Friday, 17 October 2014

History of Materialism in India

Th. Stcherbatsky

Amidst the diverse philosophical systems which we find in India, ancient as well as modern, it is quite natural that there must have been some materialistic system too. Their main approach lies in reducing all the psychic processses to physical ones, negating the independent existence of soul, and affirming that the so-called soul is simply one of the properties of organized matter. This is philosophical materialism.

Th. Stcherbatsky
Another approach that we find in India is that of raising the practical question of the aim of human life and of the prevalence of material aims therein. Here, materialism is distinguished from all other trends by the fact that it negates the law of so-called karma, ie, retribution for good or bad works. The greater abstraction of the Indian mind, as compared with other ancient civilizations is expressed int he fact that there the moral law is not embodies in the person of God, the judge, but in the form of impersonal karma which may be characterized as the law of moral progress, as the faith in the fact that the world is rules bya special mechanism directing it evolution from the forms of low and unjust to good and perfection.

This law is fully negated by the extreme Indian mate­rialists. Nowhere, perhaps, has the spirit of negation of and resentment to the fetters of traditional morals and the religion connected thereto been expressed so clearly as among the Indian materialists. This is evidenced, for instance, by the following verses of Indian materialism.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes,-
Brhaspati says, these are but means of livelihood for those who have no manliness nor sense.[i]
The three authors of the Vedas were
The buffoon, the knave and the thief.[ii]
All the well-known formulae of the pandita-s-jarphari, turphari, etc.
And all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in the Asvamedha
Those were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,
While the eating of flesh was similarly commended by night-prowling demons.[iii]
There is no other hell than the mundane pain produced by purely mundane causes as thorns etc;
The only supreme is the earthly monarch whose existence is proved by all the world's eyesight;
And the only liberation is the dissolution of the body.[iv]
According to the generally accepted system, in ancient India, the human life was regulated by three main aims: the property, love and duty. By the first were meant the various occupations giving means for life - cultivation, cattle breeding, trade and industry. The Government control with all its ramifications also came under this category. By the second aim was meant the family life, the children and also extra-family satisfaction of passions. What was meant by the third was mainly the religious duty, control of passions, with a view to secure award in the next life in one form or the other of eternal divinity. The normal life of man, according to the views of the orthodox Hindu, must have all these three aims in view. It is his duty to create family and to provide for it: this is interpreted as the service of love even to material aims. Later, having established his family, the Hindu may forsake it, become sannyasin, i.e. a poor homeless wanderer, directing all his thoughts to eternal bliss.

In individual cases, however, this equilibrium among the three aims of life was destroyed in favour of one of them. The materialists, naturally, did not give any importance to the aim of religious duty and openly proclaimed the property and love as the only aims of man.

On the other hand, there were many people in India who fully renounced all property and avowed celibacy, rather complete annihilation of all desires. They formed communities of wandering poor monks. These communities sometimes became so numerous that they became a real calamity for the working population which had .to support them somehow or other.

Like all other Indian teachings, Indian materialism was the speciality of a specific school, which preserved its tradi­tions, developed its teachings and put them into practice. Its origin goes back to the hoary antiquity. As early as c.1000 B.C., in the Upanisads, there is a reference to the teaching which does not acknowledge anything except matter[v].  Five hundred years before Christ, about the time of Buddha, thene were certain schools which did not acknowledge anything except matter, or as put at that time, the four great elements: earth, fire, water and air. There were also some who added a fifth element, ether, thinner than air, and filling the whole space.[vi]

Buddhism was, on the one hand, very close to mate­rialism, since it also negated the existence of God and eternal soul. But the two differed sharply in that Buddhism accepted the law of karma, i.e. retribution for good and bad works. In all the proceedings of the initial sermon of Buddha, his hostile and sharp attitude towards all the theories which accepted the existence of soul is clearly manifest. But at the same time, it was with equal reso­luteness that Buddha opposed Indian materialism which did not accept the moral law or the so-called karma.

Later, at a time when the Mauryas built a large and blossoming empire in Northern India, the materialists worked out a specific philosophical school. Canakya, the Minister to the King Candragupta, has left a treatise on politics,[vii] in which he enumerates the existing philosophical systems. There, he refers to materialism as one of the main systems which the future ruler must study. [viii]

In this epoch, all the three main aims of man in life-property, love and duty-are treated scientifically. During this period, we have the practical sciences (arthasastra), the science of love (kamasastra) and the science of religious duty (dharmasastra). Among the practical sciences, that of governing the country occupies the first place. With his teaching, Canakya himself marked the beginning of a special school of politicians. Quite independently of Canakya and probably at the same time, there also was the theoretician Usanas, whose political teaching differed considerably from that of Canakya. The latter was the representative, so to say, of the official political doctrine, according to which it was necessary to support religion with all force and which was convinced that the temporal power was illumi­nated with religious basis. Usanas, on the other hand, did not consider it necessary to found temporal power on religious base. According to him, there is only one science and that is the science of punishment, or literally, the science of rod (dandaniti).[ix] Brhaspati, to whom the main schools of Indian materialists are attributed, also was first a founder 'of a school of politicians. But his political school diverged from religion still further and remained known in history as the ardent hater of religion and advo­cate of theoretical materialism. It was called either Brhas­pati school after the name of its founder, or Carvaka's school, i.e., of the materialists proper who cared for daily bread alone.[x] Another name for it is Lokayata, that is, the people who care only about the earth and not about the heaven. No complete texts or works of this school have reached us; however, several extracts and passages preserved in the works of other schools, enable us to form a notion of its main aspects and the methods, by which they are proved. A list (as complete as possible) of the works, in which there are references to the teaching of the Carvakas and excerpts from their works, will be given below.

Now I shall dwell on two such works in which have been found extracts from the works of Carvakas unknown till now. The first of them is the Nyayamanjari by the well-known philosopher Jayantabhaga.[xi] Here the materialists have been mentioned twice. Speaking of the number of the sources of valid knowledge he refers to the first main aphorism or sutra of their main work.[xii] Some sutra-s had already been restored from various sources by Prof. Hillebrandt.[xiii] It is now possible for us to restore the first one also. It reads:

athatas tattvak vyakhyasyama iti

Here, the word tattva is set against the word dharma, which is prominent in orthodox schools. This sutra means: In our work, we shall talk of reality and not of duty. From the interpretation of this sutra, it is clear that the materialists then were divided into two camps: those who held the extreme view and fully negated consciousness and considered the human body a simple mechanism (jada) without any consciousness, and those who were moderate in their views and acknowledged its existence but only in the form of special function of the body. Jayanta calls the former Sophists (dhurta). It is the latter whom he calls the real scholars.[xiv] And in fact, the discussions of the former appear to be of sophistic nature.

The fact (tattva) mentioned in the first sutra cannot be either calculated or classified. Also, even the methods of its cognition cannot be found out, and all the attempts made in this connection proved futile. Thus, for instance, sitting in a dark room, we nevertheless know that there are fingers on our hands and that there is distance between them. We could not have known it by sight because it is dark. We did not know it by sense of touch too, for the skin is the organ of sense of touch and it cannot touch itself. We also cannot know it even from inference. Hence, it is proved by this method that all the accepted teachings about the sources of valid knowledge do not withstand criticism. Once it is seen that the cognition can­not be determined, it follows here from that it does not exist and that the processes however conscious, are in reality, mechanical phenomena (jada).[xv]

Jayanta distinguishes the highly educated materialists from these materialists-sophists. They claimed as follows:

"There is undoubtedly a sole conscious element, localized in the whole living body. We also allow that this conscious­ness is subject to synthesis and other mental processes. One would hardly argue against this; but that this continues to exist after death cannot be proved. The consciousness, leaving one body, naturally cannot settle in another. Had this been possible, we would have remembered about those things which we did in our previous births, exactly in the same manner as in this birth, we remember about things done in the childhood. We cannot show any reason why the same eternal soul, living now in one and sometimes in another body, has different memory: it remembers what it undergoes in one body and does not what it does in the other bodies. Having been convinced, therefore, that there is no soul after the death of the body it is neces­sary to do away with any talk of future life, which is traced back to the theory of eternal soul, and to try to live happily, according to the, principle:

“So long as we live, we shall be happy!
There is none here who will not die;
When he dies and is turned to ashes, ­
From where is he to appear again?”

