Sunday, 1 April 2012

Marx and the Materialist Tradition in Indian Philosophy


Ramkrishna Bhattacharya


The title of the paper may sound odd to some, for Marx, in spite of his encyclopedic learning, was not at all conversant with the Indian philosophical tradition. Yet there are a few points in Marx’s works that may be of use in relation to the reconstruction of the materialist tradition in Indian philosophy. The reconstruction of the materialist tradition in Europe owes something to Marx’s own doctoral dissertation on the difference between the Democritean and Epicurean philosophies of nature (Marx­Engels 1:25­105). This work is said to have anticipated the direction in which Epicurean studies progressed in later years (Farrington 93). The thesis has been translated into several languages and there are a number of book­length studies on the subject (McLellan 1972, 75n31), He gathered his material from a large number of sources which consisted of fragments quoted from the lost works of these two Greek philosophers. One has to remember that Marx had to gather his material exclusively from the fragments that are found quoted in later works. At the same time he had to evaluate which representations of Epicurus or Democritus were expected to be reliable and which were not. He did not have the advantage of having Hermann Karl Usener (1834­1905)’s Epicurea (1887) or Hermann Alexander Diels (1848­1922)’s Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1903), not to speak of such readymade collections as The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: the Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonia of the Major Presocratics (2010). Marx had to rely exclusively on his wide reading of Greek and Latin literature and assiduously collect the fragments and copy them out in his notebooks. Thus Marx worked not only as a student of philosophy but also as an accomplished classical philologist in tracing and evaluating the fragments attributed to Democritus and Epicurus. Marx never lost interest in his early work and often considered revising it for publication. As late as 1858 he drafted a second Preface to his thesis but other preoccupations did not permit him to go back to the task.

The materialist tradition in Indian philosophy too has to follow the same method as adopted by Marx and other classical scholars. Since no text of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata system has come down to us, the only way is to gather fragments referring to the Cārvāka/Lokāyata found in a variety of Sanskrit and Prakrit works written by its opponents. All those who had devoted themselves to this task, however, did not try to separate wheat from chaff. They sometimes accepted uncritically whatever the philosophical opponents of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata had spoken of it. For example, a few aphorism­like statements have been attributed to the Laukāyatikas in the Kāmasūtra (1.2.26­30) and almost all historians of Indian philosophy have admitted them to be genuine. But a systematic analysis reveals that the so-called aphorisms included in their list of Carvaka fragments by D. R. Shastri and Mamoru Namai are actually nothing but current maxims (laukika nyaya) found in other sources as well (Bhattacharya 2009a 94-95).


Marx did not make the mistake of uncritically accepting Plutarch’s representation of Epicurus in his works and proved conclusively that such representations did not always reflect the authentic views of Epicurus (McLellan 1995, 31). Even though Marx wrote his thesis when he was a very young man (he was in his twenties then), his critical faculty was so well developed that, contrary to current belief, he was able to show that Epicurus did not merely echo Democritus’ views but definitely showed advancement in his treatment of atom.

This brings us to another question. There is a tendency among many scholars to think of a uniform and homogeneous materialist tradition in India, beginning from Ajita Kesakambala, a senior contemporary of the Buddha (sixth/fifth century BCE), down to the Cārvākas (around the eighth century CE). They do not find any discrepancy in this supposedly linear tradition as if the whole of the basic doctrines of materialism are to be found right from its inception, and the basic ideas were not subject to any kind of development. The Marxists, on the other hand, warned by Marx’s approach to the history of modern materialism in Europe (Holy Family 150­154), have sought to trace the origin of materialist thought in India right from the Upaniads and traced other proto­materialist views before the rise of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata.

How did Marx approach the issue? He observed that Duns Scotus (c.1265­1308), a Catholic philosopher, had asked “whether it was impossible for matter to think” – a significant pointer to the basic tenet of materialism. Marx did not concern himself with other aspects of Scotus’s thoughts but moved on to trace the development of materialism in England through Francis Bacon (1561­1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588­1679), and John Locke (1632­1704).

How could a medieval schoolman ask such a question and provide an affirmative answer? Marx observed:

In order to effect this miracle (sc. matter itself can think), he took refuge in God’s omnipotence, i.e., he made theology preached materialism. Moreover, he was a Nominalist. Nominalism, the first form of materialism, is chiefly found among the English schoolman (HF 150).

