Lynching in Ancient India? The Case of Charvaka

The poor Charvaka who had thus remonstrated was unceremoniously lynched by the Brahmin mob, for which act of ‘social gracefulness’ all the Brahmins in the mob were duly compensated by the king with regards and gifts. The whole episode serves as a fine metaphor for what has apparently gone on relentlessly in our society for quite a long time. As loyal traditionalists, large numbers of the contemporary defenders of the so called Dharma perpetuate the crime in a more complex form today. And that does not apply solely to our own India either, because other parts of the globe are not free from such horrendous deeds against the lowly in society.G. Ramakrishna

The most systematic “lynching” (or mob violence against an individual or individuals) in the mythologised history of India was that of India’s materialist philosopher Charvaka, as he was not just killed, but was demonised and his ideas distorted for generations. Charvaka was physically eliminated by a mob of servile brahmins because he could speak truth to power (so much for being called a “sweet talker” – a Charvaka!). The description of this is given in Mahabharata.

When the celebrations for the Pandavas’ victory and Yudhishthir’s coronation were going on and the brahmins stood silently after paying their obeisance (निःशब्दे च स्थिते तत्र ततो विप्रजने पुनः), Charvaka came forward and started addressing on their behalf, of course, without taking any permission. He accused Yudhishthir of fratricide and thus unfit to live:

इमे प्राहुर्द्विजाः सर्वे समारोप्य वचो मयि।
धिग्भवन्तं कुनृपतिं ज्ञातिघातिनमस्तु वै।।
किं तेन स्याद्धि कौन्तेय कृत्वेमं ज्ञातिसंक्षयम्।
घातयित्वा गुरूंश्चैव मृतं श्रेयो न जीवितम्।।

His fearless statement stunned everybody. Yudhishthir and the Brahmins were speechless, afraid and ashamed:

ततस्ते ब्राह्मणाः सर्वे स च राजा युधिष्ठिरः।
व्रीडिताः परमोद्विग्नस्तूष्णीमासन्विशांपते।।

Regaining some crowd spirit, these Brahmins started accusing Charvaka of being a demon and a friend of Duryodhana. Eventually, they killed him with their anger.

ततस्ते ब्राह्मणाः सर्वे हुंकारैः क्रोधमूर्च्छिताः।
निर्भर्त्सयन्तः शुचयो निजघ्नुः पापराक्षसम्।।
स पपात विनिर्दग्धस्तेजसा ब्रह्मवादिनाम्।
महेन्द्राशनिनिर्दग्धः पादपोऽङ्कुरवानिव।।

Since Yudhishthir was quite evidently moved by the incident, a whole section is devoted where Lord Krishna consoles him, while demonizing Charvaka and justifying the act as preordained.

स एष निहतः शेते ब्रह्मदण्डेन राक्षसः।
चार्वाको नृपतिश्रेष्ठ मा शुचो भरतर्षभ।।

See Mahabharata (Pancham Khand): Shanti Parva, 38.22-27, 39.2-11, Gita Press.

But besides this physical murder, the brahminical tradition in Indian philosophy left no stone unturned to erase Charvaka’s philosophical contributions. However, they could never succeed in this. His philosophy true to its name, Lokayata, survived in the unconscious of the Indian mind throughout history, sometimes peeping through the heterodoxy and many a times in theologised discourses themselves (Marx has noted the case of Duns Scotus who “made theology itself preach materialism”). The evidence is of course a continuous endeavour by social and political hegemonies to exorcise the demonic spirit of Charvaka, even in our times.

The most interesting thing about ancient epics and Puranic texts is that due to their being collective products and having undergone continuous modifications, various layers of history (or, rather, histories) have found place in them as inconsistencies and contradictions. Their double entendre, which does obscure real history as a succession of episodes, of “what happened”, but they might provide a nuanced understanding of internally related contradictory conditions – the material and the psychic, the real and the possible. Perhaps, you need a textual archaeology, extensive philological and hermeneutic exercises, to uncover them. The positivist historiographies, many times presented as Marxism, disengages with these texts by their servility towards positive facts or evidence. However, for Marx (and even for Kosambi), history was never simply a chronology.

Against the ‘enchantment’ of poetry and for the ‘arrogance’ of critical thinking

Robert Walser’s stress on the small, the insignificant, the minor, the almost-invisible is constitutive of his aporectic – I prefer to call it asymmetrically dialectical — literary discourse that ‘arrogantly’ affirms singularity precisely in and through the ‘humility’ of “continually stepping aside” from the light of recognition that affirmation of singularity inevitably calls upon itself. In one of his stories, for example, a heroic figure erupts suddenly from the insignificant margins of life only to once again melt away and disappear.

