Sunday, 5 August 2012

Lokayata Darsana and a Comparative Study with Greek Materialism - Part I

What is Materialism?

Before proceeding to details, it is necessary to understand what, in the philosophical context, materialism stands for. 

George Stack has recently defined materialism as follows: 

Materialism is a set of theories which holds that all entities and processes are composed of—or are reducible to—matter, material forces or physical processes. All events and facts are explainable, actually or in principle, in terms of body, material objects or dynamic material changes or movements.1

Keith Campbell enumerates three basic tenets of materialism:

  1. Everything that is, is material
  2. Everything can be explained on the basis of laws involving only the antecedent physical conditions.
  3. There is a cause for every event.2

Campbell also cautions the naive reader that metaphysical materialism does not entail the psychological disposition to pursue money and tangible goods despite the popular use of ‘materialistic’ to describe this interest. 3

The Indian Context

Those who have had their initiation in philosophy through the Western tradition feel baffled when they encounter the Indian scenario. Instead of individual philosophers, they find a number of philosophical schools. Despite certain basic similarities in their approaches, they contend against one another regarding several issues that are quite alien to the Western tradition. Belief in rebirth is, for example, axiomatic to nearly all the Indian schools, be it Brahminical, Jain or Buddhist. Their sole aim is to find a way to escape from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This is what is meant by mukti, moksa or nirvana. Whether subjective idealist or realist, theist or atheist, adhering to the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Vedas or not, each of these schools believed that it alone could provide a way to deliverance from all earthly sufferings.

However, there was one philosophical school which did not start from the premise that darsana was moksa­-sastra. The very concept of deliverance and what­ever it entailed were objects of ridicule to this school. This school is known as the Carvaka or Lokayata.

The Carvakas and the Pre-Socratics

Unlike the other schools of Indian philosophy, the Carvakas resemble the early materialist tradition of philosophy in ancient Greece. Both the Pre-Socratic philosophers and the Carvakas started from the premise of four elements as constituting the whole world. Matter to them was primary; consciousness could not exist without a material substratum. The presence of God or gods was irrelevant to them. They intended to view the world in terms of nature in its various manifestations. This kind of approach was so unique that the materialists, both in India and Greece, had to suffer misrepresentation in the hands of their opponents.

The problem of understanding materialism is bedeviled by the fact that the original writings of the Indian and the Greek materialists are available only in fragments, quoted or paraphrased in the works of their opponents and others. Despite this limitation it is still possible to reconstruct, with some degree of certainty, the philosophical position of the Carvakas, as similar attempts have been made in case of their Greek counterparts.

In what follows we shall try to trace the development of materialism in ancient India.

Materialism before the Carvaka/Lokayata

Scepticism about the generally accepted views regarding the origin of the universe is encountered in the Rgveda itself. A famous hymn ends with the following verses:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows—or maybe even he does not know.4
(10. 129. 6­7)

However, when we come to the Chandogya Upanisad (6.1ff) we meet the first inklings of materialism in Uddalaka. In the Buddhist sources we read of Ajita Kesakambala, a senior contemporary of the Buddha, who preached:

There is no (consequence to) alms­giving, sacrifice or oblation. A good or bad action produces no result. This world does not exist; nor does the other world. There is no mother, no father (all good or evil done to them produces no result). There is no rebirth of beings after death. In this world, there are no samanas [sramanas] or Brahmanas established in the Noble Path and accomplished in good practice, who, through direct knowledge acquired by their own efforts, can expound on this world and the other world. This being is but a compound of the four great primary elements; after death, the earth-­element (or element of extension) returns and goes back to the body of the earth, the water-­element (or element of cohesion) returns and goes back to the body of water, the fire­-element (or element of thermal energy) returns and goes back to the body of fire, and air-­element (or element of motion) returns and goes back to the body of air, while the mental faculties pass on into space. The four pall­bearers and bier (constituting the fifth) carry the corpse. The remains of the dead can be seen up to the cemetery where bare bones lie graying like the colour of the pigeons. All alms­giving ends in ashes. Fools prescribe alms­giving; and some assert that there is such a thing as merit in alms­giving; but their words are empty, false and nonsensical. Both the fool and the wise are annihilated and destroyed after death and dissolution of their bodies. Nothing exists after death.5