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, whether or not he had Marx’s words in mind, in his later studies went back to an Upaniadic seer, Uddālaka Ārui and projected him as the first materialist thinker and the first scientist in India (Chattopadhyaya 1985, 196­204; Chattopadhyaya 1991, 89­148). This was quite a new approach in tracing the origin of materialist thought in India. Earlier still Walter Ruben, following the lead provided by his mentor, Hermann Jacobi, had compared Uddālaka with Thales of Miletus, a Presocratic philosopher, pointing out that both of them were hylozoists, and in this sense, proto­materialists (Ruben 345­46).

The prevailing tendency to think of materialism as one homogenous doctrine (while idealism is accepted as divided into several different schools, traditionally numbered six) has also come to be challenged. As Marx’s study of the development of materialism in Europe demonstrates, materialism had to wait quite a long time to become atheistic. All theological bars that hemmed­in materialism in England had to wait to be shattered till the late seventeenth­century and eighteenth­century thinkers such as Anthony Collins (1676­1729), David Hartley (1705­1757) and Joseph Priestley (1753­1804) appeared in the scene. Even then, many of them were deists: although they refused to believe in the concept of revelation, dogma or any kind of supernatural connections and denied the efficacy of supplication and prayer, they did not deny the existence of God altogether. In spite of this drawback of theirs Marx said: “At all events for materialists, deism is but an easy­going way of getting rid of religion.” (HF 152) Atheism then was not a part and parcel of materialism in Europe right from its inception.

Similarly materialism originally was not a progressive, democratic doctrine. Engels has specifically shown that in the British tradition materialism in the seventeenth century was an aristocratic doctrine, antagonistic to the masses in general (Engels 441). Only in the hands of the French Enlightenment thinkers in the following century materialism came to be connected with communism and socialism. Originally materialism was not a part of a singular worldview and materialist thinkers in modern Europe did hold and still hold divergent socio­political views.

Is there anything in this that proved to be relevant to the study of the materialist tradition in India? Yes. There was a view that Lokāyata was a philosophical system that along with Sākhya and Yoga was cultivated in royal circles, as purportedly appeared from the Kauilīya Arthaśāstra (1.2.10). Erich Frauwallner further proposed that materialism originally was cultivated by the Realpolitikers in ancient India (2:216). Some scholars have also followed this view, apparently on the basis of a story found in a Buddhist text (‘Pāyasi Suttanta’, Pali DN 2:23). However, such a theory of the aristocratic origin of materialism in India does not bear scrutiny, for Lokāyata in early Buddhist and Brahminical writings invariably stands for ‘the science of disputation’, vitandāśāstra and not materialism (Bhattacharya 2009a 187­96). Hence, Kauilya could not have meant ‘materialism’ by Lokāyata. Secondly, using a frame story of a king being addressed by several of his ministers, each trying to convince his master of the truth of his own philosophical system, is a well­known and oft­used narrative device found in many an Indian text (Bhattacharya 2009b). Such a device should not be taken to refer to a real­life incident recorded in fiction.

Nevertheless there can be little doubt that at least three proto­materialist doctrines – of Time, Own Being and Elements ­­in their rudimentary form were current in India right from the time of the Śvetāśvatara Upaniad (not later than the third century BCE). The doctrine of elements (bhūtāni) may refer to five natural elements (earth, air, fire, water, and space), but in later times we hear of four elements only (space being excluded) in a Cārvāka aphorism (Bhattacharya 2009a 80). In the Tamil epic, Manimekalai, we read of two materialist schools existing side by side (27:271­76). Incidentally it may be mentioned that the Tamil tradition between the third century and the ninth century CE contains much of interest in relation to materialism (Vanamamalai 25­41) However, we are yet to hear anything about the social outlook of the Cārvākas. Although no primary source is available in this regard, at least two opponents of materialism find fault with it for being anti­sexist and opposed to caste discrimination (PC 2.18, NC 17.40, 42, 58). If such accusations are admitted to be true, the representation of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata as an adherent of the Establishment point of view would not hold water.