Another extract, to which we would like to draw attention, occurs in the work of Vacaspatimisra, in his interpretation of Nyayasutra 3.2.39.[xvi] The school of Indian realists supposes that matter consists of particles moving in and combining in the body. Like Aristotle, they assume that the natural motion of all particles is rotatory (parispanda). The cons­cious motion (kriya), ie, the following up and achievement of aims, is under the influence of impulse from the side of psychic elements. This impulse was represented in semi­-anthropomorphic features. The main argument of the materia­lists was that a conscious act could be fully explained by the motion of particles of matter. The difference between the two motions is only superfluous. Just as the different material elements, connected with each other, may form such a substance as alcohol which does not resemble the substances of which it is made, in the same manner the different material elements, connected in the living body, develop a new quality, a conscious act, which is not similar to them.

But to this, the Naiyayikas raise the following objection: In a drink, each particle has alcohol whereas in case of material elements of the body, each one individually does not have consciousness. Any property of the matter, as for instance weight, must be wherever matter is. If the cons­ciousness and the will were also the qualities of matter, they would then have been everywhere where there was matter. However, we do not see this, for instance, in a pot and similar objects. One cannot, therefore, contend that consciousness and will appertain to matter.

The materialist objects thus:[xvii] Consciousness and will are not at all such properties as belong to matter in general, as for instance weight. They belong to it only in known combinations. Just as the seed kinva, mashed and fermented, gives us alcohol, exactly in the same manner, the elements of matter, having formed a body, may be converted into a kind of consciously moving objects.

To this the Naiyayikas reply[xviii] that every particle of alcohol, taken individually, has intoxicating effect. This power is not inherent in the known organized whole consisting of parts. Similarly even the parts of the body would have to think, each taken separately. One cannot affirm arbitrarily that matter thinks as a whole but does not think in parts of the body. It is possible to separate out three or four members, and the thought will continue to work. If it be assumed that thinking is inherent in parts of a body, a whole series of thinkers would have to be there in one body.

“Let it be so”, replies the materialist;[xix] “this does not contradict my principle.”

“No”, the Naiyayika replies.      We see that different people, if they are self-dependent, have different aims and all of them cannot do one work together, for there is no such law that many people accidentally should have one aim and would do one work. Besides in case of one person, in one body, the separate thoughts are in agreement among themselves; this is not the case with different bodies. This can be explained only by the fact that in one body, there is only one organ of thought. After the sensual sensation and its object change, there remains, nevertheless, their cognition in memory and we have a right to conclude that the cognition is not a property of either the organ of feelings or its object. Exactly, in the same manner, although the body changes, as evidenced by changing age - ­infancy, youth and old age - nevertheless the same memory remains.

Therefore, one cannot affirm that consciousness is a property of body. Besides, speaking of conscious motion, we have in view not merely a motion which is possessed by all particles of matter, but a conscious attainment of aim, achievement of what is desired and avoiding of what is not desired. The materialist, not paying any attention to this difference, founds his thesis on motion, in general, and not on the fact of motion towards aim.


A. In Sanskrit

  1. Madhavacarya, Sarvadarsanasarrgraha, ed. Bibl. Ind. 1858, pp. 1-7
  2. Haribhadra, $a¢dadanasamuccaya, ed. L. Suali, Bibl. Ind. 1905, p. 300ff.
  3. Gunaratna, Tarkarahasyadipika, ib.
  4. Jayanta, Nyaya-manjari, Benares 1895, pp. 64, 466ff.
  5. Vatsyayana, Nyaya-bhasya on Nyaya-sutra iii. 2. 39.
  6. Uddyotakara, Nyayavartika.
  7. Vacaspati Misra Nyayavartika-tatparya-tika.
  8. Sankaracarya, Sarvasiddhantasarrgraha, ed. & tr. by M. Rangacarya, Madras 1909.
  9. Samkhya-sutra-vrtti, iii. 17-22
  10. Samkhya-tattva-kaumudi, on Karika 5
  11. Samkaradigvijaya.

B. European Studies
  1. H. Jacobi, Zur Fruhgeschichte der indischen Philosophie (Sitzb. K. Preuss. Ak. d. w. 1911).
  2. L. Suali, Materiaux pour servir a l'Histoire du Materia­lisme Indien, Le Museon, N. S. 9, Louvain, 1908.
  3. Pizzagalli, Nastika Carvaka e Lokayatika, Pisa 1907.
  4. A. Hillebrandt, Zur Kenntniss der indischen Materi­alisten.
  5. Ego-khe, Ueber Materialisten und Skeptiker, Alt-Indian, Breslau 1890. p. 168ff.
  6. Statii R. Garbe & L. de la Vallee Poussin in Hasting's Encyclopaedia. viii. 138 & 93.
  7. John Muir, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1861.
  8. Hopkins, Great Epic, 1901, p. 86.
  9. Dahlmann, Samkhya, p. 208.
  10. Max Muller, Six Systems, p. 94.

[i] Sarvadarsanasamgraha (Bibl. Ind.) p. 3. cf. Sarvasiddhantasamgraha ii. 15. [The English translation given here are of Cowell and Gough]
[ii] Sarvadarsanasamgraha, p. 6.
[iii] Ib. p.6
[iv] Ib. p.4
[v] cf. H. Jacobi, Ueber das Verhaeltniss des Vedanta zum Samkhya, E. Kuhn's Festschrift, p. 38.
[vi] F. O. Schrader, Ueber den Stand der indischen Philosophie, p. 53
[vii] Kautilya, Arthasastra ed. Shamasastri, Mysore Sanskrit Series.
[viii] Ib. i.2
[ix] Ib. i.
[x] Saddarsanasmuccaya, ed. Suali, p. 300
[xi] Nyayamanjari of Jayantabhatta, ed. Gangadhara Sastri Tailanga, Benares, 1895. Vizianagram Series, Vol. viii
[xii] Ib. p. 64
[xiii] Hillebrandt, Zur Kenntniss der indischen Materialisten, E. Kuhn’s Festschrift, p. 24
[xiv] susiksita, cf. op. cit. p. 467
[xv] Ib. p. 64
[xvi] Nyayavartika-tatparya-tika, Vacaspati Misra, ed. Gangadhara Sastri Tailanga, Viz. Series, Vol. xiii, p. 400ff
[xvii] Ib. p. 400, line 14
[xviii] Ib. p. 400. line 17
[xix] Ikb. P. 400, line 21

ISPP, Vol. X, 1968-9, Translated by: H.C. Gupta

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Science versus Miracles: Reading a message in a sealed cover

B Premanand

Experiment: 133

Effect: Telling the number a person thinks.

The tantrik asks a person to tell a number. When ash is rubbed on the surface of a blank card the number appears.

Props: Soap, ash, blank card.

Method: Write the numbers 1 to 9 on the board with soap. Ask a person to tell a number from 1 to 9 and rub ash on the part that number is written.

Experiment: 134

Effect: Reading a message in a sealed cover.

The psychic gives a card to his client, asks him to write his problem clearly, put it in an envelope and seal it. Then he takes his hand over the envelope, concentrates and tells what is written on the card

Props: White card of the size of the envelope, envelope thick enough so that what is written on the card is not visible. Cotton and Ether.

