The Big Fight: Adi Sankara vs Charvakas

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The Big Fight: Adi Sankara vs Charvakas

Post  Guest on Mon Jun 15, 2015 1:12 am

In his commentary on the Brahma Sutra, Adi Sankar mentions the Charvaka (or Lokayata) views thrice, and invariably as the doctrine of there being no Self over and above the body.
Observes Sankar (on Brahma Sutra i.1.1):

"Unlearned people and the Lokayatikas are of the opinion that the mere body endowed with the quality of intelligence is the Self.

For this very reason, viz. that intelligence is observed only where a body is observed while it is never seen without a body, the Materialists (Lokayatikas) consider intelligence to be a mere attribute of the body. "

With respect to the quote above, I have given Adi Sankar's explaination/exposition of the materialistic Charvaka/Lokayata view of the Self in my earlier blog 'Adi Sankar on Charvakas'.

Of course, after giving the materialistic explaination of the Self of the Charvakas, Adi Sankar begins to go on the attack and proceeds to direct polemical remarks against this Charvaka view of the Self. Observes Adi Sankar (Sankar on Brahma Sutra iii.3.54):

"The non-difference [i.e. the identity] between the body and the soul is not logically tenable. It is logical instead to view the soul as distinct from the body. And the reason for this is: the absence of its alleged quality in spite of its presence. The alleged quality of the body i.e. consciousness, is observed to be absent in spite of the presence of the body itself. Thus on the basis of the observation of the presence of the qualities of the soul during the presence of the body, it is claimed that these qualities belong to the body.

However, if so, what prevents you to admit that these qualities are qualities of something other than the body? It is reasonable to admit this because of the characterestic difference between the qualities of the soul and the qualities that belong genuinely to the body. Thus, so long as the body is present, let the genuine qualities of the body like complexion, etc. be also present. Still, after death, the qualities like life, volition, etc. are not present in spite of the presence of the body. Besides, the qualities of the body like complexion, etc. are perceived by others. But not so are the qualities of the soul, like consciousness and memory."

Explaining the last point, Vachaspati Mishra in his 'Bhamati' (which is a commentary on Adi Sankar's commentary to the Brahma Sutra), observes that because the psychial qualities are open only to introspection, they could not be qualities of the body--like complexion--which are perceived by others.

The basic assumption as well as the salient details of Adi Sankar's argument against the Charvakas is evidently borrowed by him from the Nyaya-Vaisesikas though, as i shall show, not without a disaster for the inner consistency of his own philosophical position.

The assumption Adi Sankar makes while arguing against the Charvakas is that consciousness, etc. have the ontological status of 'qualities' or attributes and, as qualities, these cannot belong to the body which is crassly physical.

In the history of Indian philosophy, such an assumption is typical of the Nyaya-Vaisesikas who, because of this assumption, are led to the existence of a soul as distinct from the body. Thus they feel that attachment, aversion, motivation, pleasure, pain, and consciousness are qualities after all and being distinctly psychial these qualities cannot belong to anything merely physical, like the body. To account for the fact of such qualities being there, they find it necessary to admit some substance other than the body. This substance is called by them as the soul.

Never the less, conscientious observers as they are, the Nyaya-Vaisesikas cannot ignore the fact that these qualities are transient after all. They originate only under certain specific conditions, with the dissolution of which they are also dissolved. Hence, in their view, these qualities have nothing to do with the intrinsic nature of the soul. The soul, in spite of being inferred from the evidence of consciousness, etc. is itself an inert and unconscious entity i.e. in Indian terminology, something jada--actually compared to a lump of stone (sila-sakala-kalpa).

The resulting position is peculiarly anomalous. Though the Nyaya-Vaisesikas argue that that for the explaination of the overtly spiritual qualities, it is logically obligatory to admit some substance other than the merely material body, the substance thus admitted cannot be inherently spiritual. On the contrary, it somehow or other remains closer to the material and at the same time is supposed to explain the fact of the spiritual qualities.

Apparently, Adi Sankar is not bothered by such an anomaly in the Nyaya-Vaisesika position from which he surreptiously borrrows/plagiarises everything for his own refutation of the Charvakas. The decisive point, Sankar says, is that consciousness, etc. cannot be accepted as qualities of the body. For the purpose of proving this, he reiterates in a rather popular form, two arguments already offerred by Gotama (redactor of Nyaya-Sutra), and the earliest known commentator of Gotama, Vatsyayana; Unlike Adi Sankar, note that Gotama and Vatsyayana go into much greater intricacies of the questions involved.

First, wherever body exists, the purely physical qualities like complexion, etc. also exist. There can be no case of the presence of body along with the absence of complexion.
But this is not true of qualities like consciousness.

There are cases of the presence of body along with the absence of consciousness. The most obvious example of this is that of the corpse where in spite of the presence of the body, consciousness is totally absent. This is nothing but reiterating an argument of Gotama which, as explained by Vatsyayana, is (Vatsyayana on Nyaya Sutra iii.2.47):

"A body is never perceived without complexion, etc. However, a body is sometimes perceived without consciousness. Therefore consciousness is not a quality of the body."

The second point Adi Sankar makes is that the merely physical qualities like complexion are open to direct observation by others while consciousness is known by introspection alone. This again is a representation in a simplified form of what Gotama argues. As explained by Vatsyayana, the argument is (Vatsyayana on Nyaya Sutra iii.2.53):

"The qualities of body are of two kinds only, viz. (1)imperceptible, like heaviness and (2) perceptible by external senses eg complexion, etc. Consciousness differs from both these kinds: it is not imperceptible for it is internally apprehended, and it is not perceptible by the external senses, for it is an object known by the mind only. Therefore, consciousness is a quality of some substance other than the body."

Let us note one point here now. Plagiarising/Stealing certain readymade arguments of the Nyaya-Vaisesikas (without any acknowledgement) may simplify Adi Sankar's purpose of refuting the Charvaka view; but this also creates a grave risk for the internal consistency of his own philosophical position, according to which consciousness is the very essence of the soul and not a mere quality of a distinct substance called the soul.

It has been well said that the method of arguing not svamatena or in accordance with one's own views, but paramatam asritya or on the basis of others' views was not at all uncommon in the history of Indian philosophy. But the legitimacy of this method is itself questionable for, if extensively practiced, its result can only be arguments for the sake of arguments i.e. without the purpose of ultimately arriving at some self-consistent or coherent conclusion--a philosophical performance denounced in the Nyaya Sutra as sheer destructive criticism or vitanda (Nyaya Sutra i.2.3). The method is particularly repulsive when, for the purpose of refuting an opponent, one argues on the basis of some view that is destructive of one's own position--as is Adi Sankar's effort to refute the Charvaka view on the basis of the Nyaya-Vaisesika.

The arguments used by Adi Sankar presuppose that consciousness is only a transitory quality of an inert substance--a presupposition that completely negates the very essence of Adi Sankar's philosophy viz. that the ultimate reality is the soul identified with mere consciousness. In other words, EVEN admitting that the arguments offered by Adi Sankar are logically adequate for refuting the Charvaka view, we have to admit further that they are also adequate to reject Adi Sankar's own philosophical position.

(to be continued)


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