Saturday, 24 March 2012

Ancient Indian Materialism

Dipak Nandy

(This essay first appeared in Marxism Today in its January 1962 issue)

The Vice-President of India, Mr. Radhakrishnan, recently stated that "the characteristic of Indian thought is that it has paid greater attention to the inner world of man than to the outer world". Indeed, the course of Indian thought, as told in the standard accounts, might well be described as "Variations on an Idealistic Theme".

Was there then no tradition of materialist thought in ancient India? The question is not quite so remote and academic as it may appear at first sight. For it has been the claim of anti-Marxists, both in India and elsewhere, that Marxist materialism is fundamentally alien to Indian categories of thought and experience: it is a foreign ideology. To this two answers were possible. First, of course, that the argument that Marxism is alien to such and such a nation or people or continent has been produced with respect to every continent, nation and people since the rise of Marxism. It was alien to Russia for many of the intelligentsia before 1917; it was alien to China; it is alien to Britain and her traditions. It is, apparently, alien everywhere.

But, secondly, we have known for a long time that there has been in India a body of thought which stood significantly apart from the mainstream of Indian philosophic idealism. The Charvakas of ancient India appear to have arrived at a position as near materialism (we thought) as the dominating context of idealist thought would permit. The only difficulty in describing this body of thought as "materialism" (implying at least a moderately coherent and systematic account of the world) has been the simple and shattering problem of ignorance: we don't know at first hand what these people actually thought.

This is a curious but not wholly unfamiliar situation in the history of human thought, especially of radical thought. Our knowledge of the second-century Christian gnostics, for example, derives almost entirely from the "refutations" of their thought by the Church fathers. So with the Lokayata philosophy of ancient India. What survives of this school of thought amounts to scarcely more than grotesque parodies of their position by their opponents.

It has thus been left to Indian Marxists to piece together such evidence as we have, and to reconstruct the story of Indian materialist thought, its social roots, and the story of its survival in many forms to the present day. Not unnaturally orthodox historians of Indian philosophy have been content in the main to accept the distorted accounts as adequate, or even to argue that since no one could have held such patently absurd views such views were not held. Recently, however, there appeared a pioneering work in the field of Indian philosophy by D. P. Chattopadhyaya which makes it impossible to maintain that the Lokayata philosophy did not exist.1 It is there, triumphantly alive in his pages.

Before we turn to him, it would be useful to summarise what was previously known to the generality of scholars. As he himself acknowledges, the bulk of the extant material relating to the Lokayata view is to be found in the pages of Professor S. N. Dasgupta's monumental History of Indian Philosophy (1922-55), a work of erudition and scholarship for which no praise is too high. But Dasgupta merely presented the evidence —he did not (perhaps could not) draw the necessary conclusions which that evidence suggested.

To begin with, the meaning of the word Lokayata is important, for in Indian philosophy etymology is an essential adjunct to philosophy proper. Lokayata is a compound word which can mean one of two things. Loka can be used in the sense of "this world", as opposed to the next, or in the sense of "the people"; ayata can mean either "based on" or "prevalent among". So Lokayata may be translated as a philosophy which is based on the material phenomenal universe, or, equally, a philosophy which is prevalent among the people.

This philosophy of the material world, which was also a popular philosophy, was reckoned to be on the one hand extremely ancient (Dasgupta wanted to put it down as an ideological import from the Sumerian civilisation) and at the same time quite recent—witness the running polemic conducted by idealist philosophers down to the fourteenth century A.D. There are, as we have said, no extant Lokayata texts, but that there was an authoritative text with at least two commentaries on it, is beyond question. The earlier of the two commentaries has been dated by some scholars to before 300 B.C.

The Lokayata Philosophy

What did the Lokayata philosophy consist of? The most generally accepted view of the ancients is that expressed, for instance, by the Buddhists: Follow not the Lokayata which does not strive towards an accumulation of virtue. "The Lokayata leads to mischievous things and cannot lead to the path of Heaven or that of release2 and is only a tricky disputation which does not increase true wisdom," wrote one Buddhist commentator. A Jaina writer said, "They are given to pleasures, amusements and sensual lust; they are greedy, fettered, passionate, covetous, the slaves of love and hate."

But there are more specific indications about Lokayata beliefs than these vague and sweeping indictments. Roughly, the Lokayatikas (i.e. those who held Lokayata views) may be credited with three distinctive positions: they have a theory of knowledge, they have a theory of being, and they have their own characteristic scheme of values.

To take these in order: the Lokayatikas, it is said, deny inference based on inductive generalisation, and hence also deny causality. This derives from their theory of knowledge. For them, all knowledge is derived from direct sense-perception. They do not, like Bishop Berkeley, assert that "to be is to be perceived," but they do say that not to be perceived is not to exist. This may be taken as a denial of occult or metaphysical entities whose existence cannot be verified by sense-perception. Their rejection of causality follows from this. Traditional philosophers have taken particular directly perceived facts, say, fire, and others, say, smoke. In between these direct perceptibles they have interposed a non-perceptible, a "cause". To assert as they do, that fire is the cause of smoke is to go beyond what is given in experience. Experience gives us the antecedent (fire) and the consequent (smoke), but it nowhere gives us a "cause". (In technical language, a "cause" would have to be a universal, and univers a l cannot be perceived.)

This is, of course, remarkably like Hume, and just as Hume was driven to admit after his denial of causality that in actual practice the ordinary business of life proceeds pretty smoothly on the assumption that causal relations do exist, so the Lokayatikas admitted the usefulness of inductive generalisations and the postulation of causes. The terms in which this admission is couched are important, in that they give us a clue as to the real point of their argument against inference and causality. Purandara. a seventh-century materialist, "admits the usefulness of inference in determining the nature of all worldly things where perceptual experience is available; but inference cannot be employed for estciblishing any dogma regarding tire transcendental world, or life after death . . . which cannot be available to ordinary perceptual experience" [emphasis added]. Their argument then is not sceptical but materialist: they object to inference as a logical technique only when it is used to demonstrate the existence of supra-sensible states or transcendental beings. This, they say, would be bad logic.

Consistent with this approach, the Lokayatikas reject verbal authority as a criterion of truth. That is to say, they reject the sacred texts as a court of appeal in matters relating to knowing about and living in the world. In any case, they argued, the sacred texts contradict one another at so many points that no consistent doctrine can possibly be erected on them.