Method: As soon as the sealed envelope is placed on the table, palm the cotton saturated with Ether and as if you are taking your palm on the cover, rub on the envelope and slowly read out the problem or message. Ether will evaporate immediately without leaving any trace. Then open the cover and read out what is written on the card.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Belief in Rebirth and the Gospel of Gautama Buddha

T.A.P Aryaratne

When we speak of Buddhism we mean the doctrine set forth in a certain collec­tion of compositions, chiefly discourses, orally transmitted over a period of some five centuries before the Christian era began, and committed to writing towards the close of that period. From this fact we cannot justly conclude that these documents are totally unreliable as a guide to the teaching of the Buddha; but to assume the opposite, namely that they constitute a completely or even largely accurate record of the Buddha’s doctrine, would be to discount the propensity of chroniclers of the an­cient world to take liberties with facts and events to enlarge, embellish, and adorn them. If, in addition, we have reason to believe that the various composers of the discourses had sectarian interests, or had their special causes to plead, we cannot reasonably expect from them an objective record of facts. And we do certainly know that the authors of the discourses, the Buddhist monks, belonged to an order that was badly split by dissensions which began in the very lifetime of its founder.

In this connection, what Dr. Edward Consze says, in a book published just four years ago, is very pertinent. He says: “The history of Buddha’s thought might be expected to begin with an account of the teaching of the Buddha himself or at least the beliefs current in the most ancient community. The nature of our literary docu­ments makes such an attempt fruitless and impossible.” Thus according to Dr. Consze not only the Buddha’s actual teaching but even the beliefs commonly held by the earliest Buddhist community are impossible to ascertain. I would not go all the way with Dr. Consze. I would not say it is altogether impossible to get a fairly clear notion of what the Buddha taught; but I would say that to do so demands a readiness to accept what investigation reveals, no matter how startling the revelation may be.

Before we go into the question of the authenticity of the texts, it is perhaps pertinent to ask why this question of authenticity should arise at all. What if the ancient authors of the canonical documents had in fact made a scrupulous effort to hand down to prosperity the genuine word of the Master? It would not be difficult to entertain that possibility if only the documents disclosed a consistent system and a credible narrative. But to our disappointment where we expect to find consistency we only find contradiction. We are presented with the startlingly original philosophy of impermanence along with the primitive Indian doctrine of rebirth and as part and parcel of it; we find the Buddha, whom we have pictured in our minds as a soul of humility, presented in many places as one given to vainglorious talk, to bragging about his wisdom; we find arahats, of whom we do not find a single nowadays, scat­tered far and wide in their hundreds in the Thatagata’s time; we find the arahat shown as being capable of miracles and marvels that would put to shame the miracles of the New Testament (he can multiply his human form and appear as many persons: he can become invisible at will; and he can go right through a wall or a mountain, crash through to the bowels of the earth, walk on water without sinking, fly through the air, touch and stroke the sun, the moon and the stars, creep through key holes, etc); we find the Buddha and the arahats shown as making flying trips to one or other of the heavens to hold converse with the gods and other exalted beings who inhabit them and we read of such monstrosities as the cutting of their own throats by arahats for fear of falling from the arahat state! There is also, of course, the other side of the coin; the Buddha is shown as noble and dignified in conversation, as denouncing miracles and marvels, as instructing his hearers again and again in the sublimely beautiful Brahmaviharas and the Eightfold Path of deliverance.

But which of these is the true picture? The meditations on abounding loving kindness and the path to the passionless state or the descriptions of the alleged super­normal powers of those who have reached that state; the non-self regarding principle of impermanence and soullessness or self-emphasizing doctrine of rebirth? A satis­factory answer to these questions can, I think, be found if we can first find an answer to the larger question, the pursuit of which Dr. Conze characterised as “fruitless and impossible” namely the question, “What did the Buddha teach?”

At the outset of this investigation I would make one assumption, namely that Siddatta Gouthama was an original philosopher and not a reformer or a reshaper of existing systems. The average Hindu, of whom Radhakrishnan is the typical representative, believes that the Buddha was a reformer of Hindu ideas. I think the evi­dence suggests that the Buddha was nothing if not original. There is no gainsaying that he was the greatest original thinker India ever produced. And if it is accepted that the Buddha taught an original philosophy which broke away radically from ex­isting traditions, then by eliminating from the texts all the elements of religion and philosophy that were current in India at the time the Buddha began his ministry, we can arrive at reasonably accurate idea of what his teaching was.

It is easy enough, at least for educated Buddhists, to discard a good deal of the supernatural elements in the Tripitaka, though some may be loath to surrender the belief in the miraculous powers of the arahat. But no matter how intelligent educated a Buddhist may be, he will cling to the rebirth doctrine as though it were the very life­blood of the Buddha Dhamma. And the reason for this passionate attachment to the belief in rebirth is not far to seek. The doctrine responds to man’s deepest craving - the craving for more life. Man has a vital stake in the doctrine, and it is easy to understand why all religions are founded on the craving for more life. Christianity is founded on the rock of personal immortality, and popular Buddhism founded on the rebirth doctrine. If after this life man cannot hope to live on in heaven, he must at least have another spell in this world, or in any world whatever; life anywhere is preferable to the finality of death and extinction.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the rebirth doctrine, which was deeply embedded in the Indian consciousness should have crept into the Buddhist Cannon and entrenched itself there after the Buddha’s death. Without it Buddhism had no chance of finding a foothold in India as a religion; the monks of the Buddhist Order, the Sangha knew this; and it is they who fixed the Canon as we know it. The monks knew also, no doubt, from the fact that the common man was not capable of grasping the revolutionary concept of impermanence of Anicca and even more from his natural horror of a teaching that denies the reality of his self, that there was no hope of survival for their Order amidst the other religious movements which catered for man’s lust for more life. So they set about purposefully garnishing the absolutely original teaching of the Buddha with elements of popular appeal - the rebirth dogma, the popular gods, the miraculous powers of the arahat, etc.

It would be interesting to compare the popular elements of the Jain religion with those of Buddhism. In both we have the Karma - and - rebirth doctrine; in both it is taught that enlightened ones appear in this world from time to time - from eternity until, eternity; in both there are exactly 24 previous enlightened ones named (the Jain list starts with Vrasabha and the Buddhist with Dipankara); both systems speak of the omniscience of the founder; both speak of deliverance from Samsara and attainment of Nirvana; and both were characterised by mendicant orders. And when we remember that the Jain system was first in the field, it becomes obvious which system borrowed from which. To say that popular Buddhism borrowed from Jainism, how­ever, does not mean that the Buddha was a borrower. There are two Buddhisms - the Buddhism of the monks, which is popular Buddhism, and the Buddhism of the Bud­dha- the esoteric original Buddhism. It is the Buddhism of the monks that borrowed the religious trappings of other faiths in India. And When these borrowings are re­moved from the system that has come to be known as Buddhism, the residue is the pure doctrine of the Buddha, which is entirely original; and this consists of the Anicca - Anatta doctrine with -its corollary, imperfection or ill or suffering and path out of his oppressive sense of suffering, which is also the middle path - the path that avoids the extremes of self-torture and of self-gratification.

Almost all the writers on Buddhism father on the Buddha all the ideas found in the Canon, and thus implicate him in the naive beliefs of his philosophical forbears and of his contemporaries. They forget one of the utterances frequently attributed to him that his doctrine was unheard of before, difficult to perceive, hard to understand, not grasped by ordinary minds. In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta and elsewhere, it is said that the Buddha did not at first want to teach this “toilsome, abstruse, deep, difficult, subtle doctrine” But out of compassion for humanity he eventually taught it. Now what is so hard to understand, subtle, and abstruse in the teaching that the individual has a series of lives and what he sows in one he reaps in another? The dogma is not only extremely simple to grasp but it is one that the average man avidly and fondly embraces; no mental operations are involved in apprehending it; and far from being unheard of, it was a very commonplace doctrine. What was unheard of before, what was deep, what was difficult to be understood by ordinary minds, was the denial of rebirth, the doctrine of Anatta, and the broader concept of Anicca. There cannot be the slightest doubt that this is the only meaning of the words so definitely attributed to the Buddha in the Canon.