The passage contains most of the elements of the materialist system which flourished in the seventh or eighth century CE and came to be known as the Carvaka/ Lokayata. Jabali in the Ramayana (Ayodhya Kanda, 100. 2­17) echoes Ajita Kesakambala in many respects; the Mahabharata (Santi Parvan, 211. 22­30) and some of the Puranas such as the Padma Purana and the Visnu Purana and an Upapurana, the Visnudharmottara Mahapurana, also contain references to materialism. These texts and some others seem to refer to some pre­-Carvaka materialist ideas. They anticipate the Carvaka view except in one respect: they speak of five natural elements, namely, earth, air, fire, water and space, while the Carvakas reject the fifth, presumably because space is not perceptible to the senses. Some of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, however, do not speak of all the four as the basic elements. Thales took water alone to be so, Anaximenes, air, Heraclitus, fire, etc. But there are others who thought of the aggregate of all the four elements as arche (origin).

Sources for the Carvaka/Lokayata

As mentioned before, no texts of the Carvaka/Lokayata have survived. Hence we have to depend exclusively on the works of its opponents who polemicized against materialism. There are also a few philosophical digests that offer a summarized version of the Carvaka/Lokayata, although their representation is not always beyond question. However, the basic tenets can be gathered from various Brahminical, Jain and Buddhist works. It is certain that there was at least one collection of aphorisms (sutras), brief, terse statements setting down the fundamental position of the system. Second, several commentaries on this work (no fewer than five) were also composed at different times. Third, a number of verses and satirical epigrams were current till the fourteenth century when Sayana­ Madhava wrote his philosophical compendium, Sarva-­darsana-­samgraha (SDS). Of these three sources, the first two can be admitted as more or less authentic and hence reliable evidence. But the third is of dubious authenticity, for some of them might have been composed by Buddhist and Jain poets, who, along with the Carvakas, ridiculed the Vedic rituals involving animal sacrifice. However, the verses and epigrams contain nothing more than what can be found in the first two sources. They merely confirm rather than add to our knowledge of the Carvaka system.

The Carvaka Fragments

(a) Aphorisms

Let me first quote the aphorisms which can be taken as more or less genuine, i.e., emanating from Carvaka sources.6

1. Materialism

1.1  We shall now explain the principle.
1.2  Earth, water, fire and air are the principles, nothing else.
1.3  Their combination is called the ‘body’, ‘sense’, and ‘object’.
1.4  Consciousness (arises or is manifested) out of these.
1.5  As the power of intoxication (arises or is manifested) from the constituent parts of the wine (such as flour, water and molasses).
1.6  The self is (nothing but) the body endowed with consciousness.
1.7  From the body itself.
1.8  Because of the existence (of consciousness) where there is a body.
1.9  Souls are like water bubbles.

2. The Doctrine of Inherent Nature (lit. Own Being, svabhava)

2.1  The world is varied due to the variation of origin.
2.2  As the eye in a peacock’s tail.

3. The Doctrine of the Primacy of Perception

3.1  Perception indeed is the (only) means of right knowledge.
3.2  Since the means of right knowledge is to be non-­secondary, it is difficult to ascertain an  object by means of inference.

4. The Doctrine of the Denial of Rebirth and the Other-­World

4.1  There is no means of knowledge for determining (the existence of) the other­world.
4.2 There is no other­world because of the absence of any other­worldly being (i.e., the transmigrating self).
4.3  Due to the insubstantiality of consciousness (residing) in the other­world.

