Saturday, 24 May 2014

Critics of Lokayatika-s: the Accusers Accused

G. Ramakrishna
A significant enunciation, with copious evidences, by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya was that the Lokayata-s were not always looked down upon by the elitist sections of society in ancient India. Denunciation of the Lokayata-s based on their alleged hedonistic approach to life is philosophically and historically quite medieval in thinking. It is one of the heresies spread by the author of Sarvadarshana Samgraha, a text on philosophy in Sanskrit belonging to the 14th century. Drupada of the Mahabharata had no qualms against them, while Kautilya included the Lokayata among the lore that a ruler should be familiar with. Among the Brahmins said to have called on the Buddha once was a Lokayata philosopher as well. The inescapable truth is that the Lokayata-s got denigrated profusely because of their unflinching opposition to the system which protected vested interests. This system had no scruples about superstitious beliefs providing a safety valve against possible pritests by the masses. Let alone the masses, even an ordinary representative of theirs had to be put down violently lest he provoke others into his line of thinking. Why else would that solitary individual rising his voice against the illegitimacy of Yudhisthira getting anointed as king in Hastinapura be beheaded? Beheaded he was according to the version we have in the Mahabharata. His only grouse after all was that this same Yudhisthira had played havoc with the lives of multitudes of people during the war in Kurukshetra in the name of restoring Dharma. What kind of restoration of Dharma is that where you have to kill a million instead of converting a few of them into righteous persons or persuading them to follow the path of righteousness in general. It is to the eternal credit of the Lokayata-s that it was a person professing Lokayata philosophy who had the boldness and decency to cry foul when such a colossal destruction had been perpetrated. The poor Charvaka who had thus remonstrated was unceremoniously lynched by the Brahmin mob, for which act of ‘social gracefulness’ all the Brahmins in the mob were duly compensated by the king with regards and gifts. The whole episode serves as a fine metaphor for what has apparently gone on relentlessly in our society for quite a long time. As loyal traditionalists, large numbers of the contemporary defenders of the so called Dharma perpetuate the crime in a more complex form today. And that does not apply solely to our own India either, because other parts of the globe are not free from such horrendous deeds against the lowly in society.
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya
The Charavaka consciousness exemplified by the episode just recalled is not by any means an isolated occurrence. In fact, at the core of the Bhagavadgita lies an interrogation of exactly the same kind, but much more elaborate and disturbing. The extraordinary feat of the Gita consists in marginalising this supremely important sociological question of violence and destruction as an imperative for restoring and consolidating Dharma. The first chapter of the Gita, which incidentally also happens to be the best chapter of that philosophico-religious text, articulates the concerns of the Charvaka of Mahabharata fame when the remorseful Arjuna is overtaken by mortification at the very thought of killing his own kinsmen for the sake of obtaining the throne. It is quite another matter that the super preceptor Krishna preaches that there is nothing like death for the warriors on the battlefield as their souls are eternal and that Arjuna need only be an instrument for killing the ‘unkillable’ because they have already been killed! A mesmerising play of words to equal this philosophical fancy is hard to come by in the range of world philosophy. Arjuna’s questions are not questions of an anti-hero who wants to find an alibi for fleeing from the battlefield. On the contrary, there must have been members in the society of the days of the author of the Gita rising such awkward but pressing questions regarding what was transpiring in society. It was viewed as being unjust, not to speak of being irrational as well. The principal foundational principles of those times, subjected to criticism by a section of society, are sought to be justified and defended by the Gita, thereby performing a philosophical task of ‘justifying the ways of God to man.’ The most touching question of Arjuna centres round the understanding that one cannot live in peace after killing one’s own people (BG. 1.31 and 37). He would rather go without the kingdom for himself than have the three worlds themselves after killing such an enormous number of people of his own milieu. He would not mind getting himself killed instead (BG 1.41). One need not view the entire discussion in the Bhagavadgita in the light of the actual battlefield in Kurukshetra. After all, the author of the Gita has chosen that particular form for highlighting his philosophico-religious ideas in the context of his own times. The disintegration of society that would inevitably ensue from war is abhorring for Arjuna. Of course, disintegration is here conceived of in terms of caste barriers being broken and women being led astray (BG 1.41).It is somewhat intriguing that Arjuna who is so much worried about what might happen if women went astray does not seem to be equally concerned about what might happen if men went astray. But that is beside the point. The orthodox opinion that stratification of society along caste lines is divine dispensation is repeated parrot-like by Arjuna when he expresses consternation about ‘permanent values’ getting dislocated by war which creates intermixture of castes, as a consequence of which the prescribed death rites would also be a casualty (BG 1.42). The fortress of rituals must not be allowed to be desanctified, come what may. But that was precisely the target of the Lokayata-s, for which reason they were shunned and demonized. The demonization went so far as to deny basic ethical norms being sacrosanct for the Lokayata-s. So much so, it was averred that these pestilences personified by the Charvaka-s would go so far as to make merry recklessly, throwing to the winds any sense of social obligation. They might not steal, but definitely borrow from others unmindfully for having a swell time for themselves. It is a paradox that the very people who raised crucial questions about social ethics were portrayed as a socially irresponsible crowd. The Gita promised hope under distressing circumstances by assuring that God would descend on earth to straighten things out whenever they became unbearable (4.7). But no serious philosopher in the Indian tradition ever thought it fit to introspect as to why almighty God never tried to instill hope by persuading the unrighteous to be otherwise instead of taking the extreme step of bumping them off at one stroke. Secondly, how come that God incarnate is unable to install a just society once and for all so that he does not have to undergo the ordeal of incarnating himself now and again? Idealist schools of thought were annoyed continually, as they are even now, for no other reason than that such questions were raised by the Lokayata-s.
This is not to suggest that the Gita presents a view of the Lokayata school. But the point is that the Indian philosophical tradition and its impact cannot be viewed as if it were a monolithic structure. We have karma, adrishta (the unseen), bondage and liberation on the one hand, and the thought of the common folk untainted by such doctrines on the other. One of them imposes a burden on the individual by making him helpless and subordinate and the other prompts the person to action. It is this latter tradition which interrogates the rationale of the beliefs and practices of the other tradition. The principal postulate of the interrogators is that man has the potential to intervene creatively to change the order of things in society if only he interacts with his milieu and understands the principles governing it. Naturally, the two traditions have been polaric opposites, one accepting the reality of the world and the other negating it. Even among those who do not reject the reality of the world, there are some like Ramanuja and Madhva who preach surrender to the supreme deity as the single authentic means for attaining what they call emancipation. Social emancipation is definitely not there on the agenda of these philosophers whose company is quite formidable.
It is a commonplace truth that primitive societies try to come to grips with reality rather than negate it stoutly, or else posit the reality of the world with the rider that there is something more real than reality which ought to be the real aim in the quest of man. Fear and mystery are the two outstanding experiences that we find recorded in primitive societies as evidenced by their belief-systems and ritualistic practices. Fire, rain, thunder, darkness, wild beasts and the like stare primitive men in the face. The means to survival in the confrontation is the ancient magical act. Through this, he gradually moves on to the recognition of some law ingrained in movements within nature that he perceives all around himself. The spelndour of the morning, the starry sky of the night, the warmth of the sun, the occasional floods, wild fires, seasonal fluctuations and similar other phenomena mesmerise him as he gropes in darkness to figure out the law, if any, governing these phenomena. Even a cursory glance at the Rigveda brings out this element quite vividly. How then can he deny reality of it all like some future day sophisticated philosophers of the idealist school of thought? The latter, after all, belonged to a period when there were more material advancements along with the knowledge to thus advance.
