Monday, 28 September 2015

Facets of Materialism in India: A Historical Outline - Part I


Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

The history of materialist thought in India is quite old, going back at least to the times of the Buddha. But its latest form, known as the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, flourished only in or around the eighth century CE. It was a living system till the twelfth century. Thereafter it seems to have vanished into the blue, without leaving any trace whatsoever. It was the most uncompromising philosophical system that ever appeared in India. It refused to accept the notions of the other-world (paraloka), i.e., heaven and hell, rebirth, any creator God, and the infallibility of the sacred texts (the Vedas in particular). Its bold satire against all this is reminiscent of the Encyclopaedists of eighteenth-century France. In short, it was a materialist (or, as some prefer to call it, naturalist or physicalist) system through and through. All pro-Vedic schools of India, particularly Vedānta, Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya among the orthodox (āstika) systems, and the Buddhist and the Jain among the heterodox (nāstika) ones, tried their best to refute both the Pre-Cārvāka and the Cārvāka/Lokāyata views. Unfortunately we are not in a position to say how the materialists, both old and new, responded to the charges brought against them, for all the Pre-Cārvāka and the Cārvāka/Lokāyata works – the base or mūla texts (a collection of aphorisms, sūtras) and commentaries and sub-commentaries (if any) – are lost. All that have come down to us are fragments quoted or paraphrased by their opponents. Attempts have been made to reconstruct the basic tenets of the system on the basis of such a pitifully few specimens.1

It is not easy to say what the Cārvākas really meant. The case is similar to that of many of the Presocratics whose works have come down to us in similar conditions. However, it is known that the views of the Cārvākas have been distorted and wilfully misrepresented by those who were not only idealists and Vedic fideists, but also strong supporters of status quo ante in their socio-economic outlook.

Materialism in India before the Cārvākas

There are inklings of Pre-Cārvāka materialist thoughts as well as expressions of doubts and even open denial of current notions concerning God or gods, life after death, the soul etc., in much older works. Like the Cārvākas, some earlier thinkers, right from the later Vedic times down to the days of the Buddha and Mahāvīra (sixth/fifth century bce) and even after, asserted the primacy of matter (consisting of five basic elements, namely, earth, air, fire, water and space) over consciousness, futility of performing sacrifices (yajña) and post-mortem rites (śrāddha), and offering gifts (dāna) to Brahmanas. The Cārvāka/Lokāyata seems to have absorbed all such views that had originated before its times and appeared as the vigorous ‘negative arm’.2

The history of proto-materialism in India can be traced back to the late Vedic period (1500 bce – 500 bce). We have glimpses of scepticism, direct challenge to the authority of the Veda, rejection of the existence of the other-world (paraloka), etc. both in the Saṃhitās and the Upaniṣads.3 The Uddālaka-Śvetaketu episode (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.1, 2, 7, and 12-13) has been particularly marked off as representing rudiments of materialism.4 However, for a clear-cut exposition of a proto-materialist view we have to wait for the Buddhist and Jain works. ‘The Duologue of King/Governor Pāyāsi’ (‘Pāyāsi(rājañña)-suttanta’) in The Long Discourses (Dīgha Nikāya) and the Jain work, Dialogue of King Prasenajit (Rāya-pasenaijja), have been highlighted by some other scholars (disregarding the Chāndogya).5 Another such Sutta, ‘The Discourse on the Fruits of Being a Monk,’ The Long Discourses (‘Sāmañña-phalasutta’, Dīgha Nikāya), introduces, among other itinerant preachers, a proto-materialist mendicant called Ajita Kesakambala, who is said to have practised extreme austerity by wearing a hair-garment (hence the eponym) throughout the year, having no concern for heat and cold. This evidently gives a lie to the notion that all materialists have been hedonists. Ajita is made to propound the proto-materialist ‘worldview’ more elaborately.6 The ideas recorded in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad, however, are rather fragmentary, although they deal with issues that are not even touched in Ajita’s declaration. Thus, by juxtaposing the two sources, one Upaniṣadic and the other, Buddhist, we can reconstruct the first inklings of proto-materialist thought in India.

Another point to be noted is that history of materialism in India shows two distinct phases. The first, as mentioned above, may be called ‘old materialism’ and the second, beginning with the Cārvākas (who do not appear in the philosophical scene before the eighth century ce), ‘new materialism’.7 Historians of Indian philosophy, both European and Asian, tend to ignore the period lying between the Pre-Cārvākas such as Ajita or Uddālaka (not later than the sixth/fifth century bce) and Purandara (not later than the eighth century ce), a commentator on the Cārvākasūtra and most probably the compiler of the base text. They treat it as a sort of tempora incognita, a long period about which nothing is known, with no indication of materialist thought flourishing or even surviving anywhere in India.

