others too may have been constrained to explain their view of inference over and over again because of the same reason: to counteract the caricature so often resorted to by their opponents, such as Vācaspatimiśra (see above).

The term parināmaviśesah is found in several sources (see Bhattacharya 2009, 182, n. 20) but it is not clear whether there was an aphorism to this effect. It is probable that while explicating aphorism I.4 (‘Their combination (sc. of the four elements) is called the ‘‘body’’, ‘‘sense’’ and ‘‘object’’’), some commentator used this term to disabuse all (specially anti-materialists) of the notion (or to guard against actual or possible misinterpretation?) that any combination of the elements could give rise to consciousness in a body. He pointed out that only ‘‘a specific kind of transformation’’ could do so.

Speaking of the dominance of the senses in the materialist system, Sukhlal Sanghavi elucidates that the statement that pramāņa depends on the senses does not mean that the Cārvākas refuse such pramānas as inference or word which are used everyday and established everywhere; the Cārvāka calls itself prat­yaksamātravādin—indiryapratyaksamātravādin in the sense that inference, word, etc. are not laukika pramānas since their validity is not ascertainable without the information provided by sense perception. If, however, some jñānavyāpāra, not contradicted by sense perception, is called pramāna, the Cārvāka has no objection to it (1941/1987, 13–14). He had spoken of this before too (1939, 4 = 1961, 4) and his opinion is corroborated by Vādidevasūri (SVR 265–266), Ratnaprabhā (PNTA 640), Gunaratna (TRD 306) and the anonymous author of SMS (15). In short, acceptance of laukika anumāna or lokaprasiddha hetu or lokapratiti, according to Sukhlalji, has been a part of the Cārvāka epistemology since its very inception. Purandara was not forced to introduce it in the wake of Dharmakirti’s appearance (as some modern scholars believe).

Objection may be raised again: How do you know that? The answer is simple: This has been the view of all materialists in ancient India, even before the Cārvākas appeared in the scene. A passage in the Mbh 12.211.26-27 (crit. ed.; 218.27-28 in vulgate) makes a materialist declare: 
pratyaksam: hyetayor mūlam: krtāntaitihyayor api/
pratyakse hyāgamo ’bhinnah: krtānto vā na kimcana//
yatra tatrānumāne ’sti krtam bhāvayate’pi vā/
anyo jīvah śarīrasya nāstikānām: mate smrtah: //
The conclusion based on inference and tradition—both are rooted in percep­tion. Perception and testimony (what we are told to believe in) are identical; reasoned-out truth (= inference) too is nothing else but perception.

It is proved everywhere that the body exists. What the āstikas think—that there is a soul without the body—is not (proved).
The terminology is different: inference is called krtānta, perception, krta. The last line of the second verse is tricky: it does not mean what Nīlakantha and the early translators took it to be because of the faulty reading in the mss at their disposal. It should not be understood as ‘‘what the naāstikas think’’, but as āstikānaām mate na smrtah (Belvalkar has rightly shown this in his notes in the crit. ed.); otherwise the line would read like one of those proverbial vyāsakūtas.

Extreme brevity of the sūtras badly requires elaboration and fixing the exact collocation of technical terms employed in the mūla text. This left a very wide scope for the commentators to fix the collocation of words as they understood them or chose to mean. Udbhata in this respect surpasses all his predecessors. He anticipates Humpty-Dumpty: iti or tebhyah should mean just what he would choose them to mean, “neither more nor less” (Carroll Ch. 6, 269): iti should be taken as illustrative, not denoting the end; tebhyah (or bhūtebhyah) should mean “for them”, not “from them” (Comms. 8–10, 16). Whether Aviddhakarna, Kambalāśvatara and Purandara also followed the same line is not known. On the contrary, Bhāvivikta and others seem to have followed the traditional track without twisting the familiar and obvious meanings of the words employed in the sūtra.

Jayanta and Vādidevasūri in their polemics against the Cārvāka sometimes target the mainstream views of the old Cārvākas and at other times, the unconventional interpretations of Udbhata, not always caring to distinguish between the two. This again is not unprecedented. They wished to score points over the materialists by hook or by crook. As polemicists they have every right to do so. But we, as readers should be aware where they were targeting the sūtrakāra and where the vrttikāra. Such shifting of target, however, works as a hindrance to the proper understanding of the original Cārvāka position.