Let us look more closely at the question of what is not original in Buddhism; what it shares, for example with the Jain system. The Jains taught that existence is suffering, that this suffering is due to karma in pervious births, that rebirth will persist so long as karma persists, that the way to end rebirth is by destroying past karma, that past karma can be destroyed by austerities, and that with the destruction of past karma by austerities rebirth is ended and the soul at the death of the body attains nirvana. The Jains also held that these truths were taught by enlightened beings, called Thirthakaras, who appeared at different epochs; and, as we saw, they named 24 of them. Now all these features are found in Buddhism, except for the following variations. The Buddhist system admitted the problem of suffering as humanity’s major problem, not as a truth that had to be discovered but as an obvious phenom­enon that cannot escape notice; and it explained that suffering was not due to past karma, as the Jains taught, but to the very nature of sentient life, which is short lived and necessarily therefore imperfect, and which is conscious of its imperfection (the man who is bountifully endowed with wealth and health will still think of the ap­proaching end of his good life and groan). And the way to escape from suffering that the Buddha taught was - a radical departure from the extreme path of austerities or self-mortification of the Jains; namely, the middle path of moderation, and constant meditation on the vanity of belief in an enduring self. When one unswervingly ob­serves the eightfold path of unselfish living, which includes the brahmaviharas or meditations concerned with identifying oneself with the whole of humanity or, more correctly, with the whole of sentient life, in this life itself (diththe va dhamme) one achieves nibbana or equanimity or deliverance from suffering; and release from suf­fering is identical with release from the sense of a separate self.

The problem facing the Jains and the Buddha was the same, the problem of suffering. In determining the causes and prescribing the cure for suffering, the Bud­dha differed fundamentally from the Jains; the physician was not content with publicizing his remedy; he also denounced the quacks, their diagnosis, and the rem­edy they prescribed. Again and again in the Nikayas, we find the Buddha denouncing the practices and the beliefs of the Jains or Niganthas, as they were called. In the Devadha Sutta of the Majjhima Nikayas, for example, the Buddha takes up the karma­and - Rebirth doctrine, which was a fundamental article of faith with the Jains, analyses it, and exposes it as hollow and false. At this point, I should like to digress a little and refer to a method characteristic of the Buddha when dealing with irrational beliefs. It is the method of one who accepts as true only those doctrines, the truth of which can be observed, or demonstrated, or directly inferred. In the famous Tevijja Sutta a young Brahmin asks him how he should affect union with Brahma, the highest God; and the Buddha’s answer is: How do you know that Brahma exists? Have you seen him face to face? And he proceeds to show that the only way Brahma should be understood is in impersonal sense, as man’s highest aspiration, and the way to union with Brahma is by practising universal love, which is identical with self-forgetful meditation.

It is with the same directness, amounting almost to bluntness, that the Buddha deals with the Iains’s concept of Karma and Rebirth. Addressing the Jains, he says: “You Niganthas believe that your sufferings are due to Karma coming over from past births. How do you know you existed in the past and produced such-and-such karma?” He ridicules the whole idea of previous births, and proceeds to show that cause and effect or Karma is an observable and demonstrable process; and he gives examples. A man is struck by a poisoned arrow, and he feels acute pain and experiences suffering; a surgeon is summoned and surgeon extracts the dart, and the extraction causes the wounded man intense suffering; the surgeon applies medicaments on the wound, and the man again suffers, acutely; eventually the treatment heals the wound, and the man suffers no more, and is free to go about his normal business.

Here a particular series of the occurrence of pain and suffering is analyzed and is shown to be due to observable cause, and the cessation of suffering, too, shown due to an observable cause. The question as to why that particular man and none other was struck by the dart is not raised because not relevant to the explanation of the man’s suffering; but I think it is implied that such a question leads one to postulate mystical, indemonstrable and irrational causes when the real cause stares in the face. Another example cited is that of a man who falls passionately in love with a woman: he sees this woman flirting with another man, enjoying his talk and his company and he feels the pangs of jealousy and suffers acute mental agony; then at a certain stage he de­cides to get out of his infatuation, and casts out of his mind all thoughts concerning the woman, and he suffers no more. Here again a particular effect is shown to have an observable cause. It is not necessary to postulate a cause beyond one’s birth to account for one’s sufferings; nor is a future birth necessary to overcome one’s present suffer­ing. In this example, it was utterly unnecessary to account for the lover’s sufferings by the unverifiable theory that in the past birth he committed the crime of weaning the affections of a woman from her rightful lover; the cause and the cure are both to be found in this life; they are symptoms and features common to human instincts anywhere. The same theme, with variations is the subject matter of the Cula-dukka­kkhanda Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya.

That the denial of rebirth by the Buddha was the unique and revolutionary fea­ture of the philosophical teaching in India of the 6th century B.C. is evident from a number of crucial passages in the texts in which the view is expressed in a variety of ways. Anicca or the principle of impermanence was emphasized in the first sermon itself. If this sermon is thoughtfully studied it will be seen that although it has not been seriously tampered with, the nooks have not been altogether blind to the possible danger of leaving it entirely unedited. It will be observed that when the discourse was ended the immediate reaction of Kondanna, one of the five original disciples was to exclaim “whatever by nature has a beginning has also by nature an end” and the Buddha’s reply to Kondanna’s exclamation was in turn to exclaim that Kondanna had understood, that is, grasped the meaning of the discourse. Therefore, we may safely infer that the starting point of the first discourse was Anicca, though the dukka phenomenon resulting from Anicca is elaborately described. We can reasonably pre­sume that at the out set the Buddha wanted his hearers to know that whatever begins must come to an end: for example a living being that begin existence at birth must finish it at death. He reinforced this idea in the next sermon by clearly demonstrating the absence of an enduring soul in man, which alone can be supposed to supply a basis for rebirth. And, logically, in the final message to his followers he emphasized, the same basic principle. “Perishable, are compounded things”, and compounded things have a beginning or organisation.

This is the vital principle that the Buddha laid his finger on: what is caused to come into being as an entity must in due course disrupt and perish. And cause is what we normally understand by the term - a real process that can be observed or directly apprehended or directly inferred: it just cannot be something that can only be imag­ined or must be taken on trust and is unverifiable. The Buddha knew that the belief in rebirth was widespread in his time; and he concentrated his logic right from the start on demolishing the mystical, superstitious, and unscientific nature of that belief.

It may be argued that by the statements “whatever has a beginning has also an end”, and “All samskaras are perishable” the Buddha meant that each span of life in the infinite samsaric series is of limited duration. But why should a world teacher repeatedly emphasize what is obvious to any simpleton, that every creature born must also die? And, again, it may be argued - and it has been - that the Anicca merely means that every thing including human beings change every moment, that the child is not the same as the youth or the youth the same as the old man. But this, too, is obvious to any average intelligence: Nothing is added to existing knowledge by em­phasizing the truism that everything changing that nothing is the same for long. The statement of the Buddha makes sense only when it is understood as a denial of the continuity of the individual beyond death or the disruption of the khandas.

And what of Anatta? Was the word coined merely to distinguish it from the Hindu Atman which wanders in Samsara unchanged and intact, did Anatta merely emphasize as popular Buddhism seems to assume, that the wandering Atman or Atta is changing all the time? Is not Anatta on the contrary the very negation of Atta, the denial of the reality of a wandering element changing or unchanged, from birth to birth? It certainly is what it means - it is the opposite of Atta, not a modified Atta or Atman, Anatta is implied in Anicca, in the statement that whatever by nature has a beginning has also an end. Samsara the stream of births by definition has no begin­ning and, logically, can have no end. Kondanna’s understanding of the first sermon was hailed by the Buddha, and since the same idea was repeated by him in many discourses and just before his death, it must be presumed to be the basis of his teach­ing; and eternal Samsara, which contradicts that teaching and which was taught by others before him, must be ruled out as having no part or lot with the Dhamma.

Let us for a moment assume that the Buddha did teach karma and rebirth, and try to work out the implications of the doctrine and see whether they square with his reputation for unsurpassed insight and intelligence.