What Lokayata philosophy does is to retain both the awe and the reality of things around man as experienced by all primitive societies. It is needless to say that the full ramifications of a philosophical school of thought are nowhere to be seen in primitive societies and their rituals. Nevertheless, it is necessary to cognize proto-materialism in its form, scope and evolution. We shall then be able to disentangle ourselves from the inane characterization of Indian philosophy as a whole as something exclusively idealistic and spiritualistic. It is for historians to discern when and under what circumstances the spiritual discourse struck roots in Indian philosophy. The signal contribution of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya consists in unraveling this mystery, if mystery it is reckoned to be. It is an infamy, therefore, to consider an anti-idealistic philosopher as a philosophical untouchable in the Indian tradition. Here, for example, is a specimen of the tirade against the Lokayata: “….With the single exception of the Lokayata which insists that all moral conventions and ethical theories have been invented by clever weaklings, no other philosopher would seriously support the view that the preservation of one’s earthly existence at all costs is the summum bonum of our life.” This is penned by a reputed author in one of the early issues of the prestigious Philosophical Quarterly and it is quite easy to pick out any number of such declarations by our allegedly pious philosophers of yesterday and today. (But let us first be clear that the Lokayata does not speak of weaklings cleverly inventing moral conventions and ethical theories; what they do attribute to the ‘clever weaklings’ is the diabolical rituals to bamboozle the layman.) The purport of statements like the one just quoted is as much to eulogise the idealist schools as to deride the Lokayata school. If the litmus test is social ethics, how do idealistic philosophers fare in our tradition? Unfortunately, there is nothing spectacular in their mien if the justification advanced by them in favour of social stratification is any indication. Whatever the veracity of the accusations laid at the door of the Lokayata-s, one thing is for sure, and that is that they never sullied themselves by advancing preposterous and phoney theories to explain the alleged divine ordinance concerning the vertical social hierarchy perpetuated for centuries in our country. On the contrary, they relentlessly laid bare the philosophical emptiness of the idealist schools of thought which professed loftily but practised meanly.
It does not redound to the credit of philosophy to make acceptance of Vedic authority as the sole criterion for categorizing philosophical schools as either theistic or atheistic. And yet this is constantly harped upon as the ultimate court of justice to decide what is acceptable and what is not in the realm of philosophy. What is worse, many an Indian philosopher bows down in reverence to the dictates of even ordinary mundane law-givers (hopefully, they are not law-makers, too) as if they were profound philosophers, which they were not. It is strange that our philosophers did not for a moment doubt that truth could be the child of authority and not of time, contemplation, observation, analysis and logic. The Lokayata philosophers sought to move towards that methodology even if they did not conceptualise it in so many words. Of some curiosity is the question of the Jaina school. Where does philosophy end and religion gain ground? This question is as much relevant in the context of the Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions as in the case of Jainism. Contemporary Buddhism is no exception either. With all the elaborate rituals of worship, the Jaina school could as well have been designated a thoroughly theistic religion, had it not been for the ridiculous criterion of Vedic authority being the yardstick for the classification. The only difference between the Jain school and the so called Vedic schools is that the Tirthankara-s take the position of the Veda in Jainism. Both authorities could well be considered as being subject to the limitations of time and perception. It would have been more reasonable philosophically had the views of Jain philosophy concerning the origin of the universe, theory of knowledge and conditions for Arhantship been considered instead. The identity or otherwise of views regarding Pudgala and Padartha respectively in Jain and Nyaya schools of philosophy, for example, could better serve as distinguishing marks. Even so, what exactly does it mean to accept Vedic authority in philosophy? Does the Veda enunciate any specific idea regarding, say, the five elements as constituents of the real world for schools of philosophy to accept it as a postulate and then proceed further in philosophical disquisition? Likewise about other propositions that fall within the scope of philosophy. It is obvious, therefore, that issues alien to philosophy have been tagged on as limitations for a free philosophical discussion. It is one thing to refer to an idea adumbrated in some Upanishad or the other and accept it and