Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Adi Shankara and Indian Materialist Philosophy (Materialism in Indian Philosophy – Part IV)

MN Roy

The dynamic view of nature attained a high degree of clarity with the Jains. The dialectic logic developed by the Jain philosophers was later on condemned by Sankaracharya as “an unsettling style of reasoning”. It was, indeed, unsettling for the rigid orthodox logic which set up an imaginary absolute standard. Once the abso­luteness of the standard of truth is disputed, the whole airy structure of doctrines and dogmas, reared upon that foundation, necessarily collapses.

The Jain philosophers maintained that contradictory attributes, such as being and non-being, could belong to one and the same thing. They subjected the conceptions of absoluteness, unity and eternity to their “unsettling style of reasoning”. The result was rejection of the doc­trine of the Brahman. The disruptive effect of their views and methods of reasoning can be judged from the charge Shaukaracharya brought against them: “If you maintain that the heavenly world and final release exist or do not exist, and are eternal or non-eternal, the absence of all determinate knowledge, which is implied in such statements, will result in nobody's acting for the purpose of gaining the heavenly world and final release.”

The Jains also believed in Soul; but they conceived it as a constantly changing entity-something very different from the orthodox “simple and immortal” divine spark in man. They thought that soul was composed of an infinite number of particles - “soul-atoms” - which was constantly increasing and decreasing. That, in their opinion, did not affect the permanence of the soul; for a thing can be permanent and non-permanent at the same time. For example, although the water is constantly flowing, the stream of water is always there. The ontological, counterpart of this logic is obvious: The phenomenal world is permanent and real with all its continual changes and transitoriness.

In the antique period, as well as in the middle-ages, Indian society never quite reached a level of evolution where the power and position of the priesthood could be successfully disputed by a new social class which, by its Very nature, would be the standard-bearer of scientific thought and thus lay down the foundation of philosophy.

The distinctive feature of Indian speculation, com­mon to all schools, including even those materialist and quasi-materialist ones, some records of which have come down in history, is the anxiety to find release from the bondage of the life in this world. This morbid conception of life originated in the chaotic and depressing conditions resulting from the disintegration of the antique social order. The picture of social conditions towards the close of the Epic Era, as depicted in the Mahabharata, is anything but bright. Such conditions were sure to beget pessimism as well as revolt. Legends, recorded in the Mahabharata, testify to the rise of the forces of revolt which sometimes were too powerful for the weakened Kshattriya ruling class. But that was an elemental movement, rather actuated by despair than inspired by the ideal of a new social order.

Pessimism was the prevailing spirit. All the schools of Indian speculation bear the stamp. All look upon nature as a source of bondage; the freedom was not to be had by bursting the bondage, that is, by conquering, nature, but by the easier, imaginary way of running away from the “evil”. The idea of conquering the external nature never entered Indian speculation. Therefore, it could not ever attain the level of real philosophy. Self mortification is not the conquest of nature. It is to block all the ways of knowing external causes. It means plung­ing into the dark ocean- of blissful ignorance.

Self-mortification, however, had no place in the pri­mitive Vedic religion which, like all natural religions, was "materialistic" in the vulgar sense of the term. Pessi­mism, begotten in the chaotic and miserable conditions of the disintegration of the tribal society, was seized upon by the priestly ruling class as the opportunity for expound­ing the pernicious doctrine of renunciation and self-mor­tification which became such an effective weapon in the struggle for maintaining their dominating position. Life ­is full of miseries, because the desires of man can never be' satisfied. Control the desires, you will be free from the evils of nature, and all misery will cease. Eternal bliss will be yours. The triumph of this "spiritualist" view of life reflected a tremendous social reaction which, in its turn, deeply affected speculative thought for a long time to come. Even revolutionary Buddhism could not fully live down that corrupting tradition of a previous social reaction, and was eventually vitiated by the poison. The triumph of the doctrine of self-mortification as the way out of the miseries of life represented the defeat of the ­forces of dissatisfaction with, and revolt against, the esta­blished order of things.

