Sunday, 24 February 2013

D. D. Kosambi’s Views on the Six Heretics and the Buddha: A Critique

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Both D. D. Kosambi (1907-66) and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (1918-93), two leading Marxist thinkers in India, discussed at length the teachings of the six heretics and of the Buddha during the sixth/fifth century BCE in their seminal works, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956) and Lokāyata (1959) respectively. It will be interesting to compare and contrast their views and observe how, in spite of their basic similarity of approach, they arrived at almost opposite conclusions in the 1950s. It may also be stated in advance that Kosambi did not radically alter his views in his last work, The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline (1965), although he added much that was new. On the other hand, Chattopadhyaya gradually modified his views and came to a more appreciative assessment of the six heretics and the Buddha. His last work, History of Science and Technology in Ancient India, Vol. 2 (1991) records his mature opinion of these thinkers.

Kosambi, as is well-known, was not primarily interested in philosophy and in his magnum opus does not deal with the later developments of the orthodox (āstika) and heterodox (nāstika) systems. Yet he dealt with the six heretics and their legacy (as also of the Buddha) in some detail and tried to account for both their origin and extinction. Quite naturally the Buddha gets the lion’s share in his discussion but  other thinkers are not treated cursorily. Kosambi summarizes their teachings and assesses their views against the backdrop of the transition from tribe to state, from a pastoral economy to an agricultural one and what constituted the Buddha’s pre-eminence ((1956/75), 162-171).

Chattopadhyaya’s study in 1959 was directed to a single question: Why did the teachings of the Buddha’s contemporaries, especially the major five of the so-called sixty-two heretics, fail to survive while the teachings of the Buddha succeeded? Chattopadhyaya’s answer was: The Buddha had provided the right illusion to replace reality which his other contemporaries could not (506-07).

In this connection Chattopadhyaya refers to Kosambi but does not seem to notice his observation on the significance of majjhimā paipadā , the Middle Way ((1956/1975), 165).

Moreover, speaking of asceticism Chattopadhyaya misses the point that Kosambi pointed out quite empatically:

[A]sceticism was not their (sc. the heretical teachers’) discovery, for even brahmins had the tradition that the simple non-killing food-gatherer’s life in the forest was in some way specially meritorious. These new sects brought some practical conclusions  out of that simple life for the whole of a food-producing non-tribal society ((1956/1975), 165-66. Emphasis added).1
It is interesting to observe that Kosambi attempted to link the views of the six heretics to the later developments of Indian philosophy: Ajita to the Cārvāka/ Lokāyata, Pakudha to Vaiśeika, Praa to Sākhya, Makkhali to Yoga (1956/1975, 164) – not exactly as a philosophical system but as physical exercise.2

Chattopadhyaya initially ignored these aspects and paid no attention to the philosophical inheritance of the heretical systems either in Lokāyata or in his other works published before the early 1970s. It was only from the late 1970s when he devoted himself to the study of history of science in ancient India that he discovered new merits in the ideas of the six heretics as also in the Buddha’s teachings, particularly in the doctrine of dependent origination (paicya samuppāda/ pratītya samutpāda). He had viewed this doctrine in Lokāyata (500-02) exclusively in terms of its application to human suffering (dukkha /dukha), not as a universal principle applicable to all phenomena, human suffering being only one of them (as Rhys Davids (44) explains). Kosambi, on the contrary, discovered in the concept of nirodha (cessation), the third of the Four Noble Truths,3 the origin of the philosophical question of negation. Kosambi considered this aspect to be the quintessence of the Buddhist dialectics (as Moggallāna instantly understood it when Assajit told him in a nutshell what his master had preached. Mahāvastu-avadāna, 3:83). Kosambi then refers to the negation of the negation, which came to be formulated as late as the nineteenth century by Hegel and subsequently adopted by Marx and Engels in their materialist version of dialectics ((1956/75),171).4

I have already mentioned that Kosambi and Chattopadhyaya, in spite of their basic similarity of approach, had initially  arrived at almost opposite  conclusions in the 1950s. The starting point even then was the same: transition from the pre-class society (tribe) to the class-divided society (state). Yet Chattopadhyaya harped on the illusory nature of the Buddha’s teachings and the element of despair and frustration common to the five of the chief heretics. Kosambi, on the contrary, found many more positive elements in the teachings of the Buddha and the six heretics as evinced in the continuity found in later developments of Indian philosophy. Chattopadhyaya too came to the same conclusion much later, only in 1991, when he studied the philosophical systems in relation to the history of science and technology in ancient India.