corroborate it, and quite another to be bound by it. Is there one stream of philosophy in the Rigveda, for example? Are the hymns addressed to Agni, Indra, Savitr, Varuna and Ushas fundamental to philosophical speculations? What does one make of the gambler’s hymn of the Rigveda as source material for philosophy? Or, of the frog-hymn where the budding disciple recites the Veda like a frog just back from hibernation? How can one convert a piece of good poetry into authoritative philosophy? Further, even granting that there is some very significant philosophical doctrine in the just mentioned hymns, is it consistent with speculations in the Upanishads? And why should it be, indeed? Is there no scope for divergent views in the world of philosophy on questions for which we do not possess final answers? It certainly is not a sound method to telescope the history of thought over a few centuries into one supposedly infallible doctrine, for the simple reason that it would make efforts over centuries to understand Reality irrelevant, as one obviously is already in possession of authentic ‘final answers’ to all questions concerning man and the world. The problem of philosophy has been resolved and hence there is no further need for exercising the intellect any more regarding the perennial questions of philosophy. In other words, one makes philosophy redundant by making some apparently divine text as the final authority on questions for which we do not have any single final answer even now! And that is what has been done in respect of the entire range of Upanishadic literature produced over a period of a few centuries at geographical areas largely distant from each other. It is grossly unfair to aver that after a few centuries of philosophical exercises over vastly separated areas, our ancestors arrived at just one philosophical view as the Brahma Sutra-s understood it. Indian philosophy is much more than this one text. Variety in thinking and viewing is what anyone immediately recognizes in the Upanishads. It must have been quite boring for anyone to produce so many texts for conveying one uniform idea! This kind of misplaced adulation for the Upanishads reduces the abundantly rich texts into a poorly composed copy-book. Let us put it a little more bluntly thus: The veracity or otherwise of a Physicist’s formulation can hardly be judged by the totally extraneous factor as to whether he or she reads his or her Bible regularly or not. A third alternative is not to read it at all at any time and still be a knowledgeable Physicist. The glorious strides that Indian philosophers so valiantly made in their attempt to understand Reality have been pygmied by the brownie and the pixie called Vedic authority for the corroboration of philosophical ideas. It is not only strange but also shameful that our traditional scholars, old and new, have never once given thought to this somewhat elementary detail concerning the history of Indian Philosophy.
For once, the Lokayata school liberated philosophy from this uncalled for encumbrance by looking at the world straight without the ‘Vedic glasses’ and by calling the bluff of those who foisted elaborate rituals on philosophy. Even if one does not agree with an oriental scholar who described the Brahmana texts that succeeded the Samhita texts as ‘theological twaddle’, it must unhesitatingly be accepted that there is not much philosophical analysis therein for a philosopher to fall back upon. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya almost single-handedly, or as ‘a one man brigade’ as he was once described, put Indian Philosophy on its legitimate course by establishing in no uncertain terms that there are two concrete traditions in Indian Philosophy, like in world philosophy. The relationship between the elements of nature and human consciousness discussed so passionately in some schools of Indian ohilosophy received its due at the hands of Debiprasad more than in anybody else’s hands, although it must be conceded that many others before him had called attention to it. For example, M. Hiriyanna, to mention just one. The other thing that Debiprasad did was to ostracise the self-proclaimed dictatorial authorities, namely, the law-givers (or Dharmashastrakara-s), from the domain of a critical and historical study of Indian Philosophy. Considering that even historians of science at the Academy of Science have no more than the rigmarole that is popular with others, it is significant that a pathbreaking role has been played by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya by his focus on what is central to Lokayata as a philosophy. The cliché about the Lokayata being hedonistic or ‘Charvaka’ being a ‘sweet-tongued’ fellow no longer seems to have any place in philosophy.
Madhava’s stanza in the Sarva Darshana Samgraha which is what has started the game needs to be understood copiously. The stanza runs thus:
Yavajjivet sukham jivet rinam kritva ghritam pibet;
Bhasmibhutasya dehasys punaragamanam kutah.
The literal meaning of the stanza is well-known: Live happily as long as you live; enjoy by being a debtor if need be. Once turned to ashes after death, where is there any return at all?
