Friday, 17 October 2014

History of Materialism in India

Th. Stcherbatsky

Amidst the diverse philosophical systems which we find in India, ancient as well as modern, it is quite natural that there must have been some materialistic system too. Their main approach lies in reducing all the psychic processses to physical ones, negating the independent existence of soul, and affirming that the so-called soul is simply one of the properties of organized matter. This is philosophical materialism.

Th. Stcherbatsky
Another approach that we find in India is that of raising the practical question of the aim of human life and of the prevalence of material aims therein. Here, materialism is distinguished from all other trends by the fact that it negates the law of so-called karma, ie, retribution for good or bad works. The greater abstraction of the Indian mind, as compared with other ancient civilizations is expressed int he fact that there the moral law is not embodies in the person of God, the judge, but in the form of impersonal karma which may be characterized as the law of moral progress, as the faith in the fact that the world is rules bya special mechanism directing it evolution from the forms of low and unjust to good and perfection.

This law is fully negated by the extreme Indian mate­rialists. Nowhere, perhaps, has the spirit of negation of and resentment to the fetters of traditional morals and the religion connected thereto been expressed so clearly as among the Indian materialists. This is evidenced, for instance, by the following verses of Indian materialism.
The Agnihotra, the three Vedas, the ascetic's three staves, and smearing oneself with ashes,-
Brhaspati says, these are but means of livelihood for those who have no manliness nor sense.[i]
The three authors of the Vedas were
The buffoon, the knave and the thief.[ii]
All the well-known formulae of the pandita-s-jarphari, turphari, etc.
And all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in the Asvamedha
Those were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests,
While the eating of flesh was similarly commended by night-prowling demons.[iii]
There is no other hell than the mundane pain produced by purely mundane causes as thorns etc;
The only supreme is the earthly monarch whose existence is proved by all the world's eyesight;
And the only liberation is the dissolution of the body.[iv]
According to the generally accepted system, in ancient India, the human life was regulated by three main aims: the property, love and duty. By the first were meant the various occupations giving means for life - cultivation, cattle breeding, trade and industry. The Government control with all its ramifications also came under this category. By the second aim was meant the family life, the children and also extra-family satisfaction of passions. What was meant by the third was mainly the religious duty, control of passions, with a view to secure award in the next life in one form or the other of eternal divinity. The normal life of man, according to the views of the orthodox Hindu, must have all these three aims in view. It is his duty to create family and to provide for it: this is interpreted as the service of love even to material aims. Later, having established his family, the Hindu may forsake it, become sannyasin, i.e. a poor homeless wanderer, directing all his thoughts to eternal bliss.

In individual cases, however, this equilibrium among the three aims of life was destroyed in favour of one of them. The materialists, naturally, did not give any importance to the aim of religious duty and openly proclaimed the property and love as the only aims of man.

On the other hand, there were many people in India who fully renounced all property and avowed celibacy, rather complete annihilation of all desires. They formed communities of wandering poor monks. These communities sometimes became so numerous that they became a real calamity for the working population which had .to support them somehow or other.

Like all other Indian teachings, Indian materialism was the speciality of a specific school, which preserved its tradi­tions, developed its teachings and put them into practice. Its origin goes back to the hoary antiquity. As early as c.1000 B.C., in the Upanisads, there is a reference to the teaching which does not acknowledge anything except matter[v].  Five hundred years before Christ, about the time of Buddha, thene were certain schools which did not acknowledge anything except matter, or as put at that time, the four great elements: earth, fire, water and air. There were also some who added a fifth element, ether, thinner than air, and filling the whole space.[vi]

Buddhism was, on the one hand, very close to mate­rialism, since it also negated the existence of God and eternal soul. But the two differed sharply in that Buddhism accepted the law of karma, i.e. retribution for good and bad works. In all the proceedings of the initial sermon of Buddha, his hostile and sharp attitude towards all the theories which accepted the existence of soul is clearly manifest. But at the same time, it was with equal reso­luteness that Buddha opposed Indian materialism which did not accept the moral law or the so-called karma.

Later, at a time when the Mauryas built a large and blossoming empire in Northern India, the materialists worked out a specific philosophical school. Canakya, the Minister to the King Candragupta, has left a treatise on politics,[vii] in which he enumerates the existing philosophical systems. There, he refers to materialism as one of the main systems which the future ruler must study. [viii]

