Sunday, 21 August 2011

Materialism in India: A Synoptic View

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya  

0. Many, if not most, people nowadays go straight to the internet rather than look up a book to know something about anything under the sun. There are hundreds, if not thousands of files on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata system of philosophy there. Regrettably, many of them, though well-intentioned, are ill-informed and highly misleading. I am an old hand researching for decades on the history of materialism in India (see my Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, Firenze (Florence): Società Editrice Fiorentina, 2009; New Delhi: Manohar Books, 2010. A brief exposition will be found in my essay, “Lokayata Darśana and a Comparative Study with Greek materialism” in: Materialism and Immaterialism in India and the West: Varying Vistas, ed. Partha Ghose, New Delhi: Centre for the Studies on Civilizations, 2010, pp. 21-34). I, therefore, find it necessary to disabuse enquirers of several false notions.

1. Cārvāka or Lokāyata is not a “brand name” for all sorts of materialist ideas that flourished in India over the ages. There were several proto-materialist thinkers in India right from the time of the Buddha (sixth/fifth century BCE) or even earlier. The system that came to be known finally as the Cārvāka/Lokāyata did not flourish before the sixth century CE or a bit later. It is only from the eighth century CE that the name Cārvāka  is associated with a materialist school (some later writers such as Śāntarakṣita and Śaṅkara continued to call it Lokāyata). Both names, however, came to refer to the same school of thought after the eighth century CE. Neither of the two words occurs in Vedic literature. Lokāyata in Pali and Buddhist Sanskrit works means ‘the science of disputation’, or in a narrower sense, ‘point of dispute’, not materialism. The word is ambiguous. There are reasons to believe that the adherents of this materialist school themselves  called themselves Cārvāka, using it as a nickname. The word might have been chosen from the Mahābhārata but the demon in that work has nothing to do with materialism.


2. The Cārvāka/Lokāyata is the only systematized form of materialist philosophy in India that is known to date. There were other pre-Cārvāka  proto-materialist schools too that preached certain materialist views but their views were not systematically set down in the form of aphorisms as the Cārvāka-s did. Some of these pre-Cārvāka proto-materialist views are encountered in the Upaniṣad-s, Pali and Prakrit canonical works (of the Buddhists and the Jains respectively) and their commentaries as well as in the Jābāli episode in the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mokṣadharma-parvādhyāya in the Mahābhārata and some of the Purāṇa-s (particularly the Viṣṇupurāṇa and the Padmapuraṇa), and last but not least, in old Tamil poems such as the Manimekalai. All of these are not to be equated with the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Some of the views recorded in them are authentic expositions of this or that proto-materialist view, but some are of dubious authenticity. There is a tendency in the Rāmāyaṇa and some Purāṇa-s to treat the Buddhists, the Jains and the Cārvāka-s as representing a single school of nāstika-s, that is, defilers of the Vedas, and to ascribe the views of one to the other quite inappropriately.


3.1. All the Cārvāka/Lokāyata works were lost before the fourteenth century CE, so much so that Sāyaṇa-Mādhava, aka Mādhavācārya and Vidyāraṇya, or whoever was the author of the first chapter of this digest of a compendium of philosophies (Sarva-darśana-saṃgraha), could not quote a single sentence from any Lokāyata text nor name a single authority other than the mythical Bṛhaspati. Yet this book, first edited and published by Iswarcandra Vidyāsāgara, better known as an educationist and social reformer, in 1853-58 from the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, has proved to be more influential than any other work. However, it is worth noticing that the reading of several lines of some verses attributed to the Cārvākas are willfully distorted in this compendium. The original reading of a line in a verse, for example, was as follows: “Live happily as long as you live; nothing is beyond the ken of death.” It is so found in all other works (no fewer than thirteen). The last part of the line was changed in this compendium to read: “eat ghee (clarified butter) even by running into debts.” To many educated Indians and maybe others abroad this distorted reading is granted to be the epitome of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. It is amusing that the digest itself quotes the original reading at the beginning of the chapter but quotes the distorted reading at the end of the same chapter.


3.2. However, from the available fragments found quoted or paraphrased in the works of anti-materialist philosophers it is evident that the Cārvāka/Lokāyata system had developed along the same lines as Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika. This means:


(a) There was a base text, that is, a collection of sūtras or aphorisms, tersely phrased because they were meant to be memorized, and


(b) Several commentaries (and probably sub-commentaries) were written to explicate the aphorisms,


(c) Besides the above sources, a number of verses have traditionally been ascribed to the Cārvākas. Some of these epigrams make fun of the performance of religious rites, particularly sacrificial acts, and deny the existence of an extracorporeal soul which can survive the death of a person. Some other verses, however, might have originated in the Buddhist and Jain circles. The denunciation of ritual violence (killing of animals in a Vedic sacrifice) and condemnation of non-vegetarian diet accord better with the Buddhist and the Jain teachings than with any other school. There might have been some materialists who renounced both marriage and eating of animal flesh. In that case, the charge of promiscuity and indulgence in flesh and wine brought against the Cārvākas by Guṇaratna, a fifteenth-century Jain writer, loses its force.


