Review Article
By Ramkrishna Bhattacharya
Kolkata : Counter Era
10 December, 2022, Rs. 300.00

The Tradition of Dissent in Pre-Modern India

Amitava Bhattacharyya

The *book under review is a posthumous publication. From a note in the book by one of his collaborators it has been learned that Professor Ramkrishna Bhattacharya (RKB) had almost prepared the manuscript of this book before his death except a final review. The manuscript was organised on the basis of the many articles, written by RKB on that subject at different times and published mostly in international journals, after making many additions and alterations to them. This book is the diplomatic edition of that manuscript. In the preface to this book RKB states:

“This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first study of the tradition of dissent in pre-modern India highlighting the doctrine of Own Being and similar such ideas.”

This book is a very important supplement to his intense research and game-changing conclusions drawn from it, on materialism in ancient India in general and on the Carvaka/Lokayata in particular. Same research and conclusions have already been incorporated in three of his books (Studies on Carvaka/Lokayata, More Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata, and Charvakacharcha (in Bangla)—it is the fourth one.

Through his research RKB, with ample evidence, utterly rejected the prevailing notion that India has always been a country of religion, idealism, and mysticism in every epoch of history and ideas of atheism, materialism, heresy etc. were imported here from foreign-land. In accordance with the law of dialectics a stream of atheism, materialism, heresy, though thin, had rolled along from ancient ages in this country. His research is also very useful in unlearning some serious “misconceptions” predominant even in the materialist circle. These “misconceptions” are purely ahistorical and can mislead the study of history of Indian materialism and that can potentially hinder the spread of materialism at present. Here are some major contributions of RKB in the study of ancient Indian materialism in a nutshell apart from finding out new sources in ancient literature mentioning Carvaka sutra-s and reconstructing Carvaka aphorisms from the works of Carvaka’s opponents as all their sutra-works and commentaries are lost.

# RKB proved that the Carvaka/Lokayata philosophy of India was neither popular nor royal (it is very interesting to note that some modern scholars in their studies firmly assert that the Carvaka/Lokayata philosophy was a popular philosophy in one breath and enthusiastically show that it was also a royal one in another breath. Their logic in connecting these two diametrically opposite views is not much tenable. RKB resolves this ambiguity.

# RKB establishes that most of the popular sayings (lokagatha or abhanaka) stated in the “Sarva Darshana Samgraha” by Sayana-Madhaba, which are considered as Carvaka sayings by some modern scholars and advance their studies accordingly, are not pure Carvaka sayings; rather those are views of Buddhists and Jains.

# RKB also rejects the idea of considering the term lokayata indiscriminately as identical to materialism mentioned in ancient Indian literature. He shows that before the Sixth or Seventh century the term was used to refer to mean the adherents of science of disputation (who argued only for the sake of the argument), and not the materialists. He subsequently turns down the notion, very much preferred by some early scholars, that the mention of the term lokayata in the “Mahabharata”, “Arthasastra” of Kautilya, and “Kamasutra” of Vatsyayana stands for materialism.

# Opponents of materialism in ancient and medieval India branded Carvaka philosophy as the preacher of hedonism, ‘eat, drink and go merry’. RKB provides sufficient evidence to prove that this branding is false and purposeful and it was done by distorting the aphorisms of Carvaka philosophy. Another false allegation was that Carvakas only accepted perception (pratyksha) as a valid means of knowledge (pramana). It was a very subtle tactic employed by the opponents to show that even the animals could infer but Carvakas not. RKB states that Carvakas, too, did consider inference (anumana) as a valid means of knowledge but in a limited sense. Only perception-based inference was accepted by them and not the inference drawn from verbal testimony (apta) or etc.

# RKB also states that Carvaka/Lokayata philosophy had very little or no relationship with the ‘Little’ religious and philosophical traditions of India. They might be dissents to the Great Tradition in respect of abidance of the Veda but not all of their views carried any materialist trait. From this point of departure the book under discussion begins.

What is Svabhava? As to RKB:

“Among other things, it refers to ‘Own Being’ or distinct property of all objects, both organic and inorganic. The doctrine of svabhava denies the existence of any Creator; the variety of the existing things is assigned to and explained by the very nature of the objects themselves. As a floating verse says, ‘Who colours wonderfully the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoo coo so well? There is in respect of these (things) no cause other than nature’.”(p. 18)

The first use of the term svabhava can be found in the “Svetasvatara Upanishad” 1.1-2 (4th century BC). A translation of that verse runs as follows:

“What is the cause of brahman? Why were we born? By what do we live? On what are we established? Governed by whom, O you who know brahman, do we live in pleasure and in pain, each in our respective situation? (1) Should we regard it as time, as inherent nature, as necessity, as chance, as the elements, as the source of birth, or as the Person? Or is it a combination of these? But that can't be, because there is the self (atman). Even the self is not in control, because it is itself subject to pleasure and pain.” (Olivelle, Patrick (trans.). “The Early Upanisads”. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 415)

Here ‘time’ refers to kalavada, ‘necessity’ to destiny or niyativada, ‘chance’ to accidentalism or yadricchavada, ‘Person’ for God or Primeval Man or ‘ishvaravada’, ‘inherent nature’ to ‘Own Being’ or svabhavavada . The word ‘elements’ here stands for early materialists or pre-Carvaka materialists of India, bhutavadins. Two points here are to be noted, first is that, doctrine of “Own Being” or svabhava did not accept God as the creator of the world. The second point is very important, svabhavavada and materialism were competing rivals for propagating the First Cause of the world in fourth century BC, though a hint for one or many combination/s of those doctrines is left in the verses.