Let us now concentrate on how Kosambi viewed the advent and historical significance of the six heretics and the Buddha.


Kosambi lays much stress on the rise of so many heretical views all at a time in ancient India at a particular juncture of history. He notes that the kings of those days “were deeply interested in religious matters and protected these sects” ((1956/1975),163). “It follows,” he says, “that the new beliefs were the expression of some urgent needs, some change in the productive basis” (164. Emphasis added).
Kosambi then points out three features common to these sects. They may be summarized as follows:

1) “Each of them (sc. the new sects) had involved considerable mental and physical effort on the part of the first proponent” ((1956/1975),166). They underwent years of painful asceticism before they began to preach their doctrines. In passing Kosambi remarks: “There is no point in arguing whether they were Hindu or not; Hinduism came to existence, with the indelible stamp of these sects, only when they had faded many centuries later.” (166. Emphasis added.)

2) “Without exception, even when the founder was a brahmin like Praa and Sajaya, they actively or passively denied the validity of vedic rituals and observances. In the study of these sects, the final metaphysical differences are of lesser importance than the background phenomena of tribal life and the monstrous cancer growth of sacrificial ritual in the tribal kingdoms. It is out of these and as a protest against their anti-social features that everyone of the sects appeared….[T]he new society had gone over to agriculture, so that the slaughter of more and more animals at a growing number of sacrifices meant a much heavier drain upon producer and production.” (166)

3) “[T]he new religions were at the beginning all much less costly to support than vedic brahminism. The śramaa monks and ascetics took no part in production, as their creeds forbade them to labour but neither did they exercise the least control over the means of production. They were forbidden ownership of houses, fields, cattle, the touch of gold and silver and trade….Not only the family but caste and tribe were also renounced by the monk upon ordination, which meant adoption into a quasi-tribal sagha.” (168)

In this connection Kosambi mentions the rules of the Buddhist sagha in particular and observes: “The Buddha himself followed the rule till his death at the age of eighty. His disciples went along new trade routes, even into the tribal wilderness, bearing the message of peace, but coincidentally the influence of Magadhan trade. Because they preached in the people’s languages, they lived closer to the people than the brahmin with his monopoly of the obscure vedic Sanskrit” (168-69).

Kosambi feels that the Buddha provided a ‘new religion [that] was the exact parallel, for the same economic reasons, of the move towards “universal monarchy”, the absolute despotism of one as against the endlessly varied tyranny of the many’ (169). Moreover, “brahmin ritual (sc. yajña, animal sacrifice) then served only the kings, nobles, chiefs or rich traders, but had very little use for the common man in contrast to the later fully developed brahmin priesthood which performed even the most trifling ritual for anybody for inconsiderable payment.” 5 The Buddhist doctrine, on the other hand, ‘called itself “Aryan”, thus admitting the right of indigenous tribal elements and lower castes to ennoble themselves merely by just action, contrary to brahmin theory’ (169).

Ethical code in place of magic ritual, frugal way of livimg instead of ostentatious display of wealth in performing costly sacrifices, and such like features are common to all the heretical doctrines, not exclusively of the Buddhist sagha. What then made the Buddha pre-eminent of them all? Chattopadhyaya’s answer was: the Buddha had provided the right illusion of the epoch which his other contemporaries could not. Kosambi does not think in terms of illusion and reality at all. Before getting into this issue he first frames an altogether different question: Why did so many alternatives to the Vedic religion rise in one narrow region in eastern India rather than in the strongholds of the Vedists?

If it were a matter of simple continuity and gradual evolution, the new religions should have arisen on the Indus with its ruined memories of a great civilisation, or in the north-west which had been and remained the centre of Vedic culture for centuries, or in Kuru-land which was the locus of the Mahābhārata story and the suitable place for the morality with which the great epic is overloaded, or at Mathurā from which a new and powerful cult of Krishna as all-god eventually to spread. Why did the newest and in some cultural respects rather backward land of the east take the lead in the most advanced form of religion?” (1965/1972, 100)