In this epoch, all the three main aims of man in life-property, love and duty-are treated scientifically. During this period, we have the practical sciences (arthasastra), the science of love (kamasastra) and the science of religious duty (dharmasastra). Among the practical sciences, that of governing the country occupies the first place. With his teaching, Canakya himself marked the beginning of a special school of politicians. Quite independently of Canakya and probably at the same time, there also was the theoretician Usanas, whose political teaching differed considerably from that of Canakya. The latter was the representative, so to say, of the official political doctrine, according to which it was necessary to support religion with all force and which was convinced that the temporal power was illumi­nated with religious basis. Usanas, on the other hand, did not consider it necessary to found temporal power on religious base. According to him, there is only one science and that is the science of punishment, or literally, the science of rod (dandaniti).[ix] Brhaspati, to whom the main schools of Indian materialists are attributed, also was first a founder 'of a school of politicians. But his political school diverged from religion still further and remained known in history as the ardent hater of religion and advo­cate of theoretical materialism. It was called either Brhas­pati school after the name of its founder, or Carvaka's school, i.e., of the materialists proper who cared for daily bread alone.[x] Another name for it is Lokayata, that is, the people who care only about the earth and not about the heaven. No complete texts or works of this school have reached us; however, several extracts and passages preserved in the works of other schools, enable us to form a notion of its main aspects and the methods, by which they are proved. A list (as complete as possible) of the works, in which there are references to the teaching of the Carvakas and excerpts from their works, will be given below.

Now I shall dwell on two such works in which have been found extracts from the works of Carvakas unknown till now. The first of them is the Nyayamanjari by the well-known philosopher Jayantabhaga.[xi] Here the materialists have been mentioned twice. Speaking of the number of the sources of valid knowledge he refers to the first main aphorism or sutra of their main work.[xii] Some sutra-s had already been restored from various sources by Prof. Hillebrandt.[xiii] It is now possible for us to restore the first one also. It reads:

athatas tattvak vyakhyasyama iti

Here, the word tattva is set against the word dharma, which is prominent in orthodox schools. This sutra means: In our work, we shall talk of reality and not of duty. From the interpretation of this sutra, it is clear that the materialists then were divided into two camps: those who held the extreme view and fully negated consciousness and considered the human body a simple mechanism (jada) without any consciousness, and those who were moderate in their views and acknowledged its existence but only in the form of special function of the body. Jayanta calls the former Sophists (dhurta). It is the latter whom he calls the real scholars.[xiv] And in fact, the discussions of the former appear to be of sophistic nature.

The fact (tattva) mentioned in the first sutra cannot be either calculated or classified. Also, even the methods of its cognition cannot be found out, and all the attempts made in this connection proved futile. Thus, for instance, sitting in a dark room, we nevertheless know that there are fingers on our hands and that there is distance between them. We could not have known it by sight because it is dark. We did not know it by sense of touch too, for the skin is the organ of sense of touch and it cannot touch itself. We also cannot know it even from inference. Hence, it is proved by this method that all the accepted teachings about the sources of valid knowledge do not withstand criticism. Once it is seen that the cognition can­not be determined, it follows here from that it does not exist and that the processes however conscious, are in reality, mechanical phenomena (jada).[xv]

Jayanta distinguishes the highly educated materialists from these materialists-sophists. They claimed as follows:

"There is undoubtedly a sole conscious element, localized in the whole living body. We also allow that this conscious­ness is subject to synthesis and other mental processes. One would hardly argue against this; but that this continues to exist after death cannot be proved. The consciousness, leaving one body, naturally cannot settle in another. Had this been possible, we would have remembered about those things which we did in our previous births, exactly in the same manner as in this birth, we remember about things done in the childhood. We cannot show any reason why the same eternal soul, living now in one and sometimes in another body, has different memory: it remembers what it undergoes in one body and does not what it does in the other bodies. Having been convinced, therefore, that there is no soul after the death of the body it is neces­sary to do away with any talk of future life, which is traced back to the theory of eternal soul, and to try to live happily, according to the, principle:

“So long as we live, we shall be happy!
There is none here who will not die;
When he dies and is turned to ashes, ­
From where is he to appear again?”

Another extract, to which we would like to draw attention, occurs in the work of Vacaspatimisra, in his interpretation of Nyayasutra 3.2.39.[xvi] The school of Indian realists supposes that matter consists of particles moving in and combining in the body. Like Aristotle, they assume that the natural motion of all particles is rotatory (parispanda). The cons­cious motion (kriya), ie, the following up and achievement of aims, is under the influence of impulse from the side of psychic elements. This impulse was represented in semi­-anthropomorphic features. The main argument of the materia­lists was that a conscious act could be fully explained by the motion of particles of matter. The difference between the two motions is only superfluous. Just as the different material elements, connected with each other, may form such a substance as alcohol which does not resemble the substances of which it is made, in the same manner the different material elements, connected in the living body, develop a new quality, a conscious act, which is not similar to them.

But to this, the Naiyayikas raise the following objection: In a drink, each particle has alcohol whereas in case of material elements of the body, each one individually does not have consciousness. Any property of the matter, as for instance weight, must be wherever matter is. If the cons­ciousness and the will were also the qualities of matter, they would then have been everywhere where there was matter. However, we do not see this, for instance, in a pot and similar objects. One cannot, therefore, contend that consciousness and will appertain to matter.

The materialist objects thus:[xvii] Consciousness and will are not at all such properties as belong to matter in general, as for instance weight. They belong to it only in known combinations. Just as the seed kinva, mashed and fermented, gives us alcohol, exactly in the same manner, the elements of matter, having formed a body, may be converted into a kind of consciously moving objects.

