Friday, 5 December 2014

Indian Philosophy – Melody and Millstone: PART III

G Ramakrishna

The murky record of idealism as a vicious weapon on the one hand and philosophical obscurantism on the other has a shining contrast in materialism. Once again the historical limitations of the ancient Indian materialist philosophers cannot be overlooked. The rudiments of materialism are quite clear in many anti-idealist schools of though and the fundamentals quite pronounced in the case of the Lokayta School. The essential feature of materialism is the assertion that 'since this world is essentially material, the first cause that we can infer for it must also be material" (p 92). This is the position accepted by the Samkhya School. It or its variations form the antithesis of Indian idealism. The rejection of idealism in Indian philosophy is threefold at the hands of the Lokayata, Samkhya and Nyaya-Vaiseshika respectively.All three of them defend the reality of the external world as against its unreality posited by the idealists. They are all one in yet another manner, too; they want “to work out an explanation of the objective world in terms of their respective theories of the nature of matter” (p 286). But they differ among themselves in certain details, especially in regard to their varying concepts of matter. The Lokayata view matter as the physical elements, Samkhyua as primeval subtle matter, and Nyaya-Vaiseshika as atoms. The commitment to the theory that “matter is the ultimate constituent of the world” is equally firm in all three of them (p 288). While discussing this issue, Chattopadhyaya initiates a discussion on the correctness or otherwise of the application of the term ‘realism’ to describe Samkhya and Nyaya-Vaiseshika positions of anti-idealism (p 288-98). It is a term used to designate Samkhya and Nyaya-Vaiseshika by those who take materialism’ in an extra-philosophical sense. For some reasons best know to themselves, they shun the word ‘materialism’ because of its alleged ‘vices and vulgarities’ and reserve the term for describing Lokayata! ‘Realism’ has a definite connotation in the context of the history of European philosophy. It is not the same as materialisms although it is opposed to idealism; for, it is opposed to materialism as well. Among the idealist schools, Lokayata is the materialist school of though par excellence. Besides holding the view that consciousness is ultimately the product of matter and hence matter is primary and consciousness secondary (p 294), the Lokayata, alone among the schools of Indian philosophy, is “free from sundry superstitions” and hence “most remarkable among the Indian materialists” (p 297). The Samkhya and Nyaya-Vaisehika view regarding consciousness are very close to the Lokayata view. From the point of view of philosophical argumentation against idealism, however, it is the atomistic Nyaya-Vaisehika school that develops a theory of the nature of matter to explain a wide range of natural phenomena. The content of materialism in Nyaya-Vaiseshika is, therefore, immense. But modern scholars fail to take note of it because of a body of sundry superstitions forming part of it, more or less as an appendage and not as a integral part (p 298). The theory of atomic conjunction advocated by the Nyaya-Vaiseshika has its own problems alright. But, as Debiprasad put it, “judged by us retrospectively, it really means that in the development of Indian science, the satisfactory solution of one problem concerning the nature of mater ushers in certain new and as yet unsolved problems. But this is precisely the way in which science advances in the past, as it is still advancing…’ Our knowledge of the nature of matter is ever-progressive; the more we know about it the clearer do we feel that much more remains to be knows, and therefore also grows the urge to know better. At least this is the position of the materialists as contrasted with that of the idealists, who refuse to be satisfied with anything short of the final and absolute truth and thus fail to stimulate scientific inquiry” (p 400). Lenin eminently summarized it when he said that “materialism clearly formulates the as yet unsolved problems and thereby stimulates the attempt to solve it”. This is a wholesome recipe which many of our scientists fail to understand and thus rush to the hypocritical saints and self-styled saviors to learn the elements of science, thereby betraying and insulting the basic creed of science itself.


It has already been mentioned above that the relationship between matter and consciousness is a cardinal question tackled by different systems of Indian philosophy. The importance of this question cannot be overstated. It is not simply a curious theoretical question in ontology. The material origin of consciousness properly understood “open few horizons for the real understanding of human history” (p 492). Nowhere is it dogmatically argued in materialism that consciousness, as evolutes of social being or materials conditions, has no creative role to play. All that is stressed is that it “is not the sole creative force, as imagined by the idealists: (p 493). The theory of the material origin of consciousness, attributed to the Lokayatas universally, is as old as the Chandogya Upanishad where Uddalaka Aruni, through experimental demonstration, instructs his son Svetaketu regarding the first principle for the explanation of nature (p 476). Devoid of any religion-orientation and obscure mysticism, this theory of Uddalaka reminds one of the Samkhya philosophy, “the starting point of which is that, since being cannot be produced from nonbeing, the essential nature of the cause is to be inferred from the essential nature of the effect” (p 477). Mind, by which Uddalaka means consciousness, is viewed as having a distinct material origin and this is supported by a number of illustrations. The idealists cleverly remain silent while commenting on the passages in which Uddalaka gives the above exposition (p 481).