The discontent with things as they are is the condi­tion for their change. The replacement of discontent by resignation, of revolt by indifference, means stagnation of social energy. All striving for material progress ceases, and ideological evolution is correspondingly affected. The triumph of the reactionary priesthood in the class struggle of remote antiquity determined the peculiar feature of Indian speculative thought. The triumph of reaction, in its turn, was possible because there had not yet arisen a class which could lead Indian society out of the crisis resulting from the downfall of the tribal social order. In course of time, the relation of classes changed. More or less disruptive schools of speculation flourished. But they all bore, in a greater or lesser degree, the distinctive stamp which signified a very slow process of social evolution, and the consequent continuation of sacerdotal supremacy.

The urges of life compel man to take up the endless struggle with nature. In course of this struggle, man penetrates deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the Universe, and progressively these mysteries cease to be mysterious. Primitive empiricism gives birth to philosophy; philosophy is the mother of science, and finally science enthrones the venerable mother as the "science of sciences". The taboo on the joy of life, the perverse pre­judice against the natural urges of life, emasculates man. It holds him back from the mission, given to him by his very being. Consequently, it precludes a free spiritual evolution. Man creates science and philosophy; when the conditions of his social existence set limits to his human existence, his thoughts are naturally distorted. Indian speculation presents such a picture of distorted thought.

Therefore, the rationalist, materialist and naturalist teachings of Kanad, Kapila, Brihaspati, Gautama, Mahabir, and others were ultimately buried under the ruins of the Buddhist revolution. Brahma­nical reaction, reasserting itself in the scholasti­cism of Sankaracharya, choked all spiritual pro­gress so successfully that a renaissance of the ancient liberating thought was delayed until it was too late. The Hindu ruling classes were so exhausted by the delirium of having overwhelmed a mighty revolution that the country became an easy prey to foreign invaders. General prostration and stagnation, on the other hand, precluded the rise of new social forces corresponding to those which rescued Europe from the darkness of the pious and spiri­tual middle-ages.

Whatever record exists about the various schools of philosophical thought in ancient India, bears testimony to the fact that dissatisfaction with the Vedic Natural Reli­gion gave rise to speculations about the origin of the world, which inevitably developed tendencies to explain the world in physical terms. In India also, physics preceded metaphysics. Much of the really philosophical thought of ancient India has unfortunately been lost. But from the fragmentary evidence recorded, that forgotten chapter of the spiritual history of India can be reconstructed. As everywhere, originally, in India also philosophy was materialism. The materialistic outcome of the speculations of the rebels against the Vedic Natural Religion, contained in the three systems of philosophy proper, namely, Vaisheshik, Sankhya and Nyaya, provided the inspiration for the greatest event in the history of ancient India - the Buddhist Revolution. The spiritual development of India during nearly a thousand years, be­ginning from the seventh century B.C., was very largely dominated by materialist and rationalist tendencies. It is highly doubtful whether the Vedanta system was formu­lated before the end of that Golden Age of Indian history. Internal evidence dearly proves the opposite case. The main purpose with which Vedantist pantheism was deve­loped was to combat the materialist systems of Kanad and Kapila as well as the revolutionary doctrines of Buddhism .and the unsettling logic of the Jains. That being the case, it is permissible to maintain that in ancient India, until the fall of Buddhism, philosophy was largely materialistic. Even as late as the fourth century A.D., in the period of triumphant Hindu restoration under the Gupta dynasty, the Chinese traveller Fa Hien found in India no less than "ninety-six heretical sects, all of whom admitted the reality of world y phenomena."

Sankaracharya constructed his rigidly logical, but philosophically ambiguous system of monism for combating Buddhist idealism. But the real enemy he had to contend with was the materialist traditions of the pre-Buddhist philosophy. His works are full of long polemics against materialist and naturalist doctrines, so much so that the fragments, profusely quoted by him, can serve as a reliable foundation for reconstructing the latter.

