Buddhist Texts

♦ Can a Materialist worship God? Some reflections on a passage of Āryadevapāda

alkaemia_occhi buddha

Let us consider a passage of a Buddhist text preserved in Tibetan translation, and lost in its Sanskrit original, the Skhalita-pramathana-yukti-hetu-siddhi (’KHrul pa bzlog pa’i rigs pa gtan tshigs grub pa, «Accomplishment of Reason by Means of Argumentations for the Destruction of Errors»). This brief work is attributed to Āryadeva (colophon: slob dpon ’phags pa lhas mdzad pa rdzogs so, that is, «compiled by the ācārya Āryadeva»), probably the Tantric Āryadevapāda, flourished between the VII and the IX century A.D., disciple of the Tantric teacher Nāgārjunapāda. The text is conserved in the bsTan-’gyur: (a) Pekin edition, mDo-’grel, dBu-ma, vol. 95: TSHa foll. 20b1-24a8; (b) sDe-dge edition, dBu-ma, vol 199: TSHa foll. 19b1-22b1; (c) dGa’-ldan edition, dBu-ma’i skor, mDo ’grel, vol 107: TSHa foll. 22b1-26a5; (d) Co-ne edition, dBu-ma, vol. 97: TSHa foll. 26b1-29b6; (e) sNar-thang edition, mDo-’grel, vol. 106: TSHa foll. 18a7-21b1.

It is a didactic work, the aim of which is to expose different philosophical and religious (supposed to be erroneous, Tib. ’khrul, Sk. bhrānti, skhalita) points of view as pūrvapaka, and to refute them one by one in favour of a Buddhist Mahāyānic perspective (supposed to be the best doctrine). As happens in such cases (like for instance in Sāyaṇa-Mādhava’s Sarva-darśana-sagraha), the Author begins with the Cārvāka/Lokāyata Materialistic philosophical position, probably because it was generally considered the worst expression of thought. Āryadevapāda summarizes in the following way the tenets of this point of view (the text has been critically edited on the basis of the abovementioned five Canonical versions):

| ma shi bar du bde bar ’tsho |
| shi nas de yi spyod yul med |
| lus kyang thal ba bzhin song nas |
| slar ’tsho bar lta ga la ’gyur |

| de phyir snga phyi yod ma yin |
| tshe ’di nyid la bde ba’i phyir |
| lha mchod ’dre srin mnan byas na |
| btsan phyug mthu stobs ’grub par ’gyur |

The first verse is nothing but the Tibetan translation of the well-known: yāvaj jīvaṃ sukhaṃ jīven nāsti mṛtyor agocaraḥ | bhasmībhūtasya dehasya [not śantasya!] punarāgamanaṃ kutaḥ ||While life remains let a man live happily; nothing is beyond death. When once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again?»; transl. in Ramkrishna Bhattacharya 2009, p. 91). This is a typical Materialistic refrain. The problems start with the second verse. Indeed, Āryadevapāda seems to attribute also this verse to the same philosophical school and we can say this with certainty because of the presence of de phyir, in the beginning, which means “therefore” (and indicates that what follows is connected to what precedes). My English rendering runs thus (Sanskrit parallels mine):

«Therefore there is not a preceding or a following existence; for the sake of happiness in this very life, if you honour (mchod, pūjyase) the divinities (lha, devāḥ) and [if you] have subdued (mnan byas na, pīḍanaṃ kṛtaṃ) the piśācāḥ (’dre) and the rākṣasāḥ (srin), you will gain (’grub par ’gyur, sedhiṣyasi) nobleness, richness and power!»

We have here a curious exposition of a (supposed to be) materialistic perspective. If, on the one hand, the point of view expressed in the first line of the second verse corroborates the idea contained in the first verse, that is, there is not another life beyond the present one, on the other hand, the remaining three lines of the second verse seem to be not in agreement with the general exposition of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata philosophy. Indeed, the schools of Materialism upheld that only what is directly perceivable is cognizable and, consequently, only those inferences based on direct perception are to be accepted as means of valid knowledge, not those which are not based on sensual experience. This position forced the Materialists to deny the existence of god(s), demon(s), of the soul, etc. So, why Āryadevapāda refers to the worship of divinities and the subduing of demons? This is still a mystery, but we can suggest two answers:

1 – Āryadevapāda mistakenly attributed to Materialists theories which were not Materialistic, probably on the basis of a (misinterpreted) well-known idea, contained in several sources (among which Sāyaṇa-Mādhava’s Sarva-darśana-sagraha), according to which the upholders of Cārvāka/Lokāyata would have considered the king as a sort of God on Earth because of his power and wealth. But this interpretation does not justify the reference to evil spirits and demons in the work of Āryadevapāda.

2 – Or, we can imagine the two verses as explaining two different positions: the Materialistic one, and another (unknown) one, upheld by someone who believed that the simple worship of gods and defeating of demons would have been sufficient to assure a good life.


Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, Società Editrice Fiorentina/Manohar, Firenze 2009.

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Cārvāka/Lokāyata. An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi 1990.

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2 thoughts on “♦ Can a Materialist worship God? Some reflections on a passage of Āryadevapāda

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