The Nyaya-Vaiseshika view is that consciousness “is essentially a transient phenomenon, somehow or other temporarily produced by the peculiar collocation of a number of intrinsically unconscious (jada) entities, most of which are material” (p 404).  That doyen among the interpreters of Indian philosophy, Professor M. Hiriyanna, recognizes this phenomenon in Nyaya-Vaiseshika as a position “scarcely distinguishable from htat of the Charvakas” (p 411). If the Nyaya-Vaiseshka did not take a leap forward from this position to explain how consciousness emerges from the essentially unconscious, it was only because of their reluctance to be identified with the outspoken materialists, namely the Loakayatas, who were the special target of attack from orthodox schools. But still they went far enough when they accepted consciousness as a property of the soul under certain given conditions of matter (p 407). The Samkhya, which has the unique distinction of  being tampered with at will by the ‘repairers’ of Indian philosophical tradition, views matter a primary and consciousness as secondary. The boldest theoretical formulations on this matter comes from the Lokayats. The Samkhya position is so close to the Lokayata view that the irritated Sankara brands the Samkhya an equivalent of Lokayata materialism Nothing could be more sacrilegious than to be identical with Lokayata! So, no refutation is really neded in that case, concluded Sankara. The dog has been branded mad; and that is as good as having been shot! Queer logic that to demolish the Lokayata and Samkhaya views of consciousness as a product of matter.  The Lokayata view, according to Sankara’s observation, is that consciousness belongs to the body, and is hence not the characteristic peculiarity of the spirit. The decisive question for the Lokayata is whether the material elements alone, in spite of each of them being intrinsically unconscious, go to the making of living bodies possessing consciousness. Can, in other words, consciousness emerge from unconscious matter? (p 426).  The remarkable thing about the Lokayatas is that notwithstanding the severe limitations imposed on them by the lack of elaborate scientific data, they do make a bold theoretical attempt at an explanation of the origin of consciousness from matter (p 427). In explaining their position, the Lokayatas draw the analogy of the non-intoxicating ingredients giving rise to an intoxicating liquor. Where did the intoxicating (or the intoxicating quality) come from? Even so, consciousness emerges from the unconscious elements. It is significant that the Lokayatas fall back on naturalistic phenomena and not spiritualistic ones to explain the enigma. The basic assumption of the Lokayatas that life (consciousness) originates from inorganic matter (unconscious) is a postulate of present day science also and this speaks volumes for the science-orientation of the Lokayata system.  Faced with a stout and determined defence of this position by the Laokayats, the refutation of the theory at  the hands of the idealists only shows their puerility and pedantry “as all defence of superstition against science is perhaps destined to be” (p 446). So much is the inconvenience and discomfort for the idealist that as the only avenue of escape they impute some ugly and unreasonable philosophical opinion to the Lokayatas and devastatingly refute them with triumph, much in the fashion of the present-day enemies of Marxism ‘obliterating’ Marxism by attributing fancy theories to the doctrine. This is somewhat unusual for Indian idealist photospheres who normally represent the opponents’ view points fairly accurately in their treatises and even anticipate the further points likely to be made by the opponents on the basis of their accepted positions. It only underlines the invincible quality of the Lokayata theory. The potential of Lokayta is realized in the much later scientific materialism know as Marxism (p 491).

The chapter on “Refutation of idealism” (ch 7) is another very important section of the book. The main philosophical thrust against idealism comes from the Nyaya-Vaiseshikas and Kumarila, an exponent of Purva-Mimasa. The crushing blows of Nyaya-Vaiseshika against idealism are really breath-taking. The idealist is invited to accept the inviolable truth that “it is obligatory for the philosophers to operate with the pramanas (means of valid knowledge), ie. to depend on experience and reason” (p 306). On both these counts, namely experience and reason, idealism stands shattered. If the idealist argues that things have no independent existence or reality, it means that he has recognized the existence of the proof for his conclusion, if of nothing else; if he does not argue thus, his basic theory that the objective world has no reality stand defeated. The dilemma of the idealist is further analyzed by Kumarila (p 373). Not being satisfied with the above line of argumentation alone, Kumarila launches an attack on the incredible claims of yogic supernormal experience and denounces the same as fictitious (p 319). A subjective hallucianation may come to be branded as ‘supernormal’ experience and Kumarila is not obliged to accept it as valid. “Only standard experience has relevance for philosophy” (p 321). He has nothing but contempt for mystery-mongering and with detailed  arguments he disposes of the idealist position that objects of experience have no reality (p 323). The Indian idealist philosopher thus scoffed at by the opponents of idealism takes shelter under his special brainchild’s roof, namely the differing levels of reality. Howe the opponents of idealism reject this notion, we have already seen above.