Theory of Being

Then there is their theory of being. The Upanishads3 assert that the world is constituted of five elements: earth, water, air, fire and space. The Lokayatikas reject "space" (on the ground that it is not present in perception) and accept only four elements, all of them physical. There are two aspects of their theory of being.

 (1) In the natural world, they believe that these constituent elements and their motion sufficiently explain everything that happens, without reference to divine or transcendental explanations. "Fire is hot: water, cold; and the air is temperate to the touch. Who could have brought these distinctions into being if they were not of the very nature of these objects?" reads an aphorism attributed to them. They were, in short, naturalistic philosophers who wanted to explain phenomena by reference solely to the nature of the constituent elements of matter.

(2) Consonant with this rejection of the divine in the sphere of natural phenomena, they reject, in the human sphere, the existence of the soul. There is a reference in one of the Upanishads to certain heretics (identified by Jayanta, a later commentator, as the Lokayatikas) who believe that "consciousness arises from the elements of consciousness after death". A Jaina text refers to heretics (again identified by a later commentator, Silanka, as the Lokayatikas) who are reported to have said:

".So long as there is the body there is the soul, and there is no soul apart from this body, so the soul is identical with the body; when the body is dead there is no soul. When the body is burnt no soul is seen and all that is seen are but the white bones. . . . There is no separate soul which suffers pain and enjoys pleasures and migrates to the other world after the death of the body, for even if the body is cut into pieces no soul can be perceived . . ."

It is clear from these quotations that there is no place in Lokayata ontology for the suprasensuous or the transcendental. The connection between this and their scheme of values is obvious; the last quotation goes on to say that, because of the essentially materialistic character of Lokayata thought, they are also moral nihilists:

'The Lokayatikas thus think that there is no fault in killing living beings, since striking a living body with a weapon is like striking the ground. These Lokayatikas, therefore, cannot make any distinction between good and bad deeds as they do not know of any principle on which such a distinction can be made, and there is thus no morality according to them."

This is a common cry against materialists, obviously untrue as we shall see. Another witness said of them that "with them a pigeon today is better than a peacock tomorrow [and it is] better to have a sure penny today than an uncertain guinea tomorrow". On such grounds as these, others, including the famous idealist philosopher, Samkaracharya. tried to account for the popular appeal of Lokayata views: the stupid mob are easily attracted by this kind of "good digestion and no conscience" philosophy. Not all commentators, however, were disposed to take this view. Kautiiya, the fourth century B.C. author of the Artlia shastra ("manual of policy") reckoned Lokayata, along with Sankhya and Yoga [to be discussed later], as logical sciences, and there are numerous references in older texts which show that Lokayata views were embraced by a considerable number of influential and respected people who could scarcely he lumped together with the mindless rabble.

It is not easy to decide from this whether the Lokayatikas were academic, if heterodox, materialists, or sophistical demagogues preaching (and practising) a doctrine of wine, women and song. And Buddhaghoso, a fifth century A.D. follower of Buddha, did not resolve the problem when he described Lokayata philosophy as a vitanda-vadasattham, i.e. the science of vitanda-vada. Now vitanda means a sophistical argument playing on logical fallacies with no positive thesis to offer of its own; the sole intention is to confuse one's opponent. Vada, on the other hand, is the exact opposite: it is a discussion involving the presentation of a positive thesis which is debated in fair and scrupulously logical manner. Lokayata was, apparently, both these things at once!

Contradiction could hardly go further, and the picture one gets (even when tidied up, as here) is so confused that it is not surprising that some historians have despaired of finding any Lokayata school at all. "We are not convinced," wrote de la Vallee Poussin, "that a materialistic 'school', a 'system', in the exact sense of the word existed."' What, then, does Mr. Chattapadhyaya make of it all?

Reinterpreting Ancient Texts

It is difficult to summarise a book of six-hundred-odd pages marked by a boldness of interpretation, solid learning, and breadth of outlook such as we have here. From an amusing account of the confusion in the ranks of scholars faced with the problem of Lokayata, he moves to a brilliant exercise in reinterpretation of some misunderstood ancient texts which are shown to be relevant to the problem of reconstructing Lokayata thought. A long excursion into the historical background sketches in the social matrix of tribal matriarchal communities in which the materialistic outlook flourished, which gave birth also to Tantrism.4 The "proto-materialism" of Lokayata is then shown to develop into the philosophic materialism of Sankhya (one of the oldest of the "six systems" of Indian philosophy). The birth of idealist thought (for it is Mr. Chattopadhyaya's contention that the materialistic outlook antedates idealism) closes the account.

He begins by showing that the central text on which scholars have relied for their understanding of Lokayata, the Sarva Darshana Samgraha ("encyclopaedia of all the systems") of the fourteenth century A.D. writer Madhava, is thoroughly misleading. A time-gap of some 2,000 years separates him from the thinkers he is criticising. He himself was so diametrically opposed to the Lokayata outlook, that his attempt to state their position by explaining how he would defend them (this is his method of exposition) is at best hopelessly one-sided. And because later historians have started from the assumption that Madhava was the central witness on the Lokayata school and have taken the authenticity of his account for granted, it meant necessarily that they were more or less incapable of making coherent sense of the other evidence about Lokayata before them. The Lokayata School is thus reduced to a knot of fractious sceptics, without any positive views of their own, indulging on the one hand in sophistical destruction of the religious beliefs of people, and on the other in a crude and callous hedonism.

Chattopadhyaya will have none of this. The essential down-to-earth nature of Lokayata logic and epistemology is undeniable, but it is not modern empiricism in disguise. It would be unhistorical to regard their this-wordiness as though it were equivalent to a modern secular outlook.  The Lokayata School denied the existence of the Brahmanic gods, the reality of the after-life, the efficacy of the Brahmanic ritual sacrifices. But they were able (and concerned) to do this because they had an alternative to offer in place of the Brahmanic tradition. They had an outlook of their own. and this was hound up no less with a specific set of ritual practices and beliefs. The clash between the Brahmanic and Lokayata traditions is not a conflict between the orthodoxreligious and the secular-sceptical-empiricist.

"The full picture that we have . . . is not that of certain isolated sophists indulging in useless disputations; it is rather the picture of a clash of two cultures. The exponents of one were preaching God, heaven and immortality and, as a means to attain these, the efficacy of the Vedic sacrifices. The other represented the standpoint of the people and was trying to defend their material interests" (36) [emphasis added].

