A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of ayurveda ethics: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fifteenth part in the series called the “speculations in the medical schools”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

The length of the period of a man’s lifetime in this iron age (kali-yuga) of ours is normally fixed at one hundred years. But sinful actions of great enormity may definitely reduce the normal length to any extent. Ordinary vicious actions, however, can reduce the length of life only if the proper physical causes of death, such as poisoning, diseases and the like, afe present. If these physical causes can be warded off, then a man may continue to live until the normal length of his life, one hundred years, is reached, when the body-machine, being worn out by long work, gradually breaks down. Medicines may, however, in the case of those who are not cursed by the commission of sins of great enormity, prolong the normal length of life. It is here that Caraka and his followers differ from all other theories of karma that flourished on the soil of India. The theory is not accepted in any Indian system of thought except that of Caraka. In spite of the many differences that prevail amongst these theories, they may still be roughly divided into four classes. Thus there are, first, the pauruṣa-vādins, such as those who follow the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha school of thought and are idealists of the extreme type, thinking that all our experiences can be controlled by a determined effort of the will and that there is no bond of previous karma, destiny, or fatality which cannot be controlled or overcome by it.

Human will is all-powerful, and by it we can produce any change of any kind in the development of our future well-being. There is, again, the view that God alone is responsible for all our actions, and that He makes those whom He wants to raise perform good actions and those whom He wants to take the downward path commit sinful deeds. There is also the view that God rewards or praises us in accordance with our good or bad deeds, and that we alone are responsible for our actions and free to act as we choose. There is a further view, elaborately dealt with in Patañjali’s Yoga-sūtra , that our deeds determine the particular nature of our birth, the period of our lifetime and the nature of our enjoyments or sufferings. Ordinarily the fruits of the actions of a previous birth are reaped in the present birth, and the ripened fruits of the actions of the present birth determine the nature of the future birth, period of life and pleasurable or painful experiences, while the fruits of extremely good or bad actions are reaped in this life.

In none of these theories do we find the sort of common-sense eclecticism that we find in Caraka. For here it is only the fruits of extremely bad actions that cannot be arrested by the normal efforts of good conduct. The fruits of all ordinary actions can be arrested by normal physical ways of well-balanced conduct, the administration of proper medicines and the like. This implies that our ordinary non-moral actions in the proper care of health, taking proper tonics, medicines and the like, can modify or arrest the ordinary course of the fruition of our karma. Thus, according to the effects of my ordinary karma I may have fallen ill; but, if I take due care, I may avoid such effects and may still be in good health. According to other theories the laws of karma are immutable. Only the fruits of unripe karma can be destroyed by true knowledge.

The fruits of ripe karma have to be experienced in any case, even if true knowledge is attained. The peculiar features of Caraka’s theory consist in this, that he does not introduce this immutability of ripe karmas. The effects of all karmas , excepting those which are extremely strong, can be modified by an apparently non-moral course of conduct, involving the observance of the ordinary daily duties of life. Ordinarily the law of karma implies the theory of a moral government of the universe in accordance with the good or bad fruits of one’s own karma. We may be free to act as we choose; but our actions in this life, excepting those of great enormity, determine the experiences of our future lives, and so an action in this life cannot ordinarily be expected to ward off any of the evils of this life which one is predestined to undergo in accordance with the karma of a previous birth. Moreover, it is the moral or immoral aspects of an action that determine the actual nature of their good or bad effects, success or failure. This implies a disbelief in our power of directly controlling our fortunes by our efforts.

The theory of karma thus involves a belief in the mysterious existence and ripening of the sinful and virtuous elements of our actions, which alone in their course of maturity produce effects. If the theory that sins bring their punishment, and virtues produce their beneficial effects, of themselves, is accepted, its logical consequences would lead us to deny the possibility of mere physical actions modifying the fruition of these karmas. So the acceptance of the moral properties of actions leads to the denial of their direct physical consequences. If through my honest efforts I succeed in attaining a happy state, it is contended that my success is not due to my present efforts, but it was predestined, as a consequence of the good deeds of my previous birth, that I should be happy. For, if the fruition was due to my ordinary' efforts, then the theory that all happy or unhappy experiences are due to the ripening of the karmas of the previous births falls to the ground.