Firstly, the first part of the stanza is not much different from the oft-repwated incantation: Jivema Sharadah Shatam (May we live for a hundred years). Modama Sharadah Shatam (May we partake of joy for a hundred years) is among the aspirations voiced. This is sanctified, but “Yavajjivet sukham jivet” is condemned as blasphemy, which is rather odd. Secondly, do we take all such stanzas literally always? If not, why castigate this one for its ‘rinam kritva ghritam pibet” part? A devotional poem attributed to Shankaracharya says among other things that it does not help to know your grammar and roots of Sanskrit verbs (Na hi na hi rakshati dukrun karane). Do we take it literally and stop learning grammar in order to attain emancipation? The point is that literary devices are abundantly employed by philosophers for driving home their message; they may grow rhetorical aso at times. No student of Literature need be taught that rhetorical expressions are not to be taken too literally. “Rinam kritva ghritam pibet” is one such fine expression and it does not intend to portray a Charvaka as a hedonist, much less a morally irresponsible being. There are umpteen literary devices employed by Shankara in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra-s. Students of Purva Mimamsa know what they refer to as ‘arthavada’ by which is meant the laying of emphasis on a particular prescription in an indirect suggestive way. The usual example given is that 'the serpents performed a sacrifice.’ When you say “sarpah satram asata” you are not making a factual statement about the serpents having performed a sacrifice; what you mean to convey is that man has the obligation to perform a sacrifice. When the serpents themselves have performed a sacrifice, how much more becoming is it for man to do so! Arthavada may be a technical term in the Purva Mimamsa, but it is akin to any literary device having a similar purport. It is only for denigrating the Lokayata school that a simple commonplace literary device has been twisted and is being relentlessly continued even now What the ‘’arthavada’ of the passage under reference conveys is simply this: Ingrain in yourself the way to remain happy in life; don’t you be a slave to the barren belief and ritual that have been held before you as the path to happiness; instead, you had better develop the discretion to be happy at all times and at all costs.
Ordaining thus is not a terrible deviation from what is commended in the Ishavasya Upanishad which says that you should live for a hundred years with activities, meaning desirable actions. (It is quite superfluous to suggest like Shankara does that action here means various rituals (karmani agnihotradini). Supposing that the ‘arthavada’ connotation is not acceptable for some prejudicial reason, the further question arises whether a Charvaka will be allowed by his fellow social beings to keep incurring debts to be happy when they also are expected to be doing exactly the same thing as fellow Charvaka-s. Today the World Bank prescribes conditionalities which our sovereign government accepts, but a Carvaka society will have none to accept the conditionalities when each member of the group here is prescribing conditionalities, the sole condition being ‘give me the loan on condition that you don’t het it back.’ It is not graceful to call the dog mad and shoot it and that applies as much to the world of philosophy as it does to other departments of life. The priestly class has the prerogative to tell its votaries that it is safe to perform the Jyotishtoma sacrifice for attaining heaven (Jyotishtomena swargakamo yajeta), but the Charvaka philosopher has no such elixir-like formula to tell anyone that it is safe to give loans to a Charvaka. There are two snags there: firstly, he does not have votaries like the priestly class has and secondly the Charvaka does not have a heaven to entice his votaries with! We have yet to hear of a Charvaka Bank which is totally unmindful of its non-performing assets, a euphemism for unreturned loans, like some of our nationalized banks seem to be.
Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya drew the attention of the students of Indian Philosophy to Shantarakshita’s Tattavasamgraha commented upon by Kamalasheela. This work mentions a certain Purandara as the author of a text on Lokayata philosophy but the text is extinct. What we understand from Shantarakshita is that the philosophical doctrines of Purandara are considerably different from the one attributed to the Lokayata school by the ‘Sarva Darshana Samgraha’. It is another matter, of course, that Shantarakshita does not accept Purandara’s doctrines. But he does not dismiss the school as inconsequential after making some sniding remarks about its doctrines like some latter day ‘philosophers’ do. The current crop of critics of the Lokayata school with no analytical approach whatsoever needs to be included among such philosophers. The reason for Shantarakshita in so doing may be that he is, like Purandara, one who does not recognize the authority of the Veda for validating philosophical positions. Madhava, on the other hand, is incensed with the gumption of the Lokayata philosopher in making light of Vedic authority and even lampooning it lavishly. In tune, therefore, with the masters of Vedic rituals who had no love lost for the Lokayata-s, Madhava repeats parrot-like what had been traditionally said about the Lokayata school by orthodox schools. That is no sound method for a philosopher, to say the least. It is the examination and evaluation of the epistemology and ontology of a school of philosophy that should be the deciding factor for a philosopher when he is in disagreement with a school of philosophy. That is what Shankara does, for example, when he refutes the position of the Samkhya school which to him is the finalist in philosophical debate. Defeating Samkhya means defeating Lokayata as well, according to him. In other words, Lokayata, like Samkhya, is a school of materialist philosophy and Shankara is prepared for a confrontation with them simultaneously. Had the works of Purandara, Bhaguri and the likes of them come down to us, the ridiculous argument against Lokayata philosophy advanced by Madhava and his ilk might not have been there.
