The irony of vAsudeva sArvabhauma

In the declining years of the Hindu world, in the late 1400s and first half of 1500s lived a remarkable thinker vAsudeva sArvabhauma. The intellectual feats of the paraMpara to which he belonged are one of the forgotten flashes of a profound saMskR^ita tradition – a great intellectual edifice of Hindu thought. Regarding vAsudeva what we have are apocryphal hagiographies – often from those with vested interests in putting him down – yet, they are sort of respectful to him, clearly pointing to his towering intellectual stature. vAsudeva was the son a brAhmaNa named maheshvara vishArada from a village near navadvIpa in the va~Nga country. There are accounts of his virtuoso memory in mithilA, where he is said to have gone to study with pakShadhara mishra. Though based on kANe’s dating it is more likely he was a student of ruchidatta, a successor of pakShadhara [Footnote 1]. He is supposed to have acquired an enormous knowledge across several branches of saMskR^ita tradition and is said to have passed the most difficult test of the mithilan school in which a page would be picked at random from any shAstra by paNDita-s and and he would have to expound on it. It is said they kept going until the hundredth time he expounded on the chosen shAstra from memory. At that point they conferred on him the title sArvabhauma. He founded the great navadvIpa school and eventually attracted the attention of one of the few independent Hindu rulers of the age – pratAparudra gajapati of kali~Nga. He relocated to the Orissan kingdom and remained the rest of his life in jagannAtha pUrI teaching a large number of students.

Among his most prominent students was an interesting group: 1) kR^iShNananda Agama-vAgIsha who wrote the great mantra manual the bR^ihat-tantra-sAra and was one of the renowned tAntrika-s of his age. 2) raghunAtha tarka-shiromaNi the great exponent of nyAya of the navadvIpa school. 3) raghunandana who wrote the commentary on Hindu law based on dAya-vibhAga which became the mainstay of Hindu law in the East. 4) chaitanya, the vaiShNava bhakti saint. It appears that the partisans of chaitanya’s gauDIya tradition have used vAsudeva as an idealized “opponent” of chaitanya, who was finally converted by him. This appears to be a purely apocryphal account of the gauDIya tradition – we almost feel that the hard logical tradition of vAsudeva sArvabhauma produced a reactionary response on chaitanya, who swung all the way to the other end of the Hindu spectrum, as a passionate proponent of the bhaktimArga. It is indeed rather ironic that the student of a great teacher becomes famous for propagating doctrines so very contrasted to those of his teacher [Footnote 2]. Nevertheless, the vast diversity of the knowledge of vAsudeva’s students in a sense point to his own breadth of scholastic ability. For long we have felt that there is a larger irony in terms of the tradition that vAsudeva sArvabhauma represented. vAsudeva belonged the tradition of nyAya that was revitalized by ga~Ngesha. His legacy in this regard was passed on to the one-eyed raghunAtha tarka-shiromaNi who in turn passed it to his students like mathurAnAtha, harirAma and jagadIsha [Footnote 1].

They were in turn was succeeded by the great student of harirAma, gadAdhara bhaTTa, who revived the syncretic vaisheShika discourse among the proponents of navanyAya. He was a wide-ranging scholar who in addition to his work in nava-nyAya was also an accomplished tAntrika who wrote a multi-faceted work on the deployment of the navArNa mantra of chaNDikA. However, we may say that gadadhAra’s greatest contribution was the restoration of the true vaisheShika spirit into the system: It said that as he lay dying his well-wishers asked him to think of the Ishvara, the cause of the universe, that he might attain a favorable gati upon death. He instead responded “pIlavaH pIlavaH pIlavaH ||” (atoms, atoms, atoms; we see the triplication as his subscription of the vaisheShika tryaNu instead of the dvyaNu typical of the nyAya tradition). The last notable scholar in the line of gadAdhara was our coethnic annam bhaTTa who composed the tarka-saMgraha. It is in examining this capstone production of the great atomic tradition that we find a great irony: Did most of our paNDita-s fail to comprehend what for us is a guiding mahAvAkya: kANAdaM pANinIyaM cha sarva-shAstropakArakaM || Some traditional paNDita coethnics of mine, who are certainly great scholars of saMskR^ita, interpret this vAkya as meaning: “Logic and grammar are essential aids to understand any shAstra”. But we would interpret it somewhat differently and certainly can defend the interpretation rather firmly: “Atomic and pANinian analytical devices are essential aids to understand any shAstra”. We take this to represent the essential spirit of kaNAda, the promulgator of atomic thinking and paNini, the promulgator of a certain analytical technique that uses axioms on one side and principle of homology on the other (as expounded by his commentator pata~njali).