To this the Naiyayikas reply[xviii] that every particle of alcohol, taken individually, has intoxicating effect. This power is not inherent in the known organized whole consisting of parts. Similarly even the parts of the body would have to think, each taken separately. One cannot affirm arbitrarily that matter thinks as a whole but does not think in parts of the body. It is possible to separate out three or four members, and the thought will continue to work. If it be assumed that thinking is inherent in parts of a body, a whole series of thinkers would have to be there in one body.

“Let it be so”, replies the materialist;[xix] “this does not contradict my principle.”

“No”, the Naiyayika replies.      We see that different people, if they are self-dependent, have different aims and all of them cannot do one work together, for there is no such law that many people accidentally should have one aim and would do one work. Besides in case of one person, in one body, the separate thoughts are in agreement among themselves; this is not the case with different bodies. This can be explained only by the fact that in one body, there is only one organ of thought. After the sensual sensation and its object change, there remains, nevertheless, their cognition in memory and we have a right to conclude that the cognition is not a property of either the organ of feelings or its object. Exactly, in the same manner, although the body changes, as evidenced by changing age - ­infancy, youth and old age - nevertheless the same memory remains.

Therefore, one cannot affirm that consciousness is a property of body. Besides, speaking of conscious motion, we have in view not merely a motion which is possessed by all particles of matter, but a conscious attainment of aim, achievement of what is desired and avoiding of what is not desired. The materialist, not paying any attention to this difference, founds his thesis on motion, in general, and not on the fact of motion towards aim.


A. In Sanskrit

  1. Madhavacarya, Sarvadarsanasarrgraha, ed. Bibl. Ind. 1858, pp. 1-7
  2. Haribhadra, $a¢dadanasamuccaya, ed. L. Suali, Bibl. Ind. 1905, p. 300ff.
  3. Gunaratna, Tarkarahasyadipika, ib.
  4. Jayanta, Nyaya-manjari, Benares 1895, pp. 64, 466ff.
  5. Vatsyayana, Nyaya-bhasya on Nyaya-sutra iii. 2. 39.
  6. Uddyotakara, Nyayavartika.
  7. Vacaspati Misra Nyayavartika-tatparya-tika.
  8. Sankaracarya, Sarvasiddhantasarrgraha, ed. & tr. by M. Rangacarya, Madras 1909.
  9. Samkhya-sutra-vrtti, iii. 17-22
  10. Samkhya-tattva-kaumudi, on Karika 5
  11. Samkaradigvijaya.

B. European Studies
  1. H. Jacobi, Zur Fruhgeschichte der indischen Philosophie (Sitzb. K. Preuss. Ak. d. w. 1911).
  2. L. Suali, Materiaux pour servir a l'Histoire du Materia­lisme Indien, Le Museon, N. S. 9, Louvain, 1908.
  3. Pizzagalli, Nastika Carvaka e Lokayatika, Pisa 1907.
  4. A. Hillebrandt, Zur Kenntniss der indischen Materi­alisten.
  5. Ego-khe, Ueber Materialisten und Skeptiker, Alt-Indian, Breslau 1890. p. 168ff.
  6. Statii R. Garbe & L. de la Vallee Poussin in Hasting's Encyclopaedia. viii. 138 & 93.
  7. John Muir, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1861.
  8. Hopkins, Great Epic, 1901, p. 86.
  9. Dahlmann, Samkhya, p. 208.
  10. Max Muller, Six Systems, p. 94.

[i] Sarvadarsanasamgraha (Bibl. Ind.) p. 3. cf. Sarvasiddhantasamgraha ii. 15. [The English translation given here are of Cowell and Gough]
[ii] Sarvadarsanasamgraha, p. 6.
[iii] Ib. p.6
[iv] Ib. p.4
[v] cf. H. Jacobi, Ueber das Verhaeltniss des Vedanta zum Samkhya, E. Kuhn's Festschrift, p. 38.
[vi] F. O. Schrader, Ueber den Stand der indischen Philosophie, p. 53
[vii] Kautilya, Arthasastra ed. Shamasastri, Mysore Sanskrit Series.
[viii] Ib. i.2
[ix] Ib. i.
[x] Saddarsanasmuccaya, ed. Suali, p. 300
[xi] Nyayamanjari of Jayantabhatta, ed. Gangadhara Sastri Tailanga, Benares, 1895. Vizianagram Series, Vol. viii
[xii] Ib. p. 64
[xiii] Hillebrandt, Zur Kenntniss der indischen Materialisten, E. Kuhn’s Festschrift, p. 24
[xiv] susiksita, cf. op. cit. p. 467
[xv] Ib. p. 64
[xvi] Nyayavartika-tatparya-tika, Vacaspati Misra, ed. Gangadhara Sastri Tailanga, Viz. Series, Vol. xiii, p. 400ff
[xvii] Ib. p. 400, line 14
[xviii] Ib. p. 400. line 17
[xix] Ikb. P. 400, line 21

ISPP, Vol. X, 1968-9, Translated by: H.C. Gupta


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