Does this Walserian sensibility not resonate with Blanchot’s literary practice, which is an affirmation of the singularity of visible-invisibility (or arrogance through humility)? Blanchot’s reclusive life-practice, which can arguably be construed as the continuation of his conception and practice of literature — writing as a continuous process of withdrawal from itself — beyond the paradigmatic frame of the literary, was possibly a demonstration of this ethics (and singularity) of arrogance-through-humility. This is a quality that is neither arrogance nor humility, but something entirely novel in that it exceeds the anthropologically-indexed affective coordinates of arrogance and humility in their dualised existence.

Walser’s style, if we may still talk in those terms, is the constant articulation and questioning of style itself as something that is always imperfect, and intrinsically inadequate. In that context, we would do well to conceptually approach poetry, not so much as style — which is thinking poetry through a foregrounding of its experiential dimension that is the necessary anthropological register and anthropological-passional index of its historically determinate instantiation as excess of meaning and language — but as a mode.

To conceptualise, and envisage, poetry modally is to grasp it, and have it articulate itself, in a manner that its form is already always a demonstration of its own excess. (Here the importance of the experiential dimension of poetry as the necessary condition of its determinate emerging is doubtless acknowledged, but what is also indicatively underscored is that this dimension is, in itself, not a sufficient condition for poetry to continue being itself.)

In such a (singular) situation, the separation between enchantment and disenchantment is rendered a zone of undecidability, and is thus immensely complicated. For instance, is the singular in the excessiveness of its eruption, which amounts to a break with the thrall of the banal, an enchantment or a disenchantment? And this poses yet another question: what is the condition in which the line shifts, causing the defamiliarising singularity of the quotidian to lapse into the familiarity of the exchangeable and the banal? Is familiarity, insofar as it’s an anthropologically-indexed affect concomitant with the internalisation of domination, disenchantment or enchantment? And, in such circumstances, is defamiliarisation — as an anthropologically- and thus passionally-indexed affectivity of singularity in its excessive eruption — enchantment or disenchantment?

The real question then is, can poetry be approached, and envisaged, as a decision of dwelling in that zone of undecidability? There can, of course, be more than one literary register through which such dwelling in the undecidability of excess is accomplished: the savagely explosive registration of continuous excess (the surrealist poems of Eluard, Aragon and Peret, or Rimbaud’s poetry); the fragile web of language, but one which is baroque in its interminable convolutions and elaborations, and which gets spun through the ceaselessly persistent valorisation of the evanescent and the irreducible (Proust, Beckett); but also, excess as the quiet slipping through of the small, the insignificant and the minor through the meshes of the system (Walser, Kafka, Celan ). In none of these registers, however, does the undecidability with regard to the distinction between enchantment and disenchantment become less demanding in any essential sense. All that such registers of ontological excess in their variegated multiplicity appear to accomplish are different anthropological-passional indexing of the truth of undecidability.

The same – that is, the decision to dwell in the undecidable, the purely possible –holds true for politics as well. That, needless to say, renders poetry and politics, vis-à-vis one another, a question of encounter rather than of some kind of deep or hidden ontological similitude. It is not for nothing that philosophy as the passion for truth begins, as Brecht accurately pointed out, in wonder and awe.

Truth on one hand, wonder and awe on the other. How much more aporetic — and thus undecidable — can a situation be? In such circumstances, to grasp such undecidability as enchantment is to privilege the experiential dimension of such undecidability over its practical-evental/performative dimension that informs the former but is irreducible to it. To indulge in such privileging of the experiential over the performative (or the practical-evental) is to abandon the post-phenomenological rigour of thinking and envisaging sensuousness for a phenomenological (and thus descriptivist) accounting of the same. This phenomenological — and wholly experiential — mode of approaching the sensuous logically amounts to moving away from conceptions of immanence and allegory (which is the immanence grasped in its inscription) to conceptions of interiority and myth, and thus productivism. The latter is inconsistent in its sensuousness because experience remains in it a subjective depth that does little to suspend the objectivity of presence and its metaphysics. In other words, in the phenomenological accounting of sensuousness, experience in its subjectivity fails to seek the institution of its own commensurate materiality and, thereby, become its own surface. As a result, experience, and the subjective, remains interiorised as a depth that is always in diremption from its objectivised and objectified surface. This is, to say without pulling too many punches, the abdication of materiality to spirit. This is a return, albeit through the rear window, of the Hegelian notion of art as the identitarianisation of the negativity of religion. This is poetry, not as the condition and procedure of truth, but as religious mystification.