If, on the other hand, all success or failure is due to our proper or improper efforts, then the capacity of sins or virtues to produce misery or happiness may naturally be doubted, and the cases where even our best efforts are attended with failure are not explained. But, if our ordinary efforts cannot effect anything, and if the modes of our experiences, pleasures and sufferings, and the term of our life are already predestined, then none of our efforts are of any use in warding off the calamities of this life, and the purpose of the science of medicine is baffled. In common-sense ways of belief one refers to “fate” or “destiny” only when the best efforts fail, and one thinks that, unless there is an absolute fatality, properly directed efforts are bound to succeed.

Caraka’s theory seems to embody such a common-sense view. But the question arises how, if this is so, can the immutability of the law of karma be preserved? Caraka thinks that it is only the extremely good or bad deeds that have this immutable character. All other effects of ordinary actions can be modified or combated by our efforts. Virtue and vice are not vague and mysterious principles in Caraka, and the separation that appears elsewrhere between the moral and the physical sides of an action is not found in his teaching[1].

He seems to regard the “good,” or the all-round manifold utility (hitā) of an action, as its ultimate test. What a man has to do before acting is carefully to judge and anticipate the utility of his action, i.e. to judge whether it will be good for him or not; if the effects are beneficial for him, he ought to do it, and, if they are harmful, he ought not to do it[2]. Our ultimate standard of good actions lies in seeking our own good, and to this end the proper direction and guidance of our mind and senses are absolutely necessary. Caraka applies here also his old principle of the golden mean, and says that the proper means of keeping the mind in the right path consists in avoiding too much thinking, in not thinking of revolting subjects, and in keeping the mind active. Thoughts and ideas are the objects of the mind, and one has to avoid the atiyoga , mithyā-yoga and a-yoga of all thoughts, as just described. “Self-good,” or ātma-hita , which is the end of all our actions, is described as not only that which gives us pleasure and supplies the material for our comfort, ease of mind and long life, but also that which will be beneficial to us in our future life. Right conduct (sad-vṛtta) leads to the health and well-being of body and mind and secures sense -control (indriya-vijaya).

The three springs of action are our desire for self-preservation (prāṇaiṣaṇā), our desire for the materials of comfort (dhanaiṣaṇā), and our desire for a happy state of existence in the future life (paralokaiṣaṇā). We seek our good not only in this life, but also in the after-life, and these two kinds of self-good are summed up in our threefold desire—for self-preservation, for the objects that lead to happiness, and for a blessed after-life. Right conduct is not conduct in accordance with the injunctions of the Vedas, or conduct which leads ultimately to the cessation of all sorrows through cessation of all desires or through right knowledge and the extinction of false knowledge, but is that which leads to the fulfilment of the three ultimate desires. The cause of sins is not transgression of the injunctions of the scriptures, but errors of right judgment or of right thinking (prajñāparādha).

First and foremost is our desire for life, i.e. for health and prolongation of life; for life is the precondition of all other good things. Next to our desire for life is our desire for wealth and the pursuit of such vocations of life as lead to it. The third is the desire for a blessed after-life. In this connection Caraka introduces a discussion to prove the existence of a future state of existence. He says that a wise man should not entertain doubts regarding the existence of a future life, since such doubts might hinder the performance of right conduct.

The mere fact that we cannot experience its existence with our senses is not a sufficient negative proof. For there are few things which can be directly experienced by the senses, and there are many which exist, but are never experienced by the senses. The very senses with which we experience other things cannot themselves be subject to sense-experience[3]. Even sensible things cannot be perceived if they are too near or too distant, if they are covered, if the senses are weak or diseased, if the mind is otherwise engaged, if they are mixed up with similar things, if their light is overcome by stronger light, or if they are too small[4]. It is therefore wrong to say that what is not perceived by the senses does not exist. If, again, it is argued that the foetus must derive its soul from the parents, then it may be pointed out that, if the soul of the foetus migrated from either of the parents, then, since the soul is without parts, it could not have migrated in parts, and such a total migration would mean that the parents would be left without any soul and would die.

