Pseudoscience & Religion

Ajita Keshakambalin: The Rebel Who Wore A Blanket Of Hair

This is Part – V of Dr. Kamath’s series on Heretics, Rebels and Revolutionaries. Read Part IV here. Dr. Kamath’s previous series on The Truth About The Bhagavad Gita can be found here.

Heretics, Rebels, Reformers And Revolutionaries: V

Two thousand five hundred years before freethinker Ajita Kamal began his crusade in America against religions and superstitions, there was Ajita Keshakambalin in the kingdom of Magadha, India, who rebelled against the shenanigans of Brahmanism. Magadha was then the hotbed of rebellion against Brahmanism, and the “Seven Samurai” we are discussing now were among the thousands of rebels, reformers and heretics who made it their home. Ajita, an uncompromising ascetic and an argumentative Indian to boot, was a contemporary of the Buddha. Whereas Brihaspati was the first known theoretician of Lokayata (Materialist) philosophy, Ajita Keshakambalin was its first historically known exponent, albeit in its primitive form. Historian D. D. Kosambi refers to him as “Proto-Materialist.”

Ajita’s Peculiar Last Name

It is claimed by most authorities that Ajita’s last name -Keshakambalin- referred to the fact that he carried a blanket made up of human hair, which was described as “the most miserable garment. It was cold in cold weather, and hot in the hot, foul smelling and uncouth.” If, indeed, this was true, it must have been his own matted hair rather than a separate blanket made up of human hair. We can see in India even today Sadhus (ascetics) walking around with huge blanket of matted brown hair on their shoulders and backs. Assuming this to be true in the case of Ajita Keshakambalin, I can imagine his orthodox (Brahmana) as well as heterodox (Sramana) detractors mocking him during their heated debates, “Yo, Ajita! How can we argue with you with our nostrils closed tight! Wash your stinking matted hair in the Ganga before we pass out!”

I believe, however, that his detractors used his last name to ridicule his materialist philosophy as “miserable and useless” and his anti-Brahmanic words and deeds as “foul and uncouth.” Such caricaturing of heretics was common in ancient India.

Keshakambalin Tackles Brahmanism: Ucchedavada

First, Ajita attacked Brahmanism’s Law of Karma with his doctrine of Ucchedavada, which claimed that there was no such thing as after-life. Death is the final annihilation of man. As we all know, the Law of Karma said that man’s soul was born again and again, and enjoyed or suffered his Karmaphalam (fruits of his deeds in this life) in his next life. It was exploitation of this Law by means of Kamya Karma (desire-driven Yajnas) that led to Brahmanism’s decadence. As described in Samannaphala Sutta, Ajita explained his radical views on the Law of Karma and his opposition to Brahmanic rituals to king Ajatashatru as follows:

There is nothing given (as charity), nothing offered (as oblation), nothing sacrificed (in the fire of Yajna). There is no fruit (Karmaphalam) or result of good (Punyam) or bad (Papam) actions.

It should be noted here that when Ajita said that there is no such thing as the result (Karmaphalam) of good deeds and bad, he was merely attacking the fundamental concept of the Law of Karma, which said that the Karmaphalam of good and bad deeds accumulate and are carried to one’s next life. He never said that one should not do good deeds. In fact, he knew well that he was attacking decadent Brahmanism for the good of the society.

There is no this world, no next world (heaven or hell), no mother, no father (referring to ancestral worship), no spontaneously reborn beings (one is merely the product of sexual union); no priests (Brahmanic ritualists) or contemplatives (Upanishadic philosophers) who, faring rightly and practicing rightly (behaving in accordance with their beliefs), proclaim this world (wealth, power and pleasure) and the next (heaven in the case of Brahmins and Abode of Brahman in the case of the Upanishadists) after having directly known and realized it for themselves (as they claim).

The words of those (Brahmins) who speak of existence after death are false, empty chatter. With the break-up of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated, and destroyed. They do not exist after death.

Ajita condemned all three aspects of decadent Vedic rituals meant to earn good Karmaphalam -Yajna (fire sacrifices), Tapas (austerity) and Dana (charity to Brahmins during rituals). And he condemned the ritualists as fools.

The offerings (at Yajnas such as ghee, grain and animals) end in ashes. Generosity (charity to Brahmins) is taught by fools.

Keshakambalin Tackles Upanishadism: Tam Jivam-Tam Sariram Vada

Next, Ajita tackled Upanishadic doctrine of eternal Atman as distinct from the ephemeral body. Ajita countered this with his doctrine of Tam Jivam-Tam Sariram Vada, which said that these two entities were one and the same. This meant, when one dies, nothing survives:

A person is a composite of four primary elements. At death, the earth (elements in the body) returns to and merges with the (external) earth-substance. The fire (body heat) returns to and merges with the external fire-substance. The liquid (water) returns to and merges with the external liquid-substance. The wind returns to and merges with the external wind-substance. The sense-faculties (the Senses, the Mind and the Intellect) scatter into space. Four men, with the bier as the fifth, carry the corpse. Its eulogies are sounded only as far as the charnel ground. The bones turn pigeon-colored.