Kosambi then goes on to relate the rise of new religions (not only of Buddhism) to the rise of new classes in the Gangetic basin. There were free peasants and farmers there. “The neo-Vedic pastoral class of vaiśyas within the tribe was replaced by agriculturist for whom the tribe had ceased to exist” (100). Traders had become so wealthy that the kings also used to treat them with respect. The key to the change in society as a whole was the origin of private property in farm animals, in land and its produce. Killing of cattle in ritual sacrifices was now frowned upon and embodied in the doctrine of ahi, non-violence. “How completely the sixth-century reform drove this [Vedic sacrifice of cattle] too out of fashion is seen by the absolute Hindu tabu upon cattle-killing and beef-eating…. A modern orthodox Hindu would place beef-eating on the same level as cannibalism, whereas Vedic brahmins had fattened upon a steady diet of sacrificed beef” (102).
Moreover, “the new eastern teachers rose above all ritual and broke the strongest tabu by eating cooked food from the hands of another caste however low, or even left-overs of soiled food” (103). “The leaders of the various innovating sects and their monkish followers (not the lay believers) gained their livelihood mostly by alms. This was at base reversion to food-gathering….Celibacy and abstinence from holding property made the new teachers much more economic than greedy fire priests in an acquisitive society” (103-04).

Again, all this are more or less common to all the heretical sects, excepting perhaps Mokkhali Gosāla, who is said to have indulged in sensuous orgy before his death, drinking spirits, singing incessanatly and dancing. But he did all this in a state of delirium (Basham 61-62). Kosambi finds a clue to the victory of the Buddha over other heretics in this particular respect:

Buddhism stood between the two extremes: unrestrained individualistic self-indulgence and equally individualistic but preposterous ascetic punishment of the body. Hence its steady rise, and its name ‘The Middle Way’. (105)

This doctrine of the Middle Way then marks the superiority of Buddhism over all other anti-Vedic religions of the times. It did not provide an illusion but a viable way of life, no less real than the others.

Not only this, Kosambi considers the Noble Eightfold Path (ārya aṣṭāgika mārga) to be the core of Buddhism. This is why Buddhism was “the most social of religions; the applications of its various steps are carefully developed and expounded…” (106. Emphasis added). The early monks “would accompany caravans, but even then passed the night outside the camp. The Buddhist monk was forbidden labour for profit and for agriculture, having to live on alms or by gathering food in the forest without the taking of life; only thus would he be free to concentrate upon his social duties, the obligation to lead all to the proper Way“ (107. Emphasis added).

It was not merely the attainment of personal nirvāa that guided the Buddhist monk; his social mission is of cardinal importance. These features of Buddhism explain why it succeeded in its mission while other heretical doctrines could not.

It is apparent that Kosambi cares little for the metaphysics or ontology of Buddhism. It is the social philosophy of the Buddha that concerns and impresses him most. Dropping his customary reticence he waxes eloquent on the achievements of Asoka (Aśoka), “the great emperor,” and highlights this very aspect which marks him different from the Arthaśāstra king:

The Arthaśāstra king owed nothing to anyone; his sole business was to rule for the profit of the state, with efficiency as the one ultimate criterion. With Asoka, the social philosophy expressed in the sixth-century Magadhan religions had at last penetrated the state mechanism ((1965/1972), 158). 

In connection with the intellectual turmoil in the then India Kosambi acutely observes:

The sixth century B. C. produced the philosophy of Confucius in China and the sweeping reforms of Zoroaster in Iran. In the middle of the Gangetic basin there were many entirely new teachers of whom the Buddha was only one, not the most popular in his own day. (97, 100)

He might have added that Greece too witnessed the rise of Presocratic philosophers in the same period.6 Now that the time of the Buddha’s death has been brought down to c. 400 BCE (Norman 50-51), the period of the rise of several competing doctrines in Eastern India would be the fifth century BCE. Of all the teachers who dissociated themselves from the Vedic vara (caste) system, the Buddha alone was to propose a new way of life and put forward a new concept of the state. Speaking of the Buddha’s pronouncements of the new duties for the absolute monarch (such as, maintenance of peace and order, public works for the benefit of the subjects, etc., in short, a model of welfare state appropriate to the those days), Kosambi writes:

This is a startling modern view of political economy. To have propounded it at a time of Vedic yajña to a society that had just begun to conquer the primeval jungle was an intellectual achievement of the highest order. The new philosophy gave man control over himself. (113.Emphasis added)

At the same time, Kosambi does not fail to notice the basic limitation of this new philosophy in a backward society: “What it could not give was limitless scientific and technical control over nature with the benefits to be shared by all mankind according to individual and social need” (114).

That the doctrine nevertheless continued to grow even after the Buddha’s death is “because it was eminently fitted to the needs of a rapidly evolving society” (114).