As the soul could not migrate from the parents to the child, so neither can the mind nor the intellect be said to have so migrated. Moreover, if all life must be derived from the migration of other souls, then how can insects come into being, as many do, without parent insects[5]? Consciousness exists as a separate and beginningless entity, and it is not created by anyone else. If, however, the supreme soul be regarded as its cause, then in that sense it may be conceived as having been produced therefrom[6]. The theory of the after-life consists according to Caraka principally in the view that the soul is existent and uncreated, and that it is associated with the foetus at a certain stage of its development in the womb.

He also refers to

  • the evidence of rebirth which we have in the difference of the child from the parents;
  • in the fact that, though other causes are more or less the same, two children differ in colour, voice, appearance, intelligence and luck;
  • in the fact that some are servants, whereas others are their rich masters;
  • in the fact that some are naturally in good health, while others are in bad, or are different in the length of life;
  • from the fact that infants know how to cry, suck, smile or fear without any previous instruction or experience;
  • that with the same kind of efforts two persons reap two different kinds of results;
  • that some are naturally adepts in certain subjects and dull in others;
  • and that there are at least some who remember their past lives;

for from these facts the only hypothesis that can be made is that these differences are due to the karma of one’s past life, otherwise called daiva, and that the fruits of the good and bad deeds of this life will be reaped in another.

It has also been pointed out in a previous section that a child does not owe his or her intellectual parts to the father or to the mother. These gifts belong to the soul of the child, and there is therefore no reason to suppose that the son of an intellectually deficient person will on that account be necessarily dull.

Caraka further urges that the truth of rebirth can be demonstrated by all possible proofs. He first refers to the verdict of the Vedas and of the opinions of philosophers, which are written for the good of the people and are in conformity with the views of the wise and the virtuous and not in opposition to the opinions of the Vedas. Such writings always recommend gifts, penances, sacrifices, truthfulness, non-injury to all living beings and sex-continence as leading to heavenly happiness and to liberation (mokṣa). The sages say that liberation, or the cessation of rebirth, is only for those who have completely purged off all mental and bodily defects. This implies that these sages accepted the theory of rebirth as true; and there have been other sages who also have distinctly announced the truth of rebirth.

Apart from the testimony of the Vedas and of the sages, even perception (pratyakṣa) also proves the truth of rebirth. Thus it is seen that children are often very different from their parents, and even from the same parents the children born are often very different in colour, voice, frame of body, mental disposition, intelligence and luck, as described above. The natural inference to be based on these data directly experienced is that no one can avoid the effects of the deeds he has performed, and that therefore what was performed in a past birth is indestructible and always follows a man in his present birth as his daiva , or karma , the fruits of which show in his present life.

The deeds of the present birth will again accumulate fruits, which will be reaped in the next birth. From the present fruits of pleasurable or painful experiences their past seeds as past karma are inferred, and from the present deeds as seeds their future effects as pleasurable or painful experiences in another birth are also inferred. Apart from this inference othfer reasons also lead to the same condition. Thus the living foetus is produced by the combination of the six elements, to which connection writh the self from the other world is indispensable; so also fruits can only be reaped when the actions have been performed and not if they are not performed—there cannot be shoots without seeds. It may be noted in this connection that in no other system of Indian thought has any attempt been made to prove the theory of rebirth as has here been done. A slight attempt was made in the Nyāya system to prove the theory on the ground that the crying, sucking and the natural fear of infants implies previous experience.

But Caraka in a systematic manner takes up many more points and appeals to the different logical proofs that may be adduced. Again, we find the nature of the fruits of action (karma) discussed in the Vyāsa-bhāṣya on the Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali. It is said in the Yoga-sūtra , n. 13, that the karmas of past life determine the particular birth of the individual in a good or bad or poor or rich family and the length of life and pleasurable or painful experiences. But that physical differences of body, colour, voice, temperament, mental disposition and special intellectual features are also due to the deeds of the past life seems to be a wholly new idea. It is, however, interesting to note that, though Caraka attributes the divergence of intelligence to deeds of the past life, yet he does not attribute thereto the weakness or the strength of the moral will.