The prime question then is why the texts of the Lokayata philosophers disappeared in the course of history. It is not tendentious or simplistic to suggest that a crucial reason for it was the social philosophy which the Lokayata school underlined. It was against this that idealist philosophers had to fight in order to defend what their philosophy sought to defend. The innate connection between materialism and the people involved in human endeavours is borne out by the history of civilization throughout the world. A world – denying philosophy may be sweet for an intellectually astute philosopher, but a person who has to live with the sweat of his brow does not have much love for it. What is ‘ultimately real’ may be a fine academic question, but ploughing and sowing are not mere academic matters. Plato was neither the first nor the last to demean the labourer while making merry with the products of the labour of others. The Lokayata school of philosophy has happily remained at the receiving end in this unequal bout.
Not to be left far behind some philosophers, texts like the Vishnu Purana castigated the Lokayata-s in strong terms which are more indicative of anger and apprehension than any philosophical justification. It might also be said that some philosophers took the cue from the Purana-s while attacking the Lokayata system. It is interesting to note that the Vishnu Purana has nothing against Lokayata philosophy; its whole ire is occasioned by the fact that the Lokayata does not accept Vedic authority and has no special regard for sacrificial rituals. That the Lokayata-s have a severe banter for death rituals is an indication of the demonaic element in the Lokayata system according to this Purana. The text further bemoans that the Lokayata-s are under a delusion because of which they allegedly declare that ‘the world has no basis or support’ external to itself, that the world is primordially evil, and so on. It is because of this that the lokayata-s are inimical to the Brahmins in the view of the Vishnu Purana. It is obvious whose interests within the caste hierarchy the Purana seeks to defend and also why orthodoxy has always found the lokayata as a bush of thorns in the otherwise pleasant garden of vertical social hierarchy. Those who wonder whether the Lokayata system of philosophy has anything at all to do with ethics may like to consider if consciousness of social equality is not a fundamental ingredient of ethics in the specific Indian context. The Lokayata-s were not satisfied with mere consciousness against a social stigma, they were crusaders against it as well, which is saying a lot about their ethical values. As crusaders, of course, they did not perpetrate any crime like their counterparts of medieval Europe did, and yet the Vishnu Purana liberally consigns all the Lokayata-s to the burning hell out of sheer indignation, but the society at large might not have enthusiastically shared its misplaced spirit for ‘punishing’ the Lokayata-s. Vachaspati Mishra follows the Purana edict as a great loyalist, casting to the winds his true calling as a philosopher. He is more royal than the king when he proclaims that the Lokayata-s are ‘more brutish than brutes’ thereby again proving that his first interest is not philosophy but defence of the social pyramid of his times. Why would so many ‘authorities’ rave against the lokayata-s if their system had not been part of the popular legend of those days?
If it is not some Purana like the Vishnu Purana that guides some Indian philosophers in the evaluation of philosophy, then it is some law-giver who directs them how to distribute their favours. In either case, it is an extraneous thing that makes them evaluate philosophical schools. The whole thing reminds one of the medieval age in Europe when the Church in Rome either frowned upon Science or favoured it depending upon how it might or might not affect papal authority. The only difference is that perhaps India did not resort to the foul act of burning heretics at the stake like Europe did. Possibly the Indian philosophers believed in a more humane way of killing! As far as killing the idea is concerned there is a fine similarity of purpose. A typical instance of the Indian philosophers signing on the dotted lines drawn by the law-givers can be seen in the commentaries on what is called the “Apashudradhikarana” of the Brahma Sutra-s. The Taittiriya Samhita (2.2.10.2) had earlier averred that the “words of Manu are like a medical potion” (Yadvai kincha manuravadat tadbheshajam). Not many Indian philosophers have raised the question as to why or how the words of a law-giver could be the final verdict on a question of philosophy when it is well-known that such law-givers are by mo means pre-eminent philosophers in their own right. Another way of saying this is that philosophy must dutifully subserve the purpose of the existing unequal social order. Shankara has said that a particular statement of Manu (namely, 12.91) implies the refutation of the views of the Samkhya doctrine of Kapila. The exact words are here: Manuna … sarvatmatvadarshanam prashamsataa kaapilam matam nindyata iti gamyate, meaning that while edifying the soul as the substratum of everything Manu has refuted the view of Kapila regarding the elements. Should one not have the integrity to pronounce outright that it is not edifying for a philosopher to lay philosophy prostrating at the feet of a law-giver whose sole purpose is to keep the stultifying social order static? P.V. Kane has hit the nail on the head by saying, perhaps ironically, that “according to Shankara, the author of the Vedanta Sutra-s has Manusmriti for one of his sources.” It passes one’s understanding how Manu could be of great help in understanding the true nature of ‘what is’ (sat), which is the principal preoccupation of the philosopher Shankara. This question may sound quite scandalous to our adherents and irrational admirers of Shankara, ‘the Himalayan philosopher’ as they like to describe him. But the Himalayan philosopher is not disinterested in the conservation of the social hierarchy of his times. Both the philosophical and the sociological stances of Shankara are evident from his commentary on the Brahma Sutra-s. The world as experienced by us in our day to day life may be ephemeral according to Shankara, but the vertical social hierarchy in it is not so; it must be defended to the last hilt.
