Thursday, 30 January 2014

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

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Jayantabhaṭṭa, a luminary of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school (ninth century C.E.) was a domicile in Kashmir although he was a Gauḍa brāhamaṇa by origin. His exegetical work Nyāyamañjarī (NM) contains stringent attacks against the Cārvākas. Speaking of the instruments of cognition, Jayanta at one place says: “the Cārvākas say that there is only one kind of pramāṇa, which is perception (pratyakṣa).”17 Jayanta assures his readers that he would establish the validity of inference (anumāna), which the Cārvākas allegedly do not admit as a pramāṇa.

Apparently, Jayanta is here going by the Cārvāka aphorism: “Perception indeed is the (only) instrument of cognition” (BHATTACHARYA 2009: 80, 87).18 So far so good. Had this been the only example of going by the literal meaning of an aphorism, we could have dispensed with Jayanta. After all, he takes the words of the aphorism as they appear in the base text and stands firmly on its basis. However, he soon changes his track; instead of the sūtra work, he takes his stand on a commentary, presumably the Tattvavṛtti written by his fellow Kashmirian, Udbhaṭabhaṭṭa. Jayanta does not name him anywhere in his work but refers to him in various indirect and ironical ways and refers to Udbhaṭa’s view three times in successive pages.19

After referring to the alleged one-pramāṇa position of the Cārvākas (quoted above), Jayanta writes: “The Cārvākas, the well-learned ones (suśikṣita), say that it is really impossible to specifically state the number of pramāṇa-s.”20 In another instance Jayanta complains that the Cārvāka, the cunning one (dhūrta), does not explain the principle (tattva) but merely expatiates on “the impossibility of making a specific rule regarding the number and definition of pramāṇa and prameya (the object of cognition).”21 It is no longer the number of pramāṇa-s but those of prameya-s as well. On yet another occasion Jayanta derides the Cārvākas by saying: “The nāstika-s, not having enough intelligence to determine the power of the pramāṇa-s have been clamouring in vain that in the case of pramāṇa-s, there is no specific rule as to the number.”22 The same kind of contempt is manifest again on the same page: “By declaring before the assembly of the learned that tattva is nothing but the impossibility of determining (the true nature of pramāṇa and prameya), they (sc. the Cārvākas) have only revealed their dullheadedness.”23

It is to be noted that Jayanta does not ridicule Udbhaṭa alone, or even those who allegedly adhere to his views, for holding this agnostic position regarding the number of pramāṇa-s and prameya-s. In the first two instances he does so, but in the last two he condemns the Cārvākas as a whole, not a section of them or a particular individual.

The charge is not true, for it goes against the statement made earlier by Jayanta himself that the Cārvākas admit one pramāṇa only, as the sūtra says. Even though we have to work on the basis of very few Cārvāka fragments, we at least know that Udbhaṭa in some respects differed from the ancient (cirantana) Cārvākas (NM II: 257) and that Cakradhara himself tells us, as does Vādidevasūri that Udbhaṭa sought to explain some sūtra-s in quite unconventional and novel ways.24 Therefore, Udbhaṭa’s view concerning the number of pramaṇa and prameya should not be taken as the opinion generally held by all nāstika-s or Cārvākas, past and present.

Moreover, Udbhaṭa’s view flatly contradicts the sūtra, which specifies that the principle is earth, air, fire and water and nothing else (iti) (I.2) (BHATTACHARYA 2009: 78, 86). Udbhaṭa himself was aware of his departure from the old way of interpretation. He tried to reinterpret the word iti in the text in a tortuous way by saying that here iti does not denote the end but instead is illustrative.25

Jayanta, then, is inconsistent in representing the opponent’s view (pūrvapakṣa). He knew full well that the Cārvākas interpreted the sūtra in a very different way than the wording suggests. At least three commentators, Purandara, Aviddhakarṇa and Udbhaṭa, took pains to point out that although they did not consider inference to be an independent instrument of cognition, they did not reject inference as such. Only such inferences as are drawn from scriptures or unverifiable sources are rejected by them; inferences established in everyday life and verifiable by sense perception are admitted by them (BHATTACHAYA 2009: 81–82, 88–90, commentaries 3, 12, 18). Jayanta in fact paraphrased the view of those whom he calls “the better educated ones” (suśikṣitatarāḥ)26 as follows:
Indeed who will deny the validity of inference when one infers fire from smoke and so on; ordinary people ascertain the probandum by such inferences though they may not be pestered by the logicians. However, inferences that seek to prove a self, God, an omniscient being and the other-world and so on, are not considered valid by those who know the real nature of things. Simple-minded people cannot derive the knowledge of probandum by such inferences so long as their mind is not vitiated by cunning logicians (NM I: 184; BHATTACHARYA 2009: 86, 92, verses 18–20).
By refusing to abide by the commentator’s interpretation of the sūtra concerning the partial validity of inference but by generalizing the same commentator’s purely personal opinion about the impossibility of determining the number of pramāṇa and prameya to be the original Cārvāka view, Jayanta merely betrays his personal antipathy for Udbhaṭa in particular and the Cārvākas in general. He would at one point go by the literal meaning of a sūtra in the base text but at another point accept the commentator’s view rather than what the sūtra says. No doubt the commentator (Udbhaṭa in this case) provided an opportunity to an opponent of his system by resorting to a far-fetched interpretation; Jayanta makes full use of it. Instead of bringing the charge of sūtrabhaṅga, going against the aphorism (which Udbhaṭa definitely does while interpreting iti in the Cārvāka fragment I.2), he refers to the view as if it represents the true position of the Cārvākas. On another occasion, he refers to the sūtra itself just because it suits him. On yet other occasions he conveniently forgets the sūtra and picks up Udbhaṭa alone. If he believed that a particular commentator’s view properly reflected the intention of the sūtrakāra, why did he suppress the same commentator’s interpretation of a vital sūtra (III.1, discussed above) and stick to the letters of it instead?