Now the system of vaisheShika and nyAya have two major frameworks for knowledge: The atomism and logic. kanAda’s main thrust is the former, while that of akShapAda is the latter. When vAsudeva sArvabhauma revitalized the nyAya system by building on the school of ga~Ngesha it was the domain of the knowledge of logic that got emphasized. However, it was not that the domain of the knowledge of matter was missing in this revival – indeed it was expressed, just as it was emphasized by kaNAda, by gadAdhara and annaM bhaTTa and even utilized rather clearly by ga~Ngesha in his explanation of sound waves in the tattva-chintAmaNi. Yet, most of the exponents of the school focused primarily on the domain of knowledge of logic rather than that of matter. Thus, we have some of the most brilliant minds in one of the last flash of Sanskritic tradition devote their energies to the development of the knowledge of logic. No doubt they achieved some rather deep insights in this regard, yet to us in a sense they are boring and lacking a certain “fulfillment” in terms of explanatory potential. This to us is the big irony – nyAya-vaisheShika had been revived in times when the Hindu world was in rather dire straits under the grip of the desert delusion and the some its best brains had been applied to it, but they choose to expend it on the arid fields of logic rather than the fertile pastures of the knowledge of matter. And all this was despite the brilliant guiding principles being stated right there in their texts.

We state these simple guiding principles [Footnote 3] that open the tattva-saMgraha in full because we are of the opinion that these are indeed sound basic principles for investigating the universe:

dravya-guNa-karma-sAmAnya-visheSha-samavAyaabhAvAH sapta padArthAH ||

This might be interpreted as: atomic or quantum entities, properties, force (literally displacement or motion; force being its cause), generalities, specifics, inherence, absence are the seven knowable things (j~neya) or validly cognizable things (prameya) or nameable things (abhideya). We interpret dravya as atomic or quantum entities rather than matter because this is how the nava-nyAya presentation of annaM bhaTTa understands its. As will be seen in the next principle dravya includes not just matter but also other entities that are considered to exist as quanta or atoms (these terms should not be confused with their meaning in modern science, but in their basic sense as particles). This number of padArtha-s (7) is variable in different presentations of the nyAya-vaisheShika school – some old expositors like vAtsyAyana name 7, while the dasha-padArtha-shAstra names 10. However, padArtha-s of this system sharply differ from that of shaMkArAdvaita: two padArtha-s chit (consciousness) and achit (not-consciousness) or rAmAnujavAda: which includes the above two and nArAyaNa.

tatra dravyANi pR^ithivy-ap-tejo-vAyv-AkAsha-kAla-dig-Atma-manAmsi-navaiva ||

This might be interpreted as: Nine alone of these are the atomic entities: solid, liquid, heat/light, gas, vacuum, time, space, consciousness and mind. A questioner would have asked if mind deserves the status of an independent atomic entity.

rUpa-rasa-gandha-sparsha-saMkhyA-parimANa-pR^ithaktva-saMyoga-vibhAga-paratva-aparatva-gurutva-dravatva-sneha-shabda-buddhi-sukha-duHkhechChA-dveSha-prayatna-dharmAdharma-saMskArAsh chaturviMshati guNAH ||

This might be interpreted as: Form/color, taste, smell, touch, number, magnitude, separate independent existence, conjunction (bond-forming), disjunction (bond-breaking), distance, proximity, weight, fluidity, viscosity, response to vibrations, cognition, pleasure, pain, desire, dislike, volition, dharma, adharma, and tendency are the 24 qualities. In our worldview these guNa-s are divided among the different quantum entities(the dravya-s) with some limited to only to certain dravya-s. Thus, the physical guNa-s (first 15) belong to matter, energy, vacuum, time and space. Though not all of them have each of the physical guNa-s: For example, fluidity and viscosity are limited to a subset like gases and liquids. The qualia (16-20) in contrast solely belong to the atman, whereas the last 4 belong to manas. However, saMskAra also applies to the matter dravya-s as the concept of inertia. The view of pata~njali in his mahAbhAShya is:

kaH guNaH nAma | sattve nivishate .apaiti pR^ithag jAtiShu vartate | Adheyash-cha akriyAjash-cha so .asattvaprakR^itir guNaH || upaiti anyat | jahAti anyat | dR^iShTaH dravyAntareShu .api | vAchakaH sarvali~NgAnAm dravyAt anyaH guNaH smR^itaH |