The following can be reconstructed as the summary of the "atheism and materialism" that ankaracharya combated, from fragmentary evidences contained in his own works:

Religious doctrines are all meaningless words. Their foundation is the idea of God whose very existence can­not be proved. The God is the Creator, but he has no origin. If it is admitted that there must be a Creator and ruler of the world, then, there arises the question: Who created the Creator? Whence did he come? The Creator is said to be without beginning and without end; without any limit. But after all, he is a Creator, which implies a personality on his part. The God is, indeed, considered to be the Creator. But a person cannot be without begin­ning and end and other limits. If the God is limited, then, is it not possible that there may exist a power over and above him? The God is believed to be all-powerful and, all-pervading. But these attributes of the God cease to be what they are believed to be, as soon as they are imagined by man. Thus, the essence of the God, the Creator, disappears. Then, it is taught that desire is the cause of creation. From this, it follows that God himself is not free from desire. Further, if the Universe is created by the Will of God, then, God himself must have the feeling of want; for, wish grows out of want. The feeling of want destroys omnipotence, omniscience and all other superhuman attributes ascribed to the God.

What has come down to us as the most authoritative and representative Hindu philosophy, was the creation of Sankaracharya. He was the ideologist of the Brahmanical reaction and patriarchal sacerdotal society which were re- established on the ruins of the Buddhist revolution. But all Sankaracharya's efforts for liquidating the traditions of the really philosophical thoughts of ancient India were a failure. This very important fact of the spiritual history of India is not realised. Yet, it is obvious from a critical study of Sankaracharya's work. He failed to meet the materialists on their ground. He could not refute their arguments. He had to fall back on the authority of the Scriptures, the repudiation of which had been the starting point of all philosophical thought in ancient India. Of all the great ancient rationalists, Kapila alone had admitted scriptural testimony as evidence. But that was only a formal concession. While declaring that the existence of God could not be proved, because there was no evidence, Kapila does not take scriptural testimony into account. Even the Vedanta Sutras themselves do not accept the Scriptures as answering all the questions raised by those dissatisfied with the dogmas of natural religion. "Not having found the highest bliss in the Vedas, Sandi­lya studied the Sastras."[1] The latter contain primitive rationalism which rejects the childish faith of the Vedic religion.

So highly developed and powerful were the materialist and naturalist schools combated by Sankaracharya, that, whenever he tried to refute their arguments logical­ly, he was driven to take up an essentially materialistic position. His pantheistic monism is inverted materialism. The Mayavad is a shame-faced recognition of the reality of the external world. It is only by degenerating into a dogmatic system of theology, which tries to reconcile even ­the gods of the Vedic natural religion with the metaphy­sical conception of Brahman that Sankaracharya's system apparently escapes the glorious fate common to all sys­tems of consistent pantheism. The fate is to corroborate the materialist view from the opposite direction.

Sankaracharya begins his commentary of the Vedanta. Sutras with the assumption, that it is a matter not requir­ing any proof that the object and the subject are opposed to each other as much as darkness and the light are, and therefore cal not be identical. Starting from this absolute dualistic conception, his monotheism could be established' only by the absurd sophistry of the doctrine of Maya. In order to establish the "reality" of an existence, which is simply assumed, and which, by its very nature, as well as ­admittedly, cannot be proved, the perceptible and prov­able existence is declared to be an illusion. The Brah­man is associated with a certain power called Avidya ­which is the cause of all the appearances of the world. This power cannot be called "Being", for Being is only Brahman. But immediately it is also admitted that it cannot be called "non-being"; for, at any rate, it produces the appearance of this world. It is in fact a principle of illusion: the undeniable cause owing to which there seems to exist a material world. Maya thus constitutes the Upadhana, the material cause of the world. It be­longs to the Brahman, as a Sakti. The material cause of the world is Brahman in so far as it is associated with Maya.