Hemacandra, the Jain savant (twelfth century C.E.) also criticizes the nāstika, or heterodox view in his Anya-yoga-vyavaccheda-dvātriṃśikā (AYVD) solely on the ground that it does not admit inference as a valid instrument of cognition (verse 20). Malliṣeṇa (thirteenth century), in his Syādvādamañjarī (SVM), a commentary on the AYVD, identifies this nāstika with the Cārvāka. Rightly so, for the two words are synonymous (see above). Malliṣeṇa then explains the point as follows: the Cārvākas accept only perception as the sole instrument of cognition; hence they do not accept anything else, not even inference, as a means of valid knowledge.27

We have already seen that this is a common charge brought against the Cārvākas by many of their opponents, both Vedists (Brahminical, such as Jayanta) and non-Vedists (the Jain, Hemacandra in this instance. See also KAMALAŚĪLA, II: 520, but see also II: 528, quoted below). In fact, the point that the Cārvākas accepted nothing but perception as pramāṇa is so widely – almost universally – believed by so many authorities, both ancient and modern, that it may appear to be an exercise in futility to question the veracity of this oft-repeated objection. Yet the fact is that long before Hemacandra wrote this, Purandara, a Cārvāka philosopher (fl. eighth century C.E.) whose name is connected with both the base text of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata system of philosophy as well as with a short commentary (vṛtti) on it,28 had clearly stated: “The Cārvākas, too, admit of such an inference as is well-known in the world, but that which is called inference [by some], transgressing the worldly way, is prohibited [by them].”29

Purandara was not alone in asserting this view. Aviddhakarṇa (not later than the eighth century), another commentator on the Cārvākasūtra, also declared:
It is true that inference is admitted by us as a source of knowledge, because it is found to be so in general practice; (but what we only point out is that) the definition of an inferential mark is illogical (BHATTACHARYA 2009: comm. 3.81, 88).
And last but not least, Udbhaṭa, the last known commentator on the Cārvākasūtra, who in other respects was rather atypical in his interpretation of certain Cārvāka aphorisms (see above), states the Cārvāka position vis-à-vis inference more elaborately:
Failure of concomitance is not seen even in the case of probanses well- established in the world; so also it is not noticed in the case of the probanses established in the scripture; so, on the basis of the quality characterized by ‘non-perception of failure of concomitance’ being common to them, the probanses established in the scriptures are admitted as being gamaka. It is because of this that inference is secondary. Now the knowledge of non-failure of concomitance in respect of worldly probanses is instrumental in bringing a bout the knowledge of the probandum. But that is not there in the concept of probanses established by the scriptures. So it is not proper that non-perceptible things should be known with the help of these. Hence it is said that the ascertainment of things is difficult to attain by dint of inference (BHATTACHARYA 2009: comm. 12.81–82, 88).
The position of the Cārvākas is perfectly clear. They do not admit inference as an independent instrument of cognition on a par with perception, but at the same time they do admit the limited validity of inference insofar as it is confined to the material world, which is perceivable and verifiable by sense experience. It is in this sense that Udbhaṭa in response to some opponent makes a distinction between “incapable reasons” and “capable reasons” (BHATTACHARYA 2009: comm. 14.82, 89). Jayanta certainly knew all this. Hence, he makes “better educated ones” declare this in clear terms (as quoted above).

Given the incredible mobility of mss from Kashmir to Kerala and the custom of getting such mss speedily copied in various local scripts from Śāradā to Nāgarī to Malayalam, it is inconceivable that Hemacandra (respectfully called the “omniscient one of the Kali era,” kalikālasarvajña by the Jains) did not know any of them. Ratnaprabhā (fourteenth century), another Jain scholar, echoes the view of the three Cārvākasūtra commentators mentioned above:

The Cārvākas, however, contend that they admit inferences which are of practical utility, such as the inference of fire from smoke, and deny only those which deal with such supernatural matters as the heaven, the unseen power (apūrva) which generates in a next birth fruits of acts done in a present life, etc. etc. (VADIDEVASURI 1967: 540).