For deeds to produce karmic effects, in the shape of rewards or punishments in this or a future life, it is said that they should be consciously and intentionally done. It is asserted that a man’s conscious and deliberate actions have reactions in some mysterious manner even after death, and that he must be reborn in order to reap the results of at least some of those actions. The mechanism of this scheme of retribution is not explained at all, but let that pass for the moment. Buddhists maintain that the Buddha expressly taught that good actions win reward or merit in this life or in a future life and that evil actions are duly followed by punishments in the course of repeated lives. Now what are good and evil actions? What are the norms for judging actions to be good or evil? Evidently deeds are classified good or bad according to conventional standards of civilized society. We are not told what happens when a cannibal or a head-hunter kills according to the decrees of tribal law. The savage kills from what he believes to be his duty; and his purpose therefore is highly moral. What are the karmic effects of such acts which are evil and criminal by our standards but correct according to the primitive conception of right action? What are the karmic effects of animal sacrifice performed in primitive societies from high religious mo­tives? It has been estimated that some 500,000 years ago there were no human beings on this planet, evolution had not proceeded to the point of producing man. How did Karma work for the inconceivable variety of animals, birds, insects and reptiles that roamed the earth in the pre-human age? The explanation of popular Buddhism might be that these animals were human beings who had previously existed in other planets, and other worlds and were, as animals in this world, living out the karmic effects of evil deeds in their earlier human life. This of course suggests that a being must first be born in human form, since the acts of animals are not motivated or deliberate and could not produce karma, whether good or bad. Those who would not make the karma theory an integral part of the Buddha’s teaching probably did not bargain for his impasse!

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the real Buddha-vachana has got to be methodically extracted from the vast number of documents which constitute the canon; and in this process many portions of the canon, including whole Suttas have to be eliminated as being inconsistent with the basic doctrine. Even in the very earliest times there could be no agreement among Buddhist as to what the Master’s teaching was. There were even in those early days, about the second century after the Buddha’s death, as many as 18 different sects, and of the disputes that arose within the Bud­dhist community, this question of the surviving individual took first place. It is in fact, the first subject discussed in the kathavaththu, which is an account of the various disputes current in the time of Asoka. The question of the permanence of the indi­vidual self, or the pudgalavada, as the subject came to be known, was nothing but a symptom of the confusion created by the very earliest monks, who would not make up their minds to break with the Athma or Atta tradition therefore sought to effect a compromise between the Anatta and Atta.

A favourite method adopted by the authors of the documents in grafting the rebirth doctrine on the Dhamma, was to tack on to a Sutta on a definite subject some quite irrelevant passange bearing on the rebirth theme and in conflict with the general tenor of the discourse. Such a stock passage is the description of the monk who attains arahathood, going through the various jhanas or trances, in the course of which he recalls his past lives and acquires miraculous powers. The Devadha Sutta (already quoted) and others are disfigured and sometimes rendered meaningless by such passages.

I now come to a more sophisticated explanation of Karma, the alleged motive force of the wheel of rebirth. Karma is explained as the process or mechanism of natural justice in the universe. This is a dogmatic assertion without a shred of evi­dence to support it.  How do we know that the processes of nature are just? All that we know is that there are uniformities in nature; that there is system in the structure and operations of the physical world: for the rest nature is blind, wasteful, red in tooth and claw, utterly amoral. Natural justice indeed! What natural justice could there be in a world where animal life on land and sea is organised on the principle that the bigger must swallow the smaller in order to exist; where the reason for the existence of small animal species is to serve as food for the bigger; where the mouse is the foreordained prey of the cat, and the fly of the spider. Those who talk of karmic or natural justice talk only in human terms - terms agreeable to the mind of civilized man. All moral values are man-made. Justice is a value-concept born under the stress of the human situation and man tends to assume that his values are the highest and the most appropriate to the universe! The idea of natural justice or karmic justice is simply the desire to extend a human value-idea to the universe of eternal time and boundless space. It is of the same order as the concept of an almighty personal god. Both are arbitrary human concepts based on faith. The Buddha had no use for either.

We can legitimately or rationally explain only what falls within the limits of a span of human life, the limits being birth on the one hand and death on the other. Talk concerning possibilities beyond these two limits is idle talk. Nagasena in the Milinda Panna, trying to explain rebirth of beings changed by Karma can only de­vise, examples like milk changing into curd, one flame being lit from another, man­goes being produced from previously planted mangoes - all observable physical phe­nomena which do not reach out to the world of the seen and the unknown. You cannot prove the unseen or the mystical or the imaginary by the analogy of what is actual or real and observable.
The rebirth idea arose among primitive people and remained with them as an article of faith, and certain modern communities hold to the belief purely as a matter of faith and tradition, with no intelligent or demonstrable method of making it acceptable to the rational mind. Hence the feverish enthusiasm with which Hindus and Buddhists hail any person who claims to recall a previous birth. None of these cases of claimed recollection have been investigated under fully scientific condition, though a great many have received a quasi-scientific investigation, mostly by interested parties. When eventually such cases come to be investigated by genuine scientific methods of control, I have no doubt, that they will all turn out to be carefully engineered frauds, not unlike the hoaxes perpetrated in the sphere of spiritualism by mediums who have claimed to be able to contact spirits of dead people and who have successfully hoodwinked professors of psychology for years. Spiritualistic mediums rely heavily on human gullibility, particularly on the gullibility and sometimes the complicity of investigators. Lazlo-Lazlo, the Hungarian medium, soon after his exposure confessed to Cornelius Tabori the journalist, that he had been able to carry on his sham demonstration chiefly owing to the gullibility of the investigating university professors who attended his seances!

This is the condensed text of a lecture delivered under the auspices of the Rationalist Association of Ceylon in 1966, later published in The Ceylon Rationalist Ambassador brought out by Abraham T Kovoor. This paper is mainly concerned with Pali Buddhism. 

Courtesy: Soul, Spirit, Rebirth and Posession: Author & Editor: Abraham T Kovoor [Publisher: B Premanand, Indian CSICOP, Podanur, 2009]

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Science versus Miracles: Tantriks and their Tricks

B. Premanand

When the tantrik spits on sawdust, it bursts into flame.

Experiment: 131

Effect: When the tantrik spits on sawdust, it bursts into flame.

Props: A metal-bowl, well dried sawdust, sodium peroxide (powdered), water.

Method: Keep in metal bowl dry sawdust mixed with equal parts of powdered sodium peroxide. Ask some one to bring a glass of water, drink some water and spit a small quantity over the sawdust. It will burst into flame.

Experiment: 132

Effect: The oracle gets possessed and blows out sparks and flames from his mouth.

Props:  Jute thread, Potassium nitrate solution, cotton.

Method: Dip the jute thread in potassium nitrate solution four times, drying it each time. Light one end and make it into a ball with cotton wrapped around and place it in your mouth while acting as if to wipe your mouth. Breathe out in steady stream and sparks and flames will shoot out of your mouth. While keeping the ball in your mouth let there be enough saliva in your mouth. When it gets a little hot, remove it under cover of your handkerchief.  While the ball is in the mouth do not inhale.