As an illustration for this, we may go to the ‘Apashudraadhikarana’ of the Brahma Sutra-s. That it is the opinion of the Upanishadic passage concerned and not necessarily that of Shankara as well does not hold water. The point at issue in this section (adhikarana) is that the philosophical view highlighted in the Upanishad is not available to the ‘low born’ (shudra). If that is what the contention of the Upanishadic passage, namely, the Chandogya Upanishad 4.2.3, also is, then that too becomes an example for calumny, leaving the slandering Shankara unexonerated. The paradox of it all is that the philosophical view under reference is a sine qua non for liberation, but that view is, however, not available for a Shudra, which means that a Shudra is condemned to eternal bondage. It is quite another matter that the Shudra in spite of such ignominious strictures continues to struggle for liberation with the help of some other philosophy as evidenced by history. If there is any hope for the so called low born, it is solely in the form of service to the ‘high-born’, as Manu has said and as Shankara has endorsed!
In the first place, why does the ‘low-born’ not have the right to gain the philosophical view so much tattooed? The answer is simple: “Because he has no right to study the Veda.” And why so? ‘Because he is uninitiated’ as per law and he is also uninitiable as per the law of the ‘high-born’ rulers. The ‘low-born’ is duly warned that any transgression of this ordinance could be suicidal as molten lead might be poured into his ears if he dares to so much as hear the recitation of the Veda, let alone recite it himself. It is hard to believe that a philosopher could be so irrational as this, but Shankara quotes these words of the Gautama Dharma Sutra (2.3.4) with unbashful approval. And why should the ‘low-born’ not hear the recitation of the Veda? “Because he is similar to the cremation grounds.” Pray, what logic is this? Suppose one goes and recites the Veda right on the cremation grounds, then what? Oh, no. It is sheer blasphemy. “There is a clear injunction that his tongue must be cut if he recites the Veda and that his body must be rendered asunder if he comprehends the Veda,” says Shankara, the mighty philosopher. But, are we reading a philosophical text or some nasty edict of a tyrannical Roman emperor? May we submit that the great champions of Shankara’s philosophy who want us to accept Shankara lock, stock and barrel should answer that question to themselves first? It is not without some substance that some present day followers of Shankara liken him to Plato. There are many similarities between the two; both consider the world to be somewhat unreal and both uphold slavery, albeit in slightly different forms.
Without going into the details of the context in which all this discourse on the curse heaped on the Shudra figures in Shankara’s commentary on the relevant portions of the Chandogya Upanishad (4.2.3), it may be mentioned that Raikva, endowed with sublime knowledge although living in harsh straits, condescends to teach the Truth to Jaanashruti, a wealthy non-shudra, when he offers to gift a damsel if need be to receive the famed knowledge in possession of the former. While doing so, he addresses the non-shudra as a shudra, which is what propmpts all the commentators on the Brahjma Sutra-s to launch a tirade against the shudra-s and pay rich obeisances to the law-givers in the name of interpreting a philosophical point. The multi-million rupee question for the commentators unhappily is whether philosophical knowledge could be imparted to someone like Jaanashruti who had just been addressed as if he were a Shudra. After taking the literal meaning of the word ‘shudra’ to begin with, the commentators hold forth eloquently about the prescriptions of the law-givers approvingly and then argue that the literal meaning is not of any consequence in the given context. What else does the word ‘shudra’ mean then in the given context? The etymology of the word from the root ‘shuk’ suggests that ‘shudra’ is one who is perpetually in a pathetic condition, but that Jaanashruti is momentarily a ‘shudra’ because of his remorseful condition. Whatever the usefulness or otherwise of the excursion into etymology, one thing remains clear and that is that there was no sense of pathos evoked in Shankara for the ‘low-born’ and yet he was a lofty philosopher.
