Saturday, 5 January 2013

Materialist Philosophy of Kanada and Kapila (Materialism in Indian Philosophy – Part II)

M N Roy

The spiritual revolt represented by the Indian materialists eventually culminated in the rise of Buddhism which all but liquidated the Vedic natural religion and freed India from Brahmanical domination for several hundred years. Internal evidence proves that the Vedanta Sutras were composed for combating Buddhism. Therefore, they could not be regarded as the direct out­come of the speculative thought recorded in the Upa­nishads. The composition of the earlier Upanishads and the Vedanta Sutras must have been separated by several hundred years, during which period the spiritual deve­lopment of India was in the direction of materialism, re­presented by Kanada, Kapila and many others, and of rationalism, represented by the Buddhists and Jains sub­sequently. The triumph of Buddhism and its supremacy for so many centuries prove that the metaphysical school of thought, represented by the Vedantists, could not check the tide of materialism and rationalism. It was only after the defeat of the Buddhist revolution that Vedantist metaphysics and pantheism were revived as the ideology of the Brahmanical reaction. The Sutras them­selves could not have been compiled earlier than the fourth century B.C., by which time Buddhism had be­come a powerful challenge to the Brahmanical orthodoxy. Because, a considerable portion of them is devoted to a vigorous polemic against the Buddhists. On the other hand, the philosophical origin of Buddhism is clearly to be traced to the Sankhya and Vaisheshika systems. The early Buddhist as well as Jain philosophers drew their inspiration from Kanada and Kapila.

Although there is reason to believe that those fathers of Hindu philosophy lived more or less at the same time, a comparative study of the two systems allows the infer­ence that Vaisheshika was the oldest system of Hindu philosophy. Its founder lived about the same time as the founder of ancient Greek materialism, namely, approximately, in the Sixth century B.C. He also expounded an atomist theory for explaining the origin of the world. The following are the main points of Kanada's atomism.


All substance is composed of parts which are govern­ed by their qualities of inherence and conjunction. That thing at which the distinction of whole and the parts stops, and which therefore marks the limit of division in­to minute parts, is the atom. The atoms are the cause of the world; an effect may not be assumed without cause. The atoms are eternal, belong to four classes which possess corresponding qualities. The atoms of the same class and of similar quality combine to produce the several gross dements. The combination takes place by two causes: The material cause, inherent in the atoms themselves, and the non-inherent cause is assumed to be the super-natural will.

All substances consisting of parts originate from the substances connected with them by the relation of inher­ence. The substance is composed of parts inherent in it. The relation of conjunction operates in the process. Inherent parts of a substance come together, thanks to the relation of conjunction, to produce the substance. What­ever consists of parts, originates from those substances with which it is connected by the relation of inherence, conjunction co-operating. The whole world is composed of parts; because it is composed of parts, it has beginning and end; an effect may not be assumed without a cause; therefore, the atoms are the cause of the world. The atoms are of a spherical shape. When the atoms are iso­lated and motionless, no effect is produced. After that, the unseen principle, acting as the operative cause, and conjunction co-operating, they produce the entire aggre­gate of things, beginning with binary atoms. The material cause of the atomic compound is the constituent atoms; the conjunction is caused by the unseen operative cause.

The materialism of the system is evident. The only weak spot in an otherwise self-contained system of purely physical explanation of the origin of the world, is the assumption of the unseen, non-inherent, cause in addition to the material cause. Obviously, the assumption is super­fluous. Since the tendency to combine is inherent in atoms themselves, there is absolutely no need for an un­seen (adrishta) cause to make them coalesce. The Vaisheshika system does not need an impulse from outside for the atoms to begin aggregating. The tendency to combine is inherent in the atoms. “Bigness is produced from plu­rality inherent in the causes.” That is to say, to combine is in" the nature of the atoms. Kanada himself did not go so far as to visualise his atoms in a perpetual motion. The postulation of a motionless state of isolated atoms requir­ed the additional postulate of the action of the “unseen principle”. The commentator Upaskar removed the de­fect. According to him, extension, that is, perceptible matter, is caused by the principle of “dvitva” inherent in the primal matter; it is a natural propensity of two atoms to unite. Indeed, the commentator makes clear an Idea to be found in the Sutras themselves.

