Prehistoric Svabhāvavāda

By David Reigle on February 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Svabhāvavāda, the doctrine of svabhāva or inherent nature, as the cause of the world, is old. It is referred to, for example, in the Hindu Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (1.2), in the Jaina Sanmati-tarka (3.53), and in the Buddhist Buddha-carita (9.58-62). But there is an even older svabhāvavāda, very different from the one described in these texts, that I will call prehistoric svabhāvavāda. It is seen in Gauḍapāda’s Māṇḍūkya-kārikā, in Gārgyāyaṇa’s Praṇava-vāda, and in the Book of Dzyan. In brief, the svabhāvavāda that was already historical in the time of the classical Sanskrit texts says that the world is the result of the inherent nature of the elements or things that make it up. The diverse world is the result of the inherent natures of a plurality of diverse things. In the prehistoric svabhāvavāda, there is only one thing (or non-thing) in the universe. The world and all its diversity can only result from the inherent nature of that, the one and only.

Over the years, I have collected pages full of references to svabhāva in Sanskrit texts. A small book, or a very long article, could be written based on them. Here I will try to give a brief digest of this gathered information. We may start with the statement of possible causes of the world from the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad. This text begins in verse 1.1 by asking questions including whether brahman is the cause (kāraṇa) of the world. In verse 1.2 it lists six alternatives to this as the source (yoni) of the world: kāla, “time”; svabhāva, “inherent nature”; niyati, “fate, necessity, destiny”; yadṛcchā, “chance”; bhūtāni, “the (five) elements”; puruṣa, “spirit.” The commentary on this text attributed to Śaṅkarācārya does not say who holds these various teachings. But this line of the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is quoted by Nīlakaṇṭha in his commentary on the Mahābhārata (Bombay edition, 12.183.6), and he does say. According to him, those who hold that svabhāva is the origin of the world (loka-sambhava) are the Buddhists and the Lokāyatikas (the worldly so-called materialists or atheists or skeptics).

In the case of the Buddhists, Nīlakaṇṭha would be referring to the early Buddhist Abhidharma teaching that all dharmas, all the factors of existence, each have svabhāva, an inherent nature of their own. This is not the same as what is usually referred to as svabhāvavāda, even though it is similarly pluralistic. The svabhāvavāda usually referred to is also referred to in Buddhist sources, where it is regarded by them as a non-Buddhist teaching (Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddha-carita, chapter 9, verses 58-62), and is refuted by them (Śāntarakṣita’s Tattva-saṃgraha, chapter 4, verses 110-127). We here recall that what was called the Svābhāvika school of Nepalese Buddhism turned out not to exist. It was based on a mistaken assumption made in very early Buddhist studies (see blog post: “The Svabhāva Teaching Not to Be Attributed to Buddhism Today”). After an account of this and three other alleged Buddhist schools written by Brian H. Hodgson was published in 1828, he obtained from his Buddhist teacher/informant passages from Buddhist texts in support of these schools and published these in 1836. The passages that were intended to prove the existence of the Svābhāvika school and to illustrate its svabhāva teaching (1874 ed., pp. 73-76) included verses from the passage of the Buddha-carita just referred to. In this passage, however, it is actually a non-Buddhist teaching that is being described. In fact, this passage describes the historical svabhāva teaching, a teaching that was sometimes attributed to the Lokāyatikas and sometimes attributed to the demons (asuras, daityas). It was refuted not only by Buddhists but also by Hindus (e.g., Gautama’s Nyāya-sūtra 4.1.22-24) and Jainas (e.g., Malayagiri’s commentary on the Nandī-sūtra, Āgama-suttāṇi ed., vol. 30, pp. 217-218, in his summary of the contents of Sūtrakṛtāṅga).

The Lokāyatikas referred to by Nīlakaṇṭha, those who follow the Lokāyata teaching, also called the Cārvāka teaching, are the worldly so-called materialists or atheists or skeptics of ancient India. Their own texts have for the most part disappeared, but their teachings are found in works that refute them. The doctrine of svabhāva or svabhāvavāda is often associated with them. This doctrine is that there is no other cause for things to be what they are than their individual svabhāvas or inherent natures. A thorn is sharp because the inherent nature of thorns is to be sharp. Then in the Mahābhārata, this svabhāvavāda is associated with the demons, as a teaching that they follow (see: V. M. Bedekar, “doctrines_svabhava_kala_mahabharata”). The passage from the Buddha-carita that describes this teaching is here given (translated by E. H. Johnston; I have inserted some Sanskrit terms in brackets):

“58. Some explain that good and evil and existence and non-existence originate by natural development [svabhāvāt, ablative]; and since all this world originates by natural development [svābhāvika], again therefore effort is vain.

59. That the action of each sense is limited to its own class of object, that the qualities of being agreeable or disagreeable is to be found in the objects of the senses, and that we are affected by old age and afflictions, in all that what room is there for effort? Is it not purely a natural development [svabhāva]?

60. The oblation-devouring fire is stilled by water, and the flames cause water to dry up. The elements, separate by nature, group themselves together into bodies and, coalescing, constitute the world.

61. That, when the individual enters the womb, he develops hands, feet, belly, back and head, and that his soul unites with that body, all this the doctors of this school attribute to natural development [svābhāvika].

62. Who fashions the sharpness of the thorn or the varied nature of beast and bird? All this takes place by natural development [svabhāvataḥ]. There is no such thing in this respect as action of our own will, a fortiori no possibility of effort.”

As indicated by these verses, the historically known doctrine of svabhāva is associated with determinism and the negation of human effort, and consequently with the negation of moral responsibility. Things are what they are because of their various svabhāvas or inherent natures, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. The lack of moral responsibility that this doctrine led to is why it was refuted by all three of the religions of old India. This historically known svabhāvavāda is not at all something that Theosophy would wish to be associated with. The favorable references in Theosophical writings to the Svābhāvika school of Buddhism would be to something else, despite the problematic sources (Hodgson and those following him) describing an alleged Svābhāvika school in Nepal that does not exist. More importantly, the seven occurrences of svabhāva in the stanzas we have from the Book of Dzyan must refer to a different svabhāva teaching, now largely unknown.

(to be continued)

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