Wednesday, 26 December 2012

What is Meant by Svabhava: Chattopadhyaya and Needham

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s Science and Society in Ancient India (1977) impressed Joseph Needham very much as had his Lokayata (1959). But there was one point on which Needham had some reservations. A series of letters relating to the doctrine of svabhava (lit. own being) and further discussions in person (when Chattoapdhyaya visited Needham in Cambridge) are of seminal importance to the student of Indian philosophy and more particularly of the philosophy of science.

Chattopadhyaya (1977) has made much of the doctrine of svabhava in relation to the CS, although he does not associate it specifically with the Carvaka, but with materialism of another sort. He knew that, unlike the Carvakas, the CS (1.26.10) speaks of five elements instead of four, and the physician-philosophers’ views concerning the rise of consciousness are quite different from the Carvakas’ (Chattopadhyaya 1992, 41-43). Chattopadhyaya proceeds from the notion: svabhavavada = “the laws of nature” = causality, and then equates causality with materialism which is = scientific temper or science consciousness. It is difficult to accept this series of equations in view of the basic complexity around the word, svabhava. What does it really mean: causality or accident?

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (left) and Joseph Needham

Svabhava is said to be one of the rival claimants for the title of the first cause (Jagatkarana) along with kala (time), yadriccha (chance or accident), niyati (detiny) etc. in the SvUp 1.2 (c. sixth century BCE). Here the distinction between svabhava and yadriccha is clearly made. However, in course of time, we find svabhava becoming a synonym for yadricch in Asvaghosha’s BC (9.58-62) and Sau (16.17). At the same time svabhavavada came to entail inactivism, akriyavada and total denial of the efficacy of human endeavour. The typical example of what svabhava means was the sharpness of the thought. In the Nyayasutra (4.1.22-24), this very idea is set to imply animittata (absence of any efficient cause). It is in this very sense that svabhava is used in the Mbh, Mokshadharma Parvadhyaya, Santiparvan (12.172.10-11, 12.224.50, 12.230.4). So it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that svabhava could mean both hetu and ahetu, causality and accident. In any case the implication of svabhava is more problematic than it appears at first glance. It is quite impossible to employ a single word or even a single phrase to convey the complexity inhering in the world.

In a personal communication to Chattopadhyaya (dt. 15. 12. 1978, as yet unpublished) Joseph Needham emphasized the relation between svabhava and the Chinese concept of Tao, and mildly objected to the phrase “laws of nature” in translating svabhava:

“On the other hand, I am not at all sure that the translation of "laws" of Nature for svabhava will meet the case. I suspect that one should not go beyond some expression like "innate thus-ness" or the "essential nature of things". As you will remember, in Volume 2 of "Science and Civilisation in China", we made a rather thorough investigation of the question of whether the conception of laws of Nature had ever arisen in Chinese civilisation, and we decided in the negative. This was on pp. 518 ff. Later we revised the presentation somewhat for a lecture at the Hatfield College of Technology in 1961... I now suspect that the rather silly metaphor of “Laws of Nature” could have arisen only in the monotheistic civilisation of the "People of the Book", i.e. the Hebrews, Christians and Moslems. We also suspect that it may have had considerable heuristic value at the time of the scientific revolution, but we doubt whether it played more than a minor part in that context. For us, the over-riding factors which gave rise to the scientific revolution in Europe and not in the Asian civilisations, were the concrete social and economic conditions and structures of these respective societies; and not so much intellectual factors - though we would never want to deny the importance of these. I haven't consulted any Sanskritists here about the best translation of svabhava but I can't help wondering whether it did not imply something like the Tao in Chinese thinking, i.e. the indwelling naturalness which makes things to be as they really are. At one time I thought that this might have something to do with Indian Rita, a word which I don't find in your index.”

Chattopadhyaya himself in his Lokayata (1959) had often spoken of the Vedic concept of rita and the Chinese concept of Tao (See the general index of Lokayata). In his study of the philosophical background of the ancient Indian medical texts (1977) he, for reasons best known to him, omitted all references to both rita and Tao, and concentrated wholly on svabhava as “laws of nature”. Needham was of the opinion that such a concept could only develop in monotheistic civilisations. Chattopadhyaya, however, was reluctant to admit this view (Chattopadhyaya 1987, 144-45).