However, in assuming the superfluous non-inherent cause, Kanada did not contradict himself any more crassly than did, much later, the fathers of modern science like Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton and others who paid homage to the prejudice about God, even when they .deprived him of all functions. Today it is not possible to say whether Kanada himself believed or not in the neces­sity of the obviously superfluous assumption of the non-­inherent cause. Even if he did, that would not affect the -real implication of his hypothesis, which was purely mate­rialistic.

MN Roy
Kanada's system makes no room for the soul in the metaphysical or spiritualist sense of the term. According to it, intelligence is not an inherent property of the soul; it is conceived as a mere adventitious quality of the atoms, arising only when the soul is joined with an internal organ. Kanada argues: The qualities which inhere in the substance, constituting the cause, originate qualities of the same kind in the substance constituting the effect. Hence, if the intelligent Brahman is assumed as the cause of the world, we should expect to find intelligence inher­ent in the effect also, in the world. This is not the case. Therefore Brahman cannot be the cause of the world. Consciousness is thus regarded as the product of a complica­ted combination of atoms. Soul is merely the disposi­tion of organism, which is a combination of matter. At a certain stage of combination, an atomic aggregate acquires the property of receiving impressions of external objects and reacting to them. Consciousness develops at that stage. The constituents of the “soul” of the Vaisheshika system are inherent in the substance which constitutes the organism. And that substance is composed of atoms, which again are only of four kinds - of water, earth, air and fire.

Moreover, while disputing the immateriality of spiri­tuality of the soul, Kanada himself throws overboard the superfluous assumption of the non-inherent cause. He categorically declares that the Brahman cannot be the cause of the world. And in another place, he declares equally categorically that the atoms are the cause of the­ world. The early Indian metaphysicians regarded Brah­man as an intelligent being or an intelligent principle. The materialists combated that conception. They could do so because they did not require the postulate of an ex­ternal intelligence or force to give the first impulse for the origin of the world. Therefore, their materialist specula­tion was self-contained; the formal inclusion of the concep­tion of Brahman or non-inherent cause was only a matter of prejudice or conformity with venerable traditions.

The Vaishcshika system was condemned by the Orthodox as “semi-destructive” or “semi-nihilistic”, because of its dynamic view of nature. It regards nature not as a being but a process of becoming. It held that the continuous change in the size of bodies involved continuous perishing of the old and continuous rise of new substance. Even the' idea of the indestructibility of matter is anticipated.

As a matter of fact, Kanada's atomism was even more self-contained than that of Democritus. By visualising the atoms as possessing the inherent property of coalescing and combining, it was free from the fallacy which opened the Democritean system to Aristotle's attack. Kanada's system was to a large extent free from the problem of action at a distance. In his time, it was the dominating current of thought. The Vaisheshik atomism was the com­mon point of departure of a whole series of speculative thinkers, whose contributions to the spiritual heritage of India approximated real philosophy, and tried to free Indian society from the domination of the Vedic priest­-craft. Nevertheless, the unnecessary assumption of a metaphysical cause was due to the priestly prejudices from which the main currents of materialist and ration­alist thought in ancient India could not liberate them­selves. The social conditions that caused in Greece the evolution of thought from natural religion to the mate­rialist philosophy did not ripen in India. Intellectual life remained a priestly monopoly. The result was the weakness of the scientific and rationalist thought which, therefore, was eventually overwhelmed, and even its records were practically all destroyed, by the triumphant Brahmanical reaction.

Although the fundamental principles of ancient Indian materialism were stated originally in the Vaisheshik system, the dominating position in the intellectual life of that period came to be occupied by the Sankhya system of Kapila. The latter deviated largely from the strictly materialistic ground, and developed rather as a rational­-naturalist system of metaphysics. Nevertheless, the phy­sical principles of materialism were elaborated philoso­phically by Kapila. He is known as an atheist who main­tained that the existence of God could not be proved by logical evidence. But the real merit of his philosophy is the recognition of the objective reality of the physical world. The Sankhya system decidedly rejects the doctrine that the external world has no objective existence, and that nothing exists but thought. Arguing against some Earlier philosophers, who are characterised by the com­mentators as “heretics” or “nihilists”, Kapila lays down: “Not thought alone exists; because there is the intuition of the external world.” “Then, since, if the one does not exist, the other does not exist, there is a void”.[1]

The most authoritative commentator, Vijnana Bhikshu, interprets the Sutras as follows: “The reality is not thought alone; because external objects also are prov­ed to exist, just as thought is, by intuition. If external things do not exist, then, a mere void offers itself. Because, if the external world does not exist, then, thought does not exist; for, it is intuition that proves the objective; and, if the intuition of the external did not establish the objective, then, the intuition of thought also would not establish the existence of thought”.