To sum up then: Kosambi’s explanation of the rise of the heretical doctrines and the ultimate victory of the Buddha’s teachings over others provides an excellent instance of studying history afresh, as Engels urged Marxists to do (Selsam and others (eds.) 71). Instead of following what Marx had summarily dismissed as a “super-historical” theory (Selsam and others (eds.) 71), Kosambi attends to all the details of the socio-economic scenario prevailing in the Gangetic basin during the sixth/fifth century BCE. Nor does he undervalue the genius of the Buddha and his intellectual achievements, and explains his success both in terms of the crying need of the hour and how he alone could fulfil it, not the others. Yet Kosambi insists that “Buddhism cannot be treated solely as a personal achievement  of its unquestionably great founder nor was its decline due to the imperfections of humanity” ((1965/1972), 100). Thus, taking both the objective and the subjective conditions into consideration, Kosambi provided a model for Marxist historical analysis, radically different from any other “Marxist” interpretation offered by others.7

Notes and References

1Kosambi says all this in his later work in less detail ((1965/1972), 104-05). For Chattopadhyaya’s views see R. Bhattacharya 2010.

2 Kosambi’s observation on Yoga is highly sardonic and worth quoting:
Yoga within limits is a good system of exercise in a hot climate for people who do not live by muscular exertion and hard physical labour. The most that one can attain by it is some measure of control over normally involuntary functions of the body, and good health; but no supernatural powers [such as becoming invisible or flying through the air at will]. (1965/72, 105)

3The Four Noble Truths are: i) dukkha, suffering, ii) dukkhasamudaya, origin of suffering, iii) dukkhanirodha, cessation of suffering, and iv)dukkhanirodhagāminī paipadā, way to the cessation of suffering. (Dhammacakkapavattana sutta, 5-8)

4For a more detailed discussion of negation and the negation of negation, see R. Bhattacharya 2009.

5In his later work (1965) Kosambi says the same in another way: “The yajña was ended for the easterner in all but theory; the brahmin of the future would eventually agree to serve all castes as priest and to adopt new worships to old forms in order to gain his livelihood – paying lip service to the Vedas all the while” (1965/1972),104.

6Katherine Osborne has recently provided a short but lucid account of the Presocratics. The classic Marxist account by George Thomson is still worth studying.

7See, for example, Ram Bilas Sharma’s very “left-wing” but largely pointless study and contrast it with Kosambi’s. It is rather strange that nothing of Kosambi was included in a collection of essays entitled Buddhism: The Marxist Approach.

Works Cited

Basham, A. L. History and Doctrine of the Ājīvikas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass (MLBD), 1981 (first pub. 1951).
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “Basham, Kosambi, and the Negation of Negation”, Psyche and Society (Kolkata), 7:2, December 2009, pp. 71-75.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “The Buddha and the Six Heretics: How Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya Viewed Them”. Psyche and Society. 8: 2, December 2010, 17-21.
Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. History of Science and Technology in Ancient India, Vol. 2, Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1991.
Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad . Lokāyata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism . New Delhi: People’s Publishing House (PPH), 1959 (third edition 1973).
Dhammacakkapavattana sutta in Sayutta Nikāya (5. Mahāvagga), ed. Jagadish Kasyap, Patna: Pali Pulication Board, 1959, p. 361. These four ariyasaccas are also mentioned in some other suttas that follow (pp. 363 ff.). 
Kosambi, D. D. An Introduction to the Study of Indian History. Bombay: Popular Book Depot, 1956 (Revised second edition. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1975).
Kosambi, D. D. The Culture and Civilisation in Ancient India in Historical Outline. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1972 (first published 1965).
Mahāvastu Avadāna.  Ed.  Radhagobinda Basak. Vol. 3. Calcutta: Sanskrit College, 1968.
Norman, K.R. A Philological Approach to Buddhism. The Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai Lectures 1994. Lancaster: The Pali Text Society, 2006.
Osborne, Katherine. Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Rhys Davids, T.W. Dialogues of the Buddha. London: Oxford University Press, vol. 1, 1899.
Sankrityayan, Rahul and others. Buddhism: The Marxist Approach. New Delhi: PPH, 1978 (first published 1970).
Selsam, Howard, David Goldway and Harry Martel (eds.). Dynamics of Social Change: A Reader in Marxist Social Science. New York: International Publishers, 1983.
Sharma, Ram Bilas. “Some Aspects of the Teaching of Buddha” in Sankrityayan and others, pp. 54-65.
Thomson, George. Studies in Ancient Greek Society, vol. 2. The First Philosophers. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955.

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Arindam Saha, Krishna Del Toso

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.

This paper first appeared in Psyche and Society (9:1, May 2010, 55-60), the organ of Pavlov Institute, 98, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Kolkata – 700007.


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