Referring again to Chattopadhyaya’s work (1977) Needham later (1980) writes:

“A key word in the ancient Indian literature is svabhava, which could be translated “inherent nature”, “innate thus-ness”, or “the essential nature of things”. It must have had close relations with rita and even dharma in some senses, meaning “the Order of Nature” or the way in which Nature works – all recalling Tao in Chinese. The physicians were seeking the pattern-principles in Nature, the ultimate reasons (ultimately of course inscrutable) why things are as they are and behave as they do” (Needham 1980, 25)
Needham in this context makes another significant observation regarding the Chinese rendering of svabhava:

“It is interesting to see how these Sanskrit words came out when the Buddhists philosophers needed to translate them into Chinese. Svabhava was rendered as hsing, and defined as embodied cause, the unchanging, independent, self-dependent, fundamental “nature” behind the manifestation or expression of anything. Sometimes this was amplified as tzu hsing, “the primary germ [verb. sap.] out of which all material appearances are evolved, the first source of the material world of phenomena....” Other more curious locutions were ssu-pho-pho and tzu-thi-thi, “own state”, essential or inherent property, innate or peculiar disposition, natural state or constitution...”(Needham 1980, 25).

It is rather surprising that Needham seems to have agreed later (1986) with Chattopadhyaya’s view of svabhava as “laws of nature”, although the eminent Sinologist preferred to use the phrase, “the Order of Nature” along with it (see above). Referring to Chattopadhyaya’s treatment of rita in History of Science and Technology in Ancient India (vol. 1), Needham writes in his Preface to this work:

“Again, all that has been written here about rita, that ancient Indian concept of the Order of Nature, its pattern and organisation, self-originating and underlying all that happens, is well worth reading. The concept is somewhat analogous with what in Chinese we call the Tao, or li, also self-originating, tzu-jan. Apparently it was not characteristic of the Indus Valley civilisation but rather to be found in the Rigveda and such works. As a recognition of the regularity and uniformity of Nature it was certainly wisdom, but it had to be fleshed out with specific theories about natural phenomena, and these to a large extent arose out of technological practice. Of course it was the ancestor too of what today we call “laws of Nature”, those laws which Westerners once thought of as due to the will of a transcendent creator deity, but which are now regarded as descriptive rather than prescriptive” (Needham 1986, vii).

Chattopadhyaya was highly gratified to see that, after a long discussion with him in Cambridge (when he visited Needham, as he says, to learn from him something about history of science and technology), Needham had “constructively reconsidered” his views (Chattopadhyaya 1987, 145-46).

Two points are to be noted here: (a) acting upon Needham’s comment in his personal communication, Chattopadhyaya brought back rita to the interpretation of svabhava in the second volume of his history of science and technology in ancient India (1991) and (b) Needham, having heard from him the evidence of Indian philosophical literature, modified his views on svabhava insofar as it was a concept related to rita. Strangely enough, none of them refers to the Buddhist idea of pratitya-samutpada in this connection.

In his later work (1991) Chattopadhyaya discusses in detail the place of svabhava in Lokayata, Samkhya and Nyaya-Vaisesika, and comes to the following conclusion:

“We have seen that it (sc. svabhava) formed an important feature of the new intellectual climate ushered in the Second Urbanization and further, notwithstanding differences among the modern and medieval scholars of looking back at it, the concept itself at least foreshadowed what came to be known in later times as the Laws of Nature” (Chattopadhyaya 1991, II:69-70) (Emphasis added).

All these qualifications and modifications in the statement betray how tenuous Chattopadhyaya’s conclusion is. Svabhava-as-accident is as much a part of ancient classical Sanskrit works (such as the BC) as svabhava-as-causality. It is no use blaming some modern and medieval scholars. For one thing, in Indian literature two apparently unrelated ideas, one cosmological and the other ethical, inhere in the changing concept of svabhava. If it stands for causality, the ethical corollary would be activism; if, on the other hand, it stands for accident or lawlessness, the corollary would be akriyavada, inactivism. Svabhava has no room in the major epistemological and metaphysical questions that form the greatest part of the philosophical debates in ancient and medieval India. Add to this the problem of relating svabhava (whether as chance or as causality) to the Carvaka/Lokayata materialism, the confusion becomes worse confounded. And if one cares to bring in the issue of svabhava vis-à-vis Samkhya in this connection, the result will be a perfect mess (see Johnston 1937, 68-70; Chakravarti 1951, 43, 234; Bedekar 1957, 146-47).

Needham (1980, 25) tells us that svabhava in the Chinese tradition invariably stands for causality alone, not ahetu. Yet right from the first century CE the word svabhava in Sanskrit literature, both medical and non-medical, is used more often than not as a synonym for accidentalism or something not subject to cause-effect relations and hence leading to inactivism.