The analogy with the point of departure of Des­cartes' rationalism – “Cogito, ergo sum”-is obvious. But there is more than pure rationalism. The theory of cognition is definitely materialistic. The underlying principle of the Sankhya theory of knowledge is identical with the modern materialist principle that consciousness is de­termined by being. The defenders of the religious doc­trine of creation tried to silence the enquiry about the origin of things by denying the reality of the world itself. They argued that a thing of dream - an unreality - did not need a substantial origin. Kapila retorted: “The world is not unreal; because there is no fact contradictory (to its reality), and because it is not the (false) result of depraved senses (leading to a belief in what ought not to be believed)”. This is clear enough. But Kapila goes far­ther-to the extent of stating the fundamental principle of the rationalist-materialist view of the world. “A thing is not made out of nothing”.[2]

The bottom is knocked oft the doctrine of creation. The origin of the physical world is traced to an endless process of causality, and that process is inherent in nature. Existing eternally by itself, the world does not need a creator or creation. Nor is there any beginning. Because, in that case also, something would come out of nothing. Thus, the Sankhya system rejects even “emanent teleo­logy”, a doctrine made fashionable by some philosophers of our time.

The materialist essence of the Sankhya system is con­fused by its apparent rejection of atomism. But the very argument advanced for the purpose implies a more per­fected form of materialism: “What is limited cannot be the substance of al”. Together with the Vaisheshika, the Sankhya system also reduces the “gross elements” to atoms; but Kapila traces the severally existing atoms down to a still simpler all-pervading substance. This is very much the same as done by Aristotle; but there is no evi­dence whether he resorted to this expediency to avoid the baffling problem of action at a distance.  However, by seeking the ultimate substance beyond the atoms, Kapila anticipated the most modern conception of substance in­stead of rejecting materialism.

Kapila visualised existence as a hierarchy, so to say, composed of twenty-five realities. In addi­ction to the soul, nature, mind and self-conscious­ness, there are “subtle” elements, sense organs and “gross elements”. The pyramid stands on the apex. Reverse the order, and you have a process of evolution. But Kapila conceived the process in the Hegelian fashion: as “Idea expressing itself”. Although the process of evolu­tion is set on its head, the “realities”, however, are derived inductively from the immediately perceptible gross ele­ments. The existence of the “subtle elements” (sound, colour, touch, taste and smell) is inferred from the “gross elements” which are directly perceptible. The logic is obvious: Everything that is gross is formed of some­thing which is less gross. The process is traced to the primal state of nature in which everything lies in a state of inaction. But Nature is not only eternal, but self-operative. “Since the root has no root, the root is rootless”.[3] Thus, Nature is the Final Cause. Since mind and self-consciousness are placed within the scheme of nature, they are included in the materialistic system. Only the soul stands outside, but like Newton's deux ex machina, it is completely unnecessary for explaining the being and becoming of the world. The existence of nature is inferred from its perceptible phenomena. These are real; they must therefore have a real cause. That is to say, the constituents of the world exist eternally. Those ultimate elements are called, in the Vaisheshika and Nyaya systems, atoms. Kapila reduces them to an all-pervasive existence, and calls it the Nature in a state of inaction.

The Nature of the Sankhya in its primal state is like Spinoza's “beseelte Materie” (animated substance). Three qualities (goodness, passion and darkness), inherent in nature, are the lever of all natural operations. Atomism is rejected, because pain and pleasure are not properties of the atom. Everything in existence is an aggregate of pain, pleasure, delusion etc. which are clearly perceptible. But here arises a very pertinent question: What is the cause of these categories or qualities? Kapila himself asserts that something cannot come out of nothing. Obviously to avoid this dilemma, he makes his Nature an all pervading primal substance, having the three qualities in a state of equilibrium. The atomists would contend that the atom could just as well represent the equilibrium of qualities. However, Kapila's rejection of atomism leads him to a position where the materialness of Nature ap­pears to disappear. The primal existence appears like the Brahman of the Vedantist, or the Hegelian Non-Being - Absolute Nothing. But that is far from what Kapila desires to establish. Therefore, he concludes his argu­ments against atomism by reaffirming the materialness of Nature.