What was this "culture," "deeply rooted in the masses of the people," which furnished the source of such a strong opposition to the Vedic religion? Many ancient Indian texts refer to certain opinions as the asura view5' These were known to be prevalent in India long before the Aryan invasion from the north took place. Two important views are found to be attributed to the asums: that the self is identical with the body (as opposed to the non-material soul), and that the origin of the universe is the result of a process similar to that of sexual reproduction. The first point obviously connects the asiini view to the Lokayata position; the second is related quite clearly to those ritual practices known as Tantrism, which were based on the belief (1) that the deha, i.e. the human body, is a microcosm of the universe, so that action in the one produces effects in the other, and (2) that creation or production of any kind is fundamentally sexual in type. So the creation of the universe, according to the Tantrikas, is sexual in character; moreover, they believed, the production of the means of subsistence, agriculture for instance, could be enhanced by a preceding sexual union. (For this reason they are accused down the centuries of practising sexual orgies, of being incurably promiscuous, morally depraved, and so on!) It is clear then that we have here a complex of beliefs and practices tied up with a primitive stage of social development, and that this complex is consistently associated with the asiiras. Who are the

The Asuras

They are the natives of India whom the Aryan invaders of the second millennium CE. encountered in their course. The asuras, it is said, have fortifications, they are dark-complexioned, flat-nosed and of "unintelligible speech". Indra, the leading God of the Indian pantheon, the Hindu Jupiter, is known as "the destroyer of fortresses" as well as "the scourge of the asuras". The recent excavations of Sir Mortimer Wheeler and others have uncovered in the remains of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa of the Indus civilization traces of extensive fortifications, which enable us to date with some plausibility the linal  destruction of these cities and connect it with the Aryan invasion c. 1500 CE 6 The Indus civilisation, however, embraced in its orbit more than just these two highly developed "city-states," and it seems clear that asuras for these early writers were not only those who used fortresses. It referred to all those people "who were considered by the inheritors of the Vedic tradition to be their aliens [who] enjoyed a culture basically different from the Brahmanic one" (42).

That these people were organised in tribal communities is evident from the references of the early Vedic texts as well as the descriptions left by Greek travellers of later times; and it is in the organisation and subsequent history of these tribal communities that the roots of Lokayata beliefs and practices are to be found. These indigenous communities were matriarchal in organisation and subsisted principally on agriculture. At this early stage of social development, when manual and mental labour had not been separated from their unity in the processes of production, it was possible for an outlook to arise which is here characterized as "primitive proto-materialism", an instinctive attribution of primacy to material existence. (Readers of Professor George Thomson's work, whose inspiration the author acknowledges, will be familiar with the argument.) In the matriarchal organisation of these communities is to be found the explanation of the overwhelming importance attached to the female principle in both Tantrism and Sankhya, as well as the assertion of the equality of men and women which is found in Tantrism, so fundamentally at variance with the theory and practice of traditional Indian society.

In the clash between the Vedic Aryans and these tribal communities, the latter were broken up and what might be described as a wholesale social reconstruction was effected. By the time of the Buddha (who died c. 483 B.C.), this had become clear-cut policy. Kautilya, the Machiavelli of India, characteristically put it all down in cold blood in the Art ha shastra. The tribal communities, whose military prowess and group solidarity had been commented on by the Buddha and others, were broken up into small and self-contained agricultural villages. Mother-right was equally violently suppressed. Here was an artificial and externally induced change in the social structure.

"for it was not a case of the natural disintegration of the tribal societies consequent upon the advancement of productive technique. . . . The whole process led to a peculiar social set-up which may be roughly characterised as despotism above with incompletes!}' destroyed tribal society in the villiii>es below. The cumulative effect . . . is that the Indian masses have retained in their lives strong elements that are traceable to the tribal society" (179).

One of the most illuminating sections of this book, incidentally, traces the origin of the caste system, that most confused of Indian historical problems, to this process of "incomplete detribalisation".

It will be clear from this why Lokayata. The philosophy of this world, was also the philosophy of the people. In its origins it was not, strictly speaicing, a "philosophy" as we understand that word. Lokayata, writes Chattopadhyaya,

'was possibly a broad word used to refer to the popular 'cults', which, though opposed to the Brahmanical rituals, were nevertheless characterised by rituals of a this-worldly character. The followers of the Brahmanical culture called Lokayata the o.s(/r«-view" (46).

But out of this background there emerged Tantrism and Sankhya, whose significance for the development of Indian thought cannot be overestimated.

We have seen that sexual immorality was frequently attributed to the Lokayatikas. The exact nature of these practices, so shocking to the Brahmanical writers (who, incidentally, overlooked traces of just such practices in the early Vedic texts themselves), reveals that the Lokayata tradition had a definite connection with Tantrism, both of which Chattopadhyaya shows as rooted in the practice of agricultural magic. The Vedic people, by contrast to the surrounding tribal societies, were predominantly pastoral and patriarchal. To the Vedic writers, therefore, the dominant position of women among the asurus was evidence of their degenerate character. So too those fertility ritual practices which are common to all primitive agricultural communities. It is here that the real nature of Tantrism is to be sought.


For Tantrism, like Lokayata, is both extremely ancient (traces of it are to be found in the Indus civilisation remains) and also contemporary: it has survived among lower-caste sects to the present day, in the process acquiring accretions of Hindu, Buddhist and other systems, with their concepts of "virtue", "liberation" and the like, which have no logical connection with the essentially materialist and physicalist outlook of Tantrism proper.

Tantra means "propagation" and as we have seen the fundamental characteristic of Tantrism, which remains constant in all its later developments, is its conception of nature and natural processes on the model of the human body (dehavada). The character of production is sexual, and this involves two interacting principles, the male and the female. In Tantrika alchemical literature these principles are identified with the familiar alchemical substances, mica and mercury. Indian alchemy, however, in contrast with European, conceived the female principle (shakti) to be dominant. Now Chattopadhyaya's account of Tantrika origins makes this difference of outlook intelligible.