The next and last major question for Indian Philosophy is the concept of freedom. The spiritualistic orientation of Indian Philosophy, which according to many an Indian and western analyst of Indian philosophy is its distinguishing feature, is as inescapable as it s nauseating. It is almost used liked a drug, one might say. The oppressing class has used and still uses the concept of freedom in idealist Indian philosophy as the final, apparently unvanquishable, missile against the rising masses of the people. The law of karma acts as an accessory to this. The damage done by the two together is simply infuriating. The pet theory is that the whole stupid world is an illusion and that emancipation pertains to the hereafter. To be worthy of the ‘hereafter’, one should be properly averse to the ‘here’, so that one might overcome the endless cycle of births and deaths. Freedom in idealist Indian philosophy means the absolute extinction of the illusion about the world. “This is the essence of the metaphysical monstrosity which all idealists proclaim as the right understanding of freedom”. “There remains nothing to be done about the world, except to cultivate a philosophical contempt for it as the product of perverse imagination” (p 571). The dangerous machinations of a perverse philosophy of reedome like this cannot be lost onus, because in real life we see real men and women groaning under this philosophy which has given such power to the oppressing class. Bondage, slavery and serfdom being perpetuated under the sweet nomenclature of freedom is what this concept is all about.

A close analysis of this concept in Nyaya-Vaiseshika shows that it is grafted on the system and is accepted as a safety measure against the otherwise inevitable onslaught of the ever-menacing law-givers (p 588). It is a concept which is totally inconsistent with the Samkhya standpoint (pp 592 and 596). It is extraneous to the Purva-Mimasmsa also (p 597-608). “Among the opponents of Indian idealism, the Lokayatas are the only philosophers to call for a total rejection of the idealist view of soul and its salvation…The first precondition for moving towards a sensible conception of freedom is to scrap all nonsense about it” (p 609). The Lokayatas recognize that ‘certain view and attitudes admirably suit the economic interest of the parasitical class, or, as they put it, are created to be the source of their livelihood’ (p 613). A  faith-oriented philosophy taking cudgels against logic may naturally be expected to abhor the Lokayata position. But the precarious position of the Nyaya exponents like Vatsyayana is understandable. Being the ideological propagandists on behalf of the oppressing class, they were hampered in taking a suitable view of freedom as a genuine need of the people. They willingly surrendered to the opium of spiritualism. If the positive factors in Nyaya-Vaiseshika are overwhelming, this negative formulation is not only unfortunate but positively misleading and disastrous (p 619). The subservience to the law-givers makes even an eminent scientist like Prasastapada of the Vaiseshika School a split personality and he is thus the prototype of our contemporary scientists taking a dip in the Ganges to save the moon or the sun from the clutches of Rahu and Ketu at the time of the eclipses.  ‘Where traditional Indian philosophy really fails is thus in its effort to solve the problem of freedom. But this failure can be explained and hence it is possible for Indian today to overcome the most serious limitation of our philosophical tradition’ (p 629). It is to be specially noticed that in the Chandogya Upanishad, Uddlaka Aruni did not refer to any possibility of ‘final release’ while imparting instruction to his son about the first principle behind the multiplicity of nature. His more immediate concern was an intellectual or essentially scientific curiosity (p 486). It was reserved for the more leisured class of people like king Janaka and court-saint Yajavalkya to discuss immortality of the soul, ultimate freedom of the soul, and allied questions.

Dialectical materialism has its own way of resolving the age-old tangles in society. In our context, when the Indian working class is increasingly being guided by the doctrine of dialectical materials9m in its movement, there can only one development to be expected. And that is, ‘caste society, which is only a form of class society, meets its ultimate historical destiny – the destiny of making room for classless society, towards which millions of working men and women are marching today’ (p 532). This course is irreversible. The brighter aspects forming part of the anti-idealist enunciations of the systems of Indian philosophy also serve as ideas assisting us to reach that destiny. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya deserves our gratitude for having dealt with these in a masterly and purposeful manner. This book, What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy, like the earlier works of Chattopadhyaya, is a challenge to the academic world of India and also a call to understand the path correctly and scientifically. It is but natural, therefore, for us to eagerly look forward to his next book entitled “Science and Society in Ancient India’.





This is Part III of the essay first published in  Marxist Miscellany, No.7, March 1977.
It also appears in The Living Marx, Ma-Le Prakashana, Bangalore, 1983 (Page 9 - 28)

Dr. G Ramkrishna is the Chief Editor of Hosatu, a progressive periodical in Kannada. He was Professor of English at National College, Bangalore and a Visiting Professor at Kannada University, Hampi. He is the author a number of books in Kannada and English including The Strange Culture of M.S. Golvalkar,  The Living Marx, and Philosophy in China (in English), The features of the Anti-Fascist Movement, RSS – A Poisonous Tree, On Hindutva (Kannda)

Email ID: dgrkrishna@gmail.com





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