This doctrine obviously contradicts the conception of Brahman as a unitary and absolute existence. Brah­man is destitute of all qualities; it is devoid of all attri­butes-thought, activity etc. Yet, Maya is assumed to be its Sakti. Moreover, Maya is conceived as an existence parallel to Brahman. The idea of "association" presup­poses two entities; similarly, that of belonging. Since it is admitted that Brahman may be regarded as the material cause of the world, it cannot be an immaterial entity. Two qualitatively different things can never stand in re­lation of causality. On the other hand, if the position of Brahman is not compromised by placing it in a relation of causality with the material world, then, the latter must he granted an independent existence. Whatever may be its cause, the Brahman cannot be its origin. San­karacharya gets out of this difficulty by falling back on religion. He argues: "If it be objected that on the Vedanta doctrine there is no room for a moving power, as in consequence of the oneness of Brahman no motion can take place, we reply such objections by pointing to the -fact of the Lord being fictitiously connected with Maya." This sort of argument carries little conviction to those who do not start from the fundamental dogma of religion. To begin with, the material world is dismissed as an illu­sion. The "real" existence has nothing to do with it. Then, the question about the moving forces of the phenomenal world is answered by asserting dogmatically that the metaphysical entity Brahman becomes a personal God and maintains a fictitious connection for causing the phe­nomenal world. All these curious devices and grossly fal­lacious arguments were adopted to combat materialistic monism.

The unreality of the phenomenal world is the funda­mental dogma of the Vedanta system. But in order to refute the idealistic school of Buddhism, Sankaracharya himself rejected the very dogma. The Buddhist idealists held that cognition was exclusively an internal process; not that it had no connection with the external object, but that it was self-contained; the external objects existed only in their relation to the mind. The substantial resi­due of objects is atoms, the rest being form; but the atom cannot be conceived by mind.

In combatting this doctrine, Sankaracharya writes: "The non-existence of external things cannot be main­tained, because we are conscious of external things. Why should we pay attention to a man who affirms that no such thing exists?" Why should we, then, take Sankaracharya seriously when he talks of Maya? He proceeds: "That the outward thing exists apart from consciousness, has necessarily to be accepted on the ground of the nature of consciousness, Nobody, when perceiv­ing a post or a wall, is conscious of his per­ception only; but all men are conscious of posts and walls as objects of their perceptions. Even those who contest the existence of external things, bear witness to their existence when they say that, what is an internal object of cognition appears like something external. No one says that Vishnumitra appears like the son of a barren mother. If we accept the truth as it is given to our con­sciousness, we must admit that the objects of perception appear to us as something external. Because, the distinc­tion of thing and idea is given in consciousness; the in­variable concomitance of idea and thing has to be consi­dered as proving only that the thing constitutes the means of ideas, not that the two are identical. It cannot be asserted in any way that the idea, apart from the thing, is the object of our consciousness; for, it is absurd to speak of a thing as the object of its own activity. The variety of mental impressions is caused altogether by the variety of external things perceived. This apparent world whose existence is guaranteed by all the means of knowledge cannot be denied."

Here, Sankaracharya is combating his whole philo­sophy. Once the issues are joined on the philosophical ground, the triumph inevitably goes to materialism. When Sankaracharya himself had to expound the above purely materialistic theory of cognition, it is evident how powerful was the current of materialist thought which in­fluenced the spiritual life of ancient India for nearly a thousand years, until the downfall of Buddhism.

The rise and fall of materialism in ancient India ap­proximately coincided with the same events in Greece·. The period of spiritual darkness following thereupon was brought to a close in Europe by the reassertion of materialist and rationalist thoughts on the strength of the achievements of modern science. That did not happen in India. Consequently, the spiritual heritage of India still remains to be rescued from her cultural ruins. What pre­vented India from following the same course of spiritual development as Europe, after having done that, up to­ only several hundred years ago, from the remotest days of human history?