3.3. The Tattvopaplavasiṃha by Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa is not a Cārvāka/Lokāyata work: it represents the view of a totally different school that challenged the very concept of pramāṇa (means of knowledge). The Cārvākas  did believe in pramāṇa and whatever else it entails (knowledge, the knower, and the object to be known). Even those who, like Eli Franco, prefer to call it the only surviving Cārvāka text do not claim that it is a materialist text. So the work is quite irrelevant to the study of materialism in India.


4. The basic plank of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata may be summed up as: i) denial of rebirth and the other- world (heaven and hell), and of the immortal soul, ii) refusal to believe in the efficacy of performing religious acts, iii) acceptance of the natural origin of the universe, without any creator God or any other supernatural agency, iv) belief in the primacy of matter over consciousness, and hence of the human body over the spirit (soul), and finally, v) advocacy of the primacy of perception over all other means of knowledge; inference, etc. are secondary, and acceptable if and only if they are based on perception, not on scriptures.


The first three refer to the ontology, and the rest to the epistemology of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. As to ethics all that can be said is that the Cārvākas did not believe in practising asceticism and advised seeking of pleasure in this world rather in the next, for there is no such world. This teaching has been misinterpreted as a recommendation for unrestrained sensual enjoyment. Regarding their social outlook it may be said that the Cārvākas  were opposed to gender discrimination and caste (varṇa) distinctions (see the Prabodha-candrodaya by Kṛṣṇamiśra, Act 2 verse 18 and the Naiṣadha-carita by Śrīharṣa, Canto 17 verses 40,42, 58). They relied on human endeavour (puruṣakāra), not on fate (daiva), and rejected the concept of adṛṣṭa or karman.


This is how materialism as a full-fledged philosophical doctrine made its debut in ancient India.  It is evident that the issues are peculiarly relevant to the Indian context (rebirth being the most noteworthy). The Cārvāka/Lokāyata then obviously had an indigenous origin.


5. There was no continuity in the Cārvāka/Lokāyata tradition after the twelfth century CE or thereabouts. Whatever is written on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata after the twelfth century is based on second-hand knowledge, learned from preceptors to disciples, who in their turn could only teach what they had heard from their preceptors, not what they had actually studied. Some of their knowledge correspond to what the Cārvāka/Lokāyata philosophers had or might have really said, but much of their accounts are biased against materialism and are mere fabrications.


6. The Yogācāra Buddhists, Jains, Advaita Vedantins and Nyāya philosophers considered the Cārvāka/Lokāyata as one of their chief opponents and tried hard to refute materialist views. Such refutations were made even after all the authentic Cārvāka/Lokāyata texts had been lost. So, the representation of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata in the works of these schools are not always firmly grounded on first-hand knowledge of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata texts.


7. Because of this lack of acquaintance with original sources, the opponents, and many modern scholars, often confuse pre-Cārvāka and Cārvāka views, considering them as one and the same. This gives an impression that there were several kinds of Cārvāka-s while the fact is that there were several kinds of materialists,  but all of them were not Cārvāka-s. Some of them were definitely pre-Cārvāka and held different views. For example, regarding the number of natural elements, the Cārvākas  admitted four, namely, earth, air, fire and water, while others spoke of five, adding ether or space to the list.


8. We have no evidence of any post-Cārvāka materialist school in India, existing or flourishing after the thirteenth century CE. What Abul Faḍl (Fazl) had gathered from the North Indian pundits about the Cārvāka system (most probably from a Jain scholar) and recorded it in Persian in his Ain-i Akbari, betrays the same lack of information as evinced in his contemporary and later Sanskrit digests of Indian philosophy. Only a few highlights of the materialist system were known to all of them. In addition to this a few verses attributed to the Cārvāka-s had been orally transmitted from one generation to another. Their accounts therefore are removed from the original sources and should be taken with the customary pinch of salt.


9. Some Sanskrit poems and plays (particularly Naiṣadha-carita, Prabodha-candrodaya, Āgama-dambara and Vidvanmoda-taraṅgiṇī) and one prose work (Kādambarī) contain representations of the Cārvākas. The evidence is dubious, for the authors of these works were thoroughly opposed to materialism and tried to portray the Cārvāka in unfavourable light. Hence whatever is written there should not be accepted uncritically.


10. The commonest charge levelled against the Cārvāka-s is that they did not believe in any other means of knowledge except perception. But there is enough evidence to suggest that some of the pre-Cārvāka schools as well as the Cārvāka-s considered inference based on perception to be a valid means of knowledge, although it is of secondary importance. It was well known from the eighth century CE.. Nevertheless, the opponents continued to level the same charge almost in the fashion of Goebbels (“Repeat a lie ten times and it will sound like the truth.” Whether Goebbels had actually said so or not is irrelevant, since such strategy was followed by him in practice).