The whole picture, based as it is on purely fragmentary sources and those too derived from the works of anti­materialists, is somewhat confusing. It would appear that the ontology of the Indian materialists alone was common to all the materialist schools right from the time of the Buddha down to the Cārvākas. But the epistemological positions were widely divergent. There must have been one school or maybe several schools which admitted perception and perception alone as the only valid instrument of cognition. This is one point of controversy that is raised and argued against by the opponents of materialism right from the eighth century CE. One aphorism in this connection is often cited: “Perception indeed is the only means of right knowledge” (Bhattacharya 2009a 80, 87). Yet there is enough evidence to show that at least the Cārvākas did not reject the validity of inference insofar as it was based on perception; any inference based exclusively on scriptures or verbal testimony concerning the existence of God, after­life, rebirth, heaven and hell, and the omniscient being was rejected. At least three commentators on the Cārvākasūtra, Purandara, Aviddhakarna and Udbhaa, specifically state their position in this regard quite unambiguously. Inference, however, is never accepted as an independent means of knowledge but it is not considered inadmissible in cases of everyday life. Hence a clear distinction is made between “Probanses well­established in the world” and “Probanses established by the scriptures”. Another set of terms employed by Jayantabhaṭṭa is inference “in case of which the inferential cognition can be acquired by oneself” and others “in case of which the inferential cognition is to be acquired on somebody else’s advice” (Bhattacharya 2009a 83). Even though such distinctions were known by the ninth century, we find no mention of them in the refutation offered by the anti­Cārvākas even in the tenth century and beyond (Hemacandra AYVD, v. 20; Bhattacharya 2009a 167). Sāyaa­Mādhava does not seem to be conversant of all this;he continued to hold the view that the Cārvākas were opposed to all other means of knowledge except perception (9­11).

Can Marx help us in unraveling this mystery? If we follow Marx’s approach in tracing the development of materialism in Europe we may venture to apply it in understanding the development of materialism in the Indian tradition as well. Instead of trying to synthesize all discordant views concerning epistemology we should start from the fact that the materialists in India before the Cārvākas appeared did hold very different views and the commentators of the Cārvākasūtra too were not unanimous in their understanding of the same set of aphorisms. Udbhaabhaṭṭa, the last commentator known to us, attempted to interpret the aphorisms in the light of the Nyāya­Vaiśeika system and offered such strange views as it was impossible to lay down any fixed number in essential characteristics of sources of knowledge and objects of knowledge. He further argued that the number of principles instead of four could be many more (Bhattacharya 2009a 82). Such interpretations reflect a marked inclination toward revisionism and forcing to fit the well­attested position of the Cārvākas to a different, immaterialist mould altogether. Following Marx’s method of rejecting Plutarch’s misrepresentation of Epicurus we can reject some of the views of Udbhaa as misinterpretation of the original Cārvāka position.

To sum up: Marx’s approach to the history of materialism helps us understand how materialism developed in India in very many different ways before the formulation of the Cārvāka/Lokāyata system and how the later aberrations are to be detected and rejected.


Works Cited

  • Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Studies on the Cārvaka/Lokāyata. Fierenze (Florence): Società Editriche Fiorentina, 2009; London: Anthem Press, 2011. (2009a)
  • ‘Pre­Cārvāka Materialism in Vasudevahindi’, Jain Journal, Vol. 43 No. 3, January 2009, 102­09 (published in July 2010). (2009b)
  • Dīgha Nikāya. Part 2, ed. J. Kashyap. Patna: Pali Publication Board, 1958
  • Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. History of Science and Technology in Ancient India. Vol. 2, Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1991
  • Knowledge and Intervention. Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1985
  • Engels, Frederick. Anti­-Dühring. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976
  • Farrington, Benjamin. ‘Karl Marx – Scholar and Revolutionary’, The Modern Quarterly. Vol. 7 No. 1, Winter 1951­52, 83­94
  • Frauwallner, Erich. History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. 2, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1973
  • Kṛṣṇa Miśra. Prabodha Candrodaya. Ed. and trans. Sita Krishna Nambiar. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1971
  • Manimekalai. Trans. Prema Nandakumar. Tanvjavur: Tamil University, 1989
  • Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Collected Works. Vol. 1, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975
  • Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975
  • McLellan, David. Marx before Marxism. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972
  • Karl Marx: A Biography. London: Papermac, 1995
  • Ruben, Walter. ‘Uddālaka and Yājñavalkya: Materialism and Idealism’, Indian Studies Past and Present. 3:3, April­June, 1962, 345­54
  • Sāyaa­Mādhava. Sarvadarśana­samgraha. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1978
  • Śrhara. Naiadhacarita. Ed. Sivadatta and V. L. Panshikar. Mumbai: Nirnay Sagar Press, 1928. Trans. Krishna Kanta Handiqui. Poona: Deccan College Postgraduate Research Institute, 1956
  • Vanamamalai, N. ‘Materialist Thought in Early Tamil Literature’, Social Scientist, 2:4, November 1973, 25­41
  • Vātsyāyana. Kāmasūtra. Varanasi: Chowkhamba, n.d

This paper was presented in the Marx seminar held in Kolkata (22 to 24 March 2012)

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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