Friday, 6 December 2013

The Base Text and Its Commentaries: Problems of Representing and Understanding the Cārvāka/Lokāyata - PART I

Ramkrishna Bhattacharyya


The base texts of most of the philosophical systems of ancient India are in the form of a collection of aphorisms (sūtra-s). The aphorisms are so brief and tersely worded that their significance can seldom be understood without the help of a commentary or commentaries. Sometimes, the literal meaning of an aphorism needs to be qualified or modified by an explanation found in the commentary. If a reader relies exclusively on the literal meaning of the aphorisms in the base text without having recourse to any commentary or disregards all commentaries, he or she may miss the point. Contrariwise, if a reader relies exclusively on a commentary and disregards the literal meaning of an aphorism, he or she will commit another kind of blunder. Ideally, equal attention should be paid to the base text as well as the commentary or commentaries. Even then, all problems are not automatically solved, for it is an uphill task to decide when to go by the literal meaning of the aphorisms and when to follow the commentary. In their polemics against the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, Jayantabhaṭṭa (c. ninth century C.E.) and Hemacandra (eleventh century C.E.) erred because they did not follow the golden rule stated above and consequently misunderstood and misrepresented their opponents’ contentions.


The base texts of most of the philosophical systems of ancient India are in the form of a collection of aphorisms (sūtra-s). The aphorisms are as a rule very brief and terse, even to the point of being incomprehensible. The task of the guru was to make his pupils understand what was in the mind of the author/redactor of the sūtra-s. The base text was meant to be committed to memory, not to be consulted as and when necessary. Hence, the shorter the better. Since the extreme brevity was meant for facilitating learning by heart, there is a maxim: “Grammarians rejoice over the saving of (even) the length of half a short vowel as much as over the birth of a son”, ardhamātrā lāghavena putrotsavaṃ manyante vaiyākaraṇāḥ (NĀGEŚABHAṬṬA 1960–1962: 122). The Kalpasūtras, ancillary works of Vedic ritual literature, and more importantly the ancient grammatical work, the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini (sixth/fifth century B.C.E.) were the models of composing such brief aphorisms. The custom was followed by the founding fathers and/or redactors of the philosophical systems. 

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it entails a fundamental problem: for the sake of terseness the aphorisms were sometimes composed in the form of incomplete sentences without verbs. Sometimes just a word was considered sufficient to form an aphorism. The task of the guru was to fill in the gaps by supplying the missing words (technically known as adhyāhāra, supplying). Not all gurus agreed on the right adhyāhāra. There is a Cārvāka aphorism (I.4): tebhyaścaitanyam, ‘Consciousness out of these’ (BHATTACHARYA 2009: 79, 87). From a preceding aphorism (I.2) it is to be understood that the word tebhyaḥ, ‘out of these’, refers to the four elements, namely, earth, water, fire and air. Nevertheless, does consciousness arise (anew) or is it merely manifested (as if it was pre-existing)? Two anonymous commentators offered two such adhyāhāras, utpadyate and abhivyajyate. Later writers merely repeat the alternatives or opt for either one or the other (KAMALAŚĪLA II: 633–634).1 Similarly, one guru would suggest one explanation; another guru, something else. Such a difference of opinion inevitably led to confusion. The student was expected to accept either or both as equally probable.2 In any case, book learning, that is, learning from written commentaries, was not considered to be a proper substitute for learning from the mouth of a guru (gurumukhī vidyā). As Rangaswami Aiyangar says:

Reliance on a book for elucidation was therefore held as likely not only to mislead but to convey wrong impressions of [the] authentic doctrine. This is why we find in smṛti literature, even in ages in which documents and writings came to be the mainstay of judicial decisions, denunciations of dependence on books, side by side with praise of gifts of purāṇas as among the donations of most sanctity. Devaṇṇa Bhaṭṭa (thirteen century) quotes the authority of Nārada for including dependence on books along with women, gambling, addiction to the stage, idleness and sleep among the impediments to the acquisition of knowledge. Mādhava also quotes Nārada to show that “what is learnt from books, and not from the teacher, will not shine in the assembly of the learned”. The familiar denunciation of the sale (vikraya) of knowledge is aimed as much at teaching under contract for a fee as at the sale of the books which will supersede the teacher. The result of the prejudice was twofold: first, improvement of the memory to make its retentiveness greater; and secondly, to make citation in books aim at the utmost accuracy to escape the familiar charge (AIYANGAR 1941: 10).

Yet commentaries and sub-commentaries began to appear to meet the need of the students who could not find any guru to guide them through the maze of the base text. Even though a poor substitute, the commentary literature ultimately turned out to be the most viable means of understanding of the philosophical systems. Surendranath Dasgupta, however, notes:

[T]he Sanskrit style (sic) of the most of the commentaries is so condensed and different from literary Sanskrit, and aims so much at precision and brevity, leading to the use of technical words current in the diverse systems, that a study of these becomes often impossible without the aid of an expert preceptor (DASGUPTA 1975, I: 67).
Thus, in spite of the written commentary, oral exposition by a guru cannot be dispensed with. We are back to square one. Commentaries and sub-commentaries, however, served one important purpose. As early as 1805, Henry Thomas Colebrooke noted:

It is a received and well grounded opinion of the learned in India, that no book is altogether safe from changes and interpolations until it have been (sic) commented: but when once a gloss has been published, no fabrication could afterwards succeed; because the perpetual commentary notices every passage, and, in general, explains every word. […] The genuineness of the commentaries, again, is secured by a crowd of commentators, whose works expound every passage in the original gloss; and whose annotations are again interpreted by others (COLEBOOKE 1977: 98–99).

Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that different systems of Indian philosophy developed and grew out of the expositions, commentaries and subcommentaries composed by the adherents of the systems. When such secondary works are written by the professed adherents of the respective systems, they become a part of the tradition. Yet such works would have to digress to at least some areas that might very well have been totally alien to the sūtrakāra/s, the originator/s or the original systematiser/s.

Moreover, it is well known that commentaries or sub-commentaries are sometimes written to defend a system of philosophy that has been attacked by some exponents of another antagonistic system. Uddyotakara’s (sixth century 136 Ramkrishna BHATTACHARYA C.E.) Vārttika to the Nyāyasūtra is a case in point. The Vārttika was basically a work of defence against the objections to Gautama raised by the Buddhist philosophers, especially Diṅnāga and Vasubandhu, and also Nāgārjuna. Such an apologia is bound to introduce new matters and invent novel interpretations of the original sūtra-s.3

Another sort of problem crops up when the expositor or commentator does not belong to the system he is elucidating, yet for reasons best known to him he composes a commentary on the base text. When a versatile scholar like Vācaspatimiśra, the sarvatantrasvantra (independent) expositor, writes commentaries on the Sāṃkhyakārikā or the Vedāntasūtra or other base texts, he does not represent the tradition of any of the systems; he relies wholly on his personal understanding and perhaps what he had learnt from his gurus. How much reliance is to be placed on his exposition? We know of at least two commentators on the Cārvākasūtra, Aviddhakarṇa and Udbhaṭabhaṭṭa, whose works are permeated with the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika terminology. Their names are known from other sources as belonging to the Nyāya tradition.4 There is no way to ascertain whether they were Cārvākas themselves or merely assumed the role of being so. Would it be wise to accept their interpretations as reflecting the mainstream view of the Cārvākas?

All the same commentaries are useful aids to the understanding of all sorts of texts, not merely philosophical ones. Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi is not alone in grumbling that no good Sanskrit text can be interpreted without a commentary (KOSAMBI 1975: 284). A variety of commentaries, from the brief ṭippanī to the elaborate bhāṣya, with many varieties of glosses and interpretations, such as anutantra, avacūrṇī, cūrṇī, pañcikā (pañjikā), vyākhyāna, vārttika,vṛtti, etc., lying in between, have made their presence felt in the corpus of Indian philosophical literature.5

The same base text generates a number of commentaries and even sub-commentaries. As it is to be expected, the commentators do not agree among themselves; sometimes they erect new hurdles by introducing matters not found in the sūtras themselves. Vātsyāyana, for example, in the introductory sentence of his comments on Nyāyasūtra, 4.2.18 mentions a mysterious person whom he calls ānupalambhika. Neither he nor any sub-commentator such as Uddyotakara or Udayana bothered to explain exactly who or what kind of a person is meant by this strange appellation. Widely divergent identifications have been made, but it is still a far cry from unanimity or even near-unanimity.6

The Nyāya and the Vedānta systems have the largest number of commentarial apparatus. It is rather odd that, in spite of the existence of so much explanatory materials for these systems, or perhaps because of it, some cruxes in the base texts cannot still be resolved. Plurality of interpretations confuses rather than convinces the learner about the true intention of the sῡtrakāra, composer of the aphorisms. Too many cooks spoil the broth, sometimes irredeemably. For example: what is meant by ākasmikatva (accident) in the Nyāyasūtra (NS) 4.1.22–24? Does it signify the absence of the material cause (upādānakāraṇa) or of the instrumental cause (nimittakāraṇa) or of both? Vātsyāyana, the first known commentator of the NS (but writing many centuries after the redaction of the base text) explains the opponent’s thesis as “effects have material causes only, but no efficient cause”. However, later commentators, such as Varddhamāna Upādhyāya and others take the sūtra to mean that “an effect has no invariable or fixed (niyata) cause,” thereby eliminating both material and instrumental causes. In the interpretation of Vātsyāyana and Uddyotakara, ākasmikatva = yadṛcchā (chance). According to Varddhamāna and Varadarāja, however, ākasmikatva = avyutpanna (non-derivable).7 A new learner is free therefore to choose either of the two interpretations, but the earlier one is more probable.