The importance of Tantrism lies in its inbuilt orientation towards the material world and mastery over it, even though such mastery is sought by means of magic rather than a scientific understanding of natural laws. This orientation is so strong that even when later Tantra had grafted on to it idealist concepts like "liberation" and "immortality", these were invariably understood in a physicalist sense: immortality is to be sought in the culture of the body (hence yoga). However, the distinction between magic and science at this stage of human development is much too sharp. As Joseph Needham has argued in connection with Taoism in China (which, as he has shown, has many connections with Indian Tantrism), "science and magic are in their earliest stages indistinguishable. . . . Magic and science were originally united in a single undifferentiated complex of manual operations." This practical and manipulative relation with nature accounts for the materialist approach of Tantrism, its concern with physical and physiological processes. It also explains why Tantrism was the bearer of scientific thought in India, for if the Lokayatikas can claim to be the first logicians of India, the Tantrikas must be reckoned among the first scientists. They discovered, for instance, that the brain and not the heart is the seat of consciousness, advancing from Aristotle to Galen. But the most remarkable feature of the Tantrikas is their outlook. India is known to be par excellence the land of tradition and custom, where philosophy typically takes the form of commentaries on texts transmitted down the generations. How astonishing it is then to come across in Tantrika literature statements like the following:

'I have performed the aforementioned experiments with my own hands and have seen them with my own eyes. They are not recorded from mere hearsay or from the dictation of a teacher. These are being promulgated for the benefit of mankind."

"I shall give publicity only to such processes as I have been able to verify by my own experiments."

"Those mercurial operations alone have found a place in my book, which I have been able to put to tests. Those who teach without being able to perform experiments labour in vain."

With their emphasis on experiment and verification, their rejection of authority and their refusal to take opinions on trust, not to mention the concern "for the benefit of mankind", these remarks might have come out of the era of the birth of modern science in seventeenth-century Europe.

Matter or Consciousness

Perhaps the most exciting chapter of Chattopadhyaya's story is his demonstration that the Lokayata and Tantrika tradition found its theoretical formulation in what is regarded as one of the most important schools of Indian philosophy, Sankhya. The resemblance between Sankhya and the heretical Lokayata school was in fact noticed by earlier writers. Original Sankhya was definitely atheistic, and Silanka, for instance, acutely observed that the Sankhya doctrine was virtually indistinguishable from Lokayata in its rejection of the soul.

The Sankhya system (certainly pre-Buddhistic in origin) was known as pradhana karana vada, i.e. a doctrine of the first cause or ultimate reality, as opposed to the Vedanta7 philosophy, which was called hrahma karana vada, i.e. the doctrine of the Brahman, the principle of consciousness, as the ultimate reality and first cause. The opposition was between those who held, with the Vedantists, that consciousness is the ultimate ground of whatever exists (chetana karana vada). and those who held, like the Sankhya and Lokayata schools, that matter, unconsciousness, is the ultimate reality (a-chetana karana vada). The pradhana of Sankhya is prakriti, which may be roughly translated as non-sentient and non-evolved matter.  Here, then, we have the conflict between idealism and materialism on the philosophical level.

The distinctive features of Sankhya philosophy are: a theory of matter, a theory of causality, a theory of evolution and a theory of mind. All these are, of course, linked together in original Sankhya (which, too, like Lokayata, has to be largely reconstructed) into a consistent materialist philosophy.

We may start from the Sankhya view of causality. This was known as the doctrine of sat karya vada, which I propose to translate as the theory of "the latent effect". (It has often been rendered as the theory of "the pre-existent effect" which is certainly not what the Sankhya philosophers meant.) In any causal sequence, Sankhya held, the effect is already latent in the cause. The classic analogy of the acorn and the oak is apt here: the oak (effect) is latent in the acorn (cause). It represents a development of the acorn and to that extent is different from it. But it is latent in the acorn in the sense that the development of the acorn by the laws of its nature alone, without reference to external agency, produces the oak.

The point of this theory of causality is that it is (or at any rate attempts to be) a materialist theory. To say that the effect is different from the cause tout court is to say that something iscreated out of nothing. "What exists not, can by no operation of cause be brought into effect." The Sankhya theorists, rejecting the entire notion of the creation of being out of nothing, argued back from effect to cause on the principle that like produces like. That is to say, starting from the indubitable reality of the material world and the causal relations to be perceived in it, they worked back to the first cause or primary state of the universe. Their theory of causahty ensured that this primary state was not dissolved into an act of creation out of nothingness.

Evolution of Matter

Sankhya held that the ultimate reality of the universe was prakriti, undifferentiated and nonsentient matter, out of which the differentiated world as we know it has evolved. (Prakriti. it may be noted, is feminine in character.) Sankhya cosmology considered this primeval unitary state of being as constituted of the harmonious equilibrium of three elements igtina.s): the sattva, the rajas. and the tainas. Tamas is the principle which lies behind the solidity of objects; it is mass, or the inertia of Newtonian mechanics, the resistance offered by bodies to an impressed force. Rajas  is the principle that lies behind action, and may properly be translated as energy. Finally, sattva is the principle exemplified, for instance, by the flame: it is light, pure and it illuminates. (It is possible that the concept of sattva is an attempt of these materialist thinkers to find an adequate, i.e. non-reductive, description of consciousness as a phenomenon.) The state of equilibrium of these three elements is described as the avyakta or "unexpressed" phase. From this stage, however, primeval matter passes into the vyakta, the "expressed" phase, it begins to differentiate itself as the initial state of equilibrium breaks down.

What starts the process? Sankhya is silent on the point, and later adherents, anxious to bring the system in line with the Vedanta school, ascribed the initiating role in evolution to the purusa. the male principle, conceived as the principle of awareness or sentience. Now this element (while it did exist in original Sankhya) when credited with an active role in the evolutionary process raises, as we should expect, acute contradictions in a consistently materialist scheme, contradictions which were brilliantly exploited by the eighth-century philosopher Samkara. There is no reason, however, why Sankhya, which was so squarely based on the concept of the self-development of matter, needed to call in an external agency such as awareness to start off the evolutionary process. Chattopadhyaya is almost certainly right in saying that this is a later development (distortion would probably be the correct term).

