Saturday, 22 December 2012

Materialism in Indian Philosophy – Part I

M N Roy

In India also, the dissatisfaction with the Vedic Natural Religion gave rise to speculations about the origin of things. Some of the earlier Upanishads are fragmentary records of those speculations. But for reasons stated in a preceding chapter, early Indian speculations about the origin of things developed directly into metaphysics and a precarious form of monotheistic religion. Yet, towards the close of the misty Vedic era, approximately about the 7th or 8th century B.C., there rose thinkers who represented distinct materialist tendencies. The teachings of those early speculative rebels are almost completely lost. Only the general drift of the currents of their thought can be approximately inferred from the works of their orthodox opponents. There is, however, ample evidence to conclude that the two earlier systems of Hindu philosophy - Vaisheshik and Sankhya - were the positive outcome of the speculations recorded fragmentarily and rather enigmatically in the earlier Upanishads. The Vedic society was in the process of dissolution. The pastoral tribal organization, under priestly domination, was buttressed ideologically on the natural religion of the Vedas. The ideology of the forces making for its dissolution was expressed by the philosophers who challenged the authority of the gods by trying to explain the being and becoming of the world in a rationalist and materialist way.

MN Roy
All the existing schools of philosophy mention earlier thinkers as “heretics” or “nihilists”. The former had denied the authority of the Vedas; the latter doubted if anything existed at all. According to the Sankhyas, the “nihilists” held: “Since nothing really exists, except thought, neither does bondage exist; just as the things of a dream have no real existence. Therefore, it (bondage) has no cause; for it is absolutely false. The reality is a void. What is, perishes, because to perish is the habit of things. The void alone is the reality. Since everything that exists, perishes, and that which is perishable is false, as in a dream, bondage has merely a momentary existence, is phenomenal, and not real. Therefore, who can be bound by that? Nothing continues after quitting its own nature; therefore, nothing could continue in existence, if it ceased to perish (that is, ceased to have its nature)”.

From such fragmentary records, it is very difficult to reconstruct the whole system. But to do so obviously is essential for the composition of a complete history of ancient Indian thought. For the moment, the fragment­ary evidence clearly proves that the speculative efforts made to outgrow the childishness of the Vedic Natural Religion did not directly develop into the metaphysical conceptions recorded in the existing Upanishads. There was a distinct tendency of development in the opposite direction. Not only was the authority of the Vedas boldly challenged, but the earlier forms of metaphysical thought were subjected to ridicule, and the denial of the Gods or supernatural agencies was stretched to the logical conclusion of denying the existence of everything since this latter depended on the existence of imaginary metaphysical entities.

The Upanishads record not only strands of rationalist, naturalist and agnostic thought, but also out-and-out atheism and materialism. At least one of the main eighteen books is entirely devoted to an exposition of rationalist and naturalist thinking and the most outspoken heretical views. It denies the existence of God and soul; it holds that nothing but matter exists, and that there is no other world beyond this world. Its thesis can be summarized as follows:

“There is no incarnation, no God, no heaven, no hell; all traditional religious literature is the work of conceited fools; nature, the originator, and time, the destroyer, are the rulers of things, and take no account of  virtue or vice, in awarding happiness or misery to men; people deluded by flowery speeches cling to God's temples and priests when, in reality, there is no difference between "Vishnu and a dog." (Swasanved Upanishad, Sutra II).

The origin of the naturalist and sceptic thought, developed in some of the major Upanishads, indeed, can be traced even in the Rig Veda; for instance, the Creation Hymn which concludes the dialogue between the parents of mankind - the twin brother and sister, Yama and Yami.

The Vedas themselves also furnish the evidence of heretical naturalist thought growing already in the Vedic time. There are Vedic hymns which refer to heretics and unbelievers. They evidently were the pioneers of the revolt against the natural religion and as such forefathers of Indian philosophy. As in ancient Greece, so in India also, the first attempts of human intellect to explain nature in natural terms gave birth to philosophy; that means, in India also originally philosophy was materialism. The Vedas and the early Upanishads refer to the - Swabhavadins (naturalists) and their doctrines. They dis­puted the reality of the gods of natural religion and scoff­ed at the pretensions of the priests. From the scant references made only to refute them, it can be inferred that those early pioneers of Indian philosophy were empiricists;  they held that perception was the only source of knowledge as well as the only reliable evidence. There­fore they were called darsanikas, and the term subsequently came to mean philosopher. The Sanskrit word darsana means perception. The authorship of the lokayata dar­sana, the earliest Indian philosophy, is traditionally ascribed to the legendary figure of Brihaspati - the preceptor of the gods. The legend indicates that in the olden days the naturalist rebels against blind faith and orthodoxy were held in high esteem, The fact that Brihaspati has gone down in history also as the founder of the Charvak system developed in a later period as the culmination of the materialist thought in ancient India, proves that until the fall of Buddhism, that is, for more than a thousand years, materialism was a continuous current of thought in ancient India.  The fundamental principles of the lokayata drsana (Indian materialism), s it developed over this long period, ere recorded as follows by Krishna Misra, who was a younger contemporary of Buddha:

“In it only perceptual evidence is authority. The elements are earth, water, fire and air. Wealth and enjoyment are the objects of human existence. Matter can think. There is no other world. Death is the end of all”.

The Ramayana records the story of Javali -the sceeptic and sophist who questioned faith and scriptural laws. The Mahabharata also denounces “doubters and atheists who deny the reality of soul”. They “wander over the whole earth”; they were rationalists, critics of the Vedas, revilers of the Brahmans”. The Gita also refers to heretics who deny the existence of God.