The problem arises because some sūtra-s are too brief to indubitably suggest one or the other interpretation; without the help of the commentator/s, one cannot form any opinion from the words of the text itself. Moreover, the irreconcilable differences in the two interpretations offered by earlier and later commentators makes the task more difficult. There are also other factors, such as partisan approach (due to affiliation to particular schools), factional quarrels, etc., which vitiate some commentaries. We need not go into all the details here. It is wise to follow the sage advice: don’t rely exclusively on the commentator. One should initially try to make out the intention of the sūtrakāra from the words of the aphorisms themselves, but when the words are of dubious significance or open to more than one interpretation, help from the commentators has to be sought. Even then, it is not obligatory to accept the view of the commentator who is as much fallible as we are. Uncritical acceptance of whatever a commentary says is inadvisable; at the same time, however, total rejection of the commentaries is equally impracticable. In any case, a student at first should try whenever possible to make the most of the literal meaning of the aphorisms and then turn to the commentaries and other aids (such as secondary works, expositions, etc.).

Even this golden rule of following the middle course — paying due attention to both the base text and the commentary (or commentaries) but not accepting any of them uncritically — does not solve all problems. A commentator, one would naturally expect, should be faithful to the author; he must not say anything that the author did not mean or could not have meant. Such a fond expectation is often belied by the commentaries. A commentator is seldom satisfied with merely providing glosses. He adds to or modifies or qualifies the statements of the author. All this is recognized to be the duty of the commentator. He is expected to clarify what is rather opaque in the text, supply whatever the author of the sūtra-s had forgotten to provide and even what he failed to notice!8 The problem is that every commentator on a philosophical text is himself a philosopher of a sort who is sometimes tempted to rewrite the contents of the base work by elaborating certain points that are not mentioned or even hinted at in the extremely concise sūtra-s. There should be a permanent caveat for the students of Indian philosophy: B ewa r e o f the c omment a to r! Never cease to ask yourself: is he being faithful to the intention of the author or using the base text as a peg on which to hang his own speculations? Blind acceptance of the commentator’s interpretation, whoever and however exalted he may be, is not to be recommended under any circumstances.9 At the same time, some aphorisms are so obscure that one is at a loss without a commentary. There is no denying that some explanations are indeed illuminating. The crux of the matter is: when to abide by the literal meaning of an aphorism and when to follow the interpretation given in a commentary. Everything depends on a judicious choice on the part of the student of Indian philosophy.


1 For further details, see BHATTACHARYA 2009: 121 n. 49.
2 For such an instance, when commentators retain both explanations as two equally valid alternatives, see BHATTACHARYA 2009: 159–160.
3 The situation is similar to what happened in the grammatical tradition. Kshitish Chandra Chatterji put it succinctly: “It would appear that it took several centuries for Pāṇini’s grammar to establish itself and that even at the time of Patañjali [second century B.C.E.] grammarians belonging to other schools tried their level best to point out errors of omission and commission in the grammar of Pāṇini. Patañjali had to meet the objections put forward by these captious critics and for this purpose he had often to turn and twist the rules of Pāṇini. This is why in some cases we remain in doubt as to the true views of Patañjali, his words conveying the impression tha t the y a re m er e l y int ende d t o s i l e n c e h i s a n t a g oni s t.” (CHATTERJI 1972: vii). Emphasis R.B.
4 For a detailed analysis, see BHATTACHARYA 2010a; BHATTACHARYA 2010b; BHATTACHARYA 2010c.
5 For a general discussion on Sanskrit commentaries with special reference to philosophical works see the two essays by Jonardon Ganeri (2008) and Karin Preisezdanz (2008) respectively. See also BHATTACHARYA 2010a and BHATTACHARYA 2010b.
6 For further details, see BHATTACHARYA 2007: 13–18.
7 TARKAVAGISA’s elucidation of NS 4.1.22. [In:] GANGOPADHYAYA 1973: 27––31.
8 Cf. HARADATTA 1965 (Padamañjarī 9): yad vismṛtam adṛṣtaṃ vā sῡtrakāreṇa tat sphuṭam | vyākhyākāro vravītyevaṃ tenādṛṣṭaṃ ca bhāṣyakṛt.
9 DASGUPTA (1975: 462, n. 1) provides an excellent example from Śaṅkara’s commentary on Gītā 14.3: “mama yonir mahad brahma tasmin garbhaṃ dadhāmy aham… Śaṅkara surreptitiously introduces the word māyā between mama and yoni and changes the whole meaning.” To take another example: Vātsyāyana in his comments on NS 1.1.1 writes: “[…] The inference (anumāna) which is not contradicted by perception (pratyakṣa) and scripture (āgama) is called anvīkṣā, that is, knowing over again (anu, literally ‘after’) of that which is already known (īkṣita) by perception and scripture […] the inference which is contradicted by either perception or scripture is pseudo-nyāya.” Trans. M.K. GANGOPADHYAYA 1982: 4 (emphasis R.B.). The repeated addition of scripture is totally unwarranted, for NS 1.1.5 states that inference is to be preceded by perception – tat (sc. pratyakṣa) pūrvakam, and nothing else. The preceding sūtra defines perception without mentioning scripture at all.

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 was first published in Argument: Biannual Philosophical Journal, Vol. 3, no. 1 (2013), pp. 133-149 (


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