In ancient Greece, philosophy was created by the class of merchant princes, whose social position was antagonis­tic to the power and privilege of the priesthood. In ancient India, the trading class never attained such a posi­tion in society. Self-sufficient village economy prevented the growth of trade on a national scale. The small surplus product of the village artisan was exchanged in local markets. Practically, the entire surplus agricultural pro­duce went for the payment of taxes. It is recorded that 'during the centuries immediately preceding the Christ­ian era, commodities such as precious stones, spices and silk, were exported from southern India to Greece and Rome. But the maritime trade was carried on by the Javans (Greeks), who arc reported to have crowded the markets of southern Indian ports, and even been em­ployed as soldiers by the Dravidian kings. Later on, the carrying-trade on the same route passed on to the hand of the Arabs. Foreign trade over-land, developed after the foundation of the Bactrian Kingdom, also was mostly car­ried on by the Javans. Some trade in large volume, how­ever, appears to have grown in the south, which fact ex:-, 'plains the establishment and persistence of Hinayan Buddhism (the original philosophical form) in those parts. In the Brahmanical society of the north, development of trade was discouraged. In the earlier Brahmanical laws - of Manu and Kautilya - the trader does not figure as one of the main social classes. In this connection, it will he instructive to cite what Havell discovers as the cause of the spiritual superiority of Indo-Aryan culture.

"They (Vedas) represent the culture of a race of war­riior-poets and philosophers who despised the arts of com­merce and lived mostly by agriculture, with one hand on the sword and the other on the plough. They built no temples, but worshipped nature-spirits with simple sacrificial rites … … Toe Aegean, Babylonian and Dravidian cultures were essentially mercantile civilizations with a more limited spiritual outlook, though in the nature of things, they were more concerned with the happiness which lies in material possessions than in spiritual thoughts.”[2]

When the more civilised Dravidians were subjugated -by the pastoral Aryans, the latter imposed upon the for­mer, social Jaws which checked the growth of the trading class, and consequently of free thought. As regards "the happiness of material possessions", the beef-eating and soma-drinking Vedic priests were not averse to it. But in order to maintain themselves in the position of power and privilege, they could not let the masses participate in that happiness. Hence the "spiritual superiority" of the Indo-Aryan culture. The concern for the happiness of material possessions, not in the vulgar sense as was the case with the Vedic Rishis, but in the wide sense of con­quering the forces of nature for the benefit of humanity, is the impulse to philosophic thought. Since the "spiri­tually superior" Indo-Aryan culture of the Vedic era did not feel this concern, philosophy remained unknown until the rise of the more progressive class of traders could not be altogether checked by priestly domination.

Buddhism is usually interpreted as the revolt of the Kshattriyas against Brahmanism. To some extent, it was so; but the mercantile class also entered into the social background of the revolution. For example, according to Hiuen Tsang, the famous University at the great Nalanda Monastery was founded by the munificence "of five-hundred merchants who were disciples of Buddha." The merchants must have attained some social importance under the Buddhist kings. Upon the restoration of Brahma­nism, under the Guptas, they were again subjected to eco­nomic limitations and social discriminations.

The codes of Manu, compiled in the fourth century A.D., placed the merchants under all sorts of disadvan­tages. It was from that time, that sea voyage came to be counted as one of the causes of "impurity". The mission­ary work of Asoka had promoted the habit of travelling over sea. Indian traders had been visiting the Malayan Islands and China. The resu1t must have been a widening of vision which found its reflection in the Hinayan (philosophic) school of Buddhism which for a long time resisted Brahmanic reaction in southern India. Sea voyage prohibited by Manu because it encouraged heretical views. In the absence of a mercantile class, as an independent and powerful social force, Indian speculative thought could not become philosophy, in the correct sense. And the absence itself was the product of .the given social relations. Land was held by the Kshattriyas and the Brahmins - classes which, by their very social being, were hostile to trade. In order to be so powerful as to dispute the ideological monopoly of the priesthood, the freethinking merchants must grow out of the rich landed aristocracy. But in India, the latter was closely associated with the Brahmins. That relation was esta­blished in consequence of the ruinous civil war recorded in the Mahabharata. The Kshattriyas were so seriously weakened that they had to re-admit the supremacy of the Brahmins. This pecu1iar complex of social relations determined the specific form of Indian thought, and explains why materialism practically disappeared, after it had flourished so well in an earlier period.

[1] Bhagvata
[2] Aryan Rule in India


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