Evolution in Sankhya is periodic or cyclical. There is a first ascending stage in which the process consists (to quote Seal) "in the development of the differentiated within the undifferentiated, of the determinate within the indeterminate, of the coherent within the incoherent". This development proceeds on the basis of the uneven distribution of the three elements, which means that even determinate objects are in a constant state of flux. There is then the descending stage, in which the process turns into its opposite, as it were, and differentiation and development give place to dissolution, until the whole system returns to its original latent state of indeterminate prakriti. This is not, however, the dead universe of Jeans' and Eddington's fancy, for nature, even in dissolution, retains the inherent principle of movement, its spontaneous activity. One cycle succeeds another.

Two points are to be noted in the Sankhya account of nature and evolution. Change, in Sankhya, is conceived as real change. The doctrine of the latent effect does not mean that cause and effect, pre-evolved iavyakta) and evolved (vyakta) phases, are at bottom the same. The evolutionary theory of Sankhya is called parinama vada, roughly, the doctrine that change consists in a real transformation, the acquisition of a new form. The point will be clearer if we contrast this view with the view of the Nyaya- Vaisesika school, for instance, which saw change as change of place only, mere mechanical motion. Where Sankhya conceives matter to be spontaneously active, self-moving, Nyaya-Vaisesika attributed change and motion to an agency external to the body moved. Sankhya was an evolutionary doctrine where Nyaya-Vaisesika was a mechanistic one, if these terms are not anachronistic in the context of ancient Indian philosophy.

Theory of Mind

The uneven distribution of the three elements mentioned above needs to be looked at because it furnishes us with the Sankhya theory of mind. In the material world we may distinguish between bodies at rest, bodies in motion, and (let us say) human activity. Bodies at rest will exhibit a predominance of the inertial principle, energy will be latent and sattva will be sub-latent. Bodies in motion will exhibit a predominance of energy, inertia being latent and sattva sub-latent. In human movements, energy and sattva (the principle of consciousness) predominate, inertia being latent. Finally, in states of consciousness as such (e.g. thinking) sattva predominates, while energy and inertia remain latent and sub-latent.

How does this involve a theory of mind? What the Sankhya view implies, according to Chattopadhyaya, is that "even in states of consciousness, the characteristics of crude matter must be latently present.  It is tempting to comment here that if we agree to integrate later scientific knowledge with this standpoint, we have to restate it as the view that thought or consciousness is not without a latent cerebral process. It will be the fundamental premise of a materialistic theory of knowledge. Though the early Sankhya philosophers were yet to be acquainted with the connection of consciousness with the cerebral process, there is no doubt that they were trying to understand intelligence, self-consciousness, mind and the sense-organs as essentially products of matter" (455-6).

This, in rough outline, is the Sankhya philosophy as it originally stood. It did not remain in this consistent form, and by the tiine that the first extant Sankhya texts are being written (about the fifth century A.D.), idealist accretions have already gathered round its central tenets, grossly impairing its internal consistency as a system. The "Achilles' heel" of Sankhya, as Chattopadhyaya aptly comments, proved to be the concept of the piirusa, the male, representing that which is passive and conscious, as distinct from prakriti, female, active and insentient. In original Sankhya the pHn«tf-consciousness had no role to play at all, as it logically could not, being udasina,i.e. indifferent, the uninvolved spectator watching the spontaneous unfolding of the cosmic process.When later writers, attempting to bring Sankhya in line with the Vedanta doctrine of the primacy of consciousness, tried to foist the primary role on to the purusa, the system became self-contradictory : a purely passive entity was endowed with the supremely active role of initiating and guiding the process of evolution. One may reflect here that in the process of formulating the instinctive materialism of Lokayata in conceptual terms in Sankhya, the way was opened for the emergence of idealism within materialist thought. Such a conclusion, implying that the very act of philosophizing is, as it were, tainted at the source, would however be too sweeping. A more historical view might suggest that a fully consistent materialist philosophy (which is not less philosophical for being materialist) would have to await the development of men's understanding of nature and of themselves beyond the point at which Sankhya arose.

It is not possible here to trace in detail the fascinating story of the emergence of idealism in Indian philosophy, the orthodox Vedic tradition, which itself arose on the ruins of a primitive proto-materialism, nor the final collapse of materialist philosophy into a fatalistic determinism while the Buddha's teaching of withdrawal and release from the world swept through the country. It is there to be read in Chattopadhyaya's book.

It is not out of place to say here, though, that the distinguishing feature of this book is the systematic and convincing way in which the history of philosophy is reconstructed and linked to social structure and social change. Anyone concerned, for instance, with the anomalous position of the piirusa, the male principle, in Sankhya thought, will find his comments on the role of the male in matriarchal society both provoking and suggestive. The analysis of the rise of Buddhism against the background of the stupendous social transformation of the India of the time is simply brilliant.

Marxism, wrote Engels, "is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction. All history must be studied afresh. . . ." If the Marxist method needed any vindication, this book amply provides it, for out of a chaotic mass of material, each part meaningless in isolation, it has produced a systematic, coherent and fruitful synthesis. Fruitful, because it raises a host of questions, of fact and interpretation, which must be pursued in detail. It is to be hoped that Indian Marxists will follow up Chattapadhyaya's pathbreaking work with the hard thinking and research that it calls for. In any case, the problems he has raised will not, one suspects, be answered until scholars have at least come to grips with the Marxist method.

What, finally, is the importance of the Lokayata tradition for Marxists today? The concluding word, the moral of the book so to speak, may be left to the author himself. Lokayata, he writes, 'was crude, naive and primitive, and has little to compare with the self-conscious materialistic philosophy of original Sankhya, not to speak of the scientific materialism of today. Nevertheless, the recognition of this proto-materialism has its importance for the modern materialist and this importance can be compared to that of the recognition of primitive communism by the scientific socialist. He lays stress on it not because he dreams of returning to it; his purpose is rather to show that human relations based on private ownership and class-exploitation are not without a beginning and end. . . . Thus also is spiritualism and idealism, so often claimed as inherent in Indian thought: we will do without these in the future as we did in the past."