“Nothing can be produced from a non-entity like man's horn”.

“There must be some material of which the product may consist”.[4]

The Sankhya system, with its rigid rationalism, can­not do without a material substratum of the world, be­cause, if that is dispensed with, everything may happen everywhere, which is an absurdity according to itself. Consequently, the Sankhya conception of primal nature cannot be essentially different from the conception of “matter in motion”. Its rejection of atomism, therefore, could not be a repudiation of materialism; it was done with the motive of making the physical explanation of the world free from - all possible logical fallacies. An all-pervasive primal substance obviate the difficulty of original combination, and consequently, for securing the first impulse, the postulate, the postulate of a metaphysi­cal agency is not necessary.

Indeed, a mechanistic conception of nature is not only logically inherent in the Sankhya system, but becomes explicit in the definition of the properties of the­ “Pradhan”. Kapila holds that just as mother's milk and' water flow mechanically, just so “the Pradhan also, al­though non-intelligent, may be supposed to move from its own nature”. Motion, as distinct from conscious move­ment or intelligence, is thus clearly visualised as inherent in the Pradhan, which is the name for the all-pervading­ material substratum of the world. This again shows that the metaphysical elements in the Sankhya system are al­together superfluous, the system being self-contained as a mechanistic-materialist conception of the world.

As regards the soul, it is explicitly ruled out as the ­Final Cause of things; and the obvious logical deduction' that the origin of things is material, is clearly drawn from the superfluity of the conception of soul.

“While both (Nature and Soul) are antecedent (to all' products), since the one (Soul) is devoid (of this character of being a cause), it is applicable only to the other of the two (Nature)”.[5]

Having divested soul of all qualities, and ascribed to nature all active properties and the status of the Final Cause, Kapila finds it very difficult to prove how the non­discrimination between the two originates. The difficulty lies in the fact that his conception of the Nature as a self-operative entity renders soul only an empty conception - ­a concession to traditional prejudice. He extricates him-· self from the position by going still another step farther away from metaphysical dualism towards materialistic monism. Understanding, mind, reason, and even ego, are all discriminated from the Soul as products of Nature. Thus, the Soul is left without any function. Indeed, by its very nature (absolute, immutable etc.), it cannot have any connection with anything. Thus, there is an un­bridgeable gulf between the two ultimate categories of existence. The gulf could be bridged only by abandoning the dualist position. It is difficult to ascertain if Kapila himself did that. The Sutras are not very clear on the point. One of the commentators cuts the Gordian knot.

“These two (Nature and Soul) are alike without antecedent, like seed and sprout of which it is needless to ask which is the first; the old puzzle, which was the first, the acorn or the oak? being a frivolous question”.

The relation between Soul and Nature (prakriti and purusha) thus interpreted, the Sankhya system becomes free of the dualist fallacy, and stands out as a self-contained materialist system. Either simultaneous existence of the two uncreated beings is admitted, or Soul ceases to exist except as an attribute of Nature. Then, the logic of “seed and sprout” is faulty. The removal of this logical defect leads to monism. Of the Soul and Nature, one must be the cause of the other. By its very nature, the Soul of Sankhya cannot be the cause of creation; because, in that case, it would cease to be what it is and could never be emancipated. So, there remains Nature as the only real source of existence. and Kapila conceives Nature as a purely material entity, self-originating and functioning mechanically. Even the so-called vital forces are the products of the mechanistic operation of the material entity, Nature.

The most important contribution made to the development of philosophical thought by the Sankhya system, however, is its sensationalist theory of knowledge. Kapi1a was an out and out empiricist. He holds, with an admirable logical rigour, that sense perception is the only reliable source of knowledge.