From the available evidence it is clear that these commentators of the Cārvākasūtra were unanimous in one point, namely, primacy of perception which includes admittance of such laukika inference as is preceded and hence can be tested by repeated observations. In this respect both Aviddkarna and Udbhata were in agreement with Purandara (PVSVT: 19, GrBh 265–266). As is well-known, one of the differences between the Cārvāka and other philosophical systems, whether orthodox (āstika) or heterodox (nāstika), hinges on the following point: how many instruments of cognition are to be admitted as valid. The unanimity of the three commentators seems to point out that, in spite of other differences of opinion (for example, how many principles (tattvas) are to be admitted, etc. (GrBh I: 57–58, etc.), all three commentators, Purandara, Aviddhakarna and Udbhata, were prepared to admit lokaprasiddha anumāna (inference well established in the world) (TSP II: 528. Cf. PVSVT19, SVR 265–266) and distinguished between utpannapratiti (the kind of inference in which the inferential cognition can be acquired by oneself, such as fire from smoke) and utpādyapratiti (the kind of inference in case of which the inferential cognition is to be acquired [on somebody else’s advice], such as the self, God, an omniscient being, the other world, etc.) (NM I: 184). Sukhlal Sangahvi has very pertinently described the Cārvāka as belonging to indriyādhipatya paksa (1941/1987, 23), a system in which the sense organs are dominant and inference, etc. must pass the test of being verified through perception first. The word (śabda or āptavākya) would also be acceptable when and only when it is amenable to perceptual verification.

We should also note that one point of difference in the interpretation of a basic Cārvāka aphorism was already there even before Purandara and Udbhata. While commenting on the aphorism, tebhyaś caitanyam there was already some difference of opinion: the one group supplied the missing verb (adhyāhāra) ‘‘is born’’ (utpadyate/jāyate), the other, ‘‘is manifested’’ (abhivyajyate) (TS-TSP II: 634–635). The former apparently stuck to the classical materialist position of monistic mate­rialism: no matter, no consciousness. The second group, on the other hand, was dualist, assuming that consciousness inheres in matter but in an unmanifested state. Both groups, however, apparently admitted that tebhyah is to mean ‘from them’, not ‘for them’, as Udbhata claimed (GrBh I: 257).

Although Sāntaraksita mentioned only one Cārvāka philosopher by name, Kambalāśvatara (TS 22. 1863, II: 635), he was aware of these two schools of interpretation of the Cārvākasūtra as is evident from TS 22.1858 (II: 634). Kamalaśila names two more commentators: Aviddhakarna and Purandara, and refers to the two aforesaid approaches by opaque words, ‘‘some commentators’’, kecit vrttikārāh and “some others”, anye (TSP II: 633–634). Unfortunately there is no way of knowing as yet whether he refers to two individual commentators or several ones belonging to two commentary traditions. Even though we know the views of Aviddhakarna and Udbhata concerning other issues, no fragment relating to this particular aphorism has come down to us.


In spite of the meagre material available, it is evident that (1) not unlike the other systems, there is a lack of uniformity in the commentary tradition of the Cārvākasūtra, (2) not all commentators were committed monistic materialists, at least one, namely, Udbhata, was a dualist, and (3) in course of time Nyāya-Vaiśesika terminology, such as gamya, gamaka, etc., quite foreign to the traditional Cārvāka, has been introduced into the Cārvāka system.

The third observation requires some elucidation. After explaining utpannapratiti and utpādyapratiti, Jayanta makes the “better learned ones” (euphemism used ironically to suggest some Cārvākas) say:

Indeed, who will deny the validity of inference when one infers fire from smoke and so on; for even ordinary people ascertain the probandum by such inferences, though they may not be pestered by the logicians.

Simple minded people cannot derive the knowledge of the probandum by such inferences, so long as their mind is not vitiated by cunning logicians (NM I: 184. Emphasis added)

If “the better learned ones” refer to Udbhata and his followers (as do the other two bantering terms, “the cunning Cārvāka” and “the well-learned Cārvākas”) we are faced with a problem. Udbhata himself was prone to employ many technical terms of Nyāya logic. Yet he cavils against cunning logicians (vitatārkikas)! Apparently Jayanta is not quoting verbatim from any commentary on the Cārvākasūtra. He is merely paraphrasing (in verse) the view of a section of the Cārvākas. This would mean that “the better learned ones” were opposed to the logic-chopping of other philosophical systems, presumably non-materialistic, who would admit all sorts of inference, laukika as well as alaukika (derived from scripture or āpti) as valid instruments of cognition, on a par with perception. Thus “the better learned ones”, I presume, should refer to some commentators other than Udbhata or Aviddhakarna, most probably to Purandara who admitted limited validity of inference insofar as it was based directly on perception. The contrast made between the old Cārvākas and the new seems to have to do with the monistic and dualistic position regarding the existence of the spirit.