Nihilism was the ideology of the dissolution of antique society in India. It was revolutionary in the sense that it was a mighty revolt against Vedic priest-craft; but as a school of philosophical thought, it was sterile. Neverthe­less, It very greatly influenced Buddhist philosophy. The need to dispute the nihilist doctrine promoted the rise of materialistic tendency. Indian materialism rose as reaction to nihilism. The materialist schools of Indian philosophy represented currents of thought evidently stimulated by nihilism.  In order to dispute the doctrine that nothing existed, it was necessary to rely upon the existence of the material world which no sensible person could possibly dispute. The connection between nihilism and the outspokenly materialistic Vaisheshik system still remains a matter of investigation. But its connection with the quasi-materialist Sankhya system is quite evident. In their fight against the nihilists, the Sankhyas were driven very close to out and out materialism. In order to prove the reality of some existence, Kapila had to fall back upon the material world. The existence of thought by itself, or that of disembodied spirits, could not be proved to the satisfaction of the sceptics who expounded their nihilist doctrines as the logical deductions from the early spiritualist cult which was being set up in order to drug the victims of social chaos, so that they might ignore the miseries of this world as bad dreams. Therefore, more tangible evidence for the reality of existence had to be produced. The rebels and revolutionaries of ancient India thus made the rise of a philosophy possible. In order to prove the existence of thought, Kapila, for example, had to refer the reality of thought to the reality of the external world. His highly materialistic theory of cognition was also developed under the powerful impact of nihilism.

Even in the major Upanishads, which have come to ­be regarded as the foundation of the Vedantist metaphysi­cal system, the discerning student finds unmistakable evidence of materialism. That is only natural; because the speculations of men, whose spiritual thirst is no longer satisfied with the moonshine of natural religion, inevitably tends towards a physical explanation of natural pheno­mena. Ancient Indian speculation could not be free from this general psychological rule. Fragmentary evidence only proves that records of the early materialistic thought were destroyed in course of time. Until those lost chapters of the spiritual history of India are recovered or re­written, Indian philosophy will hang in the air. Pending the accomplishment of that outstanding task, for the present purpose it will be sufficient to reproduce some well known passages from the more important Upanishads:

“What is the origin of the world? Ether (akaska), for all these beings take their rise from ether only, and return into ether. Ether is their rest”.
Again, "That which is called ether, is the revealer of all forms and names.”*

If the conception of akaska is devoid of all content, then, the argument of the nihilists becomes unanswerable, and everything must be reduced to nothing, as non-existent. Moreover, in the same Upanishad, Brahman is also mentioned as the cause of everything-If akaska was a metaphysical conception, identical with Brahman, it would not be necessary for its being specified as the reveler of all forms and names, in addition to Brahman. Obviously, the function of revealing forms and names does not belong to Brahman. If things are supposed to have another cause, over and above the metaphysical Final Cause, then, the former must logically be conceived as a mental cause. There must have been dispute on this Point. Because Sankaracharya found it necessary to insist that “the word ether must here be taken to denote Brahman”. But it is equally, or perhaps more, logical to assume that the obvious meaning of the passage is more sensible and, in that case, the fact that Brahman also was mentioned as the cause of all is to be set to the credit of prevailing prejudice. The assumption of the material cause, named ether, is sufficient for explaining the origin of the world. Yet, the venerable conception of Brahman is retained as a matter of form. The entire history of scientific thought, almost down to our days, suffers from this fallacy.

In the Katha Upanishad, the world is visualized as evolving out of a primal material condition. Kapila takes that as his point of departure for the doctrine of the Pra­dhan and Avyakta (undeveloped or potential).

In Svetasvatara Upanishad, Aga (fire) is assumed as “the one unborn from which everything springs". Aga is not, however, identified with Brahman. So, it must have been conceived as a cause other than the spiritual First Cause. Here again, the physical world is traced to a material origin. The materialistic tendency in the Svetasvatara Upanishad is so very pronounced that even Sankaracharya finds it very difficult to explain it away. It will be shown later on that, in order to combat Bud­dhism which was the ultimate outcome of all the materialist tendencies in ancient India, Sankaracharya was compelled to take up a very thinly veiled materialistic position.

The vedanta has come to be accepted as the most representative and authoritative school of ancient Indian philosophy. As its name implies, it claims to contain all the wisdom of the Vedas. But being based on the authority of the Scriptures, it can hardly be accorded the distinction of philosophy. As a matter of fact, Vedanta is a very highly metaphysical system of theology. As such, it goes beyond the limits of a theistic religion, and represents a very highly developed form of pantheism. Pantheism is only inverted materialism. No other logical conclusion can be drawn from any consistent system of monism. The Vedantist metaphysical speculation completely destroys the idea of a god, and consequently liquidates religion. The materialist implication of the Vedantist pantheism becomes evident in its masterly exposition by Sankaracharya. The metaphysical monism of the Vedanta system was constructed by the Brahmm intellectuals in order to combat the materialist schools of philosophy which had logically resulted from the earlier speculation of thinkers no longer satisfied with the fantasies and fairy-tales of the primitive Vedic religion.

* Chandogya Upanishad



This essay is Chapter III of MN Roy’s Materialism: an Outline of the History of Scientific Thought (First Edition: July, 1940; Second Revised Edition: February, 1951)

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