♦ The Cārvāka Udbhaṭa Bhaṭṭa’s use of Vaiśeṣika vocabulary: the case of caitanya («self», «consciousness»)

Recently I had the opportunity to read with accuracy the fragments referring to Udbhaṭa Bhaṭṭa’s (or Bhaṭṭodbhaṭa’s) theory of consciousness, collected by Ramkrishna Bhattacharya in his Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata (Ch. 6: Cārvāka Fragments: A New Collection). According to Udbhaṭa, who is a Materialist, consciousness (caitanya, a term which, for Cārvākas, means also «self») is of course considered to have material nature and to be derived from the combination of the four primary elements (bhūta) accepted by the Cārvākas: earth (pṛthivī), water (āpas), fire or heat (tejas) and air or wind (vāyu). There is a Cārvāka aphorism which explains the derivation of consciousness from the elements as follows: tebhyaś caitanyaṃ,1 which simply – or barely! – means «from these, the consciousness». The problem, here, is to what verb one has to refer to for the correct understanding of this aphorism. Cārvākas uphold at least two perspectives:2 according to the ancient Cārvākas (cirantana-cārvākair), like Bhāvivikta, the consciousness originates (utpadyate) or is born (jayate) from the elements; according to others, like Udbhaṭa, the consciousness is manifested (abhivyajyate) by them.3 The first position appears to be a case of production from certain causes (the elements) to a certain effect (consciousness) which have the same nature of the causes (as for instance, the seed and the sprout, which share the nature of, for instance, “oak”, or “sweet pepper”, etc.) The second position appears to underline a relation of “occasionality”: the four material elements represent the occasion for (they are not the producers of) the appearance of another element which is the consciousness. Of course, in both cases, caitanya is said to appear only where and when the elements are combined in the form of human body, as the intoxicating power originates from certain substances in the form of liquors (kiṇvādibhyo madaśaktivat).4

Now, according to Udbhaṭa, not only consciousness, but also other principles would be occasioned in a similar way by the four material elements. In a passage of Vādidevasūri’s Syādvādaratnākara the following words of Udbhaṭa are quoted: caitanya-śabda-sukha-duḥkhecchā-dveṣa-prayatna-saṃskārāṇām tattvāntaratvāt («Because there are other [or internal] principles such as consciousness, sound, pleasure, pain, desire, aversion, effort, mental inpressions»).5 The term antaratva means both «otherness» and «interiority» (these principles can be considered as different from the four bhūta-s or as internal to the human being). These quotation from Udbhaṭa leads us to consider that consciuosness, sound, etc., are intended by him as “secondary principles”, different from, but dependent on the “primary principles” (earth, etc.). According to Udbhaṭa, indeed, bhūtārthaṃ caitanyaṃ svatantram,6 that is, «consciuosness is independent (svatantra) [as principle, but it is also an] object derived from/occasioned by the elements (bhūtārtha-s)» (or: «consciousness is an independent object derived from/occasioned by the elements»). In other words, caitanya, śabda, etc. are principles, but not primary (they are not bhūta-s, rather bhūtārtha-s).

Considering the fact that the sources that we have on/of Udbhaṭa are really few, and that they do not explain all the aspects of his position on caitanya, the following problem faces us: of what nature are these principles which are not primary, and what kind of relation have they with the primary bhūta-s? Well, as far as these questions are concerned, in my opinion the Vaiśeṣikasūtra-s could help us in the search for a possible answer because, as we will see, a strict proximity can be noticed between the vocabulary of the Sūtra-s and that of Udbhaṭa. And I assume that, in this case, the lexical proximity bears at least a methodological – even if not necessarily a philosophical – proximity.

Let us take, for instance, a fragment of Vaiśeṣikasūtra 1.1.6 (Śaṅkaramiśra’s Upaskāra 1.1.7): […] buddhayaḥ sukha-duḥkhe icchā-dveṣau prayatnāś ca guṇāḥ («[…] consciousness, sound, pleasure, pain, desire, aversion, efforts are qualities»). It is clear that this aphorism inspied the words of Udbhaṭa quoted above – which are by him referred to almost verbatim. But if Udbhaṭa was inspired by a Vaiśeṣika perspective, we can suggest – being aware that this is a suggestion and not a certainty – that a possible, even if not certain, explanation of the relation between primary principles and secondary principles could be found, in some way, in the Vaiśeṣika philosophy itself. Thus, if besides Vaiśeṣikasūtra 1.1.6, we add also a fragment of Vaiśeṣikasūtra 1.1.5 (Upaskāra 1.1.6): pṛthivy-āpas-tejo vāyur° […] iti dravyāṇi («earth, water, heat, air […] are substances»), and Vaiśeṣikasūtra-s 1.1.14-15 (Upaskāra 1.1.15-16), in which dravya (substace) is said to be a samavāyi-kāraṇa, that is an “inherential” or material cause, of guṇa (quality), and guṇa is described as dravyāśraya, «depending on/addicted to the substace», we can presume that Udbhaṭa interprets caitanya, śabda, etc, if not as qualities, at least as quality-like entities which accompany the four primary principles when they are in form of human body. All this acquires more plausibility if we consider the fact that, according to Kaṇāda – supposed to be the author of the Vaiśeṣikasūtra-s – dravya and guṇa (but also karman, «action») have a material nature, they are principles actually existing (artha, sat). Vaiśeṣikasūtra 1.2.7: sad-iti yato dravya-guṇa-karmesu […] («for which reason “is existent” [refers] to substance, quality and action»); Vaiśeṣikasūtra 8.2.3: artha iti dravya-guṇa-karmasu («[the word] “thing” [refers] to substance, quality and action»). But among these existing principles the role of substratum is played by dravya, whereas guṇa plays the role of, so to speak, an “addendum”. This of course does not mean that a substance can actually exist without a quality:7 substance and quality are two indivisible entities, the quality contributing to the definition of its substratum (as the quality “intoxicating power” inheres to, and defines, the substance “liquor”).