The dozen or so commentators of the Brahmasūtra were all intent on expounding their widely different systems of philosophy, both idealist and realist, monist and dualist, by using the same mūla-text. The Cārvāka commentators too held different opinions concerning the number of tattvas and pramānas, and the nature of con­sciousness (whether it inheres in the four elements or arises out of them), but all used the same mūla-text to further their views. Not unlike the Vedāntins, the latter too had to resort to weird and fanciful interpretations (kastakalpanā), preferring the far-fetched to the familiar, and made optimum exploitation of the brevity of the sūtras. It is a pity that the commentary of Bhāvivikta, the ancient (traditional) Cārvāka, is lost. In the absence of his work, the Cārvāka system is now understood in the light of the views of some late commentators who had blatantly deviated from the mainstream view in some, though not all, vital respects.


Esther A. Solomon writes: ‘Looking to the attractive names of the other ācāryas (e.g. Uddyotakara, Bhāsarvanja, Bhāvivikta and the like), one can confidently say that “Aviddhakarna” is a nickname signifying “one whose ears are not pierced (or split)”’ (1970: 35). She proceeds to identify Aviddhakarna as a kānphātā yogin, a “junior contemporary and the direct disciple of Jālandharapā, and to have lived in the later part of the sixth century or in the early part of the seventh century” (1970: 38). In a subsequent article Solomon modified her view, for piercing the ears was not an exclusive rite of the Nātha community, it was a part of the religious cere­mony for initiation among the Buddhists and the Jains too. She admits: “Muttering some select mantra in the ears of the disciple who is to be initiated is also a practice found in many religious sects” (1971: 24). Hence she concludes, ‘‘Aviddhakarna would thus mean one whose ears were not pierced, or assaulted with right and wrong words of any guru or philosopher; that is to say, a self-made man” (1971: 24). The alternative suggestion is intriguing, reminiscent of Diogenes Laertius’ interpretation of a saying of Heraclitus, edizêsamên emeôuton, “I searched by myself” (Fr. 101 (Bywater, Diels)). Diogenes took it to mean: “He (sc. Heraclitus) studied under no one but searched, as he says, for himself, and he learned everything from himself” (qutd. in Barnes xviii). This may not be what Heraclitus himself meant, but such an interpretation was current. Solomon, however, prefers the literal meaning of the name and asserts: “[S]ince our Aviddhakarna belongs to the Nyāya school we feel that he was one of the direct pupils of Jālandharpā who did not observe this practice of having the ears split’” (1971: 24).

Such a hypothesis is strengthened by what is said of the Naiyāyika and the Vaiśesika by Gunaratna the former is a devotee of Siva; the latter, a Pāśupata (TRD 51.5-6). One Nyāya-Vaiśesika philosopher, Bhāsarvajna (fl. 860–920) of Kashmir, was a member of the Pāśupata sect. D. R. Sarma informs us that the prefix bhā-is common to the names of the members of this sect (163–165). Bhāsarvajna is said to have held certain views “characteristic of the Pāśupata despite their evident divergence from Nyāya’’ (Potter 2: 399).

Frankly, I do not know what to make out of all this. The use of nicknames, not in creative writing but in philosophical literature, must be rare. Moreover it inevitably raises the question: why should philosophers themselves adopt nicknames? Yet several names related to light, beginning with bhā-, must have some significance. Then there is the name Kambalāśvatara, which makes no sense at all, as Franco (1997, 103) notes in despair. All of them cannot be real names such as Udayana, Kumārila, Śālikana¯tha, and the like.

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Siddhartha Dutta, Karin Preisendanz. The usual disclaimers apply.

Abbreviations and References

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Bhattacharyya, A. K. (1365, Bengali Year). Cārvāka Darśana. Darśana, 6, 3–4. (Reprinted in translation in Chattopadhyaya and Gangopadhyaya, 452–473).
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YS.      Hemacandra. Yogaśāstra with auto-commentary. Bhavnagar: Srijainadharma Pracharaka Sabha, 1926.

This essay was first published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy (Springer Netherlands) in 2010. Part I of the essay can be accessed here. 

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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