Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Heterodox Schools of Indian Thought


Donald H Bishop

Donald H Bishop wrote this essay as an introduction to the section, The Heterodox Schools, of the book Indian Thought – An Introduction, edited by him and published in 1975. At the time of the publication of the book, the author was with College of Sciences and Arts, Washington State University.

We upload this essay as part of our effort to bring together the writings on Carvaka philosophy.


The three heterodox schools of Indian thought are Carvaka, Buddhism and Jainism. The time of origin of the first cannot be fixed exactly as no early Carvaka works are extant. According to some authorities the Carvaka School had developed before Buddha. Brihaspati is accepted by some as the founder and Carvaka his chief disciple. Others say that Carvaka is the name of the originator. Still a third claim is that Carvaka is not the name of a person but a word signifying pleasure. As to why Carvakism came into being Chandradhar Sharma writes that: 
"It must have arisen as a protest against the excessive monkdom of the Brahmana priests. The externals of ritualism which ignored the substance and emphasized the shadow, the idealism of the Upanishads unsuited to the commoners, the political and the social crises rampant in that age, the exploitation of the masses by the petty rulers, monks and the wealthy class, the lust and greed and petty dissensions in an unstable society paved the way for the rise of materialism in India in the post-Upanishadic and pre-Buddhistic age."
 The basic characteristic or "the essence of Carvaka's thought" is its materialism. Its metaphysical claim is that matter is the only reality. Matter consists of four elements-earths, water, fire and air -mixed in various ways and proportions and in terms of laws in­herent in them to form objects. Since ether can only be inferred, not seen, its existence is rejected. The mind is simply a particular combination of the four elements. Consciousness is an outcome of matter, a result of a certain combination of the elements. It is an epiphenomenon or by-product of matter.

The Carvakist believes that perception is the only means of true knowledge. He rejects inference as invalid. Carvaka epistemology is very much like that of David Hume and contemporary positivism. A further similarity is its atheism. God as an inference from the material world is not acceptable. Moreover God is not necessary to account for the world and its operations. An internal explanation is sufficient. The early Carvakists are said to have believed religion to be an "opiate of the people" given by the priesthood to retain their preeminent position in society.

Its denial of the soul and immortality leads the Carvakist to place a major emphasis on this world and life and thus to propose a hedo­nistic ethics. Like the British utilitarians, he asserts the good to be whatever is useful for maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Sensual happiness is considered the supreme good and goal of life. Values are man-created, and have no a priori existence or theistic grounding. Kama (pleasure) is the end of life and Artha (wealth) the means of realizing it.

As to the extensiveness of materialism, it is generally agreed that it never became a dominant philosophy in India. C. Sharma declares: " ... materialism in Indian Philosophy has never been a force" and "Materialism as metaphysics has never found favour with the Indian philosophers." Its major contribution has been that it " ... saved Indian philosophy from dogmatism to a great extent" by introducing an element of scepticism or agnosticism into the Indian philosophical stream. The major cause of its downfall in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., Sharma declares, was its "denial of all human values which make life worth living." Jainism and Buddhism, he asserts, " ... arose immediately and supplied the ethical and spiritual background which ejected Materialism. "

Changes in contemporary India brought out a renewed interest in materialism. Indian society, as elsewhere, has become more secular in the sense of a greater emphasis on and justification of material values. The rise of science and technology has stimulated thinking and investigation into ways in which science mayor may not be reconciled with philosophy and religion. Are they inevitably opposed to each other or can the presuppositions of each be harmonized? Hopefully, new insights will result from the raising of questions such as this.

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