Note: The image appearing along with this article is only for representative purpose. The spitting of fire shown here might not have been made as per the method explained in the article.
 The tricks/stunts are explained here for debunking the so-called miracles. They should be performed only under expert guidance and should not be performed on one’s own. The author or the web administrator will not be responsible for any adverse consequences if so performed without expert guidance.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Hegel, Heine, Marx: Hanuman and Sabala

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya
In ‘The British Rule in India,’ one of his contributions to the New-York Daily Tribune, 25 June 1853, Marx waxed both passionate and indignant:  
‘We must not forget that these little [village] communities [in Hindostan] were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man to be the sovereign of circumstances,… exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on the knees in adoration of Kanuman, the Monkey, and Sabbala, the Cow’ (On Britain  pp. 383-84).  
When I first read this passage in the early 1960s quite naturally I took Kanuman as a misprint for Hanuman. Some years later in a collection of extracts from Marx-Engels’s articles and letters entitled On Colonialism, I found the error corrected and the names previously printed in italics now in normal/roman (p.37). Similarly in a collection of articles and letters on the 1857 rebellion known as the Sepoy Mutiny I found the same corrected reading (The First Indian War of Independence 1857-59, pp.20-21). It was also reassuring to learn from the ‘Publishers’ Note’ of this book that ‘[t]he text of the articles which were printed in the New-York Daily Tribune has been reproduced from that newspaper. Certain sentences inserted by the editors of the Daily Tribune and obvious misprints have been eliminated. The spelling of proper names is wherever possible given according to modern sources’ (p.4. Emphasis mine). The Bangla translation of this collection contains the same Editors’ Note and in the passage quoted above there is Hanuman instead of Kanuman (p.20). 

Great was my surprise when in Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW), vol.12 (first published in 1979) I discovered Kanuman making its reappearance (p.132), but this time in roman, not in italics. 

Why should the corrected version be replaced by an obvious misprint?  The answer became crystal clear when I looked at the facsimile (reduced) of a page of the American newspaper in which Marx’s article first appeared (reproduced in MECW vol. 12, p. 129). It was found that the printed version indeed had Kanuman and Sabbala in roman, and that is why the learned editors of the MECW decided to go back to the first printed version, disregarding all attempts at corrections and emendations undertaken by other editors of Marx’s individual works and collections of articles that appeared between 1853 and 1979. A strange editorial policy: instead of advancing from the diplomatic edition to the critical edition, it was the other way round. The Marx Engels Werke (MEW), which includes German translation of this and other articles written in English and French by Marx, however, prints the corrected version: Hamuman, not Kanuman (9:133) but retains Sabbala (which should be Sabala).  


But this is not the only reason I picked up this passage. Apparently Marx as yet did not know much about totemism, animal worship, etc. Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, the work that impressed and influenced Marx and Engels so much, did not appear till 1877. Marx read Morgan and other works on anthropology and ethnology mostly in 1880-81. Hence in 1853 he did not understand why animals are worshipped in the early stages of human civilization all over the world. Hanuman is a cult figure mainly in the so-called cow belt in north India, not so much because of the original Sanskrit version of the Ramayana but mostly due to the Ram-charit-manas, the rewritten Hindi version of the Ram legend by Tulsidas (sixteenth century). (For a study of this monkey god, see Lutgendorf’s Hanuman’s Tale).

Nor did Marx know that Savalaa or S’avalaa (not Sabbala, as Marx wrote) was not just any cow, but a cow of a rare breed known as kaamadhenu, variously called Aditi, S’avalaa, Surabhi, etc. She, like the fantastic kalpataru (wish-fulfilling tree) or the legendary cornucopia, was believed to provide her devotees with whatever they might desire. The story narrated in the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, relates her to a sage called Vasistha (Vasis.t.ha), who had her in his hermitage. Visvamitra (Vis’vaamitra), then a king, after seeing her supernatural powers (she fed his whole army without prior notice), offered millions of cows to Vasishtha in exchange of her. Since Vasishtha refused to comply with his request, Visvamitra tried to take away the cow by force, only to be utterly trounced by the soldiers that appeared from her body. 1

We are not told from where Marx learnt about Hanuman; no hint is provided by the editors of MEW or MECW or any other collection of Marx’s writings in which this 1853 article appears.2 But it is interesting to observe that Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), the German poet and once Marx’s intimate friend, too did not understand why ‘Wiswamitra’ wanted this cow so badly. In a song (‘Den Koenig Wiswamitra’, To King Visvamitra) Heine wrote: 
The good king Wiswamitra
Has a troublesome life now,
He seeks with fights and penance
To win Wasichta's cow.
Oh, good king Wiswamitra,
You are an ox, and how!
So many fights and penance,
And only for a cow!

[A free translation in] 3 
Marx was well acquainted with Heine’s song. In a letter to Antoinette Philips dated 18 March 1866 he paraphrased line 7 [‘der kämpfte und buesste für die Kuh Sabalah’ (sic)].4 He quoted the English translation of lines 5-8 of the song in another letter written on 20 March 1866 (also in English) to his daughter, Laura(MECW: 42:245, letter no. 144) and added: ‘If honest Wiswamitra, like a true Indian, tormented himself for the salvation of the cow Sabala…’ (this time without ‘h’ at the end of the name).5

Marx, apparently following Heine, had connected Visvamitra and Savala, the cow in his 1853 article (see above). But in the legends, there was no question of Visvamitra, then a king, tormenting himself (in extremely painful and arduous tapas, ascetic practice) for the salvation of Savala. Visvamitra originally belonged to the Warrior caste (Kshatriya), but having seen the power of a Brahmin, Vasishtha, who had been made master of every vasu or desirable object by this cornucopia of a cow, he wished to become a Brahmin himself. This is why he devoted himself to the performance of a long penance. Possession of ‘the cow of plenty’ was no longer of primary importance to him; he aspired for Brahminhood. And he was not denied the fruits of his endeavour. He was successively made ‘the royal-sage,’ rajarshi, then a full ‘sage,’ rishi, ‘the great sage,’ maharshi, and ultimately, ‘a Brahmin sage’, brahmarshi.

The story of the conflict between Vishvamitra and Vasishtha has been considered symbolical of the struggle between the Kshatriyas  and the Brahmins. But the variations in the stories concerning these two sages found in Vedic literature, and then in the epics and the Puranas,6 are irreconcilable; any inference to be drawn from any part of the accounts is liable to be false.

Marx apparently knew nothing of all this. But he remembered both ‘Wiswamitra’ and the row over a cow learnt from Heine’s song. But what was the source for Heine’s (mis)understanding of the story?  He had no Sanskrit, but presumably learnt the story of the conflict between Visvamitra and Vasistha from Franz Bopp (1791-1867), the indefatigable Sanskritist and translator. Bopp wrote a book in German on the conjugation system of the Sanskrit language (1816).7 However odd it may seem, the story of Visvamitra is given there in metrical German translation from the original Sanskrit Ramayana (Winternitz 1:14, 388-89, 458 n4). Heine’s song was written in 1823/1824 and included in a book of songs (Die Heimkehr, Homecomings) published in 1827. Marx was then a mere child.  Marx referred to two animals, Hanuman and Sabala, in his 1853 article, and mentioned with occasional misspellings Sabala again in two letters in 1866. The reference to cows was occasioned by a long debate (6–20 Feb 1866) in the British Parliament. Members of both houses wrangled vigorously on the compensation to be awarded to the cattle owners in the event of epizootic diseases.

But Heine does not mention any of the several names of the wish-fulfilling cow (see above). So Marx must have got it from some other source. And wherefrom did he learn of Hanuman? In his student days at Bonn Marx had attended the lectures on philosophy and literature given by the Romantic linguist, August Wilhelm von Schlegel (McLellan p.13), but they were on Homer and Propertius, not on Valmiki and Vyasa. Marx never attempted to learn Sanskrit or any Indian language, although in his article, ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’ (22 July 1853, published in the NYDT, No. 3840, 8 August 1853) he extolled India as ‘[the] country [which] has been the source of our languages’ (On Colonialism p. 81; MECW 12:221) as did Hegel (‘In recent times the discovery has been made, that the Sanscrit lies at the foundation of all those further developments which form the languages of Europe; e.g. the Greek, Latin, German.’ Philosophy of Historypp. 141-42).8 There is no evidence that Marx had read the first Books of the Ramayana available in A.W. Schlegel’s Latin translation, or in the English version produced by William Carey and Joshua Marshman published from Serampore, Bengal. Nor is there any other reference to Hanuman or any character of theRamayana in his later writings.

