Thursday, 7 March 2013

Standard of Conduct in the Materialistic School of Thought

Surama Dasgupta

In the different cross-currents of thought in the Mahabharata we have traced a positive trend of ideas commingled with the traditional, which has taken a more definite form and a different line in the Ayurveda. Both of these steer a middle course between the two different ideals; that of transcending the worldly experiences, and that of being in the world and enjoying life, and its various aspects, in a beneficial and pleasant manner. We may now turn to the materialistic school of thought where the positive attitude reaches its climax and taking an extreme form, completely dissociates itself from any traditional and scriptural injunctions. It formulates its own tenets in an open revolt against the orthodox systems; and it is interesting to note the growth and development of such revolutionary school of thought on Indian soil.

This materialistic philosophy is known as the Lokayata, the Carvaka or the Barhaspatya and, probably, had its origin in very ancient times. It does not believe in any such permanent entity as self that abides after death, rebirth, or the efficacy of karma, as determining the happy or sorrowful experiences in life. According to it, consciousness is but a product of matter or is manifested by the inter-action of atoms of air, water, fire and earth. It had different schools of adherents as the names, dhūrtta Carvaka, suśiksita Carvaka, Lokāyata, Bārhaspatya, suggest. No treatises of this school have come down to us, but their doctrines can be collected from the various other philosophical systems where they have tried to refute them.

Late Professor S.N. Dasgupta, in his very learned and scholarly account of the nihilistic schools in the appendix to his History of Indian Philosophy, vol. III, discussed in detail the materialistic doctrines from different sources and traced their origin as early as the Vedas or still earlier, as having been current among the Sumerian people of pre-Aryan times. Rhys Davids collected the Pāli passages referring to such doctrines which point to the important place occupied by these. Professor Dasgupta referred to the Buddhistic, Nyāya, Pāninian and other texts and to the stories about asura custom in the Chandogya Upanisad, the story of Virocana who took the ātman to be the same as the body and to the similar theories referred to in the Mahabharata, Visnupurana, and showed what these doctrine were. There might be slight differences as regards detail, the main contention was the same, namely, they all denied an after-life, effects of karma, good or bad, and admitted pleasure as the summum bonum of life. We shall briefly discuss their philosophic and ethical position.

The susiksita Carvakas hold that so long as the body remains, there is an entity as the constant perceiver and enjoyer of all experiences, but this does not persist after death. If there were such an abiding entity, travelling from one birth to another, then it should have remembered the incidents of past life just as a man remembers the experiences of his childhood.[1] By similar arguments they try to prove that no such entity can pass on to another body, nor can the consciousness belonging to a particular body be regarded as the cause of a different series of conscious states in a different body. The views of the Carvaka, as represented by Sriharsa, in his Naisadhacarita are that, since we often see the sinful men prosper and virtuous people suffer, there is no justification for thinking that virtue and vice are responsible for happiness and sorrow. One should, therefore, devote oneself to the fullest possible enjoyment of life.

Thus pleasure is the aim to be attained in life as the highest good, and therefore, the standard of morality. But the question arises whether the Carvakas restricted themselves to the pure sensualistic pleasure of the moment, like the Cyrenaics, or whether they regarded a total life of pleasure as the goal to be sought. There is a passage attributed to the Carvaka in the Sarvadaranasamgraha which states, yāvaj jivet sukham jivet, implying that a whole life of pleasure is to be attained. But the next line, rnam krtva ghrtam pivet, (one can eat butter by borrowing money) implies that the Carvaka did not care for the sorrow that might come, out of the debt incurred, and that it had a ring of Omar Khayyam, 
‘Ah, take the cash and let the credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum’. 
It is indeed difficult to reconcile this Omaric ring with the more sober line of the previous line, implying that a complete life of pleasures is to be preferred to momentary enjoyment. It has often been held that because the Carvakas do not admit the existence of soul as a spiritual entity, they are committed to the view of pleasure as mere sensuality of the moment. But it is hardly tenable, because denial of a permanent self does not involve the denial of thoughts and ideas. If the soul were regarded as a mere epiphe­nomenon or a mere chemical product, even then mental pleasures could not but be admitted, for such a position does not imply the denial of the mind as a product of the body. We know that the Susiksita School admits the existence of a mind so long as the body remains. Pleasure as the ideal, therefore, may include both the sensual and the mental enjoyment. This world presents an admixture of pleasure and pain; our ideal of conduct should be to act in such a manner that we may reap the maximum amount of pleasure and minimum of pain and that we should prefer certain pleasures to uncertain ones. Thus the Kāmasūtra, quoting Brhaspati, says ‘varam adya kapotah svo mayurat’,[2]  i.e., it is better to have a pigeon today for certain than to have a peacock tomorrow, which is uncertain. It does not, however, seem that the Carvakas regarded mental pleasures to be superior to physical ones. It is of course difficult to form a correct estimate about their doctrines from the fragments of their literature that we receive from others. They certainly discarded the lines of conduct that depended upon the hope of a future life, simply because they did not believe in it. But it seems to be fairly clear that they regarded three qualities as important in determining the value of pleasure, namely, proximity, certainty and intensity. It may also be supposed that if they were asked they might also have assented to duration as being an important characteristic of pleasure as it appears from the saying - yavaj jivet sukham jivet - pleasure should pervade the whole life, i.e., be of a long duration. We cannot say whether purity could also be included in the list, and we are unable to say anything definite as to whether duration should play such an important part as to induce the Cāryāka to give up ‘proximity’ in its favour.

Again, the Cārvākas denied that there could be any pleasure from the mental equanimity such as is produced by meditation. Pleasures, according to them, imply continual desires and their satisfaction. They do not take the Stoic view and that of other Indian philosophers that desires unfulfilled produce pain and, therefore, it is better to reduce them. They hold that pains are indeed inevitable, but since satisfaction cannot be had without giving free scope to desires which involve pains also, it should be our aim to minimise the pains as far as possible and to attain the maximum amount of pleasure. Since we do not get any detailed account of the Cārvākas, we cannot say whether the desire of avoidance of pain could be pushed further so as to result in a paradox of hedonism, namely one should sacrifice pleasure for getting pleasure.

The Cārvākas, however, do not seem to have gone beyond the individual state and, therefore, we cannot trace the maxim of the greatest happiness of the greatest number in their pleasure calculus. They regarded artha (objects) and kama (desire) as the determinants of morality.

All that we can collect is that the Cārvākas laid emphasis on immediate sense-pleasures, without recognising any qualitative difference between them. There was no ring of pessimism, immediate sense-pleasures were all that they wanted, and any display of prudence, restraint or other considerations which might lead to the sacrifice of present pleasures had no value. If we could emphasise from other sources the suggestion that they wished for a whole life of pleasure, as implied by the line ‘yavaj jivet sukham jivet’, we could have contended otherwise, but from the scanty materials at our disposal we have no authority to do that.

[1] Nyayamanjari, Refutation of the Carvakas, Ahnika 7
[2] Kamasutra, 1, 2, 29, 30

The author of this essay on the whole takes the traditional view (expressed by those opposed to materialism) that Carvakas are sensualists and this opinion is based on a single verse from Sarvadarsanasamgraha. But this particular verse is, as Ramkrishna Bhattacharya has shown, a deliberate misquote on the part of the author of Sarvadarsanasamgraha.

This essay is an extract from Surama Dasgupta’s Development of Moral Philosophy in India (First Edition: 1961, Second Edition: 1994, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi.


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