5. The Doctrine of the Uselessness of Performing Religious Acts

5.1  Religious act is not to be performed.
5.2  Its (religion’s) instructions are not to be relied upon.

It is to be noted that there is not a single aphorism advocating hedonism. The opponents of the Carvaka often bring this charge against materialism, but they have never been able to cite a single aphorism purporting to do so. Second, although some of the aphorisms are negative statements, the majority of them (13 out of 18) do affirm the positive tenets of materialism. So the charge brought against them, that no positive precept is prescribed in their works, is baseless.7

(b) Fragments of the Commentaries

The fragments of the commentaries mostly refer to aphorisms 1.1, 2, 4 and 3.1, 2. The Carvaka apparently developed along the line of the other philosophical systems of India. The commentary and sub-­commentary tradition is not always consistent in every respect. The commentators and sub­-commentators sometimes manipulated the aphorisms to suggest what they would like them to mean. It is therefore necessary to take note of the Carvaka/Lokayatika philosophers known to us.

The names of two Carvaka philosophers are given in Santaraksita's Tattvasangraha and Kamalasila's Pañjika‚.8 One is called Kambalasvatara and the other, Purandara. Purandara’s vrtti (gloss), apparently on the collection of the sutras, is mentioned in a Prakrit work, Pupphadanta (Puspadanta)’s Mahapurana and Vadidevasuri’s Syadvada­-ratnakara. It should be noted that Santaraksita and Kamalasila were Buddhists while Pupphadanta and Vadidevasuri were Jains.

The third name is Aviddhakarna, which is found in the Nyaya-­viniscaya-­vivarana by Vadirajasuri, Siddhi­-viniscaya-tika‚ by Anantavirya, Pramanavarttika­-svopajña­vrtti-tika‚ by Karnakagomin, and Tattvasangraha-­pañjika‚ by Kamalasila. The name of his commentary is also given by Kamalasila: Tattvatika‚. All that can be said about these three commentators is that they must have flourished in or before the eighth century.

Cakradhara mentions the fourth name, Bhavivikta, whom he describes as a cirantana-­carvaka, a traditional Carvaka. He may have written his commentary even before Kambalasvatara and Purandara. Unfortunately no extract from his work has been quoted in Granthibhanga by Cakradhara.

The fifth and so far the last commentator we know of is Udbhatabhatta, also mentioned as Bhattodbhata. This Udbhata might be identical with the rhetorician from Kashmir. Kalhana in his Rajatarangini„ mentions a minister bearing the same name. As regards Kambalasvatara and Purandara, all that can be said is that they belonged to the eighth century or before. As to Udbhata, if all the Udbhatas were the same, we may fix the time at the ninth century. His name occurs in Syadvada­ratnakara and Granthibhanga. Vadidevasuri respectfully refers to him as ‘a venerable old twice­-born’ (jarad­-dvijanma-­mahanubhavah). Considerably long extracts from Udbhata’s commentary are quoted as the exponent’s view (purvapaksa) by Cakradhara and Vadidevasuri.

From Kamalasila we know that there were at least two commentaries (if not more) on the Carvaka-sutras in or before the eighth century. The commentators explained one sutra (1. 4: tebhayas caitanyam) in two different ways. Cakradhara mentions Bhavivikta as one among many of the traditional Carvakas. So the number of commentators may have been more than five that we have been able to ascertain.

The names of Aviddhakarna and Bhavivikta are also found in the Nyaya literature. But at the present state of our knowledge we cannot say, as Eli Franco writes, whether they were “Carvakas who converted to Nyaya or Naiyayikas who converted to the Lokayata.” 9 Franco is also of the opinion that “the possibility of their having introduced Vaisesika categories into the Carvaka School is certainly not unimaginable.”