What is the source for Hanuman and Savala juxtaposed, then? The editors of both MEW and MECW offer no help. At long last I have discovered the source. It is Hegel’s Aesthetics. While speaking of imagination, Hegel says: 
‘In the Ramayana, for instance, the friend of Rama, Hanuman, the Prince of Apes, is a chief figure and he accomplishes the boldest deeds. To speak generally, in India, the ape is revered as divine, and there is a whole city of apes. In the ape as this individual ape the infinite content of the Absolute is gazed at with wonder and is deified. Similarly, the cow Sabala appears likewise in the Ramayana in the episode of Vishwamitra’s penances, clothed with boundless might.’ (Aesthetics vol.1 p.336) 
Hegel, as any reader acquainted with the Ramayana will recognize, had thoroughly misunderstood the role of Hanuman in the epic. Hanuman is not at all a prince (Angada, Bali’s son, is the only one), nor can he be called by any stretch of imagination ‘a friend of Rama’.  Marx in his turn fails to comprehend that it was not Sabala, the kaamadhenu who is worshipped; the cow as a species is one of the many objects of animal worship current in India. Furthermore, Sabala was not the object of Visvamitra’s penances; he aspired after attaining Brahminhood. It was not for her salvation that Visamitra performed penance after penance; they were all for his own self. Marx only remembered these two animals and associated them with animal worship which he thought to be demeaning for humans. And thus he condemned the Indian villagers for worshipping Hanuman the monkey and Sabala the cow. Hegel could assimilate deified Hanuman with his concept of the Absolute: Marx saw only disgrace of the homo sapiens in animal worship.

Marx, however, was not the first to denounce animal worship, particularly cow worship. Long before the enlightened Europeans, inheritors of the Florentine neoplatonists’ eulogy of the dignity of humans, visited India, Sriharsha (twelfth century) in his Life of Naisadha (Naishadha-charita), a secondary epic, makes a materialist jeer at the fideists and cow-worshippers: 
‘Books made by gods and Bráhmans are your only authority for paying them homage,–
And see ye not, when ye bow down to the cow, ye debase yourselves even lower than that?’  (17.67. Trans. E.B. Cowell) 
There were always such disbelievers and rationalists in every phase of Indian history. 


An inquisitive reader may still enquire: Wherefrom did Hegel, who had never studied Sanskrit, learn the story of the Ramayana? It is true that no complete translation of the Ramayana was yet available in any European language,9 yet Hegel was acquainted with the Latin translation of the Ramayana (Books 1-3) done by August Schlegel (mentioned above), which has been acclaimed as his ‘most significant work’ (Winternitz 1:13). Hegel specifically mentions the translations of the Ramayanaand the Mahabharata in his Philosophy of History: ‘Two great epic poems, Ramayana and Mahabharata, have also reached Europe. Three quarto volumes of the former have been printed; the second volume is extremely rare’ (pp. 159-60). The German editor adds in a note: ‘A. W. v. Schlegel has published the first and second Volume (sic); the most important episodes of the Mahabharata have been introduced to public notice by F. Bopp, and a complete Edition had appeared at Calcutta’ (qtd. in Hegel, Philosophy of History p. 160n).  Hegel mentions the story of the descent of the Ganga as described in the Ramayana (Aesthetics 1: 344). Even though A. W. Schlegel had not translated a part of this episode (the scene of Siva lying with Uma in conjugal embrace), Hegel managed to get hold of the Charles Wilkins’s (1749–1836) English version (I wonder how and where he got it). Hegel noticed that Wilkins too ‘had no mind to translate word for word because it is all too wanting in decency and shame’ (1: 344), nevertheless Hegel managed to fill in the gaps in the story. In his usual self-confident way he then proceeded to compare the accounts of theogony of the Indians with those of the Scandinavians and the Greeks (1:345). Hegel further discusses the view of purification and penance based not only on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, ‘but also many other poetic works of art [that] provide the most important samples’ (1: 346-47). There is an indirect reference to Viswamitra’s penance here too (‘The end of acquiring the power of a Bramhana’ 1: 346-47). 

Hegel had read (all in translation of course) more of Indian literature and philosophy than Marx.10 With the kind of self-assurance one usually associates with genius (in case of lesser mortals which would be criticized as audacity), he could expatiate on the two Indian epics, although he could not have read either from cover to cover.11 In spite of his very limited acquaintance with the philosophies of India, he would comment authoritatively on the Indian way of thinking and its relation to the Absolute (see, for instance, Aesthetics 1: 336 quoted above). He never thought that he could have misunderstood any text, which he often did, for example in retelling the story of Nala and Damayanti (Aesthetics 1: 215 and n1, also Philosophy of History, pp. 151-52).12 Marx, by following Hegel and Heine, had merely compounded some follies. However, these follies do not affect Marx’s thesis concerning the nature of the British rule in India; they merely offer some comic relief.


Marx quoted four lines from Heine’s song in English translation in his letter to Laura:  
Oh, oh, king Wiswamitra,
What fool of an oxen art thou,
That thou so much wrangle’st and suffer’st,
And all that for a cow. 
Whether Marx translated the lines himself or quoted it from someone else’s is not known. The editors of MEW are silent over the matter, and those ofMECW apparently could not make up their mind. At first they say that ‘Marx gives a fee rendering of the words from Heine’s poem’ (p.242 n b), and then ‘Marx quotes an English translation of the second stanza of the poem…’ (p.245 n b).  Prawer however categorically states that Marx himself translated the stanza of Heine’s song ‘into English doggerel’ (p.380).

Special attention, however, is to be paid to the word ‘ox’ (wrongly rendered as ‘oxen’ (in plural) in Marx’s letter) in Heine’s song. Ochs in German, besides meaning an ox, is also used figuratively to suggest a blockhead, a fool (The French translation of Heine’s song by Pierre Mathé (2009) has: ‘Oh quel boeuf tu es’).

Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838), German poet and botanist, composed a sonnet, ‘Vom Pithagorieschen Lehrsatz’ (On the Pythagorean Theorem). The second and third stanzas run as follows:  
A splendid sacrifice Pythagoras brought
The gods, who blessed him with this ray divine;
A great burnt offering of a hundred kine,
Proclaimed afar the sage’s gratitude.


Now since that day, all cattle [blockheads] when they scent
New truth about to see the light of day,
In frightful bellowings manifest their dismay.

(Gedichte, 1835. Qtd. in Moritz, pp. 308-09) 
Similarly Karl Ludwig Doerne (1786-1837), a German political writer and satirist, observed: ‘After Pythagoras discovered his fundamental theorem he sacrificed a hecatomb of oxen. 13 Since that time all dunces [ochsen] tremble whenever a new truth is discovered’ (Fragmente und Aphorismen aus Meinem Tagebuche, 1840. Qtd. in Moritz, pp. 308).

It may also be mentioned that in Sanskrit, as also in many modern Indian languages, ‘cow’ is a synonym for ‘blockhead’ or ‘dunce’. In Sriharsha’s Life of Naishadha (mentioned above) a materialist pillories the founder of a logical-cum-philosophical system called Nyaya by saying: 
‘He too who propounded his system that a stone’s state is the true liberation, –
You may well call him Gotama, for a superlative fool was he.’
(17.75. Trans. E.B. Cowell) 
Here is an untranslatable pun on the name of Gotama, founder of the Nyaya system, and go + tama, the most bovine (-tama being the marker of the superlative degree).


  1. See Stutley, ‘Vasistha’ and ‘Vishvamitra,’ and Muni, pp.379-80, 524, 835, and 872.  Muni, however, does not mention the name S’abalaa or S’avalaa (as in the Ramayana). In his account, collected from various puranic sources, the name of the cow is Nandini (as in the Mahabharata), an offspring of Surabhi, the original kaamadhenu, who appeared during the Churning of the Ocean (samudra-manthana) or was created by Krishna (as in the Devi-bhagavata-purana 9.49).
  2. I have been able to consult only those mentioned above. Several New collections of Marx’s articles on India have recently come out, but I have no access to them. However, from the notices provided on the net, I gather that their editors have not addressed the issue of sources.
  3. The German original reads:

Den Koenig Wiswamitra,
den treibts ohne Rast und Ruh,
er will durch Kampf und Buessung
erwerben Wasischtas Kuh.

