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, disengage with these texts by their servility towards positive facts or evidence. However, for Marx (and even for Kosambi), history was never simply a chronology.

Muhammad Iqbal – his contradictions and greatness

Marxist historian V.G. Kiernan’s introduction to his translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s poems echoes Lenin’s classic essay in defence of Tolstoy. It provides a perspective to Iqbal’s contradictions, which arguably make him the greatest intellectual of the twentienth century India (including Pakistan). To paraphrase Lenin, the contradictions in Iqbal’s views are indeed a mirror of the contradictory conditions of his time – on the one hand, “centuries of feudal oppression, [colonialism] and decades of [colonial] pauperisation piled up mountains of hate, resentment, and desperate determination”. Iqbal strives to sweep away all the old forms and ways that characterised the old order. But on the other hand, “striving towards new ways of life, had a very crude, patriarchal, semi-religious idea of what kind of life this should be”.

Iqbal’s writings are full of such Tolstoyan contradictions – or what Kiernan says, “Iqbal, as usual, put new wine into old bottles not always well suited to it”; he “had ended by being, in some ways, the prisoner of the ideas that had promised to liberate him. All his life as a poet he had been using the hard, distinct, unyielding thoughts of a bygone age as supports round which the softer tendrils growing out of the amorphous sensations of his own age could twine themselves and climb. Dante and Milton did the same”.

Iqbal’s contradictions and consistency make him great. But, what was consistent in him? He “hated injustice; his protest, first made in the name of India, continued in the name of Islam; in this form it was reinforced, rather than superseded, by a protest in the name of the common man, the disinherited of all lands”. This is very important to understand ideas underneath the pan-Islamic theological crust that he developed to shape them.