Saturday, 4 August 2012

A Sketch of Indian Materialism

It will seem strange enough that among the multiplicity of Indian philosophical schools and systems I have chosen as the subject of my paper the Carvaka – or Lokayatamata – which as a particular school has disappeared long ago from India, and which was so greatly looked down upon that according to Brahminical orthodoxy, no sin could be compared with nastikya.

Nevertheless it is necessary to pay attention to it, because the study of its sheds new light n this many-sided activity of the Indian mind which had, and has, so many aspects and tendencies that there is perhaps no Western thought that was not anticipated in India.  We are proud of our absolute idealism which seems to us to be one of the greatest conquests of the European mind, because it veils the materialism and the practical mechanicism which constitute the real essence of our civilization.

(5 June 1894 – 5 April 1984) 
Evidently it is ignored that Nagarjuna, Asanga and Vasubandhu were the greatest and unsurpassed forerunners of the same principles which Hegel started and our contemporary Italian school, with Bendetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile at its head, has emphasized.  On the contrary, our colleagues of China and Japan are quite right when they assert that the Eat has its own idealistic philosophy which is far better than any other western system, as it is born in its own country and harmonizes, therefore, with its spiritual exigencies; and when they consider, as their text-book, the Vijnaptimatrasiddhisastra of Vasubandhu. In fact, this book is one of the greatest monu­ments of Indian thought; and I hope that in the near future the collaboration of Chinese scholars and Indian pundits will restore the Sanskrit text, which seems hopelessly lost.

But if it is difficult to find a European philosopher who rightly appreciates the value of Indian philosophy, nobody would deny that the fundamental characteristic of Indian thought is an idealistic one. .

In fact, India is traditionally believed to have been the country of thinkers and yogins, Brahmins and ascetics; a country which, plunged in dreams of mysticism and abstraction, denied life and any form of activity. Even now, this is the most pre­valent opinion on India we have in Europe.

But they ignore that even according to the more orthodox Indian conception, life is considered the result of kama, artha and dharma. As in individuals there is a time when kama and artha predominate, so in the history of Indian civilization, side by side with the Upanisads and Buddhism we find Lokayatas and Carvakas, hedonists and politicians who were so outspoken in defence of that Wille zum Leben which mysticism seemed to check, that perhaps we ourselves in the West cannot vie with them.

But India was not just a country of saints and hermits: she not only prayed and meditated, but also had her struggles and her history. Without men working in this life and for this life it is not possible that this eternal drama, of which God only knows the end and the goal and which we call history, can take place. Those who know only an ascetic India do not under­stand India, that India who is revealed by her poems, her dramas, her nitis. On the contrary, you find that this home of idealism has produced the crudest form of hedonism and politi­cal science that we know, a political science compared with which the principles of Machiavelli or Hobbes would appear quite soft.

In my new book, History of Indian Materialism1, I think that I have succeeded in giving a general idea of what Indian material­ism was. But as this book is written in Italian, that is, in a language which is not yet largely known in India, I shall try to expose some results about the principal materialistic schools that I could gather from the philosophical literature I have perused.