The fact is otherwise. We do have a Tamil epic called Maṇimēkalai (composed between the fourth and the seventh century ce) which is an important landmark in the development of materialism. A whole canto (27) is devoted to the discussion of several philosophical systems then current in South India. A Vedic logician tells the heroine, Maṇimēkalai:

These are the systems that accept logic:
Lokayata, Buddhism, the Sankhya,
Nyaya, Vaiseshika and Mimamsa.
The teachers of these sects: Brhiaspati,
Buddha, Kapila and Akshapada,
Kanada and Jaimini. At present
The six systems of logic in use are
Through perception, inference, the Shastras,
Analogy, presumption and negation.” (27.78-85, p. 149)8

In the same epic we also have an exposition of the basic materialist ontology by a bhūtavādin (an exact translation of this term would be ‘materialist’):

When aathi (?) flowers, sugar and the rest
Are mixed, wine is made. Life too appears
By the mixing of elements, vanishes
When they separate as [do] sounds from a drum.
Conscious elements produce life within
And unconscious ones produce the body
Each appearing through their [its] elements.
This is the truth.” (27.265-71, p. 154)

Not only this. We read of not one, but two distinct schools of materialism bhūtavāda ‘the doctrine of the elements’ and Lokāyata, differing in their epistemological views:
Words different from this
And other facts are from Materialists [Lokāyatas].
Sense perception is valid. Inference
Is false. This birth and its effects conclude
Now. Talk of other births is falsity.” (27.272-76, p. 154)

In spite of all this, however, nothing specific is known about the social outlook of the materialists in general and the Cārvākas in particular. All the works of the materialists, whether old or new, are lost. Not a single complete book, neither the base text nor any commentary has come down to us.9 All we have are a few fragments, quoted in the works of the opponents of materialism.10 There is a general canard that the materialists were all heedless hedonists, preaching an ‘eat, drink and be merry’ kind of philosophy of life. Right from the Jain canonical text, the Sūtrakṛtānga-sūtra (orally transmitted for almost a thousand years, written down in the sixth century), down to the Sarva-darśana-saṅgraha (chapter 1) by Sāyaṇa-Mādhava (fourteenth century ce) we read of this criticism. Since we have no way of knowing how the old or the new materialists responded to this charge, we have to resort to what other writers have spoken of them.

And here is a surprise waiting for us. At least two denigrators of materialism have made the materialists proclaim the equality of the sexes, and extol the womankind rarely found in Sanskrit literature.11 Moreover, we are told, that the materialists were opposed to caste discrimination as well.

It appears from the works of Kṛṣṇamiśra and Śrīharṣa, two Vedāntin philosopher-poets, that the Cārvākas were opposed to caste (varṇa) and gender discriminations. Since we have no option but to reconstruct the Cārvāka/Lokāyata, in fact the whole of materialism in India as such, on the basis of the evidence provided by their opponents, we have to be extra-cautious regarding the possibility of misrepresentation. However, because both the authors mentioned above have been already utilized by scholars and historians of Indian philosophy,12 it is at least probable that their presentation of the social outlook of the Cārvākas may not be far from the truth.

1 See R. Bhattacharya 2009, pp.69-104.
2 Cowell 1862, p.382.
3 See Sarup pp.78-81, Radhakrishnan and Moore pp.34-36, 227 n1, Del Toso pp.138-41.
4 Ruben 1962, pp. 345-54. D. Chattopadhyaya 1985, pp. 164-227, followed Ruben in this respect.
5 Frauwallner 2:216 et seq, Franco and Preisendanz 1998, p.179; Franco 2011, p.634. Haribhadra’s Story of Samarāditya (Samarāiccakahā) is a re-working of the same story. The three versions do not vary widely. The original story (now lost) from which all the three seem to have been derived must have been the same. See R. Bhattacharya 2009, pp.22-24.
6 See Appendix A below.
7 See R. Bhattacharya 2013a, p.1.
8 For the concept of ‘six tarkas’, see Gerschhiemer pp.239-58. This otherwise admirable essay, however, does not mention the Maṇimēkalai. – For a study of the Tamil epics as sources for the study of different systems of philosophy, particularly materialism, see Vanamamalai, pp.25-41.
99 Some scholars believe that the Tattvopaplavasiṃha by Jayarāśibhaṭṭa is the work of a Cārvāka, although by ‘Cārvāka’ they mean a section of them who were sceptics, not materialists (e.g. Sanghvi and Parikh 1940, pp .i-xiv, reprinted in Cārvāka/Lokāyata, , pp. 394-43, and Franco 1994, pp. XII-XIII). Such a claim is not beyond question, but even assuming for argument’s sake that Jayarāśi was a non-materialist Cārvāka, the fact still remains that his work does not represent mainstream materialism – a fact that is denied only by those who have never cared to read the book. As V.N. Jha recently observed, ‘The Cārvākas seem to have accepted only one pramāṇa called perception and the four mahābhūtas namely, earth, water, fire, and wind. Jayarāśi demolishes this position also. Thus, although one may get an impression initially that Jayarāśi is the follower of the Cārvāka school, one will be disillusioned once one completes the reading of the text carefully’ (p. xi).
10 For a collection of available fragments, see n1 above. For another translation of the aphorisms and pseudo-aphorisms and the verses attributed to the Cārvākas (most of them of doubtful authenticity), see Franco 2011.
11 One honorable exception is Varāhamihira (505-87) who is eloquent in praise of women in his compendious work, Bṛhatsaṃhitā, part 2, chap. 27 (74), particularly verses 2-11.
12 See, for instance, Muir 1861, reprinted in Cārvāka/Lokāyata (C/L), 365 n3, 366-67 n13; H. Shastri 1925, reprinted in C/L, p.382; D. R. Shastri 1957, p.62; Dasgupta, 3: 531 n2, 532, etc.



Prof Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of Pavlov Institute, Kolkata.


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