Oh, Koenig Wiswamitra,
oh, welch ein Ochs bist du,
dass du so viel kaempfest und  buessest,
und alles fuer eine Kuh!

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) rendered this poem (and eight others by Heine) into Bangla from the original German (as a footnote informs the reader) in Rabindranath’s translation of the ‘Wiswamitra’ song has been reprinted in Ghosh and Dasgupta (eds.), p. 108 (second edition, p.137), Rabindra-Rachanabali vol.15 p.388, and more recently in Mandal, p.300.

  1. Marx wrote these words in German although the letter was in English. See MECW, vol. 42, letter no. 143, p. 242. Marx was quite fond of Antoinette Philips, a young member of the Dutch section of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International). It was in this letter that Marx told her: ‘.42:242)

  1. Both the letters are translated into German in MEW Band 31, letter nos. 48 and 49, S. 503-05, 506-08. Sabalah / Sabala have been uniformly transliterated as Cabala (S. 504, 507)! The 1853 article translated into German in MEWBand 9, however, retains Marx’s original misspelling, ‘Sabbala’ (9:133).The passage from the letter to Laura is also to be found in Karl Marx Privat, pp. 111-12, and quoted from it in Prawer pp. 379-80. Prawer however does not mention MEW 9 letter no. 48 (MECW 42 letter no.143) which also contains a reference to Heine’s song. 
Out of sheer curiosity I checked the French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish translations of Marx’s 1853 article, all available on the net, thanks to Marxists Internet Archive, <>. No uniformity is to be found in the spelling of the two names: some prefer to stick to the original misspelling; some emend one or the other or both. 

  1. Ramayana, Balakanda (Book I), vulgate,  cantos 51-55; critical Edition 50-54; the Mahabharata, Adiparvan (Book I), vulgate and  critical Edition canto 175 (a terse summary of the sprawling narrative in the Ramayana), also Salyaparvan  (Book 9), vul. 45 crit. ed. 41, and Devi bhagavata-Purana vulgate 7.17 and 9.49, etc. 
  1. 7The original German title is: Ueber das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache in Vergleichung mit jenem der griechischen, lateinischen,persischen und germanischen Sprache (On the Conjugation System of Sanskrit in comparison with that of Greek, Latin, Persian and Germanic), with a preface by Carl (Karl) Windischmann. 
  1. Not in this regard alone, but concerning other aspects of ancient India too, young Marx was heavily influenced by Hegel. The result was not altogether beneficial; Hegel misled him and badly clouded his vision. D.D. Kosambi has rightly contradicted Marx’s views and opinions about Indian history (pp.8-12) that are often mere echoes of Hegel’s. Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History has been summarily dismissed by Eric J. Hobsbawm as ‘not illuminating’ (p.21). 
  1. The Italian translation by Gaspare Gorresio began to come out in 1847 and was completed in 1858; a French rendering by H. Fauche begun In 1854 and finished in 1858, but Hegel had died in 1855. 
  1. Several studies on Hegel vis-à-vis philosophies in India are available. W. Halbfass’s study, pp.107-22, is worth reading. 
  1. The whole of Ramayana was not yet available in German. See Winternitz 1:458 nn. The English translation of the Mahabharata by Kishori Mohan Ganguly did not begin to appear till 1883. Translations into other European languages that Hegel could read were still a far cry. 
  1. Robert Charles (or Robin) Zaehner (1913-74), son of a Swiss Immigrant domiciled in England and a well-known Orientalist, told T. M. Knox, translator of Hegel’s Aesthetics, what the original story of the Nala and Damayanti was (See Hegel, Aesthetics p. 215n1). Professor Knox notes this but makes a gruesome blunder when he writes that the authority of the story of Nala ‘may be’ W. von Humboldt’s book on the Bhagavad-Gita (1826) which Hegel had reviewed adversely in 1827 (Knox however added that ‘one cannot be sure’, for Hegel had studied so many works on Indian religion when he wrote that review). A look at Humboldt’s book would have disabused Knox of this absurd notion. The most obvious source for Hegel’s knowledge of the Nala story would be Bopp’s critical edition of the Nala episode in the Mahabharata with a Latin rendering published from London in 1819. See Winternitz 1:14n1. The title may now sound rather pompous: Nalus, carmen sanscritum e Mahabharato:  
  1. A great public sacrifice, originally of a hundred oxen, from Greek hekatombe, from hekaton ‘hundred’ + bous ‘ox’. C.L.Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) however objected to the sacrifice of no fewer than a hundred oxen – ‘a method of doing honour to Science that has always seemed to me slightly exaggerated and uncalled-for…. It would produce a quite inconvenient supply of beef.’ A New Theory of Parallels (1895). Qtd. in Moritz, p. 308. Emphasis in the original.).

Works Cited

Cowell. E.B. The Carvaka System of Philosophy, The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1862, No. 4, pp. 371-90.

Devibhabhagavata Puranam. Ed. Panchanan Tarkaratna. Kalikata: Nababharat Publishers,1388 Bangala Sal (=1981-82).

Ghosh, Sankha and Alokranjan Dasgupta (eds.), Sapta Sindhu Das Diganta. Kalikata: Natun Sahitya Bhavan, 1369 Bangla Sal (1962); Dey’s Publishing,
Halbfass, W. Hegel on the Philosophy of the Hindus, in German Scholars on India, vol. 1. Varanasi: The Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1973, pp.107-22.

Hegel, G W F. The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover Publications ©1956.

Hegel, G. W. F. Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Vol 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975

Hobsbawm, E. J. Introduction to Karl Marx. Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. New York: International Publishers, 1969 (first published 1965).

Karl Marks o Fredarik Engels. Pratham Bharatiya Svadhinata-Yuddha 1857-1859. Masko: Bideshi Bhashay Sahitya Prakashalay, n.d.

Kosambi, D.D. An Introduction to the Study of Indian History. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1975.

Lutgendorf, Philip. Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey, New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007.

Mandal, Sujitkumar. Bidesi Phuler Guchchha. Kolkata: Papyrus, 2011.

Marx Karl and Frederick Engels. Collected Works, vol.12. Moscow: Progress Publishers, London:  Lawrence and Wishart Ltd.,  and New York: International Publishers. Inc., 1979.

Marx Karl and Frederick Engels. Marx Engels Werke. Band 9. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1960

Marx Karl and Frederick Engels. On Britain. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1953.

Marx Karl and Frederick Engels. On Colonialism. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d.

Marx, K. and F. Engels. The First Indian War of Independence 1857-59. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d. Second Impression (based on the Russian edition prepared by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee, Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1959).

McLellan, David. Karl Marx: A Biography. London: Papermac. 1995.

Moritz, Robert Edouard. On Mathematics: A Collection of Witty, Profound, Amusing Passages about Mathematics and Mathematicians. New York: Dover Publication, 1958 (originally entitled Memorabilia Mathematica, or The Philomath’s Quotation Book, © 1914.

Muni, Vettam. Puranic Encyclopaedia. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984.

Prawer. S. S. Karl Marx and World Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Sriharsha. Naishadhacharita. Ed. Sivadatta and V. L. Panshikar. Mumbai: Nirnay Sagar Press, 1928.

Stutley, Margaret and James. A Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology Folklore and Development 1500 B.C. – A.D. 1500. Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1977.

Thakur, Rabindranath. Rabindra-Rachanabali, Panchadash Khanda (vol 18). Kolkata: Paschimbanga Sarkar (second West Bengal Government edition), 1994.

Winternitz, Maurice. A History of Indian Literature, vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981. 

Internet Sources

Acknowledgements: Sourav Basak, Amitava Bhattacharyya, Sunish Kumar Deb, Rindon Kundu, and Nilratan Sarkar. The usual disclaimers apply.


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