Of all the commentators, Udbhata deserves more notice than others. While the other commentators seem to have followed the literal meaning of the aphorisms (so far as can be gathered from the available fragments, admittedly inadequate to form any definite opinion), Udbhata was indeed a ‘revisionist’ among the materialists. Let me quote a few of his remarks as reproduced by Vadidevasri:

While explicating the two aphorisms in the Lokayatasutras, “We shall now explain the principle” and “Earth, water, fire and air (are the principles)” [see aphorisms 1.1 and 2], he (sc. Udbhata) described it in another way, forsaking the conventional interpretation. In the first aphorism, the term, tattva, tells the impossibility of laying down any fixed number and essential characteristics of the sources of knowledge and objects of knowledge. The second aphorism, too, is explained by him as referring to the objects of knowledge. The word, iti in (the aphorism), “The earth, water, fire and air iti”, indicates also the possibility of similar objects of knowledge other than the earth, etc. Such is his view.
The word, iti does not denote the end, (but) it is illustrative. There are other principles such as consciousness, sound, pleasure, pain, desire, aversion, efforts, impression and others. There are also prior non­existence of the earth, etc., posterior non­existence, and mutual difference which are quite apparent and distinct (from the principles, viz., earth, etc.).

This goes against the very grain of the Carvaka approach. Like Aviddhakarna, Udbhata too was an accomplished logician. He could and did use the technical terms of Nyaya to justify the orthodox Carvaka position. However, he succeeded more in obfuscating than expounding the significance of the aphorisms. Here is an example (the least opaque of the fragments related to logic):

The one who framed the definition [see 3.2 above] aimed at brevity of expression, but not only because of this does inference become secondary. And if they were to define the characteristics of probans [sadhya, i.e., inferable property, such as ‘fire’ as attributes of the thing which is a part of the probandum [hetu, reason, such as ‘smoke’], there would be no secondary significance even in the definition.

It is probable that Jayantabhatta had Udbhata in mind when he said, “The Carvakas, the well-earned ones, say that it is really impossible to specifically state the number of the instruments of cognition.” Given Udbhata’s refusal to delimit the number of the objects of cognition, it is only one step further to deny any definite number of the instruments of cognition.

In fact, in one instance, Udbhata seems to verge on pure idealism. He says, “[T]here is an unseen property of the elements, the particular nature of the elements that constitute the body, which brings about the experience of diverse pleasures and pains.”

(c) Verses Attributed to the Carvakas

Now we come to the last of our sources, viz., verses attributed to the Carvakas. The epigrams given below are mostly satirical in intent, affirming at the same time the fundamental materialist position vis-­à­-vis religious rites (specially the post­mortem ones), and belief in the existence of the incorporeal soul. Although the Carvaka philosophers were presumably Brahmins, they had no hesitation in debunking the priests and their pre­occupation with the Vedas. Some of the epigrams run as follows:

1. There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world.
Nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, etc., produce any real effect.
2. Brhaspati says—The agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic’s three staves,
and smearing one’s self with ashes—
All these are the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness.
3. If a beast slain in the Jyoti¹ºoma rite will itself go to heaven, Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?
4. If sraddha (offering of rice balls to a dead person) produces gratification to beings who are dead,
Then oil may rear the flame of an extinguished light of a lamp.
5. If sraddha produces gratification to beings who are dead,
Then here, too, in the case of the travellers when they start, it is needless to give provisions for the journey.
6. If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the sraddha here,
Then why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the housetop?
7. While life remains let a man live happily; nothing is beyond death.
When once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again?
8. If he who departs from the body goes to another world, How is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?
Hence it is only as a means of livelihood that Brahmans have established here.
9. All these ceremonies for the dead—there is no other fruit anywhere.
10. The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
All the well-known formulae of the pandits, jarphari, turphari etc.
11. And all the rites for the queen (e.g., holding the penis of the horse) commanded in the Asvamedha (the Horse sacrifice)—
These were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,
While the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night prowling demons.
12. O, the naked one (Jain), ascetic (Buddhist), dimwit, given to practising physical hardship! Who has taught you this way of leading life?
13. Man consists of only as much as is within the scope of the senses. What the vastly learned ones speak of (as true) is but similar to (the statement) ‘O, Dear! Look at the footprint of the wolf!’
14. O, the one with beautiful eyes! Drink and eat (as you like). O, the one with a charming body! That which is past does not belong to you. O, the timid one! The past never comes back. This body is nothing but a collectivity (of the elements).
15. Penances are only various forms of torments, and abstinence is only depriving oneself of consuming (pleasures of life). The rituals of agnihotra, etc., appear only to be child’s play.
Some of these verses call for elucidation but it would require considerable space to do so.10 Here are a few more verses of a scholarly nature:

16. No concomitance being possible in the case of the particular and there being the charge of ‘proving the proved’ in the case of the universal, the subject cannot be justified as a locus of the probandum. How can, therefore, one talk about inference (as a source of valid knowledge)?
17. It is easily possible to find, in all cases, that one’s inference is contradicted either by probans ‘which nullifies one’s own thesis’, or by a probans ‘which is an invariable opposite’.
18. Indeed, who will deny the validity of inference when one infers fire from smoke, and so on; for even ordinary people ascertain the probandum by such inferences, though they may not be pestered by the logicians.
19. However, inferences that seek to prove a self, God, an omniscient being, the other­world, and so on, are not considered valid by those who know the real nature of things.
20. Simple­minded people cannot derive the knowledge of probandum by such inferences, so long as their mind is not vitiated by cunning logicians.

The issue is logic, more particularly the problem of inference as a valid means of arriving at a universally valid conclusion. The dig at ‘cunning logicians’ is worth noting. Unlike other schools, the Carvaka did not aim at ascertaining any truth that would be valid for all times, past, present and future. They were satisfied with what was apparent from perception, e.g., the invariable relation between fire, the antecedent, and smoke, the consequent. Such an inference was acceptable to them, for it was based on perception. But when the domain of inference was extended to extra­sensory areas (e.g., the existence of God, or of an omniscient being), they would firmly reject it.

Notes and References 
  1. Stack, George. 1998. ‘Materialism’ in Edwin Craig ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Vol. 6, p. 170.
  2. Campbell, Keith.      1972. ‘Materialism’ in Paul Edwards ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Vol. 5, p. 179.
  3. Campbell, p. 179.
  4. Trans. Basham, A. L. 1954. Reprinted in Mircea Eliade. 1979. From Primitive to Zen. London: Collins. p. 110.
  5. Ten Suttas from Digha Nikaya. 1987. Sarnath, Varanasi: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies. p. 83.
  6. For details of the sources, etc. see  Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. 2002. ‘Carvaka Fragments: A New Collection’. Journal of Indian Philosophy (Dordrecht), 30 (6): 597­640. All the fragments and verses that follow will be found here. Earlier, Dakshinaranjan Shastri and Mamoru Namai attempted to collect the fragments that were available to them.
  7. Jayantabhatta brought this charge against the Carvakas in Nyayamañjari. 1982 Gaurinatha Sastri ed. Varanasi: Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishvavidyalaya. Ahnika 4. Part I. p. 388.
  8. For the details of the sources, see my article mentioned above (n. 6).
  9. Franco, Eli.   1997. Dharmakirti on Compassion and Rebirth. Wien (Vienna): Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien. p. 142.
  10. Interested readers may consult my articles and notes published in 1999. Indian Skeptic, 11 (12); 12 (1); 2002. Jain Journal, 36 (3); 1996. Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 14 (1); 1999. 17 (2). For the details of textual variants, translations, etc. see my article 2002. (n. 6). 

We upload this essay "Lokayata Darsana and a Comparative Study with Greek Materialism" in two parts. The second part examines some common misrepresentations about Carvaka/Lokayata Philosophy. This essay was originally published in Partha Ghose (ed.), Materialism and Immaterialism in India and the West: Varying VistasNew Delhi: Centre for the Studies on Civilizations, 12:5, 2010, pp.21-34,

To download the essay in pdf format, please Click Here

Prof 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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