1.       Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism. People's Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959. Rs. 27,50,
  1.  moksa = release, liberation from the bondage of the material world, held to be the ultimate goal of human life.
  2. Upanishad ~ literally, "secret knowledge" (as contrasted with Veda = "knowledge" with no strings). These are religious treatises of the Vedic school, of  about 600-500 B.C.
  3.  Tantrism was a system of quasi-magical practices, related in later forms to alchemy, and involving physical culture and rites, by means of which various desirable ends (material wealth, immortality etc.) were to be achieved.
  4. asura = literally, demon. The Bhagavad Gita, the Bible of Hinduism, has this to say about asuras in Chapter 16, entided Divine and Demonic Tendencies : "In this world there are two kinds of beings: those whose nature tends towards the Divine, and those who have demonic tendencies. Asuras . . . maintain that the scriptures are a lie, and that the universe is not based upon a moral law, but godless, conceived in lust and created by copulation, without any other cause. . . . They offer sacrifice to God in name only, for outward show, without following the sacred rituals." The asuras thus have a non-Vedic cosmology and practise non-Vedic rituals.
  5. A good account of this may be read in Stuart Piggott's Prehistoric India (Pelican, 1952). Chs. 6 and 7.
  6. Vedanta = literally, the end of the Veda. The name given to the later systematisation of Vedic thought, so that it was seen as the culmination of the philosophy of the Vedas.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Women's Day Musings

Narendra Nayak

When I was asked by the lady of the house(not to say that of my life too!) to go and speak to  students, in her place  about women's rights on the 6th March, it was partly my responsibility to do so! When the NSS officer of a college had telephoned the previous evening, I had received the call to inform the officer that my better half had a sore throat and would call back the next day. However, when there was no improvement in her voice even the next day, I asked her how she would give a talk to the students and she told me that I would- in her place! She was confident as I have spoken to thousands of the female gender in hundreds of interactions in women's educational institutions and other organizations till date. In fact when I am asked to give a talk, I ask for a minimum of two hours but generally it goes on longer and most of my interactions with women's groups have had to be stopped by the exigencies of time.

Here were a group of women’s college students, all members of the NSS (National Service Scheme for the uninitiated) willing to listen and interact and how could I refuse? So, I started my talk with telling them I am a man who is broadminded and has given full independence to his wife and treats her as an equal. They were very appreciative of that and applauded. Then came my standard query -why? They all replied - for my great job of giving her independence! Then I reminded them that independence and equality are their birth right and many times it is taken away! That is a surprise for these girls because they have always thought themselves as subservient.

Then I told them that it is religion which has made them so. That was news to them as they have never linked the two. Then I explained to them how Manu has branded women as those who never can be independent, how Islam treats women and all Abrahamaic religions blame Eve for the downfall of mankind. Then I told them about the concept of heaven in which the Muslim who dies for his religion in Jihad gets dozens of virgins, how the virtuous Hindu goes to heaven and watches the dance of the divine beauties and drinks somaras in heaven. I told them that their place would be only that of these dancers as there was no concept of any female heaven after death in any religion! It was an exclusive male preserve. Then came the talk of loyalties to the spouse- the concept of being a pativrata! There was the mention of this story of Sati Anasuya who was carrying her leprosy and syphilis stricken husband to his paramour's house on her head and on the way his foot touched a Sanyasi and he cursed him and said that he would die at sunrise. The sati laid a curse on the sun and said that it would not rise and her curse came true. This caused havoc and then the gods rushed to her and asked to withdraw her curse and she did that under the condition that her husband would be restored his youth and health! Again, the supposedly equality encouraging religion Islam talks about the universal brotherhood of man- but the woman is out of the picture. There are instances where a woman who was raped was stoned to death for adultery, sometimes coerced into marrying the rapist etc.

This led us into a discussion of marriage and its implications. I mentioned about the ad of an insurance company which exhorts men to save ' for their daughter’s marriage and son’s education'. I asked them why not the other way round? Since the college was an arts and science one I asked those girls about the hypocrisy of their parents who would have sent their brothers to better places for education and the better off people who would have sent their daughters for professional courses. The so called institution of marriage and the ceremonies are meant to keep the woman subservient to the male. The very fact of handing over the girl or kanyadaan implied that the girl was an object or chattel to be handed over to someone else like an act of transfer of ownership. The Hindu marriage rites have mantras handing over the bride to the various gods and then to the bride groom! I also told them that I had not tied the tali (the black ornament round the married woman's neck) to my wife as I felt that it was a sign of bondage. Probably, many of them would have wondered why she was not having it around her neck as well as the other signs of marriage like the bindi or the earrings which she wears only if she feels like! The other hypocrisy is about the wearing of flowers and bangles. Widows are not supposed to wear any of these. In the olden days their heads were shaven and their only apparel was a coarse red sari and their very sight would be considered as inauspicious. They were not allowed to enter temples or attend any ceremonies. But, none of these were applicable to widowers! There were no restrictions on them whatsoever, in fact they were encouraged to remarry as soon as possible to enable some father to a kanyadaan and get rid of his burden.

I brought up the points of the reproductive cycle of the women being an object of public information. I brought up the narrative of my presentation to the Nepal women's commission in which I was told to do some of the so called miracles on women during their periods to demonstrate that they too were like anyone else! But, I told them it would be an impossible for a male to have such a demonstration with a woman from among the public. Of course, some of our women activists may dare say so in public but that would not carry much weight as other women may say that they are our specially trained activists! So, I proposed that I would train some women to perform these and they could go and do the demonstrations at exclusively women’s meetings! The issue of misogynist gods was also discussed. There is the god called as Ayyappa allegedly born out of the union between Vishnu and Shiva (two male gods!) who is supposedly a misogynist, particularly at his abode at Shabarimala in Kerala! Though women are allowed at other Ayyappa temples, they are specifically prohibited from entering a radius of several kilometers from the main temple at Shabarimala. It is not that all women are prohibited but those of the child bearing age. The younger and older ones are allowed. There was this controversy of a Kannada film actor who claimed that she had gone on a visit to the shrine and a criminal case was booked against her! The custom of women having their periods being treated as outcastes and prohibited from entering religious places was also brought up. In fact in some of the houses where the elders were very orthodox, women having their periods were supposed to sit outside with a pot of water by their side as they were considered as untouchable at this time. The girls like all people who have heard or seen me- expect some demonstration of some so called miracle! So, I told them about chastity and its implications for women. In India it is always the woman who is supposed to be chaste and demonstrate that too. So, I asked them whether anyone would come forward to undergo any of these 'tests'! When none volunteered I had to coax two of them to come forward to have burning camphor put on their tongue! They were too scared to do that and so, I did it. Then reluctantly one of them agreed and when it was seen that nothing untoward happened, the other one too agreed for it. I explained to them how it was possible to keep burning camphor on one's tongue and not get burnt and it was comparatively easier for me to persuade two others to come forward for another test- keeping a burning flame on one's forearm! I explained to them how these are done and also that only the woman is expected to prove that she is chaste! Such tests are never demanded from men!