Was Ajita Keshakambalin A Charvaka?

It should be noted here that even though Ajita Keshakambalin has been referred to as the Proto-Materialist, his primary goal was to condemn all aspects of Brahmanism and Upanishadism. He was not a Charvaka in the real sense. Full-fledged Charvaka philosophy came into being several centuries after his time. He was an ascetic who did not indulge in sensory pleasures, and there is no evidence that he knew the basic Charvaka tenet that valid knowledge (Pramana) could be gained only by means of direct sensory perception and not by inference, intuition and testimony. His greatest accomplishment was that he stood up to the mighty force of Brahmanism and condemned it unequivocally and fearlessly at great personal risk. Such brave act is fraught with great danger even in today’s India, which is infested with narrow-minded, ignorant and cowardly Brahmanic goons.

Brahmanism, Upanishadism And Bhagavatism React

Two centuries after Keshakambalin’s passing away, Brahmanism reacted to his anti-Brahmanic diatribe in the Arjuna Vishada of Brahmanic Gita by restating the beliefs in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (2:27), Yajnas (4:12) and the like. Nearly a century later (around 150 B. C.), Upanishadists restated their position in the Gita that the eternal Atman was separate from the transient body (2:20). About another century later, Bhagavatas, who succeeded Upanishadists in the Bhagavad Gita, declared Materialists as those who did not believe in morals and hence demoniac (16:8), and condemned them to the wombs of the demons (16:19-20).

How Brahmanism Triumphed Over Materialism

In the course of time, some parts of Keshakambalin’s anti-Brahmanic views survived as part of Charvaka philosophy. As we read in an earlier article, almost all of Charvaka literature was lost due to neglect on the part of Charvakas, or destroyed by Brahmanic vested interests. What little of it remained was buried under the avalanche of mesmerizing poems, mindboggling philosophical expositions, and voluminous texts of fantastic and titillating stories (Puranas) churned out by hundreds of dedicated Brahmins of the Bhagavata creed who had perfected the art of storytelling. Over the ensuing centuries, thousands of fanatical Swamis, Gurus and charlatans spread the message of Brahmanism throughout the length and breadth of India, and succeeded in deluding the masses with intricate and awe-inspiring rituals; colorful and exhilarating festivals; fantastic superstitions; illusive and luring astrology; hordes of magician gods, and other absurd stuff. Foreigners who came to India for one reason or another named this potpourri of absurd beliefs and mindless practices as Hinduism. Modern Hindus are blindly following these obsolete beliefs and practices without realizing that they have no practical value except as part of India’s ancient history.

(To be continued)

About the author

Prabhakar Kamath

Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About To Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.

Links to all articles in Dr. Kamath's earlier series on Heretics, Rebels, Reformers and Revolutionaries can be found here. Dr. Kamath' series on The Truth About The Bhagavad Gita can be found here.

2 Comments

  • DrK,
    Interesting stuff about Mr Keshakambalin..
    I wonder why some of these “rationalists” didnt follow up their philosophy with something more practical.. such as a proto-sciency method to develop/invent some practical applications, thereby building some credibility.

    As an aside, as part of your long interest/research in this field, did you dig up/learn any genuine “science” done by the early people. I did some googling, and found this.
    http://goo.gl/utkeq
    The author has a known conservative agenda, and even with that the known “vedic science” is so childish and vague (even accounting for the times).

  • You asked: I wonder why some of these “rationalists” didnt follow up their philosophy with something more practical.. such as a proto-sciency method to develop/invent some practical applications, thereby building some credibility.

    Developing practical application of any philosophy requires a person who is a genius. For example, Jainism was as close to being “scientific” as an ancient philosophy could get in spite of its belief in Karmic atoms, incarnations, etc. It took the genius of Gandhi to develop its practical application. Gandhi used Jain principles of Truth, Nonviolence, celibacy, non-possession, etc. to develop Satyagraha. Using similar method, Martin Luther King, Jr. liberated black people in America. The ancient rationalists were courageous and charismatic people, but they did not have the genius to convert their philosophy into practice.

    You asked: As an aside, as part of your long interest/research in this field, did you dig up/learn any genuine “science” done by the early people.

    Me: No.

    I did some googling, and found this.
    http://goo.gl/utkeq
    The author has a known conservative agenda, and even with that the known “vedic science” is so childish and vague (even accounting for the times).

    Me: As far as I can tell, “Vedic science’ is a fraud.

Leave a Comment