It is well known that no Lokayata text has come down to us; therefore the principal tenets of the school can be restored only on the basis of the more or less detailed exposition of the Lokayatamata that is to be found in the purvapaksa of many Brahminical or Buddhist philosophical works, and in some quotations we can meet with in books on Nyaya. But from this to assume, as some scholars did, that Lokayata texts never existed, is to go too far. I cannot give all the arguments which I have collected to refute this opinion, without taxing your patience; I shall only briefly expose some of the facts which, it seems to me, clearly point out that Lokayata texts were known in ancient times. A Lokayata Sastra is quoted in Candrakirti's commentary to Mulamadhyamakarika, or rather to the Prajnasastra, as its original title seems to me to have been; in Aryadeva's Satasastra, recently translated by me from the Chinese,2 there is a quotation from the Brhaspati Sutra; according to the unknown author of the marginal notes to the apabhramsa work, Tisatthimahapurisa-gunalankara of Pupphadanta, the Purandara named in the text was a Carvakamate granthakarta, 3 according to Krsna Misra, Carvaka was an ancient master of the school to whom Brhaspati transmitted his doctrine. And in an ancient well-known authority, namely the Vartika of Pataiijali, we find a nastika master named Bhaguri expressly mentioned. Moreover, the tradition attributes to Brhaspati himself the first treatise of the system called after him Barhas­patya, and I do .not know why we should not accept it; of course, we cannot assume that the Brhaspati Sutra edited by Prof. Thomas is the original book of the school, inasmuch as it bears a clear Brahminical character: but in spite of that you will find some quotations in it on the Lokayata, which arc likely to have been taken from an ancient but now lost compilation of a peculiar Lokayata character. Certainly, we cannot accept the tradition when we are told that the author of this book was Brhaspati himself who, according to the Maitri Up. (Ed. An. As. S.s. p. 466), Visnupurna (III, 17,41), Matsyapurana (47, 184) conceived this devilish doctrine in order to spread untruth and disbelief among the Asuras; but what must chiefly interest us is only that Brahminical authority too, that should have had some interest in freeing their heavenly representative from such a responsibility, did not object the authorship of the doctrine and the book to Brhaspati. How, moreover, can we explain the similarity in many a quotation from the Lokayata­mata which can be found in the most different texts? This similarity, besides, is not only to be met with in recent philoso­phical literature, but also in ancient texts; as, for instance, between the tenets attributed to Ajita Kesakambalin in the Dighanikaya and the principal school of the Akiriyavada in the Jaina Suyagadanga, in which the commentator Silanka recog­nizes the Lokayatika or Barhaspatya.

But from which school did the first Lokayata text issue? This is a question difficult to answer; because materialism is a general name under which we can collect man y tendencies and systems, as the multiplicity itself of names for materialist seems to point out: nastika, Carvaka, Lokayata, Barhaspatya, Sva­bhavika, Bhutavadin, Icchantika. Without discussing here the etymology and the different meanings of all these names, I shall point out that even if in later times they became almost synonymous, we are not authorized to assume that this actually did happen in ancient times. But of course it is evident that there must have been a common store of general and funda­mental principles that characterized these heretical schools and distinctly diversified them from the Brahminical ones; so that, owing to such a connection even among their own peculiarities, they went under the general name of nastika. But what did they deny? What was their nastikya? To answer this question it is necessary to remember two things. First, that materialism means either a conception of the reality which explains every­thing on the basis of mechanical laws and denies the existence of every transcendent being, or, in the usual vulgar sense, an epicurean manner of life which ignores every religious feeling and whose only goal is to enjoy life. The theory of Viharabhadra in the Dasakumaracarita (p. 193, Nirnaya Sagara edition, Bombay 1898) can be considered a peculiar type of this hedonistic con­ception. Secondly, that Indian religious conception differs in some points from ours. Certainly, according to Brahminical sources, it was sufficient not to admit of the authority of the Vedas in order to be called a nastika: these are the vedavadapaviddha of Mahabharata (XII, 2, 15), the vedanindaka of Manu (11, 11), the asraddadhana of Gita (IV, 40).4

And according to orthodox theism or pantheism a nastika can also be one who does not believe in any God. But even if to some strict Brahmins, disbelief in Isvara seemed to be nastikya, atheism is so often to be met with in India that it cannot be considered the principal characteristic of the Lokayatamata. Buddhism was atheistic-I do not speak of course of later Mahayana Buddhism, and Buddhist literature is full of treatises aiming at refilting the Isvaravada. I quote the Isvarakartrtva­nirakrti-visnorekakartrtva-nirakarana attributed to Nagarjuna, the Isvarabhangakarika of Kalyana Raksita, the Badhicaryavatara Santideva (IX, 119-126). The Jainas followed their example and the refutation of God made by Mallisena Suri in his Syadva­damanjari can well be considered a standard work of Indian atheism. It is quite useless for me to remind you that "Sankhya - although included among orthodox systems - was atheistic, at least in its ancient form. And that the same thing is to be said for Vaisesika was already pointed out by Faddegon, and is demonstrated by a very important treatise of Aryadeva on the nirvana of heretics recently translated by mc from the yet extant Chinese text. Mimamsakas also did not believc in a personal God, and owed their epithet of' 5 (prayenaiva hi loke mimams lokayatikrta) Lokayatika to the refutation of the personal God as we can see in the Prakaranapancika of Sali­kanatha 6 or in the Slokavartika of Kumarila.