Apparently neither Chattopadhyaya nor Needham noticed (or refused to consider) that outside the medical tradition (and even inside it, cf. CS, 1.1.25), svabhava did have a meaning, not only different from causality but diametrically opposite to it. Such a meaning is encountered both earlier and later than the time of the compilation of the CS and the SS. Chattopadhyaya summarily dismisses the evidence of so many writers speaking of svabhava as synonymous with chance or accident: “There was a tendency in medieval India to interpret svabhava-vada as simple denial of the causal law and some of the modern scholars follow suit” (Chattopadhyaya 1991, 55-56. The sources he mentions are Santarakshita, the Naiyayikas, Louis de La Vallée-Poussin and Gopinath Kaviraj).

This view is palpably inadmissible. Even if we accept that that svabhava stands for a naturalistic approach to disease and medicine (as Chattopadhyaya, I think rightly, shows), the fact remains that both inside and outside the medical literature very often it represents pure accidentalism, although atheistic and pessimistic in intent (as for example, in CS,1.25.22-25). Daiva, adrishta, karman, and niyati, it should not be overlooked, all have a strong basis in causality: an as-you-sow-so-you-reap kind of inexorable and inevitable relation between one’s action and its consequence. Yadriccha and hatha, pure accident or chance (hatha is used to suggest accident in the Mbh and to denote chance-finding or serendipity in both the Mbh and YTC), on the other hand, should have no room in the list of jagatkaranas inasmuch as both of them imply denial of any causal relation between two events, as both consider it impossible to establish any such relation at all. Both in the cosmological and the ethical domains, svabhava-as causality is, however, different from all other “first causes” in one vital respect: it does not operate like an agency outside the material world but inheres in every material object, sentient or non-sentient, organic or inorganic. Kala, Time, on the other hand, operates from outside in accordance with nothing but its own course.

Works Cited

BC. Asvaghosha. Buddhacarita. Ed. and trans. E. H. Johnston. Delhi : MLBD, 1978.

Bedekar, V.M. (1958). Studies in Samkhya: Pancasikha and Caraka. ABORI, 38, 140-47.

Chakravarti, Pulinbihari. (1951/1975). Origin and Development of the Samkhya System of Thought. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation.

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. (1959). Lokayata. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1959.

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. (1977/1979). Science and Society in Ancient India, Calcutta: Research India Publication.

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. (1986, 1991, 2001). History of Science and Technology in Ancient India, Calcutta: Firma KLM, vols. 1-3.

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. (1987). Bharate Vastuvada Prasange (in Bangla). Kalkata: Anushtup.

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. (1992). Pracina Bharate Cikitsavijnana (in Bangla), Kalkata: Pasachimbanga Bangla Academy.

CS. Caraka Samhita. Jamnagar: Gulab Kunberva Ayurvedic Society, 1949.

Ed. Vaidya Jadavji Trika¿ji Acarya. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Sanskrit Sansthan, 1984.

Johnston, E. H. (1937/1974). Early Samkhya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Mbh. The Mahabharata. Critically edited by Vishnu S. Sukthankar and others. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1933-66. Vulgate edition, Ed. Pancanan Tarkaratna, Kalikata, 1826 †aka.

Needham, Joseph. Unpublished letters to D. Chattopadhyaya. (Permission to quote secured from Aditi Chatterjee).

Needham, Joseph. (1980). China and the Origins of Immunology. Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong.

Needham, Joseph. Introduction to D. Chattopadhyaya (1986).

NS Nyayasutra with Vatsyayana’s Bhashya, Uddyotakara’s Varttika, Vacaspatimisra’s Tatparyatika and Udayana’s Parisuddhi. Ed. Anantalal Thakur. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1996-97.

Sau. Asvaghosha. Saundarananda. Ed. And trans. E. H. Johnston (1928). Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1975.

SS. Sushruta. Sushrutasamhita. Ed. Vaidya Jadavji Trkanji Acharya. Varanasi: Chaukhamba Orientalia, [1980].

SvUp. Svetasvatara Upanishad with the commentaries of [Pseudo] Sankara, Sankarananda, Narayana, and Vijnana-Bhagavat. Poona: Anandasrama, 1905.

YTC. Somadevasuri. Yasastilakacampu. Ed. M. N. Pandit Sivadatta and V. L. Panasikar. Bombay: Nirnay Sagar Prakashan, 1916.

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Aditi Chatterjee


This paper was first published in Psyche and Society (Kolkata), vol. 10 No. 2.
December 2012, pp. 16-20.

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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