I raised the issue of the hypocrisy of religions in dealing with the sexuality of women- some of the religions making compulsory the practice of circumcision for the male which is supposed to enhance the pleasure of sexual intercourse while performing female genital mutilation which takes way all the pleasure of sex for the female and makes the sexual intercourse a very painful experience for them. The hypocrisy of the chauvinist male was highlighted by their experiences at home- how their brothers were given precedence in many things and how their father would tell his wife when something good happened that his son/daughter had accomplished that and how if something untoward occurred he would say- see how your son/daughter behaves!

   One very important question that was asked about the attitudes of the male as one young woman pointed out, she said even when the wife is more educated, well employed, earns more than the husband, her behaviour is always looked upon with suspicion. I replied to her that such an attitude comes because of the inferiority complex of the male. The men feel insecure when their wives earn more/are better educated/better placed than them. Some of these girls brought up the issue of 'moral policing' which is very rampant in this district. I told them that this was restricted to women! The moral police never dared to do that with men. What an adult woman does and who she goes with is her personal business and none had any right to interfere with that.

On the Women’s Day my message to these young women was only one- you are equal to all! You have the same rights as a man. Be aware, organize yourselves and fight for your rights. You have nothing to lose but your bonds. That is possible only when there is no suppression of rights. In a secular democracy, religion is an individual’s personal business and does not interfere with the human rights of any section of the population.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

8th FIRA National Conferance - A Report

V Kumaresan

VIII National Conference of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) was held at Nagpur, Maharashtra on 11th  and 12th  February 2012. FIRA constitutes 83 Rationalist Associations from different states of the country. 

The  Conference was held at Hindi Bhawan Ram Gopal Maheswari Subagraha, Rani Jhansi Square, Sitabuldi, Nagpur. The Conference was hosted by Akhil Bharatiya Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samithi (ABANS), an affiliate of FIRA along with the Association for Research and Training in Basic Science Education, Nagpur.

First Day Proceedings 


Registration of Delegates
The Conference was inaugurated by Dr. Vilas Sapkal, Vice-Chancellor, Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj University, Nagpur. He emphasised that the development of scientific temper which is mentioned as one of the fundamental duties of Indian Constitution in Article 51 (a) h, has to be propagated among the masses. Once the scientific temper develops the superstition would automatically vanish . Prof. Sharad Patil, President, Gaikwad-Patil Group of Institutions, Nagpur delivered the  Presidential address. While addressing, he pointed out that rationalist movement must take up propaganda primarily against the self styled god-men, devils, tantriks, sorcerers, astrologers and such others who befool and exploit the gullible public.  These unscrupulous elements, for their own selfish gains, encourage the common man’s belief in irrational superstitions such as fate, astrology, rebirth, ghosts, sorcery, witchcraft, miracles, magic, charms, spells, dubious  curse etc.

The theme of the conference, ‘The Rise of Intolerance in India’ was explained by Prof. Narendra Nayak, National President, FIRA. Introductory speech was delivered by Harish Deshmukh, National Secretary,   Umesh Choubey, National  Working President – ABANS welcomed and the inaugural session was concluded with  the vote of thanks by Dr.N.D.Patil.

Dr Vilas Sapkal, Vice Chancellor, Rastrasant
Tukdoji Maharaj University, inaugurating the 8th National Conference
of FIRA held in Nagpur by cutting a string of 7 chillies & a lemon,
a charm commonly used by the Hindus to ward-off evil
Prof. Shyam Manav, Founder and Organiser ABANS delivered a special lecture on ‘Role of Rationalism in Development of Country and Humanism.’ The Biennial Reports of FIRA affiliate member organizations were presented by the respective functionaries. The brief  of various propaganda activities including conducting seminar, workshop, publication of rationalist literature were explained by the functionaries. The session proceedings took place in the presence of the National Executive Committee  Members. Madhukar Kample, National President, ABANS, chaired the session.

After lunch, technical sessions  started. U.Kalanathan, Patron, FIRA and President, Kerala Yukthivathi Sangham presented a paper on ‘Secularisation of India.’ He strongly advocated the initiative of separating politics from religion which will facilitate the sustenance of real secularism in the country. superstition  breaking and miracle exposure demonstrations

In the evening superstition  breaking and miracle exposure demonstrations were conducted out by the volunteers of rationalist movement. Walking over thorny platform was demonstrated, exhibiting nothing divine in it except  familiarity and frequent  practices to do it.

Delegates at the Conference

After dinner, an interactive session was addressed by Babu Gogineni, International Director, International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). He discussed  the probable problems and challengers that EVERY rationalist organization might have to face in the prevailing environment and how to function under such circumstances effectively.

Second Day Proceedings  

Miracle Exposure Public Rally

Miracle Exposure Rally - Exposing the 'miracle' of eating burning camphor
At first, miracle exposure public rally was organised where all the delegates representing various rationalist organisations took part. Pulling the Ambassador car by the volunteers, by needle stitched string on their back, demonstrations exposing the deeds of black magic, sorcery – were the phases  of the procession. The procession captured the attention of the public at large.

Session: The Rise of Intolerance in India

G Vijayam presenting his paper. Sitting from the right: V Kumaresan,,
Ramachandra CST Voltaire, Dhaneswar Sahoo
Again the proceedings were started in the auditorium. The technical session ,’ The Rise of Intolerance in India’ was chaired by V.Kumaresan, General Secretary, The Rationalists’  Forum, Tamil Nadu. ( Please see the  excerpts  of the speech in page no 27 to 29) The functionaries of other rationalist organisations viz. Prof. Dhaneshwar Sahoo of Orissa Rationalist Association, Dr.G.Vijayam of Atheist Centre, Vijayawada, Prof. Balwinder Singh Barnala of Turksheel Society, Punjab,  Jayagopal of Atheist Society of India, Visakapatnam, Dr. Anand of Science for Society, Jharkhand, T.V.Manoj of Bangalore Rationalist Association, Ramachandra C.S.T. Voltaire of AMOFOI, Bhubaneswar presented their papers on the rise of intolerance.