Therefore the peculiar characteristic of the Lokayata must be found elsewhere. They denied the turning-point around which Indian philosophy, theology, theosophy, religion ever moved; consequently, they opened a chasm between them­selves and other orthodox schools, giving birth to this nastikya­karmanam already quoted in Manu (III, 65) which is so charac­terized in some Buddhist texts: natthi sukata-dukkatanam kammanam phalam vipako.

This is the central idea of Indian materialism and the principle of many important consequences. If there is no karman, there is no atman, there is no paraloka. King Prasenajit who is a supporter of the natthikaditthi, in the Dighanikaya, tries to defend his thesis that there is no atman, and that our atman is only our body.

The analogies which the Payasisuttanta shows to have with the Jaina Rayapaseniya and some passages of Samaraicchakaha7 cannot be explained as mutual borrowings, but rather as various derivations from real doctrines followed in ancient times.8

But as a consequence of this rejection of every transcendency and of the coming back to the enjoyment of life, a tendency began in India which we can call a realistic one.

The conception of samsara had contributed a colour of pes­simism to the Indian vision of life which conveyed that our aim is not to be 3ttained in this life, but in a higher world: not loka, but nirvana is to be sought.

The Lokayatikas represent a reaction to this thought as they teach that only that which can be perceived (pratyaksena) exists, direct experience is the only pramana for men; what we cannot see is mere fancy: so that one may be induced to consider them the forerunners of scientific research, as Mr. Rhys Davids9 and Prof. Franke10 did. They believed that the Lokayatamata, to be met with in Buddhist texts, was a doctrine specially aimed at studying nature and the laws of nature. But I cannot accept their opinion. Loka never had, in Sanskrit, the meaning of nature for which it is used: pradhana, or prakrti or svahhava; so that Buddhist texts when discussing cosmological questions, in order to avoid misunderstanding, are obliged to prefix to loka the word bhajana when they conceive the cosmos as a material thing: while loka in itself has, rather, the meaning of human world or class of beings, lokayatra, lokokti, lokavada, devaloka. Therefore the interpretation we have to give to the name Lokayata is quite different. It is but a science which has for its only object the loka, that is, this world; and this interpre­tation is quite in accordance with the Chinese translation of the word by Shun she or Shun su: 'those who follow the world or the customs of the world'. Therefore this Lokayata, which has for its aim the lokayatra, is the forerunner of niti and arthasastra, that is of a science which was attributed by Brahminical sources also to Brhaspati from whom Lokayata is called Barhaspatya as well as Barhaspatyamata and had the meaning of niti; in his translation of Lalitavistara, Devakara, in order to render the name of the Barhaspatyamata included in the list of sciences known by the young Bodhisattva, uses the Chinese expression: wang lung, that is, the doctrine of the king; Khattavijja (Ksatra­vidya) according to which attano attho kametabbo11 as Lokayata teaches that arthakamau are purusarthau.

Aryasiira12 and the Milindapanha13 include this science among the philosophical systems as previously, the Kautilyarthasastra had quoted the Lokayata along with Sankhya and Yoga. 14

At its very beginnings this doctrine represented the science of the purohita who on earth assisted his King, as in heaven Brahaspati assisted Indra: artha and dharma for a certain period followed the same way. So that we find the Lokayata included in the list of the sciences studied by Brahmins in the stereo­typed formulas of the Pali or Sanskrit Buddhist texts; and according to the Vinayapitaka there were also some Buddhist monks who endeavoured to study it, were it not that the Buddha prevented them. 15 But political intrigues and religious purity cannot go together, and in fact, signs of a real contrast between artha and dharma can be traced back to the times of Yajnavalkya 16, and of Narada. 17 Vijnanesvara, quoting Brhaspati, distinguishes the Lokajna from the Dharmajna. 18 In course of time, among the masters of this political science there were some who refused to acknowledge any authority of dharma and proclaimed that in this world of men, God and priests should not interfere: Trayi samvaranamatram. As it happens in such a case, the reaction of the artha against the dharma went further: artha not only broke up any relation with dharma, but rose against it. From this time onwards we have, therefore, two artha schools: the orthodox one which remained under the authority of dharma and was generally included in the dharmasastra; and the other following its heretical principles until at the end asserting artha and kama to be the only goal of humanity (arthakamau purusarthau) dandaniti and vartta the only science, denying God and karman, and assuming an increasingly materialistic, hedo­nistic character, splitting, by and by, into a number of schools and sects.