Caraka further refers to the collective evil effects of the misdeeds of people living in a particular locality, which may often lead to the outbreak of epidemics. Speaking of the outbreak of epidemic diseases, he says that they are due to the pollution of air and water, and to country and climatic revolutions. The pollution of air consists in its being unnatural for the season, dull and motionless, too violent, too dry, too cold, too warm, stormy, of the nature of whirlwind, too humid, dusty, smoky, impure or of bad smell. The pollution of water consists in its being of unnatural colour, bad smell, bad taste, containing impurities (when devoid of its natural qualities), which are often avoided by water birds, and being unpleasant, and having its sources largely dried up. The pollution of a particular locality occurs when it is infested with lizards, wild animals, mosquitoes, flies, insects, mice, owls, predatory birds or jackals, or when it is full of wild creepers, grass, etc., or when there is a failure of crops, the air smoky, etc. The pollution of time consists in the happening of unnatural climatic conditions.

The cause of these epidemic conditions is said to be the demerit (adharma) due to the evil deeds of past life, the commission of which is again due to bad deeds of previous life. When the chief persons of a country, city or locality transgress the righteous course and lead the people in an unrighteous manner, the people also in their conduct continue to grow vicious and sinful. And, as a result of the misdeeds of the people of the locality, the gods forsake that place, there is no proper rain, the air, water and the country as a whole become polluted and epidemics break out. Thus the misdeeds of a people can, according to Caraka, pollute the whole region and ultimately ruin it. When a country is ruined by civil war, then that also is due to the sins of the people, who are inflated with too much greed, anger, pride and ignorance.

Thus epidemics are caused by the conjoint sins of the people of a particular region. But even at the time of the outbreak of such epidemics those who have not committed such bad actions as to deserve punishment may save themselves by taking proper medicines and by leading a virtuous life. Continuing to establish his theory that all climatic and other natural evils are due to the commission of sins or adharma, Caraka says that in ancient times people were virtuous, of strong and stout physique and extremely long-lived, and on account of their virtuous ways of living there were no climatic disturbances, no famines, no failure of crops, no drought and no pollutions leading to epidemics and diseases. But at the close of the satya-yuga, through over-eating some rich men became too fat, and hence they became easily tired, and hence became lazy, and on account of laziness they acquired the storing habit (saṅcaya), and, through that, the tendency to receive things from others (parigraha), and, through that, greed (lobha).

In the next, Tretā, age, from greed there arose malice, from malice lying, from lying desire, anger, conceit, antipathy, cruelty, violence (abhighāta), fear, sorrow and anxiety. Thus in the Tretā age dharma diminished by a quarter, and so the earthly production of harvest, etc. also diminished by a quarter, and the bodies of living beings lost their vitality accordingly; their length of life diminished, and diseases began to grow. So in the Dvāpara age there was a further diminution of the quantities of earthly productions and a further weakening of human constitution and shortening of the length of life.

It may be remembered that in Suśruta, in. i, it is said that many persons of the medical school of thought had conceived this world to have come into being either through time (kāla), in the natural process by a blind destiny (niyati), or through a mere nature (svabhāva), accidental concourse of things (yadṛcchā), or through evolution (pariṇāma) by the will of God; and they called each of these alternatives the prakṛti , or the origin of the world[7]. But the notion of the Sāṃkhya prakṛti holds within it all these concepts, and it is therefore more appropriate to admit one prakṛti as the evolving cause of the world. Gayī, in interpreting this, holds that prakṛti is to be regarded as the evolving material cause, whereas time, natural process, etc. are to be regarded as instrumental causes for the world-manifestation. According to Suśruta the selves (kṣetra-jña) are not in the medical school regarded as all-pervasive (a-sarva-gata), as they are in the Sāṃkhya system of thought. These selves, on account of their virtues or vices, transmigrate from one life to another as men or as different animals; for, though not all-pervasive, they are eternal and are not destroyed by death.