Ramanuja, Madhva and other greats in the world of Indian Philosophy might have differed among themselves on any number of issues concerning philosophy, but they were all one in equating the ‘low-born’ with the cemetery. They vied with each other, if anything, in surrendering to the dictates of the law-givers without ever venturing to dictate the law-givers about humanist philosophy, social equality and universal appeal of knowledge. Likewise, they are all strongly united in their opposition to the Lokayata school of thought. There is, for example, a myth bandied about in respect of Ramanuja that he was for embracing everyone into his fold in a truly liberal fashion. But here is a sample of his ‘liberalism’ (in loose translation) which should be an eye-opener: The low-born are not entitled to perform any sacrifice. It is not something which one can perform by virtue of the material wealth that one possesses. Everyone should follow the course of action prescribed for the different varna-s (that is, broadly, castes). … The low-born ought to understand the Brahman by taking recourse to the epics and legends only. (Commentary on the Brahma Sutra-s, 1.3.36).
Not to be left behind, Raghavendratirtha, the much venerated miracle-man of the Madhva tradition in his “Tattvamanjari” (144) has said all that Shankara has said about the Shudra-s. He, however, goes a step further to point out that Jaanashruti of the Chandogya Upanishad was not a Shudra, for, he possessed a chariot which he could not have done had he been a Shudra! Nothing, therefore, could prevent Raikva from imparting sublime knowledge to him.
The intellectual acrobatics that Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva and many other Indian philosophers willingly resorted to was occasioned not by any demand of philosophy but by the dogmatic concern for justifying and consolidating social hierarchy which is not an ennobling function of philosophy. If anything, philosophy has the unenviable task of serving humanity by upholding equality, rationality and happiness. To suggest that in the ‘ultimate sense’ happiness so called is only unhappiness is to be clever by half because even the Bhagavadgita speaks of the worldly imperatives when it acknowledges ‘lokasamgraha’ (norms of the actual world) as a value. The Lokayata school of philosophy had no need for such crafty arguments and rationalization. The Lokayatika, that is, a follower of the Lokayata school, had Reason on his side when he boldly accused his accuser of non-philosophical considerations while discussing philosophy. The deft strokes of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya have restored the right of the Lokayata school to stand head and shoulder above many another Indian school of philosophy while also buttressing the philosophical schools of Samkhya, Vaisheshika and Nyaya. Little wonder, therefore, that shaken savant unsuccessfully moved a resolution once at an Al India Philosophical Congress stating that the ‘pernicious influence of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya must be cried a halt to’ in order to save Indian Philosophy. Unfortunately for him, history is not on his side. There is no ‘pernicious influence’ to fear from Debiprasad. All that he meant to do was to drive some sanity into the heads of students of Indian Philosophy. Nobody claims that he succeeded a hundred per cent in this endeavour. But as Bhavabhuti assured us a long time ago, the world is vast and time endless. Kaalohyayam niravadhih vipulaa cha prithvi. History does not run out of time and the time of Lokayata will dawn one day.



Dr. G Ramkrishna is the Chief Editor of Hosatu, a progressive periodical in Kannada. He was Professor of English at National College, Bangalore and a Visiting Professor at Kannada University, Hampi. He is the author a number of books in Kannada and English including The Strange Culture of M.S. Golvalkar,  The Living Marx, and Philosophy in China (in English), The features of the Anti-Fascist Movement, RSS – A Poisonous Tree, On Hindutva (Kannda)
Email ID: dgrkrishna@gmail.com




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