But India was a country where everything had to be demons­trated: it was not sufficient to assert a principle, it was necessary to defend it with logical arguments against the attacks of opponents. Two aspects in particular were to be demonstrated:

  1. That no karman exists.
  2. That pratyaksa is the only means of knowledge.

As to the first point, this assumption offended the well-known principle karmana sarvam idam tatam generally admitted and to which orthodox schools found good support in the vaicitrya which can be seen in the world. The Lokayata sought to escape this difficulty raised by their opponents appealing to the Svabhava theory, which, having evolved from the same principles that brought about the formulation of Sankhya, is sufficiently attested in the epics, and which can be traced back to the Aupanishadic times: Makkhali Gosala and Purana Kassapa were strictly related to it. This svabhavavada, although having with the Lokayatamata only one, but the most important point in common, that is, the negation of the Karma theory, had striking analogies to the fatalistic schools of Kalavada or Parinamavada inasmuch as it maintained that everything which happens on earth is only the effect of the various c0mbi­nations of material elements: human effort is useless: not enjoy­ment, therefore, of life, but the accomplishment by destiny of its own ends. The Lokayata accepted this theory; it is not necessary to assume karman in order to explain the vaicitrya: everything happens svabhavena, according to the various combinations of the four elements which constitute the body of every being. As to the second point, that is, only that which is demonstrated pratyaksena exists, they had to have recourse to all variety of logical subtleties in order to support it.

Logical works from general expositions of Indian philoso­phical schools like the Sarvadarsanasangraha, or the Sarvdarsanasa­muccaya of Haribhadra with the commentary of Gunaratna, to all special treatises on Nyaya, are pregnant with arguments aiming at refuting their assumption, which are of the greatest interest to the history of Indian logic, concerning, particularly, the syllogism and the theory of vyapti.

So by and by, ancient Lokayata lost its original character; it was no more a niti, as we presume it was at its very beginnings, but became a hetuvidya, a tarkavidya full of logical subtleties. The dhurta-carvaka became a susiksita-carvaka. Those who did not recognize any value to pramanas other than pratyaksa were obliged, as justly the Bhamati (III, 3, 54), the Nyayatatparyadipika (p. 88), the Nyayakandali (p. 259) and other Nyaya works remark, to have recourse everywhere to inference.

Later on, the Lokayata appears to have disappeared; but its doctrines still remained occasionally accepted by disbelievers or materialists, who always exist in every country--even in a country which can b~ called the fatherland of idealism.

If later Sastrakaras on Nyaya begin their treatises with the refutation of the Carvakamata, even though as a school this actually was dead, this fact is owed only to a traditional custom.



  1. Linee di una stovia del materialismo indiano, in memorie della  R. Accademia dei Lincei, Ser. V. Vol. XVII, fasc. VII, 1924 (Part I).
  2.  Studie materiali di storia delle religioni, 1925 rase I-II, p. 76
  3. Bhavisyattakaha,ed. by C. D. Dalal (Gaekwad's Or series. XX). p. 42.
  4. Accodmg to Sankara the asraddadhana are those who believe that for moksa sacrificial karman only is sufficient.
  5. Slokavartika i. IO
  6. Pp.137-140 (Chow. S. S.)
  7. Pp.II3-117(ibid)
  8. Pp. 170 ff.
  9. A later refutation of atman is contained in the commentary of Gunaratna to the Sarvdarsanasamuccaya of Haribhadra (Bibl. Ind., pp. 139 ff.)
  10. Dialogues o Buddha, I, p. 168
  11. Dighanikaya in Auswahl ubersetzt, Gottingen, 1913, p. 19, n.3.
  12. Jataka, V.228
  13. Mahabodhijataka 20,21.
  14. P.3 (S. B. E. I. p. 6).
  15. One might object that in this book Lokayata is not the Barhaspatya, because Brhaspati along with Usanas is quoted before one of the masters of the artha-school which seems, therefore, to be quite distinct from the Lokayata. But it must be observed that here, we have to do more with methods than with systems. In fact~ interference between philosophy and other sciences IS ascertained in the same chapter when Kautilya says that anviksiki is the best guide in every discipline, in vartta as well as in dandaniti and anviksiki, according to Vatsyayana, had two aspects. It is not only an atmavidya, but also a htluvidya.
  16. Cullavagga V, 33.2.
  17. 11,21.
  18. E.39.

This article was originally published in the Proceedings of the First Indian Philosophical Congress, 1925


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