Guṇaratna (fifteenth century), yet another Jain commentator, also repeats all this 30 as do both anonymous author of the Avacūrṇi to the ṢDSam (1969: 508) and another digest-writer of a small, anonymous and undated work called the Sarvamatasaṃgraha (BHATTACHARYA 2009: 58).

Hemacandra and Malliṣeṇa do not shift their position from the base text to the commentary (as Jayanta does) in their criticism of the Cārvākas. They err in completely ignoring the commentaries and thereby, like many others before and after them, misrepresent the Cārvāka view of inference. In fact, as has been shown time again by other scholars before, partial acceptance of inference distinguished the Cārvākas (among other things) from the earlier materialists, some of whom might have held one-pramaṇa position as alleged by their opponents.31 Very much like Jayanta, he too conveniently avoids mentioning the view of the “better educated Cārvākas” in this regard.


One last word. Why did Jayanta and Hemacandra, two stalwarts in the field of Indian philosophy, make such injudicious choices between the base text and the commentary? It will be insulting them to say that they did not know or understand the actual position of the Cārvākas in regard to inference. Yet to say that these savants deliberately distorted their opponent’s view will be equally ungenerous. Then why?

The only explanation I may venture to offer is that their desire to trounce their opponent blurred their vision and made them recourse to the shortest and easiest way. By damning the Cārvākas as ‘wretched’ (varāka) and undeserving of any serious discussion (NM I: 299),32 both chose to portray them as simpletons, which they were not. Jigīṣā (desire to conquer) is the greatest enemy of objectivity, as a learned friend of mine is fond of saying.


17 NM, I: 43. Translation in: C/L, 154.
18 For variant readings of the same (III.1), see BHATTACHARYA 2009: 60, n. 23.
19 CAKRADHARA, author of the Granthibhaṅga, a commentary on the NM, identifies the person/s referred to in such ways (suśikṣita and dhūrta) as UDBHAṬA and others (I: 52, 100). CAKRADHARA is corroborated by VĀDIDEVASŪRI who quotes at length from UDBHAṬA’s commentary on several occasions and provides the title of the work (Tattvavṛtti) as well (265). Tantravṛtti (270) in all probability is a misprint. See BHATTACHARYA 2009: comm. 11, 13. 81–82, 89.
20 NM I: 52. Trans. in: C/L, 154.
21 NM I: 100. Trans. in: C/L, 155.
22 NM I: 101. Trans. in: C/L, 156.
23 Ibidem.
24 CAKRADHARA I: 100. Cf. VĀDIDEVASŪRI (SVR 764): “This respectable veteran twice-born is revealing to us a novel way of answering criticism.” (comm. 15 in: BHATTACHARYA 2009: 82, 89).
25 Cf. VĀDIDEVASŪRI (SVR 1087), and BHATTACHARYA 2009: comm. 16.82, 89–90. Cakradhara too points out in relation to other sūtra-s that Udbhaṭa’s explanations go against the conventionally proposed ones. Also BHATTACHARYA 2009: comm. 8, 81, 88; NM I: 100, 257–258.
26 Unfortunately, Cakradhara does not identify these persons as he did in case of the welleducated
Cārvākas and the cunning Cārvāka (see n23 above). The use of plural may be ironically
honorific. On the basis of the extract quoted by VĀDIDEVASŪRI (SVR comm. 12.
81–82, 88.265–266) we may safely conclude that this person cannot but be Udbhaṭa.
27 For a detailed study of SVM, chapter 20, see BHATTACHARYA 2009: 167–168.
28 See BHATTACHARYA 2009: 67.
29 As quoted by KAMALAŚĪLA in TSP II: 528 (on TS, Ch. 18, verse 1481, comm. 18 [in:] BHATTACHARYA 2009: 82, 90).
30 TRD, on ṢDSam verse 83, 306.13–15; C/L, 273.
31 Whether all pre-Cārvāka materialists too held such a one-pramāṇa position is open to further enquiry. A passage in the MBH mentions three pramāṇa-s, namely, perception confirmed in the world (lokataḥ sidddhaṃ pratyakṣam), doctrines having the Veda to support them, and the practice of eminent persons, śiṣṭa-s (13.147.9). Dandekar has noticed that inference is absent in the list but suggests that presumably inference is understood to have been included in perception (critical edition, Anuśāsanaparvan, notes, 1119). This would suggest that inference was required to be confined to this world only and not to be derived from the Veda, etc. to prove the existence of supernatural objects. Cf. Nyāyasūtra 1.5: tad (sc. pratyakṣam) pūrvakam. See also MBH 12.211.26–27 where reasoned-out truth (kṛtānta) is called nothing but perception. See BHATTACHARYA 2010a: 426.
32 Cf. HEMACANDRA 1926 (Yogaśāstra 2.38, f. 96b). Śilāṅka (19) also uses this insulting word to denigrate nāstika-s who speak of five elements (on SKS


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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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