To conclude, it seems that Udbhaṭa – or, better said, this particular aspect of Udbhaṭa’s philosophy – could be analyzed taking into account a (moderate) pro-Vaiśeṣika inclination (in the sense of a Vaiśeṣika-like dravyaguṇa methodology, applied to a Materialistic bhūtacaitanya relation). In his way of considering the dependence of caitanya from the four elements we indeed notice that: both are principles, but caitanya needs the presence of the four bhūta in the form of human body as a certain addendum needs the presence of a certain substratum to which it can be added, and by which it can be upheld.


(1) Bhattacharya (2009:79).

(2) See Bhattacharya (2009:81).

(3) See Kamalaśīla’s Tattvasaṅgrahapañjikā ad Tattvasaṅgraha 1857-1858.

(4) Bhattacharya (2009:79).

(5) Bhattacharya (2009:82).

(6) Bhattacharya (2009:81).

(7) It has been already noticed by, for instance, Arthur Berriedale Keith in the far-off 1921 that substance and quality do not exist the one without the other. Berriedale Keith (1921:182).


– Berriedale Keith, A., Indian Logic and Atomism. An Exposition of the Nyāya and Vaiçeṣika Systems, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1921.

– Bhattacharya, R., Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, Società Editrice Fiorentina, Firenze 2009.

– Chakrabarty, D., Vaiśeṣika Sūtra of Kaṇāda, D.K. Printworld, New Delhi 2003.

– Halbfass, W., On Being and What There Is, SUNY Press, Albany 1992.

– Śāstrī, D., The Tattvasaṅgraha of Ācārya Śāntarakṣita with the “Pañjikā” Commentary of Ācārya Kamalaśīla (vol. 2), Bauddha Bharati, Varanasi 2006 (rep.)

2 thoughts on “♦ The Cārvāka Udbhaṭa Bhaṭṭa’s use of Vaiśeṣika vocabulary: the case of caitanya («self», «consciousness»)

  1. Well, if Udbhaṭa’s theory boils down to the fact that caitanya inevitably *inheres* in a substance, then why has he been so strongly criticised?
    In fact, even Naiyāyikas agree that caitanya, etc. is a quality –and they could also go so far as to admit a sūkṣma body to support it. I rather suspect that the crucial point is the origination/production one. At least, Dharmakīrti’s criticism of materialism seems to address the idea that consciousness can be explained just as an effect (homogeneous or not) of material causes.
    Thanks for the stimulating post!


  2. Ciao Elisa!
    Your suggestion goes in the right direction: Udbhaṭa was not criticized because he thought that consciousness simply inheres to a body, rather because consciousness, which is subordinated to the body, ceases to exist when the body dies (but this is the classical criticism against Materialism in general, adopted also by Dharmakīrtri, as you reminds me). This means, in other words, that there is no place for spiritual emancipation (both in this life or in another existence; we find Udbhaṭa upholding this point of view in two or three passages).
    Moreover, Udbhaṭa represents a sort of, so to speak, “reformed” Materialism, according to which consciousness does not ORIGINATE or come out in consequence of the mixture of the four elements in the form of a human body (this is rather Bhāvivikta’s position, not Udbhaṭa’s), for him caitanya appears to be OCCASIONED by this very mixture (thus, as regards this particular perspective I cannot agree with you on the fact that for Udbhaṭa “the crucial point is the origination/production one”, whereas these very words remain applicable to Bhāvivikta’s position). The problem appears to be ontological, but unfortunately we do not have enough material for a clear understanding of Udbhaṭa’s theory/ontology of consciousness (that is, we do not know if he saw caitanya as an EFFECT, homogeneous or not). In the sources at our disposal he simply states that: 1. caitanya is a tattva (like the four bhūta-s), and 2. caitanya is not a bhūta, rather a bhūtārtha. Thus: it is like the bhūta-s but not a bhūta.
    What I have tried to pinpoint here is only the fact that Udbhaṭa describes – or, he appears to describe – the relation between body and “soul” AS (i.e., by means of a similar argumentation) Vaiśeṣika-s described the relation between dravya and guṇa… but we do not – again! – know if Udbhaṭa considered caitanya as a guṇa and the body as its dravya. (Nonetheless, it seems to me that he thought both body and caitanya as dravya-s/substances, the former being primary, and the latter secondary.)
    To conclude with a personal note, I must confess that this paucity of information on Cārvaka – and on Udbhaṭa for this particular case – is for me really painful.. I would like to know more about this subject. I hope that future will bring us more texts (who knows? perhaps discovered in a secret room of a Tibetan monastery!) that will help to shed light on these and other aspects of Indian Materialism.


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