RKB states that before the inception of full-fledged six systems of Veda-abiding philosophies and six systems of anti-Vedic philosophies (three of Buddhists, two of Jains and Carvaka/Lokayata), ideas of time, own being, destiny and accident were prevalent in India. They were not philosophical school as to the proper sense of the term but were the dissents to the Veda-s. Those dissent doctrines withered away in the course of time but “they were not altogether lost; at least some of them often appear and reappear side by side with the systematised philosophical schools. They surface and re-surface in Pali, Prakrit and Sanskrit works long after their original followers had disappeared from the face of the earth” (p.16)

And from here began all possible ambiguities in interpreting the idea of ‘Own Being’ (svabhava) in the Brahminical, Buddhist and Jain schools of philosophy. Some opined that adherents of svabhava had believed in causality, RKB names them as svabhava-as-causality while some said that svabhavavadins were accidentalists (svabhava-as-accident); they had not believed in any cause of creation and natural phenomenon of the world and also even had rejected svabhava itself as the cause. Some propagated that svabhava along with accident and time made a combination while some equated svabhava with materialism and even said materialism in India originated from the doctrine of svabhava.

RKB deals with various views on svabhava in different philosophical schools at length in this book. In case of Brahminical school the phrase, “svabhava? bhutacintaka?” mentioned twice in the “Mahabharata” gets special attention. Citing the mention of term bhuta (elements) some ancient and modern scholars like E W Hopkins, E H Johnston and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya firmly assert that svabhava stands for materialism here. But RKB does not agree with them, he shows that the phrase “svabhava? bhutacintaka?”, in the given context, did not refer to materialism but to accidentalism and inactivism (akriyavada, does not believe in human endeavour); they might have thought in terms of elements but that is no reason to brand them as materialists. He discusses categorically the mention of svabhava and interpretations of the word in the works of different Brahminical sects like Nyaya, Samkhya, Vedanta and medical tradition.

Views of the Jain School on svabhava is discussed in this book with special emphasis on the syncretic view of the Jain philosopher Haribhadra. All Jain works are not unanimous in their interpretations. The views of the Buddhist School also disagreed with each other in this regard; RKB discusses much on Ashaghosa’s work among them.

Modern scholarship also contains diametrically opposite views in interpreting the doctrine of ‘Own Being’ (svabhava). RKB provides a precious discussion on the relationship between the doctrine of svabhava and materialism. He deals with views of modern scholars one by one on the same:

—Louis de la Vallée Poussin equates svabhava with materialism and opines that Indian materialism did not accept any causality.

—Eli Franco and Karin Preisendanz equate svabhava with materialism and opine “Lokayata causality operates with material causes only, and efficient causes are not recognised.”

—Brajendranath Seal states that svabhava (natural law) is a cruder school of Carvaka philosophy. The finer one did not believe in any means of knowledge.

—Gopinath Kaviraj equates svabhava with materialism, moreover, “he divides svabhavavada into two varieties: extremist and moderate”.

—E W Johnston and T W Rhys Davids equate svabhava with Buddhist idea of the “Law of the Universal Causation”.

—M Hiriyanna opines that Carvaka philosophy descended from svabhava.

—A L Basham defines svabhava as a sub-sect of Ajivikas.

—Dale Ripe “accepted Basham’s views in toto”.

—V M Bedekar calls svabhava as ‘crass materialism’.

—V M Kulkarni connects svabhava with Carvaka philosophy. One of the reasons of his conclusions is tradition.
—A K Warder rehashes the view of Johnston.

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya firmly asserts that the doctrine of svabhava is a materialist doctrine since its inception and endorses the theory of tradition of Kulkarni.

But the author does not accept any of the views mentioned above. After a detailed discussion on the views of ancient and modern scholars RKB concludes:

“Svabhava was one of the oldest concepts formulated somewhat vaguely before or during the sixth century BCE which finds mention in SveUp 1.2. It continued to be invoked, along with other concepts such as time, destiny, chance, karman, etc, as one of the many claimants for the role of the first cause. In the course of time, definitely before the first century, svabhava, instead of, or rather in addition to, signifying causality, became synonymous with chance or accident and was derided as an in-activist approach to life” (p. 75).
As to the relationship between svabhava and materialism RKB opines:

“Own Being was originally not a school of thought, but an approach to nature and had nothing to do with materialism. However, at some point of time, unfortunately we don’t know exactly when, it became a part of the Carvaka/Lokayata, not, however, in the sense of accident, but of causality” (p. 16).

Only a great stretch of imagination can conclude that Carvaka/Lokyata philosophy descended from svabhava, historical evidence does not endorse this conclusion.

The book contains a compilation of 26 verses relating to svabhavavada collected from different ancient Indian literary sources (chapter two). The author claims,

“[T]hat the collection of verses that speak of ‘Own Being’ is, so far my knowledge goes, the first of its kind” (p. 16).

Chapter Three of this book is also very interesting. RKB provides here a list of twenty seven different views along with their sources prevalent in ancient India as the one and only First Cause of the world. He rightly defines them as “Rivals of God”. The views and differences of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya and Joseph Needham on svabhava are also elaborately discussed in the book. The last three chapters are devoted to the study of materialism as found in the thought of Uddalaka Aru?i in “Chandogya Upanishad” and to the astika-nastika problem. The long bibliography of the book is a treasure to the future researchers of Indian philosophy.

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Vol 55, No. 27, Jan 1 - 7, 2023