The selves are not to be regarded as self-revealing, as in Sāṃkhya or the Vedānta; but they can be inferred, as the substance or entity to which the feelings of pleasure and pain belong, and they are always endowed with consciousness, though they may not themselves be regarded as of the nature of pure consciousness. They are cetanāvantaḥ (endowed with consciousness) and not cit-svarūpāh (of the nature of consciousness). They are extremely subtle or fine (porama-sūkṣma), and this epithet is explained by Ḍalhaṇa as meaning that the selves are as small as atoms. But, being always endowed with consciousness, they can also through self-perception (pratyakṣa) be perceived as existing. The transmigration of these selves is regulated by the merit and demerit of their deeds.

Ḍalhaṇa says that through excessive sins they are born as animals, through an admixture of virtues and sins they are born as men, and through a preponderance of virtues they are born as gods. But according to Caraka not only is the nature of transmigration controlled by the good or bad deeds of a man, but even the productivity of nature, its purity or pollution; and the thousand and one things in which nature is helpful or harmful to men are determined by good and bad deeds (dharma and adharma). Dharma and adharma are therefore regarded as the most important factors in determining most of the human conditions of life and world-conditions of environment. Such a view is not opposed to the Sāṃkhya theory of world-creation; for there also it is held that the evolution of prakṛti is determined by the good or bad deeds of the selves; but, though implied, yet in no Sāṃkhya work is such a clear and specific determination of world-conditions and world-evolution through the merit and demerit of human beings to be found.

Freedom of human will is almost wholly admitted by Caraka, and, where the fruits of previous actions are not of a confirmed character, they can be averted or improved.by our efforts. Our efforts thus have on the one hand a cosmical or universal effect, as determining the conditions of the development of the material world, and on the other hand they determine the fate of the individual. The fruits of our actions determine our birth, our experiences and many intellectual gifts; but they do not determine the nature of our will or affect its strength of application in particular directions.

Footnotes and references:


Caraka-samkitā, 111. 3. 28-38.


buddhyā samyag idaṃ mama hitam idam mamāhitam ity avekṣyāvekṣya kar-maṇāṃ pravṛttīnāṃ samyak pratipādanena ity ahita-karma-parityāgena hita-karmācaraṇena ca.
      Cakrapāṇi on Caraka, 1. 8. 17.


yair eva tāvad indriyaiḥ pratyakṣam upalabhyate tāny eva sand cāpratyak-ṣāṇi.
      Caraka, i. 11. 7.


satāṃ ca rūpāṇām ati-sannikarṣād ati-viprakarṣād āvaraṇāt karaṇa-daurba-lyān mano ’navasthānāt samānābhihārāt abhibḥavād ati-saukṣmyāc ca pratyakṣānu-palabdhiḥ.
11. 8.


saṃsveda-jānāṃ maśakādīnāṃ tathodbḥij-jānāṃ gaṇḍūpadādtnāṃ cetanānām mātā-pitarau na vidyete tatas teṣām acaitanyaṃ syān mātā-pitroś cetana-kāraṇayorabhāvāt.
      Cakrapāṇi on Caraka, 11. 11.


On this point Cakrapāṇi gives a different interpretation in 1. 11. 13.


The primary use of prakṛti may have been due to the idea of an enquiry regarding the source and origin of the world. Prakṛti literally meanfe “source” or “origin.” So the term was probably used in reference to other speculations regarding the origin of the world before it was technically applied as a Sāṃkhya term. The ideas of svabhāva, kāla, etc. seem to have been combined to form the technical Sāṃkhya concept of prakṛti, and two schools of Sāṃkhya, the Kapila and the Patañjali schools, arose in connection with the dispute as to the starting of the evolution of prakṛti accidentally ( yadṛcchā) or by the will of God. The idea of prakṛti was reached by combining all the alternative sources of world-manifestation that were current before, and so they are all conserved in the notion of prakṛti.

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