Panel Session : Modern Spiritual Godman’s Industry

The Panel Session on “Modern Spiritual Godman’s Industry”  chaired by R.G.Rao a.k.a. Somu,  National Secretary, FIRA.  V.Nehru, President of the Rationalists’ Forum, Tamil Nadu  presented his paper. While addressing, he reminded all the charges leveled against Sai Baba by the rationalists got exposed after his death. More valuables both in kind and cash were recovered from his private room. In Tamil Nadu, Sankaracharya of Kanchi Mutt , the first accused in the murder of the temple manager  which is under the judicial proceedings  is freely wandering under religious clout. Dr.K.Veeramani, President, Dravidar Kazhagam   two decades back exposed by delivereing serial lectures on ‘Who is Sankaracharya?’  After the arrest of Sankaracharya, again he delivered through series of   lectures, ‘ Divine Deeds ! ’. The earlier exposure became a reality now. What rationalists exposed earlier becomes known to the  public explicitly at present.

Resolutions :

To conclude the conference the resolutions were passed on the following lines to strengthen the activities of FIRA.

- to conduct marches towards Parliament for separating politics from religion.
- to form an exclusive Law Commission to enable  insertion of provisions and enactment to adhere the secular value of the state machinery.
- to facilitate the enactment against superstitious belief, black magic, sorcery, etc.
- to conduct training programmes especially for youth on eradication of superstitions.

New National Executive Committee – FIRA

The following functionaries were elected for the National Executive Committee.

Patron: Dr.G.Vijayam, Atheist Centre, Vijayawada.

National President: Prof. Narendra Nayak, Dhakshina Kannada Rationalist Association.

Vice-Presidents:V.Kumaresan, The Rationalists’ Forum, Tamil Nadu, Prof. Balwinder Singh Barnala, Turksheel Society, Punjab, Harish Deshmukh, Akhil Bhartiya Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, Nagpur, Prof. Dhaneswar Sahoo, Orissa Rationalists Association Bhubaneswar, Kranti, Maharashtra Andolan Nirmoolan Samithi, Pune,Sukumaran, Kerala Yukthivathi Sangham, Thiruvananthapuam

National Secretary: U.Kalanathan, Kerala Yukthivathi Sangham
Publishers of rationalist literature had their presence at the conference

Secretaries: South Zone: V.Nehru, The Rationalists’ Forum ,Tamil Nadu, North Zone: Binder , Turksheel Society, Punjab, East Zone: Samba Siva Rao, Manava Vikasa Vedika , Andhra Pradesh,West Zone: Anil Kumar, Kerala Yukthivathi sangham

Treasurer: R.G.Rao a.k.a. Somu, Goa Science Forum, Panjim Goa

(Courtesy: The Modern Rationalist, March 2012)

(V Kumaresan, Rationalist Forum, Tamil Nadu, 
is one of the Vice-Presidents of FIRA) 

Standing on Two Swords without the Feet Getting Cut

B Premanand

(Warning: Some of the tricks detailed in this series "Science Versus Miracles" should be performed only under the guidance of experts/professional magicians)

Experiment: 30

Effect: Standing on two swords without the feet getting cut.

Props: Two swords of the same size, one stool and some fruits or vegetables.

Method: The sharpness of the two swords is demonstrated by cutting some fruits or vegetables. Then two swords are held horizontally by two strong volunteers, each one holding the two ends of both the swords with the sharp edge up. The swords should be parallel, laid in level position, and held without the slightest shifting. The third volunteer climbs on the stool and the fourth volunteer helps him to stand on the swords, his feet crossed as he stands. When he gets off them, he shows his feet to the audience without any injury.

Nothing happens to the feet as he stands on the two swords cross wise and his weight is distributed on four spots of the two swords. Moreover, to cut anything one has to move the sword with pressure on the object like the move­ment of the saw. 

Experiment: 31

Effect: Two nails are inserted in the nostrils and hammered in. Then they are pulled out without any harm.

Props: 1/8" x 5" long stainless steel nails which are round and smooth, the points rounded without sharpness and a hammer.

Method: Hold the nails straight horizontally with the pointed ends to the face. Insert the two nails into the nostrils about 1/2". Lift the nose by the nails and slowly insert them into the nasal holes. If pushed slowly the nails will pass all the way up into the head. While pushing hold the nails tight between thumb and the pointing finger and act as if you are tapping the nails into your head with the hammer. After the demonstration pull the nails out slowly. 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Piercing Tongue or Cheek with Needle or Trident

B Premanand

Experiment: 28

Effect: No pain or blood when the tongue or cheek is pierced with a sharp needle or trident.

Props: One very sharp needle or trident, tincture of iodine, cotton.


An activist of Periyar Dravida Kazhagam, Coimbatore
at the 8th FIRA National Conference in Nagpur
a) Pull the tongue out and, holding it tight, just pierce it with the sharp end of the needle or the trident with a straight swift stroke. Before the volunteer knows anything, you have pierced his tongue. There is no pain or blood. Draw out the needle or the trident straight.

b) Open the mouth with your finger and thumb from both sides, stretching the part of your cheek just beyond the lips. This is a very elastic flesh. Then merely push in the trident slowly and gently at a point about half an inch from where your lips start. Only a slight prick is felt. Push it right through the other side of the cheek. Remove it the same way keeping the cheek stretched with your fingers. There will be no blood or scar.

Is this a "miracle"?
If these are miracles then every woman or girl who pierces her ears and nose must also have supernatural powers. Instead of the trident they put orna­ments to beautify themselves. But Babas perform the same feat and claim it is a miracle.

In the 70's Palani Baba came to my home. He pierced his tongue with a trident and asked for Rs.250 for god. I told him that since god is believed to be the creator of all of us, the universe and its wealth, then we all as children of god have equal right of god's wealth. So a part of the money he had collected in the name of god also belonged to me. And I snatched about Rs.300 from his plate. When god is all powerful he does not need petty cash from his children. Moreover, god is not a beggar for us to give him money or anything. In fact, god has created all wealth for his children so that they may live in peace and harmony. 

He got angry, called me names and cursed me, saying I would die the next day. Thousands of babas have cursed me thus. If one believes in curses such dire negative suggestions always work. Later, I found that his piercing of the tongue was the trick described below. 

A trident with a bend in the shaft is also used by some
to creat a false impression of the tongue being being actually pierced


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