“Determination (right apprehension) of something not previously known is right notion (knowledge). What -is in the highest degree productive thereof, is evidence”.[6]

Evidence is defined as perception, inference and testimony (scriptural). By admitting inference in the category of evidence, Kapila anticipated the rise of inductive logic. His contribution to the scientific mode of thought, there­fore, is very considerable. The above Sutra is interpreted by one of the commentators as follows: “The proof or evidence, or whatever we may choose to call that from which right notion results, is just the conjunction of an organ (with the appropriate object)”.

The Sutras themselves are very categorical about the role of perception in the process of acquiring knowledge. A decisive answer to the questions raised even by modern epistemological nihilists was given by Kapila.

“Perception is that discernment which, being in conjunction (with the things perceived), portrays the forms thereof”.[7]

It is held that the organs (external, that is, of perception, and internal, that is, of inference) are products' of Nature. They are not “depraved”; that is, they do not portray as real what is not real. Therefore, whatever is established on their evidence is real. Since the organs bear testimony to the existence of the external world its reality is established.

While the Sankhyas thus expounded an atheistic naturalism, the Vaisheshik and Nyaya, systems tended clearly towards materialism. That very significant evolution of thought out of the background of the Vedic religion and the metaphysical speculations of the Upani­shads, in the fullness of time ushered in the Golden Age of India, that is, the Buddhist period. The latter Upanishads and early Buddhist literature are full of refer­ences to “heretics, atheists and materialists”.

When Buddha was a young man, the great halls and vast forests of northern India were echoing with disputations denying the divine origin of the Vedas and the authority of the Brahmans, and preaching agnosticism, atheism and materialism. And it was during the several centuries of the Buddhist era that India really attained a very high level of material and moral culture.


The long process of the development of naturalist, rationaiist, sceptic, agnostic and materialist thought in ancient India found culmination in the Charvak system of philosophy, which can be compared with Greek Epi­cureanism, and as such is to be appreciated as the positive outcome of the intellectual culture of ancient India. The greatest of the Paribrajaks mentioned in the earliest Bud­dhist literature, those Sophists and Stoics of ancient India, was one Brihaspati.[8] He was the founder of Indian Epi­cureanism - the Charvak system. The Brihaspati Sutras are referred to frequently in contemporary Buddhist and Brahmanical texts. But only some remnants of the Sutras themselves survived the downfall of Buddhism. From them we learn that Brihaspati condemned Brah­lnans as “men devoid of intellect and manliness, who up­hold the authority of the Vedas because they yield them the means of a comfortable livelihood”.

The Charvaks laughed at the notion that the Vedas were divinely revealed truth; they held that truth can never be known except through the senses. Therefore, the idea of soul is a delusion. The Charvaks thus anticipated the modern philosophical thought of ultra-empiri­cism. They held that even reason was not to be trusted, because every inference depended for its validity not only on accurate observation and correct reasoning, but also upon the assumption that the future would behave like the past, and of this there was no certainty. That was anticipating modern agnosticism more than two thousand years before Hume. But the Charvaks were not mere nihilists, agnostics and sceptics. They developed an elaborate system of positive philosophical thought.

“All phenomena are natural. Neither in experience nor in history do we find any interposition of super­natural forces. Matter is the only reality; the mind is matter thinking. The hypothesis of a creator is useless for explaining or understanding the world. Men think religion necessary only because, being accustomed to it, they feel a sense of loss and an uncomfortable void when the growth of knowledge destroys faith. Morality is natural; it is a social convention and convenience, not a divine command. There is no need to control instincts and emotions; they are commands of nature. The pur­pose of life is to live; and the only wisdom is happiness." 



[1] Book I, Sutras 42 and 43
[2] Book I, Sutras 78
[3] Book I, Sutras 114 and 115
[4] Book I, Sutras 114 and 115
[5] Book I, Sutras 75
[6] Book I, Sutras 87
[7] Book I, Sutras 89
[8] The name Brihaspati occurs in the ancient Indian Literature frequently in various connections over a period of many hundred years during which naturalist, rationa­list and materialist thought developed and wielded a considerable influence. Brihaspati is mentioned as the founder of Swabhavavad of Lokayata and also of the Charvak system. While it is quite possible that Brihas­pati was a legendary figure, it also proves a continuity of naturalist thought.


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).

Due to its length we have decided to upload it in parts. Click here for Part I

1 comments:

Thank you for article! Pls explore & investigate power of Sankhya from Maharishi Kapilla at www.kapillavastu.com

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