Wednesday, 1 January 2014

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

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

I apologize to learned readers for this disproportionately long proem. They certainly know all this from their own experience. Like them I too had to pay a price — a very heavy one at that — for placing absolute trust on the words of the base texts on some occasions as well as for relying blindly on the commentaries on others. Nevertheless, before getting into the problematic of this paper, I found such an exordium necessary for putting the enquiry into a question: How many instruments of cognition (pramāṇa) did the materialists in India admit?

When we set ourselves to study the rise and development of materialism in India, we are confronted with an overriding problem, that of the paucity of materials. This is unlike studying some idealist systems such as Vedānta, where the opposite is the case. As to materialism, all we have, besides a few scattered verses of doubtful origin and unknown authorship, are very few fragments, quotations and paraphrases of certain aphorisms and short extracts from commentaries, which are all found in works seeking to refute materialism.10 It is common knowledge that there was no continuous chain linking the materialists in India from the days of Ajita Kesakambala (sixth/fifth centuries B.C.E.) down to the advent of the Cārvākas (c. eighth century C.E.).

From whatever little evidence we possess it is, however, evident that there were more than one materialist school long before the appearance of the Cārvākas. In certain earlier and later works, a more general term, nāstika (as in Pāṇini, 4.4.60: asti nāsti diṣṭaṃ matiḥ, from which the words āstika, nāstika and daiṣṭika are derived)11 or nāhiyavādī or natthiyavādī (negativist), is employed to suggest some pre-Cārvāka materialists.12 However, we have no evidence that they had a common base text and each materialist thinker had enough adherents to form his own school. It is probable that one or some of them might have spoken of five elements as well (as in Mahābhārata, 12.267.4 and the Sūtrakṛtāṅgasūtra (SKS),–20). Guṇaratna in fact refers to “another kind of Cārvākas,” cārvākaikadeśīyāḥ, who spoke of five elements instead of four (300), but apparently he employs the name Cārvāka as a kind of ‘brand name’ for all materialists, past and present.

In or around the sixth century C.E. we come across a group of philosophers called the Lo(au)kāyatikas. This group is not at all like its namesake, which was known at least as early as the fifth century B.C.E. in Buddhist literature. The members of the older group used to indulge in disputation for disputation’s sake and because of this irksome habit incurred the disapproval of the Buddha.13 The new Laukāyatikas of the Common Era are known to have been rabidly opposed to religion (in Bāṇabhaṭṭa, Kādambarī: 513: lokāyatikavidyayevādharmaruceḥ). By the eighth century C.E. however the word cārvāka appears as synonymous with the new Lokāyata school.14

Another name, Bārhaspatya (related to Bṛhaspati, the preceptor of the gods), came to be associated with the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. The story was derived from some Purāṇic tales, particularly those found in the Viṣṇupurāṇa (VP 3.18) and copied out in the Padmapurāṇa, Sṛṣṭikhaṇḍa, chapter 13. So all the four names, Bārhaspatya, Cārvāka, Lokāyata and Nāstika came to signify the same materialist school. In his lexicon Abhidhānacintāmaṇi, Hemacandra provides three synonyms for Bārhaspatya: Nāstika, Cārvāka and Laukāyatika (3.525–27).

There seems to have been another school of materialists in southern India. Its existence is recorded in the Tamil epics Manimekalai and Neelakesi. They called their system bhūtavāda.15 The presence of several groups of pre-Cārvāka materialists is also testified to by an old Jain canonical work, the Sūtrakṛtāṅgasūtra (SKS) (–20). Many of them (if not all) were bhῡtapañcakavādin, holding that the number of elements was five, not four (as the Cārvākas did).16 Bhūtavāda and the Lokāyata doctrine had much in common but, as a Bhūtavādin in the the Manimekalai, 27: 273–274 says, there were some differences too. For example, the Bhūtavādins believed in two kinds of matter, lifeless and living, where life originates from living matter, the body from the lifeless. The Lokāyatas did not think so (VANAMAMALAI 1973: 38).

A problem arises when some writers adhering to the pro-Vedic systems (āstika-s) set out to criticize the Cārvākas but make no distinction between the pre-Cārvākas and the Cārvākas. So much so that they either rely on a particular commentary at the expense of the base text or disregard the existing commentaries of the Cārvākasūtra altogether. Sometimes they resort exclusively to the base text; on other occasions, they follow a commentary but err in making the wrong choice. Some of them mistake a particular commentator’s personal view to be the mainstream view, disregarding the words of the aphorisms; other stick to the words of the aphorisms, ignoring the commentaries. I shall give two examples to show how the opponents of materialism misrepresented the Cārvāka view concerning the instrument of cognition by shifting their ground rather injudiciously from the aphorism to a commentary or vice versa.


10 For a collection of such fragments see BHATTACHARYA 2009: 78–86 (text), 86–92 (translation R.B.).
11 By nāstika, at first only the denier of the after-world was meant (as explained by the commentators of PĀṆINI, 4.4.60. See BHATTACHARYA 2009: 227–228. See also ĀRYAŚŪRA 23.57.
12 As in HARIBHADRA, Samarāicca Kahā 164, SAṄGHADĀSAGAṆIVĀCAKA 169, 275.
13 For references see CHATTOPADHYAYA 1975: 143–148.
14 See HARIBHADRA, Ṣaḍdarṣanasamuccaya, chapter 6. The chapter is devoted to the exposition of Lokāyata –lokāyatā vadanty evam, etc., (80a), but in 85d we read: cārvākāḥ pratipedire. See also KAMALAŚĪLA who, in his commentary on a chapter in ŚᾹNTARAKṢITA’s Tattvasaṅgraha entitled Lokāyataparīkṣā, uses the names Cārvāka and Lokāyata interchangeably as if they were synonymous. See TSP, II: 639, 649, 657, 663, 665, also II: 520, 939 and 945.
15 See VANAMAMALAI 1973: 26, 36–38. Also ILANKO ADIGĀL and SATTANAR 1989: 153–154 (27.264–276); ILANKO ADIGĀL and SATTANAR 1996: 170.
16 ŚĪLĀṄKA in his comments on Sūtrakṛtāṅgasūtra calls them pañcabhūtavādyādyāḥ, and more elaborately pañcabhūtāstitvādivādino lokāḥ (19). Earlier he has explained ekeṣāṃ ( as bhūtavādinām but identifies them as followers of the Bārhaspatya doctrine.

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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