Thus, the view of pata~njali on the guNa might be interpreted as: The guNa is something which inheres only in substance (or what may be mapped on to dravya-s of nyAya-vaisheShikA), and under certain situations ceases to be present, which is found in the different types of substances, which is conserved in some cases not conserved in others. This view of the vaiyAkaraNa-s is clearly inherited from that of nyAya-vaisheShika.

utkShepaNa-avakShepaNa-Aku~nchana-prasAraNa-gamanAni pa~ncha karmANi ||

Actions are of five kinds causing displaced away from, towards, contraction, expansion and movement from one place to another. The vaisheShika doctrine emphasized karman as a pure physical concept. Unfortunately, this clarity was lost in many of the other Hindu doctrines and this latter influence became pervasive in the later understanding of karman. Indeed, displacement was understood as a vector; as the classical vaisheShika theorist prashastapAda states: “dig-vishiShTa-kAryArambhakatvam cha visheShaH ||” implying that the displacement is marked by a direction denoted by a particular dimensional axis. The first four karma-s are understood to be rectilinear displacements i.e. the displacement of the body away or towards a given reference point or the expansion or contraction of the body. The fifth is supposed to denote displacements where the direction of displacement is not the same throughout the motion; as prashastapAda states in his conception of physics: yad-aniyata-dik-pradesha-samyoga-vibhAga-kAraNam tad-gamanam-iti | This includes projectile, circular and harmonic displacements, which might be due to restitutive or opposing forces, as prashastapAda and his successors like vyomashiva deshika and shrIdhara state: “…bhramaNa-patana-spandanAdInAm avarodhArtham gamana…

It was through such an analysis of motion as a physical concept did shrIdhara, the successor prashastapAda, arrive at a physical formulation similar to Newton’s first law of motion in his nyAyakandali:

saMskAro yAvat patanaM anuvartate | yathA yathA chAsya kArya-karaNAt shaktiH kShItate tathA tathA kArya-mandataramAdi bheda-bhinnam upajAyate ||

Here shrIdhara implies that as a force does work against the body’s motion, the body slows down and comes to rest.

param aparaM cheti dvividhaM sAmAnyam ||

Generalities are of two types, inclusive and less inclusive.

nitya-dravya-vR^ittayo visheShAs tv anantA eva ||

On the other hand specifics reside in the conserved dravya-s and are endless.

samavAyas tv eka eva ||
However inherence is only one.

abhAvash chaturvidhaH | prAgabhAvaH pradhvaMsAbhAvo .atyantAbhAvo .anyonyAbhAvash cheti ||

Absence is of 4 types; antecedent, through annihilation, absolute and mutual.

Of the above we will only briefly comment on the point of generalities: The naiyAyika-s define it using the technical term jAti or a set which is comprised of elements termed vyakti-s. The sAmAnyam is a defining property of the set that is conserved even when individual elements might be created or destroyed. Related to this is an important principle of nyAya, i.e. lAghava nyAya or parsimony of explanation that in the west is often termed Ockham’s razor. As per nyAya, parsimony should be the primary criterion for soundness of a hypothesis provided that it does not contradict a more reliable principle. Thus, the naiyAyika-s state that the hypothesis of a jAti should be proposed using the criterion of lAghava nyAya as long as it is not contradicted by a classification of greater reliability. So on…

Thus, the above principles based on the vaisheShika doctrine provided the Hindus with a good working framework for the exploration and the understanding of the universe. Indeed, this allowed them reach a fairly good understanding of motion, momentum and force [Footnote 4]. Yet, in large part the tendency was to move away from the “as is” exploration of these principles towards debates in logic and formalism (an example being raghunAtha tarkashiromaNi, in course of his attack on pakShadhara, using the logical construct of infinite regress to argue for a certain type atom called the truTi, without attempting to explore the subtle vaisheShika concept of paramANu in terms of physical phenomena).We embarked on writing this note because of two proximal reasons:

1) the question arose in course of the kautukasaMgha as to whether the loss of vaisheShika led to the loss of the framework to understand the universe. Our answer was that currently we hold that view that it was not exactly the case. Instead we see it as “the irony of vAsudeva sArvabhauma”, wherein the revitalized nyAya-vaisheShika tradition got obsessed with logic, formalism and metaphysics rather expanding the realm of kaNAda’s thought that they faithfully transmitted in their texts. In part this might have been triggered by the decline of the more mechanical traditions such as those encapsulated by bhojadeva’s samarA~NgaNa sUtradhAra, rather than an extinguishing of the nyAya-vaisheShika tradition itself.

2) Sometime ago we were teaching in a course, which featured students from across the leukosphere, East Asia and South America. As part of an attempt to broaden the intellectual perspective of the students, in addition to the specific science which was the focus of the course, the students also got to see certain educative documentaries and discussions, which the teachers might also choose to watch along with them. I choose to watch the filming that occurred along with the students during my slot in the course – it was a discussion on philosophy of science, consciousness, mathematics and physics by a panel of famous white and Jewish intellectuals in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, biology and philosophy. The discourse itself and the apprehensions of the students is a story in itself. However, what struck us was a heated debate that occurred in course of the discussion between the mathematicians and some of the scientists. The mathematician argued thus: Since science uses mathematics extensively a tool, and since Gödel’s incompleteness theorems precludes all mathematics from having a complete and consistent set of axioms for it, the foundations of the scientific enterprise itself is shaky. He implied that one can never know if one has a theory of everything, so an enterprise like physics trying to explain nature is logically questionable. In this regard, one might also consult a parallel view presented by Stephen Hawking based on Gödel’s theorems in his lecture “Gödel and the end of physics”. Yet, several of us in different areas of the scientific enterprise tend to hold that, be this as it might, the construction of scientific theories based on finite principles brings us closer to an understanding even it were an eternally incomplete one on the grounds of logic. It was this debate which reminded us of the obsession of the late nyAya-vaisheShika theorists on logic at the expense of strengthening the finite principles for developing a theory of the universe.


Footnote 1: The general hagiographic tradition holds that vAsudeva indeed studied with jayadeva mishra who is known as pakShadhara. It is said that vAsudeva’s student the one-eyed raghunAtha later went to debate with the old pakShadhara in mithilA to uphold the name of the navadvIpa school. The old paNdita derided raghunAtha: “indra has a thousand eyes, rudra three and all others two, who are you the one eyed one?” Nevertheless, he let raghunAtha in to his academy to attend his lectures. On one occasion pakShadhara was challenged by raghunAtha and the former was on the verge of defeat, when rather than answering raghunAtha, pakShadhara insulted him using offensive language. Furious over this, raghunAtha decided to kill pakShadhara and hid in his house with a sword. That night he noticed that pakShadhara was relaxing on a swing with his wife on the terrace. Slowly advancing raghunAtha hid himself behind the doorpost and waited. There he heard pakShadhara’s wife ask him if there was anything more beautiful than the autumn moon that was shining upon them. pakShadhara responded that there was indeed one – the mind of a young scholar from va~Nga who had defeated him in a debate earlier in the morning – his mind is brighter than the moon he said. Then raghunAtha is said to have dropped his sword and ran and fell at the feet of pakShadhara, who forgave his murderous intention. The next day pakShadhara declared to his academy that raghunAtha was the supreme paNDita of nyAya from then on. With that the center of nyAya became the navadvIpa school, where raghunAtha and vAsudeva erected a statue to honor the old pakShadhara.

Footnote 2: Yet, it is characteristic of the Hindu milieu that such contrasting views coexist without much of a social rupture. Indeed, reactionary vaiShNava bhakti has been a rather common phenomenon in various parts of India in medieval history.

Footnote 3: These are indeed simple principles that must be taught to children as annaM bhaTTa clarifies: “bAlAnAM sukhabodhAya krIyate tarka-saMgrahaH |” For pleasurably enlightening children I have made the tarka-saMgraha.

Footnote 4: One of the few modern authors who understood the true spirit of nyAya-vaisheShika in terms of it being a physics was the great va~Nga intellectual Brajendranath Seal, with whom we found much convergence in thinking on all these matters.

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