11. Another baseless charge made by the opponents is the alleged heedless hedonism of the Cārvākas. Of course, there is enough evidence to show that the Cārvāka-s did not consider human life to be full of misery but there is absolutely no evidence to prove that they prescribed sensual enjoyment to be the end of life. The case is similar to that of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher. Although he used to lead a very austere life, his name has been maligned as a spokesperson of an ’eat, drink and be merry’ view of life.  Ajita Kesakambala, a senior contemporary of the Buddha and one of the earliest proto-materialists known to us, had in fact made a cult of austerity. The Sāṃkhya doctrine too has been satirized as one advocating sensual enjoyment. No serious student of Sāṃkhya has ever paid any heed to this absurd charge. However, in case of the Cārvāka such a groundless allegation is repeated ad nauseam by the present-day textbook writers of Indian philosophy.


12. Yet another misconception circulated by many authors past and present is that there were several Cārvāka schools, believing in the mind as the spirit, life breaths as the spirit, the sense organs as the spirit, etc. Such doctrines might have been prevalent before the Common Era, for some of them are mentioned in several Upaniṣads. Such views, however, are not only pre-Cārvāka but also pre-philosophical. The Cārvāka/Lokāyata was systematized much later and there is nothing to show that its exponents drew anything from such older sources. Only the doctrine of bhūtacaitanyavāda or dehātmavāda is the doctrine of the Cārvāka-s. It was a unitary school although the commentary tradition is not uniform and the commentators are not always unanimous in their interpretation of certain aphorisms.


13.  All the commentators of the Cārvākasūtra were not Cārvākas themselves. Some of them are known to be adherents of Nyāya who, besides their works on Nyāya,  had also written commentaries on the Cārvākasῡtra. Quite naturally they had introduced a number of sophisticated Nyāya terms, quite alien to the original Cārvāka tradition. Nevertheless what is common to all the commentators is their firm adherence to the basic doctrine of considering the spirit to be nothing but consciousness in a living body and the rejection of the view that inference independent of perception and/or based on scriptures should be accepted as a valid means of knowledge.


14.  In brief, then, the Cārvāka/Lokāyata system emerged as the culmination of all previous proto-materialist views which, however, had never been systematized into the  prevailing sūtra-bhāṣya (base text and commentary) style before the sixth century CE. These views are mainly known to us as floating ideas current among some freethinkers, who were opposed to futile religious practices sanctioned by the Vedas and refused to offer gifts to Brahmin priests. The early materialists  did not believe in the existence of heaven and hell, and, therefore, in the immortality of the spirit. That is all there is to it in the pre-Cārvāka/Lokāyata tradition. Ontological issues seem to have been their chief preoccupation and this was their contribution to the later Cārvāka/Lokāyata system which inherited and assimilated all this. The epistemological issues might have underlain in their teachings, but no such formulation is met with in available evidence.


15. Whether the Cārvāka-s had any affinity with the Kāpālika-s or some such obscure folk cults (such as the Sahajiyā-s, Bāul-s, etc. in Bengal), is a vexed question. It is probable that the these cults had adopted some ideas from the pre-Cārvāka and/or the Cārvāka teachings, such as,  accepting perception to be the only means of knowledge, opposition to Vedism, caste system, gender discrimination, etc. But it should be noted that these cults are all guru-oriented, the adherents compose songs in local dialects as the vehicle of expressing their ideas (not write philosophical discourses), and all of them consider themselves affiliated to one or the other Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava or Śakti-worshipping community. They constitute themselves as the ’other’, belonging to the Little Tradition – similar in some respects to the Great Tradition religious communities but differing from them by virtue of abjuring Brahminical priesthood, avoiding the conventional places of pilgrimage, and setting up their own meeting-spots in village fairs. The Cārvākas, on the other hand, belong to the Great Tradition:  they redacted a sῡtra work and composed elaborate commentaries on it in Sanskrit, not in any vernacular. In short, the two belong to two different traditions – the Great and the Little – and their ends are more often than not quite different. While the Cārvāka/Lokāyata was interested in true knowledge (tattva), the Little Tradition cults aspire for liberation (mukti) alone. The former studiedly rejected all rituals based solely on faith but the latter had developed elaborate systems of worship and religious practice (sādhana-paddhati) as taught by their gurus. Thus there is a fundamental incompatibility between the two that cannot be resolved by juxtaposing them as reflecting the same approach in two different ways. It should, however, be borne in mind that the Little Tradition cults were very much present in India even in the Upaniṣadic times, as testified by the Maitrī (or Maitrāyāṇī or Maitrāyaṇīya) Upaniṣad.  Most probably both the traditions had a common source, but they diverged into two separate streams, one thoroughly rational and atheistic; the other, irrational and theistic. The Cārvāka/Lokāyata  is a system of philosophy but the anti-Brahminical folk cults are nothing but religious coteries outside the Brahminical (Vedist) fold. In spite of some similarities in approach (such as, insistence on sense perception, denial of the Vedas as authoritative texts, and rejection of Brahminical priesthood) they belong to two different domains. Philosophy and religion are not to be treated on a par with each other.


Grateful acknowledgements are made to Amitava Bhattacharyya, Johannes Bronkhorst, Siddhartha Dutta, Pradeep Gokhale, Ashish Lahiri, and Krishna Del Toso for offering comments and suggestions on the draft.



Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of PAVLOV Institute, Kolkata.



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